Impossible Owls: Essays

Impossible Owls: Essays

by Brian Phillips


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One of Amazon, Buzzfeed, ELLE, Electric Literature and Pop Sugar's Best Books of 2018. Named one of the Best Books of October and Fall by Amazon, Buzzfeed, TIME, Vulture, The Millions and Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

“Hilarious, nimble, and thoroughly illuminating.” Colson Whitehead, author of The Underground Railroad

A globe-spanning, ambitious book of essays from one of the most enthralling storytellers in narrative nonfiction

In his highly anticipated debut essay collection, Impossible Owls, Brian Phillips demonstrates why he’s one of the most iconoclastic journalists of the digital age, beloved for his ambitious, off-kilter, meticulously reported essays that read like novels.

The eight essays assembled here—five from Phillips’s Grantland and MTV days, and three new pieces—go beyond simply chronicling some of the modern world’s most uncanny, unbelievable, and spectacular oddities (though they do that, too). Researched for months and even years on end, they explore the interconnectedness of the globalized world, the consequences of history, the power of myth, and the ways people attempt to find meaning. He searches for tigers in India, and uncovers a multigenerational mystery involving an oil tycoon and his niece turned stepdaughter turned wife in the Oklahoma town where he grew up. Through each adventure, Phillips’s remarkable voice becomes a character itself—full of verve, rich with offhanded humor, and revealing unexpected vulnerability.

Dogged, self-aware, and radiating a contagious enthusiasm for his subjects, Phillips is an exhilarating guide to the confusion and wonder of the world today. If John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead was the last great collection of New Journalism from the print era, Impossible Owls is the first of the digital age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374175337
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/02/2018
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 333,314
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Brian Phillips is a former staff writer for Grantland and a former senior writer for MTV News. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Slate, among other publications, and his work has appeared in Best American Sports Writing and Best American Magazine Writing. He lives in central Pennsylvania. Impossible Owls is his first book.

Read an Excerpt


Out in the Great Alone


In the summer of 1977, a fire swept across the wilderness of interior Alaska, west of Denali, which was then still officially known as Mount McKinley. Tundra burned to rock; 345,000 acres of forest — more than 530 square miles — disappeared in flames. When the smoke cleared, it left behind a weird scar on the map, a vast, charred crater littered with deadfall. In the winter, when temperatures in the interior dive to forty below, the skeletons of burned trees snapped in the cold or were ripped out by powerful winds. Tussocks of tundra grass froze as hard as bowling balls.

Every year in early March, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race sets out from Anchorage, in the south-central part of the state, and runs northwest toward the finish line in Nome, on the coast of the Bering Sea. In its early stages, the trail runs uphill, into the mountains of the Alaska Range, then plunges down, into the interior, where it enters the fire's scorched country.

For the mushers of the Iditarod, the Farewell Burn, as that country became known, was a nightmare. The race had been founded only four years earlier, as a way to commemorate the importance of sled dogs to Alaska. Large expanses of the state had, for much of its history, been unreachable by other forms of transportation. Now dog teams were forced to navigate through blackened stumps and fallen limbs, along a trail that was often impossible to follow. Many years, the Burn accumulated little precipitation. Sleds intended for snow and ice had to be dragged across hardened mud and gravel. Runners broke; tree shards snagged tug lines; speeds dropped to three or four miles per hour.

In 1984, the Alaska Bureau of Land Management cut a swath for a better trail. But even then, a seasoned musher could need twelve hours or more to cross from Rohn to Nikolai, the checkpoints on either side of the Burn — a passage that would frequently be made in darkness, through heavy wind and extreme, subzero cold. The novelist Gary Paulsen, who ran the Iditarod twice in the 1980s, describes the Burn as a place where mushers literally go mad. "It was beyond all reason," Paulsen writes in his Iditarod memoir, Winterdance. "I entered a world of mixed reality and dreams, peopled with the most bizarre souls and creatures." At one point, he thinks he's on a beach in California; at another, he pulls out a real ax to fend off an attack from an imaginary moose. When he comes to, his dogs have vanished; he's alone in the landscape. He stumbles across them a hundred yards away. He has built a fire and bedded them down without knowing it.

