Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Two and a half days on the Sag

The Sag sags. It's a gentle gurgle, a patient dribble, a sleepy two-lane road through a school zone. It leaks like blood from a wound. Unlike other wild Alaskan rivers, it neither screams nor fumes, but flattens and snakes. It suppurates. That's because the Sagavanirktok River (or "Sag")--which stretches 180 miles from the North Slope of the Brooks Range to the Beaufort Sea of the Arctic Ocean--moves mostly over flatland.

The other day, I got a couple days off from my dishwashing shift, so my friend Sarah from Coldfoot came up to Deadhorse and we went on a two and a half day trip on a sizable section of the Sag.

We took Alpacka Packrafts with us--expensive, ingenious inventions that typically weigh less than five pounds (plus a couple more when you add the weight of the oar). The rafts can be deflated and easily carried, permitting hikers to cross otherwise uncrossable lakes and rivers (and navigate along really shallow rivers like the Sag in ways that canoes, kayaks, and rafts can't).

Sarah, walking over tundra plain with raft in her pack.

Here I am in my dry suit, which kept my skin and underclothes dry (even if I had submerged my whole body underwater). The suit also functions as a windbreaker and rain gear. If it was hot (which it wasn't) I would have been perspiring nastily inside. (I'm not sure why I look so distraught in this picture since I'd just enjoyed a cookie break.)

The rafts are crafted in such a way that they can hold all your gear at the foot of the raft. My lower half is underneath a protective sleeve that prevents the ingress of water. On my backpack, I have my bear spray handy in case of a charge, though the grizzly bears are few and far between this far north, and the polar bears rarely venture this far south.

The North Slope, the arctic coastal plain, the Sag... It all feels just so alien, so unearthly, so unwordly. Give the sky an apocalyptic tint and it would be easy to believe we were on a different planet.

It's just so bafflingly flat. And it feels even more so when on the river because we rarely could see over the edge of the bank. And because there are no skyscrapers, no mountains, and no trees, we no longer have a landscape, only a skyscape. And the sky never seemed so huge. I felt like a tiny organism in a pool of water under the microscope of the sky--a lens so large you can't help but feel how proportionally tiny you are.

These unfamiliar skies are filled with the hieroglyphics of winds and storm and cloud--whose origins and intentions are unknown to my untutored eye. At any time of the day, I could point out dozens of distinct species of cloud--all coexisting peacefully, indifferent to one another, like animals of the Serengeti around a watering hole. Curling around the horizon is a foggy haze; off to the northwest there are bubbling microwaved marshmallows; to their northern flank is a hauntingly-flat alien starship; and above us directly is wispy Chinese calligraphy whose figures bend and stretch with the stratospheric gales.

"Where the hell are we?" Sarah asked.

I didn't know. Maybe it's just that I'm so new to this landscape, this skyscape, but I felt like I could never know this place; that I'd never feel at home or at ease here. Romantic bullshit aside, the north slope can be a downright dreary place. But maybe that's just because my eye is trained to look yonder at wide, sweeping changes in the land, at places with an ever-startling array of features, like the Appalachian Hills or the Brooks Range. Maybe it's just that I don't know how to properly see and feel a place like this.

While I don't think I could be content to live in such a landscape, I do very much appreciate its bizarre nature, and the bizarre feelings it causes to bubble up to the surface.

Franklin Bluffs, one of the few points on our trip where the land rose.
Musk ox! First time I've ever taken a picture of one. This was taken on our drive down the Dalton Highway en route to our starting point on the Sag. It was all by itself. It watched me for a couple minutes as I snapped photos of it from the road.

Sometimes the Sag can feel almost Bahama-like. The blue skies, the still, glassy water, the salty gales, a half dozen gulls sounding alarms, floating on the breezy drafts. The sun pokes out around the edge of a cloud and casts a bright light on a stand of squat lime green willow trees. While I was cold and bundled underneath layers of clothing, I couldn't shake the feeling that such a cold, dreary place can feel oddly tropical.

Lots of birds up here on the coastal plain. In the picture below, on the ground is a raven; above, a flock of geese headed south.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Warning: If you major in English, you may just end up washing dishes in a working camp on the arctic coast

So, I’m a working man again. I just finished my first forty-hour week (of menial labor) in over five years.

