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Pencil and notebook at the ready, Hoagland set out to explore and write about one of the last truly wild territories remaining on the face of the earth: Alaska. From the Arctic Ocean to the Kenai Peninsula, the backstreet bars of Anchorage to the Yukon River, ...
Pencil and notebook at the ready, Hoagland set out to explore and write about one of the last truly wild territories remaining on the face of the earth: Alaska. From the Arctic Ocean to the Kenai Peninsula, the backstreet bars of Anchorage to the Yukon River, Hoagland traveled the “real” Alaska from top to bottom. Here he documents not only the flora and fauna of America’s last frontier, but also the extraordinary people living on the fringe. On his journey he chronicles the lives of an astonishing and unforgettable array of prospectors, trappers, millionaire freebooters, drifters, oilmen, Eskimos, Indians, and a remarkably kind and capable frontier nurse named Linda. In his foreword, novelist Howard Frank Mosher describes Edward Hoagland’s memoir as “the best book ever written about America’s last best place.”
In the tradition of Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and Jonathan Rabin’s Old Glory, with a beautiful love story at its heart, this is an American masterpiece from a writer hailed by the Washington Post as “the Thoreau of our times.”
Hoagland has captured the restless adventuresomeness of our frontiersmen, and the riot of nature in its unspoiled glory.
As a native New Yorker, thirty years ago, it was my pleasure and my passion to embark for Alaska periodically—that top hat of the continent—on magazine assignments but really because I had fallen in love with a nurse whom I had met in Fairbanks, though she was based first in Juneau and then in Anchorage. I was early fiftyish, mired in a deteriorating marriage; she seventeen years younger and divorced from a psychiatrist in her home state of Massachusetts—her father an alcoholic ex-CIA operative, her brother a golf pro. She herself was superb at what she did, however, and perhaps the kindest person I've ever known. She was in charge of the nursing care of all the tuberculosis patients in the state.
At Minneapolis I'd switch from my New York flight to Northwest Orient's Anchorage-bound airplane, which landed briefly in Seattle on the way so that the bourgeoisie in suits could scoot up the ramp fastidiously, to be replaced by checked-shirt construction guys headed for Prudhoe Bay, or salmon-boatmen, or middle-aged riff-raff who had fouled their nests in the Lower 48 and hoped that high wages plus desperate circumstances could swallow their bile and pull them out of bankruptcy once again. Furious-looking young oil-rig employees with lopsided hands, pugnacious moustaches, and misfit beards jostled brush-cut military noncoms dragging duffel bags, and the occasional sidelong glare indicated that certain passengers weren't used to being stuffed next to other people like this at all and were going to Alaska precisely to prevent it. Several miles of leeway between cabins suited them. The bristle of mistrust, or suspicion of outrageous behavior from others, telegraphed that they expected it of themselves, at least if they didn't swig a couple of soporific drinks quickly enough. The stewardesses, appearing to understand this, helped. Alaska flights gather a provisional cast anyway. Will the weather even permit you to land? Will somebody be there to meet you, as promised, or the commercial opportunities still be extant? On one return trip, a young lady seated next to me sobbed uncontrollably the whole four hours back to Seattle.
On my first visit to Linda's, when she lived in Juneau and following our meeting in Fairbanks—after the plane had dived between the famously hairy mountains fronting Juneau's airstrip—she hid from me in the arrivals lounge in order to get another gander before revealing her presence. So I had to wander like a homeless bunny rabbit through the terminal, until her pity was aroused and she came forward to hug and lead me to sleep on the floor of her sublet, up a steep boardwalked hillside. It was a splendid means for a feminist seventeen years younger to cut a lover down a size before permitting him to take her clothing off. Juneau is in Alaska's banana belt, but at colder climes, if your girlfriend kicks you out in the middle of the night, the air might be thirty below outside and any "male chauvinist pig" (to use the argot of the era) would soon be oinking for mercy at her door. Though I wasn't that, at forty below at Point Hope on the Chukchi Sea my eyelids froze together when we stepped off the ski plane, and she needed to lead me about for a while, besides protecting me from a few Eskimo toughs who liked to beat white men in retaliation for a century of exploitation (since the one white tourist you don't beat the shit out of would be the nurse's boyfriend). But Alaska is a rough spot to be out of your element. The hobo jungle along the railroad tracks in Anchorage is hair-raisingly cold in the winter, and the court system for indigents, when I sat in on a few sessions, harshly brusque. Since the gold rush, or whaling days, it's been a gambler's destination, and they don't coddle losers. Don't get stranded here is an important message that must be conveyed. It's a long trek home, and the Canadians don't want you broke on their territory either, begging your way two thousand miles down the Alcan Highway to the safety net of relatives or whatever. Besides identification, they demanded evidence of cash from down-at-heels travelers at the border.
