The End of the World, As I Knew It

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The End of the World, As I Knew It

by Forrest Reid


I proved today how small the world is. Or maybe I only proved how small the circles I run in are.

About two hours after we crossed the equator at 7:30 this morning, I was sitting at the back of the ship. “Aft,” if you want to be a know-it-all like the Diamond cruisers. The back of Deck 12 is my new favorite spot for reading in the mornings. I looked out over the wake trailing behind me, white froth on a navy sea, and wondered if I could still “see” the equator out there, or whether what I’d heard was true, that you can never see more than nine miles on the ocean due to the curvature of the earth. That was a question I wasn’t going to resolve from the back of Deck 12 (and it turns out, quite logically I guess, that the horizon line is much further from Deck 12 than it is from Deck 11). So I let that question pass and marveled again at how far we were from anywhere. Or anywhere that matters to New York or Washington. I can describe to someone my position only by reference to two imaginary – but very much believed-in – lines. At that moment, I was still within shouting distance of the equator and just under eight degrees from the international date line. You could look it up and locate precisely where I am, but, quite honestly, it’s just endless sea all around. Just like it was yesterday. And the day before.

So I let that train of thought pass too. I started to doze off in my comfortable deck chair. It took me until the tenth day of a 23-day Trans-Pacific cruise to find this particular spot, but it’s perfect in the mornings and now I’ll never leave it. It’s generally quiet and uncrowded, at least until the rap music that accompanies the surfing and boogie-boarding at the Flowrider on Deck 13 cranks up. The deck chairs wrap around the back end of the ship, but I seek out the starboard side (all but the Diamond cruisers might spare the effort and call it the right side) of the ship. Since that’s the sunset side of a ship heading south, I’m shaded from the morning sun by the smokestack. It’s generally about lunch time before my toes – stretched out on the chaise lounge – start getting a bit of sunshine, and then I give it another 15 or 20 minutes (until it reaches the bottom hem of the swimming trunks I’m wearing or until I finish the chapter I’m reading, whichever comes first) before I pack up and declare my morning reading session over. The tropical breezes waft through, and only occasionally does an old Asian man come scooting by, chasing an errant ping pong ball, as if it risks rolling through the rails and off the back end of the ship to float, wild and windborne, 12 stories down to the sea. But the railings are solid glass. There are no gaps. Balls don’t escape. It doesn’t matter to the old men. They still chase after the skittering balls desperately, and with amazing cunning and dexterity, corralling the ball each time and returning past me and the row of empty deck chairs with small head bobs and sheepish grins.

So that’s what was going on when I decided to rouse myself from my drowsiness and read another chapter of the book I’ve been enjoying. It’s the one Mary gave me, called Footsteps. It’s a compendium of stories that have run in the New York Times. Its conceit is tasking modern-day writers (some famous, some not, some only staff writers for the Times) to visit places that generally-famous authors were born in, raised in, set their stories in or were otherwise inspired by. I’ve found the book fascinating… and not only because it’s perfect for the boat, where you often want to read in half-hour snippets. You can pick it up and read two or three short chapters, each only eight or ten pages long, and thereby visit two or three parts of the world in short order, learn something interesting about an author’s background, and then move on to the next one. Maybe I’m the only one who would notice it, but the book moves west to east through the world in three parallel sections, one each for American authors, European authors, and rest-of-the-world authors.

What I really find fascinating is that – and I know I’ve lived a fortunate life to be able to say this – I’ve visited, I think, 90% of the places written about in the book. I probably know more of (and about) the authors’ hometowns than I know of (and about) the authors the book chases through their various hometowns. As I read, it’s been interesting to overlay my own steps and stories and memories of a place atop the modern-day Times writer’s steps and stories. And, of course, the steps the Times writer took were designed to locate and recreate the steps the original author took, the steps that gave him or her the inspiration and words that still speak to us today, or, in some cases (almost a fourth layer), the steps that the original author had his/her fictional characters take through the places we’re visiting today as we read.

My thoughts are constantly jumping back and forth through these three or four layers. And I often find my mind straying from the words on the page and combing through my own memories of Hawaii or San Francisco or Provincetown or Martinique or Cap d’Antibes or Lake Geneva or Santiago or Istanbul… but in a way I’ve never experienced any of those places before. This time, I’m revising my own memories of this particular street corner or that particular vista to add a detail I never knew before. That place that I remember so well – mostly because it was pretty or scenic or because it struck me on some other superficial level – is where Dashiell Hammett positioned Sam Spade’s partner to be killed, or where Pablo Neruda built a love nest with his mistress Mathilde, or where F. Scott Fitzgerald fought with Zelda in front of Scottie.

