14 August 2014 § 4 Comments
More than once since I returned from commercial fishing in Alaska two weeks ago, friends and strangers alike have said to me, “where’s part two?!” To which I squint, and try to discern if they’re talking to the right person.
The summer vacuumed words from me. I barely feel them bubbling beneath my skin, I can’t seem to remember the small details of interactions, the energetic statements of character which make up novels and relationships. There’s a great void within, where a mountain used to be – and what is the protocol when a fucking mountain, of all things, vanishes, and one no longer feel its vast stillness, and the crags and glaciers and lava become dreams – or worse, hallucinations?
As Bristol Bay rocked me to sleep each night, I felt no pull to write, no desire to document the sunset, or the tides. I did not lose language itself, rather the motivation for expression. The story disappeared.
In the timeless movement on the outdoor dance floor last weekend, a man put his hand on my shoulder, and said something like “fellow storyteller, thank you.” He touched his heart, and looked me in the eye as he floated away with the music.
I didn’t know or recognize him. Which scared me–how many times have I wondered who’s looked at my facebook page, did not “like” or comment, or reads Structured Roots. A phantom readership. Is this how authors and artists feel?
Perhaps it seems obvious, but it occurs to me that placing “Part I” on the end of a title implies a second part, a conclusion or continuation, requests some gesture of taking responsibility for an audience I have, somewhat accidentally, cultivated.
During the hitch trip I referred to at the end of ‘Escape from Bliss’, I thought, maybe I’ll write a story as the second part. Back in Portland, in the days between travel and fishing in Alaska (do I have any others?), I transcribed the trip journal. I thought I’d integrate the experiences over the summer, and it would magically appear as some grand, published piece. A lofty goal for a focusless ex-vagabond fisherman.
The second part is coming. Some of you have heard the succinct version, the “ending”. Even if the creative force within isn’t flowing like a class IV river, my main writing goal at present is to follow through with this story. I’ll be with you shortly. Thank you for reading, listening, asking.
29 May 2014 § Leave a comment
On the Coastal Starlight Amtrak, yesterday morning, observation deck.
Is this seat taken? a man asked. Shane stood at the edge of my base camp, a corner of the lounge car littered with books, pens, shoes, socks, a laptop on the floor, next to a jacket-pillow.
Nope, I said, and removed from the next seat a kitchen of hummus, cheese, and a dive knife sitting on a plate/cutting board/storage bag of the best homemade tortillas in the world.
You look like you’ve been enlightened by travel, he said.
Yes, I replied, enlightened to a world of things I don’t know anything about.
Train culture fascinates me. Indeed, all culture fascinates me, but trains in particular – the blurring of socio-economic lines in public areas; the potential for someone to sit next to you with whom you may have everything, or nothing, in common; that everyone, no matter how rich or poor, who chooses to dine on the train, eats the same microwaved, overpriced garbage. Even a recluse can make friends on a train.
Shane and I stumbled through the first minutes of shallow travel talk as the guide on the PA announced a contest: whomever counts the correct number of tunnels we pass through in the Oregon Cascades gets a prize.
In the uncountable dark tunnels, lit by tiny track lights in the ceiling, we traded stories of big hard lessons from the road, and what it means to have multiple homes. He spent months in a Russian prison circa the fall of the curtain, accused of spying. I told him about hitching in European blizzards, and in the Alaskan winterdark. How we got out of our predicaments: other people. Connections, loved ones.
You remind me of that guy in that movie, he said, you know, he went to Alaska, and he died?
Into the Wild was required reading for me in high school, I said, but I think I’m done hitching. I’m tired of sleeping at truck stops, under bridges, with the mice and mice of men.
I’ve been compared to Alexander Supertramp more times than I care to admit. At first, I felt complimented. I admired his idealism, his thirst for adventure. I wanted to push as many walls over as I could, whilst listening to the real Alaskan bushmen, hunters and fishermen and roughnecks, the fathers and uncles of my teenage years. They said he was an idiot, a moron, unprepared. The wilderness gives two shits about you, they said. Alaska will spit you out. He deserved what he got.
When I moved back to Alaska in my mid-twenties, I connected with the outdoors far more than with people. I packrafted glacier-fed class 3+ rapids in rain slicks, a brand-new hobby, and one I learned by trial and error alone; I bagged peaks in the Chugach and Alaska ranges without any real training or background in mountaineering; I hitched across the state, and took multiday backcountry adventures, sometimes in late fall or early spring. Conditions which, if anything went wrong, could have killed me.
To top it off, I never told anyone where I was going. I lived with my mum, who worked often. I never left notes, rarely took pictures. Often I didn’t know where I’d end up until I got to an out-of-the-way trailhead. My car was registed to a fake address half the state away, and I didn’t carry identification on my person – the useless card would weigh me down, I reasoned.
