Wednesday, 24 August 2011

A-Unit: thrift in the Last Frontier

Alaska, Kenai Peninsula

‘Eew, don’t put that thing on my hoodie, it smells like dead people’. 

‘Well I think it’s pretty snazzy, and look, the last owner has left me a bottle top in one of the pockets’ I replied, proffering up the bonus gift from the inside pocket of my newly acquired four dollar bright orange body-warmer I had snaffled, along with a bunch of other cold weather gear, from the Salvation Army thrift store’s racks in Homer, the southernmost town on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.

‘Yeh, well I bet that was his lucky bottle top, one he always carried and fondled as he fished these waters, before that fateful night when the cruel mistress of the ocean took him.  And now you have it, a bad omen.  Like I say, it smells of dead people, and that stain looks like poo’.

And so began the call and response game between me and our new temporary travelling companion, my oldest friend, Haley Joel Osment Kate who had, in a moment of impressive impulsiveness, said ‘why the hell not’ and booked a last minute holiday, not to the Balearics, but to Alaska to join us.

(Me) ‘Ooh, these new boots are warm’, (Kate) ‘dead people’s boots’. 

(Me) ‘This fleece really was terrific value’, (Kate) ‘That’s what they said, before they died’.

(Me) ‘These underpants are, um, supportive’:  (Kate) <raised eyebrow> ‘Bet they died of crotch rot’.

I love thrift shops (charity shops in British parlance), and can happily spend hours poking around the racks, or plunging elbow deep into the bargain bins.  And thrift shops in North America are the best.  The ‘make do and mend’ ethos has not yet supplanted the ‘give away and buy new’ one, and I’m happy picking at the bones of this consumer society, a vulture circling before hungrily swooping on a branded bright blue, down filled hat, with earflaps, for the princely sum of 50 cents.  Maybe that’s what that old rapscallion 50 cent (or fiddy as the inarticulate kids call him) should do a remix to his song Candy Shop about:

gonna take you to the thri-ift shop
I’ll let you touch my bottle top
go ‘head girl, ignore the plop
keep going ‘til you buy the lot

I'll take you to the thri-ift shop
Boy one taste of this crotch rot
I'll have you spending not much of what you got
Keep going 'til you find those pots (woah)       

Uh huh
So cheap

gonna take you to the thri-ift shop
Come and touch this new pot
go ‘head girl, ignore the clots
Keep going we’ll refurnish the yacht

Ohh, yeh, baby etc…

But let’s back up a little.  We weren’t supposed to be in Alaska.  We were supposed to be in Myanmar (Burma).  That is until on one humid and sticky evening in Vietnam a couple of months ago Helen turned to me and said ‘I can’t believe we’ve still got six weeks left in South East Asia.  This sounds really bad, but I kinda want a change of scenery’.  ‘Yeh, I sort of know what you mean’ I replied.  ‘We could, of course, change our plans’ I floated.  ‘Where would you really like to go’? I asked, figuring that once you articulate your hopes the rest is just detail.  ‘Well, this is stupid and totally unrealistic’ she replied, ‘but we’ve always talked about Alaska, but it’s a long way away’.  And that’s what did it.  Alaska is a long way away.  But then it is always a long way away, no matter where you are.  That’s the point.  Alaska is exotic, more exotic to me than anywhere else I could think of.  Where men are men and moose are nervous.  Where the border guards get twitchy if you don’t have a beard, even more so if you’re a man. 

So, a couple of calls to the friendly people at Trailfinders in Cardiff to shift our flights, a plea of assistance to those kind, anonymous folk who answer questions in travel discussion forums on t’interweb for no reward other than the satisfaction that comes from the maxim of ‘it’s nice to be nice’, and we had a new plan.  Having a new plan – is there anything finer?  It’s one of the things that has stuck with me most from the time we spent in Africa with our tour leader, and now friend, Tim; his fondness for the phrase ‘let’s make a plan’.  It’s a phrase so full of possibilities, so lacking in procrastination, so no-nonsense.  It sits up there with ‘yes we can’, ‘ I have a dream’, and ‘I want a Big Society’.  Oh, hang on a sec, one of those phrases doesn’t look quite right – that’s right Cameron, the one that means absolutely NOTHING, you naïve, focus-group reliant, out of your depth buffoon.

Anyway, what was I saying? Ah, yes, Alaska, our new plan.  Flying up from Seattle, where we’d rendezvoused with Kate, the sky getter lighter as we headed north, we peered out of the plane window, seeing wraith-like clouds hugging the mountain ranges and stretching down to the sea like glaciers.  Oh, they are glaciers.  Lots of glaciers, hugging the coastline until the lights of Anchorage appeared like an oasis of civilisation in this untamed land. Trying, but failing, to get some sleep in the hire car on our first night I reflected that now was probably the time to get our game faces on, or we’d end up looking like complete greenhorns, the type of city folk who try to cuddle a grizzly and then look shocked when it acts like a wild animal.  Or at least would look shocked if they still had a face left. 

