Friday, August 14, 2009

Old thoughts revisited

When I was working in Vernal, Utah, I had the opportunity to park a trailer on BLM land and live completely alone for 4 days a week. I haven't told many people about it simply because it wasn't something I was doing in an effort to get attention. It was so personal I wanted to experience it alone. Plus, how do you pepper that into normal conversations- "I work in a mine and live in a trailer for half the week." The questions don't stop. I'm over it now. This is something I wrote while doing that.

-I don't know if there's anything I can contribute to the world of thought and literature that hasn't already been vocalized or documented. I don't know if any of my thoughts are original to anyone but me, and even in that case I think most of my thoughts are just like finishing someone else's sentence from something I've read or heard. The only thing I seem to know enough to give my life for is work and reading.

I'm living in a trailer for half the week where my nearest neighbor is 5 miles away; a real life, modern-day Thoreau. Except he was even more long-winded than I am, and he built his cabin. Whatever. I'm really just following in the footsteps of Chris McCandless, and Eustace Conway, and Henry Thoreau and probably a thousand other hippie-philosophers who had an itch that lead them to scratch it in the solitude of the wilderness.

And half the week I'm a landlord and home remodeler; trying to make sure color schemes and "feel" are all complimentary in an old house. I think it looks better than just putting lipstick on a pig, but maybe my realtor isn't being honest with me. Is capitalism okay for those of us who want the simple life? Even the simple life costs money. And usually the simpler things get, the more time they cost. And in the end, that's what all this is about. How to use my time. Franklin Covey has it right, it would seem.

Middle Children of history. Another borrowed phrase. But I believe the dialogue from Fight Club 100%. Ours is a spiritual war. In the information age, in all of our exponentially doubling wisdom, we are redefining and rethinking everything. And we're getting a lot of it wrong. And a lot right. Its a war of information. A war of words. Some people say there was a war in Heaven, and God and Satan fought. God won, but Satan has dominion here. I've thought about what that war must have been like. No one died physically. So, we have another parallel information war. A war where the only weapon was logic. And we have a similar situation here, except that logic isn't always truth, as we saw with O.J. Maybe O.J. needs a dose of the Walden Pond too. Or maybe he'd just stab the ducks.

I wanted to get away. Not start over. I like the life I've made for myself. I have good friends, relatively nice things, healthy food, great family relationships, no love interest- which is a void thats always present but I'm not going to start watching the Notebook everyday or anything. Starting over makes it sound like you screwed up somewhere. I didn't. I just had a longing to try something different. I've listened to too much Pink Floyd. Or maybe not enough. 

But if 95% of people live, die, in various levels of social and economic mediocrity, why buy into a career? Why follow the model of debt accumulation, debt payment, with a 0 balance for 10 years at the end of your life when your knees need replacement and your bladder control is questionable? The underground hip-hop group Atmosphere calls this dilemma "from the cradle to the grave, from pampers to the depends." Another borrowed thought.

And just because its different doesn't mean its productive. Because we all have a stewardship to use the talents we have productively. Like it or not, we can't feel good outside of growth. And growth comes from doing hard things. Not just for the sake of doing a hard thing, but things that are hard for us personally. I had fear of confrontation. I still have fear of confrontation. I trained with cage-fighters for 4 years. I fought twice. I no longer fear physical confrontation, though I do get nervous every time I have a verbal confrontation. Information war. And I'm a sissy.

I'm not sure how it worked with Thoreau. But living this joint-custody life with myself, half-ferrel/half-domesticated, has been really interesting. When I go home now, I almost feel like I'm having an out-of-body experience. I hear the conversations, take part in them, but its like I'm going through the motions. The little nothings really are nothing to me. I can feel the stillness building. I don't know if other people notice it. I'm finally starting to just be because of my sojourn in the wilderness. Meaning from anonymity.

I'm getting to be comfortable with the idea of using an outdoor toilet; flushing with dirt. The Africans squat over a hole, even indoors. Their toilets are flush with the floor. In a hospital they had real toilets, and a sign inside that said, "don't stand on the toilet." Sitting on a toilet was as foreign to them as squatting is to us. I wondered how my dad would handle that sort of set-up with his fake knee. Maybe Africans don't get their parts replaced. Maybe life-span doesn't last long enough. Maybe activity keeps them healthy. I didn't see a McDonalds there. I'm sure there's positive correlation there between ability to squat and lack of McDonald's.

