Twenty-Four Terrible Little Hours in Paris

I am re-publishing a story I first published on my website in January 2007. Amid the stories emerging lately about harsh treatment of U.S. citizens and non-citizens entering the United States, I was reminded that any citizen anywhere can be singled out for racist and frightening treatment.

I have been profiled and ransacked entering Canada and the United States several times. Both sides used drug sniffing dogs, suspecting I had to be a drug smuggler. I had a nasty shakedown in Uganda I will never forget. Japanese customs agents did a chemical test on dirt in my luggage, smiling and suggesting it was dope. If it tested false positive (and that would have been a false positive, since I don’t do any drugs), I could have done prison time. Indonesia warns visitors they face the death penalty if they are caught smuggling drugs. I took this warning very seriously and avoided even making eye contact with Bali’s many street dope dealers in the Kuta Beach area. There were rumors many were police informers.

Indonesia makes clear to all visitors if they smuggle drugs, they likely will be killed by federal law.

Indonesia makes clear to all visitors if they smuggle drugs, they likely will be killed by federal law.

Here is my experience just before I boarded an Air France flight back to the United States in November 2006, coming from Italy and heading to my home in Anchorage, Alaska. What happened is an accurate record of the events and my efforts to seek an apology from those who treated me as a likely criminal.

When you travel and enter into a no-man’s land at the border, you have no power. No law protects you. You are ultimately at the whim of a state power and the people wearing uniforms. Men like the fictional and corrupt Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca are ready to seize those moments and exert power,  for pleasure and profit. Anyone who has traveled knows this. This is universal, not just an issue of one country or one culture.

© 2007, Rudy Owens. All rights reserved.

I am still trying to decide what is worse, French security guards or Disneyland Resort Paris. Both conjure up frightening images. Both overlapped painfully for me when my Air France flight from Rome arrived late at Charles de Gaulle International Airport on Nov. 7, 2006. What followed were some of the worst 24 hours of my life, rivaling my feverish malarial delirium in Africa and the tearing of my anterior cruciate ligament on my left knee for the second time.

When I finally boarded yet another late Air France plane to leave “Old Europe” on Nov. 8, 2006, I had just endured the must humiliating and degrading security shakedown of my life.

Claude Rains as the corrupt Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca. Remember, round up the usual suspects.

Anyone who has gone through this experience knows the feeling that comes when the uniformed power figure mocks the powerless. But the archetypal redneck American sheriff has nothing on the archetypal Frenchman in uniform, captured so brilliantly by Claude Rains as the corrupt French police chief, Capt. Louis Renault, in “Casablanca.” And, like so many ugly archetypes, often a dark, dirty, worm-infested truth lies at its core.

In less than one day, the Republic of France, Air France, and the personnel of Charles de Gaulle International Airport, in Paris, had temporarily turned me into an ardent supporter of the “Boycott France” movement. Though my initial sense of outrage has now passed, the residual sense of fear has not. It is a feeling that I think will always linger when I leave the country, when before I had only known curious excitement.

In truth, I could have forgiven France and Air France for my missed connection at Charles de Gaulle on Nov. 7, 2006, when this all began. I could even have forgiven the accommodations Air France gave me, if I just were allowed to leave France like any other transiting passenger the next day. But no, it was not going to be that easy.

After landing 90 minutes late from Rome, four hours of my life zipped away at Air France’s help desk, where personnel in smart navy blue uniforms speaking smart Parisian French rebooked me on a flight back to the United States the next day and told me I would spend the night at Hotel Cheyenne, courtesy of Air France.

I had no time to ask where this oddly and American-named accommodation was found. I thought, this could be OK; at least I could see a little of Paris, eat some French food, and walk around. I was told, hurry up, the bus was leaving – told in French, of course.

There were about 20 of us international traveling misfits from many countries who were collected on an unmarked bus at 3 p.m. and driven an hour away from de Gaulle, not to the City of Lights, but to Disney’s European bastard child, Disneyland Resort Paris, a.k.a, EuroDisney.

The bus unloaded us at Hotel Cheyenne, a complex adjacent to EuroDisney in the middle of absolutely nowhere. This sprawling corporate complex in the farm fields near WWI battlefields was designed to prey upon European and Japanese affections for American cultural kitsch.

As for Hotel Cheyenne, it was an entirely fake wild Western village, with poorly constructed, two-story wooden hotels named after real and imaginary icons of the old West: Sitting Bull, Wyatt Earp, and Billy the Kid. It resembled a French civic planner’s vision of a Hollywood Western movie set.

