Part 3 in a Series
“Back-to-the-landers who attempted to create communities on the land in the 1970s were in great need of models. They might have had many, but they knew of very few…. In the end, the remarkable thing about the back-to-the-landers of the 1970s is not that they often failed, as it seems, to live up to their own expectations. The remarkable thing is that they made the effort at all. So many forces were operating against that decision.”
Dona Brown in “Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America”
So many forces...
The Bay is named Driftwood for a good reason. Much of the flotsam and jetsam collecting and circulating counterclockwise in the Gulf of Alaska ends up on its beach, as do many logs. That’s both the good news and the bad news. The Davidsons found many useful items. One day about a week after arrival at their homestead site, Ginger wrote, “We found a can of walnuts washed up on the beach…a chance for a special celebration some day.”
More important were the logs, which they would use to construct their cabin when they decided upon a site. On Wednesday, April 1, 1970, when they arrived with their dog, Drifter, and transported all their belongings to the beach – they met the first natural force working against them – the spring tides. Their first week there, the high tides ranged from 10 to nearly 15 feet. If troubles come in sets of three, that was number one.
John needed those logs for lumber, so he used his longest rope to lash them together and secured the rope to a tree. He also tied up his 14-foot boat.
“Then, everything else had to be moved higher,” Ginger wrote. “I found the land beautiful, much more so than I had imagined – although a bit steeper.”
That comment indicates they filed for their open-entry locations before setting foot on the property.
Now, day by day the high tides increased.
“Not only twice a day, but also nearly a foot more each day. It meant that we had to get everything over the crest of our first small hill in 5 days or it would be lost.”
Through the rain, wind and cold they hauled supplies hour after hour. At the same time, they set up their tent and tried to make it comfortable.
“It seemed like a losing battle, “Ginger later wrote.
They were stubborn but with stoic patience. From the beginning, their goal was to create a permanent home at Driftwood Bay, even though during those early years they spent time in Seward to earn cash for needed items.
Trouble number two – actually more of a disaster – happened two days after their arrival.
On Friday, April 3, Ginger wrote, “After spending the first 3 hours of the morning hauling up lumber and the boat to beat the tide before breakfast, John was met with the sight of his dear boat drifting away – the wind and tides were too strong for the rope and after leaving deep scars in the tree, it finally broke.”
In frustration, they climbed to a high cliff, and watched their only transportation disappear into the southeast horizon. All they could do was laugh. Now they were stranded, but they had enough food, so they took their situation in stride.
“But later in the day we sobered up when an even greater tragedy took place,” Ginger admitted.
Trouble number three: Their dog Drifter stole a pound of bacon.
“Big things we could accept as our fate,” Ginger mused “but small things caused us trouble.” She later wrote, “After watching it (the boat) disappear, we got a good sign – a 2 lb can full of unopened coffee had beached during the night, so we knew we would be warm and comfortable ‘till a boat might ‘rescue’ us.’ Actually, we don’t really want to be ‘rescued’ too soon. We have plenty here to eat and do.”
John and Ginger began their adventure in 1970, a significant time. That same year Mother Earth News was born. Within a few years it had a half million subscribers. Scott and Helen Nearing reissued their classic homesteading book, “Living the Good Life.” Gene Logsdon produced more than two dozen back-to-the-land books beginning in the 1970s. In 1972, early back-to-the-lander, Ralph Borsodi, reprinted his 1933 classic, “Flight from the City.”
Famed naturalist, biologist and conservationist Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” was published in 1949, the year after he died. It sold poorly. The 1970 reprint sold over 270,000 copies.
In 1966, a Georgia English teacher and her students started a quarterly magazine, The Foxfire. Six years later, the Fox Fire book series began. John and Sally Seymore’s “Farming for Self-Sufficiency” appeared in 1973. In England, G.K Chesterton was long dead, but his promotion of distributism was carried on in the U.S. by the Catholic Rural Life movement and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day (and Peter Maurin). Day continued her philosophy of the simple life and voluntary poverty until her death in 1980.
Many young 1970s homesteaders like John and Ginger were products of the 1950-60s culture. But things had changed.
Dona Brown, in “Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America,” wrote, “Framing the (1970s) movement as part of ‘the sixties’ is certainly not wholly inaccurate, but it does obscure some of its important features.”