In Anchorage, "the closest city to Alaska," as locals like to put it, once we passengers had debarked past the polar bear, Dall sheep, and caribou situated in glass cases to welcome us to the 49th State, the baggage carousel presented a headlong tumult of wooden crates, steamer trunks, huge taped cardboard boxes, tarpaulin sacks, and backpacks, snow gear, tents, stoves, and climbing equipment for "assaults" on Mount McKinley or the like that some had flown in for, as if life were not adventure enough already. The military contingent retrieved their troop-ship stuff, and civilian berserkers or trophy hunters and gun nuts had rifles in canvas cases to collect, and air mattresses, sleeping bags, helicopter parts in cartons. Some of us were here to try solving our problems, others probably to complicate them.
My Linda, sweet-smiled, creamy-skinned, sable-haired, and solidly light on her feet, had been waiting at the entry with a coyote-ruffed, state-supplied Eddie Bauer winter coat, so I could accompany her to far-flung Indian and Eskimo villages on her monitoring rounds. Her two basement rooms on "L" Street were within walking distance of her office and the oil company skyscrapers and high-rise hotels, yet cozy for our menagerie of love games, like "Buzzing Bee," "Bitey Fox," "Tommy Turtle," "Snoring Leopard," and a block or so from a splendid crenellated view of the Chugach Range, mountains wilder than any others neighboring a significant American city, or across Cook Inlet, off the Pacific Ocean—Anchorage is a seaport—others appeared as miniature volcanic peaks. Alaska, twice as big as Texas, had only 420,000 people living in it in 1983, half of them around Anchorage, which the rest of the state considered "Los Anchorage," with its wide streets, shopping malls, and negotiable climate—drier than Juneau's, warmer than Fairbanks. Even so, nineteen hours of summer sunlight becomes only six hours at the December solstice—when the arctic villages Linda visited just offered sunrise colorations on the horizon at high noon. I loved the midnight sun in June in those same places, when the sun instead simply flirts with setting, and chained teams of sled dogs may holler at each other in nonstop elation; but was plenty content with starlight round-the-clock for our winter interludes, sleeping catch-as-catch-can on a clinic or schoolroom floor with my friend, while she tested the populace of the hamlet for tuberculosis. Oddly enough, during a stint in the army a quarter-century before, I'd worked in a TB hospital myself, and so was comfortable in the vicinity of sputum collection cups. Her own nursing career stretched back to catheterizing old men's penises in a New York City hospital (and once saving the life of a stranger in a restaurant in Greenwich Village by the Heimlich maneuver). Out of rainy Juneau, she had been responsible for the itinerant care of five Tlingit island villages, visiting each by boat or plane in rotation: front-line medicine, indeed. These frontier nurses, apart from prenatal exams and well-baby immunizations, sometimes possessed immense powers of advocacy in determining who got flown out to see a doctor after the onset of heart murmurs or was recommended for reconstructive surgery after falling drunk into a campfire. A hernia's bulge, a cleft palate, were easy; but not the knife fight after dark that led to pounding on the clinic door when the nurse had gone to bed. Was it only a Romeo, or a man mortally bleeding? There was no state trooper within a hundred miles—and fog might negate flying. Next day, in a torso on the table, what was a tumor? You certainly couldn't cry wolf a lot, bringing in a plane.
So Linda had spent part of her weekends in a neighborhood sauna in Juneau with a can of beer, fitfully weeping. In the beginning, my helpfulness may have been to bolster her confidence to accept a promotion from the field to this supervisory job in Anchorage; and we had driven the seven hundred miles there together from a ferry dock in Haines, sleeping in the bush beside the road until her rattly heap gave up the ghost when we finally reached pavement. We'd then hitchhiked from about Glennallen, giggling at the adventure—the boulevards of the new city, with a live caribou penned into one front yard, facing the British Petroleum office tower. The Captain Cook Hotel was finest, but wages were good and there were other hostelries and restaurants about with seafood chefs. At The Monkey Wharf, capuchins cowered inside a glass case behind the bar, while a band played rock. The Great Alaskan Bush Company featured bottomless-topless stuff, and Chilkoot Charlie's was the toughest of several bars where people went to get into fights and pass out afterward in the parking lot. At the Pines you could leave your table, handing your glasses to your girlfriend, strip to borrowed trunks, and box another tyro in a regulation ring for a purse of fifty bucks. The immense, extravagant skies seemed to promise melodrama, with two million sockeye salmon being harvested every day from Bristol Bay during their spawning season.
