I wrote this column the Fourth of July 2002, the year after 9/11. It was published in Alaska magazine in September 2002, is collected with all my other columns and features in an e-book, Alaska Traveler: Dispatches from Alaska’s Frontier, and is now available in audio.
I’ve been thinking a lot about freedom of late, particularly when I went home this year for the Fourth of July. Home is Seldovia, a village of about 500 people on the southern shore of Kachemak Bay, a place of heart-stopping beauty built on the precarious edge of a deep blue fjord at the foot of precipitous green mountains. You can’t drive to Seldovia, you have to fly or take a boat. Aleuts lived there first, and then came the Whites, and after them the Filipinos, and now we’re all mixed up together in a wonderful jumble I call family.
I went home because my friend Kathy, born Quijance and now Gottlieb, had decided it was time for a family reunion, and it had to be in Seldovia, and it had to be on the Fourth of July. The Fourth of July is Seldovia’s biggest day, everyone comes home and so do a whole bunch of perfect strangers from all over Alaska and even Outside. The airport has planes parked wingtip to wingtip and boats, power and sail, pleasure and fishing crowd the small boat harbor. The day is small-town America made flesh, with a parade and the dead fish pass and chainsaw carving and the Old Crab Auction. Don’t ask, okay? It’s Seldovia, it’s the Fourth, and we don’t give a damn how you do it anywhere else.
Kathy’s daughter Tanya and family were coming from Knoxville, daughter Monica and family from Tucson, daughters Marie and Esther and families from Anchorage, son Tim from Anchorage, me from Anchorage. Husband Kevin and Kevin’s brother Jordan from Seattle would be there, and daughter Angel and her family live there. “You have to make Auntie Dana’s famous spaghetti,” Kathy told me.
“For how many?” I said.
The next voice I heard was Marie’s. “Mom said I have to hold the phone until you stop screaming.”
So I packed a very large cooler and drove the 220 miles from Anchorage to Homer to catch Mako’s Water Taxi to Seldovia, and somewhere along that drive I began to think about freedom.
I’ll tell you what I think freedom is.
Freedom is a ride in a large open skiff across Kachemak Bay over water whipped into four-foot swells by a 25-knot wind straight out of the south. Freedom is Sila the boatman, he of the bleached blonde buzz cut and the great grin, skinnying out of a motheaten sweatshirt to reveal a gaily flowered aloha shirt once we’re across, firing up an unfiltered Camel and sitting down on an overturned five-gallon bucket for the rest of the journey.
Freedom is a long dusty drive from the dock at Jakalof into Seldovia, the mayor’s husband at the wheel. Freedom is family waiting with open arms and newborn babies and upchucking toddlers, because Monica’s Jessica threw up on the man sitting in front of her on the plane and promptly infected everyone upon arrival. Freedom is the drool-y, beaming smile on the seventh-month old face of Tanya’s Spencer. Freedom is Angel’s newborn Cameron fitting exactly between my elbow and palm. Freedom is Kathy taking a nap the instant I get there because she’s been up all night with the upchuckers. Freedom is going to the store for everything anti-viral and over-the-counter the law allows.
Freedom is 36 people crowding serially into the kitchen while dinner is cooking to say, “Gosh, that smells good! When’s it going to be ready? I’m starving! Is it done yet? Can we eat yet? I’m hungry, starving, do I have to stay starved! Is there anything else to eat while we’re waiting?” Freedom is coercing Jordan into being sous-chef. Freedom is Kevin staying out of sight so he won’t be put to work. Freedom is loading plates full of spaghetti and sauce and garlic bread, and the kids, instigated by Kathy, doing their “Thank you, Auntie Dana!” routine, thereby leading a whole new generation into bad ways.
Freedom is a long evening ride on Kevin’s cherry red four-wheeler, Kathy driving and me clutching on behind all the way up the bay to Harmony Point, out to the airport, to the Inside Beach, also known as Linder’s Beach although no one knows who Linder was and soon to be known as Grandma’s Beach anyway because Kevin just bought the property above most of it for Kathy. Freedom is Kevin’s ability to buy that beach so he can give it to the woman he loves.
Freedom is espresso the next morning at the Tidal Pool Café. Freedom is the Fourth of July parade with pretty much everyone in town marching or biking or riding in it, but that’s okay, because there are about 1,200 visitors lining the street to watch. Freedom is the float featuring two infants, Landon Carlough and Gavin Elvsaas, running for the presidential ticket on a platform of “No More Naps!” Freedom is the Gruber Girls (any relation to Johnny, basketball star of my youth?) singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as far away from the microphone as they can get. Freedom is the red, white and blue on every hat, T-shirt, shoe and bicycle spoke. Freedom is Tim taking a back flip off the side of his canoe in the canoe jousting contest. Freedom is Marie’s thirteen year-old Sean leaning against my back for a rest stop in the middle of it all.
Freedom is the whole family at the Outside Beach that evening, roasting hot dogs and hamburgers, and Angel’s husband Michael broiling steaks, heating and serving baked beans in the can. Freedom is Marie’s husband Shon and Esther’s friend Demetri unloading $1,000 worth of fireworks. Freedom is Shon saying we’re going to have to wait until it’s dark to shoot them off, and my reply, “So basically we’re going to be here until September.” Freedom is the comforting bulk of Seldovia’s police chief, Andy Anderson, pretending he doesn’t see a sky filled with illegal starbursts of every size and color reflected in the silvery mirror of Kachemak Bay beneath.
Freedom is flying out of Seldovia on Smokey Bay Air on a sunny morning after, next to Esther with week-old Dylan in her arms, and in Homer seeing her safely onto the Frontier flight to Anchorage.
Freedom is a stop for wildflowers at Fritz Creek Gardens out East End Road, and superb coffee and a foccacia sandwich and a killer brownie at Two Sisters Bakery, and a fill up at the Texaco station at the top of the hill on the way out of town, my last look at the Kachemak on this trip. Freedom is seeing the 65 MPH sign on the Seward Highway, setting the cruise control at 72, and cranking John Hiatt up to nine on the CD player.
Freedom is stopping at Summit Lake Lodge for a scoop of espresso almond fudge ice cream. Freedom is the RV up ahead slowing me down to 50 MPH. Freedom is the always staggering beauty of Turnagain Pass. Freedom is stopping for coffee and a visit to the ladies’ room at the Bakery at the Girdwood turnoff, because freedom is also the Alaska state legislature not allocating funds for one decent public toilet on the entire stretch of road from Homer to Anchorage.
Freedom is rolling into my driveway with a catch in my throat, because who knows when I’ll see Tanya and Monica and their children again, who knows when we will all be together again, because nothing in this world is certain, and everything seems a lot less certain now than it ever has before.
Freedom is a bed in a house I own, and a soft pillow against my cheek, and good memories, and sweet sleep at journey’s end.
Let freedom ring.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.