"DIVINE WILDERNESS" story
My family moved to Alaska in 1959, recently after it became the United States 49th state. We lived there for five years and I could tell you many stories about the wilderness there. One of my favorite experiences was when I was about 13 years old. My dad was in the Air Force and we lived on Eielson Air Force Base, 50 miles South of Fairbanks. My girlfriend‘s dad was also stationed there in the military. Sgt. Yopkee had just learned he was being transferred to Elmendorf Air Force Base at Anchorage, Alaska. School had just dismissed for the summer, so Sharon asked her parents if I could move with them and spend the summer until school resumed in the fall. My parents said yes, so I gave up my newspaper route and off we went to make memories.
When summer was over, the question arose of how I would return to Fairbanks. I reminisced of the wonderful summer, not realizing more memories were around the corner, with a once in a lifetime trip 356 miles on the steam engine railroad train. Now one can take the The Alaska Railroad through Denali National Park and possibly see Mt. McKinley, if it is not covered with clouds. It is much faster, too, taking about 12 hours. In the early 60s, it took almost a full 24 hours. Mrs. Yopkee had packed a great sack lunch for me. I was alone and thrilled for the adventure ahead. If you want to know what it was like for me, watch an old serial western such as ‘The Virginian’ starring James Drury. The clickity-clack of the iron wheels and the wooden floors, creaking as I walked to the privacy closet are still vivid memories.
The train was not full, by any means. However, most of the occupants were hunters and fishermen. They waited patiently for many hours as the train traveled into the forest. Then it started slowing down and I wondered why. Desperately leaning out the window, I anticipated a glimpse of what was preventing the train from continuing. It rounded a corner and I say a man standing a few feet from the tracks. He was laiden with heavy packs and there was a rifle flung over his shoulder. The train eventually stopped and the man embarked, laid his packs on a booth seat, and sat down across from it. He stood his rifle up, butt first between his knees and grasped the barrel with his rugged hands. In a very short time, his head slumped over against the partially open window, and he was quickly asleep. I asked the conductor what just happened. He was dressed in the typical black uniform and black hat, very easy to spot. He said, “Well, Miss. This train is the only transportation for hundreds of miles, no roads you know. To get back into the places where they want to hunt and fish, they ride from the city, then they pull the cord and the train drops them off. He pointed to the break cord hanging above the row of windows. To be picked up, they merely find a spot along the tracks visible in a clearing so the engineer can pick them up.” he continued. “This is a batch of narrow-minded chaps, because many cannot find their way back to the train tracks. No one has any idea how many are lost forever or eaten by a bear. But wild men are wild men, no matter the generation and these are in the right place to be happy, the wilderness.”
I enjoyed a bologna and cheese sandwich as I thought. What would drive a man to do something like this. Whatever it was, he must need something he couldn’t find in the city, have a great trust and fearless courage. I was sure even at an early age that adventures alone with God make a person stronger.
"Divine Wilderness" is a 14″ x 18″ (35.56 x 45.72 cm) oil painting on canvas representing this memory.