PRINCE OF WALES ISLAND

June 14, 2007

PRINCE OF WALES ISLAND
(Alaska, May 2002)

There’s something special about islands, at least those lacking bridges to the world.  I like the containment, the feeling of laying claim to a limited place with indisputable boundaries and a guarantee of plenty of shoreline.  I like the feeling of community that island people have.  When I arrive by via water or air, the journey cuts me off in a comforting way from the work and worry I leave behind.  So, when an invitation came for my husband and me to visit southeastern Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island on business, I cranked out a plan to stay long enough to get to know the place.
Shortly after our big jet landed, the loudspeaker at the airport teminal in Ketchikan announced, “Last call for the flight to P.O.W.”
“That’s us,” my husband said.  “Prince of Wales.” We burst out the doors into a driving rain, trotted down the ramp to the dock and offered our luggage to a stubble-faced man in a plaid wool shirt.  He looked unsavory, nobody to trust, as he heaved our stuff through the back door of possibly the world’s smallest float plane. We squeezed into the rear seats, knees to our chins, and greeted the other passenger, wondering where the pilot was.  The unshaven character in plaid hopped into the pilot’s seat and revved the engines.  HE was going to fly this thing.
Prince of Wales Island received its English name from explorer Captain James Cook, in 1778.  Deep inlets and high mountains divide its ancient forests into manageable regions and, from the air, signs of human life are few.  We crossed Clarence Strait, then the island itself.  On the west side, the plane tilted over the village of Craig.  We spotted five black bears pawing through the refuse at the town dump, then touched down on the bay, spraying a huge rooster tail on each side.  We taxied to the dock and the pilot jumped out to tie us down. Sudden silence brought me into the present moment.
Dave and Pauline Johnson were waiting.   Our first close-up look at bald eagles came minutes after loading our luggage into our hosts’ car.  “Let’s walk up here and see the bald eagles,” Pauline suggested.  She’s a second grade teacher in the nearby village of Klawock, a Tlingit tribal town.  The name is the call of a totem animal, the raven. “Kla-wock, kla-wock.”
According to Dave this Alaskan island is little changed since its beginnings.  “Sure, it has over 1000 miles of roads but most are abandoned logging access and one-lane gravel.”
We’d come for business but I would stay longer, so the day my husband flew home my solo adventure began.  The lowering weather made a good excuse to read and watch old movies from the collection at our comfortable apartment with an ocean view at the Lupine Bed and Breakfast.
Early the next day I set off in a borrowed SUV to tour the island.   First stop was Kasaan, a Haida tribal town just past Tolstoi Cove (remember the Russians owned Alaska).  Down twenty miles of precarious gravel road, the little town faces a wide cove. It’s just a village – a few homes plus a two-room school, small general store and city hall where a gal about 20 does business from an office off the community room.  “You should go see our clan house,” she said, and told me how to find it.
Across the beach at low tide, in a driving tailwind, I trudged a mile on barnacled cobbles to the wood structure at the edge of the forest.  The new building in traditional style, about 50x 50 feet, had windowless walls of vertical hand-hewn cedar slabs and a cedar plank roof. Opposite the front door stood three thick, short and very impressive totems — frog images with ravens, bears and humans painted in black and red and white.  In the center, beneath a smoke hole that doubles as a skylight, the huge stone fire pit was surrounded by dirt floor. A clean wood platform formed a wide square around the walls, for sitting or lounging.  Outside in the dense ancient forest stood a grand collection of beautiful totem poles, elegant historical documents visible only from up close.  I imagined living there a thousand years ago, raiding in huge war canoes, attending potlatch parties that went on for days.
Along the forest trail, slime molds and a thousand varieties of fungi thrived in the perpetual cool dampness. My feet trod softly on centuries of mulch.  Swinging ghostly in the breeze, a lichen called Old Man’s Beard (Usnea) hung from branches.   A naked, bright yellow creature nine inches long extended its eyestalks to checked on the trespasser — a lovely banana slug with perfect skin and shy manner.  Why would people despise these sweet creatures?  Or perhaps I was lonesome and ready to enjoy any sort of company.  Seen through an opening in the big trees, ravens black as polished obsidian scavenged the low tide zone, calling “Klawock, klawock.”
