About the Author

Will Ferguson

Travel writer and novelist Will Ferguson is the author of several award-winning memoirs, including Beyond Belfast, about a 560-mile walk across Northern Ireland in the rain; Hitching Rides with Buddha, about an end-to-end journey across Japan by thumb; and most recently the humour collection Canadian Pie, which includes his travels from Yukon to PEI.

Ferguson's novels include Happiness™, a satire set in the world of self-help publishing, and Spanish Fly, a coming-of-age tale of con men and call girls set amid the jazz clubs of the Great Depression. His work, which has been published in more than twenty languages around the world, has been nominated for both an IMPAC Dublin Award and a Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and he is a three-time winner of the Leacock Medal.

www.willferguson.com

 

Books by this Author
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Bastards & Boneheads

Bastards & Boneheads

Canada's Glorious Leaders Past and Present
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Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw

Travels in Search of Canada
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Excerpt

Introduction

CANADA IS

It’s rare to remember exactly where you were when an idea first occurred to you–or at least, it’s rare for me. I usually wander through life gathering notions and hunches the way trouser pockets gather bits of lint; I’m not really sure how they got there, but there they are. In this case, though, I can recall vividly where I was when it dawned on me that Canada is not a country but a collection of outposts: it was while I drove through a night of heavy rain, into the realm of a legendary republic, a sleeping child and drowsy spouse beside me.

We’d been on the road for hours, heading into northern New Brunswick. The wipers sloshed back and forth, barely able to keep the windshield clear. Bucket-throws of water washed across our view. At midnight, we crossed over into dangerous territory. The Republic of Madawaska. A self-proclaimed independent state, Madawaska is wedged between the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick and the state of Maine. The population is francophone, but the people are neither Québécois nor Acadian; they are les Brayons. And Madawaska is their heartland: La République.

Northrop Frye, scholar and soul-searcher, noted that what set Canada apart in the western hemisphere was our lack of a distinguishable frontier – a line that advanced purposefully across the map like an isobar separating one world from another, with “settlement” on one side and “vanishing wilderness” on the other. In this, our experiences diverged drastically from those of the United States. The American “frontier thesis” – a heavily symbolic narrative of progress and order steamrolling over the chaos of an untamed land–may be historically suspect, but its psychological impact on American society cannot be underestimated. By contrast, historian Donald Creighton advanced for Canada a “metropolitan thesis,” in which the flow of ideas and goods fanned outward from various urban centres to small scattered pockets of civilization–to outposts, in effect. In a country as sparsely populated and as vast as Canada, it could hardly have been otherwise, and this reality of who we are is played out before our eyes from the window of any given airplane on any given night. Beyond the luminous glow of the major cities, the metropolis melts away into a yawning darkness, an empty space punctuated only by intermittent clusters of light.

The effect upon the Canadian psyche, Frye argued, was something he called the “garrison mentality”: a sense of dread and loneliness bred into us from cowering behind palisaded walls, far from “home” in a land as savage as it was indifferent. The existential heebie-jeebies, as it were. (Our obsessive love of enclosed shopping malls can be seen as a continuation of this nervous tic, though personally I blame the weather.)

But garrison is too dark a word. “Garrison” suggests gnawing despair and impending attack. I prefer the term “outpost,” because it includes a wider range of possibilities. Outposts are not only geographic; they can be linguistic, political, cultural – even philosophical. I think of French Quebec and English Victoria, but also of the populist ideals embodied in Calgary’s unflagging optimism; I think of the exiled Acadians and the outcast Loyalists, of First Nations, once shattered, now regrouping. I think of failed utopias and deluded colonization schemes. Of fortunes lost and fortunes found. I think of mythical kingdoms and gold mountains. I think of the descendants of the Underground Railroad and the Gaelic communities of Cape Breton, and of the Cree in my hometown and the Mennonite colony nearby.

