Northwest to Alaska
Chapter Nine

by Peter S. Oleson

Some people bounce back from grief, some don't even seem to acknowledge it. I react by going inside myself. I had a rough time for a while after Eric died, it's hard yet to write accurately about it, and it's been almost 20 years. I tried once to explain it to someone and failed to be understood, so I never tried again, until now. I loved that stupid kid more than I have loved anyone before or since. Maybe more would be a bad choice of words, but differently, unencumbered by expectations, subterfuge or innuendo. I could say to him what I thought with no regard to being judged or made fun of, and he could talk that way to me. We had no secrets from each other. I don't know, maybe he could relate like that to everyone. What I do know is that losing him left me afraid to love like that again. If that is what having a true friend is like, then I guess that I have only had one true friend in my life. If that's the way that I should be with everyone, then I have failed badly at this life. I don't know exactly what is expected of me here on Earth, but I try to be honest and honorable. I'm big on honor, and I have no use for those without it. However, I digress, this is supposed to be a story about Alaska.

While we had been gone, the snow had melted and we saw no real need to keep paying rent all summer. We settled up with the landlord and moved back into the local campgrounds to spend another summer in the pick-up camper. Diane's younger sister, Debby, had written and told us that she was hitchhiking up with a friend of hers. They were coming all the way from Wisconsin. I was a little worried about them, seems like every year up here hitchhikers turn up missing, but they got here all right without any horror stories. Debby had no where to stay, so she took up temporary residence in the cab of the Ford at night. She had to stay up until midnight, though, so I could sit in the cab of the truck and listen to the "Herb Schaindlin" radio show that was on from 10 'til 12. I went to bed with Herb for quite a few years. A wonderful radio call in show. There wasn't anyone that Herb couldn't insult.

The shop that I was working at was run by a guy from Texas who had no business being in the car repair business. He was too busy trying to be a big wheel to run the place properly, and consequently, it didn't prosper. I don't know how much money he pissed away, but none of it was his own. I found myself looking for work again. I went to see Bill at the dealership that I had worked at the previous year. Bill needed someone to kind of run the place and take some of the burden off of him and his wife and I needed a job, so we came to an agreement and I started right in on it. Glen and Jeff were still there, and Norm the after school help, so it was a familiar scenario. I just had a hell of a lot more to do, which was fine with me. Nothing makes time so slow as a job that's boring or undemanding. I had bought an old VW pickup bus with a blown engine for $50 and fixed up the motor, so Diane and I each had a car to drive to work and we could leave the truck and camper at our campground of the moment.

One day that summer, I was reading the local newspaper (we were kind of half-assed looking for some property) and came across a picture of a little log cabin that was for sale. The price was low enough to draw my attention. I talked Diane into going for a little drive to check it out. It took forever to find it, we kept going down all these gravel roads that went nowhere until we hit the right one. It was beautiful. It had this wonderful dirt roof with weeds growing out of it, some of that expensive clear plastic for windows and a real nice outhouse that had plenty of room in it to make it into a two-holer. We had to have it. I was sure that someone must have already made an offer on it, how could they help it, the place was perfect. We called the Realtor at the home number and he just told us to come into the office the next day and make an offer. Looking back, I guess that I needn't have worried so much about someone else buying the place. Most people like glass in the windows of their houses. They like foundations and indoor plumbing, too. People are big on indoor plumbing.

The offer we made, which was what the owner was asking, was accepted. There was, however, some problem with the title that I never did exactly understand. We talked to the owner, Darwin, and he said we might as well move the camper onto the property while they were working out whatever the hold up was. The chain of possession was kind of convoluted. Darwin got the place in a trade with a guy named Lou who built it for his wife, who took one look at it, took the children and left to go back to Detroit. Lou didn't want to live there after that, so he traded it to Darwin for 10 acres way out past Sterling on Feuding Lane. Lou built another little shack out there and moved in with his dog team and Darwin. Somewhere along the line, the paperwork got screwed up.

We kept bugging Darwin, he kept bugging the Realtor, the Realtor did what they do so well: drug his feet. Some serious bad blood was brewing between Darwin and the Realtor. One day Darwin came by and wanted to know how much money we had. I told him we had saved up around 10 thousand dollars. He rubbed his chin for a few minutes and said "I'll let you have it for $9,500 cash". I said "SOLD". We shook on it and went to see the Realtor the next day, and the deal was done. We were damned near broke, but we had us one fine one-roomed house. We ended up paying about half of what we had offered to pay, mostly because Darwin was pissed off at his Realtor. I wasn't complaining.

The house, or cabin, if you prefer, was 24 by 24 and had two windows in each wall. Well, not windows actually, those would have to wait, but places for windows were cut out of the walls. It had a door on either end, homemade and shorter that I was, so you had to kind of duck down and step down into the place. The floor was well below the level of the outside ground, I would guess because it was quicker and cheaper to dig down than it was to build up. It was just plywood nailed to 2 by 4's laid on the ground. The log walls were just setting on the ground and were chinked with moss, which kept out all but the worst wind, and none but the largest bugs. There was a stove, but no well or running water. We even had electricity, one outlet box with 4 sockets in it. We were ecstatic. I privately wondered if this stroke of luck was cosmically engineered. I wondered a lot of strange things in those days.

