“We”

We are fortunate to note that as we approach this fifty-fourth year, we continue to observe wonderful things.  Maybe you are wondering first, who this “We” refers to.  Well, I was thinking how remarkable it was that my consciousness, memory, and by all appearances, this physical body belongs to the same person that occupied it, say, at a Grateful Dead concert in 1977.  And yet, the person who attended that concert is long gone.  I couldn’t go back and occupy that consciousness anymore than I could travel to Venus and camp out for the weekend.  So what is going on here?  We are dying, don’t you know, every minute of every day.  We lumber on from one stray thought to another, and every moment, we die and are reborn.  But of course we know none of it.  We stubbornly hold to the tenuous agreement, from moment to moment, that we know precisely who we are and what we are doing here.  In fact, we are many.  We are infinite.  This “I” should be thought of as the summary of all that came before it.  So how could we be anything but “We?”

But no matter who we are, and how mired or entrenched we are in our tiny bubbles and mirrors that we call our minds, we are occasionally awakened, even if for a moment.  It could happen at any time, but mainly it only happens when we see something truly extraordinary. And that happened recently.

I was on a trail in the San Bernardino mountains, scouting unlikely and decidedly unpopular micro-lots of land that were coming up for auction at a tax sale, when I glimpsed, appearing out of the mist like some kind of movie trailer, a figure that I couldn’t quite believe I was seeing.  It was a man, slowly walking toward me, but clothed entirely in buckskin.  He paused as he approached, as surprised to see me as I was to see him, and as he came closer I began to see just how remarkable this person really was.  His clothes were entirely hand-sewn with homemade leather strips.  He wore an elaborate buckskin jacket with what I suppose was a gray fox pelt draped over the shoulders – head still attached – and which had a true function, as the water that was coming from the sky in an early-morning light shower, rolled off the pelt to the ground, missing his back by inches.  His hat was covered in feathers, and also hand-sewn from deer hide.  He carried two long knives, one clearly hand-made with an antler for a handle, the other a more traditional Buck or maybe even a Shrade.

I fumbled over my introduction, nervous and out of place as I felt, with my GPS and my clipboard with printed land plats.  He regarded me for a moment and I quickly explained about the auction.  He nodded, and said, “Ah yeah, you guys come up here every once in a while, with your GPS and your clipboards, but I nothing much ever comes out of it.’. And I could tell he was happy about that.  I explained that I might be a bit different, and talked about the project with my son in the Catskills where I had spent a week or so constructing a half a lean-to out of logs not too long ago.  His attitude changed a bit after that, and he opened up about himself.  Told me not to bother with buying a piece of property when there was so much Federal land around.  He himself had arrived six years before and disappeared into those mountains,. He told me that if I kept walking and paid enough attention I would find the house that he had built deep in those woods, where he raised ducks and chickens for food, and hunted deer to stay alive.

He was the real deal, of that I was sure, and I have never met anyone quite like him – despite years in Alaska and the Adirondacks.  How unlikely that I would have this sort of encounter in southern California, of all places.  It was the drive down the mountain to this extreme version of suburbia that underscores my original point – that person who had those few words with a true mountain man is not the same person as that which pushes through each day as an expert in Microsoft Dynamics CRM.  Neither is more real than the other, They make up this concept of “we.”. How else are we to reconcile the endless myriad moments of this life but to separate them into a million different lives?

 

Hubris

That sporting events mirror military contests, or perhaps replace them, is not a new idea. But it’s amazing how both reflect so perfectly the human tendency toward the reckless at the moment when it counts most.

Napoleon marched 600,000 troops across the Niemen River in June of 1812, and came back with 20,000. William Nester, of St. John’s University in NY says it was a combination of hubris and brinksmanship.

This sounds very much like Pete Carroll’s decision just a few minutes ago to throw the ball at the precise moment when every Pop Warner kid in the world knew that it was the wrong thing to do.

We must ask why, but must we really? The Napoleon example is only one of the most famous. There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of stories exactly like it. It’s what we as a species do, over and over again. It’s the result of a lifetime of the Ego whispering in our ear every moment of every day. And it doesn’t matter if you huddle around a parchment map of Europe for eight days with your generals, or if you have 40 seconds to think about it — same result.

Yeah, it’s the Ego that we need to make the plays in the first place, no question. But as hard as professional NFL coaches train their player’s bodies, they need to spend at least 2% as much time training their own minds. Listen to the Ego when you know it’s not feeding you a line of bullshit, but be sure to know the difference between what it does and doesn’t do well.

The only way to know that is to sit very quietly for long periods of time and watch that xīn rú yuánhóu at work. Watch it from a distance, with some amusement, and a detached sense of humor. Doing this, even for just a few minutes of every day, will drastically reduce the number of times you are tricked, when it counts the most.

Have a Seat, Pete.

Dreams 47174 and 47175

I admire those committed Jungian subjects who write down every dream they have, and amass notebook after notebook over the decades (or perhaps now, extensive voice memos on their iPhones), presumably to be pored over on rainy days, in a directed effort to garner meaning from the apparently random messages from the Id, which we receive on a daily or near daily basis.

I suppose there is a trick learned along the way to remember them.  Just like there is a trick to trigger Lucid Dreaming, which worked well when our hearts and minds were young, but not successfully for me, anyway, for many years.  Back when we were fascinated by the mysteries of the world, the trick was to simply find a hand (either left or right would do) in the dream.  The act of finding a body part such as this will trigger the understanding that you are dreaming.    This, of course, was borrowed from Castaneda  and it worked quite well for awhile.  There are other techniques these days.  All I ever wanted to do was fly, and I had a few spectacular successes, but mostly got caught in the twigs and branches of my own doubts and fears.

Nowadays, when we leave our familiar surroundings, our comfortable beds, dreams ten to leave their mark a little more forcefully.  And so it was recently on a trip to the lovely small city of La Paz, on the southern half of the Baja, tucked in a beautiful bay on the Sea of Cortez, that the dreams came one after another, too many to remember, or even count.  You’ve certainly experienced those early mornings, where you drift off to sleep for as little as an hour at a time to one shocking dream after another.  Here are two that I remember in detail:

47174: (not really, but how cool would it be to write down your dreams every day and have 47,000 of them to read/listen to??) …

I’m on the shore of a tiny pond.  One of those classic ponds with a layer of tiny green algae across the top, cattails along the shore, and the nose of a bullfrog here and there poking out from the green carpeted surface.  It would be a normal contemplative moment except for the fact that three our four large white rats were swimming around the surface.  Yeah .. large, white rats.  Suddenly, one of the rats disappears in a fury of splashing water and mud, gets sucked straight down, with the algae closing over the surface immediately afterward.  That’s alarming, although what comes next is worse, with an enormous lumbering bear, covered with mud, still chewing on the white rat, emerges from the depths and heads straight toward shore, where I am standing.  But I’m not alone as it turns out, because next to me is my father.  This is a bit odd, since I rarely dream of him much anymore, but I’m glad he is there.  

