Archive for September, 2009

18. The Kenai Pennisula

The Kenai Peninsula is quite extensive, and located to the south of Anchorage. Following my adventures in Seward, I set out to explore the balance of the Peninsula which includes the towns of Kenai, Whittier, Soldotna, and Homer. I was particularly anxious to get to Homer as that was my next mail pick up.

On July 5th I camped for the night at a spot off Cohoe Loop Road. It was only a gravel pit but it had a view that was tailor made to impress you with the size of Alaska. It must have been 150 feet up on top of a sheer cliff that overlooked the Cook Inlet. When I woke the next morning the sky was leaden and it was pouring rain so I decided to stay put, do some reading, writing, and general maintenance.

Have you ever tried to take a bath in a plastic basin measuring twelve inches wide, fourteen inches long and six inches deep? I guarantee it can be done. It requires careful planning, forethought and a good measure of patience. This is especially true when it is all to be done in a relatively tight little space with water heated on a stove. But it is possible to do a good job. I eventually got it down pat and now feel qualified to give lessons.

As the above paragraph illustrates, there was a certain amount of adaptation necessary while learning to live in the van. But after a week or two I started to feel quite comfortable in its tight, but efficient, little space. Some things were easier such as cleaning the space, there just wasn’t much of it, and being neat and tidy definitely helped. Although I never did come up with a name to call it other than van, I did develop a considerable personal affection for this traveling companion.

Later, as I was writing in my journal, I happened to look up just as a tall tree (a spruce I think) tumbled off the cliff and all the way to the beach 150 feet below. There were a lot of trees growing right at the edge of the cliff and some of them leaned out at crazy angles. I was so impressed by this event that I did a sketch to commemorate it.

Overlooking Cook Inlet

Overlooking Cook Inlet

It finally stopped raining so I got underway and tried my hand at selling prints in Soldotna, Kenai, and Homer . . . with no luck. I was getting tired of looking at wildlife reproductions, and felt it would be so nice to, at least occasionally, see a figure, an abstract, or an original of any kind.

Homer is a nice town and has a breathtaking setting of mountains and water, a real panorama. However, Seward was still my favorite, and the first place I’d seen on the whole trip where I could imagine settling down for a while.

I camped  at Kelly Lake east of Soldotna. During the night the loons were calling to each other on the lake. I realize when Jack London titled his book The Call of the Wild he had in mind the howl of the wolf as the physical embodiment of the “call.” And there is no doubt the wolf’s call is a very wild sound indeed. But, for me, the loon’s call is the one that sends a tingle up my spine and into my scalp. It is more musical and hauntingly beautiful. It’s a sound I have only heard a few times in my life. I got out of my sleeping bag to see if I could record it on tape. Naturally, just about the time I got set up, they quit.

The next evening found me at Whittier. I took the short train ride (eleven miles) from Portage. They put my van right on board. It’s the only way to get to Whittier by land. I had hoped to catch the ferry to Valdez, but I didn’t have a reservation so I had to get in the standby line. Unfortunately, I didn’t get on and was forced to wait two days for the next ferry. As a result I had a lot of time to explore the town and its surroundings.

Whittier is a strange little burg. There are no houses! Everybody lives in huge barracks buildings left over from WWII. One resident went as far as to say that Whittier is the only Army surplus city in existence. Almost every building in town was originally built by the Army. The reason that Whittier still exists is its function as a rail/marine connection. There is also a small boat harbor, but not much else.

I decided to go for a long hike in the mountains behind Whittier. I felt I could use some exercise, and up till then my hiking had been limited by the necessity of keeping an eye on Georgia. I made it to the top and hiked around on a glacier that resides there permanently. What a view! On the way down I slipped on a wet stone in a melt stream and twisted my knee rather severely. I limped down the rest of the way but the next morning my knee was swollen and so painful that I could barely walk.

Because I had to camp in the standby line for two days I got to know the couple who were in line behind me. They were semi-retired farmers from Nebraska and had a medium sized camper. They took pity on me after seeing me limp around and invited me over for dinner. He did most of the talking while she fixed the meal. When the table was set and we were seated, he said a grace. It was well done and entirely sincere. We had an extended conversation over dinner. He spoke of their need to get home by fall in order to extirpate a kind of weed which, if not done, would soon render their land useless. He also spoke at length about various preachers and ministers whose sermons he greatly admired. To his credit, he did not quiz me about my beliefs, and made no attempt at proselytizing. They were pleasant people, salt-of-the-earth types from the heartland, old fashioned and insular. I was reminded somewhat of Grant Wood’s famous painting, American Gothic except that they were outgoing and friendly and not at all dour. I was familiar with their belief system because it was simply a much more mature version of what I had been taught as a child, but which I felt I had  . . . well . . . left behind.

Back in my van afterwards, I reflected on the evening which I had quite enjoyed. One could not help but be impressed with the strength of their heartfelt faith. Why hadn’t I matured in the same way they had? I tried to remember the various philosophical steps I had taken along my own personal path. Then I got out a pencil and paper and wrote them down. The result is autobiographical and is, to the best of my recollection, what happened to me. Click here to read it.

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Monday, September 7th, 2009 Chapters 11 — 20 1 Comment

19. A Sign of Discontent

At one point during my tour of the Kenai Peninsula I stopped to fix a snack around noon at an overlook on the Cook Inlet which is the sea approach to Anchorage. It was quite an elevated spot and had a sweeping view of the Inlet. After lunch I was walking about a bit and I noticed a road sign lying face down in the nearby bushes. It was full of bullet holes. Road signs with bullet holes are typical in Alaska, but this sign was really riddled. Curious, I flipped it over and laughed out loud. It read in big black letters:




I counted thirty-four bullet holes. About half went through from the front and the other half from the back. The shooter had added his own emphasis to the message. Just the “POS” of “POSITIVELY” was hit eleven times and “NO” was almost obliterated with eight hits. “SHOOTING” on the other hand got off lightly with only three. Even the post which was still attached had several holes in it. But all of this was still insufficient to express the shooter’s displeasure, and the entire structure had been uprooted and thrown face down in the bushes. That sign may have been another one of those instances that I dwell on in the first chapter where the result achieved was exactly the opposite of the result intended.

