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May 1971

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Kotzebue, Alaska



Have you ever looked hard at the background of a Salvador Dali painting? Almost any Dali has this nightmarish, still, rolling, treeless plain stretching to infinity. The sky is always dead and lifeless, like the skin of Count Dracula after munching on a virgin. When I was in 7th grade we had a once-a-week class called Art Appreciation, during which our art teacher, a Miss Fife who, naturally, wore burlap skirts she wove herself and clanking chunks of home baked ceramics dangling from her ears, passed out folders of art prints of the great masters in her hopeless struggle to hammer Culture somehow into our skulls. Probably generations of potential diggers of Beauty have been innocently turned off forever by classes such as these. It would be too easy to blame Miss Fife. She was a victim of it too. The day she passed around the Dali prints was the day she scored with me. I knew there had to be someplace like the places that Dali drew, and by God I think I've found it. Not that I've been consciously looking, or anything like that, but it's just that lots of mythic things and places are always just below the surface of all of us, waiting to pop out when the right cue shows up. Oz, Wonderland, and the one my Old Man always figured he'd go hunting for when he got the time, the Elephants' Graveyard, where old elephants go to die, leaving behind billions of rubles in peerless ivory. Forty or so miles North of the Arctic Circle, in the far Northern reaches of Alaska, is Kotzebue, an Eskimo town strung out on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. There is an old canard among grizzled world travelers to the effect that you really haven't seen the world until you have relieved your kidneys in the Arctic Ocean. This can be an exciting procedure if you don't carefully select the precise time of the year-Summer in Kotzebue can easily get by you if you aren't wide awake. I flew North from Juneau on an Alaska Airlines flight to Kotzebue, over ice sheets, glaciers, lonely frigid mountains, black forests, and through pale blue Arctic skies. They have a flight called "The Golden. Samovar" where they serve borscht and black coffee laced with vodka and brandy, and the stewardesses wear red high-collared Russian blouses. Squinty-eyed men with blue jowls get off and on the plane at back country stops carrying packs, with slung 30-06 Winchesters. If you think I'm exaggerating, forget it. I am not. There is an Arctic Circle. It is real, and the men who spend much time in its vicinity tend to be laconic and somewhat wiry. You know you're getting really up into the far North when the forests below you peter out until at last you're beyond the tree line and there's nothing much left but rolling tundra and flat, winding, convoluted rivers so wild and alone that you can hardly bear to look down at them. The beauty of the far North is so different from any other kind of natural loveliness that it's tough to describe in ordinary terms. It simply frightens some people, and they never want to go back to it again. Others are so drawn to it that they never forget it and always dream of returning. The far North just isn't for Group people, the ones who perpetually form ad hoc committees and dig discussion seminars and encounter group-gropes. The Kotzebue International (no less!) Airport has broad concrete runways that are so close to the Arctic Ocean you can toss a pebble from the center line of the main runway underhand and drop it into deep water. Our jet rolled out and wheeled back to the tiny terminal building. "Welcome to Kotzebue-Polar Bear Capital of the World." I read the board sign shifting from one foot to the other to keep warm while waiting for my transportation to show up. Three or four Eskimos pushed a few crates of freight into the hold of the jet. She buttoned up, and with a whistle she headed out toward the horizon and was gone. And there ain't no other way to get out of Kotzebue unless you are damn handy with a paddle. No roads lead to Kotzebue. There is only the ocean and that lonely runway, and a sea of rolling tundra that stretches North. There are no discernible sports cars in Kotzebue, although if an Eskimo could manage some way to get one up there I'm damn sure he'd try it. Next to the jackdaw, and possibly my Uncle Carl, the Eskimo is the world's greatest collector of mechanical junk. A weathered International Scout driven by a nattily-dressed Eskimo who somewhat resembled Key Luke, the Number One Son of Charlie Chan fame, arrived to drive me the couple of hundred yards into town. It wasn't a particularly cold day as days go, but as August days go it was something else, being in the mid-20s with a lacing wind sweeping in from somewhere off Siberia. "Uh . . . what's your name?" I opened somewhat lamely, as I wasn't quite sure just how to talk to my first Eskimo. "Dennis." He answered crisply, adjusting his horn-rimmed glasses with a fastidious forefinger. Damn, I thought, there goes another lifelong illusion shot down. Dennis! I was expecting at least 'Nanook'! "What would you suggest I do around here?" I asked, keeping a sharp eye on Dennis, beginning to suspect he wasn't an Eskimo at all but some kind of undercover agent for Avis Rent-A-Car. "Of course you'll want to buy some of the native jade," he answered, wheeling the Scout onto the gravel main street of Kotzebue at a good clip, roaring past the stark white frame church that seemed to sit on the flat plain like a model church from an HO gauge model train set. "Yes, the jade is really quite nice." "Jade?" He caught me off guard, since jade was something I'd always associated with Fu Manchu and sinister Oriental opium dens. "Yep. We are famous for our jade here in Kotzebue." He nodded toward a low building. "There's the jade factory there. You can see