Mountain Echos

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 - 13:52
An aerial view shows the town of Seward.

Bivouacked June 21 high on the flanks of Bold Peak in the Chugach Range about 15 years ago, I thought about this story from my boyhood in Seward in the 1950s when on Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, a friend and I sneaked out of our houses and prowled the town until the wee hours of the morning.

I’m not sure it was Bud’s idea or mine — probably his, because when I was 10 years old there weren’t many things more terrifying than being caught by my father breaking a rule, and sneaking out of the house at night was definitely a bad thing to do.

Opening the back door without making noise was an agonizingly slow process, with my heart pounding so loud I felt it could be heard from one end of our small dwelling to another. I never knew door hinges could squeak so loudly. Back then no one in Seward locked their doors, so I didn’t have to worry about getting back in.

Stepping outside into our small back yard, it was unearthly still. No birds singing…no dogs barking…no traffic on Seward’s dusty gravel streets. There was still plenty of light, but the clouds were hanging low on the mountains and I felt a slight drizzle as I crept through the alley to the back of the grade school, our rendezvous point.

Bud was already waiting behind the school, dressed in dark, stealthy clothing. He seemed calm, like he’d done this before. In retrospect I think he was just a good actor. I wore a blue cotton jacket, but I could already tell it was going to be a chilly night.

We planned this adventure for weeks, but somehow we hadn’t discussed exactly what we were going to do. Just sneaking out of the house took a supreme act of courage. Gnawing at me was this foreboding feeling that being outside at this time of the night, and not safely tucked in bed, was somehow tampering with the laws of nature—the natural order of things. I thought something mysterious might happen to us if we stayed out all night.

That, as much as getting caught by our parents or other adults, worried me the most.

People are surprised when I tell them that even back in the 50s, Seward had a curfew for kids under 18, and it was enforced. We didn’t know what they did to kids who broke curfew, but instinctively we knew it was probably not half as bad as what we’d get from our parents.

Since Bud and I were now law breakers and fugitives from justice, we had to make sure the town’s only on-duty policeman was not on patrol. If his cruiser was parked by the police station, where it usually was, we were good to go for at least a couple of hours.

We sneaked behind the station via the back alley, thanking our stars that old man Andrews’ dogs didn’t raise a ruckus. We poked our heads around the corner of the building just enough to see the rear end of the police car. It was safe to begin our adventure.

We decided to head down to the Small Boat Harbor. Like the rest of town, the harbor was quiet—too quiet. Waves lapped rhythmically against the fishing boats. There was still plenty of light to see, and it wasn’t getting darker. We walked light-footedly along one of the slips, serenaded by strange sounds emanating from deep within the berthed vessels. We soon discovered it was a symphony of snoring.

We peeked through an open window and saw an old guy with gray whiskers, propped in a chair against the side of the bulkhead, mouth gaping open, maybe dreaming about a net full of shimmering salmon. Wherever he was, he was missing the longest day of the year.

Then Bud got the notion he wanted to pull a prank…like throw tin cans through the guy’s open window, or pour some water on his head. Bud was strong willed, and it was difficult talking him out of it.

“Just being out here is risky enough,” I cautioned. “We could get into big trouble.”

Just then a throaty voice disrupted the symphony of snores.

“Who is it? Who’s out there?”

It was light enough to see the fear in Bud’s eyes. With a single mind we turned together and ran as fast as we could down the pier and up the wharf ramp. We ran and ran and ran, and when we finally stopped, sweaty and puffing, it was a new day.

The clouds skirted the mountains higher than before, and were now traced with pink from the rising sun. We could hear a truck rumbling into town across the Lagoon. A few birds chirped randomly from somewhere in the tall cottonwood trees. The metal clank of a railroad cars coupling at the City Dock echoed across the still sleeping town.

“Look, I said to Bud. “It’s getting light. We did it!”

“We smiled at each other triumphantly. We had spent the entire night out and hadn’t turned into pumpkins or anything else. We hadn’t gotten caught—at least, not yet. We still had to get home. We shared a few crackers Bud found in his pocket before parting company. The door was still unlocked as I crept back into the still house, undressed and quickly crawled into bed.

That morning my mom was curious as to why I wanted to sleep so late. She asked me how I’d gotten so much mud on my sneakers, but she became distracted with bread baking in the oven and never asked any more questions.

Every summer solstice I look back on that night as one of the most magical times of my life. We ventured beyond the security of our homes into the unknown, and through our 10-year-old eyes saw how a day doesn’t really have an ending or a beginning—that we are the ones who create those divisions. In a small way I think we learned about barriers — that they exist because we think they exist.

At the 4,000-foot level of Bold Peak it was well past midnight but the sun’s trailing light still illuminated Eklutna Glacier and surrounding peaks. The feeling I had as a boy, that I was somehow cheating night, that I was getting away with something simply by being awake — came rushing back.

Indian legends say we leave parts of ourselves in places that are special to us. Too tired to hang on to the day any longer, I rolled over in the sleeping bag, closed my eyes and visualized Bud and I ambling along the streets of Seward at the Summer Solstice. Before long, I was there with him. It was like we never left.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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