The stories of Mike Gordon have been around for a while, you just had to know where to look. Several of his essays have been published here in the Anchorage Press, and for many years the legends of “Mountain Mike” were printed in On The Rocks; the monthly newsletter Chilkoot Charlies had around the bar for its customer base, containing drink specials and an upcoming events calendar. For Gordon this was all part of the process that led to him writing his memoir, Learning The Ropes, published by Miracle Mile Publishing, and available now.
“This book has been a 20-year project, but it has been full time for about three years.” Gordon said. Part of the process was also going back to college. “I went back to school, got my bachelor’s degree, which I still needed 17 units for, that was in 2011. When I had the ball in the air, I thought, well might as well get a master’s also. So, I got my master’s and this memoir was the project that I spent three years on.”
For many, Gordon is likely best known as the man behind the World Famous Chilkoot Charlies, the most famous and infamous bar in Anchorage history, and events from that time feature in the book. Gordon pointed out that conservative blogger Suzanne Downing called it was a love story in her review, and she is not incorrect. He also says, “I tell people that I started climbing to save my marriage, but I quit climbing to keep it.”
In this book are also the reasons behind that statement. For this adventurer, climbing mountains was a way to save himself as well as his relationship with Shelli. “I am on my third marriage now, and I have been married to her for 35 years. When I was doing the cocaine, I had my priorities upside down. I was about to lose it, and I didn’t want to lose the marriage, so I went to counseling, and I knew the cocaine was going to come up and when it got to that I wanted to be able to say that I didn’t do it anymore. So that’s when I decided to climb Denali.”
Gordon climbed six of the world’s seven highest peaks and reached 27,500 feet on Mt. Everest at the age of 50. Each of those achievements are noteworthy, but like in life, the real lessons don’t happen on the highest peaks, but rather the valleys in between. There are the stories of running off hired guns and thugs that were trying to offer protection in the so called “Wild West” days of Anchorage. There are the stories that tell of the times at base camps before or after climbing a mountain, like the first attempt at Everest and the run-ins with monkeys and rats. There are also the tales of the struggles Gordon had even as a child.
“This story is also about overcoming obstacles,” Gordon said. “I had an alcoholic father, I got addicted to cocaine in the aftermath of the pipeline.” This story is about a man who did not wonder if he could do things, but rather focused on how they would be done.
His wife Shelli has also been part of the creative process, although she is not always there when he is writing. That happens in the morning, usually.
“I prefer to be alone; I do most of my writing in the mornings, and let my wife sleep in,” Gordon said. “I get up, let the dog out, and go back in and write. I can do it when people are around, when I really get going, I can do it, but I prefer to be alone. I think my mind works better.”
Sometimes the inspiration for his writing comes from conversations he has when he is out. He will be regaling a group with a tale and Shelli will tell him he needs to write that down to flesh out later. He will grab anything nearby and make some notes. He now has stacks of them all about. “You know, it really doesn’t take much of an event to create a full-blown story. You maybe do a little research, or drag something else into it, all it takes is a good initial event or idea, and you can add a lot to it,” he mused.
Gordon’s mentors through the process of returning to school were Tim Rawson, who eventually turned the mentee over to Dave Onofrychuk, the Writing Professor from Alaska Pacific University. Inside the cover is a note from Dave who says that Gordon “masterfully chronicles a raucous time in Alaska’s history, from the turbulent ‘60’s to the freewheeling 70’s, the hard-knock 80’s and beyond”. He is correct, and all of that is perfectly captured in this essential Alaskan memoir. There is so much more to this book than just a memoir though. It is an inspirational tale from a seasoned storyteller. We each have obstacles in life, and for Gordon climbing tens of thousands of feet into the air were nothing compared to what he accomplished closer to sea level. The focus on his interpersonal relationships, his business savvy, and his bravery when faced with danger are the stories that are the most gripping and heartbreaking.
Now that his book has been published, Gordon is now focused on getting people to read it, and similar to the way he has handled his other businesses, he employs a hands-on approach, and is setting up his own book signings locally, including one at each Costco in Anchorage this weekend. “I went shopping at the one on Debarr, I went to look for the book and it wasn’t there. I went to talk to a couple managers, loaded my stuff in the car, and it still wasn’t out.” Slightly frustrated he decided to check out other places. “So, then I figure I had better go out to Dimond, too. They had them out, and I sold one of them.” He recalled a story of a woman and her husband who were looking for a book for guys. Gordon suggested that the man look at his, without telling him he was the author. When the man realized who he was talking to he revealed he had been a customer of Koots, and he would purchase the book if Gordon signed it. “So today I went back to Debarr, and they had them out, but they had only sold one in the last week because they weren’t putting them out.” After a manager suggested that they set up a book signing, they picked the date of June 1st, and so Gordon went back to the other location again and set up another signing for the next day. “You do it what it takes, you know?” Gordon said.
Gordon is a man that does what it takes. His bar legacy, his marriage, and his time atop mountains has proven that. Now with this memoir he has shown that he is still not slowing down, just refocusing his energy. With an intelligent writing style that leaves you always wanting to know more, and fascinating tales from around the world, we can only hope that there are more books where this one came from.