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Unnaturally Natural

A fine rain is falling, but its presence brings only smirks. In most places a steady rain would spell the end to any bonfire. But not here. If you’re going to wait for a nice day to play outside you could be waiting a long time. Besides, it’s not every day that Kim Heacox turns 66 and you’re asked to play percussion for a medley of Beatles tunes with the names changed to some variation of “Kim,” “Kimmy,” or “dude.”

After a final rousing chorus of “Hey Dude” we pile our plates with the ridiculous bounty Hank Lentfer and Anya Maier have pulled out of their garden and the woods of Lemesurier Island. Of the six dishes on the table (including deer and two types of potatoes), only the Macaroni and Cheese did not originate within ten miles of the plates. Guilt free food at its finest.

Hank has a fire going and we crowd around, impervious to the precipitation that is still trying to crash the party. Someone has fashioned Kim a crown from construction paper, and after his second beer he begins to issue edicts:

Edict #1: “Pee off your porch at least once a day.”

Edict #9: “Pee off your porch at least twice a day.”

Edict #21: “There shall be an edict #22.”

The most adorable monarchy of all time.

It’s not the first time that I’ve gathered around a fire with these people and marveled at how on earth I became their friends, and now their neighbor. Both the Heacox’s and Lentfer/Maier’s are within a well thrown baseball of our property while wunderkind Zach Brown and his ambitious Inian Island Institute are just down the aquatic street.

As we talk and the beer flows, the cloud adorned ceiling drops lower and lower until the fog is perched on the tops of the Spruce trees like a hat. The guitars come out. As sure as there will be rain, there will be guitars at a Gustavus gathering. Van Morrison, Buddy Tabor, and more Beatles rise up to meet the clouds. In a world that seems to have spun out of control the handful of us around the fire seem temporarily insulated. The fog wraps around us like a blanket, shrouding us from the insanity that has become American politics. Fear melts away, anxiety vanishing with every verse.

In my slightly inebriated state I look around the bonfire, convinced that I have discovered the meaning of life.

As humanity turns to a more urbanized existence, I wonder if we’re robbing ourselves of one of our birthrights. Like processed sugar, man has not subsisted off a diet of high density living for that long. Certainly not long enough to evolve a tolerance for it. It would be nearly impossible to emulate this sort of gathering in Seattle, let alone New York, Boston, or countless other meccas. But after living as either nomads or in small, tightly woven communities for so long, it’s hard to imagine that an essential part of what makes us human is lost when we are surrounded by hundreds of thousands of others. Yes, people have parties in the city all the time. But in the stoic and lifeless walls of a building where eyes drift to iPhones every couple of minutes, does this feed the tribe desire seeded deep within? Almost every person who visits Gustavus falls in love (though most insist they could never live here). And yet few can put their finger on what it is that attracts them. Perhaps the cocktail of tribal bonding and wilderness setting flips the switch within that we have been steadily burying since a certain industrial revolution.

Hank plops down next to me. I’m only partially joking when I say he’s the blueprint for what I want to be when I’m 40. I used to envy people’s cars, now I envy Hank’s garden and root cellar which are an aspiring gardener’s fantasy. His garden is no more than 600 square feet, but from it he, Anya, and their daughter Linnea grow enough potatoes, carrots, and beets to get them through the winter. It’s late June and they’re still chipping away at last year’s potato harvest. Their freezer is stocked with deer from Lemesurier (affectionately referred to as “Lem”) and halibut. I gobble down deer roast and answer questions around my fork.

“You got the shitter set up yet?” Hank has the gift of brevity in addition to gifting us their old outhouse which has the dimensions and weight of a medieval battering ram.

“Not yet, I still need to get it into the woods somehow. But it’s upright and we got a tarp on it to keep the rain off. I still feel like you christen it for us.”

He laughs and Zack plops down next to us, clinking the Obsidian Stout in his hand against the one in mine.

“We just had the septic in our place go out.” He says, eyes in the fire. “We thought that the pipe was just frozen for the winter but…” he takes a long pull on his beer, “turns out that it’s… seeping into the yard.” He sighs and smiles. Nothing keeps a smile off Zack’s face for long. “It’s incredible. The work and effort that we go through for the luxury of pooping indoors.”

I look over Hank’s shoulder to where Anya sits listening and we share a smile.

