Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Still Here: Notes from the Last Frontier

Their first appearance in my life was as the savages whose throats Buck (the dog hero of Call of the Wild) tears to avenge his last and most beloved human master before dissolving into the wilderness, becoming legend from mere flesh and blood. A strange weakness it was… to believe everything said because it was said by a Westerner, in this case Jack London. Growing up brought a better sense on how I was placed in the world by my place of birth and empathy for the savages grew astronomically. In a little while it became clearer that my own culture and geography fit much better on the savage spectrum than the civilized. “The Great Land” of Alaska (as referred to by a particular group of these ‘savages’) had managed to buck the trend of displacement and death which had swept through the lower 48 of the US, its soul retained as much as its native peoples. My visit to the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center was a meditation of sorts on how my understanding of Alaska had changed over the past two weeks. I had started off looking for the Alaska of adventure as seen by those airdropped in. I ended leaving with the perspective of those who had always called it home.


[Part of the Series: Notes from the Last Frontier]



Starstruck: Notes from the Last Frontier

Everyone was smiling. And I mean everyone. The trainers, the audience and the dogs. This wasn’t a performance. This was happiness on loop. At the dog kennels of Denali National Park lived government employees universally loved. With their grey and blue eyes, they jumped up and down in excitement to be chosen for the demonstration, to be yoked to the sled and make their way forward. For many in the audience, this was the whole reason why they were here in Alaska. This reads like hyperbole but when you are euphoric, all things do seem to be beyond reproach. The Park Rangers told their wards’ stories, of stocking up remote guard cabins and checking on winter visitors accompanied by a whole lot of teeth and fur. Of their impeccable intelligence and vastly varying personalities and of how only how they could do what was needed. Pulling puppies were tied alongside their mothers just to run along, not there for the load but there for the fun. The level of fandom was such that it didn’t even matter that it was summer and in the absence of snow, a sandy circuit was established for that purpose. Sled dogs did their thing and us groupies/stans/superfans let our cheers ring.


[Part of the Series: Notes from the Last Frontier]

Palaeo Goats: Notes from the Last Frontier

I went looking for giant vegetables but came back remembering the stares. Palmer in the Matanuska Valley of Alaska is known for world record size vegetables, the fertile soil and nearly 24 hours of sunlight of summer working in tandem to grow cabbages from your wildest dreams. Budget and rental car restrictions had required me to focus on the Alaska below the Arctic Circle, but this green and idyllic valley was where I met strange denizens from way north. Tracking signs for the “Musk Ox Farm”, I ended up face-to-face with what my untrained eye and lazy description would call midget bisons. Information boards told me that they were closer to the goat family tree than to cattle and how their evolutionary superpowers to withstand extreme cold meant that in the Palaeolithic age they roamed the Arctic tundra in the hundreds. Their down under-wool called qiviut being eight times warmer than wool and about a third finer than cashmere, finding a “use” for them helped them barely survive the onslaught of a particularly vengeful species. Shaggy, suspicious and ineffably cute, they gambolled about this resort created to preserve their population, both of us mutually casting curious looks.


[Part of the Series: Notes from the Last Frontier]


A Familiar Fire: Notes from the Last Frontier

Glenn Highway wasn't something which I had imagined Alaska would be. It was green, it was watery, it was lush in an almost tropical way. As I drove through the landscape of southern Alaska, in all manner & form I was missing home. This was doubly strange as Alaska was the adventure which I had come looking for, precisely because I wanted to experience something totally different. In such a state of mind lunch time found me near a series of cabin restaurants on the Matanuska River. Though all of them looked cozy, I naturally gravitated to one which had jambalaya on the menu. Jambalaya is a one pot recipe with rice, chicken, shrimp and sausages combining with the choicest spiciness from the American South – a biryani American style. I knew what I needed then, not baked/steamed/grilled but the comfort of spice and rice and jambalaya answered the call. The proprietors were two old ladies who were happy to talk about India and in their service, a strange food connection was made. Louisiana style rice in Alaska bringing the comfort of familiar flavours to someone who lived two more oceans away to the east.


[Part of the Series: Notes from the Last Frontier]


Eternal Sunshine: Notes from the Last Frontier

Mountain. Sea. River. Rock. The road weaves past them supporting me and my ever-widening eyes. The sun in May does not take a break and does not need one. I, however, had been warned. Human eyes are used to the light of day dimming. It’s what gives them the cue to them and the brain to start winding down. I was told that in the absence of darkness, the alarm bells for approaching fatigue go AWOL and the result is catastrophic failure. Indeed, the sun would almost never go down except for a brief 20-minute window from say 1:00 to 1:20 in the morning when it would be evening like – essentially golden hour light all day. The moose and reindeer lining up next to the highway as my car drove through endless landscapes of forests and mountains brought excitement and worry at the same time. Despite the dire predictions, Lady Luck remained on my side. I did overdo myself driving at times for 16 hours a day without incident. I was not here every day and every extra hour of daylight was a reason to go humming deeper into Alaska’s heart. 


