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Far from themadding crowd

Su Lum

When my ex-husband Burt and I left the East Coast to homestead in Alaska in the early ’60s, we did not have an accurate mental picture of what life would be like “living off the land,” but anticipating surprises was part of the adventure.The only thing we were totally sure of was that in the wilderness we could avoid the petty intrusions of human interaction – alone, at peace, on our own land – and on this point we were absolutely wrong.If you want privacy, move to a big city where you can hide and get lost in the crowd. As Dr. Livingston found out, it isn’t easy to hide in the wilderness.On the evening of the first day we’d set our house trailer on the banks of a creek on the outskirts of Anchorage (our water supply, no electricity), we were startled by a knock at the door and astonished to find an Encyclopedia Americana salesman on our cinder-block threshold.As it happened, we were on the lam from Americana creditors back east, so for a second we thought we had been tracked down, but he was just a zealous sales rep who didn’t want to give up even after we had explained why we were laughing.On the Burma Road, where Burt taught 13 students in a one-room schoolhouse, it was open house day and night at the Lum home. Without phones, there was never any warning and, living within spitting distance of the school, we were sitting ducks.They brought us presents, including a cocker spaniel-sized live rabbit, a dead but ungutted chicken and parade cakes, casseroles and pies. I was five days away from delivering Skye, my water had broken – “Call us when something is REALLY happening, Mrs. Lum,” the casual hospital nurse said.”Never return a dish empty,” I was warned. We had an old oil stove and a wood stove and I had to learn the cooking one-upsmanship game fast. When you live in the woods, you have to bag your moose, bottle your homebrew and master the stoves, just to keep your guests happy. Who knew there would be so many guests?And the gossip! Recreation in the wilderness is chores, eating, drinking and viciously savaging anybody who isn’t on the scene.When we moved even deeper into the wilderness, babied and broke, the engine noises of an approaching vehicle always meant a meal for someone and usually augered overnight guests – friends who would make the 100-mile trip from Anchorage, the last 10 miles of which could take hours, for a surprise visit.So – hack off another roast from the frozen moose quarter on top of the trailer, put on more potatoes, pop the last of the homebrew and watch your fresh-baked bread sucked into the gaping maws of your erstwhile buddies, their throats hacking with colds and influenza brought in from the contaminated city.Not being accustomed to the strength of our home-brewed beer, they would then pass out on the floor for the night and have to be fed breakfast (last of the oatmeal) in the morning before they staggered away, leaving their germs behind like Typhoid Mary to attack our delicate immune systems.On the other hand, in big cities or massive suburbs, you might not ever meet anyone, and one of the things I’ve always loved about Aspen is that it offers the best of the city and the best of a small town, without the disadvantage of the worst of the wilderness.Su Lum is a longtime local who is staying. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.


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