“Every time we hang out we talk about where we shit.”

Me and Brittney’s first decision when we bought our land was that we would rock a composting toilet forever, save 15 grand digging a leach field and installing a tank, and score free manure in the process. If it’s good enough for the Lentfer/Maier’s it’s plenty good for us.

Zack’s still mulling the incredulity of it all. There’s a bit of Socratic flair in him, questioning everything. “It’s so unnatural, and then it goes into a tank and gets shipped to where? Seattle?”

Hank nods and Zack shakes his head, “so unnatural,” he repeats.

I look around the fire to where Patrick Hanson is strumming out “Into the Mystic” while Jen Gardner and Linnea sing along, Kim is on edict number 30, a couple of people from out of town stare as if they’ve just landed on the dark side of the moon, and the fog insulates us from it all. Perhaps we seem unnatural to the world. Perhaps our willingness to do our business outside, eat the food we grow, and play hopscotch with the poverty line is crazy. But darn it all if it doesn’t beat two hour commutes and cookie cutter homes on a tenth of an acre. I like being the crazy one, the unnatural one. Because in doing so I think I’ve found that in reality it’s the most natural instinct we have.

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The End of the Road

The Pathfinder reeks of burning oil when she runs too long. She’s had it, and I await one of life’s cruel ironies as we wait in line for the ferry. Four years ago I made a deal with whatever deity was on duty, promising many things I’ll never own in exchange for this plucky Nissan getting us to Canada and back. But as she’s always down she comes to life with the screech of belts and uncategorized clatters. There’s still time to back out. Still time to run another direction. A direction that will let us keep running. There’s no shame in it. We’re still in our twenties for crying out loud. No one would think less of us if we disappeared to Central America for a year or vanished to Thailand for a season. But how do you continue to run when you know where home is, when you know where the road ends?

The end of the final road doesn’t look like a road at all. And you’d excuse us for missing it completely. To be fair, cars have rarely been our dominant form of transportation and I’m not at my best behind the wheel. Boats and kayaks have kept our lives afloat. May they continue to do so until someone tells us we’re too old.

But as theatrical as it would be, this journey cannot end at a pier or sandy beach. Instead we take a dirt road overgrown with willow, cat tail, grass, and fern. The ruts are deep and the brush grates against the bumper. At a sharp left the car pivots neatly in the groves as if it’s on the skids of a poorly made Disneyland ride. And then it ends. With no apology or explanation the road simply disappears, giving way to the world that will eventually swallow us all. A world of Pine and Alder, Blueberry and high bush cranberry, marsh and forest. The road, like our rambling, is over. Neither one of us ever had to discuss it. We simply knew that it was time to stop. We didn’t want to do it anymore.

***

The sun is bright and the reflection off Icy Passage makes me squint. My pupils, like my heart, were made to live where the rain is frequent and the sun is scarce. We trace the outline of the shore, the glacial outwash that holds Gustavus behind, the ridges and mountains of Excursion Ridge and the Chilkat Mountains ahead of. Fresh snow sits on the peaks, but down here it feels like Spring. Myself, Brittney, Jen Gardner, and Patrick Hanson gallop like moose calves. We plunge through last years Reed Grass and it gives way with a satisfying crunch. Here the cynicism of the world isn’t just stripped away, it is torn from the soul, replaced by innocence and wonder.

We come out of the Reed Grass and onto the sandy beach. On the low tide the stories of the last six hours are exposed. Tracks trace back and forth, weaving between the sand and tidal mud that squishes with delight beneath our boots. We follow the moose, the deer, the river otter, and the wolf.

The wolf. We stop at the tracks, some as large as my outstretched hand and gaze upon the holy grail of Alaska prints. Patrick’s mind is already in overdrive. It’s always in overdrive. He is more excited over the first Rosy Twisted Stalk than most men are in a year. The prints are catnip to us, and Patrick is already talking about camping just above the tideline in the grass and sitting patiently for a day or two until they come back. I find it hard to imagine him sitting for two minutes. He’s a mover, but he’s staying put in Gustavus. So is Jen thank goodness. They’re staying for the same reason we are. Because they weighed the possessions of the world in one hand and wolf prints in the sand in the other and asked, “why?” Granted, we like microbrews, Disney movies, ice cream, and Parks and Rec. But darn it all if we could live without days like this with mountains above our heads and wolf tracks at our feet.

