view from the hill

A look at the elements and events that come into view from where I'm standing...
... the stuff that matters in this life. Some flicker and are gone in a matter of hours
only to live in memory, others become life long travelling companions, never far from reach.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Distant Lands

dlandsI had to get out of the house today so I headed off to B&N to find some tour books on Anchorage. As expected, the Alaska section was a tad thin, but the trip wasn’t a complete waste. I found a travelers’ tales book with a story called I Want to Ride on the Bus Chris Died In. What a title! Of course, it refers to Chris McCandless (from Into the Wild fame) I sat there on the floor and read it through. The writer goes into the whole phenomenon and allure of McCandless. Here we are over 10 years after Chris’ body was found in Alaska and the opinions are still flying and inspiring. The abandoned bus/hunters’ shelter where he spent his last days has become a bit of a pilgrimage site for travelers in search of the ever elusive authentic experience. The author goes to the bus herself and reads journal entries left there by backpackers. People are drawn to this place. They want to get closer to how Chris lived and understand why he died. Or they just want to throw in their two cents before moving on or hiking out to call their parents to let them know they’re ok.

dlandsintSo, in the spirit of moving on I left B&N for Pasadena and that Mecca of travel stores and mandatory way-stop at the head of any trail – Distant Lands Travel Bookstore. Forget Amex, don’t leave home without first paying a visit to Distant Lands. Yep, it’s that good.

roughguideI came away with the Rough Guide to Alaska, as well as some winter evening reading – Yukon Alone by John Balzar, and Tracks Across Alaska by Alastair Scot.

Yukon Alone is about the Yukon Quest, a race similar to the Iditarod but billed as being tougher, colder and with less support. The author pooh poohs the Iditarod, calling it too commercial with its corporate sponsors and TV coverage. The Yukon Quest is where the true grit play. We’ll see.

Tracks Across Alaska is by a Scottish guy who decided to travel, you guessed it, across Alaska by dog sled. The thing is, he didn’t know anything about sledding or dogs before he started. It’s always fun to read about others’ misadventures from the comfort of a well-heated home. I’m looking forward to heading out on the trail… virtually.



check out Tracks here

and Yukon Alone here

The hotel has been booked!

Yep, I’ve hooked another carabiner into this dream of mine, dragging it that much more into the real. I’ve got four nights at the Anchorage Downtown Hotel, a little green box of a place with a bright red awning. From the picture on the web it’s got personality, so much better than the non-descript strip-mall variety by the airport. Being downtown, it should be close enough to the action that I can walk there on the morning of the 4th. I’ll just head towards the barking!

Next step, air-line tickets.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

When Will these Winds Cease Their Incessant Whistling?

Each year at some time or another the Santa Ana winds howl down out of the high deserts, and whistle their raspy breath through Southern California. I’ve hated these winds ever since I first encountered them when I was a freshman at Chapman. I’d never witnessed anything like it before. The air is dry with that horrible high pressure crispness that makes your skin dry and hair brittle. Nerves are on end, people are agitated. I get headaches. It’s January and it’s HOT! I guess the Indians used to call them the Devil Winds and I can see why.

So, they’ve been blowing for days now, pinning us inside like we’re trapped by a raging hurricane. This is ridiculous. It’s the worst wind season yet. A couple years ago we all built that pergola out back pretty sturdy, but it’s swaying and creaking like an old ship. Trash cans and heavy planters have flown all over the garden. Part of the neighbor’s fence blew down. These are serious winds. We figure it’s been a pretty consistent 50 – 60 mph, with gusts up to 80.

What better time then, with the wind literally whistling in the thin chimney, to read some John Muir? 100 years ago, he too was caught in a violent wind storm, high in the Sierras. Being who he was he didn’t stay huddled inside, he decided to go for a hike to hear the “passionate music” and “grand anthem” of the pine trees at the height of it all. And of course, he wasn’t happy to stay on the ground, … it occurred to me that it would be a fine thing to climb one of the trees to obtain a wider outlook and get my ear close to the Aeolian music of its topmost needles.

treewindHe stayed up in his perch for hours, and never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced, like a bobolink on a reed. He really relished in this, describing the glint of the light, the scents that were blown from miles away, the sound of the howling wind all around him.

