If I Can Take It There, I Can Take It Anywhere
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Outside magazine, June 1996
If I Can Take It There, I Can Take It Anywhere
Barrow, Alaska, is brutally cold, dark, and dull–in fact, it may be the worst place in the U.S. of A. But the money’s great, there’s no overcrowding, and as its shivering citizens come to realize, even lonely, frigid hellholes can stir the soul.
My expedition to America’s northernmost settlement begins on a rainy Thursday in February, with a delay in the New Haven bus terminal. I buy a Baby Ruth and sit in a plastic chair, breathing the stanky air of the place. Eventually the driver calls me out to the gray dog, and I
For me, Barrow has always been a place of the imagination and comic mystery rather than a mere location, starting with its unlikely namesake: Sir John Barrow was a dim-witted nineteenth-century British bureaucrat who never got within 10,000 miles of the town. Founded in the distant past by Inupiat hunters, it was called Utqiagvik until 1826, when a passing captain from the
Over the years, I’ve collected clips about Barrow (population 4,500), poring over small oddities and larger dysfunctions. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline originates at nearby Prudhoe Bay, and at times it’s seemed like the resulting cash windfall has turned the entire North Slope of Alaska into a fish-out-of-water TV comedy–but nothing folksy like Northern
Then, one day, everything changed. Remember the three gray whales trapped under the ice a few years back? That was Barrow in 1988. The national media arrived en masse, and everywhere locals could be seen braving the Arctic cold to free the poor cetaceans. Kids all over the world wrote to praise Barrow’s kindliness. This is my Barrow? I thought. The
Ever since those whales slipped into the open sea, news from Barrow has drifted down to the Lower 48 in the form of videotapes and brochures, even Web sites, as a Chamber of Commerce postcard of polar paradise. So I wondered: Is modern Barrow really an outpost of hell? Or could even this Dodge City on permafrost be settling into its own private Peoria? When the New Year
After a brief touchdown in Fairbanks, I struggle to wake up and look out the plastic porthole. It’s hard to see much; the sun’s mighty reach is reduced to a thin, bloody line scoring the southern horizon. I’m slightly incoherent, writing down preposterous notes about how this is the
And yet…right away there are signs that Barrow is no ordinary destination. When I emerge from my stupor, a nearby businessman–who began the flight soberly reading legal documents–is sporting a Jack Nicholson smirk as he studies the following on a much-folded piece of paper:
LIFE —— NON-LIFE
After landing, I exit into the darkness via an old set of stairs; Barrow lies before me, lit in that orangy sodium sizzle of a used-car lot.
The weather? Let’s get this over with. It’s probably minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit, which in February is relatively normal, even mild. I make a joke to a local. (I presume–he’s wearing about 50 dead wolves.) He grunts. And I learn my first lesson about Barrow. No one discusses the weather here. It’s plain awful–whiteouts, flying ice, polar winds–not the stuff of friendly
Outside the terminal I grab a taxi. My driver is a scary-looking man with those big glasses favored by TV-movie rapists, magnifying his eyeballs to the size of fists. He slowly backs out, intently studying his rearview mirror. We travel eight, maybe nine inches when he makes a funny nasal noise and crunches the brake. Wham. My head slams the back
“I quite am sorry,” he says cheerfully.
I sympathize, realizing that this is tougher on him, being blind. Besides, my thoughts are expansive. I’ve always admired the Inupiat, who created a thriving culture up here, complete with a theology and ethics, lore and dance, all centered on the hunt of the great provider, the whale. I had read how a century ago the Irish bogtrotters-turned-sailors who helped settle Barrow
“Sleep,” he harrumphs.
“Well, sure, but what does a young man do at night?”
“Sleep,” he says, annoyed. “Already I have told you.”
“You don’t go out at all?”
“There is no thing to do in Barrow,” he says, with a near-scientific conviction.
“No thing. Stay home. That way you won’t run into drunk Eskimos.”
“Excuse me?” I ask, stunned at his unsparing frankness.
“Drunk Eskimos,” he says remorselessly. “They are crazy at night.”
I lean forward. “What’s your name?”
“I am Shaukat Ali. I am from Pakistan.”
A Pakistani cab driver, all the way up here. How lonely it must be for him, 6,000 miles from New York City.
The name of my hotel is Top of the World. Every joint in town features the same arch configuration–Arctic This, Polar That. Like the airport, the hotel feels a few decades old. A TV parked beneath a set of stairs shouts canned laughter, augmented by the real thing from a large
In the early afternoon, Mike Phillips pulls up in his van to give me the grand tour. A big, friendly former truck driver from the Lower 48, Mike was in heavy debt until Barrow’s wealth liberated him. Now he operates the local sight-seeing service, Tundra Tours.