Outposts can become enclaves–the Anglos in Montreal or the Lebanese in Charlottetown–and enclaves can disappear. Such was the case of Vancouver’s black community in Hogan’s Alley, or of Halifax’s Africville. Or of the “thirteen lost tribes” of Canada’s Jewish Colonization Society that once existed in farming communes and hamlets between Winnipeg and the Rockies. Where are the remittance men of Windermere, British Columbia? Where are the French counts of Whitewood, Saskatchewan? The Acadians of Grand Pré? But beyond these tales of the defeated and the dispossessed, Canada’s outposts represent small triumphs of survival. Mini-epics of continuity. The French fact is a compelling example of this.

Communities overlap. Orbits collide. And outposts spin off from one another, as well. In Fort McMurray, Alberta, a tar sands town dedicated to wringing wealth from the earth, I once found myself in the colony of a colony, an outpost of an outpost. You’ve heard of Chinatown and Little Italy. In the tar sands of Alberta, a freewheeling “Newfoundland West” has taken hold. Fort McMurray’s lively (read: rowdy) ex-pat community (read: highly paid rig workers) has transformed this remote, landlocked city into one of the largest Newfoundland communities outside of St. John’s. Newfoundland, in turn, can be considered an outpost of Ireland . . . and on it goes.

Do you remember that old Roger Whittaker song “Canada Is,” with its rah-rah boosterism and its shopping list of locales? (Canada is the Rocky Mountains, Canada is Prince Edward Island. . . . ) Well, that song now seems profound. Canada is a sum of its regions. It is the outports and the outposts, the side streets and the stubborn enclaves, the city cul-de-sacs and the far-flung towns. That’s what Canada is.

The presence of outposts is evident in other immigrant nations, but in Canada it has become something of a defining trait. Whereas the United States had a frontier, and countries like Argentina and France and England have the Capital, one clear, overpowering, political, social and cultural center – Buenos Aires, Paris and London being the national Death Stars of their respective countries – Canada has no single central city. It has scattered metropolises of various sizes, regional outposts with their own spheres of influence. There is no London, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Canada’s increasingly eclectic, multicultural urban reality only highlights this patchwork character of ours. Far from being homogenizing agents, Canadian cities have increasingly come to resemble jigsaw puzzles jumbled together from dozens of different boxes, in which the various disparate pieces still somehow, sort of, almost fit.

I have spent the last three years travelling among the outposts and enclaves of Canada. Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw recounts some of these travels. It is, I freely admit, a highly subjective, site-specific look at our country. I begin at the Pacific and then work my way east, from the southern end of Vancouver Island to the northern tip of Newfoundland. A more typical approach would have been to start in the east and proceed westward, following the route of European expansion. But that would give the impression of purpose, of events unfolding according to some grand master plan. Going against the sun creates a very different effect. Moving from west to east, you peel back the layers of history as you go. The trips I took are not presented here in strict chronological order, which is why my son Alex is three years old in one chapter and an infant in the next. I apologize if you find this confusing. And yes, this is one of those fake “Canadian apologies,” where you say it but don’t really mean it.

When the explorer Samuel Hearne first attempted to walk from Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean in 1769, he knew he was about to enter what was for him, terra incognita, an “unknown country.” In preparation for his trek, Hearne sketched out the shoreline on a deerskin parchment, but he left the interior blank; he would fill things in as he went, adding details as he travelled. In a similar fashion, I wanted to fill in the broad outline of my own map of Canada, to add small but telling details to the cartography I carry inside me. True, unlike Hearne, I didn’t have to eat raw caribou hearts to survive, or cross arctic ice in a raging blizzard – but I was almost mugged by a gang of moose, and I did get a really bad blister on one toe. (When writing a travel memoir, it is always important to stress the hardships one has faced.)

I would have kept travelling if I could have, but that wasn’t possible. At some point you need to stop moving and try to put what you’ve seen into perspective. This book, then, is an attempt at coming to terms with this country, my own incomplete version of “Canada Is.” Canada is a Moose Jaw morning, Canada is a Sleeping Giant, Canada is the St. John’s harbour. . . .

I hope you enjoy it. And if you don’t, I apologize.

