Alaska, p.81
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       Alaska, p.81

           James A. Michener
 

  'What would he use for roads?' the shopkeeper asked, and he was astounded when Matt said: 'The Yukon. Frozen all the way,' and the pawnbroker said: 'The Yukon don't go to Nome,' and Matt replied: 'But Norton Sound does, and it freezes solid too.'

  Finally, after pawning his belongings, Matt asked: 'How much?' and the dealer said:

  'That's a special bicycle,' and he showed Matt a paper which had come with it and which described the machine as 'Our New Mail Special model used widely by members of the Postal Service. $85.'

  'Save it for me,' Matt said without hesitation, but the dealer said: 'It's a hundred and forty-five dollars,' and Matt said: 'It says here, plain as day, eighty-five,' and the pawnbroker said: 'That was Boston. This is Dawson.'

  During the next weeks Matt, captivated by the concept of bicycling to Nome, returned often to the shop to check whether the bicycle had been sold, and he was always relieved to see that it had not. However, two impediments stood in his way. He lacked the money to buy the bicycle, and even had he been able to do so, the machine would have been of little use to him, for he had never sat astride one and had almost no idea of how it worked.

  When the great river froze, forming a highway, as he had said, 'right down to Nome,' he became almost monomaniacal, badgering everyone in Dawson who had a spare dime to give him work. As October, November and December passed he painfully accumulated funds toward the purchase of the bicycle, and on 2 January 1900 he marched into the pawnshop and made a deposit of eighty dollars on the purchase. This done, he begged the owner to let him practice riding the contraption, and when the miners of Dawson saw him trying to pedal along their snow-covered roads, they said: 'We better lock him up to save his life,' and when they learned that he proposed making it all the way to Nome, they seriously considered keeping him in jail until his madness abated.

  But by the middle of February he made his last payment, and with skill painfully acquired, rode out to the middle of the river, where, with the temperature at minus-forty, he waved goodbye to the doubting watchers. At this late point he was struck with an idea that was going to make the long trip a kind of triumph: abruptly he turned and returned to shore, ignoring the jeers: 'One taste of that cold, he don't want it! He's brighter'n we thought!'

  He had come back to acquire copies of four newspapers then circulating along the Klondike with the latest political news from the United States: Dawson Daily News, Dawson Nugget, and the two with flaming red headlines, San Francisco Examiner and Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

  With these stowed in his gear, he returned to the middle of the river and set forth.

  Once his wheels adjusted to the extreme cold, they functioned perfectly, and to the amazement of the onlookers, he quickly disappeared from sight. Like his machine, Matt was undaunted by the cold, which was surprising because he was not dressed as one might have expected no heavy furs, no goggles, no immense sealskin cap with wolverine edging, no fur-lined mukluks. He wore pretty much what he would have worn on a cold, rainy day in Ireland: heavy boots, gamekeeper leggings, stout fur mittens, three woolen jackets, a scarf about his neck, an ingenious cap made of wool and fur with three big flaps, one for each ear, one to be pulled down to protect the eyes. As he pedaled out of Dawson, old-timers predicted: 'Absolutely impossible he can get to Nome. Hell, he won't even get to Eagle,' which was a mere ninety-five miles downriver.

  Matt covered sixty-three miles that day, sixty-nine the next, and long before even he expected it, he pulled into Fort Yukon, and here his newspapers proved themselves, for the occupants of the rude hotel were so excited by the arrival of news from home that they stayed up all night reading the papers aloud while Matt slept, and in the morning the hotel manager would accept no money from him. Wherever he stopped along the river, and there was a surprising number of solitary cabins sheds dedicated to mail drops and camps from which woodsmen went out to cut logs in preparation for the summer steamer she and his bicycle were received with disbelief and his newspapers with joy. And even though this was midwinter, since the Yukon followed a course south of the Arctic Circle, there was a grayish light for five or six hours each day when the temperature rose to a comfortable minus-twenty.

