I empty the gray water into the outhouse, and something moves at the bottom, 10 feet below—a chipmunk and a mouse. We find a bucket and lower it into the hole using kite string. The chipmunk climbs in, and I pull it up. He sits in the corner, dirty and wet, too scared to leave. Finally, I push him out with a stick. The mouse won’t climb into the bucket, even after we try enticing him with peanut butter. Everyone we tell is unsympathetic.
The cabin is small but not cramped, except when there are two people in it, which there usually are. It has a double bed, on which K and I alternate nights. Whoever isn’t staying on the bed has to carry a cot out of the shed as it takes up most of the cabin’s free space. The shelves are really liquor crates bolted to the walls. The table is small and on wheels. Nick made the stove out of a water heater. If you want water you have to get it out of Kluane Lake, 50 yards away. The only electricity comes from one power strip, which is attached to an extension cord that runs across the driveway and directly into a utility pole. If we use the electric tea kettle (our only means of heating water) and run more than one computer, we’ll blow a fuse.
One of the first stories Nick tells is of chopping wood. It was so cold that when he hit the log, the axe head cracked. The next story he tells is how one of his city friends hacked his fingers as kindling. This is how he introduces us to cutting our own wood.
Nick tells another story about how once, because his neighbor bought some pigs, a bear ripped through his wall tent. This is why he built the one-room cabin where K and I are staying and why he has a dusty bear skull on one shelf. This is how he introduces us to the habits of carrying bear spray and clapping whenever we are outside.
The Yukon Territory has a population of 30,195. Whitehorse, the capital, has a population of 22,898. The second biggest city is Dawson, with 1,327. The population density for the region is .18 people per square mile.
If someone has an accident, Destruction Bay and Burwash have one nurse between the two of them. We never meet him or her, but we hear that he or she has a locker full of drugs and can get authorization from doctors in Whitehorse to use them. The idea is to keep the person alive long enough for a plane to land on the Alcan, which is what the locals call the Alaska Highway, and then take him or her back to the city. It takes the plane over an hour to do this.
I was born in Whitehorse, in what is now a 49-bed hospital, but then there were only 30. My parents were missionaries at the church in Burwash. I lived there for the first two years of my life and have been back twice since: once when I was three-and-a-half, and my family brought a vanload of Wisconsin teenagers up for a summer to repair the church and its grounds; and now, nearly 27 years later, to visit all these half-remembered places. What does it mean to return to the space in which I formed my first memories? Despite the number of years separating this visit from the previous one, Burwash and D-Bay are layered with echoes, gossamer strands that don’t give any warning until I walk into them, and through external stimuli, my body reexperiences the same sensations it did when it was new to the world.
I feel this reconstruction when I visit the Lady of the Holy Rosary. My memories correct what I see. The log church has changed little, but I do notice changes: a sign out front details its history, a satellite dish, a painted fence, a missing shed. But, oddly enough, I find that the place also corrects my memories: the glass greenhouse is actually made mostly of wood; the rectory’s back steps are too small to have collapsed in the way I thought; the endless gravel parking lot I can now cross in a matter of steps.
But there’s something deeper here than conformation and correction. It’s the smell of the blooming weeds that does it, laying upon my mind the same impressions I’d made when I was three-and-a-half. About 50 yards behind the church, the meadow ends at the forest’s rigidly straight line of large, tightly-packed pine trees. As a toddler I was unable to pierce this darkness no matter how hard I squinted; as an adult I still can’t. During my childhood my monsters never hid under my bed or in my closet, they hid in what I couldn’t see behind these trees. What deepened my dread was the knowledge that these monsters were real: bears for whom a young child would be easy prey, and an adult wouldn’t be much more challenging. I am visited, not by the memory of a childhood fear, but a zombification of that fear. It comes from the weeds’ musky scent, a smell that doesn’t exist in Colorado’s Rockies.
Before the trip, I daydreamed of walking into the trees, my legs matured and sure, finding whatever threats insignificant, but now that I am standing where I stood so many times as a child, I feel the same instinct to run back to the buildings. I force myself to stand there, to watch the trees, not searching for movement as I did, but looking for whatever they wish to communicate. Then, I leave quickly.
