The travels of
Darrell W. Richardson, SMA '67
The narrative which appears on this page is edited from several letters, written over many months by Darrell W. Richardson, SMA '67, the first of which was on June 13, 1997, and sent to myself among a group of other fellow Staunton Military Academy alumni. His and his wife Janet's story, which I have edited from those several letters, and from a journal he later began to record, is published here with his permission and will be updated from time to time. It relays the challenges that must be met to make a new life in a 21st century wilderness.
Malcolm L. Kantzler, SMA '65 - Story Editor & WebMaster
All of this, my final commitment to a spiritual life, and I suppose, indirectly, the trek to Alaska, began in the dead of night, when I experienced a dramatic, face-to-face conversion experience, more years ago than I am comfortable counting. I thought I heard the voice of God. Not just thought, I knew.
The situation was explosive, the message was gentle, following a nearly violent religious argument with a Christian who I threw out of the house I was sharing with a woman. My girl friend had left. I was alone and I was raging. I finally tossed myself in bed, hit the light, and then came the voice, gentle and beautiful, speaking to me in the darkness, "I love you."
I bolted up. It was all He said. Somehow, I knew Who that voice was. The next morning, this new believer moved into the back of the church. I had never really left. I never wanted to.
In August 1996, camping alone by the Yaak river outside Libby Montana, I found myself writing at length about coming to Alaska. I was taking a week to devote solely to prayer, in a kind of wilderness retreat to build a vision, so to speak--a quest, to get some sense of where to go next. Sleeping on the ground in a tent beside a wild river on the edge of the Rockies isn't a bad way to seek a vision.
Since I was a child, I have had a special affinity for woods, wilderness, and wildlife. It is said that all the Native Americans, who measured and marked their lives with these things, arrived on the continent by way of an ancient land bridge that connected Alaska to Siberia, thirty or more thousand years ago. When you are a kid, in love with Jack London and Robert Service, and you gorge yourself on tales of the Klondike, the Far North and the legends of Alaska, where allegedly unnamed streams, creeks, rivers, valleys, and mountain places exist, places where it is possible that no human has ever set foot, you are immersed in the promise of a new world. There, the sense (or myth) of frontier and pioneering is alive, even at the end of the 20th century. Despite the crowds, there is the allure of a new land. Alaska--Aleut name, Where the Sea Breaks its Back or The Great Land, has created that impulse in human beings for uncounted centuries. It all works nicely for me; the blood is in the water.
So the desire to go north and start a church began, in one form or another. Originally, it came under the guise of "I sure would like to go somewhere in Alaska and start a church or two." It was a dreamy, wouldn't-it-be-nice-if kind of idea. My wife, Janet, visited Alaska first, as a missionary in that year, loved it and always wanted to go back. Following her graduation from the University of Idaho in the summer, it seemed like the best time to leave had arrived, and by the end of the week, it seemed like Alaska was the next place to go. At nearly 48, I decided that I go now or forget it. I had to come. Sooner or later, I was going to leave the old and make something new and better somewhere else.
I can't say which of us wanted to come here the most; let's just say it was mutual. But going there would be like stepping on another rock crossing the brook, because in my life, I've started churches, pastored them a few years and then moved on. I'm not sure why, and it surprises me a little to look back and say, "yeah, that's what I do." But it is. Not a lot of people do it; it's not a common job like, say, selling cars. Having said that, I resigned my pastorate in early 1997, planning to head up to Alaska in May.
I had some savings, and a house full of junk to get rid of: a house, a barn, and then some. I sold a few things, gave a lot away, and the rest went to the dump--truckloads. I had to get everything we owned into the confines of a contributed, 25-foot travel trailer and the back of a pickup (the part that wasn't taken up with two dogs and Buster Brown the cat). Finally, the day arrived when we were loaded up and ready to travel into a new chapter in our book of life.
I walk into the combination general store and grocery in Tok to buy milk. Turning the corner into the next aisle, I almost run into a woman trying on a pair of jeans. "Looks like they fit," says her male companion. She smiles, the man smiles, and I, having never seen a half-dressed lady in a grocery store before, fake an interest in the book display. It was my first day in Alaska. The milk was $5 a gallon. The show was free.
It's the middle of June 1997, and Janet and I have made it: 2,600 miles and a lot of it dirt. On the highway outside Tok, Alaska, the Robertson river is still covered with thick ice, the river open in the center, and yet, the weather is balmy and sweet. The temperatures here are the hottest and coldest in Alaska. This summer has been very warm and dry with many days in the 80's. Still, the fact of the cold, the knowledge that the arctic is just up the road and will soon blow down again, is a fact no warm June day can hide. They say it can snow in September and not melt until May. There is a lot of talk about the 40- and 50-below-zero winter weather that approaches. Janet and I look at the two-inch walls of our trailer and know that we cannot live here for long.
I had no idea that there was so much wilderness left in the world. The truck ate up a few thousand in a new transmission, brakes, tires, and tune-up. The trip to "mile-post zero" on the Alaska Highway begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, and stretches across 1500 miles of muskeg, wilderness and stunning mountain ranges, to end in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Muskeg is a subarctic swamp that covers areas of permafrost, which is where the ice doesn't ever melt, say three or four feet down. It isn't real pretty, populated with a lot of stunted black spruce trees that seldom get 20 feet high, or much more than six or eight inches in diameter, even when they're 80 or 90 years old. The short trees are in mossy ground, surrounded by lots of bushes and wet-land, home to moose, wolves, wolverine, lynx, about the size of a small cougar. Buried in it, frozen mammoths, buffalo (like cape buffalo) etc., have been unearthed. In the Fairbanks area, there is discontinuous permafrost. South-facing slopes are warm enough so that boreal forest (birch, aspen, white spruce, etc.) covers a lot of the countryside--muskeg occupies the low ground and the northern slopes, becoming more and more prevalent until it dwindles into tundra at or around the Arctic Circle.
The Alaska Highway is the product of over 50 years of road building by Americans and Canadians. It is a symbol of what nations can accomplish together. Beginning as a military highway in World War II, it is still the main road to Alaska. Because it is built on muskeg it is constantly in need of repair and revision. Parts of it are lovely, parts of it are miserable, much of it is under construction (i.e., horrible), and all of it is amazing.
There are miles and miles of road without power lines. Even Idaho, with more national forest and designated wilderness than any other state in the Lower 48, was no preparation for the emptiness of northern British Columbia and the Yukon. The road reaches into such immense forests, mountains and vastness that you eventually run out of adjectives to describe it. You get used to the endless drive through the endless wilderness and it becomes oddly blasé. Soon you are waving at the people you are passing--humans are scarce here. Your primary companions are the other RVs and 18-wheelers that seem to be everywhere, and the occasional shock of seeing an enormous bear feeding alongside the road. Road houses, gas stations, and minute settlements are scattered along the side of the road every 20 or 30 miles. Not a few of these establishments depend on generator power to operate and radio telephones to stay in touch with the world. One camps at an RV park and falls asleep to diesel lullabies.
Gasoline prices, as do all the other prices, except the likes of King Crab, escalate in direct proportion to your distance from the mainland border, the worst of which reached $2.50 a gallon, American, in 1997. What you hope is that you don't break down. We broke a leaf spring on the trailer as we bounced around on a vicious road looking for a provincial campground in British Columbia, and we took a few rock holes in the windshield, somewhere in the Yukon Territories. We enjoyed Canada immensely, but we were still glad to hit the Alaskan border--gasoline prices, for one, took an immediate nose dive.