some of the jade out in front." He trailed off. I peered at the building. It was the first jade factory I'd ever seen. "That jade out in front there is worth maybe two hundred thousand dollars or so." he said in a matter-of-fact way. Then I really looked. Great boulders of moss-green jade lay strewn about beside the road. It was pretty safe, though, since each chunk probably weighed a couple of tons, and I doubt if you could get very far from Kotzebue with a chunk of jade like that on a quick heist. "What can I get to eat around here?" I asked. After all, there is just so much you can say about jade. "You must try the muktuk." Now we were getting someplace, I thought. That sure as hell sounds Eskimo. "Muktuk? What is it?" I blew on my hands to get the blood flowing again. You have to keep doing that on a hot August day in Kotzebue. "Whale blubber." "What was that?" He caught me off guard, again. "Dipped in seal oil. It's really good." "By George, I'll have to try some of that. I certainly will. By George, I'll have to try some muktuk." I ended with a slight retch, barely suppressed. "Well," he said, "I'll drop you off here and you can look around, and I'll pick you up in a couple hours and take you back to the airport." I hopped out of the Scout, ready for action. There are no hotels in Kotzebue, so the usual pilgrim flies in in the morning, takes in the scene and flies out on the late afternoon flight. I wandered down to the shore just as a crowd of Eskimos began unloading a couple of boatloads of fresh caught salmon, which is what most of the locals live on. They haul it in from the Arctic Ocean and sell it to the Japanese, and what they don't sell they hang on racks to dry, along with another native delicacy, the charcoal-black shrivelled intestines of the seal, which the native kids chomp on like Powerhouse candy bars. The Eskimo houses are little tarpaper shacks that look snug enough in a kind of rickety way, but they are surrounded by the damndest pile of junk that I have ever seen. Piled up around practically every house like old cordwood are anywhere from three to ten (I said ten) snowmobiles in varying stages of decay . Sprinkled around the ground like raisins on a Horn & Hardart muffin were discarded 75 hp Mercury outboards, gleaming in the watery sun. There must have been at least two million dollars worth of salvageable propulsive machinery laying around in the chill air, obviously tossed out with no attempt at repair. A couple of Eskimo kids skittered by me on a 90cc Yamaha, grinning and waving as they wove in and out of the wandering fishermen. The Eskimos paid absolutely no attention to me. I might as well have been a passing snowball. Except for one kid of about seven who came up to me clutching a furry puppy. "Wanna buy a dog?" He squealed. The dog wriggled, looking like a thick fur muff with two tiny black eyes. "He make good sled dog." The puppy was about the size of a small football. "What could I do with a sled dog in New York?" I shot back with all the inexorable logic of Western Culture behind me. "For your sled. He pull 'em good." The kid hit me with a crusher. Sensing no sale, he collared the nearest Eskimo grandma peering out of her parka and tried the same sales line, but she wasn't buying either. He went on down the street, hawking his mutt. The dogs, after the snowmobiles, are the one thing that really hit me about Kotzebue. Lean, slant-eyed and altogether dangerous-looking they skulk and stalk you as though you were fair game on the hoof. It is hard to love a Kotzebue dog. They are pure carnivore, and almost totally silent. They don't growl; they don't bark. They just creep forward toward you, low on the ground, with their eyes blank and expressionless. I wandered along the shore of the Arctic Ocean, pausing briefly to add my own ritualistic bit to the icy clear waters, warily circled the decomposed body of a bloated dead seal that had floated ashore, kicked at a rack of moss-covered ancient reindeer horns sticking out of the gravel, and then saw one of the craziest damn things I've ever seen in my life. An Eskimo wheeled past me on the gravel road, his hair flying in the wind, perched on a bright green Johnson snowmobile fitted with wheels for summer driving. He darted past me, and I barely got out of the way of another roaring wheel-equipped Sno-Cat going in the opposite direction. They roar around Kotzebue like a swarm of angry bees. I poked in the rubble back of one Eskimo house and so help me came across the bare tubular fuselage frame of an ancient deceased airplane. It looked to me like a Monocoupe, out of the Thirties. Without any warning I found myself curiously drawn to Kotzebue. It's an almost heartbreakingly human and beautiful place, in a chill stark way. It's real beyond real. After poking up and down the clay streets, past houses made of old wooden ships and corrugated zinc sheets from departed freighters, houses decorated with reindeer horns and magnificent driftwood, I headed back to the airport for the afternoon flight back. A hairy old Stinson Voyager banged down the runway and took off, climbing toward the North, a bush plane headed for some remote camp. I watched it disappear, flying at a low altitude in the crystal air. Way down at the far end of the runway, attended only by Arctic winds and a few ptarmigans, was the hulk of an old Super Constellation that bellylanded one day and never rose to fly again. A local dreamer decided he'd make it into a cocktail bar and painted "The Flying Martini" on the side. He never got the liquor license, and now the native wits call it "The Dry Martini." Everywhere you go there are dashed dreams and broken hopes. Kotzebue. Kotzebue. Roll it over your tongue. Kotzebue. If you ever get up to Alaska and don't take that final jump to see it, you'll forever miss out on the land Salvador Dali painted but probably never saw. Kotzebue.


Copyright: 1971 Car and Driver