When I first came to Fairbanks it was the middle of May and everyone was griping about the seemingly endless winter as though I had wandered into Narnia. I had travelled there huddled in the flatbed of a pickup in a blizzard, in a that storm would make it, officially, the longest winter in Alaska's history, taking a measure from the first snowfall to the last. “When it's springtime in Alaska,” sung Johnny Cash, “it's forty below.” Hitching back a month later is like stepping into a different world. Landmarks I had known by snowdrifts in May are blossoming with fireweed and lupines, drowsy with bees. Fairbanks, Alaska's second city (“If you are willing to allow Fairbanks a place in the category 'city,'” wrote Edward Abbey. “And why not? We are a generous people” (1984: 165-6)) is a desert by definition, with one of the widest temperature fluctuations on the planet. Now in the nineties, the leaves of the birch and the aspen and the alder, scarcely buds a month ago, are the green of stained glass, taut and quivering. There is an urgency to the vegetation that is contagious. The sunsets merge into sunrises at around three in the morning and sleep seems scarcely necessary.
I head out with a friend to spend some days hiking in Denali. Cori is Alaskan, and therefore, I reason, she can protect me from any bears we might come across. As we get on the road we hear on the radio that Fairbanks, today, is hotter than Hawaii. All time highs are toppling across the south of the state. On the edge of town we pick up a hitcher from France. He has been down the east coast of the Americas from Quebec to Argentina, up the west coast from Chile to here. The highway south of Fairbanks was closed this morning by wildfire. It is contained now, pressing up against the west side of the road. We are led through in single file by a pilot car, the air thick, headlights on, the windows up. Flames jump and flicker amongst the smoke. Hotshots line the hard shoulder, holding axes, grubby with soot. Cori waves. They grin white teeth, wave back.
It is a beautiful day, clear as a bell, though as we climb towards the Alaska Range, the peaks still snowbound, the clouds begin to gather. Our hitcher is heading to Healy, and from there he is heading to The Bus. It is the climax of his two year journey, it is something, he says, that he wants to do. I hear Cori rolling her eyes.
Perhaps The Bus, invariably said with capitals, needs little introduction. Several more impressionable years ago I sat down with my girlfriend at the time to watch Into the Wild, the film of the book, about middle class suburban Chris McCandless who left his parents and burnt his money and went hoboing round America (Krakauer, 1996). After two years of hand-to-mouth, on-the-road living he hitchhiked his way up to Alaska, to walk, in his own words, “into the wild.” It seemed to him the natural culmination of his desire to live free, to define for himself his own boundaries of existence. With little more than a ten pound bag of rice and a .22 rifle he headed out of Healy in the spring of 1992 and set up camp in an old bus that he found, left there from when a trail was built out to Stampede Mine, twenty-five miles into the bush. He muddled through for three months but when he came to walk out he found the benign and sluggish Teklanika that he had crossed on the way in to be impassable, raging with glacial melt. He returned to the bus to await freeze-up. As the year crept on, meat became scarce. He began to forage plants, made a mistake, poisoned himself and starved to death. Two weeks later he was found by a party of moose hunters, sixty-seven pounds of him, shrunken to bones. With so little of him left, he was ripe for others to flesh him out.
The film made an impression on me because I was exactly the sort of person such a film would make an impression on. I was struck by the romance, the freedom, the tragedy. Alaska was remote, enormous, other. It sparked a lively argument with my girlfriend who saw right through both McCandless and me (or so she said). I was not the only one to be taken with the story. When news first broke of McCandless' death, Jon Krakauer, a writer from Massachusetts, was commissioned by Outside magazine to write an article. The piece generated more mail than any other in the magazine's history. Krakauer sensed a book. When it was published it quickly became the backpacker bible of Alaska, South America's Motorcycle Diaries, South East Asia's The Beach.
Healy is the epicentre of the myth, and twenty years on it continues to generate it. I have done some writing about pilgrimage over the years and I was curious how this young man's final resting place was in the process of becoming, indeed already had become, a potent symbol for a certain sort of creed, the religion of the twenty to thirty-something disaffected, invariably male, middle class. Chris McCandless was morphing into a figurehead to be mentioned in the same breath as Kerouac and Thoreau, a noble ascetic, an anarchic free spirit, an embodiment of freedom. In Anchorage I met two Latvians who were heading up to make the trek. In Fairbanks I met a Spaniard. A couple of hundred, at a conservative estimate, make the journey every summer. In May news broke that three young Germans had to be helicoptered out after crossing the Teklanika and finding themselves unable to get back. Hadn't they read the book? It was the second such rescue of the season. Newscasters tried hard to keep the smirk out of their voice (Alaska Dispatch, 2013).