“There are 28 miles of road here,” Mike says as I climb in, “and all of them dead-end.” These roads link the emerging tangle of Barrow–a place that feels slapped together, and with equipment not seen anywhere else. A rock saw–basically a giant chain-saw on treads used to cut utility trenches into the granite-hard dirt–rumbles into view, looking like a design by Dr. Seuss.
As Mike’s van crunches along, it becomes clear how tiny Barrow is: It’s basically two clumps of shelter, hugging opposing banks of a lagoon, all of it facing the frozen Chukchi Sea. All winter, all you can see is a flat, white plain to the horizon, covered in ice boulders.
The place has a weird, contingent feeling, like it can’t decide whether to stay or get out. The newer prefabricated homes all stand on elevated poles to keep their heat from thawing the ground into slush, but seem as if they’re on the verge of lifting their skirts and tiptoeing out of town.
“See,” Mike jokes, “Barrow’s just a big, frozen swamp.”
The older houses are made of thin, gray sheets of unpainted plywood, with little beards of yellow insulation poking through the cracks. Some are smaller than a Sears toolshed. Every yard is crammed with stuff, say, a busted Ski-Doo snowmobile, a half-eaten whale joint the size of a trash can, jacked-up cars, broken refrigerators. The clutter is born of necessity. It’s so
But in Barrow, Mike admits, there is nothing else to do. There’s a public gym, which has “helped cut the suicide rate.” But bars are prohibited, and common public places–movie theaters, bowling alleys–just don’t exist.
So what do people do for fun? One common pastime for teenagers is “ice golf.” They dig big holes in the lagoon and lay out a few “fairways.” Then one drives a truck while another hangs off the door with a giant polo mallet and tries to score par using a soccer ball.
Boredom and tedium have been refined to new levels here. Mike takes me to the outskirts to see the view from the last few inches of maintained American highway. I notice that towering pieces of driftwood are scattered about, standing on end. Mike says a lot of folks enjoy going out on the ice, finding a piece of driftwood, and then digging a hole and planting it upright.
“It’s kind of a joke thing,” he says. “I’m thinking of working it into my tour. Call it the Barrow National Forest!”
We walk around. Mike looks at the infinite expanse and gets philosophical. Sometimes, he says, he turns off his cellular phone and CB and comes out here just “to be.” Mike and I stand there for a while, being. Then he politely steps to the back of the van and takes a long leak on the top of the world before driving me home.
The next morning, urine and raw fecal matter are gurgling past me. I’m in the fabled Utilidor, a wildly expensive tunnel under the frozen earth that houses a sewage and water system serving about half of Barrow. (The other half use the old “honeybucket” system of waste removal, meaning that full bags are tossed outside until “the man” carries them off to be heaved into a
My host today is Tim Russell, a large, gregarious engineer in his forties who is obviously proud to serve as plant superintendent. The system consists of a pump house, storage tanks, and pipes running through three miles of wooden catacombs planted 15 feet underground. The Utilidor’s six-foot-high tunnels are made of raw, unpainted lumber, so they have the woody aroma of a new
“I wonder what it would be like to race down one of these,” Tim muses, as he lights the next 50 yards with a switch.
Fatal, I think, as I crack my head on a valve. Russell explains that to keep pipes from freezing, the water flows continuously through every house on the circuit. The sewage flows right alongside until it reports to a giant grinder, which Utilidor personnel have given an
“In there is the ‘muffin monster,'” Tim says, after we’ve trekked a half-mile. We climb a ladder and enter a small room, where a giant machine hums contentedly with the inflow of 1,000 toilets.
“It has blades that’ll chew up a 100 percent wool blanket–wet,” he boasts. “We’ve pulled all kinds of things out of there–jeans, hats, everything.” We both stand and listen for a while, just being.
I think of a famous local Eskimo I read about in a town history–Eben Hopson, one of the founding fathers of the modern Arctic. Hopson had a dream for Barrow. To put it simply, as the authors do, he “envisioned toilets across the Arctic.”
