Two hundred miles outside of Whitehorse, in Canada’s Yukon Territory, I pulled over to let my dog out to pee and found a dead arctic fox by the roadside. The fox was in its summer phase, its coat a bit ratty but otherwise perfect. There was no blood. The expanse of muskeg swamp and leaning black spruce went on and on. Rocket, my ten-year-old black Lab, sniffed the dead animal profoundly. Perhaps it had been struck by a car, or one of the logging trucks that plowed down the Alcan Highway day and night.

I climbed back in my truck. I was traveling home to Wyoming after spending the month of June in Alaska. I had an outdated copy of The Milepost guidebook splayed across my lap, more than a hundred pounds of frozen halibut and salmon in an ice chest in the back, and another 1,800 miles to go before I reached the US border at Sweet Grass, Montana. The drive from Homer, Alaska, to Casper, Wyoming, is more than three thousand miles, much of it on winding two-lane highways where moose and bears slip from the underbrush and stand in the road. It had already been a rough trip: nonstop rain and a shredded tire near Tok that had cost me half a day. The tire had oxidized to my wheel mount, and a US Marine on his way to Texas for redeployment had stopped and busted the wheel free with a small sledgehammer. I was now driving on the full-size spare. If he hadn’t helped me, I’d still be stuck.

I turned down a logging road in search of a place to camp for the night. It dead-ended in a campfire ring and a pile of half-burnt trash. I crawled into my camper shell, closed the hatch quickly to keep the mosquitoes out, and spread my sleeping bag beside my enormous cooler. Rocket curled up near my feet.

At 4 AM I woke to the sound of ravens and jays. While Rocket wolfed down his kibble, I made coffee on a gas stove. Then we drove on. I planned to stop at the bakery in Haines Junction to use their Wi-Fi. I was dying to wash my face with warm water and eat one of the cinnamon buns they made fresh each morning, maybe buy a day-old scone and a turkey wrap for the road. But when I got there, the bakery was closed. Same for the First Nations cultural center across the street, with its dioramas of earthen houses and handwoven snowshoes. Then it hit me: It was July 1, Canada Day. Nearly all businesses would be shuttered for the national holiday. I refilled my tank and kept going.

Having driven the Alcan for years, I’d come up with a few simple rules: 1. Avoid RV parks. 2. Avoid bars and liquor stores. 3. Drive as far as you can each day, and then a little more. 4. Sleep fully clothed. 5. Always follow the advice in The Milepost, for it rarely lies. 6. Carry a knife, if only for spiritual reasons. 7. Don’t drive at night—or what passes for night in the summer months that far north—because that’s when the big animals, the ones you fear colliding with, move about. 8. No sex with strangers you meet along the way. 9. Don’t do drugs. 10. If you do drugs, don’t go overboard.

A scrim of clouds retreated, and sunlight poured into the truck’s cab, along with the scent of a distant wildfire. In Whitehorse the Canadian Tire was closed. I’d have to keep driving on the spare.

Under the great iron bridge across the Teslin River, Rocket swam in an eddy, and I called my mother in Virginia and told her about my travels. Across the river some Canadians were celebrating their nation’s birthday. They sat in canvas chairs in the brilliant sunlight, waded with pale limbs and torsos exposed, and ground over the gravel bars in ATVs.

At Watson Lake sunlight blasted the filling station’s potholed parking lot. The coffee was sour and the gas criminally expensive, even though they were nearly giving it away in the Lower 48 ever since the stock-market crash the previous September, in 2008. I pressed on.

I bought gas again at Liard River, a dusty, remote outpost. I considered paying twenty bucks to camp at the local hot springs, perhaps soak for an hour, but there was no attendant at the booth, and the mosquitoes were thick. Also someone had posted “No Dogs” signs everywhere. The restaurant was closed for the holiday. Inside, a slice of blueberry pie bled weakly on a paper plate. I asked the clerk at the gas station about local fishing spots.

“I’m Athabascan,” he said. “We’re not fish Indians.”

He did mention that the last time he’d been down at the falls, there’d been grayling in the pools, swimming in circles just below the surface. But that had been five years ago, maybe more. He looked up at the wall as if the memory might be found there on the crumbling white stucco. The tackle they had for sale was lame: a flimsy fillet knife, jars of brightly colored salmon roe, spinners that looked like something a Nebraska farm kid might use to catch crappie. I shoved off.


I’d been doing this for years: driving from Casper to Homer every June to catch fish, camp on the beaches, live off discount day-old pastries, and mix with the cannery workers at the coffee shops that offered free Wi-Fi. Every year I also scouted dilapidated cabins, talked to realtors, and looked at raw land with red ribbons around the waists of trees to mark the boundaries, thinking about clearing it to build my own A-frame. But I was mostly pretending. I can barely work a flathead screwdriver, much less a chain saw.

