It seems inevitable that frontiers will be
tamed for the masses, then abused,
and those who must be on the frontiers
to exist will always have to move on.
The sweep of time, the crests and the troughs, the patterns of the weather and the patterns of a life. The way in which small incidents can unexpectedly lead one on a nostalgic journey into the distant past. The ring of a bell, and a voice excitedly telling about plans for a new road across the desert, telling about a large resort that will soon be built.
Then their surprise and bewilderment as they discover I do not share their enthusiasm. That I was not looking forward with joy to the new influx of people and development the resort would bring to the area. Or the boost it would give to the local economy.
Finally I was told, somewhat smugly, "You can't stop progress." And they were right.
Long ago, in another life, I used to live in Alaska. My nature being what it was, I made my home -- like others who enjoy the beauty and the peace of the mountains -- in the remote wilderness far from roads and cities. In those days, to get to where my wife and I lived, one had to fly in with a small airplane and land on a gravel bar or whatever else nature at the moment provided. To me this was of no concern, for I have long felt that the only proper way for a man to travel was on foot or by small airplane.
So paint yourself a valley (as Thomas De Quincey might have written) far from the hustle and bustle of civilization. And show a small cabin by the edge of a wide river flowing from a towering glacier, with a natural spring that remained open all winter and fed a series of beaver dams. Don't forget to include the rock face of the mountains carved by the river over the aeons, and down on the gravel bar in front of the cabin (for this was one of those periods when the river, in its ceaseless rise and fall, had left 300 feet of usable runway) paint a small airplane, a Super Cub of course, for what else could handle the constantly changing terrain? And while you are at it, paint the silence of the gently falling snow. Then, when it clears, paint the stars, almost washed out by the moon, and the pale shimmering green curtains of the aurora borealis as they dance across the sky. Paint, if you can, paradise.
Now we move forward in time a number of years, and it is summer once again. The river has risen, and in the process taken out the 300 feet of gravel bar in front of our cabin, so we are now using a gravel bar a half-mile away whose major attraction is the trail that leads to it. This trail, narrow and winding, moves through the willow along the river, through clearings and areas of thick brush and fields of purple flowers to where we now keep our airplanes. But this day we are walking down to our airstrip not for some purpose of our own, but because of an unusual event: a number of military helicopters, strangers to the area, have landed on our gravel bar.
When we get there, we find a politician, a bureaucrat, the head of the Department of the Interior, in fact, looking around at the mountains and saying, "This place is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. We must build a road into here and turn it into a National Park so we can save it for future generations."
Echoes of De Quincey, indeed, in his cottage in Grasmere, before the dreaded post road was built that destroyed the peace and calm of the valley forever.
* * *
Once again we move forward in time, and now the bridge across the river sixty miles away has become a reality, as has the long-promised road. The old abandoned copper mine in the next valley has been taken over by speculators, and there is a brisk tourist business. During the summer they drive their pickup trucks and recreational vehicles to the end of the road twenty miles from our cabin, unload their dirt bikes and little, fat-tired ATVs, and spread out over the countryside, leaving a stream of trash and vandalism behind them. During the winter, packs of snowmachines roam the area, filling the valleys with smoke and noise and leaving their tracks in swirling circles across the newly-fallen snow.
But this winter I am not there to see this, for my wife and I have decided to spend the winter in a small town outside Anchorage so I can have electricity and music and do a little writing. She tells me she no longer wants to live in the bush, that the way of life we had there for so many years is now no longer viable. But I resist, for my love of the wilderness, the quiet and the beauty, is almost more than I can bear, and so I escape into my writing and dream of when I can go home.
Finally spring arrives and the initial draft of my manuscript is now complete, so I tell my wife I am going out to our cabin for a few days, shake the sense of estrangement from the natural world and the intense case of cabin-fever that cities always give me. And so on a cold and rainy morning I put a few necessities in my pack and she gave me a ride down to the public airport where I have been keeping my plane.
It was not a good day for flying. The pass through the mountains was marginal in low-lying clouds, and the ride was rough, but finally I arrived at my place and, in a strong, gusty crosswind, rain blowing in sheets across the windshield, I landed and tied the plane down. Then, strapping on my old, scarred .44 and putting my pack on my back, I headed up the trail to my cabin, cold, tired, hungry and wet.
