Time and space are two of the biggest challenges humanity faces. No feat of engineering can manipulate the passage of time in any meaningful way, and our place in space is rather fixed in a cosmic sense and rather complicated in a planetary one. Trillions of dollars are spent trying to make roads between lonely outposts, to design vehicles that can graze the surface of distant celestial beings, to build systems to transport resources from where they exist to the map points where humanity gathers.
Nowhere is this more evident than the passage between Vancouver, British Columbia’s border-hugging metropolis, and Anchorage, America’s largest defiant outpost in the Final Frontier. The very roads that connect the Lower 48 to Alaska were developed at great financial and human cost in order to shuttle resources between Seward’s Folly and all of the other landgrabs and Purchases that comprise the United States.
It is difficult to describe the vastness of the space between the Washington State and Alaska. I have spent countless dozens of hours contemplating and experiencing this reality in its fullness, bucking and humming my way along in a loud and thirsty truck that refuses to die but forces its occupants to acknowledge just how many miles they are covering. For one, in the time and distance that one could travel from Dallas to Los Angeles or New Orleans to New York, one could also drive from one remote town in British Columbia to another, experiencing no town of more than five thousand people and no especially noteworthy change of scenery. The woods thicken and thin of their own accord, mountain peaks seem to rise and shrink, but the overall impression is one of a forest so vast and a network of rivers and lakes so numerous that one could fill a tome simply trying to use ample words to give sense of it. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to convey the moments between the noteworthy highlights and lowlights, when I’m neither meeting hitchhikers nor futilely adjusting kickdown cables in the desert, when I’m not catching any grayling or realizing that friends from different chapters in my life are now getting married in a way that doesn’t quite jell with my understanding of how the world works.
As a writer and aspiring photographer, I am acutely aware of the dark side of a visual and textual highlight reel; it creates a dauntingly unattainable and inimitable sense of reality for the onlooker. It can discourage just as much as it might inspire. And so, when the hours and miles pile on in ways that truly defy description, I feel most challenged as a storyteller. It is not compelling to describe a day in which nothing remarkable happens, and only slightly more so to write of a drive so long and arduous that you contemplate drinking your own tears. Every writing class teaches its students as much. Photographs with no dramatic vistas or poignant themes are not compelling. And yet, most of life looks this way. And in northern B.C. and the Yukon Territory, much of the terrain looks this way, though it is more an onslaught of daunting beauty than a sea of mundanity. There are three hundred Lake Tahoes, a thousand Ozark National Forests stitched together, a dozen Mississippi Rivers bisecting and bisecting the landscape.
Man is not equipped to process life or the planet on this scale. We build our biggest cities on small plots of land, carve friend groups out of already small collections of humanity, struggle with the fleeting length of a human lifetime. To face such mighty places after driving through the ebbs and flows of cities and open spaces is threatening to our sense of fate. Any given event, any person, any place feels inconsequential in light of a nine hour drive through unwavering woods. As I write this, I’m sitting in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, a lovely city which is astonishingly removed from other named places. Vancouver is twenty-nine hours to the south, Anchorage is some fourteen hours to the northwest. It is the capital (and only) city of the Yukon Territory, a place which lies in an unusually ‘warm and dry’ part of the Yukon: it only receives an average of six feet of snow per winter, its average wintertime low is a balmy negative 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the course of a year, the average temperature in Whitehorse is 31.8 degrees Fahrenheit. In native measurements, that’s a jeering negative 0.1 Centigrade. There are modern-rustic buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in Denver, the same Camaros and Subarus one might see on the streets of Toronto, even a few national franchise restaurants and hotel chains that could easily lull its visitors into forgetting that they are thousands of miles from most other things that they can easily name or recognize.
This concept has crossed my mind many times on this trip. That the wise and foolhardy decisions of men a century or two ago dictated where we would tame back forests and water deserts, where we would plant crops and build docks and thus create places where cars are more threatening than bears and buildings are likelier to block out the sun than trees or mountains. There is a certain rhythm to the location and frequency of our cities and towns across much of North America. Until there isn’t. Until the places countless hundreds of miles stretch before the eye in every direction, where a gas guzzling old truck threatens to strand its driver if he passes up even one opportunity to get gas from a gravity-actuated pump in Good Hope Lake, British Columbia. So soon after spending time reveling in the merits of ‘rural living’ on Vancouver Island with a reader of these pages who graciously hosted Hank and I for a weekend, the comparison is even more stark. I thought a two hour ferry ride and an hour drive away from the main Island city was a good barrier against the chaos of urbanity, but now such a place seems downright cosmopolitan.
I understood my seven weeks of driving as legitimate progress towards this stubborn goal of reaching Alaskan soil, until I sat on their porch in East Sook, British Columbia and frantically phoned ferry operators and came to terms with the fact that I was still over forty hours of driving away from Anchorage, to say nothing of the Northern and Peninsular reaches of the state. It is healthy to have our schema shattered repeatedly. It creates a certain open-mindedness and healthy humility. It separates us from the crippling weight of individual situations and frees us from the sense that basic outcomes may dictate our entire lives in a hubristically finite set of options. Every mile covered by the Land Cruiser is earned in a way that would seem blessedly easy to Lewis or Clark or Muir, no matter how brutish they may feel at the time. Every time I believe myself close to an understanding or even a point on a map, I secretly relish being crushed or at least corrected.
