Langlois: The solace of lonely places
The man pulls back the tarp, and I’m staring at a seal carcass. Two seal carcasses, actually. They’re 250 pounds apiece, laid out head-to-tail with a neat bullet wound through each head. Their congealed blood glows, drops of rubies on the blue tarp.
I’ve encountered a lot of seals in Alaska, but I’ve never seen one so close — or so dead. Where a knife has sliced through to bleed them out, the blubber is 2 inches thick. It’ll be used to make seal oil, hard to come by in Anchorage these days, to be gobbled by the spoonful like peanut butter from the jar. Wayne shows me pictures on his iPhone of crafts he makes from speckled seal fur. The creases of his fingers are stained with blood.
This is where I’ve come after being dumped. Hard. Instead of fleeing someplace warm and comfortable, I’ve quit my job and joined what feels like a pilgrimage of heartbroken dreamers staggering toward Alaska. Why, I wonder, when our hearts are as raw as a piece of meat pecked at by ravens, are we drawn to one of the most unforgiving places imaginable? Do we crave a landscape as exposed and wind-scoured as we feel, or has Alaska simply always attracted such people?
Whatever the case, I met my friend Kate in Anchorage and drove as far south as the road would take us, to the end of the Homer Spit. In summer, the spit is packed with tourists, but now, in April, the storefronts are boarded up and the RV crowds are still home plotting their vacations. There are a few scraps of paper on the bulletin boards from young men looking for work, and a lone moose wandering the alders. Brown marsh grasses whisper dryly. Yet the light dances from a sun that lingers late in the sky, hinting at the season to come.
Kate and I began talking to the three Native men because we needed a corkscrew. I asked if they were fishing. No, the one named Wayne said: hunting. Then he pulled back the tarp and showed us the seals.
Wayne answers my questions slowly, a cigarette dangling from his lips. His camo jacket is too big, his hair long and wavy. His two cousins are older and rounder, with thick hair and black mustaches. They tell us they’re Eskimos from Nome, now living in Anchorage, and every April when the water is free of ice but the seals still have their winter blubber, they come here to hunt.
We drink wine from tin cups, and the twilight spirals on. We’re joined around our fire by the other men camping here alone in this strange season between snowmelt and summer. There’s a man with 26 sled dogs chained to a trailer who impulsively drove to Alaska two weeks ago; a cocky 30-year-old fisherman with a broken foot drinking away his workers’ comp checks; and Mark. Mark has lived most his life in Hawaii and hasn’t seen his daughter in 10 years, but is filled with wonder to be living here in the clean, salty air. “Every day I live in awe,” he says, tilting his face toward the sky: “Ahhhh!”
He walks with one stiff leg, swinging it out like a pirate’s peg. His face is crevassed with wrinkles. His teeth are yellow, his beard stained white, his eyes the same icy blue as his husky’s. Limping around camp to throw wood on the fire or break up a dogfight, he bursts into song: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Bob Marley. We are all living in awe.
None of us, not even the Eskimos, are from here. We each came to this barren stretch of land for our own reasons, and yet we came for the same reasons: for the stark white mountains and the cold depths of the sea and all the dreams and fears locked away in those secret places. For the freedom and adventure of being at the end of the road, beyond the clogged highways and parking lots and climate-controlled offices. But there’s loneliness, too, a loneliness that everyone, after a few cups of wine, begins to reveal. It’s the one thing that binds us, young and old, male and female, sitting around a driftwood fire, feeling the pull of Alaska and the weight of what we’ve left behind.
Krista Langlois is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Durango, Colorado.
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