The Iditarod Trail runs across the Farewell Burn for around thirty-five miles of its total length. The total length of the Iditarod Trail is more than one thousand miles. The Burn is not the most difficult section.

* * *

In late February 2013, I flew to Alaska with the intention of following the Iditarod all the way from Anchorage to Nome. This was a plan of — I might be quoting my editors on this — dubious sanity, even before you consider the logistical complexity of chasing several dozen sled-dog teams across a subarctic wilderness the size of the Eastern Seaboard. That's not an exaggeration: There's disagreement over how long the Iditarod Trail really is, but the best estimates peg it at just about the distance from Carnegie Hall to Epcot. The fastest mushers take around nine days to reach the finish line, and that's assuming ideal conditions, say fifteen below, with blue skies and hard-packed, ice-slick snow.

I was staring at a week and a half of bone-deep cold, probable- verging-on-inevitable blizzards, baneful travel conditions, and total isolation from the civilized (read: WiFi-having) world. I hated snow, did not play winter sports, kept the thermostat at sixty-five on a good day, and hadn't logged out of Spotify since 2011. I wasn't even a dog person.

I called a pilot.

"Do you have experience in winter-survival-type situations?" he asked.

"Sure," I said. "I survive them by staying indoors. It's a technique that's worked well for me so far."

"Have you spent any time in small aircraft?"

"I've, uh ... I've watched movies where people spent time in small aircraft."

"How about winter camping, backpacking, anything along those lines?"

"Day hikes," I said miserably.

There was a pause on the other end of the line. "Well," he said, "I'll be straight with you. There are a lot of ways to die in Alaska."

That was in September. Over the next five months, the phrase "please don't die" started cropping up with maybe slightly more frequency than you'd like to see in your work e-mails.

Why was I so keen to do this? To make this trip for which I was patently unprepared? It had something to do with Alaska itself, its sheer hugeness and emptiness — 731,449 people spread out over 570,640 square miles, a territory larger than Spain, France, and Germany combined holding slightly fewer people than the metro area of Dayton, Ohio. The density stats are a joke. The U.S. average is 87.4 inhabitants per square mile. The forty-fifth-most-dense state, New Mexico, thins that down to 17. Alaska has 1.28. And more than 40 percent of Alaskans live in one city! Factor out metropolitan Anchorage and you're looking at about three-quarters of one person per square mile, in a land area ten times the size of Wisconsin.

I don't know how you roll, emotionally, with respect to population- density tables. Personally I find this haunting.

I've always been fascinated by the cold places at the end of the world. Back when I used to spend a lot of time in libraries, I wasted hours going through polar-exploration narratives, tracking the adventurers who froze to death, the expeditions that vanished. The generation of Scott and Shackleton was probably the last one to live with the old intuitive belief that the world went on beyond the part of it that their civilization had discovered. That there were meaningful blanks on the map, terra incognita. It's riveting to watch these practical-minded emissaries of high European culture hurl themselves into an unknown that they're not equipped to handle. Robert Falcon Scott, who died in Antarctica in 1912, tried to take ponies to the South Pole because he didn't trust sled dogs. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who wrote, with no trace of exaggeration, a memoir called The Worst Journey in the World, nearly died several unimaginably horrifying early-twentieth-century deaths while trying to retrieve an emperor penguin egg, for Science. I know the genealogies of their ships. HMS Terror and Erebus, the vessels in which James Clark Ross charted the coast of Antarctica in the 1840s — you'll find a Mount Terror and a Mount Erebus there still, volcanoes on Ross Island — which disappeared, along with Sir John Franklin's entire expedition, in 1845. Fram, the ship from which Roald Amundsen set out for the South Pole in 1910, which was first designed for Fridtjof Nansen's mad, brilliant scheme to embed himself in Arctic sea ice.

I'm not saying this is right, but there's something magical to me, something literally entrancing, about a place that can inhale a clutch of Victorian sailing ships and leave behind a handful of brass buttons and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield. Terrifying, but entrancing. That high white vanishing fog — doesn't it call to you, too?

No one's sure what the word "Iditarod" means. The best guess is that it comes from the Ingalik and Holikachuk word hidedhod, meaning "faraway place." It's the name of a river; in 1908, a couple of prospectors found gold on one of the tributaries, Otter Creek. A boomtown, named for the river, sprang up. Now it's a ghost city, an empty bank vault and an abandoned brothel. This year's race goes right through it. People who'd been there told me about camping out under the northern lights, watching the green shells of the dogs' eyes come gliding out of the dark.

