Pass Through Place
Or: The Slow Joy of Returning
I had meant to write about something else today, something more serious, but the world is pretty serious right now—and then I received something unexpected that lifted the heaviness a bit and reminded me of a simple sort of joy. New reading & watching recs follow below.
There is great pleasure in returning to certain places.
I mean the half-way points, the stopovers, the means-to-ends. Towns we never meant to notice. Places we were just passing through.
With each visit we learn a little better the terrain. Find food in the old section. See how the weather breaks across the water or the hills or the skyline. We may come to know people, we may come to call on them when we arrive. Perhaps they meet us at the airport. We learn something of their lives, and thus the life of the place.
Maybe we begin to imagine ourselves in it.
I remembered all this after I received an unexpected gift in Yellowknife, a small city in Canada’s Northwest Territories that sits beside an enormous and deep lake called Great Slave. I arrived this morning. The lake is still frozen, the ice blue and scarred with a season’s traffic of snow machines. As I write the sky is clearing, the sun bright on distant cotton clouds. Ravens are calling from the dark wet crowns of the spruces. It’s after 9 p.m.
I’ve been to Yellowknife half-a-dozen times in the last five years. I can measure my visits in children: when I first arrived, my older son was about to turn one; my younger son is now the same age. Or I can measure by photographer: Palu, Padgett, Donovan, Orlinsky—each of whom I’ve collaborated with on a northern story, each story squeezing through this town.
And now finally I can measure in friends. New ones. People who live here, or near here. We’re past the formality of acquaintance and entering the space of shared jokes and invitations to go boating, or hunting. People who can ask me WTF is wrong with America? not so much in alarm as with empathy.
Such places are almost never ones we choose. They are chosen for us by travel agents or airlines—by distance itself, calculated in the capacity of fuel tanks. Today these places tend to be airports themselves, the great hubs of Chicago or Dallas, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Istanbul. We end up stuck, waiting, confined by connections. There is not enough time to go out and see the city, or even to justify a hotel stay. So we wander, looking for a place to sit, caught in the horror of a Radiohead song.
Yellowknife is where you pause before continuing to the ends of the earth.
Yellowknife is different because it is a different sort of hub. Every time I return to its tiny airport I’m stunned by the stuffed polar bear that greets me in the baggage claim area. You would never find a living polar bear this far from the sea, which is to say that the stuffed bear symbolizes not arrival but expectation. Yellowknife is where you pause before continuing to the ends of the earth.
To reach the small communities scattered across Canada’s central and western Arctic, you stop here, change planes, carry on. Usually you spend the night. Sometimes weather delays you. That is how I first came to know the city. Wandering its streets in late autumn, during a snowstorm, with Canadian photographer Louie Palu, looking for a place to get coffee.
I didn’t know how important this town would become to my work. This morning I read through an old notebook from 2017, my first visit. Back then I had no idea that I would write a book about the Arctic, but I can see in my notes that the idea was taking shape. Yellowknife was in already my cards.
Now I look forward to returning. I plan layovers. Stop at the café that serves the best fish I’ve ever eaten, pulled fresh each day from the Great Slave Lake. In the hallways of the hotels I hear Inuktitut, or Dene, spoken more often than English. Slowly I have come to tease my partner about moving here, dragging the boys north. But am I not really just testing the waters, seeing if she might bite?
I tell her we could live on one of the bright houseboats sitting out there on the lake, wreathed in woodsmoke. I tell her that in summer, when the sun barely sets, we would take a canoe into town to get groceries. And in winter, in the darkness, we could just take a car: the ice is a driveway, a highway. In spring, though—I have to admit I don’t know how people do it. Before the ice melts, when it is rotten and hungry. Maybe they walk across. Surely there’s a way. There is always more to learn.
I mentioned that I had meant to write about something else, about something more serious. But tonight, the news is enough. And also tonight, a friend gave me that wonderful gift.
It was a bag of dried caribou meat.
He told me the story of hunting the animal—where he found the big old bull, how he went down. My friend cut him up, air-dried his flesh, stored it in the freezer. Things beyond my world. Tomorrow I’ll take the meat with me as I head north. In return I told him that next time I will bring him daan tats from a Chinese bakery in New York. I don’t know how well they’ll travel, but maybe it doesn’t matter. He said he had never seen one, and wanted to try.
Keep track of your pass-through place. Next time, try to stay a little longer. Paul Theroux once said something about how travel is really try-out—we are all looking for somewhere to live. Or maybe somehow.
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Read / Watch
I cannot say enough about The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. It will change the way you think about human history, about states and power, and destroy much of what you were taught in high school about things like the agricultural revolution and the “freedoms” certain countries claim to care about. It will also introduce you to the ways that indigenous people saw Western culture for what it was a long, long time ago. Belongs on the shelf with 1491.
Tokyo Vice on HBO Max. The story of a young American reporter who lives in Tokyo, works for a Japanese newspaper, and begins to investigate the infamous yakuza. I’m a sucker for this show because I once lived in Japan and I love seeing its streets, hearing its language, and reliving the weirdness of Japanese-American culture clash. The show isn’t without it’s problems, but it’s part of a new-ish genre that embraces subtitles and dialogue in languages-other-than-English.
Just started Amazon’s Outer Range with Josh Brolin. I was worried it would be Yellowstone-lite, or Yellowstone-weird. But Kareem’s review, plus the sci-fi hook, got me interested, and it reminds me of this fantastic short-short story by the late Shinichi Hoshi. Which you should read anyway.