There are more than 10 of us in the Talbot Arm Motel’s bar, which I’m told is a full house. The space is almost cafeteria-like, with a few long tables and a dirty, trampled carpet. The motel’s convenience store is the next room over, so people frequently add candy and chips to their tabs. A can of Coors or Molson or Canadian costs $5. This is the night we meet the staff: Kat and Anita and Joe, but I’m too drunk to remember more. Most of them have to work at 6:00 in the morning, but last call was three hours ago, and people are still buying rounds. Kat says she has a drinking problem, then orders another wine spritzer, says she wants to take me hiking. She grabs for my hand under the table. Then for my crotch. Later, we go to the bar in Burwash, 15 miles down the road. On our way out the door, someone notes how cloudy it is, that there won’t be much sunlight tonight.
D-Bay has a population of 43. Burwash Landing, 73. Both exist because during World War II the U.S. needed a supply route to Alaska. It took the Army eight months and 12 days to lay 1,523 miles of road, the fastest construction of a road of this length in history; however, it couldn’t be used by standard vehicles until 1943, and then that spring, the permafrost under the highway melted, causing 100 miles of the road to collapse. Today nearly everyone in the Yukon lives within a mile of the highway.
Haines Junction, a town of 589 people, is 66 miles to the southeast. It is notable to the residents of Destruction Bay because it has the closet Chinese restaurant. Whitehorse is 96 miles farther. It has the closest grocery store.
Everyone has a joke. Everything can become a joke. The best jokes get repeated, remembered, recycled daily. Sometimes the unfunny ones do too. They are a sort of rite of passage, a way to tell a local from a tourist.
A greenhorn laughs at the punch line; a local, who has heard the joke every day for a year, begins laughing at the first line. It’s not that the locals are laughing at the outsider; they’re laughing at the anticipation of the outsider’s laughter. The joy both is in the act of sharing and in the act of initiation. The more jokes someone knows, the more they are identified as belonging.
After a few weeks, I gain a small repertoire, and I find myself snickering with the others as soon as someone starts in on one of the few I recognize. In this way joking becomes more than an outlet for sexism/racism/classism; it is a proper tool for community building.
You know how you tell if a guy has a high sperm count? You chew before you swallow.
Everyone recognizes everyone else’s car, and thus, everyone almost always knows where everyone else is, because 80 percent of the places we park are visible to everyone driving along the Alcan: Kat drives a blue Wrangler that she bought from a used car dealer named Slick Rick in Whitehorse (it is, unsurprisingly, a lemon); Sarah and her sisters share a pink Grand-Am (appropriately named The Tampon); Anita drives a blue minivan she bought for less than $700; Joe has an 80s Buick Park Avenue Sedan that he can’t legally drive. He habitually fails the driving test because he is used to driving along the highway, but the test is administered in Whitehorse, which has stoplights, one-way streets, and pedestrians.
The “dating” climate is complex and fluid. Dating probably isn’t the right word; every night it seems that everyone is shuffled like a deck of cards and paired randomly. Trends develop, but they never last more than a week or two. Anita is fucking Max, a German businessman, for whom she says she has been waiting. But then Anita wants Kyle the driller. Kyle may have a wife and kid back East. Anita and Kyle fuck. Joe, the cook, likes Sarah, the front desk clerk. Sarah does not like Joe. Sarah likes Pierre, the other front desk clerk. Melissa is pregnant with a driller’s baby. Pierre and Vanessa, the waitress, may or may not be together, and now Vanessa is miffed that Pierre is so well liked that now no one will flirt with her. Stacy is a starving lesbian. Every man for 100 miles around desires Kat, the Burwash bartender. Kat has a long distance boyfriend in Alberta. Kat may or may not have a local boyfriend named Sam, who’s a hunting guide. Kat wants “Silver Fox” Bill, a 46-year-old driller. Every now and then Kat wants me, but mostly she wants Bill. Then Kat fucks Bill. Sam thinks she’s fucking me. Bill may or may not be separated from his wife and kids, who are back East. Max offers his 17-year-old son, Maxl, to Kat, as long as she promises not to get pregnant.
