Chapters 1 — 10
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
May 22, 1986 marked my first encounter with Alaska, namely Ketchikan. Ketchikan is a long, narrow city built along a steep shoreline. Half the city is climbing the hillside and the other half is on pilings in the water. It is picturesque with lots of character and is well kept. If you live and work in Ketchikan you are either into fish, timber, or tourists. At the time I arrived the NORDHAM of the Holland American Lines was discharging hordes of tourists into downtown Ketchikan for canned tours of the area. I watched the process for awhile. The average age of the tourists appeared to be about seventy.
I camped for the night in a very unique spot. It was the end of the road . . . literally! The road goes north from the city about sixteen miles and then comes to an end in a small campground. Beyond this point is wilderness. That was as far as civilization had gone and nobody lived beyond that point. Where I came from, civilization predominated and wilderness was the exception, but in this area it was the other way around.
The following day I did a good business with several galleries in town and I also met Dr. Phil and Katy Zeidner. Katy’s sister Jan was a customer of mine in Palo Alto and when she heard that I was planning a trip to Alaska she gave me her sister’s phone number and suggested I call when I got there. I’m glad I did. They were very pleasant and filled me in on what it is like to live there. They were deeply involved in community affairs, and pointed out that there are so few people and so many traditional community roles to play that you can just about play any part you want and nobody tries to stop you or compete with you. Katy compared Ketchikan to the cult movie The King of Hearts.
The Zeidners told me about an old fashioned melodrama that was an annual tradition. It was called The Fish Pirate’s Daughter. The play involves a number of naughty characters including a madam with a heart of gold and her entourage of “working girls.” It just so happened that the play was being presented that evening and they suggested that we meet at the Frontier Saloon, which doubled as the theater, take in the play, and then have dinner. That sounded good to me so we agreed to meet in the bar beforehand and have a drink.
Not having a whole lot to do for the rest of the day, I arrived at the rendezvous quite early and decided to pass the time nursing a drink at the bar. Since I was so early I was practically the only person there and I hadn’t been there long when in walked a gal dressed in a period costume who I assumed was participating in the play that evening.
Well, she spotted me right away, sashayed up in a seductive manner and confirmed that, yes, indeed, she was in the play as one of the “working girls.” Presumably she was testing her “character” on me. She was no spring chicken but she was attractive and wearing a generous amount of makeup. We had a lively and highly suggestive conversation, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the ease with which she handled her “part.” In fact, as we continued to banter I began to wonder “Is this play-acting or is this real?” Finally, the conversation got around to where we were from and I said I was from the San Francisco Bay Area. “Oh,” she said, “I’m from Nevada. . . Winnemucca, Nevada.” She placed a slight emphasis on Winnemucca, and accompanied it with a knowing look.
“Ah yes, Winnemucca,” I replied, placing the same emphasis on the town’s name and doing my best to imitate her look. Now I was convinced she was an absolute natural for her part, extremely well cast.
By this time people were starting to arrive for the play and she had to go get ready. The Zeidners arrived and we enjoyed the play together. It was, as advertised, old fashioned and quite entertaining. Ms. Winnemucca appeared authentic in her small part. In past years Katy had played various parts in the production, but had decided to sit it out this year. Afterward we went to dinner in a restaurant that adjoined the Saloon. While we were eating I noticed Ms. Winnemucca making several accompanied trips up a staircase at the back of the restaurant. She was still “in character.”
Following my stay in Ketchikan there ensued a series of ferry connections which took me to Petersburg, Sitka, Juneau, and finally Haines where I connected with the Alaskan Highway crossing over a corner of the Yukon Territory in order to reach Alaska again.
The ferry connections were often not as advertised because of delays and breakdowns. Sometimes I experienced boarding late at night or being discharged in the wee hours of the morning. And it rained, rained, rained. It wasn’t particularly cold just very, very wet.
Petersburg is Alaska’s little Norway as it was originally settled by Norwegian immigrants. Fishing seems to be the main occupation, and during a rare break in the weather I did a sketch of an old, half sunken fishing boat.
Sitka is interesting historically having been the capital when Alaska was Russian. An entertaining description of this period can be found in James A. Michener’s Alaska. Upon arrival I got off the ferry and went straight to a National Forest campground to try and get some much needed sleep. It was another large campground and, again, I was one of the only people there. I selected one of the most remote campsites. It was a beautiful pristine spot, very quiet and ideal for communing with nature. I slept well except Georgia started walking on me about 5:00 a.m. At 7:30 a.m., after Georgia was finally able to get me up, I heard what sounded like a truck and around the bend came a tour bus packed with tourists. Apparently there was a cruise ship in port. The bus drove by slowly so that they could all have a good look at me getting dressed.
