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By Casey O'Malley
Before this point, I had three vivid experiences with radiation: Tthe first, an 8-year-old at the dentist, asking why I had to wear this heavy lead vest that forced my breathing to come in gasped half-breaths. “Well, it’s an x-ray, sweetie,” a dental hygienist with immaculate eye shadow said, snapping her bubblegum behind her face mask. “It’s something you can’t see or feel. Don’t worry about it.”
Another, as a zoned out pre-teen, listening to an NPR story about Chernobyl as my mom drove me around in her cranberry-colored minivan. I remember listening with mild disgust and intrigue as Robert Siegal or Melissa Block described children with birth defects and the gradual wilderness that took over the exclusion zone.
The last, a sneak peek at an older brother’s chemistry textbook, looking at a chart that showed the relative radioactivity of everyday objects: a brick wall, a computer, a banana. I didn’t get it.
But here I was, holding a column of rock, laced with elegant swirls of, as the eager geologist told me, delicate veins of uranium. “It’s super high grade, but low density, you’ll be just fine, I promise!” I nodded, unsure. How did this compare to the banana? Should I be wearing that lead vest?
Those questions didn’t fit here. I didn’t fit here. That became obvious a few hours ago, when I first tiptoed into the front doors of this remote seaplane base, nestled on a rocky coastline of lake in northern Saskatchewan. I was trying to find a receptionist, a greeter, a ... somebody. A somebody to help two 21-year olds with car trouble.
“Excuse me?” I attempted politely, aiming my shy words at the shoulders of a woman who exuded a rural type of authority.
“What?” she responded, phone pinched between her head and shoulder, hands full of papers and shipping manifests, her rugged eyes evaluating me.
“I, um, need some help. So Alex and I--Alex is my coworker, he’s over there--we’re dropping off a group to go on a six-week canoe trip--we work at a summer camp--and we got the group dropped off, but on the way back, my, uh, trailer hitch broke sixty kilometers up the road, and I had to leave the trailer there, but I need it back….” I felt awkward, trying to use phrases like “cotter pin” and “hitch ball,” technical terms that felt like marbles in my mouth. I over-explained, almost started talking about the camp songs we would sing around the fire back at the sauna we had at the camp back in northern Minnesota.
The woman stared viciously for a few seconds, assessing us with the intensity of a woman accustomed to hard people and hard judgement. She said could find someone for us.
“Don’t go anywhere. Wait right here.” And so we waited.
We perched on the back of the 15-passenger van that we had navigated up here, driving on roads that weren’t on Google, and that were just dotted lines in the Rand McNally Seasonal Road. Winter Only. But we went for it, our clumsy vehicle making it solely on the luck and naiveté that follows a bunch of young 20-somethings who think they’re in charge. Three times we got mired in ankle-deep sand. Twice we had to drive through puddles that looked like cavernous lakes, waiting to swallow up unsuspecting vehicles.
It had only been two weeks ago that my boss had told me I was doing this (is “boss” the right term?). “You’re droppin’ them,” she said, tossing me a map, a set of keys, a list of eight people’s medical information, and a credit card with someone else’s name on it. That’s what my job was. A boss who was maybe six years older than me. Cohorts in stinky t-shirts and hairy legs. Lots of hugs. A $24 a day stipend that felt luxurious compared to last year’s $22. But we thought we knew everything: We talked about feelings. We sat around campfires with other people’s guitars and sang bad renditions of John Denver songs. We knew, we just knew, that being outside in the wilderness solved everyone’s problems and everyone (everyone!) would find rejuvenation and spiritual balance in the tranquility of a backcountry sunrise. Or sunset. Or whatever.
So it didn’t faze me when I searched on Google Maps for the route from Grand Marais, Minnesota to Stony Rapids, Sasketchewan, and Google told me that such a route did not exist. We could figure it out. A few kumbayahs, a few breakfasts cooked over a camp stove, a couple nights sleeping under the stars: We would be just fine. Strangers liked us.
But by the time we limped into the seaplane base, trailer-less and exhausted, I knew that I was in over my head. This was a landscape for people who knew it: For people who carried a toolbox in the back of their pickup truck and knew how to winch a vehicle out of a ditch. This was a place for people with scarred hands and broken-in Wranglers. A place for people who worked.
I thought that I knew what hard work was, but to me, work was a 6-hour study binge in a dimly-lit library. It was three bluebooks filled with insight and commentary, dotted with illegible comments from a professor. My hands were pale, soft, accustomed to a Macbook keyboard in an East Coast library. I simply summered in the wilderness. Here, work was real. It was measured by thick callouses on palms, by scabs on forearms and oil stains on coveralls. Work was palpable in the focused silence that hung over the cafeteria when fifty hungry men (yes, only men) sat down to the company meal, when hundreds of grease-stained hands gripped utensils to shovel down seconds and thirds before the second shift began.
