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Excerpt

Excerpt

Looking for Alaska

Four feet of the whitest, most gorgeous snow was on the ground north of Moose Pass, Alaska. It looked so deep and so perfect it seemed as if I could jump out of a plane from five thousand feet and land in it with a poof, without a parachute. The top foot was fine powder; most of it had fallen ever so lightly from the sky last night. The sun does not light things for very long this time of year, and at this time of the afternoon the snow and the sharp-faced mountains glow a deep yellow-pink. The sky is the deepest, purest blue I have ever seen.

I spotted something far to the right in my peripheral vision. A magnificent long-legged, mature lynx was bounding through the snow. The clouds of snow that rose all around it hid whatever it was chasing. This scene was so exhilarating to me; it seemed to be happening in slow motion. The lynx was light and dark gray and surrounded by the clouds of yellow-pink-colored crystals of snow kicked up around it. I may have seen the lynx for only five seconds. It, and whatever it was chasing, took a sharp turn into the snow-coated spruce. I was the only person in Alaska who witnessed that moment of high inspiration. How many tiny pieces of wild animals' lives are we humans blessed to see?

Who will see the twin moose calves, warmed by spring's penetrating Alaskan sun, as they both try to stand for the first time on wobbly legs? They almost fall; one hits its nose on the ground and that keeps it from completely losing its balance. They attempt to take their first steps; they must be able to run soon. Only their mother and a few ravens watch.

Who will see the female mountain goat, who is having her kid on a beach right before Bear Glacier in a place safe from so many aggressive predators? This lone female climbed down an almost vertical rock face to this beach on Resurrection Bay where a freshwater spring drains down the rock. No bear, no wolf, no wolverine, could follow. She would not look up often, but that is where the golden eagle came from, to take her kid in its talons.

Who gets to notice fifteen snow-white ptarmigan, the state bird, fly over the ivory meadow, the black marks on their tails looking like flying black triangles on a giant piece of clean white paper?

A pack of four black wolves pad down a frozen creek. They spook a couple thousand caribou, part of a herd of several hundred thousand. At first the wolves are not visible, just the caribou moving across the white-on-white-onwhite tundra. The running caribou string out and move as if they were a school of fish, darting, alternating their course, and shifting so slightly, in unison. Then the black wolves appear surrounded by an eternity of white, and the reason for the caribou's movement is clear. No human stands on this massive piece of tundra but me.

There is so much life and death that plays out on the land and water of Alaska, and only a tiny bit of it is ever seen. But because of how Alaska thrilled and surprised me, I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we could come here, there was so much to do, so much to consider. But thanks to friends and family, it turned out to be no big deal getting access to the last frontier.

Two weeks after we arrived, riding down the hill in Seward, Alaska, on this borrowed mountain bike made me feel like a kid again, a feeling that is getting harder and harder to capture. I'd practically skidded around the curve by the abandoned orphanage, maybe fifty yards from the house we were renting, and was gaining speed on the straightaway of this paved road. The blue Schwinn mountain bike I rode had so many gears, if I shifted into the highest one, I could keep pedaling and still gain speed. People interested in my continued good health would accuse me of going too fast.

I hoped one of Seward's horses wasn't standing in the road around the next sharp, blind corner. The Bardarsons' horses lived on that corner, and one or two were often out of the corral, where the grass was greener. At the bottom of the hill a group of huge, black ravens often perched in a stand of dead spruce, making bizarre sounds. They sounded nothing like birds; hearing them I could understand why Natives felt ravens had powerful spirits. Later in the summer, when my son Luke used his bike to get back and forth to work, I would walk up this hill and try to mimic the ravens. They were too intelligent to respond.

It was early June, yet I had on a black fleece vest, blue cotton sweatpants, and Adidas cross trainers. On our farm in Tennessee, where we normally lived, it was hot and humid in June; wearing fleece would be impossible this time of year. As I sped down the hill, Alaskan air flavored by glaciers and the sea blew hard in my face. To be able to dress like this in the summer was a simple yet surprisingly profound pleasure, especially because the daylight stayed out to play until 2 A.M. Oh, to be away from the shriveling humidity.

