A Piece of My Mind: A modern-day visionary

On my travels in June, I met a modern-day visionary. His name is Zachary Brown 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.”

Zach was raised in in Gustavus, Alaska, a 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 by Icy Strait. Gustavus is accessible only by boat and seaplane. When the residents of Gustavus feel the need to escape the hustle and bustle of town, they visit 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 and his brother’s families. The Howe brothers sometimes entertained visitors from the Lower 48, so they built a guesthouse. Zach’s mother suggested that the place be called the Hobbit Hole. The name stuck.

Then while Zach was working on his doctorate in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Stanford University, he heard that the Hobbit Hole was for sale. The brothers were retiring. Zach had a vision: He could buy the property and set up a hands-on field study center, focused on sustainable living, renewable energy and 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 doctorate, Zach set out from Stanford and began to walk north. He walked from Stanford to Port Angeles, Wash., camping each night. When he reached Port Angeles 55 days and more than 1,000 miles later, he purchased 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 shared, his vision became more real, more doable. And each conversation yielded at least one more potential supporter.

Three years later, Zach and his partners have secured two major foundation grants. They hope to complete the contract for purchasing the Hobbit Hole in February. In the meantime, the Howe brothers have allowed them to hold seminars, yoga camps and work parties at the site. They also have hosted two sessions of Stanford Sophomore College and entertained visitors from expeditions sponsored by Yale University and Stanford Travel.

I was on the Stanford expedition, and the visit to the Hobbit Hole was one of the highlights of our trip. It was a mostly sunny day as we pulled into the dock next to a rack of kayaks, including Zach’s trip veteran. The gardens included blooming daisies, forget-me-nots and marigolds, as well as lots of edible Alaskan native plants.

We were 2,000 miles from Silicon Valley, where life seems dependent on ever-more-complex technology. It was amazing to be in a place where and with people for whom life depends on a water wheel, a garden and a storehouse deep in the ground that never warms up. And it was exciting to know that our country is still big enough to allow young men to dream dreams and have visions.

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