*Note: Some of this probably didn't happen and this place may or may not actually exist
My initial impression of the Great Yukon Lodge was that it was maintained with pride despite being a bit tired. The elements take their toll on any building here. Foundations shift, roofs are covered with moss, properties fill with old tractors, busses and trucks rust into a deep sleep. You can’t be put off at the site of a cracked toilet or glazing in a shower worn through to the fiberglass. Blemishes such as these are too costly to replace in these parts for cosmetic purposes only. The Great Yukon has these blemishes and more, but you can see that the inside of the window sills have been cleaned with a Q-tip and every pane of glass is so clear that you need to tap on them to be sure they are even there.
We rode through a bit of the campground on our way into the main building, which housed a small diner and a bar. There was a river and a lake. It all looked well thought out and cared for, so we decided that it would be our stopping point for the day. We went in to check out the menu and were met by a Saskatchewan waitress named Gertrude. I was looking for an in to barter an aerial photo from our drone in exchange for a room so I found a place in conversation to casually ask if she was the owner.
“Oh god no. I would never own a travel lodge in the Yukon.” Soph and I both chuckled a bit and simultaneously asked why not. “Because all of the owners are assholes and alcoholics.” We looked at each other awkwardly then around the restaurant to see who else may have heard that. Gertrude smiled and walked away to get us some menus. Soph got up to walk outside and get her phone charger. She was back within 15 seconds looking a bit alarmed.
“The swallows are really aggressive, and a squirrel managed to open your frame bag and get into your trail mix.” I went to check it out. The bushy tailed hell spawn was on the overhang of the café chirping violently at us anytime we approached the bike. The swallows were performing a tightly choreographed set of maneuvers and flybys around our heads whilst sounding a battle hymn I had never heard. I took a look at my bag to see if there had been any damage. To much dismay I saw that the rodent had chewed through the cord to my dynamo USB charger that is powered from my front wheel.
“Son of a bitch may have chewed it too close to the housing to solder,” I said to myself. I walked back inside and explained the situation to Gertrude and asked if by chance there was a soldering iron available. “Well that’s a new one,” she said with a small chuckle and continued wandering around the restaurant with aimless purpose. She did not acknowledge my request for a soldering iron.
A few minutes later she brought our food out. She had thoughtfully split our shared order of soup into two bowls. She then said, “I’ll try to call the owner about that soldering gun. He should be out of bed by now.” I noted to myself that it was 12:30 and thought back to her comments about lodge owners. A few minutes later a balding man in sweat pants appeared. He had an abrupt tan line on his brow from his hat. His face was quite brown from the sun, but simultaneously pale. It looked like he’d had a long night. His eyes were a bit sunken in with dark rings around him. I considered getting him a glass of water. “You the bike guy with the squirrel problem?”
“And you need a soldering iron?”
“Yeah, and some solder.”
“Lemme see what I got eh?” He reappeared a few moments later with what appeared to be a branding iron. “I’ve got this. Might have some solder too.” He went away again. Not being the best at soldering to begin with, I decided that I would wait until the next town to make the needed repairs with more familiar tools and told him he could abandon the search. I then asked if there was a secure area to put our food for the night to keep it safe from bears and squirrels. “Yeah,” he said with the same chuckle as Gertrude, “that squirrel thing sure is crazy. I’ve never seen that one. No bears here though. Had a few grizzlies earlier this week, but I shot them. Haven’t seen any since. You can leave your food in here though.” He then made an incredibly kind offer for us to borrow his 4-wheeler and ride up the mountain. We decided to setup our campsite and then take him up on it. “Get site number twenty four, that’s the best one.”
Site number twenty four was just above the river. It was a perfect spot. A nice clear area to sit and watch the river from, with a perfectly flat patch on a soft bed of pine needles under the trees to pitch the tent. Then I noticed the bear prints. Then I noticed the unsecured garbage can nearby. We decided to camp back from the river a bit.
After setting everything up we went back to the café to get the 4-wheelers. Gertrude’s shift had apparently ended and a Ukranian woman named Yulia had taken over. She had a sleeve of tattoos, short blond hair, and a thick accent. She appeared to be in her mid-40’s, although it was difficult to tell as she had remarkably wrinkle free skin, which was likely the result of a stone cold glare that never allowed a smile, frown, or anything beyond the utilitarian exertions of facial muscles
There was a woman in front of me at the counter fumbling to find her credit card. Growing impatient, Yulia turned to me. “What do you want?”
“Yeah, um, I met the owner earlier and he said we could take the 4-wheelers out.”
“I do not know anyzing about dis.”
“Ok, well the owner said we could take the 4-wheelers out and I just wanted to take him up on the offer.”
“I cannot just give you ze keys. Deez are ours.”
“Right. I understand that, but the owner said….” she cut in.
“What owner? What does he look like? Does he have a name?” I was taken off guard by all of this and failed to remember anything about the man I had spoken to earlier. I decided to throw out a Hail Mary. “He had dark hair” I said unconvincingly almost as a question. “Dis is not ze owner,” she snapped back and walked away. Defeated, I walked outside and found Soph sitting by the lake staring at a bench.