Some of our friends thought we might be moving here forever, but Rita and I had made no plans to stay longer than a year or so. Rita and I and most of our children had been living in Alaska for only two weeks, and I hadn't traveled anywhere yet, except around and around this coastal town, really a village walled in by jagged mountains and otherworldly blue glaciers on three sides. The road to Seward ended in the sea; "downtown," where the city hall, library, and movie theater were, this town was not even three-quarters of a mile wide. In 1964 much of it had been destroyed by one of the ten worst earthquakes in the world in the last hundred years-three of the ten worst have occurred in Alaska.

I know people who travel across several countries on their two-week vacations, but this was not our vacation. While we were in Alaska, we had decided to settle down in Seward (pop. 2,830), about 130 miles south of Anchorage, on the Kenai Peninsula. I'd heard the name Seward-he was the man who "bought" Alaska for two cents an acre. But I'd never heard of Seward the city until my friend Ben Ellis told me about it. Ben, a former newspaperman, worked at the Sea Life Center there.

I didn't know where to begin this odyssey. I'd fought the feeling these two weeks that I was wasting priceless time. I was not burning up the roads headed for some Eskimo village, nor was I making any lists or filling up my calendar with interview dates and visits. Fortunately, I have a wife who understands that some people, including her husband and her father, a farmer, don't work like many people do.

Different seasons of the year, of life, demand different kinds of output. There is a time to sow and a time to reap. Sometimes it's more mental, sometimes it's almost purely physical. And at times your heart and spirit rule. There are similarities between writers and farmers; you prepare the ground, then plant the seed. You patiently allow Nature to do as she will. You take away the weeds, you allow the sun to shine and the rain to fall, then you harvest what is there. Alaska seemed too big of a field to harvest. People I respected said, though, that Alaska was more like a big small town. Everyone knew everyone. That was easy for them to say.

I did not feel at home in Alaska yet. I wondered if I ever would. But on these journeys, I always feel this way at first. It's part of the pressure of adjusting to a new place. It might take me a while to feel comfortable. I learned a long time ago that it's best to allow myself to be reprogrammed to the pace of a new place. It's better to relax and respect my way into a new world than to force myself on it.

And there is always sadness about what we've left behind. If it hadn't been for our friends Nona and Rusty Jones, we would probably not have been here at all. Certainly we wouldn't have relocated as a family, and then the adjustment would have been much more wrenching for me. In my life, tiny, apparently unrelated moments have had great influence. This whole trip had started with a simple introduction over lunch.

Over the last few years Rusty and Nona had become two of our closest friends. In the fall of 1994, Rusty invited me to come for lunch in Nashville to meet one of his clients. Rusty's an entertainment attorney and represents me when I do something entertaining. Lately I hadn't been doing much. I was prepared to accept that now that I was older, and like other adventurers, whether they be explorers or athletes or entrepreneurs, my best adventures in life were over. Leave the intense challenges for the young. But I didn't want to give them up. I like to compliment Rusty and tell him he is the lawyer with half a heart; at times he really seems to care about people. For months, he'd been telling me I needed to go somewhere, take off and explore, so that I would have something to write about. He knew how I was feeling and what I needed. Although he tried to make a joke of it, he knew my situation wasn't funny.

The client Rusty wanted me to meet was an Alaskan folksinger, songwriter, and true eccentric named Hobo Jim. Hobo's given name is Jim Varsos. He's actually not eccentric, just ferociously himself. He has carved out his own kind of life; he's the kind of guy who has never worked in a cubicle. In the seventies he hitchhiked to Alaska with two women from Texas. They landed in Homer. Rusty had been itching to introduce us to each other. He was fond of saying that Hobo was his favorite anarchist. And, based on some comments I've made about politicians and the government, Rusty seemed to think that Hobo and I might share some views. Hobo is no anarchist; it's just that Rusty's a liberal democrat.

