Blazing a Courageous Trail . . . . Alberta’s Story
Meals-On-Wheels Greater San Diego’s volunteers not only deliver food to their clients, but also form valuable, enduring relationships. Both parties often form fast friendships and share ideas, cares, and sometimes, amazing life stories! One of our volunteers, Bob, was thrilled when one of his senior friends, Alberta, shared her incredible story about her journey throughout Alaska. Back when a women’s role did not include world travel and being entrenched in a man’s world of wilderness exploring and mining, this courageous lady was a real trail blazer in every sense of the word. We hope you get a scene of the rewarding relationships one can form when volunteering to help seniors who cannot easily shop or prepare food for themselves. Enjoy!
Written by Meals-On-Wheels Greater San Diego Volunteer Bob Pigott
Dog-sledding, gold mining, flying with bush pilots, playing poker with trappers and sourdoughs, cooking over open fires and sleeping under the stars.
Is this a chapter from the classic novel “Call Of The Wild” ?
No. It’s a chapter from the life of one of our seniors and a MOW customer, Alberta of Pacific Beach. All of our San Diego seniors have a story to tell, and this one is certainly a winner.
Alberta explored Alaska as a young girl in the 1940’s. It was the big adventure of her life. She then made her adventures into a traveling slide show that she performed for sold out audiences in her home state of Michigan and in other states like Ohio and Indiana.
Now a gentile lady of 89, it’s hard to imagine Alberta, or any women, tramping about in the “men only” world of Alaska in the 1940’s. But she did it and often did it alone.
Alberta was first introduced to Alaska while working there as a civilian for the Army from 1944 to 1946. After returning to her home in Michigan, she convinced her just retired father to explore Alaska by driving up along the new Alcan Highway. The “highway” at that time was dirt and gravel and dangerous. Tourism was discouraged. Still they managed to get a permit and off they went.
With only a few cabins for rent along the way, they often slept in sleeping bags along the side of the road and cooked over open fires. The mosquitoes were huge and hungry. Flat tires and road hazards were the norm. At least the food was reasonably priced. Although hamburgers did double in price to 75 cents each as they moved north !
Reaching Anchorage, Alberta, then 24, camped in a tent alone for a month while her dad worked at a small remote gold mine to raise some cash. She also later worked at the same mine doing odd jobs like hauling snow to make water. Being the only women around was not a problem she said. “The men actually felt protective of me. I was more of tomboy anyway having three older brothers growing up. It was never a problem. Except they would get mad when I won at poker !”
Alberta and her father traveled almost 15,000 miles by the time the trip was over. She had an Argus camera on the trip and got the idea to do slide shows. The idea took off and her slide presentations were in demand in several states, sometimes for audiences of up to a thousand people. That’s when her real adventures began.
She went back to Alaska to get new material for her shows, this time alone. Always short of cash, she worked as a hat check girl in a club, helped trappers with their trap lines in the outback, pushed supplies out of bush planes, anything to help finance her adventure.
“One time I was so short of cash” Alberta said, “ I went to a club in Anchorage, checked out the men at the bar and then went up and asked one for a loan of $25. Just a loan to get me to my next paycheck. He turned out to be a wealthy man about town and gave me the money no questions asked. A week later I paid him back in full.”
That’s hutzpah. That’s Alberta. And in case you’re wondering, this was a handsome gal (see photos) with bright blue eyes who travelled alone in a man’s country. But she was not to be trifled with in any manner. She was a Michigan girl who could fish, hunt and shoot straight. So she got respect.
One night, near a remote Alaska railroad camp, she wondered into a brothel by mistake. She looked around, saw all the men and the ladies, then figured out what the place was all about. She turned and marched back out the door with none of the men attempting to bother her. She still leaves that kind of “no nonsense” impression on you today. Sort of “Yes I’m nice and 89 years old but not to be fooled with on any subject thank you very much”.
Another story was when Alberta helped transport a dead body in one of the old bush planes. The dead man had been shot in the back as he was making a hasty exit out a lady’s window. It was a small 2 seater bush plane so the dead man’s feet stretched into the cockpit between the pilot and Alberta. It gave her the “willies” staring at those big feet. She was glad when that flight was over!
Alberta met and married her husband Don not long after she returned to Michigan from her Alaska adventures. He saw her across a crowded room and asked her to dance. He proposed to her that very night. They married a year later and eventually moved to San Diego in 1969.
In San Diego they enjoyed following sports like the Chargers and the Padres. They both liked to swim in the ocean. In fact, Alberta, then 51 years old, was one of the first “older” women of the time to participate in the La Jolla Rough Water swim which she did eight times. Don died last year. Alberta continues to live in her very pleasant Pacific Beach home.
“I never returned to Alaska” She said. “ I always wanted to. Then I got married and life got in the way. I would have gone back but only if I could do it alone, like before. You can’t go with someone and have the same kind of experience. And it was the best experience of my life.”