Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sourtoe Chronicle: Ask the dust


A great adventure is like woodsmoke. It goes where it likes and a lot of it gets inside you. My journey with my son to the top of the world is all but finished ... I have 1,000 miles to go before I'm home again ... but in some ways it will never be finished.

Regularly scheduled programming at Under The News will resume as soon as I cover these last 1,000 miles. Which means I will be back to my usual impertinent, snide and slightly peevish self!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Sourtoe Chronicle: Day without night

Let there be light

If God granted you one day without darkness, how would you spend it? If you could choose someone with whom to share such an extraordinary day, who would it be? And how far would you be willing to go for this gift?

I came more than 5,000 miles, a distance some might say was too far for a few extra hours of daylight. I spent it with my son, whose company I treasure more than all the unfound gold in these Yukon streams. We talked about life and living, about love and loss. We skipped flat stones across the river. We ate raisins, rice cakes and oatmeal because in our haste to get here, we forgot to shop for proper groceries at our last stop. I bathed in an Arctic stream for both the usual hygienic reasons and just to say I did; Matt bathed in woodsmoke to keep the hordes of hungry mosquitoes at bay. We chopped wood. And we watched the sun circle us, never dropping below the horizon. We snapped photos so we would remember, even though we knew we'd never forget.

In this one long day, we also traveled in time. Forward, not back. To an indeterminate moment in the future when he can bring his own child to this haunting place. On a modest hill overlooking a great glacial valley, beneath a white stone that looks slightly foreign here, they will find a letter from a grandfather who is not today a grandfather, and some trinkets from a life that might have run its course before they return. What would you say to your unborn grandchild 20 years in the future? How far might you be willing to go to be able to say it?

One day is all it takes.

22 minutes after midnight on summer solstice, June 21, 26 miles above the Arctic Circle in Canada's Yukon Territory

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sourtoe Chronicle: Devilish Dempster

At the start, the quality of this one-lane dirt road named Dempster is deceiving, but the scenery is uniformly spectacular

The Yukon's Dempster Highway is a beautiful bitch of a road. Running 454 miles from Dawson City to the Arctic Ocean-side village of Inuvik, the Dempster will beckon you to the top of the world ... then kick your ass for trying. It's a hellish clay-and-gravel path through Heaven's back gate, a tire-ripping, windshield-busting, fender-furrowing trail too mean for asphalt. A Sunday drive in Afghanistan would be less nerve-wracking.

And the reward for the brave (or the insane) is worth every ding.

Matt and I just rolled off the Dempster this afternoon after plunging only 300 miles into it. We built roadside inukshuks, replicas of ancient Inuit stone men who help travelers navigate, or warn of problems ahead. We camped above the Arctic Circle and spent Thursday -- the longest day of the year -- under perpetual sunshine. Midnight was as bright as suppertime. And for the privilege of our day without darkness, we fought off the hordes of mosquitoes, bathed in creeks of glacier water, and scrambled along slippery shale slopes to see what was on the other side. We also caked our rented camper's body in a quarter-inch of sticky dust, cracked the windshield and blew two tires.

Ah, but the view through that cracked windshield. The tundra was alive with cotton grass (pictured), purple saxifrage, wild crocus, arctic poppies, buttercups, cinquefoil, arctic azaleas and lupine. The woodlands were hung with dwarf willow. They all grow small and closely knit in the thin topsoil, as if to protect each other from Arctic winds and cold.

The mountains are a long way away, but they are so mammoth that the distance is deceiving. And you can see wolves, grizzlies, caribou, foxes and more at almost any mile.

You are otherwise alone here. A sign at the beginning says "Next Services 370 kilometers" (that's 229 miles.) In almost 600 miles on the Dempster, we saw fewer than 40 vehicles -- and fortunately one of them was driven by Maurice Poirer of Ontario, who helped us repair our hopelessly punctured tire.

Our cell phones didn't work, not above the Arctic Circle nor below it. No Internet either, unless you've got a direct satellite feed to God. The radio is electric fuzz. The Dempster sneers at our pitiful attempts at community.

And I must admit it rattled my nerves a little to learn that the Dempster doubles as a landing strip for bush pilots ... in several stretches. No problem, just keep your eye out for planes coming directly at you.

So we risked the Dempster, against saner advice, and I am so terribly glad we did. Ultimately, we came out OK (although the camper company might have something to say about that.) I never truly appreciated the melodic hum of pavement until we hit Yukon's Highway 2 after three days on the washboard-and-marbles surface. My guts thrummed for a hundred miles after we hit the blacktop; my stomach churned for another hundred.

