January 15, 1898 [Pack Train at Chilkoot Pass]

My interest in actualities has waned considerably, but I was pleased to see a visual echo of the kind of composition employed in, among others, the Lumières' L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat. The long line of pack-horses trudging along the Alaskan pass was reminiscent of the many trains and streetcars and boats of previous cinematic efforts. Pack Train at Chilkoot Pass became more than another work-scene or glimpse of Americana, but a reminder that certain rules of composition will persist from the canvas to the photographic plate to the cinema screen.

But this affected me beyond the visual cue; it had a certain mood, at once stately and dogged, a fey progress west that seemed drained of the mythic power of crossing the frontier. It seemed a reflection of the price we've paid for our coast-to-coast nation, remarkable and unfortunate, the signposts both Romantic and brutal. The Chilkoot Pass, known as "the meanest 32 miles in the world," is the Klondike in extremis—and perhaps the Nation in frozen miniature. I've been reading Jack London's stories of these harsh lands where the search for wealth supplants what one might wistfully call "the pioneer spirit," and the result seems all too often to be behavior as savage as the privations that come with such endeavors. And while Pack Train at Chilkoot Pass is sedate enough, the line described by the horses seems endless, daunting, and their weary backs laden with something weightier than gold.


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