I have no facts to back this notion, but I am fairly certain Alaska has more global travelers per capita than almost anywhere. Perhaps it is the need to take winter breaks, or the fact that we have a bit more disposable income than average. But perhaps this insatiable appetite to travel ties into the same genetic code that brought us here in the first place. We love frontiers, new horizons, flavors and cultures. We are fit, curious and confident. We are foodies with a gloriously wide range of tastes and perhaps a robust sense of daring.
So when I was introduced to Thillman Wallace to discuss helping with his memoir in the final months of his life, the kindred feeling was immediate. Other members of the Chugach Writers Group had gently passed his 400-page memoir among them until it landed in my lap. I had recently taken a year's sabbatical to travel the world with my young son, and they felt I might be a good match.
The weight of this responsibility felt like a medicine ball, an honor and a privilege -- but also daunting in its enormity. I agreed to meet with him after a scant introductory note saying that he had "traveled the world with a pet monkey on his shoulder" and was looking to complete his book.
To get to Thillman Wallace's home in January 2015, I had to drive up a harrowing road called Packhorse Trail carved out of the side of a mountain in the small town of Chugiak, some 10 miles north of downtown Anchorage. Up past Klondike Concrete, a business started by Wallace and his brother Mike Wallace, the road is freshly snow-covered and icy, full of sharp switchbacks knifing their shoulderless, jagged way along the edge of a steep dropoff into birch trees clinging to mountainsides.
The way is lined with relics of another age: beautiful wagon wheels, wooden mining cars with a history of their own, a sleigh once pulled by horses and the "Funferal," a Chris Craft that belonged to Howard Hughes himself and is still awaiting restoration. Clutching the wheel, I continued past weathered, hand-carved totem poles and a dormant sawmill.
The entrance to the perched log home built by the Wallaces looks out over the vast Knik Arm tidal flats and the grand Mount McKinley. The walkway approaching the front door is adorned with an accumulation of treasures that speak of a long life of adventures, including rustic tools from years of hard work and the bicycle once ridden from Vancouver to Anchorage over the then-gravel Alaska Highway, also known as the "Alcan," by his wife, Ella.
Thillman's daughter, Stephanie, 45, a fit, outdoorsy mother of four, answers the door. Her love and dedication to the man who raised her is apparent in her every move. She grew up on this land, a player in many of her father's manic visions. Entering the Wallace home is like stepping out of the 21st century and back into the time when Alaska was a land of hardy pioneers. Giant log beams supporting the structure are magnificent and imposing, each hand-peeled by the Wallaces. A fireplace of monumental proportion dominates the living room, created of red brick and also made by the Wallace brothers. Large windows on both sides reveal the spectacular vista. Alaska artwork hangs from the walls, each piece with personal meaning. A walrus painting, once a wedding gift, stands out amid family heirlooms and small treasures from around the world, framed by a vast collection of family photos.
Ella works quietly in another room, giving Thillman and me the privacy to speak freely of times preceding their union. Parakeets chirp in the background, two dogs wag their tails and a domesticated duck takes a swim in the guest bathroom's large porcelain tub.
Yet, of all the iconic symbols of a full and interesting life, one battered machete and a raggedy jacket with tears in the fabric on the right shoulder made by his traveling companion, a pet monkey named Chin, are the emblems he has brought forward to set the stage. The story he passionately wishes to share is about one man, one monkey, facing challenges usually found only in fiction, all immortalized through journals and recalled with a sense of detail that most can only dream of having at any age, never mind 82.
I was instantly comfortable with Thillman, a gentle visionary who reminded me of my own father, a fan of "blue highways" his entire life. I was eager to listen. He told me he had watched my "work sample" of films three times, and I had passed the test.
Once able to carry a 60-pound backpack all day, not to mention the additional passenger of a monkey, Thillman was now confined to a rented hospital bed in his living room, unable to walk. He was hobbled by a mysterious disease robbing him of the use of his limbs, leaving his blue eyes watery, almost filmy. His determination to speak from his bedside, though, was strong enough to carry him through the re-telling of his tale, even if barely whispered between sips of water.
Fingers ready at the keyboard, iPhone set to record, digital camera softly clicking away, I was struck by the fact that I was using tools that were not even imagined when he took his 32,000-mile journey (determined by a rough measurement, based on the red line he had drawn across his weathered world map) through uncharted jungles and deserts in 1957, largely in Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan, Burma, India and Iran. In fact, he wrote his manuscript from memory while recovering at his parents' house in upstate New York upon his return. He had not kept a journal while traveling for a number of reasons including bearing the weight of yet another object, lack of writing utensils, and the wet weather often soaking his backpack.