I haven't made time to do much exploring until today. I took my guitar, took off my shirt, and went to an outcropping of rocks right above my trailer. I got to the top, and it overlooks the entire Uintah basin. And I laughed a laugh I don't know if I've laughed ever. When I was a child, I think I would laugh for no reason other than some sense of happiness that had no understanding. I got tickled. I laughed. Big deal.

I've been to Africa now. I've read hundreds of books of human suffering. I've read and watched the news. People are dying everywhere.

The other day in Yoga, which to me is physical and relaxing all at once, I was thinking, "How dare I, enjoying myself while people are suffering." And I then asked myself, "what would they be doing if they were me?" And the answer hit me so powerfully, like a cricket mallet of truth across the butt. "They would be enjoying the reprieve as completely as they possibly could. They would be happy, and living and laughing. You do not dishonor struggle with laughter, you celebrate it for those who wish they could have things better." 

I like to think that these eyes that look on the world are the eyes of an experienced man. A man who is not disillusioned about the nature of things, but is still happy to be alive. And when I looked out on that valley, I laughed a pure, guileless laugh. The laugh of a man who sees something beautiful and remarkable and awesome and is filled with an energy that is completely spiritual. Basking in the purity of nature.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


I'm a corporate reporter for a home security company called APX. I write internal news stories and have a 7am deadline every morning. So, I roll out of my cot at 5am, pull the pants on one leg at a time like any other human being- but then I write golden stories. 

Anyway, I get on a quad to go to a place that has an internet connection. As I'm about to leave the beach, there's some kind of fuzzy, rumbling thing in front of me. My eyes focus, and I'm looking at a bear's hindquarters. Its brown.

He lumbers up a hill, and I keep driving around his way on the road. I'm new at this Alaska stuff, so I remember thinking to myself, "Uh, do you follow bears?" But he was running away from me, so, whatever, right? 

He/she- (funny how I got sexist in my description of the bear. No guy wants to be scared of a girl, even if its a bear-girl. I have no idea if it was a girl or man-bear). He/she was about a quad and a half in length. When you're chasing a bear, you compare it to your own relative size. If you're bigger, you're okay. If not, well, proceed with caution. Moose, for instance, are not impressed by the size of a quad, as one of my friends up here got chased for 3 miles by a cow once.

I keep on chasing, though following would probably have been a better description of what I was doing. We were rolling through the boatyard now, and he/she ducked through two containers that I thought were physically impossible for him/her to fit through. I had to drive around them, and he/she was 75 yards off by the time I got around them. 

The bear was heading across the Tundra back towards our camp, though probably 50 yards off. And he/she was really cooking now. I called one of the guys at the camp and told them, in a voice which retrospectively must have been giddy/excited/(and I'm ashamed to say) a little blubbery. "dude, there's a bear. Its running. Its going past the camp. Its, a bear." If it had been a 911 call, the operator would have said, "Um, sir, slow down. Fire, medical or police..."

In Alaska, however, you hear "bear", you grab your gun, which is what Scott did.  I just wanted him to see it, but he didn't understand it was just a zoo experience. He got back on the phone and the bear was long gone. He thought the bear was at our camp. I just wanted him to see the fuzzy guy/gal. 

Then I drove the quad to write my stories. Another day in Alaska. Surreal. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


When I first started working in a mine in Eastern Utah, I loved the anonymity and the newness of it. I loved the masculinity of the work; the sheer physicality of it. I loved how dirty I got. I loved the necessity of a shower after work. 

An opportunity came up to go to Alaska, dredging for gold. I was formally offered a position on a Tuesday. On Wednesday I accepted. Thursday, after work at the mine, 20 of us were laid off. Over the course of 2 months they laid off half their work force. Interesting how when one door opens, sometimes the door closing slams you in the butt.

Don't know what's with me and wild, open places. I wanted to go to Africa for that reason. I wanted to see stretches of land where I was the only person. I saw it. It was beautiful. I wanted to see Alaska for the same reason. But its only since I've lived here that I've realized what its all about.

Its a search for stillness. So, so very hard to find in the 'real' world.