Kluane Lake is the site of my first memory, one created so early that I am unsure if I fabricated it out of the stories my parents have told me, or if I am actually remembering some version of the past. Here’s the story that my parents have told countless times: when my mom wasn’t looking, I ran into Kluane’s barely-warm-enough-to-be-liquid waters. I came to the surface screaming. They fished me out, stripped me down, stuffed me between their jackets as they drove home, and then threw me in a tub of warm water.
Here’s what I remember: a beach of dark gray stones, not sand or pebbles, but stones, large enough that walking requires care; sitting under a pile of jackets in the passenger seat of a large car; a bathroom tinted orange and yellow, as though it is a picture from the 1970s; a faucet billowing water down and steam up, but I see this from an angle higher than my height, so someone must be holding me.
The spaces between the story and my memory are vast and pockmarked, and I have spent at least a handful of wine-induced conversations with my parents trying to remember something that would either prove or disprove the authenticity of this recollection. I search for this familiar part of Kluane’s shore, walking miles up and down its edge, but it is always dirt and sand, never the smooth rocks of my memory.
But I can say that the memory was formed here, is located here. And while I can’t find the beach that fits, because I remember it, and because I can pin it to one specific stretch of shoreline, it must exist.
The staff spends most of their money in the bar because their room and board are paid for and, outside of postcards, if you can’t get it at the convenience store, you can’t get it until someone heads into Whitehorse.
In the morning I run along the Alcan. The wind kills my pace, and every time a semi passes, I flash a peace sign and cover my head with my arm. The tread of these trucks is the perfect size to pick rocks from the road. Then the centrifugal force of the tire’s rotation will fire the thumb-sized stone like a bullet in some random direction. My windshield has several divots already, and I don’t want to catch one in the face. At the top of a rise and three miles from town I see the place where the road’s concrete gives way to gravel, my turnaround spot. I clap, but not nearly often enough.
By returning after so many years, my memories of D-Bay and Burwash are a fragmented knot. One that is embodied by anyone over 40 who experienced my infancy during their own childhood; it turns out a blond-haired baby is rare enough to be memorable in these parts.
Adrian is one such fellow: 350 pounds and always wearing unlaced steel-toed boots. He clutches me to his massive chest and pounds on my back, yelling to the bar that I’m home. His sister, Lauren, recounts to me the events of her life: her two children, her divorce, her career on the chipper crew, her new boyfriend. Then she remarks how strange it is to be revealing her life to someone who, last time she saw me, still wet the bed. We bracket each other’s existences, slender experiences on either side of a massive, unknown void in which our lives happened.
The fragmentation of the Yukon isn’t confined only to the temporal; it also rests in the culture of the region, mainly between the bar scene and the massive mountains that ring Kluane Lake. Outside of myself, and K on occasion, Kat is the only one who transgresses this boundary between nearly every evening’s drunkenness and the grandeur of these northern Rockies. When we return from hikes, the other bar patrons look at us longways, ask why we “didn’t just use a quad for fuck’s sake.” Among the population there is a recognition and pride of the nature in which they live, but for many, like Joe who has never climbed any of the peaks (even the one whose base sits a hundred yards behind the motel), nature remains distant and unexplored.
I clap as I jog along the shoulder of the Alcan, but probably not as often as I should. Someone spotted a mom and her cubs in the area a few days earlier. The trees have been cut back from the road in most places, so I should be able to spot trouble, but if it comes to that, it probably won’t matter. During Usain Bolt’s world record 100-meter dash in 2009, he achieved the fastest human foot speed ever recorded by going 27.79 miles an hour between the 60th and 80th meters. Grizzlies have been recorded running 35 miles an hour, the same speed as a thoroughbred racehorse. If she thinks her cubs are in danger, a female can cover 180 feet in three seconds.
I learn to hold the different, and often conflicting, realities of the Yukon in my mind at the same time, the incredible wilderness, alcoholism, isolation, community, colorful characters, my own memories, new age eco-awareness, generational conservatism, bigotry, and a dozen other uncategorizable things. They are abrasive and magnetic; often I feel them trying to rub together, merge into one another. I fear that any attempt to find a “true” version of the north or a “true” memory of what transpired and continues to transpire here will, like a math equation of positive and negative integers, all cancel each other out leaving me with a total sum of zero.
