Chapters 11 — 20
I continued north toward Fairbanks and on the morning of June 11th I woke up at Clearwater State Campground near Delta Junction. It was easy to see why it was called Clearwater. The campground sits on the bank of the Delta-Clearwater River which is a tributary to the Tanana River and the water is clear, very clear. Standing on the bank I could see the bottom of the river, perhaps 35 feet away and six feet below the surface. It was a nice change. Many streams and rivers in the southern part of Alaska run off glaciers and have a whitish gray look because of the pulverized stone and earth they carry. Others, that run from lakes, are brownish in color, almost approaching weak black coffee in appearance.
In campgrounds such as this, with only a few people around, Georgia and I took short hikes together. Crowded campgrounds spooked her. Especially when it seemed almost every Winibago came with a dog. Georgia didn’t exactly heel, but stuck pretty close. Sometimes she liked to lead the way and went places where I couldn’t follow.
The following day I arrived at Fairbanks and began the process of getting clean. I washed the van, I washed me, I washed all my dirty clothes, and afterward I felt like I’d been reset to zero.
Fairbanks was the biggest city I had been in for a while. It’s home to a couple of military bases as well as the University of Alaska. People there keep crazy schedules. I woke up one night at 2:00 AM to the sound of heavy traffic on a nearby road. Then, at 4:00 AM, someone started working with a jackhammer. All this activity because it is broad daylight at those hours.
I had several good days for art sales, selling enough to local galleries to put the whole trip back in the black. There seemed to be a shortage of artists. The same ones were featured in all the galleries. What a pleasure it was to be a fresh breeze from California. The only problem was my inventory was getting picked over, and I hadn’t even been to Anchorage.
On the weekend I drove to Circle. A small outpost just fifty miles below the Arctic Circle, situated on the bank of the Yukon River. There is a resort hotel nearby featuring a hot spring as its main attraction. The old timesourdoughs with long flowing white beards congregate there and provide local color. I did a sketch of a sourdough cabin that was typical of many that I saw at Circle Hotsprings. The oil drums in the foreground are also typical anywhere you see a scene like that, some wag has dubbed them the Alaskan State Flower.
I also did some sketching at Circle where there are two tug and barge companies whose vessels and facilities are picturesque.
The bartender in the local saloon told me a German came through recently who had paddled a canoe all the way from Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory. He stopped there, sold his canoe, hitchhiked to Fairbanks, and caught a plane home. Quite a trip! No sooner was I back to my campsite than two Germans came paddling in with a canoe. They were doing the same thing only they were going all the way to Holy Cross, much farther down stream. It took them six days from Dawson.
On the way back to Fairbanks I stopped long enough to take some pictures of gold dredges in action, they can really tear up the countryside. When a gold dredge has finished working over the landscape, it looks like the surface of the moon. I doubt that the Chatanika River, which parallels the Steece Highway up to Circle for some distance, will ever return to nature. It must have been pretty country at one time.
The next day, back at the Chena River Campground in Fairbanks, it was hot (90 degrees) and humid, with little tufts from the cotton wood trees blowing in the breeze. Georgia caught another mouse (number six for the trip). It was fun to watch her learn. She was getting better at it, and always brought her trophies proudly back to the van for display.
The road north from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay is generally referred to as the Haul Road, and is primarily used by truckers who carry the supplies for the oil fields on the North Slope. When I was there, the general public was permitted to about the halfway point near the small truck stop community of Cold foot. If you had legitimate business at Prudhoe Bay you could get a permit to go the full distance, but I was unable to convince the authorities that peddling art to the oil workers was a legitimate business. Consequently, I would have to turn around just south of Atigun Pass in the Brooks Mountain Range. That point is, however, some 60 miles above the Arctic Circle so it would be an accomplishment of sorts.
The road parallels the Alaskan Pipeline, and tends to be quite straight. It goes up and over things like hills instead of trying to go around them. It is not paved except with very coarse gravel making for a rather rough ride. All the literature I read recommended two spare tires for this road so I tried to purchase an extra spare at several auto wreckers, but I didn’t have any luck. Finally, I decided to take my chances. All my tires were new, and I resolved to drive slowly.
