• nmcneill5

A Good Day at Midnight

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

I had never been to Bettles. Few people have because to get to Bettles, you have to come by air — although in winter there is the extra amenity of an ice road. Bettles is eccentric and appealing — the kind of place you either desperately want to live in or desperately want to escape. The town consists of an airstrip and a few scattered houses. A few pickup trucks drive the gravel roads around town and the dogs in Bettles are happy because they get to ride in the cabs of the pickup trucks. Between the air service office and the lodge you pass a Chevy van with one end of its front axle slowly pushing a jack stand further and further into the ground. Visitors are encouraged to urinate outside to take pressure off the wells.

From Bettles, we drove in one of the pickups with a happy dog out to the lake near town. I rode in the back and was as happy as the dog because I was riding in the bed of a pickup just as I did as a child. That, and the fact that we were about to board a small plane built a long time ago in Canada and named after an otter — a creature adept on both land and water, but conspicuously incapable of flight.

Despite it’s earthbound namesake, the plane lifted off the water gracefully and as the Bettles lake and the Bettles airstrip grew smaller and smaller behind us the landscape in front of us grew greater and greater until it crowded out all other thoughts and all traces of human occupation and human intervention and human intention. Greater too was the sunlight, which had lengthened until is was unending and full. For an hour, we flew north into the Brooks range up the Alatna until the few trees which followed the river’s course thinned and you could see the caribou trails through the tundra.

The plane landed on Gaedeke lake, we unloaded our gear, and the plane left. “In case you haven’t noticed, we are way the f___ out here” said Andrew, “So don’t do anything stupid, because there’s no easy way to get out. Make good decisions. Take small, low-risk steps.”

We started at the 68th parallel and took small low-risk steps south along the Alatna, then west into the Weyahok drainage, up and over the divide. The creeks flowed down into the Noatak and the Noatak flowed North into the Arctic Ocean, twisting and turning in an immense gravel bed.

On a ridge above the Noatak where we stopped to eat and nap, you could see Igikpak in the distance — the highest of a hundred peaks surrounding us. If you could reach the farthest visible peak in any direction, you would still be a hundred miles from the nearest road and a hundred more miles from anything which would be recognizable as a town.

The going was hard without trails. We moved slowly no matter how hard we tried to go fast. Our feet were always wet from crossing a creek or sinking into spongy tundra. Sometimes along a braid of gravel the footing would be quite pleasant and it would seem like it might go on for awhile — for a few hundred yards or more. Then the braid would end and we would have to climb up the river’s banks or climb down through the alder through the river’s bed to find passage on the other side. Where the sand neared the water, the tracks of wolf, moose, caribou, and bear followed along with us.

On the fourth day, we left the Noatak and climbed over a pass into a valley none of us had been before. It was foggy and rainy and cold. The terrain pressed us downward into a field of dark, slippery talus. At the bottom of the slope, the creek made its way between the stones following a course that seemed accidental except for its strict adherence to the law of gravity. The way up the next valley was worse. On one side, miles of thick alder and on the other miles of interlocked talus — a junkyard of wet stone which we crawled across like mice. We slept as well that night as one can sleep when the sun doesn’t go down.

On the sixth day, we climbed into the Arrigetch over Ariel Peak. It is a dramatic and unlikely passageway into the valley. As we ascended, the granite of Mount Xanadu’s unclimbed Grayling Wall glimmered white above us. From the top of Ariel, the Arrigetch Peaks look new and unweathered, each edge as sharp and defined as the break or the ending of a day.

We hiked into our camp at Circle Lake at 1:00 AM through hours of arctic sunset, exhausted and satisfied. The next day, we waited by the lake for our flight out. Two flights this time to get everyone out in a plane named after another flightless mammal: a Beaver. It was pleasant sitting by the lake and waiting because there was no walking to do and no cell service either. We napped and ate the last of our Raman with extra parmesan. It was also pleasant arriving in Bettles — eating and showering and eating again.

Measuring Daylight

For several days after arriving home, I was frustrated and cross and I wasn’t sure why. I ate better and slept better and worked less than at any time in the wilderness, with the added benefit of being surrounded by those I love and who love me. But as I sat in my Adirondack chair on the porch sipping wine in the evening, I was discontent thinking of all I had to do and how incapable I felt to bring each task to a satisfactory completion.

A thousand miles to my north, a hundred miles north of Bettles, the terms of my existence were dramatically simpler, the measurement of progress linear and concrete. A good day was to wake, break camp, walk, rest, walk, find camp, eat, and sleep again. What made the day good was that the blister did not expand, that my legs were weary but not spent, that the food I ate was filling, that the light was beautiful, and that we moved freely through the mountains. Here the terms are intertwined and nuanced. I hardly know what a good day is here even though I feel that I have had many.

I had a good day Saturday because I finished building a shelter for our horse. I began on Friday gathering materials from the odds and ends of old boards lying around our old farm. The newest board was probably milled and processed a few months ago and the oldest board had lived its former life as a support in the floor of our barn. It had axe marks along its length. Perhaps the day a hundred years ago when the marks were made had been a good day also.

Sunday was good after the work the day before. The late breakfast and the nap, the help from our neighbor to give the cow a shot, and the Jeep ride up the mountain with my daughter Eden. The beach along the river with our friends was good in the evening. The boys were on the skimboards and the girls dug through the sand until they found water.

I remember good days in the office and on the road. Years ago. The days when a big deal closed, when we trained eager new employees, or when a talk went well. The days when the software worked and it delivered what we promised and made someone happy in a small way. It was good to play a part in a big team where everyone knew just how to do what she did best. Even the company Christmas parties were often good, because these people had done good work and helped you do your work and now you could thank them for it and eat crab cakes.

You can tell when a day has been good because it feels as though what you have to give has been given and you can rest afterwards without restlessness.

I’m not certain whether the thread can be pulled until it exposes where all the seams connect. I’m not certain whether we can know before the day is well spent whether it was spent well.

I know that it was good to walk for a week in the wilderness and to make my way carefully and patiently over the talus late in the evening knowing that we would reach the end of it eventually — in an hour or a few hours. I know that it was good to not be hurried by the waning of daylight but to walk in the unending sun until we reached a gentle bench of tundra that would feel good to sleep on. It was good to remember that the day was an illusion created by our fitful sleep — that the sun would circle over us the whole time.


David stood up after we had eaten our dinner and told us that tomorrow would be his last official day of work. He wanted to celebrate it with us around a flask of smoked maple Knob Creek bourbon he had carried for four days. It tasted smooth and sweet and wonderful after the rain and cold and brush and talus.The day after next, on his first day of retirement, he hiked with us into the sunlit night until it was his second day of retirement.

A few weeks later, he was deep in Yosemite when the voice over the satellite phone told him that her cancer had returned and she might not live long. He went out early, up and over the snowbound pass with three others. It was a good day because it was hard and beautiful and it wasn’t certain whether they would make it but they did. He thought about his wife but to get to her he had to think about where to put his feet. He could think of his wife but he could see the mountains in the morning sun.

My friend and his wife chose to let the day end for her. It was a decision impossible to make because it is impossible to fathom, like a difficult pass from which there is no going back no matter how impossible it is to go forward. The day has ended after all the walking. I hope that the work and the walking and the labor with and for those they have loved makes the end of the day peaceful and hopeful and full. I hope the day has been good and that the sun will still be shining at midnight.

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