The beginning of Part 4 opened with Christy's self-exile in Canada in 1968 to escape being drafted or jailed. Before returning to discuss Christy's extended initiation into his adopted home, and how these experiences shaped his personal philosophy, I will kick-off this final part of Christy's biography by following-up the six adventures related at the end of Part 4 with six more bizarre tales of derring-do, undertaken either as investigative journalist, private eye, or just plain old vagabond explorer.
Not all the stories that follow have been published and, as with 'In Search of the Golden Madonna' and 'On the Caddy Trail' in part 4, the first three Latin American tales below involve the kind of high drama normally identified with the movies—indeed part of the first story reads like an Edgar Allan Poe horror, only more abject. Hence the Indiana Jones tag linked to Christy that he finds so irritating. But unlike the whip cracking hero of the big screen, while Christy is certainly motivated by adventure, he is more likely to regard some of the scrapes he gets into as tragi-comic and absurd. He does not seek danger for the sake of it, it just has a way of finding him, and considering all his close encounters from his early days as a junior mobster and child hobo onwards, it is a wonder that he ever survived to tell so many fantastic tales at all. Not surprising then that Christy suffers no small amount of anxiety that ghosts from his past will come back to haunt him—maybe in his dreams they do. And so, even though he lives in the relative safety of Canada, Christy insists on obscuring certain facts about his past, either to protect others or protect himself.
If anything, Christy plays down his adventures and is embarrassed about mentioning them, precisely because those with mundane lives insist on questioning the validity of those whose lives are extraordinary; unless, of course, those lives are recorded in the 'history books', which is where one finds the biggest lies of all. I have no doubt at all about the veracity of the facts in Christy's stories, even if his memory for dates and chronology gets mixed up. The more one digs, the more one gets from Christy, even if getting at those nuggets about his life is as painful as pulling teeth; both for the dentist and the patient. The frustration is that there is so much more to report than Christy is willing to tell. But as he has become a septuagenarian this week, perhaps he is entitled to enjoy his memories unmolested.
A Month in a Cartagena Dungeon
There is a part-fictionalised version of the Cartagena story in Travelin Light titled 'La Mordida' (meaning both 'bite' and 'bribe', both of which feature in this tale). Fictionalised because, as Christy says, the publisher 'thought the drug stuff would have trendy sales appeal. I did not smuggle cocaine in frozen chickens though it would have been a good idea.' Given the success of the hit TV series Breaking Bad, she may have been on to something, though sadly cannot claim the credit for the idea even if she came up with it first. And so here I will summarise some of the facts of that trip which were every bit as catastrophic for Christy as the fictionalised version; and if the cocaine bit was added by the publisher to this story for effect, an actual cocaine deal was very much at the centre of the second story below, 'Drug Deal in Bogota'.
Having enjoyed a convivial New Years Eve in Cartagena with friends, his second visit to that City, Christy was spending the morning of New Year's Day 1976 sleeping his hangover off on the beach when, following an altercation with a local, Christy was arrested by armed police, beaten up, and thrown into a dungeon in the fortress walls of that city where he languished for about a month before his release. One suspects that the whole affair was a ploy to extract a hefty bribe from their brutalised prisoner for his release. He had been told he could expect to serve several years in that cell, accompanied only by rats and biting bugs, and so who would not have been willing to hand over any amount of money to get of that place. Ignoring the unnecessary additions made by the publisher, the factual arrest and prison sequences are graphically described in 'La Mordida', only small sections of which will be reproduced here:
'The van slowed and entered the gateway of the great fort. The men around me began muttering among themselves. I watched their black boots as they stirred in anticipation. I looked at their olive fatigue uniforms and the sten guns or bolt action rifles cradled in their arms. None of them looked more than twenty-two. ... The Spanish had used Indian labour to build this fort that protected the gold of the new world. They made the cement from coral and they built the walls sixty feet high and fifty feet wide. ... The van came to a halt and the back door was opened. The soldiers pushed me to the edge and the big shot who had taken charge when they got me, reached up, grabbed my belt and pulled me forward. I fell to the ground and before I could raise my head from the hard dirt, a steel-toed boot slammed into my ribs. The Captain was grinning with sincere pleasure. ... The second in charge was the driver, his teeth yellow, laughing, imitating his boss. ... I tensed, waiting for it, and when it came this time it caught me higher up, on the skull, and my knees began to buckle.
They took me to a windowless stone room where the captain was waiting along with his superior. ... They didn't interrogate me, they didn't lay any charges, asked no questions, all they did was form a circle and put me in the middle. Then they proceeded to beat me nearly senseless. Rifle butts, fists, knees, boots. ... When they were done I was dragged out and down a steep flight of steps. I was only vaguely aware of what was happening. It was damp. ... They stopped before a thick green door, opened it and shoved me inside. ... The stone floor was slimy under my hands. I saw black and red bugs coming for me like something spilled on a sloping floor. Then, I stumbled into a corner and was sick' (TL 93-95)
'I leaned with one hand against the wall and threw up into a hole, the ragged gash that had been worn out of the stone ... When I was finished, I saw that my hand was covered with small red insect bites. I collapsed onto a bench. It was four feet long and two and a half feet off the ground and the only furnishing in the cell. For the first time I became aware of the pain and soreness from the beating. I was reaching down, tenderly feeling my shins when I saw the first rat come out of the opening, move toward the vomit and begin to poke around. Soon it was joined by another. They darted back and forth until they'd had their fill. ... There had been no concession made to the functions of the body. Not even a bucket or hole. The floor and the lower parts of the walls were encrusted with a scum of indescribable colour and odour. Four hundred years earlier the first pirate had been beaten and thrown into this cave and it seemed no one had hosed it down since. ... I sat on the wooden bench and waited. I leaned against the wall and felt the biting on the back of my neck but I didn't move. They crawled across my boots and under my pant legs and more welts the size of quarters appeared all over my body but I didn't care. I accepted it.' (TL 106)
'One night passed. Another. Sleep was very unlikely on that 48 inch long bench. It came only after I had exhausted myself with frustration. I lay on my back and drew my feet up, but my knees would stiffen. The hard wood offered no comfort to vertebrae they had bruised with their rifle buts. I turned on my side and it was agony to my ribs. ... my arms were nearly covered with bites ... and now there were fresh bites on top of the welts. ... the trap door in the middle of the door opened and a tin plate of beans was slid into the cell. I was sick all over again. I dumped the beans into the rat hole and put the plate in the corner but still I was sick. ... On the third day, El Jefe came and told me that the situation was grave indeed ... they were obliged to put me in prison for 20 years. Unless, of course, I gave them ten thousand dollars.' (TL 108-110)
To cut a very long story short, Christy did not, of course, have this kind of money, something his captors found very hard to believe; assuming that all gringos had access to large sums of money. Eventually they accepted that all they were going to get from Christy—that had not already been stolen—was three fifty dollar traveller's cheques and eighty dollars cash that he had stashed away in his clothing. But after taking the money as a bribe for his release, they left him languishing in the prison for a further week with no word before he had any idea that they would release him. After walking out of the jail, Christy checked out the pensión where he had been staying but his suitcase had long since disappeared then, avoiding the disgusted looks of fellow passengers on the bus to the beach, 'I walked into the Caribbean in my underwear and washed. Then I scrubbed my clothes, spread them out on the sand and lay down and slept.' Christy managed to pull enough money together to make it to Miami where an old gangster buddy of his father helped him out with a large wad of bills. After splashing out three hundred dollars on new clothes, bored with the Miami scene and, in any case, not to wanting to expose his bitten, bruised and sore body on the beach, Christy flew back to Toronto.
Drug Deal in Bogota
One wanders why Christy would return to Colombia after the punishment he took on his last visit, but in 1979 Christy was given a journalistic assignment to report on the plight of a former gamino (street urchin) who had lived out of garbage cans from the age of four until thirteen. Now around thirty, he was a wealthy businessman making it big in the cocaine industry. Arturo Amundez, as he is named in 'Staying Alive in Bogota', Beyond the Meridians, meets Christy in the bar of Bogota's largest hotel, the Tequendama, where he relates his life story. Amundez acknowledges to being worried that organised, corporate crime, unofficially supported by Government officials looking after their own interests, could put him out of business, or worse:
'He has survived because he is oh so cool, very smart and well armed. But he is an independent operator in a country where eventually an independent operator meets, not his match, but forces beyond his control.' (BM 167)
Later Amundez meets Christy in his (Christy's) hotel room with an airline flight bag containing, among other things, two bakery boxes. He has planned with Christy to meet an American who is desperate to make some big money in order to pay unpaid taxes to the Colombian Government. One of the bakery boxes contains a cake which the dealer proceeds to slice up with a switchblade, the other contains 6.6 pounds of cocaine. Thirty minutes before the American is due to show up there is a knock at the door:
'Amundez's face freezes. ... Hockley [the American] is not due until eight. Amundez reaches under his coat and brings out a .25 caliber Browning automatic. He hands it to me and then takes out a clumsy old police special from the small of his back. "If it's not an American," he says "start firing." '
This is the scene that confronts the frightened American when Christy calls, "Come in." He has arrived thirty minutes early. As a relieved Christy later observes, 'Participatory journalism has its limits.'
Deported from Curaçao ... and on to Caracas
There are many reasons, not necessarily connected, why Christy might have been selected for the kind of assignment that follows: he had 'mobster' credentials from his early days in Philadelphia, not least having Angelo Bruno as his godfather; had proven himself as a competent writer and investigative journalist; spoke Spanish; was an intrepid and resourceful traveller; was cool under pressure; and, being afflicted by wanderlust, he was probably persuasive when it came to getting himself paid work that involved both travel and writing. One can only wander what Christy might have wrote down on his CV!
After a week in Curaçao, Christy was visited in his hotel and given a note from the intelligence guy telling him that he must leave the country immediately, that it was dangerous to stay. Christy was taken to a freight hangar at the airport and hidden amongst some boxes. From there he was put on a (free) plane passage to Toronto.
