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Driving Outside to Find the Yukon

by Darrell Hookey

    When a human awakens in a dark closet, it is instinct to reach out and touch the four walls and ceiling. We must define our isolation by finding our borders. It is instinct.

Yukoners enjoying a picnic on Montana Mountain near Carcross     Yukoners are isolated in the most beautiful corner of the world. Yet we are compelled to reach out in the dark to find our borders. Even if it is to places that are not beautiful ... by our Yukon definition. Even if it is to places we do not belong ... by our choice. Yukoners must feel their borders to feel the Yukon. We wear our isolation like we wear a wedding ring. We are proud of what the Yukon is and we are proud of what the Yukon makes us. But we must drive our vehicles beyond our isolation at least once in our lifetimes.

    Walking into an airport terminal and walking out of another airport terminal just doesn't give us the information for which we yearn. We must drive to our limits. We must drive past the lakes to offer us scale; we must drive out of the mountains that are our cocoon; we must drive the days away to truly offer us a measure of our isolation. But first, you must prepare for the drive. Drive? No, the adventure.

    You will drop out of all contact for three days. No phones, no pagers, no email, no faxes, no contact. You may try to outsmart the pending boredom and seemingly infinite ribbon of asphalt and dirt by planning, planning, planning.

    For the kids you will bring books, toys and hand-held video games. For you, your favorite music. But three hours into your drive, it becomes just you and this thing that isolates us: Nature. Lots of nature.

A herd of caribou on the Alaska Highway.     For three days you will be left with just your thoughts as you hurl past trees, mountains and wildlife. That moose you just whizzed past is the only other creature within a hundred kilometers that has an investment in this beautiful void that separates city from paradise.

    Three days. There is something spiritual about three-day journeys. Something special. There's definitely something special about driving our mud-splattered, bug-splattered 4X4s through the just-so-precious-and-organized streets of Vancouver.

    We feel unwashed and good. Hardened by the journey; prepared for the worst; ennobled by our Northern heritage. No need to explain, we got these bitchin' Yukon license plates.

    "Nice neon lights, bud. Check out my license plate. I am all real."

    "Think you're tough, homey? Check out my license plate. You wouldn't survive north of Kamloops."

    "All of your houses on this street look the same. Check out my license plate. The Yukon is unique; I am unique."

Yaletown, Vancouver     Then comes the great equalizer: As we squeeze our crew cabs into efficient-sized parking spots, like we squeeze into last summer's bathing suit, we emerge onto the streetscape as just another city dweller.

    The northern swagger can last for only so long. The gravity of Vancouver pulls at you to conform until you are a manageable pedestrian wearing cookie-cutter fashions with the cookie-cutter attitude.

    A week before you would have walked down Main Street, Whitehorse, with your head up looking for familiar faces to smile back at. In Vancouver you keep your head down and your gait purposeful to maintain a bubble of insignificance.

    "I have no money, so do not ask for a handout."

    "I do not have time, so do not ask for directions."

    "I do not need a friend, so do not ask how I am."

    No wonder we call them "faceless throngs" and "sea of humanity". Nobody wants to be an individual in the big city. Some try, but the result is pathetic.

    Without our license plates in Vancouver, we are no longer Yukoners. We are just another pedestrian hated by those behind us (just because we are in front) and feared by those in front (just because we are walking too close). We deke into a hotel lobby to escape the smothering of the crowds. And we are forced to witness a different kind of smothering:

    There, in the corner of the lobby, is a walled-in cubicle of a store. An earnest young man sits behind a desk, bored with his lot in life, yet hopeful that you will be the one who buys a cellular phone from him today. He has 18 models to choose from. He knows because he dusts them once an hour for nine hours a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year. The image disturbs you. You look towards the door and see a crowd. You blink and the crowd is exchanged for another walking just as fast in the same direction. You blink again. You blink again.

Vancouver     You look at the front desk. It is staffed by beautiful, young people. Their manners are impeccable and their smiles are almost not artificial. Each could have been a movie star if not for lacking just one percent of excellence and 99 percent of luck. And so, there they stand, asking Mr. Self Important if he will be paying for his in-room movies on his own credit card.

    You look at the earnest young man again. Experience has taught him to ignore you ... he now knows you won't buy a telephone today. And in just two hours he will be part of yet another crowd heading purposely toward the bus, then to another bus, then to the daycare to pick up his children, then to another bus, then home where their supper is left in the fridge in the kitchen in the home on the street where every house looks the same ... Your mind is bigger than this. Your spirit is happier than this. You do not belong here. You are a Yukoner. You must leave the lobby.

    You jump into your 4X4 and drive north. Past the dry cleaners, the video store, the pawn shop, the strip mall, past another dry cleaners, another video store, another pawn shop, another strip mall, another dry cleaners, ...

    You stop, you start, you change lanes, you stop, you start, you circle around to try for the exit again, you stop, you start, you change lanes, you stop, you start, you circle around ... Then it begins. Instead of four lanes, there are three. Instead of three lanes, there are two. Farms appear. Pickup trucks are not waxed and buffed. You have been born again and held once more to the breast of nature.

    Nature. Where you are not a conqueror nor a survivor. It is a nature where you are nurtured. A nature where you are given much when you take gently. If the drive to Vancouver prepared you for the worst of humanity, then the drive from Vancouver allows you to recover.

    Every kilometer is cherished for the distance it puts between you and (sorry, Desmond Morris said it best) the "human zoo". Further from the throbbing electric. Closer to the soothing quiet.

Heading north on the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, at Burrage Ceeek     Turning right onto the unmanicured Cassiar Highway, you leave the over-engineered Yellowhead Highway and allow the unpruned forest to envelope you in its wild embrace. This right turn is a significant point in the journey. You are still two days from Whitehorse, but you are no longer escaping Vancouver. You are going home.

    You have seen the Outside. You have felt it with the very fingertips that guided your steering wheel, propelled by the ball of your right foot on the gas pedal. You drove. A three-day journey that showed you what the Yukon is not. Showed you what the Yukon is.

    Another three-day journey to bring you home. And home never felt so good.