We had barely enough money to get here and get established and knew we wouldn't have the cash to "tour" the state; essentially, we had to get some place and go to work. But we had enough to get down the road, and both of us knew that it was a point-of-no-return kind of decision. We were unclear as to where in Alaska; although, we considered Ketchikan, the southernmost town. Later, as it would turn out, we were drawn to the interior.
I now sit camped in a crowded RV park on the Elliot Highway outside Fox, Alaska, about 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Twenty miles north it turns to dirt. Thirty miles beyond that the Dalton Highway begins. Four hundred miles later it terminates at land's end in Prudhoe Bay. The high today will be 77, the low 52. I've had the trailer air-conditioning on for the last two hours. The sun rose this morning at 2:59 a.m. and it will set at 12:47 a.m. tomorrow morning--21 hours and 48 minutes of sunlight. My cat's gone nuts--no darkness--he's in a very bad mood. We try to patch the windows with blinds and what-not to keep the infernal daylight at bay. We had no idea how weird it would feel, how eerie to get up at 2:45 a.m., obeying the prompting of nature in broad daylight. I soon learn to pretend that I'm taking a nap, in the afternoon. Yesterday was the solstice, the longest day, and I never remember it getting dark or the summer solstice parties ever stopping, until now.
This weekend, a countless number of local parties, plays, concerts, sun worshippers, pagans and drunks turn up the temperature on every paved and unpaved road around Fairbanks. All available public camping areas are crammed as is most of the accessible non-public land. Soon you realize you are in a kind of RV hell, where crammed RVers compete day and night for toilets, showers, laundromat services and tiny gravel lots on which to "camp." The Gold Rush is still on, too. While gold mines still operate as near as a half mile north of Fox, with tailings everywhere, the Mother Lode comes in on the tour buses, the endless lines of RVs, the staring faces of the ocean of tourists who come here every summer, and all the new seekers and Alaskan wanna-bes, which includes us. The Last Frontier's main streets and highways are crowded and overrun by us all, and by the partying.
It only got quiet around 5 a.m., and I assumed the Howling Dog Saloon (their roof sign says "This Dog's a BITCH!"), the Fox Roadhouse and the Turtle Club had shut down. The endless rant of Harley engines and speeding cars is gone. My first memory of the Howling Dog Saloon (billed, "The northernmost Rock'n Roll Bar in the world") is the drunken patron urinating out front. It was 5 p.m. No one seemed concerned. We're camped a quarter mile north. Tongue'n Groove is the house band. We get to hear a lot of their tunes--all night long. Well, what's supposed to be all night long, but it doesn't get dark. An hour more passes and the morning roar of semis and RVs begins--like a migration of metallic mammoths, smoking and trumpeting in the air.
Out on those roads, coming out of the North American Rockies (this loosely designates just about all the mountains in northern British Columbia to the outskirts of Fairbanks), one is greeted with a wonderful ocean of Appalachian-like mountains, reminding me, of all places, the Shenandoah. They are rolling, ancient mountains covered with hardwoods; that's right, hardwoods: birch, alder, aspens, etc., and very little evergreen. I am told that the autumns here are breath-taking. It may look like the Shenandoah, but only to a point. The backdrop to Fairbanks, the Alaskan Range, anchors itself with Denali, about a hundred miles south, rising 20,000 feet into the clouds. There's nothing like that in Virginia, or almost anywhere.
We've seen about all the wildlife varieties North America provides. But the most interesting so far involves the wolf pack that roams the mountains across the highway from our camp. My Great Dane has taken to howling with them; not an especially good idea. What if they stop over for a visit, or dinner? So, we sleep in the trailer with the two dogs, the cat and the double-barrel. Getting all of my firearms up here is a royal pain, so I might be selling some to pay for getting the others here.
The country around Fairbanks is called the interior. It is home to the greatest wilderness area in the USA. This also makes Fairbanks the largest trading post and jumping-off point for what remains of the trappers and wilderness people. Most of the other people moving around here without Alaskan license plates are tourists. And we are tourists with a little something up our sleeves. We plan to live here. First we pay our dues: we camp in the crowded, loud and friendly RV parks, check the papers, look for a place and jobs.
Fairbanks, named after Charles Warren Fairbanks (Teddy Roosevelt's vice president) is a beautiful city at the edge of this unbelievable wilderness. It's the second-largest city in Alaska, with a 1990 census at just over 30,000. Fairbanks began in 1902 with exaggerated claims of a gold strike generated by the town's founder E.T. Barnette, a trader of dubious reputation, who later fled the country when his bank suddenly bellied up with a lot of other people's money missing. Gold, minerals, tourism, a few military bases and the University of Alaska account for much of the economy.
The rents and the prices, overall, aren't too bad in Fairbanks, but in the "bush," in the smaller areas, examples are $3.50 for a gallon of milk and $1.50 for a tin of tuna. Still, the rents get better the farther out you are. I'm actually thinking about living in a 600-square- foot cabin with a loft, a deck, no electricity and an outhouse. Smaller is cheaper to heat, and maybe the 50-mile drive compensates for being cut off and the cheaper rent. But, I can always come to the university and get on the Net!
Getting close to a town called Two Rivers we stopped. I went into a store and asked the store clerk where we were. She says, "B.F.E," which translates to "Like bum f--k Egypt." Later, after playing her game of Let Me Guess, she allowed that we were near Two Rivers. "Oh, must have missed it," says me. Later, I talk with a man from Arkansas and his wife about renting a storefront for my church. "Rent's the least thing I worry about--you don't pay, you're gone," he says. "That part's the easiest. What we got here, though, is a lot of end-of-the-roaders." (They're people that burned out in one place, then the next, and the next and so on, and then they come here) That's what worries us," he finishes. Suddenly, I'm worried too.
His wife then asks me, in a very careful way, "We don't mean to pry, and not that it's our business, but just what kind of a church do you want to start?"
"A cult..." I say, grinning.
Saying that you're starting a church doesn't bring smiles to people's faces; people react negatively. Say the word "missionary" (it seems ridiculous to say that you're a missionary when you're still in the U.S., even in the Alaskan part of it) and most practicing Christians envision guys in pith helmets swatting bugs and trying not to get on the wrong side of the local cannibals. Essentially, people, including our prospective landlords, wonder if we're wacky, what's wrong with us, and they want to know if we're going to start some kind of a cult that's going to eventually start a militia, or a race war, or commit mass suicide, or imprint their children or something.
So, I prefer to tell people that I'm opening a counseling practice, which I am, and leave out the part about, "Oh, and I'm also starting a church."
One day-night, Janet is in the general store and is asked, "What are you going to do?"
"We're planning to start a Christian counseling practice."
The man frowns and looks confused, "Fishing counseling practice? What kind of counseling is that?"
For now, we'll let the mass mailing we're planning on putting together deal with explanations. But, despite my misgivings and how much I dislike having to deal with people's suspicions and distrust (which I understand, but still don't enjoy), I usually forget my plan to tell them about the counseling and let fly with the church. Okay, there has been a lot of bad news surrounding religion in the last couple of decades, and a lot of it is warranted. Coming up the Alcan, we pass an ancient, huge white bus wheezing its way up the road sporting a sign, badly painted, "ALASKA BOUND BY THE GRACE OF GOD." Janet and I duck our heads and pretend not to notice. So there you have it: even the missionaries are suspicious of the missionaries--how could we not expect the same thing from everybody else? So, I prefer not telling people I'm a minister; lately, I tell them I sell cars. I usually identify myself by my second job. Ministry isn't a respected profession like it once was. Scandals have dampened public opinion. Preachers brought a lot of it on themselves. We can be (and have been) offensive, pompous, insensitive know-it-alls who are our own worst enemies. Then there's the old attitude that ministers do what they do so they don't really have to "work" for a living. There is also a drift away from Christianity in general, and away from non-traditional churches in particular.
