the things that keep me miles away

by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色墨)


He has a tent. He has a sleeping bag. He has a week’s worth of: energy bars, MREs, vitamin C, water purifying tablets, batteries, coffee, socks, multivitamins. He has two sets of thermal underwear, a knife, a flare gun, a first-aid kit, a lighter, a flashlight, sunscreen, a compass, bug repellent, deodorant, a length of rope, half a dozen ballpoint pens, a notebook, sunglasses, two small solar panels.

He also has: one Canon 1DS Mark III, one Canon V1, an assortment of lenses, 300 rolls of Kodak film, and a tripod.

Above him, the helicopter rotors whir away, whump whump whump whump whump whump, fainter and fainter until they fade away entirely.


The man: oval face, not too prominent a nose, short dark hair streaked with gray, dark eyes. His skin is surprisingly pale, and lined at the corners of his mouth and eyes. He looks too thin to carry all that photography equipment, but his arms and legs are corded with muscle, and he moves with learned efficiency as he sets up his tent–a low one, just enough room for a sleeping bag and little more, that won’t blow away in the wind–and the solar panels he’ll use to charge his batteries.


Dear Carlos, he writes. He has very neat handwriting, a relic of days when schoolteachers rapped one on the knuckles for an imperfectly formed f, or for forgetting to dot a j.

I won’t be able to mail this letter. There’s no mail service in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So I’m writing it in my notebook, to show you when I get home.

It’s not as cold as I was afraid it would be.

He stares at the letter for a long time, studying the way the ballpoint pen pressed into the paper to leave a groove, the way the blue ink soaked into the fibers of the paper. He holds it so close that everything blurs and becomes one indistinguishable mass. Then he fetches his camera.


The sky is so blue it hurts. The clouds are so white they beggar belief. The mountains rise larger than life, green with grass and gray with stone and white with snow that never melts. Alaska smells like ice and ozone and untouched earth.

He lies on his back in the yellow-brown-green grass, dressed in jeans and brown boots, a beige sweater that washes out his already pale complexion, a dark green jacket, a camera cradled on his chest. He stares up at the sky, at the clouds that have only ever existed in children’s crayon drawings. He lifts the camera, points the lens straight up at the sky, and shoots.


On the third day, a warm front collides with a cold one, and clouds boil up between them. The clouds hang low and gray in the sky, and then they open up and spangle the sky with snow and rain and sunshine: June, on the coastal plain of Alaska.

He remains outside for as long as he can, bundled up in a parka and gloves, snapping picture after picture after picture.


Dear Carlos,

It was warm enough for mosquitos today. I was warned about the mosquitos in Alaska, but I didn’t think it was that serious. After all, Alaska is cold, right? And for the first few days, it was cold enough that there weren’t many mosquitos. But today it was warm, and the mosquitos hatched, and it was horrible. I wanted to die. The bug repellent didn’t seem to work at all. I wish I were back home with you.

I wish for a lot of things. I wish I had some meat. It seems like forever since I’ve eaten any meat. There was fish when I was by the coast, that Sam caught. Sam is a good cook, too.

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to make you jealous. There’s nothing between me and Sam. Sam’s not even here right now, because of the weight limitation on the plane.

He catches fish, that’s all. And cooks it. And he makes sure I don’t die. You’re right; I’m too old to be going on these long trips anymore, hiking all over creation in search of the perfect shot. I’m afraid of wolves and polar bears.

When I get home, we’ll go out for cheeseburgers.


The backpack has a special padded pocket for the lenses. He selects one wide-angle lens and one telephoto lens. In an hour he’ll wish he’d brought the macro lens, but each lens weighs over five pounds and he plans to go a long way. He packs two half-liter bottles of water, two Clif bars, and an MRE, just in case.

He puts on very sensible shoes. (A photographer’s second-most important piece of equipment are his shoes: a photographer spends a lot of time on his feet.) He shoulders the backpack. The camera body goes on a strap around his neck. Then he sets out, one foot in front of the other, until he’s hiked fourteen miles. Then he turns around and does it again, one foot in front of the other, until he’s arrived back at the camp.

On the way, he photographs the river, the mountains, the clouds, the grass. He imagines what it will look like in black and white: the pale sky, the white snow forming beautiful patterns on the black mountains.


