No roads lead to Barrow so I flew there, disembarking at the Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport, named for the famous comedian and his accompanying aviator who died in a plane crash nearby, and then out onto a pebble-strewn dirt road. Nearby, a flaking white arrow on the signpost read “New York 3,380 Miles”.
This was Barrow, Alaska, the United States’ northernmost town, population 4,212, gathered between the state’s sprawling tundra and the chilly Arctic Ocean.
3,380 miles from the blood-washed streets I monitor as a crime reporter. 3,380 miles from the familiar newsroom filled with familiar murders, fires and car crashes. 3,380 miles from an unshakable old break-up I still couldn’t get over.
Children on BMX bikes raced past me, chasing much bigger kids on ATVs, kicking up brown dust on the town’s unpaved streets. Dogs barked at us, straining their tethers to homes surrounded by rusting snowmobiles, bikes and boats.
I walked a little farther, to the water’s edge, past the bowed frames of umiak rowboats and the large dirty skulls of whales they were presumably sent to kill. A low sun painted the clouds gold, and the thin fingers of sky between them pink. The water was black like flowing obsidian.
In a few short months, the waves would turn to a sweeping sheet of ice, a playground for lethal polar bears. But that afternoon a ship moored off the coast, silhouetted against the slow cherry gold sunset.
I crouched down to let waves wash my hands before a biting wind hastened them to my pockets again.
I’d flown into Anchorage two days before and stayed with a friend, a local political reporter who then introduced me to his friends.
“But why Barrow?” they asked.
The best answer I could come up with was that I simply wanted to see it, this northernmost outpost, but that felt glib. It lacked the righteous purpose of so many proper adventures. It felt like something pulled me up there just to stand on the beach, to feel the waters on my hands and look farther north. I simply wanted to see it.
Whale skulls are everywhere there. There’s one the size of a small car outside the city hall, another by the college and still more on either side of a wooden sign that reads “Top of the World!” Whales remain a central aspect of life in Barrow, as many people live subsistence lifestyles that depend on the bowheads swimming the Beaufort Sea of their shore.
Weathered men carved little scenes into long strips of hairy black baleen while they sat in the entryway of the box store; a large bowhead replica hung from the ceiling of the Inupiat Heritage Museum, like its cousin in New York’s American Museum of Natural History; and captains returning from a whale hunt flew their boats’ flags to signify success, a flag per kill.
Hunting whales and other restricted species is prohibited for the 1,635 non-natives who rely on other sources of income.
A man named Woeising Khan briefly drove me around in his SUV taxi, which earns him a good profit in winter. He had immigrated to St. Louis from Thailand in 1992 as a Buddhist missionary. A friend told him he could get work in Barrow so he moved in 2007. It took over a month for his SUV to arrive by ship from Seattle.
“The way people live here is good. There’s no danger. Everybody knows each other,” he said.
I’d hoped to eat at Pepe’s North of the Border, the Arctic’s only Mexican restaurant, but it burned down the year before. Pepe’s was destroyed the morning after one of its owners, Joe Shults, returned from a yearlong rehabilitation from a stroke.
Shults came to Barrow in 1976 just to see a polar bear, but then spent 30 years delivering water to townspeople because climate precluded any running water system. He now tends to an ad-hoc museum of oddities and artefacts he’s found around town over three decades.
With Pepe’s gone, I went to another restaurant, Northern Lights, for a plate of sesame chicken.
As I paid, the woman behind the counter asked where I was from. “You must be rich,” she said before goading me into giving a $15 donation for her daughter’s class trip to New York’s Carnegie Hall. (The $15 also bought me a box of doughnuts that were to be delivered to the newsroom just down Seventh Avenue from Carnegie, but it never arrived.)
Her daughter, looking 15 and as bored of her hometown as 15-year-olds get, asked me again why I had visited: “If you live in New York, why would you even come to some place as boring as Barrow?”
I paused. I could’ve tried to explain how crime reporting can be both saddening and tiresome after so many years. Or that fresh travel can interrupt the lingering heartache of a breakup. Instead, I shrugged and said, “I just wanted to see it.”
It may be a glib revision of George Mallory’s comment “Because it’s there”, but it fits.
Journeyers have many reasons for their travels. Some hope to discover, or accomplish a feat, or are afflicted by what John Steinbeck called a “virus of restlessness”.
I’m drawn to new places by the things I can’t know until I get there: their potential to change me, their thrill, but mostly by the sum of all their smallest details. I now know how Barrow’s sun sets: pink and gold, over cold black water. And that’s enough.
Aidan Gardiner is a reporter and producer covering breaking news