Linda had taken me by ferryboat from Juneau to her former postings at Hoonah, Angoon, and Tenakee Springs on Chichagof and Admiralty Islands, where eagles abounded and ravens posted themselves on every rooftop, both embodying a creation myth and as though enjoying a sort of natural adjunct citizenship. Besides giving hefty sums of money to fund collective native corporations, the Alaska Native Claims Act of 1971 had turned over forty-four million acres to the state's seventy thousand Indians, Aleuts, and Eskimos to manage, making the local Tlingits' sense of self-governance muscular. But as we walked Hoonah's paths, I'd seen how fond the women and the elders were of Linda. The tides, fog, sea mammals, and sea wrack were exhilarating to us, and fresh netted fish delicious, but her responsibilities had been heavy. Without colleagues or equipment, when was a pregnancy problematic, or a stomachache a stomachache and not appendicitis? Later, on tours north by chartered ski plane, landing on a frozen river to check that an Athabascan child with TB, wintering with her parents at a trapping camp, was receiving her daily medication and not feverish or coughing (separately, a teacher flew in, too), we'd stop at downstream villages to look at other patients, as well as perhaps help the district nurse keep track of an individual injured in a snow machine flip-over, and monitor an epidemic of hepatitis B that was germinating in native communities. The most poignant interviews I witnessed were with older people whose hepatitis had transmogrified into liver cancer and who, dying in a cabin with a view of sunlight glistening on the tundra out the window, might never see another medical professional after Linda left. Her brief job was to delicately ascertain that they were where they ought to be: that a son would keep the stove going, that there were no alcohol problems in the home, and that the hamlet's health aid, sketchily trained in morphine administration, could be counted on to mitigate the pain. But most important was what the person wanted, because Linda could fly them out to a hospital for terminal care where their comfort would be assured. Yet a hospital offered no grandchildren traipsing in and out, no arctic shimmer in the sky or Brooks Range through the windowpane, or bowhead whale skin cut morsel-sized and berries-in-blubber to suck on. It was discussed sidewise, softly. Did they want clean sheets every day, an R.N. to manage the morphine drip, and tomato soup on a tray, but never to see the northern lights? Usually, with ten thousand years on a rim of the world, they shook their heads, no.
On an Anchorage barstool you'll meet a thirty-something fellow who has flown in from Bangkok with a money belt full of gemstones—" much safer than drugs"—to sell in the gold, gun, fur, ivory, or oosik stores (an oosik is the long bone in a walrus's penis) on Fourth Avenue. Another guy has burned out as a social worker in Fort Yukon, he tells us, because he was in charge of child welfare and family relations and when children were beaten up by drunken parents he got accused of racism if he tried to intercede. Proposing to remove an abused child to foster care brought the old charge of deracination—cultural imperialism, when kids were shipped to distant boarding schools to remove "the Indian" from them—and threats by the father to shoot him in the middle of the night. Although the rest of the town was stumped as to how to protect the child, protecting him seemed not so high on the agenda
Thirtyish souls are typical, because they've had a decade to knock around in the Lower 48, butting their heads against limitations, mostly their own, that they hope won't operate here. On the other hand, a gas station owner from Arizona, decked out in a Confederate general's campaign jacket and cap, told us he'd bought a garage on the Denali Highway, where he could let his hair down, wear verboten costumes with a bear-claw necklace, get as drunk as a skunk, joke about "necktie parties," enjoy some red-skinned poontang, and fire off his Kalashnikovs behind the station whenever he wanted. "What you do stays in the permafrost."
In Anchorage, Linda and I re-explored our bodily rituals (which were such that I was impotent with anybody else for a year after we broke up), and drove into the rugged Chugach Mountains, set so closely above the breezy city, to scramble to the tree line and gaze down. "Our least educated marry their most educated," another social worker had explained about the dynamics of white-native matrimony. And you could see it as you rambled, or on planes, where a seatmate said the escape provided by marrying a motor pool corporal had proven a disappointment when he took her home to the Bronx or the Ozarks. "I like Alaska better. I don't ever want to go back there again," she said, her face going bleak and gelid with the loner's stare of somebody soon to shed the Motor Pool boy.
Excerpted from Alaskan Travels by EDWARD HOAGLAND Copyright © 2012 by Edward Hoagland. Excerpted by permission of Arcade Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 26, 2012
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