“I can’t tell if they’re making love or if one of them is killing the other.” There were two little bugs on the bench next to her that looked like wasps, but we had seen them enough to know that they did not practice any hostility towards humans. I took a look and was also confused, albeit captivated. After a few minutes she asked, “What’s up with the 4-wheelers?”
“I’m not sure. The Ukranian is in charge now and she is not our friend.” I gave a full account of what went down and reflected upon the scene for a moment. Behind her aggression was a fear.
“The owner’s name was Earl. Maybe she will be more help if you know his name.” I decided it was worth a try. Still, on the way back I couldn’t help but think something was afoul. I opened the café door and she was standing there putting little informational pamphlets on the shelf. One of them advertised the good word of the lord. She didn’t look happy to see me. “Hey there! I remembered the owner’s name, it’s Earl.”
“Yes, dis is his name.”
“Ok, right, well…. maybe we could ask him about the 4-wheelers.”
“I do not know where Earl is.”
“Hmmm, neither do I, but maybe you know a good place to look for him.”
“No, I do not know anyzing about where he iz.”
I decided it was useless. “Ok, well thank you for all of your help and I hope you have a beautiful day.” She didn’t respond and began to frantically clean the window of the front door as she shut it in my face. I felt as if she knew I suspected something.
I decided to take a walk around the property. It was a menagerie of odd structures and equipment. One building had a door ten feet off the ground with an old wooden slide coming out of it. Another had a stone oven on the porch that could fit a body inside. A strange yellow fiberglass silo sat at one end. Near it was a small field of rusted and retired gas pumps, wheels, leaf springs, and washing machines. The mark of a scrapper. This was his piggy bank. I had seen this before. He was the kind of guy that would know what type of metal every part of every piece of garbage was made of. Watching the scrap prices like a wall street banker watches the penny stocks, he would cash in when the price was high.
I thought more about Yulia. I’d never met a middle aged woman behind the counter of a diner that I couldn’t charm. Rather than accept that this could be the case I crafted a fanciful tale in my mind of Earl being some sick overlord of a Yukon compound; importing poor girls and forcing them into indentured servitude. I explained my revelation to Soph.
“Soph,” I said, “I think this place is some kind of dark camping and RV compound in which Eastern European women are forced into servitude by drunken men with guns and small fauna are trained to steal your food and sabotage your electronics
“I think you’re over reacting a bit and you’re really not that charming so I wouldn’t really worry about Yulia,” she said.
Later that evening, we went back to the restaurant for a drink after a lovely camp dinner consisting of several packages of powdered soup, some rice, and a dozen or so M&M’s. Earl was there. I ordered a brandy from Yulia. She grabbed a jigger and sifted through the brandy snifters to pull out a red wine glass. Earl stepped in. “This is how the owner of the bar pours a drink,” he said and gave me a solid triple. “He iz ze owner and he can do what he want,” Yulia said as she walked away. He sat at the table next to ours. We had a talk and suddenly everything made sense. His wife had recently passed, just six months before. Lung cancer. Never smoked a day in her life. He spent the evening pouring his heart out. “The place was better when Ma was here, I don’t think I have the energy or the desire to run it on my own. I might just knock it all down and build a little cabin for myself on that river.”
He told us about a kid who came through a few years back. “Military kid. Was on his way to Alaska. Didn’t have enough money for gas. Only had $20 on him.” Earl gave him $250. “You owe me $380 for that, the gas, the room and the meals. Godspeed, good luck in Alaska, and pay me when you can.” A year later he got a letter in the mail from the kid’s parents saying that he had been restationed to Afghanistan immediately after getting to Alaska. He kept telling his parents that they had to send the money to Earl. He cried before he could finish the story.
He kept topping off our drinks, “That’s on the house.” We got a bit into God. He was raised Catholic. Gave it up at the age of 14. Believes there is something out there, but the most important thing is that you treat people the way you want to be treated. Talked a bit about law. Guns mostly. He has some. I’m not clear as to whether or not they are legal in Canada. “Just trying to protect myself and my family” sort of guy. Then there was talk about man. “Canadians are idiots,” he says, “but so goddamn nice.”
The poor son of a bitch. I had worked up this brothel story in my head as a form of entertainment because there was no signal to download the latest issue of The Economist on my Kindle. In reality it was a man struggling to figure out existence without his life partner and a staff that was unhappy because they knew that he might choose to shut the place down.
Politics were next. The dreaded drunken political discourse. I kept trying to peg him, but couldn’t. “The CBC and the BBC are the only good sources of news. CNN is garbage, Fox News is ok I guess.” In America today, there is an unwritten rule that liberals and conservatives have to loathe one another. In some cases one side might see the other as bigoted and misogynistic while that side sees them as spineless elitists trying to steal their hard earned cheddar so they can buy imported French brie. We do our best not to interact with one another because that could potentially damage our simplistic views causing a sort of cognitive dissonance that none of us has much interest in palliating. In the Yukon these differences are trifling and do not change the fact that everyone is just trying to stock up on wood and smoke enough salmon before winter comes with fingers crossed that the roof can hang on for one more season. That bastard had a heart of gold.