Because Alaskans are not quite so enamoured. Sherry Simpson, from Anchorage, wrote her own essay about McCandless. She went out to the bus one April, riding a snowmobile, emphatically not on foot. “This is not a spiritual trek,” she writes. “I refuse to make this a pilgrimage” (2008: 115). A good chunk of her essay is taken up with epigrams she found scratched into the paintwork of the bus and written inside a visitors’ book, left there by the faithful. “Fulfil your dreams, nothing feels better.” “Stop trying to fool others as the truth lies within.” “I'll return next year and try to set myself free again” (2008: 126). It seems harmless enough to me, no different to the sort of stuff scrawled on the walls of hostels the world over. Yet Simpson takes gleeful delight in transcribing and pulling each one to pieces. There is something violent in her vitriol, and it is something echoed by almost every Alaskan that I start the conversation with. Twenty years on, Alaska Dispatch is still running headlines like 'The beatification of Chris McCandless: From thieving poacher into saint.' McCandless has “now been dead long enough that no one really needs to play nice” Craig Medred informs us, before launching into a three thousand word diatribe which feels more like therapy than journalism (2013).
I get it, I do, this seething, festering dislike, especially being a few more cynical years down the road myself since when I first watched the film. I do question the Alaskans who claim to root their hatred in McCandless' spurning of his parents, the pain that he brought to them, the fleeing of his past. I lose count of the number of people who tell me that they have moved to Alaska because it was the furthest that they could get from their family and still live in America. Others I meet are running from the law or a relationship, or getting clean, or trying to stay one step ahead of reality. It is the place where the American Dream still seems tenable, the place to go to reinvent and start again. That is the gold rush, the oil rush, as much as it is the itinerant backpacker. McCandless is by no means the only fool that ever came to Alaska if a fool is what that makes him. Yet what really seems to rub Alaskans up the wrong way is the fact he's become so bloody famous by doing it. Sally Rafson, a writer I would interview in Fairbanks, said to me: “Really, what did McCandless do? He killed a moose out of season and let it rot.” Or Simpson: “His death was not a brilliant fuck-up. It was not even a terribly original fuck-up. It was just one of the more recent and more pointless fuck-ups” (2008: 142). There are plenty of those who moved to Alaska because they were drawn in by its possibilities, those who have lived out in the bush for years and who have not starved to death and who Sean Penn has not made a film about. Whilst others have survived, even prospered, McCandless died, they say, because he did not take advice, he thought a wilful ideology could outwit an environment that couldn’t care less about him. Ultimately it’s about respect, and he didn't have enough. Unfortunately for him he has been pinned out in his prime, doomed to never grow up, never to learn from his mistakes. If he could, he might just another forty-something by now with a good story and a rueful grin, a few words about the lessons he learnt that summer in Alaska. As it is, thanks to Krakauer and his readers, he has become an archetype, and thus he has come to epitomise, for Alaskans, the man that did not respect nature.
And to me this is where our relationship with the character becomes interesting. Because, if you will permit me such an understatement, he is not alone in approaching nature without respect. Nick Jans wrote to Outside in response to the original article: “I have no sympathy for [McCandless]. Such wilful ignorance...amounts to disrespect for the land, and paradoxically demonstrates the same sort of arrogance that resulted in the Exxon Valdez spill – just another case of underprepared, overconfident men bumbling around out there and screwing up because they lacked the requisite humility” (Krakauer, 1996: 73). And if McCandless, if the captain of the Exxon Valdez, then why not also Shell or Conoco Philips, why not the clearcutters or the strip miners? Modern Alaska is a catalogue of overconfident men lacking the requisite humility. The Russians almost wiping out the otter. The whalers almost wiping out the bowhead. Everyone almost wiping out the natives. And now the oil companies. Maybe Chris McCandless and Shell’s CEO, those that summit Denali and those pushing to build Pebble, Alaska's latest and largest mine, would have a lot more in common than any of them might think if they sat down for a drink. Or to put it another way, Sherry Simpson writes: “A young outdoorsman I know, Joseph Chambers, says that among his friends a new phrase has emerged: 'pulling a McCandless.' A person who pulls a McCandless may be trying to test himself or to find himself...or he may be on a fool's mission, risking his life and causing pain to others while recklessly searching for something that may have been meaningless or stupid all along” (2008: 119). Not a bad way to describe the hunt for oil.
