I APOLOGIZE TO the Alaska Railroad reservations agent who took our request for tickets to Talkeetna the weekend before Christmas. Normally I am not so obsessive-compulsive about seating arrangements, but my older son was with us, and he likes to know things ahead of time.
MJ is 18 and, up until this past October, had been out of our home and in residential treatment for a laundry list of issues. Autism spectrum, depression, intermittent explosive disorder; the diagnoses came and went like seasons. My son is one of thousands in Alaska with mental illness, and now he’s back in our lives and part of our traveling family...to an extent, anyway - travel with MJ is different.
There are no last-minute, go-on-a-whim sorts of excursions when he’s with us. Whereas previous journeys were at a fast pace to accommodate multiple attractions, the trips with MJ are filled with alternatives. Alternative sights, alternative food, alternative schedules. For everything, there must be a second scenario ready to be implemented, ASAP. We’ve learned that renting a cabin or suite with a separate bedroom provides quiet relief for anxious moments, that ear buds on a noisy train or in a restaurant are perfectly okay. My husband and I have uncovered unique coping strategies to help soothe tense situations, and the phrase “divide and conquer” has become a whole new mantra, occasionally working well enough for a deep breath of reassurance that yes, indeed, we can do this - while including MJ.
It's MJ experiencing Alaska.
Why shouldn’t he be allowed to travel in a manner that brings comfort? Alaska is an excellent destination for people like MJ who crave solitude, an absence of artificial noise, and basic, no-frills service. After all, just because hundreds flock to a glacier and wildlife cruise aboard a small ship with blaring microphones and cramped decks doesn’t mean he should, too. Viewing Alaska through his eyes has allowed us a fresh perspective on the travel industry, most especially so in Alaska, where frenetic pacing and long, exhausting days just won’t work. Paying close attention to MJ’s moods, we’ve discovered what parents of smaller children already know; factors like rest, different food, or a lack of exercise can cause night-and-day swings of happy to sad in a matter of moments. Instead of driving five hours to reach a destination, we might go two or never reach it at all, stopping instead to admire a waterfall, toss rocks into a river, or inspect interpretive signs along the highway.
We’ve learned to slow down, quiet the noise, and throw out expectations long before we shut the garage door behind us. Snowshoes not fitting quite right? No problem, head back to the cabin and delve into a book, we won’t mind. Too many people talking too loud on the train? Pop in those ear buds and move to the back. This family understands.
In light of negative attention surrounding mental illness in recent days, perhaps others will understand, too.
Note: This is the last post I shall publish for Kids These Days. I wish to extend gratitude to the producers, writers, and hosts for their incredible insight and support for the difficult job of “raising Alaska’s future;” without projects like this one, that future might be even more confusing. Sarah, Shana, Jamie, and Jessica, thank you for thinking about kids, and the adults who nurture and love their little (and big) souls.
Erin Kirkland is a freelance writer and publisher of AKontheGO, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and recreation. She lives a charmed life in Anchorage with her fabulous family.