I saw the sign as symbolic of a large segment of Alaska’s population. They are there because they really don’t do well in a more populated and settled environment. They resent authority of any kind and have gone to Alaska to get as far away from it as possible. Some of them are rugged individualists and others are misanthropes or malcontents and some are genuine neurotics. There is a high incidence of alcoholism among this crowd. Every time I went into a liquor store in Alaska there was always a guy in there who could barely stand buying yet another bottle.

I decided that I had to have that sign as a souvenir of my Alaskan adventure. I unbolted it from the  post and packed it away in my van, thus going the shooter one better by making it disappear altogether. I suppose it was the  property of some governmental organization, but I didn’t feel too bad, it was certainly useless in its present condition.

To be fair, there is another segment of Alaska’s population which is there because of the distance from civilization, but they are pulled by the desire to experience pristine natural surroundings rather than being pushed by an avoidance of civilization. Perhaps these are two sides of the same coin. At any rate there are still vast areas of Alaska where the presence of humanity is, at best, insignificant, and one can get a fair idea of what the world must have been like before the explosion of humanity.

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Monday, September 7th, 2009 Chapters 11 — 20 No Comments

20. Going South

The ferry trip between Whittier and Valdez was punctuated by a short side trip to the Columbia Glacier which comes right down to the sea and breaks off or “calves” icebergs. It must be miles wide at the face and 200 feet high. On the floating ice in front of the face could be seen hundreds of harbor seals Sunning themselves. The ferry, E.L.BARTLETT, moved right in close pushing ice floes aside as it went. You could hear them scraping along the hull. At about 10:00 PM the Sun was still up but low in the sky, it cast a golden, slanting light over the whole scene. The visual impact was stunning.

“The Sun was shinning on the sea

Shinning with all his might:

He did his very best to make

The billows smooth and bright

And this was odd, because it was

The middle of the night.”

Lewis Carrol

The Walrus and the Carpenter

This was probably the most spectacular of many spectacular sights that I saw in Alaska.

Arriving in Tok on July 12th completed a big loop inside Alaska. Unfortunately, I arrived on a Saturday and had to wait until Monday to pickup my mail, but I found a KOA with shower! laundry! and car wash! so I was able to get everything reset to zero again before continuing south.

I also checked on the Tok fire station as a favor to Dot Bardarson. She had sold several watercolors to the State of Alaska to be hung at that location and asked me  to see if they were actually on display. They were, indeed, prominently displayed in the station’s office and the staff was highly complimentary. I mailed a postcard to Dot with this news. We artists need our positive feedback.

I was limping about my campsite in Tok when I noticed the couple at a camp site nearby had a rig identical to mine. It was the same year, color, everything. Naturally, we had to compare notes and we were soon chatting away in a friendly fashion. I said I was from Palo Alto when he inquired and he said he had spent time there while attending the University. At that time my daughter, Deanna, was attending Stanford, and I had a cousin on the faculty, so we had more to talk about than just our vans. In addition, we had both been discharged from the service (marines in his case) at Treasure Island in San Francisco. It turned out he was a doctor (Gaylord Clark, M.D.) and an orthopedic surgeon.

I don’t believe in miracles and think the vast majority can be explained simply as low probability events or coincidence. But if I did this would certainly qualify. After all what is the probability that I would run into an orthopedic surgeon in the wilds of Alaska two days after a serious knee sprain. I told him what had happened to my knee and he gave it the once over. “Yes, you’ve got water on your knee all right and its probably going to be a while before its fully recovered.” Of course, there was nothing that could be done under the circumstances other than a superficial diagnosis.

He was certainly right about the time required to heal. I drove all the way back from Alaska with my left foot working the pedals and my right leg stretched out on the passengers side. Even after returning, I slept for several months with a pillow under my right leg to keep my knee flexed, and twenty years later, as I complete this writing project, I still feel occasional little twinges from that knee.

On July 15th I crossed the Yukon River again. That made three times we had met up at three widely separated locations. David Cornberg told me you are supposed to urinate (euphemism) in the Yukon. Its part of the mystique of the country to mix your waters with that great river, its traditional. . .  I honored the tradition.

This third meeting took place in Canada’s Yukon Territory, beautiful country. I was learning to identify the trees that grow in the far North; white spruce, willows, alders, aspens, birch, and cottonwoods. There are others but these seem to predominate. I camped for the night at Teslin Lake which is long and narrow and parallels the Alaskan Highway for a considerable distance. Very few people lived in that region. I imagine its pretty severe in the winter, and in July, I can tell you, the mosquitoes are out in full force.

At this point, I spent a lot of time studying maps to decide which way to go after my mail call at Prince George. The distances were much greater than I had realized. All the miles covered by ferry on the way up now had to be traversed on the road. I could go more or less straight south and connect with I-5 at the Washington State border, but I’d been down I-5 several times before and I wanted to see something different. The other choice appeared to be the Yellowhead Highway toward Calgary.

On the 18th I finally got off the Alaskan Highway and onto Hudson’s Hope Loop. It ran through the scenic Peace River Valley. Here the land was pastoral interspersed with forest. I found a spot down by the river in a steamy, lush, bucolic setting. Because of a noticeable lack of mosquitoes, I got out my shorts and decided to chop some wood for a campfire that a previous party had left. I was working with my shirt off to get some Sun, and as soon as I set to work, a cloud came over and it started to rain. “Okay,” I thought, “I’ll wash the van instead.” But no sooner had I got out my brush and started to work than it stopped raining, and remained cloudy, very perverse weather. It was still warm so I limped down to the river with my wastepaper basket. I figured if I could take a bath out of a plastic basin the van could get washed out of a plastic wastepaper basket. It’s definitely the hard way to wash a van and took a number of trips. I did manage, however, to get enough of the Alaskan Highway off that I could once again see its deep rich brown.

I arrived in Prince George, B.C. on Sunday, July 20th and decided to stay at a KOA in order to get a shower and do some laundry. At this point I started to experience some night again. I could see stars, but even so there was still a dull glow to the north at midnight like the loom of a large city.

