Escape from Alaska… Part I

I was drawn to Alaska by its incredible wilderness. Lisa Murkowski, one of Alaska's Senators, recently introduced legislation to sell off all of America's public lands including national forests, wilderness areas, national historic sites and national seashores (everything except National Parks) to private developer so they can make money off of the lands.

The Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. I was drawn to Alaska by its incredible wilderness. It may not be there for our children. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) recently introduced a non-binding budget amendment to the US Senate that would allow states to sell off all of America’s public lands including national forests, wilderness areas, national historic sites, etc. (everything except National Parks) to private interests so they could turn our national heritage into profit.

The story of my involvement with California’s Proposition 99 tobacco tax campaign began on my 43rd birthday when I escaped from Alaska— and escape is the appropriate term.

My three years in Alaska had been a great adventure. I had explored the state’s magnificent wilderness areas and accomplished a fair amount in my role as Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. The organization had a great board and staff. We had taken a sleepy organization and turned it into a powerhouse on air quality and tobacco issues. I had led backpack, bike, and cross-country ski trek fundraisers, substantially increasing the organization’s income, not to mention giving myself an excuse to play in the woods. (As if I needed an excuse.)

But I am not cut out for the Executive Director business— or any other long-term, high stress job, for that matter. I only know one speed: fast forward. In time, the job starts to feel like I am locked in a steel cage, which just happens to be dangling from a frayed rope, hanging over a dark abyss. If that sounds to you like an imaginative description of depression, you are right. It is something of a curse on my mother’s side of the family, or to be more scientific, call it a genetic disposition.

Unfortunately, I am a slow learner. I had been executive director of several environmental and health nonprofits, done my job, and moved on. It seemed like a natural fit; so I persisted. But each time, it was like I was flirting with the dark side of my mind. I had learned I made a better ‘consultant,’ where I created the jobs I would work on. For example, I developed the wilderness trek program as a fundraiser and then became the American Lung Association’s national trek consultant. The consulting work was intense, but it had a definite beginning and a definite end. Afterwards, I would go play.

Alaska had sounded really good, however. And it was. There was all of that great outdoors (over 50% of America’s wilderness area), important issues to address on the environmental and tobacco front, and a relationship in Sacramento that needed a serious time-out. So I had taken the bait when Alaska had called— hook, line and sinker.

"It's time to pack your bags, Curt." (Peggy and I took the photos of Alaska and the Alaska Highway two years ago when we visited the state.)

“It’s time to pack your bags, Curt.” Alaskan Brown Bear. (Peggy and I took the photos of Alaska and the Alaska Highway found on today and next week’s post two years ago when we visited the state.)

By the end of the first year, I was climbing the walls. It was time to leave. Except I had made a commitment to myself, and to the organization that I would stay for three years. I struggled my way through the second year, barely keeping my head above the water. But we accomplished some good things— like forcing Tesoro to clean up the air pollution from its oil refinery, creating one of the first state-wide non-smoking laws in the nation, leading an effort to double the state tobacco tax with money going toward prevention, and bringing automobile inspection and maintenance to Alaska. But I was coming to the end of my tether. It was a short rope.

The stress at the back of my head was palpable. Even now, as I write about the experience, I can feel it gathering. It influenced my decision-making. Instead of coasting and turning more work over to my staff, I jumped feet first into the fire. It wasn’t necessary; my board and staff were good folks. They would have been eager to help. But asking for help assumes a rational mind. Mine wasn’t. I started making mistakes— and I started increasing my nightly consumption of alcohol, from two, to four, to six cans of beer. Alcohol was singing its seductive song.

Had I learned to be laid back like this moose, there never would have been a problem.

Had I learned to be laid back like this moose, there never would have been a problem.

Over Christmas, I took a break by myself and drove down to Homer on the Kenai Peninsula. There’s a motel that sits out at the end of the Homer Spit providing panoramic views of Kachemak Bay. I got a room and spent hours staring out at the water and distant mountains. And I made a decision. I would return to Anchorage and give a three-month notice that I was leaving. When the time was up, I would disappear into the woods for several months of backpacking. I would take the wilderness cure.

I spent my last day packing the things I wanted to take: a few books and camping gear. I would leave Alaska like I had arrived, with what I could fit in the back of my pickup. I spent the night at a friend’s home, but she wasn’t there. She had disappeared into the lower 48 states so she wouldn’t see me drive away. I had passed on her offer to get married, stay home, write, and raise kids. Her two dogs and cat kept me company.

The views along the highway between anchorage and the lower 48 states are incredible— not that I paid much attention is my mad dash for the border.

The views along the highway between Anchorage and the lower 48 states are incredible— not that I paid much attention in my mad dash for the border. This is the Matanuska Glacier.

These mountains were near the Matanuska Glacier, easy driving distance from Anchorage.

These mountains were near the Matanuska Glacier, easy driving distance from Anchorage. 30 minutes from my house, I could be hiking in similar terrain.

Another view of the Wrangell-St.Elias Mountains that I would have passed.

Another view of the Wrangell-St.Elias Mountains shown in the top photo.

I flew down the Alaska Highway the next morning, exhausting myself, searching for green grass and flowers. I almost made the Canadian border the first night. Too tired to move on, I pulled into a closed truck inspection point and crawled into the back of my pickup.

Once I had arranged my sleeping bag on top of my few possessions, I broke out some liquid refreshment to scare off the banshees that were nipping at my heels. My truck was packed with more guilt than goods, a lot more. Some old friends from California— Tom Lovering, Jean Snuggs and a new friend of Tom’s, an irrepressible minister by the name of Jeanie Shaw, had put together a South of the Border Care Package to ease my way toward California. It consisted of several ripe avocados, salsa, chips and a gallon of pre-made margaritas, heavy on the tequila. I held a little party with my staff before leaving. We did serious damage to the guacamole but hardly touched the margaritas.

