Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I've never found out how Egill Lundgren became known as "The Chief." Captain would be a better fit. But somewhere along the line, someone began to call him the Chief, and as much as he didn't like it, the name stuck. I think he doesn't like to be thought of as the boss, but he is our leader--making the travel arrangements, helping people find living spaces. And "The Facilitator" just doesn't have the same ring.

Over the years, people have come and gone or come and stayed. Sometimes it's families. Sometimes scientists have stopped by to monitor our health--but that happens more with the others.

"Tell me about the others."

Monday, November 29, 2010

"But you aren't Norwegian. And your friend Lydia?"

"She's from Minsk. We're from all over."

"How do people find you? How did you come here?"

I tell him the story about the library, about meeting Lydia and the Chief.

"Usually, it seems, someone overhears someone's brother or cousin talking about it, and they ask, and they come to see for themselves." I think about Alex and Jeff, Paolo and Gabriel, all of us have wandered into this.

"We aren't a secret society."

"But you keep a pretty low profile."

"The Chief says it's easier that way."

"The Chief…"

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Egill started out in Punta Arenas. He got a job working on the ferries crossing the channel--seasonal work, when the tourists come down to hike and more science expeditions are leaving for their bases on Antarctica. He visited the other towns in the area. It was happening--he was doing it!

By the New Year, he started to plan his next move. Winter was coming to the southern hemisphere. Egill remembered trips his family took up to Finnmark. When the Vernal Equinox arrived, Egill Lundgren was on a plane to Alta, Norway. There, at least, he'd know the language--or one of them.

Again, he traveled, picked up odd jobs, and tried not to seem too strange. In high summer, he could look like a tourist. He traveled to Nordkapp, Hammerfest, and Kirkenes.

He traveled back and forth for a few years, spending more than he was able to make. His third or fourth year, he met Stian Halvorsen, worked with him in his shop. Stian had a brother who troubled through the dark winters. The brother had a friend, and the friend had a wife. They came to Stian's and asked to join Egill when he left for the south. That's how it started.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

"So it's been about 30 years?"

"Don't you need to write these things down?"

"Probably." Saverio pulls a pad of paper out of his back.

"No fancy gadgets? You're from the big city."

"I'm trying to fit in."

"You think we're primitive."

"You don't?" he asks as his pencil scratches a few notes.

"Yes, about 30 years."

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Egill Lundgren was working in the Brest offices of Hansen Shipping when February on the Breton coast wore him thin. Always the damn February, with its snow flurries and its pall, clouds in the sky and the light failing early, rising late.

Sure, Egill knew darkness. He grew up in Bergen, with its long, dark winters. He'd traveled that long tunnel. But one afternoon reviewing shipping records of cargo through Panama, he thought about the old days--and the Cape. If summers up north were light, those same long days were stretching the year's other half in the extreme south.

It was that obvious. Why hadn't anyone thought of this before?

The rest of the month took on a deeper gloom, as Egill realized he'd need a job. How could he support himself in an itinerant life? This was in the 1980s, before the Internet and working remotely. Even now, we're remote enough that we don't really have Internet. Wi-Fi is not an option here.

But spring was coming, and he made it through the summer, and he kept planning. He thought about medical studies. Could he be paid to be someone's guinea pig? He thought about government grants. He thought about his pension. He's lose that--but by September, he didn't care. He'd figure out something, anything. He bought a plane ticket and left on the equinox.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

I offer a cup of tea. The house sounds extra quiet while I wait for the water to boil and Saverio looks around. There is not a lot to see here. I bring what I can carry--and Henry does not leave much behind. The books he keeps are those that he needs for his work, and so he travels with them. On the shelves, the ubiquitous field guide for local birds, a history of Chile written in Spanish, a couple of travel guides for Patagonia, and an atlas. The rest of the space is filled with yarns and wool. Few secrets are hidden here.

The kettle whistles, and pour the water over the tea, smell the rising steam laced with chamomile, mint, orange, and lavender. It's a healing.

I bring the cups over to the little table, and Saverio joins me there. Thank heavens I have two chairs.

"What brings you down here to find out about our little band?"

"It's different."

I hear "weird." Anyone else would have said "weird."

"It's not the kind of thing you hear about every day." He pauses, and I'm filling in all the blanks. Wait, Misha--this is supposed to be a good thing.

"How did it start?"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

We walk up the hill to Nido Claro, our little nest of homes. I was worried about what to say, my ongoing struggle with small talk, but Saverio starts to ask questions--how many people, how long have I been here, how did all of this start. I realize I'm walking with a journalist.

I stop in the middle of the road.

"How did you find out about us?"

