This story starts with a fire — like most good adventures. A fire. A fiddle. A hike. A lesson. A tsunami. And then, a beer.
It’s June 22, the day after the solstice in the coastal town of Seward, Alaska and my first night in my new home aboard the Tumbleweed, a 36-foot sailboat in the small boats harbor (I’ll save that story for another day). I go for a walk to find something warm because living on a boat, although pretty much my ultimate fantasy, does get cold at night.
Out by the shore, I find a fire pit with some embers still glowing and a convenient log left by a family who bailed and went to bed. I’m standing up, warming my hands, when I see a kid strolling down the path with an old red hiking pack with lots of things strapped on. I’ve been in Alaska long enough to spot one: a traveler.
He’s got these tan arms that look like a man’s but his face is all boyish charm. And there’s another thing singularly traveler-like about him: he’s got the walk. The walk of a person who knows how to walk and walk and walk and walk some more. A kind of walk that has a purpose but doesn’t have a purpose at the same time. His whole life is in that walk. I invite him over.
He tells me his name’s “Chip,” or at least that’s what he goes by, and offers me some dried mangos he quickly digs out from somewhere. What follows is a night straight out of a Woody Guthrie song. (I know this for a fact because he later produces a mandolin, one of the many things strapped to his pack, and plays me a Woody Guthrie song.)
He tells me a little bit of his story — how he grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, got fed up with the world, moved to a local beach and ate blueberries, then learned a bunch from a traveler passing through with Kurt Cobaine looks and a taste for orgies, and then Chip hit the road (but “skipped the orgies”). That was three years ago. He’s now 20.
But what he seems the most interested in telling me is how I can survive on the road. He says it so earnestly I actually start to consider it.
Here’s Chip’s advice: Cardboard makes an excellent bed. (“Good insulator.”) He once was on the side of the rode in Colorado in a snow storm and survived the night in a cardboard box. Make sure you have a tarp too.“Why?” “Because once I was sleeping in a bush with a tarp on top and heard a man peeing on it. That could’ve been my head.” Try to catch trains to get around. There are “crew guides” out there floating around the traveler-world that tell you the freight schedules and where to get under the fences to avoid the yard bosses. “You can try to catch a boat too — like in Panama.” Finally: always smile if you want a ride and, if your driver starts to get creepy, start talking about the implanted GPS chip your mother made you get behind your ear. “That works on people?” “Yup.”
We talk like this for a long time, or rather — I listen like this for a long time. Chip is two parts cocky mother…, one part gentle puppy. He is, in many ways, like all adolescent boys who’ve just turned 20. The woman in me wants to give him shelter and the girl in me just wants him around for longer. So I invite him back to the boat, which turns out to be a great decision because he later thanks me with a fiddle (also strapped onto that pack).
I had been itching to learn how to play since forever (it doesn’t take much to lift my soul than a little bluegrass) so getting to borrow his fiddle for the day feels like really good karma. I decide to celebrate and take it on a hike.
I had my eye on this one mountain. Shooting out of the earth behind town, Mt. Marathon is the site of the second oldest foot race in America. Participants run a mile and half up and down 3022 feet of absolute scree in 40 minutes. The race was still a week away so I figure I could take the back way along a stream, through a bowl, up the ridge, and get the top all to myself.
The funny thing about climbing a mountain with a fiddle is just that — it’s a pretty funny, unnatural thing to be climbing a mountain with. (Just trying to fit the case on my backpack is a laugh itself.) Still, I like the feeling of its weight, of its potential. I like that it makes the climb tougher and the top that much sweeter; whether or not I can actually play the thing seems secondary. What matters is this: some things are just worth the lark.
I make it to the top (after a great interlude in the sunny bowl) and there is so much to take in: the turquoise waters of Resurrection Bay stretching out below, the town in miniature, Dall sheep on the slope of the adjacent mountain butting horns. I take out my fiddle and start to bow, thankful that only the animals will hear my terrible concert…
And then they arrive, in a pack: the runners.