We reach the mountains where a stream splashes into the grass and a fence of Alder paves the way for Spruce and Hemlock. “True southeast rainforest,” says Patrick, and he dives in. We follow. Our cracking of branches punctuated with tenuous calls of, “hey bear.” We step into the clearing beneath the branches and into Narnia. Devil’s club is just beginning to bud and Fiddlehead Ferns are poking their heads out from their moss blanket. We pick some, leave others, and fantasize about what we can cook. We walk home with maybe a pound of greens, but from the looks on our faces you’d have thought we’d found a thousand dollars.

***

At the end of the road is the Shabin, occupying three hundred feet on 4.19 acres. We prune the willows that are invading the road and stare up at the Cottonwoods that bookend the clearing. And we talk. We talk a lot about what we want to do. And Brittney and I keep coming back to sharing it. What if we could make this the end of the road for someone else too? Brittney, Jen, and I walk through the stand of old Spruce behind the Shabin. It’s the driest spot on the property with a ditch on one side and and a Willow swail on the other. We’re going to have to take some of these big beautiful trees. It hurts my heart to think about it. Can man live without destroying it?

We step out of the Spruce and into the open light of the swail. The morning light glistens off the standing water and we talk about what a great place this would be for a bench. A place to come and watch the Chickadees, Juncos, and Moose ply their trades. What if this is where the four of us spend the rest of our lives? I imagine a bench on the edge of the woods, plopping down with these people, beers in hand, and watching a moose rooting for reeds.

I can see our cabins through the woods behind me. A garden in the clearing. Maybe a smoker and a writer’s studio. Maybe I should get the ruts out of the road and the clearing drained first.

Kim Heacox once asked me why I was ready to drop my roots. There’s no right or wrong answer. Kim galavanted around for years and has seen Antartica, Russia, the Galapagos, and has designs on spending time in Rome. Even now, when his demographic is scheming moves to Florida and weekend golf dates, the travel itch remains unscratched. I don’t feel it the way he does. I don’t feel the need to travel across Russia by train or disappear for months at a time. I want my roots to grow deep here until they’re planted so far down that nothing can move them.

I want to follow those wolf tracks into the mountains and trace every cove of Glacier Bay. I want to watch the Orcas crash through Icy Strait again and again and again. And I’m ready to do it now. I’ve sampled the world and loved it. I’ve had my trail mix stolen by raccoons in New Zealand and been lost in Costa Rica. I’ve been peed on by Howler Monkeys and dealt with more frumpy border guards than I can count. I’ve loved every single moment. I’ve cherished my rambling. But I’m ready to come home. I’m ready reach the end of the rambling road. I’m ready to turn off the ignition and plant 500 carrots.

Which doesn’t mean life is going to be any easier. In all likelihood it’s about to get a lot more difficult. My carpentry experience ends with making leaky garden boxes, and my landscaping knowledge is even more embarrassing. But if I’m going to fail, or at minimum screw up (and I will screw up) I want to do it here. I’d rather fail in Gustavus than succeed in Seattle. Because if I fall here there’ll be a dozen hands to pick me up, put the hammer back in my hand, and tell me to get back at it. Virtually every person in this town has been where we are right now. Each one of them arrived at the place where all the roads end and realized that was right where they needed to be.

My Orca Lab Playlist

Music and Orca Lab don’t often mix. When you’re passively listening around the clock, an earbud can miss that first whispered call. But music ties me tightly to this place because for much of my life I’ve had an iPod in my pocket.

There are songs I hear nine years later that I still place to memories centered around this place. It starts with a track by the band Snow Patrol before I even knew the Lab existed.

My first trip to British Columbia was a kayaking trip when I was 18. Returning to civilization I recharged my iPod, stuck it on shuffle, and this is what came up. For the following winter I returned to this song again and again. It has nothing to do with wilderness or nature (though it does have the word ‘water’ in it) but it pulls me back to those days when my internal compass was spinning out of control and I transformed from basketball player to Edward Abbey apostle.

The next summer I returned to British Columbia. Like many of us I had the privilege of volunteering at the Lab. And, like many of us, I made the trip north from the city of Vancouver via Greyhound bus. Blurry eyed and yawning I slumped against the window and watched the concrete give way to forest. As I hit play on my iPod, this is the first song that came on, and it is forever tied to that smelly bus station and the promise that I was almost there.

