Saturday, March 14, 2009

Yellowknife; White sky

It pains me to admit this, but for the past 24 hours or so I've been engrossed in a History Channel reality show called Ice Road Truckers. The premise is so simple it verges on idiotic (Truckers! Driving! On Ice!). Truth be told, the show is kind of idiotic, too. Trucker Hugh Rowland and his crew of five drive multi-ton loads of supplies from Yellowknife to remote diamond mines in Canada's barren lands across frozen lakes. For 25 episodes. (Truckers! Driving! On ice!)

I've watched 2 of the 25 shows, and so far nothing much has happened. All five men have driven trucks on ice to the mines. And driven back. And driven out again. Portentous music howls alongside stock shots of ice cracking as the narrator stresses, again and again, the imminence of disaster. So far the worst that's happened is a blown transmission.

Still, the show keeps trucking (truckers! Driving! On ice!) and I keep watching. Ice Road Truckers is not a show I would ever have sought out on my own (c.f. the hazards of sharing a Netflix account), but there's clearly something in it that grabs me or I wouldn't have already devoted an hour and a half of my life to goggling at flickering shots of truckers. Driving. You know where.

Part of the lure, I confess, is the mystique of the captial-N North. The Northwest Territories are one of those featureless spaces on the globe I used to run my fingers over as a kid, trying to osmose whatever it was that existed up there in the white. Now, suddenly, the emptiness has grown a mouth.

Another attraction is the accidental ethnography. The culture of northern Canada in general and the truckers in particular is a far cry from any of the cultural milieus (academia, early music, Indiana down-home, inner city) I dip my toes into day-to-day. I like to listen to the accents and analyze the jokes and wonder about the particulars of each trucker's life off the ice. Apparently you can make $75,000 in the two-month season before the ice melts. So what do you do with the rest of your time? Especially given that it's -35 outside and dark as the inside of a sock?

Perhaps most fascinating, though, is the audacious stupidity of the whole operation. Building and maintaining the ice road -heck, even living close to it- requires an egregious logistical investment and a big-rig-sized load of work-arounds. Yet, raise the lid on Yellowknife or any other northern outpost and there you see us: humans scuttling roach-like in the dark. Our ability to adapt impresses the crap out of me. It's also arguably scarier than taking a truck across some frozen lakes.

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