Last Days Feeding Frenzy
Driving to the end of the world in a bright red Hummer
This essay is forthcoming in the Spring 2015 issue of Conjunctions.
Five minutes out of Anchorage, past the karaoke joints and stripper bars, the fast-food outlets and flag-flapping car dealers, suddenly there’s scree, glacial ice, and endless sky above, serrated cliffs and crashing waves below, and I’m in the Alaskan wilderness. Snow-crested mountains tumble through fir trees and sedimented rock into the cold, zinc-gray sea, and the sight of it takes my breath away, literally—my chest tightens as I drive—and I think, I’m not worthy of this much beauty, no human is. But I’ll sure as hell take it. And I do— I drink it in, eat it up, gobble it down while I can, because I know that it’s not going to last. I’m on the Seward Highway headed south through the Chugach State Park and National Forest, looping along the sawtooth edge of a long, narrow fjord off Cook Inlet called Turnagain Arm. It’s the summer solstice, June 21, 2003, the longest day of the year, and a good thing too: I’m driving the length of the Kenai Peninsula today, from Anchorage to Homer, 225 miles, and left Anchorage around 4:00 p.m., so won’t make Homer till 9:00 or later and don’t want to arrive in the dark at the backwoods cabin I’ve borrowed but not yet seen, where there will be no electricity, no running water, no company.
The only other vehicles on the highway this afternoon are elephantine RVs, pickups, and SUVs, all of which appear to be registered in the Lower 48, most of them driven by late-blooming baby boomers taking early retirement. As they lumber toward me or when, on the occasional straight stretch of road, I overtake and pass them, the drivers and passengers grin and pump fists or cheerfully flash Vs for victory and two thumbs-up, like we’re all pals up here in Alaska. Their easy bonding bugs me. Then I remember what kind of car I’m driving along this long, lonesome, wilderness highway. I’m at the helm of a brand-new, bright-red (“sunset-orange metallic”) Hummer, test-driving the 2004 H2 model with the full-bore luxury package. It’s got all the bells and whistles: Bose six-disc CD changer; heated, slate-gray leather seats; sunroof; OnStar system—all that and, as they say, more, more, more. It’s got wraparound brush guards, running lights, off-road lights, 17-inch off-road tires on cast-aluminum wheels, and the same Vortec 6000 6.0-liter, fuel-injected V-8 engine that powers the 2003 Corvette. It’s got a self-leveling, rear air-suspension system with an on-board air compressor. It’s got a 32-gallon fuel tank. And needs it, especially out here in the wilderness, where filling stations are separated from one another by very long walks.
This is a vehicle that for sheer bulk and brawn can’t be equaled by any other so-called passenger car on the highway. It may be a guzzler, but there isn’t an RV or an SUV anywhere that the Hummer can’t knock from the sidewalk into the gutter with a simple dip and shrug of one broad shoulder. It’s six foot six in height, close to seven feet wide, and just under 16 feet long. It’s built like a bank vault on wheels, thick all over and squared. Cut. Not an ounce of body fat. Driving it is like riding on the shoulders of Mike Tyson in his prime. It’s not sexy, however, unless you think Mike Tyson is sexy. People, especially guys, grin, flash the victory sign, and step aside.“Hey, Champ, how’s it goin’?”
I know I’m not supposed to like this car. It’s the most politically incorrect automobile in America. Maybe in the world. Consider who purchased the cruder, more forthrightly militaristic H1 model that preceded it, and who we must assume will be first in line for the H2: Arnold Schwarzenegger, yes, we knew that, and Bruce Willis; but also Don King, Coolio, Karl Malone, Dennis Rodman, Al Unser, Sr. and Jr. Ted Turner owns an H1, not surprisingly. And Roseanne Barr. And, of course, Mike Tyson, who bought a brace of Hummers for himself and a few more for his friends. As party favors, I guess. By and large, this is not the green crowd.
