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Positive Thinking at the Last Frontier

Prayer and patience were the keys to success during her stint work-camping in Alaska.

Carol and her husband, Jack

Jack and I had a long and exciting list of places we wanted to visit when we retired from teaching, and Alaska was at the very top. I’d fallen for our forty-ninth state while teaching geography to second graders.

The National Geographic photos I’d put up in my classroom–snow-capped mountains, glaciers, bald eagles, the northern lights–looked like Shangri-la. Jack thought so too.

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The only way we were going to see the wonders of the last frontier for ourselves on our teachers’ pensions was work-camping–working part-time at an RV park in exchange for a free campsite with electric and water hookup for our motor home (called Matilda), plus a modest salary.

We’d tried it closer to home and really liked it. There’s nothing like hitting the road in an RV. Talk about freedom. Alaska, here we come!

Trouble was, the RV park that agreed to take us on, in a tiny fishing village 90 miles south of Anchorage called Cooper Landing, asked us to commit to staying from mid-May to Labor Day.

We used to joke that the three best things about teaching were June, July and August. Were we ready to work those three months and more?

“What if we hate it?” I asked Jack.

“Darlin’, it’ll be great,” he said. “Besides, when you’re in a motor home, you’re only twenty minutes away from getting packed and back on the road.”

I knew we’d never do that. A commitment’s a commitment.

The RVers’ motto is “Getting there is half the fun.” That definitely didn’t apply to the road to Alaska. We caravanned with two other couples in their RVs, and it was 15 grueling days of dawn-to-dusk driving.

The route up through Wyoming was okay, but then we hit the Alaska Highway. Roads winding through desolate terrain. Nasty formations called ice heaves where frozen ruts made the surface buckle. It felt like going over the most wicked speed bumps imaginable. Jack slowed to a snail’s pace.

“Did we lose you, Jack?” the caravan leader called on our walkie-talkie.

“Nope,” my ever-patient husband said, “but just about everything else has been shaken loose.” Our puppy, Fermata, trembled on my lap. Jack had been a high school band director and he’d named her for the musical notation that indicates you’re supposed to hold a note for longer than usual.

Poor Fermata must have thought this trip was going to go on forever.

“It’s okay, baby,” I said, holding her tightly. “We’ll be there soon.” I kept reminding myself that it was an answer to prayer the way the pieces had all come together, the way we’d found a place in Alaska to hire us and friends to travel with.

By the time we pulled into Cooper Landing, we weren’t exactly happy campers–work- or otherwise. We climbed out, Fermata tentatively sniffing the dirt, and inspected our RV.

Poor mud-covered Matilda looked like we felt, the worse for wear. It would take all day to clean her up, and we didn’t have time. We had to meet our new boss and find out what our jobs were.

We trudged up a hill. There was a big sign saying Wildman’s in front of a convenience store with a picture of a rough-looking Yosemite Sam type. Our boss looked more civilized, I was relieved to see. “Welcome,” he said. “Jack, you’ll be shuttling salmon fishermen back and forth to the Kenai River.”

Then he turned to me. “Carol, all you’ll need to do is answer the phone, take reservations, welcome guests, wait on customers in the store, restock merchandise, clean the bathrooms, serve ice cream and be our barista.” Did he say all? Thank goodness we’d only be working part-time!

I thought my years as an elementary school teacher and principal had made me a champion multitasker. Boy, was I wrong! That first week at Wildman’s I felt like my head was going to fly off.

I’d be on the phone taking a reservation when a group would come in for ice cream. At least there weren’t that many options for ice cream. Not like with coffee. “A skinny cinnamon dolce latte with sprinkles, extra hot, no foam.” It was like a foreign language!

I was a total disaster as a barista. I’d forget to put the cup under the spout or to add the syrup or froth the cream or sprinkle on the cinnamon…

Lord, I prayed after yet another customer informed me I’d gotten his order wrong, I don’t want to spend the next four months counting every day till we can leave. This was supposed to be fun! Did we get our wires crossed?

“How’s your job going?” I asked Jack one evening, hoping for some sympathy.

“Nice to be near the water all day,” he said. “I even got a picture of a mama bear and her cubs. Want to see?” So much for sympathy.

One day I was trying to make a caffe macchiato when two school buses pulled up. A couple of frazzled-looking teachers stepped out to get their young charges into neat lines. Forget it. The kids tore through the door like a pack of wolves, scattering brochures, taking souvenirs off the shelves, hollering.

I knew if I put on my teacher look and used my teacher voice, I could get them to quiet down. And it occurred to me: Remember how long it took you to master that? You had to figure it out, learn as you went. You had to grow into it.

Maybe it was the same with this job. Just because I was retired didn’t mean I had to quit learning and growing.

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“Ma’am, my coffee,” my customer said.

“Sorry,” I exclaimed, adding the foam and a pinch of chocolate shavings.

Then I marched to the middle of the store and said in a loud, firm voice, “Settle down.” The kids did. Instantly. Their teachers looked at me with gratitude and more than a little admiration.

After that, it got easier. And we had plenty of time off to travel. Mount McKinley was even more awesome than the photo in my classroom. We took a day cruise to see glaciers up close. Then the opposite extreme, the Ring of Fire. The volcanoes we saw weren’t active, but I could imagine them belching smoke and flames. 

We saw the amazing northern lights, Jack, our puppy and I, sitting outside trusty Matilda. Work-camping in Alaska turned out to be a dream come true, every day a gift from God. I just needed to learn as I went along.

P.S. By Labor Day I could make a great latte, skinny, soy or otherwise.

View Carol's snapshots of her Alaskan adventure!

Download your FREE ebook, Rediscover the Power of Positive Thinking, with Norman Vincent Peale.

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