Travel is all about stories and you really don’t have to leave town to travel, but there’s something about being elsewhere that brings up stories like images on silver halide paper in a darkroom emulsion. To mix metaphors, the familiar is a thick crust; get out of the familiar, the crust cracks and falls away and there in front of you is… a story. It will not be the one you expected, wanted or longed for. It will be different, something lovely, unsettling, curious or revelatory. And unlike snapshots or souvenir t-shirts, once it’s in your mind it’s yours forever.
I travel for stories and assume all writers do, although overgeneralizations like that are egregious. To further overgeneralize, doesn’t everybody travel for stories?
Skipping Fodor’s, Frommers, Lonely Planet and Rick Steves, before leaving I scroll through twenty or so pages of (whatever is my destination) titles on Amazon and pick only the odd, intriguing ones. (Many old, out-of-print travel books are fabulous and free on Kindle, Google Books, Gutenberg et al.) No detail in these will help me find a decent veggie restaurant or an all-night optometrist, but will create an almost eerie conceptual field in which I’m linked to and present in a place where otherwise I would have been a ghost. (See The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton for a broader perspective on this.)
Just back from a wonderful and complex Alaskan journey, I still haven’t finished (and will probably never finish) Ella Higginson’s Alaska The Great Country. Published in 1910, it has to be the most detailed, exhaustive and beautifully written Alaska travel guide available, even now. And I send psychic cheers to long-dead Ella for saying over and over what I would, a century later, think. IE: Alaska’s natural beauty surpasses description, and the naming of its thousand faces demands the skill of poets. And it had something akin to that skill in its original, sonorous names. “Petersburg” was Seet Ká, “Seward” was Qutellaq, etc. These were names derived from the world, names of the movements of fish, the shelter of trees. Now every single fjord, bay, inlet, island and river bears the name of some (frequently British) European male who either was the first European male to explore the area or, having already used his own name, selected the names of other European males from his address book. His barber back in Leeds, an uncle who might leave him that Georgian mansion near Haworth. Some of these names, – Winstanley, Moore, Anderson, Bonner – appear above and beside me on genealogical charts. But doesn’t “the place of swarming mists” sound better than “Winstanley Island”?
But I did read The Alaska Native Reader (Maria Sháa Tláa Williams, 2009) in its entirety on my Kindle before and during the trip. A folklore fanatic, anything about other cultures/crafts/costumes/customs/cults will draw me like a moth to flame. This book turned out to be a compendium of essays about the anger and resentment felt by members of Alaska’s 229 native tribes (speaking 20 different languages and having 11 distinct cultures) at what has been done to them since the first Russian invaders in the 1700’s.
We all know the story; it’s horrible; but no matter how fiercely wished, “decolonization” will never work. Even the gods cannot reverse time. Still, a focus on nearly-extinct languages, cultures and skills can at least lead to somebody writing it all down so it doesn’t vanish completely. That’s the best that can be hoped and I’m all for it even if it means that I, personally, will be hated by a native person because I have blue eyes. The native person and I do not matter. What matters is that the organized rage of native people will compel the documentation of native realities before they’re lost forever in the soup of time.
So there I was in Ketchican, having tramped out to see Saxman (named not for any native who actually lived there, but for S.A. Saxman, a Pennsylvania teacher sent by the U.S. Government to establish Indian schools – he drowned on a winter canoe trip within a year of arrival and his body was never found) “Native Village.” Saxman is a collection of reproduction totem poles and a “clan house” where people from cruise ships pay a great deal to see a video and some costumed children dancing. Only cruise ship passengers are allowed in the “clan house,” although everyone else can, for five dollars, look at the repro totem poles and shop in the gift shop. A glowering Tlingit man in t-shirt and jeans stood on the road collecting five dollar bills. He was gruff, hostile and seemed to be contemplating the slaughter of every tourist snapping photos of the totem poles. Parents from the Disney cruise were careful to keep their children far from him. He made everyone edgy.
Including me, even though I’d read The Alaska Native Reader. Not every angry Native American is expressing resentment about the smallpox, syphilis and slavery, lies, exploitation and ruin brought by Europeans. Some Native Americans probably just have sinus headaches, bad marriages or defective cable boxes that can make anyone crabby. Nonetheless, I had a foot in his world and for a time chose to imagine myself a contemporary Tlingit like him, watching myself and a horde of other tourists from all over the world.
The real totem poles fell and rotted over a century ago as the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian and Yup’ik abandoned millennia-old villages and flocked to work in European enclaves. In my book-fed mind I saw the ghost-villages, Raven and Eagle, bear and frog toppled and half-buried in snow. And I saw the Made-In-Taiwan replicas of artistic, complex and highly-evolved cultural artifacts sold to people (including me) who may admire but cannot begin to understand or honor them. I felt the sharp edge of a sorrow-filled shadow that makes Alaska’s native people yearn for “decolonization,” an impossible return to the past. The book made a bridge, however tenuous and fleeting, between me and a Tlingit man collecting five dollar bills on a road that leads to brightly colored emptiness.
But my other foot was a tourist’s, and I bought a pair of pewter earrings depicting Raven stealing the moon. I like the Raven legends, am drawn to Raven and ravens here as in all other contexts. And so I have a writer’s story that will only die when I do, and a pair of earrings one of which I will eventually lose in a dressing room, leaving the other one to haunt me. Both are good, but the story is better.
And that’s only one.
To be continued.