So, sitting on my couch, good ol’ JM was the perfect accompaniment to the gale outside. And finally, inspired by him, I lost no time in pushing out into the woods to enjoy it. For on such occasions Nature has always something rare to show us, and the danger to life and limb is hardly greater than one would experience crouching deprecatingly beneath a roof. Plus, I was sick of being cooped up inside. I would go out there and go for a hike, wind be damned.

At times I was almost blown over backwards, my breath stolen from me. It was like the sensation of trying to breath while sticking your head out the window of a speeding train. I hiked up in the hills behind the house with my inner John Muir spurring me on. Honestly, I think the worst of it was over. By the evening it would be a lot calmer. But for a while there, I was out in it, defying it. The red-tailed hawks were nowhere to be seen (smart ones), even the daredevil ravens weren’t around. The giant pines and eucalyptus grove were making a hell of a noise. And there was me, staggering along like a drunkard against all this wind.

johnmuir It was great to be out there, imagining huge great sheets of air cascading over the mountains and funneled through the canyons. Most people like to look at mountain rivers, and bear them in mind; but few care to look at the winds… So, thanks JM for getting me off the couch and out into it. I don’t think I’ll ever look forward to the Santa Anas, but it was good to get outside and take a look at the winds.

Check out JM here

Friday, January 20, 2006

Alex’s Iditarod Adventure

So, the beard is growing, it can only mean one thing – Winter is here (despite what I see every morning as I look out the windows of Sylmar). But the nights still arrive early, and I can feel the tug of the North.

After being bitten by the bug last winter in Sweden when we went dog sledding, I can’t get it out of my head. There’s really nothing like those enchanted days Tiff and I spent north of the Arctic Circle, riding with a team of eager dogs across a frozen land. It’s that time of year again, and even though we’re living in the eternal sunshine of Southern CA, I know that the rest of the Northern Hemisphere is experiencing Winter. Most importantly, Alaska, where in a month’s time, the famed Iditarod dog sled race will begin.

dogsEvents have been cascading in a seemingly predetermined way since New Years when I read Call of the Wild. Actually, maybe the seeds were planted way back when I first read that story as a kid, along with countless other seeds sown for countless other dreams that have lead me to where I am now. They were germinated big time last year in Sweden, and watered again when I read Winterdance (see this blog, August ’05). Then there was the article about the Iditarod Tiff showed me last week, the books about Alaska, a comment here, an idea there. Now here’s another article that Tiff has found (dangerous girl!) This time it’s in Bark magazine (Yep, Bark, as in “Dog is my co-pilot”) about dog sledding in Alaska, called, of course, Call of the Wild. It’s a small article, but the photos are evocative and my heart starts racing. I want to be out there. I want to go.

dog_sledding So, one thing leads to another. Seeds are sown and now I’m growing a beard and looking up flights on Expedia.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


The application has been submitted!

Yep, I have taken my first big step on my way to the Iditarod. To volunteer, that is. Don’t worry, I’m not signing up to lead a team of dogs across Alaska. But the Iditarod is such a mammoth organizational undertaking that every year they have hundreds of volunteers help with everything from wrangling dogs, to crowd control, to holding down the fort at race headquarters. Ideally I’d love to get out on the trail and help at one of the many check points strung out on the way to Nome, but those coveted positions are reserved for people with a few years race volunteering experience under their belts. Seeing as this would be my first time witnessing this whole chaotic circus, I’d most likely be in Anchorage the whole time helping with whatever needs helping.

Of course, now it’s in the hands of the race organizers, and judging by the web site, they get hundreds, if not thousands of applications, and I’m also a little late to boot. So, my hopes aren’t high for receiving the coveted call. The thing is, I might just fly up to Anchorage anyway and see what happens. I’d love to see the start of this epic race whether I’m volunteering or not. Just to be that close to the action, to see a sea of over 1000 sled dogs raring to go, the mushers bundled up for 2 weeks of racing, the media, the fans (oh yeah, I’ll post pictures!) It will be absolutely nuts.

I figure if I get a chance to volunteer and get a little closer to the action, that will be icing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Let the Books Begin!

Back at the not-so-local mall and once again got sucked into B and N. I may not have any air fare yet, I may not have a hotel booked, but I can feel the inescapable slip towards a new adventure because the books have begun to flow. Before any trip one of the greatest parts is flipping through guide books and travel essays, pouring over maps. I want to learn the place names and hear stories of what it’s like there. I relish in the anticipation of it all.

