Into The Wild - Dave Korn Pt5          

Fairbanks Bus 142

But we are also angry at Chris for dying.

We berate him for his recklessness, saying that the risk taking is the thing that upsets us. But what really upsets us is the fact that he didn’t make it. Any respect we might have for Chris’ commitment to his ideals, any progress he made towards this goal, is, in our minds, undermined by his death. He came so close to making it, so close to blazing a new and uplifting path that might serve as an inspiration for us all. But anything enlightening and inspiring that might be educed from Chris’ story is lost on us, because: “but he died.” So we blame him for trying at all, because it’s easier to do that than to consider what it means to end up a casualty of following your dreams. We are angry at Chris for letting us down. We can’t help but see his death as the final judgment of his dream-following lifestyle. The final point we take away from the story, regardless of his inspiring his life was, is not: it is possible to follow your dreams and be free and take life into your own hands, but: he did it, but he died as a result.

And then, of course, we have his being at peace on his deathbed to consider. Perhaps our degree of willingness to appreciate the intensity of his devotion to his dreams determines whether we care more about his peace or more about his deathbed.

I toss a few logs onto the embers rippling in the oil drum stove. Outside, a slate-gray patch of cloudy moon is wedged apart by a flock of geese flying through the night, bound for a warmer and perhaps less lonely patch of earth upon which to pass the winter months. I shut the door of the blazing stove with a clang, blow out the candles, and tuck myself into bed.

* * *

Through cracked windowpanes, the gray autumn sunrise pulls me from sleep. Rain spatters down intermittently and the wind is terrible, the cold just as bitter and indifferent. I don’t want to leave the safety of this bus, I don’t want to leave this place, but stronger is the feeling that I don’t want to stay. I am suddenly afraid; I want out. Out of the bus, out of the bush, out of the Wild. I want to get out of the wild, and I imagine the nauseating fear, the pressing panic, of being trapped here. It feels dangerous to leave this clearing—the cold rain, the possibility of disturbing a bear or another moose, I have two rivers to cross and twenty miles to walk. I will not make it out today. Yet I have no choice but to begin.

I write a few words in the journal and then finally shoulder my pack, taking a long hard look at the bus, obliviously rusting away in its corner, before hitting the trail. I call out for bears every thirty seconds without fail for the whole hike. Why, on that first day when I craved solitude, was I incessantly interrupted by ATVs and hunters, but today, in the depths of this loneliness, there is nobody and nothing to remind me of humanity? After a grueling and rainy five hours, blisters oozing pus, I reach the Teklanika. It seems even more menacing today, in the rain and gray. I would have liked to wait out the storm and try to keep dry, but I’m soaked, my gear is soaked, and there is no shelter out here on the gravel and tall grasses anyway. I just need to get across this river. I recover the raft from its hiding spot beneath the spruce, and I quickly scout up and down the riverbank for the best spot to launch out from. The raft almost gets swept away in the current as I’m snapping the paddle together. I climb in, and with my pack between my knees, I plunge myself into the river. The gray rain sweeps down in sheets as I’m sucked into the choppy current, and I paddle hard across. I’m pointed directly at the opposite bank, and the river slams against the side of the raft, threatening to flip me. Digging a paddle hard down to one side, I straighten out and allow the current to take me slightly downriver as I complete the crossing. I keep paddling, diagonally across now, and then the front of the raft sinks into the muddy bank and I’ve made it. I climb out, immediately shoulder the pack, and drag the deflating raft up a muddy embankment into a thicket of spruce. There I drop everything and collapse under the trees, my back against bark, and I sink into the earth. When strength returns, I halfheartedly paw through my pack until I find my bowl and stove, and I brew a cup of strong hot coffee. The rains come and go, the sagging spruce boughs shelter me, and I drink the most glorious cup of coffee of my life.

After a long time, I lash the dilapidated raft to my pack with a shred of muddy rope. I continue on, determined to make it beyond the Savage so that I have no more river crossings for tomorrow. When I arrive at the bank an hour later, I immediately tear my feet from the boots and stick them into sandals. I’ll rest once I cross. The raft and paddles are slipping from the pack. I hastily retie the knot around the raft, abandon my staff, and use the half paddles as walking sticks. In the center of the river, my legs go numb and start to seize up. Rain beads down my face. Once across, I plunge on, seeking shelter where there is none. I slip in mud, sandals and feet covered in freezing brown slime now. I make it fifty yards further down the trail before collapsing beneath another thicket of trees. When the rain wanes into a drizzle, I get the tent up. I huddle under the dripping trees as showers return. Finally, when the storm momentarily breaks again, I plunge into the tent. I strip off wet clothing until I’m shivering in my boxers, breath pluming. From my pack, I rip out a dry bag that holds my sleeping bag, warm pants, socks, a shirt. I roll the bag out and tug on dry clothes, grimacing as I pull the sock over the blister. The muddy boots and the pack stay outside under the sagging vestibule. Half of the tent is filled with sopping wet clothes, but the other half is dry. I rub a towel over my hair and then, finally, I stretch out on my sleeping bag and heave a great sigh. My calves burn. The sunlight is all but gone, just a gray smear through the rain streaked window of the rain fly. I swallow a handful of granola and some cheese, tuck myself into my bag, and pass into a dreamless sleep.

It’s still raining in the morning, but I am beyond having the luxury to care. I will myself out of the warm bag, pull on cold and damp jeans and socks, and tear down camp. I have about four hours left to hike, but no more rivers. I just sludge through it, falling into a mindless rhythm as my paddles click against the ground, ignoring the pain and the cold; click, click, stomp, stomp, click, click, stomp, stomp, “Heyyyy bear!” Click, click, stomp, stomp…. I finally begin to pass hunters on their ATVs again. Four long, brutal hours later, I have completed the forty mile trudge. After slipping up and down a long, ugly minefield of mud slopes, I reach my car. Everything gets sloughed into the trunk, all the wet gear, the wet clothing. I peel off my boots and find a gaping red hole; my toe looks like a skinned animal. I curl into the front seat, huddling in front of the blasting hot air until feeling creeps back into my limbs. Is this journey complete now? Can I say, “I made it?” I kick the car into gear and creep through potholes, unwilling to exert the energy even to push down on the accelerator.

When I reach the highway eight miles later, I park the car and stare for a long time at the sign that says STAMPEDE RD, green against the gray heavens above the yellow aspens.

Dave Korn
Autumn 2011 

Dave Korn Part 1

Dave Korn Part 2

Dave Korn Part 3

Dave Korn Part 4

Dave Korn Part 5


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