The Northern Lights shimmering over Ketchikan taken from a boat swinging at anchorThis essay ran in Single State of the Union, a collection edited by my friend Diane Mapes.

Photos and text by Amanda Castleman

Age eleven, I skidded around the ferry terminal. Sugar-propelled, I hummed and hopped, watching my reflection in the windows: a small, fierce blonde child superimposed on saltwater.

“That boat’s going to Alaska,” my father interjected.

My orbit stopped. Alaska. Land of the Midnight Sun. Dog sleds and kayaks. Wilderness areas the size of states. Even the ferry had a frontier anarchy air with its gypsy patchwork of tents. Alaska!

The ship slid from the dock, my dreams churning in its wake. I wanted so very badly to go, go, go, get gone from the tulip fields, the silage and sleech of Washington’s Skagit Valley.

Two decades later, I’m finally underway.


I cough myself awake on the MV Columbia. I haven’t kicked the cold I acquired in Zimbabwe last week. Sleeping on deck isn’t helping, but I refuse to wuss into a cabin.

No one said travel writing would be easy. But, oh, the places you’ll go.

In the glittering, greedy city of Hong Kong, I sipped gin-and-tonics at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and danced until dawn in a scarlet bob wig and pink aviator glasses despite my capitalist guilt. I refused a Bedouin sheik’s proposal — to become wife number two — while veiled in a Jordanian desert camp. Last month I watched jackass penguins nesting in the dunes near Cape Town, South Africa. Next month I’ll see puffins at Europe’s northernmost point, Nord Kapp, Norway. The dots connect in nearly a straight line: one degree of longitude, over 105 of latitude.

And all so, so far from the Skagit’s gooey mud flats.


Many people rank this career just below that of rock star. Some of these enthusiasts take the travel writing courses I teach online. From a Taos hacienda or Croatian castle, wherever I’ve wandered, I edit their fledgling articles and dispense advice. But unlike certain colleagues — “get paid to travel the world for free!” — I am honest.

I confess that my toilet rocks on its moorings in the garret back home. Tell them of my ink-stained secondhand clothes, of my crummy pension plan, of the four-o’clock-in-the-morning courage of self-employment.

I worry about the expense of kitty grit. And how to wrestle the 20-lb sacks home without a car. But it can be done. And— Look, Ma! No hands! — it can even be done sans safety net: no partner, no day job, no trust fund.

Live by the pen, die by the pen.


Sheaves of blue, as Alaskan waters fade into silhouetted evergreens and blue bands of hills.

The ferry heaves in Queen Charlotte Sound. The windows flash slug-grey sea, then sky, a slightly whiter shade of pale.

My temper matches the stormy weather.

Here’s what I don’t tell my students: often I cry after a long trip. The house is empty except for Jake the Tabby and Molly Alleycat, grown almost feral during my absence. My pet sitter’s mother has alphabetized all the soup cans in yet another eerie compulsive display. And the pages of memory resemble nothing so much as outstanding bills…

I want someone there smiling. Preferably with a leafy green salad, a glass of Pinot Grigio and nothing on except an apron.

Okay, scratch the apron. Boxer-briefs would be acceptable. Preferable even.


That slice of cake is too big, I’m told.

“Professional travelers can rarely have dogs, gardens, children or any other variety of significant other,” Susan Spano wrote in a 2005 Los Angeles Times column.

My thoughts swing back and forth like the prow. The MV Columbia is threading the Wrangell Narrows, 46 switchbacks through shoals. Spruce and hemlock stand sentinel on the shore. Fishers’ kids run alongside the ferry, waving so hard their bodies wiggle.

The home I’ve created is a happy one: two rescued cats, a porch full of potted herbs and tomatoes, a view of Mount Rainier’s snow-shadowed cone from my desk. Friends draw close; they keep the gods and monsters at bay.

Except I crave more: the whole happy family fantasy. Being part of something larger than myself. Sharing kisses at dawn and dryer lint. Memorizing the pressure points of another soul.

And I want to see the puppy-shimmy — joy made into motion — from a child of my own.