At some point during all this, I copied down a line from Melville. He's talking about being lost at sea here; it's the same thing.

The intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity ...

"Come a week early," my pilot said, "so you can learn how to fly the airplane."


I landed in Anchorage in the middle of the night. The next morning, I drove an hour north to Wolf Lake Airport, a private airfield near Wasilla. You know those old photo-backdrop screens that little kids in department stores used to have their portraits taken in front of? It was like driving into one of those. National-monument mountains framing a sky that was chemical blue. Highway like a rifle sight. Until you actually get to Alaska, it's hard to prepare yourself for the scale of it, the sheer felt immensity. The numbers barely do it justice. Sixty percent of the nation's parkland is in Alaska. Four of the parks — four — are bigger than Connecticut. If you stood the white peak of Denali next to Mount Everest on level ground, Denali would tower over it, thousands of feet higher; Everest is taller only because it rests on an elevated plateau.

The majority of this extreme vastness can't be reached by road. Juneau, the state capital, isn't on a highway network. Head north, into the semi-populated reaches, and you'll find nothing connecting the villages at all. Alaskans depend on bush pilots, fliers who take small planes into remote and dangerous places, for transportation, mail — almost every type of contact with the outside world. I had come to watch what might be the least spectator-friendly sporting event on earth: To follow the Iditarod requires not only a bush plane, but a bush plane equipped with skis, capable of landing on frozen rivers and lakes.

Jay Baldwin met me at the hangar. He'd flown F-16s back in the day and put in a couple of decades with Delta and Northwest before moving to Alaska to be a bush pilot. He was retired, in some theoretical sense, but he had a flight school, Alaska's Cub Training Specialists, at Wolf Lake, and from what I saw still knocked out around nineteen high- intensity daily hours running that, tinkering with airplanes, and educating anyone within earshot (children, small animals, whatever stray Iditarod reporters happened to stroll past) about the perils of bush flying. Jay was sixty years old and tall, and he had white hair and a smile so enthusiastic it hinted at actual anarchy.

His best friend was a musher, Linwood Fiedler, who'd been the Iditarod's runner-up in 2001. They'd grown up together in the Lower 48, then lost touch before reconnecting as adults in Alaska, having in the meantime become a bush aviator and a professional dog musher, respectively, because obviously that is life. Every year, Jay led an expedition to follow the Iditarod from the air, partly for the flying and partly as a show of support for Linwood. This was the expedition I'd signed up for.

"You're not a pilot in Alaska," Jay said, fixing me with a blue-eyed and somehow piratical stare, "until you've crashed an airplane. You go up in one of these stinkin' tin cans in the Arctic? Sooner or later you're gonna lose a motor, meet the wrong gust of wind, you name it. And OH BY THE WAY" (leaning in closer, stare magnifying in significance) "that doesn't have to be the last word."

Having lost more friends than he could count to wrecks in the remote Alaskan wilderness, he was obsessed with crash reports, fatality statistics, replaying freak scenarios. One wall of the ACTS hangar was plastered with newspaper clippings from accounts of gruesome accidents: "5 Killed as Small Planes Collide," "Sisters Among Dead in Plane Crash," "Flying to Die." The most unnerving clip was titled simply "Pilots: Grief." I pictured tiny mosquitoes of flame blooming against the side of a mountain, torn hulls rolling in black water. "This is the junk that keeps me up at night," Jay said, smoothing his hair under his ACTS baseball cap. "I've flown just about every dangerous kinda bird you can fly. Why are they gone and I'm still here?" One of his mentors had vanished without a trace while transporting a couple of bear watchers over the Shelikof Strait from Hallo Bay to Homer; the authorities didn't know for sure that the plane had gone down until the body of a passenger washed up in a fishing net ten days later. And yet Jay wholly, truly loved flying, the way some people can love it. I have a brother-in- law who's like that. When he's not in the air, it's like he's seeing fewer colors.

