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I could tell at first that my brother, Adam, was skeptical about my latest obsession – tracking down and exploring forgotten lighthouses. But, I imagine, the trip I was proposing caught the better part of his imagination and overrode any of his remaining doubts: we would embark upon a three week long, cross-country road trip from our home state, New Jersey, all the way to Seattle, Washington, and then finally ferry along the inside passage to the last frontier, Alaska. The purpose guiding our way would be to photograph as many of the lighthouses dotting the coasts of the Great Lakes and the Pacific Ocean as we could. The ultimate goal would be to cross the thresholds of one of the abandoned lighthouses on the small, rocky islands off the coast of Ketchikan, Alaska. “Sure, sure,” said Adam, “how many lights can there be in the middle of the country, anyway?” He had no idea what he was getting himself into.
Day one was to set the pace for the rest of the trip. We planned to zoom through three states and track down six lighthouses across Pennsylvania and Ohio before reaching our first stop that evening. Heading out at sunrise that warm, August morning, we reached Erie, PA by early afternoon. Once an industrial powerhouse and major shipping port along the Great Lake Erie, the city today feels gutted and rough around the edges. I was sad, but unsurprised. Thanks to the loss of America’s manufacturing base over the last several decades, this is the state of affairs for many towns that once required a lighthouse to help ships navigate their rocky waters. While these lights are beautiful and historic structures today, they were at one time essential for the commercial transport of industrial cargo and merchandise. Having a lighthouse meant that not only was there danger present in the water, but also that ships could not simply pass by the town – boats needed to safely arrive at that port. Erie, in fact, has more than one light left standing – a testament to how important the town was in the heyday of maritime commerce. The Erie Land Lighthouse, a castle-like structure towering anachronistically in the middle of a modern playground, was our first stop. We waved to a picnicking family, took our photos and felt ready to find the next light.
I’ve driven up and down, back and forth across America – for fun – several times. Road trips do not appeal to every traveler, but for me, there’s no better vacation than to pack a bag, hop in a car with some friends and simply drive away. We can thank Jack Kerouac for embedding the idea into the American sub consciousness that the places, people, and adventures along the road must be left to spontaneity and chance alone, but I’ve been on road trips that mirrored Kerouac’s vision. To be sure, they make for a few great stories, but, in the end, one just doesn’t see or do as much as one might think. It can even get pretty boring. While everyone should try an unplanned ride at least once in his life, as a seasoned road tripper, I prefer having a route and knowing my stops along the way. I took this to the extreme with our Alaska trip because I wanted to pack as much activity as I could into our time on the road. Armed with an iPhone and a Magellan GPS, we Google Mapped, Yelped, and Lighthouse Located beforehand where we were going, how long it would take, and even where we wanted to eat along the way. I also have to give a shout out to the most comprehensive lighthouse website out there: www.lighthousefriends.com. Their directions put us on the right track time and time again.
We drove to the nearby Presque Isle State Park and covertly snapped some pictures of the privately owned Presque Isle Light, built in 1872, and saw two more lights in the same park before we hit the road again. Later that afternoon, we grabbed some grub beside the scenic Vermilion Lighthouse in Vermilion, Ohio, and felt only slightly dismayed that the maritime museum had closed up shop for the day. We were otherwise distracted. The light stood beside a lake so expansive, we felt as if we were standing beside the ocean. We pressed onward and landed in Huron, OH by nightfall. The Rivers Edge Inn was conveniently located beside the final site for that day, a functional lighthouse at the end of a great riffraff pier that has been donated to the town for public use. The strange glow of the light and the setting sun behind the obelisk made the setting feel surreal, and wonderful. We could not believe that we were actually on this trip together, how much we had already accomplished, or what adventures still lay ahead of us.The next day, we expected to have a quiet time checking out some old lights before reaching Chicago. We first ate at Lemmie’s, named after the infamous Lake Erie monster who was first spotted in 1793 and continues to generate sightings today. At this quirky local diner, curious children can throw a potato down the basement stairs to feed the captive lake monster the establishment claims to keep on its premises. We ourselves didn’t opt to toss any vegetables, so we continued onward to Indiana. When we arrived, the beach along Lake Michigan was as packed with people as our native Jersey Shore on Memorial Day Weekend. We doubted that thousands of people had shown up to relax on the beach, let alone see the lighthouses. Sure enough, we had stumbled into the Third Annual Great Lakes Grand Prix, the Michigan City Super Boat races: just like Nascar, but on the water. After cooling off with a beer beside the East Pierhead Lighthouse, we made it to the Old Michigan City Lighthouse only to find that it was closed for the races. Disappointed, we roamed the grounds and accidentally happened upon an old man and his wife, the keepers of the lighthouse and adjacent museum. After we told them how far we’d come just to see the light, they were kind