On the edge of civilization
Off the map, North British Columbia


The Pacific North-West is delicately wide. Wyoming and Montana are rugged and untamed. Where I am is just brutal. A slither of dirt road crosses the wilderness on the edge of civilization to connect by land the mainland US with its interests up north. Built in the early 40s by an anxious army to mobilize tropes to defend Alaska in case of a Japanese attack, the Alaska Highway is truly a feat of human endurance in the face of Mother Nature. There is no question who is in charge around here. New York is for the humans, out here those little pink creatures running around in their tractors desperately fighting to keep their only vein open are on borrowed time. There are two short months in the summer to fix up the road before general winter sends his troops to do battle with the trucks carrying fuel and food to the enclaves of humanity that hang on at the edge of the world. North of us are thousands of miles of wilderness terminating in the Arctic Ocean. West of us are snow caped mountains holding off the Pacific Ocean. East of us is the continental divide and south … well you get the picture. The enormity of nature descends on you as you realize, sooner or later, that you don’t belong here. Right before we made the right turn off the trans-Canadian highway and off the map (the AAA map of British Columbia stops at this point) I park the car at a gas station to fill up and ask the locals about lodging. A saber-toothed native gives us the lay of the land: “about 500 kilometers up there is a patch of dirt off the side of the road. You can stop your car there and sleep, or, for that matter, anywhere else.”

The gold rushers used to call the new green guys Cheechakos. After you survived your first winter, if you survived your first winter, you were considered a Sourdough, or veteran.

We are definitely not sourdoughs in a land where experience seems to be king. The few other people we encounter all seem to know what they are doing. One learns quickly though. The first thing you figure out is who are your real enemies. Bears don’t eat people! Insects, on the other hand, do. “Skidders”, as we fondly call them, inhabit the air so thickly that sometimes it is hard to see through the flying hordes. Bug repellant to these killer mosquitoes is just the garnish on top of the new blood rich fodder that ventured into their land. The locals assure us that your skin gets used to it eventually and you stop noticing the swarms hovering around you and that picking dead insects out of your ears and nose becomes second habit, but in the mean time I am still getting used to my new role on the bottom of the food chain. Next you figure out never to take anything for granted. Gas and food may not be where you think they are, running water comes from a jerry can that you keep in your car, toilet paper is worth its weight in gold, and toilets are over-glorified holes in the ground.

We spend the first night camped out on a patch of dirt next to a few dust covered campers, some trucks, and a few other fellow tents. These are not your grandpa and grandma’s campers. These are more like Rambo’s grandpa and grandma’s campers. Our immediate neighbors have Alaska plates on their car, so we take the opportunity to talk to our fellow Americans. It’s a whole family complete with an uncle and an infant making their way south from Haines, a tiny isolated city of 1200 in east Alaska, in search of work. The husband, a walrus of a man with a large silver gray mustache and beard reserves his comments to grunts and murmurs. His wife, a wiry Grapes of Wrath type woman, is friendlier and answers our questions with short staccato sentences. It appears that physical isolation does not protect these towns from the ravages of a recession. On the contrary, their relatively fragile economies are the first to collapse. “The town is too small to have any jobs” she states simply, “we will try in Seattle”.

Later on that day a construction crew trying to convince the dirt on the road to stay somewhat flat stops us. In this land of no rush waiting seems almost natural so we spend the time talking to the young guy directing traffic i.e. our car. He lives in the nearest town some 300 kilometers from there and works 7 days a week from a workers camp up the road on the “highway” for two months a year. The other 10 months he rides his snowmobile around town seeing as there is nothing else to do. The road must be kept open to supply the towns during winter, and the towns must be kept alive to supply labor to fix the road during summer and so the Sisyphean saga continues.

Later on that day I find a gift shop next to a gas station. It is a little out of character in this rugged land in the same way that a taxidermist shop might be out of place in Times Square. So I go inside and find out the other reason people stick it out here. The women behind the register and her husband are game guides who bring businessman from the east to hunt Grizzly bears every summer. If you ever wondered what sadistic maniac would go out and intentionally try to find a Grizzly bear in the hope of aiming the highest caliber rifle gun companies make and shooting it in the one weak spot these enormous creatures have before it turns you into Hick McNuggets (note that we are talking about an animal that is capable of ripping cars apart), I was under the impression that it would be the same kind of person that if you took his gun away would attack the bear with his hands. But the hunter in front of me was your run of the mill sweet middle-aged women who did not mince words about how it is so great that this is one of the last places on earth where you are allowed to hunt bears. Go figure.