Tim is wary when I ask him how much it cost to achieve Hopson’s vision. Mike Phillips mentioned a price tag of $17,000 per foot. (That’s for three miles of pipe. You do the math.) But Tim nervously says I’ll have to check with officials at the North Slope Borough office, known simply as the Boro. I sense that “asking the Boro” means I’ll never get an answer. But does it really
Much more significant is the Boro itself–the all-powerful and almost exclusively Inupiat county government and a feared entity. A seven-member council (one member from each of the seven main Inupiat villages on the North Slope) with a mayor headquartered in Barrow, it spends the hundreds of millions of dollars that gush in every year from taxes on oil revenue and lords its
If you review U.S. history from Barrow’s perspective, you come to understand that the last great victory by Native Americans over the white man was not Custer’s Last Stand. It was the battle of Barrow, and it occurred in the late 1960s, when white oil executives and state bureaucrats arrived with a “plan,” including a really neat idea for a reservation. Back then, literacy was
The result was the creation of two powerful institutions: The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which collects the annual oil tax (now more than $400 million) and pays dividends to every one-quarter Inupiat born in these parts. And the Boro, which oversees the largest county in the nation, about the size of Minnesota. The Boro directly employs nearly two-thirds of Barrow and
The significance of the Boro and the power of the Inupiat are revealed in local slang. The Inupiat are known as “Eskimos” or “natives” or “locals”–all polite forms of address. Everyone else is an “outsider.” Most revealing is the answer outsiders give me, almost without exception, as to why they live in Barrow.
“I live here for the money,” says Shaukat, the taxi driver. A black woman behind the counter at the airport puts it this way: “Money.” The white woman beside her hesitates but then sighs, “Money.” A Korean taxi driver says he and his wife intend to stay five years, save $100,000, and then bolt. A Laotian says he’ll give Barrow ten years. That’s pretty much the range, five to
After I spend a few days chatting with outsiders, Barrow comes sharply into focus: It’s an ice plantation, where the masters are Inupiat and the cotton-pickers are outsiders, only everybody’s getting rich. Most outsiders speak of the Boro in a whisper, actually spooked. When I ask
This tension, coupled with the natural stress of polar isolation, is ubiquitous. One afternoon at Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant, I work on a $17 burrito while listening to bits of conversation. Two outsiders are animatedly discussing the town; the only word I can make out, used often, is “megaton.” Suddenly, another outsider bolts from his booth, wailing, “I can’t take it anymore!”
The man grabs his coat and dashes into the booth adjacent to mine, saying loudly, “It’s just too damn drafty up there.” An edgy calm reclaims the place. I try not to notice him, because frankly I’m afraid he’ll kill me. But he’s hard to ignore. He’s holding his left hand out into the intimate aisle space between us, shooting me his middle finger. The tip is the size of a small
“It’s healing up good,” he volunteers, moving the finger closer. “I slammed it in a 70-pound manhole cover. Chopped it right off. Picked up the piece and got medevacked out by Search and Rescue. They’re good. Doctors sewed it right back on. Feels better than it looks.”
He pauses. “Minor. Mike Minor. Glad to meet you.” I nod.
Minor tells me about his plans to cash in and move to a place where it “never snows.” He also relates a story I’ve heard from a lot of outsiders, a soap-opera tale about a woman–call her Suzie–who ran a fleet of cabs with an old-fashioned way of padding the fee: romps in the backseat for $50 a tumble. A while back, Suzie stabbed her boyfriend. Though he lived, she was
“She was a $50 whore,” he says, “but she worked hard.”
“But didn’t she stab her boyfriend?”
“Sure,” he says, looking off, as if that weren’t such a big deal. “But the point is”–the finger moves closer for emphasis–“they railroaded her out of town. They took away her business license. They run her out.”
“They,” of course, is the Boro.
It’s seven o’clock on a dark, cloudy night, and Merrill Nashoalook is driving an old truck on the western fringe of Barrow. He’s an Inupiat in his fifties who’s lived in Barrow most of his life. He sits on one side of his hip, sort of slumped toward the driver’s door, as he scans the peripheral area just outside the arc of his headlights. He’s on the Polar Bear Patrol, a group
“I don’t know,” says Merrill, “I guess they made this road so people will have something to do, to drive up and down at night.” A lot of Merrill’s sentences begin with a confession of ignorance, which in time one recognizes as humility. The truth is, Merrill knows a lot.
“I don’t know,” he says in response to a question about the efficacy of the patrol, “but no one’s been eaten in a really long time.” Wearing a Buster Keaton deadpan, he lets out a little staccato laugh. The heater is blasting away, extremely loud, so I have to move closer to hear. “I don’t know. We shoot at ’em with crackershot. Sometimes with rubber bullets, and just scare
“Polar bears are left-handed,” Merrill continues, “so it’s best to stay to their right when you’re shooting at them.” Throughout my stay, I’ve heard plenty of lore like this. There are sightings of a “ten-footed polar bear.” Some see “little men,” gnomes who steal your rifle or run off with your matches. Perhaps most common are the roaming lights, white beacons that float on
“That’s a myth,” he laughs.