In the village of Thorne Bay, population 450, it was pouring.  Nearly the whole busy place was visible in a single glance — dock, float plane base, forest service center and a decent little grocery store.  I entered a café called Someplace to Go. A gentleman of advanced years offered me a seat at his table by the window.  I’m never one to turn down a nice invitation, so mixed some honey into my hot tea and exchanged smiles.  His eyes were pale blue, his face weathered and ruddy.  He’d already pegged me as an outsider and had a story ready.
“Last winter some people found a mile of huge human-looking tracks along the road near some houses on the edge of town.”
“Tracks? Was it a bear?”
“Nope.  The natives tell about a shy forest man called the Kootnikah, almost-human.  He has tracks like that, just like that.”
“Oh the road?”   I’m curious but skeptical.  “A whole mile of tracks?”
“Whole mile.”
“Tell her the rest, Sam,” said a young man at the next table. He winked at me.  “For some odd reason, the guy who reported the tracks and got our newspaper on the story just happened to be the local Bigfoot enthusiast.  He’s a kook.”
Northeast of the town, the road cruised along a series of coves then climbed into alpine country.  Clouds parted to reveal icy heights across a deep canyon.  I parked and walked over sunlit tundra where tiny muskeg ponds reflected the bright sky.  Sounds of flowing water filed the uplands.  Pungent skunk cabbage grew everywhere, showing off its giant yellow arum flowers, a spiraled vertical cup with a big phallic anther.  I was forty miles from a phone.
A cloudburst sent me running for the car.  The car key refused to go into the starter slot.  It appeared the lock on the steering column had twisted.  What to do?  How long might it be until someone drove by?  After a few deep breaths, and some twisting, a fourth try started the engine.  My pounding heart slowed to normal.  Pauline had suggested I always leave the key in the ignition and now I knew why.
An hour later, I pulled into Coffman Cove, a town of 140 where the powers in Juneau say they’ll build a new ferry terminal to link with Wrangell and Petersburg.  Homes straggled along the rocky shoreline.  The apparent center of town was a fishing dock and log dump, with a small general store nearby.
While a couple of burly guys discussed which bullets to buy, back by the cold cases, the woman in charge talked with me over the large cat asleep on her coat on the counter.  “Nobody believes the ferry will arrive any year soon, but we hope the $20 million for widening and paving the road might get more people up here.”  What about jobs?  “My husband and a bunch of the men are logging now on Dall Island.  The company flies them over for eight-day shifts.  It’s the only work they could find.”
She said a lot of people had moved in since talk of a new ferry terminal.  On the outskirts, as I was leaving town, I passed home construction in full swing, raw logs and new sawn lumber bright golden between the dark trees.   I asked the way to Naukati, saying Now-KAH-tee and got puzzled looks, then rolled eyes.  “Oh, she means NAH-kitty.”  The construction guys had a good laugh on me.
After a nap at an abandoned quarry, I drove across the thin waist of the island.  A sign pointed to El Capitan Cave, a famous and dramatic hole carved by water flowing over fossilized coral called karst, created during a much warmer era.   Dave Johnson had talked about the island geology.  “POW is on the margin of two tectonic plates,” he said.  “In the far north of the island you find karst and fine white marble.  Used to mine it.  In the south you get black volcanic basalt.  In the center of the island, you get all sorts of sedimentary rocks. Then to make it interesting, add in the big granite boulders from the interior mountains of northern British Columbia.  They were dropped here as ‘glacial erratics’ when the ice receded and the climate warmed 15,000 years ago.”
Scientists think the earliest settlers walked or paddled down the coast from Siberia and hunted southward for many generations.  Slowly, the ice melted and worldwide sea levels rose.  Here and in many parts of the world the rise was at least 300 feet, hiding all evidence of Ice Age coastal settlements.
Naukati was about the size of Coffman Cove and seemed full of hope, activity and energy.  New homes on lumpy lots appeared recently wrested from the wilderness.  A man about 70 showed me around the one set of rental cabins, nice inside but surrounded by the harsh chaos of a newly logged hillside.   “I get a military officer’s pension, work as harbormaster.  I love being in a friendly, uncrowded place without taxes.” He wore a navy cap, said he bought a houseboat here sight unseen and came up to retire.  Any regrets?  “Not one.  Around here, nobody bothers to obey the rules imposed by government idiots on otherwise free human beings.  I can read and watch 500 channels of satellite TV powered by my own generator.  I fish, hunt and help my neighbors.  What more could an intelligent human being ask for?”