This was the paradox of Jay Baldwin: One of the most infectiously happy human beings I've ever been around, his every waking moment was a kind of prolonged existential debrief. He was never not working on how to outwit the horrific eventualities he was forever expecting to befall him, and he was never not just extremely cheerful about this. Jay was a Vermont kid, raised in a small town, and there was a mordant New England pluck in the way he gazed into the abyss and said, "I see what you're trying to do there, abyss."

The plan was for me to spend a few nights in the apartment connected to the hangar — live with the planes, get the feel of them. I'd read that some Iditarod mushers slept with their dogs, to make themselves one with the pack. I needed flying lessons because the little Piper Super Cubs that would carry us to Nome were two-seaters, one in front, one behind. Jay wanted me prepared in case he had a fatal brain aneurysm (his words), or a heart attack (his words ten seconds later), or keeled over of massive unspecified organ failure ("Hey, I'm gettin' up there — but don't worry!") at twenty-two hundred feet.

Choosing an airplane — that was the first step. Jay had four, and as the first ACTS client to arrive, I got first pick.

They were so small. Airplanes aren't supposed to be so small. How can I tell you what it was like, standing there under the trillion-mile blue of the Alaska sky, ringed in by white mountains, resolving to take to the ether in one of these winged lozenges? Each cockpit was exactly the size of a coffin. A desk fan could have blown the things off course.

"God love 'em," Jay said. "Cubs are slower 'n heck, they'll get beat all to hell by the wind, and there's not much under the hood. But bush pilots adore 'em, because you can mod 'em to death. And OH BY THE WAY ... put 'em on skis, and come winter, the suckers'll land you anywhere."

Two of the Cubs were painted bright yellow. I took an immediate liking to the one with longer windows in the back. Better visibility, I told myself, nodding. Jay said it had the smallest engine of any of the Cubs in our squadron. Less momentum when I go shearing into the tree line, I told myself, nodding.

The name painted in black on her yellow door read: NUGGET. She had a single propeller, which sat inquisitively on the tip of her nose, like whiskers. Jay told me — his words came as if from a great distance — that she'd had to be rebuilt not long ago, after being destroyed on a previous trip north. Was I hearing things, or did he say destroyed by polar bears?

I patted Nugget's side. Her fuselage was made of stretched fabric. It flexed like a beach ball, disconcertingly.

Into the cockpit. Flight helmet strapped, restraints active. Mic check. Then Jay's voice in my headset: "Are you ready!" It wasn't a question.

* * *

And this, ground dweller, is Alaska from nine hundred feet. White- flecked spruce forest. Snow-smothered lakes. Mountains all around. There's Denali, clear and far away. Right here, in the Mat-Su Valley, the southern part of the state, you can see power lines, the sketch of a highway system. A little farther north and all that will vanish. People here can sound mystical when they talk about the bush pilots, about how they knit Alaska together. From nine hundred feet, it makes sense.

We'd done some practice turns and picked out a lake; now all I had to do was get the plane on it. Jay explained to me about landing on snow, how the scatter of light tends to mask the true height of the ground. You can go kamikaze into the ice, thinking the earth is still thirty feet below you. To gauge your real altitude against the whiteout, you have to use "references" — sticks poking through the snow, a line of trees on the bank. These supply you with vital cues, like "might want to ease down a touch" or "gracious, I'm about to fireball."

I won't bore you with the details of how to steer a Super Cub — where the stick was (imagine the porniest position possible; now go six inches pornier than that), how to bank, what the rudder pedals felt like. Suffice it to say that in theory it was simple. In practice ...

"You have the aircraft." Jay's voice in my helmet's earpiece. "Just bring us down in a nice straight line."

I felt the weight in my right hand as Jay released the stick. The lake was straight ahead, maybe three miles off, a white thumbnail in an evergreen-spammed distance. The plane was under my control.

Nugget — there's no other way to put this — began to sashay.

"Just a niiice straight line," Jay reminded me. "And OH BY ... your pilot's dead." He slumped over in his seat.


Excerpted from "Impossible Owls"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Brian Phillips.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Out in the Great Alone,
Sea of Crises,
Lost Highway,
The Little Gray Wolf Will Come,
In the Dark: Science Fiction in Small Towns,
Once and Future Queen,
But Not Like Your Typical Love Story,
Praise for Impossible Owls,
A Note About the Author,

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