Harriman's rough itinerary combined familiar elements of the newly fashionable northern Grand Tour with exploration into points unknown. His steamship would sail up the Inside Passage and visit its best-known spots: lawless Wrangell; Skagway, epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush; the old Russian capital, Sitka; and Glacier Bay, perhaps the biggest draw of all, thanks to the ecstatic nature rhapsodies that Muir published in America's most popular magazines. But one of the secrets to Harriman's success was ignoring limits set by others. His Alaska course would extend thousands of miles further, continuing west toward the Bering Sea, scouting Prince William Sound, Kodiak Island, the Aleutians, and beyond, obscure places where large swaths of territory were labeled UNKNOWN on maps and scientific discoveries were waiting for anyone who stepped on shore. Thanks to railroad men like Harriman, the wild American West had been all but subdued in less than a hundred years. In 1805, Lewis and Clark had witnessed herds of buffalo so large their movements shook the ground. By 1899, that same species faced extinction. The true American frontier now lay in the wilderness to the north. As the historian Maury Klein puts it, "Harriman's idea of rest was to organize, underwrite, and direct what became the last major scientific expedition of the nineteenth century."
Seated in his office, Merriam was polite but dubious about Harriman's offer. Whoever had steered Harriman to Merriam had chosen wisely, though. The scientist, son of a congressman, was exceedingly well connected. He made quick inquiries, which confirmed that the railroad man was not only serious but probably incapable of joking. Cartoonists delighted in depicting Merriam, who wore round spectacles and combed his hair into a tall pouf, as an
administrative owl. He was wise enough to see that he might have stumbled across the most elusive of creatures: a scientific expedition with no fixed budget. When Harriman visited Merriam's home that night and insisted that in addition to covering all costs he would allow the team Merriam selected free rein to conduct their own research, Merriam was convinced that Harriman's northbound Noah's Ark was no rich man's boondoggle.
"To be a member of it would be the event of a lifetime," he realized.
All Points North
NEW YORK CITY
Next to the cluttered desk in my office, I keep a small collection of manila folders labeled with the names of destinations I would like to write about one day. Inside each folder are scraps of paper—bar napkins covered in semi-legible hieroglyphics and yellowed newspaper clippings pertaining to a particular place. In the folder marked ALASKA, there's a piece of hotel stationery on which I scribbled something an Alaskan friend once told me. Three
basic types of people live in Alaska, he said. There are the Native Alaskans, who've been there since time immemorial. There are people who have come north running toward something, usually a chance to do something unpleasant to make a lot of money quickly, such as gutting fish twelve hours a day or operating a welding torch in minus-forty-degree temperatures. And there are those who are running away from something, like a bad marriage or fluoridated water.
Travel writing is an odd and pleasant way to make a living, one that has enabled me to fast-forward to the sort of life people profiled in Forbes often anticipate once they've made a Harriman-worthy fortune. I wander the world meeting interesting people; I write books; and when not on the road, I spend so much time around the house that my children sometimes feel obligated to tell friends that I really do have a job. Over the years, I have learned that the most interesting questions to answer about a place are rarely the most obvious ones: where to go, when to do so, what to eat, who to go with, or even how to get there.
The essential question about travel is: Why? Perhaps you've dreamed of Kenya ever since seeing Out of Africa as a child, or want to meet your distant relatives in Ireland, or long to see a lemur in the wild. A journey away from something—work, stress, societal norms that frown on drinking before 10:00 A.M.—is a vacation. A journey toward something—a trip with an objective—is an expedition. There are a handful of spectacular places I've put off visiting (and writing about) for years because I never found a good enough reason to go. Until recently, Alaska was one of them.
Outside of my professional travel obligations, I like a plain old relaxing vacation as much as anyone, and was in the midst of one not long ago when I found myself in the slightly seedy Seattle neighborhood of Pioneer Square, staring up at a totem pole. The presence of a totem pole at a busy intersection in Seattle wasn't especially noteworthy—they're only marginally less common than stoplights—though I was surprised to encounter standing beneath this one a friendly young U.S. national park ranger in his Smokey Bear hat. The pole, he enthusiastically informed me, was actually a
duplicate. The original had been obtained in 1899 by a group of prominent local business leaders who'd sailed north to Alaska's Inside Passage to steal one from a Native village. The Pioneer Square pole thieves seem to have stolen their idea, too, the ranger went on. They'd been inspired by the ballyhooed return to Seattle of the Harriman Expedition.