An East Nashvillian in Alaska

  • Photography by Ash Adams
    Journal entry: Aug. 1, 2017
    My first and only lift today was from Max, a tugboat skipper from Homer, who was on his way to Valdez. I’d slept in, but knew I only had to hitch three hours down the road back towards Anchorage. I wasn’t standing on the road long enough to let my coffee cool off before Max pulled up. He had John Prine on the stereo; I had a John Prine sticker on my guitar case. We were birds of a feather, no doubt. He was going the full distance to my destination, and I ended up arriving for my gig at the Brown Bear Saloon a few hours early, enough time to check out the fishing at Bird Creek.
         We talked about everything under the sun. Fishing, politics, music, the state of the world … it was like catching up with an old friend. 
    Alaska delivers again. ...
    The normalcy of long distance travel and immersion in foreign cultures was established early in my life. I was only 9 years old when my father’s company transferred him, and therefore my family, from Akron, Ohio, to Tokyo, Japan. We lived overseas for three years. On one of our annual returns to the States, we had a layover in Anchorage, so my first views of Alaska were from the window of a Boeing 747. I was struck silent by majestic sights of sweeping glaciers, braided rivers, and mountain peaks blasting through scattered clouds. I saw massive ice fields, countless lakes and streams, vast forests, and an apparently infinite wilderness.   This experience stayed with me and ignited my initial attraction to Alaska. The fires were further stoked by literature. All of this traveling and reading I did throughout my youth kickstarted a strong case of wanderlust that has yet to wane.
         Years later, after my university years and a lengthy stint as a street musician in Europe, chased with some requisite time in a traveling band, I donned a vintage Alaska T-shirt for the cover photo of my second solo album, The Truth About Us. This started a chain reaction whereupon an Alaskan promoter invited me up north to play some shows. I accepted the invitation and have been returning every year since to sing my songs, go hiking, build campfires, mush dogs, pick blueberries, raft down rivers, fish, go sightseeing, hitchhike long distances, run songwriting workshops, record songs in cabins, fish some more, and generally have a blast hanging out with my amazing Alaskan friends.
         As of this writing, I have visited Alaska 17 consecutive summers — and a few winters, too. The people and places of Alaska undoubtedly hold a special place in my heart. For me and so many travelers and residents, Alaska represents freedom. Alaska represents escape. Of course, what Alaska represents and what it truly is are two different things, but after investing this much time visiting and traveling around various regions of the 49th state, I feel like I am able to truly appreciate both the reality of the freedom and the fantasy of the escape. I also feel my “honorary Alaskan” title is warranted. After a few more winters, perhaps I’ll get it in writing. Until then, I am just another awestruck and fascinated visitor, passing through the most transitory of American states.
         Alaskans themselves are the strongest reason for my prolonged fascination — both the Native Alaskans and those that migrated there. The striking and unforgiving land itself is certainly part of the allure, but as an armchair anthropologist, or a poet or songwriter, it’s the people that draw me back time and time again, The land and sea provide ample opportunity to get away from the people, and I accept those opportunities often, in order that I might get my life’s work done, but I am reminded of the age old question: What is better than having a remote cabin on a lake or river in Alaska? The answer is, of course, having lots of friends with remote cabins on lakes and rivers in Alaska. Often times, there are also boats involved, smoked salmon, and the occasional sauna.
         After this many visits, friendships both personal and professional have been established. My journeys to Alaska are basically three- or four-week-long working vacations. I’ve managed to make time for a decent amount of fishing in between the musical performances, which is how I pay for the journey, and earn a living. There are purely recreational days on the water, of course, but in the last few years I’ve begun participating in the harvesting of fish — mostly salmon and some halibut. I send the bounty home to my family in East Nashville. This wouldn’t be possible without the help of the many Alaskans who have taken me under their wing while showing me the ropes, not to mention sharing in their own bounties of fish and game.
    To the lover of the wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.
    — John Muir
    There’s a somewhat famous Alaskan expression that goes, “Alaska is only 15 minutes from Anchorage.” Heading out of the town where more than half of all Alaskans live (there is only one road) will prove this to be true. In the summer, many tourists head north towards Denali, the highest mountain in North America, or south to Alaska’s summer playground: the Kenai Peninsula. The drive south is guaranteed to be spectacular, even in rainy weather. It’s often breathtaking for first-timers, winding along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, pinched in between the Chugach Range and the world’s second strongest bore tide, gliding through our country’s northernmost of mountainous rainforests, down into a paradise of nature for hikers, bikers, hunters, and songmakers.