  Matt's New Mail Special performed even better than its builders in Boston had predicted, and at the halfway mark he'd had no trouble with his tires except that they froze solid at anything below minus-forty, and only one loosened spoke. During the first days his personal gear, strapped to his back, did cause chafing, but he soon solved that problem by adjusting his pack, and during his long, solitary ride down the Yukon he often amused himself by bellowing old Irish songs. The only thing that held him up was an occasional bout of snow blindness, which he cured with a day's rest in some dark cabin.

  He kept going at more than sixty miles a day, and once when he felt he had to make up lost time after an enforced halt because of the blindness, he did seventy-eight.

  That night he shared a cabin with a toothless old-timer, who asked: 'You claim you come all the way from Dawson? How do I know that?' so Matt produced his newspapers with their dates of publication showing, and the old man said: 'So you think that git-up'll work on this 'ere river?'

  'You don't have to carry food for dogs, or spend an hour cooking it at the end of the day,' to which the old man, recalling the hardships he had suffered with his dogs, replied: 'Yep, that would be an advantage.'

  Rider and bike were in such excellent condition that when they reached Kaltag, the village which Father Fyodor Afanasi had served as missionary and in which he had married his Athapascan wife, Matt was emotionally prepared to face the difficult choice laid before him: 'You can continue down the Yukon, more than four hundred miles to the Bering Sea, or you can leave the river for a sixty-mile hike across the mountains to Unalakleet."

  'How do I get my bicycle across?'

  'You carry it.'

  Matt chose the mountains, and after finding an Indian to lug his gear, he dismantled his bicycle as best he could, lashed it to his back, and climbed the eastern slopes, then scrambled down to the welcome sight of Unalakleet perched on the edge of Norton Sound, which was, as he had anticipated, beautifully frozen all the way to Nome.

  Glad to be riding again, he set out blithely on the final dash, a hundred and fifty miles as the crow flies, and on 29 March 1900 at about four in the afternoon he pedaled his way down Front Street in Nome. He was a man who had accomplished one of the remarkable travel adventures of the dying century: Dawson to Nome, solo, depth of winter, thirty-six days.

  After turning his bicycle over to admiring bystanders and delivering his four newspapers to the editor of the local paper, he hurried to meet Missy Peckham, who embraced him ardently and informed him:

  'All the good mining sites are taken, but I'm sure you can get a job somewhere. I did.'

  DURING THE LAST WEEK IN FEBRUARY, WHILE MATT Murphy and his bicycle were still on the Yukon, the testing time came for men and women living in northern Alaska. Existence was brutal. All through February wind howled in from the Bering Sea, and although little snow fell, it was so whipped about that a ground blizzard obscured buildings just half a block away. Now came the feared whiteout, when earth and horizon and sky blended into one gauzelike whole and trappers went blind if they lacked eye shields.

  What made this time more difficult were the huge blocks of ice that forced their way upward through the layers of ice already covering the Bering Sea, for they loomed ominously, casting weird shadows when either the midnight moon or the wan noontime sun shone upon them.

  'I'll be glad when February goes,' Tom Venn said as he watched the sea from his store, but a knowing woman customer warned: 'March is the bad month. Watch out for March.'

  She did not, during that visit, explain this strange statement, and when March did arrive, it brought such fine weather that Tom felt a surge of spring, and he was most pleased when the days began to lengthen and the sea started to look as if would soon relax its icy grip enough to allow ships to arrive. Four days later, whe
n the weather was still perfect, the woman returned: 'These are the dangerous days. Husbands start to beat their wives, and men sharing one hut as mining partners begin to quarrel and suddenly shoot each other.'

  Shortly thereafter, news of two such scandalous affairs reached Tom, and when he asked why they had happened just as winter was relaxing its hold, the same woman customer explained: 'That's the reason! In dark January and February, you know you have to remain strong. But in March and April, we have more daylight than dark. Everything seems to be brighter. But the fact is, we face three more long months of winter.

  March, April, May. The sun shines but the sea remains frozen. We feel life moving but the damned sea stays blocked, and we begin to shout at our friends: "When will this thing ever end?"Watch out for March!' And Tom found that he was reacting exactly as she had described: he felt winter should be over; ships ought to be coming in with new stores; and there stood the frozen sea, its great hummocks immobile in the ice as if winter would never end.