But my son and I faced the Dempster and came out on the other side. Better for the adventure. Not everybody can say that ... and honestly, if you're smart, you'll keep it that way.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sourtoe Chronicle: The Toe is done!


The Toe is done!

It's amazing ... enlightening ... how a mummified human toe in your mouth can change your outlook. We have imagined this night for a long, long time ... and now it is done and we are different people in a small way. A risk ... a journey ... that others won't take, and a story that not everyone can tell.

And the drinking was fun, too.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sourtoe Chronicle: We have arrived

Beautiful downtown Dawson, roughly the same area
where the historic photo below was taken

After dinner at the Jack London Grill, we wandered around Dawson -- compact in size but mammoth in history. Haunted by its past, this is a ghost town that still breathes. The place embraces gutsy dowdiness the way its dirt streets embrace dust. It has a soul.

More than 4,200 miles and uncounted roadside stops and five nights under a midnight sun ... we have arrived. I want to wander this place all day and all night, just to make sure my footprints stick.

Tomorrow night, the Toe ...

Sourtoe Chronicle: Paydirt ahead

Dawson City, Yukon Territory

Today, we set out on the next-to-last leg of our journey: Up the White Pass to legendary Dawson City. It was one of the major staging areas for the Alaskan Gold Rush in 1897-98 and the world has seen it mostly as a frozen Hell ... except that Hell even seems to have more going for it.

Dawson today isn't as bad as all that, but it celebrates its bawdy history as a genuine boomtown, where dreams took root ... and, more often than not, died. And we whine because we haven't had cell service for the past 1,500 miles.

It's been raining up here in the sub-Arctic this week. The morning feels about 50 degrees and there's dew on the windshield. We typically stay up well past 1 a.m. because of the trickster light, but our morning routine of rising about 8 a.m. is hard to break without feeling guilty. Breaking camp is more arduous than at home, where we can leave the bed unmade. The road calls ... well, and so does Nature. Breakfast is a granola bar or an apple; we forage for coffee in roadside lodges and gas stops. Hunters and gatherers, we are.

We will be in Dawson later today. Somewhere in the back bar at the Sourdough Saloon, in a little box of rock salt, The Toe sleeps. To me, Dawson is the physical symbol of why we came: To take a little risk together, to embark on an adventure we'll always share ... to tell another story. And to wrap our lips around a severed, mummified, alcohol-soaked human toe just to say we did.


I'll add to this blog as long as we can find the occasional hotspot in the Yukon. Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sourtoe Chronicle: East of Alaska

At camp near Grande Prairie, Alberta

It’s after 11 p.m. Yukon Time. If it weren’t still as light as Midwestern supper time, I’d take my bellyful of musk-ox stroganoff and hunker down in my sleeping bag for another short summer night here in the sub-Arctic. But nights are pranksters here, and every day is the same joke on any tenderfoot who fools himself into believing an 8-hour night is child’s play.

Eight days ago, I began this journey to the top of the world with my son in a rented van, ostensibly to sip a cocktail containing a severed human toe and to spend the longest day of the year above the Arctic Circle, where the sun won’t ever set. To date, we have driven almost 4,000 miles through great northern cities and a billion acres of boreal forest, past vast lakes and snow-draped mountain ranges, seeing caribou, bighorn sheep, buffalo and moose, burning up the gasoline ration for all of Jasper, Texas, and all my best jokes (and a few of my worst.) What we haven’t passed are a lot of other cars on the road, WiFi hot-spots or cell phone towers.

Now, here in a rare hot-spot campground in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, fresh from a meal of musk-ox, caribou and huckleberry pie, we are still 700 miles and several days from our objective. … and god-knows how far from home and the safe world we left behind. We have come so far north that we can now say Alaska is due west. This is a primitive place and we are vulnerable specks here.

One exceedingly un-primitive tool we brought along is a GPS that guides us through both city and country. Because the voice that directs us belongs (in my mind) to a comely Australian lass, I call her Sydney. She’s a new toy, a special gift for this adventure that’s intended more to comfort the giver than the givee. But Sydney has certainly saved us time and angst, even if she gets intermittently annoyed with my wrong choices. And Sydney is not just another pretty face. She reminds me as the miles pass that life (like GPS) is all about where you are, not so much where you are going, and not at all where you’ve been.

In the meantime, I am getting to know my 19-year-old soon more as the man he’s becoming. He likes to talk about literature, history and philosophy … about life and love and heartbreak … about where the road goes. I think he understand even better than I thought about why we’re on this journey, and that’s good. But he’s also still a child in some respects, too, playing heavy-metal music on his laptop and scattering his clothing around our camper-van as if it were his dorm room. God, I love him.

