I still struggle to find kindred spirits in Decatur, but I’m trying.
Its been a strange and strangely wonderful past few weeks.
TIME FOR A STORY.
Last year this time, my beloved cousin-the-travel-writer died. Here is the backstory. Watch his Ted Talk. It could change your life.
Ed had asked his best friend and honorary sister, Amanda, to inter his ashes in Alaska’s Stikine River. He wanted his friend Captain Brenda to pilot her boat, “because it has flames painted on the side.”
I met Amanda several times, usually when she and Ed were on their way someplace exotic. They occasionally stayed at my home between airports. They are as close as siblings and for last few years of Ed’s life, she was his rock. She’s a truly heroic and loving person.
A year ago, when Ed died, Amanda and I cleaned out his house in Bellingham Washington and tied up his estate. In addition to the sorrow of Ed’s death, we were both juggling the flaming chain saws of life’s cluster fucks. We had urgent elsewhere to be immediately after returning the U Haul. We agreed to meet on the one-year anniversary of Ed’s death to inter his ashes.
Mid June I flew from Atlanta to Seattle and met up with Amanda. We took the Alaskan ferry from Bellingham Washington to Wrangell Alaska. I had reserved a cabin, so Imagine My Delight when a nice woman from Alaskaferry.com called me the day before I left the east coast to explain that the Columbia was dry-docked so I’d be traveling on a different boat.
“Ok,” I said, “why do I care?” She earnestly explained that I’d been bumped from a cabin. Happily, said she, I could bring a sleeping bag and camp on the top level of the ferry, in the solarium. I texted this disturbing information to Amanda. She assured me that it would be beautiful, covered on three sides with one side open to the Inside Passage. Heat lamps hung from the ceiling. The trip to Alaska would be panorama of stunning.
In addition, there were “fully reclining lounge chairs & I’ll lend you a sleeping bag.” Being a dumbass, I envisioned the kind of loungers used in hospitals to sleep in the room with the patient. I knew it was Ed’s favorite way to ferry, so maybe this was the universe telling me something.
Apparently getting a good spot in the solarium was THUNDER DOME, so Amanda, being 20 years younger than me, made the sprint. I followed with my suitcase. My first glimpse was quite the expectation adjustment for me.
This is Camp Ed.
I’m the blue sleeping bag. I had no idea I’d be spending two nights on a swimming pool worthy plastic recliner. Amanda said my face was truly amazing as understand dawned. Luckily, we’d packed about $100 of epic snacks BUT we thought we could buy booze on the boat. No we could not. I’d like to state for the record: I did not bitch (the no wine thing was last straw-y), but it took a heroic effort. Luckily they had good coffee.
Once we got our recliners I went back down to the car deck to haul the suitcase housing my cousins cremated remains to our camp. This led to a very funny conversation with a rather alarmed young man and myself. He found me wandering around the car deck, which was apparently verboten, but what did I know?
“Um, Ma’am, can I help you?” Ferry guy was young and really cute. I was lost and teary. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was a security breach. Time on the car deck was tightly regulated.
“I’m looking for the suitcase that has my cousins cremated remains. He wouldn’t like being down here. I really don’t want to lose the suitcase.” Ferry guy looked at me like I had nine heads. Luckily, he was originally from Maryland, so we talked hometown until he was convinced I wasn’t batshit. I guess he decided I wasn’t a credible threat. I got Ed off the luggage cart and ferry guy didn’t lock me up.
The views were epic.
The first night the ferry forgot to turn on the heat lamps. I peed ice cubes. The Ship’s Purser and I had such an amicable discussion! He felt it was too much trouble to call the engineer because he was busy. I disagreed about his priorities. Finally he said, “Ok, Ok, I’ll get to it” and shut his office door in my face. I opened it back up and asked “Do you really think this door is going to keep me from harassing you until I get heat?” The engineer and his assistant were on deck in minutes and Amanda reported that they were discussing how “riled up” the Purser was.
Yes Folks, I‘ve still got the ability to be incredibly annoying. Don’t screw with me, esp when I’ve slept on a cold plastic lawn chair.
Heat lamps made the next night warmer, but we’d traveled a long way from Seattle. I wore my clothes over my pjs and slept in my coat. The sleeping bag was very narrow, so I didn’t have to worry about moving my legs. “Slimming” I said to Amanda as I shimmied in. I learned the trick to zipping up over my head. When I was a kid, I thought camping in the rain was fun. I’m old now. The ferry had its charms, but once was enough. You’re welcome Ed.
