Valdez, Alaska was not what I expected.
Somehow I had it in my head that Valdez would be all tarted up like Skagway, a Gold Rush period piece of a town replete with souvenir shops and nature areas for the tourists. I had this image in my mind of colour, warmth and history as we rode toward it through the Thompson Pass, giving me something to focus on to avoid thinking about how cold, wet, and borderline freaked out I was by the thick fog and the road.
Instead, what we found was a working town. A fishing town. An oil town. Then a tourist town. The harbour at the end of Prince William Sound was full of boats, and the terminus of the Alaskan Pipeline was across the bay. It looked nothing like Skagway; an earthquake and submarine slide had wiped out the old town of Valdez in the 60's and the residents had rebuilt Valdez further along the bay, all modern and utilitarian.
When we arrived, the low gray clouds combined with the damp chill air seemed to give this town a certain noir feeling, dark and colourless, brooding even. I'm sure that the town is very lovely on a nice, sunny day, but I was still rattled from the ride and everything I saw seemed faintly ominous.
We found our hotel quickly, as one does in a one-main-street small town. The Lonely Planet Guide described our hotel, the Keystone, as a "modular relic of the pipeline boom years with lots of clean, cramped, prefab rooms". Note the lack of words like charming, or interesting, or comfortable. It was in the kind of place where we unloaded all the gear off our bikes lest it not be there in the morning. Our room was certainly special: dingy carpet and chipped pressboard furniture; floor, door and bed squeaked equally loudly; and bringing in all the gear made it just that much smaller. I could not stop the disappointment that settled over me. I was tired, cold, over-extended and done.
I was on my way out the main doors to get the last of the bags from my bike when I saw a slight figure in black jeans and hoodie hurrying away across the large empty parking lot. It registered immediately that he came from the direction of the bikes. There were no other vehicles around them, and my first suspicious thought was what have you done, you little shit. I'm ashamed to say I made some snap judgements. Had I left anything unsecured on the bike that he might have taken? Had I locked up the saddlebags? What was he after?
The boy looked to be about 16 or 17, and looking over his shoulder, he saw me come out of the hotel. He turned and watched as I almost ran down the stairs to my bike. How odd that he's waiting, I thought, quickly followed by more negative thoughts about teenage boys.
Then I saw my bike. There, in the exact center of the black leather seat he had placed a perfect pink flower.
I stopped cold and stared at it for a long moment. I looked up to see him still watching me, nervously, expectantly. I think he knew what I'd been thinking and was waiting to see how I would react. All I could do now was smile. And blink back a few tears, truth be told. I waved and shouted a very sincere "thank you". His face lit up as he waved back and shouted "you're welcome!" back, then he turned, put his hands in his pockets and walked down the road.
I stood in the cold misting rain for a few minutes just looking at the gift on my bike. I knew that I was thanking him for more than just the flower, and that he'd never realize it.Thanking him for testing my assumptions and proving them wrong, for giving me hope, and for making it all right.