One of those men said he’d take care of us. He wiped his palms down the front of his work pants before offering it to me in a handshake, introducing himself as “Wilf...yep, like Will plus Wolf.” Jumping in one of the flatbed trucks, he mumbled “Might be a while,” and sent an apologetic smile my way before heading out the sandy, washed out road that led to our abandoned trailer.
We sat on the gravel. People came up to see who we were, how we got here. I thought they might have been laughing at us behind our backs: our crisp Carhartt pants, our staff t-shirts spun from organic cotton. One man squatted down next to us, holding a smoldering cigarette in his hand. He described his workday: ten hours manning a drill, usually six or seven days in a row. He said he would make $80,000 this season. “I want to buy a boat!” he said with a chortle. When he spoke on his cell phone, it was in a musical, throaty language, one that sounded at home in this region of tall, sparse pines and many lakes. “Can I ask you what language you are speaking?” Alex asked. The man laughed, looked a little surprised, and spit out a word that I cannot remember. He invited us to a party (“We know how to party up here!”) and then strolled away.
“Was that weird that I asked that? About the language?” Alex asked me later. I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell. I thought back to the anthropology courses I had taken, flipped through all the on-campus lessons about respect and diversity, through which I had sat eagerly, enthusiastically, with the zeal of any open-minded cliché. I almost said something about cultural appropriation, or white privilege...or something. But it seemed out of place and I knew I was just guessing. So I shrugged.
Night comes slowly in the far north. It’s one of those transitions you cannot catch: Suddenly you are soaking in whimsical half-light, the first stars whispering in the sky and every living thing plagued by an army of mosquitoes. Twilight stalked us and then caught us. It became clear that Wilf wasn’t coming back that night. Awkwardly, I poked my head in the front door of the seaplane base, asking for one more favor.
“Of course, honey,” the lady said with a voice like granite, her term of endearment jarring and foreign. “We can find a place for you to sleep.” She juggled some paperwork and spun around in her chair. I tentatively backed away and sat on the cold metal bench (the kind normally encountered in stadiums: creaky, ridged, thoroughly uncomfortable) in the entranceway.
She made a few calls and then barked my way: “You’ll be sleeping at a geologists’ camp. Their shift is off, so it’s empty. Plenty of space there.”
The geologist was excited to have us. Plaid shirt, wide-brimmed hat, eager smile. He carried electronics in the pockets of his crisp canvas work pants. He met us in the parking lot of the seaplane base, and for a handful of miles, his truck lead our 15-passenger van down a bumpy, red-dirt road, through teenage aspen stands, grandfatherly communities of stately jack pines, and mirror-like lakes. We ended up at a silent collection of canvas wall tents, perched above the knobbly ground on cinder blocks.
He gave us a tour of the geology camp, which only took about two minutes. One large canvas tent, chock-full of folding tables that held monitors and electronics and movie set props. Two smaller, dingier tents that each had four basic bunks. Loneliness was everywhere. Open, flapping doorways. Last year’s calendars of buxom, bikinied ladies. The geologist’s eager smile and unbridled enthusiasm. “We just don’t get visitors here very often! There’s a canoe in the woods somewhere,” he said, peering into the undergrowth.
Geologists camped here to evaluate the quality of the uranium drilled by the drillers. Workers, like the man speaking the unknown language, would drill cores of rock, the girth of my forearm, and bring them to the geologists for assessment. Evidence of the geologists’ work surrounded the camp: piles of tossed-away cores of rock littered the area, looking like the vestiges of ancient buildings. Miniature Doric columns piled away in the undergrowth. “Those ones are rejects,” the geologist explained. “Most of them have uranium, but just not enough to pursue.”
And then he grabbed some cores, put them into our hands, and lovingly traced lines of minerals and radioactive elements with his finger. “See that there?” he said. “Uranium. But don’t worry, it’s fine. You won’t grow a third eyeball or turn glow-in-the-dark or anything tonight.” He chuckled, and then he had to go. He jostled away in his truck and vanished.
As night, real night, crept in, I sat on the stoop of the canvas tent, taking stock of where I was.
Behind me: The haggard canvas tent and its pin-up calendars, my sleeping colleague and his gentle snores.
In front of me: A lake, alarmingly still.
Somewhere out there: Our hero Wilf, trying to resuscitate our limping, struggling trailer.
Below me: My two, dusty feet. Sandals, not work boots. Turquoise remnants of a pedicure, dotting my big toes.
Above me: Shy northern lights, just beginning to peek out of the velvety darkness. Aurora borealis, my mind started to say, caused by the collision of ionized gases with each other... but no. Under these glimmering lights, everything grew strange and foreign. The broken columns of the radioactive rejects, littering the ground like the ruins of Rome, sprouted shadows that danced and confused me.
Were those cores glowing, too?
Was this tent?
#Real #Glow #GrowingUp #CampingTrip
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