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Beyond Belfast

Beyond Belfast

A 560 Mile Journey Across Northern Ireland On Sore Feet
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Coal Dust Kisses

Coal Dust Kisses

A Christmas Memoir
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Generica

or Generica
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Happiness

Happiness

or Generica
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Hitching Rides with Buddha

Hitching Rides with Buddha

Travels in Search of Japan
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Excerpt

Note on the Canadian Edition

This book was published in the US and the UK under the title Hokkaido Highway Blues. An abridged British pocketbook version was also released. The full version has been restored for the Canadian edition, along with the title I always wanted: Hitching Rides with Buddha. (That title was nixed by the American publisher on the complaint that it sounded too religious. Sigh.) This is the first time this book has been published in Canada.

The photograph on the front is of a wooden folk toy I brought back with me from northern Japan. It depicts one of the namahage, the red-faced, wild-tempered demons who terrorize children and are placated with saké. It is said that the legends of these namahage originate with shipwrecked Russian sailors who were washed ashore. I can think of no better emblem for long-term Western residents living in Japan. Hitching Rides with Buddha is the tale of one such namahage and his journey across a country that has held him captive for years.

--W. F.

The Devil’s Washboard
Southern Kyushu
1

Cape Sata is the end of Japan.

When you turn your back to the sea and look northward, all of mainland Japan is balanced, sword-like, above you. It is a long, thin, volcanic country: a nation of islands that approaches – but never quite touches – its neighbours. It is a land that engenders metaphors. It has been likened to an onion: layers and layers surrounding . . . nothing. It has been described as a maze, a fortress, a garden. A prison. A paradise. But for some, Japan is none of these. For some, Japan is a highway. And Cape Sata is where it ends.

A road winds its way in descending squiggles toward the sea. Tattered palm trees and overgrowths of vine crowd the roadside. Villages flit past. The road twists up into the mountains, turns a corner, and ends – abruptly – in a forest of cedar and pine. A tunnel disappears into the mountainside.

From here you proceed on foot, through the unexpected cool damp of the tunnel, past the obligatory souvenir stands, onto a path cut through the trees. Along the way, you come upon a hidden shrine. You ring the bell and rouse the gods and continue deeper into the forest green.

A faded cinderblock building is perched at the edge of a cliff, clinging to the last solid piece of ground. Inside, a tired-looking woman is selling squid that is skewered on sticks and covered with thick, sticky soy sauce. Somehow, you resist the temptation. Instead, you climb the stairs to the observation deck and, through windows streaked with dust and nose-smears, you gaze out at the majesty that is Cape Sata.

A few tourists mill about, uncertain what to do with themselves now that they’ve seen the view. They buy some squid, look through the coin-operated telescopes, and frown thoughtfully. “So this is Sata,” they say. The end of the world.

Sata feels like the end.

Here, the mainland meets the sea. The coast tumbles into boulders. Pine trees lean out over dead-drop cliffs, waves crash and roll – almost soundless in their distance – and jagged rocks and sudden islands rise up like shark fins from the water. There is a perpetual wind at Sata, a wind that comes in from the open ocean and billows up the cliffside.

“Look,” says Mr. Migita, herding his children before him as he comes. “Look over there.”

He points back toward the mountains to a faint pink smudge in among the evergreens.

“Sakura,” he says. And the heart quickens.

The cherry blossoms have arrived. Now the journey has begun, now the race has started, now the challenge met. “Sakura! Do you really think so?”

He looks again. “Maybe not. You want some squid?”

2

Every spring, a wave of flowers sweeps across Japan. It begins in Okinawa and rolls from island to island to mainland. It hits at Cape Sata and moves north, cresting as it goes, to the very tip of distant Hokkaido, where it scatters and falls into a northern sea.

They call it Sakura Zensen – the “Cherry Blossom Front” – and its advance is tracked with a seriousness usually reserved for armies on the march. Progress reports are given nightly on the news and elaborate maps are prepared to show the front lines, the back lines, and the percentage of blossoms in any one area. “In Shimabara today they reported thirty-seven percent full blossoms.”

Nowhere on earth does spring arrive as dramatically as it does in Japan. When the cherry blossoms hit, they hit like a hurricane. Gnarled cherry trees, ignored for most of the year, burst into bloom like fountains turned suddenly on.

