February 4, 2022 § 3 Comments
By Vivian Wagner
I read Tom Kizzia’s Cold Mountain Path: The Ghost Town Decades of McCarthy-Kennecott, Alaska after a recent move to Alaska, and the book captures my experiences of the palimpsest nature of both the McCarthy area and the state as a whole. This is a book about layers and about the difficulty of getting to any one truth about a place.
In this book, Kizzia tells the story of what he calls “the ghost town decades” of McCarthy-Kennecott, exploring how layers of stories told about a place shape it—and how those layers might not always be coherent or in agreement. Sometimes, the best that can be done in telling the story of a place is to let those many layers speak for themselves and to each other. As readers, we can listen to those stories, hearing the gaps, grasping the undertow, and maybe beginning to understand, if nothing else, the shifting and ever-changing feeling of that place.
The book’s title is inspired by Gary Snyder’s Cold Mountain Poems, translated from the work of the classical Chinese poet Han Shan, and it opens with the following epigraph:
Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist-blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there’s been no rain.
The pine sings, but there’s no wind.
Who can leap the world’s ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
This epigraph sets up a basic fact of the book: the story of McCarthy-Kennecott, like the trail in the poem, “goes on and on,” stretching back into the past and, presumably, far into the future. It’s a story of paradoxes and contradictions, of human settlement and wilderness, and of the challenges involved in navigating multiple truths.
In essence, this book is a series of anecdotes about people who have variously mined, lived in, settled, exploited, protected, run from, and remained in this region of Alaska—not just the McCarthy area itself, but the broad expanse of wilderness that eventually became the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve.
As Kizzia says in an introduction called “The Lost Decades,”
A great deal was going on in Alaska during the decades this story took place, with the war against Japan and the drive for statehood and the discovery of oil. But the remote mountain town of McCarthy slipped outside history. . . For half a century, McCarthy was a ghost town, home to just a few hold-outs, joined over time by various prospectors, dreamers, back-to the-landers, chiselers, escape artists, hippies, speculators, preachers, and outlaws. An old and makeshift way of life persisted against the quiet undertow of the past, that ebbing toward the nature that was here before.
This book, ultimately, attempts to reclaim that history, to put McCarthy on the map and in our consciousness. It tells the stories of all of these many characters, of their successes and failures, and of the tensions between them. We hear about a would-be prospector who mysteriously disappears into the wilderness for weeks at a time, about a drug dealer who steals skulls from the graveyard, about a family that sets up a home with a white picket fence. We hear about pilots and anthropology students, environmentalists and hoteliers.
The book is a cacophony of voices, and it can be tricky keeping track of all of its many stories and histories, as they blend and weave and bounce off each other. I think that many-voiced quality is, actually, one of the strengths of the book. This is not one over-arching narrative about McCarthy and environs, but actually many narratives, linked by accidents of history and time, cause and effect, place and people.
I’ve been to the McCarthy area once, so far, landing on the small airstrip with my husband and exploring McCarthy and the old Kennecott mine before backpacking a short ways in to a campground near the Root Glacier, where we spent the night in a tent and woke to the sound of a brown bear up the hill scavenging for garbage.
The area was surreal, with its combination of industrial heritage and wilderness, lived-in houses and abandoned mine buildings, ice and spruce. I couldn’t make sense of it, exactly, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I still don’t, really, even after reading Cold Mountain Path. There’s something mysterious about this place, something unfixed, something still being told.
It’s a story that goes on and on.
Vivian Wagner is the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry, including The Village, Curiosities, Raising, and Spells of the Apocalypse.