“It’ll probably snow next week,” Ann said. She was standing in front of the fold up table that was her kitchen counter and heating water on a green Coleman stove. I sat in one of the fold up chairs off to one side. Swinging my blue moonboots back and forth and not saying a word. Just watching. Trying to figure out how this woman would fit into my life. Why her furniture folded. And why she was living in a tent. In the Alaskan wilderness. In winter.
Hours earlier, Mom had announced we were going to visit Ann and George. Their names were in my memory banks as “old family friends,” but this would be the first time I would remember meeting them. We loaded up the car and when we left Anchorage city-limits mom said, “Tell me when we get to 90.” She was referring to the green mile post signs.
I took the responsibility seriously. Searching for the posts along the curvy Parks Highway which was barely wide enough for two cars to pass. To the left, wilderness and mountains. To the right, just on the other side of the solid white line mom frequently crossed over, the start of a very long drop to the Susitna River. Anticipation building with the passing of each marker, I gave occasional updates. “Fifty.” “Sixty-seven,” my voice slightly higher with each passing mile marker. “Eighty-five,” curiosity overwhelming. Then there it was. “Ninety!” I yelled.
Mom slowed the car, squiggled in her seat, and leaned forward. Her chin inches from the steering wheel. Her eyes scanning left. Then, without warning, she made a sharp left turn onto a path you had to know was there, and hit the gas. Up we went. Like a roller coaster. Branches and leaves slapping at the car. My head pressed into the seatback. The path was so steep I couldn’t see in front of the car. We were flying. After what felt like minutes but was only seconds, the car leveled and came to a stop. Mom looked over and smiled, “We’re here.”
My stomach still in my throat I jumped out of the car. I had hardly gotten my mittens on when I saw an older woman flying down steps that had been cut out of the earth. Three dogs trying to keep up behind her. “Ohhhh! It’s so good to see you. Come, come. I’ll make some hot drinks.” And as fast as they had come down, Ann and the dogs were now leading us up.
At the top of the steps, hidden from my perspective moments below, was a large clearing. At the edge of the clearing, the vast wilderness and all kinds of unknown. Ann and George were homesteading 40 acres of land on the side of a mountain. Ann casually waved at the wood piles, foundation outlines, snowmobiles, two smaller tents, canvas coverings on the ground and tools everywhere. “We’re getting ready for winter,” she said. Then led us into the stand-up tent that was her living room and kitchen.
With our hands holding cups of hot chocolate or coffee, Ann told us more. “George is out getting more wood so we’ll have enough to last the winter. He wants to do as much as he can on the house now but once winter hits, he won’t be able to work around the snow. We’ll stay in the tent for the winter and finish the house in spring.”
I understood what she was saying but could not understand why she was smiling. Was it possible she wanted to live like this? And that look in her eyes. What is that? I scooched my chair closer. There was something about her and I didn’t want to miss a single moment.
Some sips later, Ann turned her ear to something only she could hear. “There he is,” she said. Then stood up and gestured for us to follow. We stepped outside and at the far edge of the clearing, coming in from out of the wilderness, was a Santa-sized man riding a 4-wheeler. It was George. A man who came to a crossroads once in his young life while walking the dirt roads of Washington State in search of his future. Not knowing what direction to go, he flipped a coin. Then went in that direction.
On this day, George was riding back into camp. One knee up on the seat so he could look back and keep an eye on the load of wood he was hauling. I would learn this was how he always rode. If he wasn’t keeping an eye on what he was hauling, he was keeping an eye on those who were following. Coming to a stop in front of us he gave a great big whoop then gave us even bigger hugs. Even in the remembering, I can smell the scent of Alaska trapped in his clothes.
While George stacked wood, Ann showed us the clearing. “The house will go here. My garden here. George’s workshop there. The guest cabin there. The meat storage here.” It was nothing but cleared land and yet, as her eyes looked out, she could see it all. And there was that look again. What is that?
Today, 40 years later, I now know what that look was. I know what it was that drew me closer to her and not want to miss a single moment. It was passion and resolve lighting up Ann’s sixty-year-old eyes. The kind of passion found only when pursuing dreams. The kind of resolve that comes when concern for what others say is set aside and all that is left to be done is what your heart and soul are driving you to do. The kind of passion and resolve that when remembered, many moons later, continues to inspire and push you to pursue wholeheartedly that thing you know is yours to pursue.
And as Ann showed over the years, passion and resolve do not make the hard work of pursuing dreams any easier. But together, they do make the hard work more meaningful and satisfying. Ann showed us that when passion and resolve work together, the pursuit of dreams now has a fighting chance. That living in a tent, in the cold winter wilderness, is just one of the many adventurous steps that leads to your dream.
We stood with Ann looking at the clearing in awe for a few moments. Then she broke the silence. “Well, let’s get going,” she said, handing us each a small tin bucket. “We’ll want to get those blueberries before the bears do.”