Nome and the Speed of Sound Through Materials

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Nome and the Speed of Sound Through Materials
Story and photos by Edward Readicker-Henderson



Exploring the northern finger of Alaska, where mammoths roamed when the continents were one. Now changes are coming again as the musk oxen move to higher ground.


Nome reindeer

The reindeer sound like sleigh bells.

Maybe fifty of them, trotting down the middle of the road, shoulder to shoulder yet somehow keeping their antlers from tangling.

The reindeer sound like sleigh bells. The heavy jog of their muscles, the click of the tendon in their ankle that would make them the most efficient walkers on the planet, if only they had any real interest in walking, if only they weren't, biologically, just fat, lazy caribou. Give them a thumb and a TV remote, they'd be really happy.

Which does bring up the question of why they're running down the road to begin with. Grizzly? Probably.

I'll never see the bear, though. The barren-ground grizzlies around here get to about twelve hundred pounds, but can turn invisible in the willows, blend into the tundra, hide in the old dredges that once searched for gold by eating entire rivers, and are now hulks slowly disappearing themselves in time.

In fact, I will never see any of the things I came here to see. Which is okay, because I knew that would be the case before I got on the plane, because what I came here to see doesn't exist anymore.

The unaccustomed features of the situation with which we are confronted … necessitate the greatest caution as regard all questions of terminology. Speaking, as it is often done of disturbing a phenomenon by observation, or even of creating physical attributes to objects by measuring processes is liable to be confusing, since all such sentences imply a departure from conventions of basic language which even though it can be practical for the sake of brevity, can never be unambiguous. (Niels Bohr)

Reindeer are not what I've come here to see at all, because I've seen them here before. Once, one night, I left the hotel here in the bright sunlight about eleven p.m. to go for a walk. Got out onto the street, turned around, went back into the hotel. "Um, is the reindeer in the back of the truck a normal thing?"

"That's Velvet," the clerk said.

I had already fallen in love with Nome, jutting out from the coast of Alaska like a finger pointing to the North Pole: the way the people talking about "ounces" in the restaurants meant gold, not drugs, the way the Bering Sea rolled against the seawall, slapping against shivering men still trying to turn the beach into riches, as if not a moment had passed since the 1901 gold rush. I loved the fact that the grocery store sold ATVs next to the meat counter, as if offering you a choice between a real world and a world wrapped in Styrofoam. I loved walking past the sign that said this is where the Iditarod ends every year: after mushers have taken teams of sled dogs over a thousand miles, they end up in a town where the most popular restaurant is simply called "Airport Pizza."

Nome river

And now this, a reindeer standing in the bed of a pickup truck, happily munching on a bale of hay.

"Velvet."

"Velvet."

"And will Velvet object if I take her picture?"

"Velvet will be fine with it, but don't get near the dog in the front of the truck. He thinks it's his job to protect her."

Today, Stinger, the dog in our own un-reindeered truck, sleeps. He knows we're not going to let him chase these sleigh bell impersonating reindeer. Nor are we going to let him protect the reindeer, should that thought cross his doggie mind. And it's not like he hasn't been having some fun. We've stopped a bunch of times to let him bark at the few salmon, still running through the pan-shallow streams, looking like props from a zombie movie. Plus, his tennis ball, stuffed into the glove compartment to keep him from obsessing, is stained and drenched with blueberry juice. A half hour or so outside Nome, we'd stopped, standing on blueberries, running on blueberries, pausing between throws to eat blueberries that grew on plants the size of origami prayers and that tasted like a sun that refuses to set.

The ball splashed blueberry when it struck the ground.

On an 1850s chart, the mapmaker, eyes weary from a shadeless midnight, labeled this blueberried finger of land "? Name," as if language were not quite enough to contain this place.

But what all this area is, really, is a region of off-ramps for a lost world. The Teller off-ramp, where we're headed, just south of the Arctic Circle. And the Nome—"? Name" turned into a typo confusion of map and territory—off-ramp, 72 miles south of Teller, and where, this time, I can find no trace of Velvet, and where, because there is a political freak show in town, I feel like I have to flip off every single door in the hotel, just to make sure I get her room covered.

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