The interaction between this bear and my father seems to occur only in my peripheral vision, and so I am not clear on what is actually happening, but the result is clear.  The bear lies dead before me in just a few minutes.  I turn to my father, angry, and say something like “You didn’t have to kill him!  There must have been another way!”  No sooner do I make this pronouncement that the bear wakes up and attacks my father again.  This time, in full view of myself, and my father refuses to fight back.  The horror of what I am seeing rips me from the dream and I awaken, sweating and terrified.

47175:

Within minutes I’m asleep again, and this time I am entering a Home Depot.  It’s not near my present home, but somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.  I can tell from the trees outside the store, as well as the smell. The woods around Seattle smells a certain way, and the smell was very distinctive. People are in the store and staring at me in a strange way as I enter, and I look down at myself and see why.  I am naked except for a pair of ragged underwear and two long Ace bandages on my wrist and forearms. There’s mud all over me, and my hair is long, much longer than the way I wear it now .. and wild.  I realize that I have to get out of that store and away from these people immediately. 

I leave the store and I’m on a dirt road, with no houses and lined by the tall fir trees you see in that beautiful part of the continent, walking quickly.  No cars come by for some time, but when I hear an engine behind me I turn to see a battered little Toyota something-or-other, driven by a young woman.  

She slows, rolls down the window on the passenger side and calls out “Let  me give you a ride!”  I look at her.  She has glasses, a long thin face, and long brown hair. I have seen her before, almost always in dreams with people who have died.

 I tell her, “I don’t need a ride,” and I keep walking.  She doesn’t leave, but follows me slowly, looking through the open window.  

She says, “You need to get in this car.”  I tell her I’m not getting in her car.  

Then I say, “Look, what you are seeing is not really me.  I don’t normally look like this.  I’m nothing like this.”  She looks at me and says, “Same here.  I’m not who you think I am. ”

I am skeptical, but I stop walking.  She pulls over, and gets out of the car.  She is dressed in a flannel shirt, jeans and boots. I realize that I have seen her many times.  She looks intently at me, grasps me gently on both my arms to keep me in front of her, and says quietly, “Look. It’s different this time. You see .. you’ve died. ”  

A rush of  energy sweeps through my body — a strange sort of electric and psychic energy and with it comes a half dozen significant vignettes.  I see my kids back home, my parents in the upstate NY house, the nine acres in the Catskills with the half-finished lean-to from last year, my wife, my brother … and the emotion is swirled together with splashes of horror and fear, but the underlying feeling is joy and release.  I have no idea what emotion is displayed on my face when she next looks at me, but whatever it is she recoils from it in  sense of horror and repulsion.  This does nothing to dispel the flood of peace that I next feel, a sort of syrupy warmth that courses through my being.  This life now over, and long and satisfying it was.

 

 

The Soujorn

Here is a book worth reading —  The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak.  I think it’s his first published book, which is quite amazing, considering the beauty of the writing.

An excerpt .. “The Northwest Carpathians, in which I was raised, were a hard place, as unforgiving as the people who lived there, but the Alpine landscape into which Zlee and I were sent that early winter seemed a glimpse of what the surface of the earth looked and felt and acted like when there were no maps or borders, no rifles or artillery, no men or wars to claim possession of land, and snow and rock alone parried in  match of millennial slowness so that time meant nothing, and death meant nothing, for what life there was gave into the forces of nature surrounding and accepted its fate to play what role was handed down in the sidereal march of seasons capable of crushing in an instant what armies might — millennia later — be foolish enough to assemble on it heights.”

This is the story of a man’s life, starting out as an immigrant in American West and then back to the homeland in Europe just before the First World War, and the time spent in that War as sniper, a specialist trained by his father no to kill in wartime, but to survive as a simple shepherd.  I am not finished yet, but like The People’s Act of Love, this is a book that takes one away into a past that has been largely forgotten, but shouldn’t be.

The way we can consume books these days is pretty remarkable.  A cheap Kindle (the PaperWhite is the way to go), and Overdrive, plus a library card in a county that has some books (Orange has over 100K – not bad …), and you don’t have to leave your house to find what amounts to an endless supply of books.  Of course, with over 400,000 books published a year in the U.S. alone, it can be a bit of toss.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Stick with the awards.  This book I’m writing about today was a National Book Award finalist.  Deservedly so.  Congratulations, Mr. Krivak.

Reading Matthiessen

I recently finished Peter Matthiessan’s Shadow Country , for which he won the National Book Award, and most deservedly so.  It was an absolute masterpiece, and well worth every moment spent reading the 1100 + pages — although the Kindle discourages counting pages.  Let’s just say it took a healthy amount of time.  Not nearly, however, as long as it took him to write it, since he mentioned that his notes on the subject dated to 1978.

Matthiessan was (alas, was, as he just a few months ago died after a lengthy and worthwhile life) an amazing human being in so many respects, which is better than simply calling him a “genius”, although I believe what he achieved with Shadow Country qualifies.  In this Rashoman-like telling of an obscure historical story set in South Florida around either side of the turn of the century, Mr. Matthiessan manages to convey the depth of the stupidity and brutality of the modernization of this country in a way that is all-at-once humorous, horrifying, and compassionate.  Not many could pull this off, but he does it, and with the  investigative ability of the skilled and dogged journalist, coupled with old-fashioned tools of the storyteller.  This writer is a man who had managed to win the National Book award for both fiction and non-fiction – not many, or perhaps any others have done that.

What I appreciate about him so much, and why still I thank my father for insisting that I read The Snow Leopard when I was seventeen years old,  was the way that Peter Matthiessen lived his life – wide-awake, inquisitive, and with an equal respect for journalism and literature.   He not only understood, but demonstrated with clarity the notion that reality is so astonishing that sometimes the only way to properly render it is through fiction.

I am not sure what to read next- a tough act to follow, to be sure.  It will likely be a series of lightweight mysteries.  That’s quite OK – after scaling something like Kilimanjaro we all need a stroll through the Catskills.

Bill and Joan

NOTE … if I don’t start this story now, I never will.  So … this will be updated from time to time … sort of like Wikipedia … since all of this is written down from two or three perspectives — all I have to do it find the material and read it.  This first attempt is purely from memory … 

It was probably 1948 or so when Bill Scott left Zanesville , OH to follow some of his local friends who had made it to NYC , finally, after years of dreaming of it —  like only those who live in places like Zanesville can dream about that place.  Those friends of his were full-blown jazz musicians, or trying to be , having recently graduated from the Cincinnati conservatory.  Some of them stayed in NY, some became professional jazz musicians, and some left.  Bill stayed , since he had not much to go back to, at least from his perspective.