The trail was beautiful, as it always was, and the mountains soothed my spirit, the strange imaginary faces that looked down at me from their heights, the flowing creeks and the beaver dams. And, as I walked, I couldn't help but reflect on how good it was to be alive, how good it was to be back home.
Then I was at my cabin, staring in shock at the open door, the vandalism. And, once inside, it took me a moment to grasp what was wrong, what was different. It was the wood stove, or rather its absence. Someone had actually come all that distance from some city and stolen an inexpensive wood stove that could be had in any hardware store for less than $50.00. Stolen a stove from a cabin in the remote bush, a cabin that might have represented life or death to a traveler passing through during the winter and grounded by weather or mechanical problems.
I stood there for a moment more, looking around at the wanton damage, the random viciousness and animal-like stupidity of it, then turned around, walked out the door, shut it, and returned to my airplane. Three hours later I was back in the small town I had left that morning, waiting for my wife to come and pick me up.
When she saw me, she just nodded, saying nothing.
I never went back.
The sweep of time, the crests and the troughs, the patterns of the weather and the patterns of a life. The way in which small incidents can unexpectedly lead one's life into a totally different direction, create a vastly different world.
Fade in to...
...An isolated room at the end of an aircraft hangar some miles outside a nameless city far to the south. Its walls are lined with books, and on the coffee table in front of the couch is a large monitor with a keyboard in front of it. Under the monitor sits what looks like a box of pizza, and written on its front are the words SPARCstation 10. Standing a bit out from the far wall and facing the couch are two loudspeakers quietly playing Purcell's Fantasia a 4 No. 7 for Viols. Stacked in piles all over the room are the manuscripts of various works in progress, and on one of them lies the corrected galleys for a new book.
The telephone rings...
Oh, hi, John. How's it going?
A new book, eh? What's it called?
!%@::? What a strange title. Who wrote it?
Oh, Rick Adams. Yeah, he's the guy who started UUNET a few years ago. The name means `Unix to Unix Network'.
What do you mean, both my domain names are listed in it?
Oh, I see. A worldwide directory of electronic mail networks from '89 to '93. Interesting.
No, I didn't see Gore's speech. I don't watch TV. What did he have to say?
What? A consumer poll, too? Who by?
CNN/USA Today? Jesus, what now?
Interesting. They're actually willing to pay five bucks a month to "ride the information superhighway". Made my day.
No, I gotta finish an article. Have a 5:00 PM deadline.
Well, yeah. Thanks for calling.
Fade out to a sense of déjà vu...
The sweep of time, the crests and the troughs, the patterns of the weather and the patterns of a life. The way in which a day arrives when one wakes to the realization that the dreaded process has finally caught him again, only this time there was no place left to go, the true frontiers were now all gone.
So, perhaps for the last time, paint another valley surrounded by towering mountains. And show a small desert spring partially hidden by the brush and the trees, with a modest house close by. Don't forget to include the carport and the porch, where a number of wild javelina (though each has a name, having known the occupants of the house for many years) are dozing the hot summer afternoon away. Be sure to include the birds, the quail and doves in flocks, the ravens and the hawks and the circling turkey buzzards. And while you're at it, also show the roadrunner, an old friend, tap tap tapping on the kitchen window, requesting a scrap of meat. Then, to complete the picture (for what is a person's life worth when, like some burrowing animal, they always hide from the weather?), paint the thunderstorms of summer and the snows of winter. Paint, if you still have the heart, another (now seriously threatened) paradise.
* * *
And how does this story end? Well, we know the answer to that one, don't we. It is only a matter of time.
Still, we, my wife and I and the javelina and the other wildlife (for is that not what we are, wildlife on the surface of a planet circling a minor star in a vast and mysterious universe?), have a little time left. And, though the physical frontiers are vanishing into the lost mists of memory, the mental ones remain. The books and the music and the learning curves and the contemplation of what this thing we call life really means. Also, we are getting old, in these times a blessing, considering our knowledge of what the past was like and what the future, thanks to gross overpopulation and the increasing misuse of technology, now holds for our species. So, finally, it becomes just another holding action, a Custer's last stand (though we do not share Custer's evil), as the javelina struggle for life against their vanishing range and we do the same. Yet, in spite of everything, we are survivors, and in my more optimistic (or foolish) moments I sometimes get the feeling that if they, the javelina, are somehow, with a lot of luck, able to hold out, find a way to survive our species' suicidal lack of responsibility, then maybe we can too. At least for a while.
And in the end, what more can one ask?