I picked up some mail the following day and then headed east on the Yellowhead Highway to connect with the Icefields Parkway through Jasper and Banff National Parks in the Canadian Rockies. The scenery between Jasper and Banff is spectacular! It was well worth going a few extra miles to see. The Canadian Rockies are definitely the real thing! I had hoped that Banff would have some galleries. When I arrived, my first impression was of a tourist spot on the order of Carmel, California, but with a Rocky Mountain setting. The setting is beautiful, however, there are no galleries. Except for the museum, there were only a few gift shops and native craft outlets that called themselves galleries, none of the real thing. I looked in a phone book but there were no yellow pages. I hiked all over town until my knee hurt so much I had to stop. Then I drove around some more. I still don’t understand why, but it had been the same story in Jasper. One reason I had decided on this route was the prospect of some needed art sales. Expenses were ahead of income again and this time they were way ahead.

In the morning I got into a driving mood. Walking was still painful. I drove 450 miles and crossed the border into the USA at the panhandle of Idaho. Immediately after crossing the border I ran into a storm. What a welcome home. . . thunder and lightning, rain, hail, and wind! But I kept on and soon my traveling companion the Sun came out again. There is a not so subtle difference between the two sides of the border at this crossing. The Canadian side is mainline B.C., but the U.S. side is backwoods Idaho. Another difference was the prices. I had dinner in Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho for half what it would have cost in B.C. even considering the exchange rate.

Driving down #95 through a series of small towns I began to notice the churches. I saw Mennonite, Seventh Day Adventist, Pentecostal, and Southern Baptist. With the possible exception of the last, these are not exactly main stream denominations. A number had signs in front announcing the subject of the next sermon. There was a strident quality to these messages very unlike the gentle faith of the farming couple from Nebraska. Then there was the large billboard that read:


All of this, together with the fact I had just entered the U.S. from a foreign country, started me thinking about the parallels between interpersonal and international relations. The eventual result can be read here.

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Monday, September 7th, 2009 Chapters 11 — 20 No Comments

1. The Bridge from Anxiety to Euphoria

At 11:29 a.m. on May 5, 1986 I was at mid span on the Golden Gate Bridge heading north. I pressed the trip odometer on the dash bringing up a neat row of zeros. This was to be my point of departure.

I had been planning this trip for about six months in a relatively calm state, but as the hour of departure drew near, my anxiety level rose steeply. It’s amazing the number of details that must be attended to when planning to step out of your life for a year. What had I forgotten? Whom hadn’t I said good-bye to?

As I drove across Palo Alto to pick up a block of ice for the cooler, I was aware that I was driving with extreme caution. The thought of a local traffic accident on the departure day of a trip during which I intended to drive above the Arctic Circle and back had entered my mind. Even as I threaded my way through the heavy traffic on 19th Avenue in San Francisco, headed for the Golden Gate Bridge, my mind was still “back there.” Was my assistant really capable of running my business in my absence?

Then, there I was at mid span, a psychological turning point. Not really a “point of no return,” but something akin to it. Gradually, I switched to “fast forward” and envisioned what lay ahead, a pleasant prospect indeed. An incredible feeling of freedom and well-being crept over me. I had food in my stomach, money in my wallet, gas in the tank, the Sun in the sky, and all the time in the world. (well . . . a year anyway). My less immediate circumstances also looked good. I had no debts, good health, and although I wasn’t rich, I wasn’t poor either.

The 5th of May, “Cinco de Mayo,” is Mexican Independence Day. I’m not Mexican but I sure did feel independent! I drove along at a leisurely pace feeling no urgency whatsoever. It was a beautiful day and I was at peace with the world. I passed through several small towns as I proceeded north — Stinson Beach, Bolinas, Point Reyes Station, and some others as well. Perversity causes me to dwell on only one of these.

Bolinas is located a mile or so up a side road west of Highway 1. The road turns off the highway just north of Bolinas Lagoon. The residents there have become famous precisely because they don’t want to be. They’ve gone to great lengths to obscure the fact of the town’s existence, including tearing down the highway sign that points the way to their Shangri-La. The town is quaint and a little run down. Bolinas residents apparently view their town as one of the last sixties holdouts and are determined it should remain so. This attitude has become so apparent that it has attracted the attention of local journalists who, naturally, take delight in pointing it out to the world.

Further up the coast is Bodega Bay, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds. The bay is primarily given over to supporting the local fishing fleet. Several campgrounds are located around this bay and as I was driving through one to pick a spot for the night, I came across a strange sight. A group of seagulls was gathered up ahead. As I approached slowly, I could see that the focus of their attention was a half empty bag of potato chips which they had fished out of an adjacent lidless garbage can. One seagull in particular was fully occupied with the bag, and, at the same time, holding the others at bay. Eight or ten gulls were gathered around him, reminiscent of vultures waiting their turn.

By moving slowly I got quite close and noticed that there was something peculiar about the gull with the chips. For one thing, he was missing a leg which was truncated at about the knee. Even so, he appeared quite agile. But stranger yet was the appearance of his beak. At first I thought he had a large feather in his mouth, much as a flamenco dancer would hold a rose in her teeth. But after I watched for a while I realized it was really two feathers stuck in the nostril holes of his beak so that they passed right through the beak overlapping at that point.

He looked as if he had a very long mustache.

He looked as if he had a very long mustache.

Thus, one feather stuck straight out to port and the other to starboard. He looked as if he had a very long mustache. In flight, he looked like the Wright brothers’ airplane with a small wing in front of the large one. I doubt if this was possible without some modification to the beak. In any case, it was a sadistic thing to do.

The amazing thing was, in spite of his maimed condition, he was by far the dominant seagull. None of the others dared approach while he was in the chips. He was a large bird, but many of the other males were just as large.

As I watched I wondered, was this bird so superior to begin with that even in his present condition he was able to dominate the others? And had this superiority, expressed as boldness, led to his being caught and maimed in the first place? Or was it his strange appearance that frightened the other birds? A third possibility passed through my mind. Maybe the other birds, realizing he was handicapped, were letting him have the first turn. This alternative I rejected in short order as an anthropomorphism. Humans may act that way, but not birds. The maimed bird was having to chase the others to keep them away. He was definitely intimidating them.

