Dust and Gravel, Beauty and Dreams
Ten o'clock in the morning--a bright, sun-filled sky overhead with just a hint of some clouds, an idea that something larger might still develop--and I am standing on a bridge that spans the Klondike River in Canada's Yukon Territory looking down into the water, looking for fish, wondering how long it takes for the rainfall to become river water and pass this place, and wondering how long it takes this river water to reach the ocean. I have never stood here before this morning. The bridge is the beginning of the Dempster Highway, a road I have never traveled. But I know this bridge, and I know this road.
Thousands of miles away from where I am standing this morning, I asked a simple question. How far away can I drive? Where do the roads finally end? If you ask a question the right way, or the wrong way enough, you begin to hear stories. As I took my question to maps and tourists and explorers, I began to hear stories about this road, this small gravel path that in summer ends in a delta town called Inuvik, and in winter uses river ice until it ends in Tuktoyaktuk, on the shores of the Beaufort Sea, the Arctic Ocean. And the stories were wonderful, dangerous and thrilling and beautiful. I imagined myself in every single one of them.
Just a few minutes before this moment, not a hundred yards away, at a gas station and restaurant and lodge called the Klondike Corner, a man in a government uniform walked up to me as I filled the Jeep with gas.
"Minnesota, eh?" he said, after looking at my license plates, more statement than question.
"Yep," I said.
"I fought fires there," he said, smiling broadly. Then he told me he fought the Yellowstone fire and the Fox Lake fire. He told me there is a fire, maybe going to be a big one, over in Alaska now. He said he dispatched the tankers out of Dawson City just yesterday. He said he liked Minnesota, and that he'd like to go back there someday just to look around. He told me stories, and when he left we shook hands and it occurred to me I'd never heard his name.
On the bridge, looking down, I can see the Klondike River is shallow, very clear and very fast. The stories I know from history tell me this is one of the gold rush rivers. The stories I know from yesterday tell me the mining continues. But this river is not why I am here. Turning, and looking north, I can see the Dempster rise gently, a straight path between lodgepole pines. In the distance, I can see the Tombstone Mountains, sharp and jagged.
Seven hundred thirty seven kilometers. Four hundred forty one miles. Nearly all of it gravel. North of the Arctic Circle, a lot of the gravel is tire-slashing broken black shale. Gas only at Eagle Plains, the halfway point, and then again at Fort McPherson and Inuvik. Three times across the continental divide. Four times over mountain ranges, then down into river valleys and muskeg. Ptarmigan, hare, siksik, red fox, muskrat, beaver, martin, wolf, arctic fox, lynx, Barren Ground grizzly bear, black bear, moose, Barren Ground caribou from the Bluenose and Porcupine herds, wolverine, hoary marmot, Dall sheep, and just off shore, Beluga whale. And this doesn't even begin to name the plants or the millions of birds who migrate through here. Very few people. Little rescue for the stupid or the poorly prepared. Space enough to breathe. When I leave the bridge, start the Jeep and crest the first small hill, the mountains become a kind of promise or possibility. This is the last road in North America.
A plume of dust, bright white and thick in the summer sunshine, kicks up from my tires. The sound of driving on gravel becomes background noise. The roadway, built on a berm much like a railway to counter the muskeg and permafrost, heads toward the mountains. Very quickly I come upon a blue van with a flat tire. I slow, to offer what I can, and discover no one is near. I do not know if the spare is already on one of the wheels.
The Tombstone mountains get their name not from catastrophe, not from any lost party of men and women who perished, but simply from the way they look. Dark igneous rock, the remains of a granite batholith, sharp faces rising fast out of the surrounding landscape, broken tops, they look like grave markers stacked up against some invisible wall.
I know from guidebooks, the ease of reading back in Dawson, coffee at my elbow and the Yukon River at my feet, that these mountains have never been glaciated. The ice sheets never covered them during the last ice age. The mountains in Alaska blocked most of the moisture and there simply wasn't enough snow for glaciers to form. This means this part of the world became a refuge for wildlife, both plant and animal. And it means the great scraping and smoothing of the ice never happened here.