Tonight I picked up Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales, and Peter Jenkins’ Looking for Alaska.

deepsurvivalDeep Survival is our friend Bill’s fault after he was raving about it at the Vanguard Christmas party. The more he talked about it, the more I knew it was right up my ally. It’s packed with tons of tales of wilderness ordeals, those who survived and those who didn’t. The book tackles the question of why some make it while others don’t. He delves into brain chemistry, psychology, and spirituality, and I can’t wait to dive in as well.

looking4Looking for Alaska is one I’d seen before and though it looked fascinating, I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy it, I just couldn’t justify it. Maybe when I’m actually planning a trip, I told myself. Well, I’ve now got it in my greedy little hands, and that can only mean one thing. I don’t have any concrete plans yet, but getting these books might be all it takes to tip the balance in that direction. The idea that’s hatching in my head is to fly up to Anchorage at the beginning of March to see the start of the Iditarod dog sled race! I may finally be going to Alaska! I’m feel myself giving in to this Call that’s been obsessing me lately.

Check out Deep Survival here

and Looking for Alaska here

Monday, January 16, 2006

Today I found the Iditarod web site and the flood gates have opened!

What a wealth of information. It’s amazing. Did you know that it’s –18C in Anchorage today? Brrrrrrr. There’s lists of who’s competing this year (100 mushers), the official rules – (if you kill a moose in self defense while on the trail, you have to stop and skin it. And any other team that comes upon you has to help). And most importantly, a volunteer application form. But, I may already be too late. I guess I should’ve dreamed up this little dream of mine a month ago, because ideally they want applications in by the end of December. But all is not lost. I’ll fill it out and get it in and hope for the best.

Wish me luck, and come March I could be up to my elbows in yapping mutts trying to wrangle teams into the starting shoot on 4th Ave and D st.

Check it out here

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Into the Wild

It may, after all, be the bad habit of creative talents to invest themselves in pathological extremes that yield remarkable insights but no durable way of life for those who cannot translate their psychic wounds into significant art or thought. – Theodore Roszak

I just can’t get enough of this stuff!

I’m skirting around the edges of this whole Alaska thing, picking over what I have on my shelves here at home. After watching Grizzly Man the other night, I couldn’t get the similarities to Into the Wild out of my head. So, today I pulled it down off the shelf and dove in. I practically read it in one sitting, it’s that good. All the familiar passages came flooding back to me. I’d originally read this book about 6 or 7 years ago when I was wandering in my own private wilderness, and it’s still speaking to me.

intowildJon Krakauer’s book is an account of the last days of passionate idealist and wilderness lover, Chris McCandless. McCandless had hitchhiked to Alaska in 1992 after giving away his life savings, burning all the cash in his wallet and sending his last postcards to friends. He hiked into the Alaskan bush intending to live off the land and find that hidden core within himself. Four months later his decomposing body was found by a group of moose hunters.

What happened to this kid? Did he have a death wish? Why such outrage at his senseless death? And what’s the fascination with these characters who seem to be answering the call of the wild? Krakauer takes us into a culture that drives young men into the wilderness to escape, to find something, to loose something. It’s more than just the tale of one kid’s end days, it’s a real meditation on what it is to grow up in a culture that has largely tamed wilderness in our environment and our hearts.

Through McCandless’ journal entries and underlined passages in books that he took along with him, as well as interviews with people who he befriended along the way, Krakauer pieces together a vivid picture of this restless wanderer. But he also writes about other kindred spirits who ventured into the wilderness, so that McCandless isn’t seen as an isolated dreamer. Krakauer also throws in stories of his own adventures to focus on the fine and often arbitrary line between those who survive and those who don’t.

Like Timothy Treadwell who lived amongst wild grizzlies for 13 summers, also in Alaska, McCandless was unable to fit into what we would call normal society. These guys shared a somewhat troubled past, an idealism about the natural world, and a naïve desire to test themselves in a Big Country. And eventually both paid the price. Were they happy when the end finally came? Is this the way they wanted it to go, surrounded by what they love? I don’t believe these guys went into the wilderness to die, they went there to live. Willful ignorance of the risks involved does not equal a death wish, however stupid they seem to those more experienced or just plain lucky enough to have survived similar experiences.

In one of the last postcards McCandless sent he wrote, Please return all mail I receive to the sender. It might be a very long time before I return South. If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.

And Krakauer adds later…

At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence.