I was ordained a bunch of years ago by an archbishop of a small, eastern, Catholic church. I did my initial studies for the priesthood at an Episcopal church, under the three priests there. The idea was that I would be attending Episcopalian Seminary and be a real minister some day. Nothing's easy. When the seminary convened, I was in the hospital trying to die from adult measles. By the next year, I was ordained and working in a mission church.
I am non-traditional, in the sense that I don't wear vestments, use titles, or follow rituals. Theologically, I don't consider myself a missionary of any particular stripe. At best, I am an awkward missionary. But scratch me and I'll bleed traditional Christianity, the old version, the old beliefs, and rock'n roll gospel music, especially the stuff I write. That's usually enough to scare everybody, except for those who stick around long enough to find out that Christianity isn't very venomous at all. I've seen a lot come and go in Christianity during the last couple of decades. I've seen miracles and healings, heard prophecies, gotten words of knowledge, felt God all around and within and, last but not least, went to seminary and got in an honor society, and I still have days and weeks of wondering, what in the hell am I doing?
The first question people used to asked me was where I went to seminary. At first I had to tell them I hadn't gone to a traditional seminary. I graduated from a Jesuit seminary of all things, with a masters in spirituality, roughly 17 years after I was ordained (24 years ago this month). I've earned two other graduate degrees and still have flagging hopes of finishing my doctorate before the millennium. I still have two courses to complete as well as the dissertation.
The trouble is, many of the job requirements deal in areas not best suited to my makeup: I'm lousy with politics, I hate funerals, and liturgy leaves me cold. I'm ill-equipped in some ways too: I am not a fanatic. I don't "take up my cross" very well or very enthusiastically. I take it up tentatively and try hard not to laugh at the funny way I walk with it. When I think of martyrs, I wonder, what were they thinking? Uncertainty isn't very comfortable for me. Dealing with skeptical, stand-offish people doesn't exactly thrill me. God hasn't changed the laws of nature to accommodate me--so most of this is a struggle, and living by faith is often terrifying.
I don't intend to save a city or stake a claim for Christ. I hope that I can be successful with what someone more eloquent than I called the sacrament of the present person or moment. I hope to do well with whomever happens along and hope to help make a decent community begin with a spiritual foundation, somewhere. "Where" is a good question. I don't know if it is in the bush. I think so, given the signs: we're here, we've getting a place, a P.O. Box. Or, the place may be with young people at U.A., in Fairbanks. I like the bushies and I like eggheads too. I built my last church from a university crowd. We'll see. I'm not too concerned whether I happen to be in the right place, just yet. I believe I've come to the area. But I love the people, I love the message, and I love delivering it in diverse ways: teaching, counseling, preaching and music. So that part's a good fit. God will, as He always has, guide the journey from here.
I was just thinking about callings very early one morning. I do think I have some kind of a call to do this--why else would I want to? Why come to Alaska, in particular, why the interior--the coldest, hottest, most extreme part of Alaska? A call...I felt a call of God to come here and start a church, do some free-lance writing and free-lance music. Calls come in different ways: mine is a simple, life-long desire to get here and do it. The desire never diminished, no matter where I was or what I was doing.
My call is not a voice, "Go to wherever and save who/whatever." In seminary, a professor I respected suggested that what we most deeply desire and can't seem to ignore may well be a calling. We came to Alaska for this reason, and for the same reasons the other one million, five-hundred thousand tourists did this summer--we want to experience the wilderness. Moreover, we're moving here.
The reality of getting the church started, though, is something different from the myth. I know what I will go through: I'll wind up spending most of my money and credit to get a storefront going, and then I'll have to look for work. I always have to do something else in the beginning of a new work. When I arrived, I was greeted with letters from friends that the University had a hiring freeze on and the cuts even extend to the janitorial staff-- reductions of 50 percent. Alaska's revenues come from oil, primarily, a reserve running lower and lower. Until more is discovered, the cuts are going deep. What this does is spill scurrying professionals into an already small economy. What it means for me is, I won't be teaching and most likely, I won't be finding a counseling job. It means I'll do what I did in the bad old days--sell cars. Mixing missionary aspirations and car-lot reality isn't particularly glamorous--but you do what you have to do...Saint Paul made tents; I do lots of things.
I don't tell all of this to the prospective landlords, but since they will be our landlords, I skip the second-job story and explain how I intend to use the storefront, and the church meaning "cult" has for me. We laugh and the tension subsides. They're Baptists. They decide to rent to us...we've arrived. We soon get a post office box and can apply for an official Alaska driver's license to boot. The post-office lady rents us the box and says, "Welcome to Two Rivers."
Two Rivers refers to the Chena and the Little Chena rivers. Fairbanks has the Chena running through it, and it joins the Tanana south of town, 12 miles or so. There's a road called the Chena Hot Springs Road that terminates about 30 miles further east of us at a hot spring. Between there and our camping spot, there's nothing but state land, mountains, moose and other Cheechakos, like us. It's the only real road that goes east, other than the Delta Junction Highway. I'm told that there's water everywhere, but little to drink. Most of it is iron or arsenic and undrinkable. But where we've camped there's wonderful water. The electricity is out to here, as is the Net, so sometime soon I should be back online.
Another week, and I am becoming more Alaskan by the day-- officially, Janet and I now have our drivers licenses. Celebration time! We're in today, checking out the non-profit corporation laws, etc. I took the trouble to bring my music, guitars, amps, music stand, overhead projector, pew Bibles and pulpit too; so, we're about set with all the gear you might need to get something spiritual going. We're trying to get the "House of Prayer" up and running for the remainder of the summer. The idea is to get it all done before the money runs out. Ha ha!
There's been bear trouble not far from us, and we're seeing as many as four moose a day here. The folks in the bush are turning out to be open, independent, generally very conservative, politically, and socially liberal, and fun-loving. And, after a week of exploring on roads consisting of miles of wet perma- dirt, and searching out the living-quarters options, we are now among them in this lovely, remote area in the bush next to state land, 38-miles due-east of Fairbanks, with a pretty decent deal on a storefront to make into a church, with RV spot. The storefront, it turns out, is next door to the game-playing lady's general store. Wait till we open the church next door to her--guess who'll get the first invite. Soon, we'll start the work of getting hold of everyone to let them know we're here and invite them in.
Tomorrow, though, we are going to go to the Arctic Circle.
The Dalton Highway begins to remind you of a poorly-maintained county road. It was never made to accommodate RVs, but up they come, like latter-day mammoths, competing with the huge 18-wheelers that supply everything large and unflyable in the north. We pass a few cars and a lone motorcycle. Crowds are thin here. Everybody waves as you travel along the miles of 11- and 12-degree grades, where rocks fly pretty thickly. Since there aren't many of us, why not wave? It seems like there are more motorcycles here than there are people. It's tempting me to have my Goldwing shipped to Anchorage, where I would collect it on the dock. The gas at the settlement of Yukon (on the 3/4-mile-wide river) is $2.05 for unleaded regular. But they'll fill your coffee mug with a weak variety for a buck; so, costs tend to balance out.
The Arctic Circle is only 180 road miles from Two Rivers (and less than a hundred air miles from Fairbanks), about 150 miles of it is gravel, and graded, so the trip took about five to six hours, one way. From here, it's dirt road all the way to the Arctic Ocean, about 400 miles north. The weather has been amazing, in the high 80's all week, all day, all 20- plus hours of it. Here, the temperature is almost subtropical, 70- something. Still, just to be perverse, I had to turn on my air conditioner, and yes, Janet smiled indulgently. The air is strikingly clear, but not of mosquitos. Moments after I ventured out on the spongy tundra, swarms of mosquitos began to kill and eat me. Locals joke that these pin-sized murderers are the unofficial state bird. They say caribou are stampeded by these little demons. Well, they stampeded me all way back to my car, running, swatting, and singing my death song. I wondered how long it would take these winged piranha to strip cattle. The welts only lasted a month or so...
