I came to Alaska for more than just a summer job and an adventure; I also hoped to find out who I was, to discover myself in an essential way, at least in part. I believed that I would find this by returning to the place of my birth. As I boarded the ferry in Skagway I was excited because I was finally on the leg of the journey that would take me literally to where I began: Ketchikan. I had great hope that returning to my geographic origin would shed some light on my true self.
The first thing I did upon disembarking the ferry was walk to the home my family had rented back in 1969. I knew the address and could recognize it from family photos. Seeing that old house in person filled me with a reverential nostalgia. For me this was a visit to a family shrine or historical landmark. It was a place of stories and of dreams come to life. I imagined my parents at the top of the long flight of stairs, looking down at me from the landing near the front door. I could picture my sisters inside at the dining room table having dinner, and my brother alone in his room drawing something; he was a good artist. We were all here, together again, a family for a moment; just like my faint memories from childhood. I stood in the waning light, staring at our home, while the rain fell lightly on my head, remembering, imagining, pretending; and then I heard music. Faint organ music lightly touched the air around me and I looked for its source.
The music was coming from an open doorway of a church just down the street. I took another quick look at our old house and then walked to the church. I stepped inside and sat down in the back to listen to the organist play several more pieces. When he finished he called out to me and asked if I liked the organ. I told him about the amazing organ from my childhood church with all of the enormous pipes, and how I loved to hear a good organist. We both shared a love of Bach and after a short conversation about this, and his revelation that I had no place to sleep, he invited me to his home for dinner and a place to set up my sleeping bag for the night. It turned out that not only was he good at the organ, he could also cook, being the head chef at a local restaurant. He made us both a simple but excellent meal, though admittedly my rations from dumpsters the past two months had lowered my expectations, and afterwards he pulled out the accordion and played a few more songs for me. It was the perfect end to a meaningful night and the next morning he invited me to stay as long as I was in town. He even allowed me to keep my things at his house and gave me a copy of the house key to come and go as I pleased. This was a kind and generous man and a trusting and loving soul.
Later that day I visited the only hospital in town and explained to the receptionist and asked if this was the same hospital that existing back in the 1960s. It was, so I asked if I could visit the maternity wing and even see the delivery room where I had been born. She called to the nurses and I was given a tour. The nurses found my visit amusing and were very happy to show me around. The hospital had two delivery rooms, side by side and connected visually by large windows. The rooms were clad in light blueish-green square tiles and had a very clinical look to them, but they were attractive and clean. It was an odd feeling, standing there in the delivery room, imagining my beginnings in this very spot all those years ago, so long ago. And yet here it was, and here I was, how time hadn’t changed anything and yet changed everything. I took a few photos of the rooms and the nurses, thanked them for their time and kindness and left.
I had a few more hours before evening, when Jay would be returning home from his work at the restaurant, so I took a cab to a trailhead south of town and went on a little hike. More than any other time that summer, I had a forlorn and homesick feeling while hiking outside of Ketchikan. Here I was at the place of my birth, having seen my first family home, and the hospital and delivery room where I came into this world and I felt so alone. This wasn’t my home anymore. I missed my mom and my friends, and Santa Rosa–the town I knew like the back of my hand, and my hill, and my dad. Everything seemed to rush upon me, all the things I loved and felt so far away from up here in Alaska. Suddenly I just wanted to be back home again and done with this trip. I was tired of being wet and cold, and sleeping always in a different place, meeting someone new each day, never seeing anything I knew. I wanted to see something familiar again.
Two days later I disembarked the ferry in Seattle. I had made a cardboard sign for Portland that I planned to use to hitchhike once I made my way up to the freeway. In Seattle, the ferry terminal and the train-yard are very close to one another, maybe a mile walk, and the tracks go right past the ferry. As a joke I held my sign up to a passing freight train heading south as I left the ferry terminal and to my surprise the engineer leaned out the window (it was travelling very slow through town) and said I could hop on a boxcar when he stopped just up at the yard. I should follow him down he said, and he’d show me what car to get on and he could take me as far as Vancouver. I couldn’t believe my good fortune! So I did as I was told and he did what he said he would, and within a half-hour I had hopped my first train and was on my way, hobo-style, southward.
However, I wasn’t certain we were heading south and I began to question where the train was really going because I had never heard of a Vancouver, Washington. I only knew of Vancouver, Canada so I was confused as the train picked up speed, and I began to worry that we were going the wrong direction, and that we would somehow swing around at some point and I’d end up north in Canada again, instead of south near Portland. I convinced myself that this was probably what would happen, but since there wasn’t anything I could do about it I might as well enjoy the ride in the meantime. Riding in a boxcar is very loud and one gets tossed around quite a lot. But once you get used to the rhythm of the train it becomes easy to walk around the car and enjoy the sights from the open door. My car was completely empty; it felt cavernous, and the sound of the train on the tracks was amplified, and echoed from its cold steel walls, roof and floor. But all of this just added to my feeling of excitement and adventure and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
Several hours later the train stopped. We were on a large embankment on the edge of an enormous river. The engineer had told me when we were in Seattle to be ready to get off the train in Vancouver before the train headed inland; I’d only have a few minutes while it stopped, before it would start again and head towards the east coast. In retrospect everything makes sense, but at the time I was confused about my location, didn’t know the area at all, should have known it was the Columbia River but didn’t, and doubted myself and the engineer. So I pulled my backpack to the door of the boxcar and left it hanging slightly over the edge as I hopped out with the intention of walking up to the front and asking the engineer for clarification. I figured if the train started I could grab my bag and pull it off if needed. I didn’t get very far when, in fact, the train did start up again. I ran back towards my car and as the train gathered speed I saw my backpack approaching me. I braced myself, focused intently on my backpack and prepared to make one sure grab and pull when the moment came upon me. As my bag passed, I grabbed and swiftly pulled it off the train; although I didn’t, and it didn’t. Instead, I only pulled my jacket off, which I had wrapped and tied over the end of my backpack. I dropped my jacket and turned just in time to watch my backpack as it rounded a curve, and then disappeared forever on its journey to who knows where.
(to be continued)