A fake western village in Disney Paris, the prelude to my nasty encounter a day later with Air France private security officials.

A fake western village in EuroDisney in Paris, the prelude to my nasty encounter a day later with Air France private security officials.

The check-in was a chaotic. Our bus arrived minutes after another busload of Japanese tourists. Unlike us stranded Air France passengers, these tourists were actually paying for this experience, rather than enduring it.

I was assigned a room in the Wyatt Earp building, handed meal coupons, and told an Air France shuttle bus would arrive in the morning to take us to the airport.

My room had a faulty heater and smelled of rancid cigarette smoke. I was told by the hotel’s staff I could not change rooms. They were booked full. Full? Who would actually pay to stay here? As it turns out, thousands and thousands of Europeans and Asian tourists do just that.

I walked around the hotel-cum-tourist village. There were fake corrals, fake wells, fake streets, a fake bank, and signs in English to make visitors feel as if they were in Tombstone, Arizona, or a corporation’s vision of what imaginary Tombstone may have looked like. The more I saw, the more I could not believe what was happening. Trapped in a faux Western village, in EuroDisney, miles from any real French town, or even a grocery store, or boulangerie, or anything remotely French.

To kill time, I took a 6 mile run. I did a quick spin first through EuroDisney. It resembled a 1970s-era Six Flags-type theme park in the American Midwest. Fast food restaurants and stores peddled Disney merchandize to mostly European visitors. Large block hotels ringed the amusement area, surrounding a lagoon. I then ran out along a canal to an open space by the road that punched through a farm field to a distant highway. A fog had fallen with darkness. As I headed back to the Wyatt Earp, I followed the grand boulevard, laid out like the entrance to Versailles. Except here the distant palace was that of the Magic Kingdom, shimmering in the mist like a bad dream.

Later that night, the hotel finally posted information that our morning bus would arrive at 7:30 a.m. Because half of the 20 passengers, such as myself, had early morning flights, we would need to book cabs. To our collective shock, we discovered cab fare to the airport was more than 100 Euros, or about $125. We also were told we would have to pick up the tab. This was yet another insult to injury heaped upon us by Air France. I thought conditions could not get worse, but the next day they got much, much worse.

I shared dinner in the fake Western hotel restaurant with Carlo, an Italian designer who, like me, had arrived late on the flight from Rome and missed a connection. Young waiters and cooks and cashiers tended to a crowd of more than 400 visitors. Staff wore cowboy shirts, red handkerchiefs around the necks, blue jeans, and boots. They also spoke French. Most were second-generation Arab and African immigrants. They were super friendly, and I enjoyed our small talk. Mainly, dinner in the fake Western cafeteria had an air of surrealism

Over salad and French wine, I told Carlo our situation was reminiscent of the 1960s TV show called “The Prisoner.” That drama concerned a retired British secret agent sent to a mysterious island prison with a cast of crazy characters, from which he could never escape. Carlo and I laughed repeatedly at our fate and the ridiculousness of our accommodations.

A Long Day Begins, Starting Very Badly at Charles de Gaulle Airport

At 6 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2006, a taxi van arrived. Two Italian citizens who spoke Arabic, the Italian designer, myself, and a fluent-English-speaking Albanian women heading for New York piled into the van before anyone else could commandeer it. We negotiated a fare of 125 Euros. Our driver told us that a French train strike had made Paris’ highways even more congested than normal and that we were wise to be taking our trip now, before rush hour. We arrived at Charles de Gaulle at 7 a.m., in a dark fog. I bid farewell to my Italian colleague, cashed in my remaining Euros at a criminally unfair rate at the airport’s official currency exchange, and made it through customs and security clearance unscathed.

At this time, Charles de Gaulle was undergoing a major overhaul. This repair followed the collapse of part of a new tube-like terminal building that killed four people on May 23, 2004. Because of the airport’s colossal and embarrassing engineering mishap, the airport authority had implemented a complex means of moving passengers to their gates for international flights. Passengers bypassed the terminal walkway and took a bus across the airport to a final waiting area. Here, other passengers from international flights around the world were unloaded, waiting for connections to North America. I was among hundreds on Nov. 8, 2006, waiting to board Air France Flight 084 from Paris to San Francisco, at gate E86.

Charles de Gaulle Airport (creative commons license from Flickr).

