Friday, January 31, 2014

The House of Alaska

Utopia is a fictional island situated in the center of the ocean, or so some have said. However, the idea of creating one's own personal utopia in the midst of the wilderness was institutionalized in the United States during the Civil War by the Homestead Act. Intrepid, would-be pioneers continued to claim land under this Act in the "last frontier" until well into the second half of the 20th century.

Women find themselves in an peculiar position when it comes to the construction of an utopia, or a homestead. For them, pain means pain, and blood denotes actual blood--not mere ideas that can be swept away for the sake of a hoped-for revolution--or in the process of clearing a field.

A mythical epistle arrived in our letter-box one day in the mile-high city: a note from a woman--an invitation, and a cry for help. Here, wrote one friend to another, I am, stranded out on this homestead. We have not yet proven up our 160 acres. Planting a barley-field in aspen-infested permafrost is not for the faint of heart. My husband has been hired to work on the Pipeline, which means we will be able to afford to buy powdered milk. And I have just had a baby, so I am not much good with the old John Deere. Just think! I know you admire adventure. Call upon your friends, draft-dodgers or drifters or whomever, and tell them they can stay here for free, if they will help us rip the trees out and plant grain. Come to the land of the silt-churned Copper River, where the fishwheels turn and the fireweed waves.

And that is how we found ourselves packed willy-nilly into a khaki Datsun 510 with a car-top carrier: two women, two girls, and two Frostline tents, blasting our way through a salt storm in Utah on the way to Canada.

The voice of the road was a harsh, gravelly, dust-filled roar, enveloping each vehicle in its own isolation chamber. The windshield of the Datsun collected the yellow, green and brown spatter of insect-bodies until we stopped to wash scrub them off. Oatmeal, at breakfast, floated in a bowl with specks of ash from a campfire after we emerged, swish-swish, from our sleeping bags.

Embarking on a ferry was a welcome respite from the road: there were stairs to clamber up and down, windows to peek through, unfamiliar fogs and mists to breathe. At night, you rolled around in your bag on a cot and closed your eyes, so glad not to be bumping the edges of a wet tent. During the day, further adventures awaited: once, a Japanese tourist fortuitously managed to pick the lock of our car, when we accidentally locked our keys in the trunk while rummaging in the cooler.

Where is the House of Alaska, we pestered, back in the car rumbling along the AlCan, a narrow highway snaking through the Yukon. Then, there was a sign that read, Alaska, but no house. Mosquitoes there were aplenty, and stunted spruces emerging like bottle-brushes from mossy swamps. Stretching our legs, we wandered out onto the sand-bars of  braided rivers, teddy bears in tow. Snow-capped mountains loomed in the distance. But the promised house bided its time.

Finally, just when the Rye-Crisp and cheese supply had dwindled, and the nerves of  the women were jangled to their edges by the questions, Are We There Yet and Where is the House of Alaska, the little green car stopped in front of a log cabin, a ramshackle lean-to barn, and a random scattering of doghouses. The team of dogs greeted us enthusiastically, jumping up and down on their hub-cap dishes--perhaps we were the harbingers of dinner. A baby clung to the side of a dark-haired woman in spectacles, leaning against an ancient black truck. A freckled man sporting a long red pony-tail sized up us two girls and exclaimed in a booming voice, "Well hello, you big little devils. Welcome to the House of Alaska."

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