I jumped back to the American section of the book, already having read west to east across most of the country, and the next story was about H.P. Lovecraft’s Providence. I’ve heard of H.P. Lovecraft, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything he’s written. I was kind of lukewarm on that story, but I have a no-skipping and no-reading-out-of-order rule. I know Providence rather well, and I thought, if nothing else, it’ll be interesting to read about places I can picture in my mind’s eye there. And maybe I’ll learn something that would interest me about H.P. Lovecraft in the process. But that’s where I severely underestimated what that story would hold for me.

Not only did I read about places that I knew, I read about a person that I knew! It’s one of those things that kind of sneaks up on you and surprises you. And it takes a few split-seconds for you to make sense of it all. Like seeing someone you know rather well in the post office, but being momentarily unable to figure out who they are because you didn’t expect to see them there. Or looking up from the happy hour crowds and seeing a painting of yourself, long thought to be lost and maybe even destroyed, hanging over the bar at Brasserie Beck. Or seeing the first-year you mentored two years previously walk onto the TV screen as the best friend of one of the first (and still widely-watched) Bachelorettes. When things like that happen, it takes you a split second to wrap your mind around the smallness (or the coincidental-ness) of the world you live in.

So it was when I read that the Times writer met up with Niels-Viggo Hobbs, director of the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Museum, for a walking tour of H.P. Lovecraft’s Providence. The name struck me immediately, in a way that I couldn’t immediately assemble all of the facts around, but the conclusion was already there: I know this person. But it still took a few split-seconds to come to grips with the fact that, yes, that sentence did indeed say Hobbs at the end of Niels-Viggo. And that meant that, yes, this was almost certainly one-and-the-same person, the one that had popped into my mind out of nowhere before I’d even finished reading his name. A quick internet search for Alfred Hobbs’ obituary from the Taos newspaper confirmed it.

Alfred is the gift that keeps on giving, a jack-in-the-box that pops up on various and unexpected occasions throughout my life. Paraphrasing what it says in that Taos obituary, quoting a eulogy given at his 2010 funeral service, he was our own Marco Polo, our Man of La Mancha tilting at windmills, our father, our trickster, the elder of our tribe. To me, he was a vagabond, almost a bum, a world traveler and a world-CLASS traveler. He was a ’60s hippie raconteur, a seen-it-all-and-survived-it-all storyteller that obviously still had a hell-raising side. He was one-of-a-kind. A bearded and bedraggled hobo that you might’ve ignored or avoided had you seen him on a city street back home. Or even if you’d seen him where we saw him and not had reason to interact with him as we did.

I was with my friend John when we met Alfred at the end of 1998 at the end of the world. Literally. In Puerto Williams, Chile, which is below Tierra del Fuego and below Ushuaia, Argentina, which claims (and it’s not disputed) to be the southernmost town in South America. And that means also the world. When you’re in Puerto Williams, there’s precious little between you and Antarctica. Only Cape Horn, which isn’t a cape at all, out there in the middle of the wild southern ocean. John and I had made our way to Puerto Williams on a small supply boat sailing out of Punta Arenas, Chile, hauling building materials, precut, pre-engineered and sufficient to add one structure to the housing stock at the end of the world. It was a beautiful ride through the Beagle Channel, past the fjords and glaciers and thousand-foot waterfalls plunging into the sea at the far end of Chilean Patagonia. But, since we’d begged our way onto a supply boat along with four Spanish guys we met at the Punta Arenas dock, there wasn’t a bed for any of us. Just a row of hard plastic chairs bolted to the wall. The sides were curved up on each chair, an almost sadistic assurance that there’d be no lying down across two of them to sleep in shifts.

So we lined up like prisoners, unable even to lean our heads back, and tried to sleep for three nights. Generally unsuccessfully. But we did what we had to do to get to Puerto Williams, and the Spanish guys had flasks of whiskey that somehow kept pouring through nights of bitter cold. We’d all been told that a National Geographic boat exploring the South Pole would be leaving Puerto Williams for Antarctica soon and might accept a few boat-crashers. (This all happened back in the days before everyone sailed to Antarctica on luxury cruise ships, or had internet access to know all about it in advance.)