The coming of the sakura marks the end of winter. It also marks the start of the school year and the closing of the business cycle. It is a hectic time, a time of final exams and productivity reports. Budgets have to be finalized, accounts settled, work finished. Karo-shi (death by overwork) peaks in March. Deadlines, school graduations, government transfers – and then, riding in on April winds, come the cherry blossoms. And in one of those extreme shifts that seem to mark Japanese life, the nation swings from intense work to intense play. Crowds congregate beneath the flowers, saké flows, neckties are loosened, and wild spontaneous haiku are composed and recited.

These cherry blossom parties, called hanami, are a time for looking back and looking ahead, for drowning one’s sorrows or celebrating another successful year. Toasts are made to colleagues, absent friends, distant relatives, and to the sakura themselves. Then, as quickly as they arrive, the cherry blossoms scatter. They fall like confetti, and in their passing they leave the dark green shimmering heat of summer, the wet misery of the rainy season, the typhoons of late August. At their peak – at full blossom and full beauty – the sakura last only a few days.

During their brief explosion, the cherry blossoms are said to represent the aesthetics of poignant, fleeting beauty: ephemeral, delicate in their passing. The way to celebrate this poignancy, naturally, is to drink large amounts of saké and sing raucous songs until you topple over backward. It is all very fleeting and beautiful.

It is also oddly formalized. In what other nation would you find a memo posted on a company’s cafeteria notice board that reads: keep this area clean. final reports are due friday. and don’t forget, we are going cherry blossom viewing after work today.

In addition to the usual public parks and castle grounds, cemeteries are sometimes chosen as suitable spots for cherry blossom parties – as a counterpoint to the celebrations, and as a reminder that this beauty, this joy, like all things will pass. We live in a world of impermanence, a world of flux and illusion, a world brimming with sadness – so we might as well get pissed and enjoy ourselves. (Or at least, that's how I read the underlying Buddhist theology.)

In addition to Cherry Blossom Viewing, you have Moon Viewing, Snow Viewing, Wildflower Viewing, Autumn Leaf Viewing, and Summer Stargazing. All are formally engaged in, and all follow set procedures and seasons. As a service to readers, I have prepared a handy chart listing each phenomenon, the season in which it appears, and the correct manner in which to observe it:

Phenomenon/Season/Proper way to view
Cherry blossoms/Spring/Drunk on saké
Wildflowers/Summer/Drunk on saké
Harvest moon/Autumn/Drunk on saké
Autumn leaves/Autumn/Drunk on saké
Snow on ancient temples/Winter/Drunk on saké

In the late nineteenth century, a British scholar noted that if one could just reconcile the lofty heights of Japanese ideals with the earthy limitations of its people, one would truly understand the essence of this beguiling nation. Not surprisingly, he left Japan a bitter and frustrated man. Me, I don’t even begin to understand the countless contradictions of Japan, but when the cherry blossoms come every spring I am swept away nonetheless.

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How to Be a Canadian

How to Be a Canadian

Even If You Already Are One
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Road Trip Rwanda

Road Trip Rwanda

A Journey Into the New Heart of Africa
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Spanish Fly

Spanish Fly

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The Finder

The Finder

A Novel
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The Shoe on the Roof
Excerpt

          In the Coronary Care Unit of Seattle ’s Harborview Hospital, a woman identified as M. goes into full cardiac arrest. She dies on the operating table. With no vital signs—no pulse, no respiration—an emergency EEG reveals that her brain activity has flatlined. But the doctors and nurses at Harborview do not give up. They work frantically to resuscitate her and, even more remarkably, they succeed. They bring the patient back from a state of clinical death. When she regains consciousness, M. tells the doctors that she could hear what they were saying the entire time, every word. She’d felt herself floating above the operating table, calm and at peace, had watched the doctors as they tried to revive her. She’d drifted upward into a tunnel of light—but was then pulled back down, into her body,
felt the pain and panic return.
     When she told them this, the doctors nodded. It was a common hallucination. The light, they explained, was a symptom of cerebral hypoxia: with oxygen cut off to the brain, peripheral vision goes first, closing inward toward the centre of the optic nerve, creating a distinct tunnel effect. The sense of calm would have come from a sudden release of endorphins. The feelings of separation from her body would have occurred as her brain’s parietal lobes shut down.
     But it seemed so real, she said. I could feel myself lifting up, through the ceiling, above the hospital, I could see the roof, could see the ledge, the shoe in one corner.
     The shoe?
 