While we were sitting on our recliners, eating snacks and watching the stunning scenery drift by Amanda and I went through the letters, notes and other remberences from Ed’s friends. We really laughed at one card that contained a little bottle of rum. Apparently this person and Ed had traveled through Jamaica together. They discovered they both loved zombie movies. (Its a family trait.) The idea was to pour a little of the rum on the ashes to make sure Ed didn’t come back as a Jamaican zombie. This got me thinking flammable liquids, and how Ed wanted his last journey to be on Brenda’s boat because “it had flames painted on the side.”
I was lying there, immobile in my mummy sleeping bag, watching the moon pass overhead. I thought about how brave Ed was. In spite of several debilitating illnesses, he lived his life traveling the world and being stunned by its wonders. He shared his best self by writing beautifully about his experiences. I decided that he deserved no less than a true Viking funeral.
Amanda had barely opened her eyes that first morning when I handed her a cup of coffee and said, “I want Ed to have full on Viking funeral. I’m talking FLAMES.”
Amanda said she had to drink coffee before she’d be prepared to “discuss the crazy.”
So we drank coffee and planned: Would Captain Brenda be willing? Yes, we thought so. What would we float the remains on? I thought that Tom (he was flying from Atlanta to Wrangell to meet us later in the week) would help build a raft of some sort. It should be noted: the phone conversation between Tom and I was one for the ages. I found the right guy 37 years ago.
Amanda and I had a hilarious discussion on rum vs. lighter fluid. We decided to use both. Zombie protection and big flames - win-win.
It took us a while to realize that our fellow solarium travelers were eavesdropping with a vengeance. This led to some pretty funny looks and several (funny and/or horrified) conversations, esp when they realized that the suitcase next to me “contained the body.”
In spite of the nonsense, we took the time to see whales, dolphins and enough eagles to be eh- whatever. The Inside Passage to Alaska is stunning. It’s all skies, clouds, mountains and trees right into the water.
By the time we lumbered off the ferry in Wrangell, we’d been offered sincere good wishes and a few side eyes. The couple that helped us with our luggage (Amanda and I each had a suitcase. We had a little roller suitcase stuffed with snacks and a suitcase of Ed. It was ridiculous) hugged us. They were sailing a 17ft ship from Wrangell to Bellingham, so who’s crazier?
Tom came in a day after we docked in Wrangell. We hiked to Petroglyph Beach. It was beautiful.
It also had driftwood. We each picked two 8 ft pieces and lugged them back to our hotel. Tom noticed looks from motorists as we were trudging and lugging. He said, “we look crazy.” “Yup,” I told him, “and they have no idea what we’re up to.” We stashed the driftwood in our hotel room and the three of us really enjoyed our wine that night.
Next day, Amanda had luck of someone canceling a seat on Capt Brenda’s expedition, so she went off to look at glaciers. Capt Brenda loaned us a pickup truck, so we drove the 18 paved miles of Wrangell Island uphill to truly stunning views. It was our 32nd wedding anniversary. We really had fun.
True to form, Tom did his best to lose the truck keys TWICE. What a special marriage enhancing moment, standing on a mountain with no cellphone reception, bears in the woods and Tom scrambling under the truck looking for the keys. How long would it take for someone to find us? Would I murder him? I could not stop laughing.
On the way back, we turned off on a little road that said “Patti’s Lake.” It was lovely.
It was also the perfect spot to build a raft.
We broke the driftwood into regular lengths, tied it together with twine and had a very silly discussion about the fact that yes, the raft currently could support half a log, but I wanted it to support a big rock. I insisted on going back to Petroglyph beach for more driftwood. By then it was hosing rain. Tom smugly cited engineering, so I muttered at Ed the whole trail down and came back lugging more driftwood.
Interment day was cold and rainy. Capt Brenda was as kind as could be. She told me that she and Ed had discussed it; she knew some of his favorite places. We set off down the Stikine River. The Stikine is, to quote Ed’s travel guide Inside Passage, “huge, remote, and the last great undammed river on the continent.” It’s the color of chocolate milk, mineral rich, swift and beautiful. To travel on the river was a stunning privilege.
When we got to the glacier and the lake with the icebergs floating around, we all agreed that we had found Ed’s place.
Ed’s remains were about the size and shape of a pillow. We lashed him onto the raft poured the rum over it. We read the letters from his siblings, the prayer from his Mother. I poured accelerant over the pillow as we read the friend’s testimonials. Amanda and I wrapped kindling with twine, dosed it with lighter fluid and set the raft on fire.
We set him free in a beautiful place. The smoke from the fire drifted up to mingle with the fog and clouds.
My cousin was a courageous man. He lived an amazing life, in spite of illness and heartbreak. His intellect, humor and love of bees, quiet and far away places live on in his work. I’ll miss him every day for the rest of my life.