When we got to Puerto Williams on a blustery, cold and gray day, at the height of what passes for summer at the end of the world, there was no such expedition ship waiting. Bound for Antarctica or anywhere else. Maybe it had left a couple of days earlier, maybe it wouldn’t arrive until a couple of days later, nobody seemed to know. And, as the crew of the little vessel we’d arrived on had immediately set to work unloading the building materials they’d brought to Puerto Williams, they had neither time, interest nor inclination to help us figure out what we were supposed to do next. We found a small café/hostel, also newly built, the blond wood still raw, that served us and the Spaniards some maté tea. We warmed our insides as we huddled around the wood-burning stove in the corner, shivering in our winter jackets on a glorious summer day. Somebody suggested that there was a once-a-week flight to somewhere, but it wasn’t coming for several days, and it was usually full with laborers rotating in and out of jobs in this harsh environment. What had we done to ourselves, coming to the end of the world without an exit strategy? I don’t recall what the Spaniards decided, but I can’t recall their presence beyond that point in the story. Someone suggested that we go down to the Club Naval de Yates (which turned out to be a surprisingly well-stocked and utilized marina) at the western end of town to see if we could find someone who would take us across the Beagle Channel to Puerto Almanza on the Argentine side. Information and belief had it that there was an end of a road over there, and everybody trusted that it led on to other roads. Maybe we could find our way out of the end of the world from there. So we headed down to the marina, on the way meeting a mid-60s-ish Austrian couple, of the heavy-hiking-boot-and-walking-stick variety, who spoke no English but were obviously also seeking a way out of Puerto Williams.

Despite their lack of any common language, the Austrians seemed better at negotiating with the few boat owners we found down at the marina, so John and I deferred to them. They established what we all thought was a fair price for a sailboat to skim us across the Beagle Channel, several miles wide at that point, to Argentina and the start of the long road home. The sun came out and we could finally see the mountains on the other side. The wind died down, and with it the clanking of the riggings. The Austrians surveyed the boat, deeming it to be seaworthy, although a bit old and patched and not much to look at. They looked back at us and nodded. John and I had no reason to doubt their judgment. Or to ratify it, for that matter. We all boarded in the sudden sunshine and calm. At the last minute, an old man with a weathered face and a foot-long white beard, wearing heavy workmen’s canvas overalls and a barn jacket, all faded from the original Carhartt mustardy gold, with a small rucksack over his shoulder, ambled down the pier and asked if he could join us. We all agreed. The boat, though small, had room for one more, assuming at least one of us went below deck. That final passenger was Alfred Hobbs. I don’t remember if he paid or not.

We set off in sunshine, but wild things tend to happen in the extreme latitudes. By the time we’d reached the middle of the channel, a couple of miles from land on either side, a storm (I don’t know of a better time to use the word “tempest”) arose without warning. The skies were suddenly black, the wind howled, and the small sailboat literally laid over on its side, with the top of the mast touching the now-mountainous waves, all before anyone among us had a chance to react. We all fought wildly against the rearranged horizon and the bucking seas, not knowing what to do, until Alfred took charge. As the winds and seas mounted higher, he pointed John and me up to ride the high side of the boat, in the hopes that we could bring it back aright before the sails were swamped. He quickly saw that we had no sailing skills, no natural ability, and no knack for figuring out what to do next on an almost-overturned sailboat in the middle of the frigid southern ocean. So he sent us below deck with the Austrian wife. With the boat owner and the Austrian husband as his assistants, Alfred righted the ship, fought the winds and the waves and got us out of the storm. The boat owner took control again as we emerged from the storm, since he alone knew where to aim the boat in order for us to come ashore at the Argentine customs station in Puerto Almanza. Alfred sat back stoically and accepted no compliments. We landed in Argentina in sunshine, the same sun that had shone down on us when we left Chile barely an hour before. It was almost like a dream. We looked back across the channel. Puerto Williams was glittering in the sunshine. Was it possible that we’d just experienced what we’d just experienced?