Edit that. Of our own; if only I knew the right companion for that long and winding road.


Once I was married. Seven years, in fact, just like the itchy jokes.

I fell in love on the Rome-Bologna train. We’d dashed to the station, determined to hop the next service, wherever it might lead, for the long weekend. His knapsack contained only a tattered volume of Xenophon, two oranges and a toothbrush.

And so we lived: ricocheting through England, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey. We rode our relationship hard and put it away wet. The glue factory was inevitable.

My ex has a mortgage now, two kids, a job he dreads. And I? I remarried adventure.

But I’ve always run straight at trouble like some woad-smudged berserker. “You have just two speeds,” my friend and colleague Edward complains. “Inert and full throttle. If you don’t figure out the middle gears, kid, you won’t see 40.”

But I fear the alternative, so ably expressed by Kent Nerburn in Road Angels: “I’ve watched the light go out of too many of my friends’ eyes as their lives turned from a crazy garden of weeds and wildflowers to a well-manicured lawn. I’m not ready for that yet. I need ‘bears behind trees’ — surprises in life that are bigger than a plugged sewer line or an unexpected finance charge on my credit card … If I don’t have them, my life becomes just a long-term maintenance project.”


The huddled forms of sleepers on white plastic lounge chairs, grilling under heat lamps on the deck of a ferry headed to AlaskaBefore dawn, I wake, twisting on the plastic lounge-chair — my decktop bed these last three nights. Heat lamps grill overhead: sinister and ember-orange. In contrast, the landscape unfurls in grey-blue sheaves: sea shading to mountains, then clouds and beyond. The lightest tone is the color of my eyes, the darkest that of my dreams.

The scene echoes a thousand from my childhood on Samish Island, just south of the ferry’s lower-48 terminal. Skagit Valley was chock full of bubbas, who scraped low-riders over speed bumps and blasted jacked-up trucks across cattle guards. The women adjusted their home perms over drip coffee: “That Castleman girl, why, she’s grown real pretty for such a nerd. She doesn’t even look like ET anymore!”

Back in the day, they gossiped about hayloft date rapes and drunks drowning in agricultural ditches, the odd passion crime in a pioneer-era barn, sagging with snaggle-toothed timbers. Then Interstate-5 brought gangbangers and artisanal cheesemakers to northwest Washington. Kinda made everyone miss the stink of pea silage, to be honest.

I am not a true daughter of this earth. But I moved here young enough to bear its brand. I’ve raced 100mph over the salt flats. I’ve climbed glaciers in the same county where I primped for my junior prom. I’ve seen my reflection fragmented by blackberry brambles in flooded fields. The scent of this coast signals home to me, more clearly than any channel buoy.

No matter how far I run, Skagit Valley shadows my side. I can’t escape saltwater and cedars, any more than I can escape my impulsive self.

Nor would I want to, it seems.


Humpback whales spyhop alongside the MV Columbia. I watch their spray blossom like wild flowers upon the waves.

The Marine Highway — the world’s longest ferry service — has lessons for me, I realize. Its wisdom is slow and majestic, just like our procession up the Inside Passage.

Someday, somewhere, I’ll find a partner, perhaps. A man to adventure along beside me or at least comb my hair when I stumble home sick. And reassure me that the loneliness, the long hours, the financial Russian roulette are worth all these weak words.

Or — harder yet — maybe I’ll learn to hold myself safe. Content in this moment, not reaching greedy for the next, not always going, going, going simply to get gone.

Mountains rear ever higher above the fjord. As I gaze into the wake — churned the milky sage of glacial-melt — the MV Columbia bellies up to the Skagway dock.

Twenty years after my journey to Alaska begins, I finally arrive.

Coda: An incredible man finally met me at the door naked except for an apron… and we’ve lived together since 2009.  We skipped the kids, but have two cats and a Seattle cottage garden we’re transforming with native plants. I’m glad Susan Spano’s dire warning didn’t play out!

Snowy Alaskan mountains rise above hills and the sea