The driving force behind these trips was the desire to secure over a hundred pounds of halibut and salmon and shuttle it back to Wyoming. I harbored the belief that it was less damaging and more noble to catch and eat my own fish. I talked a lot about being self-sufficient. But over the past few years, I’d seen alarming news from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game: The fish stocks were falling right before our eyes. Stream closures and reduced bag limits were the norm. Still, that June I found myself standing around a pool on the Anchor River with a group of other fishermen. There were five or six king salmon in the pool, and we were casting like mad. Soon there were three, and then none.

Why didn’t I stop? It’s a fair question. As I walked back to my truck with a twenty-pound salmon in hand, I was met with nothing but praise from the others. There was an odd optimism that this could last forever, a beery galootism repeated in the glossy magazines selling the idea of inexhaustible outdoor experiences, even though the evidence everywhere said different: You had to go farther and farther out to sea to find a decent halibut. The price of booking a charter boat had doubled, then doubled again. None of which stopped the hordes of goateed, heavily dressed fishermen from surging northward in search of more fish. There were more of us now than ever—and we all wanted the same thing. We kept at it, as if the fishery would somehow heal itself.

Lately I’d taken the practice further, traveling to warmer places to fish in the cold months: Mexico, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Italy, Louisiana. I dragged coolers through airports, bought my own vacuum sealer so that I could preserve fillets wherever I was in the world. It passed for a lifestyle. I told people it was the “Zoby Method,” but no one seemed to want to talk about frozen fish. Why didn’t I just buy it at Whole Foods? They had a point. We were, after all, living in the most pampered society in human existence. If I found myself unable to argue, I’d offer the interlocutor a packet of fish. This almost always worked. But was it any way to live?


Somewhere south of Fort Nelson, British Columbia, I hit a roadblock set by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. As an officer approached my idling truck, Rocket stirred in the camper shell. He’d never liked uniforms.

“Sir, have you had any alcoholic beverages this afternoon?” the Mountie asked. Mosquitoes were landing on his chiseled face—the large black mosquitoes that make summer up north miserable. He allowed five or six to feast on him as if he didn’t know they were there. Well over six feet tall, he had the kind of face that made it impossible to lie to him. Luckily I had nothing to hide.

“No, sir. I’m driving back from Alaska. Just trying to get home.”

“No beers? Nothing? Whiskey?” He seemed incredulous that I hadn’t had at least some alcohol to celebrate. His partner stood a few paces away. There was no one but us on the road. The scrub brush had recently been beaten back by mowing crews, leaving a thick mat of wood pulp and leaves on the shoulder, but the boreal forest, too powerful to defeat, was already coming back, creeping up on the highway: large-tooth aspen, black spruce, white birch, cottonwood.

There were more mosquitoes and more questions: Where did I live? Why had I been in Alaska? How long would I be in Canada? I sighed and put Rocket on a leash so the Mounties could open my camper shell and look inside. My unorganized fishing tackle made them frown. The 120-quart cooler occupied most of the back. I had duct-taped it shut seventy-two hours earlier after placing ten pounds of dry ice inside to keep my halibut and salmon frozen. The officers wanted to see inside.

“Is that really necessary?” I asked.

With a knife the Mountie deftly slit the duct tape. His partner leaned in to help him open the lid. The extreme cold inside the cooler created a vacuum, and the lid made a whooshing sound when it finally came free. Sealed in plastic, over a hundred pounds of fish greeted them.

“All of that came from Kachemak Bay,” I said. “And a few early-run sockeyes from the Russian River.” I was proud of my catch and thought maybe these guys fished. The whine of a distant chain saw sung out from the woods.

“What do you do with it?” asked the Mountie.

“I live on it. You can’t get fresh fish in my town. I also give some to friends, have parties.”

“Fish parties?” said the Mountie. They both grinned, then released me.


I had driven sixteen hours straight already that day—my usual. How much farther could I go? I had done twenty-four hours once but found it to be inadvisable. Your eyes play tricks on you. Your mind wanders. It’s a miracle I didn’t have a wreck.

I made it to Prophet River and looked for a place to park. It was night, but there was still enough light to see bears grazing by the roadside. The pull-out beside the river seemed like an option. Just as I was laying out my sleeping bag, though, an RV with Washington State plates parked beside me. A small dog yapped. A man came out and fiddled with a satellite dish. I took to the highway again, listening to a book on tape—Two Years before the Mast—to help me stay awake. Finally I saw the distant lights of Pink Mountain.

I pulled into the first lot I found. It belonged to a camp for oil workers. Two older men sat in plastic chairs at a round plastic table, an untouched six-pack of Labatt Blue at the center. One swung a device that resembled a plastic tennis racket—a battery-powered wand of sorts that fried mosquitoes and no-see-ums on contact. It crackled and hissed each time it made a pass through the thick air. The other pulled out a sparkler, lit it, and held it with no joy whatsoever.