It would be unfair and probably not accurate at all to call the place he left “Hillbilly Country” as he did himself so often, but there was no denying that he grew up poor,  a literal child of the Great Depression, with a father that came back from the first world war gassed, broken, and barely able to work.   For a boy who threw himself into books, art and music as a way to escape the limitations of the place,  there were very few choices but to leave.  And so he did. First to Cincinnati , and not long after,  to New York.

He met Joan Sherman at Brentano’s in the 1950’s.  She was a clerk there,  and a full-time art student at Cooper Union.  He had found work there as a “security guard”  where, because of his small size, was able to make himself nearly invisible hiding in the rafters.  The management gave him a walkie-talkie and told him to report any suspicious behavior,  but what he mainly did was spy on Joan, as she sat behind the counter and sold books.  She noticed him, too, and one day, the story goes, when she spotted him on break hanging around the back office , she broke off the all the pencil points in the front-desk container so she would have a reason to go back and strike up a conversation with him as she sharpened them.

Joan came from a completely different background in every way imaginable.  Her father, Robert Sherman , made it to Yale at the age of 15 — an event made more amazing by the fact that he had no money and was Jewish.  His father had recently died, and he worked double overtime to take care of the family and finish  school.  In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, he and his wife Ann Margulies started a family with two children – Joan and her older brother Phil.    Bob soon got a job with RKO Pictures and rose in the industry to the point at which Joan remembered having “help” to clean the house and cook,  trips to Europe,  and membership in the “Club.”  As a member of the upper-middle class, attending Cooper Union in 1950’s in a family of Jewish intellectuals, Bill Scott represented the polar opposite of the young man that her parents could have wished for.

To the horror and chagrin of her parents,  in the mid 1950’s, Joan moved in with Bill to a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village shared with a group of young jazz musicians.  Bob Brookmeyer, Tony Fruscella, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and Phil Sunkel were some of the people they hung out with on a daily basis.  But there was also the “art scene,” as it was described by Bill, which consisted of Joan’s friends — people like Joseph Raffael , Linda Rosenkrantz, Christopher Finch and others.  It’s all written down in great detail, and when it’s possible, those stories will find their way onto this or Bill’s site.  For now, I’m afraid we have only this somewhat thin, vague, second-hand memory.

Side story about Phil Sunkel.  He is a remarkable man,  and I’m sorry that I have lost touch with him.  He served in Italy in WW2,  and was introduced to wine in what had to have been the best way – wandering around rural Italy in the 40’s when America and their soldiers were viewed as liberators.   He left the Jazz scene pretty early to grow grapes in upstate NY for awhile.  His father, Phil Sunkel, Sr., had a wonderful correspondence with my father.  Phil, Sr. was absolutely brilliant and an excellent writer.  I seriously doubt we have any of his letters, but I wish we did, because I remember as a teenager reading them and being inspired to  … become intelligent, suppose you could say.  Phil, Jr. was no slouch either.  Shortly after my father died, my brother and I had dinner with him and his wife, and we drank  some wine to Bill’s memory, and listened to Phil’s stories about the Jazz scene in NY in the 1950’s.   At one point my heart swelled when he said that Bill lived on very much through his sons.  This was all possible because Phil moved up the Hudson Valley right around the time my father was getting ready to die.  Dad and I visited him a few times, and during one of those times, Phil introduced me to the concept of White Burgundy wine.   The other thing he tried to introduce us to was something he called “Son” Cuban Jazz, which he was exposed to in the 1940’s, where he hung out in Havana for awhile and played with a remarkable set of musicians.  In 1997, however, before the Buena Vista Social Club appeared (thank you Mr. Ry Cooder!) there was very little anywhere you could find it.  Back in those days, record stores were still around (remember them?), and Dad and I visited a few, looking for what Phil was talking about.  We couldn’t find it.  The album was released just a few months before he died, and so I didn’t have the conversation I wished I had with him about it, because the documentary came out in 1999, and that’s when I learned about it.  It was EXACTLY the music Phil was trying to tell us about — but as we all know, those guys he played with in the 40’s were basically living in the slums in Havana, and were about 85 years old in 1997.  They only saw the light of public day thanks to the tenacious efforts of Ry Cooder , which was marvelously documented by Wim Wenders.

Bill and Joan were married February 29, 1960.  The pressure and reaction from Joan’s family was such that they fled to Wyoming to have their first child in 1961.  That would be me.  There,  they were somewhat sustained by the spectacular scenery of the Wind River range, and by a good friendship with some musicians who had left NY to find a place to raise a family in Montana.  But before long, they returned to the East Coast, where family and like-minded people were to be found.  After bumping around for a few rough years, trying to scratch out a living in places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania , they finally found a home in the Hudson Valley – in a small town in Orange county where Joan’s parents purchased and gave them a tiny house with which to start a family.  They arrived in winter, 1966.

Thanks Tom, Thanks Jerry

I have to work all night tonight — kind of like college, remember?  When we pulled  those all-night study sessions … but this is different.  This is just me over-promising work in a casual way, unable even to say “Maybe Not” when I should be saying “ARE YOU COMPLETELY INSANE???”

But that’s not why I’m writing.  For about six years now it has been my intention to find the time to say a simple thanks to the musicians that have made an enormous difference to the well-being of … myself, not to mention the thousands, maybe millions of others.  Talk about a lasting force of good.  If I could produce just one piece of quality music that soothed even one other human soul on an ongoing basis, then I would concede that this life was by no means wasted.

Take Tom Waits.  And this is a very specific episode, so it certainly didn’t have to be Tom Waits, but he sure was in the right place in the right time – at least for me.  It was January of 1998.  One more season in the Bering Sea.  I had already put in my resignation, but agreed to go up for one more — just one more Bering Sea adventure, after nine previous years of them.  However, it was quite over for me at that point.  I had just weeks before lost my father, and a few weeks before that, lost my marriage (slipped out of my pocket, really … ) and I was pretty much floating along, hoping for some kind of soft landing amid the darkness of that northern sea.

The short of it is that I somehow managed to leave behind in my Seattle co-op ALL music except for two ninety-minute cassette tapes of Tom Waits.  And so I sat up there in the wheelhouse, working the night shift (which is black as pitch that time of the year in the Bering) for a full month and a half, headset on, lounging on the soft sofa on the port side of the wheelhouse, listening to the lilting, ragged voice of Tom Waits, while the Norwegian FishMate ran the boat, and chatted with his colleagues on the radio.  The nature of that season was that for the first month, almost no one showed up during my 12-hour shifts.  No sliced scalps to sew up, virtually no persistent coughs, or various complaints.  The money was good, if I remember.  The processors stayed down below, and I stayed up above, listening to Mr. Waits each night through, and brewing English Breakfast tea with cream.  I may have spoken six words to my Norwegian friend that season, which was not like me, but I was literally healing from the music.