And look at its heritage, its DNA. Its closest modern-day relative is the scruffy, friendly-looking Jeep, which evolved out of the original mud-spattered WWII jeep and still summons the spirits of Ernie Pyle, Bill Mauldin, and a generation of unshaven, exhausted foot soldiers bumming a ride back to the base. The Hummer, however, is the direct descendent of the post-Vietnam War era’s Humvee, which is to the old WWII jeep as Sly Stallone is to Audie Murphy. The Humvee is a jeep on steroids, built to handle anything from Afghan road rage to a good Gulf War. Its newest civilian incarnation, the H2, is dressed out with enough leather, polished-walnut dashboard trim, and high-tech add-ons to pass for chic in the Hamptons or fly on Rodeo Drive, and enough tinted glass, CD speakers, and sheer size to become next year’s official hip-hoppers’ posse car. It’s a gigantic steel jockstrap. The vehicle goes straight to the testosterone-drenched fantasy life of the adolescent American male, no matter how old he is, and butch-slaps it into shape. Driving down the Kenai Peninsula in my Hummer, I keep remembering how I felt when I was a kid in New Hampshire cruising around town in winter in a dump truck loaded with sand and a snowplow attached to the front, feeling larger, stronger, taller, wider, harder than anyone else on the road. It was a good feeling then, and, I have to confess, it’s a good feeling now.
Along the Russian River, a short ways south of Resurrection Pass, I see where all those RVs, pickups, and SUVs from the Lower 48 have been headed. The salmon are running, and the people in those vehicles are like hungry bears trundling to the riverbank to pack their bellies with fish and roe. The glacial river is cold and wide and fast and mineral rich, a strange, almost tropical shade of aqua, and thousands of fishermen and -women, but mostly-men, are lined up shoulder to shoulder for miles along both banks, mindlessly, recklessly hurling their hooks into the rushing water and one after the other yanking them immediately back with a glittering, twisting salmon snagged at the end. It’s the warm-up to an annual potlatch, an ancient midsummer harvest rite, and the native people have fol- lowed the example of the bear for thousands of years. But somehow, as I drive slowly past them, these people, in their greed and desperation to take from the river as many of the salmon that survived last year’s rite as they can, seem oddly postmodern. Postapocalyptic, actually. For soon there will be no more salmon returning here to spawn. We all know that. Never mind the catastrophic effect of dams, oil spills, and nuclear leakage, we know that the millions of adult salmon being hooked, bagged, and tossed into coolers and freezers from California’s Klamath River north to Alaska are likely to be the last of these magnificent creatures we’ll ever see. And none of these folks flipping fish into tubs and coolers looks especially hungry. They’re mostly on the overfed side of fitness. So why are they pig- ging out like this? I wonder. This is more like a feeding frenzy than a ritual, and it’s sure not a sport, I decide, and drive on.
Halfway to Homer, I check the onboard dashboard computer and note that I’m averaging just over ten miles a gallon. And do I connect that fact with the feeding frenzy I’ve just observed along the banks of the Russian River? Of course I do. These are the Last Days. The planet is running out of everything except human beings. Clean water, boreal forests, wild animals, birds, and fish—soon all of it will be forever gone. Fossil fuels too. Gone. Yet we Americans, especially, consume fossil fuels at an accelerating rate, and to aid and abet our consumption, we build and buy with each year more and more ten-miles-per-gallon vehicles—Suburbans, Expeditions, Navigators, Land Cruisers, and $100,000 Hummers painted sunset-orange metallic. It’s a different sort of Last Days feeding frenzy than the one along the Russian River, but related, and the planet, as if preparing to explode, is heating up. The paradox is that here in Alaska, with fewer people per square mile and more square miles of protected wilderness than any other state in the union, the calamitous effects of global warming are more obvious than anywhere on earth. Since the 1970s, mean summer temperatures in Alaska have risen five degrees, and winter temperatures have risen ten. The permafrost has gone bog soft, glaciers are shriveling, the ice pack is dissolving into the sea like sugar cubes, and on the vast Kenai Peninsula, nearly four million acres of white spruce, 38 million trees, have been killed by the spruce bark beetle, a quarter-inch-long, six-legged flying insect that, because of the increased number of frost-free days, reproduces now at twice its normal rate, enabling it to overwhelm the trees’ natural defense mechanisms.