I returned to the metropolis of Craig that evening and slipped onto a barstool at Ruth Ann’s on the wharf, near the abandoned fish cannery.  Jodee, the bartender, suggested their special halibut sandwich with clam chowder for $8.95.  Two guys were talking about the salmon derby in Ketchikan. “It’s kings they’re after, fifty to sixty- five pounds.  First prize is a boat.”
“A boat!” this news was repeated around the bar.
“I want to win that boat,” declared Jodee as she measured out a shot of Jack Daniels.  “B.D.will you take me fishing?”
The native man sitting beside me raised the brim of his cap.  “Sure, Jodee.  But right now I’m working on my beach seine.  I don’t mind the rain so much. It’s this darn blow.”  I asked about salmon fishing.  B.D. said they get winter kings here.  “The first sockeye come up in July.  In fall we get sockeye, cohos, dog salmon and the humpies.”
Jodee said she’d talked with a couple of bear hunters the day before.  I wanted to know about eating bear.  “You gotta salt it,” said B.D.  “We treat it like corned beef.  You can it in jars.  But it tastes gross if the bear’s been eating garbage at the dump.”
Jodee said a bear’s been coming in their yard.  “My daughter Paisley is five.  She wants to follow him into the woods to see where he goes.  When it rains, the bears at the dump like to sit in the old cars.  You go past there and it looks like a bunch of bears driving their cars.  Now, that’s worth a picture.”
B.D. was Black Duck Torres, born in the Haida community of Kasaan.  He’d been a longshoreman in Juneau for 18 years before moving to Klawock to fish.  He stared at his black coffee and pulled on a cigarette.  “All the captains I used to fish with have died.  Lost my best buddy in rough weather when a skiff rolled over on him.”  He sucked up smoke and blew it out slowly.  “One of my nephews was killed last week, logging on Dall Island.  Robert, he was just 21.  Helicopter logging.  A log fell on him.  He had two kids.”
I said I was in Hydaburg on Friday and the high school was let out because everyone knew Robert, and the whole town was in shock.  B.D. said, “I’m waiting for the rain to quit.  When the wind switches to the north it’s going to be good weather.  Then I’ll get back to fixing my beach seine.”  I watched CNN a while.  War, strife, famine, murder – all seemed to be happening on another planet.
“I’m glad I married the right man,” Jodee was telling a customer.  “The most amazing thing happened to him when he was a kid.”
“Tell her about that, Jodee,” said B.D.  “That’s a good story.”
Jodee sat on her stool.  “Jim, his father and his two sisters were coming home in their boat from Prince Rupert on the Canadian mainland.  They went to get braces on their teeth.  It was February.  A bad storm blew in.  Their boat wrecked.  They took what they could from the boat and set up camp on shore.”
“Order up,” shouted the cook.  Jodee delivered my meal, then returned to her tale.
“They built a raft and got as far as Dall Island.  Jim and his dad left the little girls under a rain tarp and set off walking, to find help.  By the time they found a cabin, both of them were too exhausted to move, feet frostbitten, starving to death. Then another huge storm moved in. They were both sure the girls were dead out there.
Jodee stopped. “Eat, eat.”  I remembered my food and tried the thick chowder.   She continued.  “Eleven days later, the storm ended.  Jim was sure it was too late.  He had nightmares about finding his sisters half eaten by bears. They went back.  The girls were barely alive.  It’s a miracle any of them lived through it.  Jim’s father wrote a book about it, titled Four Against the Wilderness.   CBC made a TV movie from the book.”
I allowed the story to settle then finished the fish sandwich while the television competed with several card games and tables full of laughing people. Jodee started in with a rhetorical question.  “Why do people around here like to live outside of town?”
One of the guys playing cards at a round table in the corner shouted, “You get all the free blueberries you can pick before the bears show up.”
Other patrons chimed in.  “When the pipes are frozen, it’s so cold you can’t smell the outhouse.”  “When you hook a salmon under 48 inches, you toss it back to grow up.”  “If there’s anything you really need, your friendly neighbors will show you how to get along without it.”
Jodee was cracking up.  “This island is really special,” she declared.  “I love every one of you guys.  Who would ever want to leave this place?”

