I threw exactly one tantrum as a kid. I was normally pretty placid – an old man in a child’s body – but in the spring of 1964 when my dad announced that we were moving from Anchorage down to the Kenai Peninsula something snapped. I can remember screaming and yelling that I didn’t want to go, I wasn’t going to go and that we were all going to be eaten by bears. I was surprised that my parents let us rant like that (my older sister Robin was pitching a fit as well) but there were no spankings or shakings. They let us go on and on until exhaustion – then calmly moved us the following August to a small ranch in Sterling.
We had moved as a family many times before so why was this time so much more traumatic? There were several reasons, mostly social in nature. I had lots of friends in the neighborhood, I enjoyed going to Woodland Park Elementary school and I liked my Cub Scout pack. I also like living in a city; prior to Anchorage we lived in Little Shasta Valley in northern almost-Oregon California where the school I attended had 12 students in grades 1-8, we had one (intermittent) television station and the closest town was ten miles away. All of those factors paled though in comparison to the main reason I did not want to move to the Kenai Peninsula.
There are countless icons in our world representing the idea of freedom. Uncle Sam. The lone Tiananmen Square dissident facing down a Chinese Type 59 tank. Marianne – the bare-chested lady the French use as a symbol for Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (who was becoming pretty interesting at about the time of this story I might add). However, if you ask me, there is one image that perfectly conveys the idea of freedom.
A ten-year old on a bicycle.
I occasionally used a bike when we lived in Little Shasta Valley, but there weren’t many places within reasonable distance so it wasn’t until we moved to Barbara Drive in deepest Spenard that my love affair with the two-wheeled conveyance began. According to Mark Davis and all of my other buddies it literally was a love affair because the bike I used was a girl’s model with the lowered cross-bars. Their comments didn’t bother me though – I’d have used any bike that promised to free me from the tyranny of foot travel. Without a bicycle my furthest travels reached no further than the school or Mark’s home which was located a little more than a block further. With a bicycle I could get to the hobby shop, to the fireworks stand – even over to Turnagain where my church buddy David Bradshaw lived. I wasn’t so sure I would be walking (or biking) into the same kind of situation when we moved away to the sticks.
My fears were well founded. Oh, there were roads in Sterling – but the only paved road was the highway, all the others being covered with gravel. We were living under similar conditions as we did in Little Shasta Valley: one television station, the nearest town ten miles away and no kids living within a reasonable distance. That last one was the toughest to deal with as my main social contact at the time were letters I’d been getting from my best friend back in Anchorage – and they had been pretty “snotty” , full of jokes about ravenous bears and my pending engagement to the local Eskimo chief’s daughter – so I was hoping to find new buddies of a more amenable nature.
Mike Endsley seemed like a perfect candidate. I have to confess that I first noticed him because of his totally cool Fireball XL5 lunch-box but he also was the first kid at Sterling Elementary to introduce himself to “the new kid from Anchorage”. With less than eighty students in grades one through eight Sterling Elementary had a lot more in common with Little Shasta than Woodland Park Elementary, but it still was hard getting adjusted to a new school and Mike made sure that the process was a pleasant one .. It was only natural that when I started thinking about places to bike to on the weekend Mike’s place was first on the list.
We were on different bus routes so I had just a vague idea where he lived so I had him draw a map for me. It wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of the cartographic arts; he’d taken a piece of notebook paper and made a line down the length of it which he labeled “Sterling Highway”, then he added just five more details:
• A perpendicular line crossing the highway at the bottom of the page labeled “Robinson Loop/Scout Lake Loop”
• A small box below that line representing the school
• A wavy perpendicular line two inches about the first indicating Moose River.
• Another line halfway up the page that split away from the highway for about an inch before joining it again – like a very short divided highway. Mysteriously labeled “Feuding Lane”
• A box at the top ( Mike’s house)
He had no idea about distance – just he thought that riding in a car from his house to Moose River took as long as a song playing on the radio. I wasn’t much better with estimating distances but assumed that I was looking at riding about the same distance as the hobby shop was from my home in Anchorage – a couple of miles. Armed with that knowledge and Mike’s map I happily set out after lunch the next Saturday, eager with the anticipation of playing with someone other than my sisters for the first time in six weeks.
It was a beautiful day – golden in only the way an autumn day can be in Alaska. I bounced down Scout Lake Loop to the blessed pavement of Sterling Highway and started pedaling east towards Mike’s place. The Chugach Mountains also lay to the east and the initial distance flew by as I admired their rugged beauty. Before I knew it I had crossed Moose River and as my map indicated I was well on my way I decided to take a break at the Chevron gas station just across the bridge.
As I got off the bike to stretch my legs I glanced at the gas pumps and had a flash of insight. I pulled out the map and looked again at spot on the map labeled “Feuding Lane.”; based on the location and orientation of the short parallel lane Mike must have made a spelling mistake – obviously he meant to write “Fueling Lane” to mark the short paved pull-off at the Chevron station that drivers used to reach the gas pumps. That meant I was halfway! This was going to be breeze.
…and breezy it soon became as the afternoon wind off the mountains started to pick up as I made my way through Naptowne – the alternate name for our community favored by folks living on the east side of Moose River. As the wind picked up it started getting a bit harder to pedal, but wind resistance was nothing compared to the uphill slope I shortly encountered. This was getting to be a chore.
It started getting kind of scary too. Homes had thinned out to nothing so I was alone on the highway with only my bike and the rustling leaves to keep me company. I recalled with a start the bears Robin and I had moaned about earlier in the year – and then remembered that there were moose and lynx in the area as well. I picked up my pace and started scanning the area on each side of the road for signs that those dangerous critters were looking for a snack in sneakers when I saw a sight that was even more terrifying.
It was a road extending off to the right (south) side of the highway with a sign that read “Feuding Lane”. Mike hadn’t made mistake – I had and instead of being almost at Mike’s house I was only half-way.
I jumped off the bike, throwing it down in the process. I was thankful I was alone when the tears came – I’d rather take my chances with a bear than get teased about crying but then the specter of stalking critters came back and I resumed my trek. Looking back I don’t know why I kept going but at the time it never occurred to me to turn back short of my goal. It was just as well that I kept going because the land leveled out and the distance between Feuding Lane and Mike’s house was shorter than the map indicated.
I arrived at scattering of homes clustered around roads leading off both sides of the highway. In addition to Mike living out there Robert Eschelman and Mike Card homes were close by and the three of them along with some younger siblings had been out playing softball. I jumped right in the game, my laborious trek forgotten as we threw balls and swung bats in the later afternoon sun.
….and all too soon it was time to go home. Both Mikes and Robert were called in by their respective parents to do chores so I saddled up and headed home. Having covered the territory once before I was no longer quite so scared and as the wind off the mountains was now at my back instead of my front the return trip was much quicker and much easier. “Try to catch me now Mr. Bear” I thought as I sped along.
I got home just as Mom was setting the table for dinner. She was pleased at how quickly I had come in after she rang the dinner bell – and at that point I realized that I had failed to tell my folks where I was going when I set out on my trip. My stomach lurched a bit as I realized that had I gotten hurt or lost no one would have known where to look for me but then I saw we were having hamburgers and all higher-order thinking stopped while my stomach shifted from “fear” mode to “Mmmmm!” mode.
…and I had other things to think about, like the letter I was going to write to Mark Davis after dinner. It would chronicle an epic bicycle trek featuring snarling bears, rabid lynx and stampeding moose chasing me for the 20 miles to Mike Endsley’s home.
Up hill in both directions.