  In his seventeen years he had never experienced a worse month than May when it was spring throughout the world, even in the arctic. Yet still the sea remained locked in the grip of winter. And then, as May ended, the Bering Sea began to break up into monstrous icebergs as big as cathedrals, and despite the fact that navigation was now at its most perilous, for one of these mighty bergs could crush any ordinary vessel, men began to speculate on how soon ships could begin to arrive.

  How glorious it was, in an ordinary year, to be in Nome at the beginning of June and watch as the first of that season's vessels hove to in the roadsteads. Men would fire salutes, and study the ships' profiles, and run down to the shore to greet the first arrival of the year. It was the custom for the local news sheet to print in bold letters the name of the first man ashore:

  HENRY HARPER, FIRST IN

  And each year the cry that greeted every newcomer as he stepped ashore was the same:

  'You got any Seattle newspapers? You got any magazines?'

  This spring of 1900 was to be entirely different, for the desire of many to reach Nome was so great that on 21 May a heavy whaler pushed its snout through the ice, and two days later a legitimate passenger ship arrived, to the astonishment of those who felt that to approach Nome before the first week in June was folly.

  But it was what happened next that amazed the citizens, because in swift succession two more passenger ships arrived, then three more, until, amidst the lessening ice, forty-two large ships lay at anchor. Since docking facilities could not exist on this turbulent roadstead, the ships sat about a mile and a half offshore, while improvised barges and lighters ferried back and forth to disgorge more than nineteen thousand newcomers. Nome, in those hectic weeks of thaw, was a more important harbor than Singapore or Hamburg.

  And as the stampeders streamed ashore, eying the beaches already crowded with the bizarre machines of prospectors, each hopeful man tried to identify the spot to which he would hurry to pick up his share of the gold. Some had tents, which they erected quickly; others less prudent had to scrounge around for sleeping places; the Belgian Mare rented space, rotating four customers in a bed every twenty-four hours; and Tom Venn had to keep one employee watching the store at night so that men endorsed by the R&R office in Seattle could sleep on the floor.

  As more and more ships arrived the chaos in Nome became indescribable, and now the lack of civil government posed a fearful threat, for as health problems mounted, so did crime, and for the same reason. Crime, like disease, can be kept under control in a crowded society only by the exercise of constant policing powers, and if those powers are not allowed to exist, tranquility cannot exist either.

  But one of the big ships arriving on 20 June, with sixteen hundred new miners, brought newspapers confirming the news for which men like Lars Skjellerup and Tom Venn had waited: Congress is about to pass an Alaska Code and the district will receive two additional judges, the more important one to be assigned immediately to Nome.

  Sober men cheered the news and even drunks agreed that the time had come to bring order into this vast disorder. Skjellerup sent Sana searching for the Siberian, and when Arkikov stood before him, the Norwegian cried with unwonted enthusiasm: 'Arkikov!

  Your judge, he's coming, Seven Above will be yours again,' and a broad, robust smile illuminated the irrepressible reindeer herder's face: 'Me glad.'

  IN A SMALL TOWN IN IOWA IN THE YEARS PRIOR TO THE Civil War, a mediocre lawyer developed such vaulting ambitions for his newly born son that he named him John Marshall, after the greatest of the Chief Justices of the United States. The boy could remember that when he was only five his father walked him past the county courthouse and predicted: 'Someday you'll be the judge in that building,' and during his early years the lad believed that the famous jurist was his grandfather.

  John Marshall Grant, alas, had none of the qualities of that noble proponent of justice, for he was essentially a weak human being who developed none of the flint hard character a judge should have. He slouched his way through high school and did poorly in one of Iowa's small colleges. He played no games, avoided books as well, and was notable on campus solely because he became increasingly handsome as the years passed. He was tall, well formed, with even features and a head of wavy hair which photographed so handsomely that people said, when his proud father displayed the cards he carried with him: 'Simon, your son looks like a judge!'