The mountains look different than the Rockies. The Rockies are old in the way that somebody's grandfather might be old. These mountains are old like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The Dempster goes up into the mountains, sometimes winding, sometimes dead straight. Sometimes there's just a minor embankment between the roadway and the muskeg; sometimes the drop-offs can be forty, fifty, as much as one hundred feet or more. Dangerous terrain in the best of times. Fireweed, a bright pink plant that enjoys border ground, grows along the side of the highway with arctic cotton and gives, at least to me, the impression that some garden club has come out and decorated the highway--a long gray corridor of crushed rock, pretty pink and white flowers along the sides, and then the greens of the summer tundra.
Looking at the mountains, then the roadway, then the deep, shadowed valleys, then the mountains made different and new by a turn in the road and a fresh angle of light--every mile or kilometer is a source and then history of wonder and spectacle. Every minute I do not stop the Jeep, step out, and begin a hike toward some lake or ridge, is a minute conflicted. It is not possible to be everywhere. It is not possible to explode into landscape.
Soon enough, though, I find myself stopping.
At the Tombstone Mountain campground, the first one on the road, the government runs an interpretative center. Two women, college age or perhaps just a bit older, both with brown hair but one with trendy blond streaks, work in an old wooden building with a porch and happily offer advice and information to those who stop. Nearly everyone does. On the porch, amidst maps and nature posters and reports of the road's condition, there is a board where travelers can list their wildlife sightings. Today's list reads: grizzly bear, black bear, ptarmigan, moose, marmot, eagle, falcon, owl.
Inside the hut, another pair of women, in their later fifties or early sixties, are telling their story of driving back down the Dempster.
"Two flats," one tells me as I walk in. "Two flats, one right after the other. We got the first one changed, and maybe drove another half mile before the other one went."
"Black shale," says the other one. "North of the arctic circle the road is all black shale. Tires just can't take it. You're driving up? How many spares have you got?"
From the looks of them--bright smiles, dirt on the forearms, and grease on their jeans--they are not telling me a disaster story. This is an adventure, trouble in the wilderness, and they have survived.
When the women leave ("Two flats!" I hear them tell someone in the gravel parking lot. "We had two flats….") I ask the clerk with the blond streaks about a hike to a waterfall that I had seen described in one of the guidebooks. Only a little more than a mile round trip from the road, it sounds like a good way to breathe. I'm pretty sure I've already passed it--my car does not measure kilometers, I tell her--but I'd like to double back and find it if she can give me a landmark.
The clerk smiles at me. "That's not such an easy hike," she says. "I tried it myself a month ago. It was bushwhacking the whole way--really thick brush."
"Really?" I ask, disappointed.
"Yeah," she says. "And even if you wanted to do that, I wouldn't recommend it."
"There's two grizzly bears down there now."
"Oh," I say. "Good enough for me."
Walking back to the parking lot, I discover inertia can be a physical sensation. The body at rest, or in this case at a rest stop, tends to remain at rest. And there is a large part of me that wants to stop here, to set up a tent here and sit very still to watch the clouds and rain and sunlight move over the mountains. There is a large part of me that wants to learn this one small and particular and thus infinite place. The body in motion, though, is more than just an abstract wish. The call of the next valley, the next lake or river, the next bend in the road, is compelling and more than enough to turn me back toward the Jeep and its ignition.
Up to speed and heading north again, I find the rains moving in. Not thunderstorms. Nothing dramatic. Just showers. The valleys become gray with mist. The sky becomes gray with clouds. As the road crosses over small hills and passes, the air is cold and windy. The road is no longer dry and dusty. It's gray with slime and muck.
I pass an emergency airstrip--the highway straight enough and wide enough, for long enough that a small plane can land, an air ambulance I suppose--yet with the fog I know it would be impossible for a plane to land this morning.
Though even with the rain, with the grayness, it is impossible to look at a landscape like this and not begin to feel that this is a huge place. I know, for example, from books and signs that I've been following the Tintina Trench, a rift valley that runs pretty much from Montana straight to north of Dawson and then into Alaska. The Tintina trench, a possible extension of the Rocky Mountain Trench, changed the course of the Yukon River when the trench was filled with ice-age glaciers. And I know that these days sandhill cranes follow the trench on their migrations. But neither of these facts has anything to do with a faster heartbeat as the road turns a corner and the sun comes back out and the world seems so damn big and varied that I could never know anything true at all.
On the road there is always the promise of more.