enough to open the building, just for a bit. We first went up to the lantern room and caught the best view of the races below. The museum downstairs had standard lighthouse memorabilia: brittle life preservers, yellowed diaries, ancient photos and the like, but the intimacy and privacy of the tour made it very special for us. We left a generous donation before we went on our way, and thanked the couple heartily. I like to imagine that our visit made them as happy as they made us. Hoping to spend a full afternoon and a night on the town in Chicago, we set out again with the Navy Pier plugged into our GPS. While it is a major tourist destination, complete with carnival rides, a mall, a beer garden and trendy restaurants, Navy Pier also provides a view of up to six lighthouses at once. As we sped along, the weather slowly shifted from what had been a bright and sunny morning. It had now become ominously dark, and sure enough, the heavens opened up and unleashed a torrent of rain just as we reached the water’s edge in Chicago. Needless to say, I was bummed. We passed time souvenir shopping and grabbing a bite to eat in the shopping center, moping. Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped: the great winds of the Windy City had blown the clouds away. In their place, we were left with a view of a vivid rainbow passing over the Chicago Harbor Guide Wall Lighthouse. I was stunned, and suddenly very happy. We took pictures of all six lights, including the four “Crib” lighthouses shaped like carousels and painted like candy far out in the waters of Lake Michigan. We weren’t bothered by rain any more that day and proceeded to take a walking tour of the River North district, culminating with dinner at Lou Malnati’s — home of the greatest deep dish pizza in Chicago. The long wait was made easier at the standing-room-only bar, but the anticipation alone made the food taste that much better when we were finally seated. With heavy stomachs and light heads, we wandered back to our hotel room and soundly slept until the next morning.
As we drove, we began to notice that the cars along the highway had been largely replaced by motorcycles. Along every swoop of the highway, it seemed, there roared another pack of bikers. Taking note, we decided to call ahead to a few motels to compare rates for that evening. To my chagrin, all of the prices were through the roof. “What is going on?” I asked a harried sounding receptionist at the last motel I spoke to. As it turns out, we had unknowingly landed ourselves smack-dab in the middle of the Sturgis Biker Rally, the largest annual gathering of motorcycles in the country. It was a curse and a blessing. This otherwise remote and desolate region is teeming with all walks of life during Sturgis, and everywhere we went we met more interesting and exciting new people. The caravan of black leather and chrome looping up the narrow path to Mount Rushmore that day is a sight I won’t soon forget. But all of the rooms we could find were either booked or too expensive.
The next leg of our trip was nowhere near the water, so, obviously, seeing lighthouses wasn’t an option. We took the opportunity to relax and enjoy some of the more spontaneous parts of our adventure. South Dakota has a wealth of kitschy roadside attractions at almost every stop along Highway 90. Passing through the badlands and driving right on by the more obvious tourist traps, we were finally intrigued enough to answer the question we’d seen on so many bumper stickers along the way: “Where the heck is Wall Drug?” It turns out that Wall Drug is a mammoth rest stop, souvenir store, and roadside playground in Wall, SD. The family that owns the behemoth has been giving away free ice water to thirsty drivers since 1931 and is still going strong. We bought a few gifts, snapped some fun photos, picked up our free bumper sticker on the way out and tossed our empty paper cups into the trash. Refreshed, we were ready to head over to Mount Rushmore.
We didn’t dare venture into Sturgis in my beat up ’98 Nissan (although I wonder now what kind of adventure we could have gotten into if we had). Prepared as we were for any turn of events, we shook out the tent and sleeping bags and slept under an unbelievable swath of stars in the middle of nowhere.
The next morning, we plowed through Montana, stopping only for a fresh steak, drawing nearer to the west coast and our last stop on dry land before boarding the ferry to Alaska. The scenery morphed from plains to watershed the moment we passed the “Welcome to Washington” sign. Along the scenic route, the view of Puget Sound was intense: a short, stone wall separated us from an expansive view situated atop the stratified cliffs which loomed above a strong, slow current beneath. Reluctantly moving forward, our longest day of driving yet had finally plopped us down at the youth hostel in Seattle where, fortunately, we’d had a reservation booked for weeks.
We had promised ourselves that no matter how we felt in the morning, no excuse would keep us from seeing what we’d come all the way out to the west coast for. So, the next day, we stopped by the original Starbucks to grab some get-up-and-go and headed out to see the lights. Seattle has the distinction of being a bonafide city with plenty of outdoorsy, natural settings to explore. Sweating out the last night’s toxins, we took an early morning hike over towering cliffs, through lush woods, across muddy beaches and along sandy trails to reach the secluded and handsome West Point Lighthouse. Situated on the tip of a triangular peninsula with no one around for miles, the area would appear abandoned except for the freshly painted, classic west coast façade of the lighthouse: white walls, green window trim and a scarlet red roof. The rest of the day took us back on the road in and around Seattle, looking for three more lights.
