I think I apologized four or five times to the Alaska Railroad reservations agent who took our ticket requests. Normally I am not so obsessive-compulsive about seating arrangements, but our older son was with us and travel is different with him. He likes to know things ahead of time.
It’s complicated. MJ is 22 and until recently had been out of our home and in residential treatment for a laundry list of developmental and mental health issues: autism spectrum, depression, intermittent explosive disorder. The diagnoses have swooped in and out like changing seasons. My son is one of thousands in Alaska with behavioral challenges, and now he and we are figuring out how to establish a traveling relationship.
When MJ chooses to participate, there are no last-minute, go-on-a-whim excursions. Whereas previous journeys with our younger son focused on media information and a fast pace to accommodate multiple attractions in a very short period of time, trips with MJ are filled with alternatives. Alternative sights, alternative food, alternative schedules. For every decision and option, there must be a second (and occasionally third) scenario ready for implementation, ASAP.
We’ve learned that renting a cabin or suite with a separate bedroom provides quiet and quick relief during anxious moments, that ear buds on a noisy train or in a restaurant are perfectly okay. That a sleeping bag makes a secure, warm cocoon of peace, any time of day. My husband and I have uncovered unique coping strategies to help soothe through tense situations, and the phrase “divide and conquer” has become our mantra, occasionally working well enough for a deep breath of reassurance that yes, indeed, we can do this. All of us.
After all, why shouldn’t MJ be allowed to travel in a manner that brings comfort? Alaska is a surprisingly excellent destination for kids like my son who crave solitude, an absence of artificial noise and basic, no-frills service. 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, where frenetic pacing and long, exhausting days in cramped buses, vans or airplanes just won’t work. Paying close attention to moods, we’ve discovered what parents of smaller children already know, and we had forgotten; factors like rest, different food or a lack of exercise can cause extreme mood swings from happy to miserable in a matter of moments.
How do we mitigate? Instead of driving, flying or boating five hours to reach a distant destination – quite common around Alaska’s 700,000 miles of real estate – we might go two hours, or never get where we’re going, stopping instead to admire a waterfall, toss rocks into a river or inspect interpretive signs along the highway. Day trips, especially, provide access without the added stressors of spending the night in a strange bed with strange stimuli.
Tour companies that offer one-on-one attention are the saving graces. Double kayaks that stimulate both body and brain (but not too much), with enough talking to pique MJ’s interest, are a hit, while the quiet, rhythmic splash of water on boat is calming and restful. RV trips provide a mobile “hiding place on wheels” to which my son can retreat when his traveling companions (i.e. us) get on his last nerve. And what wins my heart? Thoughtful staff who offer a personal tour with short descriptions delivered in a way that respects MJ’s high intelligence but low social skill set.
When we travel, MJ knows where we are going, how we will get there and who will accompany us. The itinerary is written down, a schedule is provided, and activities are suggested, discarded and suggested again in different ways.
We’ve learned to slow down, quiet the noise and throw out expectations long before we pack, shut the garage door behind us and depart. Hiking boots not feeling 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. And I have hope the industry is beginning to understand, too.
Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska’s only family travel resource. She lives in Anchorage.
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