So I refuse to solve the equation, to let one set of memories cancel another contradictory set. Instead I force them to float in my consciousness in an uneasy, lumpy truce, like a series of icebergs in a currentless sea, large and ponderous things that, when two collide, is never with enough force to permanently damage either. This is fitting for a people and a land that speak in a disparate chorus; here, harmonization has never been the ultimate goal.
A woman is ill and goes to the doctor. The doctor says that he’ll need a stool, blood and urine sample. So the woman takes off her panties and hands them over.
Each bar has a bell hanging above it. The rule is that if you ring the bell you have to buy everyone a round. This is serious business. Because of the bell, some nights, if I don’t drink fast enough, I’ll end up with four or five beers in front of me.
Kat and I go hiking. It’s 8:00 in the morning, and she’s drinking her hangover away as she maneuvers her jeep up a four-wheeling trail. She chugs the rest of a beer when we park and then cracks another as we start walking. Halfway up the mountain she pukes, but we make it to the top. Looking out on the surrounding ranges excites me; these peaks are cousins to the ones I know in Colorado. The first thing we do when we get back to town is stop at the bar and take a celebratory shot.
While I wander around Lady of the Holy Rosary’s rectory—the log cabin in which I spent the first two years of my life—I spot something: at the back of the cabin, right above the door, is a bell tower that my parents have consistently denied exists; however, instead of confirming my memory as valid, the real bell tower hijacks my childhood memory as it rises only three feet above the roof’s shingles, where the tower from my childhood rose up at least a dozen feet.
However, as I stand there looking at this laughably short bell tower (with an equally humorously sized bell inside it), I distinctly recall sitting in someone’s arms and pulling its cord, which hangs in the rectory’s back hall. I even remember someone, a local teenager I think, yelping with pain when the bell chimed, because, unknown to me (but probably known to the person in whose arms I sat) they had climbed onto the roof and were repairing something in the bell’s housing.
And yet, I don’t think I ever saw the bell tower from the outside. Probably, sometime in elementary school, I saw a properly sized bell tower somewhere, and equated the two in my mind. How was I to suspect that someone would invest in a bell tower half the size of a person? But now, exposed to its actual dimensions, I felt this fantasy that I’d been carrying most of my life dissolve, and it is an unsettling sensation, one of both temporal discombobulation and mental panic. If such a long-held detail is false, how fragile is the world that we mentally construct around ourselves? It is in these moments that we see that our reality is not shared, and certainly not really a reality at all.
On a Monday night Anita slaps her thigh; her running bar tab has just passed $600.
What does a Yukon woman say when she has an orgasm? Bingo. This joke is my favorite precisely because no one ever gets it, but no one ever wants to be the person who says so.
This land works to forget. As we drive along the Alcan, I see dilapidated cars, abandoned buildings, the stumps of what we are told were once telephone poles. The road itself is periodically made of gravel, ranging from a few dozen yards to a mile or more in length. These are the places where ice and frost have ravaged the concrete or, even worse, washed away the ground on which the road sits. It’s a struggle to keep the highway drivable. Chipper crews, whose job it is to repair the road, are constantly working during the summer, but in the winter, the ground is too hard to do much, and the ice and wind create new places to repair. Thus, the highway is subject to a constant cycle of destruction and recreation.
This continual change also speaks to the resiliency of this wilderness, as though mankind is a splinter that it is constantly trying to push out. Anything man-made that doesn’t receive the same constant regenerative attention as the highway is reclaimed by nature, erased from the record of the land in a frighteningly little amount of time. A half mile from our cabin, a few 100 yards from the small school, a playground stands paintless in a field of bushes and saplings. At this point, it looks more like a place for bears to sleep than anything a half-aware parent would let his or her kids near.
