Gathering Dust


I was dusting some items in our home the other day.  If you find that unusual, you should see the amount of dust that can accumulate in a house that was empty for almost six months.  We weren’t even here.  So, where did it come from?  And, it’s not that we keep an unclean home.  I can’t tell you how many boxes of Swiffer Sweeper we have been through. (I can’t tell you how much we recommend this state-of-the-art product!)

That’s another story.

I ran my finger along the top of one the most precious items I own.  It’s an ice axe.  I bought it in the spring of 1964, when I was getting ready to join my brother on the Juneau Icefield for the summer.

I found a bit of white…a bit of dust on my finger.  How could I have not attended to this most coveted item…in my cleaning?

You must understand something.  You can’t get these ice axes anymore.  Oh, maybe in some tiny Swiss alpine shop in Zermatt, but not here…unless you’re willing to pay an outrageous price.  This ice axe is made of ash (maybe hickory), the kind that Edmund Hillary used on Everest in 1953…on the first ascent (maybe).  What you get today, if you find yourself ordering an ice axe, it will be made of anodized aluminum or carbon fiber or some sort of alloy devised by NASA for the International Space Station.

But, my ice axe (note to reader:  it is not called an  “ice pick”.  That is so gauche a term.  It’s an ice axe…so no further discussion here, ok.) An ice axe of an old classic style that you see now in Museums of Alpine History.

Yes, I ran my finger along the top and found dust.  Not so surprising, unless you’re like me…items from earlier years rarely collected dust.  Once I put away the toys of childhood, they stayed mostly out of sight…and therefore out of mind.  There is an exception or two: my Lionel locomotive and a Lone Ranger lunch box.  But, the ice axe was somehow different.  It represented a transition from youth to adulthood and I often would stare at it, up there on the wall reflecting back on the times that were brighter, better, more youthful, full of energy and promise.  I climbed nameless peaks with it in my right hand and even saved myself from falling into a crevasse on a July day in 1964.

This was a special item I owned. I even went into my fathers forbidden workshop and wood burned my initials into the shaft:  P.J.EGAN.  My childhood girlfriend stood by be as I did that.  She kissed it for good luck (al least in my memory she did).  Later, I rubbed boiled Linseed Oil into the wood until my forearm ached.

It was an object of utility, craftsmanship, art and beauty.

Then, when my wife and I moved to the Adirondacks in 2011, I took the ice axe and mounted it on the wall.  It was several weeks until I realized what it was that I had done.  I hung up my ice axe.  This is the ultimate “well, I’m done with that stage of my life” moment.  It’s like when you hand your car keys to your child because you can’t drive anymore…safely.  But, I wasn’t that old…was I?

I walked over to my “alpine bookshelf” and looked at the titles and saw the hardware: the pitons, carabiners and chocks…tools of a rock climber.  I was fairly good in the 1970’s.  They were coated in a thin layer of dust.

I picked up Direttissima, by Peter Gillman and Dougal Haston (someone you should google someday when it’s raining and you want to read about a tragic, enigmatic person), and, again, I blew enough dust off the top pages that I began to sneeze like it was a late summer day in a field of ragweed.


So, this was my past?  This is was what I have left of my glory days on the glaciers, in the bars of Juneau…and watching Eagles soar at 10:00 pm when I was fishing out of Auk Bay?

Dusty books and a very special dusty ice axe…mounted on a thinly paneled wall in our home?

This was me once:

In the Col Looking West (2)

Are the glory days really behind us…gathering dust?




The Odyssey Westward: Travels Part 1

Go my sons, put away your books.  Buy yourself stout shoes.  Walk the hills, the mountains, the valleys and the deserts.  In this way, and no other, can you learn of the world and its ways.

–Paraphrased from a quote on a 3 x 5 index card clipped to the dashboard of a ’60s VW driven by a California fellow named Fritz.  I spent two summers camping and working in the remote regions of the Juneau Icefield, Alaska.  We were field assistants for two geologists.  I have not seen or heard from Fritz in over forty-five years.  Fritz, if you’re out there, you challenged me to give meaning to the quote you had in your car.  The passage was credited to a “Severinus”.

–I would like to dedicate this series of posts to:

  • My brother, Chris.
  • My daughter, Erin, Bob, my son-in-law and my grandson, Elias Muir.  They are on a journey as well.
  • My son, Brian. who is on the pier, ready for the voyage of his life.
  • My wife, Mariam, for being beside me and sharing this trek, in life and on the road.
  • All my family, friends, lovers and followers who have stood by me.

I don’t know why you say good-bye…I say hello.

–The Beatles

I am at the beginning of a cross-country drive to Orting, WA, near Tacoma.  I am going to visit my daughter and 8 month old grandson.  My wife and I are pulling a small RV (an R-Pod).  It’s cheaper than dozens of motels and we can eat the food we want to eat.  I’d like to say we can shower, but a shower it isn’t.  I can wash my hair if I get on my knees and worship the plastic booth and toilet using the spray extension.  [Memo to self: keep the toilet and booth clean].

So, why am I doing this? After all, I’ve driven from the Seattle area back to New York State before.  Several times.  But I was young then, and stronger and more able to stay awake for long stretches of time.  I just turned 66 years old.  I don’t have the stamina I had then.  Tent camping was an option, but the schlepping factor and the rainy nights on the Great Plains put an end to those thoughts.

