Alaska is the last place in the United States I wanted to live.
No, wait, read that the other way around.
I had lived in the four corners of this country; I grew up in Southern California, summered in Manhattan and Portland and spent over a year in New Orleans. I felt that I had lived in all the places that I wanted to live in the United States, except one, the last place, Alaska.
It was that romantic ideal, the last frontier, the place of endless green or white vistas, and the place where people went to find adventure. I was fueled by the stories of Jack London, by John Kraukerâ€™s book â€˜Into The Wildâ€™, by stories of fishing for the summer, and snowbound in the winter, of constant sunlight or darkness, and of the northern lights twisting the sky with their surreal colors.
All of these things were in the back of my mind while I headed north, but the story of Chris McCandless and his journey â€˜Into The Wildâ€™ was fore in my mind. There is something wonderfully romantic and fascinating in his journey. I can understand his thinking, I can understand his yearning, even if I canâ€™t describe or explain it. His desire to remove himself from the trappings of this world, remove himself from the money and the homes and the bills and the people.
Sometimes in my daydreams, I find myself disappearing into the wild like he did, wandering into the wilderness to find something unexplainable. Or following Ambrose Bierce into Mexico, searching for something I cannot explain.
But I could never go as far as they could, I could never take that one step into nothingness. I have a love hate relationship with people. I love the touch, and the laughter and the connection, I need to be with them, to feel them, but I also need to be away. Most of the time it works on a small scale. There is a party the night before, with drink and dancing and laughter and people. But the next morning, I need to be away, away into a book, or wandering with my camera, or driving my car. And once I wander away, I can come back, and enjoy people again.
I wanted, in my soul, to do what Chris McCandless did, to just disappear, but I knew I could not be that romantic. I knew I could not go that far.
He ended up dying of starvation in the wilderness of Alaska, while I became a bartender in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska.
Once I arrived in Alaska, I found that many of the myths about the state had disappeared over time, but some were still true.
It used to be that there were many more men than women, but now the ratio is about 50/50. But the women have a saying about the men is still true. â€œThe odds are good, but the goods are odd.â€
There is also a respect for the wilderness, a respect for Mother Nature, which I had never encountered while living in Southern California. This respect was centered on one simple ideal: It can easily kill you.
The ocean temperature hovers just above freezing, and will kill you in three minutes.
In the trunk of my friends cars, they kept blankets, water and power bars, because if you break down, even close to a town, the winter can kill you before you can make it back.
And while I respected Chris McCandless for his desire to wander out into this wilderness, for his desire to live life fully, to live in a cabin in the woods like Thoreau, (who took his laundry home each week), the people in Alaska thought him an idiot. An idiot for not respecting the dangers, an idiot for not respecting Mother Nature. There was an unstated undercurrent of reaction from the Alaskans; he got what he deserved.
* * *
When I look back at some of the things that I have done, I can, with hindsight, understand what it was that drove me. Why I made that particular decision. But at the time, there is no such logical understanding. It is just my subconscious telling me what to do, and I found that I can ignore it for a short time, but it is better just to follow along, and see where it takes me.
For this particular journey, it went like this:
I had spent two or three years working in a wonderful bar in Laguna Beach. I had collected a second family, who my friend Lyle called The Manson Family, but a beautiful family nonetheless. My feet were itching and I needed to move on. I had saved some money, and booked a flight that would take me to India for three months.
But what to do after that?
I was giving up the apartment, putting my two vehicles into storage and needed to do something next. I knew that I needed to go somewhere new.
Alaska came to mind.
People ask me now: Why Alaska? And my answer is: It seemed like a good idea at the time. And it was a good idea, but that was the most I thought about it. I just wanted to go there, so I did.
I was to arrive back from India in mid-April, spend two weeks in Laguna, and then head north on May Day.
The next question was how to get to Alaska.
I could, of course, fly, but that seemed like the easy way out. Flying is like jumping up and landing in a different place. There is no feel for the place, there is no understanding for the weather, which affects people in myriad of different ways.
The only real way to travel to a new place is to get there over land. I guess a true traveler would walk, or take a horse. But I wouldnâ€™t do that, so one of my two vehicles would have to do.
I had the choice between my 1955 MG TF or my 1977 Yamaha XS750. I could put more stuff in the car, and it would be more comfortable and warmer. But the motorcycle had a simpler, romantic allure. Even the luggage I would use â€“saddlebags- brought out visions of horses on the open prairie.
But the decision came down to one logical thought: the motorcycle was disposable. The car was worth a lot to me, both financially and emotionally. If something major were to break in the middle of nowhere, I would probably have to tow it to Anchorage, which might be a thousand miles away. The motorcycle I had bought for $450 and even though I loved it, if something major happened to it, I could dump it on the side of the road and continue on a different way.
So I put the car in storage, sent two boxes of possessions to the post office in Anchorage, and made my Yamaha ready. I changed the oil, replaced the rubber fuel lines, bought backup throttle and clutch cables, put on new tires, and packed up my saddlebags and backpack.
Click here to read:
Road to Alaska: Section III