After lunch Hobo invited me to come visit him and his family in Alaska. I decided to take him up on his offer; about six months before I was supposed to leave, Rusty's wife, Nona, stepped in. The Joneses' youngest daughter, Grayson, had become our youngest daughter's good friend; they were both seven and loved the Spice Girls. Usually I did all I could to avoid hearing their music. One day, however, Rusty and I took them to a Spice Girls concert. While we were at the concert, Nona and Rita were going to see There's Something About Mary. (They thought it was a chick flick. Whoops.)

Nona is the kind of woman who makes things happen. She's from Memphis and she could probably run a small country. She is not your image of a shy and subtle southern girl. Rita fits that description more, except she's from southern Michigan. When the movie grossed them out, they went for coffee. When we all met back at the Joneses', Rita and Nona were ready for something.

"You guys, sit down," Nona commanded us, as only Nona can do.

Nona is forceful but only when she thinks there is something good for you involved. You can't help but love her because you know she loves you, even if she's a bit dominating. I am used to Nona's type of personality; my father was just like her. My dad expressed his opinion about everything we did-everything that he knew about, anyway. Somehow he seemed to know much more about what we did than we thought he did, almost as if he had done the same things when he was young. I used to think he wanted all of his children to do just what he said, but I learned that he expected us to respect his opinion and then make up our own mind.

When we came in from the concert, Rusty went to make us each a mint julep, but decided to wait when he discerned Nona and Rita's seriousness. Rusty surely knew something was up. Being an attorney, he is used to being thrown any kind of pitch, so he smiled comfortably as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Maybe he was still thinking about Posh Spice.

"Honey," Rita said sweetly, "Nona and I have been talking and she has something important to say for me."

My brain dashed around in search of places of difficulty in our relationship, but before I could find any, Nona took over.

"You're going to Alaska, going there to work on your next book. Well, why not take the family with you? Rita wants to move up there with you, no matter how long you plan to stay. You can take Julianne, she can go to school up there somewhere, and the older kids can come up in the summers. What do you think?"

Rusty looked as if he'd swallowed a law book. Rita watched my face and smiled one of her "this is going to happen" smiles. I felt sick just attempting to work through the logistics, and aggravated with Nona for putting me on the spot.

"That would be nice," I said, and I was only sort of lying.

It would be nice, but finding a place for all of us to stay and then moving at least the three of us up there would be difficult. Finding places to rent in the summer is hard to do. It would have to be big enough for all the kids to visit, and Alaskans as a rule don't have large homes-too much to heat for too long. Plus, every Alaskan told me that when you live in Alaska, suddenly friends and family remember you and miss you and can't wait to see you-that is, as long as you're willing to be their personal tour guide. Then there was the thought of bringing our other five children, ages fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty, and twenty-three, up for the summers. Quite a frisky bunch they are. My mind racedfinding jobs for the older ones, paying for all of it, the travel, the expenses. But what Nona and Rita were suggesting did sound wonderful, and suddenly I knew that sharing Alaska was the right thing to do. Could we pull it off? Did the kids even want to?

The logistics made my brain want to burn some wires and short-circuit. It wasn't just getting them to Alaska; it was the wanting everyone to be happy and fulfilled by it. And of course there was the major challenge of truly discovering Alaska. In twisting my arm, Nona said that our children could be a big part of our Alaskan experience, that their enthusiasm would be a bonus for me. We talked with our children, and to our surprise they all wanted to experience Alaska too. They were willing to make the sacrifice of us being away from home for the time we would be together in the last frontier. Alaska was so enormous, so distinct; it had such an unusual presence. I hadn't been this overwhelmed since I began my walk across America as a twenty-two-year-old. Could I possibly handle the plate I had set for myself and now serve it up successfully to our whole family?