At Deadhorse Camp (which is one of several camp/motel facilities in the greater Deadhorse area), we have about 30-50 oilfield employees who, for three weeks at a time, live here and work twelve hours a day. We house them, serve them food at breakfast and dinner buffets, and make them sack lunches. (No need to point out the hypocrisy of a raving environmentalist indirectly abetting the initiatives of the oil industry.)

I am one of five people who work here (three of whom are permanents). And while I’m not one of the permanents, if you include me in the five, then sixty percent of the Deadhorse Camp workforce has a college degree in English—a degree that has clearly served no purpose in preparing us for the duties of our jobs, but does, however, empower us to have impassioned 45-minute conversations on whether the film Scream does or does not fit within the horror genre. (Self-deprecation aside, I do and always will cherish my impractical degrees.)

I’ve been spending about six hours a day in the kitchen, every day of the week. I scrub the bottoms of burnt soup pots with wire brushes, dip my hand into sink drains to pluck out palmfuls of slippery vegetables, and cram heavy black industrial trash bags into polar bear-proof dumpsters. I set up the salad bar, slice the bread, arrange the dessert rack, and fold used cardboard.

Apart from the hikes I’ve gone on over the course of the summer, it’s been awhile since I’ve had to be in a continuous state of movement for hours on end. By the end of my first shift, I was physically exhausted, with sore feet and an aching back—and duly embarrassed because everyone around me had been working twice as long. Now—after a week—my back and feet have adjusted and I am in full-out, body-on, brain-off, work mode.

The job, more than anything, makes me reflect on my many previous menial jobs. Over the years, I've mowed lawns, sharpened skates, flipped burgers, scrubbed toilets, delivered papers, cashed a register, and pushed carts. While it is in fashion to glorify some of these blue collar trades, I have no issue unequivocally stating that I hated all these jobs and admitting that I hate work in general. And I realize that—as an American—such an admission is just about as blasphemous as doubting the existence of Jesus as our savior, but there’s no way around it: I hate work and I’ll do most anything to avoid it, short of taking unemployment checks. And when I mean “work,” I mean working for somebody else, punching a clock, at a job that isn’t entirely of your choosing, at a place or company you’re not exactly free to leave whenever you want. I don’t consider tutoring kids work, or building David a stone path work, or writing my book work—largely because of the loose, unstructured, independent nature of those “jobs.”

Mostly, I hate how the hours go by, how the days melt into one another, and how you realize, suddenly, just how many weeks, months, and years have passed—with the great majority of them devoted to giving someone else your time and spending what few hours you have of your own recuperating from the exhausting toil.

After dishwashing, by the end of the day, I have no ambition to do anything. I have little desire to write, or self-improve, or do anything constructive. All my instincts tell me to lie down, drink cheap beer, and watch another episode of “The Wire.” (In the week I’ve been here, my coworkers and I have exhausted our supply of booze and watched the first 13-episode season of “The Wire,” which, by the way, is one of the greatest TV shows I’ve ever seen.) And while there's nothing wrong with resting after a day's work in front of the tube, a man can't help but question his purpose in life when he spends his time doing something of very little consequence for just a little bit of money.

I know I’ve only been doing this for a week, but there’s nothing like washing one individual spoon after another, for half an hour, in the middle of the night, in a silent kitchen, at a working camp 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, that makes you think about the direction your life is headed in.

My prevailing thought: What the fuck am I doing washing dishes up in Deadhorse?

This question takes on added significance when I consider a recent job opportunity I turned down. Right around the time I got my degree from Duke, an EiC of a respectable magazine strongly encouraged that I apply for a writing job that offered a yearly salary in the high 30’s. I was tempted. But only for a moment. The catch was, if I took the job, I had to stay there for at least three years.

But if I took it, I would be able to do what I love most (writing), I would have a respectable job that puts me on a track to a respectable career, and I would make plenty of money I could put away for a rainy day, as well as the other standard perks: health insurance, dental, 401k….

Ultimately, I turned it down because I didn’t want to be stuck somewhere for three years, sitting at a desk for much of that time, writing articles about things I’m not entirely interested in… I thought I’d be missing out on other challenges, glories, and wonders if I sentenced myself to three years of obligation. In other words, I sacrificed financial security for freedom.

But freedom to do what? I’m effin’ broke and I still have no idea if the book is really going to happen. I currently have $2,000 in the bank, $400 in my wallet, and about $1K in checks that I’ve yet to cash. Freedom to wash dishes?