The Klondike landscape is covered with absent reminders: a chimney marks where a cabin once stood; a dead tree, strangled by a tattered piece of rope that used to hold up Nick’s wall tent; the tangled wire of fences that used to be part of Crescent City’s fox cages; the craters and trenches of collapsed mines dot the mountain sides. If ever the concentrated effort to maintain the Alcan should fail, nature would reclaim the region in the span of a lifetime, erasing all outward signs of the memories that were created here.
At its northern end, Kluane Lake splits into two branches. The western one is named “Brooks Arm,” and the eastern one is named “Talbot Arm.” This is where the Talbot Arm Motel gets its name. It’s two stories, has maybe 30 rooms, and is the heart of D-Bay. A sign out front lists its “extra” services: gas, shower, laundry, ice, dump station, liquor off-sales, telephone, fishing licenses. A shower costs four dollars; the room doesn’t have a toilet and smells of body and mildew, but the water is hot and untimed. The Talbot is run by a staff of 14, which includes the cooks, waitresses, front desk staff, and housekeeping. The desk clerks double as bartenders and run back and forth between the two counters. Everyone doubles as a maintenance worker; eventually, even I fall into this category. This is not a “young” crowd; the average age is over 30. Joe has been here the longest, eight years. The motel’s traffic is mainly composed of tourists headed to Alaska, drillers, scientists, chipper crews, and the staff.
Joe says that here, you won’t lose your wife, but you might lose your turn.
While my legs are still warming up, I see something brown out of the corner of my eye. I realize that I’ve just run by a grizzly that’s wandered onto the road. He sniffs at some bushes as he watches me. I want to run backwards, to make sure he isn’t following, but then I realize I forgot my bear spray. Then I realize that K is reading outside, 100 yards down the road. I know I should warn him, but because of where the bear is, I’ll have to run into town along the highway and then double back along the shore, a distance of two miles. I think that this is something I’ve been training for, that I should be able to run faster than I ever have. But I go exactly the same speed that I always do.
I try to remember something new of my childhood’s time in the Yukon, and what I come up with isn’t new exactly, but isn’t as well-traveled as my other memories. I remember falling in love with the college-aged girl who accompanied us from Wisconsin to help chaperone the teens, but I don’t recall her face or body or voice or any of her actions. The memory is so eroded that all that remains of her is a residual presence of longing and joy in some remote part of my mind, primordial affection from a time before I had the language to express such things. In fact, the memory is so faint that I spoke of it to my parents as an intuitive guess; they provided all the additional details about her that I’ve just revealed.
The only specific trait of hers that I can recall on my own is that she lived in a house that felt like a farm. My parents confirm this; we visited after returning to Wisconsin, and I have an unmoored suspicion that while at her home, and surrounded by her family and friends, I suddenly became bashful of showing her the attention I’d showered her with in the North because such attention would make me visible to all these strangers. But according to my parents, her name was Colleen, and while in the Yukon, I would follow her for hours.
Everyone is hungover from the bonfire the night before, but someone starts, and then someone sits next to them, so they won’t feel like such an alcoholic, and then someone stops to tell a joke, and then someone slaps a wad of money on the table and starts buying rounds, then it looks like an event, one no one wants to miss, and within an hour everyone is back in the bar. Anita keeps rubbing her tits against the arm of a German motorcyclist named Toby who’s both stranded and wearing suspenders. Kat and Bill are making out in a corner. Sarah stands on a chair and yells, “I’m a small person! I’m a small person. I can only handle this much!” while holding wavering hands somewhere between three and 12 inches apart. Someone sticks their head in the door and says that the northern lights are out, so we all pile outside without coats, then some of us try to pile back in. K is yelling something about the lake, and I’m forced into a car. I ride with Jeremy who claims to be sober but keeps yanking the wheel to the right whenever there’s a left turn. Joe is in the backseat singing and accompanying it with an air guitar. The car K is in disappears even though we only drive a mile down the Highway. We weave to the edge of the lake, lean there, coatless, suddenly cut off from music and booze, and we watch.
One thing no one mentions about the Northern Lights is how large they are; they stretch in a band nearly from horizon to horizon. And it moves like we’re small children on a bed, and a parent is flapping a blanket above us. I say, “I have seen these whites and greens before.” Later, I wonder which version of Northern Lights I saw and which version I’ll remember.