Since when did simple become so complicated?
It’s time to find my center again. Time to go inward. Less traveling for a while and more solitude. More reflection.
For the last few months, since I got back from Scotland, Turkey, and Israel, I’ve been home in Alaska preparing for my sabbatical. A year of writing. Working two jobs at a time, I’ve been a bellhop this summer, kayak guide, deckhand, and, most recently, a carpenter. Swinging hammers to build other peoples’ cabins. My whole life I’ve been helping others with their dreams. And it’s time to work towards one of my own: Building my cabin in Alaska. I’ve fantasized about it my whole life. Sketching pictures of what it might look like since I was old enough to pick up paper and pencil.
Why, in this day and age, is it so hard to get back to? To clear enough space and time. To clear a few spruce trees for firewood and log walls. To find my own slice of woods where I can live off the land, focus on my writing, and focus on myself.
Simple. That’s all I want now. A pail full of blueberries. Fire in the woodstove. A sod roof and dirt floor. The murmur of a small, nameless creek flowing, unseen, through the undergrowth nearby. And, after sunset, the northern lights flashing overhead.
I finally bought my own land and cleared a few trees. Off the grid. And pretty much off the map. Seven miles north of Talkeetna and the nearest road. In an old growth birch forest haunted by bears, moose, and the occasional abandoned cabin someone else left behind. Out where I belong. Where the wild things are. Where wolves blow through the woods like smoke.
Land. The first thing I’ve owned that didn’t have four wheels and four forward gears. Or that I couldn't carry on my back at a dead run.
I’ve been on the run my whole life. A gypsy. Nomad. Bedouin. Something hardwired in my Viking blood pushing me to explore. To lose my bearings and all sense of direction. Only to find my way again. And come back from the other side.
But even a wanderer eventually wants roots. A home. Land, not just to pass through, but to build upon. I started looking as soon as I returned to Alaska. At first I only had a few requirements. The property had to be remote and wild, but not too far from Talkeetna—the only place that’s ever felt like home.
The few real estate agents I dealt with, at first, had never even seen the properties they were trying to sell. Only a handful of people knew where the plots were or roughly how to get to them. And even those people were hard to locate. So, for weeks and weeks, I set out after work to find remote property. Under the midnight sun I explored the country “up the tracks.” The wedge of wilderness between the Susitna River and Clear Creek. Where the road ends in Talkeetna and the railroad continues—up toward Cantwell, Denali, eventually Fairbanks—hundreds of miles away.
But just five miles north of town, beside the tracks, an abandoned gravel pit sits overgrown and choked with fireweed and alders. From there the path forks into three different trails heading east. Away from the tracks. Away from civilization. And deeper into the wilderness. Back into Devil’s Club, Fiddlehead, Birch, and Spruce. An old growth forest that’s never felt the bite of axe or saw.
Back into another era. Back in time.
Some locals call this country “Chase,” after the small railroad town once built along the tracks up here. Now “Chase” is a more general term. Slang, really. Describing a vast slab of Alaska hundreds of square miles in dimension. Other locals refer to this area as “up the tracks,” which characterizes a state of mind as much as anything else.
Those nights after work I used a combination of hiking, mountain biking, four wheeling, even canoeing to find land in Chase. All I found were dead ends at first. Overgrown trails that faded into thicket. Game trails not recommended for human travel. Fresh grizzly tracks and scat. I found dozens of twelve hundred pound bull moose at close range.
Sometimes I lost a little hope along the way.
But I finally found Back Lake. Front Lake. Even Snowflake Lake. Wiggle Creek. Tanner Mountain. A nameless bog that would become an important landmark. I figured out where the Freeman Trail split off from the Clear Creek Trail and where another unmarked path split from there and led back to the Talkeetna River.
I got lost sometimes. This part of Alaska is lush. Thick canopy from the ground level all the way to the tops of the tallest Cottonwoods.
But I never felt lost.
I felt at home. Close, at all times, to that center I was looking for. So close I could sense its edges. Circling it as I had my entire life from greater distances. But close now. I could almost pinpoint it. Possibly here. Or maybe just over there.
The real estate office back in town was a dead end for me. They wanted too much. Their fees way too high. And a friend recommended I attend one of the quarterly Chase community meetings. It was at the gravel pit one Wednesday evening and I showed up not knowing anyone. I’d arrived early after riding in on a borrowed four wheeler. But soon, one by one, the residents of Chase showed up. Crashing through alder thickets on their ATV’s. Armed to the teeth for bears. Maybe people, too. The weapons of choice “up the tracks,” as with all of Bush Alaska, are shotguns slung across the back and high caliber pistols strapped to the chest. A 12 gauge and a .44 or 357. Or, better yet, the legendary Colt .45 “hand cannon.”
After everyone had shown up—all twelve of them—I introduced myself to the group and said I was looking for land. To my surprise, they were nicer than their reputations suggested. Back in town these hermits were known as standoffish at best, trigger-happy at worst. Some of the signs I’d seen marking their properties implied the latter. But their bark was worse than their bite. They just wanted solitude. Like me. That’s why they lived up here. And they had to put up a tough front to keep Chase from becoming the next popular recreation area for out-of-town ATV and snowmachine enthusiasts. Or weekend warriors from Anchorage and Wasilla.
After the meeting many of them came up to talk to me and some gave me the inside scoop on unlisted land for sale. The good stuff that none of the realtors back on the grid knew anything about.
I ended up buying from Bill Bentley, a retired pipe fitter from Anchorage who’d decided he was too old for the Bush. And had missed the window of youthfulness for building on his remote property. So I bought his five acres on a gentle, north-facing slope of birch, spruce, and underbrush. Beside a nameless creek that drained a nearby bog. The property was one big blueberry patch. But there were cranberries, too. And Fiddlehead Ferns. The first time I saw it I had the intense feeling I’d been there before. Or somehow knew that particular hillside. As if I’d woken to a dream and walked into the thick woods and dappled sunlight of my own imagination.
Five acres. But it might as well be hundreds. For miles in all directions I'd have virtually no neighbors. The whole area essentially mine to hunt and fish. And wander through. And plenty of building material growing right out of the ground.
Spruce and mud. The kind of simplicity I needed.
Over the next few weeks I started exploring the area around my property. A few miles down the trail and past my land I found an abandoned trapper’s cabin to use as a model for my first structure. Dirt floor, sod roof sprouting saplings and wildflowers, a wood stove, and a cot. No windows to steal heat. Next summer I’d build a bigger, more elaborate place but, for now, it was a race against time. A race against winter: late August and already Fall up here—a hint of snow in morning breezes.
A race against age.
Already this summer I’d sprained an ankle. An old running injury that could flare up again at any time and snuff out this life-long dream of mine.
But I can’t think that way now. This is a beginning, not an ending. A year of writing. A year of survival. A return to the center. Simple has to start here. Beside this creek. In this birch forest. On a remote north-facing hillside. Notching spruce logs together for my own shelter. No glue, paint, nails, or metal. It starts here. “Up the tracks,” and beyond. Before winter sets in. Before my body, or anything else, can fail me. Simple. That’s all I want.
And there’s nothing simpler than spruce and mud.