Fifteen or so miles south of the Circle, the trees abruptly disappear into the canyons and the lee side of the mountains. You come over a forested hill and the tundra greets you. Tundra and the wind. It is said that the tundra is arctic desert. The surprise is that much of the tundra is under water. The standing water is a product of the permafrost--the precipitation doesn't penetrate the permanently frozen ground under the thin topsoil. The effect, at first glance, is that you've reached a kind of top-of-the-world Everglades, a kind of river of grass and lichen and shrub willow. All that water supports an amazing variety of plant, animal and insect life. I didn't see any grizzlies or wolves, but thanks to the mosquitos, we weren't alone. The muskeg simply vanishes--hiding in the holes, cracks and crevasses of the north. Tundra, lush with low shrubs and, this time of the summer, wild flowers that garland the hills, themselves dotted with huge rocks and toothy mountain shills. There is a wayside rest area that the Forest Service maintains.
What is the Arctic Circle? Besides a circle of latitude on a map at the top part of the globe? It is the line at which the tilt of the Earth provides the maximum angle on the sun during the solstices, north of which, for one day on the winter solstice, there is no sunrise, and no sunset on the summer. The one-day period increases north of the Circle to reach six months at the Pole. - Ed.When we got to the Circle, we met a guy from Florida and a bicycling couple from Germany who started their ride in Anchorage, 400 miles south, and planned to make it to Prudehoe Bay via Dead Horse. The Floridian offers them a beer, they politely refuse. The Floridian protests, "I never heard of a German who didn't like beer!" I visit the nice outhouse with all the travelers' graffiti: "Mike from Michigan, '93" and "Bob LOVES Mary from New York, 1995," etc. I read about "The Wonder of the Tundra" at the visitor's booth. Since everybody there seemed to have a gimmick, I whipped out my guitars and played a quiet little concert for anyone interested, in front of the Arctic Circle welcome sign, while my photographer wife recorded the moment. But, the concert was cut short due to blood loss.
Although the Circle looks like the National Geographic specials--a barren world, haunted by sharp landscapes and a climate of unbelievable extremes, the north country is larger and more gripping than any movie screen or TV documentary could portray. About 12 miles south of the Circle, the stunted forests of spruce, willow and aspen clear the tops of the mountains and cluster more and more in the protected canyons. The scenery gets more and more barren as the tundra takes over the mountain sides. About a mile south of the Circle there is Fish Creek, a lovely little oasis of aspen and birch that is so deceptively lush and warm (yesterday at least) that we took pictures of it, not quite believing something like that could co-exist in a world so harsh. Alaska begins in the mists of the Pacific and disappears in the Arctic Sea. See the Arctic and you touch the magic of the 50th state.
Nedry might be successful and all, but I bet he hasn't gigged the Arctic Circle yet!
Don't know where to next, but we'll think of something unique: maybe go up to Eagle, the jump-off point for the last homesteaders in the interior, or maybe Denali. In the meantime, I'm actually enjoying living in a trailer, 8 X 25, 200 sq. feet. Now, camp is a "pull through" and I haul my black water--$300 a month to park, and I get weekly rates. We have incredible population density--two large dogs, two adults, one cat, and just about everything that we own. Usually it's a pretty happy mix too!
Del Richardson and lovely wife, Janet
To think, first I lived in a huge, lovely, two-story farmhouse, five bedrooms, on about 2000 acres of a wheat ranch. It was a show place in its day and lovely now, at $450 a month. I will do everything possible to get out of this trailer this winter! I had an RV dealer tell me (off the record) that a friend made it through a winter here in one, but he built a shed totally around his hooked-up trailer, insulated the hell out of it, built an outside entrance and got through okay. I told Janet and she said it sounds dark...yeah, no windows.
Camping's okay up here until about September, or was that late August? Either way, travel trailers aren't supposed to be habitable in the Far North come winter. One RV dealer told me that trailer owners try to find warehouses or huge hanger-like garages in which they wait out the dark months. In short, nobody but a fool would want to spend a winter in one of these little coffins, they say. I have dreams of freezing in the dark...
Apparently, George didn't hear the stories. We met George back in Two Rivers, while he showed us a cabin that may come up for rent pretty soon. George lives in a 20-foot, 1963, no-name trailer. "Sink works. That's about all." He lives there year-around. "Been living in it for about six years now. No problem," he lights a Pall Mall. He's planning to move it to some new property in the muskeg to work as a watchman. Not only does George live in his rig, he claims it's easy.
What he did was take one inch foam and plaster it all over the inside and then he bought a real good oil stove. "It works fine, the only problem is that the whole damn thing's blue." Blue or pink are the only colors the insulation comes in. "When it snows, pile it up all around the bottom of your trailer to keep the wind out and you can walk around in your socks all winter. Hell, lots of people live in these things out here."
The cabin he shows us sits on a pond at the end of (I wonder if you'll believe this) Thoreau Road. The cabin itself has no water, but it does have power. The water you can buy, or haul yourself. A few yards beyond the lovely little cabin is the outhouse. When I pointed out that there wasn't a door, George began howling, "A door? On an OUTHOUSE?? Haw Haw! What you need a door for? Hell, when it gets cold just take the seat in and warm it up a little." Janet allows that at 40-below, she didn't think a door would do much good. I mutter something about wind-chill, but George is still chuckling about my door-on-the- outhouse joke. He then goes on to tell us that the guy that built it is pretty tall and that's why the seat's so damn high. "When I sit on it, my feet dangle. There was a girl that used to live here who hammered a 2-by-4 in there just so she could touch the ground."
Another week has gone by, we're back from the Circle, in Two Rivers, and now I'm told that I'll be getting a phone sometime in July.
So far, starting the church has been kind of amazing. I woke up, chagrined, the day after reading an SMA alum's note, remembering about Sunday formations, thinking that I don't remember the Temple Squad--typical gentile; I figured everybody was a gentile. Now I've gotten a lot of correspondence from a group called Jews for Jesus. I expected a bunch of negative, radical types. I don't know why. Perhaps because I had heard from liberal friends that the Jews for Jesus were wild-eyed fundi types. As usual, the friends were wrong. Instead, I was impressed with the intelligence and thought that comes off the pages of their mailings.
I'm sitting out in a remote field praying, and I look up just about eye-to-eye with a female moose and calf. The tourist literature here warns you in bold type to avoid moose-and-calf duos like the plague. I'm thinking I may find out why they do those bold-face warnings and it occurs to me to keep on praying, "Lord, please don't let the moose maul me, in Jesus name, thank you." She and calf walk by close enough to hit with a rock and I can hear their breathing. But, scarcely a footstep more and they vanish into the bush. I'm not kidding, they just get in the trees and fade-out. It seems like the big danger where we're camped is to hit a moose in the evening.
Camped in the quiet, well-kept RV park that's part of our rental agreement, I take my dogs out for a run. The yellow lab knows better, but Pete, my Great Dane, dives into the bush and comes up with a face full of porcupine quills. It's a mess you tackle with pliers and leather gloves, if the dog is able to stand the pain; otherwise, the vet makes money. The Dane patiently lets me pluck them out. A couple of hours later my wife Janet takes him for a walk. They get a mile up the road and just in front of them, a moose and her calf begin to cross. Before the Dane can see the moose and cause trouble, Janet about-faces and they come home quick. With or without provocation, moose will attack, particularly cows with calves.