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SURF’S UP

June 14, 2007

SURF’S UP
Unpublished tale from Mexico

My old friend Carol asked if Dawn could come along on our planned February trip to Mexico’s west coast.  They’d done a trip to Alaska together and Carol said Dawn was a delight to be with, agreeable and sweet, never needy or demanding.  She had worked as a wildlife and whale watch guide, and manager of the whale museum on San Juan Island.  Carol was right.  Dawn was an easy companion, thoughtful and relaxed.
Dawn loves small boats and so do I, so our second day in a little backwater beach town called La Manzanilla, south of Puerto Vallarta, we rented kayaks.  Allan Mather brings down a large trailer loaded with rental boats each winter and lives up on the hill overlooking the village.  During the summer, he rents out his collection on Denman Island in British Columbia.
We dragged the boats down the sand from Allan’s beach camp, and stowed our lunches and water bottles.  Getting out through the small surf was easy.  The kayaks tracked well and the paddles felt light in our hands.  The hard blue sky, utterly still, curved over the wild world.  Beneath us was a forest of kelp, hiding secrets we could only guess at, whole communities invisible from the country of air. Thousands of small transparent jellyfish pulsed slowly in the clear depths.
A gentle breeze ruffled the ocean as we skirted sharp rocks.  Boobies, frigate birds and pelicans sat watching us move through their territory.  The water rose and fell with a hiss and a sigh against the jagged outcrops.  All around us, hundreds of terns dropped like arrows into the water and rose with fish in their needle beaks.  We explored the rocky bay, poking around dangerous shoals feeling safe in our tiny craft.
After the first headland, we saw a long sandy beach with a hook of land enclosing a protected cove at the far end.  It looked inviting, a good spot to haul out on the shore and take a break.  We’d seen the big hotel up on the hill the previous day on a tour of the mangrove swamps from far across the bay near Tenecatita.  We pulled our boats in to the sand through knee-high surf.
Mario, working in the little cabana, told us this was part of a large Sheraton resort called El Tamarindo.  We could enjoy the beach but the rest was private.  He gave us some literature, then said it was OK if we wanted to walk on their pier.  We hung around for an hour or so in the tranquil embrace of the green land.  Then, having brought no money to express our appreciation, we gave Mario our collection of shells and findings.  He was amused.  We pushed off again.
The shore beyond was a harsh landscape of steep and colorful rocky slopes that supported a leafless dry-season jungle scattered with organ pipe cactus as big as trees.  The cracked and stony desert dropped to the water with no hint of a place to pull out.  Eventually we saw another beach ahead, with booming surf tumbling and rolling up the sand.  While I scouted for a spot safe to go in, Dawn’s boat shot ahead of me, caught a wave and rode up the sand for a flawless landing.
Inspired by her easy performance, I paddled in without a hitch.  But I’m not a fast jumper.  Before I could pop out of my boat, the next wave hit, jerked the boat sideways, knocked me flat and rolled the boat on top of me.  A veteran of big surf, I relaxed.  Holding my breath I waited in the chaotic tumble, knowing things change quickly and that the water would soon pull away.
Dawn’s time as a kayak tour guide had sharpened her awareness of people in trouble, part of taking care of the client.   When I vanished, she raced over, saw my form under the boat and took action.  She hauled the boat aside, then helped me pull it up the sand.  Unhurt and relieved, I spent 20 minutes scooping out sand and water with push pump and sponge.  That was a huge nuisance, but it took my mind off our real problem.
