Dawson City, not actually big enough to be designated a city, is perched on the banks of the silent and massive Yukon River. To arrive here from Alaska, one drives along the breathtaking, mind-bending Top of the World Highway, a hundred miles of gravel road sliced indelicately into the ridges of roiling mountains that stretch endlessly from Alaska to Canada. After crossing the border, a driver still has nearly sixty miles of gravel road to follow before it suddenly points downward rather suddenly and abruptly ends at the river, where a haphazard collective of cones directs drivers and pedestrians where to line up for the ferry, which serves as the only river crossing until the water finally freezes over sometime in October. Then you just drive on the ice.
I arrived in the Yukon a bit harried and desperate, having accomplished my Arctic Cannonball Run, gorged on nearly a month of feasting and famining in Alaska’s wild places and industrial city centers. I felt restless and a bit ill, generally ready to return to the Lower 48 and the familiarity of grocery stores and widespread AT&T coverage and other necessary evils I’ve grown reliant upon. Fairbanks to the border between Alberta and Montana is nearly 2,500 miles, and I spent my last evening in the city scheming how to efficiently divvy up my drives with a brief respite for exploration in Banff National Park. I felt my mindset shifting to that of someone who’s lost sight of the extraordinary nature of being. I was ready to “get the drive over with” and merely check a few stops and photo ops off along the way.
Life, though, has a way of arresting the ungrateful liver. It can be violent, as getting T-boned by a car on my bicycle last year was, or it can be sublime, as vistas and fall colors were whilst trying to make haste driving towards the Canada border before it closes (9 AM to 9 PM daily) was. Once I’d left Fairbanks behind and filled my veins with decongestants, I felt the need to rush back toward comfortable provisions and safe routines melting away. By the time we boarded the ferry, I could already tell the gravity of happiness, of the Yukon, of its gold rush mentality was weighing upon me. Hank was irate from a day of frantic packing and ceaseless driving, and it affected me profoundly. Dogs are the ultimate litmus test for life lived well or poorly—when a dog is unhappy, well, its human either is or ought to be, too. And surrounded by interesting smells, friendly strangers, and fresh air, damn if joy doesn’t overwhelm man and beast alike.
I told myself Dawson City would be a brief stop on the way towards Whitehorse once more, then on into British Columbia and southeastward with haste. I wanted to experience the kitschy tourist bucket list Sour Toe shot, which involves a shooter of your liquor of choice garnished with a real dismembered human toe. Trudeaus Justin and Pierre have both kissed the toe, as have 76,255 other people. There have been a few toes over the years, but they all exist as one to(e)temic digit. I figured a toe tincture and perhaps a bit of flippant gambling would be plenty, that I could get a good night’s sleep and stroll around in the morning sun and be on my way, but that plan was made from a place of momentary weakness. I sauntered into the saloon famous for “the shot with the toe in it,” ordered a shot and a beer, and tried not to contemplate whether this violated my vegetarianism or not. On the road again, kissing toes and meeting the characters who make Dawson such a vibrant enclave, I was forced to acknowledge the joy which supersedes the easy checklist items I was racing towards. Items which will always be there, which serve a purpose but do not provide one.
Right now in Dawson, the birch trees are as yellow as the sun and the spruce trees are evergreen, the mornings are shrouded in fog which burns off and reveals resplendent blue skies and crisp afternoon sun. The hardworking locals are enjoying this balancing act, nearly freed from the crushing weight of tourists and not yet buried under the crushing weight of snow, and a couple of them invited me to the bar they haunt, away from the Sourtoe ritual and the expensive draught beers. The bartender who poured my Jose Cuervo shot and a crusty native Yukoner she plays music with shared with me their dissertations on song, told vivid stories of places like San Marcos and New Orleans, and exuded a peaceful, welcoming calm which carried me away with the silent might of the Yukon River. Every passing second rendered my chances of a quick departure the next morning slimmer, until indeed I’d drank one more beer than I had any desire to and I’d been invited to an open mic they were performing at the following night. And in a way which defies every fictive imagination, the bartendress herself smirked as she unlocked her bicycle, “You’ve got 23 hours to figure out what you’re going to play.”
I walked down the dirt-lined, moonlit street, oblivious to the Northern Lights in a way that I thought nobody ever could be. Through the thick clouds, the glow of a massive solar storm blended with the moonlight and only now do I realize that I didn’t pause for it.
* * *
The morning hurt slightly less than expected, any jetlag or dehydration was somewhat cancelled out by the loosening grip of the ferocious cold I’ve been wrestling with. Dawson has the type of authentic and enveloping culture that makes opening the blinds a life-affirming affair, and the air has a fresh, restorative quality that can only come from being in the middle of absolute nowhere. Visions of convivial bullshit danced in my head, and I was sincerely touched by the way my local tour guides saw my need and met it intuitively. As much as I avoid bars in my ‘normal’ life, I seek them out on the road. Nowhere are people likelier to unquestioningly understand eating, drinking, and driving your money away in search of something priceless. Nowhere else will seemingly annoying tourists begin surprising and confiding in you in ways that render them profoundly endearing. And nowhere have I learned to value 5 Canadian dollars so little or a suggestive smile so much. Nothing teaches you the relativity of bedtime and productivity quite like being invited to the bar the bartenders and local musicians go to after their own spots shut down. There is perhaps no bigger compliment than having the ‘captain’ in charge of the Sour Toe shot ceremony ranting to me, a tourist, about tourist season, nor any more unbreakable a rule than a perfect stranger placing their perfect expectations upon you to perform at an open mic the following night in a town you had no intention of staying in.
Over coffee, I sorted through the bare minimum logistics to stay at least another night. I pedaled through town on my mountain bike while Hank ran alongside me, hoping to get just enough energy out that he’d be somewhat patient with my coffee and writing routine afterwards. And here, having an exquisite flat white and egg breakfast, watching the fog float away and the yellow trees surround the gold rush era buildings, I knew I’d found one of those rare places where anything beyond the exact moment is but a distraction and distant hearsay. It was the best food and coffee I’ve had in uncountable weeks, and the rhythm of this town encourages one to read another chapter, to drink another cup, to sit a little longer and simply see what happens. I arrived with tunnel vision and a strict, uncharacteristic agenda. The grocery stores and financial outlays of Fairbanks tempted me to scamper home with my tail between my legs, but a day removed from the oversimplified causal experiences of city life, I am filled with a renewed sense of the philosophy which characterizes my best moments.
Take a tequila shot with a toe in it, don’t ever turn down a personal invitation, and abandon your narrow notion of a plan. I, for one, am all to wont to start sweating the car financing and house hunting and dream job searching of the future before I’ve finished enjoying the cheap Canadian beer and expensive organic breakfast foods of the present. There is nothing better for the human spirit than to sit outdoors while it is just one degree (Celsius) too chilly, with a warm and charismatic dog in your lap and the perfect trust and mutual admiration of passersby. You can meet people of every description exactly where they are in that moment, and fall a bit in love with the crisp autumnal breeze and every soft smile that passes in and out of your awareness. I’ve spent many days feeling finite and limited by regret and surroundings, even more stifled by my own sense of seriousness. It is easy to start believing that you know what you want and need, what you hate and regret. It is harder to sincerely proceed with no idea what to expect or what you think about it. When the opportunity presents itself to take a shot with a severed human toe in it, it’s best to take it.