After a grueling two-week road trip, it was no surprise that I had been asleep when we arrived, which in turn meant that I was understandably disoriented upon waking up in a place I’d never seen before. The room was in chaos with little sisters snuggled in sleeping bags tucked in between stacks of cardboard boxes. Other than a clock reading 5:00 the walls were bare but as I looked out the window the sky was much too bright for five in the morning. I shook my head and sat back bewildered until I remembered where we’d been headed during those fourteen days on the road.
We’d finally made it to Alaska.
The move north had been a long, complicated process that started with a movie the previous winter. My parents were serious John Wayne fans and when North to Alaska came to town they bundled us all up in the station wagon for a family night at the theater. My parents had very different reactions to the show; Mom thought it was great simply because it featured the Duke, but Dad spent the two hours and two minutes making editorial comments about location shots – and that’s when we learned that ten years earlier he’d been stationed at Kodiak Naval Air Station. He laughed and said “So, what would you all think about moving to Alaska?” to which in turn we all laughed, then immediately went into a discussion about Ernie Kovacs sliding down the muddy hill, forgetting Dad’s question.
….so, it’s understandable that we were all surprised when two months later he informed us that we were moving to Alaska. He had managed to get a transfer from the state employment office he was currently working at to an equivalent agency office in Juneau (AK)…and not only was this short notice, the move itself was going to be a short-fused operation. In about a month he would head north driving his old Ford truck loaded with some of our larger possessions and our two dogs while we would go live with my grandmother in Grass Valley (CA) until he came back in August to drive the rest of us up in our station wagon.
The move went as planned but for two changes that came about in mid-summer.
- Grandma Ester hit a saturation point for having kids underfoot so around the Fourth of July we relocated to my great grandmother Hilda’s home in Nevada City.
- Dad was transferred (with a raise) from the main office in Juneau to the state’s largest office in Anchorage.
So, it turned out that Anchorage was our destination when we left California in early August of 1962. I remember just a few details about the trip – but then what would be truly memorable about two weeks crammed in the cargo area of a 1960 Ford Falcon compact station wagon, two weeks that included two thousand miles of gravel road?
High points included:
- A frustrated breakfast in Fort Nelson (the free toy offer on the back of the cereal box was open only to Canadian citizens.)
- A Rocky & Bullwinkle comic my mom bought for me in Dawson Creek.
- A plastic RMCP Mountie statuette my father bought for me in Fort St. John.
Mostly I remember the seemingly endless unpaved part of the highway. Any other summer I would have rejoiced in a never- ending string of sunny days, but this time the lack of rain meant a bumper crop of dust, and while you’d assume that with such a small interior space our Falcon would be uniformly dirty, my section (the “berry back”) was the grimiest space in the whole car. To hasten the passage of time I found myself sleeping as much as possible which was why I was dead to the world when we finally arrived at our Garfield street duplex apartment in Anchorage Alaska.
I couldn’t wait to get up and explore our new home turf and was so excited dressing I kept putting both feet into the same trouser leg. All I could think about was the beach! On the long drive north, Dad hadn’t said much about life in Anchorage but in the months leading up to the move I had learned that Anchorage was bordered on two sides by the ocean. KA-CHING! All I could think about were the three golden months we’d spent in San Diego two years earlier and how much I loved our weekends on the beach.
In the meantime, the beach could wait because there were so many other things to do, activities that I’d missed out on while living out in Little Shasta Valley. To begin with I was starting fourth grade at Willowcrest Elementary which entailed a lot more than the social issues involved in going from a one room country school to a contemporary single-grade school class with thirty kids. Classwork at Willowcrest took a hefty step up in difficulty (arithmetic became mathematics) as Anchorage schools put a heavier emphasis on preparation for junior high.
I also got a job helping an older boy with his paper route for two weeks…until I used those newly acquired math skills to figure out that I was doing most of the work while he was getting most of the money. Cub Scouts also took up a lot of my time as I was starting a year later than usual and had to pass all the Wolf requirements before joining in with my buddies working on the Bear badge, It was under the guise of passing off some Cub achievements that I proposed a family outing to Bird Creek, which according to the road map I picked up at the Chevron station was located within walking distance of Turnagain Arm – you know the seashore.
Golden sand and blue skies here I come.
Dad agreed that a family outing was a good idea and would give us a good look at our new home so the next Saturday found us driving down the Seward Highway for a bit then pulling over to a parking area on the northwest side of the road. From what I could see on the trip it looked like the tide was in but the view from our parking spot was partially blocked by the raised road bed and a stand of willows on the other side. The best I could get was a glimpse of the ocean underneath the bridge and again all I saw was sunlight flickering on the water.
The day was beautiful in that golden manner unique to autumn in Alaska and was the first time I encountered that unusual acrid smell in the fall air that comes about from a combination of decaying leaves and cranberries. While dad fished I climbed up the giant boulders that my classmates had forewarned me about and then explored a couple of side trails – I got so caught up in that adventure I almost forgot the real reason for the trip – the beach.
I ran over and started pestering dad, whining in that paint-peeling, glass-etching frequency that that only a nine-year old boy’s vocal chords can create. Admitting defeat Dad collected his fishing tackle, checked his watch, muttered about tides then sighed as we started towards the ocean. Keeping an eye out on both lanes he started to walk me across the highway, but something snapped the minute we crossed the center line and I shook lose his hand to run the rest of the way by myself, bursting through the tree line at full tilt.
Between leaves slapping me during that transit and a day’s worth of staring into a sunlit sky my vision was kind of hazy, but I could see that the beach looked awfully dark and “funny-looking” to be sand-covered. My pace faltered for a fraction of a second but then I remembered reading somewhere about black sand in Iceland, Hawaii or New Jersey and picked up the pace to sprint level again.
As I hit that last yard I broke into a broad jump but as I was flying through the air the “funny-look” issue finally came together for me. The beach looked wet and shiny.
Everything went black. Well, actually it wasn’t so much black as greyish brown. A sticky slimy greyish-brown. I was covered with the slimiest, stickiest gooiest mud I’d ever encountered in my short life that looked and felt like a mixture of chocolate pudding, axle grease and something out of my baby sister’s diaper after she’d eaten pureed liver.
Where the hell was my beach – my beautiful sandy beach?
I tried throwing a tantrum but all I did was fall back down into the mud. I got in a couple more attempts before Dad showed up with some rags and helped me scrub off the worst of the mud. While he was doing so he began to explain in very basic terms the reasons for the lack of sand – or more precisely the reason for the sticky mud. He pointed out the glaciers and talked about the silt that drifted down in the streams. He pointed out where high tide would reach and told me about the bore tides. In general, he spent about 20 un-Dad-like minutes getting my mind off the junk smeared all over me so the squish-squish-squish walk back to the car wasn’t as miserable as I thought it would be.
I sulked all the way home and continued to do so while my mom stripped off my muddy clothes and dropped me in the tub, but while the mud washed away my disappointment lingered. As days went by the sadness lessened a bit, it didn’t completely go away and it wasn’t until Pack meeting the following week that I figured out why.
I was having so much fun with skits and games that I forgot to sulk; when we took a break the blues reappeared and at that point I had one of my first fifty-year-old-man-in-kid’s-body insights. It wasn’t the ocean or the sand that I was feeling sad about – I was homesick. I had lots of new friends and lots of cool things to do in Anchorage, but my cousins and old friends were thousand miles south now and it didn’t look like we were heading home any time soon. It was going to take a bit longer to wash away those blues than it took to wash out the browns and greys of the mud.