Dawn went off exploring.  I spread my wet clothes on a thorn bush to dry in the sere wind.  We hung out for an hour in the hot sun, unwilling to face the sea again.  That surf was getting larger as the afternoon wind built force.   Dawn and I each studied the water at length then sat and discussed our options.  She set off first.  A big wave caught her boat, turned it sideways and rolled it, but she leaped free before I could get to her to help.  Now she had to spend 20 minutes cleaning out the heavy sandy mess in her own boat.
I announced a new tactic.  I’d push my boat out, swim beside it until it was beyond the breakers, then pull myself up and in.  Out I went into the turbulent inshore foam, and shoved the kayak into the first breaker.  The waves had their own agenda.  They ripped the boat out of my useless grip and jerked my body away with forces too powerful to question, dragging me against the sandy bottom.
Grateful not to be slammed and ground against the bottom under my own hull, I stood up knee deep in froth.  My glasses were lost.  And I had an ice cube’s chance in a volcano of finding them.  I felt utterly stupid forgetting I was wearing them.  A safety cord is worthless in big turbulent water.
Dawn and I sat again, side-by-side with elbows on our knees and reassessed our situation.  With the strong southwest wind, we might not see smaller surf until well after dark.  Getting back then, around the rocky points and through the bay of sharp rocks, and me half blind, could be a killer.  But if we didn’t get back, Carol would panic, and Allan would also.  Besides, we were out of water.  With my weak back, I could not walk out over those steep rocky hills.  We decided Dawn would hike out, and I’d sleep there on the beach if she did not return.
To do that, we’d both need more water. Far down the beach was a hut. We decided to check it and see what it contained.  It was a long walk in the hot sand.  We’d just had time to look around and to realize the thatched shelter was a resort outpost, when two women in white showed up.  They worked for the resort and had come to restock towels and sodas.
I explained our situation.  Rosalia, the older of the two, said we should come with her, leave the boats.  She’d parked their golf cart just out of view.  What a miracle to find transport and a trail out there.  She drove a long way past gorgeous golf greens with long, beckoning vistas between the big trees.  At last we arrived back at Mario’s beach.  That was a surprise.  Mario looked puzzled to see us.  Rosalia repeated our story.  Mario smiled.  “No worries, be happy.  Have a soda.  We’ll be back.”
Off they went in the golf cart.  We supposed they were going for help.  An hour later, they were back.  They had both boats balanced atop on the golf cart.  “How did you do that?” I asked.  Mario smiled. “Easy.  We carried the boats along the beach.”  It was nearly half a mile.  The boats weighed a hundred pounds each.
Before we could gather ourselves and help them, they took the boats off the cart and carried them down to the sand for us.  Our gratitude was immense.  Of all times to be without money.  But neither Mario nor Rosalia seemed to have any thought for reward.  “It’s our job,” Mario said.  “It was fun, a change from the routine around here.  Enjoy the day.”
We paddled away through the tiny surf.  I followed close enough to Dawn that I could not miss her 18-foot, brilliant yellow boat.  I didn’t relish hitting a rock.  The trip back seemed to go quickly.  But we were three hours past our estimated time of arrival.  As we neared Allan’s place, we saw Carol on the beach waving.  She was near total panic, raving as we leaped out.  We ran up to embrace her and explain what had happened.
Carol calmed down enough to help us drag the boats up the sand.  The boat shack was empty.  Allan may have been wasting away again in Margaritaville.
The sun floated on the western rim of creation, the sky aflame with rose and peach colors.  We left the kayaks behind and all tromped down the sand toward the village, our arms linked so the blind sister didn’t stumble over a coconut and trip, in search of cold beer, hot food and laughter under the palm trees.  I’d deal with the lost glasses manana.

