I am not a “travel” writer, but I am a writer who travels. Travel is good for the soul.
I was struck with wanderlust the instant that, as a little boy, I saw my big sister off at LAX on her way to the New York World’s Fair. To this day, that kerosene smell of jet aviation fuel makes me want to pack a bag.
I have traveled throughout Europe, lived in Australia, seen parts of Asia, and still have a bucket list that includes two-thirds of the world map. When I was a child, watching that Pan Am Boeing 707 lift off with my sister, my world was confined to the San Fernando Valley, and revolved around our parish church and school.
In the decades that have gone behind me since, my world expanded. It became more complicated and nuanced, but I have done my best to pass on to my own children the same rock-like foundation of faith and family that I was spoon fed in the Valley.
Obviously, this is the perfect segue to the story of me, riding on a tourist bus, on an isolated island off the coast of Alaska, looking for brown bears.
The island was Icy Pointe Strait. It is owned in its entirety by the Tlingit Indian tribe. Our guide, Greg, was a member of the Raven clan of this tribe. Greg wore a Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes jersey without a hint of irony as he regaled us in the history of his people who have inhabited this space for centuries.
It may have been only “gift shop” anthropology, but still informative learning. The Tlingit people have always been hunter-gatherers, even if today they mostly hunt and gather tourists.
Though Greg assured us they had never had a serious bear encounter, I was a little worried. The river we saw was teeming with salmon, struggling against merciless currents. And I’m sure the bears could see them too.
I could not help but worry that a bear about the size of a 1949 Plymouth might get the notion he would like to try a taste of Southern California Terra Tornacense. I silently evaluated the basic ambulatory capabilities of my fellow travelers and after assuring myself I could outrun at least half of them, even if I had to wait for my wife to catch up, I relaxed.
No bears or tourists were hurt in the expedition. We did see two young bears — they were only the size of a Volkswagen — do what bears do to salmon in spawning season.
But on the bus back, Greg told us an origin myth about how the Tlingits and the bears made a pact in ancient times, explaining why the Tlingit never hunt bears. Before he told us his tale, he informed us he had been given permission by a tribal elder to tell us the story. Like many tribes in North America, their myths and ceremonies are not for outsiders. I cannot blame them much, as the indigenous people’s introduction of outsiders from the iron age caused them such unhappiness.
When I was a television writer, I wrote a detective show about a Navajo shapeshifter. The Navajo technical adviser shut down the production for a couple of hours because he refused to perform the ceremony in front of a bunch of non-Navajo people. So the Tlingit reluctance was not my first experience with this sense of “ownership” over Native culture.
Some people might think a Tlingit or Navajo origin myth is “proof” that all belief systems are merely variations of the same theme. And I use “myth” in the metaphysical sense. But my armchair expertise makes it hard to believe that even ancient Tlingits truly thought there was an actual conversation between bears and elders, any more than I think ancient Greeks believed Zeus lived up on a mountaintop using lightning bolts to light his cigars.
One might argue that all these pre-Christian cultures were trying to make sense out of things, trying to figure out how to fill that God-shaped vacuum in their hearts. Without a written language, the oral tradition became so ensconced in these Native cultures that a guy in a Kansas City Chiefs football jersey still seeks permission from tribal elders to tell their story to an outsider.
I was honored to be given this look inside the culture, but I was humbled and deeply grateful that one, I did not become a bear’s hors d’oeuvres of course, and two, I was in the midst of some of God’s greatest work in nature, and lastly, knowing that in Jesus, no one is an outsider.