Tag Archives: Edward Abbey

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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The Luxuries of Wilderness

The boat grazes the rocks and rocks and Brittney steps onto the bow. The gentle landing is short lived as a three foot wave picks us up and throws with a dull thud against the shore. Line in hand Brittney leaps clear of the bucking boat and lands nimbly on the jagged rocks of Cracroft Point. The engine pulled up and the line unsecured, the boat is at the mercy of Johnstone Strait, a strait that seems apathetic towards the BC weather’s promise of a calm afternoon. White caps dot the surface and their thunderous crashes against the point’s steep shore is intimidating. I grab the bag and leap for the shore as another wave lifts the boat and sets it down, landing just clear of the water as the wave swirls around my boots.

Brittney handles the line like a cowboy handling a mustang, goading the boat into a small crevice in the rocks and out of the path of the largest breakers. She’s got this. Without a backwards glance I scurry into the woods, wielding a bottle of oil in one hand and a flathead screw driver in the other. The generator demands an oil change. A few feet inside the treeline the sound of the wind and waves is muffled, as if I’m listening to it with a pillowcase pulled over my head. Trying not to rush, I flip the generator on its side and unscrew the covering.

It’s incredible how much goes into keeping this place running. And even more amazing how inept it can make you feel. Between the electronics, the power sources, and internet connections, not to mention the mechanical nuances of boat repair, tree climbing, diving, and deciphering whatever voodoo it is that allows us to stream the hydrophones 24/7. Paul and Helena are probably the only two people on earth that know how it all works. It’s staggering to imagine anyone else with the combination of skills they’ve acquired in thirty some years. In the last two winters I’ve learned how to set up inverters, decipher internet connections, and giving myself more than a couple of nice shocks as I learned the difference between AC and DC. I’ve nicked the tip of the iceberg.

The oil comes out as black as night and as thick as molasses. Better late than never I suppose. I funnel the remaining oil into an old bottle and refill the generator with clear, syrupy  10W-30. Brittney appears at my side, the boat nestled in its crib.

We glorify wilderness. We consider ourselves disciples from the school of John Muir and Edward Abbey. And yet… look at what goes into surviving out here. Granted, I wouldn’t be crouched over the generator if there wasn’t an internet connection to maintain. But I can’t imagine the time and effort that it would require without 50 horsepower strapped to the boat, or a grocery store 45-minutes away. Even the men that sparked my love of wilderness had some indulgences. Abbey spent a lot of time living in a trailer, a propane stove and cot at his disposal. Heck, even John Muir had a rotating cast of savvy and tree smart Tlingit’s escorting him on his paddle trips through the Alaskan archipelago. Is the glorification of wilderness a luxury? Would Travels in Alaska and Desert Solitaire been written without them?

The oil in the funnel burps and I sit the generator upright, dipping the dipstick into the oil reservoir, the pale gray plastic coming back with a clear, reassuring shine. Would I deify the forest and ocean if my days were dedicated to ensuring my survival? I don’t know. Muir was mortified at the audacity of his Tlingit guides to shoot at deer on the beach as they paddled past. He would rock the boat so that there shot would go wide. A respect and love of nature to be sure. But for his Tlingit guides, it had to be analogous to going to the fridge only to have someone slam it shut. Not everyone has the luxury of hardtack and tea.

I screw the covering back on the generator and pull the start cord. It roars to life on the second try, spitting blue/white exhaust into the air, the southeast breeze sending it into the forest. Is my love of nature threatened by the very things that help me adore it? The avocados from Mexico and bananas from Belize that spare me the cumbersome task of crawling through the woods in search for all that is edible. Would I miss the forest for the trees and the tasty mushrooms that grow on their trunks?

This isn’t meant to belittle Muir or Abbey, two men I admire as both writers and preservationists. But would such men have been the same if they’d stalked across the western frontier a century earlier? Would that convenience have existed if Muir had been born a seal hunter? The glaciers not a monument to be marveled but a threat to his existence? Perhaps it’s as simple as saying that they were the right people, at the right time, writing the words that needed to be written to stave off humanity’s insatiable consumption of the very thing that makes us whole.

I pull the boat out of its protective crevice and the ocean roars up around it. I hold her as steady as I can until Brittney leaps aboard. With a heave I push the boat clear of the rocks and slide across the ocean soaked bow, clamoring over the top and into the relative protection of the cabin. The engine roars to life. A marvel of human engineering and brilliance. But without the miracle of organic compounds slowly compressed over millions of years it would be nothing more than a five hundred pound paperweight.