THE WILDERNESS CABIN

June 14, 2007

THE WILDERNESS CABIN
(Published in Travelin’ Magazine)

A half day’s drive southeast of Fairbanks, a wild stream roars out of the Alaska Range and tumbles down a boulder field.  We pulled our rented car into a turnoff near the water.  It was early autumn.  The low sun stood just above the mountains, their slopes burnished with the coppery reds of tundra blueberry bushes.
We ate snacks in the cozy car.  I noticed a two-track dirt lane leading away from the highway into alder and willow thickets.  Curious, we pulled on our coats and, walking at a brisk pace to stretch our legs, followed the road into the wild.
The place was pervaded by a strange sort of peace, the deep serenity I find in raw solitude and the vast spaces of the north.  Despite the harsh reality of thin soil and stunted trees, in country where rivers run amok and winter can be unspeakably cruel, the valley felt protected and good.
We saw no tire marks or other tracks on the road.  A mile in, the road ended abruptly at the rim of a cut bank bluff, as if it had launched into the air and vanished.  Grabbing pine branches for safety we looked over the edge into the cold, raging creek below.  Tangled roots hung above the water’s roar.  Something had been connected by that road, and was now cut off.
The golden day was crisp, the dry air scintillating with gusts that shook the leaves.  An animal trail continued on beside the stream, and we decided to keep going.  Breaking into golden willow bushes, we brushed past the springy limbs of young spruce trees, singing to warn off any nearby bears.  Bears don’t like to be ambushed.
We plowed along through overgrown country, then suddenly in front of us stood a log cabin.  It looked well kept.  We called out but nobody answered.  Was the owner nearby?  We did a little exploring.  The outhouse looked as if it had been abandoned, a sure sign nobody was in residence.  The unwritten rule of the wild north is anyone is welcome, any time, as long as you respect the place, so we knew we would not be seen as trespassers here if anyone did show up.
Many hopeful settlers find their way to Alaska, build a home and settle in, but few are able to earn a living in the rugged land.  It is not unusual to come across an abandoned homestead, in perfect condition.  This one had a tool shed, a hunter’s meat cache up on stilts to keep out the wolves, and an outhouse.  These cabins have saved many lives in bad weather, and everyone respects them because of this history.
We stepped up on the porch and pushed on the hand-built plank door.  It didn’t budge.  Through the front window we could glimpse a shadowy interior in good order.  But the place was locked up tight.  I sat on the edge of porch, feet swinging over the ferns.  This was an inviting location, well chosen.
The view took in a grand scene of sawtooth summits, framed by large spruces.  Beyond the creek, a canyon drew our eyes to a glacier at the end of the valley.  A breeze shimmered through a stand of yellow cottonwoods upstream.
Perhaps the builders had to give up the picture book place when the road washed out.  We sat on the rough planks and imagined living here — the cabin as home, a shelter in a remote country, a human place amid this endless wildness that had been preserved untouched since the beginning of things.
We started back to the car.  No, I hesitated. I want to give it one more try.  I stepped up on the porch again.  In a moment of irrational hope, I pulled on a cord protruding through the door planks, and it lifted the hand-made wood latch inside.  The heavy, low door swung open.  We stepped over the high snow-threshold and onto a basketball court.
How could this be?  Painted stripes decorated the beautifully polished blond floor.  It was smooth as pond ice. It looked like some clever person had salvaged the wood from an old gymnasium.
Inside, the cabin was roomy and tight enough for winter, even a central Alaskan howler.  Temperatures hover below minus 60 degrees in the area for long periods some winters.  But, fire up the old cast iron stove and the thick walls of the cabin and its low sloped ceiling with sod insulation above would offer solid and friendly protection.
I recalled a story about a couple that wintered over in a crude shelter in Alaska’s northernmost Brooks Range.  This place would do nicely for such an adventure.  Yes, one could survive here quite content, chopping wood, carrying water and reading by the fire.  The one room was about 16 feet square.
In tightly closed bottles on a shelf under the counter we found flour, sugar, coffee, tea, rice, noodles, beans, dry milk, split peas and more.  Lots of supplies here, and even a few baggies of spices and herbs.  Several cans of kerosene sat by the wall below a lantern hung on a nail.
The sun beamed in through the open door and squirrels in the tall evergreens scolded and chattered their warnings.  The creek rumbled a constant undertone.
Squirrels had got inside somehow.  They’d torn up a corner of the mattress and knocked a cup off the table to shatter.  I shared the wish to preserve this haven.  With the broom, I tidied up a bit, even dusting off the shelves.  When I lifted pots off the top shelf, two bits of writing paper fell to the floor.  I found more notes under the sink.  It seemed everyone who had been here had left a note for the next people.  Gathering the notes, we began to read, stepping out on the porch for brighter light.  Each entry was in different handwriting, on a bit of paper or cardboard, left by a visitor to the cabin who felt moved to communicate with anyone lucky enough to find the place.