Charles de Gaulle Airport (creative commons license from Flickr).

Finally, after nearly 24 hours, I could leave this country. After being called by the agents, I and the hundreds of other passengers lined up by the door, from which we would pass through yet another layer of security and walk across the tarmac board the plane. (I later learned these guards in unmarked black uniforms with no insignia nor name badges were private security personnel hired by Air France.)

While standing in line, a young man dressed in a black coat, with no name badge, and sporting a goatee tapped me on the shoulder and indicated I was being pulled aside for secondary screening. He apparently was a security guard, but it was not clear for whom he worked at the time. He never told me who he was, who he worked for, or why I was being questioned.

I sighed, and he took offense. I immediately apologized in my imperfect French, saying, “Excuses-moi, monsieur.” He was extremely offended I made the greatest of all French language errors by using the informal “tu” rather than formal “vous” conjugation. He stopped, pointed at me with his forefinger, and replied, “No, monsieur, excusez-moi,” correcting my conjugation. I knew I was in for trouble.

What followed proved to be the most degrading treatment I have received from any security or quasi-security personnel anywhere in the world. It was more rude than the insulting interview in 1989 by a U.S. immigration official at St. Louis International Airport who likely thought I was a drug smuggler when I returned from nine months overseas; more hostile than the failed shakedown by crooked police officers at the bus station in Kampala, Uganda; more threatening than the hostile lecture I received from a Rwandan military officer after I had tried to take a picture of a tattered Rwandan flag atop a border outpost; and even more demeaning than the over-the-top interrogation, bomb check, triple questioning, and double bag-checking that I received from Israeli security personnel at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel. This topped them all.

Later I also learned that my 30-minute interrogation occurred just days before a court appearance by former Charles de Gaulle security personnel, most Muslim and of Arab ancestry, who were challenging the airport’s management, known as Aéroports de Paris (ADP). ADP officials had laid off 72 of these workers in 2005. The guard who questioned me was, by all appearances, of Arab ancestry.

I do not know if he was influenced by this touchy labor dispute or if he was taking out his personal, religious, or nationalist beliefs on me. Nor do I know if he was Muslim and perhaps upset by U.S. policies in the Mideast and Afghanistan. Nor do I know if he, as a French citizen, may not have liked U.S. citizens. Nor do I truly know if he had just broken up with his girlfriend, or was a nice guy having a bad day. How could I truly know what was happening in his mind.

I do know that his actions that morning had little to do with any true effort to screen against legitimate security threats or possible criminals. From where I stood, it appeared as if this young guard was carrying out a personal vendetta against a French-speaking – poor French speaking – U.S. citizen just trying to get home. He did a great job in the old human art of humiliation.

That my shakedown had clear racial undertones did not surprise me, given the sharp racism I had repeatedly experienced at a university in France from nonwhite, mostly Arab French residents in 1985. The racial riots that rocked France in November 2005, reportedly in response to France’s deep seated institutional racism against nonwhites, revealed little had changed in France in two decades – racism and resentment were still alive and well in France, among all its residents.

The race riots in France in 2005 that shook the country.

The race riots in France in 2005 that shook the country.

During the questioning and inspection of my belongings and person, I never raised my voice. Not once did I not do what he asked. Not once did I not answer a question, in French. Based on what followed, I have to assume the guard harbored a serious grudge, or just enjoyed the power that comes with a uniform. I treated the guard professionally, calling him “monsieur” and saying “bien sur” when he asked me to empty the contents of my wallet, money pouch, back pack, and suitcase.

When I could not understand some of his French, he threatened me that I would not get on my flight. I took his threat seriously. What’s more, I was not about lose another day of my life waiting for this flight, trapped again at EuroDisney. I apologized that Air France had made me miss my flight the day before and that I was tired and missing work. He merely said, “Calmez vous, monsieur, calmez vous.”

The interrogation proceeded much as if a slave owner would treat a slave, with orders barked for me to obey him like I was a dog. Out came my clothes from my suitcase on the table. Back in they went. My passport was checked twice. Two AAA batteries were confiscated for unknown reasons. He searched, and searched, and searched, but alas, he found no contraband. My medicinal shampoo did raise his eyebrows and curiosity though.

On several occasions, two female security guards gave me eye contact and revealed expressions of shock and disbelief. Numerous French passengers stared at me with similar looks of extreme concern. They did not gaze long as they scuttled out to the plane.

