My essay-writing perch
Assignment 1, Coal Creek Writer’s Workshop
Gretel Erhlich gives us our assignment as we find spots on the bank of the Yukon:
“You are here alone. South of here has for some reason become unlivable. What’s it like?”
Here, on the Yukon again. The gentle monster flows by with a gurgle, like an Elder carrying on its back the splashes of its feeder creeks.
Alone, the time I’ve craved, knowing that now it will be too much, this silence once bottled in Alaska but now available everywhere down there. Be careful what you wish for, right? Fuck that.
Inventory: Bug dope until it runs out. Some MREs stashed in Slaven’s by a fire crew. Enough clothes to keep the bugs off but I’ll need more. An endless supply of freshwater from Coal Creek and an axe to chop a hole come winter. Three lighters and seven books of matches. Cabins with good roofs and wood stoves. Three rolls of toilet paper. Powdered pancake mix. Seven Clif bars. A canoe. Shotgun. Seven slugs and three popper shells.
What I see from the South Bank: One half mile of smooth brown water, hills bluing with smoke. The occasional bite of spruce and green willow in the air. Nostalgic.
Too many memories in this place. Should have escaped somewhere else. Her handwriting in the logbook, sudden as a bee sting. Forgot she had been here. Her cursive, so perfect.
“I wonder if I will ever visit here again?”
That’s a no, Tammy. And I don’t know how you died.
But that trip comes back to me now. Landing on the airstrip in the dense 40 below air, the chilly ride to Slaven’s on snowmachine, gathering river ice in sleds to melt on the barrel stove. For mushers and their dogs. A good place to see them, halfway on a thousand-mile journey.
Walking to the bank of Coal Creek in our Apocalypse bibs and parkas. Falling into a pillow of snow to watch the aurora flame the northern sky.
There was magic in that trip, and in the dormer at Circle Hot Springs after. I told her we’d have beautiful kids, one of my bolder lines. But it was true.
She had those lovely children with someone else. Many times, though, I conjured her when alone. She smelled of apricot shampoo and was as passionate as she was voiceless in a crowd. She gave me that ink portrait of her face, staring as if pissed at me. I couldn’t take it with me when life changed. Tacked it to the ceiling of the outhouse. A sin, really. But I didn’t know what else to do.
Tammy’s ghost will be among the more pleasant here before I join the billions now stinking to the south, as they return to dirt.
We all knew it was coming. Too much pressure on the system. I thought it was impossible. The Earth is large and resilient. Self healing.
This one, the Big One, leads to the greatest theological question: God, why did we like to fuck so much?
That’s a head scratcher. The alder flycatcher that should be here got wiped out with the dripping trees in central America. The flute of the Swainson’s thrush silenced when mid-America went dry. I don’t know if the salmon are still shooting though this chocolate water, but they might extend my lifespan a few weeks.
How to catch them, though? A net in an eddy. But I’ll have to make one. Maybe some rope at Coal Creek Camp.
The baby raven screams across the river. Of course, they are here. And breeding. They are probably expanding their range now, delighted at the fallen meat.
And signs of others — the wolf tracks pressed into mud, river willows torn by moose. That’s the thought that brings a feeling closest to joy. When I drop from skinniness or the Remington, they will be it.
These bees and dragonflies and fucking mosquitoes and beetles, beetles, beetles. The few large mammals adapted to deep Interior cold and the ability to survive on a bushel of frozen twigs each dark day. The smart ones, the insects, who wait out years in suspended animation, to spring up when conditions are better.
It’s poetic that Earth’s renewal after shedding its most destructive species will start when I end here. Jimmy Carter knew. Idiots gave him so much shit for the truisms he had the balls to speak. No. 1 — A man wants to fuck every woman he sees. Two — There’s value we can’t fathom in wilderness, so while I’ve got the keys I’m park-ifying Alaska. Deal with it.
So, Jimmy, you were, in the end, right. It doesn’t make any difference now, with me alone here on the Yukon. I’ve got my death sentence, as I guess I always had, and will finally get to try the subsistence lifestyle.
But there’s a reason the Han were nomadic, and I don’t have their skills. The moose flies of summer will have my flesh to slice, and maybe a slam-dunk caribou will fall to the shotgun. But the subarctic winter is not designed for a creature adapted to the tropics. There will be no more milk from Washington cows or avocados from California. Maybe I can use the seed stock from that kid’s greenhouse at Coal Creek if I make it another summer. But I should have acquired some of those skills — gardening, stalking animals — I so admired.
However long it takes, this will be a fitting place to breath the last of this air free of man vapors. If given the choice in that former world, I might have chosen to have the ravens pick my carcass clean here, on the grassy bluff in front of Slaven’s, near the birch trees in love, wrapping themselves around one another as if they are afraid to let go.