Saturday, August 8, 2009

Leaving Alaska

Captain Davey thinks I'm crazy. He picks me up after my last kayak patrol and we churn our way past Piehle's Passage, Klokachef Island, the Potato Patch. I sit in the bow wondering if this is the last time I will see Chichagof Island, its peaks now colored brilliant green, the ever-changing ocean restless along the gravel beaches.

"This is my homeland," he says. His expansive gesture takes in the gray whales feeding along the rocks, the eagles watching fish swim below the sea. How I want to feel connected to a place like he does. He turns the boat towards town, a smile on his face. What would it be like to know that you have fifty years left in a place?

I've always had a wandering bone. In my twenties I crisscrossed the country in a rattly yellow Chevette packed to bursting, moving with the seasons. In the summer I planted trees in the Sierras or cleared trails in Idaho; in winter I fought fires in the heart of the swampy Everglades. I loved being on the road to a new place. There was so much to stumble upon, so much air to breathe.

I've left three places I loved more than any man. The breakups were more painful than divorce. They are all far-flung and very different: one, a small island in the Great Lakes; another a wide sagebrush valley surrounded by jagged mountains. The third, this rainforest coast of Alaska.

Blame it on something, anything, but I don't want to stay put. I fear the acquisition of a lawnmower or, god forbid, a ladder. Owning a house again strikes terror into my soul. Prior to this move, I gave away most of what I owned. I feel light and nimble, ready to jump.

But Alaska is hard to leave. Curse the rain, the long featureless stretches of darkness, the seemingly deliberate stubbornness of the absent sun, but there is something that sinks into your soul and hangs on. Maybe it's the indifference of the mountains and sea; they go about their business without any help from us. We are the ones who must adapt to them. There is a fascination in a waterfall that will flow in lace-like pattern down a cliff face whether you are there or not. There is mystery in flying over the island in a small plane and thinking that nobody has ever set a foot on some of this territory.

This is a place where people disappear. We've never found the Beaver with its crew of five, vanished somewhere between Deadmans Reach and Baranof Warm Springs. People drown, people go missing, bears roam the trails a stone's throw from town. A wildness beats in this place like a drum.

I'm leaving though and can't really say why. Why wasn't this the place where I could put down roots, start a garden, say I would stay forever? Part of it is that I believe there is so little time. I want to see it all, cram in all the mountains and rivers and trails that I can. I don't want to stare out of the windows of my cubicle and wonder what might have been.

There are those who frown at this approach. What about the American Dream? Own a house, owe thousands! But what a write-off on your taxes! How will you establish credit otherwise? What about saving for your retirement? And if you don't have kids, who will take care of you when you are old?

I sit in another empty house. The movers have taken what little I have away, and I am left with what matters: hiking boots, fire clothes, camping gear. Some of my friends have stayed away: not fond of goodbyes, they have made themselves scarce. Others act resentful, as though I am deserting the town. My favorites exclaim how great this adventure will be, and that this place will still be here when or if I return. I like these people the best.

Of course I'll return. I always have, turning up in the places I've broken up with. Come to find out it has only been a separation and I fall in love again every time, remembering what I missed. Just because you don't live in a place anymore doesn't mean you can't love it. I can be a sailor with a home in every port, gone off to exotic locales but always coming home again.


  1. Wonderful writing...puts the reader right there today with all of the push and pull of leaving and arriving. Best of luck in all that comes.

  2. The world is your ocean. Keep on sailing.


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