And who can blame them? Blame us? Without wishing to resort to platitudes, we are all of us McCandless. This is what Alaskans forget. Medred concludes his article: “More than 20 years later, it is richly ironic to think of some self-involved urban Americans, people more detached from nature than any society of humans in history, worshipping the noble, suicidal narcissist, the bum, thief and poacher Chris McCandless” (2013). Without meaning to, he hits the nail on the head here. Yet what he seems to forget is that the “people more detached from nature than any society of humans in history” is scarcely a minority. He is the minority, which makes it not richly ironic at all, but entirely understandable. We are all of us McCandless. We have all of us grown up with a conception of nature, by virtue of our estrangement from it, that is puerile and inchoate. We have believed it to be silent, passive, eternally submissive, not our equal. That it is something other, out there. And if Alaska persists in selling itself as 'The Last Great Frontier,' is it any wonder that
those of us that have only a conception in our heads of what we believe a wilderness to be wish to go there and measure ourselves against it? We would have the environment as an adversary that we can pit ourselves against, something that can, with enough wile, be mastered, and when mastered we can pry from it what we will. Be that a life lesson, a spiritual experience, a barrel of deep sea oil, the summit of a mountain, a twenty ounce nugget. Choose your poison. Sure, we can puzzle all we like about what it is in our society that creates the need for someone to go and sit and starve in a bus, or to go and see and take a photograph of where someone sat and starved in a bus. But in the same breath we should also puzzle about what it is that causes climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, strip malls, globalisation. Once, some mountains were considered to sacred too climb.
We let our hitcher out on the Stampede Road, just outside of Healy. He shoulders his rucksack, shakes our hands, asks us if we have a map. No, we don't. He's going about it right, McCandless didn't take a map either. I wonder how many days it will be until we're reading about him in the paper. He walks off up the road, swatting at mosquitoes.
Denali National Park, home of the tallest mountain in North America, home of grizzly and lynx, home of moose and Dall sheep, home of more than 400,000 visitors a year, is more than six million acres, of which more than a third is officially designated wilderness and most of the rest feels like it (National Park Service, 2014). When Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964, he said: “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt...we must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.”
On the edge of the park is Glitter Gulch, a shining epitaph to what we do to places once we have got through with them, a half mile strip of bars and restaurants, jeep hires and rafting trips, souvenirs and hotels. We camp a night down by the river and the next morning catch a bus thirty miles down the park road. We are dropped at Quadrant 31, which we have reserved for tonight, before we make our way into Quadrant 32 tomorrow. There are only 4 permits for each quadrant so there is an unlikely possibility that we might come across another couple of hikers, but to all intents and purposes this bit of land is ours for the next few days. The silence descends like sudden weight as the bus clears the horizon. We look at each other and grin.
We set off north, up the East Fork of the Toklat. The sky is grey, the clouds low and close. Denali has no trails in the backcountry and the easiest walking is along the drainages, the gravel bars braided by glacial fed rivers that constantly shift their contours. Once every couple of decades these drainages fill and the river runs a half mile wide, but this summer the rainfall is low and we tramp along the shingle, occasionally forced to cross. It is only thigh high but the fordings are not easy with the cold and with the current. The sides of the valley stretch up around us, gathering us in, tracts of spruce becoming tumbles of scree where Dall sheep thread their way in loose groups. It is beauty in an austere way, Scotland in February but vaster, the beauty of silence and arching space and the knowledge of what is out there, watching, despite the probability of our never seeing much of it.
Eventually we tire of soaking clothes and clamber up the bank to follow the course of the river through the brush. The mosquitoes find us with a rapidity that never fails to amaze me. I have been told that a naked man, tied down, would last four hours in Alaska. This feels unscientific but it proves a certain point. Blood loss, mosquito induced, is the primary cause of death in caribou. We push through willow and alder and dogwood, close and knottted, shouting out “Hey bear!” over and over as Cori has taught me so as we don't stumble upon them. The flowers are thick, fireweed and goldenrod, the ground a sponge of heathers and berry bushes and the occasional mound of bear scat.