But who was I kidding?  We were greenhorns.  Better to admit it and respect this land of unforgiving wilderness than act all enigmatic and end up trudging Into the Wild before realising the wild wouldn’t let us trudge back out.   We all, I think, shared this exciting sense of the unknown, of a wilderness beyond Anchorage, that tinge of nervousness that accompanies a new adventure tugging at our bellies.  The simmering nervousness was relieved the next day when Kate said she’d ask for directions to the nearest Liqueur Store. ‘Um, I think they pronounce it Liquor Store’ I replied, ‘there’s not much call for crème-de-menthe up here’.  Giggling, the hire car stocked up with camping kit, a new cooler, a ridiculously oversized tent, and enough liquor to fell a mountain man, we headed south out of Anchorage into the Kenai Peninsula, Adam and Joe podcasts on the Ipod in the car, the most staggering and humbling landscape rolling by outside the car.

Bathed in sunshine we carried on south, then west, passing scores of fisherman lined up along the banks of the Kenai River, reeling in salmon with an ease that reminded me that of all the adjectives one could apply to Alaska, abundance is probably the best.  Abundant scenery, abundant space, abundant wildlife, abundant natural resources.  Excluding the intelligence of Alaska’s most recent, most glamorous, and certainly most famous Governor this was a land of abundance.  Finally however, the distinct lack of abundance in my sleep got the better of me and I declared that we had to set up camp for the night or risk seeing one of those river beds in a little more detail than any of us would appreciate.

Sleep deprived, inexperienced, and desperate for a camping spot we made a stupid decision as the rain started to fall, first in drops, then in sheets.  'That beach looks interesting' we said, 'there are lots of other people camped down there'.  And there were, except these were fishermen, taking part in the annual dip-net fishing event that is hosted on the beach in Kenai.  They were there to catch fish in their oversized nets not, as we were to discover, to enjoy a prime camping spot.  Pulling our camping kit out of the car, price tags still attached, we dragged it down onto the beach in torrential rain, the phrase ‘city folk’ running through my mind as we received bemused looks from the locals.  Resisting the urge to batter them out of the way with our double air mattress (‘well, I might look like a ridiculous city slicker, but at least I’ll be a comfortable ridiculous city slicker, bosh’) we erected our cavernous tent in silence, soaked through to the bone, sand making its way into every nook, cranny, and orifice.  Shivering in the tent, the wind blowing off our rain sheet after a fitful night’s sleep, we were up and out of there early, at which point I remembered the old military adage; any fool can be uncomfortable.  I’m no fool, I lied to myself. 

And that is what led us to going wild in the aisles in the thrift store when we arrived in Homer, with the conviction that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad preparation.  With a new warm, waterproof wardrobe purchased for less than $25 we were ready to put our inauspicious start behind us.  Humming a little tune, our Alaska adventure was beginning to take shape…

Hey girls, we’re in Alaska
we’re gonna party like it’s Alaska
we’re gonna sip liqueur as it’s Alaska
 And you know we don't care for bears
‘cos it’s Alaska!


Kate and I on the beach in Homer.  Check out the new threads!

<< Well, the blog has shot through the 6,000 page views mark which is, as ever, far more exciting for me than it is for you. A big welcome to all the new readers; a veritable smorgasbord of nationalities.  Thank you for reading, particularly those of you who came for the 'useful' posts on SE Asia and have stayed for the whole show.  There will be another 'useful' post on Alaska coming soon, but I first need to rid my mind of all the superfluous nonsense about thrift stores, 50 cent, and whatever else pops in before then.  

Although most of what I write is tongue-in-cheek, my thanks for reading is straight down the line serious:  <Hand friskily placed on your forearm, intense and creepy eye contact, little bit of spittle around the edges of my mouth> Thank you. >>   


  1. sounds like such fun!

  2. hey, glad to hear you're having a great time - and i completely agree with you about the excitement of a new plan, by the way, nothing like it :) so, are you glad you followed the impulse, and went for alaska? is it as beautiful as they all say?? definitely on my list of to-see places, one day when i'm rich but not famous :) keep on having fun, say hi to helen for me! love, nat xx

  3. Very welcome to the blog sandbetweentoes, and thanks for reading! (nice screenname BTW).

    Hi Nat, how lovely to hear from you - happy you're reading. It was absolutely the right decision. The costs were a shock after SE Asia, but worth it, I think. It is a stunning place, incomparable to anywhere else I've been. Good luck with your new adventure (must be starting soon, right?) Go and knock it out of the ballpark - I'm sure you will. x