My first week here, a good friend of mine, Bo Gardner, came to visit and we drove from Nome to Council. Council is a little outpost group of homes/cabins/shacks about 2 hours south-east of Nome. The drive follows the coast, then goes inland. I can't remember when I've felt more like Christmas than what I saw on that drive. It was like God had saved a special mural just for us, and 30 years into my life he was finally willing to share it with me. Lord, it was beautiful. 
The greens and shades of greens inside of greens. The shacks. Even the evidence of man in the form of rusting machinery and discarded this and thats can't detract from it. All evidence of work and industry. Hard to begrudge the abandoned tools of a man's dreams.

We went fishing, and I hadn't fished since I was a kid. Felt bad for the suckers- never really caught anything anyway. But now, well, we needed the meat. I was fishing of necessity. Caught 4 grayling in exchange for 10 mosquito bites. The Lord giveth and taketh away.

Just like Africa, when you frame pictures in Alaska, it frames itself. Because of the 22 hour day, most of which have been overcast, the lighting has been perfect. Dusk is a great time for photography, but it usually is a small half-hour window. In Alaska, dusk lasts from 9pm-12am. 

I came up here to dredge for gold. The process is simple and is applied to creeks, rivers, lakes and for us, the ocean. You vacuum up silt from the floor of the ocean, the sediment runs through a sluice box which sorts the gold from the sand/rock/nothing. Someone has to be on the end of the hose to direct the flow of sediment. Enter Ian Foster. 

I now find myself in Nome, Alaska, living in a big WW II Army tent on the beach, diving in 50 degree water, running an 8 inch vacuum hose, 20 feet deep on the bottom of the ocean for a living. Its totally nutty. Working in the mine was sissy stuff. 

Last time out I dove for 4 hours. At the end, I had to unclog a rock from our hose. When the pump turns off, it turns the hot water off too. We keep hot water constantly pumped to our suits... So, no hot water, I came up to the surface. Couldn't see where the rock was. Went back down the hose to visually inspect the hose with a flash-light. (it was 1am.) Couldn't see it. Came back up. Went back down to bang on a bend in the hose with a hammer. Came back up. Still clogged. Took a rope back down, tied it off at the nozzle. Come back up for good. I can see my breath. 

I'd been in the water for 20 minutes. Shivering. Glorious. You can FEEL that. It isn't sitting at a computer moving stuff from one electronic box to another all day. You can feel the life in your body. And its beautiful. And miserable. Can't remember a time I've been more miserable since I got to the Denny's in New Mexico a few years back after a 5 hour motorcycle ride at night. I ordered 6 cups of hot water and just let my hands hold the cup to warm up. Took 6 cups before I could unbend my fingers from the motorcycle grip they were frozen in. Misery along those lines. Marvelous misery.

And the whole package deal, the job, the town, the people, the setting, and Alaska, I keep wondering when something really bad is going to happen. Can it really get as good as this? People leave the keys in their cars when they walk into the store here. People know each other here. They let you shower at their homes because you're living on a beach. 

The dredging community is really connected here. All the men that do it are the loner types. Some have wives, but all feel compelled/pulled/drawn by the silent seduction of Alaska. She's a lover that seems to say, "keep pushing forward, there's something else if you dive longer or go over that hill or try that river. You may just find it. You just may." And they keep trying. 

And I've seen gold on the bottom of the ocean. You vacuum through a layer of sand to 8 inches of rock, but there, on a layer of clay, 1 foot below the ocean floor, you can see little flecks of gold. An ounce of gold isn't that much. In flecks, it takes up about as much space as the first two knuckles of your pinkie. And I trade my time, energy, and put my life on the line in one of the harshest seas of the earth for this golden rock in such damned small amounts. Even the ironies of Alaska are monumental.

But its still. There's manly drama as you're likely to see anywhere men who know it all are trying to get something done; but without the nastiness of women, man problems are so easy and innocent.

 "Swear word, that guy is an idiot isn't he?" "Swear word, ya. I sure know better than him. Swear word." "Curse, sure glad I know better than him and I'm not as stupidly retarded, Cursing curse." "For sure. Spit. Scratch. Curse." Eventually men talk or fight about it, talk again, figure it out, then have a drink. 

And all the while, the wind off the Bering Sea gets cold, and warm. It gets sunny and cloudy. The day never ends. And there's a stillness, even when its busy. I can feel it soaking into my bones like those warm cups of water into my hands, 6 years ago.