Overcoming Doubt and Listening to Abbey (Not the Road)

It’s hard to imagine having a mid/early/late life crisis here. In a place where on any given morning the ocean turns sapphire, the forest yields every shade of green imaginable, and Orca’s call in the dead of night. But it happens. We’re reminded that our unconventional life is a societal outlier. 27-year old’s are supposed to have reliable mailing addresses. Maybe a mortgage and a baby room. Quaint, bustling, hard working, picturesque. It’s the American dream, the American way. At least it was until it wasn’t.

But this doesn’t stop us from considering that maybe we are doing this all wrong.  Seeds of doubt can germinate and grow quickly if we allow them to. Swimming upstream can be tiring. A writer? Who reads anymore? What makes you think that what flows from your mind and through your fingers will capture a world that would rather scroll Facebook than turn pages? This is all well and good, but shouldn’t you shelve the dream, move on, get a real job.

As an uninspiring “mentor” from my church going high school days told me, “you can’t ride the skateboard forever.” He admonished when I told him what I was doing with my life. “Have you ever seen a 60-year old on a skateboard? You’d think something was wrong with him.” Every now and than his voice gets in my head. My fingers tremble, my words seem trite, uninspiring. I pour another cup of coffee, sit with the Harlequins in the cove, take a deep breath, refocus.

Our fear and self doubt manifests itself in different ways. I bang my head against the writer’s block, Brittney scrolls through house plans. She looks at property, checks the bank account, shakes her head, and refreshes the Real Estate page. We have a target now, a landing strip. Gustavus, Alaska. 400 people, 400 moose, one life changing national park. Now if we could stop flying long enough to land. A body in motion stays in motion, one at rest stays at rest. After five years together, we’re still in motion. New Zealand, Juneau, Gustavus, Seattle, British Columbia. I love it. I’ve pushed past my fear, my self doubt, at least for now. Be a writer or starve to death trying. Brittney says she’s ready for the house. My little tumbleweed wants roots. I can’t blame her. Gustavus fits us as good as we do each other. A warm sweater on a crisp fall day.  I love sweaters, I’m wearing one right now. But at some point in the next hour I’ll want to take it off. I’m not ready to wear it forever.

I could have it all right now. The house, the mortgage, the lawn in need of trimming. But I wandered off that road a long time ago.

“Petroleum is Alaska’s present and future.” I was reminded throughout high school. The gateway to, if not fame, certainly fortune. On the backs of industrial giants, we will ride Alaska into an age of wealth and opportunity that we can only imagine. We’ll dig the spurs in deep, push her into a gallop. For nothing should stand in the way of growth, monetary opportunity. All this, I was told, could be mine.

“If you want to make money, live a comfortable existence, petroleum engineering is your best choice.” Grab a straw, stick it in the ground, suck that sweet nectar until it’s empty. Life, liberty, oil subsidies, and the pursuit of happiness.

 What if I don’t want a comfortable existence?

No one talked about what those that wanted to sit on the rocks and count Orca’s should do. Or if you loved the philosophy of fitting everything into one rusting Pathfinder that you prayed would start.  If it doesn’t fit? Give it away. You don’t need it. There was one definition of success, and it could be found in your bank statement.

Now? Oil is going for under $2 a gallon. The state is bankrupt, people panicking. The kids that grabbed their straws are realizing the glass is emptying fast. If the money disappears will they still enjoy what they do? I sincerely hope so. Will the industry rebound? Maybe, probably, I don’t know. Ask British Petroleum, Shell, or a state senator and they’ll say it has to. Alaska needs it, can’t live without it. The voice of the addict. Without oil, Alaska will be like Maine. A nice place to live but not a great place to make money.

As my friend (and writer) Kim Heacox says, “what’s wrong with that?”

I hold Brittney’s hand, squeeze it softly, pull the computer away from her. I know that look, know that fear, understand that desire to have a place to call home. She wants to build an apothecary, bring natural healing to Gustavus. She wants open mic nights, a vegetable garden, the slow bike race on the fourth of July. But she also wants Hanson Island, the open road, the freedom that we enjoy that we’re debt free. She admits she’s not ready to give that up yet. Maybe in a year or two, or three, or thirty. I want all those things too. But we can’t have both. Maybe if we invest those Permanent Fund checks our bankrupted state keeps giving us we can…

Not everyone is meant to live like this. That’s fine. That’s a relief. There aren’t enough Hanson Islands  or Gustavuses to go around. I ferried and drove to Orca Lab on the miracle of petroleum pulled from the ground and refined in a factory that pushes more carbon into the air than the globe has seen in millennia. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe, probably, I don’t know. Edward Abbey said the job of the freelance writer was to criticize and inspect the country in which he lived. Consider me his disciple, just trying to do what he expected. Good old Abbey. Doing what he loved until the very end. His buddies snuck him out of his death bed in the hospital he hated more than roads through national parks and let him say goodbye in the desert.

