Winter reminds us of our place in universeMany years ago, I read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire.” I can recall being impressed that a man lost his life simply because he was unable to keep a fire going when he needed it more than anything else in the world. The story, and several other tales by Jack London, created for me the idea that Alaska is a harsh, dangerous place.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
Many years ago, I read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire.”
I can recall being impressed that a man lost his life simply because he was unable to keep a fire going when he needed it more than anything else in the world. The story, and several other tales by Jack London, created for me the idea that Alaska is a harsh, dangerous place.
You might think that’s no longer the case. We roll around in a world of space-age insulation for clothing, powerful four-wheel-drive vehicles to carry us over, around or through just about any terrain, and hand-held devices that guarantee we are never really out of touch with civilization. Even way off in the high country on the far side of a frozen, snow-covered Yukon River where the man in London’s short story ran into trouble, people today have mobility and communications.
Even so, I know a young man who nearly died one day in the Alaskan wilderness, and he was just out for a run with his dog team. The way I heard the story, he went out to run the dogs a short ways and didn’t prepare as well as he might have if he’d thought he was going to end up falling through the ice of a river and walking back to his house with a temperature of about minus 10 degrees. He made it, but he was lucky.
The story reminded me of Jack London’s tale and made me remember a childhood adventure that probably wasn’t close to deadly but sure seemed so at the time.
A couple of friends and I back in Chamberlain decided to go out into the river bluffs and find a tree for their house for Christmas. We were maybe fifth- or sixth-graders at the time. My friends’ younger sister wanted to tag along, so four of us set out beyond the railroad tracks, across a barbed wire fence and into the hills and valleys south of town.
We found a tree, but it took us way longer than we figured to chop it down. The Boy Scout hatchets we carried hadn’t been sharpened for years. It was cold, it was growing dark and somewhere along the way back, we lost sight of the tracks we’d made in the snow on our way into the hills. The sister was sobbing, the younger of my two friends was shivering violently, and we hadn’t a clue where we were.
That sounds crazy, because we weren’t all that far from town. This was a long while ago, though. The houses didn’t reach as far into the hills as they do today. The interstate didn’t exist to give us car lights and truck engines as a guide. It was just hills, valleys and trees.
I couldn’t feel my toes and the end of my nose burned by the time we stumbled into the barbed wire fence and realized generally where we were. We made it home, where the parents scolded us for quite a long while. Having raised three children now, I know our folks were afraid we wouldn’t come back and were excited to see us. At the time, I just thought they were terribly angry.
Today, I identify the kid in that adventure with the guy in Jack London’s story. London described the man as being without imagination, quick and alert in the things of life, “But only in the things and not in the significances.”
Fifty degrees below zero impressed London’s subject as cold and uncomfortable.
“It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold, and from there it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.”
That sounds like folks these days who think a cell phone and an SUV make them immune to winter danger. It sounds like my kids, back in the days when they’d leave for Brookings or Vermillion in the dead of winter with a light jacket, no gloves and boat shoes without socks.
It definitely sounds like me and my friends when we went in search of a Christmas tree.