Two Halves of a Whole

Catherine Dowling

The road to McCarthy, Alaska, runs right up against the Wrangell Mountains. This is bear country, land of ice floes, glaciers, and rivers so swift and cold they take your breath away. Unless you know what you’re doing, you can go no further, not without a mountain guide or a small plane. I’ve come here from Ireland for a week-long writer’s workshop sponsored by the Wrangell Mountain Center—writing about nature in the middle of nature. In truth, the workshop is not my top priority. I’ve really come to experience Alaska away from the tourist trail, and when it comes to out-of-the-way travel, McCarthy doesn’t disappoint. It’s as near as I’ll ever get to the romance of the American frontier.

The little town is about 300 miles east of Anchorage, the last 60 miles a dirt road. It lies within the boundaries of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which the park website says is the size of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Switzerland combined. Here, out of necessity, power is solar or from generators, rainwater is recycled, and garbage is composted or burned in wood stoves. The non-flush toilet for the electricity-free cabin I’m staying in is in a shack outside, and if I want a shower, it’s a bucket hanging over a wooden stall in the back yard of the Center. There is no wasting of water here, no prissy daily grooming or laundering of clothes. I've been here three days, and I can't find my comb, and what's worse, it doesn't matter.

Gardens in McCarthy are higgledy-piggledy affairs vaguely filling the spaces between wood cabins. I sit in a McCarthy garden that struggles to hold its shape against the wildness nibbling at its edges. At the far end of the garden, a row of aspen saplings, young and pliant, rustle in the breeze. Fuchsia-colored fireweed crowds their base, soft contrast to the slatey smoothness of bark. To the right, invisible from where I sit, McCarthy Creek races through the bowl of mountains that surround us. Out past the tenuous boundary of the garden, black bears are known to roam.

“Quirky details. Do you have all the quirky details that bring this scene to life?” the teacher asks. She’s a famous writer with a light, tinkly voice that reminds me of silver. I look up from my writing assignment, and a picture of a flush toilet flashes before me. While I never use toilet rim cleaner—those little things that hang over the rim of the bowl and send blue stuff cascading down with every flush—I long for the fragrance of toilet cleaner.

In the afternoon, we move into the old false-fronted village hardware store, now home to the Wrangell Mountain Center. The unpainted log building is roughhewn and weather-battered and looks like it hasn't been upgraded in a hundred years. Another teacher takes over, her voice deeper, more robust. She tackles weighty subjects—wildness and awareness, union and communion, spirit and abandon. Unusual in my experience of the United States, I’m the only non-American in the group. The teacher asks me about Celtic spirituality, much revered in recent times, and about Celtic Warrior Women in particular. I’ve no idea what she’s talking about. “You don’t know what a Celtic Warrior Woman is,” she says, more a shocked statement than a question, and I’m acutely aware that everyone in the class is looking at me. I stumble over an explanation, embarrassed. “It’s your heritage,” she tells me. “You should embrace your heritage.” I am exceedingly irritated.

***

After class, I meander through the town heading for the little museum housed in an old railroad depot. There, I find some Irish names, copper miners from the other side of the world who somehow found their way to Kennicott, a tiny copper mining village a few miles from McCarthy. I also find references to Margaret Keenan Harrais, described as an abolitionist, suffragist, and one of the town’s first school teachers. She arrived in McCarthy in 1924 when the town had 120 residents—a lot more than it does today. She lobbied hard for a pension scheme for Alaska’s teachers and tried to expand the scope of education in McCarthy. Given that McCarthy was then a frontier town well known for its hard-drinking men and hardworking prostitutes, and Margaret was an advocate of the temperate life, could she, I wonder, be described as a Warrior Woman.

I move quickly past displays of empty spice cans, bottles, coffee pots, and old clothes and wonder vaguely how much the rusty mining bucket wedged against a wall weighs. After examining an array of photos sepia with age, I go back outside into the grey, overcast afternoon. The weather reminds me of home. There’s a log on the other side of the street where I sit to admire the symmetrical lines of the museum, burgundy and white against the dark green pines beside it. The building is a little smaller than the old three-room school where I began kindergarten, the only school in a rapidly expanding suburb of 1960s Dublin. There we sat at wooden desks with grooves for our pencils and empty ceramic inkwells—we were too young to be let loose with ink. That is where I first heard about the women of ancient and medieval Ireland.