Around 1 A.M., Merrill drives into town to give me his tour of Barrow. Without prompting, he shows me the detox center, a Boro-financed institution where alcoholics are sent to dry out. Around the corner is another Boro project, a kind of orphanage for children whose parents are sobering up.
The “drunk Eskimos” issue is a sensitive one, and Boro officials strongly discouraged me from mentioning it, but recent events have forced the topic into the open. In 1994, by a margin of just a few ballots, Barrow voted itself dry–the sale, purchase, even possession of alcohol was made illegal. Last November, another vote restored legal possession, also by a slim margin. In
The split is fairly nasty and runs along ethnic lines. Generally, outsiders favor drinking. The Boro doesn’t. The fight is about liquor, but it’s also about power, about outsiders using the ballot to resist the Boro’s remote majesty.
For his part, Merrill won’t say how he voted on prohibition, but as the night wears on, he slowly begins to unscroll his biography, a revealing story he tells in frank, sometimes brutal terms.
“When I was a boy, I went to school,” Merrill says, “and the teacher would beat my hands for speaking my language, Inupiat. That’s how it was.” He laughs, a kind of forgiveness, and explains how he spent his youth as an Inupiat raised in the old ways. As a young man he traveled to Barrow to find a job. He watched as the wealth of the pipeline forced an amazing transformation on
“I used to broadcast for public radio,” Merrill suddenly reveals. He had his own show on KBRW in Barrow. He reported the news, played music, interacted with the audience. Then, he explains, he took a high-paying job with the Boro as a real-estate appraiser. There was a lot of pressure, he says. His marriage dissolved.
Then he pauses for a long time, as if he wants to say something else. “I don’t know,” he says, falling silent again. The white noise roars between us for a while.
“I was a drunk,” Merrill finally confesses. “I screwed up. It’s nobody’s fault but my own. I don’t know.” Another silence fills the truck.
I’ve felt this chilling discomfort before–in fact, yesterday, when I sat in on a recorded oral-history interview with one of the old village’s female elders. I had heard around town that this woman’s son got drunk at a card game and, intending to shoot his own brother, accidentally killed his cousin. After serving six years in prison, he was recently released. Throughout the
As Merrill’s truck enters town yet again, he emerges from his silence to show me a building that houses Barrow’s impressive Search and Rescue office, with its three helicopters, two planes, and (coming soon) a Learjet. “I was medevacked out of here one time,” he suddenly says. “I broke my hip. I don’t know. I was drunk. I was at my place. Accidents do happen at home! When I
The alcohol crisis Merrill describes is not one caused by enforced poverty, which is the stereotype of the abused Native American. Rather, it’s born of idleness–the cardinal sin in the Arctic. The old Inupiat culture was based on the idea that constant hard work was required to stay alive. Now, work is simply something you sign up for if you need extra cash. Hence, Barrow’s
By early morning, Merrill is daydreaming out loud. He says he would like to open a movie theater in Barrow. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” he says, “to have the big screen in town?” He grows rather wistful about it. He says he’ll apply to the Boro–which offers start-up capitalization–oh, maybe next year, maybe the year after. Time in Barrow has a strange, elastic irrelevance.
Cracking a smile for the first time, he says, “I think about it a lot.” I have no doubt he’ll pull it off–at Arctic speed.
A few days later, outside my hotel, I walk over to an idling water truck owned by Barrow’s most recognized citizen: Joe Shults, aka Joe the Waterman. For those not hooked up to Utilidor, getting water means a visit from Joe, who drags his big hose into your home and fills your
Rapid change is unnatural in the Arctic, and Joe has certainly adopted the local sense of time. He is 41, with a Garth Algar haircut and laugh. He dresses in a T-shirt for work, regardless of the weather. Today’s apparel reads, IF YOU’RE TRYING TO DRIVE ME CRAZY, YOU’RE TOO LATE.
But Joe is no slacker. If the Inupiat have been hustled into the strange world of high-end capitalism, then certain outsiders have found themselves adopting the old Inupiat traits for surviving in the Arctic. A few even plan to stay. Joe is the outsider-cum-Barrowan brought to a state of perfection. He improvises easily, pack-rats energetically, works constantly, and is
“That represents the number of times I’ve hit something, like a house,” he says. “I always stop and tell people I knocked off part of their house. Usually they don’t care as long as I didn’t make a hole in it.”
Joe’s truck is a pack-rat monument. Its tires and side mirrors were scavenged from the city dump. His clutch is a tangle of coat hangers, and his driver’s door is held closed with a piece of rubber hose. The seat is a patchwork of carpet samples.
“You can’t stop, or you’ll freeze,” he says, pretty much summing up life here, as he drags a hose into a broken-down shack to fill a garbage can full of water. “It’s OK for you to come in,” he says. “I know this girl and her cousin pretty good. They’re probably drunk, but they’re nice people.”
Inside, a local girl in her twenties is roaring drunk. It’s noon. “Waterman!” she shouts. Most of Barrow believes Joe’s name is actually Joe Waterman. “Is he a cowboy?” she wails, pointing at me.
We come across numerous drunks this afternoon, and all of them, says Joe, have the same basic story. Their houses are paid for. They have a decent income from somewhere–a job, an aunt or uncle, the Boro, something. In short, they have it easy, too easy–so they get bored and drink. From the perch of Joe’s truck, though, I see the drunks of Barrow differently. A good many of
It’s easy to think this way when riding around with Joe, who exhibits his own brand of Arctic tolerance. At one point he relates the Suzie saga, putting his own spin on it. “She can’t be all to blame. Those men who paid are guilty, too.” He thinks for a moment and says, “I’d say Suzie was about 60 percent guilty and the men were about 40 percent.”
Could Solomon have sliced it any better?
Listening to Joe’s kindly takes on the drinkers, the cheaters, the stabbers, the prostitutes, the folks who accidentally burned their houses down, you sense that you’re in the presence of an oral historian for the new Barrow, describing an emerging world even as the older one slips into that fatal void known as “heritage.”
Even the Boro admits as much, with its latest multimillion-dollar job-creation project: the Inupiat Cultural Center. This museum’s goal is to catalog the past folkways of the Inupiat. Much of the work involves interviewing elders and collecting the old equipment once used in the culture of survival. Many of those practices are still carried out, like the whale hunt. But most of
“I’m opening my own museum,” Joe volunteers at the end of his day’s run. “Would you like to come see it?”
His house is just across the street from my hotel. As I walk up the stairs, he introduces me to his dog, named My Dog, and inside, to his cat, named Kitty. “So I can say, this is My Dog and Kitty,” he says.
The outside of his place is decorated with a half-dozen sets of nailed-up caribou antlers, one still with a meat-filled head attached. “I found all those at the dump,” he explains. “I had to put a board over the caribou head ’cause My Dog would chew on it when it thawed.”
The inside of his house is completely given over to his collections. His tiny living room is jammed with cases, filled with traditional Eskimo artifacts–ivory combs, pegs, knives, baleen baskets, mastodon carvings, sculptures cut from oosiks (walrus penis bones)–mostly obtained by trade with folks as he’s dragged his hose in and out of their houses. Other shelves reveal stuff
“These things here just washed up on the beach. I spend a lot of time walking the shore. I used to just throw it back in. But this stuff kept on coming back. So I decided it was important.”
Joe pulls items off a shelf, possibly from last century’s whaling ship but just as likely from last summer’s barge.
“I got a bunch of old files, knives, half a pair of scissors, nails, thermometers, animal traps, old pirate knives, pistols, pieces of stopwatches. Here’s a bullet mold and a porthole. Here’s a rusted hatchet. And a bunch of this is just rusted pieces of metal, rounded off by the sea.”
He pauses. “Sometimes I wonder, if you could put it all together, if it wouldn’t make something.”
Another display shows new carvings, figures from contemporary Barrow. “Look at this baleen and ivory carving here,” he says, cradling a precious sculpture. It’s his trademark truck, as recognizable today to any Barrowan as the bearded seal was 50 years ago. “It’s got ivory hubcaps and even a little rubber hose that goes in and out. I’ll bet this is worth about $1,500.”
The Boro has said it would take Joe’s collection if he wanted to loan it to the new Cultural Center. But he’s wary.
“Theirs is really about whaling. Mine’s different. It’s more about stuff. So someday, if I’m not the Waterman, I’ll open my own museum. Put it on the Tundra Tour maybe and get a $2 kickback. But I’m not in a hurry. The longer it takes, the more stuff I’ll have. If I don’t ever open it, I’ll end up with a house that looks like a museum. And if I do,
But there’s another difference between the Cultural Center and Joe’s museum. One memorializes a great culture that is receding into the past; the other is about the Barrow to come, about the tiny new culture created in the place inhabited by folks like Merrill, who have been Americanized, and lifers like Joe, who have been Inupiatized. The museum is a closed book about an old
“You know what the problem is with opening my museum?” he says. “I keep finding stuff. It just keeps washing up.”
He puts his hands on his hips and surveys his homemade display cases. “Man, I got a lot of labeling to do.”
Jack Hitt, a frequent contributor to Outside, is the author of Off the Road: A Modern-day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route Into Spain (Simon & Schuster).