The Yukon

Carlos and I spend a day in Whitehorse meeting people and writing.  A month earlier, he met two French travelers when he was bicycling across Ontario.  At the library, he finds an email from them saying they will be in Dawson City for a few more days.  So the next morning, with a bag of free pastries from a nice barista at Starbucks, we hit the road north to Dawson.

We arrive late in the afternoon.  The town is small and old-fashioned; supposedly almost everything has been preserved exactly as it was during the Gold Rush.  We walk down to the banks of the Yukon River, deep and golden in the sunlight, and immediately run into the French guys Carlos was hoping to find.  They celebrate wildly; the last time they saw each other was 3,000 miles ago when they were all individually considering abandoning their bicycles and hitchhiking to Alaska.

I immediately like these guys.  There’s Yassin, generous and helpful and always learning and asking questions.  He brings me water when I forget to fill my bottle before cooking, and he always makes sure the rest of us have enough food before he eats.  Then there’s Sylvain.  He’s been speaking English for about two months and has a vocabulary of perhaps two hundred words, yet his pantomiming and gesturing are so elaborately inventive that I often feel we are communicating fluently through sign language alone.  And there’s Elias, who lives in France but has roots in Tunisia.  He only just met Yassin and Sylvain a week ago, but he’s also been traveling for about two months.  He still hasn’t made it beyond the borders of the Yukon.  “Why Whitehorse?”  Carlos and I ask him.  “The Yukon is bigger than Spain, and only 30,000 people live here,” he says in his slow intonation.  “I just needed to breathe, you know?”

After filling our water bottles at the Visitor Center, we take the free 24 hour ferry across the river.  I drive onto the boat and step out of my car, captivated by the yellow-orange sunlight-glazed mountains into which the river folds itself in the distance.  When we part with a wavering jolt from the riverbank, I feel suddenly strange and very far away from everything.  I imagine what it would feel like to be on a long journey in a far corner of the world.  And then I realize, I sort of am.

I was planning to stay for just a day and then continue on to Alaska, but I end up spending an entire week in Dawson with these guys.  We commandeer a gazebo in the campground across the river, and we live out there amongst the aspens on the outskirts of society like woodsmen of the old days.  When the sun awakens, we take the ferry into town and share $1.25 coffees in the frigid morning.  Public restrooms in the Visitor Center, internet in the library, sunshine beside the river.  Work is impossibly easy to find; the three hotels in town all need housekeeping help, and they’ll hire travelers for a day at a time and pay cash.  In the evenings, we each hop back on the ferry and reunite at the gazebo as the sun is dropping and casting those insane colors onto the river and mountains.  Yassin builds a fire in the stove, we gather wood and water.  The sunset lingers until 10 or 11.  Carlos and I cook together; sometimes rice, sometimes pasta and veggies.  The other three cook rice, noodles, cheese.  We lay slices of bread on the stove and burn our fingers.  Sylvain and I melt butter onto the toast and debate which of us has a deeper appreciation for sugar.  I strum my guitar as stars emerge.  The nights get cold, but we load wood into the stove before we sleep and then we lay our bags out around the warmth.

Three languages are spoken at any given time in the gazebo.  Carlos and I try to learn French phrases, and Yassin is constantly working to improve his English.  “Can you explain me one English sentence I have?”  He asks me one evening.  “Shorty wanna be a thug?”  We do mostly find a way to get ideas across.  It takes time, but we talk about some amazingly complex ideas: having respect for all of humanity regardless of differing ideologies, our philosophies of travel, religious tolerance, putting love into culinary recipes, the greatest travelers of history, forging a pure self identity by leaving one’s country, fasting for Ramadan in the far north based on sunset hours in a southern city of a similar longitude.  Then, after two hours of intelligent discussion, we will have a moment like this:

Carlos: “Do you know how to cook?”

Yassin: “Cook?”

Carlos: “Yeah.  Do you…can you cook?”

Yassin: “Like…cookin?”

Carlos: “Yeah, cooking.”

Yassin: “Ok?”

Carlos: “Do you know how?”

Yassin: “Like, make cookin?”

Carlos: “Yes cooking.  Like, food.”

Yassin: “Oh!”  (pause).  “Wait.  Cookie?”

Carlos: “No!  cookING.”

Yassin: “Oh….”

(We all laugh.)

Yassin, (still laughing): “So wait.  CookIN or cookIE?”

Carlos with his tree-branch-broom

Elias and Yassin hunt, skin and cook squirrels.  Carlos returns in the evenings with whatever trophies he finds left in the hotel rooms he cleans—loaves of bread, half a bottle of Merlot.  We are living like kings.  Like most places I go, I am tempted to stay here forever.  But it’s getting colder.  I am preparing to head to Fairbanks.  Elias is cutting his trip short for personal reasons and flying back to Tunisia in a couple weeks.  Carlos decides to help Yassin and Sylvain with their plan to build a raft and float down the Yukon River into Alaska.  After that, Yassin and Sylvain are headed down the west coast of the US.  Carlos will be heading south and then hitching from Seattle back to Chicago.  I still don’t know where I’m going next.  But for now, we relish the moments.  None of us has much money.  Yet each night we inevitably end up musing about how rich we feel.  We have all of the essentials: free shelter, food, fire, work, people, music, stars.  This feels similar to happiness.

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