Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Eskimo

Many summers ago I set out on a hell-bent drive through the Yukon Territory which brought me in no small measure humility and faith. All of this is true. Most of it. The parts I remember, anyway.

First I need to tell you a story that goes around in Alaska taverns about the Eskimo. You’ve may have heard it: an explorer is stranded on a sheet of polar ice. He's surely doomed. In wild desperation he prays to God, actually gets on his knees and asks God to save him. He's not given to prayer, especially not given to belief, but now he's ready to try anything. "Dear God," he says, "if you save me just this time I'll always believe." Time passes. The polar nights are cold and the days are pretty cold, too. And as he's shivering on his sheet of ice he sees this black speck in the distant rime of Arctic air heading straight for him. It's an Eskimo, and this native fellow climbs the ice sheet, puts a blanket around the explorer, feeds him some dried salmon and high-bush cranberries, and spirits him by canoe back to Barrow. Not much later the explorer is rifling down shots in the tavern and bragging how he didn't need God at all since there had been an Eskimo nearby. A typical bar tale told under the canopy of northern lights.

In my story, I had two days to make the Haines ferry -- almost seven hundred miles from the Alaskan interior -- and I was certain to arrive on time for the sailing. Yet, that first morning I was so filled with dread of missing it, that I whipped out of a friend’s driveway and plunged into a culvert. Three hours later, the tow truck arrived. Already behind schedule, I sped angrily down the Al-Can highway, only to be stopped in the road by a forest fire which raged near the town of Tok. Furious and frazzled, by the time I crossed into Canada, near dusk, I resolved to drive through the night.

Hundreds, thousands of jackrabbits lazed along the shoulder of the road, taking the last of the low-flung Yukon sun, scampering for cover as I sped past. Every so often, one shot across the highway.

The only driver on that hundred-mile stretch, I played dodge-the-hare until I finally misjudged one, or it misjudged the car -- either way, the hare slipped under the front tire with a loud whap, and then the car began to list dangerously to port.

I stopped, crept under with a flashlight, and found blood and bones packed around the brake drum. After dislodging most of the remains, I resumed driving madly south, but the wheel banged and scraped, and the car canted left and slowed to a crawl. According to the map (which now had fissures in it), the nearest service station was in Burwash Landing: twenty miles.

When I finally arrived, the station stood under the arc of a weak floodlamp. The only other building at the edge of the wilderness was an adjacent cafe, its neon light flickering in the dark. The mechanic had already gone home. I suppose I’d hoped to find an earnest, all-night Canadian wrench junkie. But my best plans had nothing to do with the over-arching scheme of things.

I pulled off the highway into an open field and parked. I pitched my tent, lighting up the site with my headlights. I crossed the street to the cafe where, through the window, I watched a grizzly bear raid the dumpster out back. “We don’t usually get them here,” said the waitress. “Glad I’m not sleeping in a tent.” You might say I slept fitfully.

In the morning I drove across the field to the apron of the gas station. A young man in a red baseball cap sat behind the desk at the service station. He had terrible acne and a gap between his teeth, but looked fresh, like he'd slept pretty well without worrying about bears.

“Can’t look at it today,” he said, leaning back in the chair and propping his feet on the desk. He was not the mechanic, he said. The mechanic was home sleeping. But there was more than a day’s work lined up ahead of him whenever he made his entrance.

I sat in the car and waited, drumming my hands on the steering wheel. It was nearly noon when the mechanic showed and set to work. I could see his legs dangling out from under a blue pickup in the bay.

Whenever the mechanic stood, I waved at him and smiled. The first few times he grinned back, then he flat-out ignored me. I watched him roll in and out on that little sled that they use to creep under cars. There was something else, at the edge of my vision, a dark blur in the bright sunlight just below the nose of the car.

It was a furry tail, whipping side to side in the glare. I was transfixed a moment before I climbed out and walked around the hood.

A dog lay under the engine, pawing away at my tire. He was a heavy-set Lab with dirt-clumped fur. The dog glanced up, hare bits and suet on his muzzle, and then he went back to work, yanking away and twisting his head side to side.

Five minutes later he was snoozing under the shade of the service station awning: my Eskimo. And he hadn’t spun a wrench.

I backed the car out of the station, and the wheel grooved steadily, quietly, effortlessly along the road. I drove toward Haines. Moderately, you could say, buoyantly.

Something had shifted as I thought about my luck. I pulled off the road for a rest stop at Sheep Mountain and watched the white flecks of Dall sheep as they grazed on the green eastern slope. The air was sweet with the smell of fireweed and sage and a faint tinge of campfires. I stopped at Boutillier Summit for a last look down the Kluane Basin and the glimmer of blue light on the glaciers. I paused to listen to the wind as it rifled down the pass at Dezadeash Lake. I sat on the hood of the car and gazed at bald eagles as they wheeled above the fir trees along the Chilkat River.

Finally in Haines, I parked at the wharf. Lights danced over the water in the harbor and the peaks threw tall shadows against the starry sky. I gave thanks. And that night, I slept quite well before a toasty fireplace in a waterfront lodge. I missed the morning ferry by choice.

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