Paths of Desire (part 9)

The following week I began my journey home. I had parted ways with Yoni a couple weeks earlier so my return to California would be a solo trek. Fortunately one of my coworkers at the fishery in Seward was driving up to Anchorage so I rode with him. He drove one of those little Le Cars which is just a tin can on wheels. An hour or so up the road we rounded a curve and there was a moose in the road. I hadn’t seen a moose before and I was amazed; it was enormous. I thought our best bet might be to drive under it, and I still think we might have made it had we tried, but instead, the moose took a step to the right, our tiny car evaded to the left, and we just missed each other. The rest of the drive north was uneventful.

I spent that night in my tent outside Palmer, about forty miles northeast of Anchorage. The next morning was beautiful, clear and sunny and my spirits were high. Rather than foraging for food in the dumpster behind the grocery store, I decided to splurge and go inside and buy a few supplies for my trip home. I bought a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, some garlic salt and an apple. The apple was magnificent, brilliant ruby red and as large as my outstretched hand. As much as I had grown accustom to dumpster diving for my food this summer it was still a joy to have food I didn’t have to examine first before eating. If I found a head of cauliflower or broccoli in a dumpster most of the outside had to be removed first to get at the core which was still edible; most fruit and vegetables found in the garbage had to be treated this way, cutting away what was bad and devouring what little was left.  But this big apple was special, I could see it was perfect, without a blemish or bruise, and fully intact. I knew this was going to be a great day: it was warm, I was dry, and I had my apple.

I set myself up on the side of the road just outside of town and prepared to hitchhike to Skagway, seven-hundred seventy miles east, where my plan was to take the ferry back south to Seattle. Across the road there was a pasture with several beautiful horses grazing. One large brown horse caught my eye and I walked up to the fence to say hello. He approached the barbed wire from the other side and stood quietly while I stroked his head and neck. I fed him a couple handfuls of grass from my side of the fence, which were beyond his reach, but his eye was on my apple. I had just begun to eat it as I crossed the road to visit him. He liked the grass fine but I could tell he preferred apples, and I couldn’t blame him for wanting mine; it was a wonderful crisp, juicy and sweet apple. I hadn’t had a good piece of fruit in a while and was savoring it, but he looked sad watching me bite into the large red fruit and this made me uncomfortable. I held the fruit firmly in my hand and reached it out across the fence so he could take a bite. He tried to take a larger bite than I was offering, so I pulled it back. We looked each other in the eyes and tried again. I reached out again and this time he took a smaller bite. “Good” I told him as I took another bite, which would be my last. I held out the fruit to him again but he moved deftly this time, and before I could pull back, he yanked the entire thing out of my hand, turned, and ran away. I think he was laughing at me as he trotted away, but I held no hard feelings towards him. I couldn’t blame him, it was a spectacular piece of fruit that he had taken, and I had offered it.

The highways connecting most of the towns between Anchorage and Skagway are just two-lane roads with little traffic. I was accustomed to waiting quite a while for rides on the Kenai Peninsula when Yoni and I had been travelling between Kenai and Seward looking for work. However, out this way, between Anchorage and Tok there was a lot less traffic. I learned quickly that if I didn’t get a ride from a passing opportunity, I may not get another chance the rest of the day; six hours could easily go by before I would see another vehicle and one day I didn’t see a vehicle at all. To increase my chances of getting a ride I decided to juggle rocks when a vehicle approached as I waited on the side of the road. I believed this made me look friendly and non-threatening. Who could be afraid of a juggler, I reasoned.

One late evening, I was standing at the intersection of two highways, almost exactly midway between Palmer and Tok. It had been a long day, with few opportunities, so when a guy in a pickup with a camper on the back stopped and said he’d take me all the rest of the way to Tok, I was relieved. It was about a three hour drive so I settled into the passenger seat to relax and enjoy the ride. It was a beautiful drive as we made our way through miles and miles of snowy landscape. Our headlights illuminating rows and rows of small conifers covered in snow as we rounded curves and undulated up and down across the terrain. Though it was August it felt like Christmas, with all of these little snow-covered trees lighting up as we passed.

Before he picked me up he must have been drinking. He was loose and feeling good, but he wasn’t driving very well. It was a windy road, and he was having trouble staying on it. It didn’t help things when he pulled out a handgun from under his seat and placed in between us and starting playing with it. I suggested that maybe I should drive the rest of the way but he wasn’t aware that he was drunk. Everything was normal from his perspective. From mine however, it didn’t look like we’d make it to Tok. Thankfully there weren’t any other vehicles, and most of the way the roads were flanked with heavy snowdrifts, so if we left the road there was a good chance we’d have a relatively soft landing. But then we’d be stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere. We drove some time like this, barely staying on the asphalt until I was able to convince him to stop and check a sound I heard coming from the back of the camper. We both got out and took a look. He was getting tired from the alcohol, so after I pretended to repair the imaginary problem, I persuaded him to get in the passenger seat so he could get a little sleep. He liked this idea, so I drove uneventfully the rest of the way to his home in Tok while he slumped, passed out against the passenger window.

