I remember Mama.

You see, this morning I opened up the travel section in the Sunday paper to find a flashy ad that told me I could spend four days and three nights gambling, drinking, or sunbathing on one of the gaudiest Caribbean islands for what amounted to about a week's salary for me. That's gross...
salary, I mean. But that's not for me. I could find all that right down the street if that's what I wanted. No, I've always been a 'fly by the seat of my pants' kind of traveler, never paying for much more than an airline or train ticket . I'd rather opt for a youth hostel or tent than plush hotel accommodations that insulate a traveler from being submersed knee-deep in the local culture. Out on the road, like Jack Kerouac, that's where the most fun is. That's where the people are. And that's where you'll find me. On the road, where I am most at home.

This is where Mama comes in. She was always smiling at all the passerbys, and if she ever got a hold on you, look out. CRUNCH! She'd give you a hug that'd squeeze the devil out of you It was on the Island of San Salvador where she sat everyday at the intersection of a two street town, in the cool shade of the Talking Tree, while she weaved palm leaves into broad-rimmed hats and two-handled baskets that read 'San Sal' in bright red yarn.

She was a cunning old gal. She'd wait patiently for the college students who came to study at the research station, the only source of outside visitors on the island. The deep folds in the fabric of Mama's coton white skirt seemed to run clear up to the time worn folds in her dimpled cheeks. Whenever my fellow students and I would stroll through town, Mama would flash that inviting grin of hers, wave her arms, and softly shout, 'Come to Mama, darlings,' with an irresistible charm. That was the hook

Then that's where she'd get you. CRUNCH! And if you survived that, she'd graciously offer you one of her fine hats that would block out nine-tenths of that blue sky, not to mention a good bit of that turquoise ocean to boot. Free. Pro bono. Right? That was the line.

As you stood there endeared to this cheerfully warm, motherly figure, with her long black braids swaying in the ocean breeze, you'd be proudly displaying the good fit of this new prize possession. Then you'd get nailed with the clincher: who would not feel obligated to repay this gesture of good will with a few dollars? And as she stroked your arm in the loving thanks with crooked, worn down, bony fingers a few dollars might turn into quite a few dollars. That, my friend, was the sinker.

This is how I met Mama, the Mother Teresa of San Sal. I sat under the Talking Tree with her to hear a couple of stories told in that thick Bahamian dialect. She just smiled that smile, and from time to time slapped my knee hard enough to almost shake two-feet of palm leaves right off my head. Mama was a dear old soul. As I kissed her good-bye on that wrinkled cheek, little did I know that she was just one of the many colorful individuals that I would soon come to know.

Without realizing it for some time, I was born into a world of travel almost from the beginning. It seems that a long time ago a domestic time bomb reach critical mass. Exploding, it left everyone scattered in different directions. It's how I got my start. The divorce sent my mother and sister scrambling one way, into obscurity. And then there's my dad. A man who once stood adamant over me suffered a real shell-shock disorder that haunted him thirty years after he left Korea. I knew enough of his kindness and strength to last me a lifetime, but it ended too soon as he degenerated into a hollow shell of his former self, and slipped away into darkness. In that sense, I've always been on the move. A few years with this relative or that. A summer here, a winter there. A farm in Pennsylvania, and apartment in California, or four out of five evenings spent eating dinner at my best friend Lenny's house. Seems that the places where I wanted to stay the most were the places where it just couldn't be.

However, in those days, there were some places I could always return to, where excitement could race through my veins, and the people would always come back if I wanted them to. I scoured the ocean floor with Verne's Captain Nemo. I toiled in the traces right along side London's Buck, as together we would learn to shrug off the pounding blows of life's brutality. And the lessons I learned by Thoreau's experiment would be the lessons I learned to live by.

Into the woods I would go, And it it there I have been ever since.

One summer, with Lin Yutang's non-conformist views freshly under my belt, I found myself waiting our a chilly night under a spruce tree on the bad side of town in Anchorage. The cabbie, who left me up the hill from the dark train station down below where the spruce tree was, pleaded with me to 'Watch out for them Natives. They're a homeless bunch of thieves, and they'll strip you clean.' Sounded more like he thought I was embarking in a Conestoga wagon across the high plains. He was talking about a slice of the Athabaskan, Tlingit, and Aleut pie that has become lost between two cultures during all the confusion since the Russians from the West and the Anglo's from the South and East began turning the tables on the traditional lifestyles of the North. With the old customs of subsistence having been eradicated by in large, there has been a sizable portion of the native population who have neither held on to the old nor grabbed on to the new. These are the sad cases that have too often turned to thieving, begging, and drinking in the newly sprung up urbanities.

Then there is Cyrus. Oh, he's not really one of the bad apples. Yes, he's had his attitude problems all right, as you will see. Cyrus, though, seemed to have found a niche carving hand held totems of polar bears or wolves for the tourists to buy. Our rude introduction began as we stared at each other through opposite sides of glass at a McDonald's on the Fourth Avenue. The same Fourth Avenue where the Iditarod dog-sled race begins every year. There I was getting a bite to eat before catching the train to Denali in a couple hours. I might have noticed how all the warm colors of my jacket and backpack were reflecting in the window if I hadn't have been staring so intensely into his cold eyes. He had been peering in from the outside. I imagine that in many ways he had been on the outside for a long time.