So Pete, the dog with a death-wish, later tried to eat a different moose and her calf, and nearly gave me a heart- attack. While parked in an especially beautiful field, I made the mistake of letting Pete out of his straight-jacket (the truck's canopy). About one nanosecond later, he flies off into the muskeg, totally ignoring my screams, and flushes a two-and-a-half-story-high moose with calf. I'm not kidding--a moose so large it makes footprints the size of a sink hole. Now I'm thinking to myself that Pete is about to go to dog-heaven. So certain am I of his immediate departure from this life, that I'm clicking off all the possible breeds with which I might want to replace him--all this while I'm galloping, well, waddling after him, yelling and making useless gestures with my arms. Anyway, a half hour later, the elephant child re- emerges from the black forest, fit as a fiddle. He wasn't very hungry this morning, which was why he probably didn't eat the bicyclist and her daughter that rode by. Haven't seen the moose or the calf or any porcupine either.
There's another kind of wildlife in Alaska. Alaska ranks 10th in the nation for crime (California is fifth--Idaho, my last home, is 40th). It has the smallest population and one of the highest crime rates. There is a lot of poverty. There is a subsistence mentality that says, "If a moose is going through the yard and you're hungry, shoot the moose." The mind-set extends to other, darker things. And the bars stay open till all hours. There are liquor stores everywhere. There are lots of drugs. There are scars made by a crowbar on the rear door to my office.
They broke in here twice last year--all the little businesses were hit. After the first break-in the laundromat owner installed heavy bolt locks. The thieves just drilled through the door and chained it to the back of their truck, put the truck in low and removed the door, the frame and a lot of the wall, and then robbed the place. It takes the police forever to get out here. The store owners have moved close to their stores. Some have guns.
It was 3 a.m. when the revving, unmuffled engine of a truck woke me. I knew it was coming from the vicinity of the stores. I fly out of bed, throw on a bathrobe, jump in my boots, grab the shotgun and rush out into the semi-darkness. I was right, the loud noise was coming from the store.
It had rained, and suddenly I am slogging through deep mud. It is cold. I am armed. I look ridiculous. I crawl through the shadows. I wonder, half-aloud, just what in the hell am I planning to do if they are burglarizing the place: "Up against the wall! I'm armed! I've got a bathrobe!!!" As I got there, the truck pulled away rather quickly, leaving me cold, wet, and thankful to be returning home.
The passing of the week since we returned from the Circle has been as short as the days are long. What I'm doing now is the hurry-up-and-wait thing. A job has come open for a convenience/general/liquor store clerk down the road, and I'm seriously thinking of grabbing it for a while. Janet says, and I agree, it's a pretty good way to get to know the community. I'm also looking at some other work, have a sharp eye on the want-ads, and I've gotten several resumes out.
Janet's field is journalism, and she's got a job at the Fairbanks newspaper. If I get a job in Fairbanks, that'll help pay the bills until the church takes off. There's a director-of- residence-life position at the university. It's full-time and requires my masters in counseling. We'll see. I've also thought about selling cars or taking any counseling job that comes along for which I qualify. It's the mixture of "I ought to be doing something real" and "Gee, isn't the bank account getting low?"
I go through this every single time I've started a church--this is my third--get low on money and race off to grab a job. It never works well because you can't serve two masters (this is what Mark Twain said was the problem with polygamy). If you work to get the bucks and give the employer a good day's/night's work, you don't have a lot of energy to take care of the needs of a congregation, especially a forming one. Second jobs meant selling cars in the beginning (my bachelors degree is in English - do I need to explain?). In fatter days, I taught psychology and counseling at the University and a small Catholic college, and I had a small counseling practice. Now, I'm in Alaska where the University of Alaska has a hiring freeze and, being new to the area, it's back to the car lot. Three earned graduate degrees and a professional license in counseling notwithstanding, it takes me about two years to reach the point where the church can support me. From here, that looks like a lot of car selling. So that's a prayer issue for me these days. Meanwhile the wait for the storefront continues.
My third church. Seems to some that maybe I don't see things through, or that I'm restless and disinclined to settle down. But, the reason that I've finally decided that I need to accept a ministry of starting a community, and then moving on, is because of my lack of people skills--three graduate degrees, licensure and national certification notwithstanding.
The mission church became my first church. From that church three additional little churches were planted, but not in the sense of large edifices with stained-glass windows; although, we had a lovely stained-glass window in one of my churches, one that my half-wolf dog clawed his way through one night when he had been accidentally locked in. They were churches with 15 to 60 people who met in rented facilities, or living rooms. I would celebrate Communion on the dining room table, or whatever else was convenient, preach, teach, lead Bible studies, music, fellowship, and generally have a wonderful time. The people did too. And that's how I pretty much made my living.
But, there comes a time when a community needs something I don't have. I have no illusions or claims to the apostolate. I'm a cut-rate missionary on a good day, a Romans 7:14,15 Christian, but I do what I do. I help people find Christ. So, I move from the nice church I last started, pretty near 3,000 miles to a neighborhood in the literal middle of nowhere, with plans to start a church. Meanwhile, we're just trying to get things organized, as much as we can without an office or a phone yet.
As the middle of July passed, things were going well. It's been daylight 24 hours a day, although the light is fading earlier and it feels darker. The weather is perfect: clear during the day, mid-70's, light breeze, some rainstorms come and then there's blue sky. I'm told that the summers here really do make up for the winters. Well, I guess we're going to find out first hand.
I must be getting used to Alaska--today, there was a moose showing off for some tourists out in the muskeg. The tourists were stopped, cameras rolling, and one lady was trying to call the moosey. I thought maybe I should stop and tell her that she really didn't want that moosey to come...nah. I chuckled and drove on. I must be getting used to it, because I'm calling people tourists; me, Alaskan for a month as of today...oh boy.
I took a friend's advice about patience seriously, and some stress has lifted. We hope to get into our storefront within the week and start setting up shop. I'm excited to get back to work, and at the same time, I am enjoying the relative break. Hope the stuff gets delivered this time!
I'm really excited about renting a cabin that could undergo mitosis and still fit in my old living room in Idaho. It has a tiny living room/kitchen, a tinier bedroom and a bathroom (one room), oil heat, propane stove, sits near the highway in a birch forest, all for $475 monthly. Cheapest thing I've seen out there. At least I won't be contending with a doorless outhouse and a cabin without water. Strange, the things we decide we really don't want to lose. For me, electricity and water seem to be the line drawn in the sand, or muskeg.
We've finally worked our way to the end of July, the mass mailing (all 702 pieces) is done and out, and I'm about a week and a half from the "opener" here. We've got the storefront pretty well in a colossal (sic) mess. All the music gear that I was able to shoehorn into the pickup, which was then shared with my great dane, lab, and cat--who was kind enough to leave his markings all over a lot of it--is now scattered all over the floor in what will be the church. Now we wait. Show time is August 10th!
We actually had some folks (two) show up for our first church, and now, the church is off to a roaring start, more than doubling the first service attendance this week with five. I'm spinning... We had fun. We don't pass the plate. One of the five was a two-year-old, and she had a great time flying around the room. We sang, we prayed, we made a beginning. We believe that trees grow from seeds. We figure one must start from somewhere. The landlord says we've won some approval out here--we've made it to official under-dog status: "You've gone from everybody wondering what in the Hell you're doing to, well, if they want to start a church, good for them, but don't expect us to help."
The plan is to remain totally low-key. We sent out a mailing to let the community know we're here and what we're doing. And that was all. No street preaching (here it would be highway preaching, and the moose don't care), no bugging anyone, just trying to be okay cheechackos (greenhorns) and get along. So far it's working.
