It almost didn’t happen. I was on my way to Whitehorse, Yukon to meet my future husband. It was May 1968. Ron Scollon had been planning a trip to Alaska since Black Day in July 1967. They were burning down Detroit, and Ron’s aunt, uncle and cousins were in Alaska. They returned and showed slides. Ron vowed to go to Alaska the following summer. Ron ran Estudio de la Guitarra with Dick Schneider, who made guitars.
Ron’s friend Layne Longfellow was teaching at Reed College in Portland, Oregon where I majored in psychology, and my friend Mira signed up for his seminar in humanistic psychology. She introduced us one sunny April day on the lawn.
He told me about his friend Ron who had studied classical guitar in Mexico; was fluent in Japanese, and had written a brilliant paper on psycholinguistics.
I was interested. Meanwhile, I was infatuated with Layne. We hung out and became acquainted. On May 13, Ron’s birthday, he phoned and told Ron about me.
“I don’t want to hear about any woman!” exclaimed Ron. “Every time I call, a different woman answers the phone.” I don’t know what Layne told him, but he finally relented. “Okay, but if anything happens, SHE goes.” No woman was going to ruin his trip. When I heard under what conditions I would make it a crowd, I thought I could bail out, take the train to Juneau, stay with my roommate’s family and work in the salmon cannery.
The semester ended. A classmate had arranged to deliver a Chevy El Camino to Kenai, Alaska. Since Oregon doesn’t have any sales tax, everybody wants to buy cars there. Back in the 50s my father’s business partner flew to Oregon to buy cars for them. He started teaching me to drive, but I still didn’t have a license. I kept failing the parking test. No matter, I could drive with my learner’s permit. My classmate, Tom, had a license. He agreed to let me accompany him to Whitehorse, where I would disembark and wait for Layne and Ron to arrive from Detroit.
We set out and drove to Blaine, Washington. On the way, we picked up a Canadian who was well-dressed with short, red, curly hair. We were dressed like hippies in jeans and work shirts. I was barefoot. When we got to the border, the officer asked the hitchhiker where he had picked US up. He took us into his office for interrogation while the hitchhiker waited with the caretaker.
“Penicillin, codeine, or…?”
“Do you use drugs?” he queried me.
Stalling, I replied, “Penicillin, codeine.” I had just had a wisdom tooth removed. If only I had retained my wisdom.
“I mean marijuana, LSD,” he said, turning to Tom. The fool confessed, though we had nothing on us. I figured if I denied it, they wouldn’t believe me, though like Bill Clinton, I had not inhaled. The officer pulled out a form and informed us that we were forbidden to enter Canada. If, after seven years, we showed improvement in character, i.e. no drugs, we might be allowed in.
We said goodbye to the hitchhiker. He informed us that the caretaker had told him it was because I was Chinese that we had been interrogated. They have been keeping Chinamen from crossing the border in either direction for over a century, though I did not know that at the time. We drove into town and spent the night in the car.
Opium, Chinamen and Prostitutes before and after Exclusion
Prior to the Exclusion Act of 1882, the border between Canada and the USA was loosely controlled. It was a “Smuggler’s Paradise,” from Puget Sound to the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Georgia, together now known as the Salish Sea. In 1880, Canada and the U.S. stopped the opium trade. B.C. opium manufacturers began to supply large quantities of prepared opium to the U.S. via Portland.
After 1882, trade was strictly regulated by U.S. border agents; many merchants arranged for illegal immigration from China to the U.S. via Canada. In addition to smuggling opium, aiding and abetting the landing of illegal Chinese immigrants in the U.S. from Victoria became lucrative. Physical borders reflected symbolic borders separating Chinese from white, with Chinese merchants closer to white Canadians than labourers. Not only by race, but also class governed smuggling along the Pacific Coast.
Chinese merchants arranged travel and labour for immigrants from China to the U.S. and Canada for jobs on the railroad and lumber. They helped Chinese entrepreneurs establish their own businesses and purchase land claims for mining. White employers hired large Chinese gangs to clear land, lay railroad track, work in mining camps as well as cook in the homes of wealthy whites. Chinese were smuggled both ways to work for the Canadian Pacific Railroad.
In the early 1890s, the Merchant Steamship Company carried illegal Chinamen for $6 per head, raised to $10 then $50. Later, they were transported from B.C. to the U.S. for $120, with $50 down. Smuggling of persons and opium generally operated smoothly. Chinese were paid $450 to transport a woman from China to Victoria for prostitution.
Character Improves Overnight
In the morning, we went back to try again. It was a new shift, and they let us through. Who knows where that form was, with its defamation of our character, probably on its way to Ottawa. Nowadays, it would be in the computer. We had to surrender all arms, which we did not possess. Neither did we possess any drugs. We had to prove we had enough funds to get through Canada. Our only expenses were gas and a bit of food.