June 15, 1995
Dear Hikers, Climbers, Skiers, etc.  This is my first “social” visit to this exceptional accommodation and wonderful area.  Last year I had a party of five up the mountain on a ski trip–great time.  I’ve spent several summers skiing off the glacier since the first year I stumbled into this place, back in ’92.  I’m glad to see the place is in just the same condition as when I first found it.  Happy camping.  Steve Hayes from Kenai
I pulled a three-legged stool out into the sunshine and read on.

September 26, 1996
A beautiful cheery day.  Jeff O’Conner and Nancy Butler from Fairbanks sure enjoyed the shelter of this cabin these past few rainy days.  I believe I, or should I say we, came to a point of turning toward the light in our life while staying here.
This roof needs more tin.  It would be a shame to let the cabin rot away.  Who owns it, anyway?

June 23, 1997
Greetings, Jay.  Do you still own this lovely cabin?  I stop in every year to see how it’s doing.  Still peaceful, as ever.  Good to be back this way.  If you pass through here, my message is — take care.  Deborah Thomas, Anchorage
P.S. It would be nice to see you again, Jay.
I could imagine the builder now — a young man named Jay.  Deborah had known him and hoped he might be here when she arrived.  Perhaps his life had led in a new direction when two paths diverged in the yellow wood, and he’d be back someday if he could.  The next note set a new tone.

March 14, 1998
We arrived here at this picturesque cabin hidden in the trees, about 8 p.m.  The snug comfort of this shelter is a true blessing, shielding us from the tempest outside. But actually, this hut is a disgrace.  I spent an hour looking for an electric outlet.  Now how are we going to make microwave popcorn?   The real bummer is, the ghetto blaster batteries have gone dead.  And on top of that, my partner forgot tapes for the VCR. But, I guess that will make this more of a wilderness experience.
On a separate sheet, on a different shelf, we found the most recent letter along with a pen and some blank paper for future note-makers.

April 16, 2001
Hi climbers and visitors. We’ve been using this cabin this spring and winter and were wondering who owns it.  If you have any information or would just like to leave a note of your stay or climb, feel free to use the paper I left.   Ruth Koenig, Fairbanks
P.S. I swept and cleaned.  Let’s try to keep the place neat.
We wrote a note of our own and left it with Ruth’s, certain that some future visitor would add to the ongoing story.  As we closed the door behind us, our words lay on the table with a pen, waiting for the next arrival, months or years from now.  Who would come  next?  Would the cabin endure for decades, sheltering fortunate explorers, cared for by each?  In the wilderness, that cabin is important, so we’d no reason to assume anything but respect in Alaska for what it represents — its lifesaving potential, its innocent goodness and its hospitality to all.
We may never return to that secret corner of the woods, but if we are lucky we may find another cabin weathering the seasons in the vast wilderness of the north.

WHEN YOU GOTTA GO

June 14, 2007

WHEN YOU GOTTA GO

(Published in 2004 in a collection of travel stories titled

Whose Panties are These? edited by Jennifer Leo)