A few names come to mind easily as I rest on the log—Maeve, Grace, Brigid—but the details are elusive. Eventually, scraps of memory fight their way through the fog of decades, history lessons I revisited in high school and again in college. I recall something about how Brigid—Saint Brigid—tricked a bishop into giving her enough land on which to build her monastery, how she may have been made a bishop herself. If that was true, it was quite an achievement. A female triumph over the all-male Catholic Church. But try as I might, I can’t remember any teacher or professor using the words Warrior Woman. The summer day is cooling rapidly—not that it was very warm to begin with—so I abandon my mental workout and wander back toward the cabin.

Along the way, I admire the low, shingled buildings, some as weathered and charmingly dilapidated as the hardware store, others freshly painted in vibrant rust red, green, blue, yellow. There’s a bar, a take-out restaurant, a backpacker hostel. My favorite is the hotel, a petite two-story building, meticulously cared for, beautifully restored. Flowers spill over the edges of baskets hanging from the porch. In the evening, it glows with light like something out of a cowboy movie, if cowboys had generators, that is. But the space between buildings is wide and scrubby, the streets unpaved. Even the most spruced up structures exude a whiff of wildness, of nature tamed, but only for now.

***

“Draw a square around a word or a phrase,” the teacher with the silver voice is back. “Let it be a window into something else, whatever comes to mind.” I square off some words I’ve just written, then wait. A pearl of water drops onto the page. Earlier, I stuck my head into the outdoor shower to wash my hair but made a poor job of drying it. I rub the water into a streak across the page, stare at the squared-off words, and wonder, can I make it to the end of the week without stepping all the way into the shower and tipping a bucket of cold water onto myself. Then suddenly, the word Maeve comes to mind. I write it down. The teacher is correct, ideas begin to flow, some of the details that eluded me outside the museum yesterday.

Maeve (Irish: Medb) Queen of Connacht may have been a 1st-century historical figure, or she may have been a mythological goddess. Reliable sources from the dark ages are hard to come by, so while members of the jury are still deliberating, they’re leaning toward myth. Either way, Maeve was a formidable woman. She reigned over the province of Connacht in the west of Ireland and could summon militia from all over the country to support her when she went to war, as she often did, with her mortal enemy, the king of Ulster (present-day Northern Ireland).

The other name I remembered at the museum was Grace. Grace O’Malley really did exist. She stalked the same Connacht as Maeve, but 1,400 years later, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1 of England. Grace came from a wealthy, powerful, seafaring family. As I write, I recall something about how when she was a child, her father refused to take her to sea with him because, he said, her long hair would catch in the ropes of the boat. She promptly cut off her flowing curls, so he had no choice but to take her along. It earned her the nickname Granuaile, Bald Grace. It also kick-started her career as a pirate. She went on to ferment and lead rebellions against British rule in Ireland. I run out of steam, put my pen down. Most of my classmates are still writing, so I lean back to enjoy the watery sunshine and air that is as unpolluted as it gets.

After class, I again wander the town’s few streets. But this time, in the late evening northern light, I see things I hadn’t seen before. Rusted metal wheels and spikes and things I don't recognize pockmark the grass. Behind the facade of a building, rubble and debris, what looks like the entire contents of the house, lie strewn about, no attempt made to clean it up. I’m shocked. I don’t know why. I’ve seen this kind of thing before, on vacant lots in New York City, but here, in the crystal air of a vast wilderness, it’s jarring.

As I walk, I think of Maeve and Grace, the Warrior Women I’ve been told to embrace. For most of my life, I’ve leaned toward pacifism. Both Maeve and Grace were warriors. The word warrior is suffused with romance and righteousness. These women were killers; they thought nothing of leading men, and probably some other women, into battle, thought nothing of starting wars out of pure hubris or jealousy. Maeve murdered her own sister, Eithne, while Eithne was pregnant. At the end of her life, Grace O’Malley changed sides and fought for the British against her fellow countrymen, the men and women she once led into battle. I wonder does my teacher understand that. These are not role models I care to embrace. Even Alaska’s high-minded pioneer of education, Margaret Keenan Harrais, engaged in a multitude of petty squabbles with parents and school board members that stymied parts of her legacy.

***

The workshop I’m taking includes two visits to the Kennicott Glacier. The only thing I know about glaciers is that they’re disappearing fast, so I’m excited to set off on our first glacier hike. I'm expecting white; I have prepared for it with a pair of ten-dollar Walmart sunglasses. We hike through the woods, examine the plants, crimson soap berries against forest green leaves, deep purple monks’ hoods, a profusion of hairy dryas and, here and there, piles of bear scat, proof that talk of roaming bears is not just a game to frighten the tourists. Half an hour into the hike, the woods give way to undulating hills of rubble. It's a scar, a vast ugliness in the midst of the untouched wilderness. The tailings from the copper mine further up the valley? But then I realize it's not man-made. This is the Kennicott Glacier, the foremost part known as the toe, and it’s as far as we go for the day.