At the end of the screening, the guard also checked every part of my body with a pat down, including twice passing his hands intentionally on my genitalia, which was in view of both other passengers and other security personnel. Never in the United States or in any country I have visited on five continents have security personnel performed such an overt and sexually offensive act on my body in public. I personally believe the guard did this to me intentionally, to humiliate me and demonstrate his temporary and total power over my entire body, in public.

This is an old trick by the powerful over the powerless. It usually gives those in power a thrill, a sense of pleasure, and an adrenaline-type boost, according to social scientists who study such phenomena.

No one stepped in to stop the half-hour-long, fascist-like shakedown. In the end, the guard threatened me yet again, telling me to “calmez vous” once more. I smiled politely back. Before I was allowed to leave, he wrote down my name and passport number and promised me that he would write a report about me. I thanked him and wished him a good day.

Based on my observations, no other passenger allowed on this plane received this degree of screening. Clearly no French citizen received the screening I did – I know, as I was there watching all of the screenings right until I was allowed to leave. I was among the last passengers to board the plane.

I felt that my interests would best be served if I did not ask for this man’s name. So I left without registering a complaint. As I walked on the plane, I turned to the woman walking out with me. We both had endured secondary screenings.

She smiled when I said to her, “That was the most degrading treatment I have ever experienced from a security official. I can’t wait to get the hell out of this country.”

Later, on the flight, I asked the same woman if I had been acting inappropriately. Did I say anything wrong or do anything wrong. The woman, a British citizen and music composer, said, no, you were very respectful. She said it was probably a mistake that I spoke in French. She told me she acted as if she did not speak French, to avoid such problems, though she was fluent in the language. I asked her if I could get her name and contact information. She happily shared those details with me, saying it was important to speak up when security officials behave like the guard who interrogated me.

Later on the same flight, I also got the name of another witness, a public health specialist who worked in Morocco, but was a U.S. citizen. She also received secondary screening, which overlapped during my interrogation. Again, I asked her if I had been out of line, said anything wrong, or did anything inappropriate. She said, no, not to her knowledge. She thought that my faux-pax having “tu toi’d” the guard likely pissed him off. But she added the guard also used lines like “calmez vous, monsieur” with another passenger, a man who didn’t speak French, who couldn’t understand a word of what the guard was saying. It turns out that this other male passenger and myself were the only two men checked by the guard who treated me as if I were a potential drug dealer or international terrorist.

Seeking Restitution–Little Would Come

A few days after returning home, I vowed to do something about the experience I had just endured. In an era of real international terrorism, real terrorism paranoia by national governments, and numerous incidents of security personnel running roughshod over the rights of law-abiding, innocent travelers, I felt I could not let this incident just slip away. Many of my friends and family laughingly encouraged me to let it go. This laughter upset me and encouraged me even more.

I wrote detailed letters explaining my experience to writers and editors at Le Figaro, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, and the Christian Science Monitor. No one at these publications ever contacted me or acknowledged receiving my notes.

Had I been Arab or African-American or Latino and treated in this manner by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security personnel, would the media have cared? I do not know. Perhaps, if I had been handcuffed and escorted off a plane in the United States, it may have been a news story. But because I am white, and this happened in Paris, and I did get on the plane, perhaps my story is just too pedestrian for the interest of busy international news organizations.

I wrote a complaint letter to the Ombudsman for ADP. I explained to the ADP that I had written to the above-mentioned media and to my three members of Congress from Alaska, Sen. Ted Stevens, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and Rep. Don Young. I explained what had happened to me, described why it was offensive, and demanded an apology. I also copied the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., to attract ADP’s attention. It did.

I received an email within days from Mr. Robert Espérou, the Ombudsmen from ADP. I was informed that I would receive a formal reply, after a preliminary investigation, by ADP. I received that reply on Nov. 29, 2006, from René Brun, Managing Director, Charles de Gaulle Airport.

In his email to me, Mr. Brun wrote, “The check you speak of took place in the boarding lounge and was carried out by a contractor hired by the airline, in accordance with current rules.”

But, no apology was offered in this email. Mr. Brun did offer an explanation, and said that the matter was referred to Air France, as the man in question was not an airport employee. In short, what happened to me was not “his department,” which was the oldest and most reliable bureaucratic explanation ever used.

