At some point on the ride north, while many on the bus had become friendly and were engaged in various conversations, I noticed a girl towards the back who was keeping to herself. There are a number of ways of keeping to oneself and her way was clearly out of shyness, as she kept looking up and glancing over at others on the bus. It seemed she was yearning to talk with someone but was afraid, so she stayed on the fringes and pretended to read her book. This assessment was merely conjecture on my part but I decided to risk approaching her and introducing myself. She smiled and said a few words in reply, but haltingly. She had a pretty face that had been scarred on one cheek and her upper lip appeared to have been damaged and stitched back together at some point in her past. She wore a hat and her long dark hair cascaded down over her shoulders. I asked her about the book she was reading, and I told her about mine and this broke the ice. I felt an affinity and kinship with her, and she reminded me of the friend I had met when I was interning for the neurologist; the one who had been grateful for his accident because it enabled him to become a better person.
As we became friends, we played a few card games and eventually, as we talked about our lives, her story came to light. Several years earlier she had been in an accident, however, unlike my other friend, her life had been quite wonderful before it, and the accident didn’t leave her feeling happier about her condition. She was on a college volleyball team and on one of their trips to an away game, the van they were in crashed and rolled over; several of her teammates were killed and she was left with some damage to her brain and the scars on her face. It is difficult to know what to say when confronting tragedy. I expressed my sorrow to her, but really it felt shallow and not extremely helpful. As we continued to talk we somehow ended up holding hands which was better than talking. We spent most of the trip to Seattle together, talking, playing cards, and just being silent together. It is difficult to know another person, especially in a short period of time; it can be hard even to know ourselves, with whom we spend all our lives. But there is something comforting when another person takes time to listen and try to discover us and who we are inside, even if their attempts are unsuccessful. I remember trying to do that for her because it seemed the accident had left her feeling very alone, self-conscious and alienated from others. I could relate to these feelings, so I understood how she felt, even if my reasons for feeling these things came about from very different circumstances and causes.
As I write, I can still see her tears as they formed in her deep brown eyes, and the one that ran down her cheek as she told me her story, and I can’t help but feel something inside me that imagines those tears she shed were also my own. As I looked into her eyes, I was also in some way seeing into my own eyes, and discovering something essential about myself. When we reached Seattle we had to say our goodbyes since I had a plane to catch and she had to continue on her journey home. But as with all such meetings, though we say goodbye, we take something of that person with us as we journey on.
Yoni and I met during the break in southern Oregon while swimming. Actually we had spoken a little on the bus the night before but while we were in the river suddenly he exclaimed that something just swam past him, and a few seconds later I saw something swim swiftly between my legs and downstream. I am almost certain it was a river otter, I can’t think what else it could have been; it certainly wasn’t a fish. We started laughing and reenacting what just happened and we became friends over that incident. It turned out that he was also going to Alaska on the same flight as I was and we decided to stick together once we got to Anchorage.
In the meantime he convinced me not to travel to Dillingham but to Kenai with him instead, since it was closer and less expensive to hitch there by car, rather than take a float plane to Dillingham. So we hitched to Kenai together and set up our tents and waited for fish to arrive at the fishery so we could begin working. But the fish never arrived. After several days of waiting and eating only bread with garlic salt, we decided to hitch across the peninsula over to Seward and try our luck at the fisheries there instead. I wasn’t prepared for the vastness of Alaska, even the little corner of it we began to call home; the mountains, the sky, the wilderness, it was all wild and invigorating just as I had hoped, and so very big. We made several trips back and forth between the fisheries in Kenai and Seward. I really don’t know why I only ate bread with garlic salt during this time, I suppose because it was cheap, and it was before I learned the pleasures of ‘dumpster-diving’ for my meals.
On one of our trips between the two towns Yoni lost his tent, or it was ruined, so we began to share mine. It was a tight fit with all of our gear and it wasn’t very waterproof so there were many mornings we woke up after a night of rain with all of our things soaked. In Seward we were often woken by the local police who didn’t want us camping so close to town. We camped close so we could check in with the fishery and be ready to work if and when the fish arrived.
I had saved $600 for my trip to Alaska and used most of it for my bus and air fares. Eventually my money ran out and I still hadn’t found work. Fortunately the gas station was hiring in Seward and I got a job at the register. The best part about this job was the free chili I could eat while working. This lasted a little more than a week before they realized I wasn’t twenty-one, and since they sold alcohol, I was laid off. I was so sad to lose my source of free chili. The next day the fish arrived, we were hired to work the slime-line, and we could move our tent onto the fishery property and set up in their tent city. Showers were available too! No more washing in streams, or ponds or just out in the rain. We had finally made it, and things began to look brighter.
Working the slime line isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. When the fish arrive there is little time off, you get up around 3:30am and put on your clothes and raingear, still wet from the night before, and take your place at the stainless steel tables, pick up the metal scraper with the water-hose attached, and start scraping out the blood that runs up the back of the salmon, one after another, as they pass continually past you on a conveyor belt for the next sixteen hours. You get a couple breaks each shift, but you never get away from the smell of fish, or fish guts, or slime. Eventually the flow of fish ends, and you’ll get a few days off until the next ship arrives.
We lived this way for the next six weeks or so; working feverishly for several days and then relaxing for a couple days. During one of my days off I met a very drunk captain of a small fishing boat at the marina in Seward. He had been born in Harbin, China but was Russian. He tried to convince me to join him, and his surly and very creepy shipmate, on a fishing expedition. Even if he wasn’t so drunk that I had to prop him up as we walked down the dock to his boat together, and even if his assistant didn’t look like a serial killer, I wouldn’t have gotten on that boat with them. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to predict the numerous bad outcomes that could happen to me alone with the two of them at sea.
The beginning of August arrived and with it the close of the salmon season just over the horizon. Before I left to begin my own journey home, I splurged and bought two beautiful salmon from the fishery to send home ahead of me. I just needed to smoke them. A friend on the slime-line told me of a guy up the highway a few miles that had a smoker that I might be able to use, so I took my two fish and went to visit him. We struck a deal that I could use his smoker if I painted the side of his barn. He was a follower of the Baha’i faith, and while I was staying with him he tried to teach me their history and beliefs. I didn’t learn much about this, but I did feel like I was playing a part in The Karate Kid as I worked painting his barn.
After I finished painting he taught me how to use the smoker. He showed me how to find the proper diameter alder branches, how to cut them to the correct size, peel the bark, stack them, and prepare the marinade for the salmon. After he showed me the proper use of the smoker, how to tend the fire, and a few other details, he left me for the night to tend to my fish. I still needed to cut and peel quite a bit of wood but this would give me something to do throughout the night, since he estimated I’d be sitting out there, behind his shed, tending the smoker all night until early morning.
It was a beautiful clear and cool night. The stars and the moon came out for a while sometime near midnight or thereabouts. There was a full moon, and its silvery light cast down upon me through the bare alder limbs, illuminating my surroundings. The smell of the alder and the fish in the smoker was delightful and I couldn’t help but feel giddy with excitement for the freedom of this place, the wildness of Alaska, and that I was now a part of it.
(to be continued)