Some hours up the roadway, I don't know how many, I come upon a man sitting on a lawn chair behind a van along the side of the Ogilvie River. The day has become sunny and warm. The river, broad and shallow and braided and tumbling over polished rocks, makes little noise. The valley here is broad enough to not feel close, but mountains rise to the east and west.
I slow and pull up a short way behind him. As far as I can tell, his tires are fine and he does not seem to be in trouble. This place, I decide, seems as good as any for fishing. As I unpack my rod and boots the man and I wave at each other. I look at the river for a few minutes, trying to figure out a good place to get in, and when I turn back I see the man has walked up to me. White hair, white beard, he swats at mosquitoes with a handkerchief.
"Lots of horse power," he says, pointing at the Jeep. His accent is unmistakably German.
"Yes," I say.
"Good for this road," he says.
"Yes," I say.
"Salmon," he says. "They come up this river?"
"No," I say, mostly sure. "This river goes north, to the arctic ocean. Not west, or
south, to the Pacific."
He pauses, and I assume it's to translate my English onto his German map of the
He watches me tie a fly onto the end of my line.
"This river," he says. "This river, this road. Very very nice." Each "very" he hits hard and slow.
"Yes," I say to him. "It is."
I fish for half an hour, maybe a little more, and watch two grayling rise and dance before I pull them in and let them go. But I leave early, because I've been told a story, and I'm close to the place.
Two hundred and twenty something kilometers from the Klondike Corner, there is a small path leading east from the Dempster. It's unmarked--just two tire ruts heading into some woods toward the river. Yesterday, at the tourist information center in Dawson, when I asked about good places to go fishing, good places to spend time even if the fish weren't hungry, an Inuit woman took me aside and told me about this spot. "My Grandmother," she said, "wanted to be buried with some rocks from this place."
Even looking for it, I pass it the first time by, not recognizing the trail. When I am certain I've gone too far, I double back, find it, and turn off the road. Fifty yards--maybe not even that much--of small trees and bushes, and then the trail breaks onto the stones and banks of the Ogilvie River. I drive the Jeep to the water's edge and get out.
A small waterfall here, really a small series of steps and cascades, and some back-current that swirls to make a kind of whirlpool where I'm told the fish hold at the bottom and wait for food, or flies. This is a tremendously beautiful place. I fish for a while and don't catch a single one. Then I put the rod away and simply sit on the bank to watch. I am invisible to the roadway here, and the road is invisible to me. I lean back and close my eyes, wanting to only listen, and perhaps to drift into the warm comfort of a half sleep. But at every small noise I find myself looking. Bear? No. Close the eyes again. Snap. Bear? No. I know it's the wrong time of the year, but this is the place where the Porcupine Caribou Herd moves on its way to or from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This is the place where there are more animals than I have names, and it is possible at this small place on the river to imagine I am the only person on earth.
Eventually, and almost reluctantly, I find myself back in the Jeep, heading north until I stop again, this time at the Eagle Plains Hotel, the halfway point on the Dempster Highway. Single story, long and narrow, the exterior made of corrugated steel or wood, the Eagle Plains Hotel does not give an outside appearance of comfort. Just to the south of the main building is the gas station and maintenance shop, a few small pumps for gasoline and diesel, a garage for tire and engine repair. Massive road building machines are parked near the garage. The gravel parking lot is both mud and dust. The few cars are filthy. Mosquitoes thick and insistent. Off the north end of the hotel, a collection of tents and campers, canoes and kayaks strapped to the tops of cars and pickup trucks, and the sound of healthy laughter.
Eagle Plains is on a broad ridge or plateau, and looking east from the step in front of the hotel I can see green tundra grass and willows, rolling hills and mountains in the distance--snow in the valleys. Above them to the north, clear sky and cottonball clouds. Above them to the south, a massive storm cell, rain and grayness in the distance.
For dinner tonight, chicken, mashed potatoes, a glass of beer and then another. Satellite radio from Vancouver tells me what movies I can see downtown, or which pizza place will deliver the hottest pie. Satellite television is beamed into each hotel room. And it's all a pleasant if not disconcerting fantasy. A full menu in the restaurant, a well stocked hotel bar, television and radio that seem so familiar. The staff, without exception, is eager to help and to be pleasant. If you didn't know any better, you wouldn't think about every drop of water here being trucked up to holding tanks. If you didn't know any better, you wouldn't think the electricity is made on site.