Mr. Brun’s email also said: “Despite the strict security rules that are mandatory in our country, we share with our airline partners the concern for respecting every person, without discrimination, whatever their origins or nationality. Although every precaution is taken regarding the agents in charge of security operations, unacceptable attitudes still emerge on occasion. I can assure you that we have set up every possible kind of safeguard to avoid this kind of incident.”

In my immediate reply to Mr. Brun, I noted that while I appreciated his response, I thought the email was a whitewash of the harassing and degrading treatment I experienced: “I found it interesting that the private security’s actions were described to be ‘in accordance with current rules.’ Also of note was the statement that ‘we have set up every possible kind of safeguard to avoid this kind of incident.’ Based on my experience, that pledge clearly needs to be realized through better training, better management of third-party security officials, and appropriate discipline when rights of innocent persons are violated.

“I am certain that a private guard instigating a hostile interview because a visitor such as myself speaks imperfect French, threatening visitors such as myself that I would not board an aircraft, and implementing a sexually degrading and humiliating search that including feeling my genitalia twice in public is hardly a professional standard or an example that you are meeting your standards. If these methods are acceptable under your rules, then it confirms my worst fears both about your facility as well as the security mentality filtering top down through French officialdom that is demonstrated against innocent visitors to your country.

“A sad result of your incident is that I, as an American, will never visit your country again, even though I studied there as a college student. A sad result is that I will encourage persons (who earn about $100,000 to $200,000 annually, and who represent the tourist profile you want come to France) to never visit your country because of the security protocols, overt racism, and sexually humiliating interrogations perpetrated by security officials at ports of exit and entry. There are so many other more friendly and inviting countries to visit on your continent. I know. I have visited many of them.”

A second email note to me from Mr. Brun arrived on Dec. 14, 2006. The email said, “I am deeply sorry for the annoyance you experienced at Paris – Charles de Gaulle.”

I felt obliged to inform Mr. Brun later in December that I had also been in communication with Rep. Young’s office twice. I thanked Mr. Brun for his reply and attention.

As it turns out, Rep. Young is one of a group of Republican lawmakers who has repeatedly voiced concern over the original U.S. Patriot Act, though he did not officially register a vote on the legislation in October 2001, in the heat of the post-9/11 lawmaking. He has been critical of the law’s provisions, such as library record snooping.

“I think the Patriot Act was not really thought out,” Young told the AP in 2003. “I’m very concerned that, in our desire for security and our enthusiasm for pursuing supposedly terrorists, that sometimes we might be on the verge of giving up the freedoms which we’re trying to protect.” Young went on to buck his party and vote to limit the scope of the Patriot Act when it came up for renewal, costing him a chairmanship on the Homeland Security Committee in the process. Rep. Young also has been given secondary screenings by U.S. Department of Homeland Security personnel, according to press reports, because his name is apparently on a watch list of suspected travelers.

So, perhaps his office felt strongly enough about my six-page documented letter concerning the incident to take action. I was informed by a Dec. 14, 2006 letter from Rep. Young’s office that he had sent a letter to the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., asking for a review and explanation.

Then, on Jan. 6, 2007, Rep. Young’s office sent me another letter, bringing closure to this little story of one traveler’s encounters with a sanctioned security posture that, as Bogie’s Rick Blaine of “Casablanca” might have noted, “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” The note from Rep. Young’s office shared with me included a copy of the letter sent to him by France’s Ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, on Dec. 28, 2006. Rep. Young, correctly in my assessment, said, “I realize Ambassador Levitte’s response does not offer much in the way of relief of your experience. I hope a call from the Ambassador’s office will alert the proper officials with Air France to review their screening procedures.”

This is the so-called apology signed by the French Ambassador to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), my then representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was better than nothing at all.

The note sent to Rep. Young from Ambassador Levitte, which followed my official protests to my member of Congress, was a spare document, less than 100 words and three paragraphs in length. However, it conveyed proper contrition appropriate for diplomatic correspondences for the sender and receiver, including an apology. Ambassador Levitte’s letter referred to my screening as “degrading treatment,” and he noted, “I am deeply sorry about this incident and will let Air France know of the complaint so that it can take steps to prevent such incidents from happening again.”

Ultimately, I do not know if any of my actions will change any policy or prevent private or national guards in France or elsewhere from pulling aside persons, threatening them, feeling them up, and treating them like criminals when they transit through airports. I for one refuse to accept such behavior quietly.