  At the University of Pennsylvania Law School, one of the best, the future judge did so poorly that in later years his classmates often wondered: 'How did John Marshall ever become a judge?' He became one because he looked like one. And as his father had predicted, he was installed in the little Iowa courthouse, dispensing a garbled kind of justice but his decisions frequently had to be overturned by higher courts because he had failed to understand the simplest common law as applied in courts like his throughout the other forty-four states and in Great Britain.

  He was so handsome and so pompous in Fourth of July orations that politicians began thinking of running him for major office, but he was so flabby and lacking in determination that no one knew whether he was Republican or Democrat, and those who knew his pathetic record joked: 'Whichever party loses him is to be be congratulated.' When some Republicans sought a safe candidate who could be elected to Congress, they asked the judge's father what party his son favored, and the old man said proudly: 'My son the judge wears no man's collar.'

  He would probably have bumbled his way to innocuous obscurity, harming few because his worst errors could always be reversed, had he not been invited to address a legal convention in Chicago, where a noted lobbyist heard him speak.

  Marvin Hoxey was at age forty-five a man difficult to forget, once he had buttonholed you and stared penetratingly into your eyes. Portly, crop-headed, careless in dress and characterized by a huge unkempt walrus mustache and a perpetual cigar, he derived his considerable power from the fact that he seemed to know everyone of importance west of the Mississippi or in the halls of Congress. Protector of the more powerful interests in the West, he could always find a friend willing to do 'a little something for Marvin.' He had parlayed his skills into a position of some importance. For his help in gaining South Dakota's admission to the Union in 1889, he had been named National Committeeman for the Republican party in that state, a position from which he orated about 'the growing power of the New West.'

  He thought globally, a man without a college education who could have taught courses on political manipulation. He saw nations as either rising or falling and had an uncanny sense of what actions a rising nation like the United States ought to take next. It then became his job to see to it that only those steps were taken which would serve his clients.

  He became interested in Alaska when Malcolm Ross, senior partner of Ross & Raglan in Seattle, employed him to obstruct any national legislation which might give Alaska home rule, for as Ross pointed out: 'The destiny of Alaska is to be governed by Seattle. The few people who are up there can rely o
n us to make the right decisions for them.'

  At Ross's suggestion he had taken two cruises on R&R ships one to Sitka, which he found disgracefully Russian, 'hardly an American town at all,' and one up the great river to Fort Yukonas a result of which he knew Alaska better than most residents.

  He saw it for what it was, a vast, untamed area with a shockingly mixed and deficient population: 'Not in mental or moral ability, Mr. Ross, but deficient in numbers.

  I don't think the entire area has as many people, I mean real people, not natives and half-breeds, as my county in South Dakota, and God knows we're thinly staffed.'

  It was his opinion, stated loudly in Seattle and Washington, that 'Alaska will never be ready for self-government.'

  Whenever Hoxey lobbied against legislation for Alaska he repeated the pejorative phrase half-breed, spitting it out as if the offspring of a hard-working white prospector and a capable Eskimo woman had to be congenitally inferior to someone purebred like himself with his Scots-English-Irish German-Scandinavian-Central Asian heritage. He believed, and he worked hard to convince others, that since Alaska would always be inhabited by people of mixed derivation Eskimo, Aleut, Athapascan, Tlingit, Russian, Portuguese, Chinese and God knows what it must always be inferior and somehow un-American: 'Stands to reason, Senator, a land filled with half-breeds will never be able to govern itself.

  Keep things as they are and let the good people of Seattle do the thinkin'.'

  During sessions of Congress, Marvin Hoxey sometimes single-handedly defeated the aspirations of Alaska for self-rule. It was not allowed to become a territory, that honorable preparatory step to statehood, because the firms profiting from conditions as they were could not trust what a self-controlled territorial government might do to diminish their advantages. It was not anything, really. For some years it had been known as a district, but mostly it had been simply Alaska, vast, raw and unorganized, and Marvin Hoxey was engaged to keep it that way.

 
Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
Scroll