Rita, Julianne, Luke, Jed, Aaron and I arrived in Anchorage on the plane with one duffel bag each in late May. Rebekah and Brooke would be here soon. The duffels were huge black things with wheels on one end, made by JanSport of ballistics cloth. Each one holds over ten thousand cubic inches and weighs six pounds eight ounces empty. As big as they are, they didn't hold chairs, sofas, beds, a TV, the kitchen sink. We did bring six sleeping bags. Rita brought her set of linen napkins. She'd set those napkins up on top of a cardboard box, covered with some lovely tablecloth she had found buried at a garage sale with a vase filled with Alaskan wildflowers if she had to. She has a way of making things beautiful. That spirit of hers has even softened me.

Rita did pack a Krup's coffeemaker, which she wrapped in mismatched sheets. One essential piece of our life we made sure followed us to Alaska was our monthly delivery of coffee. Starbucks sends two pounds of coffee beans every month to our farm, usually French roast. Rita had it forwarded to Seward. There is no door-to-door mail delivery in Seward; everyone picks mail up at the post office. Our address was P.O. Box 761, zip 99664. I never thought I would have a zip code that began with a nine, much less a double nine. Where I was born, it begins with zero; where I have been living since the early eighties, it begins with three.

The street where we lived in Seward went another hundred yards or so and intersected with Seward's main street, which was the one and only road out of town. Go left to Anchorage and the rest of North America; go right about a mile to downtown Seward and the ocean. I rode my bike on a path that paralleled the road. After two weeks I could fly down it. These horses seemed to know not to come toward the main road. Somebody's horses had been running around on Seward's airport runway, where they had to compete for grazing with the moose that lived off in the willows by the runway.

Being surrounded as we are here by the wilderness, endless mountains, water, and glaciers, with only one road out, Seward has little crime, even though most of the worst criminals in Alaska live here. On the other side of Resurrection Bay by Fourth of July Creek and Spring Creek is Alaska's maximum-security prison. It sits alone crammed a long way down a closed mountain valley.

Seward's only recent bank robbery took place in the seventies. To rob a bank in Seward, where the road dead-ends into the ocean and goes for sixty miles north with no outlet, is not going to get you listed in the who's who of successful bank robbers. A bank robber trying to escape would not park a getaway car and attempt to climb over the mountains and glaciers that hem us in. These glaciers have carved out the bit of flat land that Seward perches on by the sea; these inspired sculptors have carved much of Alaska and are still grinding away. Sometimes the glaciers look silver, sometimes ice blue; sometimes they are immaculate, covered with snow. They keep us in on the east and the west and stretch for miles and miles to the north. There are only narrow passageways out of town, some blasted by man and others created by the glaciers' flow.

The ocean waters of Resurrection Bay, which flow in from the Gulf of Alaska, block us, except of course for boats. The waters bring to within view of town pods of orcas, several salmon runs a year, sea otters floating on their backs. Even a humpback can sometimes be seen breaching a mile or more offshore.

The mountains, sharp as a scalpel, that rise on all sides make us feel secure some days, trapped on others, and when the sun, clouds, and glacial mists cooperate, extremely inspired. Sometimes the mountain walls can be seen so clearly that their grandeur can almost knock you over. When people from Outside, which is what Alaskans call the rest of the United States, hear that Mount Alice, directly to our east, is just 5,265 feet in elevation, they act disappointed. People are looking for big numbers, but numbers can be deceiving. The mountains all around us rise up from sea level. The mountains I've walked over in Colorado start at eight or nine thousand feet, and the grandest rise to something over thirteen thousand. Here what are called hanging glaciers are sus pended in among the surrounding peaks; they were like blue mirages floating inside openings in the clouds. There just is no easy way out of Seward, and there had been no easy way to get out of my stagnation, a feeling I'd felt for a few years, until coming here.

Seward is one of those rare communities where you can turn your kids loose and let them roam around town. People don't have to worry about not being able to find husbands or wives. Turn them loose. Even if a husband is prone to hang around at bars or other places he shouldn't-which I am not-he can be found quickly. There are only so many bars and only so many streets. Many people think that Alaska would be a great place to disappear to or hide out, but that's not true in Seward.