Passivity on a large scale by ordinary citizens is precisely the behavior that feeds the security mindset that can push any country down a fascist slope. I have seen more than 25 old Nazi concentration and death camps in Europe. That is not a state of mind or state of order I ever want to see take shape again, not in my country, not in any country.

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Memory’s slight of hand and time

When I was young, between my ninth and 12th years, I spent time in Huntington, West Virginia. It remains a poor place today, and it was a much, much poorer place back in the 1970s. I mean it was really dirt poor.

I had no choice in the matter. I had to go there. I had to visit my father. It was bad to awful, and sometimes downright terrible. But when you are young, you are flexible and stronger than you think. You actually can do impossible things, and still come out at the end of the tunnel with a smile.

I did. Despite the odds, I really did.

One of the memories from this dark time were days I and my sister were left entirely without supervision at this old-fashioned amusement park, just outside of Huntington, called Camden Park. It is an old-school park, with a haunted house, dodge-em bumper cars, a wooden roller coaster called the Big Dipper, and many other rides found in the non-franchise amusement parks that still labor on in an era of corporate amusement. (I always thought these rides would collapse because the place was so rickety.)

My father would drop me and my sister off in the morning, buy us an all-day ticket, and we’d have the Camden Park wrist band on our arms for the day. We were free to run around like bandits. I have no recollection what we ate, and no one at the park cared if two juveniles were without parental supervision for hours. Trust me, it was low-brow then, so no one really cared about such things.

I suppose this place had both a blessing and a curse. It gave me temporary freedom from time with my father. And then it forced the bitter reality to crash down when he came to pick us up, in ways I will never describe here.

I recently went back to Huntington to see what I could remember, four decades on. It is funny how memory works. It shuts down what you do not need to know. It leaves you with enough to keep you going. Yet I still remember this horrible clown and the ambivalence of both the freedom of escape and dreading of when that freedom always came to an end.

Most of all I am glad I do not remember much. That is the sleight of hand our minds can pull, because our minds are awfully powerful tools that get us where we need to go, when we need to get there.

My ode to my former home, Alaska

In August 2010, I packed up everything I owned and headed south to my new life, back in the Lower 48. Leaving the Great Land (Alaska) was among the most bittersweet things I have ever done. I cried. I sighed. I thanked the fates for giving me such amazing experiences and friendships.

Rudy Owens Leaving Alaska

Taken in August 2010

Because of circumstance or design, I followed the exact same path returning to my old home in Seattle that I took coming up. I drove the Alcan Highway from Anchorage to the turnoff to Haines. At Haines I took the Alaska Marine Highway ferry to Prince Rupert, B.C. After being humiliated by some overzealous Canadian border officials (that was funny, since I personally knew the head of that border post from my last job), I drove to Prince George, B.C., on Highway 16, Yellowhead Highway. From that junction, I took the Highway 97 again south, back to the Canada Highway 1, and turned off for the border at Sumas, Washington.

Every place I passed brought back memories of my trip up in August 2004, when this adventure in my life began. It was pouring rain as I rolled back into the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. And thus the new chapter in my life began, and I started a new journey.

I wrote this poem on the ferry ride. I still look at it from time to time when I want to connect with the feelings that only Alaska created in my heart. Thanks again, friend. I appreciate every moment we spent together.

Missing Alaska
Aug. 23, 2010

Waves of sadness, tears of sorrow
Emotions tapped, I fear tomorrow
Leaving Alaska, heart hangs low
A land of rawness, joy, and woe
Mountains strong and beauty sweeping
Oceans teaming, rivers streaming
The bears and wolves I loved the most
Cruelly hunted, I heard their ghosts
Ketchikan, Kodiak, Kaktovik
Kotzebue, Barrow, Anchorage
Skiing trails pure perfection
Running Arctic, path to heaven
Moose abounding, daily sitings
Ravens, eagles, seagulls fighting
Running races, feet alighting
Found my stride, crashed, time abiding
Then life aquatic, laps and polo
Westchester walks, though mostly solo
Missing dearly Chugach mountains
Always lovely, next to heaven
Sharp memories that still cut deep
I’ll guard them close, forever keep

A travel journal, from Tok to Whitehorse

Sunset on the Alaska Range

The Alaska Range in the evening

In the summer of 1992, I worked as a newspaper reporter in Sitka, Alaska. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Just before I began that seasonal position, I was able to tour south central Alaska, all by, yes, hitchhiking. It was perhaps safer back in the day, though there was always a risk that the driver was a character with a dark past and a possibly psychotic future. I did meet some strange and colorful folks on the trip I took. In less than two weeks, I hitched from Haines, to Valdez, to Homer, to Anchorage, to Denali, to Fairbanks, to Tok, to Whitehorse, and finally to Skagway, where I caught the ferry back to Sitka.