And how many times since then, and long before, have I reached for a pair of headsets, almost in desperation, or as a junkie might reach for a needle — a fundamental need for solace?  I have a playlist on my phone named “Endless Dead” and it practically is that.  Grateful Dead that just goes on … and on.  I have had this playlist for nine years now and I never, ever get tired of it.

It’s an unlikely pair, Tom and Jerry, in this context.  But they are by no means representative.  No, we must mention and thank deeply those people who have been woven through our consciousness from literally the beginning, when I am sure that my father must have been playing them through the house as I lay awake staring at the ceiling in 1962 or so …

There are the Tenors — Lester Young, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Ben Webster .. and even Scott Hamilton.  In context — there were games of hearts with the Twins that lasted listreally for days, with Zoot Sims playing in the background, and with a running commentary/argument between Bob Purcell (mainly, with amiable agreement from Bill) and my father.  The position from Bob/Bill was essentially that jazz music stopped evolving in the 1960’s.  That Zoot Sims, while he forged on well enough as he aged, would be the last true jazz tenor — all others who came afterward were pale imitations.  Although Zoot Sims was actually a friend of Dad’s — in fact, he interviewed him in the 1960’s, and we still have that recording in some format somewhere – wine glasses tinkling as they slid further into the drink  — he argued vociferously that the notion that Jazz music was done, was downright offensive.  That innovation was built into the soul of the music, and that the Twins’ minds were closed like traps, slammed shut at some point in the early 1960’s, when the jazz scene in NY started to fade.

These hearts games took place in one of two places — 38th and 4th Avenue or so, at a photo-retouching studio where Bill worked, and which he had the key to – a place for the four of us to sit at a table for a weekend  — and the farmhouse in Ulster Park, where we would pick up the Twins at the Poughkeepsie train station, since they never learned to drive when they arrived in NYC from Zanesville in 1954, and in fact hardly ever left their apartment at 37th and second avenue … apartment F.  But always was the incredible jazz music, flowing through and mediating those conversations about music, art, politics, and culture.

And the altos — is there anything more beautiful than the flowing sound of Paul Desmond, playing Take Ten?  Although, the funny thing is, music is utterly contextual.  That is to say, about eight months ago I was visiting with friends in Las Vegas, and there was an occasion where we wanted to listen to some music through some kind of clever little speaker that you simply hooked your iPhone to through bluetooth, and I was the only one who could get my phone to work.  And I excitedly said “You guys have to listen to this — it may be the most incredible music ever … ”  As Paul Desmond started to play, a strange flash — just a split-second, really — where I was suddenly occupying their perspective and listening to this music for the first time, and from the context of their lives  … and it was just not that impressive.  It lasted a second, but enough time for me to become faintly embarrassed.  A strange episode.  At this very minute, co-incidentally, I am listening to Take Ten, and I’m enjoying it as much as ever.

It would be an exaggeration and quite dramatic to suggest that Tom Waits “saved my life” in 1998. This is something people toss out, mainly for dramatic effect, or to hold your attention.  Not me.  I mean, there was absolutely no danger of me throwing myself into the icy black water forty feet below the bridge on a calm night – never even crossed the darkest reaches of my mind.  But it would not be an understatement to say that I would have a very different two months had it not been for his gift of mournful, plaintive , and honest songwriting, and singing, of a kind.  And so it goes, more and more, as I find myself tasked with long and painful tasks that require some sort of medicine, and music it is.  The other week my wife and I, working alone for 90% of it,  moved our family of six out of a ten-year nest over the course of 72 brutal hours … 71 of which was spent listening to Jerry Garcia and company, along with Ben Webster, Bob Dylan, and a whole bunch of great musicians from Cape Verde.

And so, again – thanks Fleet Foxes,  Tom, Jerry, Angelique Kidjo, Paul D., Lester, Zoot, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, the Buena Vista Social Club, and, of course, Ms. Peyroux who sounds a like like Billie Holiday … just to name a small few.  I hope you all know how much you help us out here on this little planet …

Recurring Dreams

For about fifteen years after I graduated from high school I would dream about it. Recurring and convoluted dreams that were, at turns, both absurd and meaningless as well as fraught with transparent and obvious relevance. This should not be surprising for a period that is clearly formative for most people. I had a mixed time in high school socially. Most of my friends were from the neighborhood where I lived, and were three and four years older than I was, and so I sometimes had a hard time relating to the kids my own age. And it seemed that I couldn’t get the dating thing right no matter what I did. I had deep, almost obsessive crushes on girls that were obviously not suited for me, while I ignored the girls who fell for me, who were almost all very cool and absolutely beautiful. In ninth grade I completely blew off Miss Orange County, who was also one of the coolest and probably the most sexually advanced girl in the school. Looking back, it’s easy to see that this behavior was based entirely on fear, but that doesn’t excuse it, and even now, more than 30 years later, this part of high school looks like a wasteland of missed opportunities, stupidity and awkwardness. The death of my younger brother, which happened more than a year after I graduated from high school, woke me up and turned me into a sensitive human being, but it was too late .. so I continued to be haunted by high school dreams for more than a decade. But those dreams stopped years ago.

We all agree that this period is a formative time of our lives, but if you lead a halfway interesting life, there are others. For me I suppose it was the ten years I spent fishing in the Bering Sea, and since I quit that life in 1998 I have had recurring dreams about that period as well. They still go on. In fact two nights ago I had another one. In this one, much like many of the others, my wife was heading back out to sea on one of the ships we both worked on for a decade. In this particular dream I wasn’t going — very often I do — but not this one. And there was not a small amount of anxiety in this dream, since on the boat would be her ex-husband, who was also one of my very best friends during a good part of those ten years. As you might imagine, there is a story there.

In 1990 American Seafoods was on a sort of tear — they had tremendous success with their first endeavor, the fabulous “American Empress” – a fishing boat longer than a football field and that could accommodate, in relative luxury, a crew of over 100. I was employee number 137, and came onboard on the second 4-week trip the boat ever took, back in early 1989. Less than a year later Kjell Rokke asked for some more money from a Norwegian bank, and launched the American Dynasty, arguably one of the most successful fishing vessels in the history of factory trawler fishing. By 1990, I had managed to reach the status of deckhand on the American Empress, and my Norwegian mentor, Webjorn, was leaving the Empress and moving to the new ship named the “Acona” that American Seafoods had built for the New Zealand market, but then changed its mind and moved to the Bering Sea for pollock. Webjorn would be first deck bosun. I begged him to take me with him, and pulled every favor I had in the office to get on that boat as a deckhand. The deck department consisted of 6 people — 3 on each shift.  With a crew of a 120, and in the quasi-medieval environment of American Factory Trawling, the deckhands were knights, who strutted around the boat with belts in their knives and performed acrobatics against a furious sea while being watched from wide-windowed wheelhouses where young women were always welcome to sit and watch. There was no better boat in the Bering Sea at no better time to be a deckhand than the Acona in the summer of 1990.