We have left behind our watches, and with the endless summer light it is impossible to gauge the hour. We stop to erect our tent before the rains come. Camping in bear country means keeping the kitchen a hundred metres from the tent, the food storage, in bear-proof barrels, a hundred metres from that, and strictly no food in the tent. What it means in practice is cooking and eating in mosquitoes so thick that we neck our half-boiled pasta in vast forkfuls and flee to the safety of the mosquito net before we've had time to swallow, and then spend the whole evening trying not to drink water which will necessitate another hundred metre journey to go out for a piss.
The following evening, at a better camp in the middle of a gravel bar far from the bugs, we sit by the water watching the sunset, the dusk vibrant with a wildfire to the north. No one else. The word that turns in my head is expansive. The sky, the land, just the very idea. Sitting on the ground of an old meander, the river white noise, the red of the Polychrome Mountains now emerging in the endless low light, and farther south, much farther, the Alaska Range is hazed. I suppose that I have seen such places in Europe, but always with the knowledge that just over the next hill, around the next bend of the river, there is a house, a power line, a something. From here one could walk north five hundred miles without coming to a road. “Do you think it feels different?” I ask Cori. “Would you feel differently here if you knew there was a ski resort just out of sight?”
I desperately want her to say no. If she says yes I am unsure how I can ever go back to England. She looks at me, considering. “I think I would,” she says. And I find, once I do get home, that a peculiar change has come upon me. I am more nostalgic for Alaska than for any place I have ever been. Even on Dartmoor, where I am staying, I feel trapped. Everywhere I look there is a road, a field, a fence, a sheep, some sign that insistently, insidiously, reminds me I am human. The cars that pass outside my window whisper it to me in my sleep. The news is all about the badger cull and I suddenly feel terribly sad that our biggest carnivore is about the same size as a skateboard. My fight has always been to preserve the sort of world that I came in to. As though awakening from a dream I am suddenly aware that this is only one definition, a subjective definition, of normal. Our environmental benchmark is no more than what we know. There are other environments out there, and this profound nostalgia comes because Alaska is an environment of which ours is an echo. We lost our lynx circa 500AD. Our bear around the time of Jesus. Our wolf in 1621 (Monbiot, 2013: 126-127). Most of our island was once forest. Coverage is now 13% (Atkinson, S. & Townsend, M., 2011: 9).
And I understand the lines of Robert Macfarlane that I read some years ago. “Thought, like memory, inhabits external things as much as the inner regions of the human brain. When the physical correspondents of thought disappear, then thought, or its possibility, is also lost” (Macfarlane, 2007: 100). This is, perhaps, another thing Alaskans do not understand about the rest of us. We need the myth, because the myth is profoundly nourishing and we are unsure where else to find it. We look to such places as the home which we once had. Sherry Simpson quotes another McCandless pilgrim. “No wonder Alaskans did not understand the call to which most men feel at some point in their lives,” they rage. “No wonder they did not understand Chris McCandless. If you cannot fell it, mine it, or rape it, and in the very end profit from it, then it must be ludicrous and ill-conceived” (2008: 128). It is rude, proprietorial, a little hysterical. But I understand the sentiment, the desperation. It typifies another debate I heard played out many times – is Alaska for Alaskans, or is it there for all of us? “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it,” wrote Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire. “I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it's there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope.”(1992: 129-130). There are glaciers here the size of cities, forests the size of countries, the longest lived mammal on the planet, the largest land carnivores, the best fishing, vast herds of caribou. Please, we think. Please. Don't fuck this up. Not this time. Not this last time. Not like we did.
The next day we climb back the way we have come, aiming for one of the nameless peaks that make up the east side of the valley. We push through stands of scrubby black spruce hung with lichens, the ground steep and soft with moss and covered with the quiet and secret flowers of alpine woodlands in their short and frantic season. In the shade and the damp the mosquitoes are unbearable, but as soon as we emerge above the tree line they are blown away in gusts. We push up along slopes of high bush blueberry and dwarf birch, bent from lives of perpetual wind, thick and rustling with the promise of bear. Below us, browsing amongst a thicket of willow, we spot a moose and her two young calves, the babies the brown of Jersey cows. We watch until they move off, the mother picking her way with slow, deliberate, leggy steps, the calves trotting on behind.