At that time of year (June) it was quite dry and the road, in addition to being rough, was also very dusty. The dust tended to collect in the low spots between the hills, and I worried a little about my rear engine van breathing all the dust stirred up by the front wheels.
The first evening found us at the Yukon River again. A truck stop near the bridge had an area for camping. If nothing went wrong, the Arctic Circle could be reached the following day. I asked at the truck stop restaurant if the two Germans had passed through yet, as this spot is down stream from the town of Circle, but apparently they hadn’t got that far yet.
I called Evie to relay some information that the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto needed. She admonished me for not doing any art work. I told her I hadn’t had time yet and she said, “What do you mean? You’ve got nothing but time.” Funny, it didn’t seem that way. I felt like I had been pretty busy. I’d been writing in my journal and corresponding (which you can do inside away from mosquitoes). I was reading a book. I was peddling my prints. I had been driving, exploring, and keeping house (or van). Sometimes I went for hikes and I took lots of photos. However, she did make me feel defensive so I did a sketch to ease my conscience.
Also about this time I started to get a little worried about Georgia. Her personality was changing. She was definitely hearing “the call of the wild.” She was becoming more and more adept at catching things, and she went wandering in the woods for longer and longer spells. When she came back she was like a different cat. Her eyes were wide and her fur fluffed up and she was very excited and hungry. I don’t think she was eating the things she caught, but maybe she was. When she was out and I called her I got no response. She was either ignoring me or too far away to hear me, or both. I just had to wait it out until she decided to return. This had delayed me on several occasions already, and I was forced to entertain the thought for the first time that I may lose her before the trip is over.
If I tried to keep her in when she wanted to get out she would dash around the van staring out the windows and meowing until I finally relented. If I was trying to sleep she would walk on me meowing till I gave in. The more I tried to keep her in, the longer she would stay away when she did get out. So that was obviously not the right tactic. I didn’t want her to think of the van as a prison. All the state parks posted rules saying pets must be kept on a leash or under positive control at all times. That may be fine for a dog, but Georgia would probably have strangled herself in the first five minutes. She has never worn a leash, and I didn’t own one. If I had tried to make her wear a leash and she got loose, that would be the last I’d see of her, for sure.
As my northward progress continued, I became increasingly conscious of my traveling companion the Sun.* At times it was hidden for long periods and I missed it. This started me thinking about it in a general way, how significant it was to our lives and how directly it affects our moods.
Some time back I sailed to Hawaii with my friend, Doug Balcomb. We would often spend idle time debating whether there was an inherent difference between a Sunset and a Sunrise. There are no landmarks to act as clues in the middle of the Pacific, so without knowing a compass direction, could one tell a snapshot of a Sunset from a snapshot of a Sunrise? Some of the crew argued for a basic difference in the light or color. As I traveled north on this trip I watched the Sunsets and the Sunrises draw closer and closer together in time until, at last, they were one. There was no night, just a Sunset/rise.
I began to think about being above the Arctic Circle and what it would be like to see a day when the Sun didn’t set. It occurred to me that if I timed it right, I could be at about my furthest point north at the same time that the Sun reached its solstice, about June 21st, the longest day of the year. I decided that I would dedicate that day to thoughts about the Sun. The trip began to take on aspects of a pilgrimage.
On the 21st day of June I drove to a high spot that I had noticed near the truck stop called Cold Foot. It was Gobbler’s Knob, and offered a panoramic view of the surrounding country. It was high enough and far enough with reference to the Brooks Range in the north that I felt the mountains would not block the Sun at its nadir. I set up the van facing north and at exactly noon I began my Sun watch. The bearings I list here are magnetic and the altitudes are estimates, but done with the practiced eye of a former navigator.
12:00 Noon (6/21/86)
The Sun bears ESE
Altitude is approx. 65 degrees.
The Sun is probably the single most important physical fact of our existence . We owe it all to the Sun, all life on Earth, all the energy reserves of Earth, Earth itself. It would seem that anything that important is deserving of respect or maybe even reverence.
The Sun bears ESE by S
Altitude is approx. 62 degrees.