I interviewed for a therapist's position, and then I looked for car-sales jobs. I've done that one before--family dealership. Would you buy a car from this guy? I figure I have little chance of getting the therapist slot--they've scheduled interviews for two days--too few counsellors, too many nuts, I guess. It took a week, but I'm going to work tomorrow as a new and used car salesman for a local Fairbanksian Pontiac-GMC dealer; you can trust 'em, they're Mormon. I think it may be the last job in Fairbanks, other than bartending, and Janet thinks that to be an incongruent career-track. Vehicle sales on this dealer's gargantuan, 15-acre lot will mean a lot of very long days, aching feet and sore muscles from chasing customers around, including an almost 100-mile daily commute.
I think I'll go have a drink and hit the sack.
The big news this morning (August 18th) was the first frost. I scrape ice off the windshield at 6 a.m. while warming up the truck to take the dogs for a run (I drive, they run). The first fog has settled in--in winter it will be ice fog. They say it is like trying to breathe shave ice, but I have to wait for that experience.
This morning is the first day of my new job. Saint Matthew collected taxes to support his ministry. I got hired to sell cars. So, I head out into the fields in the first foggy frost to say prayers and let the dogs chase a few rabbits. The news reports a blizzard outside Dead Horse. The Dalton Highway was shut down most of the day while crews cleared the passes. At 5:00, the travel advisory is still on. It is getting cold in north Alaska. More frost forecast for tomorrow.
At the minimum, we are here for the winter. The tiny church is up and running. We're working. We are looking for a place to spend the winter, and the prime candidate at the moment is a 500-square-foot, traditional log cabin, in the bush, without electricity, with water that comes out of a hand pump into the kitchen sink. It has been a harrowing, outrageous, great fun time. God willing, it will continue to be. Who says there aren't any frontiers left?
We had a good, but small church service this morning and Janet's already started a ladies prayer group.
The car sales were going on for only a few weeks when, in the beginning of September, I landed a real job for a change, working with working with severely disturbed and abused kids. I've got an office, a title and even a little money earned every couple of weeks..
The job is pretty interesting, and tricky--we broke up a number of fights today at lunch and had a hell of a football game too. I have a terminally pulled groin muscle and a limp to prove it. These kids are mid- to late-teens, and they hit pretty damn hard. When my lower body began to quit working, I was reminded that I am pushing 50 and am an idiot to be in the middle of a dog fight like that. Our program gets, allegedly, the toughest kids in Fairbanks, and let me tell you, there are some pretty whacked-out kids that drift in out of the bush and the villages. The alternative for these kids would be jail, or worse.
My immediate supervisor is a seasoned psychiatrist. He told me that when he began his career, there were still patients in West German psychiatric hospitals that had survived the Nazi death camps, and that since he came to Alaska six years ago, he's heard stories that are just as bad. "Just remember one thing about Alaska," he says, "It's different."
We are dealing with kids that have a variety of things going against them and in general are a violent, explosive bunch of sophisticates that I would give money to be able to enroll in my old SMA platoon as rats (read, dead meat). They are a testimony to a society that's falling apart and a liberal system that is scrambling to clean up the inevitable mess of its chaotic kids and families. I'm told that these are the last of the "pipeline kids"--products of the time of wild prosperity and abandon more than 20 years back, when the Alaska oil pipeline went in and there were natives who never before had a job were hired and sometimes making as much as $6,000 a month. The booze, the drugs, the coke and the prostitutes flowed like blood in the Nile of the pharaohs. The party lasted for years and lots of kids, more so than any state in the nation, were brain-damaged in their mothers' wombs. Liquor is still the number-one problem up here. Teen pregnancy--more pregnant teens in Alaska than any other state--is another ranking problem. I am told that incest and molestation are fairly common in the villages. Part of the problem is that the culture is very different--their ideas about affection, etc. Understand that many of these villages are hundreds of miles from a paved road, accessible only by plane or boat.
The money that flowed from the pipeline did much more damage to the human ecology than the pipeline did to the tundra. These kids are a lot like head-injured people, with no impulse control, very little judgement, too hyper to concentrate and given to explosive violence; they need help throughout their lives. Now, the drug of choice in the villages is gasoline: huffing is the new "in" high. Gasoline fumes destroy brains and there is no known therapy, no affordable way to get them to stop. Talking with a sex-offender and chemical- dependency counselor who works in Ft. Yukon was revealing: "In a village of 700 people, I can count on one hand the kids under 12 who don't drink. It is a terrible place."
The job is a challenge and I don't know if I'm doing any good at all, but in a crazy way, I find myself caring about these young, lost kids, despite their violence and their hardness. It's a challenge even to pray for these guys... when I get home at night my brains are really jello.
I heard today from a credible source that most of an entire village has full- blown AIDS-- about 80 individuals. The alcohol, the sex abuse, etc., is a primary cause of the widespread transmission, and the state is at an absolute loss as to what action to take-- certainly, this won't be corroborated by the tourist brochures.
Tomorrow, I'm at the university lobbying for counselor licensure--we've got to get it here; the social workers and the psychologists are over-running us! Okay, that's it. I'm done with the job stories.
Another week closer to winter and the church has eight or nine people coming, and we're enjoying it. Building one of these things is a lot like making money: it takes a long time and a lot of patience.
We've found a cabin and are in the process of getting moved in-- just ahead of indian summer, it looks like. The cabin is rustic and looks like circa 1845.
Moose season is in full swing, so the males have vanished and the cows and calves remain out in the open teasing and maddening the hunters.
Today's weather was stunning. I get to see the Alaskan Range and Denali on the way in to work pretty often--that is a sight! The trees are simply brilliant, the air clear, high 60's, light morning frost, the leaves wild with color--a Shenandoah-of-the-North autumn. Last night, the northern lights burned up the night sky, dancing and swirling and crackling and warning us that 50-below isn't far off.
Well, I promised Janet I'd make us a pizza tonight, so I'd better hop to it!
Last night I slept poorly. I had a dream in which a raven flew in and landed directly across from Janet. Staring intently at her, it flew to her side and became a large black bear sniffing her sleeping form. I rushed to her side and the bear retreated to a position just outside the door. Waking from the dream, I was then up and down the rest of the night.
We have over a foot of snow now, it was about zero when I got to church this morning. The forest around the cabin is getting more and more picturesque as the snow and the chill of the weather deepens. In the long nights, the forest's snow captures what little light there is and creates countless ghosts outside the windows. There were nasty spirits about last night. I forgot that Halloween is next Friday. Scripture tells us that Satan dwells in the mountains of the north, Isa 14:13 : "For you have said in your heart, 'I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north."
It's ten degrees below, we're pushing two feet of snow, and I've gotten to the point that 10-20 degrees above is warm... must be acclimating myself. Mushing season is in full swing, so is snow mobiling, skiing and snow-boarding.
I work days and study for my doctorate at night. I'm considering a position as a counselor to five villages out in the bush. They are all several hundred miles from the nearest paved road. I would fly in to a place called Galena, near the confluence of the Yukon and the Koyukuk rivers, do the work and then come back to Fairbanks. Its a chance to see a culture that's quickly vanishing. The villagers, the Koyukon-Athabascan people, are pretty much subsistence hunter/gatherers. It would put me a long way from home, so Janet is hoping I can find a position at the University. The current job, working with severely emotionally disturbed youth remains very intense; at times it is rather dangerous--I've had to put two kids on the ground in the past week, the physical attacks can come at any moment, any place.