I suppose, while washing spoons that night, I wondered, for the first time, if I made the wrong decision. I wondered if I’d become too rigid, too unrealistic, too dogmatic. I wondered if maybe I ought to start making more “responsible” decisions. Maybe I should have taken the writing job. Maybe I should have been a park ranger again, making twice as much money doing fun, worthwhile stuff…

But then I reminded myself how lifestyles are traps—traps that are incredibly difficult to escape from. Once you get a career, you get things, you get money, you build around you the infrastructure to have a family. And then—now that it’s convenient—you get a family. And ten years later, you find yourself stuck—stuck in a career you can’t afford to give up, stuck in a family you can’t morally extricate yourself from, stuck inside a personality that is one-dimensional. I think I’ll be happy to be stuck someday, but not now.

What I want more than anything is to write and to continue to experiment with life, which a career very much inhibits. I guess I sometimes forget what I want; I lose sight of the path I put myself on. So I guess it’s good to do what you hate once in a while. When you're most constrained and least inspired, dreams are resuscitated from the dead, empty souls glow to life like blood pumped back into slumbering limbs, and the comatose are shaken awake with a swift kick to the groin.

Mopping the kitchen.

I make about 25 lunches a night. You got me what this lady wanted.

Drinking beer with fellow coworkers after my shift. They were eager, to say the least, to get their paws on the Pabst, as they'd been subjected to Genesee before I came up.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Deadhorse, my new home

Whenever I'd tell one of my Coldfoot coworkers that I was heading up to Deadhorse for a couple of weeks, their first response was maniacal laughter followed by--when they observed my steely glare and were reminded of their imprudence--heartfelt expressions of earnest sympathy. Because of its distance from the mountains, civilization, and the female gender, Deadhorse is generally looked upon as a step down from the comforts and conveniences of Coldfoot.

"Deadhorse is like someone took a shit and forgot to flush," one of them opined.

Two nights ago, I drove a van full of linens up to Deadhorse, where I'll be living for the next couple weeks. As I've mentioned in a previous post, one of the workers up here quit, so the manager (who also runs Coldfoot Camp) needed a guy to fill in to clean rooms and wash dishes.

The Dalton Highway, at these latitudes, can be quite rough. In certain sections, the road is like a washboard, with parallel grooved lines every foot apart that rattle the van so much you can't help but drive the rest of the way with a headache and a grossly uncomfortable erection. When I advanced north through the Brooks Mountain Range and onto the flat coastal plain, I watched, terrified, as the clouds moved in an east-to-west, end-of-times fashion. The pinkish-red storm clouds seemed to blow across the sky just feet above the van, moving at blistering, unearthly tornado-like speeds, which just looked so, so, very, very weird because everything on the ground remained perfectly still (probably because there's nothing on the ground but rocks, low shrubs, and six-inch hight cotton grass). "This place is just weird," said Steve, another coworker from Coldfoot who drove up with me. My thoughts exactly.

Here's my new home. This unit was just brought in, as were several more, so they could house the employees up here who work in the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, as well as the few tourists who come up here and need a place to stay.

Here's the inside of my room. The heater unleashes odors of sauteed battery acid, and the room smells of nicotine and formaldehyde. I actually don't know what formaldehyde smells like, but it has has that chemically sterile flesh-burning odor to it, which the word brings to mind. (Note: The guest rooms at Deadhorse are actually quite nice, so, noble traveler, please don't let my hardly-objective descriptions stop you from visiting.)

The camp manager offered me two rooms. With the first, the view offered nothing more than a wall of orange aluminum siding. But with the unit I chose (to which he refers, hopefully, as my "writing studio"), I can see a bit of the landscape. The Dalton Highway--which you can't quite see--is just a stone's throw from my place. Everything up here in the coastal plain is so flat and there are so few geographic features, the view in all directions appear to be the same.

"Is that the ocean?" I asked while looking out my window to one of my coworkers.

"Ken, that's east," she said.


In ways, the room is a step up from my cabin in Coldfoot. I have electricity, heat, a closet, and I now have, amazingly, a stable internet connection permitting me access to YouTube and Pandora for the first time in months, which are modern conveniences that I have "done without" just fine, but they are warmly re-embraced nonetheless.

This carbon monoxide detector chirped anxiously every few seconds. Because I figured it was a greater risk to my sanity than the monoxide was to my health, I dismantled it.