One of the first major civilizations on earth, the ancient Egyptians, unburdened by historical traditions of previous civilizations, worshipped the Sun. It was especially important during the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaton. Apparently, they just looked around and asked themselves what is it that is really important in the most basic way? The answer was obvious. It’s the Sun.
The Sun is obscured by clouds.
Why is it that the Sun attracts so little reverence today? The deities of various religions whose existence and influence are, at least, debatable are treated with great reverence by large numbers of people. But the Sun, whose existence no one denies and which, without question, has direct bearing on our very being, is taken for granted. I guess the answer lies in the fact that it is so integrated into our lives, so manifestly part of our existence, so constant, that it doesn’t attract much attention. It’s just part of the background noise.
The Sun bears SSW by S
Altitude is approx. 55 degrees.
Religions evolve and change just as living things do. Historically when one civilization has displaced another there is evidence that the new civilization borrows certain aspects of the previous civilization and then builds on them to form a new religion. I believe there is in several of today’s orthodox religions evidence the original model for their particular deity might have been the Sun, residence in heaven, for instance, or accounts of revelations accompanied by “brilliant light.” In addition, “good” is often associated with light whereas “evil” is associated with darkness. And I note that the main day of worship for Christendom is Sunday.
The Sun bears WSW
Altitude is approx. 35 degrees
I would hesitate to call the Sun “God” or “a god” because the word “God” seems to be one of those catchall terms that has about as many meanings as there are people who use it. I’m even reluctant to use the words “deity,” “Lord,” or “Father.” All of these seem to have anthropomorphic derivations whereas the Sun is completely independent of human history.
However, as a subject of reverence the Sun would seem to have a distinct advantage over most of the others. It is physical rather than metaphysical, and therefore has great credibility. It is directly accessible by at least two of our senses. It is an empirical fact. No leap of blind faith is required. No bridge over reason is necessary. The only faith you need is the faith in your own senses and those of the rest of the human race. No nonsense!
Overcast and rain.
Many religions claim their deity is omnipotent, omnipresent, benevolent, and personal. The Sun is very powerful, but not omnipotent. The Sun’s range of influence is extensive, but it is finite. It is benevolent in a general way because it sustains life. But it is not personal, and cannot be expected to intercede on behalf of an individual, or take sides in a football game. The Sun is, of course, a star and there are countless other stars. What kind of reverence should be accorded to such an entity?
2:40 AM (6/22/26)
The Sun bears NNW
Altitude is approx. 5 degrees.
The Sun is our home star. All of us Sun cousins were born here. The Sun provides for us. It shelters and sustains us. It seems to me that reverence of the type that is normally associated with hearth and home would be fitting, but scaled up appropriately.
The Sun bears NE
Altitude is approx. 20 degrees.
It may be that the Sun is just part of the scheme of some more grandiose deity who is beyond the reach of our senses. It is impossible to know. But you can know the Sun. It is tangible. You can feel it. You know the feeling. . . it’s warm, pleasant, familiar. . . . like home.
The Sun bears ENE by E
Altitude is approx. 42 degrees.
The Solar System is our place in the Universe, the hearth of the Sun. The Sun is the home star and Earth is the home star homestead.
12:00 Noon (6/22/86)
The Sun bears ESE
Altitude is approx. 65 degrees.
That completed my Sun watch. The Sun had come full circle. What did I discover? Well, I won’t have to take anybody’s word for it anymore. I confirmed that, yes indeed, the Sun does not dip below the horizon north of the Arctic Circle (66 degrees. 33? N) on the Summer Solstice. In addition, I had come to a new and enhanced appreciation for a part of my world that I had previously accepted as a matter of course. In a way I had closed a circle too, one begun long ago. I’d been Sunstruck!
* “Sun” is a proper name in English used to designate the home star,in Latin it is Sol, therefore, I have capitalized these throughout the book.
The Sun had turned around and headed south again and we had reached our Solstice too. Back on the road we found conditions drastically changed. The rain that had passed through during our Sun watch had turned all the dust to mud, and made a much different driving experience, still quite rough, but in the dips where the dust had been there were now lakes of mud. The trucks passing through had churned it into a thick even consistency, that made for a lot of slipping and sliding.