I’m not puzzled as to why GM, Ford, and Toyota build and sell vehicles like the Hummer, the Expedition, and the Land Cruiser, and can’t condemn them for it; they’re in the automobile business, and these behemoths are big sellers. What puzzles me is why so many Americans are jostling for a place in line to buy one. It would not surprise me if there were something deep in the human psyche, the vestigial male chimp brain, maybe, that makes us rush to the trough as soon as we sense it’s nearly empty and snarf down as much of what’s left as we can. It’s not greed. It’s an atavistic fear mechanism kicking in, the sort of move made by our lower primate ancestors whenever they saw that the troop’s population had outgrown its food supply and they were going to have to move to a new forest, one run by an unfriendly, possibly tougher troop, or else stop having sex. In a paroxysm of anxiety, the big males instantly start gobbling up every banana in sight.
Such are my melancholy thoughts as I make the long, gradual descent on the Sterling Highway from the town of Soldotna to the old Russian settlement in Ninilchik. On my right is Cook Inlet and on the far side of the bay, profiled in purple by an evening sun still high in the cloudless sky, are the volcanic cones of the Aleutian Range. On my left, as far as I can see, is the ancient spruce forest, devastated by the work of that little yellow bark beetle. The trees are withered and gray, all of them dead or dying, miles and miles of tall, ghostly specters of trees that look like they’ve been hit by radioactive poisoning, as if the Kenai Peninsula were downwind from Chernobyl. I’m doing 80 along the wilderness highway, cruising through a vast forest destroyed by the gas-gulping culture of which there is no purer expression than this vehicle, and I’m feeling bad. Not that it’s not fun to drive this damn thing. It’s just that I’d have to be a cynic not to feel a wrench of conscience driving it here. These drooping, gray trees are like accusatory ghosts.
The Russian settlement is from another century, however—a cluster of small, white, wooden houses with tiny windows and a graveyard and orthodox church atop a grassy hump overlooking the sea far below. It’s a Chekhov story waiting to be told. I turn off the main road and find my way along a twisting lane down to the narrow beach at the base of a set of high, sandy cliffs shot through with runnels and caves. A magnificent pair of bald eagles flies back and forth along the cliffs, switchbacking their way toward the top, looking for an easy-picking supper of seagull and plover eggs. At the top, they cross over me, gain altitude with a half dozen powerful beats of their enormous wings, and head out to sea, floating on rising currents toward the distant mountains. I want to follow them, and actually do try it for a while, driving a short ways into the water and south along the beach, testing the manufacturer’s claim that the vehicle can drive in 20 inches of water. It more than passes the test. For several miles I guide it over rock slabs and through shifting, wet sandbars, until the beach gradually narrows, and soon I have no choice but to drive in the water now, for the tide is coming in, and I can’t go back. I can only go forward and hope that I’ll come to a break in the cliffs and a road leading away from the beach before I have to abandon the Hummer to the sea.
At the last possible minute, the beach suddenly widens, and the cliffs recede, and I come up on a caravan of a dozen or more RVs parked where Falls Creek enters the sea at Clam Gulch. A herd of bearded, big-bellied beer drinkers in duckbill caps and flannel shirts lean on the hoods and fenders of their vehicles, smoke cigarettes, and talk about fishing. These are the guys known in their hometowns as “hot shits.” Their wives and girlfriends lounge in beach chairs close to a big driftwood fire on the beach and watch their kids chase the dogs. The men spot the Hummer first and react as if a mastodon is stomping up the beach toward them. Their mouths drop, they grin and point and call to their wives and kids to come look, look, it’s a goddamned Hummer! A brand-new, bright-red Hummer, its huge tires thickened with clinging sand, has come dripping wet from the bottom of the sea. They wave me to a stop and crowd around the vehicle, firing questions as to its engine, its weight, its cost, and, when I’ve answered, they and their wives and children all step back for a long, admiring look as I drop it into gear and pull away in what I hope is an appropriately cool manner.
The Hummer does that to you—makes you feel watched, observed, admired for no deserved reason. You feel the way Madonna must whenever she leaves her apartment. Every time I stop for gas, wait at one of the three stoplights on the 225-mile drive from Anchorage, or pull over for a minute to photograph a spectacular view of mountains, glaciers, and sea, people come up to the vehicle and stare at it. They stare in an appropriating way—you feel yourself enter their fantasy life. Mostly it’s a guy thing, especially young guys, teenagers, and preadolescent boys, whose faces brighten with lust when they see the Hummer. They’re clearly getting off on its sudden, overall impression of brute, squared-away power. The women’s gaze has a somewhat different quality, however. To them, the profile and face of the Hummer are grotesque, weird, almost comical looking, and they’d laugh, I feel, if the vehicle didn’t also signify the presence of a man with money, which makes it somehow socially acceptable. Everybody seems to have a fairly accurate idea of the Hummer’s price tag.
