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  • Ken Ilgunas

The Yellow Suburban

When I first saw James’s home, I was stupefied.

It was my first summer in Coldfoot and someone—I forget who—showed me the yellow Chevy Suburban that James lived out of.

It was a relic from the 80’s. Its banana-yellow body, over the years, matured into a venerable manilla. It was well-kept and in good shape. It must have been loved, I thought. Strangest of all was the small stove pipe that poked through the roof near the front passenger seat that connected to a wood stove inside.

James lived in the Suburban for 6 years in the arctic, winters included.

I remember looking at the vehicle with a sort of starry-eyed gaze, the same innocent ogling I might have given to my first Santa Clause at the mall or giraffe at the zoo. The idea of living out of a vehicle—in the arctic, mind you—was so foreign to me, so freakish and fanciful, that I couldn’t help but stare in a state of childlike wonder.

It was so strange, so implausible, so….. badass.

For me, James’s Suburban was a mockery to conformity, a flat-out fuck-you to conventionality. I didn’t know James but I imagined that he was some wizened old recluse who, dissatisfied with civilization, set off for the arctic where he could be lord, monarch, and ruler of his own tiny, upholstered dominion.

James didn’t need civilization. He didn’t need its homes, its comforts, its heat. No, he was far too creative and free-spirited to live according to stodgy customs and irrational convictions. He figured he could just bore a hole through the top of his car’s roof, jam a stove pipe through and—most radically—seek a happiness that befit the idiosyncrasies of his character, all the while gleefully reveling in his defiance of society’s silly conventions. That’s how I imagined it, at least.

Needless to say, the Suburban blew my mind.

I met James a year or so later when I was asked to varnish some newly installed doors with him. He was in his 70s with a straggly mountain goat beard that spiraled downwards in frenzied curls. Despite his many years and gaunt physique, he had a spry gait and the youthful vigor of a 30-year-old. It was hard to keep up with him.

He had a reputation for his solitary, though amiable, nature and his eccentric diet, which—according to rumor—consisted solely of vitamins and bizarre organic substitutes.

He told me about the virtues of labor. He said that he’s going to be working well into his 90s and that hard physical labor has kept him healthy. He said he doesn’t need half the money he makes, but works just to work. Several times, without provocation, he enunciated how happy he was up here and how much he loved life.

When I asked him how living in the village of Wiseman was—a brief vacation from his Suburban—he quipped, “I only did that for a year,” to which he added somewhat scornfully, “Too many people.”

“But there are only thirteen people in Wiseman,” I pointed out.

“No, there was more like 20,” he said, correcting me.

When I asked if his family back home thought he was eccentric, he barked back, though without hostility:

“I am an eccentric. Me and that Ted Kaczynski—the Unabomber—we got a lot in common. I can see why he’d want to move out in the woods like that. In fact, he had a lot more room out there in that cabin than I did in my Suburban. The only difference between he and I was: he was nuts!”

Most people might call James nuts, too, but I took what he said as sagely advice. Nuts or not, clearly this was someone who had the audacity, the confidence, and the fortitude to stand fast amidst the tidal waves of convention so he could erect his own version of life in its wake.

Word has it that James no longer lives in the Suburban and has settled into a small cabin in Coldfoot. On a recent visit to the town, I gladly noted that the Suburban, though uninhabited, is still where it’s always been.

In lieu of ever having the pleasure of a personal tour, I conducted an unwarranted inspection on my own. Upon seeing it this time around, James and his home-on-wheels didn’t seem nearly as radical as they did to me several years ago, which probably has something to do with the fact that I now live in a vehicle, myself.

But I realized that without having such an extreme example as James, I may never have had the wherewithal to conduct radical experiments of my own. And for that inspiration, I am thankful and am reminded of how one man’s reality can be another’s revelation.


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