It was one more close encounter of the best kind that quickly became commonplace for four pilgrims from Virginia turned loose amid the sweeping grandeur of Alaska.
Wife Anna and I and friends Glenn and Kathy Zendt from Staunton were about four days into our great Alaska adventure. I was about to take my assigned spot, riding shotgun in the Chevy Cobalt that was primary transportation for our 10-day trek across America’s Last Frontier, when it caught my eye.
Quietly occupying a spot on the main parking lot of the Princess Lodge in Fairbanks was a Honda Civic sporting a Virginia license plate. I ventured closer. A dealer logo on the rear bumper read, “Harrisonburg, Virginia.”
Nah, not possible. What are the odds of meeting someone else from our hometown, more than 3,200 miles distant from Rockingham County, Va.?
My curiosity piqued, I scribbled a note with my name and room number and left it under the windshield wiper. Later that evening, the phone rang.
The caller was Benjamin Deleeuwerk, 22, and yes, he was born at RMH and grew up in the ‘Burg. We agreed to meet in the hotel lobby.
While neither of us could quite believe what was happening at first, we soon began talking like we’ve known each other for years.
This was Ben’s second summer working in Alaska. He came up last year and worked at a bellhop at the Princess Lodge in Copper Center, about 300 miles south of Fairbanks. He liked it so much that he returned this summer to the same hotel, this time as a night auditor. He works four 10-hour shifts and was spending a three-day weekend in Fairbanks, staying at the Princess Lodge here.
Ben left Harrisonburg May 1, drove up through Canada and started his job May 15. He’ll be in Copper Center until Sept. 12, “when things start slowing down.”
Asked to cite the best aspect of his job, Ben quickly replied, “Meeting people from all over the place – like you!”
Just happenstance? Hmmmm . . .
Serendipitous surprises (a redundancy?) seemed to follow us as we continued on a 1,200-plus mile “loop” on Alaska’s three main highways, from Anchorage to Tok to Fairbanks to Denali National Park and on to the harbor town of Seward:
* At water’s edge at Chena Hot Springs north of Fairbanks, I talked over an hour to a couple from San Diego who, like me, drives a Mazda Miata, only theirs is modified for racing. They belong to a Miata club that holds an annual rally that draws upwards to 500 drivers. Warm conversation flowed as freely as the 95 degree water we soaked in.
* At a roadhouse in the artsy village of Talkeetna, between a couple seated next to us were from Switzerland. Kathy Zendt was able to converse with them in the Swiss dialect. The man nonchalantly told us that he had just come back from climbing Mt. McKinley and had earlier scaled Mt. Everest – twice. “McKinley is far and away the more challenging climb,” he said.
* Talking with members of a large youth group from a United Methodist church in Alabama about to embark on a two-week service project to the interior of Alaska, teaching summer Bible school and helping community people.
* Seeing a family in a Fairbanks restaurant all sporting personalized t-shirts in a Fairbanks restaurant. One member of the group was retiring; others were celebrating wedding anniversaries or other special occasions;
* Spotting an RV with a Pennsylvania license plate that had pulled in to the rest stop next to us. The retired couple, from Williamsport, had been on the road over a month and heading for the Yukon Territories.
On arrival at the Denali Grande Lodge, balanced on a bluff overlooking the village of Denali with glacier-capped peaks sprawled out in all directions, we were told that some unexpected tour groups had shown up and the place was overbooked. They wanted to bump us down the slope to smaller, but still nice, accommodations. To compensate, they offered each couple a $100 voucher that could be used for practically anything at the main lodge.
OK, no big deal. We decided to have supper in the elegant restaurant at the Grande Lodge and order whatever we wanted. We had no sooner sat down than a bubbly waitress bounced up to us and said, “Hi, where you guys from?”
“We’re from Virginia, from a place you’ve probably never heard of – Harrisonburg,” I replied.
“Are you kidding?” she smiled broadly. “I’m from Pulaski (Va.), working here for the summer.”
A minute or so into an animated conversation, waitress Andrea told us that she’s attending college in North Carolina, studying business with an interest in restaurant management. Then, she added: “My best friend from high school went to college in Harrisonburg . . . to Eastern Mennonite University.”
Then my eyes got big and I said, “Er, I work at EMU. Who’s your friend?”
“Bethany Blouse,” Andrea replied. I then told her that we recently featured Bethany, a music education major, in a student recruitment ad.
As we left the table after our sumptuous meals, we all hugged Andrea and wished her well in her summer work and as she returns to college.
As the Disney song aptly puts it, and underscored by our all-too-brief time in Alaska, “It’s a small world after all . . .”
– Column by Jim Bishop