After watching this scene for some time, I decided it was at least partly due to his appearance, and whoever maimed him, although they may have intended to handicap him, actually bestowed upon him a competitive advantage. That evening as I set up camp, I reflected upon the events of the day. It’s amusing and somewhat disturbing how often we human beings actually achieve a result completely the opposite of our intent.

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Sunday, September 6th, 2009 Chapters 1 — 10 No Comments

2. My Traveling Companions

Steinbeck had Charlie and I had Georgia, two very different animals. Georgia was a cat, a domestic short hair with tabby markings. As cats go she was rather attractive. Her markings were very distinct and well placed with the exception of her nose which was intended to be black on a white face but the great printer in the sky misregistered it slightly off to her left.

Georgia was small, female, and tended to be rather timid. She was given to me by a neighbor who got her from a farm near Chico, California. Apparently she was born into a wild state and really wasn’t exposed to domestic surroundings until she was about three months old, and that was about her age when she came to me. Georgia’s full name was Georgia O’Kitty which is appropriate for an art league cat, but she didn’t know that. She did, however, know “Georgia” quite well. Her first three months must have set a pattern for her personality as she was generally not comfortable around people, except for me to whom she was devoted. She followed me around so much that a number of my associates referred to her as “Rob’s Shadow.” A few others she would tolerate, but I was the only one who could touch her at length, and even then she tended to wince when- ever I reached out for her. When this trip started she was about six years old. In a way, Georgia’s personality characteristics were unfortunate because she was a working cat. She worked at the Pacific Art League of Palo Alto monitoring classes and reviewing shows in the galleries. About a thousand members frequented these premises and large numbers of the general public passed through. It would have been nice to have a friendly cat under such circumstances. The members were generally frustrated by her total lack of receptiveness to being touched. She had become known variously as “that snotty cat” or “that anti-social cat.”

Georgia O'Kitty

Georgia O

One saving grace she did possess was her playfulness. She liked to play tag and would chase and fetch something if it was thrown, especially the wire off a champagne bottle, her favorite toy.

Georgia was not a total stranger to travel. From the time she was quite small she had occasionally accompanied my friend, Evie Wilson and me to Aptos where Evie had a beach house perched high on a cliff overlooking Monterey Bay. She had made that particular trip enough times that car travel was not a particularly unnerving experience for her as it is for most cats. However, she only knew two places in the world, the Art League or “here” and the Aptos beach house . . .  “there.” Life was fairly simple. When the car came to a stop and the engine was shut off, you were either “here” or “there.”

Georgia was particularly fond of going to the beach house where she was allowed to roam around freely. It was a much more varied and interesting environment, from a cat’s point of view, than the sterile old Art League building where she didn’t even get fleas. Whenever I took her out to the alley and put her in my van, I could tell she was excited and pleased because she knew where she was headed.

Consequently, the first stop on my trip north was something of a shock for Georgia. The van came to a halt in the dunes near Bodega Bay. The engine was shut off just as it always was. The side door slid open and Georgia jumped down confidently on to the . . . sand! “Wait a minute!” I could almost hear her gasp as her eyes darted about. “This is neither ‘here’ nor ‘there!’” She whirled around, leaped back into the van, scurried to the front and crouched underneath the brake and clutch pedals. After about an hour her curiosity got the better of her and she worked her way to the open door where she sat studying this “third” place with nervous excitement. It wasn’t until the following day, however, that she ventured out about six feet from the door.

As the trip progressed and a fourth and fifth place were added to Georgia’s world, she became bolder and more confident. By the end of a week, she was anticipating each new stop and ranging farther and farther afield. If there were two people in the car, Georgia always rode on my lap. If she and I were the only occupants, she would spend about half the time on my lap and half in the passenger’s seat. When she was on my lap she typically sat or stood with her front paws on my left thigh and her back paws on my right thigh. On a winding road, Georgia did a little dance. If I went around a curve to the right, she would shift one hind paw to my left thigh and then shift it back again when the road curved in the other direction. In addition, when I needed to work the clutch and brake pedals at the same time, her front and hind quarters would move up and down with my knees. Visualize that if you can: one two, up down, three four, up down, etc. Care to dance?

Transportation and living accommodations for this trip were provided courtesy of my van, a 1985 VW camper with a pop top. The Germans had been building this type of vehicle for some time and what had evolved kept getting better. I previously owned a 1972 model of this line and my 1985 version was superior in every way. It was large enough to serve as a small living unit, but small enough to be practical as an everyday car. It included a small refrigerator that ran on AC, DC, or propane. Also included was a small sink with an electric pump, a two-burner propane stove, and lots of cleverly designed storage space. The fiberglass top could be raised and was hinged on one end with canvas sides. This provided full head room inside as well as an upper berth for two. The relatively small size of this camper allowed me to take it places you wouldn’t dare take a large Winnebago. The engine was water-cooled, making it quieter than the old air-cooled models. The lines were pleasing and went well with the overall impression of studied German efficiency. All in all, I was quite pleased with this traveling companion.

The fourth member of our party was none other than the Sun itself. It was traveling north as it usually does at that time of year and we fell right in step with the rhythm of its march. The Sun didn’t always show its face, but we were increasingly conscious of its vital presence. To a large degree it set the tone for the whole journey.

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Sunday, September 6th, 2009 Chapters 1 — 10 No Comments

3. Rules of the Road for Rob

Making this trip was something that I had in mind to do for quite awhile, but circumstances were never quite right. Then for various reasons having to do with the nature of my work, my finances, as well as other family and social obligations, I could see a window of opportunity coming my way. The timing seemed right. By profession, I am an artist, primarily a printmaker. This was not my original profession, but the result of a career change some seven or eight years prior. Originally I was trained as an engineer, an occupation I pursued for almost twenty years before I burned out. That was my larva stage. I started taking art classes (my chrysalis stage) because I seemed to possess some natural ability in that area, and shortly thereafter metamorphosed into an artist. It wasn’t quite as simple as all that, of course; a considerable amount of effort was involved. During the planning phase for this sabbatical on the road I came up with a target figure of dollars per day, which, if I managed to stay near, and peddle some art along the way, I could at least stand still financially. Several reliable sources of income were being terminated upon my departure, and hence there was a definite need to economize.

