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Seth Kantner: An infidel in California

  • Author: Seth Kantner
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published December 24, 2015

CALIFORNIA — In a CitiBank parking lot somewhere in California, I shut my friend Linnea's car off and sit for a minute to allow my claws to unclamp from the steering wheel. When I spread my fingers in front of my face they're shaking. Out the windshield is the large bank. Beside and behind the car stretches flat black asphalt. The freeway just squirted me off here. Wherever here is. The landscape all looks the same: streets, buildings, traffic. I know I'm south of my daughter's dorm at Stanford, where I went to visit her today, and north of San something or other.

It's been years since I drove in a big city in the Lower 48. These days, my dyslexia has gotten worse and my short-term memory lasts about three seconds. I never could learn left from right and have little natural instinct for the difference between red and green stoplights. (I do know people get upset when I absentmindedly stop at the green ones.) Now there are so many signs, with letters and meanings all jumping around in my mind.

I'm stressed as hell about the thundering rivers of traffic here — thousands of speeding cars and trucks, all potential death and destruction, or at least righteous owners ready to call the cops over a ding on their BMW, Mercedes or Lexus. It's 3:30 p.m., and rush hour is growing with each passing second. I know I have to make it to Linnea's before dark. I have poor night vision after all my past eye surgeries. Between traffic, being lost and soon not being able to see, I feel huge tension rising — like if I'm out here after dark, I'll turn into a werewolf.

From the driver's seat, nearly in a panic, I dial GCI, an oft-repeated attempt to get my iPhone data to work. My phone's map-lady stopped talking to me when I left Linnea's Wi-Fi. Now it reads curtly: "Route information is not available at this moment." I miss the nice lady. Growing up on the tundra, I never would have imagined that someday I'd traverse a science-fiction planet and need a digital woman to help me.

The GCI technician is human, but unable to help. I'm not surprised. In Kotzebue, the GCI Bush service is so unpredictable that you can call a friend standing right beside you and a recording insists they're unavailable or out of range. Here, if I understand correctly, the company chooses not to pay for the good stuff, 3G, the minimum service available in Silicon Valley. At $2,000 a year for this poor connection, it's funny how much it reminds me of those first CB radios that came to the villages in the 1970s. Back then we did a lot of shouting into the microphone, fiddling with the squelch: "Ambler Seven, Kapakavik!" No reply. "Morena's Camp, do you copy? AMBLER ONE-FIVE?" Wherever the transmission went in the void, nothing came back. At least back then there were only three knobs to turn and no tractor-trailers barreling down on any of us.

Inside the bank, a teller behind protective glass looks at me fearfully when I ask her where I am. For a moment I wonder if it's illegal to ask for directions in a bank. "Can you tell me how to get onto the Internet?" I beg. "Wait! No. I mean, the interstate."

Lost in America

She thinks I'm crazy — which is accurate — and gestures toward a manager at a desk. I rush in his direction. He's big, seated, on the phone and, from his name and appearance, he's Middle Eastern. Suddenly I recall Donald Trump's unkind commentary in the news lately. This all feels surreal. I'm lost in America, and I wouldn't blame this banker if he chose to not help the weird white guy who appears to be unbalanced.

He cups his hand over the mouthpiece, shoves a pen and paper across the desk. Scrawling an address in Santa Cruise, I try to keep the tremor out of my hands. Somehow it doesn't look right. Santa? Cruise? I cross out Cruise, write Cruz. It still looks wrong. The man is sharp as blazes, though, and amazingly helpful; still on the phone, he prints out MapQuest directions.

Back in my friend's Honda, I nose nervously out into the metal current, merging into heavier and heavier traffic. The sun has set. I don't have much time. Cars pour out of on-ramps. Where do they all come from? Where are all these people going? In front of me, a river of red lights flows down the hill. Peering into the mirror, I see a horde of yellow eyes coming from behind.

A sign flashes past: San Jose, population 974 million. Wait, was that millions, or thousands? It went by too quickly, and this is just one city sprawling against so many other cities. Suddenly I'm weighted down by depression — nowadays all these cars and people are between me and my daughter, that toddler I used to chase around our sod house, pretending I was a big ego (eagle) and she was a little rabbit.

Offensive muktuk?

Finally, somehow, I find the trail all the way back to the quiet street and house where Linnea rents an attic room. After the intensity of high-speed traffic, I'm stunned. I stagger out of the driver's seat, stiff and tense. Inside, none of the roommates are home. I'm relieved because I get nervous about using too much water, making too much noise or my Eskimo food being offensive to others in the kitchen.