I rode Joe's bike across the main street, which is called either the Seward Highway or Third Avenue depending on where you are, and headed toward the city docks. I have always loved hanging around boat docks. By Icicle Seafoods, a cannery, there's a railroad car or two set up with shops in them. One corner is the bike shop, where fourteen-year-old Joe Tougas got his really advanced new mountain bike, the yellow and black one, which is why I was riding his old one. Redheaded, shorthaired Joe is a hard worker, and he pays for his bikes with his own money. He even put studded tires on his new one for winter. I watched the way the teenagers rode their mountain bikes, down the stairs and up the stairs. They would ride up a couple stairs slowly, almost coming to a stop, fighting for balance. I tried to do what they did.

The guy who runs the bike shop and his family spend the summer here and drive to Mexico in their camper and live there after tourist season. I was always seeing him in the bay in his kayak or riding fast around town on one of his bikes.

I pedaled over to Captain Jack's. Captain Jack is Jack Scoby. Several years ago, he and his wife, Sheila, and some other pioneering Sewardites started taking visitors on their boat into the bay to see the orcas and humpbacks and Steller's sea lions and bald eagles and Dall porpoise and peregrine falcons and mind-blowing glaciers. They then sold out to Kenai Fjord Tours, who continued their tradition and added more boats to their fleet. At Captain Jack's, they process the fresh salmon and halibut tourists catch each day on the local charter boats. Our sons Luke and Aaron would have summer jobs there cutting up and vacuum-packing the fish, then shipping it FedEx frozen back to the fisherman's home. If you caught an eighty-pound halibut and six silvers, you could send sixty to seventy pounds of fresh fish back home.

Part of the reason I was not jumping face first into Alaska was that I wanted to make sure the family was settled in. Our other son, Jed, sixteen, would work at the local Helly Hansen store. They sold the kind of high-quality wet-weather gear favored by commercial fishermen and outdoor gear that was quickly being discovered by adventurers and outdoorsy people.

It was about four o'clock and getting crowded on the docks, since many charter-fishing boats come in around this time. They say that late in the afternoon in summer you can climb to the top of Mount Marathon, one of the thousands of mountains around Seward, and see the whole fishing fleet heading home, making white wakes in the turquoise-blue-green ocean.

I took off again, past Miller's Daughter, where we went for homemade bread and soup. I loved being able to eat hot soup in the summer. I rode through a parking lot and around the corner to two old school buses that were sort of pushed together. Inside the small one was Red. He sold the best hamburgers and fries in town. He'd set up a soda machine outside and kept a few picnic tables for his customers. Everyone said that Seward in the summer and Seward in the winter were two different cities; we would find out, they'd tell us, and watch for our reaction. I had none. I had no idea what an Alaskan winter was like, and I wasn't quite ready to learn yet. I was still getting my feet wet.

Leaving Red's gravel parking lot was a man in a motorized wheelchair. He pulled out onto our main street and headed down the road, out of town, at about five miles an hour. He didn't drive in the main car lane but just to the side. I was headed to our little bitty movie theater to see which kids we could take to the movie, which we would do once a week all summer, but I turned around and pulled alongside the man in the wheelchair. When he saw me, he pulled farther over so I wouldn't be nailed by some of the traffic. He said he was headed to Eagle, a grocery store on the edge of town just before the huge metal coffee cup called Espresso Simpatico. A guy named Darien sold Americanos and lattes and all kinds of other fancy coffee there.

I must have registered surprise on my windburned face because he said, "That's no big deal. I've taken this wheelchair all the way to the Pit Bar." The Pit Bar stays open until 5 A.m. and opens again a few hours later. It's a few miles out the road.

I told him to have a nice ride, he wished me the same. I rode past Terry's Tire and Lube, a gas station right out of the fifties, where Terry and his wife repair tires and change oil. Before Terry's on the left was National Bank of Alaska. It had small plots of ground by the side road entrance where people tend little gardens. After we'd been to the bank once, Cheryl, at the far right window, knew our names. She lived about halfway up our hill in an apartment complex. We'd run into Cheryl all over the place, as you do everyone you love, hate, or are indifferent about in a small place like Seward.

