this ol town has its hooks in me

Dear Uma: Pete was talking the other day about where we will go after his contract is finished; there are two jobs on offer so far, one being a…

Dear Uma:

Pete was talking the other day about where we will go after his contract is finished; there are two jobs on offer so far, one being a position in Tanzania and another in the BC Interior.

We already know from experience we like Africa, and we think we would like BC, but midway through an evening of examination and discussion, I realized I am not ready to leave Watson Lake.

This was a surprise; I don’t believe I have ever before not been eager to get on to the next adventure. Moving has never been a trauma for me, more like happy preparation for novelty and excitement.

I sat at the table in silence, staring at the brochures and information packets from the mining companies and feeling suddenly bereft at the thought of leaving our trailer in this odd little town in this vast wilderness.

It has sneaked up on me; I have become attached to the story of this place and people. I want to know what happens next.

Someone said all human activity is cosmic theatre — grand, goofy, epic and ephemeral, and nowhere have I seen this more clearly demonstrated than in Watson Lake.

I have been witness, in less than a year, to profound acts of kindness and a great deal of pettiness. I have seen ignorance to a degree hard to credit in the year 2008, as well as a depth of thought that would be appreciated anywhere in the world.

There is humour here — a harsh, frontier sort of humour, but funny, nevertheless, and an often misplaced and deadly earnestness to balance it all out.

There are social events that exclude children, but never dogs, and feature copious amounts of alcohol, or for the flip side, social events all about families, and drinking tea.

The politics are reminiscent of the ‘50s: no thought to the future of the very earth that is our home, just the same old greed, the endless lies and evasions attempting to disguise a tired and sad agenda.

The Yukon Party gives credence to Edward Abbey’s oft-quoted remark: “Giving money and power to men in government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

But, always, there is the hope of change, and I have heard one or two Yukon politicians speak a language of vision and intelligence. Sad to report, those speakers are white men; it’d be good to see a better-than-token representation of women and aboriginals, seeing as how there are some residing in the territory.

The land exerts a fascination, too, of its own unique kind: the long light days of a short summer; the northern lights in an endless winter.

I never tire of getting high (topographically speaking) and looking out over these endless vistas of trackless wilderness. Almost every time I drive or walk any distance I see moose, caribou, fox, bear, marten, lynx, beaver, eagle, or some other citizen of the bush.

These encounters halt me, not only physically, but intellectually and emotionally.

I find myself going places I have never been, triggered into that primeval place our species maintains inside ourselves and which we rarely visit any more — the place of oneness, and magic.

How many places have bear warnings on the local radio stations almost every day from spring to fall? And how about a snowstorm in mid-June? one of a magnitude to close roads and delay projects?

With the pull of the land, there are the people of the land — the Kaska. I am only just beginning to hear and see the triumphs and the struggles of the aboriginal people in this area. I have always been interested in other cultures, but this one exerts more pull than most. I find myself really wanting to understand and know the Kaska and their stories.

A small town gives you more access to people, even if you’d rather not have it. In the beginning, I was uncomfortable with knowing what I did about the folks who rang up my groceries, took my blood or my gas money.

I longed for anonymity, for the simple exchanges of daily life; one went to the bank, bought groceries, saw a doctor and bought gas, all in happy ignorance of the service providers’ love lives, finances, religious beliefs, or peculiarities of character.

I know how the woman in the store got the bruise over her eye; it is hard not to reach out, offer some sympathy and perhaps help, but that would be breaking the unspoken rule of small town life: nothing is said aloud about what goes on, unless, hopefully at any rate, it is between friends and family. I take my change.

There is a café in town where I refuse to eat if a certain man is cooking; I know too much about his personal life to be comfortable having him handle my food.

I wish I could say these stories and others are merely gossip and speculation, but I am careful to not act or react without the fullest knowledge possible.

If such veracity is not possible then as far as I am concerned it is gossip and speculation and is to be dismissed as such, but there are also true events and one learns to discern which is which. Such is life in a small town.

Pete noticed my silence (it is such an uncommon event in our life together) and typically, became silent, too, until I was ready to voice this reluctance to leaving the Yukon.

As it turns out, he could easily take another contract with the mine, and would be happy to do so, finding himself as engaged as I am in our present lifestyle.

So, we are going to stay for another year for certain. After that, it’ll be time for Pete to think of maybe perhaps considering retiring — another discussion.

You are not the only one I write to who wants to hear more Watson Lake stories; here is one I heard last week and find myself still chuckling over.

Jeannie’s story of the purple ladies of the goddamned Elks:

“This happened over 20 years ago. I joined the organization because they’d bought formula for my Marcus when he was a baby and allergic to milk.

“I thought a group that did something so kind must be full of good people and I wanted to be one of them.

“Well, it was all the most bitchy, gossiping, mean, back-stabbing women in town. We all had to wear purple jackets, with the crest, and hats that Dave said made me look like an organ grinder’s monkey. We had to wear white skirts and white shoes.

“The funny thing was that everyone behaved really nicely at the meetings.

“There were all these rules about how we had to behave, like standing up and saying nice things about each other at each meeting.

“Somehow everyone had agreed to these rules, and we were all able to get to know each other in a new way. I found out all kinds of good things about these women that I never would have guessed.

“And we all got along, and did helpful things for the community, all working together. It was a bunch of women most of whom ordinarily never talked to each other. I loved it!

“Then, one winter, we all agreed to wear white pants instead of white skirts to the meetings. It was just too damned cold to wear skirts.

“We told the head office of the organization that this is what we had decided to do. They sent women up here from the head office and just dissolved us!

“We were not allowed to wear pants, and there was no chance to negotiate or even explain; they just dissolved us. We were all sorry.”

Uma, it is going to be so great to show you around, and introduce you to Jeannie and some of the other marvelous people I have met. I wish you could stay longer than five days; it’s not enough time to really get a sense of what I’ve been telling you all these months.

I am making lists of things I want to show you, and then deleting and priorizing in consideration of how short a time we have.

See you soon!



Heather Bennett is a writer who lives in Watson Lake.

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