Thillman: "When looking back on the trip there were so many decisions, thousands of decisions and I was just a naïve 25-year-old guy. My journey became one of doing the impossible, of doing anything necessary to survive. I had been brought up with so much confidence, I never questioned my ambition to take a westerly route all the way back to Alaska. In some ways, that was the beauty of it all. I was so ignorant; I was fearless and open to everything. I had hoped to work my way around the world but quickly learned that wages were so low in undeveloped countries I would never make enough to pay for travel. The truth is I lost over 25 pounds and was very weak for most of the time because I would not offend people by refusing their offerings of food, even when it was unsanitary or as unappealing as sheep's blood. It was vital to my survival that I was not perceived as a threat or superior to the people upon whom I relied throughout my journey -- but that philosophy also almost killed me."
His journey was transformational on the personal level as well as a geographic and physical feat. When he left his hometown, he was so "brainwashed" by family and friends of the evils of our enemies during World War II that all he wanted to do was fight the communists in the Korean War. "I had no idea of all the other struggles facing people around the world ... A map of the world shows many countries and borders, but these are all imposed by leaders with separate agendas," he uttered between labored breaths.
"Most natives did not dare to venture far from their communities their entire lives. The majority of the world's population -- I'd say 99 percent -- is so busy feeding, clothing and sheltering his own family, he has no time for wars. It's ludicrous to me that so many lives are lost and resources squandered in the pursuit of intangible power, and excessive material possessions."
Indeed. Thillman's motivation for his six-month global journey with a mere $400 in his pocket was simple: "To understand the world, study its people, and use that knowledge to make the world a better, happier place." He believed we Americans did not come from a "mean place" or were a country that would knowingly wrong others. While he learned that we are not without fault in our international actions, he also learned to have a compassion for all the world's peoples. Ultimately, there are many ways to live.
He references villagers near Nakam in the jungles of Burma with only three eggs among them who did not hesitate to feed him. The poorest people in Burma laughed the most. He added, "I was not judged for being dirty or having no money to pay for so much that was freely given. Instead, I was welcomed as a traveler, revered for the courage I was exhibiting by leaving my comfort zone and breaking bread with them. That is a lesson about humanity I will take to my grave: Wealth is a relative perception and we have much to learn from the hearts and cultures of others."
Travel when young
The only map Thillman had for the entire trip was his world map. It was a sacred item as it was the only thing he had to go on. There were no roads on it, but it provided the big picture. By the end of the trip, it had big holes in the seams because he had unfolded and refolded it so many times.
He advocated traveling while young, before the attachments of work and family -- old enough, but not too old. "Learn to travel as slowly as possible. It is the only way to see the minutiae of differences. Even within a single culture, there is so much to learn."
So much in the world has changed, including greater ease with the physical aspects of travel -- more roads, more types of transport and more frequent air travel. However, with Islamic State, Ebola and the growing threat of global terrorism, I can't imagine doing his same trip now.
While traveling with my son, we relied on the Internet for everything from lodging to finding local hotspots, and connecting with other travelers. We had bottled water, eliminating much of the feared gastrointestinal challenges.
As Alaskans, we can take comfort in knowing this man, who saw many countries and cultures around the world, chose our state to make his life, create his business, and raise his family.
Thillman writes toward the end of his travel memoir: "As we felt growing up on our farm in childhood, it finally dawned on me that there was no place else I needed to go. Being here is like living in a national park. We have spent our lives living where most people only dream of vacationing. It is from this vantage point that I count the blessings of a life well-lived."
As someone decades younger than Thillman, I found myself wondering if I, too, would feel this depth of contentment from knowing I had shown my son, Corin, the world. During our last visit, he had requested that I bring him to our session. Corin immediately gravitated toward Thillman's stacks of books, which held his interest throughout our visit, when the last paragraphs were read aloud for approval.
"I find it interesting to be this close to the end of the road, and to realize how much time I wasted. I hope others who read this will be inspired to use their time to see our amazing world, and to do as much good as possible while on Earth. I'm saddened to see how… the pursuit of money, and the holding onto it, has taken over so many lives. I shall take my final sleep with visions of cattle wandering aimlessly around the streets of India and elephants moving teak logs through rivers in Malaya, the fairyland of (high elevation) shining ice on the jungle greenery viewed through my frosty breath in Kyaukme (a town in Burma), and my fellow man wearing colorful patchworks of rags in India, wearing shoes made from burlap sacks and shreds of tires, and their millions of toiling, busy hands of so many skin colors shaping abodes and crafts of daily living, while chattering away in dozens of languages I do not understand but which still soothe me. Above all else, I will feel the comfort of a thousand small gestures of kindness, completely outnumbering a handful of moments of vague fear that only pushed me to become a stronger, more purposeful human being."
Thillman Wallace passed away March 24, 2015, but not before hearing every last word read aloud to him while he continued to make corrections of the smallest of details until 48 hours before his death. He was also able to approve the cover of his book and left this world knowing his words would be honored.
Mary Katzke is an Alaska filmmaker and freelance writer who took a year off to travel around the world with her son, Corin.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing