John Colella, my best friend, died five years ago this December. He was 42 years old at the time, and I remember simply not being able to process the information when my father called with the news. My dad might as well have told me that he’d just cancelled the family subscription to the color blue and figured that I should know. I understood the words, but the concept was foreign to the point of incoherence.
John and I had been friends since seventh grade. We went through junior high school, high school and then college together. We cut classes together. We spent our weekends and lunchtimes together. We took our vacations together. We did our obligatory cross-country drive as 20-somethings together. Over the years we drank several plantations worth of coffee together. I was the best man at his first wedding, and we got fall-down drunk together at the party following his second. If I were ever to get married, I was going to ask him to stand up for me. But that’s not going to happen as he died half-a-decade ago and took a good part of me with him. And he died in a way that is tough to understand, unless you’re willing to openly consider that God can be a real son-of-a-bitch.
In December of 2007 John was living a settled, love-filled life. He shared a dental practice with his father and had recently purchased a beautiful old farm house outside of Ithaca, NY. He had an amazingly cool wife and a beautiful infant son. And then he caught a cold. Having had colds before, he didn’t do anything about it other than trying to get bed rest and keeping his fluids up.
Over the course of a week the cold turned into pneumonia, but John was legendarily stubborn when it came to his health and didn’t want to make such a big deal out of it, so he didn’t go to the doctor. After a few more days of feeling like hell and generally declining, his wife put her foot down and drove him to the hospital where he was immediately admitted to the ICU. Shortly after admission, his systems began to fail in series.
The doctors were pumping him full of antibiotics, but John’s immune system was shot to pieces and the meds didn’t have anything to grab onto. He died a few hours later as his dad held his hand. No other underlying causes were found in the autopsy. No autoimmune stuff. No hepatitis. No major organ involvement — with the exception of the standard-issue wear and tear that comes along with the wine, whiskey and song of early middle age. So, by best guess: my best friend died as a statistical outlier from complications of having a sore throat, a fatty liver and a pig-metal head.
John’s death has been with me every day now for half a decade. I think about him a lot when I’m alone. I try to gain some wisdom from his absence: to see what I’m missing when I see he’s not there. When old friends get together a glass is always raised, tears are shed and (as John was profoundly given to scatological humor) fart jokes fly. Among our close circle of friends, we don’t get down into the weeds of those awful days in December much anymore. Rather, we retell favorite stories. We do John impersonations. We laugh. Over the past few years, the person I’ve spoken to most about John’s death is his dad. Doc is also one of my closest friends and has been for nearly thirty years.
Doc is convinced that John died from something called General Adaptation Disorder, also known as the Selye Stress Syndrome. The argument states that if a person is placed into repetitive “fight or flight” situations, through genetic predisposition or a stressful environment, the adrenal system constantly ratchets up to new levels of “normal.” In the end, that puts enormous stress on the body and can lead to overall collapse. I don’t know what to make of that, but the boy was wound tight. Hell, John positively vibrated. If he were a cartoon character, you would have drawn him in frantic, squiggly lines. So maybe Doc’s right.
One thing for certain is that Doc and John had special connection. Many sons, if we’re lucky enough to have the opportunity, eventually get to become brothers to our fathers. But John and Doc had that from the jump. When we were in high school and planning on hanging out for the day, John was as likely as not to show up at my house with his dad. Which was great. Doc never judged us. He loved us. He tolerated us. He broadened us. He showed us how to do cool stuff. He was complex, thoughtful, and unique. He recited poetry and shot an old, repro Colt .45 like a cowboy. He taught us how to most effectively turn a bored-out log into a cannon. It was always like that, from our teenage years, right up to the end of John’s life.
One of my favorite memories is when we were juniors in college. John and I had come home to Binghamton with another friend, Ted Rennenberg, for the weekend. Ted was an English major who had spent a few years between high school and college as a diesel mechanic and forklift operator — but he loved literature, and so he got himself a partial scholarship and headed north from Long Island to Syracuse University.
As I cracked a beer in the Colella’s backyard, Doc and Ted were both bent over, half inside the engine-well of an old Chevy Suburban, fixing the alternator and arguing the depth of Chaucer’s bawdiness. The quote that sticks with me from that afternoon is Doc, half shouting as he blindly reached out for John to pass him a socket wrench, “Christ, Ted! What do you think Chaucer meant by ‘her nether eye’?!?!”
It’s hard to speak of John and Doc separately. They were integral to one another’s lives and both played central roles in my own. Both were unique critters. Doc has, as John had, an intellectual heft and curiosity counterbalanced by an absolute nonchalance about propriety. They loved learning and thinking, but had a visceral disdain for erudition and snobbery. Once, early on in our friendship, when John and I were ten minutes from hitting the stage in a high school production of Aria de Capo by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Doc caught us (in costumes that included black tights and harlequin greasepaint) chugging beers in the boys’ bathroom. Rather than reading us the riot act, Doc lit a cigarette, took a drag and then handed it to John saying, “It looks like you could use this more than me.” And then asking him, “So, are you gonna do it?”
John said he hadn’t decided.
Doc was referring to a battle of the wills between John and the play’s director. They’d had a spirited disagreement over a passage, and threats were made to John’s grade if he didn’t deliver the line, “Nonsense, Columbine!” as the director stipulated — which was, as per her orders, somewhat demurely and rather quietly, from the wings. But John thought the gag should be played up for laughs and shouted with his head poking out onto stage. Thus, the question on opening night was: “Would he do it?”
Honestly, he probably wouldn’t have, had the director not made such a stink. The whole thing was a perfect tempest-in-a-teapot situation. Who could possibly give a furry-rat’s ass about one line in a high school production of a pretty awful, absurdist play? Yet, sometimes life imitates art, and this had become a battle of wills between the very forces of authority and insolence.
From the stage, I watched the director become more anxious as the action moved closer to the moment. She was sitting in the front row so that she could feed us lines (we were terrible actors), but her eyes kept darting off stage, to the wings where John was waiting.
When the moment came, John stuck his head out from behind the wing-curtains, looked right at her and bellowed at the top of his lungs, “HORSESHIT Columbine!!!”
To this day I remember Doc’s high-pitched, semi-stifled laugh of pride overrunning the next several lines of my dialogue.
So, yeah, with the Colellas, propriety was at the bottom of a lonnnnng list of concerns. I remember one evening that summed up that aspect of the family philosophy perfectly. John was kicked back in his chair in the kitchen, with a smoke in one hand and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick in the other. Doc was cleaning a gun. I was doing the crossword. Then John started laughing so hard that he snorted and choked. When he tried to take a sip of coffee to wet his throat, he spilled it all over his shirt. Doc asked him what was so funny. John, getting his laughter somewhat under control, set up the scene wherein President William Daffodil-11 Swain encourages the citizens of the United States to say to anyone they don’t like: “Why don’t you take a flying fuck at rolling doughnut? Why don’t you take a flying fuck at the moooooooooooon?”
It was the funniest thing we’d ever heard and the three of us sat there laughing like hyenas and repeating the line over and over again, harmonizing on the “. . . at the moooooooooooon!!!” crescendo.
Not surprisingly, it became a catch phrase to explain a central part of the family creed.
But I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. John wasn’t a yahoo. He wasn’t trailer trash who made it a point to insult folks or undermine their social standing for no reason. Nothing could be farther from the truth. He just generally didn’t give a damn what people thought about him, or, for that matter, what those people thought about themselves. What he believed, and what I learned hanging out with him and his dad, was that when societal expectations collide with individual character, then unless there’s a really compelling reason, the individual spirit should prevail.
There was a Colella family story called “The Parable of the Bricks.” Doc must have told it to us a thousand times. He was in Washington Square Park in New York City when he was a young man, and he saw this crazy person hammering the cobbles with a heavy rubber mallet. When Doc asked him why, he responded, “Because some of the bricks stick up higher than the others.”
That was a serious warning to both John and me that we’d better be ready for a world that loved nothing more than grinding down the rough bits, the pieces that don’t fit in. According to the creed, forming a core trust in yourself that could stand up to those challenges is a good part of the reason we’re knocking around on this pretty blue marble in the first place. For some folks, those personal ethics find their roots in the conventions of abstract belief systems, be they religions or philosophies, but neither John nor I thought any of them were worth much. So, with Doc’s help, we tried to piece together our own.
A good part of that process took place around a campfire up at Doc’s farm outside of Owego, New York. The farm was a largely unimproved 200 acres of evergreens and American hardwoods with a small cabin and a shooting range that Doc leased out for a buck a year to the local sheriff’s department. Not too much happened up there most days, other than the consumption of heroic doses of coffee. Occasional we had sightings of black bear, which caused some interest and excitement, but mostly if we were up there it was to hang out, shoot guns, or to help Doc spread the coffee grounds he collected from the county jail in a deal to help them reduce their garbage stream and provide him fertilizer.
But the farm was also where we’d gather on the Winter Solstice, a day we called Midwinter’s Eve, to make new copper rings, twist ribbons into the colors of the four corners of the universe for hanging in the highest tree while singing until dawn to encourage the sun to return for another year. At the farm we’d openly speak of portents and omens. We’d cast bones. We’d only tinder our fires with goldenrod, and if you had to use more than one match, it foretold dark challenges in the coming year. We spoke of spirits and the soul-stealing witches who haunted our histories.
One summer John and I even made a half-hearted attempt to learn Seneca. Doc had been working on it for a few years so that he might better understand the Paleolithic origins of the hero-savior-redeemer myth. That sounded reasonable, so we gave it a shot.
Neither John nor I ever got too far past conceptually understanding that each word in an Iroquois language is a complete sentence. But one funny phrase does abide in my echoic memory, and that’s the word-sentence: “yeh-nunt’-gwis,” where the “t” is a glottal stop.
It means: “She’s got big ones.”
That might not seem like a terribly valuable thing to know, but if you’re a 19-year-old kid wrestling for a way to express the concept of “world mother” in the local indigenous tongue, then it had its place in the curriculum.
We weren’t pagans in the New Age, weave-a-dream-catcher or light-the-bowl-of-jasmine-incense kind of way. We didn’t sit and meditate. We drank and sang. Our offerings to the gods were tobacco and whiskey. We did what we did because it was something we could figure out on our own, away from sacred texts and hierarchical expectations. And Doc’s farm provided the space. I remember my first Midwinter’s Eve at the cabin. Sometime after our third pot of coffee, Doc tossed me the coil of copper wire. He’d just finished making himself a new ring. I asked him what I was supposed to do with it. He said, “Whatever the hell you want.”
Whatever this was, it was not the Catholicism I’d fled like a scalded cat a few years earlier.
I sat there for an hour, having not the slightest clue what I wanted to do. Then I started working. Over the years, I came up with a ring design that was a physical contemplation of my temporal path through this existence. (I know that sounds like a tumbler of huffenpuff mixed with a double shot of argle-bargle, but it means something to me — and that’s the point.)
Generally, we each did our own thing, together. John had his stuff. I had mine. Doc had his. If you wanted something explained, you asked. But at the end, we all had our private rituals that resonated at our own frequencies. Which, given enough whiskey and tobacco, could turn into beautiful harmonies by dawn. I can’t say with certainty that we had anything to do with it, but the sun always did keep rising.
I haven’t celebrated a cardinal day up at the farm in years, but it’s in me now at my core, and I’ve got John and Doc to thank for that. You never know what you’ll discover when you spend your nights around a campfire with a family-practice dentist who also happens to be a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking druid and his grinning, raised-finger-to-the-world son.
Up at the cabin is also where I first heard about the Chilkoot Trail. The story of the Chilkoot is in equal parts a story of adventure, struggle, loss and redemption — which is convenient, as it was presented to John and me as a metaphor for understanding the purpose of human existence. The primary poet of that trail was a man named Robert W. Service, though others like Jack London wrote about the travails as well. Here’s the opening stanza of Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. The first time I heard it, Doc was reciting solo, but not too long thereafter, the three of us would all charge through it together.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold; The Arctic trails have their secret tales, that would make your blood run cold; The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see, was that night on the marge of Lake Labarge, I cremated Sam McGee.
The first time I heard those lines, I was sitting at the table in the cabin, fiddling around with a kerosene lamp. A full moon was reflecting a bone-white light inside the room. It was the late 1980s, on a crisp fall evening. John and I were likely home for Thanksgiving break from Syracuse. I asked Doc who wrote it, and that question started the engine on a story that would become central to my life over the coming decades. But to get it, first you need a little history.
In the fall of 1896, gold was discovered in Canada’s far northwestern Yukon Territory, near the town of Dawson City. Lots of it. News of the discovery made its way to the other prospectors in the region shortly thereafter, and they flooded into the creeks around Dawson to stake their claims. By the next spring, when a few million dollars worth of the metal made it to the ports in Seattle and San Francisco, one of the largest gold rushes in the history of the world, The Klondike — so named for a tributary of the Yukon River where the gold was first discovered — was off and running.
The Yukon was a forbidding and distant place at the end of the 19th Century. Dawson City, the destination point for the gold rushers, is just 150 miles shy of the Arctic Circle. That far north the ground is in permafrost; they generally schedule summer between noon and three on the second Wednesday of July, so as not to disturb the natural order of things. Still, the gold was tempting enough to send a few hundred thousand men and women thronging over the mountain passes and down the Yukon River in the following two years. None of the routes (the All Canada, the White Pass, the All Water and the Chilkoot Trail) were easy, but by far most popular was the Chilkoot.
By the early summer of 1897, Canadian authorities realized that if they didn’t do something, the Yukon was going to see mass starvation come winter. So they set Mounties at all the passes to control the flow of cheechakos (tenderfeet, or greenhorns, in Athabaskan) entering British Columbia on their way north. There wasn’t a chance that the wild remotes of the Yukon could provide for so many folks from Seattle, Cincinnati, Chicago, Los Angeles, London or Louisville. But the Mounties couldn’t stop them, either; it was and remains an open border. So a decision was made to require that any man or woman entering Canada on their way to the Klondike would need to carry at least “one ton of goods” on their backs.
This, obviously, presented a problem for the prospectors. But it was the law and the Mounties had guns, so all of those gold rushers needed to hump the 2000 pounds of goods up and over the trail. The only way to do that was by getting a kit together in the Alaskan boom towns of Skagway or Dyea. From there the prospectors set forth, a mile at a time, with as much weight as they could carry.
Though many started solo, no one made it to Dawson alone. Each individual needed to join a team of prospectors, for protection if nothing else. They had to do their own work, but they did it together. Each hopeful miner would lug 100 pounds of gear a mile at a time, then lay a cache and return the mile for one more load. Thus, for every mile traveled, the men on the Chilkoot would have to walk forty: twenty laden with sinew-straining packs on the outbound mission; twenty in numb exhaustion on the return trip to gather more goods.
It took months for those men to move the 33 miles over the Chilkoot. And at the pass it snowed 40 to 70 feet in the winter. Then, once they made it over the Coastal Range mountains, the teams of prospectors had to build themselves boats with logs harvested from the forest surrounding the headwaters of the Yukon River. Then, after that, they had a 700-mile float downstream, facing rapids that could, at several points on the journey, make wet matchsticks of all their hopes and dreams.
There are chilling stories about a preferred means of suicide that developed in the winter of 1897 along the Chilkoot. When all was lost, a man would write a final letter to his loved ones back home, then trudge through the snow some 50 feet off the trail, pin the letter to the inside of his coat, and lash himself to a tree in hopes that after the snows melted in the spring, his body would be high enough off the ground to not be eaten by wolves. Then he’d stick his gun in his mouth and end it, once and for all.
Over the two years of the Klondike Gold Rush (in 1898 a fresh strike was discovered in Nome, diverting the gold rushers elsewhere), nearly half a million people attempted the journey. But, when it came to the gold, it all turned out to be for naught. By the time that even the first of the cheechakos made it to Dawson, all of the productive stakes had been claimed. The sourdoughs who lived way up north got there first, so not a one of those folks who hiked the Chilkoot ever even got a taste of gold.
“But for some of ’em, it didn’t matter a damn.”
I can see, in my mind’s eye, Doc’s eyes grow thin and piercing as he gets to the crux of the tale.
“But for some of ’em, it didn’t matter a damn. They’d already found their gold on the trail. Once you cross the Chilkoot, then nothing else matters. You just spend the rest of your life making it downstream to Dawson.”
This was catnip to a couple of kids bent on figuring out a way to live in this world.
In the summer of 1994, John and I decided that, after hearing about the Chilkoot since we were teenagers, it was high time to go climb the bastard. I’d just finished my second year of teaching Social Studies in Brooklyn. John had just graduated from dental school and was to join Doc’s practice in the fall. We had about seven weeks to kill, so we packed up his truck and headed west. Our plan to reach the Chilkoot, such as it was, involved driving cross-country, making it to the Pacific Ocean and then turning right.
The trip out west took a few weeks and involved several 48-hour driving jags where we drank endless cups of coffee, burned through the entire Social Distortion discography half a dozen times, learned to pee into empty bottles of Sunny-D in order to “save time,” and hung out for a few days in Colorado with our buddy Sean. We camped out most nights, including one towards the end of the trip on a beach outside of Tillamook, Oregon.
John and I were as close as brothers, but he wasn’t a big talker. He’d intuit. He’d react appropriately. He’d give advice if asked. He’d give you space when necessary. He’d listen. But he wasn’t one for giving soft purchase for an emotional landing. I knew that, but still, as we sat on that beach and I looked out over the Pacific for the first time in my life, I was overtaken by the cavernous enormity of it all.
We had a twelve-pack between us, and more in the truck. And somewhere in the course of the night, I finally just opened up to him. I said, “John, man . . . I think I’m lost. I’ve got a job, but no one to love. No place to call home. You, you’ve got it all. You’re gonna be working with your old man. You’ve got a beautiful woman you’re gonna marry. You’ve got a place in this world. That’s what I want: just a place in this world. Something to call my own.”
John stared out over the water for a few seconds, then grabbed a beer, cracked it open and passed it to me. Then he said in his staccato, machinegun voice, “Shut up, faggit.”
I’m pretty sure they could’ve heard us laughing all the way up in Portland.
I suppose we could have asked, as we headed that way the following morning. In Portland we met up with another friend who agreed to put us up for the night and show us the town.
We dropped off our gear at his place and then all headed out. It was a brilliant night, one of our finest, but at the third or fourth joint, John finally fessed up to me that, come tomorrow morning, he was heading back home.
“But what about the Chilkoot?”
“I gotta head home.”
He was final. I was confused. Then I was a little pissed off. This was our plan. We’d talked about it for years. So, shortly thereafter, as if in a bad scene from a worse movie, I climbed up onto a table in the middle of the brew pub and announced to anyone who cared that I didn’t “. . . give a damn what that runt is doing tomorrow! I’m going to Alaska and hiking the goddamn Chilkoot Trail.”
At which point someone bumped into the table, sending me spilling ass-over-tea-kettle and landing on the floor. I’m fairly unclear on the rest of the night.
But I do remember the following morning in crystalline detail. At around 11 AM, I was awakened by John, who was standing on the bed, gently tapping me in the temple with the toe of his Timberlands.
When I peeled open my eyes, he hopped off the bed. Then he pointed to a cup of coffee he’d set on the night stand and said, “Drink that and get your crap out of the truck. I’m leaving in 15 minutes.”
What the . . . ?
Then he was out the door.
I hopped out of bed, sloshed half the coffee on my shirt, and flailed around the room trying to find my pants. It took me 10 minutes just to get to the front door, and there was John, calmly tossing all my gear out onto the driveway of our friend’s apartment building.
While talking to him, I kept throwing my stuff back into the truck. “What the hell you mean you’re leaving? And why the rush? Come on! Lemme have my damn coffee. Let’s talk about this.”
“Nope. You’ve got five minutes. Pick out what gear you want.”
In utter confusion, I grabbed my pack and bedroll, hiking boots and cook kit, a Primus stove and my water filter. All of which I had cradled in my arms, like Navin Johnson in The Jerk. Then John hopped in the driver’s-side door, lit a smoke, backed out of the driveway and screamed, “Say hey to Bobby Service for me, would ya?”
And he was gone.
I know that sounds heartless and cruel. Not the actions of a best friend. But it was the right thing to do. John knew me better than I knew myself at that point. For years, I’d been somewhat of a younger, dumber brother. On the bigger issues, I tended to follow him the way I followed Doc. And he knew, absolutely knew, that if he allowed me to pull the cobwebs from my eyes, finish another cup of coffee and have a bite to eat, I would have decided to say, “Screw it. We’ll hike the Chilkoot next year.”
He knew that we wouldn’t do it next year.
So he forced my hand and left me standing in a driveway 2000 miles from home and about the same distance from Dawson.
I caught a plane to Juneau two days later. In all I spent about three weeks in Alaska and on the Chilkoot that summer. Once stuck with no way to go home, and no choice but to move forward, nearly everything about the trip fell into place. At the Sea-Tac airport, heading to the gate, I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in over a decade. He was just returning from a trip back home to the East Coast, and agreed to put me up in Seattle when I got back to the Lower 48.
I hadn’t done any serious camping or hiking since I’d been in the Boy Scouts, but did manage to find an experienced hiker, who was also a doctor, with whom to share the trail. And — on a water taxi heading toward the trail’s entrance near Skagway — I met a “thrivalist” who had been living in a teepee in the remote Yukon for 15 years. I had some fears about being in bear country, and asked the fellow about the critters. He assured me that I’m “a whole lot safer around four-legged neighbors than around the two-legged kind.”
The trail itself was hard, and that was just making the crossing once, in the summer, with modern gear, freeze-dried lasagna and a cup of hot cocoa every night.
But I made it. I crossed the Chilkoot, and a few weeks later I was back in Upstate New York, driving up to Doc’s cabin for an end-of-the season round-up. On the flight home, I convinced security to allow me to bring the walking stick I’d carved as a carry-on. It was five feet long, heavy enough to be used as a club, and whittled with any number of odd symbols and signs. I doubt that could be done today, in this new world of ever-tightening security. I wanted to bring it home as a present for Doc. I knew he’d be thrilled.
It was early September, with the leaves already beginning to change, as I took the left-hand turn onto the dirt road to the farm. John had seen me coming as I hiked up to the cabin and he poured me a cup of coffee. I was wrestling my bag and the walking stick when he handed the mug to me, gave me a bear hug and grabbed my bag. I smacked his hat off his head and called him a dick for leaving me in the middle of nowhere.
He just smiled and said, “So, how was it?”
We walked inside the cabin where Doc was drinking coffee and doing the crossword. I presented him the walking stick, telling him it was a gift and that I’d used it to cross the Chilkoot.
He looked up and said, “That’s great. What did you learn?”
“Ummmm . . . I learned that it’s one hell of a hike. Took me nearly five days.”
“Hmmm . . . Well, good to have you back. Why don’t you and John head down to the Giant in Four Corners to get something for dinner.” Then he went back to his crossword.
It wasn’t the hero’s welcome I’d been expecting. What the hell did he mean: What did I learn?
When I first returned, I didn’t have an answer, largely because I hadn’t thought enough to even formulate the question. But it’s become clearer over the years and (as hippy-dippy as this sounds) a good part of it is understanding the duality of the trail.
The Chilkoot Trail is a measurable, definable place. It’s 33 miles long and it runs from Dyea, Alaska to Lake Bennett in British Columbia. It is a thoroughfare in the mountains. It’s really pretty. It’s difficult. It has a unique history. But hiking in mountains is always difficult, generally pretty and — no matter where you are — you’ll be in a place with a unique history. That’s all stuff you know going in. Now, it might be wise to spend time on pretty trails in the mountains, but it doesn’t, in and of itself, represent wisdom. Wisdom is found in the metaphors and how you see a clearer truth through them. You now know the story, figure out your own.
John never did make it up to Alaska. He never set foot on the Chilkoot, but he did cross it in the end. It just so happened that his Chilkoot Trail was thousands of miles away from the one the cheechakos humped back in the day. John had other stuff to learn, and different metaphors to use in order to do so. And he found his gold. He found it in thumbing his nose at convention, chopping his own wood, being a pig-headed son-of-a-bitch and spending time with his old man, loving his wife, holding his baby and having a laugh with me and our close friends.
Just a few weeks ago, when I was back in the States, I got to spend an afternoon with Doc. We talked again about John. And we talked about Selye Stress Syndrome, the cabin, the farm, the family, his recently amputated toe, my folks, his other kids, Guatemala. And for the first time in a long while we talked about the Chilkoot.