We drove off to Vancouver, stopping in Chinatown to purchase Chinese sausages and ramen for the road. We drove up the Fraser Valley past Hope, parked by the side of the road and slept in the open bed in the back of the car. In the morning we were awakened by water balloons thrown by a couple of kids. Welcome to Canada.
We stopped at a café for coffee and breakfast, then continued on to Dawson Creek. There was nothing but forest. As we drove farther up the Alaska Highway, we began to see snow on the side of the road. The road itself was smooth, packed dirt, neither muddy nor dusty. There was not much traffic. We saw boys paddling a canoe around icebergs in Teslin Lake.
It was late when we got to Whitehorse, though not dark because of the midnight sun. Tom dropped me off at the riverboat Klondike where hobos slept, and he went on his way. It was grounded, not on the Yukon River where it is now. I found a spot and had a good night’s sleep. In the morning, I walked into town and found a Tlingit Bahai woman whose name was on a list given me by Maxine Peet, a Reed College student also Tlingit from Petersburg, Alaska.
“What’s wrong with you Americans?”
“What’s wrong with you Americans?” she wanted to know. It was June 2, and Robert Kennedy had just been assassinated, less than 2 months after Martin Luther King. She couldn’t let me sleep in the house where she was babysitting, but she let me sleep in her car. Then she introduced me to a white Bahá’í who owned a restaurant and knew a divorcée who needed a live-in babysitter. I told him I was waiting for friends who would arrive in 2 weeks. He said he’d give me room and board plus five dollars a day. In those days the Canadian dollar was worth more than the U.S.
I had phoned Layne and told him to look in general delivery for a letter that would tell him where to find me. I looked after the girls until 5 o’clock each day, then went out looking for people to hang out with. There was an English woman and a reporter for the Whitehorse Star who told me about the last living prostitute from Dawson City, now living in Whitehorse. I met her, but I did not write about her. Instead, I wrote horoscopes for the member of parliament candidates from the Yukon which were published in the Star. I painted “YELLOW CAB” in the office window. I left Whitehorse with more money than I arrived with.
They arrived on June 17, pulling up in the Ford pickup owned by Layne’s father at 5 o’clock sharp. Ron was in the passenger seat. He had curly, brown hair and two weeks growth from the road on his cheeks. He wore a viyella shirt with a campbell tartan plaid. He was stout, though they’d eaten little but Ritz crackers and peanut butter on the way. Sparks flew, but not between me and him. Ron took the truck to go pick up Esta and take her to dinner. Her family, the Sparks, owned the electric company. They had met on the Riverboat Schwatka, which toured Miles Canyon on the Yukon River. Esta was the guide. Layne and I went to another restaurant for our rendezvous.
The next day we set off, only to stop for rice, flank steak, apples, New Zealand spinach, flour, oats, sugar, canned milk, onions, garlic, ginger and eggs. Oh, did I mention we also had a bottle of scotch? And one of rum? And no doubt a 6-pack of Dr. Pepper. We went to Miles Canyon to fart around on the garbage can supports we used as merry-go-rounds. We stopped for the night at Twin Lakes, where I cooked rice and stir-fried flank steak with New Zealand spinach on my Czech Primus stove using my Mexican enamel pot and mess kit. They were both amazed at what I’d been able to cook up, and it was a great improvement over the Ritz crackers and peanut butter they’d subsisted on for two weeks. After dinner, Ron got out his Yamaha guitar and sang “Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river . . .” by Leonard Cohen. They each had a guitar under the cot in the back of the truck, which was covered with a canopy. I slept in the front seat.
We arrived in Dawson for the solstice. While I cooked Chinese food at the Lucky Inn Café, the guys went walking around and met Eleanor Millard, who was campaigning for Pierre Trudeau. We went up Midnight Dome to watch the midnight sun. Every night, we would watch the sun crawl along the mountain ridge and go to sleep when it started coming up, sleeping until noon. Ron would get up first, make a fire and practice scales on his guitar.
We went on to Alaska where we spent a month. As it turned out, Ron missed Esta and drove back to Whitehorse where he parked his truck on the shore of Lake Schwatka, played his guitar, composed songs—one about Esta—and walked into town to the library to read and listen to music. I was left with Layne to find a cabin on the Eyak River where I missed Ron, but I didn’t know why. I swam across the Eyak River, which came down from the glacier. It was a national forest in the territory of the Eyak Indians, whose language our professors had been documenting. The last speaker passed on just last year.
We hitchhiked back to Whitehorse, found Ron and set out to climb the Golden Horn with Esta. Her family had given her a 25-dollar grubstake, which we used to purchase chicken thighs, rice and broccoli, which I cooked under a lean-to in the rain halfway up the mountain. Layne still remembers the delicious curry that he couldn’t believe was cooked in the rain in the middle of nowhere. The next day we climbed the mountain. Ron spent a lot of time grazing on blueberries, delaying us so that it was dark by the time we broke camp and crossed Moose Creek balancing on a log under the full moon.