However misguided McCandless’ visions of reality may have been, and whatever side we come down on in the ongoing debate of naive dolt vs. counter-culture pilgrim hero, Krakauer’s book is like a wanderlust bible that touches core issues in our DNA. It speaks to the restless dreamer in us all.

Check it out here

Friday, January 13, 2006

Grizzly Man Part 2

I sat myself down this evening and watched a DVD, something I should do more of. This time out it was Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s documentary about the life and death of Timothy Treadwell.

As good ol’ Werner said to me just the other day, I was going into this film with hardly any expectations, and that’s a good thing. I’d heard Ebert and Roeper’s review, so I knew the gist – a young guy who’s been living among wild grizzly bears in Alaska for 13 summers is found dead, mauled to death by one of the bears. But man, nothing can prepare you for this film! The opening shot is of a bear in a gorgeous field. Timothy, narrating and starring in his own video footage enters the frame and starts talking to the camera about his wilderness philosophy, how he is a silent warrior. It’s hard to make up your mind about this guy. He looks like a surfer dude, talks like a kook, and yet has amazing footage of these animals and him amongst them.

grizzlymanTreadwell would arrange to be flown in by bush plane to a remote lake in Katmai National Park each spring, and remain there for the entire summer when he’d be flown out again. He saw himself as a protector and advocate of these bears that are under threat by illegal poachers. He was also an educator. He would speak to elementary classrooms about bears and their threatened habitats. He had such a child-like quality to him that I’m sure made him a great spokesman in front of children. He was also fearless, some would say naïvely so.

The film doesn’t hide the fact that Treadwell was killed by a bear. Early on in the film we learn of his death. The rest of the movie is devoted to who this guy was, what drove him into the wilderness, and why after so many years of apparent peaceful coexistence, did the bears suddenly turn on him.

One of the most chilling and powerful moments in this (or any) documentary is when we learn that Treadwell, who videoed everything, actually caught his own death on tape. We see a coroner explaining what happened, and how he had heard the audio tape of the attack. The more the coroner talks, the more I began wondering if they were going to show this footage. When the bear began to attack Treadwell he had time to turn his camera on but not remove the lens cap. Apparently there’s 6 or 7 minutes of audio of this deadly attack on both Treadwell and his girlfriend who also died. I was thinking Herzog would do what Michael Moore had done in Fahrenheit 911 when he opened his film with the chilling audio of the 9/11 attacks. But to Herzog’s credit, he doesn’t ever use this filmmakers gold. We only hear about it. There’s a scene of Herzog listening on headphones to the attack as Treadwell’s ex-girlfriend sits by. Herzog describes briefly what he’s hearing, but then grows silent. After a moment he begins to cry. To not hear what’s on the tape, to not be able to witness Treadwell’s final moments, we are left imagining, and it’s one of the most powerful moments I’ve seen in a film.

There’s something pretty damn primordial about being eaten by a bear. It reminds me of a story about a Greenland Eskimo shaman, Autdaruta, who gained power by allowing himself to be repeatedly devoured by a bear. There’s legitimate questions to consider as to whether Treadwell had a death wish, if he wanted to be devoured. The film interviews various residents of Alaska as well as bear experts, family members and friends, and the range of opinions about Treadwell is fascinating. Some think he was crazy and had it coming. Others saw him as a gentle educator who’s luck ran out. The film lets all these voices have their say, and I’m left at the end wondering myself what to think.

It so clearly reminded me of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, also a story of a young man’s death in Alaska. The story of Chris McCandless also raised a deafening chorus of opinion. Why do people venture into the wilderness? What are they searching for? What are they running from? Why such aggressive reactions when people end up dead? And why are these stories so gripping to those of us who remain behind?

At the very least there’s some weird consolation in knowing that there’s still wild places on the map. Not every corner of this continent has been paved. There’s still places where you can get yourself killed.

Personally I think Treadwell was a bit of a nutcase who was skating on thin ice. He was no shaman. He was obviously unbalanced, but still, his story has that fascination that draws me in. He was living his life the way he wanted. He found something out there that connected him to things he was unable to connect to elsewhere. But so often, these dreams prove to be unsustainable. Maybe that’s why I find these stories so tragic, they seem to be about Innocence squashed. It’s not just the loss of life, people are killed ever year in Alaska in one way or another, but both Treadwell and Chris McCandless (and countless others before them and since) were searching for a purity and authenticity not found in our modern world, and to that I can relate. It’s not just another death. It’s the death of an idea; Innocence and ideals not found, illusions that needs to be shattered. Still, I can’t help but mourn for this loss of purity, no matter how misguided.