The sky is ever changing, swept clean each minute and begun again, showers turning to sunlight as shadows race across the range. We cut west up the ridge, and as we climb the shrubs thin and diminish until we are walking through the flowers of the high taiga, mountain avens and moss campion and gentian and forget-me-not, trembling violently in the winds as though keyed to some unheard pitch. We hunker down behind a rock to eat a lunch of canned sardines, looking back across the valley and the glacial Toklat that glimmers silver in the sun. To the north the smoke of the wildfire plumes, perhaps three miles away. To the west Mount Sheldon, to the south the Polychrome Mountains, in their yellows, reds and greens. We doze in that high clear sunlight and wake chilled to what seems to be a storm blowing in. We decide to head down before the weather reaches us. It is our last afternoon here, and it is my last week in Alaska. Soon these wild and stretching spaces will be a memory that will either serve to sustain or to depress me. I take a last look out. And I see for the first time, there on a bend of the Toklat on the far side of the valley, what seems to be a collection of – huts? I get the binoculars out. They are. They're bloody huts. We check the map. It's the Toklat campground, one of the few resorts along the road through the park, about a mile upriver from where I sat and contemplated how different this place would feel if there was a resort just out of sight. Where Cori told me she would feel different if that were to be the case. I hand her the binoculars.
William Cronon, in his essay The Trouble With Wilderness, examines how the setting aside of wilderness has the potential to become a dangerous cultural construct, one founded in part upon the myth of the frontier, that rite-of-passage proving ground of the nascent Western male, “the quintessential location for experiencing what it meant to be an American” (1995: 76). And where more typifies such a location than Alaska, where men can come every summer to hook salmon, shoot bear and flex muscle? Or go hiking in Denali. Treating wilderness as something to be deified and set aside as a reminder of our perfect and primitive past, the only place where we can truly rediscover our bestial, instinctive nature, could be to tread a dangerous path. For it sets us up to believe that anything touched by Man is somehow sullied, and it leads us to see the places where we live as impoverished, not worthy of our interest or protection. “My principal objection to wilderness is that it may teach us to be dismissive or even contemptuous of...humble places and experiences,” writes Cronon (1995: 86). I realise that upon my return from Alaska that this is exactly what I have done. To have been surrounded for two months by woodsmen, gold hunters, whalers and mushers, who have all unceasingly told me that Alaska is the last greatest place on earth, I find that I have bought lock stock into the myth.
What is one to do with these feelings? Standing on Primrose Hill looking out across London, remembering standing on some unnamed beach looking across the bay to snow-topped volcanoes. Catching a glimpse of an urban fox on a late night city cycle, remembering that first walk outside of Anchorage when we stumbled upon a moose, alone in the sunlight in the snow silent forest, as undisturbed as a cow at pasture. “The striking power of the wild is that wonder in the face of it requires no act of will, but forces itself upon us,” says Cronon (1995: 88). Yes, that's it. And so what? Go and live in a bus and reject all this impurity? Go drill or pan or hike and pit myself against this last frontier, whilst I still have the chance to make something of myself? Or something else? “Wilderness gets us into trouble only if we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit” (1995: 88).
And perhaps, I wonder, as we are tempted to reserve feelings of the sublime for wild landscapes, we are tempted also to see the effects of climate change, the study of which originally brought me to Alaska, as being equally associated only with such otherworldly places. The melting ice sheets, the bleaching corals, the disappearing glaciers. That violet pushing through a crack in a London pavement in November is a sign of wildness and climate change both. As are the cancerous cells of those forced to live near oil refineries and power stations. We would do well to bring such experiences back, both for our sanity and for our comprehension.
The following morning we begin the long hike south down the banks of the Toklat to the road where we will hail the bus back. We have the encrusted grins and slightly wild eyes that come from several nights outside. The bags are light and I feel fantastic. Eagles weave above us. We stop for a final lunch before we make the road, sat with our backs to it, looking up the way we have come. Cori once lived for two years in a cabin in a place not dissimilar to this, a cabin a few miles north of Eagle, which is a town ninety miles north of Chicken, which is scarcely a town at all. She lived with a guy who had thirty sled dogs and bears roamed through the yard. It represented everything I had come to stereotype Alaska as. Yet it didn't completely suit her. You go for a walk at forty below, you make a simple mistake, you slip, you break a leg, they find you two weeks later. It's a hard life. It's a scary life. It suits some people, and most people it doesn't. We sit, eating the last of our bread and cheese and chocolate, and she says: “I am glad that places like this are here. I'm glad that we can visit. I need to come to places like this. And I am glad that I don't have to stay. That I can be in Fairbanks and know that it is here. And that I can come back again, when I need to.”
The rain is coming, and the bus is coming, and we walk on.
Published in Dark Mountain Book 6, October 2014
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