A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Just Passing Through

Photo of our community living room, blatantly stolen from Scott Pauker's blog
When the kids and I found the sheet of fresh cookies and the pan of homemade brownies that Scott Pauker had left on our kitchen counter, I felt a twinge of regret that he would not be there to share them with us. 
Not that our little community of nine adults and four kids would have any trouble gobbling down the treats without outside assistance.  We have a strong track-record in Postprandial Gooey Deliciousness Consumption.  It’s part of the rhythm of the evening, which starts when we hungrily gather to sniff out whatever the chef du jour has concocted, and ends when we drag unwilling children home for necessary slumber. 
Dinner itself is usually gratifyingly replete with dark leafy greens, organic legumes, and whole-graininess.  While dining – and in the comfortable after-supper half-hour of plate-scrubbing and leftover-wrapping – we all decompress from work, gripe about current events, share our very best in off-color humor, or (in the case of the eight-to-ten-year-old crowd) happily absorb the off-color humor while bouncing off the walls.  Finally, we settle down to the pleasures of Dessert Time.
For two evenings during the previous week as well as two evenings this week, Scott had made a nice addition to that tableau.  His sunburned grin radiated his total lack of concern at finding himself in the midst of some kind of weird intellectual hippie mini-commune.  They use an outhouse and make jokes about Oxford commas?  Yeah, I’m cool with that.  He filled us in on enticing tidbits of Seattle news and biking lore.  He shared amusing details of his Adventure Thus Far -- and we were fond of his penchant for washing more than his share of the dishes. 
But, of course, he couldn’t hang around Fairbanks, Alaska forever.  He had places to go…such as Tierra del Fuego.  On his bicycle.
“Will we ever see him again?” asked Molly. She was indirectly responsible for the hoard of baked stickiness that was now brightening our morning with the joys of anticipation; with the honed cunning on an almost-third-grader, she’d been the fastest responder when Scott had kindly asked what sort of foodstuffs he might contribute to the general well-being of Tamarack Knoll. 
“Probably not,” I admitted.  “But we can follow his adventures online, if you want.”
Molly sounded interested rather than disappointed.  She’d liked Scott.  Still, at age eight, she already seems well-acquainted with the fact that people come and go.  Travelers don’t always return. 
She strapped her own bike helmet over her raincoat hood for the decidedly less epic ride to this week’s summer camp – Shakespearean acting for the eight-to-twelve set – and the subject shifted to the question of why Lizzy’s bike has a rear mud-guard, while her twin’s does not.  But, as we splashed our way up our dirt road, and as I offered pointers on what gear a bike ought to be in on a steep incline (“Try a lower one, kiddo… no, a LOWER one…”) I found myself mulling over how we relate to the transient people in our lives: The Travelers.
I’ve blogged previously about the importance of community; of friendships; of sense of place; of ties that are permanent (okay, fine, not permanent on an intergalactic scale, but you know what I mean); and of people who are SO AWESOME that one can pawn off one’s kids on them at short notice. These myriad bonds are at once as complex as calculus and as comfortable as couch cushions.  In our clock-watching, parking-lot-infested, glowing-screen-riddled lives, the time-and-connectedness algorithms are often tricky to compute, and the fabric of community needs a bit of darning, to say the least.  But where, in weaving that mathematical tapestry, do we place the person who is new, foreign, strange, unknown, and temporary?  What is the role of The Archetypal Traveler?
The Traveler shows up in plenty of stories, from the Odyssey on out.  He or she is the Gypsy, the Tinker, the Explorer, the Warrior, the Vagabond, and the Stranger all rolled into one.  She is the Fairy Godmother, who appears for just long enough to do her trick with the pumpkin.  He is that Brad Pitt character who runs off with all the money in Thelma and Louise – but that’s not why you remember the character, now is it?  He is Gandalf, who never quite seems able to stick around long enough for the entire adventure, due to mysteriously pressing business elsewhere. 
Scott, of course, is not an archetype; he’s a specific, cheerful, 37-year-old man from Seattle with muddy Spandex and a liberal-arts background.  But, for the purposes of my ruminations, he makes a splendid archetypal proxy. We’d never heard of him until a few weeks ago.  He came our way as the friend-of-friends-of-friends, in a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon kind of way. 
Jay mentioned to me, in a vague sort of way, that “some biker guy” might be passing through, like, sometime, and did I think the community would be okay with letting him crash in the guest room?  As the Communications Specialist of the family (a job that falls to me by default, not based on any useful skillset), I posed this question to whomever happened to be around, received some unperturbed “yes” responses, and promptly forgot all about it until my phone rang, showing an unknown out-of-state number. 
“You’re where?  Old Nenana?  Okey-doke, you should be here in about twenty minutes.” 

