Last year, I took more than a hundred flights, travelling to twenty-three countries on four continents. From my home, in an old town on the English coast, I went east to Switzerland and Greece, and south to Mexico, El Salvador, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Chile. There were trips into the Kenyan bush, across Siberia, and to remote settlements in the Brazilian Amazon. I wasn’t home for more than a few weeks at a time—my habit since I started working as a foreign correspondent, almost forty years ago.
During the quarantine, I’ve spent five long months at home. My office here is festooned with mementos of reporting trips: a rug from one of Saddam’s palaces, a gilded leather box that belonged to Muammar Qaddafi, a piece of a Bosnian tombstone. On a wall are two nudes, painted in oil by one of Che Guevara’s guerrillas; on another is a silk heraldic flag used at the coronation of King Faisal I.
In one of my early jobs, a bureau chief at Time encouraged me to be a “fire-eater”—to go where other reporters wouldn’t. I didn’t need any encouragement to get myself in trouble. Among the artifacts in my office are a pile of journals, which I began keeping in my early teens. One of them contains the record of a formative trip that I took in 1978, when I was twenty-one. That summer, I travelled to Alaska to make my fortune from musk-ox wool.
I hadn’t planned on it, exactly. I was staying at my aunt Doris and uncle Warren’s house in Woodside, a village tucked into live oaks and redwoods, about an hour south of San Francisco. For two months, Doris had been teaching me how to cook. I wasn’t hoping to become a chef; she had assured me that if I acquired some basic kitchen skills I might be hired to join a U.S. Geological Survey expedition to the Alaskan wilderness.
Warren, my mother’s older brother, was a geologist who had worked for years in remote places: Alaska, the Mojave Desert, Liberia. He was now posted at the U.S.G.S. office in Menlo Park, but he spent summers mapping the Alaskan backcountry with a team of geologists. Like Warren, most of them were hardy, deeply tanned men of few words. I met a colleague of his at a U.S.G.S. picnic one weekend: a young woman with prosthetic arms, to replace the ones she’d lost when a bear mauled her. Warren noted laconically that she was lucky to be alive.
Warren had grown up, with my mother, on a ranch in the San Gabriel Mountains, roaming the countryside and hunting in the woods. My mother told me that he had kept bobcats as pets, and at twelve survived a winter alone in a cabin in the High Sierras, tending traplines for food. During the Second World War, he had spent two years on a desert island in the South Pacific, manning a radio outpost for the Navy. Family photographs show him stark naked in a lagoon, hunting fish with a spear.
As a child, I dreamed of having a life like Warren’s, and my parents did their best to mollify me. My mother, who wrote children’s books, plied me and my siblings with stories about the wild world. On my bookshelf, Thor Heyerdahl’s “Kon-Tiki” sat not far from “Birds of the Gambia.” My father was an official in the U.S. Foreign Service, and we moved often, from Korea to Colombia to Taiwan. My family arranged wilderness excursions, and patiently accommodated a succession of feral pets: an alligator, an owl, a parrot, two mongooses, a civet cat, a pangolin.
For my eighth-grade year, my parents sent me to Liberia to live with Warren and Doris. The highlight of my time there was a three-week trip around East Africa, hosted by family friends—foreign-service types who were meant to keep an eye on me. Instead, I went off the grid for nearly two months. I hunted elephants in Uganda, climbed Kilimanjaro, camped alone in the Serengeti, and travelled to the ancient Ethiopian city of Harar. I had never been happier. My family worried, but when I finally reappeared they forgave me, mostly out of relief that I hadn’t died.
My teen-age years were largely defined by outward momentum. I worked as a machetero in Honduras, learning Spanish but also nearly losing a leg to blood poisoning; I spent six months living on a wharf in Las Palmas, Spain. I went to college for a year, then dropped out to take a job with the Oceanics, a New York-based alternative school that operated out of a tall ship at sea. For seven months, I guided scientists and students through the rain forests, deserts, and mountains of South America.
Afterward, I was uncertain about returning to college; most of all, I wanted to journey deeper into the Amazon. But Aunt Doris suggested Alaska, and it seemed as good a destination as any. Uncle Warren had gone there with a buddy after the war, and built a log cabin in a place called Girdwood. I’d grown up hearing my cousins’ stories about their Alaskan adventures, and had read and reread “White Fang” and “The Call of the Wild.” And so I went to Woodside to train in Doris’s kitchen.
After a month of baking bread and cooking omelettes, I was deemed ready. But, when I applied to the U.S.G.S. to work as a summer cook, a local got the job instead. Resolved to get to Alaska, I made a list of other employment possibilities: “Kodiak Fish Canneries, laborer; Alaska Fish & Game, fish counter; Alaska Forestry Service, firefighter.” Leaving nothing to chance, I’d also written to the National Geographic Institute, asking for funding to search the Honduran jungle for the ancient lost city of Ciudad Blanca. I wrote in my journal, “Can’t wait for the reply!” It didn’t come.
My dilemma was unexpectedly resolved when I met Mick Hoare, the son of a friend of Uncle Warren’s. Mick was a few years older than I was—a rangy guy, with black hair and startlingly blue eyes, who had served in the Special Forces and was studying geophysics at Stanford. He was planning to drive to Anchorage for the summer. Did I want to come along, in exchange for chipping in gas money?
On June 21st, we left Woodside in Mick’s Datsun pickup truck. Two days later, at a campsite in McLeese Lake, British Columbia, I wrote in my journal, “A frontier air—miles of forest—undulating seas of it. Many lakes and meadows that look like good moose haunts. Our journey began on the Solstice, so it seems full of portents. Good ones, I hope. Maybe I’ll make my fortune in Alaska.”
The Alaskan economy was booming, but the commodity was oil, not fur; the Trans-Alaska Pipeline had been finished the year before. When we reached Anchorage, after a week on the road, it looked like any other small American city: drab modern buildings that clashed with the wild surroundings, and ticky-tacky suburbs spreading to accommodate newcomers. “The town is raw,” I wrote. “Go-go girls and furriers. Gold plated prospecting pans and gold nugget jewelry.” A statewide fund had been established to use oil revenues to benefit locals—a kind of payoff for the environmental destruction—but it didn’t stop them from resenting the oilmen and the culture they had brought. A bumper sticker on cars around town read “Happiness is a Texan leaving with an Okie on his back.”
Even so, wages were exceptionally high in Alaska; construction was thriving, and that was what had attracted Mick, who was looking to earn money to pay for college. He also had a place to stay, a wooden shack that his older brother owned in Girdwood, a township forty miles south of Anchorage, at the edge of the Kenai Peninsula.