Cruising into Dawson Creek, a passing semi kicks a golf-ball sized rock into my windshield. The spider web cracks catch the glint of the falling sun, and now I am perpetually faced with half a dozen sunsets.
I never fully comprehend how far I am going. I willfully ignore mileage numbers and the map surrounding my blinking dot and I simply press onwards with the single-minded purpose of moving north. Mile Zero: I pass beneath a sign that tells me I am now entering the 1,523 mile long Alaska Highway. The road is gravel, twisting and climbing, unfurling over each hilltop into clouds and ever more remote terrain. I snake along a river, deep and sad, lonely and gray, but I find comfort in knowing that the water is on its way home to the sea, which somehow makes it ok for it to be traveling through such a desolate place. There is nothing between me and the cold but a cracked pane of glass. My thoughts flit by like the stunted gray firs. Emotions come and go; I feel ecstatic and proud, then humbled and anxious. I am the only car on the road, but many have come here before me. We are all connected, those of us driven onwards by a yearning we cannot express, driven away and pressed into the old corners of the mountains and frozen lakes. My chest tightens and tears collect. When I blink, they slide down my cheeks. I follow the same route that carried Chris McCandless north, and my heart breaks for him all over again. Is there no place for us, the dreamers, the wanderers, the ones who thirst and hunger for truth and beauty and raw experience in a world where these longings are endlessly deadened by everyday existence?
I search for a spot to make camp alone. I imagine that this will be a lonely week as I meander north. And then, through a grove of gray peeling Aspens, I catch a glimpse of a campfire in the midst of a cluster of RVs. I u-turn in a “DANGEROUS TOXIC FUMES NO ENTRY” oil well side road. I park and walk into the camp, and ten minutes later I am sitting beside the blaze with two Canadian woodsmen who have offered me a folding chair, a beer, and the empty third RV for the night. The sun is making a crash landing. The three of us gaze into the darkening woods. “What’s out there?” I wonder aloud. “Hundreds of miles of nothing but bush,” they tell me. They share stories about living up here in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies: bears encounters, northern lights, minus forty degree wintertime days. As the light continues to fade, one of them prepares to head into the bush after a bull moose he has seen for the past two days. One moose and a caribou will be enough meat to last them through the winter, they explain. He steps into his RV and then emerges decked out in full-body camouflage. Hunting knife strapped to his hip and shouldering a rifle, he turns to me. “Want to learn how to gut a moose?”
The other guy gives me his jacket as the first pulls around the four wheeler, and a minute later we’re flying down the road and plunging through strips of oil-pipeline-cleared terrain cut into the bush. Slung over his shoulder, the rifle dangles in front of me as we plow through shrubbery and ford streams on the ATV. We arrive at the spot, but the bull moose is no longer where it has been for the past two days. Deeper into the bush, we brake suddenly and he pulls out his binoculars and hands them to me. “Look,” he points. “Straight out there, the black speck across the way.” It’s a cow moose with a calf. “An easy shot,” he says. “But not legal right now.” We zoom across and come within thirty feet of the great moose before they run. When it’s too dark to see, we head back towards camp. A silver lynx walks across the road fifty feet ahead of us. In the morning, everything is covered with crystals of frost.