Six months later, in the winter, we had arrived in Dutch Harbor after about a month of successful fishing, and received, along with a few tons of groceries, a partial new crew. The deckhands weren’t going anywhere, but about half the processing crew rotated out. It was January, and cold. It was also Roe Season, where the daily rate for the processors could exceed $1,200. This is where I first laid eyes on the woman who would years later become a huge part of my life, and from the moment I saw her, I was struck. With the money made in those days, it wasn’t entirely uncommon to see pretty young girls show up at the dock in Dutch Harbor, but none of us in the deck crew were prepared for a 95-pound exotic beauty to show up like some kind of angel dropped out of the gray forbidden skies of the Bering. At least that’s how I saw it. I literally lay on the steel deck of the shack where the deckhands hung out waiting for the next bag of fish and moaned quietly, my deckhand brothers stepping over me, shaking their heads at my lovestruck silliness.

A few days into the trip as we were “steaming” — that is, moving from one place to another as fast as possible without towing a net, searching for fish — and the sea blew up a bit, and as we ran from it, you could stand on the back deck and watch the 30-foot waves breaking just behind us at eye level, as we outran them in a pitched frenzy. A spectacular site by any standard. I worked up the courage to descend below-decks to the factory and tapped her on the shoulder as she stood in line pulling the roe from a pile of fish moving slowly by on a conveyer belt. She looked up at this deckhand, wide-eyed, thinking maybe she was in trouble. I asked her to follow me, and she did, up the steel steps and out onto the deck where we stood just behind the massive steel doors and watched for a few moments the fury of the sea behind us. Memories like that you don’t forget. They creep into your dreams, sometimes pure, sometimes distorted.

The story took a number of turns — the first one brutal for me, when she chose one of my best friends on the boat, Chris, a good-looking blonde kid from Florida, over me. During those next seven years, for me it was string of what we called “boat romances”, and a tumultuous 7-year relationship for her. Toward the end we both got married. She to Chris and me to someone else. Both mistakes that each lasted less than a year.

In 1998 I was quitting the industry. Divorce, my father’s death .. I had had enough. I had passed my captain’s license, but it was clear that it would be awhile before I sailed in that position, and when we pulled the Ocean Rover into Pier 47 in Seattle, I knew that it would be for the very last time. Over the radio I heard her voice. This woman, who I had quietly obsessed about for seven years. We had always remained friends, although not what you might call close. She was picking up a car .. or something. Impulsively, I waited on the stairwell below the wheelhouse just outside my cabin. When she came up the stairs I pulled her into my cabin and asked, with a little more force than I maybe should have, if she would have breakfast with me the next morning. I had this feeling that it was the very last time I would see her, and it probably accurate, given the changes that were taking place in our lives.

The next morning I met her at a diner on lower Queen Anne, just up the street from 22 John, where I had quietly lived for five years. As I watched her walk down the hill, amazed that this moment was actually happening, I considered the confluence of forces had made this breakfast possible. How much of it was free will, how much unseen? It wasn’t long after we sat down that the conversation began to take turns that neither of us expected consciously, but which were evidently very clear to our hearts. Breakfast led to lunch, and to dinner, as we walked around the city, and finally back to the park near lower Queen Anne — a circuitous route and series of events that had all the markings of a complex mating ritual.

She was at the end of her marriage with Chris, and I had just divorced a few months before. Her situation was not generally known in our circle of friends. So I was stealing her, at least that’s how it would seem, and no doubt seemed to those in the industry that knew us. I took a different view. Property, you can steal. People, you cannot.

Years have passed since these events took place, and other significant events have replaced them in our memories. Four kids, as an example. But the dreams remain. Two days ago I stood just outside the wheelhouse of the American Empress and chatted with my dream-version of a Norwegian fishmaster as the ship prepared to leave for a cold and windy season in the Bering Sea. These are not nightmares, but seem to be torn fragments of memory, re-stitched slightly and patched together from a time when the days were measured not in hours, but bags of fish, and 12-hour shifts of work where dancing with heavy equipment while the ship rocked side to side fed a stream of adrenaline that kept us very much alive, and awake.

Into That Good Night

In 1997 I was finishing up a significant part of my life – a chapter in every sense of the word.  I could not write about the events that transpired during the last few months of that year for many months afterward.  But eventually I did.  What follows is that effort. It was originally a piece I had submitted to the Sun , which, incredibly, still exists.   The story was rejected, but not without kind words of encouragement.  Here it is, slightly changed from the 1998 version.

Mid-October is the best time to arrive in New York. The skies are often a rich blue, the air just slightly crisp, and the foliage… well, have a look at any one of a dozen classics of the Hudson River School to see the potential. In the fall of 1997 I had returned home to rural Ulster County twice each year for the previous ten, and the second visit had always begun just after the end of the Bering Sea Pollock “B” season. After two months at sea, I would normally spend the first six days helping to steer a ship across the Gulf of Alaska, and then I was generally on an eastbound plane the day after we docked in Seattle.

That autumn visit in 1997 I saw my father before he picked me out from the crowd exiting the train at the Poughkeepsie  station. He stood with his hands at his sides, his head tilted very slightly. The afternoon sun accentuated the lines made by his jowls. Tired expression. Waiting for me. His oldest. This image of him is burned into my memory:  the countless times he stood exactly in that spot , waiting for his sons. Each time he looked a bit older, a bit more tired. His face brightened when he found mine, and his eyebrows lifted in the slight bemused expression that made him look younger. As we drove up route 9W on the poorer, West side of the Hudson,  he explained the fall foliage and clipped, excited sentences.

“Be damned if I’ve ever seen anything like it. Look at this! Half the trees peaking, what in hell is the other half doing? Green! Deep, dark green like summer. Stays like this …  we’ll go straight through November.”

Whenever he drove, even back when he was teaching me to drive when I was 15,  he gripped the wheel tightly with both hands and peered over the upper edge, focused and with great intensity. Trips more than an hour gave him neck aches, put him in a foul mood. Later, after I returned from Mexico, and  the leaves had all fallen and the woods had turned to the repellent, uniform gray color that had driven me from the place 10 years earlier,  my father had looked out through the glass doors of the cottage at the songbirds feeding on the back porch and said, “this was my last autumn and I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy every fucking minute of it.”