Brown notes that it is more accurate to view the 1970s rebirth as the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Increasing casualties in the Vietnam War in 1968, combined with all the social unrest and the assassination of both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, disillusioned many Americans. By 1970 our involvement in Vietnam was politically toxic. The Kent State shootings, continued protests, Watergate, and the 1973 Arab oil embargo and gas price spike caused more disenchantment.
In 1969, when Joni Mitchell’s performed her “Woodstock” anthem it included the lyrics “got to camp out on the land and set my soul free.”
When the song appeared in her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon, she changed those lyrics to “got to get back to the land and set my soul free.”
The Times They Are a-Changing Bob Dylan told us in 1964 – a reminder that times are always a-changing.
Many of the back-to-the-landers of the 1970s knew about Scott and Helen Nearing who had gained some notoriety, but they grasped little of the couple’s Victorian mind-set or radical politics. Leaving a small apartment in New York City, the Nearings first settled in Vermont during the Great Depression, and finally in Maine in 1952 where they published “Living the Good Life” in 1954 and it sold a few hundred copies. Their 1970 reprint sold over 100,000 copies.
In a 1971 Mother Earth News interview, both Scott and Helen avoided ideology and got down to basics, “You can’t wait until the last minute to make provisions for food, shelter and fuel,” Scott said. “These things have to be very carefully worked out in advance. It can’t be done off the cuff.” Helen advised homesteaders to “work hard” and to “find the right mate.”
John and Ginger were not experienced homesteaders. But they not only worked hard, they also worked smart. And as Helen had advised, they each found just the right mate. Though they could strategize all day long, real life rarely followed set agendas. What Scott Nearing said about planning was wise, but you also had to be flexible. Both were creative and adaptable. Although Ginger helped with the grunt work, John had the physical strength needed for most projects. He could design his work, but Ginger’s math, science and engineering background no doubt contributed significantly. Her journals are filled with detailed drawings of their projects. Though they were a perfect match, John came from quite a different background.
John “Jack” Allen Davidson was born on Oct. 27, 1944, in Buffalo, New Your, the son of the Reverend Malius Hjalmer and Marjorie May Graves Davidson. He grew up in rural Carlisle, Pennsylvania. where his father was the pastor at the Bethel Tabernacle, Assembly of God Church. From early childhood the family recognized Jack’s fearless and adventurous spirit – especially the oldest sibling, his brother Paul.
When John was 12-years old, Paul, then a college freshman, wrote a revealing essay about his brother. John was lucky, lazy, and clumsy, often forgetting to tie his shoes. But the “winning smile,” spreading across his “dimpled cheeks,” made up for any shortcomings, Paul noted.
The youngest of the three Davidson boys John enjoyed teasing his sisters, chasing girls, and was “always found in the midst of any disturbance.” If something broke, he always responded, “I didn’t do it.”
When he and his friends climbed the nearby mountains, Paul recalled, “Jack would run up to the very edge of one of them (the cliffs) and peer down, perhaps 100 feet, and be as calm as could be.”
He explored the surrounding woods, hunted, trapped and often fished at nearby Letort Creek, a world-famous trout stream. To earn a little money, he delivered newspapers for the Carlisle Evening Standard.
John had a pet raven named Pogo that occasionally got into his father’s toolbox and scattered everything around. One summer day, while the Reverend Davidson was preaching, Pogo flew into the church and perched on the altar, “like Poe’s raven,” Paul said. The minister grabbed the bird and tossed him out a window. “That was typical of how we lived.”
Jack was never a “scholar” in school. Paul remembers him getting into all kinds of harmless trouble with his friend, Larry. “It wasn’t mean-spirited at all,” Paul said, but they drove the teachers crazy, especially their English teacher. Sometimes she was brought to tears because she liked the two boys but felt she couldn’t do much with them. One hot spring day as they sat in her class the two boys gazed at the big open window, looked at each other, and without saying a word, just got up and climbed out.
He graduated from John Boiling-Springs High School in Carlisle in May 1962. “The next day he was gone,” Paul recalled, “and Mom couldn’t believe it. ‘Where’s my boy?’ she wondered.” He had joined the Air Force for a four-year hitch, and they didn’t hear from him for three months.