With the aid of my van I could avoid hotels and motels but there were still campground fees to be considered which, at that time (1986), ranged from five to fourteen dollars per night. This made it difficult to stay within my budget. Finding a place to stay without paying, and without being kicked out in the middle of the night, is not so easy as it might sound, and it is also not quite as safe as staying within the controlled and patrolled limits of an organized campground. However, some of my best camping has been free. Generally speaking, the further north I went the easier it became to find free camping.

Organized campgrounds are convenient, with all kinds of welcome facilities, and there are some nice ones, but there is a tendency for them to be institutionalized to the point that you often don’t feel “back to nature” at all. In addition,they can be crowded during the peak season. I prefer to get away from the throngs except for an occasional stop to get a shower and do some laundry. My van was small and dark brown which made it easy to hide. Sometimes I, quite literally, kept a low profile by not raising the pop top.

The first night on this trip I decided to play it safe so I stopped at Bodega Dunes Park and selected a nice spot with a view of Bodega Harbor. The following day I sold three prints to David and Susan Stary-Sheets of the Stary-Sheets Gallery in Gualala. David is the son of noted watercolorist Millard Sheets, and both are quite knowledgeable about art. The second night I found a great place just south of Westport, right on the beach, with a little stream running down to the sea. Georgia didn’t like it as well as I did, a little too much water for her taste.

Shells in a Litterbox

Shells in a Litterbox

I collected some seashells off the beach, but when I got back I couldn’t seem to find any logical spot to keep them. Finally, I threw them into Georgia’s cat litter box. They looked natural there snuggled down in the cat litter. Georgia didn’t seem to mind that. In a way they had a mitigating effect on this duty station. It must be the same kind of thinking that causes manufacturers of toilet paper to print flowers on their product. I had a nice sleep to the sound of surf and no one arrived to boot me out.

The next day I continued north at my relaxed pace. Removed from my everyday working and living routines, I had a lot of time to review things in my mental archives. My perspective broadened from thinking about “trees” to contemplating “forests.” I began “bringing up” some of my favorite little queries and examining them at my leisure. Eventually, I began the process of writing  them down.  Cousinhood explains why I liked to think of Georgia as my cousin. It is light reading, and mildly humorous.

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Sunday, September 6th, 2009 Chapters 1 — 10 No Comments

4. A Wave of Apprehension

On May 7th I found myself near the California-Oregon border looking for a place to hide for the night. Right on the border, between the “You are now leaving California” and the “Welcome to Oregon” signs I saw a narrow dirt road that went off into the overgrowth. Poking my van in there, around a couple of bends and down a rough grade, I came to a flat clear area between rows of sand dunes. It looked like a large packed earth parking area that had seen better days. Later I found out it was an abandoned airstrip. I proceeded north on this, dodging huge water-filled potholes for about half a mile. The sand dunes to the west were quite tall and formed a barrier from the wind. The dunes to the east were not quite as tall and had a lot of growth on them. The whole area was used by dirt bikers and I could see two in the distance. I came to a small track that led into a hollow behind some trees. After a quick survey on foot I decided I could get the van behind those trees and out of sight without getting stuck in the sand. This I accomplished with about five minutes of maneuvering for a level position.

I was quite pleased with this spot. It was low enough that the surrounding dunes hid the van unless you were very near. It was out of the wind. Georgia liked it. She even ventured out of the van. She prefers grass and bushes to surf and streams.

I poured myself a glass of wine and settled down to write in my log. After a few minutes I looked up and saw a man making his way straight for me. He had a semi-official look, blue jeans but a blue wind breaker and tractor cap that had some sort of insignia on them.

“Oh no!” I murmured. In order for this guy to have found me he almost had to have been making a point of it.

“Hi, I’m from the fire department,” he volunteered. “Oh, that’s it,” I thought, “I’m a fire hazard.”

“Have you been listening to your radio?”

“No, should I?”

“There’s been an earthquake in Alaska and a tidal wave is expected to hit here at about 9:30.”

“No kidding?”

“Yep. We’re combing the region telling folks to leave low-lying areas.” And off he went. Needless to say, that isn’t what I expected. And I certainly was in a low-lying area. At that moment it was almost 7:00 p.m. but still quite light.

I battened down the hatches and was quickly underway. As I was doing this I thought, if there really is going to be a tidal wave, I want to see it. But where should I go? Brookings Harbor was only about five miles north so I headed that way. A tidal wave or tsunami would play havoc with a harbor like Brookings.

Tidal wave, tsunami, seismic wave, they are the same thing. The Japanese word tsunami is in vogue right now. It says it all in one word and the phenomena has nothing to do with tides anyway.

Upon arrival at Brookings I began looking for high ground. I saw a little lane that lead to a bluff backing the harbor. I started up this lane which turned into a gravel surface and finally ended up on top. I could see practically the whole harbor from this point. If anything was going to happen I had a ringside seat.



The bluff was about 100 feet high and I figured that was high enough. There were several small homes up there but none of them seemed to be occupied. Probably summer homes and summer hadn’t quite arrived. At this time it was about 7:15 p.m., still light and I could see a number of boats preparing to get underway. So I began my own personal tsunami watch.

During the next two hours the harbor was a beehive of activity. I counted thirty-seven boats and one ship that got underway and left the harbor. It began to get dark and I could see their running lights out at sea. The ship was the YAQUINA and had U.S. Army Corps of Engineers markings; I believe it was a dredge. Auto traffic in the harbor area was heavy, a Coast Guard helicopter landed, and then the police arrived and began to regulate the traffic.

Georgia decided this new place was interesting. She jumped down from the driver’s side window and began to explore the area. The radio advised that the first waves could be expected at 9:47.p.m. In 1964 the area was hit by a rather damaging tsunami, the result of the big Alaskan quake of that year. Consequently, people there took such things seriously.

“Oh oh!” A glance over my shoulder revealed Georgia cornered by a cat at least twice as big as she was. I slid open the side door and Georgia made a dash for it. The other cat just looked puzzled. I think his intentions were amorous, but Georgia wouldn’t understand that. Safe inside, Georgia took a position at the window facing her recent encounter.