'While doing my rounds in Curaçao I discovered that Caracas had taken over from Marseilles as the world's major "Mob" city and not only that, it was controlled by Canadian organized crime. The magazine gave me more money to fly to Caracas. The new reform-minded Justice Minister of Venezuela had been murdered a couple of days earlier, supposedly by a deranged gunman who fled to Naples. In reality, he was killed by two Canadian organized crime figures who were still in town, staying at the penthouse of the Sheraton, I think it was. Anyway, my Curacao contact came over and took me to see them. They were straight-up and we got along fine. They laughed at the whole thing. There were fancy women and dope there. Neither of which did I see or partake of. Both of these guys were known to me by name. One told me that if I had any sense I would leave Toronto and move to his city [Vancouver].' (EM)
Two years later while in a coffee shop in the Italian district of Vancouver, a guy came up behind Christy and placed his hands on his shoulder. 'The old moustaches in there go quiet (with respect). It was that guy. He says, "See, it's better out here. I'm glad you took my advice." ' When Christy wrote the original piece up (not the meeting in the coffee shop which hadn't happened at the time) the publisher refused to print the story considering it too far-fetched, particularly a story about an upcoming Mob heist of a ship load of coffee sent by Castro to Europe.
'Anyway, a month or so after I submitted my piece and had it rejected, the coffee heist occurred. I delivered a news clipping to the magazine but, naturally, they did not have the grace to say they were sorry.' (EM)
House Arrest in Manaus
Christy's fifth trip to Brazil in 1981 was again funded by Weekend Magazine who he convinced to send him to investigate the trans-Amazonia Highway backed by the billionaire shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig. When Christy started asking questions around Manaus, centre of the construction operations, he was later braced in his hotel by cops, taken for questioning, and returned to the hotel where he was put under house arrest.
'During my grilling, I discovered that some Indian workers had been gunned down by their foremen. They had been promised some days off for Carnival but when the time came around the holiday was denied them. They assembled—peacefully—at the foreman's office/trailer and he open the door firing; killed about seven.' (EM)
Christy had not known about the incident at the time he was questioned but found out later from his interrogators. This particular incarceration was a different experience altogether from the grim time he'd had in the Cartagena dungeon. The hotel didn't have a dining room but the cops brought Christy dinner each day on a silver tray with a cover over the hot dishes. After six days he was permitted to stand in the hotel doorway and every now and then step out onto the pavement. At such times he would pay kids pennies to fetch him street food. Otherwise he was confined to the premises. 'It was quite enjoyable. I caught up on my reading and got friendly with lots of passer-bys'. Eventually Christy was released into the custody of a 'huge native gun-toting guard' who took him to the airport and on to the first plane out of Brazil. Excited by the thought he may get sent to Portugal, the first plane was bound for Caracas and so Christy landed up back in Venezuela.
|Laucala Resort Today|
In the longer piece below on Christy's Yukon and Alaskan adventures, I discuss the way the natural world has of defying attempts by human animals to tame and control it. If we die out as a species because we have fucked-up the natural environment needed to sustain life, that would be the ultimate revenge of nature on this arrogant and selfish parasite of its resources. There is something totally alien to tramp and cynic philosophy about humans 'owning' land and creating borders to keep people in and out; the tramp is more akin to birds and wild animals in their need to be free to go anywhere on the planet they choose. Wanderlust represents an addiction to continually seek out the remotest corners of the world and to, at times, get as far away from the human herd and their manufactured paraphernalia as is possible. Christy's next adventure illustrates an extreme example of the repugnant side of this human greed and selfishness.
In 1985 Christy made a trip to seven of the outer Fijian Islands and spent some of the time with a woman companion he met on the trip. They had been staying as guests of a Californian couple who had made their home on one of the neighbouring islands:
'They had built a boat, sailed it across the Pacific, bought a piece of an island and built four or five bures—native huts—slightly modernised inside for tourists. They employed the locals but behaved as gracious guests, careful to be as noninvasive as possible. They kept a low profile, bleeding into the existing culture, and as a result were adopted by the natives as their own. The following tale of a neighbouring island describes everything that this island paradise was not.' (MF 85)
Wall Street Journal editor Christopher Winans' book Malcolm Forbes: The Man Who Had Everything (MF), was published the same year that the multi-millionaire entrepreneur and publisher died of a heart attack in 1990. In Winans' book he discusses Christy's visit on Halloween to Forbes' private island paradise, Laucala, bought by Forbes in 1972 to establish as a playground for the rich and famous. Most accounts of Forbes describe him as some kind of generous benefactor who cared for and improved the lives of the local people, offering them work, free education and improved housing. Winans and Christy's observations of Laucala in 1985 contradict those impressions.
While staying with the couple from California, Christy and his companion had been invited to Forbes' island by one of his vassals, a Jim Donohue, described as 'a very blond guy probably two years out of college'. As property tycoons go, and Forbes real estate included a palace in Morocco, a château in France, and a mansion in London (currently on the market for £12 million), it seems he had appallingly poor taste in architecture which Christy describes as, 'a little and part of New Jersey'.
'Forbes had moved the Fijians inland a few hundred yards away from the beaches, razed their bures ... and replaced them with parodies of suburban bungalows. A modest canteen that sold mostly canned goods had been erected, thought the Fijians had little use for canned goods, living in a lush tropical paradise brimming with fresh produce. Among the new housing were concrete patios and a nautilus gym in a sort of community centre. ... The crowning insult to what otherwise was a beautiful island paradise was the New Jersey-style suburban ranch house Malcolm built on the topmost point of the island along with an Olympic-size pool whose sole decoration was a statue of a nude Greek boy. While this was no castle, the house had a commanding view of the entire island, like a fortress from which a king might be able to look down at the little people below. ' (MF 86)
Given the money that Forbes was able to throw around, Christy and his companion, now also in the company of the only other guest at the ranch, an oil-company executive, might have expected something more exotic for their Halloween dinner. After their host had proudly shown off the ranch house's high-tech kitchen and boasted about the wine cellar, they were served up the usual bland American fare of meat-loaf, mashed potatoes, 'lousy warm white wine' and a Jell-O dessert.
There are hints that Forbes might have been a paedophile, although in Winans' book the charge is not made directly: 'visitors would notice a somber attitude among the residents [of Laucala] compared to that of their laid-back, neighboring islanders. And residents on those other islands would hear of vague misgivings among Laucalan parents about the influence of the rich, hedonistic Malcolm on their children.' (MF 85) When Donohue was asked why he thought Forbes had given him the Laucala job, he replied that, 'Malcolm liked to be near young people. It was one of Malcolm's traits that some of the island's parents found worrisome.' Yet another commentator has a rather distasteful recollection of Forbes, 'driving a small four-wheel drive vehicle past hordes of children and tossing them handfuls of hard candy.'
In any case, this was never an allegation made by Christy, who got into enough trouble just describing Laucala in a story he wrote about his visit in the Toronto Globe and Mail on January 7th 1986. After phoning Forbes Inc. offices in New York as part of his research for the story, a company official became suspicious:
"He might have glimpsed that I may have had a few negative impressions," Christy says. "Immediately after talking to him I started getting strange anonymous phone calls. In one conversation a guy tells me, 'You know, nothing bad has ever been written about Forbes. 'Why?' I ask. The guy says, 'Well, anybody who did want to write anything bad about him is dead." (MF 87)
But Christy did write the story. In it he challenges the popular myth put about by Forbes' cronies that the native Fijians were grateful to their lord and master for relocating them from their thatched homes at the waters edge to 'new homes ill-suited to their culture. ... cheap symbols of an old way of life.' Forbes needed the seaside location to build luxury chalets for his paying guests. Christy described Forbes' project as, 'a little bad part of New Jersey stuck out there in the middle of Laucala.' And as for Forbes' vassals, 'The people who are free in Fiji were free everywhere but there.'
One has to question how it is possible, in the so called civilised world of the late twentieth century, that one individual, who has contributed nothing to the world except making a fortune from feeding the appetites of mindless idiots with celebrity gossip, can simply 'buy' an entire island, already occupied by its indigenous peoples, and establish oneself as some kind of local potentate. Such is the triumph of capitalism (the ability to profit from other people's misery) and proof that we remain an essentially barbaric and primitive species.
If the first five tales above introduce a summary of just some of Christy's further globe trotting exploits during the late 1970s and early 1980s (between 1975 and 1985 he visited 20 countries outside Canada, the USA and Mexico, as diverse as Ethiopia, Namibia, Portugal, Peru and Greenland) it should be remembered that throughout this same period he was still making annual trips to the remote wilderness of north western Canada. But before returning to Christy's earlier Canadian adventures, let us wind forwards nearly twenty years for a glimpse of the vagabond adventurer, now approaching his sixtieth year, still doing what he loves doing best: travelling to remote and exotic locations, flirting with danger (no doubt women too), immersing himself in the local habitat and culture, and all the time chronicling his thoughts and his escapades.
Vietnam's Killer Elephants
'I was in Saigon in December when a story appeared in the Viet Nam News, the country’s English-language daily, about some rampaging elephants that had killed a number of people in the Central Highlands. The herd was incensed, the article suggested, by human encroachment on its territory. I was astounded, first to realize that Vietnam had wild elephants—I had thought they were found only in Africa and India—and second by the fact that the attacks were a group effort. Most elephant attacks are the work of rogues cut off from their herd and driven mad by loneliness or pain. There are very few recorded incidents where the animals conspired to kill humans.' Jim Christy, The Walrus, April/May 2004
Rapid development in the area had meant that these animals, desperate at the loss of their habitat, started killing random humans who crossed their paths, but later, as Christy suggests, 'had gone looking'. An Agence France Presse report in June 2001, reports that after the elephants trampled to death their latest victim, marking over twenty in previous three years, attempts were made to relocate them with the help of Malaysian mahouts. The plan was to tranquillise the elephants and relocate them to the Yok Don National Park in the central highland province of Dak Lak near the Cambodian border. But early attempts were suspended when the first two tranquillised elephants died. After the animals were eventually moved and released in the jungle of Yok Don, they had gone on the rampage again, trampling people and destroying homes in the village of Ban Don. In The Walrus (TW) article Christy reflects on the phenomena as follows:
'We’ve always feared the predator beast—the man-eating lions, tigers, jaguars, crocodiles. But if one of them kills you, it’s probably because it wants to eat you. What other animal kills you and walks away? The bear? Perhaps, but the biggest grizzly is a tenth the weight of an Asian elephant, and it doesn’t come looking.' (TW)
By the time Christy had arrived in Vietnam two years after the elephants had been relocated, Ban Don had been taken over by elephant trainers as a centre for domesticating those of the wild elephants who were considered trainable. Many of the more dangerous animals were still at large nearby. Not surprisingly, Christy decided to take a trip up to visit the scene of the crime and write his own report. He took a plane from Saigon to Nha Trang on the coast, and then a small bus to Buon Ma Thuot, the largest city in the Central Highlands. It took five hours, Christy all the while sitting in the back on rice bags, for the bus to twist and climb through the banana covered hills to Buon Ma Thuot. The following day Christy completed the remaining fifty-five kilometres to Ban Don village on the back of a motorbike.
