One Road West

There was always this western pull.  From the time I was eleven, I think, I was dreaming of New Zealand, and later, when I fell into the silent peace of the woods, and then craved ever larger country, British Columbia occupied my imagination for years.   At one point, during the Reagan administration, the Secretary of the Interior, former oil man James Watt opened up vast arcreages of the Alaskan Wilderness to drilling — I can’t picture him up on a stage chanting “Drill, Baby Drill”, but the effect was the same.

However, as a bone, perhaps, to throw at the nature-lovers, or perhaps the erstwhile pioneers, his Department opened up some 5,000 acres of land near Lake Minchumina not far fromDenali Mtn. and a few hundred miles southwest of Fairbanks.  The deal was that if you showed up at the Fairbanks BLM office, you could pretty much pick out 5 acres for yourself, free of charge.  This was 1980, and it was just before I went off to college, and I felt that there was some time to do something a little different.  A friend, Bob F. and I, packed up his car, which was either a Vega or a Pinto with the following — 2 backpacks with gear, an axe, a shovel, and a 30-30 rifle.  We figured that should be about all we would need to pioneer 5 acres in Alaska — after all, we were wearing winter boots.

We set off on route 80 and drove like maniacs — in four days we were in Fairbanks.  That’s some 1100 miles a day.  I’m not sure what it was that drove us so quickly across the country, although Bob did confess to me about 700 miles west of Pennsylvania that his girlfriend of six months was late on her cycle, and he thought that maybe his life was about to change very soon, and so perhaps that notion placed something in his head that required that he keep moving in a forward direction until he could figure out what he meant to do.  Regardless, the trip up was quite spectacular, if a bit rushed.  We left Ulster County in April, and so the roads after Yellowknife were wide swaths of pure snow, packed hard enough that a Pinto/Vega could navigate without too much trouble, although the trucks nearly blew us off the road a few times.  I think there’s actually a reality show about trucks driving on those roads, so things must not have changed too much in the last 30 years.

In the BLM office in Fairbanks we met various aspects of reality.  One was the fact that everyone considering working that land looked far more capable than a couple of skinny kids from NY with a shovel and a 30-30.  I mean these guys literally had bear claw necklaces, full bushy beards, and more than 120 pounds on either of us.  And then there was the reality of the land itself.  5000 acres meant that there were 1000 5-acre lots, but we could see by the topo map that there was a wide, central hill on the land that was completely taken.  The rest of the land, we were told by those that seemed to know, was muskeg, and although it was April, in two or three months it would turn into 4-foot soggy soup.  The only way to work that land, the big guys told us, was heavy equipment.  Did we have any?

Naturally, it could have been all crap cooked up to dissuade the tourists, or silly kids from NY with pioneering dreams, but I had read about muskeg, and also about Alaskan mosquitos, so at the very least we decided to take a ride and look at some of this land.  We drove about 300 or so miles before we found a roadside pull-off that bordered the land in question.  Just before pulling off, an enormous moose, a cow, stepped out onto the road and regarded us, a picture of serenity and aplomb.  Elsewhere we had seen and heard the explosions of ptargmigan (grouse, as we called them back East), and even saw a sleek fox.  Lots of ravens as well.  But the land… well, it was hard to tell, but to be honest, it just wasn’t exactly the pictaresque cabin site at the foot of a towering mountain beside a lake, as we had imagined it would be back in Ulster County.  In fact, it was a kind of lonely, flat ground with a few stunted pine trees and lots of scraggly brush.  We had no reason to doubt the guys at the BLM, and I felt a kind of subtle pressure to return coming from Bob.  And so it was with some regret that we let go the dream of claiming and working those five lonely acres of muskeg.  We did, however, decide to take our time in heading back, and so we lingered a few days in Alaska before driving southward.  Since it was April, we were able to see, almost every night, specatular Northen Light displays — the strange rays so close that we felt as though we could reach up and touch them.

The trip back was just fine, with stops in Montana, Yellowstone, and Boulder, CO, as well as Route 20 in Nebraska, through the Sand Hills.  It was not my first trip across the continent, but it was the first time I set foot in Alaska, and I’m quite sure it was those few days there that injected a part of the place somewhere in me that had to be satisfied, so many years later and under such different circumstances.  That trip infected me with a love for Alaska that I brought along with me to college, and imparted to some of the friends I met there, particularly Tom P., and who tells me sometimes that it was my near-raving about Alaska that eventually drove him to take a trip up to see what it was all about — a trip that, some 30 years later, is far from over. 

I still dream of New Zealand, and I also sometimes regret that the wilds of British Columbia were never mine in a way that could have been.  This is not to say, however, that those places are so far out of reach.  The world is a smaller place than it was when I was 20, and now that I have kids to drag around, I have a new motivation to visit those places in a meaningful way, if for no other reason to show them that such a place is not accessible solely by sheer imagination, or by watching a documentary on a 50-inch flat screen suspended from the fresco walls of an Orange County suburb.