We try not to advertise. It's just a little stranger than most people want to know, a little too unrooted.

"You and your friend Lydia seemed extra quiet about who you were, where you were from."

We start to walk again.

"So I asked around in Ushuaia, talked with some of the vendors. Who are the ladies? And they tell me about the people who come around sometimes, and the man with the little wooden trains is from here, from Puerto Williams, and he talked about the nomads."

That's us.

"I convinced my editor that it might make an interesting travel story."

"A lot of travel."

"Yes. And I thought I might need a sweater." Saverio grins, and I'm being flirted with or played.

Monday, November 22, 2010

I am going to buy onions at the market in Puerto Williams when I catch the Chief in the corner of my eyes. He's speaking in his deliberate, patient way. I look again, and see Saverio! It looks like him. How did he get here? He couldn't be doing a story on the resorts of Puerto Williams.

"Misha!" The Chief beckons.

"This is Saverio de la Cruz. Saverio, this is Misha Strand. Saverio is here to do a story about Nido Claro."

To anyone else, I would think "Yes, you want to see the freaks." But I want to be hopeful.

Saverio smiles. "We meet in Ushuaia."

He remembered. I pray to all the gods that I am not blushing.

"Misha can take you around, introduce you to some of the others, fill in the details. I've got a few things to take care of, but I'll meet you back here at 10:00."

I forget about the onions.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

We rang in the New Year at Lydia's, a long light night with music and wine, place packed up to the roof. Our little family. And just before midnight, a long walk up the hill and then down into the town. A little stumbling, but the whole world was out.

Now, I'm feeling gray. Maybe it's coming up on 30. Maybe it's seeing Lydia and Alex together, thinking that I blew it. Maybe it's that I haven't heard from Henry, although the letter could be lost anywhere between here and Norway. Maybe it's just that the sky sweeps wide and light as though it is holding all my loneliness over my head--and there is so much of it.

Face it, Misha. You are a depressed person. You are your father's child.

I've been swimming away from this my whole life, but now it feels like the wave is catching up with me.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

When I open the door, my little home smells like oranges, and I realize one is withering in the bowl on my kitchen table. Not so good there, Misha.

For a moment, I consider cloves, remembering the Christmas sachets we made in Girl Scouts. At the time, it felt so old-fashioned, so pioneer.

I look at my little one-room house--not pioneer, not frontier, but certainly rustic. I pitch the orange into the compost can, wince at the waste, and then I pour some water out of the jug and start a pot of beans. Next year, maybe I'll plant some squash.

Everything feels small, so I look out the window over the sink, up the hill. Otherwise, I feel like pacing. I don't have enough room to pace. A long walk would be good, but I just got here. I can feel all my edges now.

Saverio was not at the market this weekend. And why should he be. He's probably back in Santiago, his story about Ushuaia vacations already published and read.

I knew that, but knowing isn't everything.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

It happened on 101 South.

My father would do that--get in the car and drive to California or even Mexico, throw a few things in a suitcase and flee November.

The first time, I was seven. For days, we didn't know where he was, where he'd gone. My mother's face tightened and her voice almost disappeared, just a metallic scraping under her breath. He finally called from San Diego, said he'd found some work at a hotel for the holiday season--maybe until spring.

They must have argued, "had words," when he returned that March. I don't remember, but he didn't leave again until I was 10. Then 12. Then every year. We got used to it the way families adjust to their foibles that to anyone else would seem crazy. And he always came back--with a tan and stories and hugs for his girls.

We began to trust that rhythm.

When they found his car, it had been in the water for a day--at least. They thought he might have fallen asleep, missed a turn. We tried to explain that he'd never drive at night, never in the dark. We asked them to look for skid marks, imagined a logging truck coming around the curve or a traveler marveling at the views. We trusted that he swerved to avoid a collision and ran off the road.

They asked if he was depressed, and we knew what they meant. What could we say?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This rag-tag life, this giving up, this checking out. Is this me?

For seven years, I've said Yes. It has been my lifeline. Maybe that's how long grief lives.

I take another sip of wine. I know better--know grief lasts a lifetime, takes on its different shades the way copper grows its green patina, the way an iron railing rusts. It becomes a part of you. I have this grief and I have this hunger for light and a fear of the dark and so I'm sitting at a table quite close to the end of the world, unless you count Antarctica, and I'm asking myself dangerous questions.

And the light and the water blur into one big pool of sky and here. I'm just lonely. That's all.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Because I am tired of being the little sister.

Because I am tired of feeling like the third wheel on a bicycle, dragging it over to the ruts at the edge of the road.

