The Self-Reliant Man Peel back the bark and expose the diamonds
By Elias Christian Hawknews Writer Twelve students are walking down a twisted path, creased with roots and lined with cranberry bushes amidst the verdant moss and white paper lichen - tall, spiky spruce trees, unruffled and sentinel. A garden - well-tended as a flower - appears, as if it's drifting into the trail like a wind-buffeted cloud. They climb a small slope to a shed, crammed with exquisite carvings and various effects: a carven chair, empty doghouses, another garden. An assortment of scattered memories. Blue skies above, a sheet of dreamy paper - or gray skies, some untouchable bruise. Below these skies, the mountains screen, snow dusting the peak like a badly-frosted brownie. The haunt of animals: ravens in the trees, the omen and the trickster; the moose, vast and silent, somewhere in the recesses of the woodland. There is that quiet that can only justly be called the noise of nature. Whose shed? Whose empty doghouses? Whose gardens? Whose scattered memories? Approaching is Mark Vail, friendly and prepared, from where he has been picking red berries for jam. His gray-white beard is trimmed to his chest, looking like Santa Claus: a jovial face and eyes brimming with readiness and good cheer. On his head is a woolen beret. Well-worn Carhartts on his legs, hikers, and a light blue sweater, sleeves pushed up above his elbows. His face vacant of worry, and stress wrinkles. To assess Mark Vail and to carve a shaft of diamond willow one must "peel the bark and expose the diamonds.” Mark Vail is a true escapist. Not an escapist into fantasy, or to a dreamlike impossibility, but someone who has found refuge in simplicity, discerned what is necessary and what can be cast away. Needless accessory. He has avoided the troubles and tensions that are brought with a failing economy, and has lived peacefully in the McCarthy valley for 30 years since he "put the door on and could close it." Vail was born in rural Pennsylvania where he read Jack London and Farley Mowat, and dog-mushed coonhounds, nurturing his idea of north. He also was upholding an interesting lineage: a 4th great-grandparent who had battled in the Revolutionary War. Vail followed these warrior roots by joining the Air Force as a cook. To his dismay, he was assigned to Louisiana, which is far from northern. He could, however, switch with another member of his class - a lover of electronic music and a former resident of Florida. To convince this southern man of the reversal, Vail told him a slightly obvious untruth: when this fellow classmate was living in his frigid igloo in Alaska, the dog team that would bring his precious electronic music would run through the cold weather, and the music would freeze and break. This man was won over and Vail found himself in the Last Frontier in 1976. "I landed on Valentine's Day and fell in love," he says. Mark Vail was in Alaska, working in remote Air Force camps all over the state, but it was when he was dip-netting with a friend that a realization came to him. It was a sunny day; sunlight was spilling down like warm copper-gold over the valley, and the sky was azure, vivid and brilliant. He sat on a black rock, dip-net in his hands, no fish beside him but no disappointment within him. Suddenly, there was a struggle in the net and he snapped into action as he hauled a 20-pound king salmon alongside his thigh, wriggling, wet, silver and beautiful. Later, as he and his companion sat on the bank, eating this fresh offering of the river, looking out over the whole of the glorious valley, he thought, "Wow, if I could live here and eat fish like this: that's what I wanna do." Though some may view the Alaskan lifestyle as harsh and cold, rife with problems and mishaps, Vail counters: "There not much that's really bad or I wouldn't be here after 25 years!" But he enjoys that aforementioned noise of nature, that sound of silence, that peace and quiet; the access to the gorgeous, vast country of the wilderness; that wild, insane freedom to do whatever he wants. He loves the life set before him. He relishes in watching a pair of swans that nest on the beaver pond, three signets amidst them -- the first time they have been able to raise young there. It is in that simple beauty that there is wonder in this world yet. To need so little and yet live so happily is a glorious way, unbridled, free, and sparse. There is a world filled with dust, anxiety, and cigarette butts just on the threshold of Vail’s life. But he ignores that-- turns away from it and he continues to build a peaceful haven at the edge of a wild country, one of only a few. Reach his house and within, it is cluttered yet in some way organized, filled with fascinating necessities and the products of various hobbies: homemade berry jam and wine, bear faces made from the paper of the hunting regulations, books upon books, a shelf filled with spools of multicolored yarn, a jar of gumballs on a shelf, a jar of shells, exquisite baskets, "Rootbeer Drops", Doublemint gum, numerous collections...the list goes on. Only a sparse amount of furniture and not a computer in sight. Sometimes it's years before Vail breaks out of this serene existence, and it is then that he sees how the world has raced on: An electric, obsolete typewriter ignored when it was worth $800 only 17 years before; people talking constantly with one another on cell phones and Bluetooth ("When I grew up, only crazy people talked to themselves"); a laptop only a few years old his friend abandoned beneath the bed. Vail says, "Always look at [technology] with a critical eye." This is his philosophy. Mark Vail has demonstrated that there was a life before the buzzing social tech; a life that he is living. "Does your way of life make a statement?" "I hope." Mark Vail lives on nine spark plugs, a man born in a world of angst, yet finding a home in a paradise of men: a heaven on earth. A twisted path? No, too sinister. A winding trail into the scenic homestead of a self-reliant man.
I'm grateful for the technology that allows me to read this story written by a talented writer; sharing the "essence" of a man named Mark in McCarthy, who surely has reached self-actualization. Thank you, Elias!Really enjoyed the article. Sharon Waisanen
Feel like I just met Mark Vail. Pete McCloskey
Wow, I just ran across this article which was the result of your visit this fall. I'm impressed, really good writing Elias. Seeing this makes me glad to have had the visit. Keep up the good work. Mark Vail
Wow, amazing piece! You are a fantastic writer Elias! Sami Knutson
Fascinating look into this man's life! Well done! Marnie Graham
Elias....that was very good. Dennis Wallace
Avery vivid description of an unusual habitation, a creative individual, and a dreamlike landscape! Good work---E-boyy GrandpaFred Christian
Kenny Lake School's Writer's Workshop students interview Mark Vail at his cabin along the McCarthy Road.
Inside Mark Vail's cabin reveals an eclectic man.
A day's harvest of cranberries gathered from the land.
Mark Vail's food cache complete with bear deterence.