In the spring of 1963, A2CL John A. Davidson completed a course in missile guidance at Lowry AFT in Colorado and was off to Germany, assigned to the 38th Missile Maintenance Squad (MMS) at Sembrach AFB. They called themselves “Missilears.”
John had an opportunity to travel through Europe during those years. One night he got away with camping out under the Eifel Tower in Paris. He spent much time hiking and skiing in the Swiss Alps, sometimes taking unwise risks.
“We always thought John was like a cat with nine lives,” Paul said.
John’s mother once commented to a newspaper, “We had gotten used to this sort of thing.”
While in Germany, he met and befriended a fellow Air Force specialist, Jimmy Curnes. In 1964, while Davidson, Carnes and two others were mountain climbing in Switzerland without proper equipment, John “slipped on the top of a glacier, and slid feet first on his back toward a crevice several hundred feet below. He did a flip over the crevice, landed face-first on his stomach and continued his slide a short distance before being stopped by rocks.”
On one hike he decided to climb a glacier while wearing regular shoes. Losing his balance, he slid out of control down the ice toward a crevasse. Picking up speed, he somehow launched himself over the crevasse, and landed on the other side, scraping his hands and face.
During one trip, Davidson and Carnes visited the Fram Museum in Oslo, Norway and were fascinated with an exhibit about Hannes Lindermann. This German doctor made two transatlantic crossings, the first in a dugout canoe, the second in a 17-foot Klepper Aerius ll double folding kayak with two masts and an outrigger. As a doctor, he was interested in how the human body and mind reacted to stresses at sea. The 3,000-mile kayak trip took him 72 days, and he later documented both trips in his book, “Alone at Sea.”
John and Jim bought a two-man Klepper kayak and started thinking about an adventure of their own. But they needed experience, so they developed their kayaking skills, especially along the Inn River, a tributary of the Danube which runs 322 miles through Switzerland, Austria and Bavaria.
Researching the history of kayak adventurers, they learned about Norwegians Kaare Anderson and Bjorn Braaten, both from Oslo, who kayaked from the mouth of the Columbia River at Astoria to New Orleans. John and Jim discovered there had been other trips like that, connected in some way to the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition between 1803 and 1806. The Norwegians had gone to New Orleans, but all the others stopped at St. Lewis. That gave them an idea. Why couldn’t they make that reverse trip and go all the way to the East Coast?
Some of this background about John came from his brother, Paul, but about a year ago another important source contacted me. Doug Curnes, Jimmy’s nephew, decided to write a book about that kayak trip. He had his uncle’s journal and some slides, so he contacted John’s brother and Debbie Shindler, John’s sister. They were happy to offer him more slides, letters and other material. But Curnes needed more about John’s later life in Alaska and his death. John’s siblings told him about my project, and Curnes searched the web and contacted the Resurrection Bay Historical Society who then gave him my email. Since then, we’ve worked together to fill out our parts of the story.
John Davidson and Jimmy Curnes were discharged from the Air Force in the Spring of 1966. Doug tells me they had different skill sets and were opposites in many ways. Both had a sense of adventure, but Jimmy was more calculating, and focused on planning and organization. John was freewheeling, creative, and spontaneous. It was a perfect match, the kind of ideal friendship made for just the right moment. Whether this friendship would have lasted a lifetime we’ll never know. The two lost contact when John came to Alaska in 1967 and he died ten years later. Jimmy died in 2016.
But for now, in the Spring of 1966 after four-years in the Air Force, both were free and seeking something different. Doug tells me the letters and journals indicate a sense of disenchantment with the world and the desire to get away from it all – not an uncommon attitude among the youth of that period. By May 1966, within a few weeks of their discharge from the Air Force, John Davidson and Jimmy Carnes left Astoria, Washington paddling their two-man Klepper on the Columbia River heading east.
To be continued
Doug Capra is the author of “The Spaces Between: Stories from the Kenai Mountains to the Kenai Fjords.” In addition to many Alaska history articles, he wrote forwards for two reprints of books by American artist Rockwell Kent. He has written poetry, essays and plays. His most recent play, “A Social Distance” is published in the June 2021 Cirque magazine. Earlier parts of this series can be found online at sewardjournal.com. People who knew the Davidson or who have photographs, information or letters, can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.