The economics of a true adventure

Think of all the fun we miss out on when we choose to be fiscally responsible. When I was in high school. I made good money doing commercial fishing in Alaska during the summers. When I was a senior I decided to hang up my slicker and give college a try; there were slim dating prospects on the high seas. My parents thought I'd had enough schooling and gave me the opportunity to be financially independent halfway through that final year of high school.

And that's when the fun really began.

I made it through the first year of college OK. I fixed a lot of cars and was still able to coast along. But by the end of my second year I was truly flat broke. As an adult, if that's what us 40-year-olds are, I hear my friends say, "Oh, I was in such financial trouble I almost had to use some of my savings." Or "get a home-equity loan" or "borrow against my 401(k)" or lots of other means that responsible people can use to avoid the adventures of true bankruptcy.

At the end of Year 2 of college I was completely without resources and 5,000 miles from a good job.

So I sold tickets! Two hundred bucks, and I promise you a truly exciting summer. A guided tour north and a job waiting for you in Alaska! Picking lettuce. And weeding lettuce and thinning lettuce. I found four other students willing to take a chance on the package.

I took the first $200 and bought a worn-out '72 Olds Vista Cruiser station wagon. Viewing the beast did nothing to instill confidence in the other prospective tour-takers, but I was enthusiastic and full of promises.

Trip highlights: When we were going through some prairie state or other, we came across a military convoy and brightened their day. All the participants of this trip, other than myself, were female. As we came to the line of trucks, somehow it came up that I was the only one of us who had gone 100 miles per hour in a car. Lots of honking and waving on both sides is what sticks in my mind.

In Great Falls, Mont., the car's gas tank finally gave up after several low-tech attempts at repair. As the five of us sat on the curb outside the welder's shop, his family felt sorry for us and brought us fried chicken. Gave us lemonade, too, in a thermos that I still have.

One night we were camping in British Columbia and had a great fire. Not a campfire, though. We were using one of those portable gasoline stoves. Someone spilled gas when they filled the stove and dribbled a nice wick from the stove to the gas can. When the stove, sitting on the tailgate, was lit, the excess fuel caught fire, too. So did the gas can.

Today I have considerably more experience with unwanted flames, but at age 20 I thought the thing to do was kick the gas can well out of the way. The lid was off the can, however, so when I booted it into the air, flaming gas went everywhere. But other than being spectacular, the scene was not that dangerous. We were in a part of the country where it's so wet that anyone who can get a good campfire going wins a prize. The flames just petered out without much help from us frightened campers.

I had not yet gone through the years of effort and discouragement that young men with bad tempers endure, so there are a couple of ugly scenes in my memory. One of the girls had the sniffles: all the way to Alaska, seven days, in the car.

I have always been a seat-belt nut, so when an errant Kleenex jammed one of the seat-belt retractors I lost it. We ended up with everybody standing next to the car by the side of the road while I completely unpacked the car and gathered up every misplaced Kleenex.

Yes, she was a slob, but I made too big a deal of it.

Growing up is tough, so I'm glad we just do it once. I have calmed down; she has raised a great family. That event and others strained the friendships in the group that summer. But we are all in fairly regular contact today, so I'd know if there was any lasting damage.

The food was great fun. Camp food is always an adventure, but one of the crew was from down South, and she put sugar in the spaghetti sauce. Most wonderful thing I'd ever tasted.

Another one was a master hippie food cook, using all kinds of ingredients I'd never thought of as edible. After we were married, she became the queen of one-pot glop; no matter what the circumstances Kerry has been able to feed any group, any time, over any fire available with great style and grace.

That summer's adventure, due pretty much to my inability to come up with the money to make it back home for the summer, was one of those "learning experiences" that taught us plenty of good and tough lessons. At the end of the summer I still came up short, so I bummed the money for the flight back to school from the great cook.

She's forgiven me the debt, though, after all these years of marriage.

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