in the '90's...
......From Cordova to the Isle of Belle's.. on the solo road
I asked my Anchorage promoter to find a 'back-up' for an early '90's gig, but one that I could not drive to. To go to a little frontier town that you actually 'could not get there from here' with a banjo on my knee was a longtime fantasy. He called back with an offer from Cordova, serviced by a couple of daily flights and a semi-weekly ferry - the only way to get there, I accepted the foray to this wilderness fishing village - a new land to go and make my noise.
Libby and Gary Graham, our hosts (two of the finest people I have ever met) met us at the Cordova airstrip. I had Marilyn, her son Richi, and four of my boys on this trip (Jonathan, Ryan, Nathan, Andrew). Gary handed me his Suburban keys and said “meet you at the house.. It's the brown one a couple of streets up on the right side when you get to town”. I knew I was in a different place when he turned the question of where's the house key over to Libby, to which she replied “Well.. let's see..you gave it to me.. I had it when we moved in.. when was that? Umm.. 18 years ago.. But haven't seen it since.” a different part of the world. It was reminiscent of what my mom had told me what was the one good part of The Depression - no one locked up.
Later in the week we'd hear about 'no drive-by shootings.. nothing to drive by', and how, when they went in to the grocery store in the winter, everyone would leave their cars running to keep them warm.. Who'd steal a car in a place with only 50 miles of road?
My call to this wild area brought us to The Powderhouse, a scene lost in time that felt like at least 3 pages of a Jack London novel. Crammed full of fishermen, bush pilots, school teachers, canning factory people, mechanics, and others fed up with the lower 48, they made up an anxious audience looking for something from out of town, as most people in Cordova were at sometime in their foggy past. Like the old days in the good ways - Libby taking ticket money and cooking shrimp, Gary tending bar and taking tickets… Marilyn shucking shrimp in the kitchen and selling tapes and CDs between sets.. to an age range of 8-80 filling up the room. I was their king of shobiz, the biggest act to hit town!
After a couple of nights playing, we prepared for unforgettable adventures, thanks to our wonderful hosts: overnights on their two 45' fishing boats. Then the pontoon plane rides, and Zodiak (rubber raft with motor) running.. the 5 boys ate it all up.
Besides being restaurateurs, Gary and Libby both were fishermen, as their boats were to catch the fishing season's money flow, and Gary also doubled.. or tripled…as a charter bush pilot. The first hour out away from the dock we counted 30 Killer Whales passing us, a complete family that included grandchildren as described by Libby. Two boats and about 7 kids and 4 adults.. It was an Alaskan version of taking a couple of motor homes up to the park, only this park started about six feet after leaving the little town's boundary, and seemed infinite.
Glaciers and blue skies, dozens of Bald Eagles and otters, moose and salmon, whales and 90 lb. Halibut catches, Alaska is a wonderful wilderness to run around in, water so clear it hurt to look in to it. After a couple boat overnights and back to town, the suggestion to head out to Belle's was intriguing, as it seemed good to search out even a more wilderness adventure.
We'd met Belle at the Powderhouse, and her invitation became more inviting as our Cordova days dwindled. Leaving our town hosts behind, we headed out one crispy morning on two small motorboats, a 30 minute full-throttle run following Belle's lead to her corner of the wilds.
As the motors droned on in harmony breaking the hoar frost's silence, it was easily noticed that there were not any signs of humans on the shore passing by. Belle's cove finally showed up, like it was dropped out of some fairy tale itself.. in a good way. We docked our boats for two nights in their wilderness to stay at what looked as if it were built by the Swiss - as in Family Robinson - made from a combination of lumber, Lincoln logs, plywood and giant Legos. It was the kind of place I would have built, but then.. I can't hang a pre-hung door. I felt at home for a while.
At the next morning's woodstove breakfast it sunk in that out here things were very different. As the phone began to ring, Belle's husband lazily chatted away the dawn fog telling their home's history over his steaming coffee. While his historical monologue pleasantly droned, it was soon accompanied by their phone bell's pealing punctuations, with me apparently the only one hearing its demand for attention. Ring ring, chat chat, ring ring.. coming from a big black toaster sized radio phone (no lines could run out this far), with a toggle switch on the side. With him ignoring the seemingly incessant caller, I commented, “Pete, I don't mind if you get that.. go ahead and I'll wait..” as I had musician's phone paranoia: get EVERY call .. it might be someone wanting to hire you. I tried to give my ever cordial host a polite exit for the phone to be picked up.
He turned and stared at it with an Oliver Hardy burn stare a few seconds. It rang again. He stared. It rang again. Then he reached as quickly as Zorro and threw the side switch, killing it mid-ring, commenting “that damn thing does that every time I turn it on!” - and picked up his place in the story, about all the bird watchers that visit them every summer.
After breakfast, and needing to heed to nature's call, another memory of Belle's was to be forever etched in my mind. The indoor outhouse, conveniently in the house, had a surprise under the commode lid that took me … by surprise: it was full of leaves, almost to the brim. I thought one of my kids had made a mistake and inexplicably stuffed it with leaves. And, without a visible handle to flush it, I went to ask Belle's what to do.
“Well, it's a compost gathering 'machine' - you just 'do your business', and then cover it up with the leaves from the basket next to the paper.. lay a few over everything.. that's all… nothing to flush.” Uh huh.
That's great, I thought.. . “But then what?” How long does that pile up? I had to ask…
“In the winter, after those leaves and all have dried out, we burn it.. use it like little logs for firewood.. burns great!” she said. Well.. for me, this just froze everything up.. locked up tight. I couldn't get out of my mind that some snowy mid-winter cold evening, Belle's husband would say “hey, Belle.. go get a few more turds to throw on the fire.. Grab some from that pile when John and the boys were here.. they burn good.”
I did what business I could, but didn't leave anything that could burn.