At first I tried to go through on a slow bell so as not to lose control and that worked fairly well for the smaller ones. Eventually, however, I came up over a rise and there in front of me was a huge area of mud that filled a particularly large dip in the road. I stopped the van to study the situation. It looked like it was going to be at least hub cap deep. If I got stuck in the middle of that sea no telling how long I’d be there. The truckers who were on a time-is-money type of run were quite reluctant to play good Samaritan. There was no detour, and off the road was out of the question. It was all spongy tundra. “The only way out is through,” I thought.
This time I felt speed was advisable. On the downhill approach I built up a head of steam which carried me to about the middle of the quagmire before the rear wheels started to lose traction and the van started fishtailing. With the engine racing we slipped first to one side of the road then, over correcting, we would slide to the other. I was desperate to keep moving because I was sure that once stopped, I wasn’t going to make way again. Finally, I worked into the shallower area on the far side and the wheels began to catch hold again. It was a huge relief to get up the slope on the other side.
I decided I’d had enough mud, and I stopped at the first camping area that I came to hoping the following day would be a bit drier. The van was so encrusted with mud that I couldn’t tell what color it was. I thought of the van fondly as a gladiator who had faced the toughest possible opponent and came away muddied but victorious. In fact, the next day was much improved, and we made it back to Fairbanks with out much trouble.
Georgia had not liked the haul road at all, it was too rough for her. The vibration and jolts made it hard for her to get comfortable. She kept looking at me in a way that said, “Can’t you make it stop that?” While I was busy doing my usual clean everything number, she did an extended tour. She was gone six hours this time and quite delayed our departure. She must have gone some distance because I looked everywhere close at hand.
As I was leaving the Fairbanks area I spotted a sign that read Malamute Saloon. That rang a bell in my memory so I stopped to investigate. Yes, this was the Malamute Saloon, the one mentioned in Robert Service’s poem The Shooting of Dan McGrew (”A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute Saloon…”).
It was the middle of the day and hardly anyone was there, but I ordered a beer and sat at one of the tables trying to imagine the scene during the gold rush era. I know she was probably fiction but I tried to picture “the lady that’s known as Lou.” The image that kept popping into my head was Ms. Winnemucca of Ketchikan. I suppose that was apropos.
The scenery coming down through the Susitna Valley is spectacular, quite a magnificent setting, mountain chains on either side and very green at that time of year. At one point I rounded a bend and there in the middle of the road was a mother moose and two baby “meese.” I reached for my camera, but by the time I got it they were gone. Georgia missed them too.
I stopped at Denali National Park (Mt. McKinley). It was packed with tourists, and all the campgrounds were full. A system of shuttle buses took you on a tour of the park, but being packed on a bus with forty other people was not my idea of how to experience the wilderness no matter how gorgeous the scenery was or how many wild animals they had. In addition, there were all kinds of restrictions on where you could go with your vehicle, and permits with fees were required for this and that . . . I drove on.
I ended up at Byre’s Lake Campground which was pretty much a standard state facility, nothing special, but free and not crowded. I much preferred it to that institution up the road.
Georgia and I had a little disagreement that night. She wanted out about 1:00 AM, and I, wishing to leave early in the morning, wanted her to stay in. She threw such a tantrum that at 4:00 AM I finally let her out so I could get some sleep.
Two days later I was still waiting for her to return. I searched the whole area several times calling her name. In the process I came across the first bear I’d met face to face on this trip, a black bear, it ran and climbed a tree when it saw me.
I decided to wait one more day. I felt low and kept hearing sounds that I thought were her, but when I opened the door she wasn’t there. The weather changed and it started to rain, but still no Georgia. A gas station operator in Juneau told me he once had a cat, when he lived “out of town” that would disappear every summer and show up in the winter “all skin and bones.” I asked all the other campers if they had seen her, nobody had. That’s not surprising knowing Georgia, she always stays away from people.
While I waited I finished reading John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country. As far as I can tell it’s a good description of life and times in Alaska. It helped me keep my mind off Georgia. I didn’t see what else I could do. Finally, I went to sleep and had a dream. (Continued in Chapter 16)
The dream replayed the events of the first night up to a point. Georgia wanted out. I didn’t want to let her out. There was a stand-off for about two hours and I kept saying “Shsh! Georgia, Shsh!” Finally, she made such a fuss, actually yowling at me, that I was startled and sat up and looked at her. Her eyes were big and dilated and her fur was all puffed up just as it had been, but at that point in the dream she spoke to me in plain English:
“Can’t you see I’m a wild thing and I belong out there in the wild?”