About 9:30 p.m. it started to quiet down, no boats had left in quite some time. Close to a hundred boats were still in the harbor plus at least fifty others hauled out on dry land for repairs. But apparently everybody that was going to leave
had. Auto traffic fell off dramatically. The radio said that Hawaii should have received a wave by then but reported nothing.

Now, I know it would have made much more interesting reading if I could report that huge waves started to arrive at precisely 9:47 p.m. and churned the harbor into total chaos creating a vast economic and human disaster . . . but that was not the case. I apologize for the anticlimax, but I can’t wish that it had happened simply for the sake of a good story. I’m sure that many people much more directly involved were immensely relieved that nothing came to pass.

Shortly after 10:00 p.m. I gave up my watch and hit the sack. But not Georgia; she remained glued to the window for quite some time . . . the tom watch.

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Sunday, September 6th, 2009 Chapters 1 — 10 No Comments

5. Travels with Cousin Georgia

We continued up the Oregon Coast on Highway 101 and passed through Gold Beach, around Humbug Mountain, through Port Orford to Bandon. The southern Oregon coast is very scenic and the towns are small, until you get to Coos Bay. At Bandon there was a very nice gallery called simply the 230 Second Street Gallery. Art work there was very high quality and the gallery itself was well done. I wanted to place some of my prints there, but they had a consignment-only policy and I was determined to sell outright. I have tried the consignment approach, and learned to limit it to galleries in my immediate vicinity, too much of a hassle otherwise.

I drove north past Reedsport, Florence, Walport, and stopped at Newport. Newport holds memories for me from my college days at Oregon State University. Whenever we decided to take off for the beach it was always the Newport area where we stopped first. OSU is at Corvallis about fifty miles east.

Arrival at Newport also marked the beginning of a short stretch where our trip follows the same route as the journey of William Least Heat Moon which he describes in his book Blue Highways. He was a professor of English and visited many college campuses including OSU on his clockwise tour of the lower forty-eight. At the time, his traveling companion was a slug. He doesn’t mention whether the slug had a name, but then I had never given my van a name and he called his van “Ghost Dancing.” He passed through about the same time of year I did. It rained on him then, and it rained on me about five years later.

I approached several galleries in Newport, but I got the same “consignment-only” story, in fact, it was the same story the full length of the Oregon coast. Oregon is a consignment-only state . . . very cautious. But I like Oregon, it has a low-key sophistication that is appealing.

Looking for Mice

The next day we crossed the Columbia River at Astoria and entered Washington, a state with more of a conservative, industrial personality. One thing I like about Washington is the number of old, abandoned logging roads that make finding free camping easy. My first night in Washington I spent in the middle of a clear cut area north of Hoquiam. It looked as if it had been cleared out twice with the most recent time being perhaps two years ago. There were the large old weathered stumps of the first cut, and the smaller more sharply contoured stumps of the second cut. I did a quick sketch in my log book of this contrast while Georgia went hunting. She brought back a small mouse.

In the morning I stopped at Humptulips to mail some letters, but I neglected to ask the obvious question. What is a humptulip? Still on 101, I entered the Olympic National Forest. The trees are much taller in National Forests . . . they’re originals.

Finally, I turned off 101 and drove eighteen miles into the Hoh River Rain Forest, and guess what? Yep! It was raining! In fact it had been raining on me off and on ever since central Oregon. Georgia does not like rain forests. I settled down in Campsite A-26. The trees were streaming with moss. They looked as if they’d been hit with a big flocking gun.

First Cut

First Cut

On the way into this spot we saw a small herd of elk wading in a pond near the road. Georgia was fascinated. So far she’d been introduced to cows, horses, sheep, and elk. For a city cat this was an eye opener. She was very impressed with the larger animals, but sheep didn’t seem to hold her interest.

Typically, Georgia slept much of the day while I was driving. Then, of course, after dark she wanted to go out and play. This made me nervous as most of these spots were not like downtown Palo Alto. There were wild animals about. At first, I wouldn’t let her out, but she became so

Georgia O'Kitty

Georgia O Kitty

insistent that I finally gave in. Initially, I sat up and waited for her like a mother waiting for her daughter to return from a date. I left a door open for her. Later, however, I just crawled into my sleeping bag and left a sliding screened window open. Too many bugs came in through the open door. Georgia gave a “meow” when she was ready to come in. She always looked so pleased with herself when she returned that I guess it was worth the risk. She was a very cautious cat after all.

In his book, Travels With Charlie, Steinbeck complained that Charlie was an early riser and would sit and stare into his face while uttering a little noise which Steinbeck wrote as “ftt.” I had a comparable problem with Georgia, only worse. How I wished that she would only stare into my face and speak softly. But not Georgia! She walked all over me . . . literally! She paced up and down my supine length stopping here and there to knead me in some soft spot. All this while purring as loudly as possible. This problem grew worse as we progressed north. It usually commenced with the first hint of daylight, and daylight arrived earlier and earlier as our latitude increased. Steinbeck didn’t know how lucky he was!

A pattern was developing in our camping routine. We would go several days camping at fairly primitive locations, and then on the third or fourth day I would try to find a spot with shower facilities. I hoped the Hoh River campground had showers, but it didn’t. It didn’t even have hot water. I decided that I had to wash my hair anyway. So I went over to the facility and used the sink. I was the only person there, and the water was so cold it hurt.

As I was drying my hair with a towel I noticed that in lieu of paper towels they had one of those hot air blowers for drying your hands. It was over near the door. I sat down on the floor underneath it and turned it on to dry my hair. I had been there about twenty seconds when another camper came through the door and almost tripped over me.

“Good morning,” I said sheepishly.

“Ahh . . . good morning,” he replied hesitantly.

“It would have helped if they had put this hair dryer higher on the wall,” I said, smiling broadly.

“Uh Huh,” he replied, quickly going about his business. As he went through his morning routine I noticed he kept giving me furtive glances out of the corner of his eye.

Well anyway, it worked fine as a hair dryer, and I felt a lot better as I headed back to my van.

I drove out of the Hoh River Rain Forest and back to 101, turned right and continued north. I took a side road to have a look at the town of Clallan Bay and then back to 101 and east through Port Angeles to Port Townsend. At Port Townsend I made an almost perfect connection (10 minutes to spare) with an unscheduled ferry departure for Whidbey Island and took the short trip to Keystone. On the Island I drove south to Langley and visited with an old friend from high school days. We chatted about mutual acquaintances for a while and then I was back on the road again looking for a place to hide the van.