A few hours later the bus took the familiar right turn off highway 19 and into Port McNeil. Down the hill, sharp right turn, Malcom Island visible in the distance. The moment needed a song fitting of this momentous moment and fate delivered.

Is there a better song to hear into when you’ve waited all winter and counted down the days until you made it back? The answer is no, no there is not. That piano, awesome. I still get goosebumps as I remember grabbing my duffel bag and looking around as the bus disappeared, wondering where on earth the Port McNeil campground was.

We had macaroni and cheese my first night at the Lab. I’ll never forget it. By the time we’d finished eating it was too dark to pitch our tents so we slept in the guest cabin. As I sit at the table in that very cabin, I can still point to the spot on the floor where I laid out my sleeping bag that night, put in my headphones and fell asleep to more Snow Patrol

I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone else, but it’s the little moments that make this place special. I’ve had Orcas buzz past Cracroft Point and been awoken by humpbacks deep in the cove on a midnight high tide. But it’s Helena coming into the lab at 6 in the morning with cinnamon rolls that chokes me up. It’s having the honor of introducing this place to others that are my fondest memories. It’s quiet afternoons with Grandma Cedar and giving fish to Harbor Seals that I’ll miss the most.

Miss. It’s still hard to fathom using that word. But miss it I will, because this is our final winter. Geez that was hard to write. In the end, I’ll have spent almost two years of my life here. It seems like a lot when you add it all together, but believe me when I say it’s gone by in a heartbeat. When memories that are almost ten years old are still so vivid, the time between feels like a blur. But Orca Lab has given me something that I will take with me for the rest of my life.

If you could have told me when I met Paul Spong that he would turn from folk hero to mentor to boss to friend, I would have cried. Paul taught me so much before I even shook his hand. His story is one of resilience, conviction, and truth. It would have been easy for him to keep quiet and stay in his lane. But Paul doesn’t care about staying in his lane. Skana deserved to go home and a cement pool was not what she deserved. So he picketed his employer when they threw him out. He went north and pushed his kayak into the waves of Blackfish Sound because his faith in himself outweighed the doubts of the world.

And look at what’s been built. Look at the lives that he and Helena have touched and impacted. It’s a legacy, there’s no other word for it. Everyone who sets foot in this place is transported. There is a look of childlike innocence, their faith in the greater good is restored, the answers to life’s questions in a slice of Helena’s bread and a cold Kokanee.

In the end I think that’s what I’ll remember most. Paul and Helena’s quiet confidence and faith in themselves. I won’t beat a drum about how people don’t do this sort of thing anymore, they do. We’re going to a place populated by people who believe and act much like the apostles of Orca Lab. In our home in Gustavus, Alaska is a young man that I imagine is a lot like Paul was when he first drove up Vancouver Island.

Zach Brown is a dark haired and quick witted 30-year old with a P.H.D in Oceanography and a deep love of basketball, good beer, and keeping the world green. Like Paul, don’t you dare tell him, “no” or that it cannot be done. The guy celebrated the successful defense of his Doctorate by walking from the Stanford campus to Port Angeles, Washington. There he traded his hikers for a kayak and paddled the inside passage to Gustavus. He is a man of constant motion and ideas. He’s a fighter, he’s idealistic, he wants to change the world. He not only wants Alaska to cleanse itself of fossil fuel consumption, he has plans for how it can be done. Will we see it in our lifetime? The pessimist in me says probably not, but he has the same faith that Paul has. The same faith that continues to believe that after almost forty years, Corky can still come home.

It is impossible to be in the presence of people like this and not be inspired.

To the south of Gustavus is Icy Strait. At the west end of the strait is a cluster of islands called the Inians. I don’t know how they go their name, perhaps some mariner meant to write Indian and forgot the “D.” The archipelago is part of the Tongass National Forest, and thanks to recent legislation, its old growth should be protected for eternity. Except for one piece. On that piece is a homestead, settled into a protected little bay. The people of Gustavus call it the Hobbit Hole. When it went up for sale, Zach Brown got an idea not unlike one Paul had all those years ago.

“Isn’t immersing yourself in the natural world the best way to study the natural world?”

The night after meeting with Zach I rode home on my bike, Grand Funk Railroad in my ears.