***

Wednesday night in McCarthy’s only saloon. Electricity, flush toilets…I don’t know what to do with myself. If it had a shower, it could be classified as nirvana. I’ve gotten to know people who live here all summer long and even some who are residents all year. I’ve heard them described as closed, but I find them very open people. They’re full of stories. At first, it’s all about the tourists who foolishly leave food in their tents, the local man who weaves his own fabric and can get wild birds to feed from his hand, the daft pick-up lines men use in the bar. But slowly, in the saloon or late at night in people's woodsheds, McCarthy offers up other, darker stories of loneliness, depression, even abuse.

***

Time for our second glacier hike. We drive the three miles of bumpy dirt road that leads to Kennicott. The village clutches the side of the mountain. If it weren’t already there, it would be difficult to imagine anything could stay anchored to such a sheer slope. Unlike McCarthy, Kennicott was a company town, a place to raise children and go to church. So, although the mine dominates the village, the rust-red and white buildings are neat and symmetrical, and very attractive. The village itself seems planned, ordered, holding its own against the magnificent valley below and the peak that towers above it. We pick up our crampons from a guide shop and begin our descent. As we walk to the trailhead, I peep over the edge of the road. The drop is sheer and littered with rusted machinery and assorted debris from the mine. It cascades down the slope towards the glacier that fills the valley floor. This time, it’s not shocking, not even surprising.

At the bottom, we hit more of the gray rubble the glacier churns up in its slow, primordial forward movement. A kind young guide helps me strap crampons to my boots and points out the shiny black smoothness emerging through the grit. Black ice. The ice changes color as we climb. Black becomes gray and then magnificently blindingly white near the top of a mound. This is a different world where everything is uniform and featureless. But as I take the time to look, the contours of this strange landscape take shape. White has infinite shades and textures. Its sheenless solidity is run through with streaks of glittering crystals. Veins of gray slope down to pools of translucent blue. Rivers traverse the glacier, cutting paths into blue ice, and, in the distance, the icefall that fills the entire space between two mountains shimmers and shape-shifts in the afternoon sunlight. This world is indescribably beautiful. I want to get lost in the ribbons of crystal.

Back in Kennicott, at the end of our hike, an impromptu street party forms. Someone brings Scotch, and from somewhere else, vodka and soda appear. The guides play music—guitar and banjo. Just below us, the mine debris continues to rust. Someone has skidded down the slope to collect small pieces. They’ll turn it into their idea of art. I am six thousand miles from where I started, on the side of a mountain, on the edge of a wilderness that itself is on the edge of a continent, centuries away from Maeve and Grace and the Celtic Warrior Women. I look up from the would-be art collectors. Straight ahead, the mountains glow orange under a blue and gray sky. In the middle distance, the seam between rubble and ice is a meandering line across the valley floor, growing diffuse as the light fades. As the sun sets, the boundary between ice and rubble disappears. They become what they are; one glacier, of a piece, the toe carving out a whole valley for what comes behind it.

I think again briefly of Maeve and Grace. I’ll never be able to embrace their warrior nature, but am I too hasty in dismissing them? Maeve was fearless and didn't waste time feigning modesty about her powers not only to lead an army but to beguile any man she set her sights on. She had five husbands, countless lovers, and, I imagine, it never entered her head that being a woman should hold her back in any way. Grace, too, was fearless and refused to bow to the British monarch when they met in London. Both women were supremely confident, independent, and strode through their world the equal of warriors and kings. Maybe like the glacier, their beauty is inseparable from their ugliness. Maybe that’s the nature of things—ugliness and beauty interlaced, each giving power to the other. Maybe I have something to learn from my heritage, even if I can’t swallow the whole Warrior Woman package. In the meantime, Kennicott Lodge has a cleaned and perfumed flush toilet we can sneak into if we need it, and someone has produced rice cakes and homemade raspberry jam. The perfect last night in the wilderness.


About the Author

Catherine Dowling was born in Ireland and has divided her life between the United States and her home country. She has a Masters in History from the University of Montana and since then has worked hard to create a chequered resume that includes waitressing, quality assurance, teaching, and psychotherapy as well as writing. She has published two books: Racial Awareness (Llewellyn Worldwide), and Rebirthing and Breathwork (Piatkus, UK). Her articles have appeared in Oneing, r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal, Positive Health, Inside Out, Lowestoft Chronicle, Montana Mouthful, and more. They can be found at http://www.catherinedowling.com. She has lived in New York, Montana, California, and New Mexico but currently resides in Ireland.