We left Esta and drove back down the Alaska Highway to High Prairie, Alberta. My friend Layla Smith, now a Zen Buddhist priest, had gone up the McKenzie Highway with her family a few years before. When we got to the junction, I said, “If we turn here we can get to Yellowknife.” Ron thought it was just like me to take a left turn, 90 degrees, and go off on a detour. None of us was ready to go back to civilization, so off we went. Yellowknife may be in the middle of nowhere, but Ron’s cousin Chuck Jeffries now lives and works there.
We saw a lot of the Northern Lights out there, where there are no city lights. There were also shooting stars from the Pleiades meteorites. Lots of fields of orchid-coloured fireweed in burned-out forests, thus the name. It grows on Whidbey Island where I now live, but only a Northerner can appreciate the effect of acres of fireweed where no other flowers are visible, just black tree trunks and branches.
We also picked luscious raspberries covered with dust by the side of the road. The highway was so dusty that we rolled up the windows whenever a car approached and rolled them back down after the dust settled.
We stopped at Jasper National Park and camped near the northeast entrance at a campground with strawberries growing through the tarmac. Then we went to Banff and climbed Sulphur Mountain. Ron and Layne had climbed it on their way to Whitehorse. Ron was so tired of listening to the news of assassinations and running on schedules that he left his watch at the summit of Sulphur Mountain. What good would it have done to know what time it was when the teahouse was closed and the cable car shut down for the night? They were so exhausted they had to lift their thighs to get into the cab of the truck. They went to the hot springs and swam until they were relaxed, then slept on their cots.
We three also hiked up to the teahouse, had tea and chili then walked out to the fourth and highest summit where the watch was buried. I lost my nerve at some point coming back, but Ron was there to lend a hand. We also missed the teahouse and walked all the way down, but we were in better shape after weeks of hiking up north. We swam in the hot springs and had a good meal at the Rundle Restaurant.
Coffee, Honeybees and Honey
The Georgia Strait had a headline, “Coffee burns holes in your genes.” I remembered it, so I avoided coffee while I was pregnant. Later, though, we drank it with honey and milk. At the city park where we camped, honeybees swarmed into our honey jar, so we had to keep it covered. Ron left Layne and me, and hitchhiked down to San Diego, where he had been accepted into the guitar performance program at San Diego State University.
Back across the border at the Blaine Peace Arch, I had met my honey, though I did not yet know it. Nine months later, I phoned to wish him a happy 30th birthday. He was planning to drive up to Alaska again, but I had agreed to serve as cook at an archaeological dig for the National Museum of Man (now known as the National Museum of Civilization). They sent me a bus ticket from Portland to Vancouver and a plane ticket from Vancouver to Prince Rupert. There, I got postcards from Ron who was camping near the university in Fairbanks. He had enrolled to study Eskimo and was working for the physical plant.
On July 20, 1969 we watched the moon landing on a black and white television screen at the home of a First Nations family. Then, in early August I hopped on the MV Taku and rode up the BC coast to Alaska getting off at Haines. From there, I hitchhiked to Fairbanks, saw Layne’s Shell pickup parked downtown and put my backpack in the front seat. Ron had bought the truck from Layne’s father. Later we met in the street. He had moved into the dorm by then, having had trouble finding places to park the truck.
“I have an extra bed in my room,” he said, and we were roommates for almost 40 years.
He did not end up studying Eskimo, nor enrolling at the University of Alaska. Instead he accompanied me to Honolulu, Hawaii, enrolled at the University on the GI Bill and finished his B.A., M.A. and PhD, while I did the equivalent of a Chinese major. Our baby Rachel was born there and became the first baby on campus. We passed her back and forth between classes. Ron got a grant from the National Museum of Man in Ottawa to spend a year at Fort Chipewyan, Alberta to research oral narratives. Our professor Fang Kuei Li went there in 1928 and recorded narratives dictated by Francois Mandeville.
Ron’s first academic job was at the Alaska Native Language Center, Fairbanks in 1978, and we spent five years there. Ten years later, we went to Taiwan to teach and research the Confucian discourse system, then to Korea and Hong Kong. We became “experts” in first inter-ethnic communication between Alaska Natives and non-natives, then in intercultural communication between Hong Kong Chinese and North Americans. Our textbook, now in its third edition, is the most widely used in the field, not only in Asia and America but Europe, Australia and South Africa.
Ron had wanted to be a Canadian, but Canada did not want a guitarist with no skills they needed. Now his son and two grandsons are dual citizens.
Cannabis and Chinese are now legal in British Columbia.
Suzanne Wong Scollon grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, graduated from Reed College and earned an MA and PhD at the University of Hawaii. She married Ron Scollon and they did fieldwork in Ft. Chipewyan, Alberta then worked at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and opened a bookstore and publishing house in Haines, Alaska. They taught in Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and Georgetown before returning to Haines. Ron died of kidney cancer in 2009. Suzanne continued the consulting business, served as a visiting professor at Thammasat University in Bangkok, and retired to write creative nonfiction. She lives in Freeland, Washington.