I knocked off a water-sized glass of the latter. It put me well on the way to oblivion but it wasn’t enough to let me sleep through the horrendous racket of someone trying to break into my camper shell. I sat up with a start and yelled, banging my head against the top. A flashlight with enough candlepower to light up Las Vegas was shining directly into my eyes.

The Troopers flash light had about the same intensity as the sun on this lake that is located close to the Alaska-Canada Border.

The flashlight had about the same intensity as the sun on this lake that is located close to the Alaska-Canada Border.

“You in the truck, what are you doing here?” It was the voice of Authority. An Alaskan State Trooper had been banging on my camper shell with his baton. I thought it was quite obvious what I was doing but wisely decided to refrain from the obscene comment that was perched on the tip of my tongue. I chose a mildly sarcastic response.

“Uh, sleeping?” I hazarded a guess.

“You are not supposed to sleep here,” the disembodied voice behind the flashlight responded. “Why didn’t you go to a motel?” I was obviously a suspicious character, having chosen not to support the Alaskan economy. I was also being interrogated with the bright light of the law shining in my eyes. It was time to think fast.

“I fell asleep behind the wheel,” I exaggerated slightly. “I was afraid I might do serious damage to myself or someone else on the highway.”

That put a serious crimp in his nightstick. I could tell he was pondering my answer by the slowness of his response. He was torn between his job to roust out suspected vagrants and his responsibility to save lives. His good sense won.

“Go back to sleep,” the voice said. It was a lot easier for him to say than it was for me to do.

NEXT FRIDAY’s ESSAY: I reject an offer to run off to Mexico and open an orphanage for homeless children, decide what I should do with a gallon bag of pot I was given as a going away present, and finish my journey to Sacramento— where I am immediately asked to put together a statewide campaign to increase California’s tobacco tax. Instead, I go backpacking.

32 comments on “Escape from Alaska… Part I

  1. You must have felt good leaving that job. There is nothinglike making a decision and flood it through. I am not sure about sleeping in the back of a pickup inAlaska. How were the mozzies?

    • Had to look up mozzies, Gerard. I guessed you were talking about mosquitos and was right. 🙂 Fortunately, it was still cold enough there were no mozzies, or any other flying, biting insects around. Relieved, yes. Happy, no. It felt like abandoning ship. Something I had to do but didn’t necessarily want to do. –Curt

  2. Another interesting slice of your life. Curiously enough, yesterday I got out my Belbin Self Perception Inventory with the Team roles summary sheet. I can’t quite see where you fit, but I think a Shaper (of the nicer sort) and a Specialist. Well done for getting out when you needed to.

    • Ah, I’ve been diagnosed. 🙂 I get the shaper bit, Hilary. Throw in a teaspoon of ability to think about the future, since that is often the role I play. Specialist? It would be interesting to see the description. Maybe in terms of community organization skills, which take a smattering of a number of things. As for getting out, I learned a lot from that experience, and have not suffered from depression since. –Curt

  3. Not nearly as harrowing, but I feel the same way about my escape from California! One needs to find a sense of place that fits. I hope you’ve found yours.

  4. What a surprise story, Curt. You wrote so well and as if in a fireside chat. Indeed, stress jobs consume. I did that for 40 years. In hindsight, it wasn’t worth it, in my opinion.

    • Chuckling a little here Koji. I don’t think I have ever done anything for more than four years, much less 40. I did run wilderness treks for over 30 years, however. And I was a pain in the butt for the tobacco industry for 20 years. Those jobs I did for different organizations however, mostly being my own boss. –Curt

  5. Every story Curt tells helps me to learn a little more about him. Although Curt has certainly shared his thoughts about Alaska with me over the years, to read the story here helps me to learn and appreciate Curt even more……..

    • Poor Peggy, and my old friends who follow this blog, they get to hear the stories over and over. Sometimes putting them down in writing makes them more real. at least for me.

  6. Another great yarn Curt. You are a born story teller, plus you’ve lived the life needed in order to have plenty of stories to tell. Like you I’ve never been good at long-term jobs, high stress or not. Seriously impressed with your quick wits in answering the blinding flashlight!
    Alison

  7. Curt what an incredible life you’ve lived. This post called to us. Alaska has been a dream of ours for years. It’s why we made it the setting in our P-7 series. These pictures are exquisite my friend!!! As for the beginning….I had no clue about this thing they’re trying to pass that would allow our forests to be gobbled up for profit. This is despicable and I pray doesn’t pass. But money always wins. I fear that you’re right. Our grandchildren won’t have access to the paradise that we’ve been able to take part in. Sharing these pics now. 😉 xo

    • Thanks for the share, Inion! Alaska is definitely worth a trip, or several. As is driving up the Alaska Highway. As for the vote, it was only advisory, a litmus test if you will, I suspect for Koch Brother’s money. They will be putting in close to a billion dollars in the next election. All but two Republicans voted for the amendment. No Democrats did. I suspect if it were for real, many in the Republican Party would oppose it. Still… –Curt

  8. This must have been a painful post to write. You are baring your soul and telling all. I hate that you left the executive job, though. It’s people like you who care that our environment (and our lungs) need. But you had to do what worked best for you. I’ll continue to read — you’ve got me hooked. (And thanks for adding the fabulous photos!!!) Got to get to Alaska someday. By the way, we’re coming to Portland on July 3rd and then touring the city and area til the 9th. Hope to see coastline, etc. I’ll be able to relate to your environment even better after that!

  9. Pingback: Escape from Alaska… Part II: The Friday Essay | Wandering through Time and Place

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