I went to find a set of sheets, some sandwich-fixings, and a towel with not too many holes in it.
The Traveler is, by definition, is on the move. He’s not merely someone you’ve never met before; he’s someone who has been places you’ve never been, and is going places you probably can’t even imagine: “You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon? … It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.”
Han Solo may not have known the difference between units of distance and units of time, but he was definitely going places: "Look, I ain't in this for your revolution, and I'm not in it for you, princess. I expect to be well paid. I'm in it for the money.” The traveler may or may not be one of the Good Guys in White Hats, but he’s interesting – and undeniably, oddly magnetic.
The Traveler doesn’t just crop up in literature (yes, of course Star Wars is literature!); he or she also seems to crop up with some regularity in our community.  Why?  Well, I’m not sure.  It might be because, given that there are five households in our group, we naturally receive five times the standard-issue number of guests.  It might be because Fairbanks is the kind of place where people frequently couch-surf – sometimes in a not-getting-off-this-couch-without-a-crowbar kind of way.  Or it might be because our community has an excellent reputation for not yet having slaughtered a single visitor in our ten-year history. 
Be that as it may, the vast majority of our guests have brightened and enlivened our lives.  Fairbanks is not a place that people “just pass through” unless they are up to something just a bit peculiar – such as a stint at Toolik Lake field station, measuring arctic shrubbery while enjoying the enthralling company of a few billion mosquitoes. We’ve housed researchers, families, relatives, and strangers.  We played host to the now-community-legend Fred, a retired African-American factory worker who came up to Alaska just to take part in the White Mountains 100 wilderness race.  I’d explain all about Fred, but this sign that the kids made says it all.  

Some of this enlivenment-via-house-guest, granted, involved a sort of after-the-fact “Type 2” fun.  The young woman who left a large, bloody, meaty item in our freezer, for example… well, she might have been lacking a few rudimentary social skills, but she left us with a most excellent story.*
Why are we drawn to The Traveler?  Why, knowing that we have no chance of developing a permanent bond, a reciprocal relationship, or even a real friendship, do we eagerly take in the traveler, make him a sandwich, and tell him to “make himself at home”?  Scott gave us wine, dishwashing, and brownies, but such generosity wasn’t expected or required.  What intangibles make The Traveler worthwhile?
What is The Traveler giving away for free?  Well, in the course of my 42 years, I have not only encountered The Traveler many times; I’ve also been The Traveler.  When I signed up to join the US Peace Corps at the ripe old age of 21, I had only the vaguest notion of what it might mean to go away and live in a less-developed foreign country for two years.  That is, I thought about many of the things I might have to give up: running water, electricity, spaghetti, Cadbury’s.  I didn’t understand quite so clearly what it might mean to give up familiarity, belonging, being at home.  I didn’t understand what it would be like to have to explain – weekly, daily, hourly – everything about myself, my worldview, my race, my nationality, my culture.
But there was no choice.  I was The Traveler.  I needed to describe snow to children who had never experienced temperatures below sixty Fahrenheit.  I needed to describe the American educational system to people who had struggled to get as far as seventh grade.  I, a lone white woman in a sea of resentment, needed to discuss racial tensions, the misunderstood plots of soap operas I’d never seen, the entire history of slavery, what New York City is like, the fact that I was NOT a Mormon missionary, class warfare, hurricanes, the CIA, school gardens, international trade, and English grammar.  My role as story-teller was non-negotiable.
I recall, with peculiar clarity, the day when I was seating at the bottom of a pit – destined to be a new school latrine -- with a shovel and crowbar.  The temperature was well over ninety.  It always was.  I was dripping.  But I was digging with fierce determination, in part because I knew that everyone had one eye on their own work, and one eye on me.  As I worked, a very old man, seated comfortably above-ground, turned to no one in particular and wheezed, with absolute conviction, that white girls sure can dig an outhouse.
If it hadn’t been clear before, it was clear then: the payment for my acceptance was not only my tales from afar, but also my role as a proxy for every American that everyone had never met.  I was The Traveler.   And being The Traveler is fascinating.  It’s exhilarating.  It’s also utterly exhausting – although not usually in the bone-weary sledge-hammer sense.  It’s draining socially, psychically, and emotionally. 
Scott passed through our humble not-a-commune on his way north to the official start of his bike ride at the Arctic Ocean.  He passed through again on his way south.  We saw him for a total of four evenings.  Since then, we’ve followed some of his adventures via Facebook and his blog.  “Oh, look, Scott made it to Whitehorse… Hey, did you read the piece Scott wrote about Skinny Dick’s Half-Way Inn?…” 
We won’t see him again.  The brownies are long gone.  The kids are not pining for the missing guest.  But when another Traveler gets in touch with us (by text or Facebook or pure-white carrier pigeon tossed upward from the slopes of a mythical volcano), we’ll welcome her.  We’ll make her a sandwich, and offer her a shower (replete with caveats about our limited water supply).  And we’ll ply her for stories, for mystery, for vicarious armchair-adventure.  She’ll understand the currency.  It’s one with a long history, and yet – despite the Age of Communication, despite supersonic speeds and instant messaging and a distinct lack of tinkers, magicians, Gypsies, and bundle-carrying train-hopping hobos in  a world grown small -- it still clings to shreds of its former value.
Community spells comfort, familiarity, home.  Without a community of friends and family, it’s easy to feel lost, ungrounded, purposeless.  The Traveler, on the other hand, symbolizes the mysterious, the unknown, the adventure you haven’t yet had, and the places you haven’t yet seen – but might.  Without The Traveler, the world can seem too small, too dull, too unchanging, too lacking in possibility. Thus, Community and Traveler are yin and yang.  We need one because we need the other.  And– at least at some time in our lives – we all need to take at least a brief turn at carrying the tales.  We probably won’t cover as many parsecs as Han Solo.  We probably won’t keep our pedals turning all the way from the Arctic Ocean to the tip of South America.  But we’ll at least gain some appreciation for those who do.
Happy trails, Scott.

* The young woman in question called us up about six months later and told us that she’d be swinging by to pick it up.  When we informed her that’s we’d thrown it away (not without some confusion and disgust), she was incensed.  “You threw away my bear heart?!”