My impression of this campsite the night before was that there were so few people present, and my spot was so secluded that I would not even have to draw the curtains. The whole bus scene was repeated about a dozen times in the next two hours. The driver would be speaking into a microphone and although I couldn’t make out the words my paranoid imagination filled them in. “See the camper brush his teeth. See the camper chop wood. See the camper hide behind that tree….What’s he doing back there?” I very much resented the intrusion into my privacy and enjoyment of this otherwise idyllic spot. I had some over ripe tomatoes and I think I showed remarkable restraint. I started for them a couple of times but checked myself.
On a more positive note, I did do a good business in Sitka selling eight prints to Jill Hanson of the Impressions Gallery. I guess those tourists were good for something after all.
During the passage between Sitka and Juneau there was another break in the weather. For a time it didn’t rain and there were sky holes or patches of blue in the overcast. Best of all every once in a while the Sun would pass through one of the sky holes and WOW! undiluted Sunshine. What a treat!
Not only is Juneau the state capital, but it is also a main tourist stop. There seemed to be a cruise ship in port almost continually which was good for the art business, and I made some art sales to several galleries in downtown Juneau.
There is quite a bit to see in the Juneau area. I did the short hike to Mendenhall Glacier, checked out the State Museum, did a sketch at Eagle Beach, and visited the St. Teresa Shrine on a pretty little wooded island connected to the mainland by a causeway.
The day I visited the Shrine the weather was absolutely sublime. The temperature was in the mid-seventies, not a cloud in the sky, or even a breeze. The island has a mystical quality. The Sunlight filters through thetrees and is reflected off the water. A path leads around the island’s perimeter complete with stations of the cross. The whole effect is designed to produce a contemplative state for a walking meditation. One could almost get religion in such a place on such a day. I wondered if maybe religion wasn’t more about how you felt than how you thought. A devotee of Mother Nature must be just as awe inspired under such conditions as any body else. . . . . . . It sure was nice to see the Sun again.
I camped the second night at Mendenhall Lake. Shortly after arriving I heard a sound I couldn’t identify and then there appeared a team of five dogs pulling a large tricycle on which a man was riding. I guess they were training for winter. Georgia’s tail went bushy at this unusual sight but the dogs didn’t spot her. Its probably a good thing, no telling what would have happened. A short while later Georgia was treed by a neighbor’s Labrador retriever. It was a small tree and Georgia was just able to get out of the dog’s reach.
That evening as I was fixing dinner and Georgia was staring out the window I heard her heave a long sigh/purr which ran down the musical scale about half an octave. I looked at her bemused, “A rich full day, eh Georgia?” She looked at me and smiled with her eyes the way cats do. I think at that point in the trip Georgia was quite happy with this new way of life. It certainly was more stimulating than the staid old Art League. Assuming she continued a domestic life, Georgia was probably at about mid-life giving us something else in common. There we were on the “Inside Passage” which, looking back, I can now read as a kind of synonym for mid-life passage.
After dinner, during the long twilight hours I was visited by a member of a Christian sect well known for its door to door proselytizing. Perhaps I was in a receptive mood since I had been thinking and writing about basic philosophical issues. At any rate I took the usual literature and gave him a small donation. Thus encouraged he invited me to a church service the following morning. By way of a preview, he told me the sermon would concern God’s teachings on the subject of good government. At that point I couldn’t resist asking a few questions.
“What god are you speaking of?”
“Why the Lord God of all, the God of the Bible, the Creator,” he answered.
“I see, but what about all those Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, et al. do you put any stock in them?”
“Of course not, I’m a Christian, those are false gods,” he assured me.
“But there are a whole lot of people in India that believe those are the true Gods and the Christian God is false.”
“I know, it’s too bad, but they’ve been misled.”
“Well, one thing is certain simple logic says they can’t both be true.”
“That’s for sure,” he replied, looking a little relieved.
“And you’re sure the Christian God is the true God?”
“Absolutely, I know it.”
“Well okay,” I pondered, “but one other possibility occurs to me that simple logic would not rule out.”
“They could both be false.”
He paused momentarily and his eyes slightly narrowed as if suddenly seeing me in a new light. I decided that was a good place to end the banter. I thanked him again for the literature and retreated to the van.
Also while in Juneau I met Deborah Vogt. We had a mutual friend, Isabel Rowen, who had provided me with an introduction. Deborah was nice enough to let me use her shower and I gave her a private showing of my prints. We went out to dinner and over the course of a few days we had a number of extended conversations. I learned much about Alaska from Deborah and she was a uniquely qualified instructor. As a young woman right out of college she had homesteaded with several friends in the Brooks Mountain Range in northern Alaska. As I remember, this was in the seventies during the “back to the land” movement of that era. When that had run its course, she decided on law school, got her degree, passed the bar, and when I met her she was Assistant Attorney General for the State of Alaska.