And so the Inian Island Institute was born. When the homestead went up for sale Zach went from one corner of the continent to the other to find funders and donors who would believe in him. The Hobbit Hole is his now. Or the Institutes to be more accurate.

It’s a place where students come to learn, get off the concrete, and see the biomes they’ve read about in textbooks. The place is run on hydropower and fed by the garden, deer, salmon, halibut, and shrimp. Brittney and I plan to be heavily involved in Zach’s work. The world needs whistle blowers now more than ever. Patient, convicted, and passionate speakers of truth and fact. And this is a place where we can scream at the top of our lungs and enlist the generation that will either clean up the messes of the past or be buried by them.

I won’t be callous and say it’s the Orca Lab of Alaska, for that is an insult to this place. There is NO place like Orca Lab and there never will be. For that’s the beauty of nature, nothing is identical. There is magic to every bend in the cove and the ring of every tree. I will bawl my eyes out when we pull away for the last time. I will miss this place every day for the rest of my life. I will scroll through photos and feel my heart ache for the sunrise over Vancouver Island, Harlequin’s on the rocks, and Sea Lions yelling in the night.

But the playlist is finished. It’s time. I am gracious for the peace and comfort this place has brought me and humbled to have the chance to leave my small imprint. It has realigned my vision of what I can and want to be. It has given me a direction that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I am not David Cannamore, amateur writer, kayak guide, and husband to Brittney without this place. I cannot imagine what I would be without this island, Paul, or Helena. I will never be able to truly express my gratitude to those two magnificent people. So let me end this post with that. Gratitude and thankfulness for a place and people that will never be replaced. Bless this place, the Orcas it watches over, and every 3 am wakeup to record their calls.

“I know there’s, California, Oklahoma,

and all of the places that I ain’t never been to but,

down in the valley with whiskey rivers,

These are the places you will find me hiding.

These are the places I will always go.”

Tumbleweeds, Home, and Root Vegetables

It hasn’t rained in days. The air has been crisp and cold. The window each day in which the shining sun brings substantial warmth is minimal. It’s fall in southeast Alaska. And when it’s not raining, there’s no more lovely time or place in the world. So this time when we leave, it’s hard. It’s never been hard before. Because for the first time we have a home. A home than can be measured in years instead of months.

And yet…

The island calls. That blissful, green, old growth island with Cedar and deer and mink. Our spot in Gustavus doesn’t have a wood stove. And there’s something about cracking cedar over your knee, the vapor of your breath floating above a knitted hat. Something about coffee on the porch, the ocean ten feet away, the sound of sea lions drifting on a growing wind. The promise of an afternoon gale. Hanson Island, Orca Lab, the promised land. I cannot bear to pull myself away from Gustavus, yet I’m giddy at the thought that I will be snug in that little cabin on the rocks in 72-hours, a fire roaring and the heat spreading to warm every crack and cranny. I wouldn’t be in Gustavus if it wasn’t for the island

For this is a place that changes lives. Starting with Paul Spong way back in 1970 and has continued for more than four decades. Hundreds, shoot, maybe thousands have made the pilgrimage to this place and had their lives rocked and upended. This place changes people the way glaciers change land. And I count myself as lucky to have spent two years of my life on Hanson. I would not be the man I am today without it. And it is that which will make the final goodbye so hard. It has sculpted me into someone that holds the final green and blue vestiges of this earth as valuable as any mineral man has ever valued. It is this lesson why I must someday let go.

Hank Lentfer is me in 20 years. Or maybe I’m Hank Lentfer 20 years ago. I’d like to think so. He’s the man I want to be in a couple decades at least, let’s leave it at that. The guy with the quick wit and busy hands that can build or fix anything. He built his house, starting with a 16×16 frame and turning it into a wooden work of art. In my non Hanson Island life I’d see someone driving a Ferrari or BMW down the street and feel an inkling of jealousy mixed with a desire to have one of my own. In the post Hanson Island life I have the same feeling when I see Hank’s garden and root cellar. Inside the cellar are two garbage cans (they’re clean) stuffed with carrots he grew. Another two garbage cans worth of potatoes are nearby. Mason jars are stacked like Jenga blocks on the shelves holding everything from Coho to cranberries. Call it root vegetable envy.