The Langley area has a well-heeled look about it. Lots of fancy homes with expensive cars in the driveways. I found a spot in some bushes just off the road to South Whidbey Island State Park.

In the morning I drove the length of Whidbey Island to Anacortes to catch the ferry for Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands.

Washington’s nickname is “The Evergreen State” and that is certainly true. There is a lush verdant look everywhere. But they pay a price for it. It could also be called the “Everrain State.” Things were quite soggy. I drove clear around the Olympic Peninsula without once sighting the famous Olympic Mountains. Later I did see them from Whidbey Island during a brief, clear moment. Gray skies seem to be the norm. Some of the natives told me this had been an unusually wet spring. Hmmmm.

Olympic Mountains

Olympic Mountains

By coincidence, my trip corresponded in time with the permanent move of my friends, Dick and Dale Snyder, to the San Juan Islands. Dick is a landscape architect, Dale is an accomplished artist, and two more easy-going people you’d have a hard time finding. From my point of view, their approach to everything seems overly casual, but they do seem to have a way of getting things done. So who’s to say. Their laid-back attitude about life makes them easy to be with, and I enjoy their company.

Waterfront Property on San Juan Island

Waterfront Property on San Juan Island

Dick and Dale are a matched pair if there ever was one. They both smile a lot and they have the kind of humor that sneaks up on you. They speak in a measured deliberate fashion which only serves to increase the surprise impact of their humor. A few years prior, they purchased some waterfront property on the opposite side of San Juan Island from Friday Harbor. The property included a small cabin which sits on a short bluff looking out toward Victoria on Vancouver Island.

I had promised to be at their place when they arrived to help them unload. As it was, I arrived a day early, so I set up camp in some trees near the cabin. It was raining hard when I arrived and, since I was going to be there three days, I rigged a tarp and borrowed some electricity.

I had been there once before and knew that on days with good weather it could be a very pleasant place, but this was not one of those days. Wind and rain kept blowing in off the Straits of San Juan de Fuca with such regularity and ferocity that all I could do was hole up and try to keep warm and dry. It was the kind of day to sit by the fireplace with a good book and a snifter of brandy.

The same weather continued all day, all through the night, and into the next morning. I began to envision unloading their moving van in a booming gale. Then, about an hour before they arrived, it stopped just as if a faucet had been shut. The Sun came out, things dried out, and up the driveway came the Snyders and two moving vans. It was like the fanfare before a triumphal entrance. As I said before, the Snyders have a way of getting things done.

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Sunday, September 6th, 2009 Chapters 1 — 10 2 Comments

6. Oh! Canada

On May 15th I was camping in a foreign country for the first time. But they spoke the same language and their money was beautiful. I spent the night at Bamberton Provincial Park, north of Victoria on Vancouver Island. At this date and latitude the Sun set at about 8:45 p.m. Georgia caught her second mouse, a Canadian, so she became an international mouser.

As I worked my way up the east shore of Vancouver Island, I eventually reached a latitude beyond which I had never been before. It was approximately opposite the City of Vancouver on the mainland. The east side of the Vancouver Island is a favored area for climate because it is protected by the bulk of the Island from the North Pacific weather. The west side of the Island is an entirely different story. The Georgia Strait lies between the Island and the mainland and marks the beginning of what is known as the inside passage. The east shore is replete with small, picturesque resort communities. My second stop in Canada was at Miracle Beach Resort.

A conflict had developed between Georgia and me. She liked campsites that were closed in and forested, while I liked those that had a long view or next to water, especially if I was paying for it. Georgia didn’t want to be next to water in any form or flavor. It’s a good thing I was driving or we would have been in the bushes all the time.

When I checked in, the little old lady in the office told me I could have any spot along the shore except the last three which were reserved for a motorcycle gang. I guess my eyebrows must have elevated slightly, because she hastened to add that there was no need to worry, this particular gang “rides for a Christian organization.” The way she phrased that intrigued me. What does that entail? I pondered that for some time. Do Christian motorcycles make less noise? I’m sure she meant that I need not fear for my personal safety from a gang that “rides for a Christian organization.” I tried to think of some other group that phrase might describe. The crusaders sprang to mind. How safe were you if the crusaders were camped nearby?

I selected a spot and then walked around exploring the area. It was low tide and a large flat was exposed off shore. I found a number of sand dollars. They were still alive and covered with a short purple fur that looked like velvet. I realized up till that time I had only seen dead ones.

Later, the motorcycle gang arrived. I had to confess that their rides did seem quieter, and they were entirely unobtrusive, almost bland. The opposite kind of gang might have been more interesting to observe . . . from a distance.

I arrived at the north end of Vancouver Island to camp for the night in another rain forest, and, surprise! . . . it was not raining. A large campground, it was near Telegraph Cove a short distance from Port Hardy where I was due to catch a ferry at 7:30 a.m. the next day. Only about three campsites were occupied. Moss on the forest floor was so lush that it felt like you were walking on a pile carpet about a foot thick. I explored a nearby abandoned sawmill which was literally falling down. Then I built a campfire and cooked outside. It was a pleasant change because rain had been keeping me inside the van much of the time. Georgia saw her first bear that day. It crossed the road in front of us. I slowed for a good look. The bear slowed for a good look. Georgia was riveted.

The days were noticeably longer at that latitude, about 50 degrees N. It is interesting to note this is about the same latitude as London, England. We were also on an island just as London is, the weather is probably fairly similar, and this was British Columbia so where was everybody?

After dinner as I stared into the campfire I reflected on how long human beings have been doing just that. For perhaps several hundred thousand years our cousins many, many times removed, stared into fires. The fire was home long before it was enclosed in any kind of structure. The area around the home fire, or the hearth, was where all family activity took place. To this day any proper home has a fireplace and hearth; it connects us through eons and eons with the human family.

My next stop in Canada was Prince Rupert on the mainland where I was to connect with the Alaskan ferries. The town of Prince Rupert had a “hard times” look. An economically depressed minority of native Canadians was rather apparent and they were not picturesque. The setting is beautiful but the land was being trashed by individuals and industry. I tried to find a place to hide the van in the surrounding countryside, but every little nook or logging road that looked promising, upon further investigation, revealed someone’s personal garbage dump with abandoned cars and other junk shot full of bullet holes.