'Walking around the village you can hardly help bumping, literally, into elephants that, just months before, had roamed free. I saw Vietnamese tourists climbing up on a work elephant to have their photos taken. The ranger in charge of the herd of killer elephants was a tall, lean, fierce-looking man who spat when I mentioned the tourists. When I asked him to lead me to the wild elephants, he told me, through the translator, that he thought I was a crazy old guy, but he eventually agreed.' (TW)
Christy's first night in Ban Don was spent on the floor of a wooden shack on stilts over the backwash of the river, musing on the ranger’s comment and trying to console himself with the fact that 'old' in Vietnam 'comes around sooner than back home.' But the next day the ranger cried off with the excuse he had to stay in bed to nurse a cold, leaving Christy to set off for the jungle on his own. After two fishermen took Christy across the Ea Krong river in a dugout canoe he followed the trail he had been advised to take through the jungle. After about eight kilometres he came across the clearing where the ranger had told him he would find the bamboo stake enclosure of his camp. Outside the enclosure a young male elephant was chained to an iron stake by a shackle around his leg. After observing the animal and turning to proceed on his way, 'the animal let out a bellow that shook the trees.' Christy concludes his tale as follows:
'After walking another four kilometres, I came to a second clearing and was about to start back when I saw a full-grown elephant about a quarter of a mile away in a patch of second-growth forest that had probably been defoliated by the Americans during the war. I knew this had to be one of the killers, otherwise it wouldn’t be here. I stood still, watching him, remembering what a mahout in the village had told me: We don’t want to share our terrain with that which we fear, with something other than ourselves that can “think” and is dangerous. I watched the elephant until the picture of him in his wild state, the picture of him the way he is supposed to be, was burned into my brain to stay. Then I went back.'
The story that follows is of Christy's first tramp to central and western Canada in 1971, an experience that prompted fifteen further such trips west between then and Christy's eventual relocation the British Columbia in 1981. This story is followed by an extended account of Christy's Yukon and Alaskan adventures, before concluding with some observations about Christy's personal philosophy, nurtured in no small part by exposure to the extremes of human and natural phenomena that the world has to offer.
In Christy's first book, The New Refugees: American Voices in Canada (1972), a collection of essays by 17 American citizens who had fled to Canada to escape the Vietnam War draft, Christy describes in his own story (Chapter 17) his first trip to discover central and western Canada. Christy had mainly hung around Toronto for the first two years of his exile, keeping his head down to avoid being returned to America and a prison sentence. Before attempting to explore any of the remoter parts of that vast country, Christy says he spent his time developing 'insights into the mysteries and machinations of what had been in every sense of the word, a foreign country'.
'after 22 months in Canada my reflexes were still American. My cognisance of the Canadian experience was solely on an intellectual level. I could not repudiate my past—my American heritage—nor would I wish to, yet I sought to penetrate to the core of the Canadian experience. I wanted to grasp intuitively the force and dynamics of this experience.' (NR 143)
Here we have further confirmation of Christy's Cynical philosophy; he will never feel Canadian simply by filing his head with 'information' about his adopted country, he must experience the 'feel' of Canada by total immersion of all his senses into the very guts of the place. This is how he became an American, 'this knowledge was a part of me, it was in my blood.' And not least by embracing the lifestyle of a hobo which as a child tramp had more thrills than spills:
'I overlooked all the hardships, the dreariness, the loneliness of America and went out there again and again to look. I learned, even—especially—when it seemed the most lonely, the most desolate. Take a bus across Ohio in the evening and you'll see America in its most hideous guise. The barren junk littered neon stillness, the drive in wilderness approaches to Columbus or Drayton, the irrevocable horror of it all.' (NR 145)
Such was Christy's induction into becoming and feeling American. In contrast, he found Canada an altogether welcoming nation. Loneliness there was but 'less frequent and of a different texture.' When one is moving forwards on one's travels and spies the lights of the next city ahead, there is that 'innate assurance that you will find friendliness, you can expect the loneliness to fade away.' Not so in America. Below Christy describes a country and it's people who have an innate suspicion of difference, who take any sign of rejecting their narrow codes of acceptability, even in dress, as a personal threat to their own way of life. And all this in a country built out of diversity and pioneering:
'In America the hitchhiker, the drifter, is not regarded as a seeker of freedom or knowledge, as an explorer of his land and the ways and doings of his fellows, but, rather as a breed of criminal, a jobless, shiftless no-count, out to rob and rape and worse. A man on the road meets all the narrow paranoia, the fear and ignorance of that "pettiness that plays so rough". I appreciate Canada because I can go to a truck stop, lay down my pack, relax, and eat a meal even though my hair touches my collar—and, my God, someone may even engage me in a friendly bit of conversation!' (NR 145-146)
And so to the trip itself. Anxious to be on his way, and knowing that hitchhiking the first leg of the journey was tough, Christy bought a train ticket to Winnipeg where, on doing the rounds of the City's hostels, his concerns were confirmed by fellow travellers who had taken up to ten days to cover that leg of the journey. From there on, Christy took time to walk through towns whose names alone intrigued him. And now the kindliness of Canada became evident:
'Morse and Mortlach, Walpella, Bassano and Indian Head, Golden, Grenfell and Gull Lake; especially Piapot where an old farmer told me the story of the Indian chief and the mounties and, of course, Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat.
I slept in the hostels and armouries provided across the country and talked to travellers there ... some of the old-type drifters, a few hoboes and Indians looking for work. ... One night I got stuck somewhere near Virden, Manitoba, and a man in a service station let me sleep in an old school bus. Another night a buddy and I stayed in a ghost town in Saskatchewan. We found the weather beaten old general store and lay our sleeping bags on the floor amongst the shoots of grass growing through the boards [...] And the people who give you rides. The generosity of those who bought me meals and beer. The distillery vice-president from Montreal, suave, sophisticated ... He picked three of us up and bought us drinks and full course meals Portage la Prairie. The old farmer in Manitoba who owned "all this here land as far as the eye can see", a Mr. Bowden, who gave us breakfast and promised me a job ... The tugboat captain from new Westminster, a wild four hundred mile ride through the mountains and a seafood dinner. Pop and cheese sandwiches from the kids driving a decrepit old stake truck filled with hitchhikers. Three joints from the young couple from the state of Maryland. ... And the people on the way, along the road, in the diners, on front porches.' (NR 147-148)
Below Christy reflects on the experiences of this trip and in what way it had started to shape his understanding of his adopted Country:
'A bombardment of impressions, a flurry of ideas, a host of answers. All of it added up later and hopefully producing insight into the nature of this country. Those experiences rooted in the land would weave a texture I'd recognise and know as the feel of Canada. But it didn't happen that way, my cognition wasn't the summation, the totalling, of these experiences. An event, nurtured perhaps by these people, places, and things but existing nevertheless, in isolation and coming at a time when my mind was still and attuned to the countryside, was the catalyst to what I realize is my knowledge of Canada.' (NR 149)
The experience that followed was the defining moment for Christy in feeling and becoming Canadian. He describes the ease with which he beat a train out of Calgary. After a cop had told him to have a good trip, he just waited for the right car to come along, 'ran alongside it, tossed the bag in, then swung up, and I had a ride.' And now, approaching the Canadian Rockies for the first time, the real magic of the landscape would overwhelmed Christy, as evidenced from the poetic prose that follows; a voice he often lapses into when awestruck by the wonders of nature as similar portrayals in the following 'chapter' evidence. When connecting with nature in this way, Christy is able to paint for the reader an exacting image of just what might have been before his eyes. Add to this sounds, smells, temperature and train vibrations, and the reader will find themselves experiencing powerful reminiscences of similar encounters with nature:
'Somewhere after Banff it happened. I was sitting by the open door and staring with wonder at the dusky green-grey carpet of trees. I could not see the shapes of the mountains because they were so close. The train seemed to be slithering among them, meeting them unaware in their most wild and virginal countenance. My mind put aside all thoughts and flowed with what was before me. Somehow the insane crashing of the boxcar dimmed and faded. The clear smell of earth and nature filled my nostrils and I just watched. Everything was hushed and silent, the woods were like a great still cathedral. Then, suddenly, without warning, they fell away and before me lay a vast panorama which revealed the immensity of the the land, mountains going on and on into the distance, the rivers, the tributaries of the Columbia, snaking in crystal blue through the brown and green and grey. Then down again into the woods, the silence, and out beside a clear fast river. Then right by the shore, racing along with it, a finger of sand beach visible on the other side met by a fringe of fir trees. Then we swing behind a patch of woods and the river flicks by blue and white foam in a staccato rhythm punctuated by the line of trees. It was a barrage of wonders, awesome, fantastic, and continuous. As the pageant unfolded I watched with reverence and as I sat there before that door tears came to my eyes. I was astonished. Everything was stopped except for the passage of nature.' (NR 151)
The piece continues for a paragraph or two in a similar vein, before finding Christy in the middle of the Rockies on a crisp mountain morning where he breakfasted in the town of Revelstoke, took a stroll, chatted to a local Indian, and clearly felt that he was, at last, a Canadian:
'The sense of belonging remains and it is to this consciousness that my fate is committed. Our words and reasons are but futile grasps at the essence of this experience. It is what Canada means. I feel it. Now I am not a stranger, I can empathise, I can fight, I can build, I can understand. It is in my blood.' (NR 151)
Rough Road to the North: Travels along the Alaska Highway (1980)
|Alaska Highway (photo Myfanwy Phillips)|
'I have made numerous trips up this Alaska Highway ... Formally called the "Road to Tokyo." I have even labored on the road, maintaining it around Whitehorse in the Yukon. So I have lived and worked up here and truly know it well, yet when I am away and begin to think of the land it stirs in me a wanderlust that some might describe—and some do!–as youthful or naive, but I am a youth no longer. Naïve, yes, in the sense of a wonder one cannot help but feel in the presence of nature.'
'And I think of that Far North road just snaking through the tall trees and bending around the vast cold lakes. And I know I will have to pack up and take off, have to find some excuse to get there; it being maybe tomorrow or two months from the first time the feeling hits me but I will get there...' Jim Christy, Rough Road to the North, p.2
Such is the seduction of the 'natural' character of the far Northwest of the American continent. To illustrate the incongruity of the human character of that region, I strongly recommend a reading of Rough Road, but the following immortal line uttered to Christy by a native of that land, and passed on to me in an email, sums up better than anything else, the unexpected awaiting the traveller of this strange territory: 'The first white man I ever saw was black.'