When I drive it onto the long, narrow spit that is downtown Homer, slowed to a crawl by the sudden presence of Saturday night, barhopping traffic, a crowd gathers around the vehicle and keeps pace with it, waving to me and hollering hey. You’re never lonely when you’re the only boy in Homer with a Hummer. I roll slowly through the traffic, trying to ignore the gaping drivers and pedestrians and trying not to wrap the vehicle around a pole or kill somebody with it. Suddenly among the crowd a dark-haired woman in a nurse’s uniform catches my attention. She’s less than four feet tall—a dwarf with a characteristically large, square face and head, short, blocky body, and muscular arms and legs. She has spotted the Hummer, not me, for I’m invisible to her, and a warm, utterly delighted smile has spread over her face, as if by accident she’s run into a long-lost, dear old friend. I wave at her, and she waves happily back, the recipient of an unexpected gift from a stranger.
Most of the town of Homer—described by a local bumper sticker as “a quiet drinking village with a fishing problem”—is situated on the long spit of land extending several miles into the Kachemak Bay and is made up of restaurants, bars, stores, and motels catering mainly to the crowds of people who drive up from the Lower 48 to fish for salmon and halibut. The parking lots are crammed with RVs and pickups towing camper trailers and boats, and every few yards is another charter fishing outfit. Halfway along the spit I come to a nearly landlocked bight, clearly man-made, about the size of a football field. A sign tells me it’s called the Fishing Hole. Curious, I pull in and park.
There is a narrow inlet from the sea and a gently sloped embankment surrounding the shallow saltwater pond, for that’s all it is, a pond. People with fishing rods stand shoulder to shoulder and two and three deep around the Fishing Hole, while below them the water churns with trapped king salmon, and the people along the embankment haul them in, snagging them without bait or lures. It’s a pitiful sight. I ask around and learn that salmon eggs raised in hatcheries are transferred here as smolts, held captive in floating pens in the Fishing Hole until they’re large enough to be released into the ocean. Later, when they’re grown and the ancient impulse to spawn kicks in, the salmon return to the Fishing Hole, their birthplace, in actuality a gigantic, carefully designed weir, and on a midsummer night like this huge crowds of people scoop them up as fast as they can. The people stumble against one another, step in each other’s buckets, swear and shove and cast again. “It’s called combat fishing,” a grizzled fellow in an NYPD cap tells me. “It’s wheelchair accessible,” he adds.
I climb back into the Hummer and head out to find the friend who’s loaned me her wilderness cabin for a few days. All I know is that it’s a dozen miles from town and has no water or electricity and is located on the bay. Two hours later, directions in hand, I drive off-road. It’s after 10:00 p.m., but the sky is milky white. It feels like midafternoon, and the difference between what my watch says and what the absence of darkness says is disorienting and makes me feel uncomfortably high.
The Hummer shoves its burly way through chest-high brush and ferns, over washes and gullies, and then up along a tilted ridge to a clearing, where the lane stops in front of a small, slab-sided cabin with a short deck. I shut off the motor, step down as if walking ashore from a large boat, and stand in the middle of the ferny clearing for a few moments, savoring the silence and the view. Below the cabin is the bay, and across the bay is the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, a vast, mountainous wilderness area split by three glistening, white glaciers, a world where no Hummers roam, where most of the salmon fishing is done by bears and the native people, where there is nothing like the Homer Fishing Hole, and the white spruce trees have not yet begun to die.
After a long while, I go inside and make a fire in the woodstove and uncork the bottle of red wine I picked up earlier in town. Out the window I can see the Hummer sitting in the brush, looking like an alien vehicle sent to earth in advance of a party of explorers scheduled to arrive later. I sip wine and wonder what the space people, when they finally get here, will make of our planet. All those dead trees! All that flooded land and the dead villages that once prospered alongside the bay! And the dead and dying rivers and seas! The space people will shake their large, bald heads and say, If they’d stopped devouring their planet, the humans might have saved themselves. Those Last Days must have made them mad.