On Assignment Moment #6: The Hermit with a Horn

“Wrangell- St. Elias National Park is a kingdom of peaks. Here four major mountain ranges converge. Nine of the thirteen highest peaks in the United States are found here, and more summits topping 14,500 feet than anywhere else on the continent. It is also a very strange place to hear a horn.”

That is how my book TREASURES OF ALASKA begins to tell the story of one of the most unique characters I’ve ever met on assignment: Cliff Wright, the hermit of Wrangell-St. Elias, a man with a message for all of us who have dreamed of chucking it all and walking off into the wilderness.

Since 1966, Cliff Wright has lived in an 18×16 foot one room, six-windowed cabin along Dan Creek, first with his wife and son, and then alone when they left in 1980.  “Sorry about being scruffy,” he says as I follow the sound of the old-fashioned, rubber-ended curlicue horn he is blowing from his front porch to guide me in to his well-hidden cabin. “I’m about three days behind in in trimmin’ up,” he says, rubbing his chin.

At 63 Cliff Wright is a sprite of a man, barely five feet tall; his waist is so narrow that his black belt nearly circles him twice. Cliff is neatly dressed, with a plaid shirt covering his turtleneck sweater and he wears eye glasses much too large for his face. “I wasn’t expecting company,” he says of my unexpected visit, yet he invites me inside.

His cabin is crowded but tidy: stacks of books and magazines fill every shelf; a picture of trumpeter swans, painted by his wife, hangs over the elevated bed. A Ruth Washington woodstove, third-hand, commands once wall. There are two chairs and a sawed-off tree stump he uses as a footrest. A vase of pussy willows sits on the windowsill. A JC Higgins single-shot shotgun over the door is loaded with birdshot and ready to pepper the backsides of any bears that get too friendly. “I don’t want to hurt them, but they keep crawling up on my front porch.”

Cliff Wright is not a man accustomed to visitors. His last visitors – hikers who stumbled upon his cabin – arrived in June, and their dirty dishes are still in the sink in what is now mid-August. Unaccustomed to conversation, Cliff talks slowly at first, often closing his eyes as if trying to at least visually maintain the solitude he loves. But, he quickly warms up and over the next five hours talks a swift river. I just listen.

Growing up in Florida, Cliff dreamed of a life in Alaska. With a degree in marine ecology from the University of Florida at Tampa Bay, he came north in 1965 on a temporary fisheries job. A year later he got a free ride back to the state by delivering a brand-new Chevy El Camino (“I think it was stolen, he tells me) to a buyer in Anchorage. He remembers seeing this landscape first in September, the “primo time of the year” and thinking that Alaska was everything he ever pictured it to be. So he stayed and started building his cabin.

Since then, Cliff has gotten by on the $1,500 to $2,000 a year he can cobble together by doing odd jobs whenever he can. He cuts wood by hand, hauls water from the creek, and every few months takes a long walk back to civilization where he gets his mail and buys supplies. Groceries are carried in on his back 35 pounds at a time. He makes jewelry, listens to the radio, and writes long poems in the meter and rhyme of Robert Service: I know I must go to the pastures of snow/ to savor their deep kind of living. / Where life is direct, it makes you reflect/ How nature is so unforgiving.”

Cliff leads a quiet life, making notes on his wall calendar to track the events of the days: April 7, Trumpeter Swans return; April 13, first mosquito, packed in groceries; April 19, biking on the frozen pond, fell once, wasn’t hurt.

“I am lazy by nature,” he admits when I ask about the numerous blank spaces on the calendar. “Once I got out of the Air Force, I said to hell with regimentation, including my own. I slump into the habit of staying up late, 2 am or later, listening to the radio or reading, and then I sleep a few hours, get up to make coffee, go back to sleep a few hours.”

What attracted you to this kind of life, I ask between poetry readings. “Freedom from and freedom to,” he says defiantly. “Freedom from noise, pollution, the whole rat race, and freedom to enjoy the beauty and solitude.”

As much as gold or oil, caribou herds or nets of fish, the opportunity for a person to spent time truly and utterly alone is one of Alaska’s greatest resources. For most of us that might mean a week, two weeks, canoe trip. For Cliff Wright, it has meant a lifetime. That solitude does not come without a price I begin to understand. Cliff talks often of “getting a honey” and tells me about the letters he has written to the ads in the backs of magazines that speak of Russian women wanting to meet American men. He’s gotten responses, he says, but hasn’t yet taken things further. He writes long letters to friends, dreams of a bike trip from Alaska to South America, and corresponds regularly with his “adopted child,” an Ecuadorian child he sponsors.

Still, loneliness lies close to the surface with Cliff. Outside, we spot a pair of trumpeter swans, as white as angels, which have been returning to this same pond for as long as Cliff has lived here. “Did you know they mate for life?” he asks me several times during the few minutes we sit watching.

A life of solitude is not for everyone. Yet, as we hike back to where I will meet the pilot, Cliff scoots ahead to point out edible plants, circles in the grass where bears have made day beds, and willows where the beavers have been at work. His familiarity with the landscape is the kind that only years of looking closely can bring. Before long, perhaps no living person will know what it means to dwell in a wilderness like this. A person can’t just walk into a national park and put up a cabin any more, even in Alaska. Who then will know what it means to go a whole winter without hearing another human voice? Who then will mark the return of the trumpeter swans in spring?

Once, Cliff stops so suddenly on the trail that I nearly bump into him. Looking me in the eye, he says, “You know, if I were to kick off tomorrow out here, I would have lived out my dream.” How many of us can say the same about our own lives? I wonder. But there is no time for an answer. I have to run to catch up with Cliff Wright who is already ten steps down the trail and still talking up a storm.