This time of year, the sun is in the sky for about 20 hours. The other four hours are a chalky twilight, still bright enough to read a Chuck Palahniuk book or play Texas Hold ‘Em on a campground picnic table without a lantern. And to drink Yukon Jack and Chilkoot beer with your son long past bedtime, which never really comes until your body surrenders to the daylight. I awoke at 4 a.m. today and the morning was already as bright as Sunday school.

Where does the road go? That’s what I want to discover. One road, the Dempster Highway, leads to the Arctic, and tonight an old-timer RVer (a Texan, no less, even here) told me the road is a horror show that he’d never drive again, especially in his own vehicle. Chipped windshields, hood dings and mired vehicles are common casualties; head-on collisions and rollovers are just part of the game. My timid new friend just made me more eager to be on a road that not everyone has the balls to drive.

Yeah, that’s the adventure. Just like sipping a cocktail that not everybody has the balls to sniff, much less drink.


This blog will be updated as Internet access allows in this exquisite wilderness. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Drop the gum! You now have 30 seconds ...

Everybody has dropped a tantalizing morsel on the floor, snatched it up immediately and eaten it ... because the 5-Second Rule says it's completely safe. We have faith in the 5-Second Rule because ... well, nobody has ever died because they pikced up a Twinkie in 8 seconds, right?

Now a Connecticut research team says you probably have up to 30 seconds before real damage is done to your Twinkie by bacteria on the floor. Oh happy day!

"In the first set of tests [in a high-traffic cafeteria], moist apple slices were dropped. And what researchers saw after 5 seconds were pristine morsels. Not until the 1-minute interval did they find bacteria developing on the apple slices. It took 5 minutes for organisms to colonize a Skittle."

Now, you can feel safe eating that Reese's Peanut Butter Cup you dropped when you started reading this.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Justice parlayed: Paris gets out of jail free

This just in ...

This morning, Paris Hilton was released from LA County jail after only four days in lockup on what was to be a 23-day drunk-driving probation violation beef. Why? She "wasn't eating much of the jail food" that was served, according to sources quoted by CNN.

Our poor little rich girl will wear an ankle bracelet at home for the next 40 days. Undoubtedly, it will be a very fashionable piece of jewelry.

Can you imagine a judge reducing the sentence of just any ol' drunk driver just because he didn't like the food? There might be more to this story -- one hopes there is -- but the appearance of special treatment for this celebrity Hilton heiress hangs heavy in the air at the moment.

Prologue to a Toe:
A long journey begins

This guy walks into a Yukon bar with a mummified human toe … but this is no joke.

Years ago, the fellow bought an old cabin in the Klondike, intending to remodel it as a hunting lodge. When he tore up the floorboards, he discovered a pickled human toe in the space below. He took it back to the tavern he owned in Dawson City, where a long Arctic night of drinking took hold – and with some inspiration from Robert Service’s “Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail” — the barkeeper had an entrepreneurial brainstorm. He concocted a most unusual drink: the withered toe is dropped into a glass of Yukon Jack, and the drinker must gulp it — and the toe must touch his lips.

That's how the Sourtoe Cocktail was born. Not too many people are brave enough to drink it, so the bar keeps a list of the ones who do. Drink it fast or drink it slow, they say, but your lips must touch the toe. We intend to join the club.

So tomorrow, my son Matt and I begin our journey to the Yukon. 4,170 miles. More than 70 hours in a car together. One way.

We will take the journey we've dreamed about together for the past five years. We'll be alone together, on the road, headed toward a place we've separately imagined, talking about what we have together, what we've missed, eating road food and pissing in the barrow pit, sleeping on the ground or in cheap motels, catching up and planning for the next day, the next week, the next life. Talking about women, football, dying, carburetors, Chuck Palahniuk (his favorite writer) and Ernest Hemingway (my favorite writer), how time passes ... where the road goes.

Why?

A few years ago, when my divorce was still an open wound and every day was a painful reminder of how I was losing another day with my children, I took refuge on the road. I was writing about the American West for the Denver Post, driving an average 1,500 miles a week, distracting myself from the terrible sadness by working or driving damn near every waking hour, sometimes for hundreds of miles without a final destination in mind — or a story to tell. I had lost almost everything in my life except my abiding faith that I could find a good story almost anywhere.

