The Time Traveller
I met Gene early that summer of '90, a little over a year after that drunk bastard Hazelwood grounded the Exxon Valdez in the middle of Prince William Sound. The rocks tore the ship open like a tin can, spilling it's cargo of noxious black crude into the steel grey waters, covering everything within miles in a stinking blanket of death.
I had a guaranteed job that summer in Cordova, a small fishing town on the east side of the entrance to the sound. My best friend Lorne and I overloaded our backpacks in Sacramento and set off to Cordova to work in the Copper River Cannery, heavy with visions of the large sums of money we would make. We arrived in Cordova by ferryboat from Whittier through the port of Valdez, watching the Columbia glacier calving on our way by, loosing blue skyscrapers of ice to the relentless pounding of the waves. We set up our tents on the outskirts of town on Fleming Creek at the base Mt Eyak, still partially covered in snow in late June.
The first thing you notice once you’re off the water in Alaska in summer is the incessant whine of mosquitos. But these are no ordinary mosquitos- they are huge. In fact they’re probably more closely related to some tiny vampiric birds than to any actual insect. Between these horrible creatures and the equally fierce but aptly named no see ums, Alaska makes sure you are never bored. Lorne and I set up our gear in the middle of a dark spruce forest and walked the mile or two down the gravel road and into town to introduce ourselves to the cannery manager and figure out our work schedules. But that drunk bastard Hazelwood's piss-poor navigation skills destroyed the salmon fishing that summer; our guaranteed jobs had vanished as quickly as the whiskey from his bottle.
We took it in stride, Lorne and I, spending our days exploring the forest and the town, marveling in it’s strange culture. Cordova still had a bit of the frontier ethic in the early 1990’s. There was a palpable anxiety about the cancelled salmon harvest- an anxiety that barely concealed a simmering threat of violence. Desperate people make crazy-ass decisions. One night in a camp site on top of the hill above the town, epithets were hurled, followed briefly by the staccato of handguns; dead drunks in tents. The tentacles of the Exxon Valdez reached deeper into the fabric of society than the newspapers understood, or were willing to admit.
But Gene was the yin to this yang. I met him one afternoon walking in the rainforest at the base of the mountain. Lorne had gone into town to try to get a job at the local pizza place, his curly blonde hair had already faded into the distance when I turned off the road and into the forest. I walked about a mile into the thick wet green of the Alaskan bush, alone for the first time in a long while. As I negotiated a narrow bend in the path, we almost ran into one another. He was naked on top, wearing an ancient orange backpack, cutoff jeans, knee-high socks and Huarache sandals. But to be honest, I smelled Gene long before I met him on the trail. He wore his vinegary animal/smoke fragrance like a cloak, the complexity of the odors perhaps only achieved in our distant human past. I was amazed that such a smell could come from a fellow human being, but I’m also pretty sure that he was completely unaware of his miasma. We briefly exchanged pleasantries and before long I found myself sitting on a large granite stone at the entrance of his cave at the base of the mountain. I looked into his steel grey eyes as I spoke with him.
“What’s so heavy in that backpack Gene?” I asked him as he removed his pack with obvious effort.
“Rocks” He smiled, and said this to me as if saying “what else would it be.”
“Huh.” I became even more curious about Gene. “Why?” I asked.
“To stay in shape. I am in the middle of a grand anthropological experiment. I abandoned my friends and family in Seattle, and moved here to see if it is still possible to live like we used to. Like humans are meant to live, you know.”
He continued to move about his camp, arms flailing in the air as he told me about his research.
“I’m on a journey back 10,000 years!” He explained with an infectious gleam in his eye.
“Well...that’s cool.” I replied, attempting to make sense of what he was telling me. I was also, naturally, trying to figure out whether he was a genius or a merely a madman.
We sat together at his fire, a fire he made the old way, with bow and drill. He was a wiry man, medium height and covered with a dizzying array of tightly bound muscles the likes of which I had never seen. His head was covered with obviously home-cut short grey hair though I don’t think he used a razor by the look of it, I think he might have used a burning stick to cut it. His face, brown with the sun, was a mass of wrinkles and dirt- so much so that I hesitate to even guess at his age. After a bit more conversation, I offered the use of my solar shower, trying not to be obvious, but he shrugged it off,
“You know, showers are a bourgeois affectation” he laughed. I could not help but like him.
Gene was clearly on a path of his own making. He shunned all help, he refused all handouts. He made, found, or repurposed all he needed, which by his spartan existence, wasn’t much. We talked long into the night about Herodotus, and Virgil, about heroes and anthropology, about Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, about the oil spill and how it’s destroying the community of Cordova and the ecology of the Sound. He was perhaps the most well-read man I have ever met in my entire life. Yet the strange dichotomy of meeting Gene and his neo-cro-magnon existence in the middle of one of the greatest oil spills in history was not lost on me. A way of being that he had rejected as flawed was now tearing apart the people in the town a couple of miles away from his cave. It had already effected me in a rather shitty way by keeping me from being employed and making me waste the money I spent to get here. But aside from marginally effecting his subsistence fishing, he remained almost completely untouched by the disaster. He had no use for oil or for electricity or for automobiles. He neither used nor needed any form of currency, yet appeared not only without want, but in fact seemed fundamentally wealthy.
I went to talk with Gene everyday for the month that Lorne and I stayed at the base of Mt Eyak. Gene was for me the closest that I have ever gotten to conversing with a Taoist hermit. The Chinese call these kind of people Xian, or an enlightened mountain recluse. He certainly lived wu-wei on the side of the mountain, at peace with himself and the world while those around him tore themselves apart with anxiety and violence because some drunk dumb-ass crashed his boat on the rocks.