Compass: Richard Leo inspired a young woman to Alaskahood

By PATTI MOSSDecember 26, 2013 

"Our genetic dispositions have a basis here. ... to stand silently, if only for a moment, in humility, and awe at all that exists beyond ourselves."

-- Richard Leo, "Way Out Here: Modern Life in Ice-Age Alaska"

In 1978, I arrived in Alaska, 23 years old and fresh off the California urban beaches. My Dad was a pipeline worker whose postcard campaign to win me to the north had succeeded when I committed for one year and caught a flight north.

More U.N. camp than city, Anchorage during the pipeline era was rough, to say the least. On the day I had arrived, I was scared. "This place is like the moon," I complained to my father.

"Alaska is in you," he would answer. "Wait."

Shocked by the absence of fresh produce, any available housing, or even used cars, I was also intimidated by the pace of teaming masses of blue collar workers, all seemingly pushing toward something I wasn't able to identify. Committed to my father, I found work and the trappings of life in the north.

I discovered writer Richard Leo, too. His voice from the Susitna Valley wilderness seemed to me like the howl of the wolf: "We're wild out here and our experience is pure and clean." And he was political, differing in opinion from the constant pro-development chat that spouted from the mouths of the other new immigrants who were frantically building the new infrastructure around the state. They read "Coming Into the Country," while I was reading Richard Leo alongside Barry Lopez.

Leo was the voice representing the road system homestead movement sprouting up along the remote highways across Alaska. Radio Free Big Lake, KABN, and Leo connected with those of us identified with the post-Vietnam, back-to-the-land movement of the Lower 48.

Leo was a Harvard graduate from Chicago turned homesteader, author and activist. Writing from the edge of the wilderness, he was destined to become an elder in the national environmental movement. For many of us, he will be remembered as one of the first sustainability guys out there, writing about raising his kid on subsistence meals dished up with ethics respecting the land. He wanted, it seemed, to simply be there as an intelligent person observing the awe of it all.

In his writings, he offered up wilderness living set to a sharper, higher note. When locals attempted to reject federal funds for a small library, Leo asked them to reconsider principles that would deny their children books. A few years after my arrival, I reached for that rural life in the Valley, and I lived many of the descriptions found in Leo's principled writings.

Thirty-odd years later, I am drawn back to the Lower 48 by grandbabies and health issues. I feel shocked by the absence of fresh salmon. The place is intimidating and strange. It seems like the moon. The teeming masses of people seem to be pushing toward something I cannot identify.

And upon hearing the news of Richard Leo's fatal road accident this week, I sat alone on the porch a good while, thumbing through the pile of postcards sent to me by Dad almost 40 years ago; recalling those first years in the north, with Richard Leo's words providing narrative to my journey toward becoming Alaskan, assuring me I could be on the land. And just for a moment, I feel the cool summer breeze of the Valley, and how it all was, so long ago. My throat swells. Then I think to myself: Alaska is in you. Wait.

Patti Moss is a writer and historian currently at work on a film for the Anchorage Centennial Celebration entitled "The Rush is On! Anchorage's Pipeline Immigrants."

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