The first summer after my wife and I split forever, my son came to visit. I was extraordinarily happy when he was there. I lived in a 100-year-old Victorian in the Colorado Rockies, and we did father-and-son stuff: Fishing, hiking, day-trips to fun spots, even panned for gold in the stream near my house. I wanted him to stay forever. I wanted to make plans for his growing up with me. I wanted back all the time I had already lost with him ... but I knew he had to go back to his mother's home in a couple weeks. In the last few days of his visit, I began to tell him plans for the next visit, and the next, and the next. The road had become my sanctuary, so I told him that maybe we'd take a road trip, just the two of us. I didn't just want to go the Disneyland or Tombstone, I meant someplace mythical that we needn't share with every other father and son. I told him I'd heard of a place way up north in the Yukon … yeah, a bar in a town called Dawson (pictured above), where they fixed a drink with a mummified human toe in it ...

Because he was a teenager and because he was a boy, the idea of a human toe in a glass of booze seemed to have double appeal. He was intrigued.

When he came again at Thanksgiving, he mentioned the Sourtoe Cocktail casually. And again when he visited for spring break. And again the next summer. It became our adventure-to-be, a dream unlived, an imaginary journey we both embraced but never took.

Last summer, my son embarked on his own road. He drove himself to Lincoln, Neb., to start college. Lincoln is about 10 long hours from his mother's home in Wyoming, and I told him to call me from the road if he got bored or tired. He called three times.

The last time, about sundown and still a couple hours from Lincoln, he sounded tired. I just wanted to keep him talking. I told him how proud I was that he was going to school, and how brave it was that he was doing it alone. I told him I saw great things ahead and predicted he'd enjoy the next few years, which would change his life. He said what every son says when his father is being like that: He grunted his agreement and said very little .... which only made me want to say more. How I loved him and wanted him to succeed, how he'd learn confidence and maybe meet lots of girls. How I couldn't believe he'd grown so fast to be a man.

At a lull in my one-sided conversation, he spoke. "I've been thinking all day," he said, "about the Sourtoe Cocktail."


That's when I knew we'd go.

So maybe this is a love story about fathers and sons, set against epic backdrops and overlooked places. It is also a road book that attempts to answer, for one father and son, a pivotal life question: Where does the road go?

And in Dawson City, at the end of the road we all travel, we'll order the Sourtoe Cocktail and see what all the fuss is about.


Ron will blog about his journey with his son to the Yukon and the Sourtoe Cocktail over the next few weeks ... as Internet access in the Canadian wilderness allows. Book mark this blog!


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

GRAF OF THE WEEK:
She was blind to his faults

"Nearly 50 years ago, after Linda spurned him and became engaged to another man, a jury convicted Burt, a lawyer, of hiring a thug to throw lye in her face. The attack blinded her and sent him to jail. When he got out 14 years later, Burt proposed again. Linda accepted."

Want to read the whole, sordid story? Click here.

(Thanks to Perryn Keys for this nugget.)

Did your microwave make you fat?

A British researcher is surmising that the current obesity epidemic in the UK and USA might have been caused by ... microwave ovens.

Professor Jane Wardle says people started getting much fatter after 1984, which happens to be the year that microwaves really started to gain in popularity. The devices allowed us to do less work, and made us more likely to eat cheaper and ready-to-eat meals ... which aren't always the most nutritious.

Two other professors are also posing their own theories this week at a symposium in England. One says supermarkets are the real culprit because "prices have tumbled, car use rocketed, [and] physical activity plummeted."

A third professor blames the end of World War II when we "saw technology starting to replace physical effort in both work and leisure." And the end of food rationing, too.

Personally, I think the obesity epidemic is caused by TV remotes. Mine causes me to eat way too many cookies and chips while I lie on the couch.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Ahoy, matey ... oh, forget it

In what is one of the most useful bits of journalism I've seen this week, Slate answers the burning question: Did pirates really say 'Arrrrr'?

The answer might surprise you. Then maybe not. But would you prefer that I post a link to a stopry about a kid who was forbidden by the town council from flying the Jolly Roger at his sixth birthday party? OK, smartypants, here it is: Skull and crossbones banned

Aaaargh. My timbers have been shivered.

Monday, June 04, 2007

101 Tips for Your Next Mug Shot!

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Take a look at Paris Hilton's latest mugshot from Sunday's booking:


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HEADLINE OF THE WEEK:
'Save the planet ... eat a vegan'

You gotta love a column that says:
"At the moment, largely, cows eat grass and silage, and as we’ve seen, this is melting the ice caps and killing us all. So they need a new foodstuff: something that is rich in iron, calcium and natural goodness. Plainly they can’t eat meat so here’s an idea to chew on. Why don’t we feed them vegetarians?"

To read the whole piece, click here.