While waiting in the long embarkation line at the Vancouver international sea port, it finally hit us: Max and I had just dropped everything and flown to Canada to get on a ship bound for Alaska so we could enter a beard competition that we had no chance or intention of winning.
We had shared in many a silly adventure since our early high school days, but this one was long, expensive, and we were 22-years-old. Max was a jobless college grad, and I was ditching my last few classes at UCSB. All just for the hell of it.
Whatever bit of this had begun to sink in when we left home at 5:30 a.m., our multiple-gin ‘n’ tonic in-flight breakfasts had blurred back into the realm of thought home to the bills, classes, and other things we tacitly had agreed to ignore back when Max charged the trip to his credit card. Even in Vancouver, on our semi-conscious 45-minute shuttle - and 45 minutes of our busdriver’s angry ruminations about the Canadian government piping through his PA-amplified soapbox - no existential flags sprung up.
Yet now, scanning the hordes of Solar Shielded geriatrics and frumpy globe-shaped middle-aged Hawaiian-shirted white couples fanning themselves with customs declarations and swine flu warning pamphlets, we began to wonder what the hell we were doing there, or with our next two weeks, or with our lives.
Protesting the long line and paperwork, one enormous mumu-clad man jested to no one in particular, “Yeah, around that corner they’ll be taking blood!” Someone else made the mistake of laughing. Turning to the man next to him, he plowed ahead, “Urine samples are voluntary, heh heh!” The ice was broken.
“So you ever been on a cruise before? Ah.” In one fluid movement his balled-up fist arced up, releasing his thumb in the direction of his rolling chest. “Twenty-five. Twenty-five times for me. Oh yeah, it’s the best. All you can eat, and I mean ALL you can eat, man. You ever been to Europe? Oh, you gotta cruise there. Me, yeah a few times, I:”
Stuck within earshot, I shuddered and eyed the throngs of newly-weds and nearly-deads in search of someone under 40. But then, when the line lurched a few steps more, I spotted something better.
Across the hangar-like room was a vaguely familiar aged, grey, curly-whiskered face. I’d never seen it in person, but had a handful of times on the website; it was the face of a fellow beardsman. The face nodded both acknowledgement and approval. He must have seen our matching BTUSA team polo shirts, I figured. Or our beards. Either way, in this sea of Alabaman vow-renewers and fanny-packed The Price Is Right contestants, we were automatic comrades.
Returning the nod, reassured, I suddenly understood: at this moment, this was exactly where we belonged. Because this thing was bigger than us. This was the World Beard and Moustache Championships, the real deal.
And whether our countrymen knew or cared, or not, we were their envoys, we were their surrogate spirits. With our bushy cheeks and bags packed with silk, cat-patterned women’s shirts, we were America.
But it was still a cruise. This seven-day ship journey was more than just the least expensive means of transportation to Anchorage we had conceptualized. It was a Carnival cruise with gluttonous buffets and bad music selections, colorful overpriced drinks and overly friendly employees obligatorily stuffing the word “fun” into every sentence. And there was no turning back. (They already had our luggage.)
So thus we climbed the gangway, beards held high, aboard the Carnival Spirit.
Getting Our Sea Legs/Whiskers
Apparently earlybirds boarding this cruise ship, our windowless interior cabin was not yet clean, so Max and I took to roaming the labyrinthine decks and halls. Gaudy serpentine carpets, goldish-painted chandeliers, and mass-produced oil paintings of naked women and peacocks overwhelmed our eyes while a stale cigarette odor soaked into the lining of our nostrils.
The occasional baby boomer in an American flag visor, standing awestruck from all the faux elegance, blocked our path around hot tubs, Egyptian statues, exotic plants, themed bars, and advertisements for things we didn’t want.
It was like Reno on the water.
Meandering somewhere on the top deck we finally spied, perched alone over a Jack and Coke, a potential friend. “Beard Team USA?” asked one. “Yeah!” answered the other as hands stretched out with mutual gladness to shake each other.
This was Myk, a twenty-something San Franciscan with the beard equivalent of a sizable opossum clinging to his face - a Garibaldi, perhaps. We chatted, bitched about having to go through customs three times for but an hour’s worth of being in Canada, and reaffirmed each other’s sanity sharing observations of our surroundings and feelings of out-of-placeness.