I turn around, bow in mid-air ready to land another…sound, and see the first woman, dust-covered and panting. She is followed by another and another. Soon, my little mountain musical oasis is filled with close to 10 professional runners, all practicing the course the last weekend before the race. We just sort of stare at each other wide-eyed until they can catch their breath and ask what the heck I’m doing.
The other funny thing about climbing a mountain with a fiddle is that everyone thinks you can play.
Here I am with a crowd, happy high on their endorphins, and a perfect stage, and I don’t know how to play a thing. I quickly entertain the idea of maybe, just maybe, I can pick it up and magically a song will come out but, after a long fantasizing pause, have to admit there will be no show.
The runners soon excuse themselves and fall back down the mountain. I strap the fiddle on and am about to go down the way I came when I go over and take a look at their race trail. It is steep but they are down it halfway now. Surely, it can’t be that bad. And, I think to myself, it will probably get me home faster.
These are all the thoughts I was warned (by people who know the trail) I would think from the top looking down, but “don’t go down it,” they said. “It’s worse than it looks and will be hard going, especially with an instrument banging around you,” one warned me. I heard all this, even agreed with it at the time, but looking down it I think they must be wrong about my ability. I know what I’m doing. I’ve been hiking mountains in Alaska. I’m no tourist! So, I start down.
What follows is a very good lesson on listening. The top of the scree field is manageable, I slide here and there, but where I thought the runners reached the halfway point is just the beginning. It gets steeper and, then, steeper. It goes through a canyon and that’s when I lose the trail. There is no one around. It is getting late. I am getting close to a river and suddenly the prospect of running smack into a bear is starting to feel very real. (Not to mention I’m fearing for the fiddle’s life as I lower myself down rocks and imagining how I’ll explain to Chip that I had to leave it on the mountain…or worse, I’ll become that local story about the woman who’s body was mysteriously found with a fiddle.)
It’s here that I realize that what they say about Alaska — about really any wild place — is true: it can turn on you instantly. You may have made it up that mountain but some bad judgment and too much bravado can end you on the way down. I have pushed it too far today. I am too close to that line.
Somehow, two hours later in the woods, I regain the trail and book it to town. There, I check in with my friend Ola at the local hostel to let her know I’m alive. She’s got dinner ready for me and I collapse on the floor of the bunk room with a bowl full of steaming noodles. My savior! I tell her my story and she just sweetly shakes her head at me and says in her Polish accent “oh you, crazy girl.” Today, I think she’s right.
And that’s when Alaska, yet again, wins. I’m halfway through my noodles when a loud siren sounds. The owner of the hostel comes upstairs and I overhear her tell a very excitable woman that it’s a tsunami warning. A flurry of questions follow from which we learn: There’s been an earthquake out on the Aleutian island chain, producing a wave. No, this doesn’t happen a lot. And yes, it’s probably a good idea to get to higher ground.
She says it so calmly I pretty much don’t believe it. Besides, where is the highest place to go in Seward? Mt. Marathon. I think my exact words are then: “Ola, I am not going back up there.” I don’t want to move. I want to eat my noodles.
What is it about our human propensity to believe in our own security until the bitter end; to want to hold on to our normalcy as long as we can?
Luckily there are smarter, more rested, less hungry people around me that start to move out the door. They snap me out of my Mt. Marathon blues and we’re soon outside too, going up the road. We aren’t on the road for more than five minutes when a passing fire truck tells us the warning’s been called off. The tsunami isn’t coming.
There is relief and then a strange return to that normalcy: we decide to go to the grocery store.
We find Chip along the way and are headed back to the sailboat, food and much-needed drinks in tow, when we bump into another traveler who goes by the name of “Sapphire Berry.” I invite them all aboard and we snuggle into the stern. I take in my motley crew and it makes me smile. I think “Alexander Supertramp” got it right when he wrote, stranded on that bus, that “happiness [is] only real when shared.” (Too bad he didn’t realize that sooner.)
“So how did the fiddle go?” Chip asks. I let out a long satisfied sigh. “Pass me a beer and I’ll tell you.”
[In case you were really wondering if this story were true, here’s a video. You will see the woman running up Mount Marathon at the end. Oh and please excuse the terrible playing…]