A coalition of government and private enterprise seemed intent upon destroying every inch of natural shoreline. Fortunately they have a lot of it. Pulp paper mills made the whole area smell bad, and the overlooks along the highways featured industrial parks that were real eyesores. Driving around the residential areas I noticed a large number of “For Sale” signs. Apparently all that development hadn’t helped much. An impressive new “Center for the Performing Arts” was under construction downtown that promised to add “a touch of class,” but one wondered about local priorities.

I ended up at the city run campground where all the campers that were making ferry connections congregated. At the center was a green, a lawn where ravens collected and waited for food scraps to be donated by the travelers. When Georgia saw the birds she started off confidently in their direction probably intent on scattering the flock. But something was not quite right, these birds didn’t panic. Not only that they were big, taller than her, and they were solid black with beady yellow eyes. When they saw her coming they turned to face her and closed ranks as if to say “Hey here’s some fun! Come on guys, we can take this cat.” Georgia froze, whirled around, and beat a hasty retreat back to the van. I can’t say I blame her; they looked ominous—shades of Alfred Hitchcock.

Later that evening the word spread that tomorrow’s ferry had experienced mechanical problems and had to be towed to Seattle for repairs. The next ferry wasn’t scheduled until Saturday. “Oh no, another two days here!” But just after midnight a representative of the Alaskan Marine Ferries woke me to say they had been able to divert another ferry to Prince Rupert, and if I could get to the terminal in about an hour I could get on board to Ketchikan. Suddenly the whole campground came to life in the middle of the night. Everybody was intent on making that ferry. It finally got underway about 3:00 a.m.. I didn’t get much sleep that night.

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Sunday, September 6th, 2009 Chapters 1 — 10 No Comments

7. Midshipman Mason

I need to say something about ferries. If for no other reason than I covered so many miles aboard them on my way north. They also have a special fascination for me. I am a former Navy man and have made my living in the employ of various maritime organizations from time to time. In addition, I have had a long standing interest in things nautical or marine, and I have owned several boats in the past.

I come from a state which long ago gave up any dependence on ferries in favor of bridges. In California there are, at present, a few commute ferries operating on San Francisco Bay for foot passengers only, but the large vehicle ferries are long gone. This is not just a result of California’s superb highway system, it also has to do with geography. California (and Oregon) are much more contiguous than Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska.

To the best of my recollection, I was a passenger on ten different ferries in three different ferry systems as I followed the Sun north. Those that I rode in the Washington State system were for the most part short haul or commute carriers. Alaska probably has the most extensive ferry system in the world and I have only experienced a small portion of it. In fact, Alaska has several distinct ferry systems serving geographically separated areas of the state.

The ferry that impressed me the most, however, was the QUEEN OF THE NORTH in the B.C. system which I took from Port Hardy on the northern end of Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert near the border with Alaska. A trip of about fifteen hours. A large ferry the QUEEN was nicely appointed, had live entertainment on board, and the food was superior.

I did most of this ferry travel during the month of May. A month or two before the peak summer traffic. The passengers were divided into two main categories, the younger set who occupied the solarium back aft, and the older set who roughed it in the forward observation lounge. The solarium, a greenhouse with the after end open, was very much a fresh air accommodation and tents were often pitched right on deck. Some of the ferries had radiant heaters installed in the solarium overhead. I had about twenty years on most of the solarium dwellers and felt a little out of place there. Most of the folks in the forward observation lounge had about twenty years on me and the conversation tended toward the nature of their retirement plan, their grandchildren, and the type of motor home they were driving. I didn’t feel that was my place either. There were not many people in my age group.

I spent time in both places, but I also discovered that there was usually a reclining lounge amidships. The reclining lounge must have been for my age. It was uncrowded and quiet. People were writing, reading or sleeping. The other two locations tended to be conversation oriented. I became a midshipman.

I had never been a midshipman before. Even though I was at one time an officer in the U.S. Navy, I hadn’t attended the Naval Academy where that term is used. I received my commission from the Naval Officer Candidate School in Newport, Rhode Island, where we were known as Officer Candidates. So, at the age of forty-eight I fancied myself the world’s oldest midshipman.

The reclining chairs were not that comfortable. I found it almost impossible to actually sleep in one. In fact, late at night people would lay on the floor between the chairs rather than try to sleep in them. Maybe they made them that way on purpose. If they were really comfortable to sleep in people might not rent the few cabins which were available.

The scenery was everything that the travel guide says it is. The mountains plunge steeply down to the water, and because the passages  are often quite narrow, the land is near at hand. Small waterfalls and cataracts descend abruptly from considerable heights, and wildlife can be easily seen on the shore. One passage called the Wrangle Narrows was particularly fascinating to a former navigator like me. It is on the approach to Petersburg, Alaska from the south and it is narrow. Not only is it full of dogleg bends and rocky little islands that seem to reach out for the vessel, but we went through it just as the Sun was setting and there was a rather apparent current running. I never had to do any piloting half so exacting as that during my tour with Uncle Sam’s Yacht Club. It made me feel humble . . . like a midshipman should.

Inside Passage

Inside Passage

Much of the time that I was on the ferries the weather was overcast and misting, but even so, the visual menu was impressive. It appears as if the whole area is a submerged mountain chain with the tops of the mountains forming the many steep islands. Often when the Sun was low in the northern sky, the lighting gave the illusion of gliding along suspended between two planes. The surface of the water was perhaps sixty feet below eye level and the overcast ceiling was not much farther above. This illusion is enhanced by the smoothness of the water. It’s more lake like than ocean. The mountains rising from below, pierce the surface of the water, pass through your world, and disappear up through the overcast. At twilight you could almost imagine that this was a strange world on some distant planet.

This unearthly, two dimensional quality reminded me of something, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Finally, it dawned on me. This is how it must feel to be a microbe suspended in a thin medium between two layers of glass ready to be examined under a microscope by some immense, unseen presence.

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Sunday, September 6th, 2009 Chapters 1 — 10 No Comments