A 21st Century Visionary (Los Altos Town Crier, July 5, 2017)
On my travels in June I met a modern-day visionary. His name is Zachary Brown, he wears rumpled plaid shirts and jeans and hiking boots, and he is the co-founder, executive director, and so far the sole employee of the Inian Islands Institute, a center designed, according to his business card, to provide “Experiential living and learning in the Wilderness of Southeast Alaska”.
Zack was brought up in Alaska, in a little town of 400 people at the northern end of the Alaskan panhandle, surrounded on three sides by Glacier Bay National Park, and on the fourth side by Icy Strait. Gustavus is accessible only by boat and seaplane. When, the residents of Gustavus s feel a need to escape the hustle and bustle of town, they go to the Hobbit Hole.
The Hobbit Hole is a homestead nestled on an inlet of Icy Strait, originally a fishing camp, later expanded to accommodate the owner’s family, then the owner’s brother’s family. One of the wives was a craftsperson, so a pottery studio was added. A barn evolved into a workshop with a sleeping loft above. The brothers entertained visitors from the Lower 48. For a while it was known as the “Pot Hole.”
As the brothers aged the old nickname lost its relevance, and it was Zack’s mother who suggested that the place be called “the Hobbit Hole.” The name stuck. The brothers built a guest house. Their wives maintained a garden and a lawn. Folks from Gustavus became used to holding special events there, or spending a weekend in one of the guest rooms.
Then while Zack was working on a PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Stanford, he heard that the Hobbit Hole was for sale. The brothers were retiring. And he had a vision. He could buy the property and set up a hands –on field study center, focused on sustainable living, renewable energy, locally grown food. But how could he convince others – and himself – that this crazy idea could work? Maybe he’d have to do something else crazy first.
On the day he graduated with his PhD, Zack set out from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences building at Stanford and began to walk north. He walked from Stanford to Port Angles, Washington, camping each night. In San Bruno he was almost arrested for vagrancy, but agreed to leave town and camp elwwhere. Along the way he was offered many a ride, but turned them down, though he accepted the occasional offer of a cold beer instead. When he got to Port Angeles 55 days and over 1000 miles later, he bought a kayak.
From Port Angeles, he paddled to Gustavus, another 900 miles. Along the way from Palo Alto, he had talked to hundreds of people about his vision for the Hobbit Hole. Each time he told about it, the vision became a bit more real, a bit more doable. And each conversation yielded at least one more potential supporter.
Three years later, Zack and his partners have obtained two major foundation grants. They hope to complete the contract for purchase of the Hobbit Hole in February of 2018. Meanwhile the Howe brothers have allowed them to hold seminars, yoga camps, and work parties at the site. They have also hosted two sessions of Stanford Sophomore College, and entertained visitors from expeditions sponsored by Yale and Stanford Travel.
I was on the Stanford expedition, and the visit to the Hobbit Hole as one of the highlights of our trip. It was a mostly sunny day, only a brief spatter of rain, as we pulled into the dock next to a rack of kayaks, including Zack’s trip veteran. The gardens included blooming daisies, forget-me-nots, and marigolds, as well as lots of edible Alaskan native plants. Zack showed off the workshop, the pottery studio, the hydro-power station. And he led us through the woods to a moss-crusted concrete pillar marking the deaths of two people, possibly a mother and son, possibly Tlingit. The site was a Tlingit fishing camp long before Alaska had a name.
We were two thousand miles from Silicon Valley, where life seems dependent on ever-more-complex technology. It was amazing to be in a place and with people where life is dependent on a water wheel, a garden, and a storehouse deep in the ground which never warms up. And exciting to know that our country is still big enough to allow young men to dream dreams and have visions.