The two Argentine customs agents were happy to have us as guests. They were posted out to this little hut at the end of the world for weeks at a time, and they often never saw another soul. And here, suddenly, were six souls, five of whom sought entry into their country. The boat owner, having received his pay, soon set off for Chile alone (I pray that he didn’t need Alfred on the return crossing). The customs agents served us maté in well-used gourds and we sipped it through dirty silver decorative straws the way the Argentines do. Photos were taken of us sipping and them sipping and everybody sipping together. They treated us warmly, made sure we were comfortable and eventually got around to processing whatever forms it was we had to fill out. While we waited, they called for a car to come from Ushuaia to haul us and the Austrians back to civilization. It would take four hours to arrive. So we settled in and accepted another refill of the maté, even though it was no better than stewed grass clippings. Alfred, on the other hand, wasn’t going to no stinking town. He headed off on foot in the other direction, beyond the end of the road, past the customs hut. He skirted the shoreline, bound for, according to the Google Maps I can pull up today, nowhere. But, before he left, he told us about his life among the hippies and hell-raisers in Taos, about driving a London taxi cab from Morocco to Japan back in the 1950’s, with his Danish newlywed, met in the Port of Yokohama, by his side, feted by kings and potentates and tribal chieftains all along the way. He told us that he was in the middle of a year-long round-the-world trip, traveling in whichever direction the wind blew him next, and that he periodically set off on these walkabouts. He invited John and me to one of his weeks-long birthday party raves in Taos and told us when the next one would be. Just show up, he said. Don’t expect another invitation. There will be famous people and not-so-famous people there. And then he walked off down the coastline and around the bend without a single glance back.

John actually kept track of him for the next few years, and he asked me a couple of times whether I wanted to show up that year, as Alfred had told us to do, at one of his birthday parties in Taos. If I were answering the question now, I would most certainly have gone. But I was answering the question then.

I forgot about Alfred until I read an article sometime around 2012 that a film – based on a true story – was being made about a newlywed couple, adventurers long before their time, who’d bought an old London taxi cab back in the 1950s and, holding it together with chewing gum and baling wire and a lot of ingenuity, had driven it across the Sahara and then, over the next four years, through deepest, darkest Africa, India, Central Asia, and then the Far East. It had to be Alfred, I thought. I somehow figured out a way to contact the director in London. The subject of his movie was, indeed, Alfred. I told him about my encounter with Alfred at the far end of the world, and I established a friendly correspondence with him over the next few years as the film was being made (and, yes, I agreed to sponsor a few “miles” of Alfred’s journey to help the film get made).

The director told me that Alfred had died in Taos in 2010, at the age of 84, shortly after returning from a six-month trip up the Amazon, followed by meanderings in South Africa and Yemen. Presumably that particular hop-skip-and-jump routing around the world was to take in countries and places he’d not previously visited. But the director had spent some time with Alfred before he died, gotten lots of good stories out of him, gotten some archival footage of the improbable journey back in the fifties, and gotten some modern-day footage of him restoring the old London taxicab that had sat abandoned on his Taos property for half a century. And then he got some footage of him reuniting with the son he never really knew, as they drove cross-country in the old taxicab from Taos to upstate New York, to the home of Jakobine, the Danish wife Alfred walked away from – in favor of a life of wandering and exploring – as soon as they returned home from their taxicab ride around the world. The son was Niels-Viggo Hobbs. Who was now the director of the Lovecraft Arts & Sciences Museum in Providence. The very same Niels-Viggo Hobbs that had suddenly leapt off the page in front of me as I was reading and dozing.

I met Niels-Viggo at the American premiere of Alfred & Jakobine at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring in 2014. The director had – due to my long correspondence with him and due to my professed interest in Alfred and his wandering ways – graciously set aside six front-row seats for me at the premiere. He’d brought Niels-Viggo down from Rhode Island to answer questions about his parents after the screening. I had a brief chat with Niels-Viggo after the show, and I shared with him some photos of his father, who must’ve been 72 at the time they were taken way down at the end of the world, in Puerto Williams and Tierra del Fuego. I even had a few just-before-the-storm photos from the boat, with Alfred’s long white beard stretched out on the wind. I briefly told Niels-Viggo how we’d encountered his father in such an out-of-the-way place. He seemed mildly interested and said he thought he recalled hearing stories of his father being in that part of the world… but, to him, it was just another of a million places that constantly delivered people to him saying, “I met your father there.”

That was the first and last time I met Niels-Viggo Hobbs… until today.

And that’s how I suddenly found myself crossing the Beagle Channel in the middle of a tempest, certain we were doomed to a death that nobody would ever hear about or know. But that was only in my mind, at least the part that happened today. When I opened my eyes, they were gazing out over Providence-on-a-page, to the South Pacific beyond, which was then enjoying six- to eight-foot swells, no more than that, and suddenly I was wondering again if it were still possible to see the imaginary line of the equator out there somewhere, or whether it had already disappeared beyond the curvature of the earth. And then I went back to finish reading the story about H.P. Lovecraft, although I can’t tell you now one thing it said about him or about Providence. But it did say a lot about Puerto Williams and the Beagle Channel and the hobo who saved me there. At least the way I read it, it did.

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