The church has taken un unexplained turn these last several weeks, perhaps in tandem with the turn of the weather, and it is looking grim: there were three of us at church this morning--one single-parent/child family, plus One invisible. Despite the denouement this showing marked for the future, we sang, talked about the Woman at the Well, prayed and otherwise had a great time!
I asked the landlord for help with the rent and he essentially refused.
At this point, I can't see it moving forward.
Ministry is a roller-coaster ride. Since we've been here, there's been some ups and a lot of downs. The huge question is still whether or not the community is going to accept us. There are a number of passages in the gospels where Jesus tells his disciples if the city, etc., doesn't accept them, to shake the dust off their feet and move on. Paul's struggles in the Book of Acts reflect that--a lot of towns didn't, in fact, accept him or what he had to offer. Some residents mobbed him, a few stoned him, and at least one left him outside town for dead.
The first church I started, for example, we did a car-pool thing, where I went to the poor- houses, the halfway houses and so forth, and picked up people who wanted to come to church. At one point, I had about 60 people coming, who all lived in one kind of sheltered situation or another. I've done the advertising, the phoning, the invitations and the sunrise/sunset stuff too--but I haven't done the dinner service yet.
If we are to be accepted, people in the area need to open the door, and we had something like that happen just this week. The one family we have coming happens to be pretty highly regarded by almost everyone in this remote and diverse community. She got seven or so other people to come today and they seemed to like it: they gave money, which is always a good sign, particularly since I don't take up an offering--the bucket sits by the door. And, they signed our visitor cards. She's planning to contact others next week. I'm pretty encouraged and I feel like we may have turned the corner--now it will start to go. People come, they like what happens to them, they come back, it goes like that--slowly, up and down, but that's how it works.
Not to get preachy, but Jesus sent his disciples out without their wallets, extra clothes or much of anything else. Why? Because Jesus wanted them to learn how to depend of God for their needs--if they discover that God can take care of them, they'll do a pretty decent job of telling other people that God can take care of their needs too. If they had gone out well- capitalized and with good market studies under their arms, it would be hard to know whether the churches were of God, or just a good marketing ploy by clever, hard-working individuals.
In short, I know that God wants me to do something like this. When we go through three months of very little happening, it's only natural to wonder if we're in the right place. We have hit the place where it either happens now, this month, or we go elsewhere--we can't afford to pay the rent by ourselves, the money just isn't there. In fact, yesterday, we pretty much decided that it was time to make tracks. I want it to work here because we've made a pretty deep investment, we're living here, we've done the work, got the place, painted the signs, etc., and I hate to just shrug my shoulders and go away or think that the ministry wouldn't happen here--2,700 miles is a long drive to get no where.
When I came into the church, there was a message saying there would be a bunch of new folks here, and this morning, there were the promised people. My point to these people is simple--we're a local church that you don't have to be a Baptist or drive an hour one way to attend (the only church out here for miles is a Baptist church); we're right here. The idea sure makes sense to me. I think it does to others. We'll see.
The landlord came by this morning while I was tuning up my guitar and told me that they want to help out with the rent for a month--that was encouraging too.
God's never late. But, He's rarely early...
There is no place on Earth like Alaska: beautiful in winter, alluring in summer; it even changed my dreams. No where else have I dreamed about bears and ravens. In my first dream, a raven landed next to me and became a huge bear, interested in my wife, and I drove it away. In subsequent dreams, the bear was interested in both of us, and ravens spoke to me. My final dream was a sow bear fighting off an enormous boar who was after her cubs. There were ravens in other dreams, too.
Alaska's Indians believe that the raven has great power, usually benevolent. They believe that the raven created the Earth. Not long ago, on a sunny, ice-cold morning, a raven landed in the birch above my cabin while I was chopping wood, and it began to caw loudly in my direction, so much so that my dogs crawled out of their doghouses and began to bark at it, and meanwhile, I began cawing. This strange conversation lasted a few minutes.
Koyukon is the name of the Athapaskan people who have inhabited the Boreal forest of the interior for thousands of years. To them, bears are powerful spiritual forces, usually for ill. Consequently, the people had many taboos and rituals about how they were to deal with the bear in hunting and in life, even how they were to dispose of its bones. The Koyukon believe that a dream about bears portends change. Their ravens are often guides for people, leading them to game in hopes of a meal, of course, or leading them away from danger-- away from bears.
For me, perhaps the raven came to lead me away or to say goodbye, because Janet and I are pulling up stakes and leaving. It is a 15-hour drive down to Haines (my travel agent nearly ran into a musk ox asleep on the highway on her trip to Haines--we'll keep an eye out) to take the Alaska Ferry. All the legislators of Alaska will be on the boat with us, till Juneau that is (the legislature is convening, and Janet and I got the last cabin on the boat). I think I'll just sit quietly in the corner of the bar and take notes; it'll be the only chance I get to be in the unofficial legislature. We'll be headed down the Inside Passage: Haines, Juneau, Ketchikan, Prince Rupert BC (where they blockaded the boat last July) and Bellingham Washington. So, we and the dogs will be on our first official cruise, then, it's on to Montana.
Janet got a call from a publisher about being an editor for a weekly newspaper in Plains Montana (A river runs through it). Plains is on the Clark Fork in Northwestern Montana. The publisher has offered Janet the editor's job, and I'll help out with the paper while I look for work, maybe do some writing, sweep the floor; I don't know. None of the other leads she's responded to have panned out, and the same for me. I did a couple of demo tapes for a DJ position and had some fun, and I went to find something on a car lot so we could keep eating while continuing here at Two Rivers, but it didn't survive the 90-day probation. Janet tried for a TV reporter's job--she's got the training, the talent and the looks, but there are certainly others, as well, because nothing came of it either.
The cabin was sold and there is nothing within 20 miles for rent. The church, now almost five months old, had one or two good moments, as many as 14 worshipers around the end of November, but the numbers needed were never there. We had let go the storefront and moved into Grange Hall ($10 a meeting versus $500 a month). The church has three adults that normally attend and they bring with them all of five children. We've had two adult visitors with three more children that attended twice, recently. We got about $100 in the plate last month. My predictions about the credit cards being spent-up were better than the ones about the birth of this church, which is definitely no Crystal Cathedral.
I've started churches before, but for reasons unknown to me, this time, here in Alaska, it just wasn't meant to be--an ending I wouldn't have predicted, or bet on, even a few days ago! Kind of like the ending of an O Henry story. All the work and all the prayer and all the hopes didn't bring it about, and the fire, though lit, never consumed.
Yesterday I saw an urgent notice: "Lost dog team, please help find." I asked, "How do you lose a dog team?"
The sourdough looked me over and said, "You fall off the sled, they keep going..."
Well, we're keeping going.
The Children of Israel lived and kept going in the desert for 40 years after their escape from Egypt. It is written that God provided for their every need. He gave them laws carved from granite, water from the desert, manna from the sky, and He guided their nomadic life in a very personal way. Their holiest object, the Ark, the carriage of the Torah, was kept in a tent compound called the Tabernacle. Over the Tabernacle, God kept a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. The fire gave them light and the cloud reminded them of God's glory. When the pillar of cloud began to move, the Israelites were to follow it. When it came to rest, it was where they would set up camp. They followed the pillar for 40 years until they entered the promised land. The Israelites often hoped that their travels were over, but year after year, the cloud kept moving.
Our Cloud is moving again. We made it to winter, but we are catching the Alaska Ferry in Haines, if we can make it through the mountains in time, and then we're gone. It has been a journey of faith, and we will remember the people and the images: we saw the midnight sun and the northern lights. We saw the winter daylight dwindle to practically nothing, the winter solstice--a thing of darkness and ice--fiery sunrises and sunsets following close behind, dog teams everywhere, ubiquitous snow machines, snow and silence in the forests.