After feeling grimy from the long drive, I took a shower yesterday evening. (Coworkers share the communal shower with the tourists and pipeline workers.) The water here, I've been told, costs 35 cents a gallon. So it's no surprise that the water leaves the shower nozzle at an exasperating dribble; the pressure being so slight, I must stand directly beneath it. Whenever I turned to wash a different part of my body, I'd accidently nudge the hot-cold dial, which, for whatever reason, is hyper-sensitive, so much that a millimeter adjustment to the right or left would send boiled, skin-melting water onto my shoulders, or a polar, heart-stopping frosty slush.

Some more views. Here's Deadhorse Camp, where I'll be working.


It seems that my homes are getting gradually smaller and smaller in weirder and weirder places. But maybe it's just that sometimes progress points in funny directions.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Oh god, I'm going to Deadhorse

(Deadhorse Camp is the yellow building on the right)

Tomorrow, I'm heading up to Deadhorse, a greasy, steely working camp near the oil fields and Arctic Ocean, for a couple weeks. The guy who runs both Coldfoot Camp and Deadhorse Camp is short on a cleaner/dishwasher up there because someone recently quit.

Because I'm the only person in Coldfoot who's technically unemployed, and because I want to do him a favor for providing me with room and board this summer, but also because I'm eager to put away a little cash, I agreed to fill in.

So tonight I'll pack my bags: clothes, computer and a 12-pack of Pabst (surely not enough to get me through two weeks, but I'm not going in unarmed), and tomorrow morning, I take off.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Working in the arctic

It's starting to get cold up here. Summer is turning to fall, green to red, rain to snow. Because I don't have any source of heat in my cabin, I've been having to wear a set of thermal underwear, as well as a coat and hat while I write. Lately I've been able to see my breath.

It was my original agreement with Coldfoot Camp that I'd work one day a week (for free) to cover my room and boards costs, and I'd spend the rest of my time writing. While we faithfully kept to that agreement for the first month, things have changed lately, now that business, here, has picked up. So, for the past several weeks, I've been working about 20 hours a week--all on the clock--for $11/hour. And it's been great.

I've learned that writing is not the greatest full-time job. It's a lot of fun to write every day, but I tire of sitting on my ass. Plus, the muse is fleeting when you continually harass her for inspiration. Working a part-time job and making a little extra cash has been an unexpected benefit of my life up here, plus I don't feel like such a free-loader because I'm no longer sitting in my cabin all day while everyone else around here does what is commonly regarded as "real work."

Here I am roto-tilling two large rectangles of ground. Coldfoot Camp is powered by diesel, and about a half-decade ago there was a 4,000 gallon spill. That dirt was removed to a special location. And here, once a year, it's roto-tilled so the diesel that has drained to the bottom can evaporate in the sun.

I found this frog in the unlikeliest of places: the diesel pond. A striking find because this is my first sighting of an amphibian in the arctic.

I've also done a good deal of tour guiding (which I did up here full-time five years ago when I was paying off my debt). Typically, I'm either oaring a raft down the Koyukuk River or driving tourists up to Wiseman (a semi-subsistence village fifteen miles north of Coldfoot) where the tourists get to meet hunter and trapper, Jack Reakoff, who's lived in rural Alaska all his life. I give them a broad overview of the region's history, plants and animals; Jack tells them everything about Wiseman and subsistence living.

Here I am, guiding.

Jack talking to tourists by his home in Wiseman.

Jack with moose and caribou hooves.

Jack showing tourists the inside of his cabin.

Jack's cabin.

The northernmost garden in Alaska.

Princess and Holland America buses do tours up and down the Dalton Highway, from Fairbanks to Deadhorse, which is just a few miles south of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields and the Arctic Ocean. I have a love/hate relationship with the tourists. They're all so kind and nice and grandmotherly, yet I'm constantly appalled with their poor health, and I--in general--frown upon their overly structured way of living/traveling. But still, I like them.

A few weeks ago, one of the Princess buses broke down 30 miles north of Coldfoot, and 220 miles from their destination, Deadhorse. Because all the guides here in Coldfoot were busy, I got to drive them all the way up in one of Coldfoot's tour vans to Deadhorse--easily the worst place man has ever created.

("A" is Coldfoot; "B" is Deadhorse.)

This is what the road looks like north of the Brooks Range when it turns to flat tundra.

