Nelson Kempf is a musician from Tennessee, whose debut album 'Family Dollar' was released in July 2020. His beautifully bleak folk takes inspiration from both his Southern heritage, and the Arctic Tundra where he spent many years working as a welder. Below, he tells Hook about that experience.
At the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport early on a Tuesday morning, an otherwise nearly always empty gate is overflowing with dour looking men covered in camouflage and barbed wire embroidered promotional paraphernalia. It's like this every Tuesday because Tuesday is change out day on "the Slope"; the colloquial name for the gradual slope from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean on the Northern Coast of Alaska where ancient seas were elevated to the skies in an orogeny beginning in the Jurassic era, and where Proto-Inuit peoples settled some 5,000 years ago and where the Humble Oil Co. discovered petroleum reserves in 1968.
After the 737 privately contracted by Conoco-Phillips lands at the Kuparuk air strip, the 500 or so passengers who came from all over the world shuffle in to the "man-camp" and navigate the complex to find their permanently assigned dorm rooms; homes away from homes. Originally built in the 70s this place has been slowly accumulating modular add-ons to accommodate the growing personnel required for "resource extraction". There is a movie theatre, a weight room, a cardio center, a gymnasium, computer labs, a cafeteria, various rec rooms and even a virtual golf course, all stationed on a vast arctic tundra which is being leased to oil companies by a tribal entity called the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation.
I place my bags on my bed, lay down and try to get my head around the fact that I will be here for the next three weeks, working 12-16 hours a day, 7 days a week. of course, the best thing to do is simply avoid thinking altogether and try to forget that I exist at all. I drift out the window, a silk scarf swimming in the arctic air, curling towards the Northern lights; love letters from a sun who will not be seen here for months. I look down at the land. It's white as far as the eye can see. But not empty. there's white foxes, white owls, white bears. The only thing that stands out is the white people and the imposing steel infrastructure that accompanies us.
The alarm on my iPhone rings. I slip in to a fire-retardant, pepsi-blue jumpsuit, head out to my diesel truck (which was left running all night so that it wouldn't die in the cold) and drive to the shop I work at. I plod in to a break room veneered with 1970s wood paneling and encouraging posters. The sad mumblings in here are diverse: Texas, Maine, El Salvador, Nigeria, etc. After we get our designs on the day, we file out to the shop and sip instant coffee while shooting craps, a ritual sanctified by the Southerners among us. On this particular day, I've been tasked with pulling some measurements at an install site, what we call "field work" as opposed to "shop work".
My first day back rolls away from me without notice, becoming a frigid night with a high full moon. While I warm up in the truck, the wind is howling and animates the resting snow into great kinetic formations. I turn on the radio. It's a broadcast of a local church choir singing Russian Orthodox hymnals. While the Russians are long gone from this land, the traditions and symbolism they adapted from the Eastern Roman Empire have been adapted here as well and synthesised with Inupiat culture. the harmonies are arresting, much like the air outside.
Later on that night, back at camp, I'm riding a stationary bike and listening to Bruce Springsteen's 1987 album 'Tunnel of Love'. My thoughts drift to America's heartland and my young days spent dusty under the sun. garages with posters of snap-on models, nascar clocks and radios always left on. Imposing masculine figures casting shadows over my slightly too feminine presence, a feeling still enflamed in places like this. There is an actual 'Tunnel of Love' in Ukraine. It's an old railway wrapped in sculpted foliage. It looks like the scenes in post-apocalyptic films where mother nature has subsumed man's abandoned architecture. But in this case, the trees are man's architecture. They were planted during the cold war to obscure military transport to a secret base. Now it's an Instagram hashtag.
Early in the cold war, the "Polar Concept" became central to military strategy and Alaska became a playground for weapons development and training. The resident gods of the Unangax, Sugpiaq, Dena'ina, Ahtna, Yup'ik, and others were placed in internment camps to make room for new occupying deities like Nike-Ajax, Nike-Hercules, and Nike-Zeus. These new gods of the "Last Frontier" drew new congregations who built temples and shrines on mountain tops throughout the land in a voracious neo-manifest destiny. Then one Spring day, just before the Stonewall riots and the moon landing, a steel probe 8,000 feet below Earth's surface broke through the country rock and the blood of ancient life was brought to light. This would change everything.
By the second week here a kind of emptiness sets in. It's a distant relative of Zen, but the mantra is capital. i find myself constantly calculating, how much did I make in the last ten minutes? What's the company match on 401K? What's OPEC's price on West Texas Intermediate? How can I leverage my own life essence to diversify my liquid asset portfolio? When I quit, the company offered me all kinds of incentives to stay. I felt like Neo waking up from the Matrix. The shrouds within the hierarchies unraveling before my eyes. I've never felt so flattered and pissed off at the same time.
My last assignment was to do some maintenance on a "Christmas Tree". This is what we call the giant stack of valves that act as a plug containing the immense pressures of an oil well. As I approached the well house I peered out at the endless white tundra and something caught my eye. Looking back at me was a polar bear craned over a carcass, its snout and chest painted a deep, primary red.