Love, cars and tundra
It was February in Fairbanks, Alaska, and I was riding my bicycle. I was riding for love, and we all know love can make you pretty obsessive. I’d gotten some Finnish studded bicycle tires, and they worked incredibly well, even on black ice and the packed, diamond-hard, automobile-polished snow.
She was from Eureka. I’d met her in Chico the previous April while riding bicycles during the Wildflower Century, the annual 100-mile ride through Butte County’s bounteously flowered spring fields. We’d written letters ever since, and I’d met her for New Year’s. I told her I was going to come down from Alaska to ride the Wildflower again in April and then in May to ride a double century in Davis. These rides would be my excuse to come see her. There was another guy in the picture, but my guts told me I had to give this feeling a very serious shot.
I decided the only way I was going to be able to get in shape by April was to quit driving my 20-year-old truck altogether. Between the day I called her and the Wildflower, I drove only twice, to get diesel fuel for my cabin’s gravity drip stove.
It was 10 hilly miles to town, and I was often riding in 20-below weather and was lucky that March didn’t get any colder than that. Most of the time it was around zero to 10 below, which in Fairbanks is, no joke, considered warm. Love powered me, fed me, warmed me.
I believe that, somehow, that which we love makes us truly what we are as people. Loving this woman had expanded my feelings, my life, the way I saw everything. That we love, that we have the impulse and desire to reach out and be connected to people and things beyond ourselves, is a miracle.
I flew to Chico for the ride, and she and I spent a couple of days together. Still the “other-guy syndrome” was in effect. Then, when I flew back to Fairbanks, my truck broke down on a fuel run. I was in such good shape I just let my truck sit.
Every day, I would stop and buy an orange juice at a corner gas station after riding into town. I would stand drinking the juice, watching the scene—the endless line of cars and pickups pumping gas, the never-ending tangle of vehicles at the intersection. Gasoline seemed as elemental as food. At least a Martian could see it that way—humans always had their 15 gallons of gas with them. It started to appear—in my bicycle-riding, endorphin-induced euphoria—that we had invented cars just so we could carry around this golden, life-giving fluid.
When gas prices soared, I thought it was sort of funny. Love was my fuel. In May I flew to see her in Davis, where we rode our bicycles 200 miles in one day. She told me she was ending it with “him,” then added, “… but don’t wait for me. …”
Love is a weird, wild, wondrous and fearsome goddess. In Alaska, though, politicians know only one deity—oil. In my self-righteous, bicycling state of love-joy, I looked piteously down upon the poor mortals of the world—the damned, the corrupt, the heathen—those bastard automobile drivers. You don’t get elected assistant dogcatcher in Alaska if you don’t spout the mantra: “We Must Drill for Oil in A.N.W.R.!”
Rain. Snow. Night. Day. I rode. I imagined that my love would be returned if I rode, if I were passionate in my faith that this love had filled me was true, real, honest. I rode. I wrote. I called. Sent precious tokens of my love.
I have loved Alaska with a similar passion—to the detriment of many things in my life: family, friends, a place I could call “home.” My grandfather brought me to Alaska when I was 14 years old. Since then, I have never been released from the transcendent power of its extraordinary landscape and wildlife. Alaska has always filled me with a sense of the beauty of the world, of life.
This woman filled me too—yet more intensely, emotionally, humanly—for a mountain or glacier or caribou, grizzly, wolf cannot touch you gently, hold you, tell you it loves you. Though she was far away, what I felt for her filled each day with magic. Love transforms you. When I looked out upon Alaska, it felt like I was seeing her, seeing it all for the first time.
There is a distant place— distant even in Alaska—called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s in the farthest northeast corner of the state, bordering Canada and the Arctic Ocean. Everyone who wants to drill for oil there calls it “Anwar,” for its acronym: “A.N.W.R.” They try to diminish it this way, demean it, make it meaningless, removing each powerful word in its name. They call it a “windswept, treeless, barren wasteland.”
In mid-July, the woman told me she was back with the other man. “He’s down here telling me he loves me,” was all she said. I felt like I’d been hollowed out with a dull knife. Still do.
Right now, I’m back in California for the winter. At this very moment, the Republican Party, the Supreme Court’s President George W. Bush, minion to oil companies, a huge phalanx of corporations, a terrifying juggernaut of automobiles, and the manner in which we all live our lives—all of these things—are taking dead aim at drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. President Bush is laughing right along with British Petroleum and its shareholders at the power blackouts in California.
“What do I love?” I ask myself. Love feels so frightening right now. So much easier not to love, no? So much safer to be cynical. “What do I love?” I ask myself. I believe with every molecule of my being that to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is absolutely, unequivocally wrong. All of the stars of this galaxy that is our civilization, though, are aligned against this birthing ground of caribou. All of the freeways of California, of our entire nation, cry out for oil rigs in this wildlife refuge.
So far away, what does the refuge matter? Our children are raised inside buildings, on freeways, with computers, video games, televisions, surrounded by asphalt and concrete. What need they of wildlife in a distant wilderness? Does not a herd of cows in a pasture suffice for “nature"?
I loved this bicycle-riding woman with all my heart. I did everything possible to awaken love inside her. Everything. My love now flees to the place where I became a man and was changed fundamentally when I worked surveying in the Brooks Range of Alaska, a land untouched by roads for hundreds of miles. Where game trails were also human trails. It is difficult to describe this feeling when you have been weaned in the seats of automobiles.
I work as a conductor on the Alaska Railroad. I have helped haul thousands of railroad cars of fuel from the refinery in North Pole, Alaska, to Anchorage. I am more tainted by this oil than nearly anyone. Much of my paycheck comes directly from businesses operating the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. But I did not come to Alaska for money. I came to see the wilderness, to feel it, to breathe it. Then—the eternal story—money vied for my soul.
I had always wanted freedom, and simplicity. I do not want to destroy the very thing I went to Alaska to see. The rapaciousness of human beings cannot be exaggerated. We simply close our eyes and the destruction ensues. I am responsible. We are all responsible.
If we desecrate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, let us know why it happens. It is not for “national security,” it is not to “balance oil imports.” If we build roads, warehouses, oil rigs, storage tanks, airstrips, housing for workers, pipelines in that rare, remote, wild and precious place, it will be so that politicians can repay their debts to the corporations who assure that their toadies remain in power. Hell, in Alaska, trying to separate a politician from an oil company would be like trying to skin a live grizzly bear.
But more than anything, it will be because we, the citizens, the people of the United States of America, turned a blind eye to the havoc we wreak upon even the most sacred places on Earth, so that every single one of us can own a car, or two or three or four, and fill ‘er up, and hop on the freeway whenever the whim strikes us.
Of all our possessions, our automobiles are the most precious to us. They give us our cherished physical freedom. We would trash our computers, televisions, telephones, stereos, microwaves, washing machines, you name it, to keep our cars. Actions speak louder than words. I know. Lately I’ve been looking for a new truck. The one I like the most is called the … “Tundra.”
If I had my choice of all these things, though, I hope—with all my heart, with all my human being—that I would choose love. After all, you’d be amazed what you can do on a bicycle.