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‘South to Alaska’ tells story of dream road trip

Most great stories involve a road trip or two.

What, after all, is Homer’s “The Odyssey”? Or Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”?

Each is, at heart, a road trip – both literally (if you can accept the notion of seas and rivers passing for roads) and figuratively.

Like most of us, Melvin Owens dreamed as a youngster of being part of his own great story. But where most of us leave our childhood fantasies behind, Owens made his come true in a way that even Huck Finn would have admired.

Owens’ daughter, Nancy Owens Barnes, may not as a child have harbored thoughts of being an author. But following her father’s path, she ended up being one by telling his story.

Which, aside from its inherent quality, is why we chose Barnes’ book “South to Alaska: From the Heartland of America to the Heart of a Dream” as February’s reading choice for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

Barnes, 58, has lived in Priest River, Idaho, since 1999. A native of Muskogee, Okla., she’d spent years working in Alaska for various Anchorage-based architectural and/or engineering firms.

But there was something that she’d always wanted to do: tell the world about her father’s 1973 sojourn from Arkansas to Alaska.

“My dad was a very quiet type of person,” Barnes said during a recent phone interview. “He never wanted attention for himself.

“So I just wanted to get him some credit for what he did because I knew it was a very unique thing. I could look around and see that other families didn’t do that.”

This “unique” thing involves Owens’ childhood dream, which began when he spotted a photograph of Alaska presented by his fourth-grade teacher.

“Though Melvin had heard of Alaska, he had never seen any pictures of the place,” Barnes wrote in her book’s prologue. “Now one lay on the desk before him, the incarnation of all he wanted: the woods, the mountains, the wild, the undiscovered.

“It was an image that would never fade, one that raised the first ripple in a watery world he knew little about, to get to a world he could not forget.”

Four decades later, Owens would build a boat in the backyard of his Arkansas home. He launched the 47-foot-long vessel, which he named Red Dog, in the Arkansas River in 1971.

Two years later, the lure of Alaska called him to the open sea, beginning a nautical quest that would take him through the Caribbean, the Panama Canal and then north toward the state he’d for so long imagined visiting.

Barnes’ writing of her father’s story was, for a would-be author, nearly as challenging.

Proud of her father, she thought the best way to tell his story would be through a newspaper article. And when she approached the Anchorage Daily News, she received encouragement.

“So I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to write something, I might as well take some writing classes,’ ” Barnes said.

Those classes taught her the finer points of creating not only nonfiction but also fiction and poetry. Pretty soon she was so involved in various kinds of writing, particularly poetry, that, she said, “I got sidetracked for a while.”

But a writing course she took in 1997 through a Vermont college returned her to her father’s story.

Barnes’ instructor advised her to flesh the story out into a longer narrative, which she did with her father’s cooperation.

“When he saw that I was serious about writing his story, he really opened up and wanted to tell me all about his story,” Barnes said.

“It’s kind of like he’d kept all of this in, just because he was that kind of person. And when I started asking about it, it kind of all just gushed out. And he really seemed to enjoy that.”

Melvin Owens died in 2006 at age 89. He never got to see the finished book, which, after a “pile of rejections,” Barnes managed to place with a small Chicago-area publishing house. (See her Web site,, for order information.)

But he did get to see the book in manuscript form. And he got to see his daughter persevere through one disappointment after the next.

“And that’s kind of what my dad would do,” Barnes said. “He was relentless in pursuit of his dream, you know. He didn’t let things stop him.”

What’s left, then, is the legacy summed up both by Barnes’ book and the memory of her father’s overarching achievement.

“I could just see how from the time he was just a boy he had a dream that he aimed his whole life toward,” Barnes said.

“So I always hope that the book would be an inspiration to other people. It doesn’t take magic. It just takes recognizing something you want to do and gearing your life toward that.”

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