Continuing up the Alaska Highway, I pass through Fort Nelson. Just as I reach Muncho Lake, not far from Liard River Hot Springs, I see this guy on the side of the road.
His name is Carlos. He’s 35, originally from Chile, currently living in Chicago, and he’s been traveling on and off for the last ten years. He’s got an easy smile and a certain calmness about him. When I pick him up, I expect to give him a ride for a few hours up to the next town, but we will end up spending the next ten days together. We soar through the mountains, listening to music and sharing the stories of how we arrived here and pausing occasionally to snap pictures of the buffalo grazing on the mountainsides. Just beyond Watson Lake, we pull off onto a gravel logging road and set up camp in the forest. The place feels like a fairytale; green and yellow and red moss squishes beneath our feet. The trees are bare and mysteriously bowed over. Mushrooms sprout everywhere. We put up our tents, build a fire, and Carlos cooks a dish of rice and fresh vegetables.
The morning is cold, and we drive ever north. We stop to cook lunch at a rainy lake and set up our stoves on a bench in a gazebo as fishermen launch their boats into the cold gray. We pass into the Yukon late in the afternoon and arrive in Whitehorse in the evening, but the northern sun still hangs in the sky. We wander the cold streets and then make camp at the edge of town in a thicket of spruce.
I cook pasta and Carlos slices bark from the base of a tree to make spruce tea (rich in Vitamin C). He helps me practice my Spanish as we eat. The sun finally disappears, and as the night grows late we start getting silly. I offer to move his tent over to a bed of sharp rocks, and he suggests I eat an unknown mushroom we find. Neither of us indulges very often, but we decide that if ever there were an appropriate moment to share a bit of ganja, this would be it. As Carlos rolls a joint, we debate whether to leave in the morning or whether to linger in Whitehorse, whether to make straight for Alaska or whether to take the northern spur up to Dawson City. Where are we going, what are we doing here? Neither of us knows, yet we are both comfortable with the not-knowing. “So the plan for tomorrow is what?” I ask as he lights up. “We will see,” he says gently as he passes me the herb. “One day at a time.” Beneath Yukon stars, we smoke and drink spruce tea. When the fire collapses into embers, I set out to gather wood. Ten seconds down the path, I immediately forget why I have left camp, but everything is suddenly vivid and fascinating. I know I am searching for something, and I stare furiously at the ground and walk in big loops. Each time I prepare to reach down and grab a stick, I see another larger and more appealing branch just a little bit further away. After a little while, I return to camp empty handed. Carlos has collected a small pile of wood and stoked the fire back into flames, and he giggles as he hands me the end of the joint. “What the hell were you doing, man?” “I was searching the forest.” I giggle. “I forgot about the wood though.” I relight the ganja and stare at it, holding it in front of the silky ribbons of fire trying to escape the wood. The lit end is a honeycomb ember of glowing jewels. The lit end is an avalanche mountain of fire, the ash is black snow. I watch the ember burn, eating away at the paper. A streak of the rim of paper burns away like a miniature shooting star. “…respect for all life,” Carlos is saying. He is tenderly holding a tiny sprig with two little green leaves sprouting from the end, and we sit in silence for a while contemplating the plant. “I had this one ride,” he tells me. “And we drove through this long stretch for maybe 50 or 60 kilometers, and there were just millions of white butterflies everywhere.” He tells me this in a mixture of Spanish and English. “And every car is just killing thousands of them. They are falling like snow everywhere. We have to stop twice to clean them off the windshields. And it’s like this every day, all these cars, just killing thousands of mariposas blancas.”