I copied down a section of my travel journal from that adventure. What transpired is, to my best ability, faithfully captured. In Alaska and the Yukon, you just can’t make some things up. The people and place are just beyond the imagination. I begin my journal entry just after I was dropped off about 30 miles from Fairbanks, under the arctic evening light, surrounded by nothing but mosquitos and open sky and empty road.

Thursday May 28, 1992:
I spent 45 minutes waiting. At around 10:45 p.m., I was still hoping for yet another ride, with residual evening light still around me. It came in a Grateful Dead branded, red VW van. I said hello to Scott, a 21-year-old drug user and snowboarder and his mellow dog Wilson. Scott was leaving Alaska. He had enough of the work on a boat. He did the black cod run and quit. He had hated boat work. He said he threw up all over the place.

Scott had a few stories and was easy with his smiles. His ratty, shoulder-length brown hair and stubble made him look a bit like a Dharma bum. He said two wanted criminals, who supposedly had murdered three teens, almost killed him a few days back. He talked about the suicide of his friend too.

We drove past Delta Junction and started looking for campsites. He said he had to get back to the border crossing at Sweet Grass, Mont., to make a court date. He had paid $700 in bail after the border guards took apart his van and found 65 hits of acid in a deck of cards that came with the bus when he bought it, he claimed. The whole experience bummed him out, he said. Now he was smoking the last of his Alaska Thunderfuck weed and cleaning the van up. I didn’t want to hit the border with him.

We found a spot and set his van up for crashing. He stretched a cot across the front cab, where I crashed. He had the bed. Outside the van we could hear the hum of thousands of mossies. Some picked us off inside the van too. I slept roughly, waking at 3 a.m. with a chill and scrunched in my tiny compartment.

Friday, May 29, 1992

Tok Welcome Sign

Tok, Alaska, welcome sign

I awoke exhausted at 6 a.m. Scott made us pancakes and eggs. Delicious stuff. We hit the road at 7 a.m. and rolled into Tok. We stopped at the North Star restaurant, where I made my first stop crossing the border two weeks earlier. The woman at the counter remembered me. The hot shower was a delight, followed by hot coffee.

Scott was cleaning his van. He told me he planned to get to Beaver Creek by the end of the day. I told him I had more miles to cover. He promised he would pick me up if he saw me.

I was on the road by 10:30 a.m. A sky blue V-8, Ford F-150 pickup pulled over. The driver, Bill, said he was a geologist and miner from Whitehorse and offered me a ride all the way to his home. Score!

First we bummed around town looking for maps where he wanted to stake claims. He showed me a pure gold nugget hanging from his neck. We hit the road an hour later, with that F-150 cruising at high speed. He loved to floor that puppy, even after the State Troopers pulled him over and gave him a $60 ticket.

Bill was about 35. He studied mining formally for three years at a university. He loved his work, staking claims and prospecting with his father. He smiled and laughed a lot. His Canadian “ehs” rolled frequently from his lips.

We were searched by the Canadian border service guards and let through. Once in the Yukon Territory, we stopped at Beaver Creek to collect some “shit” that he and his dad had accumulated. This included a snowmobile and buckets of other gear for his prospecting work.

Off we went again. We travelled through Burwash Creek, Gold Nugget Creek—places where he had prospected and worked, he said. If was as if the entire Elias mountain range was his own private domain. He knew it well.

We stopped again at a restaurant of cranky, large female friend named Rebecca. She had acne. We ate date cake and drank coffee. That’s all I ever seemed to do up here: eat sweet food and drink cups of coffee to stay warm and awake.

It was a beautiful drive on a lovely day. We stopped again to pick up even more stuff at an abandoned miner’s cabin. This time torch rods, wood, tools, and lanterns. Off we sped again.

We rolled into Haine’s junction at 6 p.m., just in time to meet his cousin at a local bar. There were about eight guys drinking beer and smoking. They ranged between 35 and 60. They looked a bit unkempt, but tough. Not the kind of guys to tussle with in a bar fight.

His cousin was drunk. He slurred out curses in his greetings. What happened next was pure Canada. Drinks and bullshit and bushels of “ehs.” We got out of there in 45 minutes, only to spend another 15 minutes at the mobile home of still another cousin. Finally we headed to Whitehorse.