Adam napped in the front seat while I photographed the Lightship Swiftsure moored in the downtown harbor. Lightships are portable lighthouses: large masts support beaming lights atop bright red boats, with the name of the station painted in giant white letters along the side of the ship. To me, a lightship is even more interesting than a lighthouse, because many are hard to track down, and few have survived. To my further delight, I turned around and discovered that I also had full view of the Space Needle. We eventually left city limits and drove to the Mukilteo Lighthouse to the north. Similar to the style of the first lighthouse that day, the difference was that Mukilteo Light was situated beside some quality ice cream and seafood stands. We feasted, and by the time we made it to Bellingham, WA, we were exhausted.
Throwing our bags on our dormitory style bunk beds, Adam and I exchanged pleasant words with a bunkmate from Australia before heading downstairs for a cheap dinner and a beer at the bar next door. Our new friend, already familiar with the neighborhood, joined us for a few more rounds and offered to show us the joints he’d discovered while recently carousing. Revelry ensued. It is just after the bar packed with 80’s arcade games and pinball machines when the exact details of that night begin to escape me. I can gladly report, however, that everyone got home safely – eventually – without much incident, and that there are some excellent establishments for young people within walking distance of City Hostel Seattle, designed specifically for having a remarkably good time with new friends.
The sights from this vessel were the most beautiful I have ever experienced. For miles, and days, there are rocky islands covered with pines, and snow capped mountains, and placid, gentle gray waterways. There are no waves to rock the boat because the open sea is blocked by the islands, and the ferry travels through the calm “inner passage” between these islands and the Canadian shoreline. There were even lighthouses to see along the way. Although curious about their locations and histories, I found myself accepting them as part of the scenery and leaving them at that. As it turns out, there is such a thing as lighthouse overload. We met plenty of folks who were also sleeping on the solarium deck, and we would all go back and forth together between the lounge and our makeshift “bedroom.” I passed the rest of the time reading the books I had brought along, including the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as Into the Wild, both fitting reads. We were on the boat for nearly 36 hours before we reached our destination in the early morning: Ketchikan, Alaska. The boat would continue north, picking us up on its return trip in three days’ time.
The Bellingham Best Western features a great deal for tramps like us: a super cheap “park and ride” package that left us feeling reassured about the car’s whereabouts. They even threw in a shuttle to the ferry. After a late checkout, we picked up our passes and boarded the boat with just the packs on our backs and the smiles on our faces. Overpriced cabins are available on the ferry, but the young, poor, and hardy typically opt to sleep on the outdoor solarium deck. The solarium is an exposed, no frills station beneath heat lamps where one can sleep, either on the floor or, if luck abounds, on one of the plastic lounging deck chairs the ship provides. This seemed right up our alley, except that Adam, wearing only thin long sleeves, hadn’t thought to bring a jacket to Alaska. I won’t comment on that any further, but I will say that he managed to keep warm by spending plenty of time in the on-board pub, and that he bought a coat immediately upon landing.
The next morning we finally arrived at the crux of our journey. Prior to making the trip, I’d been speaking with Bill Spencer of Adventure Charters & Marine Services, Inc. After explaining the nature of our vacation, he agreed to charter a thirteen-hour tour of the waters surrounding Ketchikan. Captain Bob Hascoloride would be taking us to explore up to four different abandoned lights, barring severe weather, which was, unfortunately, a common occurrence in the Tongass National Rainforest where we’d be travelling. Indeed, that morning when we arose and headed outside, the gray clouds were only visible through a fine, drizzling mist. We climbed aboard the tiny Nika Lynn to receive a brief safety speech, but then, soon enough, the swift little boat was moving, and finally we were leaping over the waves and zooming across the sea. The tiny boat seemed to fly through the air.