I drop my pack, put a kettle on to heat and get out my muktuk and dried caribou meat. I guard it while I grind coffee; the cat has already tried repeatedly to get her claws into my caribou. I'm not in a sharing mood; I wish I wasn't like this but I feel as if this is my last real food in the world.

I cut slices of black muktuk on cardboard, being careful not to get oil on the wooden table. Weary, I sigh and sit down to eat. The cat watches from the rug. She's dark but her legs have snowy white mukluks. Her owner is nowhere in sight. Right now, honestly, I'm grateful for that. She's a smart, attractive young woman who teaches environmental studies, and the first day I visited, she asked me not to talk on the phone in the house because of her noise sensitivity.

Linnea's landlady lives here too, in a room beside the bathroom. She's generous, with kind, welcoming eyes, and she turns the lights off behind me when I forget. This household is extremely eco-conscious — chilly, creaky floors, no paper towels allowed, Seventh Generation dish soap, a compost bucket, granola crumbs on the counters, a bucket in the shower and sink to collect water — and though I like to think of myself as eco-conscious, too, I've been cautious and edgy.

I'm naturally nervous around people, and it didn't help that before coming here I spent freeze-up alone on the Noatak River without seeing another human — no signs, no traffic, no motorized vehicles, unless you count my chain saw.

Here in these sunny cities, I'm half-crippled by the impulse to stay out of everyone's way. On the sidewalks I veer the wrong way; on the freeways I want to pull over until all the cars and trucks pass — as if that could ever happen. Even in this kitchen I fight the urge to crouch near a wall. I'm ashamed that my caribou hindquarter in the fridge has already twice inadvertently forced the door open, and that I smoked up the kitchen frying muskox fat, and I can't be sure I'm getting the whale oil off the knives with the lukewarm tap water.

I'm realizing how spoiled my life is in the Arctic. Organic meat and salmon here sell for $20 a pound. At home I haul in sled loads and boatloads that would cost $10,000 apiece. Daily, I cook whatever huge hunk will fit in our biggest roaster pans. When the supply gets low, I go hunting. I holler into my VHF radio and phone, and unplug them whenever I feel like it. I haul firewood, and stuff my stove until the house is hot. Even the whales are not just tourist sights, but part of our connection to the land and ocean and food.

Checking on Kotzebue

At the table, alone in silence, I wolf down the muktuk I'm grateful to have a couple of chunks left It's so good, the taste of the bowhead blubber a vast flavor and so rich with memories. Eaten with dried caribou, it's unlike any other food. Licking my finger, I glance up. The cat appears to have huge rabbit ears. My hands are oily, but I reach for my glasses.

What I thought were ears turn out to be hind paws, white and sticking straight up on both sides of its shoulders. The cat is not watching me at all; it's bent forward gnawing its own rear end. I have to grin, mocking myself for being self-absorbed, so busy assuming that what is precious to me is desired by others.

On the table my phone vibrates. It's Andrew Greene in Kotzebue, texting to see what I'm up to, teasing me about where I'm at, and telling me the news of people getting wolves yesterday. It was his dad who gave me this muktuk, and I press one finger on the screen, hunching forward to check for words from home. My neighbor Larry in Kotzebue might borrow my sled to hunt caribou; my friend Tim is changing the pump on my furnace. I glance around the quiet living room, feeling like an infidel in California — eating whale and texting friends about shooting wolves.

Suddenly I have a brilliant idea. My hands are greasy but I snatch up my iPhone — to get a picture of what the cat is doing to send to Andrew. We're always joking around, but the picture seems perfect to sum up how different from home this place is and how I don't fit in.

With the oily knife in one hand, my phone in the other, I crouch down and sneak toward the cat. I'm ready to snap a photo when something catches the corner of my eye. Without moving I flick my glance to the side. Sitting on the couch in the alcove, writing in her notebook, sits the noise-canceling woman. She glances up when she sees me.

I freeze in consternation, still gripping the big knife and my phone. Why, I lament, can't I just once have enough sense to simply sit and enjoy my lunch? This photo really wasn't necessary. Slowly I swivel. Pretending to be fascinated by a houseplant, I snap a shot of a green leaf and hurry back to the table.

I swallow the rest of the blubber and fold up the cardboard. Dark stains show where oil soaked through the first layer. I'm glad I doubled it. I roll up my sack of dried caribou. For a minute I sit very still, absorbing the silence of the silent house, looking out the window, breathing in the aroma of the whale oil, trying not to feel totally lost in 2015 America. The cat is watching the door now, and in the stillness and the falling darkness we listen to the distant roar of the freeway.

Seth Kantner is the author of the best-selling novel "Ordinary Wolves," "Shopping for Porcupine" and, newly released, "Swallowed by the Great Land."

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