There are certain milestones by which we measure the ever-creeping approach of our own mortality: your first root canal, your first gray hair, and your first cruise ship experience.
Experiencing a cruise where your every whim — for a substantial price — will be fulfilled by solicitous and happy staff like you are an Industrial Magnate from the Gilded Age can get comfortable. Call it the democratizing of a once-exclusive mode of travel reserved for the wealthy that technology and economic advancement has now been made available to the masses.
There was a time when air travel was reserved for the very rich or business people on an expense account, where they served everyone a full-course meal. We may be relegated to one free soft drink and a bag of peanuts on most flights these days, but at least the price of the ticket will not require the selling of one of your kidneys.
I used to be the guy who would pack a seabag with just enough clothes to last me two weeks, book a round-trip airline ticket to a distant land, and then basically let fate lead me on from there. When I got married, things were a little more organized, but trips were still frequent. Then children came along, and the disposable income went away.
We still traveled, but the locations were slightly less exotic, and almost always involved travel by car to either San Diego or Big Bear.
When my wife and I were on our honeymoon in the U.S. Virgin Islands, we would watch cruise ships dock in the harbor of Charlotte Amalie and hordes of people pour forth from them like the Second Marine Division landing on Tarawa. There was a constant stream of walkers, wheelchairs, and older, more ambulatory couples rushing through the T-shirt shops and jewelry stores until the ship’s horn blew and they dutifully rushed back to their floating hotel. We vowed we would never be one of “them.”
For the record, in September 2023, “them” became “us.”
Most of the preconceived notions about cruise ship experience were true. The food was delicious and there was entirely too much of it. The ship we sailed on was less floating hotel, more water-borne city. The interior was equal parts shopping mall, high end restaurants, and jewelry stores — lots of jewelry stores. The immense size of the vessel and its stabilizing technology made it difficult sometimes to believe we were floating on the Pacific Ocean.
As luxurious as the ship was, it was paltry compared to the Alaskan landscape. There is nothing subtle about the parts of Alaska we saw. Mountains seem to plunge straight down into the ocean in a rainforest larger than many states in the lower 48. You do not have to look up long before you see giant sheets of ice in the saddles between mountain peaks, where glaciers continue to carve and reshape the terrain.
Not only is the landmass on a grand scale, so too are the animals that inhabit it. We checked all the boxes people check when they come to Alaska: brown bears, bald eagles, humpback whales. I would not be the first person one would choose to attach a series of spiritual synonyms to nature, but I have to admit looking at some of God’s greatest work had me leaning that way. I know David, King of Israel, never visited the Tongass National Forest, but if he had, he could have seamlessly repurposed some of his poetry. “This is Yahweh’s doing, and we marvel at it” (Psalm 118:23).
On every vacation I have ever taken, from my childhood camping trips to vacationing with my own children, if the itinerary included a Sunday, then a place for Mass must be found.
Fortunately, the Sunday of our cruise schedule included a stop in Vancouver. Should have been easy to find a church. Unfortunately, there was a medical emergency on board as we were sailing toward Vancouver, necessitating the ship to reverse course and reconnoiter with a Coast Guard ship. The stop in Vancouver was canceled.
It is not the first Mass I have missed, but the first where I was not running a fever or coughing up a lung. I know God understands.
Maybe it was one of those times when God was trying to get my attention. I did not appreciate the grandeur of Alaska until I saw it — and I more fully understood the majesty of the Eucharist when I missed it.