For you, the dress code is casual.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Steff Goes North

God forbid I deprive my readers of a new posting today. I'm busy, but I do have a stash of shit filed away on the drive. I've not the time to polish this one up with a pre-posting edit, but here you go.

(The photo was taken by yours truly at dawn in early 1995. These are the mountains that envelope Whitehorse, and the sunrises were always inspiring.)

* * *

The strange ones, the eccentrics? Up North, they call them “the colourful 5%.”

Yeah, maybe you done gone Enron on the numbers, but I’m thinking the town’s a little more stacked.

I’d like to launch into why I loved the strange mix of people drawn to that land of mystery, but I think you need to know how I came to be there first.

* * *

I was making a monster sale of cheap quality photo frames at my work in BC, carrying 15 large frames in my hand, when I stepped on a stapler left on the floor by my boss.

A couple ripped tendons later, and some four weeks of rural boredom on crutches, practically chained to the couch, I spent one afternoon in the library, writing out contact info on businesses from the Yukon. I figured, “What the hell? I can go anywhere I want.”

I had my resumes done that afternoon, so this wasn’t an extended effort. Just one day of “What the fuck? Why not?.” By 3pm that Tuesday afternoon, I had a stack of resumes in the mail.

Friday morning, 9:05am, a called from a photography lab: “So you have good timing.”

“I do?”

“My manager gave her notice three minutes ago. Your resume arrived two minutes ago. I don’t believe in omens. But I’m a fan of convenience. So.”

I aced the interview that followed, largely because I lied and said “I thrive on stress!” Three weeks later, I was in my car and driving to the Yukon.

On the big day, I had breakfast with Dad at 6:00am and was on the road before 7:00, starting a 2,800-km trek to the Yukon--a place I’d only read about in scared-shitless Jack London novels. And I’d heard about the highway.

Suffice to say the sides of the Alaskan highway were once lined with signs saying how many victims died in what crash on that site. It was intimidating, and I doubt it would’ve helped as you navigated those cut-away mountains with 7,000-foot drops hanging off your left side.

It’s a long, challenging drive, and you’d better be taking your time. I like driving fast and living it up, but despite being broke, I took the time to find lodging along the way. I found three kind souls who knew someone who knew me, and capitalized on spare beds and one dorm-room floor.

* * *

The only place you need to hear about, though, is Toad River, population 37.

* * *

God help me, but I don’t recall the family’s names. The town consisted of no conveniences, towering mountains loomed all around this afterthought of a town, Toad River. Did I say town? Let’s call a spade a spade. A trailer park.

A trailer park in the middle of the goddamn massive, monstrous mountain range separating the Yukon from British Columbia. When I rolled into town and saw the sign “Population 37,” I had no fucking idea what to expect.

I’d had trouble finding this place on the map, but I sure as shit knew why now. Church and school consisted of a single-wide trailer. A dozen other trailers littered the area. Another sat adjacent. This was the store.

Everyone in town, it seemed, worked for highway maintenance, or they were the breeders. Seriously. I don’t make it up.

* * *

Like I say, I didn’t know these people, but I was brought up with manners and etiquette, and if there’s one thing I know, you never arrive empty-handed. Make note. And what’s the best thing to bring? You got three choices: Wine, flowers, and chocolate. And I’d say in that order, too.

Fortunately, I had to good smarts to pick up the wine early in the day. If I’d waited, I’d have been out of luck.

I arrived later and presented the wine at this door of this weather-beaten single-wide trailer nestled in the valley of this intimidating-as-hell mountain range.

My hostess looked at the bottle, looked at me, and smiled weakly. “What a lovely thought. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it with dinner.”

They were recovering alcoholics.

The next three hours were the most excruciating of my life. I once had hand surgery where I was awake and could watch them scraping bits of bone out. That was more fun, and that was 35 minutes long. I could do three of those and not have that night replay.

The next morning, I showered, they fed me, and I fucked off.

It was a rough nine-hour drive from there into Whitehorse, and I was stunned how much daylight I’d lost in two days on my drive north, nearly two hours.

I figured the last thing I needed was to be driving in the middle of the legendary North at night, at the height of moose-encounter season. I was terrified of hitting a 2,000-pound moose as it crossed the road.

You laugh at me now, but I was told at a party some three months later that I was smarter than I’d thought--their friend hit a moose in his 2-ton Dodge Ram, and the moose totalled it, and managed to limp away.

I got into town after a gorgeous, awe-inspiring day of driving through some of the most rugged landscape I’d ever seen, completely unaware it was only a hint of that to come. It didn’t take long to hook up with my temporary roomie and fall into bed.

And soon after that, I really saw what I was in for.

* * *

Everything I knew about the North, I learned from watching Northern Exposure.

Yeah. Reading up mighta been good.

Stay tuned when I’ll tell you about Cookie and the Rocky Mountain Bearfucker, No-Pop and the Sandwich Shop, the Mad Trapper, and maybe even the lady of blues, Sally. We’ll see what unfolds.

(No promise of when, but there'll be periodical postings about my time in the Yukon--the nature, the people, the weirdness--all of it is unsurpassed elsewhere. But it's a long time ago and the details are fuzzy... so give me time.)