And here's Deadhorse, near the arctic ocean, which is working camp that houses all the oil field workers. It is a cold, steely, metallic industrial town with guys outnumbering girls at least 15 to 1--a ratio I created based on my own observations. And while this number may seem intriguingly favorable to some of my female readers, I beg you to beware of the common Alaskan adage that holds true all along the Dalton Highway: "The odds are good, but the goods are odd." In Deadhorse, there are no schools, no churches, no libraries. There's nothing really, except for lots of oil, dudes, and metal. I feel like the joke needs some punch line, but Deadhorse is no joke. It's the sort of place you go if you want to descend into a Shining-like mania; the sort of place where you'll find your roommate hanging from the ceiling with the elastic of his underwear ringed around his neck.

Some views of town.

I drove back to Coldfoot the same night--literally a 500 mile trip in a day. Here are some pics of the sun hovering above the horizon at midnight.

Lastly, some weird/dumb things tourists have said... I've spent much of my time at Coldfoot dealing with tourists as both a tour guide and park ranger in the visitor center (also located in Coldfoot). Recently, I got hold of a document containing a secret list of quotes, which I share for your amusement.

“Where do they put them at night?” –woman from NY asking about what animals she might see and someone mentioning a musk ox.

“Do you drive back to Fairbanks every night?” (Fairbanks is 250 miles away.)

“Do you have any sort of 7-11 up here?”

“When do the caribou turn into moose?”

“Do you sell condoms here?” (not a stupid question, I guess)

“This is the United States. A places like that should not exist.” (Woman referring to the lodgings at Coldfoot Camp. She refused to shower there and desired to sleep in the bathroom at the ranger station across the road.)

“I was wondering if bears are attracted to blood and if so, should I be worried about this cut?” –girl from NYC

“So how do I go about applying for religious objection for paying to go into the park?” (There is no fee to enter the park.)

A couple asked a tour guide if they were still offering dog-mushing tours for $79. (It was summer and there was no snow on the ground.)

“Is there a dotted line marking the location of the Arctic Circle?”

“I have heard that watermelon berries have a laxative effect. Is that true?” –Older man

“Is that the sun or the moon?” asked looking up at crescent shape in a dark sky.

“This is a snowy owl,” someone said, looking at a ptarmigan

“Where am I??! THEY NEVER TELL ME WHERE I AM!” said an old lady, while threateningly pursuing a guide with her cane

“We’ve just come down from Deadfoot!” (probably referring to Deadhorse)

“Are the northern lights running now?”

“I’m not sure if I want to go to Deadwood.” (again, probably referring to Deadhorse)

“Today we came up from… somewhere.”

“Is this all there is to Fairbanks?” (woman upon waking up in Coldfoot after a long drive.)

“Don’t do drugs. This is what you’ll look like.” (Framing her face with her hands)

“Wolf-colored” (Lady’s response to a question about what the color of the wolf was that she saw.)

“Is there any water at Galbraith Lake?”

“Good morning.” (It was 6:30 p.m.)

“Can we stamp our US passport?”

“It’s like a Stephan King novel” (referring to Coldfoot)

“Will there be other people at the campground? We don’t want to be alone.”

“I need some help here… this stamp pad is completely dry.” (The pad was closed)

“Can I have an Arctic Circle certificate for my cat?”

“How do the animals know when to sleep?”

“Well, you’ll have to tell me where your glory holes are then.”

“How far is Horse-dead?”

Sunday, August 7, 2011

My first paid article: A story on Duke's new campus farm

(Photo Credit: Megan Morr / Duke Magazine)

A few months ago, I wrote an article about Duke's new campus farm. It just printed in Duke Magazine. You can read it here.

This occasion makes me want to discuss two things: my paid writing "career" and campus farms.

1. Paid writing

I've been writing semi-professionally since 2004. It all started when I became a writer, and later, an editor, for the Arts & Life section of my undergraduate school's student newspaper. In the years before I started this blog, I wrote a couple freelance articles for Buffalo's alternative weekly newspaper (Artvoice) as well as a guest op-ed column for The Buffalo News. (I'm exceedingly embarrassed about most of my work back then, so I won't be going out of my way to share any of those articles.) Anyway... during the past seven years, I estimate that I've made a mere $1,800 for my words.

This article marks this first time I've been fairly paid by a publication. And goddamn, it feels good. Between this article and another that will print in their next issue, I received a check for $1,200. I guess it's my goal--and my main purpose of being up here writing in Alaska--to make a living with my words. While this goal seems as impossible as ever and this check is by no means enough to permit me to live in anything more than a van (or as a freeloader up in Northern AK), I guess it's a step in the right direction.