Rough Road, Christy fourth book, is loosely based around his fifth trip to the Yukon in the company of Canadian artist and photographer, Myfanwy Phillips (Mif). The original plan had been to produce a small book of text and photographs. In the event, the first seventy pages of Rough Road became a comprehensive social and political history of how the 1,523 mile long Alcan highway (abbreviation of Alaska-Canadian Highway, which following road improvements is now some 60 miles shorter) came into being; an 'umbilical cord as long as the Eastern seaboard from from Maine to the tip of Florida', linking Alaska with the Lower Forty-Eight. The second half of the book describes Christy's own personal adventures—from both this and other visits to the Yukon and Alaska—as well as the stories of characters he meets on the way. Mif was Christy's travelling companion for a large part of the trip, but the later part of the book recounts various adventures Christy makes solo or in the company of others. But to return to the wanderlust expressed in the opening passages, below Christy describes just what it was that prompted this particular journey; at the same time featuring some of the wonderful poetic prose that this writer is wont to lapse into when his vagabond spirit is stirred:
|Alaska Highway (photo Jim Christy)|
As the sleeve of the book describes: 'Alaska: the last great North American wilderness, a landmass approximately the size of England, France, Germany and Spain combined, a repository of natural resources and pioneer romance.' And yet in spite of the considerable intrusions upon the region as a result of the fur trade, logging, the discovery of huge gold and other mineral deposits, not to mention the military paranoia that created the Alcan in the first place, the combined mountainous wilderness of Northern British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska combined, adds up to the largest unexplored region of the world. As Christy describes only one group of mountains:
'The range stretches far into the distance, hundreds of peaks disappear truly as if into eternity. No one has named the peaks, no one has even seen them in their entirety; there are unimagined worlds beyond the first mountain walls and hidden tarns were mountain sheep have come to drink for thousands of years.' (RR 189)
The existence of unnamed mountains in the backyard of two of the most technologically advanced nations on the planet is testimony to the region's scorn of civilisation. And naming peaks that existed millions of years before humans arrived on earth, is a symbol of human arrogance in thinking we can domesticate the natural world.
Christy is not the first tramp writer to have been captivated by this part of the world. Others whose adventures are recounted on this site include: William Henry Davies, Leon Ray Livingston, Bart Kennedy, Jack Everson, Morley Roberts, Jack London, not to mention Jim Tully, tramp and scriptwriter for The Gold Rush (Hollywood's Little Tramp's 74th movie) in which hundreds of extras, including real hobos brought in by train, and complete with their own blanket rolls, were used for the march up the Chilkoot pass scene filmed on location in the Sierra Nevada. Christy's own fascination with the Yukon is evidenced by the fifteen trips he made to the region between 1973 and 1981 from the urbanity of South-Eastern Ontario, before finally moving West in 1981. Christy's move out West was facilitated, not by the publication of Rough Road the previous year, but by a book tour he made to Vancouver to publicise his 5th book Streethearts. He simply decided not to return to Toronto and stayed on in the apartments of various friends between Vancouver and Seattle until he moved to Saltspring Island, B.C. where he took up landscape gardening. Then back to Vancouver in 1983, interrupted only by a year in Peachland and Kelowna, and not returning back East to Ontario until 2005.
But this is the story of one of those inveterate vagabonds for whom the lure of wanderlust ensures that he never settles in the same place for any length of time. And so although I have identified that Christy did base himself in various locations in British Columbia for the twenty-four years between 1981 and 2005—during this time he also spent time in 28 other countries, and many of them more than once (see Part 4).
But for now, let us confine ourselves to Christy's adventures along the Alaskan Highway. In an anecdote about Christy's first trip to the Yukon, he admits that it was not only the wilderness and the pioneering spirit that aroused his fascination for the region, but also his childhood memories of the 1950s radio and then TV show, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, with its images of the legendary mounty chasing down wrongdoers with his trusty dog King.
On his first trip to the Yukon, Christy had arranged to meet up with a friend, Erling, also an old Sergeant Preston fan, at the Taku Lounge in Whitehorse. Both planned to find work on their arrival and Erling arrived first. Christy's first impressions of the region, following a six hour stop at mile zero of the Alcan, Dawson Creek, were not favourable. During the first leg of his journey by bus through the monotonous flat, snow covered terrain around Taylor and the Peace River, he recalls writing in his journal, 'what indomitable purpose it must take to live here winter after desolate winter.' But after Fort Nelson the scenery suddenly changed:
'The mountains began looming beyond the woods in endless ranges white and shadowy in the twilight. Here finally was my dream of the North and I stayed awake long into the night wanting to see the sign that announced YUKON but I fell asleep and missed it, woke as the bus stopped at Rancheria.' (RR 7)
|Mile zero of the Alaska Highway, Dawson Creek (photo Myfanwy Phillips)|
In any event, by the time the pair had made the 1,523 mile trip to Fairbanks in Alaska, Mif was getting homesick for Toronto and Christy drove her back to Whitehorse from where she returned home. But Christy stayed on in the Yukon, working and travelling throughout the winter, based mainly in Dawson City (not to be confused with Dawson Creek) situated on the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers 330 miles north of Whitehorse, and on the Klondike Highway that leaves the Alcan at Whitehorse. But more of Christy's adventures in and around Dawson City later.
Because Christy does not write chronologically, the stories that include Mif get somewhat mixed up with those where Christy is travelling solo or with others, but we pick up our tale as Christy and Mif approach the town of Taylor. Of course, by this time Christy knows folk, and folk know him. As he crosses the Peace River he chuckles to himself at his first impressions of the place. He had since met Jesse Starnes who lived in a trailer and epitomised that indomitable Northwestern spirit that had foxed Christy some years earlier.
|Jessie Starnes (photo Myfanwy Phillips)|
Christy recalls hiking along the river with Jessie one time, learning about the type of crops grown there, how to trail deer, the different types of animal spoors, types of leaves and berries to eat or make tea with, how to catch fish with your bare hands by driving them into the rocks along the riverside or a beaver damn, and how to cook grouse by packing them un-plucked in clay, baking them in an open fire, and then removing the shell of clay, feathers and all, to get at the succulent flesh beneath. At a sandbar on the river he then gave Christy a gold-panning demonstration, casually mentioning, without a hint of boasting, that he had recently returned from Berlin where he had given a gold-panning exhibition and that he was shortly due in Atlanta to give another, "Somehow folks heard about me and started writing me letters to come and teach 'em. Particularly in Europe. So I got me a new career now that I'm pushing ninety."
On their return to Jessie's place, Christy spent an hour in Jessie's lapidary workshop from where he operated a mail order business in cut and polished stones and fossils that including insects, birds, dinosaur teeth, not to mention a dinosaur egg cut in half; as well as corresponding with museums and other lapidarists from around the world. While continuing his journey northwards, Christy reminisces about all the other characters he'd met and scenes he'd witnessed along the Alcan:
'...little tableaux of which I'd been a part. Other bus rides, car trips, truck trips, plane rides, walks, camping trips, hunting trips, and side trips. Some wonderful people and a few not so very nice ones. Everything occurring in the midst of this great land and with the road running through and connecting everything.' (RR 83)
Next stop Fort St. John, and after a drink in the Condill Hotel with Mif, Christy follows a crowd solo to the Frontier Hotel. The spectacle he describes is typical of many other such venues he has visited in frontier towns:
'It is a masculine scene and any white women venturing to the washroom is sent along her way accompanied by hoots, whistles, jeers, catcalls, and a stray grope or two should she venture too close to certain tables.
Soon the music stops and everyone quiets down for the main attraction. She enters the room from a door behind the bar and she is nothing if not statuesque ... Now, despite all the beer-heavy, dirty clothes, rough talking, ready-fist activity, all that masculinity waiting to break loose, when she appears the men are models of decorum and respectability. When a minute before they were ready to cop a feel from anyone's normally dressed wife they are silent and shy in the presence of painted fantasy.' (RR 85-86)
Christy's description of the stripper and her show continues for a further two pages, and the scene well illustrates the rather strange behaviour of a certain type of man, in certain social situations, in the company of other such men. OK, so Christy was there too; but there is an altogether different relationship between male and female 'tramps' than there is between 'working girls', and repressed and boorish working men. Christy had been initiated into the company of chorus girls and hookers from the age of twelve (see Part 1) and shared a bond of fellowship that can only be understood by vagabonds of both genders.
Then on to Wonowon, an Indian name for blueberry but also mile 101 of the Alaska Highway, during which leg of the journey Christy muses on conversations of all the bus passengers he has previously shared a seat with on this monotonous 300 mile stretch of road from Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson—the reason being, Christy says, is that they, 'didn't have anything else to do but shoot the breeze and sleep.' But twenty-five miles past Fort Nelson, the road forks off to the left (the right fork goes north up into Northwest Territories) and the 'first grand country' begins:
'The highway meanders through dense forests and then opens to incredible far-flung vistas, mountain ranges visible beyond wide river basins or vast plateaus of snow, all white plains save for strings of dark red water birch trees indicating the course of streams. ... We passed Steamboat Mountain ... and ten miles farther, Indian Head Mountain ... Then far down I see two wolves emerge from the woods to walk across the wide flood channel of the iced over Tetsa River. Big white beautiful animals with thin almost delicate looking legs and heavily muscled shoulders. Their eyes are visible as pieces of pale blue glass in the all-white world.' (RR 93-94)
When the bus arrived at the Toad River Lodge, a woman was greeted by one of the locals who exclaimed, "You been to the Big Smoke, eh?"—referring to Fort St. John. The journey on to Muncho Lake prompts Christy to recall his first trip up the highway when he decided to leave the bus at Summit Lake (midway between Steamboat and Toad River) and tramp the sixty miles from there to Muncho Lake...
'for no particular reason other than all the flat land was left behind and this was the most rugged stretch of the northern Rockies. An area that abounds in moose and grizzly and sometimes you can see mountain sheep and goats crossing the road. I wanted to camp out at Muncho, "Big Deep Lake," and maybe do some fishing for grayling, Dolly Varden, and lake trout.' (RR 95)
As Christy was pitching his tent and lighting his fire by the lake, he noticed a row boat coming to the shore. A Dogrib Indian father and son were taking a huge catch of fish back to their lodge but invited themselves to join Christy for a coffee.
'I made the coffee open-pot style with a little salt. The man said, "You know a good way to cut the grease of the top?"
He laughed, "Yeah, that's right!" He looked at his son and grinned.
From a pocket of his red and black checked mackinaw the father took a paper bag wrapped in plastic which he unravelled and came up with a piece of dried moose meat. From another pocket he took a folding buck knife and cut off, first a piece for me, and then for his son and himself.