Timothy Treadwell is gone. We’re left with his (and Herzog’s) amazing footage of a truly wild place. And as long as there’s Wild out there, there will be the Call.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Grizzly Man

Tonight Tiff and I were at our not-so-local mall, the Grove, and of course ventured into the Barnes and Noble there. Upstairs there was a line forming for an author’s signing. I looked to the front of the queue and at a small desk was Werner Herzog. Herzog, for the uninitiated, is the famous German film director who has spent a career exploring that fine line between sanity and chaos, and what drives men to extremes of mad obsession in such films as Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, Aguirre: the Wrath of God, and most recently Grizzly Man.

wernerSo here’s this legendary director sitting at a table signing copies of his documentary Grizzly Man, just released on DVD. He looked so mild, so gentle. The line was moving at a snail’s pace because Herzog was taking so much time with each person, really answering questions and truly interested. Tiff convinced me to go buy the disc and have him sign it.

I waited, feeling a little odd because I hadn’t even seen the film yet. I knew it was a documentary about a young man who lived among the grizzlies of the Katmai Peninsula in south west Alaska for 13 summers. In 2003 he and his girlfriend were found mauled to death by the very animals he had sworn to protect.

I got to the front of the line, held out my just unwrapped copy, and of course, the first thing Werner asks me is, “Did you see it on the screen?” (meaning, in the theater). I fumbled through an apology, and said I loved Fitscaraldo and Wrath of God, and thank you for doing what you do. In his gentle accent he said, “No, zat is better. You will have no expectations. Remember, zis is not a film about nature. Zis is a film about human nature.”

I met Tiff upstairs in the café with the ink form Herzog’s signature still wet. She had a Sunset magazine opened to an article about the Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska. Little did I know but the Call was kicking into high gear. First, a chance meeting with a legendary director signing copies of his film set in Alaska, and now this Iditarod article. Hmmm. Adventure was tugging at my soul. The Sunset article mentioned that more people have made it to the top of Everest than have completed the 1049 mile Iditarod race that makes its way from Anchorage to Nome in sub-zero temperatures in the darkness of winter. Tiff said I should make a documentary about this race.

I was no longer in charge of where this train was going.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Call of the Wild

“The danger with civilization, of course, is that you will piss away your life on nonsense.” – Jim Harrison, The Beast God Forgot to Invent

The danger with nonsense, of course, is figuring out what is and what isn’t. So, in the risk of running from civilization and towards nonsense, I have been listening more and more to the Call. Yep, that’s the call of the wild, as in Jack London and the story that has ignited the wanderlust in many a near and far-sighted adventure seeker.

callSay what you will about London – that he only spent one winter in the Yukon, returned broke and died a drunk. The thing is, he’s a really evocative writer. He can paint a picture of that snowy wilderness like no one else. He knows in his bones the minor key sound of wolves howling, the otherworldly glow of the northern lights, and the struggles of petty men in a vast wilderness. It’s great stuff.

This Call of mine has been building ever since we got back form London and I started to get healthy. I could feel myself waking up from the Dour. I wanted to be outside. I wanted to hike in the Sierras, sleep under the stars in the desert. I was drawn to the writings of John Muir and Jon Krakauer.

So, I read Jack London’s famous story of Buck the dog who’s hauled off into the chaos of the Yukon gold rush, and his subsequent shedding of civilization’s mildness to find the wild heart at his very core. Man, what a great story! I also read his stories, In a Far Country and In the Forests of the North.

klondiketalesThis is how obsessions starts. First, a short story here and there, then I’m heading off to REI looking at snowshoes. Things seem to be picking up a certain momentum of their own, and rather than suppress it, I thought I’d ride along for a while, see where this new energy is heading. I recognize the romanticized notion of the North I read in these stories, and yet I’m letting myself be pulled in that direction anyway. So, in the spirit of new directions and wide open skies, I’m allowing this blog of mine to be high jacked by the Call for a while.

I guess the danger for any reader is if we finally get off the couch and actually go out into the world and live what we read. I came across a bookmark in, of all things, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer which reads, “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.”

So, thank you Mr. London, and here’s to living more intensely.