As a backup plan to UC Santa Cruz I also applied and was accepted to a small private liberal arts college only thirty minutes from my home. The following fall, after my summer in Alaska I would attend and study Mandarin Chinese, major in a program called, “Meaning, Culture and Change” and eventually study abroad for six months in Taiwan.
I expect this decision comes out of left field for the reader, based on the progression of my narrative up to this point. Such is the mind and whims of one in their late teen years, as I suspect many of you will remember from your own life history. My six years as an undergraduate will end up taking several more twists and turns, before I actually am awarded my bachelor’s degree.
But first I’d like to share a little about Alaska. They call it ‘The Last Frontier’, and that is an appropriate title. Vast and wild, a lot like one might imagine the wild-west back in the day: untamed land, animals and humans. Alaska is an exciting place, a place to spread your wings and throw caution to the wind. It also is the land of my birth, and it had an allure that called me back, to find my roots, and to create new histories.
My father was in the Coast Guard and stationed in Ketchikan, Alaska when I was born in the late 1960s. We only lived there less than a year before he was transferred to Cleveland, Ohio and then eventually to San Francisco. So I hadn’t lived in Alaska very long, but still I claimed it as my own, being a native. I considered myself on par with any other native Alaskan though I was separated essentially at birth. As a further claim, my family had also lived for a time on Kodiak island, but that was before I was born. Nevertheless this fact further emblazoned Alaska onto my consciousness and instilled in me a burning desire to return and see it for myself.
My plan was to take a bus to Seattle, fly into Anchorage and then take a float-plane out to Dillingham and work at a cannery there, save up money for college and make my way back home, somehow, in the late summer in time for the school year. I had a backpack, some changes of clothing, a tent, ground-pad and sleeping bag, new boots and jacket and a few other odds and ends. For some reason my mom convinced me to bring baking soda with me. I have no idea why, perhaps in case I met a baker stranded in the woods trying to make cookies. She was thoughtful that way. It seemed strange to me, but I packed a few tablespoons into an old film canister and tucked it into a side pocket on my backpack. It remained there throughout the entire trip, unused and forgotten until customs officials found it as I returned into the US, crossing the border from Canada. More on that later, but they didn’t believe my story that it was just baking soda.
My primary goal was to see Alaska but equally important to me was to make money for college and as a by-product of this goal I would get to see what it is like to live on the street, in a tent, without a home, and with very little money. I planned to have all but the smallest amount of money sent directly home so I couldn’t touch it while in Alaska. Our town had plenty of homeless and I grew up feeling badly for them. It seemed so difficult not to have a place to call home, and for many of them not to have a family. I figured this would be a good way to develop some empathy towards their plight, and gain some insight into the details of their way of life, by living like them for a summer. It was a good idea, and in general I did learn a lot of things about life on the streets: terms like ‘dumpster-diving’ which describes how I found many of my meals that summer, intimate experience with rain and mosquitoes with no means of relief, recurring hunger, the joy of finding a means to get clean, and the overwhelming feeling of gratitude to be treated like a human being by others instead of like a piece of garbage. But in the end, after losing everything on a train that I had hopped, a few too many sleepless nights on park benches, in abandoned trailers, or under truck canopies for sale, the novelty wore off and I began to really understand the horrors of life without a home and the toll it takes on a person, as I felt my own grip on reality starting to fray. Thank God the summer was only a few months long. But more on these things later.
I began my Alaskan adventure catching The Green Tortoise bus near the marina in Berkeley, California. This bus line is famous for cheap fares, friendly service and unorthodox seating. In fact, there aren’t any seats in the bus, except for the driver. I handed my backpack to him, he placed it in the compartment under the bus, and then I hopped aboard. All of the seats are removed in a Green Tortoise bus and are replaced with mattresses, front to back and wall to wall. Strewn about on the mattresses were the bodies of my new travel mates. I picked my way in and around my new bedfellows until I found an opening about midway down on the left side where I could sprawl out and relax. That night the bus drove straight through, without stopping, from Berkeley to someplace in southern Oregon while we slept, played cards and the guitar, and sang songs. The next morning we stopped at a campground for a pancake breakfast, spent some time in a sweat lodge, and swam in the nearby river. After a couple hours break we continued on our way to Seattle. On the bus I met two people; a sweet girl with a tragic story who became my partner in a brief two-day romance, and a young Israeli who had just completed his mandatory service in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) and was traveling the world to get away from home and enjoy life, who became my summer companion in Alaska.