We were in Yucatan on our way to visit pyramids, a two hour trip. This vacation was my great escape from daily dealings with the disgusting surprises that enliven my life as a rental property manager.
My friend Linda took a seat opposite a dignified Maya grandma in an immaculate traditional dress. I left my stuff and returned to the front of the bus.
“Do I have time to go to the bathroom?” I asked the driver in Spanish.
“Hurry. Three minutes and I’m going.” I ran into the storefront bus station. Mexican rock music blared from overpowered speakers. Families and backpackers waited on wood benches.
The bathroom was filthy, the toilets a tribute to ancient plumbing and the inadequate flush. All were missing toilet seats. The situation presented no problem for this savvy traveler. I thought, “I’ll try that trick I learned in India.” You just stand on the bare porcelain rim, your shoes the only contact, and squat.
Feeling confident, I loosened my shorts. I could handle this, easy. I stepped up with my right foot, then my left. Over the pounding beat and blaring trumpets, I heard a strange groan. The world shifted as if a huge quake shook the very earth beneath me. The universe tipped to the left. My heart raced. The toilet ripped from the tile floor.
I leaped away, pants still down, and fell hard against the locked stall door as the bowl crashed over on its side. A wave of icy slime the color of yellow vomit swept over my sandals and out into the room like Noah’s flood ripping through an Iowa pig farm. While the music blasted, I pictured unspeakable organic compounds deadlier than crap seeping into the grout between the tiles.
I lifted my wet feet in a sort of jig, befuddled as a dog in a dancehall. Was there a number larger than duotrigintillion to describe the army of evil bacteria now staging an assault on my bare toes and ankles? And the smell.  Never mind.
Two bare rusted bolts stood like tiny guards beside the hole in the floor. The dead toilet bowl lay on its side near them, an albino mammoth awaiting rescue.
I knew the station manager would burst in and find me, in mere moments. “How did you manage to destroy my toilet?”
“I stood on the seat,” I’d whimper meekly.
“You idiot,” he’d shout. “You stupid Gringa. Have you no culture? Did your mother teach you nothing? You will pay for this.”
I could expect the worst possible treatment — police interrogation, a big fine for destructive mischief, jail time for terrorist activities and betraying the trust of the entire Mexican nation. “We’ll have to call in the army to investigate.”
The bus would be long gone, without me. I’d left my money, my ID, everything with Linda. And she’d never know what happened to me.
Pulling up my pants, I slid the bolt and peeked out of the stall. No witnesses. But I still had to go. The bus driver was probably pulling away at that moment. But when you gotta, you gotta. I whipped out from behind my stall door, slipped into another stall and did my business, air butt style, my feet in the spreading mess. The smell must have reached the waiting room by now. Someone would get curious.
Still no one had come shouting accusations. Now, with one stall between me and the disaster, I could claim I knew nothing. I could lie. “What toilet? What mess?” I’d be dumb not to lie when the yelling started. The band played on.
Sloshing though the deep puddle on the floor, then looking both ways, I held my breath and washed my hands. Still no one came. Should I take five minutes to wash my feet and shoes in the sink? No, better catch that bus.
I checked the waiting room. Despite the 200-decibel sound blast, all appeared calm. The bus sat outside. I raced past the waiting people, wet sandals slapping, and out to the bus.
I climbed the steps in welcome silence. “Sorry,” I said. “But thanks for waiting.” The driver shook his head, annoyed at the delay. My sandals squished and slurped as I walked along the aisle. I sat down by Linda and could barely contain myself as I tried to tell her what happened. We clutched our bellies, exploding then bit our lips while the other passengers gave us puzzled looks.
I now sat across the aisle from the prim Maya grandma in her elegant snow white embroidered dress with flawless frilly lace. Did I smell something foul? I put my nose to my hands. I sniffed the seat back behind me.
Sneaking slowly nearer, I sniffed the hair of the man in front of me. All normal. Was I having olfactory hallucinations? Something smelled odd and that lady in white knew it was me.
Linda fell asleep, her head resting against the window. The jungle raced by and the whole incident began to take on a new coloration. I didn’t have to call the plumber. I didn’t have to explain my potty technique to the grand inquisitor. If the installer failed to bolt down that toilet with the standard sturdy hex nuts, it was not my problem.
The relief of an apartment manager on vacation bordered on pure childish glee. I’d crash landed a toilet and run away. The more I chuckled the more that dignified Maya woman kept looking over at me, like I might actually be dangerous.

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June 14, 2007

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