For years Hank and his wife Anya went without hot running water and still have no indoor plumbing to speak of. There’s an outhouse out back or you’re free to just let’er fly off the porch if you wish. Heat comes from a wood stove, the fridge in the arctic entryway is a new acquisition. All these choices were made not out of financial necessity but by choice. Because contrary to the modern world’s opinion, they aren’t necessities.

There’s something inspiring and beautiful about doing so much with so little. But even more, I think there’s something so beautiful about being so happy with so little. It’s a desire Brittney and I both have, all we have to do is learn how. And who better to teach us then Hank and Anya?

All of that however, means saying goodbye to where it all started. A tree’s roots cannot cover hundreds of miles, not matter how sweet the soil may be.

But not yet.

For tumbleweeds need no roots, they travel with the wind, blown south to that little halibut hook shaped island every fall. Where there’s no root cellar but humpbacks sing in the evening. No glaciers but dew clings to the boughs of Cedar branches like diamonds on a necklace. The very smell of Cedar will forever remind me of Paul, Helena, and the A30s calling in the dead of night. Hanson Island’s fingerprints are all over my heart and soul, and there they’ll stay until my final breath. Whatever my life may bring, whatever words are ever published and bound between two covers will be because of Paul’s smile and Helena’s cinnamon rolls. Every paddle stroke is because the A36s blessed me with a passion that will stand the test of time.

My heart feels light and my soul jitterbugs as the ferry cuts through Lynn Canal bound for Juneau. In 72 hours I’ll hear Paul’s laugh, see Helena’s face, and drag that infernal rabbit cage onto the rocks off the June Cove. Because we couldn’t have a dog like everyone else. Because we couldn’t sit still. Because Hanson Island will forever hold us under its spell.

Fairweather Therapy

I run. I do it a lot, probably not as much as I should, but a respectable amount. I run to clear my head, to keep my heart happy, to think, to calm the hell down. Somedays it’s easy, somedays it’s hard. So in a lot of ways, running is like life.

Today it’s hard. It’s hard and it shouldn’t be. But I’m uncalibrated, a compass needing to realign to true north. I’m stressed, I’m worried, and somehow it feels easier to sit on the couch and not move. But it won’t make this any better. I drag myself out the door and lace up my shoes, slapping an escort of biting “no-see-em’ gnats that sprint to skin like moths to light.

In three minutes I’m glad I’m doing this. The world shifts back into focus, mind syncing with heart. I can think clearly as the trees scroll by and the music pounds in my ears. Sometimes I think about kayaking, other times writing, or I’ll indulge myself with thoughts of the ridiculous computer baseball game I’m too engrossed in. But not tonight. Tonight the Shabin dominates my mind. The Shabin and the 4.13 acres that comes with it.

The acreage is wet. But all land in Gustavus is wet isn’t it? It’s part of the deal. We can afford it. We’re ready. I think. Think. I’ve been doing too much of that. Thinking and projecting. Rubbing the grime off my crystal ball, trying to make damn sure I know what I’m doing.

I don’t know what I’m doing.

I don’t want to make a mistake. This isn’t a starter home, this is going to be home. Forever. When you got one bullet you need to be positive your aim is clear. And I’m not sure yet. It’s daunting, this home ownership thing. In a way it’s riskier then anything I’ve ever done. The consequences far reaching, the way out hard and difficult if we miscalculate. Hence the run, to let it all go for thirty minutes. At least that was the goal.

I reach four corners. That’s what we call the intersection here. The intersection. What a ridiculous way to describe the place where the four roads meet. Clove Hitch Cafe and Fireweed Gallery on my right, the gas station in front of me. Left to the airport, right to park, straight ahead to the ferry terminal. I go straight, don’t even bother to check for traffic. God I love it here.

Past the Sunnyside Cafe. I glance into the windows as I run by. Someone waves enthusiastically through the window as I pass. I’m pretty sure it’s my friend Jen. I wave back with all the enthusiasm I can muster, trying not to break stride. In Gustavus no one just goes to Sunnyside for groceries. You go to talk, to laugh. To be filled with something besides organic apples and romaine. Community. How man places can say they have that? What happens when most people get their groceries? A faceless cashier whose name you’ll never know.

“How are you?”
*beep*
“Good, you?”
*beep*
“Great.”
*beep*
“$8.95.”
*swipe*
“Have a great day.”
“Thanks, you too.”

