Taking Off

Dad faced two chairs knee to knee and offered me one. “You tell me that your problem is being with people.” “Yeah.” If I were a burr and you a wool sock, I wouldn’t stick to you. “And that you are lonely and depressed.” The bleakness of life before Prozac. I was 19. “Isn’t hitchhiking to Alaska to live in the woods running away from your problems?” My father has this rational, reasonable, you-definitely-want-him-to-be-your-brain-surgeon air of competency and authority about him. “Yeah, maybe. Probably.” “Why are you going then?” “I got to.” It was an imperative. My folks dropped me off at the entrance to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was raining. Mom was crying. I didn’t do hugs; I shouldered my pack and walked to the end of the line of fellow travelers lining the road. It was 1974, hitchhiking still got you places. I stuck out my thumb. That winter there were days it dropped to 55 below. I sat in a chair I’d hammered together out of slabwood from a local mill and a piece of plywood picked out of a dumpster. I sat next to the wood stove, its belly orange red—the draw is terrific with a 120 degree differential. My off-stove side was uncomfortably cool. The weight of the sub-arctic night pressed on the cabin, squirting jets of air between the door and frame misting the moist cabin air. The pressurized gas lantern hissed; my face looked back at me from the blackness pushing into the window. I turned a page, Atlas Shrugged. Twenty-odd years later, Dad and I were hiking under the magisterial Sitka...

First Career

I was stumbling around Tel Aviv, my gut host to a writhing community of bugs, worms and microbes picked up from a half year in Africa. I was desperately ill, I was lonely, homesick, malnourished and exhausted. A voice raged in my head: Get to the airport, you fool, and hop a 747 back to the States, get reamed out by Doc Fischer and— And wake up in my childhood bed in my folks’ house and have not a clue what I was going to do with my life. It stopped me cold. Like a fish brained with a gaffing hook. I would not wake up in that bed and not know what I was going to do next. Instead I staggered down the streets of Tel Aviv from public john to public john (Tel Aviv is a dysentaric’s paradise—every other block, about the limit of my range, had a public toilet) feasted on by parasites and tormented by what to do with my life. On some unheralded street corner, I busted out of the box of what a person’s life was supposed to be: lawyer/doctor/hedge-fund trader, wife, kids, house in the suburbs and, with great conviction, said to myself that my life is going to be non-standard. Whatever that might look like. At the next step, however, without realizing it, I lost faith. I decided that I needed a day job, a survival skill that would support me in my non-standardness. At no point did it occur to me that I could pay my own way on my own terms. Instead, still host of a parasitic zoo, I...

How it Started

The ridge was high, snow covered and buried in cloud. Below us, below the cloud, was Juneau, home. I followed Don, muscling my skis into sudden turns when rocks jutted through crusty snow. Don’s hair swayed across his back brushing his belt-line. It hadn’t been cut since the day the Marine Corps had remade him a civilian, 8 or 9 years ago, after it had run him through two tours as a forward spotter in Viet Nam, after it had shredded his ear drums and, though we didn’t know such a thing existed at the time, after it had twisted his psyche with PTSD. I’d once asked him: “Do you think about it? Viet Nam?” One of his lower eyelids sagged showing the red meat under his eyeball. He looked at me with the distant hardness of a man who has seen people killed, people he killed, and he said: “Every day.” There was no good way off the ridge—unless we turned back, which wasn’t going to happen. It fell off steeply on both sides and the slopes were tangled with alder and willow. Farther down, stood Sitka spruce and spotty snow. We’d have to shoulder our skis and crash out through the brush. “What are you going to do with your boat?” Don lived in the harbor on a small black-hulled sailboat. A boat that size, I figured, could make a run to Sitka on the outer coast or up Lynn Canal to Haines, both small towns in Southeast Alaska a hundred miles or so from Juneau. “Sail her into the South Pacific,” he said. Beat. “You can...

