In my mind, I can recall the drive from the airport in Anchorage to My grandfather’s house in Homer, Alaska. After long cross country flights on unpredictable non-revenue standby status, our parents had to stand in the airport searching schedules and prices for any available and affordable quick one hour flights in small battered commuter planes, some seating as few as 12. Of course, being impatient, we children preferred getting there in only one hour. Sometimes that worked out, but not usually, and especially not at first when the whole family needed to have a full-fare ticket. Then it would be standing hopefully in line at the car rental counter, negotiating whether we would better afford to drive and drop off the rental car or keep it the for the whole ten days. Then we would be off, leaving the city which stood in the shadows of Mount McKinley/Denali. Very shortly we would be looking for Dall sheep and rams up the mountains on one side, and looking down at muddy clay patterns in the tidal basins on the Cook Inlet side. This went on for hours, and I was never bored, even though at home I would be looking hungrily at restaurants and asking when we were going to stop at one, there were none, or maybe one pastry shop on the 5-hour drive back then, but somehow, I did not mind, I was well fed by earthy yet ethereal beauty. As the roads were coastal, I recall as we got closer to our destination, one side I would see lush green, interrupted at intervals by strange places where some kind of natural disaster suddenly killed and stripped communities of some sort of pine or spruce trees, still standing, though weathered and grey. I always wondered if it was from some earthquake or with a tsunami pushing saltwater suddenly too far inland and messing with the freshwater in the lowlands, but I never asked, or if I did ask, no one had an answer. The longing for answers yielded to the longing to turn up the lane into Pap’s Spruce Cove. A five hour trip with no stops, not even for a bathroom, there were none to be seen from this road seemed long, but it never was. It may have been for my parents who were running on jet lag and too little sleep.
Though it would always be the middle of summer snow-capped mountain ranges with ice fields filling the valleys in between stood at a distance, but also seeming so close. In the pristine absence of roadsigns volcanoes, rising above the others marking the way. When going past small signs on one side for Kenai and Soldotna, on the other you could see Mount Redoubt, when you Mount Iliamna you could begin to get excited, and I am sorry to say, I cannot recall seeing Mount Augustine come into view out into the bay rising unmistakably from its own little ash island, because I was eagerly looking for roadsigns, like “10 miles to Homer.” When we saw signs for places like “Anchor Point” you were allowed to start acting goofy, after about 24 hours or more of being awake, or only catching cat naps on planes, or between waiting on standby at gates hoping to catch the next flight further up and further in. I cannot recall the scenes we were approaching the outskirts of town, that memory is lost to me. All I know is that once we hit the town we would see THE (Yes only one) grocery store, Proctor’s, and beside it, WildBerry jams and gifts, the gas station, the Post office, Toby Tyler’s Art Gallery, and the turn off to head toward the Homer Spit, a piece of land which served as a marina and harbor for fishing vessels and ferry boats, and beach campsites for summer cannery workers, called spit-rats. Before long there was the log cabin style Baptist Church, then finally the Pioneer Cemetery with its victorian era wrought iron fence where brave homesteaders silently rest below, and there it was, the lane. The lane was lined with beach stones and pebbles tumbled smooth and flat in the waves so that they squeaked under wheels and underfoot. The air was clean cool and sweet-smelling, even if it was raining, and I suppose, that when the rain, filtered down through moss and loam comprised of millennia of perennial flora, grasses, and berry bushes, that Pap’s well water tasted “Like Wildflowers” to me.