They inscribed on his tombstone: Edward Abbey. No comment. I like that.

Where do I want to say goodbye? Gustavus or Hanson Island? I can’t decide. Mercifully I don’t have to, and God willing, I won’t have to for a long time. We’ll see how far our skateboard carries us.

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A Thousand Years

You can’t find a wolf carcass every week, the boat engine can’t betray you every crossing. There are days, most days actually, when Hanson Island moves slow. Nothing is ever hurried around here unless we make it. The Harlequin Ducks do not scramble from cove to cove, trying to maintain their schedule. The Sea Lion does not quicken his pace just because the sun is setting.
“What’s the rush?” Asks the Cedar, “I’ve been here a thousand years.”
“Why hurry?” The tide says, “the boat will float when it floats. Sit on the log, breath deep feel the bark beneath your palms, the rain on your face.”
I lay on the log and close my eyes. The sun moves out from behind a rain cloud.

Mid-February, but it feels warm. The rain relents. From somewhere in the forest a raven calls, adding its voice to the melody. It’s a deep throated cluck, like water dripping from a faucet. The brain’s of the forest, the trickster. The genius. What secrets they must hold.
Brittney brings the boat into the back of the cove. My little student driver. Her jaw is set, her eyes don’t blink but stare at the log we tie the boat off to. The boat swerves under her direction. Too far left, than too far right. But each time she corrects a little better, until the boat glides on a straight line, bow pointed straight for the cleat.
“Cut the engine and bring’er up.”
Something brown and white emerges from the wood shed, tail vertical, curving at the end like a furry question mark. He opens his mouth in greeting and a series of rapid fire meows reach our ears.
“Hi Porter,” Brittney coos out the window.
We tie three lines to the boat, one off the bow, two on each side of the stern, and pull them tight. Despite the rain that has begun to drizzle, Porter follows patiently. The slightest drop used to send him barreling for cover. Now? There are days he comes in soaking wet.
But the rain doesn’t seem to have the work ethic to soak the ground today. It peters out as we tighten the lines, and the three of us sit on the logs again, not ready to go inside.
The tide drops slowly. The kale grows infinitesimally. The whales have been gone for weeks. Everything on its own time, its own schedule. Maybe that’s why we don’t spend as much time outside anymore. From our phones, our computers, the world is at our fingertips. Anything we can ever want or need is just a wi-fi connection away. Why go into the woods where everything is on its own schedule? We want control, crave it, lack patience. I have no room to criticize. I pull the ear bud out, the sound of my music fades away, replaced by the soundtrack of Orca Lab. Water lapping, ravens clucking, eagles disagreeing, Porter chittering.

Valentines Day. No Hallmark cards, no box of chocolates, no chalky candy hearts. Just us, an ebbing tide, and a bit of sunshine. How to celebrate? It’s been two months since a 50-knot wind teamed up with a 17.2 high tide. The waves pulverized the top of the rocks in the cove, sending the bathtub off its rock stands and threatening to leave us forever. We dragged it five feet higher and it’s sat there ever since, diligently collecting rain water. Until today. Today we’ll drag it back into place, fill it with water, light a fire, and bask in the most luxurious bath tub in the world. Bath’s are an all day affair. Even on days where the temperature crawls above 10 (Celsius), water has little desire to raise its temperature. That’s ok. We’ll sit on the rocks, sip coffee, and feed the fire with driftwood. Maybe the Harlequins will join us, or an eagle or two. Perhaps a raven will serenade us with the medley of song that only they can sing. The trickster. The imitator who cannot be imitated. Today I’ll try to really listen. To soak it all in, revel in the silence of mankind’s busy hands and enjoy nature’s patient ones. Relax, breathe deep, the water will get warm when it gets warm. What’s your hurry? The cedar’s have been here a thousand years.

