Fairbanks 142

Chris McCandless in Happier Days

In the spring of 1992, a young man named Christopher Johnson McCandless, who styled himself “Alexander Supertramp,” went to a particularly wild part of Alaska near Mount Denali, was unable to return to civilization because the trail to Healy across the Teklanika River was in flood from glacial melt during the summer months and could not be crossed. Within a few weeks, he was dead of starvation with a possible assist from toxins associated with wild potato seeds. He died in the same Fairbanks City Bus #142 where he set up his base cam three months earlier.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is the story of McCandless, a talented young man of many enthusiasms who broke with his family and yearned to live in nature—without money, without maps, without adequate stores of food, weapons, and insecticides (Alaskan mosquitoes are voracious).

There is something about youth that doesn’t love the prudence of later years. I have always admired people like Henry David Thoreau, Sir John Franklin, John Muir, and, yes, Chris McCandless. But I was never able to follow in their footsteps because of ill health arising from a brain tumor which, even when successfully removed, required a lifetime of prudent medication. Without Prednisone alone, I would not have lasted more than a few weeks.

The Magic Bus on the Shore of the Sushana River

Kracauer’s book made me think about my own life. He even wrote a couple chapters about his own attempt to climb a mountain near Petersburg, Alaska, called the Devil’s Thumb. Fortunately, he survived. McCandless didn’t. Why?

Andy Horowitz, one of McCandless’s friends on the Woodson High cross-country team, had mused that Chris “was born into the wrong century. He was looking for more adventure and freedom than today’s society gives people.” In coming to Alaska, McCandless yearned to wander uncharted country, to find a blank spot on the map. In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to his dilemma. He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita.

If he had only known where he was, if he had a USGS topographic map of the area, he could have returned to receive care, without even taking any heroic effort. He just did not know that he was a scant sixteen miles from a tourist road patrolled by the National Park Service. Even closer were several Forest Service and privately owned cabins that would have provided shelter and some food.

The Kracauer book is a superb read. It is greatly expanded from a 9,000-word article he wrote for Outside magazine in 1995.

 

Serendipity: The Flip Side of Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp (Center) in Nome

I’ve been reading a fair number of books about Alaska lately and surprised to come across the following about famed lawman Wyatt Earp’s time in Nome. My assumption was that Wyatt Earp was a pretty straight arrow. After all, hadn’t Henry Fonda played him in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), and didn’t his pallbearers include William S. Hart and Tom Mix? Then I read this passage in Brian Keenan’s Four Quarters of Light: An Alaskan Journey (New York: Broadway Books, 2004):

“That’s Wyatt Earp’s old home,” Mike informed us. I knew from some background reading that the famous frontier marshal had amassed a fortune in Nome [worth $3 million in 2017 dollars] and had headed back to the States. I was surprised the cottage was in such a state and wondered why. “Image isn’t everything,” Mike replied, “and a lot of folk up here don’t look too kindly on Mr. Earp. The truth is, he arrived here in 1898, a bald, bespectacled, paunchy man in his fifties. Well past his prime. He was mean, tightfisted and malicious, and his wife was as ugly in looks as he was in personality. [Not so: See pictures below.]  He built the Dextor [actually, Dexter] Saloon in town and he sucked the life’s blood out of the 20,000 miners and their families who shivered and died in tents trying to scrape a few ounces of gold off the beach. He bailed out after two years with an absolute fortune. If Nome was ever a seedy, ruthless and ugly place to be in, it was because of professional con men like Wyatt Earp and many like him.”

Josephine Marcus, Mrs. Wyatt Earp

Below is a picture of Dexter’s Saloon, which Earp ran in partnership with C. E. Hoxsie:

The Dexter Saloon Owned and Operated by Earp and Hoxsie

There is an interesting article about Earp in Nome entitled “Wyatt Earp’s Alaskan Adventure” that appeared in True West Magazine in 2014. You can find it by clicking here. Apparently, Earp also ran a brothel on the premises. Below is another picture of Josephine Earp, which leds me to suspect that her services could have been used in this other venture as well”

Josephine Earp—At Wyatt’s Brothel?

Serendipity: My Hovercraft Is Full of Eells

The Eells in Question Was the Reverend Myron Eells

In preparation for a projected trip along the Inside Passage to Alaska, I am reading Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999). The book is full of delightful historical anecdotes about Captain Vancouver and other early explorers and settlers. Some got along well with the Indians: Others didn’t. One in the latter category was the Reverend Myron Eells, known for his “garrulous moralism.” More than fifty years after he passed on, he was still remembered by old people who, as children, been on canoes with him. In 1934, William M. Elmendorf interviewed a Skokomish elder who spoke of Eells as “that awful man.” The elder went on to say:

People didn’t like him very well. He was collecting Klallam words from some Klallam Indians who were visiting here one time. I had to translate for him. So he would ask them for words like father, mother, house, dog, and so on. And those people didn’t think much of Eells, so they would give him all sorts of dirty, nasty words, and he would write them down in a book. Then he would try to use some of these words. thinking he was talking Indian, and people would just about bust trying to keep from laughing.

If you have any interest in primitive languages, it would help first to see whether one is on the same wavelength as one’s interviewees. (Oh, and my apologies to Monty Python’s Flying Circus!)

Leaving the Heat Far Behind

One of the Seagoing Ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway

We’re barely into July, and I’ve already had it with this summer! It started with triple-digit daily temperatures in New Mexico and continued with a Mexican Monsoon heat wave in Southern California. I am looking to take a vacation along Alaska’s Inside Passage using a combination of a flight and a series of short trips on the Alaska Marine Highway. I would not consider taking a regular cruise line for the following reasons:

  • I don’t want to eat myself into an early grave.
  • I don’t want to be sociable with other passengers: I would rather grimace at them than play in their reindeer games.
  • I don’t want to pay a ridiculous single-traveler penalty—because I would be going alone, me and my Kindle loaded with 1,500 books.

The places I would like to visit include Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, the Mendenhall Glacier, Skagway, and nearby parts of the Yukon. Ideally, I would go after the first frost has killed off most of the mosquito population. I understand there is a narrow gauge railroad that connects Skagway with Carcross in the Yukon, and I would not be averse to visiting Whitehorse.

My question is: Can I manage to afford two vacations in one year? Perhaps, if I’m lucky. But I have a strong desire to leave summer far, far behind me.