Travel | NATURE TRAVEL

Walking into the millennial sunrise

by Hugh and Midori Paxton

If you still haven’t made up your mind about where you’re going to be come sunrise of the year 2000, here’s one to contemplate. How about Barrow, Alaska followed by a leisurely stroll 14 km to Point Barrow at the utmost north of the Americas?

The sun will rise here at 1:04 p.m. — Jan. 23. Barrow will be the last human community in the world to be lit by the new sun of the numerical millennium.

Barrow has several points to recommend it.

First off, any Y2K induced catastrophes such as crashing aircraft, exploding airports, poorly cooked in-flight meals and a global return to the Dark Ages should be well over by Jan. 23.

More importantly, you will be there as part of Alaska 2000 — one of the few millennium celebrations that makes a gram of sense (given that the new millennium actually starts Jan. 1, 2001 and that most “millennium” events are fatuously unimaginative or purely mercantile).

The Alaska 2000 theme is turning around the mistakes of this century, reconciling those who’ve made them with those who’ve suffered from them, and suggesting hope as a theme for the future with regards to everyone. But with particular regard to the world’s 200 million or so indigenous people whose ride through recent years has been rough. Sometimes their fault. More often not.

The Alaska 2000 source of inspiration is an eccentric, uncrushable, relentlessly adventurous Englishman named George Meegan.

Meegan, who lives in Nagoya, is a walker. Not one of those wimp go-for-a-three-day-hike-up-Kilimanjaro types, but a serious traveler who chooses to rely upon his feet to take him where he’s going. Those feet have walked a distance greater than any in human history: some 31,000 km. From the south to almost the north of the Americas. Note well that word “almost.”

Meegan’s was the longest unbroken march of all-time. It earned him eight Guinness world records. It took him seven years. He fathered two children en route, was jailed, met Jimmy Carter, slept in everything from Inca urns to old-fashioned ditches, traveled through rain forests, deserts, slums and the tundra. He did all this unsponsored (save for a British shoe company that supplied him with the 13 pairs of boots necessary for the venture).

This last leg of Meegan’s walk from Barrow town to Point Barrow will set another Guinness record — the first crossing of the Americas by any means. No vehicle or aircraft has accomplished the same. That, however, is not the point of Alaska 2000.

Meegan, I suspect, is fed up with some of Alaska’s indigenous peoples. Fed up in the sense that he’s tired of them not taking control of their lives. Seeing themselves, perhaps, as inferior. Or relying on the “victim” thing to justify failure.

He’s clearly tired of the despond that results in a native Alaskan murder rate four times higher than U.S. averages, a suicide rate 125 times higher and youth problems that put 27 percent of teenagers between 14 and 17 in some form of state detention schooling. Hope, here, is often lacking. It is messages of hope that Alaska 2000 is about.

Turn up at Barrow and bring a flag, a banner, any optimistic message that you’d like to hold aloft to the world. The media by then should have recovered from its millennium binge hangover. This event will be a much needed ethical hair of the dog.

Don’t worry about having to lug flags along on the march. John “Jumper” Bitters, formerly of Britain’s elite Special Air Service, will parachute down with them when the walkers reach Point Barrow.

One of Meegan’s goals is to ensure that it’s not just the “good guys” and locals who join him on this last bit of the greatest walk of all time. He wants what he calls “the dark folk” too. Those who’ve perpetrated crimes in the last 100 years and who would like to help clear the century’s slate. People who’ve gone wrong, know it, will speak out about it and apologize. Thereby encouraging the local indigenous youth by showing them that they have no exclusive ownership right to that cosmopolitan human tendency — the right royal screw up.

To this end, Meegan’s been in touch with some of the 20th century’s less salubrious types. He called up Idi Amin, who still lurks in Saudi Arabia apparently enjoying the benefits of tertiary syphilis. Amin, or to give him just some of his self-appointed credentials, “Last King of Scotland, Lord of All the Birds, Beasts and Fishes” heard Meegan out in silence. Then grunted and hung up. Guess Idi won’t be making good Jan. 23, but what do you expect from a president who, among other things, ate his own archbishop?

Former Japanese soldiers who did grisly things to Chinese villagers may be coming. They’re still wrestling with their consciences. Liberian boy-soldiers, guilty of the most appalling mistakes, may come and walk a better walk.

Every saint has a past. Every sinner a future. Or so the cliche has it. Expect all shades of in between at Barrow.

Definitely making the walk with Meegan will be Teisha Simmons, 21, quadriplegic, and great granddaughter of Anna Negekk’on. Negekk’on walked across 1,600 km of Alaska after testifying in court against a white trapper who had killed her husband. At the time of her solo one-year walk, Eskimos and Indians routinely murdered one another for territorial infringements. Simmons will be shielded from the elements by a white moose hide, symbol of Eskimo-Indian peace.

Barrow is unlikely to be warm on the 23rd. Brisk winds are possible. Paralyzing cold inevitable. Don’t forget the thermal underwear. Arctic survival gear may be provided.

The actual walk itself is just 14 km but “just” is an adjective that may not do the walk justice. Meegan reckons it should take three hours. An escort vehicle will provide transport should you find the walk more than you’d bargained for. According to Meegan, Barrow’s one of the best places in the world to have a heart attack: It has an excellent and underused hospital.

Accommodations on offer range from courtesy floor space and sleeping bags in the National Guard Armory to pricey (from $150) hotels. 1998 direct air fares from Kansai to Anchorage with Korean Air were 65,000 yen. Alaska Airlines is contemplating offering discounts on the $500 flight from Anchorage to Barrow. People who have hijacked aircraft but want to say sorry may have to make their own arrangements.

Will we be there in Barrow Jan. 23? Put it this way. Would you want to miss it?

Comments, questions, participants welcomed. George Meegan, Japanese Maritime University Kobe, 5-1-1 Fukae, Higashinada-ku, Kobe 658-0022.

Phone/fax: (0797) 34-6192 e-mail: meegan@cc.kshosen.ac.jp