“Do you guys know of a gas station where I can pay for a shower?” I asked.

“There’s dozens of showers in those trailers,” said the man zapping the bugs. “Take your pick.”

The two explained that the camp had been abandoned late last year when the oil and gas markets had crashed. The companies had sent everyone home, even the foreman and his wife. These two were caretakers who lived on-site, ran the generators during the winter to prevent the pipes from freezing, shooed away curious bears, and kept everything tidy for the day when the market recovered and the oil and gas companies returned to reclaim this part of British Columbia—because if these two knew anything, it was that those companies would be back.

“I drove through here last year, and it was very different,” I said.

“Every one of those trailers was full,” said the man with the sparkler. “We had a fleet of RVs and wall tents where we kept directional drillers.” The sparkler fizzled out, and he reached into a tub for another.

I offered to pay to use the shower, but they wouldn’t take my money. So I parked my truck beside a random beige trailer—they were all the same—and fished a towel from my luggage. A raven took off from the metal porch railing as I approached. Outside the trailer were heavy brush mats workers used to wipe the mud from their boots. Inside were bedrooms with steel-framed bunk beds whose mattresses seemed more suitable for children than roughnecks. The floors flexed beneath my steps as I walked to the tiny bathroom. Body washes, toothbrushes, and shampoos were carefully lined up along the shower floor; hairbrushes, pomades, and aftershaves arranged in a tidy row on the vanity. I killed a mosquito on the mirror.

In the shower I sampled the various body washes—soaped up with a blue gel, rinsed it off, then tried a green one—until the competing fragrances became overwhelming. Steam condensed on the walls. I stepped onto the soggy mat and went into one of the bedrooms to dry off.

I expected to see a print of a moose or a pinup of a beautiful, tattooed woman straddling a motorcycle, but the walls were bare. Expensive steel-toed boots waited beside a bed. Fire-retardant clothing hung in the flimsy closet. How fast had these guys bailed? What was the hurry? Magazines lay here and there, and books—most of the self-help kind, but also financial-success tomes and a paperback biography of heavyweight champ Mike Tyson. There was an unopened pack of chewing gum on a dresser. I heard the raven squawk outside.

The two caretakers were firing Roman candles into the not-quite-dark sky when I returned. They would light a firework, then scramble away as if their lives were in danger. The man with the sparklers lit another one and twirled it in circles, leaving a molten spiral in the air. I thanked them for the shower.

“You can bed down wherever you want,” said one. “It’s not like anyone’s coming back anytime soon.”

“I have to keep moving,” I said. Staying at the camp was too close to breaking rule 1: Avoid RV parks. But, more than that, the atmosphere of forced merriment felt oppressive. Lit by the pale explosion of fireworks, the landscape appeared to droop. The two men seemed to share a private loneliness that had become a national loneliness, and I didn’t fit into it. I told them about the huge haul of frozen halibut and salmon I was bringing back to Wyoming. We introduced ourselves. The man with the sparkler said, “I’m Jack—Jack of No Trades.” He laughed.

I went to the cooler, pulled out a pack of halibut, and gave it to the men as a gift. They set it beside the six-pack of beer and went back to their fireworks.


A few miles down the road I discovered an enormous parking area filled with heavy equipment, mostly Caterpillar D9 bulldozers but other vehicles too: water trucks used to spray the dusty roads, pilot cars with cracked windshields, trucks with huge booms, earthmovers with tires taller than my pickup, a red-and-white ambulance from another era—all battered, mud covered, and clearly not in use. The scent of grease and oil was powerful. A sign advertised an auction to be held July 15.

I snuck my truck in among the abandoned vehicles, finding a sort of alley between bulldozers where I could set up camp. Rocket sniffed around. We were just a few yards off the Alcan. No travelers came down the road. I slept in my jeans. The little knife I keep in the front pocket dug into my hips.

In the morning I made coffee and sat in a torn camp chair I had toted around all through June, despite meaning to throw it out. Rocket peed on a D9, trotted back to my truck, and leapt aboard. We were only a few hours from Fort Saint John, where civilization begins. Canada Day was behind us, and there would be grocery stores open and maybe a place to get a decent coffee. Then it would be on to Grande Prairie, then Edmonton, where suddenly there would be country-music stations. A few days later, after driving through the haze of wildfires in the West, I might make it home, and I’d fill my freezer with this great harvest of fish and begin telling people about it. And then what? a little voice in my head asked.

Before we pulled away, I spotted an arctic fox among the heavy machinery. Sitting poised like a house pet, just staring at me. It had the same tattered summertime coat I’d seen on the dead animal two days earlier. I rolled down the window and made a smooching sound, but the fox didn’t move, only stared with eyes like black buttons on a doll. It wasn’t looking at me, I realized. It was looking into that space that only wild animals can access.