Because I am damn lonely, I sit at a table on the sidewalk, treat myself to supper and a glass of wine. Bless the tourists for this sustenance.

Alex met us at the market, and he and Lydia went out. Yes, they invited me to come along. Yes, for the reasons listed above, I said No.

And now I'm questioning everything.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pick a card, any card.

No, not any card. I'm looking at two.

No, it's all in my head.

The wind runs right through me at railing. The ferry chugs across the Beagle channel, and sea birds loop over head, screeing and swooping. Sunlight strikes the water and glances off. Lydia narrows her eyes in the glare, but I feel my whole body opening, as though the light is unfolding me and spilling out of me all at the same time.

I can't describe it the right way--but someone must have. I think back through my books, but I don't want to think right now--not about books, not about cards, not about men. I don't want to think about what I want.

I lean into the wind even as it snaps my scarf and steals my breath from my throat.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dear Henry,

This is almost like a conversation. So how would I start a conversation?

How are you up in Norway?

I tell him about going to the market with Lydia.

I'm trying to make some extra money to visit my sister. Would you meet us in Washington state?

Suddenly every word sounds awkward. Suddenly, I wish I'd grown up somewhere darker.

I don't need an answer right away. But let me know.

I hope you are well and enjoying the darkness.

(Is that funny? I can't tell whether that's funny.)

Best wishes,


I slip the card into the envelope and write my own address.

When I walk down the hill into Puerto Williams, the air snaps with the sea smell, and the sun rains lightly through an afternoon mist.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Don't get me wrong.

I love my little nest in Nido Claro. It's not like Kirkenes, but it's a home and it resonates for me, the way music sings after the guitar has been strummed.

Yes, I'm feeling sentimental. And I'm enjoying it. The light looks even lighter right now.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

"You want to go to Ushuaia again this weekend?" Lydia is skeptical.

One more weekend until Christmas. I don't mention Sevario. I don't want to know whether she remembers him, whether she noticed him. In this way, we are and aren't like sisters.

Besides, she would tell me that he wouldn't still be hanging around. And she'd be right. I know that.

Still, I can use the cash, add it to my travel stash in the cookie jar.

"I have sweaters left, and this is our best chance."

Lydia gives me that sideways glance, but I know she can make money, and I know she wants to go, and I know we'll be heading to Ushuaia.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

In Nido Claro

I don't have a bank account!

It's been seven years, and I never thought about it until this morning.

I have stamps now--a book of them--and I splurged on a bag of oranges, and I have a roof over my head, but I don't have a bank account. I don't pay taxes, either (how has the Chief managed that one?).

If I weren't here, if I were reading about this place in a magazine, it might sound catastrophic--like a cult. When are they going to bring out the Kool-aid?

But it isn't like that. It's just a safe place, a day-to-day living. I haven't considered it, because up until now, I only thought about making enough to cover my head, cover my body, and fill my belly. Now, I'm thinking about saving for a plane ticket, round-trip, to Raymond.

I put the weekend's earnings in the cookie jar. (Is this even safe?)

Maybe I should talk to Lydia. I try to imagine her reaction.

The card I bought for Henry sits on the table. I'm not ready. I need to think about what I'm going to say.

I pick up my needles and a ball of yarn. I'll work on what to write while I replenish my inventory. If I'm going to make enough money, I have a lot of knitting ahead.

Monday, November 8, 2010

It's been a good weekend. I've sold 11 sweaters, and now I'm packing up what's left. I haven't seen Saverio again. Why was I expecting to, hoping to?

Lydia hands me an empanada.

"One of the last ones left." She loves coming here--for the cash and the crowds.

Why do we do this? Why do we stay in our little band on the outskirts of everything? It suits me, but Lydia would be happier here, or in Oslo. But it's hard to move with the seasons, hard to find a place and a living. I guess our little tribe is our place, and so we stay together and make it work the best we can.

The pastry is warm and crispy, all melty in the middle. It warms me in the evening damp.

Tomorrow morning, we'll take the boat back to Puerto Williams, and I'll leave whatever fantasies I had.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

His name is Saverio. He looks through me when he tells me this--not past me, but into the inside of me.

He's a journalist from Santiago, working on a feature story about the resorts here, and the ecotourism trend. He begins to ask me questions, but the line is moving, and so he is moving.

I explain that I'm in Ushuaia only for the weekend, just for the market. I don't have much knowledge of the haunts and hangouts in town.

Lydia smiles--a little wickedly, and hands this gorgeous man an empanada.

"Then we'll take our country girl back to Nido Claro," she says. Saverio pays her and strolls off to find his answers.