We Meet

When I first saw Kainui, I was disappointed. Like your first date with a cover girl sans airbrush and Photoshop. Plain, unadorned, nicked and scratched, canvas decked, handmade fiberglass cockpit, and desperately small. Twenty-five feet six inches, she lay in the slip docile as a cow, knowing, perhaps, that her fate was in the hands of others. I crawled into her bilges, paint worn and tar-spotted; poked into lockers, dirt cemented in cracks and joints; squeezed the settee cushions, upholstered in brown vinyl cracked by age; pulled up the floorboards, thick, crudely cut teak planks. My heart was sick. This boat had been in my dreams for a year and a half—ever since I’d read a line by Eric Hiscock: To my mind, the best pocket cruiser is the Vertue. From that moment—what did I know?—my boat was to be a Vertue. And her beauty and seakeeping prowess and the adventures we were to have had swelled in my mind. I climbed back on deck. Standing on the dock watching me with a black sullenness was Philip, who had found Kainui before I had, who had fallen in love with her, who, while raising her purchase price, had neglected to put money down to keep her his. The morning after I had first spoken with Peter Kinsey, Kainui’s owner, to see if she were still available, I went to my bank, was promised a loan (later rescinded), and that evening, less than 24 hours later, offered Peter to purchase a first option. He said no, I trust you. Which only pumped my anxiety—I wanted something binding. But he’d stayed...

Alaska

Slideshow: Alaska to Alberta Not Covered in Glory I was lucky there were no witnesses when I tried to push an overloaded Succotash out the door. I forgot to shift her into low gear before I started up the driveway and I had to walk her up to the road. Three miles into the trip with no system failures, I stopped at the top of the small rise before the hospital to call Suzanne to let her know I was off. No answer, I left a voice mail. I remounted, and glided down the hill and there she was listening to my message and taking pictures. Final hugs. Gray, spitting rain, tires slick on the asphalt, a black Volvo with a bike strapped on its roof honked, the driver shot me a thumbs up. At the terminal, I stood last in line: an alien in tights, shoes that click like a dog’s overgrown claws, head gear that looks majorly encephalitic, and a diaper between my legs. It’s hard to take this sport seriously when it’s such a sartorial catastrophe. Sunk in my dweebishness, behind me, a silky voice spiced with German said: You’re riding a bike too? Six foot, bronzed, clear green eyes, with a translucent complexion, she leaned over my bike odometer and said, 13. First day, I murmur. In the ship’s hold, she secured her bike and walked away, swaying like a tall ship, her top gallants catching the sea breeze–no clicking shoes, no diapers. It could be done. Without apology, the ferry left me at Skagway below mean low water. It was still raining, the wind...

The Yukon

Metaphysics I’m a radical secular materialist, I don’t believe there is any higher power meddling, for good or ill, in my life. There are, however, two aspects of my life where I don’t poke at the metaphysics too much. First: Every lesson I’ve learned as a result of a dumb mistake—and there have been legions—I have paid a fairly low price for. Not that losing a hammock is serious, but it was a dumb mistake, and I got it back without having to repedal the pass. I have friends who are far better skiers who have broken legs, friends who are far better sailors lose boats, friends who stretch before they run, snap tendons. They get the serious pain; I skate. The story that flooded my mind on the way to Whitehorse was of a woman I’d met when sailing in Tonga who’d held a coconut in her hand and whacked at it with a machete. The blade glanced off the shell and sliced into the fleshy heel of her thumb. Fortunately, there was an American warship in the harbor and she and her husband leapt in the dingy and raced over. After the corpsman had sewed and bandaged her hand, he told her she’d cut the nerve and would never regain full functionality of her thumb. After she’d told me the story, she’d looked at me with great pain and frustration clouding her face and said: “It was a high price to pay for a little mistake.” I have driven knives and chisels into my hands, even burned the flesh through to the bone sliding down a rope, but never damaged a...