Thursday, June 07, 2007

Prologue to a Toe:
A long journey begins

This guy walks into a Yukon bar with a mummified human toe … but this is no joke.

Years ago, the fellow bought an old cabin in the Klondike, intending to remodel it as a hunting lodge. When he tore up the floorboards, he discovered a pickled human toe in the space below. He took it back to the tavern he owned in Dawson City, where a long Arctic night of drinking took hold – and with some inspiration from Robert Service’s “Ballad of the Ice-Worm Cocktail” — the barkeeper had an entrepreneurial brainstorm. He concocted a most unusual drink: the withered toe is dropped into a glass of Yukon Jack, and the drinker must gulp it — and the toe must touch his lips.

That's how the Sourtoe Cocktail was born. Not too many people are brave enough to drink it, so the bar keeps a list of the ones who do. Drink it fast or drink it slow, they say, but your lips must touch the toe. We intend to join the club.

So tomorrow, my son Matt and I begin our journey to the Yukon. 4,170 miles. More than 70 hours in a car together. One way.

We will take the journey we've dreamed about together for the past five years. We'll be alone together, on the road, headed toward a place we've separately imagined, talking about what we have together, what we've missed, eating road food and pissing in the barrow pit, sleeping on the ground or in cheap motels, catching up and planning for the next day, the next week, the next life. Talking about women, football, dying, carburetors, Chuck Palahniuk (his favorite writer) and Ernest Hemingway (my favorite writer), how time passes ... where the road goes.


A few years ago, when my divorce was still an open wound and every day was a painful reminder of how I was losing another day with my children, I took refuge on the road. I was writing about the American West for the Denver Post, driving an average 1,500 miles a week, distracting myself from the terrible sadness by working or driving damn near every waking hour, sometimes for hundreds of miles without a final destination in mind — or a story to tell. I had lost almost everything in my life except my abiding faith that I could find a good story almost anywhere.

The first summer after my wife and I split forever, my son came to visit. I was extraordinarily happy when he was there. I lived in a 100-year-old Victorian in the Colorado Rockies, and we did father-and-son stuff: Fishing, hiking, day-trips to fun spots, even panned for gold in the stream near my house. I wanted him to stay forever. I wanted to make plans for his growing up with me. I wanted back all the time I had already lost with him ... but I knew he had to go back to his mother's home in a couple weeks. In the last few days of his visit, I began to tell him plans for the next visit, and the next, and the next. The road had become my sanctuary, so I told him that maybe we'd take a road trip, just the two of us. I didn't just want to go the Disneyland or Tombstone, I meant someplace mythical that we needn't share with every other father and son. I told him I'd heard of a place way up north in the Yukon … yeah, a bar in a town called Dawson (pictured above), where they fixed a drink with a mummified human toe in it ...

Because he was a teenager and because he was a boy, the idea of a human toe in a glass of booze seemed to have double appeal. He was intrigued.

When he came again at Thanksgiving, he mentioned the Sourtoe Cocktail casually. And again when he visited for spring break. And again the next summer. It became our adventure-to-be, a dream unlived, an imaginary journey we both embraced but never took.

Last summer, my son embarked on his own road. He drove himself to Lincoln, Neb., to start college. Lincoln is about 10 long hours from his mother's home in Wyoming, and I told him to call me from the road if he got bored or tired. He called three times.

The last time, about sundown and still a couple hours from Lincoln, he sounded tired. I just wanted to keep him talking. I told him how proud I was that he was going to school, and how brave it was that he was doing it alone. I told him I saw great things ahead and predicted he'd enjoy the next few years, which would change his life. He said what every son says when his father is being like that: He grunted his agreement and said very little .... which only made me want to say more. How I loved him and wanted him to succeed, how he'd learn confidence and maybe meet lots of girls. How I couldn't believe he'd grown so fast to be a man.

At a lull in my one-sided conversation, he spoke. "I've been thinking all day," he said, "about the Sourtoe Cocktail."

That's when I knew we'd go.

So maybe this is a love story about fathers and sons, set against epic backdrops and overlooked places. It is also a road book that attempts to answer, for one father and son, a pivotal life question: Where does the road go?

And in Dawson City, at the end of the road we all travel, we'll order the Sourtoe Cocktail and see what all the fuss is about.

Ron will blog about his journey with his son to the Yukon and the Sourtoe Cocktail over the next few weeks ... as Internet access in the Canadian wilderness allows. Book mark this blog!


Jill said...

I want to see a picture! Next question- where's the rest of the body? Have a nice trip.

SingingSkies said...

How awesome and wonderful! What an incredible way to spend time together. May your journey fulfill dreams and lead to new visions to be chased.

Ron Franscell said...

Thanks you, Jill and SingingSkies! I just hope that 8,000 miles in three weeks doesn't deform my posture! Sipping a cocktail containg a toe? No problem. Sitting in the driver's seat for 140 hours ... I could be a Preparation H spokesman!

Jana said...

Ron, When we stopped in to see Gram on our vacation, she mentioned your Sourtoe Cocktail Trip with a great smile and a whist in her voice for the open road and what a great trip she wishes for you and your boy.
Happy trails you two and don't swallow the toe!!!