I watch him until he disappears, and a young Brazilian woman asks me about a cardigan.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Ushuaia is a whirlwind. People coming down from Rio, Santiago, and Buenos Aires, people heading for Antarctica.

I speak with people who want sweaters, who admire the sweaters--the pattern and the warm wool, repelling the humid air. It's always damp here. I hand them my hours for a price.

A table away, Lydia fries up empanadas, and a steady stream of customers carry them away, waiting for the pastries to cool before they take their first bite.

We've set it up this way: While you wait in line for your snack, see--and feel--these fabulous hand-knit sweaters.

She doesn't need me. But she set up the system, and it gives potential customers a chance to look instead of glancing and walking on by.

I sit back and wait, try to sense when someone's ready to buy, or ready to ask a question. I knit while I wait.

Now I look up and see an extremely handsome man in the line. He does not look at the wool.

Friday, November 5, 2010

While Lydia unpacks her fryer and sets up, I wander the aisles of the Ushuaia market. It's early, a pearled morning. Vendors are getting their wares ready, a flurry of food and blankets and wood carvings. I should be setting out my sweaters, but I'm looking for something—maybe presents for my nephews, some strange little toys from their strange aunt, gifts for my mother and sister. I need to feel like I belong to my family. This year, more than the others.

Then I see it—a beautiful hand-painted card on a table of cards. All of them are lovely and exact, but this one looks right at me. I know who it's for.

I'll have to wait until Monday to get a stamp.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

That first summer, I lolled in the light. I bathed in it.

Then came the turning, and another culture immersion--Tierra del Fuego, Spanish, empanadas. I had my own little tin home, and I loved the solitude.

Quickly it was clear that I needed to make a living, even a tiny one. When Reynaldo came through Puerto Williams offering wares, he had knitting needles and enough wool to keep me busy for a while. I could knit, and I did.

By the next turning, Lydia and Benjamin were serious, ready to live together.

I found a new home in Kirkenes, and a store that needed a person to own it. How? Did I have the money? I don't know. It was a store front, and I trusted the Chief. I trusted how much I love books. And maps.

Anything to give me a sense of direction.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

To Ushuaia

I'm packing sweaters into my largest bag. I've got a pot of beans simmering, with cumin and a pinch of cinnamon, because I'm feeling festive. Already, it's close to Christmas, and the days are gloriously long.

Lydia told me this morning that she's planning a trip to Ushuaia to work in the markets, selling to the holiday tourists who come down from Brazil. Sweaters make a good gift.

I haven't seen much of Alex, as he hops from one job to the next. When I do see him, he's often with Lydia. I called that wrong, although she hasn't said anything to me about it. Part of me feels sad, and part of me thinks Oh God, it's still like high school.

All these twenty- and thirty-something people thrown together, and then a few regular families thrown in—with kids. I wonder what it's like for them, moving every six months, living in the margins. Then I think about growing up. I'm hardly an expert on that.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dear Misha,

The Chief has picked up the mail and stopped by with a letter from my sister, Becky. Carefully I open the thin blue envelope and feel like I'm living in another generation.

Becky's handwriting jumps off the page. Another reminder of the life I used to live in. She sends news, a Walmart coming to the neighboring town of Raymond. Her oldest, Billy, has lost his front teeth.

My throat sticks. I've been gone their whole lives. They know me from photographs and letters and presents sent at Christmas and birthdays.

Mother is doing well, but she misses you. I miss you, too. Can you come home, even for a week?

I have no idea how I'd manage the money. This is a subsistence life. I sell books in the north. I knit sweaters in the south.

I eat enough. I'm as happy as I've ever been. But cash is not rampant. A trip outside of the turnings sounds like a trick of magic.

Could I pull that rabbit out of a hat? Would Henry meet me in South Bend?

Monday, November 1, 2010

On a clear night, the stars are magnificent—I could say a clear afternoon.

I've sent off two manuscripts to the States, and a third has come from a publisher in Buenos Ares, so it's busy—and rare that I take time for star-gazing.

Winter was especially quiet this year—for people—and especially stormy. I never made it across to Ushuaia to pick up any of the nice little things I know you like. The panty is left to the rice and beans.

I hope you have a good summer down here.

So formal. What do I want? I keep reading.

It would be wonderful to meet you sometime. I don't know—I don't know. And I'm writing this down and then I will leave it hanging. Misha, maybe somewhere on the equator? Maybe I'll visit my brother in San Diego, and you could join us? Maybe I'm dreaming?

They've found a new drug, but it's experimental. I'm not sure I want to go there.

Leave me a new photo, if it isn't too much trouble.

And be well,


Now I am trying to remember the letter I left for him in Kirkenes. What did I write?