It started out innocently enough. Cowboy Bob had been spending two weeks every August fishing with Army buddies in Seward, Alaska but decided to fulfill a lifelong dream this summer by “wandering around” the Kenai Peninsula. Bob and I met wandering in the mountains so he really, really wanted me to “share the adventure” of going into the wild where he could kill things, not shower, and fend off grizzlies. He routinely does two of those three things at home.
“Whaddaya say, Phyllis?” he pleaded, looking sort of like a Cro-Magnon man with doggy eyes.
“OK,” I relented, “I’ll go for three weeks, then you can do your Grizzly Adams thing for the rest of the summer.”
Bob was ecstatic. In marriage therapy parlance they call this “taking one for the team.”
Alaska is Colorado’s mentally unstable older brother, the one who gets drunk and sets things on fire and then, when let out of jail yet again drives his Harley helmetless into the sunset giving the finger to The Man the whole way. That’s why Bob is wildly in love with the place. Me? Next time I visit Alaska will be from the safety of my couch, flipping to The DIscovery Channel during Seinfeld reruns. I am over this wilderness bullshit.
Bob began battle preparations, basically devoting his every waking moment and many of my sleeping moments to lists, safety protocols, gun checks, and more lists. Many nights in February I’d hear him walking the halls and 3 a.m. saying things like maple syrup! and maps! I need more maps! I know enough to steer clear when Bob prepares and plans. A few days before our scheduled departure I decided to pack.
“You bringing band aids?” I asked casually.
“What!” he grabbed his non-existent hair, “Consult the master list regarding supplies!”
As soon as the snow melted, kayak training began. We (me and him, the Colonel and his army) mustered by a local lake and heaved our new old kayak - which I christened the SS BUDDHA - off the roof of the truck. He had lashed it down with every manner of rope, carabiner, and knot.
“Now you need to know how to tie a bolen knot,” he instructed.
“No I don’t,” I answered maturely, “That’s why I have you. You tie the knots.”
The Colonel seethed.
“How can I trust you with my life in the wilderness if you can’t tie a bolen?” he said.
“Exactly,” I replied. “So you stroke out in the wilderness and what am I supposed to do, tie your dick in a bolen?”
I won that round, and we moved on.
The ferry boat from Seattle to Whittier was just that - a boat. Not a cruise liner, but the kind of boat immigrants board and here I was, one of the tired, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. There is nothing to do on the boat. It is an exercise in boredom interspersed with seasickness. One night with seven foot swells I laid motionless in my tiny upper bunk in our little closet room thinking - almost laughing - this is one of my worst case scenarios. Cowboy Bob reclined happily underneath me, playing his solitaire game. I could hear the little clicks and beeps as I tried to breathe without heaving.
“Bob,” I said quietly, “I need to have diarrhea but if I move I’m gonna throw up.”
“Hmm,” he said. Click, click, click, “That’s quite a dilemma.”
Yeah, the actual dilemma was that I was stuck on a ferry boat with a man. I spoke slowly, trying to keep dinner down.
“I need you to help me go to the bathroom.”
You really wouldn’t need to tell a woman this but it’s all good. Cowboy Bob has a really good heart, he’s just clueless sometimes, like all of us. Sea sickness, immigration - are we there yet?
Once we were on the blessed earth again we did wander around happily, Cowboy Bob fishing here and there, me trying to text and talk to other humans whenever possible. 24/7 for three weeks with anyone is something, but with your spouse? A guy? Their conversational go-tos are pretty limited and I’m sure I bored Bob too because every chance he got he’d talk to some cranky old fart about fly-ties, how many were “running in the mouth,” and when the reds were in. This is all fishing talk, most of it is lying about where you caught fish, how many and how big. Lies.
Speaking of lying, is anyone else tired of wilderness sex? Like Alaska itself, it’s one of those things that’s better in the idea stage than the reality. Here’s the recipe for sleeping bag sex: take two dirty humans and put them in a ziplock bag. Shake, sweat, stir and marinate for eight hours. Yummy! Dude, if God had wanted us to have sex outside He’d a given us more fur.
There were bear claw marks on the dumpsters everywhere. A griz had visited our campground and destroyed a tent - on our spot - the night before we moved in. I couldn't be out of Bob’s sight without bear spray and a whistle and he had a shotgun always at hand. This is a vacation? On vacation you’re supposed to worry about what you’re going to eat, not who’s going to eat you. I’d emerge from those horrible forest service pit toilets (just a toilet literally plopped over an open hole), cracking the door open with my bear spray ready as if that rusty cloud of yuck would do anything more than piss the big guy off.
How to put this delicately? Although I’m 57 I’m still on the upper curve of that whole menopause thing and of course I got “the curse” while out in the Alaskan woods. A woman at that time of the month is like Joe’s Barbecue setting up on the highway, open the grill wide so the aroma wafts to bears everywhere. I was bear chum. But it was okay because I couldn't sleep anyhow. It’s always 3 p.m. in Alaska. The sun never sets. At 10:30 one night I wrapped a black shirt around my face, hoping to sleep. Although I almost asphyxiated myself in the process, for one brief shining moment “eternal rest” sounded like a good idea.
All through this Cowboy Bob was about as manly and kind as a guy could be. He’d light a big fire in camp and stay up with a shotgun in his lap. He cooked all the outdoor meals and when we got into a town with a Safeway he’d stop so I could run like an addict into Starbucks. To my surprise I realized that I had become what Huck Finn would call “civilized.” I like some measure of comfort. Hmm. Guess I’m getting old when, as they say “the days are long and the years are short.” I was a good traveling partner; uncomplaining for the most part and having as much fun as I could “being in the moment.” And the next moment, and the next moment ad infinitum. One day we hiked seven miles into a forest service cabin, and got there by 3 pm. It was too buggy to be outside so we stayed in the cabin, both of us secretly wondering how the hell we’d pass the next 15 hours of daylight in a cabin that was basically shelter. So we made a hot drink, got laid, played some cards. And by then it was 4:15.
I should state that the Alaska coastline is very beautiful and dramatic about which, again, I have two words: DISCOVERY CHANNEL. In an adorable little fishing village called Hope, Alaska Bob waded into the creek to fish and I took a book and a camp chair out onto that coastline where I proceeded to get sucked into quicksand. There's a really bad sound as your muck boots just slowly sink into the mire. And me without my whistle!
But I’m 5’3”, female and I weigh a little more than my dog. I see the world differently from a physically puny perspective. While I've grown a brave and big spirit, in Alaska I got to see how size matters. Bob is still there, wandering, kayaking with friends he’s made, hanging his hammock here and there like the old days back in Asia. This is his heaven and I’m happy for him. I got on a plane to Philly and within a week of airport grizzlies I was at Twisties Bar in Strathmere New Jersey with my fabulous brother Domenic, listening to Jersey people yell while we drank beer by the bay. I’m safely back by the beach with my homies; I have flush toilets and locked doors and the Positively Fourth Street Cafe where me and the gang from ten years ago still pass around the crossword puzzle (you get to fill in two per turn) and say stuff like “Geezus, is there no time limit?” and “Pass me the damn reading glasses old man.” Whew, it's good to be back.
We each have our own Final Frontiers. I’m glad I got a good feel for Bob’s personal paradise. Will I ever return to the land of the midnight sun? I don’t know, but Alaska.