All summer long, workers came and workers went, their departures as unceremonious as their arrivals. I watched them pass through during my four-month stint in Elsa, a small Yukon mining town. That was in 1979, the year I decided what to do with my life.
Since the gold rush, the Yukon has attracted people who dream of reinventing themselves. I turned 21 that summer, and although I wasn’t entirely sure who I was, two years of engineering school had been enough to teach me I didn’t want to do that. I thought I might want to give writing a try. But for the summer, a mining gig was a great excuse for an adventure away from big decisions. And my fellow miners, I soon discovered, offered the ideal distraction: so many, it seemed, were running from something.
Everyone had a story to tell, though it might not have come out right away. Tony, a small, wiry mechanic with long, scraggly hair, had a wife and kid in Ontario. One day, he went out to buy milk and never went back. Or so he told us. And even if that sounds like something out of a Springsteen song, we figured it caught the essence of what really happened. For a lot of my co-workers, a job at the mine was all about cash: The pay was good, and it didn’t require much experience – perfect for anyone in need of two or three grand after blowing money on booze or bets or drugs or women or cars or bad decisions. These guys usually didn’t stay long. They made enough to solve the problem, then off they’d go to spend again.
Others had worries bigger than money. Legal problems were often a matter of whispered speculation or half believed boasts, but I’d heard nothing about Tom’s troubles until two RCMP officers greeted him one day as we came out of the mine. They handed him a summons for a court date regarding a certain chunk of hash. We had a good laugh about it later.
And some guys were just looking for a home. They’d chafed at the conventions and expectations in the cities and towns they’d grown up in. Of course, that meant they could also be difficult to get along with in the North, but mostly they were just entertaining to be around. Fitting in is easier where everyone is a bit of a misfit, I guess.
And indeed, the longer I stayed, the more I fit in. Maybe, I realized, that was because I too was running from something. Even though I’d made the decision to drop mining engineering in favour of English literature when I returned to school in the fall, I wasn’t sure I was ready to face it. It was a serious change in direction, and controversial in my family. At times, I wavered. When I gave my notice in August, my boss suggested I stay. “Make me a miner’s helper,” I said, knowing the position, which I’d just started doing on an informal basis, would mean lucrative bonuses once a promotion became official. The whole transferring into English scheme still seemed dubious, so what did it matter if I waited a year? But he couldn’t offer me anything right away.
That was probably for the best. In the light of the long days, it began to dawn on me that it was time to take school, and life, seriously. In September, I flew back to Montreal and English literature, but not before celebrating with my new friends. I wasn’t into the unceremonious departure.
I didn’t understand it then, but people don’t change just because they switch jobs or towns or partners or even university programs. If we’re lucky, though, we learn to be comfortable with ourselves. For many of us who spent time in Elsa, what the Yukon really offered was acceptance, no matter who we were or what we were running from. I hope it worked out as well for the others as it did for me.