* * *
So many times in the last few weeks, I have been tempted to write from a place of legitimate despair, but I’ve also hesitated out of patience or exhaustion. And with that resistance comes a more fully-formed perspective. Cruise control and independent suspension would be welcome luxuries, but I may not have wrapped my mind around the scale of things in the same way if it weren’t so daunting to cover two hundred miles without services. Satellite radio would be an astonishing modern convenience, but I would not pay as close of attention to the signs along the highway every few hours that inform drivers what the local FM and AM radio stations are (usually, there is one FM and two AM every few hundred miles). I would not have bought twenty one dollars’ worth of three dollar used CDs from a sidewalk stand in Seattle while walking around with one of my favorite humans from an often-repressed era of my life. There would be less sublime richness to the listening of Patsy Cline’s 12 Greatest Hits, less preciousness to the bootleg Paul McCartney Unplugged album that is quickly burning itself into my frontal lobe note-for-note.
There is a poesy in the waiting, in the feeling, in the bloodshot eyes and trembling calf muscles, in the packing and unpacking of camp and motel room, in the lonely meals and extraordinarily intimate conversations with strangers. As someone who has felt the black-hole-and-brick-wall stasis of depression many times in my life, it is a tear-evoking blessing to get so tired and lonely you might weep only to reflect on it the next day after six hours of real-bed sleep and feel glad that you got to feel so many things in a single, very-long day. There is literal breathtaking beauty and skull-numbing chipseal, fear-inducing solitude and the undending joy of waking up beside Hank every morning, even if I can’t remember where exactly we are. After enough hours behind the wheel, in sensory overload and sleep deprivation, with Hank as my only consistent conversation partner, it is inevitable that time is spent dwelling on every missed opportunity and failed relationship and regret and point of pain or contention in a life. Misery seems to love company and silence invites in the sneaking weaknesses that lurk around dark corners of the mind. And still, the miles unfurl as time and space continue to shift around us. Ultimately, gnawing on these latent pains seems to hold them up to the light and reveal them not so devastating after all. And what cannot be easily or peaceably explained away at least is put into perspective when given ample room to exist in the same vast world as every bear and eagle and salmon and pine tree.
Every time I’ve wanted to write about remote places or share tales of the absurd, another full day passes and the perspective of such shifts once more. Perhaps it would be illuminating to read this evolution in real-time, but I am physically incapable of writing while also pushing my body to the limit in every other way. I have gone for brief runs in ten PM sun after ten hours of driving, sliced my finger nearly to the bone on the raw edge of a can of black beans and enjoyed the thought exercise of how far the nearest hospital might be, talked to fisherwomen about the philosophical merits of fly fishing and enjoyable employment in a world-class grayling river I stumbled upon truly accidentally, given a First Nations tribe member a ride from one province to another. I have sat for so long that my old broken ribs throbbed and ached and my whiplashed neck became swollen and stiff, only to realize that these are perhaps the worst things that still ail me from that fateful day one year and two months ago. There is something so liberating about that fact that it almost makes the dull, constant aching feel good.
Travelling this way is a priceless education in the long game, in virtuous suffering and the relationship between picture-worthy moments and the expansive swaths of space and time between them. As I sit here and type, I’m stricken by just how many stories have happened since I last wrote a word at all. I fear a bit that my still-iffy memory may not recall them, though it certainly contains the flavor and gist in a way that lends itself well to writing, but I also smile knowing that there is no outcome other than a book after this trip. The things one sees and hears should they only offer up their body and their time as a sacrifice…
* * *
Whitehorse is the kind of town that sucks people in. After gold and copper were discovered here just prior to the turn of the 20th Century, people flocked here. And as it grew, it tempted early settlers away from nearby, smaller towns. In this way, it continued to grow, to become a land of Lotus-Eaters among a space so vast as to challenge the human mind’s understanding of scale without leaving the atmosphere. I, for one, am so enthralled by the few stoplights and even fluorescent lights that I am already tempted to stay another night, to kick around and see what other people find in this mecca amidst the great and untamed wilds. And, after so much trekking to arrive here, the prospect of doing the same to return to whence you came sounds rather unappealing.
The only plane to emit a highjacked signal on September 11th was a Korean Air flight from Seoul to JFK via Anchorage, and tensions were so high that it was escorted here by American fighter jets that were pre-authorized to shoot it down should it ignore even a single command. Whitehorse was chosen as the emergency landing location because, in some classified dealings, the American and Canadian governments seemed to agree that it was the most disposable city with a runway that could accept a Boeing 747.
As much as I like quiet places and open spaces, I am only human and most humans prefer the uneasy convenience of neighbors to the tenuous peace offered by a lack of them. It is far easier to appreciate fellow man when there are but a few thousand huddled against thousands of miles of wilderness than when there are millions of them stacked atop a few dozen square miles of concrete and steel. After filling so much of my time with the basics of survival like finding adequate places to sleep for the night and preparing basic meals and packing up after such activities to move on to the next place, my brain is reeling with the possibility of an entire day’s worth of time to write and ride bikes and talk to people and pay them to prepare my food for me, to respond to the emails personal and professional that are piling up in my inbox, and even to sleep in the same bed for two nights in a row, with a third beckoning seductively. In the space-time continuum, three nights is relatively insignificant. In a slice of life where motion and uncertainty are the only constants, three nights feels a certain eternity. And, in a dozen hour drive, a few hours with a hitchhiker riding shotgun and Hank marginalized to the footwell feels like three lifetimes lived out at once.