I try not to hate anyone, but there is an occasional person in life that you just don't want to see, and that is what's bad about Seward's post office. I pedaled there before checking into the movie playing at the Liberty Theater. Everyone in Seward has to go to the post office every day to get mail. Eventually you notice who gets their mail at what time of day, and if you want to see a friend or meet someone or avoid someone else, you know when to go. If you hate people in general, you could go to the post office at 3 A.M. If you had a big package, they'd put a key in your box that fit a larger box and keep your big package there. If you love most people and have time to spare, you could hold the front door for people and strike up conversations. just as long as you didn't get in the way of the people who hold their eyes straight ahead and are in a hurry to get back to work. Though there aren't many of these types in Seward.

I often volunteered to stand in line at the post office to buy some stamps for the family just to check out the platinum blond window clerk. One day I had mailed a package and noticed she wore yellow contacts that made her eyes look like snake eyes. A few days later she wore red ones that made her eyes look like the devil, someone you wouldn't expect to see working at the post office. The next week she wore purple ones because they matched her sweater, or black ones because she'd ridden her Harley to work and they matched her leathers. I told her I liked the statement she was making; she said thanks, that at least half the people didn't look her in the eye.

A few blocks over and down, getting closer all the time to Resurrection Bay, was Liberty Theater. I rode up and stopped. I stared through the glare on the glass at the movie posters. This week The Mummy was playing, and coming soon was A Simple Plan. The Liberty is almost exactly like the first movie theater I ever went to, back in Connecticut in the early sixties. I remembered having my father drop me off a few blocks away on my first date so that Kathy Flanigan wouldn't see me getting out of our old car. We always seemed to have cars that were ten years older than everyone else's. It took me at least half the movie to put my arm around the back of her chair. My knee touched hers, I forget if it was accidental, what a surprising thrill. I don't remember what was playing-it didn't matter.

I do remember another night in that theater in Connecticut, a night my life was altered, seriously and profoundly. It was a couple years before I put my arm around Kathy. A few hours in the dark being consumed by what was happening on-screen had actually influenced this moment on this borrowed blue bike in Seward, Alaska. The movie I saw that evening, over thirty-five years ago, would crawl deep into my subconscious to the place where my dreams were born, where my fears originated. The movie was Lawrence of Arabia. I saw it when I was eleven or twelve.

The opening scene from Lawrence of Arabia has haunted me on and off all these years. It gripped me like a prophecy that would someday come true. I had this feeling, even then as a sixth-grader, that sometime much later in life I would die, like Lawrence, on a narrow country street surrounded by green fields and contented, quiet people.

Why would that scene, a scene about an adventurer's death, haunt a sixth, grader? I'd not known anyone who'd died, I'd never feared for my life. I loved life. In the opening of this movie, which won seven Academy Awards, T. E. Lawrence is done with the desert and done with Arabia, where he had led a re- hellion, and he heads out for a ride on a powerful motorcycle away from his cuddly, treeshaded, petite cottage in the English countryside. The walls of his cottage must have become so confining. He fuels up his Brough motorcycle, wipes up some spilled drops, and takes off, shifting rapidly, gaining speed. His goggles keep the bugs out of his eyes. The road is not smooth; he bounces with the thrill of the ride, he feels it. He is going too fast but he must go faster. After all he's done in Arabia, to feel anything takes more and more. T. E. Lawrence needs to be thrilled again, even if it's just for the few minutes of the ride. He needs to risk something. Some unsuspecting bicyclists, meandering in the countryside, are in his lane; he is going far too fast, he's on the edge of being out of control. Still, there is life in his eyes, concentration. Then he begins to skid, then he slides off the road, then he is dead.

I got a Mustang GT right before I turned forty. Every time I'd get to going outrageously fast in it out on some country road near our farm that used to be only wide enough for a wagon, this scene from the movie would come up in my mind. When I got my hand stuck between two logs, attached to a logging chain, attached to my Ford 5000 gas tractor, and was trapped there for three hours, I thought of this scene. I did not really think I would die but wondered if I would lose my right hand if no one found me until nighttime. Finally, my neighbors Cindy and Ray Williams heard my screams, and Ray released me. That hand still goes numb. Whenever I pull out onto the main road near the end of our gravel driveway and about get smashed by a concrete truck because I am preoccupied with something stupid or silly, I think of this scene.