2. Campus farms

I absolutely love the idea of a campus farm. The great thing about Duke's new farm is that it's not only run by students, but all the food produced on it is sold to the food company that runs various dining halls at Duke. In other words, students produce the food, then eat the food.

More and more, I think colleges should encourage, if not enforce, their students to receive a practical education to complement their classroom-based liberal arts educations. Don't get me wrong: I do not think college should be a place where you go only to obtain "career skills." That's not what I'm talking about at all... Rather, I think college should be a place where we go to become the most well-rounded, cultured, and complete persons we can be. It should help us become full-fledged human beings.

College does not do this... By the time we graduate, we've spent much of the last 16 years of our lives sitting in front of desks, sitting in front a computers, or sitting at boring on-campus jobs. Not only do we have almost no practical skills, but we've focused our studies on some minute subject; "Biomedical engineering" or "Parks, recreation, and leisure studies," for instance. We become specialists: great at one thing, and useless at everything else.

So what's a graduate to do who can neither land a job, nor has any useful skills to help her take care of herself? I don't know the solution, but here's a wild idea: colleges include a requirement to take x number of "Self-Sustainability" courses during the course of a student's undergraduate education. It would be a hands-on, dirt-under-your-fingernails education. Some examples of such courses:

"Tending an orchard"-- In a semester, you'll learn about planting an orchard, maintaining the trees, canning, preserving, etc.

"Farming"--You'll learn how to till the soil, plant, irrigate, etc.

"Construction"--framing walls, the basics of masonry, roofing, etc.

There could be semester-long courses on carpentry, cattle farming, electronics, plumbing, car maintenance. But only the basics of surviving on your own; nothing too narrow or esoteric (i.e. basket weaving). No one will leave such a course an expert, but the student will no doubt feel at least somewhat comfortable with a skill she'd be reasonably familiar with.

I think 2-4 such courses over the course of one's education would help produce graduates that are on their way to becoming free-thinking, self-sufficient citizens. Crazy? Insane? Any thoughts?

Anyway, campus farms are a step in the right direction. It provides such an arena for students to receive practical educations.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

National “Scandal” (Part II)

The conservative online magazine, The Daily Caller, has recently printed two more “exposés” on Senator Tom Harkin (Democrat/Iowa) and my best friend, Josh Pruyn.

Here are The Daily Caller’s Parts One, Two, and Three if you care to read. If you don’t (and I don’t blame you if you don’t), here’s a brief recap of events that I covered in my recent post, “National ‘Scandal,’” that should bring you up to speed:

My friend Josh, years ago, worked as a student recruiter for an evil for-profit school called Westwood College. Over the course of his five months at Westwood, he took note of the many unethical recruiting practices that were encouraged by superiors on the Westwood salesroom floor. Eventually, he quit. And last fall, Josh testified before the Senate about his experiences at Westwood during a hearing presided over by Sen. Tom Harkin, who was aware of the many crimes the for-profit college industry had been committing. Recently, journalist Jonathan Armstrong of The Daily Caller printed three articles about Josh and Harkin, claiming, for one, that Harkin’s staff “supplied” Josh with an answer to a question that Harkin was going to ask him. In Part Three, Armstrong reports that Josh lied about a particular anecdote (which I’ll get to in a bit.)

[Before I go on, I should admit that this fiasco has stirred my passions and enflamed my anger like little else. And I write the following not with steely objectivity in mind—only the impassioned truth. This narrative, as you can tell, includes most everything I love or loathe in this world: the for-profit college industry, billions of dollars of student debt, millions of hapless debtors, the desecration of my friend's honor, and the rightwing's brainwashing media. (No, actually, I loathe all these things.) The only thing missing from this story that could excite my ire even more is news of Westwood’s new initiative to fund a genocide on all of the arctic’s moose calves—an event that would surely push me to join some lunatic, gun-toting anti-everything fringe group like the Montana militia. (Note to self: Joining the Montana militia probably should have no place in my fantasies.)]