The Brooks range is about as far from civilization as one can get in the United States, on the other hand, what could be more civilized than a law office at the seat of government. These two vastly different perspectives gave her a rather thorough understanding of Alaska and its people. I am indebted to her for contributing greatly to my Alaskan education. She spoke of the various population segments, the problems of the natives, the politics of oil, the boom and bust economy and much more. I felt like I was on the “Inside Passage” in more ways than one.
The Battle of Moon Lake
June 8th found me at Moon Lake Wayside, near Tok, Alaska. I was finally getting into what Alaskans call “the interior” and many consider it the “real” Alaska. At 60 degrees N. it is about the same latitude as Oslo, Norway. It was a remote location, I couldn’t get a single station on the van’s radio, AM or FM.
It was quite warm, T-shirt weather, and the mosquitoes were out in force. There seemed to be more of them than in Southeast Alaska and they were hungrier. I put mosquito repellent on my list as a must for the next shopping stop. Thank goodness my van had screened windows, otherwise I would have been eaten alive.
At this point it didn’t get dark at all. There was an evening twilight that gradually turned into a morning twilight, and then another day began. It was hard to make yourself hit the sack when at 10:30 p.m. it looked like 5:30 p.m. outside. I had to laugh when I thought of all the ways I had planned to provide my own light:
the van’s DC system,
an AC light for when AC was available,
a battery operated lantern,
a propane lantern,
a kerosene lantern,
and I didn’t need any of them! The Sun was doing an interesting number on both Georgia and me. However, logic, if nothing else, told me that eventually I must sleep. So at what seemed an appropriate time by my wrist watch, I entered my mosquito shelter and tried.
Moon Lake was a very pleasant spot, and interesting, with float planes taking off and landing right past my camping site. It was also free as are all State campgrounds in Alaska. I decided to stay two days.
“Damn! That’s the fourth one in a row!”
My van seemed to have sprung a mosquito leak. At first I thought they were just a few that got closed in when the door was shut. Every time I opened the door a few always got in, but this seemed like too many! They came at me one at a time. They waited until I was almost asleep then one would show up with its characteristic hummmm. It seemed as if they found some devious and obscure little entry and they were lined up there waiting to crawl through in single file.
I finally got up in the middle of the so-called night to see if I could spot their trick. The screens were covered with mosquitoes milling about like a convention of some industrial association debating how to gain entry to this vast new market. I really couldn’t see that they were making any progress in their deliberations. The answer must have been struck upon in some subcommittee and the news hadn’t hit the convention floor yet.
“Well, thank goodness for that!”
I really wasn’t getting bitten much because being rather large mosquitoes they were noisy and since it wasn’t dark they were sitting ducks for a well aimed slap. They were, however, fearless in their attack. Again and again they charged with fixed bayonets. Again and again my anti-aircraft knocked them out of the skies. As far as I could tell, I was winning the battle, but I wasn’t getting any sleep either. Their strategy became apparent. They would lose all the battles but win the war. Suddenly there were more. The subcommittee must have made its report to the full convention.
“And thick and fast they came at last
and more and more and more.”
Lewis Carrol, from The Walrus and the Carpenter
Finally, just when it looked like my fate was to be sucked dry, a miracle! A strong breeze sprang up accompanied by rain. The mosquito forces broke off their attack. With a sigh of relief, I drifted off to sleep.
I can almost feel sorry for them in a way. There are so many of them and so few of us to bite. I’m sure that many are born, live briefly, and die without ever getting a single meal. No wonder they are so voracious.
It’s interesting that we use the Spanish word almost exclusively to name these pests. In Spanish “mosca” is “fly” so “mosquito” is “little fly.” I couldn’t even think of the English equivalent, but Webster told me the English word is “midge.” I guess I had heard that.
Even Georgia was subject to mosquito attacks. They couldn’t get to her except where her fur was short around her face and ears. She walked around with a little cloud of mosquitoes dancing in front of her eyes. It reminded me of that character from Li’l Abner who always had a little cloud right above his head that rained in his face all the time. Georgia took a number out of action with a quick snap of her jaws. She also swung at them with her paws, but didn’t get good results that way.
In the morning I surveyed the battlefield. The dead soldiers of the mosquito army lay all about me. They were contorted into grotesque positions, evidence of agonizing deaths. A few still twitched now and then. An examination of my body revealed that their efforts hadn’t been entirely in vain. A few brave individuals got one last meal off an exposed extremity before they went off to mosquito heaven.
Then I made a telling discovery. The passenger’s side door was not closed completely! Human error strikes again!
- THE GALLERY
- Uncle Rob's Art
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