I want to use this opportunity to see the heartland of the USA, in the way John Steinbeck (Travels With Charley) and William Least-Heat Moon (Blue Highways) did.  On the “blue highways”.  I want to see the silos, the endless cornfields, the infinite acres of wheat, the amber grains, the greasy-spoon diners, the cowboy bars, the honky-tonk, the music festivals, the fruit stands, how Autumn comes to the grasslands and Rockies, the virtuous farm girls sitting on split-rail fences wearing bandanas around their sun-burned necks (and those not so virtuous with partly unbuttoned calico blouses) and to see the sunset and rise from vantage points I haven’t seen in decades.

Friends! Stick out your thumb and hitch a ride with us.  We have no backseat, but we’ll squeeze you in somehow…and together we can point out the interesting sights together.

You only go ’round once in life…or maybe twice.

But who really knows?



To be continued.

Lost On A Glacier in Alaska

Let me begin by setting the historical record straight, to slow the nay-sayers and bloggers who would be only too happy to challenge and dissect all that I am about to relate.  I was never lost ON a glacier (not in this story, anyway) but about nine feet from the lip of ice that marked the terminus.  I had stepped off the ice as easily as the last rung of a low ladder.  I walked about nine feet and became stuck in the quick sand.  If one stood perfectly still, one was fine.  But any movement from your boots and the fine silt would begin to liquify, grab your feet and you would slowly begin sinking.  You would be stuck and dragged down faster than if you met a red-headed hooker on a warm and thirsty afternoon in Texarkana.

It was late August, 1964, the end of the field season for the scientists on the Juneau Icefield. I was just seventeen and the youngest, to date, person to be accepted to work on the Icefield. My duties were to help the research scientists gather data on ice flow, collect and collate weather observations and to carry equipment.  Being a fit teenager, I carried more than my share of pack loads up nunataks to the camps or ski behind what passed for snowmobiles in the mid-sixties.

The season was now over.  But getting several dozen personal off the Icefield and back to Juneau presented a formidable challenge to the Staff.  It ended up working out like this: the group of botanists were to get a helicopter ride to a chosen location on the outwash plain of the Norris Glacier.  There they were to establish a camp and await the rest of the scientists. My team was chosen to make the descent of the Norris on foot…with full packs (60+ pounds).  This group included my brother, Chris, a graduate student from Bagdad (who had never seen snow in his life before that summer), and three others. The remainder of the large group would be making the trip on foot in a few day. During our descent, which took two full days, we were forced to bivouac for a night on a mountain side.  It rained and I woke in the morning wrapped in wet down-filled mummy bag that had turned from a 3 lb. sleeping bag to a 20 lb. mass of soaking wet feathers.  I squeezed it out like a kitchen rag and tied it to my packframe.

When we stepped off the glacier there was no sign of the advance team of botanists.  No doubt they were out somewhere in the few square miles around us with their noses among the moss and lichen.  By now it was late in the day and by now we realized we were quite lost.  We had run out of food, we were wet, chilled and as I said…lost.  None of us displayed any emotion, but I was very concerned (read near panic stricken) by the thought of our isolation.

We decided to split into two groups: my brother and I were to head in one direction, the others were to hike away from us.  In this way, we thought, we’d cover more ground and locate the botanists quicker.  When we parted, I felt my gut begin to heave with unsettled nerves. [Today the area is a landing spot for tourists who want to walk on a glacier.  Sight-seeing planes fly over often.  THIS WAS NOT THE CASE IN 1964!]  Chris and I hiked for an hour or so (it stays light quite late even in August) before deciding to camp.  Camp? I thought.  Where? How? With what?. We shared the last of a large bland cracker.  I pulled out my sleeping bag and it dripped onto my boots.  My spirits, what was left of them, sank. You can share my bag, Chris said.  He had kept his dry…somehow.  I nodded and prepare to ‘put in’ for the night.  I have never felt lonelier in my life.  I honestly felt that our situation had slipped rapidly into the danger (lethal) zone.  I reached into my pack and withdrew a packet of letters.  These were the collected ‘love letters’ from my girl friend (see my Post “Dear John” for additional information) I had received by mail drops throughout the summer.  I walked off among the short pines and placed the bundle under a 6 foot tree.  Someone would find them when it was all over.  Someone would know a little about me.  Was it raindrops or my tears that made the ink run?  I crawled in with Chris and actually fell asleep.  (Chris passed away in 1995.  I miss him.)

In the morning we somehow rejoined the other three.  They had located a bright orange notebook planted atop a small muddy hill with directions on how to get to the botanist’s camp.  Wrapped in a plastic bag was a sizable chocolate bar for us.  I nearly cried with relief.  I was starving but to thank the mountain god that guided us, I gave my share of the chocolate to the others.  We walked off. We were “Brave Mountaineers” as Gordon Lightfoot once sang.

I flew over the site with my wife in a tourist plane in August, 2010, 46 years after that adventure. I looked down for a sizable pine tree…there were many.  But letters and ink and past emotions have long ago decayed and became part of the lichen-covered glacial soil.