He dipped his chunk into the coffee and bit at it. Then he asked me, in a roundabout way, what I was doing up in this country. I told him I had come up to do just what I was doing now and I told him I liked talking to people who lived here and especially liked listening to their stories.' (RR 96)
My own reader will need to acquire a copy of Rough Road if they want to hear the story that Christy heard that day from the Indian on the shore of Lake Muncho.
'Just over Contact Creek at Mile 588 is the first Yukon marker and for the next forty miles the road threads back and forth over the border. At Mile 620 is the Indian village of Lower Post, which was set up as a fur-trading post by one of the Yukon's first white settlers, Robert Sylvester, who arrived in the late 1860s. Later he sold the post to the Hudson's Bay Company.
The Yukon. Twenty thousand people in an area 2½ times the size of Texas. Fabled land. The first stop is Watson Lake with its rustic, wilderness village ambience lacking in the highway towns to the south. The highway parallels the lake, which serves as a float plane base. Both were named for a Yorkshireman who stopped off here in 1897 and said to hell with the Gold Rush. He married an Indian woman and stayed at the lake until he died in 1938.' (RR 102-103)
And here Christy spends some time identifying what he believes to be the unique character of those who live in the Yukon, a different breed of person from those one encounters elsewhere, even in Alaska. Acknowledging that although they have arrived in the Yukon from all over the US, Canada, Europe and further afield, and that they all remain very much individuals, 'they are stamped not only by the land but also by the spirit that has brought them here.' And they come to the Yukon, Christy says, 'for other than the usual reasons that North Americans give to explain their mobility.'
As Christy further describes it, one would not simply move here for a job transfer, or even to see something new. The Yukon is one of the 'ends of the earth', bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean. Whitehorse, though located in the south of the Yukon, is still 3,000 miles north of San Francisco; one doesn't have to travel that far just to see something new. Whatever reason folk have for living and working in the region, 'they share that Yukon thing.'
'There is a romance involved and if people don't go around talking about it and examining it out loud that is no reason to think it doesn't exist. Some lined and wrinkled old fellow with his prospector's slouch hat pulled low over his eyes is not about to wax eloquent over the lure of the frozen North or the spell of the Midnight Sun, at least not until he's had a couple of drinks.' (RR 104)
But talk they eventually will; of an awe and comfort that comes from knowing that one lives in magnificent surroundings and that, 'just beyond most any mountain is land that no one has ever seen'. But even more powerful, is the exhilaration those folks Christy met during the 1970s felt from knowing that they were part of history, a part of a small and dying breed of pioneers who had conquered one of the last frontiers on earth. Over four decades later, it would be interesting to ask the grandchildren of these same pioneers about their relationship to the Yukon, and the legacy that their grandparents and great-grandparents left behind. Christy, who has also spent time in the Amazon and been alarmed at the encroachments of the modern world on that former wilderness, acknowledges that in comparison, the Amazon has seen many more years of civilisation than the Yukon: 'The white city of Manaus had flourished and died before the first white man ever saw the Yukon.'
Next stop along the Alcan, just before it dips again into B.C. for the last time on its journey north, is the settlement of Rancheria, so called because a couple of gold prospectors from the Mexican border area around San Diego stopped at the small Indian village there in 1873 and renamed the settlement and the river. Then on to the village of Teslin at Mile 803, situated on the 78 mile long, 2 mile wide, Teslin Lake at the point where Nisutlin Bay juts out at right angles from the main lake necessitating the 584 meter, 7 span bridge, to carry the highway across the bay. The highway follows the east side of the lake up to its northerly point at Johnston's Crossing where it passes over the Teslin River and continues westward to Mile 865 at Jake's Corner. The junction at Jake's Corner has a road going south-west down to Carcross at the north end of Bennett lake. It was from Skagway at the top of the Chilkoot Inlet (accessed from the Gulf of Alaska) north to Carcross, that the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad was built in 1898 following the Gold Rush stampede. A reconstructed railroad still carries passengers from Skagway to Carcross today. The original route north to the goldfields follows the Klondike Highway which runs due north from Carcross, joining the Alaska Highway again just south of Whitehorse, then splitting off from it again a few miles north of Whitehorse and continuing to Dawson City.
Country Music Digression
McCrae's Truck Stop was situated at Mile 909 just south of Whitehorse, where the rail extension from Carcross to Whitehorse and beyond, built in 1900, crosses the Alcan. For Christy, Mile 909 was the jumping off point for one of those incongruous tales that beset most travellers, and who no matter how much one tries to avoid getting involved in other tourists lives, have a habit of creeping up on you when you least expect it. Stan was from Tennessee, a gravelly voiced, drunkard, sometime country singer, who claimed to be a friend of Johnny Cash, and who together with Bobby (a B-52 pilot), the singer's embarrassed son, had stopped off at McCrae's on a trip up to Fairbanks, and were camping at McCrae's in their Airstream trailer.
'Stan proceeded to tell me about his wife and Bobby's mother and how they had split up a long time ago and she hadn't let him see Bobby for years and now they were taking this great trip together to Fairbanks to meet up with the eldest son Lloyd who worked on the pipeline.' (RR 109)
As it is with such unintended soirées, Stan's persistent buying of beers for Christy helped to relieve the latter's reluctance to befriend his persistent host; not helped by Stan's insistence, in spite of Christy's protests, that Christy himself would make a pretty decent country singer. Stan wanted to put himself about the bars of Fairbanks and take that city by storm—all the time accompanied by grimaces and shakes of the head from Bobby to indicate 'that Daddy wasn't as successful and well known as he made out.'
To cut a long story short (it's a nine pager) Bobby was keen to get on with the journey but Stan, returning to the bar with his guitar, insisted on doing a set at McCrae's. Bobby and Christy excused themselves and drove down to the Copper King to catch a set there, all the while Bobby cursing his father and regaling Christy with stories of his screwed-up life. On their return, by now the worse for drink, they were surprised to see Stan all packed up and waiting in the pick-up truck, having revived himself with a thermos of coffee. By this time Christy was up for the trip, and after depositing a semi-conscious Bobby in the truck, the trio set off for the 588 mile trip to Fairbanks, Alaska.
'So we took off down the Alaska Highway, guzzling beer and singing whatever we could remember of C&W hits of yesterday. An hour into the trip I had begun to consider that this little venture was entirely feasible, that somehow upon landing in Fairbanks I would find myself transformed into a bona-fide country troubadour. Two hours into the trip I was asleep.' (RR 112)
The next thing Christy knew, he was being shaken awake—'My eyes felt as if they were covered in battery acid'—by a grinning, foul breath smelling Stan, who announced, 'Wake up, we're in Alaska!' The seasoned traveller Christy muttered, 'Huh, what? Already?' Stan had missed the turning at Haines Junction and driven all the way to Alaska, yes, but to the town of Haines, 147 miles south on the coast: "She-et. Don't wake Bobby. Well just get back in the truck and go back there to the turn-off."
'We started walking back to the truck and Stan stopped cold in his tracks, stared back the way we'd just come, and closed his eyes."Oh, good holy Jesus!"
"What's the matter?"
"Oh, sweet mumbling baby Jesus. Bobby's gonna kick my ass good. Oh, what am I gonna do?"
"Forgot the trailer."
Bobby woke after half an hour and made up for all the wrongs his father had ever done him by cursing him for the remaining two and a half hours it took to return to Whitehorse. Stan never uttered a word, and both ignored Christy who concludes this tale with the observation—'My hopes of country-singing stardom dashed'
Whitehorse and Onward
But returning to this particular trip, as Christy arrives in Main Street, Whitehorse, he bemoans the fact that they have closed down and boarded up the iconic Whitehorse Inn, to be replaced by a modern bank:
'What will the city be without the tall prancing white stallion hanging over the sidewalk? It was the hottest scene in town during the war and the roughest afterward. It became the main Indian drinking and brawling spot, earning the nickname Moccasin Square Garden.' (RR 115)
Christy suggests that the Whitehorse Inn sign should be preserved as a historical monument. Eventually the illuminated neon sign was preserved, and can still be seen today at the MacBride Museum on 1st Avenue. Picking up his mail from the Edgewater Hotel and strolling over to a coffee shop to open and read, he is please to see that one envelope contains his Yukon driver's licence. 'The other, nearly two years old, informs me that my application for a job on the Arctic Circle as a weather technician ... has been turned down.' Armed with his Yukon driving licence (special conditions were required to drive in the Yukon due to the cost of rescuing broken down motorists from the wilderness) Christy and Mif find and buy a '67 Chevy from the back of a garage in Forth Avenue, Whitehorse, to take them on the rest of their trip up to Fairbanks.
'On to Haines Junction, nestling below the towering peaks of the St. Elias range. They stand in iron-grey majesty above the little town and the icy trails through the passes mark the path of moist Pacific air like fingers of white candle wax.' (RR 117)
There, in the shadow of the mountains, they stop at Mother's Cozy Corner for pie and coffee, where the sign reads 'Small in Size but Big in Hospitality', then on to:
'Burwash Lodge, Mile 1103 ... We spend the first night out of Whitehorse at Mr Allinger's lodge, a veritable cliché of a mountain hostelry set right on Kluane Lake and at night from your window you can hear the thumping of the water as it hits the shore and washes the gravel with a shoosh like brushes on a cymbal. At dawn and dusk the mountains on the other side of the lake are black cut-out forms against a dark pink-tinged sky. The cool lake air carries a hint of early fall wood smoke.' (RR 189)
Over a few drinks in the lodge they are invited to sit at a table with a lone Indian, who after a long silence, then proceeds to tell them the story of his cousin, an honest trapper, who was in debt to the trading post there about, and no matter how hard he tried to settle his debts just kept on running up more credit. To add to his misfortunes, that winter his wife died, but the ground being too frozen to bury her, he hauled her body up into a tree.
"When he did this it made all the animals come around. All the animals in the forest come to the tree to prowl there in the night-time and sniff at the body. So my cousin, he sets his traps there by the tree and he had his best season ever. He had enough money to pay the trapper and he had plenty left over. And that's what happened to my cousin."
The story prompts Christy to reflect on the absurdity of Alaska in general, and about those (starting with the Russian fur trade in the 1700s) who have lost and made their fortunes since. In 1867, the Americans bought Alaska from the Russians for $7,200,000 in gold (having earlier that century already bought Louisiana from the French and Florida from Spain). Initially criticised for the stupidity of paying that sum for a piece of wilderness, the fur trade having already declined, it was simply left as Indian territory until someone discovered gold. At the time of writing Rough Road, Alaska was still booming, this time with oil. It has since, in the summer months at least, become overrun with tourists, a trade that was only just emerging at the time of Christy's trip. But here Christy describes the boom years of Alaska during the 1970s:
'No sooner do they finish building one pipeline than they start on another one. Land of the six-thousand-dollar-a-month welding job. Waitresses who dabble in real estate. Gold nugget watches on the arms of boys a year off the farm. Fairbanks! One of the few places on God's earth where you will find Eskimo men wearing mascara.'