The sense of solitude and isolation is infinitely greater now. The crowds are gone, have been for months. Fairbanks turns into a blue-collar town in September when the tour buses are put away and the RVs vanish. The newspaper runs endless articles about child abuse and public drunkenness. One or two horrible crimes herald the coming of the dark months. This year, a young high school football player is beaten to death by four drunken, drugged youths. The beating takes place at 3 a.m. on a Sunday in the middle of Fairbanks. There was no motive or reason. As he was dying, his murderers sexually abused him.
We lived in a solid little cabin in the birch, cooked the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals in a propane oven, took showers in water so red our toenails changed color with our hair, and we bought wood too long for the stove, resulting in a chimney fire that nearly burned us out. We wanted to buy that cabin in those woods, with the iron water and the Ptarmigan and the arctic hare and the red foxes out in the bush. We saw the doghouses buried in the snow, yet when filled with straw, even the dogs liked it, sort of.
We watched the snow get deeper and deeper, and we got so used to it being below zero we hardly noticed, and through it all, we started to make friends and settle in. We also listened to the ravens talking to each other and, perhaps, to other souls--some would say, talking of the winter winds of change.
Alaska is too vast, too complex to make safe generalizations, but it did teach us some things. We learned of a place of myth--the last living legend of the frontier, the great North American wilderness that, since five centuries past, has been pushed farther and farther to the frozen North, to this--the end of it. There is no more.
Recently, the newspaper announced that there are plans to pave the Dalton, the bald dirt road that bumps and grinds its way through the muskeg and tundra from Fairbanks to Prudehoe Bay. By the end of the century, the last frontier, perhaps in the world, will wear an asphalt yoke. Within the last forty years there were native tribes living nomadically in the Brooks Range and farther north, surviving as their ancestors did for millennia, living off the land in Caribou tents. The frontier is dying and the tourists are flocking here to watch.
Alaska is the center of its own universe. When you leave Alaska you go Outside. Outside is a proper name, always capitalized, meaning everywhere but here. The rest of the United States is called the "Lower 48," which seems to include Hawaii. One is considered to be from the Lower 48 until one becomes a "sourdough." A sourdough, depending on who you ask, has spent a couple of weeks in 50-below weather, swam naked in the Yukon (or answered nature's call in it), and spent a winter or more, inside. Janet takes calls from people in the Lower 48 who tell her that they are calling from the United States. If one has lived in Alaska for 30 years or more, one can join Alaska-pioneer clubs, and one earns great status if living here before statehood.
Clouds are gathering for Alaska, and they will be moving for many others here, sourdoughs and insiders, alike. Salmon runs were off badly this year. The fishing industry just got through a very poor season. There are few economic supports in the interior: tourism, gold, oil and military bases. We were told that half the employment in this area comes, in one form or another, from government. The bases are big players in interior economics. The paper ran a front-page story quoting one of Alaska's senators, Ted Stevens, saying that it is very likely President Clinton will be shutting down the two remaining military bases in the interior. Gold prices are currently falling and oil production continues downward.
Alaska is a country of boom and bust. When the pipeline days ended, the economy died quickly. New houses went into foreclosure at an alarming rate. Eleven state banks in Alaska went bankrupt; people simply walked out of their new houses and never returned. The largest gold mine in the world, Fort Knox, operates just north of here, and a slew of smaller mines as well. As of now, prices being what they are, everyone is putting on a brave front. The supply trucks run up the Dalton to Prudhoe every day, but new oil fields have to be opened--the old ones are drying up.
The University of Alaska, Fairbanks is in trouble. They lost national accreditation for their education college this year. Lay-offs are rising. Even the maintenance force was slashed. Several larger university buildings are currently empty. Morale is rumored to be bad and falling.
Alaska, like the Confederate States 130 years ago, is long on rhetoric and slim on substance. Almost nothing is manufactured here. Alaska's economy is almost totally dependent on the Outside. Like Alaska, the cost of shipping everything--is huge, the distances enormous. As large as the population centers of Anchorage and Fairbanks are, there are very few roads and only one rail. Roads here are built on permafrost. They have half the life of a road anywhere else and often resemble roller coasters with their dipping rolling surfaces, caused by melting and shifting permafrost. Driving can be tedious, at best.
Military scientists talk about logistical problems and supply lines. Alaska's supply line, its umbilical cord, is like the string that holds a large helium balloon in place. That umbilical cord could be vulnerable. People here believe that the military bases are vital to their protection in a global situation that seems increasingly unpredictable and volatile. Invaded 50 years ago, Alaska's memory is good, providing little enthusiasm here for a pull-out, but America has historically disarmed in peacetime, so Senator Stevens has warned his constituency.
Racism is alive and well on the last frontier, looming larger-than-life. The White Alaskans live in one culture, the natives in another, African Americans, Hispanics, and Orientals in their own niches. Tensions, particularly between the natives and the Whites, are high and getting higher. A village of 700 natives is trying to get control of tens of thousands of square miles of oil country. Their case was just heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. Many Whites believe that the natives have too much, and the natives believe too much has been taken with too little return. There is anger in the villages, anger everywhere else.
Stories of million-dollar schools being built in the bush and destroyed by native mismanagement are frequent. Stories of drunken natives riding through Caribou herds and indiscriminately shooting down hapless animals with semi-automatic rifles are told and retold. Stories of villages ravaged by alcohol, drugs, incest and AIDS are heard often enough to give them some credence.
In Alaska, a bear could mean many things. The Koyukon believe that the bear has great medicine and is very dangerous. Perhaps the bears are coming.
George, our Two Rivers friend, was from somewhere in Pennsylvania, an indeterminate number of years ago, but he still has that strong Philly twang in his voice. When we first got here, he blew up a few myths for us, like, you can't live here in an RV--George lived in one for six years; you can't use an outhouse without a door--George never put one on his, for all those six years; you can't use an outhouse when it's 40-below--George just kept the seat inside, nice and warm, and packed it out with him when he needed the outhouse. George was one of the first friends we made. He was everyman in these parts, the local character.
George put on a yearly yard sale here at the tiny row of stores that mark the end of the power lines on the Chena Hot Springs Road. It was a pretty decent shindig he held every fall (that would be August?), complete with a boom box, lots of food cooking and all sorts of gew jaws for sale. The whole community would come out, make their contributions, and the thing would go on for two or three days until the salables dwindled to a little pile along side the road with George sitting next to it, ready to grin his grin and take your money.
When we first got here (we learned later) folks wondered if I was FBI or somehow hooked up with the CIA. George wondered what we were up to as well. But he came around and decided we were okay. He wouldn't come to church though. When he asked me about the Church, I invited him in: "No, I don't go to church...just don't. Went to a funeral a few years ago but that's all. I don't go."
George drove an ancient Chevy pickup, right arm draped over the wheel, Pall Mall in his lips, with his small, perky black dog perched next to him. It was a kind of off-something colored truck that had to be about as ageless as George. On his way to Grandma's store, not long ago, the pain of his heart attack caused his arm to jerk the truck off the road and send it hurtling into the muskeg. By the time anyone found him, he was gone and his little dog refused to come to anyone's calls. The dog was found dead on the road the next morning, probably hit by a car that night while he looked for George.
The Cloud moved for George. The Cloud now moves for us. We came to Alaska, but the Cloud wouldn't stand still. We had to come then, we have to go now. Maybe we'll try it somewhere else. You don't hit a home run every time. But there's only one reason not to go to bat. Clouds are strange, sometimes you never know where you're going.
Perhaps we are just being born.The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit. - John 3:8
Biographical story copyright © Darrell W. Richardson - All rights reserved
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