Unlike the other places I have been visiting, McCarthy has no known Irish connection. Something about it, though, is calling out. Hidden at the end of one of the loneliest roads on earth, the town seems the right place to end a journey that has been driven as much by instinct as by design, and which has paid me back with many happy accidents. So I’m going there because we share a name; and because, like most people, I’ve always fancied going to Alaska, because it’s big, scary and far away. But as well as all this, I also have a hunch. I didn’t have it when I first set out, but now I want to pursue it all the way to the end of the road.
“Aviation in itself is not dangerous, but like the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect,” says a sign on the wall of the hut. Outside on the airstrip a tiny red and yellow plane sits on its skis among the piles of snow, looking like a toy. This is how I will get to McCarthy, if the pilot ever comes back.
The guy in the hut says he’s gone into town to pick up some shopping. I’ve had a look inside the plane. There are two seats and sixteen cases of beer! I’ve hopped between tropical islands on these little bush planes, but I’ve never been on one in the kind of landscape we’ll be going through today. My afternoon departure time has already been put back twice when:
“Hi. I’m Kelly,” says a big, bearded, genial man who’s just walked into the hut. It’s straight out to the plane, door shut, headphones and seatbelt on, taxi what seems about fifteen yards along the runway, then we’re up in the air and heading directly towards those enormous snowy mountains. “This is real flying, eh?” says Kelly, as I nod and smile and try to come to terms with the worrying sensation of being airborne in this tiny machine.
We fly to the left of the mountain range that faces the airstrip, then on through a dreamscape of white peaks we can almost reach out and touch. Far below are frozen rivers and crystal glaciers glinting turquoise and emerald in the brilliant afternoon sun. Kelly’s skilful hand on the controls inspires confidence. We talk using headsets with microphones attached, looking like singers in a boy band. He’s good company and points out the different mountain ranges. As he sees me relax, however, his stories start to stray from what you want to be hearing when you’re hovering at this height:
“There was a forecast for some turbulence on the way back today, but looks like we might have missed it. My wife and I stopped overnight along the coast one time and we meant to carry on home the next day. The forecast was for extreme turbulence, but we thought we’d try anyway because sometimes those predictions are way out. Well, it was so wild up there . . .”
There’s a little electronic sign on the dashboard that says it’s only fifty miles to our destination, and now Kelly is pointing out of my wide window and tilting the plane, not to push me out, but to show me the McCarthy road. I can see where it skirts the edge of the glacier and the melting ice has made it impassable. As we’re rounding the glacier, hugging the side of the mountain, the winds suddenly hit. It’s seriously bumpy for the first time—but, like the man said, this is real flying, and he seems to be in control—and, against all my better instincts, I find myself wanting it to bump a little bit more as we swoop low over the first buildings we’ve seen since the hut at the airfield in Anchorage. McCarthy is just a handful of wooden houses. A little further on we sweep low past the deserted structures of the Kennicott mine. We bank steeply to our left over the glacier, and make a perfect landing on the McCarthy airstrip. Kelly turns off the engine, and I get out and listen to the most silent place I have ever heard.
Adapted from Advanced Placement English Tests. Macgraw Hill. 2008.