On filling empty spaces

Posted: Friday, March 01, 2002

all our days are marked with


affronts -- some

disastrous, others

less so

but the process is

wearing and


attrition rules.

most give


empty spaces

where people should

-- Charles Bukowski

I still had to go in there. As I sat in a tow truck, headed for Fairbanks on the night of Christmas, a thousand raging and boiling thoughts in my mind coalesced into one strange feeling of impending quest for meaning.

I still had to go to the cabins at the Tolovana Hot Springs, located about 70 miles from Fairbanks.

On the black bench seat to my left, as the tow truck clumsily lurched down the dark and barren highway, humanity was taking a beating. It had all started four hours ago, when my companion Scott's car had a transmission suffer Mariah-Carey-like burnout a few miles from Cantwell.

It was ironic, comical almost, that this happened on Christmas. But this affront wasn't going to ruin our trip.

In order to make room to relax while we waited for the tow truck, we placed skis, snowshoes, sleds, food and other assorted gear outside the broken-down vehicle.

When we awoke, someone, let's just call them the anti-Santa, had stolen our stuff. And that, naturally, led to the current humanity-bashing going on in the tow truck.

In the way the face of a loved one can recall a million glorious and warm feelings in one glance, victimization brings all venom and badness welling to the surface in roils of rage.

Story after story came from my companion and the tow-truck driver. Of vehicles vandalized. Of loved ones needlessly harmed. Of the tempting, pleasing and trembling madness of plotted retribution. Of the hopelessness of it all.

It's hard for a positive, happy-go-lucky world view to survive in moments like this. If there were people willing to rip off motorists stranded, literally, in the middle of nowhere, didn't all of life have to become a selfish, vindictive guard against the potential maliciousness of humanity?

Peace on earth? Goodwill toward man? Merry Christmas, indeed.

n n n

In the dreamy shock of the moments immediately following the theft, Scott and I had pretty much agreed the trip was off.

We had no car to get to the trail head. We had no skis. We had no snowshoes. We had no sleds to tote our gear. We'd lost most of our food. And emotionally, we were mortally wounded and spent.

But the blinding emotion of shock, like infatuation, fades. As I began to feel my face, and my mind began to link thoughts again, I knew we still had to go in to the cabins.

There were certain people that I didn't mind deciding my life for me. I didn't count people who victimize stranded motorists among that privileged few.

After a night of sleep that was as needed as kraut on a brat, Scott and I set about resurrecting the trip.

A salesman at the car dealership gave us a loaner car, free of charge, to take to the trail head. Tom DeLong, who operates the cabins, let us borrow sleds. And DeLong and various helpful outdoor enthusiasts in the Fairbanks area assured us that we would be safe walking the 11-mile trail to the cabins, because in the Fairbanks area it was extremely rare that enough snow would fall to make the trail impassable on foot.

After a food run to Fred Meyer and another night of sleep, we departed for the cabins the next day.

n n n

The four days and three nights at the cabins were satisfying in their own way. There's something brazenly defiant about sitting in a hot tub in subzero temperatures. There's something rustic about chopping wood for quaint abode. And there's an underlying, adventuresome and primal longing fulfilled by exploring trails in unique northern sunlight and the incandescence of the moon.

"Sometimes life is the destination, not the journey," Scott wisely professed the night before we were to leave. "I'm glad we still came in here."

That was his bow. That finished his package. But it didn't do it for me. If I wanted to search for meaning in clich, I would have stayed home and watched the post-game interviews from the college bowl games.

Sometimes life is the destination, not the journey? That wasn't why I came here.

After all, try as one might to forget, thus far the Tolovana destination had been lacking. Sure, we walked the trail to the cabin, but all I could think about the whole time is how perfect the conditions were for skiing. And, sure, we had dinner every night, but packaged sauces replaced exquisitely prepared -- and stolen -- sauces; and mushy, tasteless farmed salmon fillets replaced the oily, luscious flesh of the Kenai sockeye we'd planned to cook up.

There had to be greater meaning somewhere, but I was sure I had missed it as we headed back to the car the next day.

As we reached the dreaded and exposed Tolovana Dome, where windchills were expected to hit minus 30, I bundled up and prepared to turn my senses off to the powers of the world until I could get out of the accursed wind.

I was vaguely aware that the sun was setting as I set out across the dome, but I didn't think much of it. I'd seen sunsets before, and I'd surely have time to see them again when I wasn't being bludgeoned by invasive doses of steel-cold wind.

That was until I peaked over the lip of the dome. Suddenly, nothing else mattered but what was before me. Off to the left of the trail, hundreds of miles away but resolutely visible, lay Denali, with the sawtooth structure of the Alaska Range fully visible and trailing off to her left.

Centered above and behind the commanding and stern presence of the mountain were swirling strokes glowing ember red. High above the scene, and right of Denali, was an out-of-place patch, a field glowing pacifying and sustaining pink. With this soft pink block holding mysteriously firm, the unique array of reds ensconcing Denali changed subtly yet hypnotically, with a fresh breath of life constantly trickling its way through the layers of clouds.

Scenes like this almost aren't fair. The highest mountain in North America. An inhuman color combination that draws out an uncomfortable wonderment and emptiness from inside. And the significance of the date -- this was New Year's Eve, the closing act of two millennia for mankind.

I sat and watched, agape, and eventually cried. This was it. This was why I came here.

As the embers began to burn out, as the sunset began to lower like a majestic curtain, something made me turn around.

A harsh blast of wind sent a patch of snow hurtling toward me, the tiny pellets tickling my coat with the sound of sand hitting paper. It was a fitting welcome to a new and opposite landscape. The turf now before me was a dingy plot, with craglike brush dotting the windswept and foreboding terrain. The snapping and trembling of the brush, the howling of the wind and the whipping bursts of snow denoted intense energy and anger in the landscape, but all the energy produced nothing but sorrowing and empty darkness.

I turned my back on that view and headed down the trail, glancing at the dying grace of the flickering sunset as I walked. Back toward the car. Back toward warmth. Back toward humanity.

it's only the regathering and

going on

which lends substance

to whatever magic

might possibly


-- Charles Bukowski

This column is the opinion of Clarion sports editor Jeff Helminiak. Comments and criticisms can be directed to clarion@alaska.net.

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