And so over the Alaska border go Christy and Mif (where Christy recalls the absurd spectacle of US Citizens actually going down on all fours to kiss the asphalt) and on to Tetlin Junction at Mile 1311, cutoff for the Top of the World Highway to Eagle, Alaska, and Dawson City, Yukon. At the time, Tetlin Junction consisted of a lodge, truck-stop and four log cabins. By way of emphasising the random individuality of the Yukon/Alaskan character, here in Tetlin Christy encounters 'the 'worlds coolest gas station attendant'. A forty-something, gaunt Inuit with a pencil thin moustache, who glides around the pumps, snapping his fingers, scat singing and uttering a string of hipster cant, "Wow. Say, man, where you headed? . . . Fairbanks, hmmmm . . . well, groovy." Christy doesn't have time to hang around and hear the hip eskimos's story, so he makes one up that is probably as crazy as the real thing. In my own experience, one doesn't have to travel to Alaska to meet with the strange and incongruous. America is full of such characters. Christy's story reminded me of a five week bus trip I made back in 1967 from New York to San Francisco (then up the coast to Vancouver and back through the Canadian Rockies and Prairies to Toronto). On the outward trip, as the bus pulled into the depot in Cheyenne, I was confronted, not just by the only black face in town; this skinny black guy was all decked out in the campest set of cowboy duds, from Stetson to Cuban heeled boots, and all generously splashed with rhinestones.
'Mile 1314 . . . Tok, Alaska . . . A roadhouse Saturday night. Rockabilly and raucous behaviour going on in Young's Husky Lounge. The band is wailing, the dance floor is crowded, and they're wedged four deep at the bar, hands pass along money and beer in aluminium cans like a ball game. The men are construction workers, oil men, dog mushers, and breeders. ... Tok is dog-raising country. People talk about dogs or nostalgia.' (RR 124-125)
'Johnson River, mile 1830 . . . After driving the '67 Chevy 300 miles over rocky rutted Canadian road, it decides it can't take the smooth asphalt of civilisation (relative) and blows a tire. The jack is rusted and useless. We sit by the river and wait for someone to come along.' (RR 127)
Eventually they manage to flag down a car, borrow a jack, and get mobile again. Twenty miles further on Christy spied a wreckers yard down a muddy lane off the highway and managed to get a serviceable tyre from one of the wrecks. His observations on the wrecks themselves and how their license plates hail from all states south, tells its own story:
'They had penetrated far enough into the land of the future that when they expired their owners could not be too angry, just gave them a final push into the woods, or else, broke, their drivers pulled in here and sold them for the bus fare into Fairbanks.' (RR 128)
'Rainer and Olympia beer signs are glowing in the window of the Club Evergreen ... what better way to meet the people and get the true feel of these little communities than by visiting the local watering holes ... Drinking is a big part of the life of the North, some would say the biggest part, and a teetotaller knows not the land of the midnight sun.' (RR 129)
We do not know if the pair continued imbibing at other establishments along the way, or whether here Christy is just simply offering us a social history of the Alcan, in any event, twenty miles further on he points out the Richardson Roadhouse, 'one of the original log cabin inns that were built every twenty miles along the old trail.' Further on again, twenty miles from Harding Lake, and just past the Boondox Bar, Christy and Mif came across another one of those Northern absurdities, a curious two-story building covered in a forest mural with bear cubs climbing trees and fish leaping out of streams. The blinds were all drawn and so Christy and Mif stopped to explore:
|photo by Myfanwy Phillips|
"Where are they?"
"That's the problem, sweetie. I run it for the old people but the city has stuck it way out here twenty-five miles from town where the rent is cheaper but where the old people can't get to it. ... I haven't gotten paid for two months. But if I don't do it, who the hell will." (RR 131)
They stay for coffee and the woman tells them, slitting her eyes to exhale the smoke from her Camel cigarettes, that she came up from St. Louis with her husband who was a Navy pilot. He had the choice of posting to either Hawaii of Alaska and chose Alaska because of his fascination with Jack London's writing. She had wanted Hawaii. But within three months of arriving in Alaska he died in a plane crash. "The poor bastard. I just stayed on."
Then on to North Pole, the last community before Fairbanks. So called because the developer who bought it hoped to coax a toy manufacturing company to take advantage of the name and location. Didn't quite turn out that way, but a fur-buyer named Con Miller, who had arrived in Fairbanks in 1949 with his wife Nellie and only $1.49 in his pocket, eventually saved up enough cash to open a trading post in North Pole. Because Con dressed up in a Santa suit each Christmas, he soon became known as Santa by the local kids which prompted him to name his store Santa Clause House. He gave gifts to poor kids in remote Alaskan settlements, and when Con's wife Nellie became postmistress, the store also served as a post office, receiving mail from kids around the world who address letters to Santa Claus, North Pole. Con and Nellie's family continue the tradition to this day and, as Christy points out, many other businesses in North Pole have cashed in on the Santa theme in one way or another, resulting in much of the town being dressed up with Christmas kitch all the year round.
And so finally to Fairbanks, of which town Christy gives a fascinating history, before recounting the views of locals and writers about how the city had changed from pre to post-pipeline only a few years previously. The town used to be acclaimed as an 'all American city'—'There was a spirit of friendliness uniting the people that helped ... hardships to be endured.' Fairbanks had a touch of the French Foreign legion about, it inasmuch as: 'the people came from everywhere. No one cared about whatever deeds lurked in their neighbor's past'—'it was all good natured back in the old days'—'Used to be an Alaskan whore had a heart of gold.'
By contrast, as many of the old time pioneers lamented, now it was all hustle, making a quick buck, and getting out again. "Ah, these people, what do they care for this country? They'll make their twenty-four dollars an hour for as long as they can take it, and get out. Good riddance, but they leave mementos of their presence all about; each one of them destroys a little bit of Alaska before they leave." But the greatest regret of the old timers was legacy that the surge of 'progress' had on the Indians. There was a time when they co-existed with the white man, when they became interdependent the one on the other, when their lives even depended on each other. "Now they lie on the floor in the washroom of the white man's bars." And as for the whores, "the white man turned the Indian woman into a whore and then they couldn't even earn money that way because the black women came up from Detroit and Seattle and drove the Indian woman off the street." A fact that was borne out by the first sight that greeted Mif and Christy as they drove into downtown Fairbanks along Second Avenue, the rest of the following passage is a fair description of downtown during the late 1970s:
'black hookers in blond Afro wigs parade, shaking the shakable, showing the stuff, licking frosted lips with pink tongues, and offering fake lascivious leers to sort-haired, fresh faced soldier boys. ... The big parking lot is filled with dented Jeeps, mud-splattered campers, hillbilly Fords, old Volvos owned by geologists, and long cream-colored Coup de Villes. Kids lie around in sleeping bags, their heads propped against tyres. Over in a corner of the lot behind a van a couple of people are completing a deal of some kind while Eskimos pass around a bottle of California port a few feet away. Three pipeliners with beards and long hair and ample bellies commander the middle of the sidewalk, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, tossing each dead Olly can into the street, vying with one another in exclaiming what they'd like to do with their section foreman. Down the street, tourists take photos of gold nugget watches in a jewellery store window and Indians in tattered clothes sprawl on the curb in front of them.' (RR 133)
Christy and Mif confronted the other side of the human face of Fairbanks as they walked to their motel room that night and passed an open door on the following vista accompanied by country songs coming from a radio: 'a man was sitting on the edge of the bed with his elbows on his knees and he was staring at a spot on the rug between his feet. Beside him the desk with the peeling veneer top; in front of the mirror where guilt-framed photos of a woman and some children.' (RR 139) Later they were woken at four in the morning by a truck door slamming, heels clicking, and a screaming female voice, "If you think I'm going to give you a blow job you're crazy!" An intrusion that prompts from Christy the following assessment: 'Fairbanks! More pollution than Los Angeles! Home of the world's busiest MacDonalds!' A terminus of six highways and a railroad, not to mention a flight a day from New York and Tokyo. And, I could not resist including this last description of Fairbanks, simply to further showcase Christy's observational powers of the absurd, and his poetic prose:
'A young Eskimo boy with teased haired painted eyes swishing down the midnight avenue. The North Carolina couple picking each other apart in the fantastic Mexican restaurant. The hordes of dirty-clothes working men. ... Okies pumping gas. The Jewish man running the Viennese delicatessen with Aleut waiters. A crowd of Eskimos gesticulating under a street lamp outside a Bingo parlour. Men in Fairbanks formal attire—leisure suits—plotting big deals with Arabs and Japanese in the basement restaurant of the Chena View Hotel. ... And always the whores: young ones working the streets and lobbies; old ones turned to waitressing in the greasy luncheonettes.
Fairbanks, the terminus to the Alcan. The All-American town smack dab in the middle of the tawdry future ... The beginning of the dream and the end of the road.' (RR 141)
|Welcome rest stop, Top of the World Highway (photo Myfanwy Phillips)|
'The town bursts into life on August 17 each year. The streets are jammed with tourist campers and every pick-up truck from 500 miles around. Indians, miners, families from Colorado as well as the entire city of Whitehorse throng the dirt streets and elbow their way through Diamond Hall Gertie's, home of the only legalized gambling in Canada.' (RR 144)
Here Christy met up with his friend and former journalistic partner, Joe Nickel, who had travelled to work in the casinos after hearing from Christy that there was legalised gambling in Dawson (see Joe Nickel's account on this site). At that time the only legal gambling anywhere in Canada. Christy describes the three days of action before 'bills are paid, tents are taken down, camps are broken, and the line of cars and trailers begins making its way out of town.'
|Dawson City (photo Myfanwy Phillips)|
'there are all these houses, enough for thousands of people, and they all stand empty, collapsing, buckling on their foundations of permafrost. They are being reclaimed by the bush. There is an eerie sense of time to Dawson in the fall and winter as you look up the street at the decrepit buildings ... Your footsteps really do echo on the board sidewalks in the night. Ghosts lurk in the abandoned buildings.' (RR 146)
Here I recommend my reader acquire a copy of Rough Road to read Christy's fascinating accounts of some of the old Gold Rush characters—and not only those who made their fortunes directly from pay dirt. Christy also debunks some of the Jack London myths (see London's biography on this site). In London's case, his Yukon pay dirt was the books and articles he wrote as a result of the year he spent in the region. But as Christy observes, London was no different from the thousands of others who just 'drifted into the Yukon and drifted out again at the earliest opportunity.' He credits London with a rich memory of the things he saw and heard on his Yukon travels, and a vivid imagination when it came to exploiting those experiences later. That London's great Yukon adventures were in large part fictional has been pretty much accepted, but this of course should not diminish his earlier audacious adventures as an oyster pirate and teenage hobo. Though only twenty-one when he travelled to the Yukon, London had already determined to give up the harsh life of a drifter and become a writer. He had enrolled in university to further this goal but quickly realised that college was not going to provide him with the skills he needed to write. It was during his second term that he decided to quit university and seek his fortune, as so many others were doing, in the Gold Rush. The trip was financed by his sister, and his brother-in-law accompanied him on the venture. While they never made any money from the trip at the time—in fact returning broke—in terms of London's writing, the Yukon became his real university and gave him some of his best material: 'I never realized a cent from any properties I had an interest in up there ... Still I have been managing to pan out a living ever since on the strength of the trip.' London would never overcome his battle with alcohol, which eventually killed him at the age of forty.