“Yes,” I replied, “I’ve always known that your temperament was wild, but your experience is almost all domestic.”
“Well, my instincts are in good shape,” she countered, “You saw all those mice I caught.”
“Yes,” I said, “I have no doubt that in weather like this you would do just fine. But they have a winter here, you know, and it’s long and cold and dark with lots of snow. How do you think you would handle that?”
“What do you think cats did before humans beings came along? Cats are one of the most highly evolved predators on earth. How do you think we got to this point. Cats live up here. The lynx lives here. It’s a cat.”
“Yes, but the lynx has big feet for walking on snow and it’s been here a long time and knows the territory.”
“Look, just let me go! I want to go free! I’ve never felt at home with people. This is my natural element.”
“But what about our friendship? What about the Art League? If you go no one will ever call you ‘Georgia’ again. Don’t you believe that civilization is worthwhile? It makes your life easier.”
“There were parts of it that were pleasant. I’ll always remember you and I liked Evie’s beach house. There were mice there. But now I want to go free! PLEASE LET ME OUT!”
“Okay, you win. Good-bye little cousin . . . good luck!”
“Good-bye, it’s been nice.”
I slid open the door and Georgia my constant companion of six years jumped down and out of my life. I sat there, in my dream, trying to figure out how I felt. I felt very sad. I was angry at Georgia, and at myself. I should have done things differently! I was concerned for Georgia. I felt lonely. After a while I decided it was reminiscent of divorce. Georgia had come full circle too. She started out life as a wild cat, and it looks as if that’s the way she’ll end up.
When I awoke the next morning, I realized because I hadn’t planned to stay three days, I was out of everything. I really felt depressed as I left Byer’s Lake Campground. I put some fresh food and water in Georgia’s dish and left it under the picnic table. The bears would probably get it. As I drove out onto the highway I noticed for the first time that it was a beautiful day. The overcast and rain had gone, and when I thought about it, I realized yesterday was beautiful too, but I was too anxious to notice.
I loaded up on groceries and other necessities and had intended to continue on from there, but decided to give it one more try. I drove back to Byer’s Lake and spent another half day searching for Georgia, but . . . no luck.
Even if Georgia had shown up, I would have been in a quandary as to how to handle her. I couldn’t have her making me wait several days every place we stopped and she would throw a fit if I tried to keep her in. I finally gave up completely . . . life goes on. I got back on the Parks Highway and headed south for Talkeetna.
I camped for the night at Talkeetna Park. There I met David Cornberg who was at the campsite next to mine. Other than myself, he was the only person I met on the whole trip who was camping alone. He turned out to be quite an interesting fellow. He was a Stanford graduate and had majored in philosophy. A little younger than I, he was an artist and poet who made his living as a resource person for schools in Anchorage. Primarily, he taught poetry to children. During our conversation, I mentioned that I just finished reading John McPhee’s book, and David told me that he was the last individual that McPhee mentioned in the book. He was using the name River Wind at the time. I remembered he made a strong impression on McPhee and it was easy to see why. He had many positive aspects and they were all part of a friendly, outgoing personality.
(click on image for larger view)
We had an extended rap session and I showed some of my work and read him some of what I had been writing. He offered some excellent advice, and read me some of his poetry. He was quite good! As we parted he gave me two salmon steaks from a fish he had just caught. I fixed them that evening with some rice. They were quite good too!
The next evening, while camped just outside of Anchorage, I made preparations for selling art work to the local galleries. I opened the phone book to the yellow pages and made a list of sixteen galleries that looked promising. I eliminated those that professed to handle mainly native art. Half the population of Alaska lives in Anchorage so I had high hopes.
