North to Alaska

“Mormor, Bapa! Come on, there’s a lot of cool stuff at the top of the hill.”

Tristan, age nine, leaps and bounces in the trampoline-like mat of vegetation.

“You run back up there and learn all about it,” I say. “Mormor”—his grandmother—“and I will stay and rest a bit in the tundra.” 

“Okay, Bapa—if you’re sure.” And he leaps back up the hill.

Me enjoying comfy tundra. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

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Alaska has a way of wearing a man down. 

The first time we visited, in 2010, at age 65, there was enough bounce in my bones and enough tingle in my tendons to hike with a group up the mountain that overlooks the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau. We scrambled over exposed roots, clambered through corridors of rain-slicked rocks. It was a tiring, yet exhilarating, trek.

This trip, at age 76, Your New Favorite Writer—still an enthusiast—strategically avails himself of frequent rest opportunities. 

Elsie, Katie, and Tristan at top of impossibly high tundra hill, enjoying Sidney’s lecture. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Our time on the tundra in the middle of Denali National Park is precious. The softness, the springiness, the sink-in-ability of that blanket of tangled vegetation covering the deep permafrost challenges the hiker to walk without falling down and taxes one’s pulmonary system—especially going uphill. 

On the other hand, should you happen to fall down, you couldn’t pick a better place to do it. You almost can’t get hurt falling into the soft tundra. 

It’s an even better place to sit and rest, watching the mountains and listening to the enthusiasm of younger hikers as Sidney, our mountain guide—the young lady who carries the bear spray—points out wild blueberries and other flora just up the hill, telling which ones humans can eat, which ones the bears like, and so forth.

It’s a fine, warm day. Denali, the mountain, was out a few minutes ago and we got to see its peak before it was re-cloaked by its very own weather system. 

Denali seen behind Wonder Lake. Denali National Park and Preserve photo by Albert Herring. Public Domain.

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We have come here because we like Alaska; but even more, we want share it with our daughter, Katie, and our grandchildren, Elsie and Tristan. This resembles nothing they have experienced and nothing else they will ever experience—possibly not even in long future lives. 

Panning for gold. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

For a time, we have lured them from their telephone screens into the powerful beauty of the real world.

Later today we will pan for gold in Moose Creek. Lucky Tristan will find a flake in his pan and have it laminated on a piece of black paper. A speck of gold to carry with him forever after. Or until he loses it, which is likely. But the important thing is, he will find it in his pan and will always remember that. 

Elsie, age twelve, will find one too but lose it on the way to have it laminated. That will be all right, though, because she will find prizes of her own in the wilderness, including sightings of bears and moose and the chance to befriend a young adventurer, Rhys, traveling with his own family.

Katie and Mormor will not try panning for gold. They will opt for a horticulture hike instead, another rewarding adventure.

Old Bapa—Your New Favorite Writer—will stand in the creek swishing gravel around his pan, to no avail . . . but will bring home gold anyway.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

The Newest, Latest, Last Frontier

Chet Huntley has got me thinking about frontiers. 

Chet Huntley. NBC Television. Public domain.

Huntley (1911-1974) was an influential broadcaster, a television journalist who co-anchored NBC’s evening news program, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, for fourteen years beginning in 1956. When his run at NBC ended in 1970, Huntley, then 58, became front man for the founding of the Big Sky ski resort in his native Montana. Earlier, he had written a memoir titled The Generous Years: Remembrances of a Frontier Boyhood, published by Random House in 1968. This book was recommended and lent to me by my friend Jerry Peterson.

The Generous Years is a warm and interesting read. We learn much about the childhood of Chet Huntley but more importantly we learn about life in Montana in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Seen through the eyes of a boy who, as his adult self tells us more than once, was privileged “to know and remember a few years and a few scenes of the nation’s last frontier.” 

The Last Frontier

The Montana of Huntley’s youth was indeed, in many ways, a raw frontier. People made their livings by farming, by herding, by mining and railroading. It was a society that still went about on horseback; motor vehicles, other than steam locomotives, were rare. Old Doc Minnick, the blunt, persevering medico of Huntley’s remembrance, made his housecalls in a one-horse buckboard. The memoir includes those staples of frontier life: prairie fires, locusts, and even an enterprising bank robber foiled by the derring-do of local boys. It’s a tale worth reading, and I commend it to you.

But what of Huntley’s claim to have recorded America’s last frontier? Even while typing the phrase, I thought of Alaskan friends. “What about us?” they would cry. “What are we, chopped liver?” Alaska has been raw frontier much more recently than Montana. Many parts of Alaska still qualify for that distinction. That’s also true of vast swaths of Canada’s Yukon Territory and northern British Columbia. These places are truly “the last frontier.” 

Or are they? 

The Frontier Thesis

Frederick Jackson Turner. Public Domain.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner put forth in 1893—eighteen years before Huntley’s birth in Montana—an idea that came to be called “the Frontier Thesis” of American history. Turner figured the frontier experience was the main thing that called forth the development of American democracy and other unique aspects of our civilization. Jackson’s Frontier Thesis became a mainstay in the scholarly interpretation of U.S. history. It has also been fiercely disputed; yet it still holds considerable sway.

Turner’s thesis took the frontier as a fact of physical geography. He proposed that when the frontier line reached the West Coast about 1880, the first phase of American history had ended. The frontier was no more. 

New Frontiers

Starship Enterprise. “1701-D” by kreg.steppe is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

This has not stopped others from declaring new areas of frontier-like emphasis. One example is likewise rooted in physical geography, although it is extraterrestrial. The moon, by this thinking, is a new frontier—and so is Mars. In 1966, forty-four years after Turner retired from Harvard, actor William Shatner declared all of space to be “the final frontier” in the opening title sequence to the Star Trek television series. 

Gene Roddenberry. NASA. Public domain.

Whoever wrote Shatner’s speech (Gene Roddenberry, et al.) ought to have been more circumspect; because many more “new” and “final” frontiers have been proposed. 

JFK. Cecil Stoughton, White House. Public domain.

Senator John F. Kennedy, accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1960, said: “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. . . . Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” The phrase “New Frontier” then became a label for Kennedy’s presidential administration—like Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” or Harry Truman’s “Fair Deal.” As political branding it stood for a vaguely-defined stance of confronting unknown but large national challenges of the future. In that sense, we will always have a “new frontier” to deal with. 

The Perpetual Lure of the Frontier

Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier.” Portrait by James Hamilton Shegogue, 1806-1872. Public Domain.

All this frontiersmanship makes me think that Americans have been so shaped by our frontier experience that we simply cannot do without it. We always need a frontier. Unless we are out on a frontier of some kind, we are not satisfied. 

I wonder if Italians, Poles, Vietnamese, or Pakistanis talk and think as much about frontiers as we do. Frederick Jackson Turner and I doubt it.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author