The true laureate of the Yukon, Christy maintains, was Robert William Service (1874-1958). Born in Lancashire, England, and brought up in Scotland from the age of five, Service followed his fathers footsteps into banking when he left school. At the age of 21 he tramped across America to Vancouver Island, from where he drifted up and down the west coast between Mexico and British Columbia. Christy tells us how Service, drawn to the Yukon by London's recently published works, settled down to work at a bank in Whitehorse. After coming to the attention of the Yukon journalist, Stroller White, who had heard Service reciting poetry at gatherings around Whitehorse, White persuaded him that writing could be profitable. Late that night, after everyone else had left the bank, and to the sounds of merriment coming from the nearby Malemute Saloon, Service paced about his office wracking his brains for something to pen. Mistaken for an intruder, the night watchman fired a shot at Service; an event that spawned his narrative poem, The Shooting of Dan McGrew—a melodrama that subsequently generated two movies by the same name. After reciting the poem at a church social, an aged miner approached Service and told him the strange tale of a prospector who cremated his own partner. Thus was born Service's second acclaimed work (his first poem was written at the age of six), The Cremation of Sam McGee, with it's famous opening lines: 'There are strange things done in the midnight sun—By the men who toil for gold'. And if Service's crude rhyming ballads are frowned upon by poetry snobs today, Christy warns them not to indicate such prejudices in the bars around Whitehorse and Dawson; not if they value their hides that is!
Having determined to study Robert Service further when I have concluded my bio on Christy, I know return to the adventures of the more contemporary vagabond. During his two month stay in Dawson, Christy made a five day trip up the Dempster Highway with two brothers on a moose-hunt. Today the Dempster runs all the way from ten miles outside Dawson City, straight north for the remaining 470 miles to Inuvik. From there, the coastal settlement of Tuktoyaktuk (Tuk) on the Arctic Ocean can be reached via the Mackenzie River Delta or plane. At the time of Christy's trip, the Dempster was no more than a rough road as far as the Arctic Circle boundary at Eagle River. Below Christy describes the ever changing landscape up the Dempster Highway:
'Forests to plains to rolling dun-colored hills. Then Alpine forests, which gave way to the strangest Max Ernst landscapes: flat tableland with eerie mesas rising like mysterious growths bubbled up from underground cauldrons. There was a stretch of strange peaks, white sulphur cliffs, brilliant white and dark red hoodoos thrusting out of their granite ramparts, solitary grey chimney peaks like the towers of medieval cathedrals far off in the distance, and one night we camped in sleeping bags and I woke at dawn to see the tumble of peaks black and silhouetted in the dim light like piles of rubble and ragged pieces of wall left standing after a bombing raid on a German city.' (RR 156)
The trio took their time, stopping to hike through woods, shooting grouse to clay-bake for dinner, hunching around campfires at night sipping brandy and swapping yarns. When they finally reached the Arctic Circle boundary, they got their moose (well, one of Christy's companions did, Christy himself has little appetite for killing) and headed back for Dawson.
Disappearing World of the Hobo
By the time the worst of the winter started, Christy had saved up enough money to fix the battered Chevy and head south for Whitehorse; a route that he had tramped and hitch-hiked many times before. Just a few miles past Stewart Crossing, Christy saw a man walking north along the Dempster. Obviously not a local, lean, in his mid-forties and wearing a denim jacket with the collar turned up and greased back hair. Christy's curiosity, and some concern, made him turn the car around to enquire where the stranger was headed. Turns out that the guy was tramping to Alaska, and some mean spirited lift from Whitehorse had dropped him on the Dempster telling him it was the Alcan. Had the hobo continued on his way to Dawson, he would have been stranded as the road back south to the Alcan would have been closed for the winter and there was no work to be had in Dawson. Christy drove the man back to a lodge up the road where, over a coffee, he heard the man's story—a tale not uncommon to many who find it hard to conform to society's norms, and a tale that was to take Christy back to his early teens:
'He told me about how the world was going crazy. So crazy, in fact, that people thought he was crazy for noticing it. And when things got to that point, he figured it was best to be moving on. "Why, I walk alongside the road and kids in cars throw stones at me or try to run me down. The po-lease run me in just to be ornery. I've spent my life drifting and it's getting harder to do. Man ain't free down South. You hardly meet anybody worth talking to. I'm just an old hobo." ' (RR 160)
As the tale continued, Christy started recognising places and people that the hobo knew. 'He had ridden the rails and shipped out all around the world.' When Christy asked if he knew Floyd Wallace (see Part 2), the man answered, "Floyd Wallace and me was good friends and I'm proud to have known him." To which Christy retorted, "Have known him? What's he dead now.?" It seemed that Floyd Wallace had just disappeared, not been seen for some time, and not turned up at his usual haunts. Another old friend of Christy's, Frisco Jack (photo at top of Part 4), had suggested to Christy's new acquaintance that life might suit them better in Alaska, and so the rockabilly hobo was on his way to meet up with Frisco Jack in Anchorage when he got diverted up the Dempster Highway.
'I waved goodbye and drove on south. As I travelled I thought about him chasing that fading dream. As the forests and the mountains whooshed by outside the windows of my snug car I dwelled on some of the memories he had uncovered, and I thought back on old Floyd. Hadn't Bashō written about "all the ancients who died on the road"? The Arkansas traveller was right, of course. If that old-fashioned honky-tonk, free-wheeling life existed anywhere, it was in Alaska. But I have a feeling it doesn't really exist there either and that is more than a little bit sad.' (RR 160-161)
The theme of the disappearing hobo had already been acknowledge by Jack Kerouac in 1960 when he wrote:
“In America camping is considered a healthy sport for Boy Scouts but a crime for mature men who have made it their vocation. — Poverty is considered a virtue among the monks of civilised nations -- in America you spend a night in the calaboose if youre caught short without your vagrancy change.”
‘The Vanishing American Hobo’ from Lonesome Traveler
And Christy returns to this subject again in the introduction to his latest book, Rouges, Rascals and Scalawags Too (2015), updating Kerouac's observations for the contemporary reader when he comments:
' “The woods are full of wardens,” said Mr. Kerouac in antediluvian times (the mid-fifties). How quaint that comment seems in light of the present homogenized era—nothing less than a security state—we live in. Instead of wardens who were actual human beings, there are now video cameras in the crotches of trees, microphone buds in the very buds, and drones above the forest canopy.'
Homelessness, joblessness, poverty, illness, persecution, isolation, etc., if it’s tough these days for those who choose poverty as a lifestyle, how much tougher for those who have poverty thrust upon them. Bearing Christy's warnings in mind, for the millions of people today facing personal catastrophe (intensified correspondingly by the personal greed of those who already have more than is dignified) the option of becoming a hobo today requires more energy and tenacity than does finding and keeping a job—end of vanishing hobo digression.
Back in Whitehorse and, in contrast to Dawson, Christy feels as though he is back in a metropolis; even though in the seventies the population of Whitehorse was only 14,000 (half its current figure). Here Christy gives us a seven page history of flying in the Yukon, prompted by a winter trip he made with bush pilot Mike Fritz on his return to Whitehorse. On this occasion Christy joins Mike Fritz and a nurse for a childbirth emergency in the small community of Mayo 210 miles away. They return just in time to transfer the mother—now in the final stages of labour and having screamed throughout the trip—to the waiting ambulance where they hear the baby cry before the ambulance has time to pull off from the runway.
Christy's next trip was more conventionally hobo, tracing the railway route of the early gold prospectors between Skagway and Whitehorse, even if he made the return trip in reverse order and from the relative luxury of the cupola atop the train's caboose. This trip prompts Christy to give us a potted history of the Gold Rush, from the pre-railway days when gold hungry adventurers climbed through the Chilkoot pass on their way to the goldfields, to the building of the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway at the turn of the last century. On the return run out of Skagway, Christy was the only passenger:
|White Pass & Yukon Route railroad car (photo Jim Christy)|
'If a Cinerama camera topped the same rise it would be with Wagnerian accompaniment, but in real life silence is appropriate because before the panorama of mountains folding in on themselves—dissolving into one another in a ragged series of ridges working upward from the vast glaciers, the far flung ice fields, a great grey granite world played upon by icy fingers and volcanoes gushing snow and candle wax—one can only feel the hush of awe. The range stretches far into the distance, hundreds of peaks disappear truly as if into eternity. No one has named the peaks, no one has even seen them in their entirety; there are unimagined worlds beyond the first mountain walls and hidden tarns were mountain sheep have come to drink for thousands of years.' (RR 189)
The end of this trip, and the end of the book, is Christy being dropped off at the Canada/Alaska border from Wayne's big Mack truck after fulfilling the last of his deliveries in and around Beaver Creek. And so we end this piece as we started it, with 'the sense of a wonder one cannot help but feel in the presence of nature'. In the passages above and below, Christy sums up perfectly two of those contradictory, and at the same time complementary, aspects of being on the road. Firstly, that awe of the natural world that reveals the human world as the ephemeral and relatively insignificant phenomena that it is, and secondly, when we have had our fill of the wonderment and desolation of nature, the irresistible and compelling allure of a glass-full of beer in the warm and convivial ambience of a neon lit tavern. The lure of both mountains and beer can be equally strong; and, of course, there are times when one can satisfy both simultaneously—such is the adaptability of humans:
'It is pitch black at eight in the morning and cold, which is the way it should be on the Alcan. I pull my parka close around me, grab my duffle, and feel the fresh snow under my boots. I've covered the wildest part now, in a couple of miles the pavement and Alaska begin. Down the road the lights of Far West Texaco are glowing in the dark and America is just over that ridge. Maybe one of the Alaska trucks will give me a ride and I'll have my next beer, make it a Bud, tonight in a club on Second Avenue and a fitting reward it will be too, after all these miles. So I set off walking toward the lights, feeling crazily elated despite the dark, the snow, the cold, right down the middle of that deserted road.' (RR 197)
And so now, having had our fill of the natural and unnatural world absorbed by Christy during the seventy years that he has roamed this planet, and in support of my claim that the blowed in the glass vagabond is born not made, it is interesting to note just how well Christy's philosophical observations of the 1960s still serve him pretty well today.