Enhancing Your New Hampshire Primary Viewing Experience

Just nine, more, months. I don’t know if I have the stamina to make it that long. But for now, my soul still feels light, my good humor remains, and I will be tuning in tonight to watch the results from the New Hampshire primary. But three plus hours of political banter, discussion, and argument can be exhausting. So, to enhance your viewing pleasure, may I present the New Hampshire primary drinking game.

Disclaimer: The underqualified writer does not condone, nor encourage drunkenness, “the spins” or pounding hangovers. Please play at your own discretion and limits.

Please note this is all in fun and not meant to insinuate political warfare or become another internet battleground for total strangers. Feel free to add your own additions in the comments.

1)Bernie Sanders’ electability is discussed. – one drink

2) CNN reminds you that, “these numbers are not official” – one drink

3) The largest county is referred to as “the most important one.” – two drinks

4) Ted Cruz gives the glory to God. – finish your beer and start another one. Cause he probably just won New Hampshire.

5) A Republican candidate refers to the last “seven long years.” – three drinks

6) A candidate’s camp “declares victory.” – three drinks

7) A candidate lauds the great state of New Hampshire. – one drink

8) A video of volunteers counting ballets is referred to as “exciting” or “democracy in action.”- two drinks

9) Donald Trump smiles. – finish drink

10) A republican candidate vows to fight climate change. – drink the whole case, celebrate. Hell hath frozen over.

11) A commentator or candidate discusses taking on the establishment. – roll your eyes… and take a drink

12) You feel like punching Marco Rubio. – a carefully measured sip.

13) You feel bad for Jeb Bush. – pour one out for the poor guy

14) Trump says something sexist – two drinks for the guys. One for the ladies.

15) An indie rock song is heard at Bernie Sanders headquarters. – one drink

16) Democratic socialism is discussed. – one drink

17) Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street speaking engagements is mentioned. – one drink, pray for all mankind.

18) Ben Carson announces he’ll be returning to Valhalla to slumber and feed for the remainder of the evening. – Fill your pyramid silo with grain

19) The media is blamed for not covering/over covering a topic or candidate. – Denounce the liberal media and/or the conservative media. Begin getting all your information from the Onion.

20) A candidate brags about how little their “average donation is.” – Finish beer, give Bernie Sanders $50.

Cover photo found at: http://www.newseum.org/

The Wolf

I am not a brave person. At least, I don’t consider myself one. I rarely feel bold, or filled with valor, or the innate desire to take risks, and stick my neck out. I get nervous walking through the woods in the dark, even here, where there’s been exactly one bear sighting in decades. My imagination, which is often my ally betrays me in these moments. I feel the hair rise on my neck, the goosebumps spread across my body, a spasm of fear running down my legs.

I don’t believe in spirits floating among the living. At least, I think I don’t. But the lab is built on the same ground that was once a Namgis summer camp. A small grave was found in the rocks, somewhere near here, the body of a young girl entombed within. That’s what Walrus says. I never asked him where the grave was. I don’t want to know. But it’s much easier to believe in restless spirits, the thrill of the supernatural, the magnification of fear when the dark surrounds you with creaking and swaying trees. Glowing eyes in the dark. Deer, they have to be deer. But what if they aren’t?

The water’s rough. The waves roll up on themselves, ringed with foam and frothy white caps like pearls on a necklace. Rain falls as a fine mist. In our tiny boat, the waves roll by at eye level, the boat pitching over the crest and through the trough of each swell. Up and down the hills, again and again. Why does it seem like we’re always going into the wind? The water is deep, churning, cold, dark. This seems like a lot of work to go through to run a generator. But such is our assignment today. To cross Blackney Pass for Cracroft Island. To add the magic of unleaded gasoline to help us maintain power at the lab.

It’s the same body of water we were crossing when the boat engine died a few weeks ago. And for an hour we were at her mercy. Enough to make you think twice when the land fades away off the starboard side and you begin the mile wide crossing. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in the back of my mind, with the waves growing and the ocean soaking our windshield. No boldness or valor or bravery here. Loyalty and dedication maybe. I’m more Hufflepuff than Gryffindor.

What would it be like if we lost the engine here? If the boat filled with water? If we had to jump clear, life jackets clinging grimly to our necks? To come face to face with our greatest fear? I’ve never had a near death experience. At least not that I remember, and I’d like to think I would. How terrible and thrilling, to come face to face with my own mortality. Would I be cognizant of my final breath? Aware that it was the last one this body would ever draw for me? Would I watch this grim physical home for my soul drift into the depths as I floated above, great wings growing out my shoulders? Or does everything just go blank? A reel of film that’s reached its end, spinning pointlessly on its spools.