The mutual stares were broken only as he began to write some message across the spotless window while dragging a finger very slowly into outlines of broken letters that clearly spelled out his frustration with my kind. Without being deterred, I took my seat and continued watching as he made his way through the door, feet shuffling slowly over the polished tile. A curious looking fellow he was. A squinty eyed Aleut that seemed out of place wrapped in a navy blue windbreaker and a matching skullcap that left strands of gray hair poking out from underneath. I think that at one time he was a proud man in his rugged coastal element, now torn out from under his shuffling feet.

We sat at opposing tables. With my journal in obvious sight, I jotted down a few thoughts about his character, along with some anthropological considerations. He looked offended by this, perhaps deservedly so. He sat with a challenging look of dislike and disgust at my intrusiveness. With the tenacity of a pit bull, he strode right up to my table to deliver a wrinkled hand held tightly at my face with one finger waving loosely. After withdrawing for a few moments, he returned on the way to his own seat to deliver yet another wrinkled hand with that finger still waving like a dog's tongue. Each time he accentuated the gesture with eyebrows pushed forward and a head that bobbed at me like a chicken's peck. He meant to leave no question about the intent of his actions.

I guess he was expecting some kind of cock-eyed attitude from me, much like the attitudes he had undoubtedly induced from the many others who had passed this way before. This time would be different. I just watched in response. Watched without an eyebrow raised in distress. Without a word spoken in anger.

This, I believe, had a rather profound effect on him. As I loaded my toothbrush, razor, and things back into my pack before heading out for the train, the old Aleut had gotten himself up again to come tap me on the shoulder from the side. Surprisingly, he quite humbly introduced his self as Cyrus. He followed with a truly genuine appeal that I might forgive his bad manners. The tables had turned again. He now had a profound effect on me.

I accepted his appeal as an invitation to sit with him. We sat, together, on those awkward chairs. The morning was looked more cheerful as the sideways light broke through those heavy low clouds that blow in off of the Cook Inlet. Oh, I spent a while asking questions that sounded as though they were plagerized off an academic questionnaire. I'm a little surprised that he didn't begin spouting information like Name, Rank, and Serial Number. So that I could get to that little Alaska cartoon map that McDonald's used as tray liners, I found myself boldly pushing aside his hash browns and pancakes. He poked a blunt finger onto the little island chain where he was from, and told me how his uncle had taught him to carve the figurines that were to be used in their social rituals.

That was enough seriousness for him. "Can I ask you a question?," he said as he peered out over the brown skin that hung on high cheekbones. I listened with the same intensity as a contestant in Final Jeopardy. "Why are your ears so big?" Hmn? Why were my ears so big? I sat there, stunned at the simplicity. The frank awkwardness of the question yielded a simple answer in return. "Because my father's were big," I said. So much for the academic posterity. In the spirit of the moment, "What do you see different in me?" he asked. I felt some need to overcome a small barrier in language, I resorted to mime. I pushed my fingertips into my cheeks until they were as high as I could get them. My eyes became squinted until almost shut. With boisterous laughter, he pushed up his cheeks with his own prodding fingertips. As though his Aleut cheeks weren't high enough already, he pushed them up even more until I thought his face would just shrink up and disappear into some mysterious black hole under his woolen cap.

Two strangers cut the distance between them to reveal the common thread that bound them together. Our laughter was the knife, and our laughter was the thread. And the road here was one not taken often enough.

Along the way, there have been more Mamas and more Cyruses. There has been an Isabel from Madrid, ready to conquer Seattle. A Karla, aka Scarlotti, who prowled around in a red room draped with aqua-blue tranquility. A Bahamian, Hartman Arnette, who swore through his coke-bottle glasses with more cracks than most sidewalks, that the American news anchor, Peter Arnette, is his first cousin (really, even Skeeter agreed!). There's a Karen who educated me about the little plants that hug alpine meadows while we had lunch at 11,000 feet. And there was a Lenny who continued to teach me lessons from his place six feet under the earth.

At one time I was unofficially adopted into three families. Two of which were Alaskan, the Huls and Belgard/Miller's, and shared me between thirteen children, church with the Latter Day Saints, and newspaper deliveries at four a.m. in the fallen ash of Mt. Spurr. They were always testing my talent for inventory by asking me to recite the list:

  • Lisa, who has roller skates for feet to keep up with her ambitions
  • Stephanie and the never ending quest for Waldo
  • Michael's brisk paper route from the minivan
  • Chad's acrobatics on the ice rink
  • Daniel's acrobatics on the dining room table
  • Mel's bluest eyes in Alaska
  • Shannon and her purplest Kool-Aid in North America
  • Sean and his GameBoy
  • Or was that Jodie's GameBoy?
  • Corie's little pencil drawings, pouting lip, and love for the little >swing across the way
  • Jamie had her cheesecake
  • Kris had his musical genius, and suave looks
  • I will never forget Tami's wonderful honesty.

I've been in the company of wolves, both literally as well as figuratively, been run off by a jealous elk in a moonlit glen, and have been woken up into a herd of buffalo standing over me. And the most startling of all, I was even nibbled on by a rather audacious muskrat.

There was a time when I had enough mail coming in from a long list of penpals that I almost got my own zip code. I even learned enough to be dangerous in nine languages, including such useful phrases as: "you thick sided water horse", "I love you with utmost sincerity", and "would you like some cheese in your coffee?"

I shall not soon forget these people, where ever they may be, all the untold others, and the ones I have yet to meet. They are my life. Nor shall I forget the places I have been, and the places I have yet to go. They are my home. Out there....where it has always been. On the road, and into the yellow wood.


My photo galleries of places mentioned in this essay:

Denail National Park
Yellowstone National Park
San Salvador, Bahamas
Madrid, Spain