When we arrived at his home a few hours later, he was wide awake again and as we pulled up to the house I could see he was agitated. We drove through his front yard littered with junk and parked near the front door. I could see a couple of other guys in the living room through the window and they looked like trouble. I had a bad feeling about this so as we entered the house I left my backpack outside just around the front corner of the house. Without even taking a moment to say hello, as we entered the house, my host starting yelling at the other guys. They yelled back and it escalated rapidly. I excused myself to the restroom and walked down the hallway while they continued to argue. I continued past the bathroom to the back slider and let myself quietly into the back yard. After slowly sliding the door shut behind me I quickly ran around to my backpack and then out to the street and into town.

Tok is a small town, and it was after midnight, so I was alone as I walked under the stars. It wasn’t long before I saw a small hotel with a light on in the front office and an older woman at the desk. I asked her if there was any place I could pitch my tent behind the hotel, or if I could stay in one of the outbuildings on the property. I explained that I didn’t have money for a room but needed to find a safe place to stay for the night, preferably off the street in case my driver and his buddies came looking for me. After some thought, and some hesitation, she called to her husband to show me a room in the barn out back. It was a dark and cold storage room but it had an old bed with a mattress in one corner and they let me stay the night there for free. I had one of the better night’s sleep of my entire summer and woke to sunlight streaming in through a crack in the curtains.

I thanked the couple for helping me and walked out to the highway to begin looking for a ride to Skagway, five-hundred miles to the southeast. This was a difficult place to get a ride. I stood by the side of the road all day, smiling at cars, juggling stones, and hoping someone would stop. One couple in a long RV passed me heading south, and gave me smiles as they passed, but that was all, they didn’t stop. It was around ten that night that I finally gave up and decided to walk. Tetlin Junction was the next little town, about twelve miles away and I figured I could get there by the early morning, or find a place to pitch my tent out of town. I just wanted to make some progress after standing in one place all day.

It was another beautiful starlit night as I started my walk to Tetlin Junction, and it was cold. But not cold enough to suppress the mosquitos. Mosquitos are a big problem in Alaska and they seem to be everywhere, but in some places they are worse than others. Here, this night, the mosquitos were as numerous as the stars in the sky, or as countless as the sands of the sea. I couldn’t get away from them as I walked, and quickly I had bites all over my face. I was able to protect most of my body but I had no good protection for my face so soon I began to feel bites on top of previous bites. It was demoralizing and maddening and I had no option but to keep walking. I considered pitching my tent and seeking refuge but I was too tired to find a place to pitch it and I also didn’t want to stop walking. At least by walking the mosquitos seemed to diminish a little, but when I stopped walking they converged on me like wolves on a dead animal. If I stopped in one place for too long, they too might devour me. It was a long walk, but eventually I made it to Tetlin Junction. I barely remember where I fell asleep that night, but I did someplace, and the next morning I tried my luck again on the side of the road, hoping to find a ride to Skagway.

The couple in the RV that had passed me the day before, drove past again and this time they stopped. I hadn’t been out there for more than ten minutes when they stopped for me; it was either a miracle or a mirage. I wasn’t sure which, but when I ran up to their window, and they invited me into their RV I thanked God for my good fortune. When they told me they would take me the entire way to Skagway I decided it was a miracle.

(to be continued)

~FS

December 16

The man engaged in ascetic practice cannot rise above ethical propriety, unless he goes beyond the natural law–as Abraham went forth from his own land–and beyond his own limited state of development–as Abraham left his kinsman (Genesis 12:1). In this way, as a mark of God’s approval, he will be liberated from the all-embracing hold of pleasure; for it is this veil of pleasure, wrapped around us from our birth, that prevents us from receiving complete freedom.

~Ilias the Presbyter

Paths of Desire (part 8)

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)

~FS

December 14

You must be governed by both ascetic practice and contemplation. Otherwise you will be like a ship voyaging without the right sails: either it risks being overturned by the violence of the winds because its sails are too large, or it fails to take advantage of the breeze because they are too small.

On account of his sufferings, the man engaged in ascetic practice wants to leave this life and to be with Christ; the contemplative, on the contrary, is quite content to remain in the flesh, both because of the joy that he receives from prayer, and because of the use that he can be to his fellow-men (Philippians 1:23-24).

~Ilias the Presbyter

Paths of Desire (part 7)

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.

~FS

Healing The Broken-Minded

Accusation, slander and libel are the weapons of the man without self-control. He wields his tongue wildly, flapping it in all directions, like a sword slicing the air, inflicting wounds without number, without care, like a crazy-man. Anger floods his mind; his thoughts running amok while he seethes with violence, looking for places to spit his venom. What response is there to such a man as this, in the throes of his vicious and slanderous babblings? There is no reasoning with the man without self-control, or the one intent on his own opinion. For he will guard his point of view like a bear guards her cubs, attacking without mercy anything which threatens it, or which casts light upon it, revealing its narrow limits and faulty foundations. No, the best response to the man spitting fire, is silence. Silence is the salve and the remedy, because there is no arguing with a man who lacks self-control. Set reasoning aside, it is useless now. Pick up kindness and gentleness and fill your mind with good wishes for his peace and happiness. Do this, but know that he won’t recognize your love. You will not get any credit for your sacrifice. But do it anyway because it is the best thing to do, and by so doing you will not cause greater harm. In time, you may even help heal a broken man; if not him, perhaps yourself.

~FS