Maybe the Tlingit and Kwakiutl Indians loved wilderness the same way the European nature writers did, simply in a different way. Perhaps their love had  matured after centuries of marriage to the natural world. Their love expressed in the familiar and comfortable way a couple does after being married for thirty years, while Muir, Abbey, Brittney and I are in the honeymoon stage, breaking free of the society and concrete that compresses our chests and sends us running for the woods.

Water rolls over the top of the boat as the nose dips into the trough of a wave. Blackney Pass is sheet of white caps. I steer for Parson Island, we’ll take the longer, more comfortable way home.

 

 

 

Glacier Rocks, Dirty Socks, Paradox, II

There’s an obvious fallacy, a selfish agenda to the prescription that can be found in the woods and secluded beaches. If the America public revolted against our vacation masters and went rogue. It we became independent travelers who once again slept on the ground and found our own way in lieu of setting foot on massive boats. How small 3.3 million acres of wilderness would become. The town of Gustavus swelling like a ballon and bursting as the masses flocked for the kayaks. The roads choked with car rentals, every Denali campground overbooked for years to come. In our lust for solitude, for wilderness, for our very roots, we eliminate any hope of finding it. There simply are not enough places left to support such a revolution.

We are no longer capable of supporting such a demand, hypothetical or not. Parks and wilderness areas are little more than satellites, little havens like Yosemite, Denali, and Yellowstone where wolves still roam and enjoy their birthright. But step outside these sacred borders and watch the canine be transformed. From symbol of wildness to pest, thief, scourge of the rancher and hunter. Fur, teeth, and claws mutating into a species not to be revered, but controlled. Our opposable thumbs giving us sovereign right to rule.

With so little acreage remaining, there is little choice for many but to blitz through with the concrete blurring beneath, the ocean rushing by ninety feet below.

“You can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the gosh darn contraption,” wrote Edward Abbey using slightly more colorful language, “and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail, you’ll see something, maybe.”

But in the end, tourism won over the traveler. It’s cheaper, easier, safer. Certainly the first of these doesn’t garner enough attention. Many feel that financially the great white boats are the only way they’ll ever have a chance to see Alaska. Some combination of frugality and an unwillingness to endure the hardships of traveling cheaply and independently. Unwilling to sleep on a paperthin air mattress beneath canvas when a mattress and the rumble of engines beckons. The limitations of oats cooked above the gas stove compared to the all inclusive all you can eat, all you can drink, 24 hour a day buffet. The prepackaged, lowest common denominator overshadowing the simple and sublime.

But what do we come to Alaska for than? For the comforts of civilization? For floating casinos while the mountains cruise by? For bacon and eggs instead of oatmeal and peanut butter? Shouldn’t we be coming here to escape the familiar, the known, the comfortable? We have our whole lives to stay in pampered hotels, eat whatever we want, or play blackjack in Vegas. Hundreds of thousands of people migrate to Alaska every summer, their desire for the wild clearly not satiated. But something stops us short of truly acquainting ourselves at a deep, intimate, and personal level. How safe it is from the observation deck, where we can shelter when the wind gets too cold and there are no bears between us and the bacon. No worries, no cares, no magic. No John Muir epiphanies.

The revolution will never happen, we are tamed, domesticated. Skyscrapers block out the sun, roads smother the forests. We walk on pavement until the grass feels unnatural, the sun foreign and suspicious after years under fluorescence. Reality TV to forget our reality. Too much time looking for 3G, not enough tranquility. Facebook over of travel books.

Of course, we can’t afford to travel like this anymore anyway, so what’s the point of all this? To spend so much time prescribing a cure that people either don’t want or can’t have. I suppose it’s because every time I see a cruise ship pass by the lower bay I’m reminded of how much has changed, how there’s no going back. I feel no resentment towards those onboard, simply traveling the only way they know how.

I know the alternative, the west Arm overrun with fiberglass, a line waiting to pass through the Beardslee Cut on the high tide making my stomach turn all the more. The great contradiction of the wilderness guide. Secretly hoping not too many people listen to what he preaches, knowing his church cannot handle such a congregation.

“If everybody needed what you need, the wilderness would die.” Richard tells Kim Heacox in The Only Kayak.

“They do need it, but nobody’s telling them.”

“You are, with your writing.”

“Nobody reads my writing.”

“Good thing.”

Glacial rocks, dirty socks, the paradox.