I'm not sure why it has been so hard for me to leave home for the last several years. The kind of writing I do, if I don't leave home, I don't have anything to write about. Part of it may be that I've always yearned for a home and never really found one until I moved to this farm. Growing up, we lived in a federal housing project. Now I know every square foot of these 150 acres of farm; it is my island, our peace. I know where the coyotes crawl under the fence to get to the back hayfield, where recently one tried and failed to haul the leg bone of one of my neighbor's dead cows underneath it. I know where the flock of wild turkeys scratches in the leaves of the forest around the straight red oaks looking for acorns and bugs. I have seen where springs bubble out of the ground in April after heavy rains. For the last three years a great horned owl has nested, first in a half-dead oak a hundred yards from our front porch and then in an oak thirty-feet from the back door. Last spring one of the baby owls blew out of the nest into the yard; somehow it flew back. I've seen the spot where red-tailed hawks have killed cottontail rabbits. I know each cow and who her father was.

When I take walks to the larger half of the farm, back to the woods, I always look toward Kedron Road and see the dream home that my ex-wife, Barbara, and I built, just a few hundred yards from where I live now. Barbara owns it now and rents it out to strangers. She lives up the road about thirty-five miles with our three children. We restored a 1901 farmhouse, added on an oak timberframe structure, put in a hot tub, and thought it would be perfect. I found a great deal on walnut lumber at the sawmill in Culleoka, when no one wanted walnut. I had gorgeous tongue-and-groove flooring made, cheap, at some guy's shop behind his house in Lewisburg. Part of that dream, the part with our children, has been put back together, albeit imperfectly. The other part, about Barbara and me, is focused on our children and it works well because we love them so much.

The home Rita and I live in now is just up the hill. A ranch house that used to be owned by Jess and Mary Lou Morton, we've added on to it. It is painted gray, but the paint is constantly peeling. Paint just does not seem to stick to it. Jess told me he always had the same problem.

Red and gray foxes come out at night; we sometimes see them in the fields when we're coming home after dark. The coyotes often howl on the ridge behind us; five of them can sound like twenty, although, who knows, maybe there are twenty of them up there. As I listen to them, I wonder, do they howl to celebrate life or are they crying? I wish they would let me join them. Instead, I go to church to get my release. At the farm, for the first time in my life I can understand how someone could sit on a front porch in a rocking chair, just sit. I used to criticize people for that.

As much as I love that piece of land and my family, lately though, I'd become too sedate, too Buddha-like, too contented. Until now.

I rode over to Second Avenue and coasted down the hill toward the sea. I turned left, onto the bike path. When I got to the city's skateboarding ramps, I went up and over one and glided back along Resurrection Bay. A couple local teens looked at me like "You're too old to be doing that!" A gull glided to my right, hovering to see if two Steller's sea lions would leave any scraps.

I got back to Phoenix Road and turned right. It was a hard, uphill pedal; I refused to get off and walk, even though I felt like it, even in the lowest gear. Two black ravens sat in the top of a swaying spruce and made odd clucking sounds. I thought again about how we would not be here in Alaska if it hadn't been for true friends. But here we were.

I was riding past the orphanage, almost home, when I remembered a quote from T. E. Lawrence's book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It rushed to me now: All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.

So far in life I'd dreamed and made my dreams live in the light. Each one brought to life far surpassed the dream. Right this minute a dream was coming to life, being lit by the almost constant daylight of an Alaskan summer.

When I got home, Rita wanted me to plant some flowers she'd bought over in Soldotna, shopping with our friend Linda. So I did.

Excerpted from LOOKING FOR ALASKA © Copyright 2001 by Peter Jenkins. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.

Looking for Alaska
by by Peter Jenkins

  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • hardcover: 434 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 0312261780
  • ISBN-13: 9780312261788