Edges of the Earth – a Man, a Woman, a Child in the Alaskan Wilderness, by Richard Leo

Why this book: I had read this book over 20 years ago and had found it captivating. Much of it takes place in the vicinity of Talkeetna, Alaska, which I recently visited, in large part motivated by having read this book. I continue to be somewhat infatuated with Alaska and wanted to read this story again and see how 20 years of life experience might change how it impacts me.

Summary in 4 Sentences: The book is Rick Leo writing in the first person about his personal experiences after his move to Alaska to build a remote homestead, and how he made a life for himself in the wilderness. He had graduated from Harvard and taken a job as an editor on Wall Street in the late 70s but was very disillusioned with life in New York City, and so, convinced his girl friend Melissa to pack it all up, leave the rat-race and move to Alaska and learn to live off the grid. Their initial year there was spent meeting people, making plans, getting the lay of the land, finding a place to build a home, learning what would be required fo live there, and also having a child and getting to know each other – amidst all the challenges of creating a new life deep in the Alaskan wilderness. Eventually Rick and Melissa realize that their hopes, dreams and needs were not in alignment and they struggled to find compromises that would allow them to raise their son while allowing them each to live the life they wanted.

My Impressions: I loved this book both times I read it, but for different reasons. When I read it 20+ years ago, I was mostly amazed and impressed by Rick’s resourcefulness in how he meet each new challenge and was able to build a home deep in the Alaskan wilderness several hours by foot from the nearest road. That indeed impressed me again in my second reading, but this time, I’m realizing the book is more about the struggles of a husband and wife to work together on this formidable project, to raise their son, and to find a way to keep their family together while being true to each other’s personal dreams, needs and goals.

Rick had grown up in the urban Chicago area and had little background in living as an outdoorsman. He had been a humanities student at Harvard and had graduated cum laude – and his impressive English skills had landed him a job right out of college as a magazine editor on Wall Street. He hated the job, but his skills as a writer, editor, and narrator of his own life and experience are evident in this book. His his story is sprinkled with references to the Western canon of classical philosophy and literature – as well as demonstrating a more than passing familiarity with Buddhism and eastern philosophy.

Early on, there is a tension between Rick’s creativity and resourcefulness in pursuing his dreams, and Melissa’s somewhat s tentative acceptance of this direction for their lives – she became ever more concerned that they may be in way over their heads. She soon realized that she didn’t share Rick’s enthusiasm for this adventure – especially after she became pregnant. Meanwhile, Rick learns to run a dog sled, to build a cabin, and finds a way to make much needed money in Anchorage as a copy editor and a cab driver, sleeping in his car to save money, chartering a helicopter to airlift building supplies to the site of his homestead in the wilderness. All of this being new to him as a man raised in the suburbs of America – he had to figure it out, learning many things the hard way. And as he did so, Rick was happy – almost ecstatic – proud of his ability to rise to the many challenges. He shares the joys of living amidst the splendors of the unspoiled natural world, amongst the trees and the animals, the stars and the mountains, and savors the excitement of introducing all of that to the enthusiastic reception of his and Melissa’s young son Janus.

Melissa did indeed appreciate the beauty and simplicity of life in the cabin in the wilderness, but she simply didn’t want to live there. It was not a life she had bargained for; she needed a social community and a sense of family that included more than her husband and child. Rick did indeed appreciate the value of the social community in Talkeetna, but he came to Alaska to live primarily away from people – in a place he built in the wilderness.

It was sometimes painful to read how these two good people are torn between their love for each other, their dream of making a family, and their very different needs. There are passages in which Rick describes his almost mystical communion with the primeval world he lived in. I admired his courage and success taking on what to me seem almost insurmountable challenges of learning, not only how to survive, but to build a home and a life, and meld with the unforgiving natural world he chose. And there were indeed moments of great intimacy and connection between him and Melissa, but as time went on, these were overshadowed by misunderstanding after misunderstanding and Melissa’s increasing frustration and anger at Rick for not seeming to understand what she needed and how she felt.

So much of the beauty of the book is sharing not only Rick’s growth and evolution in learning to live in Alaska, but also Melissa’s. We also learn from Janus their son. Rick takes Janus with their dog team camping in the winter and he shares Janus’s perspective as a 2 year old, for which everything is immediate, new and exciting, with no overlay of previous biases or expectations. Janus’s perspective is fresh and refreshing, and Rick sees and appreciates that, while he’s teaching him about the world they live in, and how to survive. Janus teaches Rick a new and fresh perspective on that world.

At one point Rick is visited by his best friend from university, Alexander, a thoughtful insightful man, who stayed in NYC and was living the fast-paced world of a single man making a living on Wall Street. Alexander was incredulous that Rick had chosen to live in such a primitive manner. But after a couple of weeks, Alexander came to appreciate the magic of living so close to nature, and dealing with practical challenges of living simply in the woods, as opposed to the complexity and craziness of living in the urban maze of New York City.

So much magic in this book in its many dimensions: The urban American learning to live in the primeval wilderness, the love and tension in the family, and the learning and growth that takes place within that family. I was sometimes stunned by Rick’s lyrical and almost poetic descriptions of the Mountains and wilderness where he lived. But he doesn’t neglect to share the impersonal dangers facing anyone who lives with little support in the wilderness.

The first half of the book is largely about the trials and tribulations experienced by Rick and Melissa getting established in Alaska. The second half is Rick taking on different challenges from his homestead, going into the mountains and with his dogsled visting some of hte most remote parts of the Alasaka outback, while also teaching Janus, and learning from Janus, while Melissa lives in Talkeetna. At the conclusion, Rick shares what has happened to every one who he’s met, and learned from in the book, as of 1990 about 7 years after the story began. Included in “the rest of the story,” he shares that his friend Alexander had died. Several years after Edges of the Earth was published, I sat next to a woman on an airline flight who told me about her son Alexander, who had passed away, but who had had visited a close friend in Alaska, who’d built a cabin in the wilderness and with whom he’d climbed Denali It was she who introduced me to this this story about Rick and her son, and who inspired me to find and read this wonderful book.

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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