By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
Perhaps it should never have happened, but who’s to say?
It did happen, thus laying firmly into place a solid brick in the foundation of my character. Without this event, I am not the man I am today.
Even now, as I live in Dillingham on a high bluff above Nushagak Bay and remote from the Alaska road system, many of my actions and sensibilities are still governed by a half century of homestead life and the topography of the Kenai Peninsula.
If one man, whom I never knew, had not been bonked on the head all those many years ago, I might be writing, and living, a different story altogether.
I first learned of the event from the people next door.
Out on the homestead, Dan and Mary France were our neighbors — a mile away by gravel road, perhaps half that distance straight through the woods — for half a century. They’re still neighbors to our property, but no Fairs are currently living there. Renters occupy my old house, and my mother has sold her place and another small patch of woods on the other side of my parcel.
Dan and Mary actually were there before we even arrived in Soldotna in October 1960. They had moved onto their own 80-acre homestead in 1959 while Dad was still a dentist for the Army in Whittier, and it wasn’t until early spring 1962 that we moved from a Soldotna trailer court to our new home (which was separated from the Frances’ by the old Dave Thomas homestead).
For years, when I was a kid, I used to roam through the mix of black spruce, quaking aspen, cottonwood and paper birch on the remnants of a narrow, muddy, twisting old road that Dad had always called Dave’s Road — he had told me it was the route into the homesteads before Chas Foster built Forest Lane, which is the point of access used today.
Dave’s Road now is just broken pieces of mostly overgrown trail intersecting fields, driveways, nearby subdivisions and powerlines. In the fall in the old days, we tromped along its passageway in search of snowshoe hares and spruce grouse. In the winter, we employed it as a cross-country ski route. And on some summer days, we would drive our old Ford tractor down the road in search of spruce or birch trees to drag home and cut up for firewood.
Generally speaking, I don’t think about that old road much these days. But when I was visiting Dan and Mary a few years back, they offhandedly mentioned a guy named Stan Nelson and how he’d made this road. I asked for more information because I’d never heard of him.
Turns out that Stan Nelson was the original owner of the homestead on which I’ve lived nearly my entire life. It further turns out that because one day he gave up on his dream of homesteading, my family reaped the benefits. And the direction of my life settled on a 166-acre patch of ground stretching from a mixed-growth forest on a 200-foot riverine bluff to the banks of the Kenai River itself.
Because Nelson abandoned his homestead, I grew up with elbow room — a hay field, a quarter-mile of river frontage, trails, back roads, forests for tree forts, exploration and adventure, a wild game corridor near our house and a sense of what it meant to carve out our own kind of life.
Here’s as much of Stan Nelson’s story as I know: He came down to the peninsula from Anchorage in the late 1950s and claimed the homestead land next to the France and Thomas properties. He then brought down (according to Dan) a “piece-of-shit” Caterpillar tractor with which to build a road into his property. Since the Frances and Thomases were also homesteading out there (and could use improved access), Dan and Dave were on hand to help Stan keep his machine running.
Fortunately for Nelson, both Dan (who later spent many years rebuilding airplanes) and Dave (a local carpenter) were good with machines and good with their hands. Dan said that on one particularly aggravating day the track came off, and had to be put back on, Stan’s tractor seven times. But slowly, despite all the stops and starts, the road was taking shape — a summer road only at this point, the topsoil scraped off, the path left ungraveled, with no ditches and barely wide enough for a single vehicle.
And then came the event that changed everything.
Stan moved his tractor into position to knock over a birch tree that stood in his way — choosing to ram it head on rather than go around it. But when his blade struck the birch a top section of the tree snapped off and crashed directly onto him, nearly killing him. He needed to be transported out of the woods to a hospital (likely in Anchorage in those days, as Soldotna had barely 200 residents and Kenai just over double that amount).
The trauma robbed Stan of all his homesteading enthusiasm. He decided to sell the place and leave the state. Since nearly everyone in Soldotna knew everybody else in those days, and since the Frances were friendly with the Fairs, they went to my folks and urged them to offer to buy Stan out — which they did.
And so it went.
Who knows where — if it hadn’t been for that broken birch tree — I’d have grown up, and who knows what sorts of environmental touchstones I’d have had?
It’s odd to contemplate the possibilities.
But, of course, life is what it is. In 1960 my parents had briefly contemplated stopping in Palmer to live — coming from Midwestern farmer stock, the agricultural possibilities were appealing — and they also considered driving farther south into Homer. Ultimately, though, Dad’s career was a deciding factor. Soldotna was a crossroads, and neither Soldotna nor Kenai had a full-time dentist, so he would establish a practice and spend most of the next 40 years thriving in it.
All the possibilities are intriguing to consider, but the mental gymnastics are ultimately meaningless. Since we are the sum of our experiences, how can we be shaped at all by those we never had?
I owe a lot to Stan and his accident. Sorry for the headache, but thank you for the rest.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.