After I aged out of the system for free flight benefits via my father who for a major legacy airline, I could no longer go to my grandfather’s primitive homestead. I have heard that things have changed so much and that I would not be happy if I returned there. On the one hand, I believe that. I observed changes in the town over the years, as it shifted from a fishing village to a seasonal tourist attraction. I know that though my grandfather’s house still stands, even if I were granted a kind tour of the inside, the 1940’s refrigerator, with it’s tiny “pretend” freezer at its very heart would not be there, nor the smoothed pine trunk furniture hand hewed most likely during the long winter months in order to to make a pine board and batten shanty into a home. His house was neat and tidy, and the gardens were a feast for both stomach snow weary eyes, and supplied long dark winters in his root cellar. His yard was a fairyland for a little girl aged 2 on up through 17, where she could watch for moose, fetch buckets of smoothed round pieces of beach coal for the cook-stove where each morning a batch of hotcakes and home stuffed sweet-spicy sausage were made right on its top surface. I could opt to use the one tiny bathroom indoors, or the original plumbing, an outhouse with a proper cut out of a waxing moon on its door, or stand mesmerized as he cleaned and fillet fish on a wooden table for in the nearby smoker At least one large batch would be carefully prepared and tended and wrapped in small brown paper parcels so that we could take a whole suitcase full home for family and friends back in the “Lower 48.” Smoke was an essential part of the welcoming sights and smells. It curled up all day from the stovepipe above a roof covered with moss, and each morning, when trash from the day before was burned in a barrel stove on the bunkroom side of the cabin, taking off the chill from even a mere three hours of darkness of summer nights, and of course at least once during our stay the smoker, crafted from two 55 gallon drums, once housing a winters worth of fuel for Pap’s hardy pick up truck, but now smoked fish.
Oh the drives boucing along the road in the back of Pap’s old blue pick-up to the Homer Spit to check Pap’s net, and further back in time to his fishing boat the “Toot” which took us across the Katechamak Bay to the foot of the mountain range over which the summer sun presided and promenaded each evening just above the snow-covered peaks and ice fields between them, filling them up with what looked like a breaker heading toward us through his Pap’s two big bay windows.
We spent long days just swinging on a swing made of a thick scratchy rope tied into a high tree with the truck so side at the base three kids arms still could not span it in a hug. Some swung with one foot atop the other in the bend of the rope, and their hands grasping on for dear life, and another option notched board, or boards, as one was a two-seater. To swing you could go back and forth, but when you pooped-out, I would have to jump down into a gully, ditch sometimes muddy with dishwater. if you tired just to go back and forth, you had to turn to keep your eyes always on the rooty bank, because you would have to course-correct constantly, or risk hitting the trunk full force and getting the wind knocked out of you, or worse. The older kids and cousins would stand in line to take a turn. For one side of the tree, they would run in an arc, starting as far around the tree as possible, then take a flying “roundhouse” out and over the gully, then hopefully land on your Flintstone-running feet safe to the other side. A wimpy take-off might make your meet the wall of the gully or the trunk of the tree…so you had to be brave and strong. My Brother would challenge himself to NOT land on his feet, but keep wrapping around the trunk. He was boss at that, except for a few times he was clobbered, but it was worth it, and gave me a squeal of excitement to see him fearlessly wrapped around and a few feet off the ground up the trunk, then unfold sending him back out an around the other way almost as fast as he had come the first time, if he could get a quick last-minute push with his feet as he came away. I have to scan the pictures and digitize the film. Kids can make fun out of anything if given a few simple materials and un-scheduled time.
Each time I went spent a summer vacation, I came home stronger in many ways. Far from the usual trappings, like, grazing network re-runs of cool retro sit-coms of the late 60’s early 70’s on TV–I found things out about myself and the world around me. There was no TV. I had time to think about who I was, and who I was becoming, and what I might have to offer the world. I still think about those things, as we all should, but not with the same expansiveness as then. The landscape has changed, but the mountains surely have not uprooted and moved south, winter-weary. They have not passed away to the shadowy unseen like those asleep in the Pioneer Cemetery. But I am not asleep yet under dirt and stone, so the verdict is that I should like to go back, come what may. My eyes long for looks at mountains. Tying in another song title here, though I would lift Up My Eyes to the hills (I did not write the words, those were written long ago,) I know where my help comes from, and I have hold of the constant, in the midst os s shifty world. This is the longing behind the phrase, “Take me back, to where the water tastes like Wildflowers. “