That first week we spent our days together, there were movies at Rhinebeck, long drives through the Catskill mountains, and walks around the Ashokan reservoir. Although he would tire easily, nothing diminished his appreciation of the foliage. The forest was resplendent, and we would sometimes stand before a single tree for minutes without moving or speaking. Once, he whispered, “You see why I needed to come back – why I had to finish up here?”  He never cared much for the year or so he spent living in Seattle. “Trudging up hills in the rain, past scores of homeless…” was how he described it to friends who had never been there.

I had left Seattle with the impression that it would be a good idea for me to make every effort to obtain a captain’s license for the 5,000 gross-ton fishing boat I was working on at the time.  A broad hint was delivered by our Norwegian Fishing Master over a plate of baked shrimp at the pos- season party in a fancy restaurant on the shore of Lake Union. It would be inopportune, perhaps even rude to refuse outright, so I said, “my father is ill… We’ll see.” My host shrugged, looked away.

After that first week, Dad seemed to be doing well. Very little pain. I figured I needed about 12 hours a day for 20 days to prepare myself for what would be a three-day Captain’s exam to be taken in New York City. It would be impossible to accomplish this while sharing a small house in the woods with my father. I cautiously broached the subject one afternoon. He waved a backhand at me, “Of course ! Of course!  Christ, when I studied for the first-class radio ticket I practically sequestered myself from your mother. Go to some third world country or something. You look like you need a vacation, anyway. Hah!”

We agreed on Mexico. I had always wanted to see Taxco, a small city that was designated a historical landmark. My brother had described narrow cobbled streets winding up the mountain, the tap-tap-tap  of the silversmiths’  hammers ringing through the town, mixing with the church bells. I pictured myself in some colonial garret overlooking  a verdant valley, working out the formulas for nautical astronomy. I didn’t have to return to Seattle until the first week in January, so I booked a flight that brought me back to New York around the third week of November. One of the things about terminal cancer is that you must get in the habit of saying goodbye, really saying goodbye, every time you leave for a trip, or when you go back to the other coast you live on or in that other state or city you move two years before. Eventually, you say goodbye every time you go out to get a half gallon of milk or bagels in the morning. You get pretty good at it. One of the many things cancer teaches a survivor is sincerity. A fluidity and resilience of the heart. How would you like to remember your last moments with someone important?  This is one of the gifts for those of us that are left behind.

I needed Taxco or the Taxco I imagined, for a number of reasons. My father was dying of advanced prostate cancer. He had been “dying” for over a year. On my wedding day the August before, I had to tell my younger brother about our father’s illness because he could not tell him himself, understandably repelled by the idea of so wounding his youngest and beloved son. I told my brother on that day, since it was the only day that month that I had seen him. We were lounging around on blankets near a pond in a park in British Columbia, our tiny wedding party of three, where we had finished  taking our vows by the sea. After I broke the news, he walked away from me and my new wife and stood on the other side of the water, and looked away and wept. I felt as though I had driven a stake through his heart. In the ensuing year I flew to New York twice, once to help our father through an operation. I threw myself into my job, working nearly every day. I canceled a long trip to Asia with my new wife so that I could work, and she went alone. The following season she decided to switch ships, and we worked in the Bering Sea within a mile of each other, but in separate realities, linked only by e-mail, which in those days was very difficult and unreliable. During the first 15 months of our marriage we had spent, cumulatively, one month together. While I was walking with my father in the Catskill forests that October, she was at the end of a 5 1/2 month stint off the coast of Siberia. I had a nagging feeling that things were not as well between us is they could be. I sought my own private Taxco in the same manner a ship captain searches for a harbor, any harbor, in a raging storm.

The “Pasado Javier” is a favorite with German and Japanese silver buyers, as well as Mexican tourists. It is centrally located, but not too central, and it is far enough away from the Zocalo to remain free from the noise and fumes of the endless caravans of combis that pushed through the narrow streets at a walking pace. I chose it for the magnificent stonework, the garden, and the wide wooden tables under a huge arched foyer behind the pool. It reminded me of a monastery. But it lies between two churches, and the morning, afternoon, and evening guests are graced with the enthusiastic sounds of Mexican youths ringing the massive bells – crazed homunculi who I supposed must’ve seen Disney’s version of “the hunchback…” 100 times or more. Nevertheless, each morning I would swim for 20 min., then park myself at one of the tables with a half gallon of lime water. Lunch in the marketplace was $.80. I jumped into the books with appropriate ferocity, but found it difficult to concentrate.

On the evening of October 31, I wandered around the streets of Taxco, examining the shrines created by local families for the Dead for the following Dia De La Muerte.  The shrines were beautiful, pagan influenced affairs ,  fully lit with candles and graced with dried and fresh flowers and pictures or artwork of the beloved Dead. Early the next morning, in that exhilarating netherworld between waking and sleeping , where everything is possible, I was approached by my mother, who had died four years earlier, in November of 1993. She was radiant, and stood before me with perfect clarity. I was overjoyed to see her, and my mood was buoyant, even jocular. She remained uncharacteristically silent and grave. I was laughing and bubbling over for a full minute, but I trailed off and began to go cold when I finally took in her manner. Then she said, quietly but with great intensity, “Owen, I have something to tell you!”  The tone of her voice, the way she held my eye, and the manner in which she enunciated each word, shook me terribly. I felt as if I had swallowed an enormous bowl of ice that quick-chilled me to the core. My extremities were paralyzed, and I felt an onrush of dread the likes of which I had never experienced. I screamed, “NO!” and pushed her away and spun myself out of the dream. I didn’t want to hear what she had to say – things that I knew were coming but could not begin to face.

After a week or so I called my father and received no answer. A day later I called my wife, who had just returned from her very extended fishing trip. I invited her to Mexico. She declined – numerous appointments, etc. Would she check in on my father?  She would. Was there anything wrong?  No, of course not. Everything with her was fine.

A few days later I called my wife again in Seattle.  No answer.  None for over a week.  Neither an answer from my father.  I focused on my studies.  I told myself that there was no reason to panic.  Finally, I called my wife on a day that she was home.  She explained that she had to leave town for about eight days.  And by the way, my father was in the hospital.  But no, I shouldn’t rush home.  He would be out by the following week, and I would be back in New York by then anyway.