     Yes, a tennis shoe.
     The patient described the shoe in detail: the frayed toe, the matted laces caught under one heel. I saw it, she said. It’s there, on the roof. The doctors exchanged looks, then sent a janitor up. They found it, tucked out of sight, exactly where she said it would be: a single shoe, on the roof.

PART ONE: The Wine, the Blood, and the Sea
 
Chapter One
 
          The one Almighty Fact about love affairs is that they end. How they end and why, although of crucial interest—indeed, agony—to the participants, is less important than that they end. Marriages might linger like a chest cold, and there are friendships that plod along simply because we forget to cancel the subscription. But when love affairs collapse, they do so suddenly: they drop like swollen mangoes, they shatter like saucers, they drown in the undertow, they fall apart like a wasp’s nest in winter. They end.
     Thomas knew this, and yet . . .
     There is a story, often told, possibly apocryphal, certainly apropos, of a seasoned skydiver who, in what can only be described as a monumental lapse of judgment, forgot to strap on his parachute before flinging himself from a plane. As one might imagine, he went through all five stages of Kübler-Ross in quick order, shock, denial, anger, dismay, until, in accepting his fate, he chose to embrace it. The skydiver spread his arms, turned pirouettes and somersaults while he tumbled, performing acrobatic death-defying feats all the way down.
     But none of that makes the landing any softer.

     Thomas was in his late twenties when he hit the ground. He’d begun his swan dive without realizing it, in an artist’s loft in Boston’s West End on a sleepy cirrus Sunday. A muted morning. The curtains were moving; he remembers that, the ripples of cream-coloured cloth: long inhalations, slow exhalations. Sunlight on the floor. A messy room (not his), lined with equally messy canvases. Oil paintings mostly: thickly textured renderings of angular faces spattered with stars. An overstuffed laundry hamper in one corner was spilling clothes like the world’s worst piñata. Bricks-and-board bookshelves, overdue art volumes splayed every which way. A telescope by the window, leaning on drunken legs, squinting upward into nothingness. Wine bottles on the windowsills, multicoloured candle wax dripping down the sides—still de rigueur among the university set. Wind and curtain and canvas. And now, this: the sound of church bells.
     Amy, scrambling out of her dishevelled bed. Amy, dashing about, baffled by the very concept of time. She was always late, which was not remarkable in itself, but she was always surprised she was late, and Thomas found this both annoying and oddly endearing. She seemed to think that time was liquid, a substance that filled the available forms it was poured into, when in fact it sliced the air with a metronymic predictability.
     Moments before, Thomas and Amy had been playing doctor, a favourite game of theirs, with Amy astride his lap, dressed in a man’s shirt—not his. (Where did it come from, this oversized shirt? Why did she have it? Was it a souvenir of other phosphorous love affairs? Best not to think about it.) She wore it loosely, like a pajama top, misbuttoned, un-ironed.
     He remembers the loose cotton. The warmth of her.
     Amy, laughing. “Stop it.”
     It would be the last happy conversation they would ever have.
     “Stop what?”
     “Stop that.”
     Thomas is in a white lab coat with boxers pooled around his ankles. He slides a stethoscope down the inside of her shirt, and then slowwwwly across her chest. Pretends to listen.
     Amy, voice hushed. “What is it, doc? Somethin’ bad? You can tell me, I can take it.”
     Thomas frowns. A practiced frown. A medical frown. Listens more attentively. “Can’t seem . . . to find . . . a heartbeat.”
     He was scarcely a year older than Amy, but looked ten years younger, as though his face had never grown up, as though it were still trapped in the first flush of postpubescence. It’s something she’d often commented on, how young he looked. Later, she would notice how old he had become.
     So there they are, the two of them: Amy, with a raven’s wing of hair fanning across her shoulder; Thomas in his Sunday-morning stubble. Straw-blond hair that refused to hold a part, eyes so pale they were barely there. “Grey? Or blue?” Amy had asked this early on, studying him carefully before deciding. “Blue. Defi blue.”
     Our intrepid young medical student has now slipped the stethoscope further down, cupping Amy’s breasts, first one, then the other. She shivers at the touch of it. “Can’t you warm those up first?”
     Now it was Amy’s turn.
     She pulled the end of the stethoscope free, flipped it over, held it up to Thomas’s chest. A thin chest, almost hairless.
 