As it turns out, three days is more than enough time to explore everything Ketchikan has to offer. For most people, the little town is a brief stop along the Alaska Marine Highway, or a port for one of the cruise ships that pulls in for a few hours at a time. To Adam and me, it was the culmination of our journey. We hiked along the road from the ferry terminal to the downtown, a cool two mile trek that winds along the waters edge and passes through the fishing shacks and canneries that still make up the local economy. We eventually checked in to the haunted-looking Gilmore Hotel, dumped our bags and began to walk around the area. Ketchikan was once a lawless gold rush town in the late 1800’s, complete with a red light district along the infamous Creek Street. Today, the bawdy history of the place is told with touristy finesse and tongue-in-cheek innuendo, but really, the history comes through quite well, especially if one takes the time to check out the several museums the town has to offer. On day one, Adam and I were able to hike up a mountain (well, a quarter of the way up, anyway), enjoy fresh, local salmon, scarf down some reindeer hotdogs, visit two museums, and shop along Creek Street. Having seen almost everything in the first few hours, we sampled some more local flavor by checking out a few salty bars, too. My favorite was the Sourdough, right across the street from where we were staying. It was to become a regular haunt for the remaining days we were there.
“How bad?” we responded simultaneously.
“I been in weather so bad that if we were in this little boat, WE’D ALL BE DEAD!” shouted our captain with a whooping laugh. Captain Bob also made sure to congratulate us: he’d thought for sure upon first glance that we’d be seasick within an hour, but we weren’t even green about the gills, and we never were.Finally we arrived at Mary Island. We could see the entire isle from the boat: the lighthouse stood there at its center, vacant, with the door off its hinges, surrounded by pines. There was nothing else in sight but the island and the open sea. Adam and I wrestled a raft off the top of the boat while Bob held the Nika Lynn steady, then the two of us climbed in and paddled to shore. We tumbled out, plunking our waterproof boots into the shallows, and with some difficulty made sure to tie the raft to a steady rock. Boulders were piled high along the beach, and more than once our boots slipped along the slick path, careful though we were to step. Wild nature abounded. Thankfully heeding Bob’s warning to avoid any brown bears, we saw only eagles, marmots, and, most interesting, hundreds of bright purple and orange star fish which hung like globs on the rocks along the way. Finally, we made it to the light. Clawing our way up the grassy hill, we took a deep breath and entered the empty lighthouse. It had the smell that only an abandoned structure has: a mixture of guano, peeling paint and a flooded cave. Slowly we descended into the basement, making sure not to fall down the steps — a rescue could take hours if we were hurt. The building has been standing since the early 1900s, and the basement is more like a cellar, carved into the island beneath the light. We found our way up and ascended more steps, passed through the keeper’s quarters, climbed all the way up into the lantern room. I imagined the loneliest job in the world must have been to sit here in this tower, warning the few and far between passers-by of the dangerous rocks below. After an hour or so, we left the lighthouse and the island, having finished what we set out to do.
Getting the raft back onto the boat proved difficult, but not impossible. “They don’t call it Adventure Charters for nothing,” quipped Bob. I tried to imagine how he kept himself occupied while we were away; perhaps he quietly reflected while staring into the sea. Or was he busy with a game of solitaire? We travelled north once again toward Tree Point to see the next light there. The weather was growing more severe, and the waves were climbing higher now. Faster and harder the tiny Nika Lynn was crashing down from the peaks of the waves as the wind picked up, and sure enough, Captain Bob soon stopped the boat. He said, “You can ask anybody in Ketchikan; when I turn back, it’s too dangerous to go ahead.” With that, Tree Point Light was stricken from the itinerary. Knowing that I’ll probably never return, I feel a yearning for the adventures that might have been on an island that, Bob promised, would have been wilder than anyplace we’d ever been.
We turned south and away from the growing squall. We were able to pass close by an abandoned light ship that had recently popped up in Ketchikan and circle around the final lighthouse of the trip, Guard Isle Light. We had accomplished as much as we could. Thanking our captain, we stepped back onto dry land and wandered back to the hotel.
The rest of the trip is a blur. On our last day in Alaska, we hopped a dilapidated bus to the underwhelming Saxman Village totem poles, took a final tour of the historic bordellos, and caught a local band’s show at a dive called the Arctic Bar that night. The ferry views were just as beautiful on the way back, but the same thirty-six hours at sea seemed longer than on the way up. Climbing back into the car in Washington, I had the sense of doing everything in reverse, even though we were to take a more southerly route so as not to repeat the same sights. We hardly paused on our homeward-bound march, except a brief stop to watch Old Faithful gush right-on-time at Yellowstone National Park. When we fired up the GPS for the last time and pressed the Home icon, I knew the trip was nearly over. Taking shifts, one brother asleep in the back seat, the other’s eyes glued to the road, we were aiming straight for home. Just three days later, we pulled into familiar territory: traffic backed up along the Parkway to the Jersey shore. With a final hug, I left Adam at his house before climbing into the Nissan once more for the short trip back to my own apartment. In that last hour on the road, I reflected on the conversations we’d had, and the memories we made. I know they cannot be replicated. We were two young men, brothers, and for a brief summer month, adventurers.