After I hung up the phone, I thought about things.  It was likely that my father would die very soon.  But what, exactly, was happening with my marriage?  I decided to write my wife a letter.  I told her that I felt she distanced herself from me in the past few months, and that I really didn’t know where we stood anymore.  I told her some plans I had formulated myself – ways to escape the industry that had held me happily captive for 10 years.  A few things that I would like to do, and “… By the way you always have my support and with whatever you want to do with your own life, but please do let me know what is going through your mind…” Two days later I received a fax that more or less said “We both know why we are not right for this relationship, so there’s really no point in going into any detail.” And that was that. End of a brief and fleeting marriage.   As silly as a marriage it was, it was no less painful for it to end, especially at that particular moment in my life.

I returned to New York to find my father an invalid in his small cottage in the backwoods of Ulster County. For the first week I helped him bathe, cooked his meals, and kept him company. He showed great enthusiasm for my study material, and we drilled through hundreds of “rules of the road” questions regarding esoteric regulations about fog whistles and colored navigation lights. He gradually grew stronger, and one day in a moment of exasperation tossed his walker aside and began, simply, to walk.  Once that psychological barrier was broken we were able to go to the cinema again, although he would tire easily.  We had two golden weeks together after that.  A time of grace, during which we talked almost incessantly about the mysteries of life and death, and his anticipation of this new adventure.  We drove the back roads of Ulster County at the far end of the spectacular autumn.  The trees were empty of leaves, but no snow had fallen. We said all the things we needed to say to each other.

On the Monday morning of December 8, my father woke up vomiting uncontrollably. He vomited, dry heaved for ten minutes or so, but then continued for about eight more hours. I found some medicine to control the nausea, but the hospice nurse suggested that the cancer might’ve reached his stomach. He had already lost 20 pounds in three weeks. After two days of this incomprehensible agony he voiced what both of us were thinking – that this was the end. He had reached the point that he had so often anticipated in which the continuation of his life was pointless. He would be dead in a matter of weeks anyway, maybe a month or two at best, and it would be a slow, miserable death. He wanted none of it. He was going on his own terms. He asked when I had scheduled my captain’s test in the city. It was the following Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

Then my father said, “Good. I’ll be leaving Tuesday.”

We had talked about this, and he knew he had the support of both of his sons.  My brother was due to arrive next Thursday.  He would miss him.  Dad wrote him an e-mail that night and explained everything. My brother accepted the situation with the grace that I knew he would. If there was anything any of us had learned in our family it is that there is nothing but poison in clinging desperately to those that you love the most.  The e-mail that my brother sent back was a short piece of writing so exquisite that I was rendered speechless when I read it.  My father visibly relaxed after that day and thanked the both of us with the deepest of gratitude.

I woke the morning of the first day of my exam at 5 AM. Monday. The moon was bright and full and bathed the snow colored woods around the house with a harsh, almost metallic brightness. I  stepped into the doorway of my father’s room and I heard him speak, clearly and without the grogginess of morning. He had not slept. I came to sit by him, and his face was bathed in a cream-colored light that made him glow. We spoke of nothing. Of everything. I kept thinking, “Remember this. Remember these moments forever.”

After I showered I went out to start the car. It was so cold, the door locks had frozen and I had to crawl through the trunk to get inside to start and warm the car. After a few moments I returned to the house, toasted and ate a bagel, and then sat again beside my father as he lay and looked up at the moon through the window. “How do you feel?” I asked, mainly to break the silence that lay heavy in the room. He sighed. “Clear. I feel very clear.” But his voice wavered as he said it, and then I embraced him and held him as we cried together.  Again, I heard my internal voice, ” … never, ever, forget this. Never forget this moment, never forget the quality of this light, and how it feels to hug this man who gave you life, who gave you everything, who taught you how to think and feel about the world and who you will not see in this life again except in dreams and in your imagination and your memory. Never forget what is like to sit in his company and listen to his stories and laugh at his humor, his great and powerful humor that pushed through a lifetime of suffering as if it were a stick of soft butter and never, ever forget the sound of his voice or the sound of the typewriter, his ongoing oeuvre,  pounding through the house like thunder.

My exam started at a low-slung Coast Guard building at The Battery, at the very bottom of the city.  Strangely, or perhaps due simply to my state of mind, I was startled by an old man at Battery Park who sat on a bench as I approached the test site, looking upward at the sun in the same way my own Dad did so often in the clear days of October, dressed almost exactly like him, and bearing enough resemblance that I reached out to him and almost spoke.  Even now I am not completely sure if that man was actually sitting there or was merely a figment of my own.

After the first day of testing, I walked up to the small hotel I often chose, near Washington Square Park , and stood a half block east of 6th avenue looking at the sun set behind an old church.  I called my father from a payphone, and we spoke for a few minutes. He wished me well on the exam, and told me I would pass.  The next day I found out that he was right.  Later that afternoon, I tried calling again, but there was no answer.  I felt pretty strongly that he was gone.

He was in my thoughts as I walked from the Battery uptown, winding through the neighborhoods where he and my mother had lived in the 50’s.  I had a beer at McSorley’s, where he took me and my friends back in the 70’s, when women weren’t allowed in, and you had to order two ales at a time.  Around Union Square there was a theater playing a current Woody Allen movie, and I watched it, again thinking of him.  Amazingly, the place where our family would always stop on our way down to the city — the Red Apple Rest — was featured in the movie, which was a neat trick, since the place had been abandoned years before.

When I returned from Manhattan on Wednesday night the cottage was pitch black. I felt around for the knob and found instead a card slipped in the jamb of the front door. It was the business card of a detective from the Ulster County Sheriff’s Department. A wave of complex emotions – fear, dread, horror and emptiness but also soaring pride for the courage of my father – rose and swept through me.  I stood in the doorway listening to the silence of the place and looked inward, toward the road that led to the rest of my life.

Epilogue

For many years I had unconsciously built up an edifice of belief regarding death and suffering that I used to comfort myself and others in times like these. It was rooted in a secure belief in the Universe-at-Large – that there are no mistakes, that every last little detail of life has tremendous significance ,and that the challenge is to remain sensitive enough to catch the meaning. Dreams were a big part of the process. It seemed that everyone who died when I was young would return to at least offer clues and hints about the details of the experience. I took great comfort in this and constructed a belief system around it. This construct was sort of forced upon me violently — first with the death of a very close friend, John U., then the death a few years later, of my younger brother Eric.  I think back at how young I was and am amazed at how well we all handled it. I suppose I was well prepared.  I was 15 when John died, and had already read Ram Dass, all of Castaneda’s books, a few by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, some Krishnamurti, the Tao Te Ching, and the life of the Buddha,as well as  parts of both the new and the old Testaments. Not to mention all the discussions I had had with my parents and close friends of similar bent regarding such matters. I was 20 when my younger brother Eric died, and by then I had already formed the core of my spiritual belief system. I had recently read Testimony of Light – a beautiful story written by a nun in the 1950s who had lost her sister of 40 years, who was also a nun. One day,  the surviving sister was in the middle of a letter, holding a fountain pen and idly searching for her next thought,  when her hand began to write by itself.  She soon discovered the meditative state she needed to allow it to happen, nearly at will.  As it turned out, the phenomena were letters from her sister, describing the work she was doing with  souls that had recently died.  It was an extraordinary piece of work, and I couldn’t care less whether it was an actual event, just as I cannot understand the controversy that continues to this day about Castaneda’s work.  The point is not whether the events occurred exactly as claimed, and can be “proven” by some verifiable recording, but that the concepts are  true in the sense of what you know as absolute truth with every fiber of your being.