     “So?” she asked.
     He tilted his head, listened for his own heartbeat. “Anything?” she asked.
     “Nothing.” He looked at her. “That can’t be good. Can it?”
     She laughed, a snort, really. “Are you sure you’re a real doctor?” “A real doctor?”
     She leaned closer, held him with her thighs. “I’ve heard rumours.”
     “Rumours?”
     “Med students, passing themselves off as physicians, taking advantage of impressionable young women.”
     “I resent that! A slanderous accusation! Slanderous and scurrilous! Now then, take off all your clothes and say ‘Ahh.’ ”
     Amy leaned in closer, whispered in his ear. “Ahhhhh . . .
     And then—and then, the goddamn sound of the goddamn church bells. Dull peals, distant but ever-present.
     “We ’re late! C’mon!” She leapt from his lap, hurried about, searching for underwear. She pulled on a pair, more or less at random, grabbed her jeans and hopped into them on the way to the bathroom.
     Thomas fell back onto the bed, frustrated, annoyed, erect. He could see Amy brushing her teeth—or rather, chewing on the toothbrush as she unbuttoned the man’s shirt she was wearing. She tossed it to one side like a flag on the play, tried to disentangle a bra from a knot of laundry on the counter.
     “Amy,” he said (sighed).
     She packed her breasts into her bra like eggs into a carton, gave her teeth two decisive back-and-forths, spit into the sink, pulled back her hair with an elastic.
 
     Thomas leaned up on his elbows, boxers still around his ankles. “Listen. About this whole church thing . . .”
     She stopped. Stepped out of the bathroom with her toothbrush clenched in her mouth, glared at him. They’d had this conversation before.
 
 

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Why I Hate Canadians

Why I Hate Canadians

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For the Love of History

For the Love of History

Winners of the Pierre Berton Award Bring to Life Canada's Past
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“The non-fiction writer can and should use some of the novelist’s techniques–scene setting, character development, narrative drive –but at the same time he is hampered by one dictum: he cannot make anything up. Yet that is where the fun and excitement lie–in digging out the facts, as a private eye digs out clues, and stitching them together in a way that intrigues, educates, and stimulates the reader.”
DR. COOK’S STRANGE ODYSSEY

It was impossible not to like Frederick Cook. He belonged to that human subspecies whose members seem forever courteous, gentle, and apparently open. In 1907, when he set off on his polar journey, he had few antagonists apart from Peary. Even Peary, on first acquaintance some years before, had called him “a thoroughly decent fellow.” Roald Amundsen, who spent a winter with him in the Antarctic, went further. He was, Amundsen recalled, “loved and respected by all, a man of unfailing courage, unfailing hope, endless cheerfulness, unwearied kindness.” He was genial, inventive, eager to help out, and incurably optimistic. People took to Cook on first meeting; he was so ingenuous, so direct, with his clear blue eyes and his shock of ash blond hair that hinted at his German ­ancestry.

This affability concealed certain flaws in the Cook character. When the full record is examined, he emerges as a remarkably careless human being–careless with the truth, careless with his financial obligations, careless of the consequences of his actions. The world is full of Cooks–charming, child-like people who rarely look ahead but leap from one of life’s pinnacles to the next, hoping always to land ­unharmed.

