I recall being told back in the '70s, by the older brother of a college friend, that the ancient Greeks considered the prime of life to be 34 (which just happened to be that guy's age at the time). Who knows, maybe it's true. In any event, I hope it's an auspicious year for my son.
Thinking back to when I was 34, a special memory from that year (besides being iconic for George Orwell fans) was my going on a major summer adventure, principally to visit a college friend, Peg Kehrer, (different than the one above) and her partner, Paul Otte, in Juneau AK.
My odyssey began with a short train trip from La Plata MO to Kansas City, where I spent the night with Everette Wright, a good friend of Sandhill's. In the morning, Everette dropped me off at the driveaway place where I'd arranged to take a Datsun Maxima (1984 was the last year before everything became Nissan) from Kansas City to the suburbs of Seattle.
En route, I stopped by a monument in central Kansas that claimed to be the geographic center of the continental US (which means that if all the land comprising the 48 states were of equal density you could balance the whole of it on the top of the monument and it wouldn't tip in any direction). Kind of an odd thing to erect a monument to, but I can get into geeky math stuff on occasion.
The next day, in the sparsely populated Sandhills of western Nebraska I witnessed a mile-long fully loaded coal train chugging south… only to encounter another fully loaded coal train headed north two hours later. (Do these people talk to each other?)
I stopped by Devil's Tower National Monument (Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind made a big impression on me in 1977), Mount Rushmore, and Yellowstone National Park (where I loved all the geysers and brine shrimp). After a weekend visiting Nancy Shrader (the sister of my partner and Sandhill co-founder, Annie) and her family in Missoula MT, I pressed west across Idaho (where I paused in picturesque Coeur D'Alene long enough to enjoy a serving of apple pie with chocolate ice cream—something I'd always wanted to do after reading about Clancy Sigal doing it in his 1962 road trip cum political memoir Going Away).
In the final leg I drove across the Palouse, visited the Grand Coulee Dam (think Woody Guthrie: Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, so roll on Columbia, roll on)—which I learned is still shedding heat from all the concrete pouring in the '30s and '40s—and sampled aplet (apple/walnut) and cotlet (apricot/walnut) confections in Wenatchee.
After turning in my wheels in the home of this year's defending Super Bowl champions, I spent the night on a park bench in downtown Seattle, and caught the morning sailing of the Princess Marguerite to Victoria BC. After a day of gawking at all the boutiques in that tourist town (where I scored a terrific deal on a used 105 mm Pentax telephoto lens), I caught a bus the next day that took me all the way up the east side of Vancouver Island and deposited me at Port Hardy, just in time to catch the once-a-week BC ferry headed for Juneau, via Prince Rupert, Wrangell, Ketchikan, and Petersburg. The best part was witnessing humpback whales skyhopping at dawn in Frederick Sound. Wow.
I had a lovely visit with Peg & Paul in Juneau, the only state capital inaccessible by car. Highlights included:
o Hiking up Mount Roberts, just above Juneau. From the summit you can look west over the archipelago of a temperate rain forest. Turning 180-degrees in place you see an alpine desert, replete with marmots that will steal your lunch if you turn your back.
o Noodling around the Mendenhall Glacier north of town. It was incredible witnessing color shifts in the blue and purple range when peering into deep crevasses.
o Witnesses a salmon die-off at the end of their spawning run (the bald eagles were so thick that it was impossible to conceive of them as an endangered species).
o Enjoying the gustatory pleasure of beer-battered halibut, which allowed me to grok why Alaskans consider that gargantuan bottom feeder a superior delicacy to salmon.
o Exploring the ruins of the Treadwell mine on nearby Douglas Island—once the largest hard rock gold mine in the world, from which over 3 million ounces were extracted during 1881-1922. I managed to come away with a souvenir valve handle (suitably rusted) that we welded onto the air control of our blacksmithing forge back home at Sandhill.
o A side trip to Tenakee Springs (on Chichagof Island, about 60 ferry miles west of Juneau), where there is only one street, four-feet wide, and no cars. In the center of town is a natural, sulfurous hot springs that alternates between men's and women's in two-hour intervals around the clock.
o A solo ocean canoe trip between Hoonah and Tenakee Springs (in and around Chichagof). I did about 50 miles in two days. The sobering part was waking up the second day and finding the canoe right-side up and full of water. After two decades of lake and river canoeing in northern Minnesota and interior Canada, I had neglected to take into account the tide. In freshwater canoeing, the waterline stays put overnight; in salt water it doesn't. Having gone to sleep at low tide, I was damn lucky that high tide was only enough to flip my canoe over and not float it away. Whew.
When it was time to head home I advertised in the paper for a ride to the Midwest and caught gold. A person answered that he was driving his pickup straight through to within 10 miles of my sister's place in the suburbs of Chicago, and would be happy with a co-driver who would spring for half the gas. Hot damn! We rendezvoused on the ferry to Prince Rupert and off we went. Stopping only for gas, food, and bathroom breaks we covered 3000 miles in 60 hours. While one drove, the other slept. Though the pickup was equipped with off-road suspension (read bumpy), at a certain point you get tired enough that you can sleep in any conditions.
After a much-needed night of sleep in a bed that wasn't moving, I took the train home. My enduring image of that first day back was getting reacquainted with my three-year-old son. We went for a walk around the farm together and I still have the photo of him buck naked, trying to smell the big face of an eastern drooping sunflower head, growing on the edge of the north garden.
All in all, it was a fine highlight to a perfect year.