When I pulled up to the hotel, I went looking for the surveyor's pin that I had read was here--a marker for the Canadian Gravity Standardization Project. I don't really know what that is, but it sounded too good not to find and touch. I knew it was somewhere near pipes outside the gas station. On my way there, I see a truck pull out of the tire repair bay and another truck pull right in. I walk in to ask the mechanic if he knows where the gravity pin is, and say hello to the driver whose tire is the current project.
"Having fun?" I ask.
"Oh yeah," he says, smiling.
"Two," he says. "I lost them both at the same place."
I find the pin and stare at it for a while, then am driven inside by the mosquitoes. In my hotel room I shower, get in bed, then get back up again. My mind knows it's late, very late, and yet it is light outside, even with the approaching storm. I'm restless. The only thing I want is to get on the highway and to be driving, to feel the miles or kilometers leap from beneath the wheels and into my legs and my heart. Being still somehow doesn't seem right.
Well after midnight and the sky is still bright. The storm isn't here yet, but I can tell it's getting closer. I'm reluctant to close the hotel room curtains. Reluctant to stop looking. I rest and then get up and go to the window. I rest again, then get up and go to the window. Finally, I rest and sleep.
In the morning, the sun has come out, the sky is bright, the mountains and the hills which fall away and rise again to every side are a deep, rich shade of green, and the breeze is a gentle one. The road itself, rutted and unevened by the rains and the traffic, is nothing less than thrilling as it follows a high ridge north. There is no other traffic, not a single other person within sight or imagination, and the white plume of dust behind the Jeep seems like decoration. In every sense, this is a fine morning in the Canadian arctic.
Quickly, though, I find myself pulling off the road into a gravel parking lot, and smiling.
There are places on this planet that hold an odd and special power. Simply being there does something to our sense of success, of going beyond the mundane, of having done something real. The top of Everest is such a place, as is the Great Wall of China. Crossing the Equator would fit, as would a day at Macchu Pichu or the Bay of Fundy. Somehow these places wiggle their way into our imaginations when we are children, grab hold of some part of our desire, and never leave. We look for them on maps, find ourselves reading about them in waiting rooms and coffee shops. "I've always wanted to go there," we say. And if we are lucky, we go.
In front of me now, at the edge of the gravel roadway, is a sign. 66 degrees, 33 minutes north. The Arctic Circle. According to the OED, in 1556 a man named Robert Record wrote in his book The Castle of Knowledge that: "The Arctike circle is the greattest of all those circles whiche do always appear, and toucheth the Horizonte in only one pointe…All the starres that bee within this circle nother rise nother set." This, according to the scholars, is the first time the words "arctic circle" were used as a phrase in English. (Chaucer gets credit for "arctic" in 1391.) The first time I heard the phrase, of course, I do not remember. But for as long as I can remember this circle, this place where the sun does not set in spring, nor rise in winter, has been a call to my wandering hopes. Anything arctic, from the Franklin expedition to the voyage of the Nautilus, from the Siberian land bridge to the work of Gontran de Poncins, from SRA cards to National Geographic, held a promise I made to myself to see something extraordinary, something beautiful as well as dangerous and hard.
This particular summer morning I step over the circle, then back, then over it again. I walk to the edge of the gravel, look at the horizon, and spin a slow circle as I try to imagine the sun on the summer solstice. It would rise 47 degrees by midday, and at midnight it would kiss the horizon. It would not set. Instead, it would appear to tour the perimeter of the visible world. And I try to imagine a bit of space as well. I'm not sure why, perhaps because the arctic circle itself is a mathematical construct resulting from the calculation of the tilt of the planet (the earth tilts 23 ½ degrees off the orbital plane; the Arctic and Antarctic circles are 23 ½ degrees away from the poles), but before I left home I wondered how far a second of longitude (measured east/west along a line of latitude), as in degrees and minutes and seconds on a map, might be. I knew it would be one thing at the equator, and then diminish as the globe moved toward the poles. Would it be possible, I wondered, to see a second? What I learned is that the math goes like this: One degree at the equator equals 69.172 statute miles, or 365,228.16 feet. One minute is 1/60th of a degree, or 6087 feet (approximately one nautical mile). To figure the diminishing distance, use the formula: feet times cos(degrees). So, 6087 times cos(66 degrees 33 minutes) or 6087 * 0.39795 = 2422.32 feet. One second is 1/60th of a minute, and 1/60th of 2422.32 is 40.37 feet. Forty and a little less than one half feet. I've walked twice that distance away from the Jeep already.