The contrast between the two remarkable explorers, each of whom claimed the North Pole, could not have been more extreme. Cook was later to write of his polar quest that he had “a personal ambition, a crazy hunger I had to satisfy.” It was, of course, the popular thing to say; it fitted the public’s concept of what an explorer should be – a man who sacrificed everything for a dream. But there is little suggestion of any “crazy hunger” in Cook’s actions before or after his attempt on the Pole – none of the fierce, obsessive will to succeed that drove Peary. On the contrary, Cook was remarkably casual. He had none of Peary’s superb organizational skills, and it wasn’t in his nature to indulge in the kind of military precision that Peary brought to his long-range planning. Cook’s various ventures seem to have been entered upon almost by chance, or as an afterthought, or as the result of a sudden spur-of-the-moment decision. That was certainly true of his much-trumpeted conquest of Mount McKinley in 1906. It was also true of his first trip to the Arctic with Peary in 1891. He spotted an advertisement in the Brooklyn Standard-Union asking for volunteers to join Peary in his first North Greenland expedition. Cook, who had been enthralled by Kane’s accounts of the Arctic just as Peary had been, answered the ad and was surprised to find himself accepted. His assault on the Pole was equally impulsive. Though he had certainly talked with John Bradley about his hopes before leaving New York, he didn’t make up his mind until he reached Anoatok and found weather conditions favourable.

In 1907, when he was heading north once again, he was forty-two years old and already one of the best-known explorers in the world. One of five children born to a German immigrant (Cook was originally “Koch”), he had had his share of vicissitudes and hardships. His widowed mother supported her family by working in a sweatshop. Cook put himself through medical school by delivering milk door to door at three in the morning. His first wife died of peritonitis. His first attempts at a practice in Brooklyn were a failure. But in 1907 he was a public figure, respected by his fellow explorers. He had been four times to the Arctic, once to the Antarctic, had written two best-selling books on his adventures, had succeeded Adolphus Greely as president of the Explorers’ Club (the third–Peary would be the fourth), was founder and first president of the Arctic Club of America and the recipient of honours and medals from both sides of the Atlantic. Standing five feet nine inches in his Eskimo furs, a stocky, rugged figure with weather-beaten features, he looked the very model of a modern American explorer.

Cook’s voyage to Greenland with “Gambler Jim” Bradley was planned as a hunting expedition. Cook had no fixed or definite intentions, apart from furthering his studies of Eskimo culture, but the idea of a polar attempt lurked somewhere in the back of his mind. Bradley was happy to have such a noted explorer with him, while Cook, as he told Cyrus Adams of the American Geographical Society, “half hoped” that he might “make the expedition a jumping off point for the Pole.” Bradley told Cook that if he did decide to go, he was prepared to underwrite the cost.

When the yacht reached the Greenland coast, the pair set off for the Eskimo hunting grounds at Anoatok, thirty miles north of Etah. There they found a bear hunt in progress. The best dogs in the area and the most capable natives (many of them doubtless trained by Peary) were assembled in a region abounding with game. In Cook’s mind every essential for Arctic exploration was present. He decided on the spot to make an attempt on the Pole the following spring. What Anoatok could not supply, Bradley certainly would.

Cook, like Peary, saw the so-called “dash” as a kind of sporting event without scientific value. It was a challenge – like the ascent of Mount McKinley–nothing more. But Cook’s attitude was far more casual than that of his rival. “The attaining of this mystical spot,” he wrote later, “did not then, and does not now, seem in itself to mean anything; I did not then, and do not now, consider it the treasure house of any great scientific secrets. The only thing to be gained from reaching the Pole, the triumph of it, the lesson in accomplishment, is that man, by brain power and muscle energy, can subdue the most terrific forces of a blind nature if he is determined enough, courageous enough, and undauntedly persistent despite failure.”

When winter approached, Bradley returned to New York on his yacht. One volunteer stayed behind with Cook–the yacht’s twenty-nine-year-old steward, Rudolph Franke. The two men spent five months in a gloomy stone hut at Anoatok, “a land of sorrowful dead,” in Cook’s phrase. Rewarded with Bradley’s supply of weapons, tools, and trade goods, the entire band of 250 natives gathered from the surrounding villages cheerfully set about to outfit him for the coming venture sewing clothes of hides, building light, flexible sledges, gathering grass to insulate boots, and preparing food and other supplies.

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