Bill’s Ford was leaving smoke in the road as we sped way over the speeding limit. We passed through magnificent scenery of soft mountains and spruce forests. It reminded me a lot of Montana. Bill thought the same.

A scene near White Pass, Alaska

Near White Pass, the high country

Whitehorse, the Yukon capital, has about 90 percent of the territory’s people. It is a semi-industrial town, lying at the col of the valley. Bill took me to a spot by a campground on the highway out of town. There I waited 20 minutes. Right when I wanted to bag it, a green truck stopped. I met Rudy of the Yukon Security Forces.

I asked Rudy about his accent. He said he originally came from Holland. We started talking, and Rudy began with his army service stories, when he was stationed in Indonesia on Java and Sumatra between 1945 and 1949. He described his army days like a Vietnam vet. He loved it there, eating native food and re-enlisting to serve in a company where he was the only European.

He talked about handguns, which he didn’t carry. He said he’d carry one if he can use it. Shoot first, ask questions later. That was the way it worked in Indonesia, he said. He had orders to clear villages, to stop enemy columns from entering an area. It left him changed.

He said his first wife couldn’t understand what he felt. He said in the early 1960s he knew America could not win the Vietnam War. He told me that he is never going back, even though it was his favorite place in the world. Now he lives in his second favorite place, the Yukon.

I got off at the campgrounds, which were swarmed. A bunch of yahoos played loud music and drank beer. Typical Canadian. I got to sleep at midnight.

Trusted by a stranger, in a strange town, in the middle of the night

Tibetan Refugee Carpet Maker Photo

This contagiously positive carpet weaver is among the many Tibetan refugees I met in India at Dharamsala and Darjeeling, two hill stations.

Recently, I had two experiences over a couple of days during which I realized I was not trusted. It saddened me. Trust is almost always earned, but it also is very dependent on one’s own life’s story and circumstance, so some do not give it easily. Trust is one of the greatest treasures. It is a gift we give to young people to show we believe in them. It is also something that one has to demonstrate in life, and not be afraid of the consequences.

My experiences made me think of times I relied on blind trust. One of the most vulnerable moments I had traveling in India in 1989 took place in the middle of a late November night, in Dharamsala, the Indian hill town that is also refuge to the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan refugees. I had arrived very late at the lower city of McLeod Ganj after 12 hours of bus rides. As there were no taxis, I walked up the hill, in the dark, having no reservations. It was 1:45 a.m. when I finally arrived sweaty on the cold hill city, but found all the hotels were shuttered. It was not particularly safe to be on the streets, and I had to find shelter.

So, I visited a tea stall restaurant, owned by a Tibetan man in his 50s. He was awake, making bread and cooking. I motioned I needed a place to sleep in his restaurant. I was likely dirty, a bit smelly, carrying a big backpack, and not the most welcoming of sights. He did not know me. Here’s what I wrote in my journal: “Imagine this. A total stranger appears at his doorstep at 2 a.m. and he lets him in to sleep at no cost. I pulled out my sleeping bag and crashed for 4.5 hours. I woke up to the sounds of my friendly patron saint bustling in the kitchen. I wonder if he sleeps. He smiled at me and gave me a cup of tea.”

A memory from the end of the earth, in Ushuaia, Argentina

Chilean Sailors

Sailors on the vessel Navarino in the Beagle Channel, in February 1996.

On Feb. 7, 1996, I arrived at the city at the edge of the world, the coastal city of Ushuaia, Argentina. I came here first by cargo container to Puerto Williams, Chile, from Punta Arenas, Chile. I secured a passage on the cargo vessel Navarino. From Puerto Williams I literally hitched a ride on a sailboat owned by a transplanted French sailor and his wife, who gave me and my traveling companion a lift across the Beagle Channel from Chile to Argentina, at Ushuaia.

Here is what I wrote in my journal abut the lovely morning, which really was an all-night adventure: “I remember most the cold breeze, the clouds lit by the moon, and the sights of Ushuaia, glowing in the distance as we approached. I got about 1.5 hours of sleep until I woke up again at 6:30, just as we were pulling into the harbor. It was a beautiful morning with a frontal system lit a milky red. The town was set against a backdrop of severe mountains.”

That was one of the most lovely days of my life. I can still remember the smells, the cold air, the feeling of wonder.