But today is not that day. Across Blackney Pass. In the shadow of Cracroft Island, the water is calm, a soothing emerald color. It’s far too rough to land on the rocks by the shelter. So we motor into a quiet cove on the opposite side, out of the wind. Was it really just a year ago that we blazed this trail? Just me, Paul, a couple of hacksaws, and a general idea of what direction to bushwack. By some miracle our zigs and zags led us straight to the CP shelter. We climb onto the bow and tie the boat to a massive log draped across the rocks.

I step into the woods and stop. I’m not alone. Something lays on the ground at my feet. A jigsaw of vertebrae and ribs and fur. It’s been dead awhile, the body barely recognizable. The skull lays just off to the side, neatly picked clean as if it were a name tag, identifying the creature to which it had belonged.

“There’s a carcass in here!” I shout.

Brittney shoves the ferns aside and stops next to me, mouth agape. The smell wrinkles our noses, but neither of us step back. For a long while we simply stare, a silent vigil, disturbers of the animal’s peaceful sleep.

“What is it?” Brittney asks. She’s kneeling near the clump of fur and vertebrae, awestruck. She’s neither squeamish nor disgusted but fascinated. Even in death, her compassion for things furry continues.

I break off a stick and flip the skull over to reveal the jaw. The mandibles and lower jaw bones are gone, but the unmistakable canines of a predator remain. We let out silent gasps.

The wind rattles the tree tops. It’s going to get worse out here before it gets better. I leave Brittney with the departed, and vanish into the woods. The whole way to and from the shelter, I think of nothing but the creature. I’d never seen anything like it, on the day that I’m contemplating my own mortality. It can’t be a coincidence.

I return to find that Brittney hasn’t moved. It was a wolf pup she announces with conviction. I agree. What else has teeth and claws like this? We sit in silence, my mind trying to put the wolf back together.

“How do you think it died?” Brittney asks.

Like the girl’s tomb, I don’t want to know. The ocean is not twenty-feet away. Is it possible that one of my own species is responsible for this? Was this cub the victim of some human’s potshot with a rifle? A vigilante dedicated to predator control? Maybe that’s unfair, but I can’t think of any explanation for how he chose right here to lay down and die. We leave him where he lays, to continue his noble work of returning to the soil, feeding the web of life around him. A sacrifice that won’t go unnoticed.

One more stop. Parson Island. The water has settled a bit while we were in the woods. And the journey across Baronet Passage is a calm one. I disappear into the woods and up the hill, one more generator to go. My mind returns to the wolf cub and I feel pity for the little creature, that his life was taken so early. I pray he died right, with honor, dignity. Perhaps he just didn’t want to be a wolf anymore. Was ready to be something bigger than himself. Isn’t that what I want? What we all want? For what is more fulfilling than giving of ourselves to something bigger. To make the world a better place.

The land where the wolf lays resting was clearcut some thirty years ago. The land stripped. Every. Single. Tree. No more squirrels, no more birds. No wolves. No cougars. No life. No character. But the land is recovering, like it always does. And will flourish with magnificent old Cedar trees again, if we allow it. Maybe all he wanted was to speed up the process. Infuse the earth with his carbon and nitrogen, accelerate the growth of those great trees so that the generations to come can run and hunt and howl beneath their great branches.

I reach the cliff. From here I can see past Cracroft Island and into Johnstone Strait, up into Baronet Passage, out into Blackfish Sound and Queen Charlotte Strait. Pristine silence. Quiet places. Open spaces. The little cove on Cracroft is indistinguishable. The wolf’s resting place invisible, his sacrifice anonymous from here. But I know. Brittney knows. The tree’s know. Sometimes the greatest sacrifice is the one not recognized.

I say a little prayer before I pour gasoline into the generator. Before the war cry of my species infects the land.

“Thank you,” I say, my voice drifting across the water. “For making this world a better place, for reminding me of what is good and pure and wild. For infusing the earth with your spirit. I hope to leave this place better than I found it too.”

I bend over and pull the cord. The generator roars to life. Without a backwards glance I turn and vanish into the woods. The Cedar and Salal covers my tracks. The growl of the generator echoes in my ears.