Cracks in the dream. Or: (Too much) time to think on the long road to Alaska

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The long and dusty road up north, somewhere in Yukon, close to the Alaskan border. Is climate change screwing the dream?

I am sitting in my car on the side of the highway 3 to Haines, Alaska, at an elevation of 890m over sea level while I am typing this. The old snow on the road has melted and left it wet in some spots, while it is mostly already dry. It is pure coincidence that I have just been listening to a very recent TED talk by Al Gore on climate change when I decided to pull over and stop. It has now been a full week since I last skied.

I had doubts about leaving Terrace. Something in me didn’t want to go, and it was quite strong. I attributed it to the usual resistance that I had been encountering over and over again when the time had come to leave dear new friends – in this case, Will and Jen. Once I find a piece of home away from home I – still – don’t give it up easily.

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The long drive up north lasted seven days in my case, with only one day of skiing in Haines Pass.

Alaska had always lingered in my mind as the place where dreams of perfect winter come true. The only reasons not to go there right away seemed to be the existence of British Columbia, the shortage of daylight up there too early in the season and the strength of the US dollar. And now that I was getting very close to its borders, the promise of almost endless winter and an undefeatable snowpack just didn’t hold up. Climate change is real, and it is taking its toll even up here, 63 degrees of Northern latitude – the same as Norway’s Trondheim, further up north than Finland’s capital Helsinki.

Ever since I had left Terrace in pursuit of this utopian place, the disappointment had almost increased with every kilometer driven up north. My first stop at Stewart, including a brief touch with Alaska in Hyder was a strong sign of things to come in hindsight. I drove a long way to reach Salmon Glacier on a gravel road flanked by old, wet and crusted snow. Shortly before getting to Salmon Glacier, I found the road blocked by a chain for avalanche danger. No skiing that day.

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My first stop at Stewart, including a brief touch with Alaska in Hyder was a strong sign of things to come in hindsight. No skiing happened that day…

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Why is everything melting already?! Bear Pass, close to Stewart, BC – a place known for ultra-thick snowpacks.

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Alaska. A first encounter with my personal utopia at its very southern tip in Hyder.

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Continental Alaska, as far up north as I’ve gotten yet. The lonely, dry and dull road through tundra style scenery reminded me of the hostile landscapes in the ‘Lord of the Rings’.

I pressed on towards Bell2, a place heralded by many skiers as a deep snow mecca. When I got there, the picture was no different from Stewart. So I went on and on on the long and lonely highway 37, called the Cassiar highway, on the way up north.

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I stopped at Bob Quinn Lake, a gravel landing strip next to the highway, to cook my dinner. It was then when I felt the loneliest I’ve ever felt on this trip. So I decided to drive on.

There was no snow on the ground here and the mountains around me looked windblown, making me feel purposeless with the possibility of a good day of hard work skinning and skiing all of a sudden so out of reach.

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The third day included driving on very old ice and snow crusts for hours.

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You sure want your tires to be alright. At the gas station in Dease Lake, Northern BC.

I got my hopes slightly up when strong snowfall was wearing my eyes out quickly just ahead of Iskut, my designated place to spend the night. And while I spent most of the next day driving on snow and ice, I couldn’t close my eyes to one harsh reality: The last snowfall, maybe even the last rainshower must have been a long time ago. The further north I got, the truer this seemed to become.

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Days later, shortly before Haynes Junction, I would give a hitch to an old first nation, who would tell me that the last snowfall had been a month ago. Then a moment of epiphany happened shortly after I had dropped him off when this cyclist came shooting down the highway from Haines Pass.

Throughout my journey, I had started to listen to TED talk podcasts back in Costa Rica when driving for a longer period of time. Here in Canada I had gotten back to this habit: I am huge fan and can only recommend to everyone to listen to TED talks extensively. They truly open our eyes, inspire as well as broaden and deepen our view on the world.

I also listened to a few of these talks on the European migrant crisis and I had learnt a lot about it this way. On of the most useful and interesting things I have found in this regard come from Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who likened the reactions of European politicians to the crisis to the five stages of dealing with terminal illness of Kübler-Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, resignation, acceptance). I felt that this also neatly represented the emotional rollercoaster I had experienced for myself about this issue, especially when I was home in Vienna in October and November, and the Paris terrorist attacks made my blood boil with anger.

it was some 300km ahead of Whitehorse, Yukon on highway 1, called the Alaska highway when I reflected over a TED talk I had just listened to and thought to myself that at least the raw feelings after the terrorist attack in Paris had subsided when dealing with the migrant crisis, both within me and the media. I stopped at a place called the Rancheria, the first place to offer coffee since Mesiadian Junction 800km ago. I found the owner watching the latest news of the terrorist attack in Brussels. He was quick to point out that Canada should not have let 25,000 (seemed to be a lot to him) migrants come into the county. He was also quite sure that there would terrorists among them.