I digress. Please permit me to sort out all the bullshit into smoking, smelly, orderly piles:

1. Josh is “supplied” an answer.

Armstrong reports, in Part One, that Josh was supplied answers by an aide of Senator Harkin. Let me back up and explain the story a bit… At the time of the Senate hearing (Fall 2010), there were baseless and flagrantly false rumors that Josh had a “connection” to the James Hoyer law firm that was, at the time, suing Westwood. (Josh has, literally, connections to no one minus his online Euchre friends and members of his old club college hockey team.) If Josh did in fact have an unethical connection to or was getting paid by the James Hoyer law firm, then news of such a relationship could have, as Armstrong correctly observes, “undermined [Josh’s] credibility as a witness” in the Senate testimony. (Needless to say, Josh had no such connection with the law firm.) To address this issue and to give Josh an opportunity to make it known to all that he had no such connections, Senator Harkin would ask Josh a question about such connections at the hearing. Senator Harkin’s aide emailed Josh a suggested answer. The email is below.

I admit: it looks a little fishy. But here’s why it’s not fishy: First of all, everything Harkin’s aide wrote is true. Secondly, Josh told Harkin’s aide all this stuff. The words in that email are, more or less, Josh’s words. Harkin’s aide was merely repeating what Josh said to him. (To his credit, Armstrong points out that “the answer Pruyn gave in the hearing was technically true.”) So what’s the big fucking deal? There really is no big fucking deal, but let me go on…

2. Josh was hypnotized (Manchurian Candidate-style) and his brain was disfigured by an evil liberal not-for-profit that manipulated how worded his testimony. (Detect sarcasm, please.)

Josh wrote a testimony for the Senate hearing. This was edited by multiple people: 1. Angie Moreschi (who is a lawyer at the James Hoyer firm, which was independently suing Westwood); 2. Ryan McCord (who is Senator Harkin’s aide who sent the above email); 3. Jennifer Webber (who was from TICAS, a left-wing nonprofit organization.); and 4. Me, (who touched up his grammar in a couple rough spots.)

Armstrong insinuates that these groups (minus me) manipulated Josh’s words, and that they were more or less using Josh as a mouthpiece to do harm to Westwood for their own interests. It’s more than clear to me that they of course did want to make Westwood look bad—a task that, no doubt, is incredibly easy. And while I’m no legal ethics scholar, I quite frankly do see how the law firm’s suggestions to Josh might be unethical (even if they didn't suggest anything noteworthy). That said, this is the sort of stuff these people were changing in Josh’s testimony, as Armstrong reports:

-“I do have one suggestion,” said Jennifer Webber, member of TICAS, in an email, “and that is to remove the phrase where it says that he functioned like a salesperson with leads, like an encyclopedia salesperson. I don’t think an analogy is needed, plus, aren’t encyclopedias a good thing? They were (are?) are [sic] great resource in the days before the internet!”

-Also, McCord and Moreschi found a “factual weakness” in Josh’s essay: “I just want to make sure he’s giving the most accurate information,” they wrote.

Let me clarify that these people didn’t insert lies into Josh’s testimony or wildly radicalize his words. Rather they fact-checked his assertions and softened his tone. (McCord, for instance, questioned Josh if he really wanted to use the word “evil.”)

How, uh, dare they?

3. Josh, allegedly, lies to the Senate about a Westwood student named Jeffrey.

In his testimony, Josh claims that a prospective student, Jeffrey, was harassed by Josh’s superiors who wanted to sign him up. When contacted, Jeffrey, for whatever reason, couldn’t remember such a phone conversation. This, as Armstrong insinuates, further brings Josh’s testimony under question. Josh has no idea why Jeffrey doesn't remember that conversation.

4. Let's look at this from a wider angle. Westwood is evil and this is all bullshit.

-“If [an admissions rep] fell behind in your enrollments or start quotas you’d be expected to make at least 150 calls a day if you didn’t want to be harassed and threatened by your supervisor.”

-“At any given time, multiple contests for gift-cards, paid time-off and other incentives were offered [to admissions representatives] in order to motivate representatives to enroll as many students as possible.”

-“[The students] were often characterized and described among admissions staff as stupid, lazy, and generally unaware of what was in their own best interest.”

-“Individual enrollments could mean paid time-off or gift cards, and when I was there, a successful year earned the top representatives an all-expenses-paid trip to Cancun.”

-“The representatives I was told to emulate would exaggerate expected salary data, present misleading tuition information, and fabricate the credentials of faculty members.”

-“The most appalling example was when the assistant director of admissions on my team was presented with a “Best Liar” award at a team celebration.”