Sitting on the grass a short way off the road, looking east, I try to imagine the seconds becoming minutes becoming degrees. I try to imagine the whole of the planet, crisscrossed with lines of latitude and longitude. And then I stop. The math explains the midnight sun in summer and the tremendous dark cold of winter. The math gives me a marker for my own desire. But I wonder, too, if there is anything in this math that tells me where I am.
If arrival can be said to be a physical feeling; that is, if a person can say, "I feel like I have arrived," then north of the circle, I am a very happy man. Anything, now, is possible.
Driving north from the circle, the roadway leaves the high ground, crosses a valley, rises again into mountains and toward Wright Pass, the border between the Yukon and the Northwest Territories, and the third time I'll cross the continental divide on this road. But in the valley, two things happen.
First, it occurs to me that a compass, if I had one, would here be pointing more east than north. The north magnetic pole, which wanders a bit as the planet's magnetosphere shifts, was (last time I checked) at 79 deg 19 min North, 105 deg 26 min West, just off Ellef Ringnes Island, in Nunavut. Following the compass would put me on a line to Ellesmere Island, then Greenland, then through the North Sea and into Germany.
Second, a bear comes out of the brush and I do something stupid.
Lumbering, a fast walk or half trot, a red-brown bear--giant, I think; grizzly, I think--appears on the west shoulder of the road and begins to cross, heading away from me. Even though I'm on the black shale, I hit the brakes hard and I can feel all four tires lock and skid. Backseat, I think! The camera bag, it's in the backseat! The car still sliding, I turn and start digging in the pile--the duffle bag, the jacket, the other pair of boots. The camera! I unzip the camera bag, rip the camera out, and turn to face front again. The bear is--where? Nothing. Not even a breeze moves the tops of the fireweed. Because the top is not on the Jeep today, I stand on the seat, camera ready, and scan the landscape east of the highway. Nothing. I wait. I sit back down, then put the camera on the passenger seat. The engine is still running. No air hisses from any tire. But I cannot leave. I look every direction. The bear, I am sure, is gone. My gut instinct, though--to turn away from the bear so I could get a damn picture of it; a trophy? --bothers me greatly. I don't care about the North Magnetic Pole anymore. All I want is the bear to come back. I'll leave the camera on the seat.
Soon enough, however, the sadness goes away. This valley, these mountains, this roadway, high tundra, muskeg valleys of jack pine and willow, it's all just so remarkably beautiful. The car goes in gear; I climb toward the pass.
At Wright Pass, the valleys both east and west are huge and alive with arctic summer urgency. The wind is not gentle here, but I want to remain. This border, like all borders, seems to imply something I can never quite grasp. Something about physical space, or political history. I know what a divide is, but I want to feel it in the dirt. I know about provincial boundaries, but I do not know the people who made them.
The vista from the pass is stunning. But not untroubled. And it is the road itself that bothers me. There is a part of me that wants to kneel in thanks for the roadway, for the possibility that I might be here. And there is a part of me that cannot bear the sight of the seam. Conflicted, but happy, I drive downhill into the Northwest Territories.
James Creek passes through a culvert under the highway. A highway maintenance camp, chain-link fence, tin buildings, looking like every other highway shop in North America were it not for a mountain and clear stream as borders, sits back from the crossing on the west side. A small blue sign with a picture of a fish, however, points to a pullout on the east side--a gravel parking spot, then the rushing water. Not very deep. Not very far across. The rock streambed worn smooth here, then jagged a further bit downstream. If they're going to put a sign up, I think, then I'm going to fish.
The thing about fly-fishing, of course, is to tie on a fly that matches the local bugs. Local bugs can change hourly, so it's always a challenge to find the right match. Here, in the Richardson Mountains, north of the Arctic Circle, I have no idea what might be in the stream, or how I might match it. So I tie on something called a Chernobyl ant, a huge foam and rubber imitation of a gargantuan black ant, cast it into the stream, and the grayling are hungry. I'm bringing the second one in when I realize there's a man standing behind me.
