"Because it's there."
I have recently returned from an incredible journey to Newfoundland to shoot reference for an exhibition of new paintings. This show will take place in Ontario at Abbozzo Gallery next autumn. My mind however, is still filled with memories of my time spent in Alaska, and more specifically, time spent at Bus 142. I really do think about Chris McCandless every day at some point or another and after journeying to the abandoned bus on The Stampede Trail his story has settled more deeply in my bones than ever before.
From my previous post you might think that my adventure with Ed to the bus was the last that I saw of that special place for the rest of my time in Alaska. Not so. A small leg of my time in Alaska was spent at Denali National Park and I devoted two days to seeing what I could of the beautiful park. Bus 142 lies on a small panhandle of land that is surrounded by the park and so when I rented my car to drive down to Healy and Denali I knew that I would be very near to the bus, as close as you can get using the word "near" in Alaska anyway.
I had about five hours remaining on that second day in Denali before I had to head back to Fairbanks. I was sitting at the Black Bear Café amidst all of the shops and hotels that line the highway near the park entrance when it suddenly hit me: I needed to go back to Bus 142. I realized that when I was there the week previous Ed and I had spent a good deal of time cleaning and organizing the disheveled bus and surrounding area. Plus it was such an acutely intense experience being there after all of that travel that I had not processed it all, nor had I taken many pictures to develop into paintings.
This brought me to a crazy crossroads: do I head back to Fairbanks, knowing that I never really was able to just "be" in that place, without more detailed reference for paintings, without the chance to be quiet and contemplate there? Or, do I do something rash, impulsive, expensive yet unforgettable? The answer was clear: I had to go back. So that is exactly what I did, by renting a helicopter.
Hiring the helicopter was prohibitively expensive but worth every penny. It enabled me to see the Stampede Trail from the air, and we followed its course on our way to the bus. It was amazing to see how we covered in fifteen minutes what it had taken Ed and I nine hours and two river crossings to accomplish. To see the trail wend like a vein through the trees, the water we had slogged through reflecting up at me 500 feet above the ground, was emotional. To once again see the distance it had taken Chris four days of hiking across, hunting and foraging all the way, was particularly poignant.
Stampede Road, a short distance off of the George Parks Highway, before it narrows down to a trail.
The Stampede Trail as seen by the lighter colour
through the trees.
As we neared the bus from the air, Scot, the helicopter pilot exclaimed "There's another helicopter here! It looks like the military!" He was right. We touched down next to what looked like a Blackhawk Helicopter that was used by army medics. We set down on the gravel bar a short distance from them, walked over, shook their hands and they handed me one of their cameras to take a shot of them. They had also been at Bus 142 taking pictures. I wondered what Chris would think about his influence and life touching even the most stoic of soldiers.
The army and their helicopter on the gravel bar where Ed and I had camped just one week before.
The helicopter then took off and I then headed up to the bus for the next two hours. It was another gorgeous day, similar to when Ed and I had been there only the week before. I was so pleased to see that the bus was still as we had left it. Wes and Oliver, the two nice guys we had met just west of the Teklanika River had signed the journal in the bus, as well as two men we passed the week previous who had ended up chartering a helicopter when the Teklanika stopped their progress.
Fortunately Bus 142's interior looked just as we had left it.
Some examples of people signing the interior of the bus with positive messages.
Looking down the Stampede Trail.
One of the many bullet holes found all over the bus, some of which have been there for years. Many of the windows have recently been broken sadly.
To say it was an emotional time is an understatement. I was so glad that I had returned. I would have regretted it for many years if I had not gone back.
The flight back to Denali was beautiful The foliage was a spectrum of gorgeous hues with the onset of colder weather. Alaska was big in every sense of the word to me. The sheer scale of the mountains and skies, the huge feeling of accomplishment in doing what I set out to do there, the large part of me that feels so connected with that place on The Stampede Trail. I know that this energy will manifest into paintings down the road, after the Newfoundland exhibition is complete. These paintings will be symbolic of the experiences that I had there. Perhaps they will resonate with others too. I really think that Chris's life inspires people because we recognize a bit of him in all of us, an explorer of the inner landscapes of thought and philosophy as much as any road taken on or off a map.
UPDATE, April 2010: I am co-producing a book of Chris's photographs and my paintings that I have done based on his photographs. This book will be published within the next year. It is very exciting! These photographs are a collection of images taken from over 300 pictures that Chris took on his terminal odyssey from 1990-1992. I am helping to produce this book in conjunction with Walt and Billie, Chris's parents, as well as a small group of devoted creatives and friends. From the first time that I laid eyes on these images, I knew there was a story there that had to be told: Chris's story through his own eyes. I will post updates regarding the book as I find out further details! Thank-you for taking the time to read my blog here and have a beautiful, magical day...
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.