Passing through the Heliopause
The space probe Voyager 1 left the planet in 1977. Any month, day, minute, second now it will enter interstellar space and become the furthest-reaching man-made object, and the first to leave the heliosphere. This will be one of the biggest moments in scientific history and we will never know exactly when it happened. Three things would signify that Voyager 1 had crossed the border of the heliopause: an increase in galactic cosmic rays, reversal of the direction of the magnetic field, and a decrease in the temperature of charged particles. Voyager 1 reports show a 25 percent increase per month of cosmic rays. But its signals take 17 hours to travel back to Earth at the speed of light.
When did my journey begin? At the moment of its conception? When I left home in a delivery van with a friend of my dad’s who was going north with some furniture? My parents waved me off with the dog; I filmed it, my mum cried. That felt like a beginning. Or was it the moment the freighter pulled away into the mop-bucket waters off Immingham on a grey day in March?
It came about like this: I was watching a lm about a runaway called Chris McCandless, who ditched his Ivy-League-trust-fund life and traveled all across America to get to Alaska and live the Jack London dream, where he ate some poisonous potatoes and died. This was 1992, the year before I was born. I cried and promised myself I would start a savings account to fund a trip to Alaska, where I too could live in the wilderness in total solitude. Then I went through the lm step by step and analyzed how it would have been different if the guy had been a girl.
Really, it would have been a completely different lm. Not just in the sense that there were situations in it that would likely have different outcomes for the different sexes (e.g. when he got beaten up by a conductor who finds him stowing away on his freight train) but more fundamentally because a girl wanting to shun modern society and go AWOL into the wilderness to live by killing and eating small animals and scavenged plants would just be considered unsettling.
Wood-cutting mystic Henry David Thoreau shares some of the blame for this. He said things like “chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it,” as though even having sex with a woman would ruin your transcendentalism. “Man” is used to refer to humanity as a whole. When “Man” is pitted against nature in a dynamic of conquest, nature is usually “she.”
Wildness in women does not mean autonomy and freedom; their wildness is instead an irrational fever. Simultaneously, in survivalist terms we are the weaker sex and cannot prosper individually outside of the social sphere or without the protection of a manly man. Women both are excluded from, and banished to, nature.
Even on those documentary channels that do programs on whole families homesteading in the wilderness the woman is always Mountain Man’s wife, never, ever Mountain Woman, just an annex of the Mountain Man along with his beard, pipe and gun. In Coming into the Country: Travels in Alaska, the writer John McPhee describes lots of Mountain Men in careful detail and a few mountain women in passing comments. One of the Mountain Men tells John McPhee that he wanted to be utterly and totally alone, cut off deep in the country, with only three daughters and one wife, or his “womenfolks,” as he liked to call them.
There are exceptions to the invisibility spell, of course. There is Calamity Jane the cowgirl. Nellie Bly, who did a trip around the world in 72 days. Freya Stark, the travel writer of the Middle East. Mary Kingsley the explorer, and that old lady who went over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel. But the problem is exactly that there are exceptions. It is as though there is something significant to learn in the wild but it can only be accessed by men. In the wild, men carve out their individual and manly selves, as though women are not allowed individual and authentic selves. The story has the exact same plot, but “a woman alone in wilderness” means something totally inverted. So I had this idea for a journey to Alaska.
Maybe I have read too many Lord of the Rings quest-type fantasies, but I cannot shift the notion that to be deserving of a destination that is really far away you should have undergone some sort of expedition to get there, like how people make a pilgrimage out of piety. So the other element of its ethos came from an aversion to airplanes, a combination of carbon-footprint guilt and a suspicion towards the paradox of crossing time zones in a matter of hours to exist suddenly and indifferently in a place you should not naturally be. Not just flying to a place and kind of congregating like these “all-inclusive sun, sand, sea, collect your tokens in the Daily Mail” package holidays.
We were one of those families that always went abroad, apart from years when Dad was out of work. By the time I left home I had travelled to nine different countries. If asked to describe those countries I could have told you that beaches in Spain are busier than beaches in Greece, that in the Caribbean you are advised against going onto beaches that are not owned and segregated by your hotel, and that Disneyworld is too far away from the shore to go to the beach but you can go to a pretend beach at the parks anyway and one even has a slide that is a tube going underwater through a tank with dolphins in it.
Living in a technological era means that in an abstract sense the other side of the world is just a few clicks away. Everywhere on Earth has been explored and put in an encyclopedia. And the internet has brought all of those encyclopedias together and ordered them into a messy but functional directory. There are no more enigmas. But it also means that passage of travel has become a lot less elitist. I can utilize the internet in the same way that a man of old might have clutched a quill-written recommendation allowing him passage on his father’s tobacco-merchant friend’s ship.
It is very easy to feel nowadays that humanity has saturated everything; that we have conquered the world. If you were to watch a time-lapse of Earth from the beginning of its history up to the present day, for a very, very long time not a lot would happen. The continental land masses would gradually drift, asteroids would impact intermittently, and you might catch an erupting super-volcano, tiny button mushrooms of smoke diffusing. Earth would remain a relatively tranquil marble, its atmosphere pearly eddies and swirls. Then, in the 18th century AD, you would see a metamorphosis: cities growing like bruises, fertile soil turning to desert, debris gradually accumulating in a dull metallic orbital constellation.
There are now satellites in the sky that will far outlive us, as big as football fields, suspended in the Clarke Belt, 22,236 miles above sea level, at a distance that means they rotate in geosynchronous orbit. They experience little to no atmospheric drag and because of this they will not ever be pulled back to Earth. They might cease to exist only when everything in proximity to Earth is swallowed by our expanding sun. Until then these will be one of humankind’s longest-lasting artifacts, and a legacy of the 21st century. Our civilization will be immortalized by these grey exoskeletons, usurping the Egyptians, the Mayans, the Māori, etc.
Earth is around 4.5 billion years old. Anything that is living on it 6 billion years from now will be vaporized when the sun dies and will be as far from us as we are from those little fish that jumped out of the sea. But we are myopic. In the scheme of things, the rate of change over the past one hundred years is just a blink to the universe, and yet shit, it took so long for me to get to nineteen years. I want the trip to remind me that I am small and getting smaller. (I am stood on a dot on a balloon, all the dots are evenly spaced, as the balloon gets bigger the other dots seem to get further away but it’s only because I am standing on a dot.)
Alaska is the place to feel this. It figures in the collective psyche as the Land of the Mountain Men, the Last Great Wilderness. It is big and vast and mostly unpeopled. The British Isles would t inside it seven times and about a seventh of Alaska is set aside as protected wilderness. Its entire population is ten times smaller than London’s.
I saved up £2000, the approximate cost of a return plane ticket to Alaska, after a few months of working full-time post-A-levels and living scrupulously. This is to be used for travel expenses only, and must get me from the UK to Iceland to Greenland to Canada and across into Alaska. Any money I need to exist will be made along the way. All of the above will be summarized in a tasteful voiceover on top of some sort of video montage of all the places I go looking mysterious and cloudy.
Traveling by sea and land, it will be an Odyssean epic, only with me, a girl, on a female quest for authenticity.
From The Word for Woman is Wilderness. Used with permission of Two Dollar Radio. Copyright © 2019 by Abi Andrews.