[Part of the Series: Notes from the Last Frontier]


Odds and Ends: Notes from the Last Frontier

Valdez. Val-deez. Just pronouncing the name sent me away to Spain. This wasn’t Spain of course but it was Alaska’s Spain connection. The trans-Alaskan pipeline also ended here for ships to tank up on crude and inside me, the engineer and the environmentalist are still duking it out over whether the pipeline was good or bad. Valdez was where I happened upon one of the stranger stores of Alaska. Anne’s Place. The Anne concerned was a bespectacled geriatric lady and her place was an attic loaned to time. Since getting to Valdez wasn’t easy and getting in new goods even less so, it fell upon Anne to use a big warehouse to start stockpiling everything that ever came to Valdez. Old school textbooks, gramophone records, leftover luggage, remote controls without their targets – what would have been an absurd mix of products anywhere else made perfect sense to retain out here. That these objects could have special value based on their location had never occurred to me and the reality of those who lived here before the roads and port came up sunk in just a little more. A tough life, a functional life the citizens of Valdez had for long made out of these odds and ends.


[Part of the Series: Notes from the Last Frontier]


Snow, Ice and Solitude: Notes from the Last Frontier

There is a clear difference between wildness and emptiness. Driving through the Thompson Pass towards Valdez was my first proper experience of the second. Here in one of the snowiest locations of Alaska, white was not one but at least a dozen odd colours. Glacier ice gleamed blue and sharp, powder snow softening some of its edges, fog steaming and swirling in a trance. Rocks and stone tried their best but beyond their shape were quietly smothered by a crunchy shroud. It was early June but the whiteness that surrounded me seemed invincible. I pulled over to step out and experience the meditative clarity of nothingness. Even the dark maroon of my Kia Optima seemed risqu̩ in comparison. Two massive snowplows loomed out of the fog, currently off duty but the only creatures that could claim to call this home. In a forest, I never felt truly alone as life surrounds you Рa tree, a bird, an insect under the leaf litter. The nothingness here was breathtaking. It was afternoon by local time standards while I was there but this was a place that seemed to have cast off such unnecessary frivolities. A half light infused this world, cold, pale and immensely alone.


[Part of the Series: Notes from the Last Frontier]

Forever Free: Notes from the Last Frontier


Denali had given us almost everything that day. Consolation has its own way of torture by being insufficient, fragile and inherently feeble. The flat open valley of the Toklat river that we were crossing did not help matters – the colours were mesmerizing, a stage begging to be taken over by that particular actor. “If you want to see wolves, Denali is bad. Too vast a land, too smart an animal. Yellowstone… you still stand a chance.”, our safari bus driver Jen added. I had already been to Yellowstone and failed. On the inside, I was sinking into illogical misery. Hadn’t I seen all of the rest? Didn’t that count for something? Even as I thought through this, a wave of unrest ran through the bus. Who’s that running in the heather? Who are THOSE that run in the heather? A French teenager on the bus let loose a series of howls and I knew. They were waiting, it now seemed, for me to reach that point of no-hope before they obliged. Out rushed the wolves, running ghosts on the hunt, rakish Joker smiles on their faces and an energy that pervaded through the pack. Not for them, the comforts of home and assured food. The open sky underneath the stars was good.


[Part of the Series: Notes from the Last Frontier]


Mama. Bear.: Notes from the Last Frontier

Denali National Park was proof of concept - with snowy massifs separated by infinitely wide valleys, patchworks of colour packed with beasts of legend, it was all what Alaska was supposed to be. Our tour guide cum bus driver Jen, a fellow New Englander from New Hampshire who worked summers here provided us with the stories to accompany our immersion. When she wasn’t speaking, the female half of a middle-aged Latin American couple was quite vocal in letting the other half know why she was sure taking this bus to Eielson Visitor Centre was a bad idea. Maybe it was to distract himself that the harried half turned his focus outside and spotted them. On a slope at the edge of our vision, three shapes – one large, two small. Bears! Grizzly bears! Mother and cubs. Running up the slope and glissading down the spring melt snow. Binoculars to my eyes, I could see them laugh the bear laugh, giggle the bear giggle. So much fun, so much tenderness, so much warmth. Love. Contagious. In the bus too, amends were being made. Erstwhile complainant was now repeatedly embracing erstwhile accused. “Good job, honey, good job!”


[Part of the Series: Notes from the Last Frontier]


Offtrack Beauties: Notes from the Last Frontier

To spend an extra day at Chicken was to give up on my dream of seeing the Yukon, a river whose name rings of adventure. The road to Eagle on its banks was too rough to risk my rental car and my suspect mechanic skills on.  Feeding my disappointment breakfast at the only restaurant worth its name in Chicken was where I saw them come in. A few dozen cars, vintage and classic machines driving there from New York on the far away East Coast. Most excited to see them was the restaurant dog wearing his “I am diabetic. Don’t feed me.” T-shirt and I came a close second. The entire idea of Chicken being an isolated location was challenged by such an arrival of dust and engine rumbles. But to see such a crowd – a 1916 Lancia, a 1920s Bentley, Jaguar E-Types, classic Porsches amongst others – show up out of the blue in the middle of nowhere had its surrealist value. Also a deeper happiness about how these vehicles had committed to a life on the road and were not lost to a life of shininess and garages (and ultimate sadness).


[Part of the Series: Notes from the Last Frontier]