"Hello," I say.
He smiles and nods at me.
"Who are you?" I ask.
"Charlie," he says, walking closer.
I do not see any other car, but I ask him anyway. "Are you traveling the highway?"
"No," he says. "Survey crew." He points through some brush and suddenly I see a trailer and a pickup truck forty, maybe fifty yards away. "We're on break."
"Want to try?" I ask, holding the fly rod toward him.
"No," he says. But he does start talking. He asks about the hooks, and the line. He nods his head and smiles at every answer, and after a while he walks away. A few minutes later, another man, Charlie's partner, walks up. He's just as friendly, but does not talk as much. He simply wants to watch the fish. When he leaves, then Charlie comes back.
"Are you catching a lot?" he asks.
"Yes," I say. "Or the same one over and over."
"If you catch another one, can I have it?"
When I catch another one, I take it off the hook and hand it to him. He conks it over the head a couple of times with a stick and then carries it off to have lunch.
Before he leaves, though, I ask him how grayling taste, because I have read that they are a good eating fish. He says they taste wonderful. Just clean them, put them in pan with some butter, and away you go. When I pass the both of them a short while later, Charlie standing twenty yards off the road's shoulder holding the surveying rod while his partner looks through the transit, we wave at each other like old friends.
North of James Creek the road leaves the mountains quickly and the land grows flat--bluffs and hills at the riverbanks, but otherwise a landscape of jack pine and muskeg. The water is tannic and slow. At the Peal River, the first of two ferry crossings, I wait as the white boat loads a car and a semi truck on the far side. The Peal River ferry is a cable ferry--a long steel cable strung between the two banks; a strong winch in the boat to pull it back and forth. Ramps at the bow and stern, though which is which changes with each trip. A white pilot's tower rises on the upriver side of the brown and red car deck.
When I get out of the Jeep, the man working as deckhand, directing the loading and unloading of traffic, walks up to me. He looks at my license plate and tries to rub off some of the dirt.
"Where're you from?" he asks.
"Minnesota," I say.
"Minnesota!" he calls up to the pilot, who takes a pencil and appears to write it down.
"Keeping a list?" I ask.
"Anyone from Minnesota yet?"
"I just started a couple days ago. My list isn't very long."
As the boat begins to travel back across the river, the deckhand and I lean over the railing and watch the water swirl around the ferry's edges.
"Does this boat have propellers or just a winch?" I ask.
"Just the winch," he says.
"What happens if the cable breaks?"
"Well, it happened once," he says, turning to face me, and smiling a slow smile I know as well as my own--the smile that says it would really be something to see, eh? "The boat wound up a good bit downriver before it ran ashore."
The ferry across the MacKenzie River is a different story. Larger, propeller-driven, the pilot's tower centered over the car and truck deck on a bridge of white steel, this ferry can hold a double-tandem semi and a good many cars. The MacKenzie River is the largest river in Canada And where it meets the Arctic Red River, a much smaller stream coming in from the west, steep brown bluffs line both sides of the water. A town, which used to be called Arctic Red River, now called Tsiigehtchic, on the far side of its river namesake, appears almost quaint. The Catholic church, a red peaked roof with white walls and a bell spire, fronts the town on the riverside. Homes, other buildings, fill the spaces away from the water.
As it turns out, I've shown up five minutes late. The ferry is midstream, chugging around the mouth of the Arctic Red toward the landing at Tsiigehtchic. From there it will motor across the MacKenzie, to the landing for the Dempster. Then it will return to the landing where I am now first in line. The ferry leaves only once an hour, so I have the time to rest, to walk around the riverbanks, then doze in the nighttime sunshine.
Hat down low over my eyes, I watch the ferry as it begins its trip from the far side of the MacKenzie. As it approaches, I hear the crunch of car tires of gravel, and then some more. People with better timing pull up behind me to get in line for the ride. The ferry offloads the south-bounders, then signals for us to drive on board. Pulling up to the far chain, I shut off the engine, get out of the Jeep, and join the other drivers at a railing. One of the deckhands, however, has discovered a problem.
