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My single mother was a wandering musician. I felt most at home while camping on the outskirts of Alaska's many music festivals.

Keema Waterfield   

My single mother was a wandering musician. I felt most at home while camping on the outskirts of Alaska's many music festivals.
  • Keema Waterfield grew up traveling and performing at folk festivals with her family in Alaska.
  • She says a tent felt more like home than the houses her nomadic family settled in during the winter.

The following is an adapted excerpt from Keema Waterfield's book, "Inside Passage: A Memoir."

Crrrrroooo-kuk, the raven outside our tent said. I sighed, blinking up at the fog of my family's breath beading on the tent wall. I snuggled deeper into the nest of sweaters and blankets we shared, knowing I would not sleep again. That bag of feathers had been cawing for an hour already, tempting me with his curious, throaty call — a high-pitched birdish purr followed by a guttural stop, like a pebble dropped into still water. Crrrrroooo-kuk. I don't speak raven, of course, but my throat still tightened in response.

I liked to imagine I knew that bird from last year's stay here at the Haines music festival, but Southeast Alaska has more ravens than cars. I pounded the wool sweater I'd been using as a pillow and stuffed it back under my neck, fighting off restlessness.

I wanted to climb over my siblings and nestle my head in the crook of my mother's arm like a 5-year-old. To press my face to her sandalwood-scented hair, kiss her awake, tell her I loved her. But I let her sleep because, at 10, I was well versed in the landscape of her night: boozy laughter rising from the flames of one campfire after another, the high whine of fiddle and the low thump of cello overlaid by guitars and mandolins and spontaneous harmonies, clouds of pot smoke drifting toward an invisible moon in the perpetual twilight of an Alaskan summer, the low zerbert of the rainfly's zipper and her silhouette against the bug net when she woke me to turn off the flashlights we'd read ourselves to sleep by.

Instead, I tucked night-chilled ears under the blanket and tried to guess how many times I'd woken at the edge of a festival in this family tent. Fifty? Five hundred? But memory is slippery for a festival rat like me.

I'd been on the road with my mom since the beginning

I'd been spinning the fixed wheel of my mother's musical adventures my entire life. The backdrop changed often, but the tempo, the songs, and sometimes even the people were the same wherever we went. It left me with a loose grip on time and made year markers unreliable. Home might be Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, Petersburg, or Fairbanks during the school year. Summers could be any combination thereof, depending on which music scene or family member had the greatest pull.

Who can even remember which festival had started it all? Or count the number of summer days we slept in our own beds after that. How many black-eyed ravens had jerked me awake too early, leaving me exhausted from a long night of music and campfire, thrilled that another would follow?

I don't remember, and maybe it doesn't matter. Soon hundreds of festivalgoers outside our tent were going to blink their sleepy collective eyes, unfurl shivering bodies from their own multicolored tents, and sleepwalk towards the coffee stand or the outhouses, depending.

I loved our wandering life

We knew some kids who traveled all year, from festival to festival. I liked to think we could do that. We could put my little brother to work as the youngest stage manager in the world. We'd suit him up in a bow tie, vest, and porkpie hat, then send him out into the crowd to summon audiences with his flaming-red hair and slate-blue eyes. We'd call ourselves "Boy Wonder & the Waterfields." We'd never worry about going home again, wherever that was.

I tried not to think about home during festival season because what did it matter? Home was just a space-filler between adventures. Heaven was here: Mom, Tekla, Camden, and me in our sun-dappled tent, with another day of music warming up outside.

I preferred pivoting around my mother's distant moon out on the road anyway. Back in our real lives, we had school and work and some variation of boyfriends and stepdads to contend with. But out here, when we had Mom to ourselves, it felt as if someone had hung lights from the sky just for us kids. And they spelled out: "This Is Where You Belong."

Crrrrroooo-kuk, the raven croaked outside our tent. I wanted to unzip the front flap whisper-soft, slip into my boots, and find that bird. There were questions he could answer better than a Magic 8 Ball. It's a game I've played all my life. Crrrrroooo-KuK, with a rising "KuK" means yes; Crrrrroooo-kuk, with a declining "kuk" means no. "Will it ever be just us again?" I could ask him. "Forever?"

Of course, his answer would be Crrrrroooo-kuk. No.

Still, if you asked me would I do this wandering life all over again — the loneliness of being the perpetual new kid, the endless stream of ferry rides, the sweetness of Mom's guitar on her lap, my sister and I jumping in on the harmony when it grabs us? I'll always say: Crrrrroooo-KuK. Yes.

From "Inside Passage: A Memoir," by Keema Waterfield (Green Writers Press 2021). Available on Amazon and Bookshop.


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