If you have an Aunt in your life, you are blessed. It’s a gift that you might not appreciate right away. An adult female, who is of the same generation as your parents and even grew up with (at least) one of them. They have all the dirt, and if you’re lucky you’ll get to hear some of those stories. If you’re truly lucky, you’ll have an extraordinary aunt. I am truly lucky in having my Aunt Kay Diane.
Kay Diane and my Dad grew up on a ranch in Long Beach, California. Their parents divorced, and in those days (the early 50s) women didn’t get treated fairly. My Grandma Mary got to take her kids and not much else. They moved to a much smaller home in a kind of sketchy neighborhood. I don’t know a lot about those years. I heard a rumor that she dated the drummer of The Silhouettes, a local band headed by Richie Valenzuela who was soon to be known as Ritchie Valens. Rumor had it that Dad and Ritchie were friends, and he would go along to make sure Ritchie got paid for some of the gigs.
We’ve never discussed those years, because that’s not what she’s about. For the past 50+ years Aunt Kay Diane has been married to my Uncle Dick. Their marriage has always seemed to be magical. I only mention her earlier life to provide contrast for her married life. In the early 1960s, when other women were fighting for independence, going off to forge bright careers, my aunt agreed to move away from all that. They bought a large piece of land up in a place called Kennedy Meadows, CA. It was high up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The area is popular now with campers/hikers who want to get away; a big open plateau and lots of forested areas. At the time that they moved there, more than 50 years ago, it was seriously remote. Not much had changed in the prior 100 years. There were just a few families living up there. My uncle built a one room cabin. I don’t remember if there was any running water, but there was no indoor plumbing. They had a beautiful old wood burning stove, an Aga. My first visit there was in the winter (or as I recollect). They had a blanket hanging down the middle of the cabin, probably to give us privacy. A trip to the bathroom at night meant putting on a coat, and trudging through the snow. To the outhouse. There was no electricity, no gas. My Aunt raised two babies in that cabin, before disposable diapers. No “washing machine”. My best memory of that visit was the food. Aunt Kay D made sourdough bread. And sourdough pancakes. She probably made a lot of other things, but the fabulous things she managed to bake on a wood burning oven were beyond wonderful.
Over the next few years we only got to visit rarely. I’m not sure if my mother was more offended by the pioneer lifestyle or by the fact that My Uncle Dick taught us all how to shoot. For myself, I’m not sure which thrilled me more. The years brought some changes to the area. A few more families moved in. My uncle dug a reservoir, which provided running water to the new home he built for his family. We went up one summer to help connect the (indoor!) plumbing. My Dad also brought up a hot water heater, although I don’t believe it was ever put to use. There were 3 bedrooms. There were no the walls between the bedrooms; only studs. The need for privacy was not evident. The entertainment was a treat: there was a beautiful old player piano, and at least 300 music scrolls to choose from. There was also an antique operator switchboard in the kitchen. My uncle had strung telephone wire from one homestead to the next. It was meant to be in place for emergency contacts. At the time they were growing frustrated that it was becoming a tool for gossips and had become a nuisance. They also felt that the mountain was becoming too crowded, almost civilized.
That led to the next phase of their lives. Once my cousins had gotten through high school (which entailed a hair raising ride down the mountain to the nearest town every day in the school year), they were ready to move on. My uncle also became certified as a pilot at some point in his life. He built his own plane (Oh yeah, he did!), and would fly it up and down the mountain. They decided to move to the real frontier, up to Alaska, where he would work as a pilot for the next few years. They sold there homestead, keeping the player piano and stove, and flew themselves up to Fairbanks. They rented a place in Fairbanks while they scouted out the area for a new home. They bought a large area on the Salcha river. There was no road to their property. They could get back and forth to Fairbanks by plane, or boat. In the winter, with enough snow pack they make the trip by snow cat in about 6 hours. They cut down enough trees to build an 1800 sq foot home. That was all they needed. Until they had guests. Because it was so far away, guests tended to stay awhile. So they cut down more trees, and built a 3000 sq foot home. The smaller one was now a guest house. And they had all that they needed. Until they started to evaluate their lives.
Now, after retiring on their frontier homestead in the wilderness of Alaska, they felt like another adventure was due. They went to Seattle, where they bought a used sailboat. They restored the boat and taught themselves to sail. They then set out to explore the world. They would travel all over the globe in the next 7 years. Mostly by sail, although they did put the boat into dry dock in Australia. They decided that it was worthy of a longer visit, bought a used Land Rover and drove all over that country for the next 16 months. They then sold the car, retrieved their boat and continued to sail around the world. There were many dangerous and frightening episodes, but they were not put off. Throughout this time, really inspiring to me, was my aunt’s determination to continue as a homemaker. Every time they pulled into a port, she’d head off to buy provisions. She would then can all the fresh meat, vegetables and fruit that they’d have on the next excursion. She would do this in the galley of a small sailboat. Also, as disinterested as they had been with overpopulated spaces, they were amazingly social. They developed a large group of friends in each port as well as a network of fellow sailors. They would engage in potluck meals and parties with this group in each stop.
Finally they returned home to Alaska. Their home there is equipped with the same wood burning Aga, but they also have a conventional stove there as well now. They have a wood fueled hot tub under the stars. The piano coexists with their generator powered laptops. They took some time off to write and publish a memoir of their journey. Also to battle some serious health problems. After a go ahead to return home from the doctors, they did this briefly. Until the adventure bug hit again. They bought an RV this time, and decided that they would alternate periods of “rest” at home with traveling the continent on extended road trips. In Alaska, they continue to hunt, fish and grow most of their food supply. When they are not in Alaska they are traveling the road. My Aunt Kay D continues to feed them from the confines of a tiny kitchen. This is an image that has always stayed with me. Anywhere, anytime, they are self-sufficient. She is inspired me to learn to cook, to bake, and most of all to preserve. She also inspires me to emulate the best part of herself; to face life as an adventure.
I was inspired also to write this, as I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. I’m overdue for my own road trip. It’s time to feel that enthusiasm for life again myself.
Photo by Brenda Ordway; previously published in NY Daily News