Maybe I wanted to be like John Muir, to toss some bread and tea into a sack, jump the proverbial fence, and walk into the wild unknown. But Alaska doesn’t really have fences. For two years, my mum’s place as base camp, I trusted my balance, resourcefulness, and growing experience to carry me through my adventures. In retrospect, I’m fairly certain that I didn’t really care much if I died out there.
Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours hit theaters in 2011. Adventure movie by the director of Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later? Inspiration? Please! Sure, I’d thumbed through Aron Ralston’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place amongst mountaineering literature in bookshops, but never read it. The message reached me anyway.
In 127 Hours, the main character – played by James Franco – falls into a slot canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, and his hand gets wedged between the wall of the canyon and a rock roughly the size of a refrigerator. He goes through his gear: climbing rope, flashlight, camcorder, a bit of water; and imagines what it would take to get out of his predicament: eight strong men – who in the film appear as shadows in the relentless desert sun – pulling in sync on a line which might free the stuck young man below.
I pictured myself at the bottom of a whirlpool rapid on Alaska’s Sixmile River, or Sheep Creek (rivers I had no business running alone), or breaking an ankle near the summit of Bold Peak. I imagined facing off with a brown bear in the empty tundra of the Talkeetna mountains, and losing. Realistic situations, given my ambition. Then I envisioned the shadows of eight strong men, willing and able to help, playing cards back in Anchorage, because no one knew to look for me.
The point is that since the dangerous, unlikeable age of 23, I’ve learned some boundaries. My risk assessment is different now: why would I jump from the top of a fifteen-foot boulder, if I could walk nimbly down the other side?
If travel and adventure have enlightened me to anything, as Shane suggested, it is to the fragility of life. We humans are at once resilient and adaptive creatures, capable of creation, destruction, and healing. Yet it takes a relatively insignificant decision to alter the dynamic of life: half a second on a motorcycle, a moment’s hesitation on a mountain, saying a terribly inconsiderate – even if true – thing at the worst possible moment. Perhaps one reason we are so incredibly adaptive is that we are extremely sensitive to set and setting, and those who listen are the ones who learn, and thus, survive.
We’ve got work to do.
20 April 2014 § 1 Comment
In a widely-reported move, Rio Tinto, a major player in the development of Alaska’s Pebble Mine – long a threat to the Bristol Bay watershed and its fisheries – gifted its shares in the project to the Bristol Bay Native Corporation and Alaska Community Foundation. The decision was announced after the EPA said it would consider stopping the mine, citing the Clean Water Act. The White House supported the EPA’s announcement. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski suggested that the Obama Administration may have held more sway in the process.
Last September, Anglo American, a mining company which had invested in Pebble Mine from the start, pulled out of the project. Currently, Canadian-based firm Northern Dynasty Minerals retains shares in Pebble Mine.
Alaska’s government, hyperaware of both how much money Pebble Mine would produce for the state and how much it would devastate the region environmentally and economically, has remained steadfast in “letting science decide” the fate of Pebble.
I’m a Bristol Bay fisherman. The threat of Pebble Mine has loomed over every season I’ve fished like a dark banner under which ornery fisherman gather and complain. Movies have been made in protest. For half a decade, nearly every fishing boat, tender, skiff and processor vessel in Bristol Bay has flown the anti-Pebble flag, the corresponding stickers stuck ubiquitously throughout the region (one remained on my car as I sold it last year in Oregon).
No one in the fishery knows, really, what might have happened had Pebble gone through. It still may, though the chances are minimal. Would we have had four years of decent fishing left, or until the spawn of the last uncontaminated fish died off? Should we worry about other problems now, like Fukushima and radioactive fish, or the Fraser River’s anticipated heavy run, which this year may overtake Bristol Bay as the most abundant salmon run in the world, and plummet our price?
On a smaller scale, I’m fishing this year with Heather on her boat, the Silver Kris. We’ll be running it together. Will everything work correctly? Will we catch fish? Will we lose money on the venture to Alaska? We’re to drive to Seattle today to put gear and food on the barge.
It’s that time of the year. I’ve mostly forgotten or repressed what negative memories of last year’s grind on the Okuma remained, and I’m readying for the northern migration again. With worries and confidence and news of this disaster, or that gift.
Pebble Mine is now in the hands of BBNC, who are, by and large, fishermen. Imagine if the protestors in Egypt were handed Mubarak’s power; if Syria’s government forces suddenly handed its arms over to the families of civilians it has murdered; if Occupy Wall Street accomplished something tangible. We’ve won, gotten what we wanted; the protest of Alaska’s rural communities, fueled by environmental and cultural stewardship, worked. What now?