It didn't take very long after we became home owners that we began to discover some of the joys of ownership. Like property taxes and electric bills. Heat was no problem, I would just get myself a chain saw. There were trees everywhere, and the cabin had a fine home-made wood stove made out of a piece of oil pipe about two feet in diameter. Kind of like a barrel stove, but made out of steel pipe and not a barrel. It took four grown men to lift it, and quite a while to get it hot, but once it was warmed up, it would hold a fire for 12 hours. It sucks to get up in the middle of the night in the cold to stoke the stove.

When we moved in, one of the neighbors drug his two young boys over and made them apologize for doing a little vandalism to the house while it was empty. I didn't know what he was talking about, but pretended like I did. I accepted their apology and the neighbors offer of the opportunity to cut wood on some property that he was logging. There isn't anything easy about cutting firewood. I always cut it in the summer, because there is so much more light than in the winter. So you sweat like hell cutting it, hauling it over to stack in the truck and unloading it and stacking it at home. Then you sweat like hell splitting it in the middle of winter (it splits better when it's frozen, especially if it's still a little bit green) and stacking it in the house. Then you burn it up. I guess some people just like to make an ordeal out of everything. I cut a lot of firewood, and it was a good thing that I did, because that was a cold bugger of a winter and the dirt roof really didn't have much of an R-factor. We would have to do something about that roof, someday.

There was another neighbor down the road that I had to drive by every time I came or left. His name was John and he worked at a place that made and sold doors and windows. He had an even smaller cabin than we did, but he had his divided into rooms. It seemed like there were always people over there, and he was always over at our place when there weren't. He had a cat named Hootch, who kind of moved in with us on occasion. When John was out of town, or didn't come home at night, we'd hear a scratch or meow at the door and Hootch would move in for the night. We would also borrow him from John when the mice and moles tried to move in as the weather cooled in the fall.

John made us some thermal pane windows to fit the holes in the walls that first fall, so at least we didn't have to worry about the bears coming in through the plastic some night. John was a real nice guy, but he was holy hell on tools. Some people are just better off using nothing more complicated than a fork and spoon, and John was one of those people. I borrowed him my chain saw so he could cut up a bunch of burn poles one day. I could hear him down there all afternoon, with that saw just roaring away. Finally, I couldn't stand it, I had to go down and see what he was doing with it. When I got there, he was running the saw back and forth in the log like he was using a hand saw. He shut it down when he saw me and I noticed that there was a good inch of sag in the chain, and it looked like he'd been cutting nails with it. I tightened up the chain and sharpened it for him and went home. It wouldn't do to bitch him out because of a lousy saw, some people should just stay away from tools. I ended up buying a new bar and chain.

Later on, he wanted to borrow my wheelbarrow. Wanting to be a good neighbor, but knowing what John could do to a tool, I figured it was OK to let him use the wheelbarrow. What could he possibly do to screw that up? Well, he came walking back a little later and wanted to know if I had another tire for it. The one that was on it was flat. It's still flat. Every time I use it I think of John and wonder whose shit he's breaking now, and where he is. Last I heard he was moving to Washington D.C., of all places. When he left, he left us the cat. John took in friends in need, John took in strangers, John took in just about anybody that needed a bed and a meal. It was never boring around his house.

It was a cold winter that year, as I have mentioned, and we didn't have a whole lot of money, hell, we never have had any. We did buy some cheap furniture, dug some more out of the local landfill and made a few other crude pieces, enough to get by. It was starting to seem more like a home. One thing we did buy was a decent mattress set, a big one, although if my memory serves me, it was used. I had bought a used stereo the previous winter when we were living in Kenai, from an old country-western singer down on his luck. My old buddy Steve came down from Anchorage to visit and brought us a couple of chickens, so I had to throw up a small house for them and put in a heat lamp to keep them from freezing to death while they were trying to lay eggs. Taking the advise of people who had been at this for longer than I had, I glued 2 inch styrofoam sheets onto the seats in the outhouse and then cut the holes out to sit on. That certainly added a degree of comfort when duty and nature made their inevitable call.

By the first day of winter, December 21st, it starts to get light here about 10 in the morning. The sun never gets more than a finger or two above the horizon, and by 3, it's dark again. By that time, we had also gone through three weeks of sub-zero weather. Starting the cars and keeping them running became a small nightmare, especially the Volkswagen. Even after the old beast was running, it never did get warm enough to defrost the windshield, so I would don my snowmobile suit and drive to work with my scraper in my left hand and steer and shift with my right. Life was grand, and due to get better (maybe even overdue).

Peter S. Oleson

From [poleson@ptialaska.net]