It was a pattern that grew less necessary with as the ship filled up and more fellow beardsman found one another.
When Captain Phil arrived, he brought nametags, officiating unity among ourselves and offering some explanation to all the interested or dumbfounded non-beards around us. Within hours a few dozen moustaches, partial and full beards were clustered around the ship drinking, becoming fast pals, or both.
Beard love. It’s a beautiful thing.
But beardness has its boundaries, and they seem to be national. Naturally, Beard Team Canada’s three or so members mix interchangeably with us American growers. And the one Swedish guy with the spectacular moustache loops necessarily goes where he pleases.
The Germans, however, are in a league of their own.
In substantial groups, the East Bavarian Beard Clubbers bounce and shuffle single-file around the ship, watching you watch them and the impeccably molded curves, curls and points unfurling from their chins, cheeks and upper lips, often on their way from one bar to another, sometimes with wives in tow.
While many contestants (in categories where it is permitted) wax or shape their whiskers in competition, the Germans won’t leave their cabins any other way. The result is a flock of beards that are extremely impressive and nothing less than perfect (I’m even tempted to say “efficient”). That, and at least an iota of aloofness.
It’s a level of seriousness perhaps without analog in our American consciousness.
A handful of us arrived at dinner to find the Empire Dining Room heavily segregated. Thanks to Captain Phil’s tireless arranging and planning, all beardsmen eat at the same place and time; thus, it’s beards on one side, normal passengers on the other. Don’t try and fight it.
Really, it’s nice to eat food with people who know what it’s like to eat food with a beard. With scores of us all scarfing the same crumbly bread, dripping meat and dribbly beers, you don’t hear “Umm.. I think: you have a little something: right there” until the meal is through. And even then, there’s no “umm” or polite nervous pauses. And, conversely, you don’t feel compelled to wear a napkin constantly on your left hand for post-bite crumb control.
In that sense, this cruise ship is our Molokai.
After justifying the trip’s price with a couple unlimited starters and entrees a piece, we beardsmen finished up and took to the nightlife.
While our one full-bearded table mate, Jeff, hit the dubiously Frenchish-themed Louis XIV Casino, our other, musketeer-moustachioed Colin (member of the Bristly Chaps of Los Angeles, with whom my carlessness keeps me only loosely affiliated) joined Max and me in the Pharoah’s Palace showroom for the Welcome Show.
Facing a string of just-okay live jazz music and semi-risque cruise ship-themed comedy, we ordered drinks. Initially I asked for a gin ‘n’ tonic, but Colin reprimanded me. On a cruise ship you don’t not drink things that are neon with umbrellas in them. (Even on the way to Alaska.) Two strawberry daiquiris and a pina colada it was.
During a wild and crazy audience interaction bit Max got pulled onstage. I heard one of our comrades yell, “We got a beard up there!” Max and three middle-aged men and women beat Team A in pulling a rope-tied spoon through all of their clothing.
It gave him rope burn, but also a full bottle of champagne, which helped insulate him through the most uncomfortable comedy routine I’ve ever seen, in which the comedienne herself was the one checking her watch. (“Welcome to the Carnival Spirit! Or as I say, the Stairmaster-at-sea! All those steps everywhere, geeeeez! Am I right?”)
Left in a sober lurch, when the curtain fell I raced up to the cabin to fix myself my new favorite drink, which I call an Under The Wing. Basically, it’s just Wild Turkey we smuggled onboard, poured into a bar glass I stole on my way to the room. It’s really good.
We spent the rest of the night in the Shanghai Lounge piano bar listening to a man named Steve perform, per request, Journey, Elton John, and, of course - the third instance that night - “Piano Man.” There Max, the wonderfully handlebarred LA Bristly Chap photographer, Dan, my old friend - and defending World Beard Champion (full, natural) - Jack Passion and I loafed and talked about beards and life with an affable Texan oil painter named Larry.
By the time Steve closed with a religion-instilling (and tip-from-cheapskate-old-me-earning) version of The Entertainer, it was pretty dead all through the ship. So I donated two dollars to a video poker machine and pledged that, on one of these less travel-worn nights, we would hit the Fantail Bar, which stays open until 4 a.m..
Back in the cabin we flipped on our virtual porthole - a live TV feed of the aft deck - and drifted off to whatever Depeche Mode remix bellyached softly in the background.
It’s going to be a beardtastic couple weeks.