North with a Capital N

What I most enjoyed when I read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s twopart travelogue in the New York Times Magazine was that he traveled predominantly by land, crossing parts of North America less often emphasized, and, for him, hitherto unknown. It got me thinking about wilderness again and fed into my growing excitement for the trip Cooper and I were planning to the far reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula at the end of last summer. Knausgaard ends up traversing Michigan and Wisconsin to get to Minnesota and North Dakota, strongholds of Norwegian-American history, while the segment he most anticipates—New England to Pennsylvania—has to be cancelled due to an absurd delay at the start of the trip. I was surprised to learn that this Norwegian has such strong visions of Maine and Vermont, in contrast to his experience driving through Northern Michigan: “an America I hadn’t known existed, that I had never seen in pictures or heard anyone mention.”

His expedition begins on the coast of Newfoundland in early January, not the time of year you’d necessarily pick to visit upper North America. He visits the archaeological site of L’Anse aux Meadows, where the Vikings landed and settled in what they named Vinland, where they stayed several years and then left. Their marks on the land were buried, allowing Europeans to repeat their discovery of America hundreds of years later.

Knausgaard stands on the plain in the late afternoon and sees “the vast expanse of ice, the dark blue ocean beyond, beneath the pale blue sky, the islands in the distance, sheer cliffs rearing up from the water.” Everything still, silent. “A thousand years is no time at all […] I had no difficulty imagining a Viking ship approaching land.” He looks up at the skies in Newfoundland and all over the Midwest and sees glittering stars; he pulls over on the side of the highway to stare up at them. He rides through the north woods of the Great Lakes states for two days before the trees give way to endless prairies.

I want to do that, too. A great American road trip to experience the full breadth of the continent, except there are too many places to visit all in one go. There are the two coasts, mountains in the east and in the west, valleys and canyons and forests and farms.

I also want to cross the Canadian Shield—that huge mass of ancient granite, the roots of mountains that no longer exist—which covers over half of Canada, from the Great Lakes up to the Arctic. Here I would take trains instead of driving; there are areas along one of the transcontinental routes that you could only get to by train, and so vacationers would ride the rails up to their cabins, to swim and canoe and hunt and watch the leaves change in the fall. Or at least that was the case almost thirty years ago, when Terry Pindell wrote Last Train to Toronto, a book I really love that opened up Canada to me wider than ever before. The Shield is spotted with pristine lakes and rivers, dug out when the glaciers retreated. Best of all, there’s bogland, called muskeg up there—I thought it was so weird when I first encountered it, that I can’t forget it—and many of the lakes are on top of muskeg, which Pindell describes as bottomless. When they laid the railroad, they lost tracks and entire trains when the consistency of the foundation was misjudged. Whole trains disappearing into a bog!

Remote and sparsely-populated areas intrigue me, although I’m with the many people who have disparaged and will continue to sometimes disparage flat land, monotony, corn fields, although at the same time, I find the ease with which large segments of our nation dismiss the “flyover” states offensive. I don’t think the part of Michigan I live in is particularly awe-inspiring, either, but I still find it worth exploring. The summer after I graduated from college, I read how writer Ian Frazier rented a cabin in the mountains of Montana to stay in while he wrote his book, Great Plains. The book is full of interesting history and stories, from all over the plains, but what I most remember is his description of descending the mountain, down the fancifully-named Going-to-the-Sun Road, and arriving in a land where you can see out in front of you for miles. I read it and thought, “I want to do that that, too.”

One of my friends thought he might do linguistics fieldwork with a professor in the Yukon Territory one summer. If he did, Emma and I figured we would seize that excuse to explore, load her weird old Camry with food and clothes and blankets and drive up through Michigan, across Wisconsin and Minnesota to Alberta, pushing on through British Columbia and up the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse, the capital and only city of the Yukon. A remote and probably monotonous adventure that I really wanted to make, although neither of us are that into driving. I still have a screenshot of the Google Maps route, which I used as a background for a while on my phone to hold onto the dream.

The Arctic is beautiful in the Grizzly Man summer, baby foxes leaping over endless wildflowers, waves crashing on the shore, adorable bear cubs becoming friends with the foolish man who is the focus of the film. I would love to be there. But what concept have I of the Yukon and Alaska? They’re the North with a capital N, where Lyra Belacqua journeys in search of her vanished uncle and the kidnapped children of Oxford, where she finds a land of fearsome bears and powerful witches, where the barriers between the worlds are thin. The soft thud of the word ‘tundra,’ the magic made clear by the aurora borealis and the midnight sun.

More recently I’ve read John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, and explored Alaska of the 1970s that way. Rivers swimming with fish, lifesaving cabins scattered across barely-accessed (and sometimes contested) federal and state land, so many towns and villages reachable only by shaky bush planes and their intrepid pilots. ‘The Country’ refers to the bush; it’s not a place I am meant to be. Tame suburbs, chubby house cats, and so many books brought me to where I am today. It’s the books that incite me to hubris.

I’ve traveled a lot in the past eight years, although I didn’t always like it. I truly love being at home; I always want to make my apartment cozier and prettier, and fill it with friends. I fear new experiences; I don’t like to forge ahead. I always want a plan, and learn best by following, learn happiest if I mimic everything, step by step. But the sense of mystery and exploration—the so-called Wilderness, the North—they call out to me. I want to travel to worlds unknown to me. It’s easy to do in a book, and I’ve read so many and gone so far with them. When I read of far-off places, I’ve never really thought, “Reading is the closest I will ever come to this.”

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