Armstrong or Westwood or anyone couldn’t question any of this because it's all true. And it was all terribly damaging to Westwood’s reputation. So what’s an evil corporation to do? You do the only thing you can: You try to damage the reputation of the witness. You try to damage Josh… You encourage people at “news organizations” with overt political agendas to write pseudo-news stories that do, on first appearance, looks like actual news to the polarized and easily deluded. You pick out meaningless, minor aspects of the story (Harkin’s aides email, the “Jeffrey” thing) and blow them out of proportion in hopes of bringing the whole testimony into question.

This is a non-issue. A non-story. I agree that there are some ethical questions about a law firm giving Josh’s suggestions, but in no way was any one manipulated, and in no way was anything falsified.

I’m disillusioned to see that the writer, Jonathan Armstrong, is my age (27). Any American, young Americans especially, I feel, should be empathetic toward the downtrodden and disadvantaged; toward those who’ve been lied to, bilked, and stolen from. We should be exposing stories about the corporations that steal from thousands, not the courageous few who risk all by standing up to them.

Yet what we have here is one of the many handmaidens to the corporate elites who--for favors or money or jobs--aid the avaricious and powerful on their crusades to make profits. I suppose I shouldn’t judge someone's character too harshly, as I know nothing about him other than what he's written in these stories. And hell, perhaps he was ordered to write such stories by his superiors? But if I’ve learned anything from Josh, it’s that the only voice one should heed, is not your boss’s, or your father's, or your president's, but the true arbiter of all that's right and wrong: that of your conscience.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Exploring the Central Brooks Range

Hiking in the Brooks is one of the few places on earth where one can still get a sense of what it was like to explore country as humans did in pre-map, pre-GPS, pre-Google Earth ages. Because there are few if any trails up here, hikers must read the landscape as much as maps.

This past week, my friend Josh Spice (not to be confused with my other friend named Josh) and I planned a two-day hike up Nutirwik Creek in the Central Brooks Range, just a few miles south of the treeline. We had plans of following drainages, climbing mountain passes, and hopping onto wide river valleys.

Our plans, though, fell apart within the first hour. You'll see why.

Here's a picture tour of our hike. (Most of these photos were taken by Josh--you can check out his outdoor adventure website here. He also sold me his Sony TX-5 for $150, so I'm happy I can once again take photos while I'm up here.)

Here I am on Nutirwik Creek. We'd planned to walk up to the headwaters and over a mountain pass.

But from afar we could see that the creek narrowed considerably.

What to do now?

We wanted to continued to follow this creek since it led to the Chandalar River. So we needed to get around the waterfall. So we, uh, decided to climb the mountain to our left. (Which is a decision that didn't seem as stupid and badass as it looks in the pictures below.) Here I am climbing.

And here's Josh, who--an overly dedicated photographer, one could argue--refused to pack away his camera, forbidding himself the luxury of a second hand. "This is definitely 'sketch,'" he yelled to me as he carefully watched his purchase on the rocks.

Can you espy Josh?

Finally, we made it a comfortable spot near the top. Some views of the Brooks Range.

We wanted to get back on the creek that had the waterfall, so we walked east on the side of the mountain on a Dall Sheep trail.

And then we realized that there is another, potentially impassible gorge that will prevent us from getting back on the creek.

We hike to the bottom of the gorge, hoping that we could reach the creek from boulder to boulder.

But then we came across yet another waterfall, except this time we were standing above it. With no other option, we climbed the mountain in front of us again.

Finally, we made it back onto the creek valley. This is called "Warm Water Creek" because there's a natural spring that shoots out 50 F degree water throughout the year.

Easy walking now. Weather got crappy, though, so here we are in our rain gear.

And finally we made it out to the Chandalar. This area is called Chandalar Shelf.

Josh is obsessed with ultra-light backpacking. (On the way, he gave me a 45-minute dissertation on the virtues of both down and synthetic sleeping bags. (It's a complex subject, supposedly, because by minute 40 I still had no idea which was better.)) His tent weighs something like a pound and it's held upright with his two trekking poles.

I was a little wary of sleeping it in because there's no bottom to the tent. I don't care too much about getting wet or cold, but I was reluctant because mosquitoes could get in through openings on the bottom. And sure enough, in the middle of the night, I woke up on several occasions, with two of them fat and plump on my nostril, needling their little probosces through my skin. Eventually, I had to don my bug hat for the rest of the night. Josh's face, when I looked over, was, curiously, left unperturbed.

The next day we walked to the road. Here we are walking on the pipeline, which, in parts, is underground. We walked 10 miles south on the Dalton Highway back to his vehicle and then drove back to Coldfoot, home sweet home.