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Me unsuccessfully trying to smile for the camera an hour after I learned about the terrorist attack in Brussels. The migrant crisis, terrorism and the erosion of monetary value (hence also my savings) by the ECB (while fueling a real estate price surge at the same time) make it hard to keep an optimistic view on my beloved Europe. And then there are CETA and TTIP of course, which apparently corrupted politicians like German vice-chancellor Gabriel intend to push through undemocratically behind the European electorate (well-distracted by the omnipresent migrant crisis), much to the detriment of work forces and consumers both in the EU and North America.

A good old friend of mine had recently asked me in one of our sporadic email conversations whether I was aware at all how the migrant crisis was overshadowing everything in Europe. Yes, I answered. My brother’s visit – and some TED talks – had pointed my attention to the topic once again, after I had gladly left it behind me upon leaving Europe on December 3. So I took the opportunity to get beyond the emotional confusion that caused me to find myself defending almost diametral positions at different times and put in writing what I thought about it.

One thing I’ve learned on this journey via TED talks: Understanding is created by broadening our knowledge. Also, a rational, well-informed discussion of any topic tends to decrease emotional and sentimental arousal. I used TED podcasts to stop my state of self-pity after my brother had flown home and earlier I had realized how listening to Zizek’s sophisticated talk had totally wiped out any appetite to drink and party another night. My conclusion is that whenever a topic like the migrant crisis stirs our emotions heavily, we should strive for the best and most comprehensive information representing different viewpoints on the topic at hand.

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Approaching Whitehorse after a full day of driving. TED talks and the Black Keys helped me cover the 12 hours on the road. (And some ultra-sweet and tasty cinnamon buns right on Teslin Lake.)

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that „Wir schaffen das“. To use a probably macabre metaphor, every boat sinks if you overload it. Obviously, Europe is a boat hard to sink by bringing more people on board. But our social standards, social peace and coherence are much more fragile and will drown much earlier. So I am not favoring an unrestricted open welcome policy. Neither do I let myself be deceived by Merkel’s dirty treaty with Turkey – financial engineers would call her policy a synthetic Obergrenze instead of a real one. Nevertheless, she has the audacity to criticize Austria for introducing one. In banking speak: She didn’t buy the cash bond, she entered some sort of swap instead, by asking Turkey to do the dirty work. And the spread of that swap, the premium is very high – accepting Erdogan’s totalitarian and suppressive regime more and more and reopening EU membership discussions despite its politics.

I don’t believe we can welcome an unlimited number of people without significant collateral damage. I don’t believe that Merkel was ever doing the right thing by letting people come without restriction, and even worse without registration(!). Actually, she was breaking EU treaties unilaterally against the opposition of other countries and even her own party. If she had wanted to do it right, she should have given asylum seekers a chance to apply for asylum in Syria, Irak or Afghanistan so that they could take a reasonably priced and safe flight instead of a costly and often deadly trip across Turkey, the Mediterrean sea and the Balkans. And what was that stupid talk about the impossibility of registrating all arrivals at the Austrian border anyway? I remember very well how the security measures for the G7 summit in Ellmau, Bavaria in 2015 barred me from traveling home to Tyrol one weekend. 360 million EUR were quickly dispensed by the Bund and other public entities to over-secure the area with an army of 20,000 police. But when the biggest storm of the decade hits the German border, it can’t be secured?

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Dr. Faust and the latest spirit she has cited. Her commands, the spirits ignore.

But I learnt another thing by waking up in my car all by myself freezing, hungry and feeling lonely somehwhere along the Cassiar highway: Compassion is acquired by experience. We can overcome our fears and learn to better balance our own needs and wishes against the more urgent needs of other people, be it migrants, poor or homeless people among „our own“ or those who are too weak and poor to make their way to the European borders, if we either expose ourselves to hardships or, more useful, get in contact with people in desperate need of help, even if it is just for a brief period of time. It is much easier to open your heart to the suffering of other people when they are right in front of you than when they are just a miserable mob on the news.

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It maybe food from GMO crops, but it still is a warm meal. And as we never have shortage of it, we deliberately judge people craving it in the camps along our borders. I am no exception: I fear Europe will move further and further away from the rosy place it appeared to be in the 80s of my childhood. I envy Canadians who don’t need to lock their front doors or their cars in the street. But is this fear rational? Does it justify fencing people out? There is no appetizing solution on the table.

Ultimately, we are best at feeling compassion for ourselves. When I woke up in the car freezing, hungry and feeling lonely said morning, it was a lot easier for me to imagine how it must feel for someone who experienced this every day. Just that little bit of suffering enabled me to imagine better how much more miserable I would feel if I was war traumatized instead of having certainties like where I was going, a place that I could go back to, family and friends that are safe and care about me.

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Eventually, some skiing (on the steroids of motor sled lifts) lifted my spirits for a day at Haines Pass.

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Sledders’ camp at Haines Pass. Any thoughts on fuel consumption were certainly not prompted by worries on climate change there. Thanks to Trevor and James for the adrenalin-kicking rides up the mountain though!

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