SEARSPORT, Maine — For Bob Perdrizet of Searsport, there is truly no time like the present.
That’s why the 91-year-old avid gardener and longtime midcoast resident packed up his Honda CR-V in May for a solo adventure to Alaska and back.
Perdrizet said he was fed up with the rain that was inundating his gardens, but there was another reason he wanted to go.
“I’ve got five children. They all tried to talk me out of it,” the chipper nonagenarian said earlier this week while taking a break from working in his Searsport garden plot. “I said, ‘I’m going to be 92 in July. This is my last shot at it.’ When you’re in the 90s, how many days do you have left?”
So, he made good on an old dream of driving north and west across Maine, most of Canada and into Alaska, which became a state in 1959 when he was 38 years old.
“I wanted to see how the pioneers did it. I can’t believe they did it,” Perdrizet said. “I was amazed.”
His 11,000-mile round-trip journey included up-close-and-personal moose sightings, some tricky traffic around Montreal, chilly hotel rooms and much more. There were massive, snow-capped mountains, glaciers, grizzly bears and mountain sheep that licked salt off the road surfaces. He met incredibly friendly, helpful folks at his hotel in Anchorage. He left his business card under a rock outcropping in British Columbia.
Was it worth it? Undoubtedly yes, Perdrizet said.
“I’m dumbfounded when I see old people retire and sit back,” he said. “There’s no reason why they can’t have an active life. If not physically, then mentally. I hate the word ‘retire.’ You retire to a new venture. A new hobby. A new anything.”
His trip to Alaska was just the latest, and likely not the last, adventure in a life packed with them. As a 12-year-old growing up in Connecticut in the Great Depression, he and some buddies decided to hop freight trains to California and search for gold. They made it halfway across the country before turning back because a friend was homesick.
“We were riding on top of a freight car hanging on for dear life,” Perdrizet wrote for a creative nonfiction class he took last year about the group’s first ride. “Soot from the engines was peppering us in the face. Lord only knows when we were going to stop — we were cold and hungry but determined.”
He and his friends survived the dangers of hopping trains, menacing-looking older hobos, “bulls,” or police officers, hunger and hitchhiking. When he got back home, his parents were shocked at the state of his clothes and his weight loss.
“The fact that I did not get to California to find gold at that time of my life was the worst thing that had ever happened to me,” Perdrizet wrote at the end of his essay.
But the adventures continued. He said that as an older teen, he wanted to be a farmer, but his dad wanted him to be a doctor. There was no easy compromise, so in 1939 Perdrizet made a decision that would have big implications for his life.
“I joined the Navy and said, the hell with it,” he remembered.
His stint lasted six years and spanned two theatres of World War II. He was stationed on the Battleship Arkansas off Newfoundland when Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941.
Then, after Pearl Harbor, Perdrizet was transferred to a ship called a “yard minesweeper.” His ship was tasked with sweeping Pacific harbors clear of mines before the arrival of American ships. In Brisbane, Australia, he found out by chance that he had been accepted to Officer Training School but his ship’s captain had hidden that fact from him because he didn’t want to lose Perdrizet’s machinist skills.
After taking part in several more operations — the last in New Guinea — Perdrizet managed to catch a ride on a banana boat back to the states so he could attend officer’s school in Connecticut.
He did, but after graduating he decided not to re-up in the Navy.
“My hitch was up. I’d met a girl,” Perdrizet said. “They said, ‘You’ll lose your rating!’ [rank]. Well, the rating didn’t mean anything to me. The girl did.”
They married and started a family. He changed careers to teaching, then school administration, then, restless and looking for a new challenge, to sales.
Perdrizet officially retired in 1970 — but then decided to go into business making and selling Murphy beds. Most recently, he has launched a venture making and selling what he calls the “Miracle Finger Hoe,” a reproduction of a lightweight and versatile garden hoe that his relatives used in their backyard gardens back in the 1910s.
During the interview this week as he talked about the hoe, he looked at his Searsport gardens — two large plots that are densely planted with fruit trees, herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, greens, carrots and much more.
“I could do this whole garden without even breaking a sweat,” Perdrizet, obviously a born salesman, said of the skinny-tip hoe. “It loosens the soil and doesn’t disturb the roots. It’s so easy you don’t need any strength to use it.”
It was that same practical, positive attitude that he took on the long road to Alaska.
“My kids were so upset and so concerned,” he said, remembering how they asked him to fly back home when he safely made it to Anchorage. “They said ‘Dad, please. You’ve gone far enough.’ I said it’s too much trouble! I know the way, now.”
Perdrizet refutes the notion, held by many, that the elderly need to be taken care of and can no longer contribute to society. He said that he gives most of the produce from his gardens to people he knows around town.
“Most people are capable of contributing something,” he said. “You do things for people. It gives you an incentive to want to help, to want to make things better.”
All this activity and curiosity means it’s likely his solo trek to Alaska won’t be Perdrizet’s final big adventure.
“I might go to Newfoundland this summer,” he said.
Or maybe he’ll decide to turn his Honda west to Alaska, again.
“I’m almost tempted to go the American way, the next time,” he said with a smile.