Another candy-ass reporter has come to Alaska to see, to record and to flee back to America to write about his fears of that still wild, dangerous land at the southern edge of the Arctic. Why do they bother? Why not just lock themselves in a dark room, conjure up the worst of fears, and write about those?
It would save immensely on air fare, and spare those who know Alaska from all the crapola about "A Lot of Ways to Die."
Yes, that is the "prologue" to the story of the 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, as told by Brian Phillips for ESPN's "Grantland." And exactly how many people have died in the 40-year history of the Iditarod?
Let us count:
The number would be zero, plus zero, times zero.
But then Phillips' story really isn't about anyone dying or, for that matter, the Iditarod, or the people in the Iditarod, or the country through which the Iditarod runs. Phillips' story is about what seasoned Alaska adventurer Roman Dial might call the "bedwetter" fears of an urban author venturing into that great, unknown danger called Alaska.
"I was staring at a week and a half of bone-deep cold, probable-verging-on-inevitable blizzards, baneful travel conditions, and total isolation from the civilized (read: broadband-having) world," Phillips writes.
Ohmygawd, a whole week and a half in the dangerous, bone-deep cold as he flew from warm checkpoint to warm checkpoint in an airplane. And the blizzards and baneful travel conditions that are irrelevant because when the weather gets bad, the planes that carry reporters like Phillips don't fly. And yes, the total isolation when you're in the air in the airplane between the warm checkpoints which are pretty well wired to the tubes these days.
You can find an Internet connection in every village out there to check your email, update your Facebook page, and do all the things those who worry about their connectivity need to do. Rohn, a lone U.S. Bureau of Land Management cabin in the heart of the Alaska Range, lacks an Internet connection, as do the deserted mining communities of Ophir and Iditarod, but it doesn't appear Phillips spent much, if any, time at those comparatively remote checkpoints.
Surprise, surprise, surprise.
But then you have to wonder what Phillips did visit, because it certainly wasn't the modern Iditarod Trail.
He writes well. You have to give him that. He just doesn't write honestly.
"For the mushers of the Iditarod, the Farewell Burn, as the region became known, was a nightmare," he writes in setting the scene for his story. "The novelist Gary Paulsen, who ran the Iditarod twice in the 1980s, describes the Burn as a place where mushers literally go mad. “It was beyond all reason,” Paulsen writes in his Iditarod memoir Winterdance. “I entered a world of mixed reality and dreams, peopled with the most bizarre souls and creatures ... The Iditarod Trail runs across the Burn for around 35 miles of its total length. The total length of the Iditarod Trail is more than 1,000 miles. The Burn is not the most difficult section."
The last line couldn't be more true, largely because the Farewell Burn isn't a burn anymore. The area burned 35 years ago. It has since regrown. It's now a new growth forest. Trees shelter the trail. The wind no longer howls across the "blackened stumps and fallen limbs, along a trail that was often impossible to follow" as Phillips describes it.
It has been a long time since the trail across the Burn was hard to follow. Aside from a few places where the trail jumps across the snow-covered surfaces of frozen lakes, the trail is now really easy to follow. It is so well marked with reflectors in places that if you are tired and starting to hallucinate the headlight of a snowmachine bouncing back of a long, straight string of them might make you thinking you're looking at the lights of a runway.
But a dangerous, scorched landscape with a trail hard to follow plays better to the actual theme of this story: Brian's Big Bad Alaska Adventure.
It was, he writes, conceived in the fall of 2012:
That was in September. Over the next four months, the phrase "please don’t die" started cropping up with maybe slightly more frequency than you’d like to see in your work e-mails.
I’ve always been fascinated by the cold places at the end of the world. Back when I used to spend a lot of time in libraries, I wasted stacks of hours going through polar-exploration narratives, tracking the adventurers who froze to death, the expeditions that vanished. The generation of Scott and Shackleton was probably the last one to live with the old intuitive belief that the world went on beyond the part of it that their civilization had discovered. That there were meaningful blanks on the map, terra incognita. It’s riveting to watch these practical-minded emissaries of high European culture hurl themselves into an unknown that they’re not equipped to handle. Robert Falcon Scott, who died in Antarctica in 1912, tried to take ponies to the South Pole because he didn’t trust sled dogs.
And so our little Shackleton wannabe sets off for Alaska on his grand adventure. Shackleton, Scott, Amundsen and other tough customers -- right down to most of the mushers in the Iditarod these days -- would have a good laugh at this sort of nonsense. But Phillips doesn't mean it to be funny.
He learns to fly an airplane, sort of. He outlines how the pilot who really flies the plane along the Iditarod had friends who actually died in airplane crashes. Like, who in Alaska hasn't had friends die in plane crashes? We die here in airplanes the way those from the East Coast die in automobile accidents.
Phillips goes to the race start and begins his colorful observations:
"I heard somebody describe (Lance Mackey) as 'the white Snoop Dogg,' which fits. The first time I saw him I took out a notebook and wrote “my best friend he shoots water rats and feeds them to his geese.”
What the hell "I took out a notebook and wrote 'my best friend he shoots water rats and feeds them to his geese" means is hard to tell, and you wouldn't think a professional observer (isn't that what reporters are supposed to be?) would need someone to "describe (Lance) as 'the white Snoop Dogg.'"
The dude actually looks like the white Snoop Dogg (now Snoop Lion). Open your eyes, Brian Baybeeee. If you'd hooked up your broadband, you could have gone to the AlaskaDispatch.com website to see Lance and Snoop featured in an Iditarod celebrity-look-alike photo spread.
Or wait, maybe Dispatch is the “somebody” who described Lance that way. At least Phillips' description of Mitch Seavey is a little more original. Go read it if you want. It's farther along in a story that goes on and on and on.
See if you can get past this point:
"Reportorially, I note falsetto yaps, screams, howls, baritone woofs." The scroll bar would indicated that is about a third of the way into the tale. By that point, Phillips' trendy I-me-my, first-person, navel gazing gets a little old.
The dogs, like most everything else, can't simply be described in the cacophony of their "falsetto yaps, screams, howls (and) baritone woofs." Oh no. They have to be cast in the context of what Phillips did on Brian's Bad Ass Alaska Adventure.
He came. He saw. He noted. He flew. He shivered. He feared. He feared some more. And then he beat it back home to America where it's safe. And he penned his vision of Jack London's "great white silence."
It ends this way:
"The vision will be beautiful, and it will try to kill you. And (oh by the way) that doesn’t have to be the last word. That’s why you go to the end of the world — to see whether you’re still there."
Phillips has gone "to the end of the world," and he'd still be here, or there, or somewhere. What the hell does that mean anyway?
If you're at the end of the world, where else would you be? And what is the "end of the world"? Would that be Nome, or Alaska in general, or somewhere between -- or just that place where a doofus from Outside loses his Internet connection?
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com