A maroon Chevrolet Suburban, clearly very new, is leaking air from the right rear tire. The deckhand signals to the driver, and the man who gets out speaks very little English.
"They can fix this," the deckhand says, "on the other side of the river. But we should get a spare on here while we can."
The man looks at him. "Good," he says. The man reaches into the truck, pulls out the owner's manual, and hands it to the deckhand. The deckhand turns to the page where it shows the jack location, then looks in the back of the truck.
"Well, that figures," he says. "It's not where they say it will be."
Suddenly there are three or four of us inside and under the Suburban. We look under the rear floor mat. We look by the engine. We look behind the rear axle. Finally I find it, under a hatch over a wheel well. The deckhand takes the jack and begins to change the tire.
The driver looks on, helpless, but not unhappy.
"Hello," I say.
"Hello," he says. Another strong German accent.
"Are you enjoying your trip?"
"Aaah, yes!" he says, then puts his hand over his heart. "I am a young man. I come to this country. I am sixty-two now--too old, but I am a young man. I come to this country."
I smile at him knowing exactly what he's getting at.
"I understand," I say. "Here every day is special."
Again, his hand goes over his heart. His eyes grow large, and he sighs. He says, "Yes, very special."
From the ferry landing to Inuvik, the highway is lit by midnight sun. The occasional loon floats in a melt pond; the plume of dry white dust still rises from behind my car.
Outside Inuvik, a town whose name means Place of Man, one hundred twenty seven kilometers beyond the ferry, the radio comes back on. Not long after that, the airport, and then pavement for the roads. Soon enough, a caribou-burger and fries at a small restaurant and take-out place called To-Go's. Looking at the odometer in the Jeep, I see I'm only fifty miles short of three thousand miles from home.
Sitting outside on the deck in front of To-Go's, what I do not know is that tomorrow I will board a small plane that will carry me to Tuktoyaktuk. The pilot will buzz the sites of two crashes as well as the Distant Early Warning station, and we will see pingos as well as beluga whales from the air. In Tuktoyaktuk, an Inuit man will drive us around in a van, show us the Hotel Tuk Inn, let us get off at a gift shop, a mission church, and a type of earth-covered house from centuries before. Standing in front of this house, I will hear ZZ Top coming from a modern house a block away. And later, I will wade knee-deep in the Arctic Ocean's Beaufort Sea.
The day after tomorrow I will check out of Inuvik's Eskimo Inn and head south on the Dempster, racing away from pavement and radio and stop lights, racing away from The Place of Man. I will cross the ferries, visit the grayling in James Creek and the Ogilvie River. Coming around a corner, I will drive into a flock of ptarmigan that scatters, one not quickly enough, and in Eagle Plains a man will ask if I kept the bird and ate it. At the Arctic Circle, I will spend an hour alone, amazed at the size of the planet. In Eagle Plains I will eat a large meal, and smile because the hotel staff remembers me. But I will not spend the night. Instead, I will fill the gas tank and continue south, the light never fading. I will fish, and hike, and drive, and when I get to the Klondike Corner I will worry because it is closed, and I do not know if I have enough gas to get into Dawson. I'll make it, though, and I'll check into the Downtown Hotel, and the desk clerk will convince a cook to send me a supper and a bottle of Arctic Red beer.
What I do not know yet is that I will see a storm in the Tombstone Mountains, just a single rain cloud, moving east away from the road. And the rain that falls from it, lit by the low angle of the sun, will appear to be a rainbow. Not an arc, but a shimmering and cascading belt of color falling from cloud to sky. Red and blue and green and yellow and orange.
What I do know, however, is the length of one road. What I know is the connection between desire and joy. What I know is a few more stories. What I know, now, is that there are new spaces in my heart and mind, new ways of seeing sunlight and river water and bears that rise out of willows, new ways of seeing the mysterious made particular, hard, beautiful and dangerous. And I know that the trip in front of me, the retracing of the exploration, will make each new story better, and allow me to bring them home.
W. Scott Olsen has written six books. His latest, Gravity -- The Allure
of Distance -- Essays on the Act of Travel will appear this fall from
the University of Utah Press. Two of the essays in Mr. Olsen's
collection have made the notable list of Best American Essays. "Dust
and Gravel, Beauty and Dreams," the essay that appears here, is included in
the forthcoming collection.