Now I am no longer so sure of the details of death, and what happens to us when we die, but I do not find my doubt discomforting. Instead, I find my general sense of non-knowing to be more honest, and peaceful.  And I believe that this is the reason that I do not receive such detailed, informational dreams about the death experience from those who have died.  I still believe that there are no mistakes in our existence, and more than ever I see that every moment on this Earth is a gift, nearly all of which we throw away in a most ungrateful way.  And after sitting with two dying parents and been given the luxury of walking carefully and thoughtfully into the death experience with them, I no longer seem to have such an anxiety about what actually happens afterward.  Death now appears to be to be much more of an integral role part of our existence. An inevitability, a sure thing, a comfort.  I cannot imagine life without it.  And the death of my father, for whom so many of my values and ideals I received, and who was so very close to me in so many ways, has burned into me the absolute urgency of facing the deepest questions of life.  It’s as if his passing has freed me from the desire to know about the details of death so that I may now face life as an opportunity to experience our moment to moment existence. In this way his death, and the constant possibility of death that shadows us throughout this long and arduous life, is the ultimate teacher, the finest gift, so long as we know how to receive it as we should all gifts – with wide open eyes in the deepest and most sincere gratitude.

One Road West

There was always this western pull.  From the time I was eleven, I think, I was dreaming of New Zealand, and later, when I fell into the silent peace of the woods, and then craved ever larger country, British Columbia occupied my imagination for years.   At one point, during the Reagan administration, the Secretary of the Interior, former oil man James Watt opened up vast arcreages of the Alaskan Wilderness to drilling — I can’t picture him up on a stage chanting “Drill, Baby Drill”, but the effect was the same.

However, as a bone, perhaps, to throw at the nature-lovers, or perhaps the erstwhile pioneers, his Department opened up some 5,000 acres of land near Lake Minchumina not far fromDenali Mtn. and a few hundred miles southwest of Fairbanks.  The deal was that if you showed up at the Fairbanks BLM office, you could pretty much pick out 5 acres for yourself, free of charge.  This was 1980, and it was just before I went off to college, and I felt that there was some time to do something a little different.  A friend, Bob F. and I, packed up his car, which was either a Vega or a Pinto with the following — 2 backpacks with gear, an axe, a shovel, and a 30-30 rifle.  We figured that should be about all we would need to pioneer 5 acres in Alaska — after all, we were wearing winter boots.

We set off on route 80 and drove like maniacs — in four days we were in Fairbanks.  That’s some 1100 miles a day.  I’m not sure what it was that drove us so quickly across the country, although Bob did confess to me about 700 miles west of Pennsylvania that his girlfriend of six months was late on her cycle, and he thought that maybe his life was about to change very soon, and so perhaps that notion placed something in his head that required that he keep moving in a forward direction until he could figure out what he meant to do.  Regardless, the trip up was quite spectacular, if a bit rushed.  We left Ulster County in April, and so the roads after Yellowknife were wide swaths of pure snow, packed hard enough that a Pinto/Vega could navigate without too much trouble, although the trucks nearly blew us off the road a few times.  I think there’s actually a reality show about trucks driving on those roads, so things must not have changed too much in the last 30 years.

In the BLM office in Fairbanks we met various aspects of reality.  One was the fact that everyone considering working that land looked far more capable than a couple of skinny kids from NY with a shovel and a 30-30.  I mean these guys literally had bear claw necklaces, full bushy beards, and more than 120 pounds on either of us.  And then there was the reality of the land itself.  5000 acres meant that there were 1000 5-acre lots, but we could see by the topo map that there was a wide, central hill on the land that was completely taken.  The rest of the land, we were told by those that seemed to know, was muskeg, and although it was April, in two or three months it would turn into 4-foot soggy soup.  The only way to work that land, the big guys told us, was heavy equipment.  Did we have any?

Naturally, it could have been all crap cooked up to dissuade the tourists, or silly kids from NY with pioneering dreams, but I had read about muskeg, and also about Alaskan mosquitos, so at the very least we decided to take a ride and look at some of this land.  We drove about 300 or so miles before we found a roadside pull-off that bordered the land in question.  Just before pulling off, an enormous moose, a cow, stepped out onto the road and regarded us, a picture of serenity and aplomb.  Elsewhere we had seen and heard the explosions of ptargmigan (grouse, as we called them back East), and even saw a sleek fox.  Lots of ravens as well.  But the land… well, it was hard to tell, but to be honest, it just wasn’t exactly the pictaresque cabin site at the foot of a towering mountain beside a lake, as we had imagined it would be back in Ulster County.  In fact, it was a kind of lonely, flat ground with a few stunted pine trees and lots of scraggly brush.  We had no reason to doubt the guys at the BLM, and I felt a kind of subtle pressure to return coming from Bob.  And so it was with some regret that we let go the dream of claiming and working those five lonely acres of muskeg.  We did, however, decide to take our time in heading back, and so we lingered a few days in Alaska before driving southward.  Since it was April, we were able to see, almost every night, specatular Northen Light displays — the strange rays so close that we felt as though we could reach up and touch them.

The trip back was just fine, with stops in Montana, Yellowstone, and Boulder, CO, as well as Route 20 in Nebraska, through the Sand Hills.  It was not my first trip across the continent, but it was the first time I set foot in Alaska, and I’m quite sure it was those few days there that injected a part of the place somewhere in me that had to be satisfied, so many years later and under such different circumstances.  That trip infected me with a love for Alaska that I brought along with me to college, and imparted to some of the friends I met there, particularly Tom P., and who tells me sometimes that it was my near-raving about Alaska that eventually drove him to take a trip up to see what it was all about — a trip that, some 30 years later, is far from over. 

I still dream of New Zealand, and I also sometimes regret that the wilds of British Columbia were never mine in a way that could have been.  This is not to say, however, that those places are so far out of reach.  The world is a smaller place than it was when I was 20, and now that I have kids to drag around, I have a new motivation to visit those places in a meaningful way, if for no other reason to show them that such a place is not accessible solely by sheer imagination, or by watching a documentary on a 50-inch flat screen suspended from the fresco walls of an Orange County suburb.

Writing, finally, because it's better late than never