         This last summer, more than any other year, I actively choose to hitchhike many of the miles that needed to be traveled in order to get from town to town and show to show. It’s part of the anthropologist in me, and also part Woody Guthrie-esque, road-dog dream of a time gone by when that kind of transportation was more accepted.
         It’s not a difficult thing to hitchhike around Alaska. There are only one or two ways in and out of each town, and me — with my pronounced Calton flight case — can usually get a lift pretty quickly. Oftentimes, all I have to do is mention needing a lift while on stage the night before. Somebody is bound to be traveling the same direction at the right time on the next day. This year’s pro-hobo tip came from a man in Talkeetna who noticed that, while making a sign to alert drivers of my destination of choice, my Sharpie was running out of ink. He told me to find a campfire and use the stubs of charcoal in order to finish the job. I took his advice. Before I was done making the sign, however, someone had offered me a lift in that direction.
         Here’s an idea of how small the biggest state in the union can be when it comes to population: Of the 11 rides I hitched with total strangers, seven of them were from people who were acquaintances with someone I knew; two of them were listening to John Prine on the stereo when I got into the car; many of them were fishermen or fisherwomen, some with children in the vehicle. These “total strangers” are no longer strangers at all.
    Don’t leave fun for fun.
    — Overheard from an Alaskan fisherman
    For the last six years, I have participated in a gathering called Salmonfest. It takes place in the town of Ninilchik on the first weekend in August. This is an experience that involves music and environmental stewardship with all the great food, local arts and crafts vendors, and activist booths that are standard in today’s festival culture. I often perform at this festival with the great Alaskan/Inuit drummer James Dommek Jr. The two of us have also toured Spain together and are hoping to perform at more Alaskan villages on the next adventure.
         This year’s Salmonfest also featured performances by a few of my East Nashville neighbors. Steve Poltz, Megan Palmer, and Dylan Lee Johnston all traveled to the Kenai Peninsula to perform their original tunes, and at one time or another we sang songs together on stages and by campfires. The photojournalist Ash Adams was there to document the experience, and she went out on a couple of the hitches with me, as well.
         Touring songwriter and violinist Megan Palmer feels a kinship with the 49th state. In describing her relationship with Alaska to me, she articulates the effects of what it’s like to be truly off the grid and in touch with the natural self again. “I’ve made five trips to Alaska since 2012,” Palmer says. “Each time I’ve returned, I’ve fallen in love with the state a little more. Each time I go, I meet people who have also fallen in love with it, and many never return to their previous lives. So, I guess I’m in danger of that happening as well. There is just something about being so intimately close to nature that I haven’t found anywhere else I’ve traveled so far. The vulnerability that exists there is palpable, and it creates an excitement about being alive that inspires me to be a more present person in the activities of my life.”
         In this world of clicks and likes, unplugging from the machine and traveling through Alaska has a way of shocking your somewhat dormant senses. You just feel more alive, because you are constantly forced to focus on survival or at the very least make sure to not make stupid mistakes while in the wild. Having wandered down a few wilderness trails on my own, or blasted through a few class five rapids, I can testify: You simply don’t feel the same while floating down an Alaskan river or walking in the Alaskan woods. The water is faster and colder, and the critters are bigger and hungrier. You are continuously forced to be more aware, always paying closer attention, and it invites a new kind of excitement followed by fatigue that you don’t get on a basic float or walk in the woods in many of the lower forty-eight states. The fact that it stays fairly light all summer long is another curve ball to the system, but you get the hang of it, and you get exhausted, because survival is exhausting.
    I’ve been traveling so long that I can’t stand still.
    — Darrin Bradbury
    On that first tour, 17 years ago, my cell phone quit working just outside Anchorage. I knew then that I had found a paradise on earth. Today, cell phone coverage, and therefore internet coverage, is far more widespread, but there are still places where it does not exist, and after a little bit of withdrawal, you’ll find that talking to other humans is good for all concerned.
         I’m just as addicted to the internet and social media as anybody, and have an increasingly active Instagram account that chronicles my adventures, but I have also been able to reap the clear benefits of shutting it down every now and then. The internet certainly helps the world progress, but it also can cripple many a fragile artist’s ego, sometimes fueling the narcissism that stunts creativity. Time will tell what effect all this hollow notoriety derived from social media will have on the art-making and communication skills of future generations. I have a feeling some are witnessing the potential damage and will withdraw completely into their art, like the true woodshedding cabin dwellers of Alaska. 
    For more on Tim Easton, visit his website.