At some point, wifey and I decided that for the first time in our lives, we wanted to see Alaska. We further decided that somehow, Dar would enjoy the experience and not drive us crazy, despite his taking two flights each way (he’d never done this), trying to sleep in a land where the sun never really sets (he’d certainly never done this), and living in a claustrophobic RV for eleven days (he’d absolutely no way ever done this).
So, how’d it go?
The idea of an RV actually appealed to us because it suggested less exposure of Dar to the “normals.” That is, no need to make apologies at a series of hotels. And whenever Dar burned our bridge somewhere, we could just drive 300 miles away the next day. They’ll never see us again!
We worried most about prolonged confined spaces – the flight from SFO to Seattle, the flight from Seattle to Anchorage, the flight from Anchorage to Seattle, the flight from Seattle to SFO, the 8-hour tour bus of Denali, the next day’s 4-hour tour bus of Denali (tour buses being pretty much the only way to see Denali, if you’re not planning to camp), the 5-hour “26 glaciers” cruise of Prince William Sound, the 8-hour glacier-and-marine-life cruise of Resurrection Bay. And…I don’t want to say we were wrong to worry. Dar screamed. Many times. He had difficulty sitting in his seat for more than ten minutes, no matter how many treats and toys we offered. We wound up taking many, many long walks. Yes, even on the planes. People were almost uniformly nice. I did see one lady just behind us on one plane furrowing her brow and covering her ears, but hey, she was nice enough not to say anything.
It’s possible that Dar had never been on a boat until the 26 Glaciers Cruise, not even a rowboat or kayak. We’d been invited. I have a few friends who love sailing around the San Francisco Bay, and one of them, Noah, has said, “We can take it real easy the first time, not even go past Alcatraz.” Wifey has worried. I’ve said that we’ll put a life vest on Dar and on the 1% chance he falls out of the boat, we can always go back and get him, but this doesn’t seem to allay her fears. Funny that.
Somehow, visitors to Alaska have got to see glaciers and fjords and whales and orcas and otters. Somehow, this requires boating. Somehow, the 26 Glaciers Cruise skipped the whole safety-lecture, life-vests thing and somehow, it didn’t matter to wifey. (The second day-cruise we took, the one on Resurrection Bay, did spend the trip’s first few minutes on safety and life vests; both cruises made life-vests available to anyone who wanted one; neither cruise required anyone to wear a life vest and no one did, that we saw.) As the pictures I posted last week attested, Dar had a wonderful cruise. He was endlessly fascinated by the engines, by the wake they made in the back, by the back-of-the-boat momentum-pulse of air and water and spray (it was pouring rain during the entirety of both of our cruises). Wifey didn’t like him pushing his face up against the bar of the stern, thinking he might somehow leap out. She would hold him and he’d scream. I knew he couldn’t; I let him be. Grinning from ear to ear, he walked back and forth from the very back to an alcove about twenty feet back, back and forth, back and forth. I thought, we’re giving Dar a good day, hooray! And the second day was more of the same, at least when I could be bothered to stand with Dar in the pelting rain on the deck. When I couldn’t, he screamed in his cruise seat.
Wifey and I are silly to keep trying to take Dar to restaurants. All he wants to do is get up and wander around and sometimes touch random strangers. It’s just work, work, work for us. Yet we wanted fresh, wild Alaskan fish, and we didn’t want to take it to go every time. In Seward, we found a “Salmon Bake” that had a seat next to a protruding support beam that had the effect, while I sat next to him, of blocking Dar in his chair. Loved that, though he did scream, despite being plied with his favorite foods.
I heard a lot of screaming. I would say, “Dar, say Mommy or say Daddy. Don’t just scream.” More screaming. Dar screams, but he’s not a crybaby. Kind of a curious distinction. Dar, unlike his younger brother who cries at the tiniest splinter, can get bonked around and around and not even appear to notice. In Fairbanks, we all went to the Ice Museum, where they keep dozens of ice sculptures in these meat-locker-temperature rooms. They actually loan you parkas to enter the rooms; I knew that our other child would demand a parka and it still wouldn’t be enough, while Dar would refuse to wear one (sensory issues) and yet not complain while in the frozen zone. Sure enough, I was right. Thanks for being such an easy rider, Dar!
Maybe too easy. After extensive pre-rental negotiations, we secured two child car seats for the RV, a standard toddler-seat for R and a booster seat for Dar. Dar does booster-only in our cars at home, but there he’s got shoulder belt-harnesses. Other than my and wifey’s two front seats, our Sunseeker 22’ RV didn’t have any shoulder belts, only lap belts. Normally I wouldn’t care but on our habitual long, long drives – we journeyed to Fairbanks and Wrangell-St. Elias park, trying to see as much Alaskan scenery as possible – Dar slithered out of his lap belt again and again. When you’re driving down an Alaska highway trying to avoid random moose, you don’t want to see your random six-year-old randomly standing next to you.
So we locked Dar in R’s toddler seat, buckling down his legs, and put R in the booster seat. Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this publicly, but I get a vibe that many parents of RV-riding kids don’t bother to put them in any seats at all. R loved his new relative freedom, and quickly showed that he knew how to buckle and unbuckle himself, which sorta scared the crap out of me except that he’s also a good boy who always made sure to be buckled when the car was moving. Dar did NOT appreciate the new restraints. He screamed whenever the car came to a stop (let’s say, for a minute while we checked the map or brochure) and, after a few days, all the time he was strapped in. Scream, scream, we all scream when the mountains look like ice cream.
Does Dar see wildlife? Hard to tell. I certainly spent several hours of the trip saying “Look, a bear!” “Look, a moose!” “Look, a puffin!” “Look, a bald eagle!” “Look, a sea lion!” and the like. At a certain point, I’m sure I stopped being quite as diligent. That’s the way it is. Everyone runs out of patience upon constantly punching a brick wall. And yet, with autism you have to keep punching. Perhaps Dar got some overflow observations from ones I offered his brother. One hopes.
There was one moment that simultaneously inflated and deflated my heart, and I know it isn’t really fair. We were at a huge playground in Anchorage – like a lot of other vacationing parents of toddlers, we know playgrounds. This PG had one of those intricate spider-web-wire structures, at least twelve feet tall, where your kid can climb through a sort of honey comb of wire connections. But it’s not easy for a 4-year-old, as I saw with other kids who got on the web and fell. R, after a few fits and starts, made it all the way to the top. In 30 minutes of climbing up and down the thing, he never fell. When your kid does something cool and he’s never done it, that’s a good day, right? (If you’re not a sociopath, that is.) At the top, R goes, “I’ve never been up here before.” I was beaming with pride. Then I look over at Dar on the swings. He’s lying on his stomach on a swing, which has been the only way he’s ever wanted to do them. But the contrast between R in triumph and Dar in stasis made me sad and almost sick. It was like the camera had panned from Lisa Simpson to Ralph Wiggum. (“We like to do anagrams, where we rearrange the letters in a phrase to form other phrases.” “My cat’s breath smells like cat food.”) That’s funny when you’re watching The Simpsons, but less funny when you’re a parent of both of the kids in question.
Vacations often help kids grow up, right? I’ve seen that with dozens of kids, including me. With Dar, it’s harder to tell. Granted, on vacation we’re not great about forcing him to use his iPad or RPM…we’re on vacation. But couldn’t that be its own blessing, forcing him to creatively communicate? Maybe. In any event, I think Dar and I may have bonded during the trip. Since we returned, he grabs my hand all the time and I usually know what he wants in a way that I once didn’t. Maybe someday, Dar will tell me all about how he began to wake up and communicate his thoughts when we visited Alaska. Maybe.