Not a Man Of Oil Lamps And Rainwater

THERE was no capacity left to take a bad photograph. So immense and stunning was the combination of water, air, and mountain, that simply bringing the camera up to a novice eye and clicking in any direction produced a photo far beyond one's capacity. Here in Prince William Sound, several years before the Exxon Valdez cracked open and spilled its black mess, I am gliding through dark-blue Alaskan waters at dusk on a ferry boat, a camera around my neck. A tomato sun hangs just above the horizon's summer hand. Extending from it are shimmering streaks of red looking hot and brilliant as the air suddenly cools. Cold air from a nearby glacier drifts across the boat. I zip my jacket. The boat slows to a crawl.

Off the portside three seals are playing a game in which they roll and roll in the water like big cigars, honking with delight. Despite the dim light all the tourist cameras click their approval.

Earlier in the day, an hour after the ferry left Whittier for its six-hour journey to Valdez, I tried a conversation with a muscular backwoodsman dressed in a rumpled flannel shirt buttoned at the neck, his long sandy beard splaying across his chest and hair across his shoulders. His pants had been patched many times and his demeanor of indifference could not hide the fact - I thought - that if he was approached with just the right gentle curiosity, he would respond.

He never looked at me. All he said in a simple, flat voice was that he lived in a log house deep in the mountains 20 or so miles away from Valdez. The funeral of a relative had brought him out; not two days later he was going back home. He sat in one of the chairs in a plastic row of chairs fastened to the deck, a small canvas duffle bag at his feet, alternately sleeping and ignoring the tourists who clacked about him like hens and roosters in bright colored clothes and jogging shoes. His boots were scu ffed and noble for the work and time they had spent with him. The tangy smell of hard work lifted off him, a barrier perhaps against the inquisitive. I asked and offered questions and comments: He nodded, said yes or no, and never once looked at me.

The rest here is not merely surmise. If you watch someone on and off for six hours your flow of impressions and conclusions are not wholly suspect. His listless stare was not at the Chugach Mountains but at some bobbing point below them now bathed in red and above the surface of the water. He stared there, assessing or worrying, shaping or honing his thoughts, or maybe remembering the end of travail.

Otherwise he slept, head back, mouth open, or he stared at the deck a little distance from his feet, one hand on his chin, buried like an animal in the hairy beard. He was not part of the ferry life buzzing around him, nor was he awed by the hugeness and wonder of the wilderness. Once he pulled a mutilated paperback from his duffle and read. By tilting my head I could see the book was Laurens Van Der Post's 1951 saga, ``Venture to the Interior.''

Nobody goes to Alaska solely to be done with one life and start another. People go to Alaska by clear choice, the lure of it much stronger than the desire to shake free of whatever one wishes to be done with in the lower 48. No one ever shakes free. But I concluded that the bearded man was the genuine thing, a man wholly unsuited for the electronic age. He would find it reasonable and joyous to live simply in a log cabin with oil lamps and rainwater. Alaska was his.

There was nothing artificial or uncommitted about him; his clothes, his stare, his style (which, no doubt, he would deny as anything but dictated by necessity), and his solitary resolve and disdain in the midst of fresh-faced tourists. All this said to me, here is a man who could finish a hard trip and send the following telegram home, as Laurens Van der Post did at the end of his book: ``All done and hastening home.''

As dusk gave way to evening, the two-decker ferry approached Valdez, an oil town if ever there was one. The lights from the many storage tanks and the tanker

docks were visible from miles away. Night comes slowly in Alaska and stays in gray indecision. By the time the ferry docked, there was a wonderful blue/gray/pink aura at the horizon and stars began to puncture the moonless sky of night.

At the dock there was an unusual quiet for me. For six hours we had heard the throb of the engine. Now, suddenly something about the silence was odd, almost uncomfortable. Several figures were stand ing and waiting at the wide dock. Two taxicab drivers were out of their cabs just beyond the dock looking for fares, and off to the side a pregnant woman stood with a golden retriever sitting next to her.

The air was colder. What was odd was that there was none of the urban growl that is always in the background of all metropolitan areas. So quickly had I flown to Alaska from San Francisco that I expected noise in Valdez, the same kinds of white noise, thinner, like skim milk, but there. Other than the chugging of the ferry boat, there was the embracing, endless scaffolding of distance and silence. This is the great heart of Alaska, the delivered promise.

The bearded man disembarked, an easy stride down the walkway, duffle bag in one hand. I walked behind him, watching. The pregnant woman came quickly to him. She wore a long skirt and rough sweater. They embraced awkwardly but were happy to see each other. The dog wiggled with delight as the man leaned down and stroked him and stooped down to bury his face in a union of beard and dog. Then arm in arm, with the dog jumping and dodging about them, the man and woman walked to a waiting car.

When I saw the car - a very large silver-colored Mercedes Benz - I realized the spirit of my assessment of the man was intact, but this was not necessarily a man to fit the profile of oil lamps and rainwater.

According to one of the taxi drivers, I had just seen a retired rock star from the late 1970's who had had a few near-hit records. But he bailed out of the wild life 15 years ago to live here on investments as a gentleman backwoodsman with a wife and family in a big log house with water from a deep well. He had lights and TV operated by expensive gas generators, and a fax machine in town to send and receive messages from anywhere in the world. The taxi driver swore it was true.

I might have known. This is the stuff of the times, the anomalies of choices that are emerging around us, particularly in Alaska and other places where people go to great lengths to be at home with no questions asked.

In later years, let's say the year 2020, when quick and diverse links of communication will be even more common, his balancing act of modernity and wilderness will be vintage stuff, nothing noteworthy.

But for now I still like the idea of a determined, solitary man or woman leaving most electricity and plastic behind to forge a home in the Alaskan woods. Occasionally they have to leave, beckoned by the conventions of unforgiving civilization. Or just to see what it's like out there. Then his or her telegram back to the log house will not be a telegram; it will be a fax or a videophone to the family with the same time honored message, ``Done with all this and hastening home.''

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