One by one, the following day, I started checking them out. REPRODUCTIONS! Nothing but reproductions; I couldn’t believe it, even the “high class” galleries right downtown! A lot of the smaller towns had galleries that carried mainly reproductions, but I figured the “big city” would have more sophisticated tastes, more cosmopolitan subject matter. I called on fourteen of the galleries that were on my list. Many times I found myself having to explain to the gallery manager the difference between an original print* and a reproduction**. All I would get is a blank stare of incomprehension.
There were two exceptions, the Museum and Stonington’s Gallery, and the latter only took things on consignment. It was a total washout for art sales. What a contrast to Fairbanks! Maybe it’s the presence of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks that makes the difference. It certainly is a much more knowledgeable city where art is concerned. The Anchorage Museum was a definite bright spot in my experience of that city. There I saw an exhibit of John Sloan’s etchings and lithographs which I enjoyed very much. It was inspiring.
I settled for the night of July 2nd at Portage Glacier, Black Bear Campground. Georgia would have liked this site. I wondered how she was doing. I had to admit it was easier and freer traveling without her . . . also lonelier. Just before she left though she was becoming so wild and independent that she wasn’t even good company. I think she made a conscious decision to go wild, but she probably didn’t realize that it would be irrevocable, and I’m sure she didn’t have any idea about the long term consequences.
The next day I arrived at Seward and was favorably impressed. It sits at the head of a deep bay and is surrounded by majestic mountains. It has a port, and a small boat harbor, you can camp right along the waterfront, and NO MOSQUITOES! The town is small but not too small, and there’s a nice little gallery with original art. They bought some of mine.
The Governor had designated Seward as Alaska’s 4th of July city for 1986, and I decided to stay for the festivities. I was told there would be a lot of visitors in town and a parade.
On the morning of the 4th I decided to treat myself to a nice breakfast at a local restaurant. After I finished eating, I was sipping coffee and reading the local newspaper when I happened to look up and my eyes met those of an attractive blond seated at a nearby table. She was wearing a bright red sweater that fit rather nicely. She smiled and I smiled in return then went back to reading the newspaper without thinking much about it. Later, while I was waiting for the parade to start, I walked around town and looked in the various shops. During my wanderings there were a couple of “chance” encounters with “Red Sweater,” and on each occasion I got that same smile. At about noon I found a spot along the parade route and was watching the passing scene when I noticed Red Sweater was standing directly to my right. There was a man standing on her right and I assumed they were together.
Since Georgia left, I had thrown myself into writing in order to take my mind off losing her. I had been working on a piece in the back of my mind that morning, and, even as I watched the parade, I was still turning things over upstairs. Red Sweater and I spoke several times during the parade, commenting on this and that. Toward the end of the parade I made up my mind that I would go get my portfolio afterwards and approach another gallery that I had noticed. When the parade ended, Red Sweater turned to me and smiling said “Well, I think I’ll go in there and get a drink.” I looked where she had indicated and saw we had been standing directly in front of one of the local watering holes. I said something innocuous like “have a nice day,” and started off down the street. As I left I noticed the other guy was nowhere around.
I had gone about half a block when suddenly all the dots connected and I stopped dead in my tracks. This attractive woman had been making a rather transparent effort to get my attention, and I had been totally oblivious. I considered going back to the bar, but now I was so embarrassed that I didn’t want to show my face. I kicked myself mentally for several days after that because I would have enjoyed some female company at that point in my trip.
There is a saying I have heard from women who have spent time in Alaska looking for romance. It goes:
“The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”
I’m sure that my behavior that day did little to counter this conclusion.
Dot Bardarson who ran the gallery that bought my prints, and who is an excellent watercolorist and printmaker herself, invited me to a 4th of July picnic at their place “down by the river.” It was a small group of very pleasant and interesting people. I got to see Dot’s studio which is something I always enjoy. Dot introduced me as one of her artists. Then she laughed apologetically and said “Listen to me talking about myartists.” Frankly, I felt honored.
* Original prints, etchings, engravings, lithographs, woodcuts, etc. are presented in the same medium in which they are accomplished.
** Reproductions are accomplished in a medium such as watercolor or oil and presented in print medium such as off-set lithograph and a camera is involved in the conversion.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
” GET US OUT OF THE UNITED NATIONS.”
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.
- THE GALLERY
- Uncle Rob's Art
- 3D Works (stills) I
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- Searching for Truth
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