The story of my involvement with California’s Proposition 99 tobacco tax campaign began on my 43rd birthday when I escaped from Alaska— and escape is the appropriate term.
My three years in Alaska had been a great adventure. I had explored the state’s magnificent wilderness areas and accomplished a fair amount in my role as Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. The organization had a great board and staff. We had taken a sleepy organization and turned it into a powerhouse on air quality and tobacco issues. I had led backpack, bike, and cross-country ski trek fundraisers, substantially increasing the organization’s income, not to mention giving myself an excuse to play in the woods. (As if I needed an excuse.)
But I am not cut out for the Executive Director business— or any other long-term, high stress job, for that matter. I only know one speed: fast forward. In time, the job starts to feel like I am locked in a steel cage, which just happens to be dangling from a frayed rope, hanging over a dark abyss. If that sounds to you like an imaginative description of depression, you are right. It is something of a curse on my mother’s side of the family, or to be more scientific, call it a genetic disposition.
Unfortunately, I am a slow learner. I had been executive director of several environmental and health nonprofits, done my job, and moved on. It seemed like a natural fit; so I persisted. But each time, it was like I was flirting with the dark side of my mind. I had learned I made a better ‘consultant,’ where I created the jobs I would work on. For example, I developed the wilderness trek program as a fundraiser and then became the American Lung Association’s national trek consultant. The consulting work was intense, but it had a definite beginning and a definite end. Afterwards, I would go play.
Alaska had sounded really good, however. And it was. There was all of that great outdoors (over 50% of America’s wilderness area), important issues to address on the environmental and tobacco front, and a relationship in Sacramento that needed a serious time-out. So I had taken the bait when Alaska had called— hook, line and sinker.
By the end of the first year, I was climbing the walls. It was time to leave. Except I had made a commitment to myself, and to the organization that I would stay for three years. I struggled my way through the second year, barely keeping my head above the water. But we accomplished some good things— like forcing Tesoro to clean up the air pollution from its oil refinery, creating one of the first state-wide non-smoking laws in the nation, leading an effort to double the state tobacco tax with money going toward prevention, and bringing automobile inspection and maintenance to Alaska. But I was coming to the end of my tether. It was a short rope.
The stress at the back of my head was palpable. Even now, as I write about the experience, I can feel it gathering. It influenced my decision-making. Instead of coasting and turning more work over to my staff, I jumped feet first into the fire. It wasn’t necessary; my board and staff were good folks. They would have been eager to help. But asking for help assumes a rational mind. Mine wasn’t. I started making mistakes— and I started increasing my nightly consumption of alcohol, from two, to four, to six cans of beer. Alcohol was singing its seductive song.
Over Christmas, I took a break by myself and drove down to Homer on the Kenai Peninsula. There’s a motel that sits out at the end of the Homer Spit providing panoramic views of Kachemak Bay. I got a room and spent hours staring out at the water and distant mountains. And I made a decision. I would return to Anchorage and give a three-month notice that I was leaving. When the time was up, I would disappear into the woods for several months of backpacking. I would take the wilderness cure.
I spent my last day packing the things I wanted to take: a few books and camping gear. I would leave Alaska like I had arrived, with what I could fit in the back of my pickup. I spent the night at a friend’s home, but she wasn’t there. She had disappeared into the lower 48 states so she wouldn’t see me drive away. I had passed on her offer to get married, stay home, write, and raise kids. Her two dogs and cat kept me company.
I flew down the Alaska Highway the next morning, exhausting myself, searching for green grass and flowers. I almost made the Canadian border the first night. Too tired to move on, I pulled into a closed truck inspection point and crawled into the back of my pickup.
Once I had arranged my sleeping bag on top of my few possessions, I broke out some liquid refreshment to scare off the banshees that were nipping at my heels. My truck was packed with more guilt than goods, a lot more. Some old friends from California— Tom Lovering, Jean Snuggs and a new friend of Tom’s, an irrepressible minister by the name of Jeanie Shaw, had put together a South of the Border Care Package to ease my way toward California. It consisted of several ripe avocados, salsa, chips and a gallon of pre-made margaritas, heavy on the tequila. I held a little party with my staff before leaving. We did serious damage to the guacamole but hardly touched the margaritas.
I knocked off a water-sized glass of the latter. It put me well on the way to oblivion but it wasn’t enough to let me sleep through the horrendous racket of someone trying to break into my camper shell. I sat up with a start and yelled, banging my head against the top. A flashlight with enough candlepower to light up Las Vegas was shining directly into my eyes.
“You in the truck, what are you doing here?” It was the voice of Authority. An Alaskan State Trooper had been banging on my camper shell with his baton. I thought it was quite obvious what I was doing but wisely decided to refrain from the obscene comment that was perched on the tip of my tongue. I chose a mildly sarcastic response.
“Uh, sleeping?” I hazarded a guess.
“You are not supposed to sleep here,” the disembodied voice behind the flashlight responded. “Why didn’t you go to a motel?” I was obviously a suspicious character, having chosen not to support the Alaskan economy. I was also being interrogated with the bright light of the law shining in my eyes. It was time to think fast.
“I fell asleep behind the wheel,” I exaggerated slightly. “I was afraid I might do serious damage to myself or someone else on the highway.”
That put a serious crimp in his nightstick. I could tell he was pondering my answer by the slowness of his response. He was torn between his job to roust out suspected vagrants and his responsibility to save lives. His good sense won.
“Go back to sleep,” the voice said. It was a lot easier for him to say than it was for me to do.
NEXT FRIDAY’s ESSAY: I reject an offer to run off to Mexico and open an orphanage for homeless children, decide what I should do with a gallon bag of pot I was given as a going away present, and finish my journey to Sacramento— where I am immediately asked to put together a statewide campaign to increase California’s tobacco tax. Instead, I go backpacking.