Now, we continue. We buy food and coffee, rain gear, engine parts; save receipts for next year’s taxes. We visit a friend at the airport who’s on layover toward the fishing grounds. We tend to the passing of the seasons, and adjust the anchor lines for the flooding tide.
We go fishing, because that’s what we do.
6 November 2013 § Leave a comment
Today is our first mensiversary of marriage. We’re biding our honeymoon in the California hills, and I feel neither present nor attentive to the task at hand. This invisible culture, whose industry requires a blurring vagueness here, propels the migratory gypsy circuit into a focused frenzy for a few months of the year. Mornings and evenings I sinfully connect to the internet, an archaic device that tethers me to the outside world.
Five years of seasonal work has taught me this: the twenties fly too fast to not do what I love. Fishing has been the most adventurous and lucrative job I’ve had, my often-told story of life amongst the tides. And, I’m writing a new story. One which up to now I mistakenly thought would have little to do with fishing and Alaska.
For years I wanted Alaskan roots. When I was 12, my mother drove my brother and I north from the New Mexico desert into the Alaskan winter. For a decade nowhere else qualified as home. When my heartbroken version of a vision quest came along, I felt like an upside down Alexander Supertramp running away from, and ever carrying, a cute box half-empty of longing and tragedies. Alaska was my backyard, not some faraway frontier. I needed to go somewhere. But, as Eddie Vedder put it, I was “starting from the top.”
And you can’t do that.
To every man: his own adventure, a set of lessons to keep his honesty afloat, and love.
I’ll be back shortly.
29 July 2013 § Leave a comment
On the water my daily calorie count reached five digits, and only once I mistook and tallied them. It was a bad move because Emily’s eating disorder still haunted me; some days on land I’d eat only carrots, celery, and mustard and weigh myself every morning after I’d pissed and shit and before I drank any water. At lunch I’d tell my friends I’d already eaten, even when we’d made plans prior. Instead I ate alone, sadly and obsessively, pinched the skin on my stomach to decide how much I would eat that day.
These things don’t fly on fishing boats. Not when you burn more than you eat no matter how many brownies, handfuls of trail mix, snickers, or servings of mystery curry and rice you wolf down. Commercial fishing is a dietician’s nightmare; an eating disorder’s daydream. Many fishermen arrive to the boatyard plump; by season’s end our arms are sinewy and strong, our stomachs hard as bin covers. “It’s the once-a-year workout plan,” said Max this summer. As long as the fish show up.
When they do, and we’re enter that blurry stretch of time called peak, when fifteen minutes of sleep feels like hours, and your hands look and feel like lobster claws, brushing and flossing become privileges. You’re not sure how long it’s been but your sandpaper teeth say it’s been ten meals too long, like yesterday, which in Bristol Bay time is last month.
Self-care falls by the wayside, to say the least. Lucky for me, so does self-destruction. If I require a certain amount of animosity to get through my day, which sometimes is the case, it may arrive in the form of a screaming skipper, an insolent crewmate, or 65 knot winds and enough fish to feed Detroit’s hungry children for weeks. The sea provides. more than I can ask for, or give myself. So the day I ate 14,600 calories, then felt guilty and refused to think of her (and therefore did so constantly), instead of hating my consumption I thanked it. Before each bowl of granola or curry, candy bar, piece of jerky or dried mango from the sugar shack, even before that abominable Progresso clam chowder, I closed my eyes and prayed until I was made of gratitude. My adopted disorder a disowned, petulant child who knows well that I haven’t weighed in morningwise in two years quieted as we drifted up and down Ship’s Channel this summer.
By the time July hit, I’d fished two full seasons in two months, and everything inside me was done. Tired and Finished. Tolerant and smart enough to endure the bullshit: “Straight to bed with you,” said the skipper, “you make money, and you sleep.” His implications obvious: Don’t you dare write in your little book, Sean, said his sharp baby blue eyes, you’ll be back on deck before you have a chance to dream.
This is my sleep, mu’fugga. Two sentences later, handwriting the shape of snores and shredded nets, I feel asleep pen in hand.
12 July 2013 § Leave a comment
I need you to be strong, baby.
I need your smile so that I can hold up
the whole universe when you call. And
I need you to know that my goodbyes
translate to ‘until next time’ in every language
spoken near the sea, mountains, and sky.
10 July 2013 § 3 Comments
The first time _ saw the ocean was Huntington Beach, LA, 1995.
Eight years old, and not yet learned in how to contain excitement,
ran out to embrace it.
Swallowed so much salt water,
Hopped back to the high desert
started climbing mountains
so the sea wouldn’t call like that again.
Nineteen years later,
for five years,
I realize that
the sea was but a wound
that wanted to heal.