That doesn’t happen here. Brittney and I stood in Sunnyside for 20 minutes last night. It took us three to find what we needed, another 17 to talk with Kristiann and Aishu behind the counter. I love that. Love that I leave every building a little happier then when I entered.

Past the Sunnyside and down the road. Through the trees on my right I can see the setting sun on fire in the western sky. The trees hide them but I know the Fairweather Mountains are out. That if I run far enough I’ll be rewarded with evening light and a setting sun behind the mountains. I pick up the pace and soon I’m even with the golf course.

You heard me right. Gustavus, population 443 has a freaking golf course. Because Morgan Deboer loves this place. For years he owned the waterfront that the Gustavus dock is built on. But as the land continued to rise, his property line was pushed inland. Morgan thought the new waterfront and acreage should be his, the state of Alaska didn’t. So he went to court with Gustavus behind him. And he won. His thank you? A golf course. And an open invitation to have bonfires on his beach. No charge. Thanks Morgan.

Ahead is the ferry dock. I look to my right and my spirit soars. The sky is a canvas painted with colors no artist can emulate. Life changing red. Soul lifting orange. Inspiration yellow. White cloaked Fairweathers in front set the scene.

I reach the end of the ferry dock and stop. Not by choice. Not by a conscious act. I cannot move. Cannot pull myself away from the atmospheric miracle that is this sunset. I drink it in like I’m dying of thirst. This may be the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. I pan to the right. There’s a sudden dip in the mountains and hills where the magic bay and her magic glaciers have carved them away, hanging valleys filled with water.

I pan left toward the mouth of the bay. What must it have been like? In 1794 George Vancouver was here. The bay was five miles deep, the glacier five miles wide. No northwest passage here. Just life altering ice. Gustavus wasn’t even a blink in her eye. Just a sandy outwash, a dumping ground for silt.

It feels like Gustavus was set aside. For the few lucky enough or blessed enough to fall under her spell. The little outliers. Flat land in southeast Alaska. Whoda thought? The acreage we’re looking at is flat. But here, with the Fairweather’s on fire with evening light and Gustavus splayed out before me, it feels insignificant. The most popular bumper sticker in Gustavus reads like this:

                                           “What’s your hurry? You’re already here.”
Gustavus, AK

I feel foolish. I’ve spent the last 48 hours agonizing over interest rates, mortgages, and price per acre.     Perhaps I’ve lost track of what makes this place magic. That no matter where we end up, what spot of land we call home, it’s going to be here. We get to be surrounded by these mountains, these people, forever. I feel so much better. John Muir talked about “glacier gospel,” finding God in nature. For a night I’ve found therapy in mountains and sunsets, a reminder of why I’m here.

The sun slides behind Mount La Perousse and as the rays of light disappear the chill of night arrives on the northerly breeze. It is late August after all. Time to get home. Home, how good it feels to say that and know that it’s at the throne of those mountains, in the tight embrace of that bay.

The Shabin

There’s not much left of the road. Just two indention’s overgrown with weeds and grass. Blink and tilt your head and you can almost make out the tire tracks. But alder trees are growing in between the divots and it’s clear that no one has driven a car back here in a long time.

In my hand is a scrap of printer paper, a series of hastily scribbled squares and rectangles drawn on it. One of those rectangles is my future home, maybe. Brittney follows along right behind me. Just ahead is a man I admire and love. A man I want to be like, but with my own flair, my own style. After all, there’s only one Kim Heacox just like there’s one David Cannamore. At the youthful age of 65, Kim’s enthusiasm remains boundless and I find myself wondering what he must have been like when he was 30. I know I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with him.

He leads us through the properties acres, referring to it over and over again as, “our property.”

Our property.

My god. Is it really possible? A small cabin sits near the land’s southern border next to the remnant of the road. The rest is Spruce and Pine forest with a bit of bog, a bit of marsh, and sprinkled with berries. Oh the berries. High bush cranberries, neigoon berries, even some low lying blueberries. I pass an alder no more than knee high. I run my hands through its branches. The leaves are manicured and nibbled. A moose has been here recently. It feels like home.

We can’t stay away. We drive the two miles back to the little slice of heaven. We forgot the tape measure, so we measure the cabin’s tiny room the only way we can. I lay down on the wood floor and so does Brittney, her feet brushing my scalp. We can almost lay down all the way. Calling it a studio  would be generous. No running water, no toilet.

