32 • ESSAY
HOMESICK AT THE OUTER EDGE OF THE WORLD
By Anthony Doerr
or a period of my childhood, somewhere between years eight and nine, and immediately after I read The Call of the Wild, I decided I needed to become a mail carrier in the Yukon. I would brave blizzards, pan for gold, never clean my room, and communicate telepathically with my sled dogs. For a week that January I slept with my bedroom window open, to “prepare my body for the cold,” until Dad figured out why the house was freezing and put an end to that. I soon moved on to other dreams—NFL punt returner, myrmecologist, restaurant reviewer who only reviews turkey sandwiches—but the pull of the North never left. Perhaps it was because I grew up in Cleveland, where trekking north on a dogsled would only get me as far as Willoughby, birthplace of Tim Conway, but Alaska loomed mythic in my imagination. It was a place where the sun never set, where auroras sent green curtains as big as cities flapping through the sky, a place as far from the familiar as you could get.
Adolescence compounded things. Nowadays I appreciate Cleveland’s leafy, bygone beauty, but as a teenager all I saw were dark Februaries, dead steel mills, and freeways leading elsewhere. I became so enamored with leaving home that I papered my bedroom walls with maps of distant islands and asked my parents questions like, “You mean you were alive at the same time as Jimi Hendrix and you never even tried to see him once?” In the spring of my fourteenth year, I announced that, as soon as summer vacation arrived, I would buy a van with my lawn-mowing earnings and drive to the Arctic Circle. My mother—half-amused, half-horrified—pointed out that I couldn’t obtain a driver’s license for two more years. Then she stuck a catalogue for a summer outdoor leadership school beside my breakfast. They offered three trips in Alaska. I jabbed my finger at the least scary-looking: a month-long sea kayaking expedition. Mom said, “You have to be sixteen for that one.” “Oh,” I said, and rustled the newspaper classifieds. “Look, here’s a minivan for sale. Five hundred bucks.”
“Fine,” she said, “we’ll tell them you’re sixteen. But no vans.” Two months later I was standing in the rain wearing two pairs of polypropylene underwear and a life preserver. Ahead of me loomed the bright green fjords of the Tongass National Forest, seventeen million acres, the largest national forest in the United States. Fifteen of us departed in eleven kayaks and we didn’t set foot indoors for a month. Those first days, younger than everybody else, collecting drinking water from creeks and bogs and using rocks and moss as toilet paper, I worried I might have traveled a bit too far from the familiar. In Cleveland we had beds. We had hot water! We had a vacuum cleaner! What I missed most was food. On our first day, we were divided into three-person tent groups, and each threesome had to pack, protect, and cook its own meals. My tent group was particularly unskilled at food preparation. With our little backpacking stove, we managed to burn every supper: brown rice, lentils, spaghetti, even instant potatoes. Every meal we tried to cook tasted like some variation of burnt noodles. The chocolate we