I told him how a few days earlier my family had a reunion at brother Ed’s house in Virginia. We were three generations of Tallons, all of us hale and hearty. All of us happy to be spending time and sharing love. My parents, Jim and Norma, were there. Brother Jay was there with Mary Anne and their two amazingly brilliant kids, Patrick and Julia. Ed and his wife Kirsten were handling the responsibilities of hosting the lot of us, while also taking care of their charmingly insolent two-year old twins and Colin, the tiniest Tallon, still all swaddling clothes and brilliant eyes at three months old.
The dozen of us were crowded into Ed’s living room, telling stories and laughing. As it happens, most of the stories were about the summer following my first trip north. I’d come home enamored with Alaska and the Yukon. I can’t believe I’m actually writing this, but I’ve been to the Himalayas, the Andes — the ends of the Earth — and Alaska is simply, undeniably more beautiful. Had I hopped in the truck with John in a Portland driveway and headed back home years ago, I’d likely have never known that. Nor would I have had the brass to make such a statement. But it is true: Alaska is like no other place in the world. Full stop.
So the following year I returned with my brother Ed. Along with other adventures (including one where we had to search, at midnight, for a friend who got “moose-chasing drunk”) we climbed the Chilkoot together and then hitchhiked our way to Dawson City.
In the living room, we had Patrick’s and Julia’s rapt attention. We told them about how stupid we felt after confusing a marmot a few feet off the trail for a Grizzly bear on a ridge one evening, in a dense fog.
We told them about hitchhiking on the nearly deserted “highway” between Whitehorse and Dawson City in the Yukon, and how we got stuck for two days next to “the pole of woe.” The pole of woe was a light post that had tragic tales like, “Bill and Tom, here for 7 days in June 1994 — there are NO cars!” scratched into its peeling paint from top to bottom.
We told them about the summer laborers who finally picked us up and drove us to Dawson City. They were fighting wildfires in the region. One of them helpfully explained to us that if you want to hide from your bosses when you’re fighting wildfires, it’s “wicked important” to cover your body with wet leaves. “Dude, it’s wicked important to use wet leaves, because if you use dry ones, the infrared scopes from the helicopters can totally see you. Then yer busted.”
We told them about meeting Bob, the guy who plays ragtime and honky-tonk piano at a local haunt in Dawson and sang old sea shanties. We told them about how we taught him the Eddystone Light and he taught us Barrett’s Privateers.
I imagine Patrick and Julia heard these stories in much the same way that John and I first heard Doc tell of Alaska and the Klondike Gold Rush.
And in relating that to Doc over coffee a few days after our family reunion, I felt that I’d found an answer to the question he posed when I first returned from crossing the Chilkoot.
“What did you learn?”
What I’ve learned along the trail, what I learned, through a quarter of a century with my best friend John and a recent afternoon telling stories to my niece and nephew, is the fundamental truth that life is a team sport.
John’s absence for these past five years only throws that into starker relief. And his absence makes me consider more passionately the moments remaining with friends and family in the always-evaporating now.
It’s a lesson that gets knocked into us by both joy and tragedy over the years. Maybe I’ll not forget it again once this terrible anniversary has passed. At least I’ll try not to forget.
I’m also coming to recognize that this Chilkoot Trail we’re all walking along is terminal. It’s difficult. It’s beautiful. It has its own specific history. And it kills each and every one of us in time. The riches of the Klondike are a receding mirage. But that doesn’t matter a damn.
We’ve still got brothers and sisters out in the snow — struggling, dreaming, lugging gear, laying their caches and building boats for the long, slow drift downstream. My family is out there, and some of them, like Julia and Patrick, are still the greenest of cheechakos. They’re gonna need an old hand when the nights turn cold.
So Doc, if I didn’t say it clear enough over coffee a few weeks back, here’s what I figured out so far: No one finds the gold on their own. The whole point of hiking the Chilkoot is doing it together. Together we’re here to learn what we can about truth, beauty and light. We’re here to put our shoulders to the wheel. And, at the very least, we’re here to teach those lessons to a couple of beautiful, irrepressible kids.
Like you did.
Now, before I pull out my bedroll and get some sleep, I’m gonna sit by the fire a little longer. You can set down right here next to me if you want. The northern lights are dancing. The air is crisp and clear. And there ain’t nobody here but us sourdoughs. What say we move in close for the warmth and raise a bottle to your boy? We can drink a toast to the day when we’re all together again.