I doubt many would understand the appeal of a dry cabin devoid of plumbing. Cabin may not be the best description. It’s part cabin part shack. A shabin as it were. But both of us see it for what it can be. Knock out a wall, raise the roof, put in a loft. Definitely a bathroom. What are we missing? A sink! Should install a sink at some point.

But for the right price… we’ve lived rustically long enough. What’s a few more years?

I think about the homes we walked past in the Seattle suburbs. 700,000 dollar monstrosities on a quarter acre in tidy suburbs. Each home copy and pasted from the last. Each subdivision given some charming name like Shady Acres or Pebbled Brook. I don’t want a 30-year mortgage. I don’t want property tax. I don’t want my neighbor’s music echoing through my walls.

Give me simple. Give me peace. Give me trees and blueberries. In our minds it’s already ours and we haven’t even called the owner yet. The owner we know is looking to sell. You’re crazy if you think I’m telling you where in Gustavus it is.

It’s scary. Sure we’ve talked about buying a house in this city filled with magic for three years. But to be this close, our feet draped over the edge, just one step from going over. Maybe buying a house is like having kids. If you wait until you’re ready you’ll never do it. But I also know that this is what we want. That we’re ready to make this home.

These are the Places You Will Find me Hiding

In a land defined by mountains, Gustavus stands alone. Gustavus, prairie country. Well, as close as you can get to prairie country up here. At the mouth of Glacier Bay is a strip of land. An old glacial outwash that the glaciers of old used as a dumping ground for the remains of the rock they had ground to a pulp. What remains today is a stretch of land so flat the bubble on the level falls dead center. All around is regularly scheduled programming. Chichagof Island and its mountains to the south, the Fairweathers to the west, the Beartracks to the north, and the Chilkat mountains and Excursion ridge to the east. Distant yes, but never out of mind, even when shrouded in the blankets of clouds that dominate the sky.

It’s fitting that Gustavus is southeast Alaska’s little geographic rebel. One of the few towns that don’t have to concern themselves with building into a mountain or around pesky fjords or bays that jut into sharp cut glacial rock. Nothing but sand, trees, and moose to build around. Because like the land, the people of Gustavus are unique. A cast of people that have chosen love, laughter, cold beer, and blue grass over profit, capitalism, manifest destiny, and Justin Bieber.

This is a town where people still wave as they drive by, failure to do so the highest of insults. Where a run to the local store for a bag of oats turns into a 45-minute conversation about everything or nothing. No one brushes past with downcast eyes, avoiding contact. Smiles are plentiful, good vibes abundant, the people seem ageless. Yesterday I learned that a lady I’d took for somewhere between 30 and 35 was celebrating her fiftieth birthday by traveling to Iceland. In a nation obsessed with youth, with looking young, and banishing wrinkles, maybe Gustavus is the fountain of youth. Maybe smiles, a gracious heart, and a quick laugh can do what plastic surgery cannot, and for a much more reasonable price.

I will not pretend to be an expert on the normal American lifestyle. But from my limited exposure in what many would perceive to be a normal existence, the term community has become little more than window dressing. A way to lump together a group of people that happen to live in the same area. This is not Gustavus. Gustavus is a place where community is still community. To enter into this place is to become part of a family 400 strong. Want to spend a winter here? We’ll help you find a place, chop wood, fill the chest freezer with halibut, salmon, deer, and moose.

A couple of years ago a young man moved here. He knew no one. Two weeks after arriving, his house burned to the ground. Within hours, someone had moved a yurt onto his property for shelter. Food was left on the front porch, money and building materials donated.

“I don’t know any of you folks,” read the thank you letter he posted at the store, “but to all of you, thank you. I am truly moved and touched.”

Home. This is home. How can it not? How can we—myself and Brittney—not want to be a part of this? Suburbia? Fine for some I suppose. Who am I to say how others should live? But give me the place where I know everyone by name. Where, should the worst ever happen there will be 400 pair of hands to pick me back up. It’s impossible not to feel happy and blissful here. We’re isolated, but never alone. We are a people of guides, fisherman, businessmen, woodsmen, parkies, lodgies, seasonals, and locals. Democrats, Republicans, Christian, Mormon, Druid, Pagan, Atheist, John Muir apostles. But we are all residents of Gustavus. And in the end, that’s all that really matters.