What makes Jim Christy a Cynic philosopher?
copied by Christy in one of his old notebooks
It is acknowledged in Part 1 of this biography that Christy is not a member of any tribe, political or otherwise, despising politically correct, left-wing liberals as much as he does right-wing bigots. What is more remarkable is that, in true cynic fashion, this attitude to his fellow human beings had been formed for as long as Christy can remember. While many of us embrace ideologies at some point in our lives, even if we get bored with them later, it seems that Christy was always a rebel without a cause—well, 'cause' in the sense of big ideas rather than living life to the full, which he has achieved in spades.
How little things have changed since 1970 when Christy first published his essay Beyond the Spectacle. Spectacle is a plea for a return to the basic human instinct of filtering the world through our own senses rather than through the spectacle of our TV screens and the rhetoric of those peddling salvation; whether of the political, commercial, religious, or mystic kind. The main objects of Christy's cynicism are, on the one side, the 'Corporate Capitalist Ogre', and on the other, impotent left-wing revolutionary ideologues parroting tired old slogans and promoting their own celebrity. It's an old, old story, where both sides of revolution and counter-revolution depend on the other for the rewards (power, money, prestige, etc.) that accrue to those maintaining the confrontation—neither side able to deliver utopia.
If, as Christy maintained in 1970, our actions and language are woeful testaments to the slick packaging of the mass media machine and the empty promises of self-styled experts and leaders, what greater suckers are we in our willingness to still trust in slick advertising forty-five years on from Christy's warnings. He poses the following questions that (if we substitute the Iraq war for the Vietnam war) remain unchanged today: 'What would radicles a do if there was no Vietnam war? If the racial situation was not disastrous; if we weren't faced with an ecological crisis; if we weren't Policemen of the world; etc., etc., etc?'
'The basic problem confronting us, which we don't see, is the hollowness of our daily lives. How do you measure the depths of despair between demonstrations? Armed with outdated ideologies—any ideology—we press forward. Afraid to look to ourselves, we look to Marx, or Lenin, or Chairman Mao, or Jerry Rubin, or Abbey Hoffman—pick one, it doesn't matter, the game's the same. ... We can't even TALK to each other anymore. We spew rhetoric and respond to rhetoric.' (BS 15-16)
And so the first answer to the question, What makes Jim Christy a cynic philosopher?, can be answered by that other modern-day cynic philosopher, Raymond Federman, when he states that, 'true cynics are often the kindest people, for they see the hollowness of life, and from the realization of that hollowness is generated a kind of cosmic pity'. (Twofold Vibration)
But it is not just that both Christy and Federman have identified the hollowness of our daily lives as being a principal cause of our desperate need to replace that vacuum with idealist rhetoric, nor is it, in spite of the cynic's harsh words, their compassion for the human herd—buried as we are up to our own backsides in excrement. What Christy proposes in Spectacle, is the same strategy for survival that the Cynics identified over two thousand years ago: that in order to achieve happiness (or more accurately, reduce suffering), as well as minimising our dependence on material possessions, one should rely on one's own natural instincts rather than listening to the daily babble of egotistical buffoons:
'Ideologies are merely obstacles to this liberation. They are based on domination and their pushers are moral gangsters. Can one imagine a more despicable enemy than the self-deluded demigod who would have you fight and die for his ideals?
The methods of the left-wing ideologists are similar to those of their Capitalist counterparts. They are conspirators in the creation of Spectacles, the object being to "politicize". To make the masses aware. The success of this manipulation depends on averting one's responses from real-life situations, one loses touch, subjects events to "Interpretation" ' (BS 17)
The ideas put forward here by the 25 year old vagabond writer at the end of the sixties, uncannily echo those penned during the following decade by (so-called) postmodernist philosophers Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard, who also warned us about the treachery of language and simulations of reality (now more real than the original) that daily assault our senses. As Christy himself puts it: 'Embroiled in this verbal garbage, we display our disaffiliation from real life. We are losing our FEEL, our natural intuitive grasp of our surroundings.' (BS 16)
As is true also of earlier tramp writers, what makes Christy a true inheritor the Diogenes' 'school' is that, unlike university professors who build careers on their ideas, Christy rather lived his philosophy (see Afterword by Len Gasparini)—the knowledge and wisdom that comes from hard living rather than books. This is the essence of Cynicism, a reconnection to our natural surroundings, trusting only the knowledge that we receive through our own senses; rather than academic, scientific knowledge and it's belief in first principals and external absolutes, the mindset that has dominated Western thought for over two thousand years.
Cynicism was born out of the Socratic tradition and stood alone in its opposition to what Cynics regarded as the hijacking of Socrates' ideas by Plato and Aristotle; the dogmatic, scientific approach to knowledge discussed above. Plato frequently found himself on the receiving end of Diogenes’ ridicule for selling-out to Socrates. Like the Cynics, Socrates conducted his discourse verbally (and non-verbally) rather than writing his ideas down as 'truths'. Unlike Plato and Aristotle (or for that matter the Christians, who corrupted the simple faith of a Cynic like sage with their own Platonic rhetoric), Cynics have no interest in converting others to their way of life. Cynicism is instead a personal philosophy, a strategy of survival to what cynics regard as a hostile world.
Christy's response to the ideologies of the modern world—promising much and delivering little at best, catastrophe at worse—is what he describes as 'the liberation of daily life':
Christy's response to the ideologies of the modern world—promising much and delivering little at best, catastrophe at worse—is what he describes as 'the liberation of daily life':
'We must begin to live free, not postpone our lives until some mystical post-revolutionary era.' Nor, one might add, waiting to die for the promise of a reward in heaven. 'We must struggle to live in a hostile environment. We must be our revolution. This involves wild-eyed experimentation and hungry exploration.' (BS 18) (see also post on Asceticism)
In describing the urban revolutionary (Cynics, in spite of their use of nature and lower animals as a model for living, were nearly always encountered on city streets), Christy is clear about exactly the response required for genuine revolution—as distinct from those part time, middle class, lifestyle revolutionaries, who wanted to be 'out on the street looking good':
'a real street person is at one with his environment; he is a natural born anarchist who creates situations and responds without preconceived notions. ... it is the struggle for the liberation of daily life.' (BS 17)
And here, of course, Christy is describing the modern day Cynic: the hobo, the vagabond, the tramp, all those who choose to exile themselves from the tyranny of mainstream society for the freedom of the road, or street; even though that freedom comes at the cost of being shunned at best, beaten—even killed—at worst. In terms of mass revolution as opposed to personal revolution, Christy is right, as recent scenes from our city streets bear witness. It is only when people take to the streets in sufficient numbers and with sufficient bravado, that any change is brought about. Though sadly, such change is always short lived, as those seeking the new order abuse power and in turn become corrupt. The only certain way to free oneself from oppressive forces, would seem to be Christy's notion of liberating ourself in our daily life
Christy uses the term anarchy rather than cynicism, but to counter the idea that anarchy, like cynicism, stands for nothing at all, both positions are firmly rooted in a belief that the human project has become bankrupt, and that human beings could, and should, do better. And exactly what Christy feels has been lost from the world can be summed up in the following passage for Rough Road:
'There is an ease to the people of the Far Northwest yet a toughness also that one does not find elsewhere. I sincerely believe that the wonderful thing about that country is that one can lead a life that is full and dignified, something that should be everyone's birthright but yet is becoming increasingly difficult if not impossible in the world today, a world that mitigates against such a thing at every turn and is forever devising new ways to crush the human spirit.' (RR 11)
If Christy's philosophy is anti-ideology, and deliberately so, it is because ideology has always promised much and delivered little. Christy's brand of anarchism sums up our philosophy of tramping. 'Anarchism begins at home. ... It is not apathy but action. Action is synonymous with living free, incorporating anarchism into everything one does. The goal is liberation of daily life.'
'I believed in anarchism because I thought anything less than total freedom was an insult to humanity. Ideologies offered only an exchange of rulers and all ideologies are based on domination. Their pushers I recognized as moral gangsters. ... This domination is dependent on deification. The human being functions as a commodity, no matter what the government, the philosophy, the religion' (BS 201-202)
So far so good, this sounds like a personal philosophy of the individual, but here Christy is in danger of turning full circle to the object of his criticism when he continues that his brand of anarchy 'must start out as individualism but seek to establish erotic networks of other adventurers who hold no truck with the social lie.' This sounds as though it is getting dangerously close to starting a movement, which in turn leads ideology, which leads us back to everything Christy has warned us against. But don't we all have a bit of idealism in our twenties? Christy rescues his argument when he observes later, 'I believed all this in 1970 but rather than preaching it I tried to live it.' (BS 202) This is the essence of our philosophy of tramping, a need for survival that Christy acknowledged earlier in the book: 'We must struggle to live in a hostile environment. We must be our [own] revolution.'
Afterword from Len Gasparini
(fellow vagabond, writer and one of Christy's many friends and admirers)
'I first met Jim Christy in Toronto, in 1974. I was newly divorced, at loose ends, driving truck part time and reviewing books on a freelance basis. I ran into Jim at a party—one of those literary, BYOB get-togethers—and discovered that we had a lot in common: wanderlust, favorite authors, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, baseball, a variety of jobs, and a disdain for academia. Somehow, despite our nomadic wanderings, Jim and I managed to stay in touch. He is the only person I know who embodies the true spirit of the troubadour, in the tradition of Rimbaud, Crane, and Kerouac. It amazes me how he has found the time to publish more than thirty books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction throughout his travels in five continents. In this dark age, he is definitely a beacon.'
More reflections on Jim Christy on this site:
On Jim Christy, by Joe Nickell
More reflections on Jim Christy on this site:
On Jim Christy, by Joe Nickell
More Insights on Jim Christy, by Brad Benson