Dear Carlos,

I think this is the longest I’ve ever gone without speaking to anybody. Before, you know, at least there was Sam. He didn’t talk much, but it was better than talking to myself.

I haven’t been talking to myself. I’ve been writing these letters to you.

I’ve been gone for, what, nearly three months? I wonder what it’ll be like, when I get back. It’s always strange, coming back after a long time away, like I don’t know where I fit in anymore.

Will you still be angry with me? I hope you’re not angry with me now. Maybe we should have talked about it more. I don’t know. But you’ve always understood before. I had to do this. It was something I’d never done before.


It’s dark, and the sky outside the tent, he knows, is spangled with a thousand million stars against a deep blue-black sky, singing all the secrets of the universe in a language humans have yet to learn. He took photos of it the first night. They won’t be very good photos–he doesn’t have the proper equipment with him for night sky photography–but he wanted to do it.

He’s warm and as comfortable as one can be when sleeping on the ground, but nothing happens when he closes his eyes. Thoughts drift across the surface of his mind just when his consciousness fades. At one point he jolts awake, convinced he’s forgotten to lock the door, before he remembers that he’s in Alaska.

He misses a warm presence beside them.

He has to peel the thermal underwear nearly all the way off, and he’s aware every second that this is a stupid idea. But he’s not a young man anymore, and he’s all alone in the Alaskan wilderness for a week; this is the least of his stupid ideas. He huddles deeper into his sleeping bag as he grasps his cock and starts to stroke. He’s not really horny, but after a minute or so of steady, methodical pulls, the base of his spine starts to itch, deep inside. His hips start to thrust. He closes his eyes, although it’s not really necessary it’s so dark inside the tent, and thinks of Carlos. Dear Carlos, today I thought of you while I touched myself. See, I don’t only think of photography. He thinks of Carlos’s sure strong hands, the way he feels when Carlos pushes his fingers inside him. Dear Carlos, today I thought of you when I came. I came in my sleeping bag, in my tent, a thousand miles from anywhere. He thinks of Carlos’ mouth around his cock, the warm wet heat of it, hotter and wetter than the jungles of South America, where he’s also taken his camera. Dear Carlos, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wanted to come here. I wish you were here with me.

It occurs to him, when the itching has intensified into a solid ache of pleasure, that he probably shouldn’t come all over the inside of his sleeping bag. He flings out his hand and gropes until he comes into contact with the shirt he wore earlier that day. Cold air leaks into the sleeping bag. He comes thinking of Carlos’s smile, throws the crumpled shirt out into the interior of the tent, tugs the thermal underwear back up, and zips up the sleeping bag. Sleep comes to him a little easier, but he can’t move the hard ball of shame lodged inside his chest.


Dear Carlos,

I miss you.


Whump whump whump whump whump come the helicopter rotors, closer and closer. And there’s the helicopter itself, a dark speck in the pale sky, growing larger, until finally it’s a machine that stays aloft in the air through a combination of miracle and science. What an amazing thing, the helicopter is! That something so heavy should stay in the air through the sheer determination of man.

Maybe he’s been too long by himself.

He has everything packed already, although not as neatly as if Sam had done it. But the tent is folded away, the sleeping bag is rolled into as compact a bundle as he could manage it. His photography equipment is safely stowed. The trash is tied into a bag by itself, and he’s made sure he left no trace. He longs for a hot bath and to sleep in a bed. He feels every day of his 66 years of age.

“No caribou, huh?” says the pilot. She’s a familiar sight: her name is Joan Gautier, and she is half Inupiat and half of French descent. She flies helicopters and tiny airplanes like she was born in a birdsnest up in a tree, and makes landings where there is nowhere to land. People like her are indispensable for journeys into untouched wilderness. “Well, that sucks. Wasted a week, I guess.”

He settles himself into the seat and fastens his seatbelt. “Not wasted,” he says. “I used 200 rolls.” He saved 100 rolls in case the caribou ever showed up.

“Well, you’ll get a chance to try again,” says Joan Gautier. She pushes some buttons and pulls some levers, some complicated things that pilots do. “Sam will be able to go with you, on your next drop-off point. Give you some company.”

“That’s good,” he murmurs, eyes already closed. “Yes. Yes.”

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