A Meditation on “Northwest Passage”
by Dave DeMars
The lyrics to the Stan Rogers song “Northwest Passage” present a variety of interpretations, but it is my contention that the song is at least to some degree autobiographical, ie., a metaphorical examination of Rogers' own philosophy of life. In that regard it can also be the basis for an examination of our own lives and our strivings to succeed.
The Northwest Passage, as indicated in the song and history, was thought to be a passage through the Americas to the Orient where it was thought that riches abound. Explorers sought the passage, and with it a place in history and the gratitude of the country they represented. But the song is as much a metaphor for great struggle to overcome challenges, both personal and professional. It is in essence a song that describes a quest – one that all or any of us might experience.
Like the stories of King Arthur and other heroic quests such as the search for the Holy Grail, the search for the Northwest Passage assumes a mythic aspect. Students of myth already know that aside from being a rip roaring story, one of the purposes of myth is to teach; to inspire reflection and provide guidance in broad, general ways about how life can be lived in a meaningful way.
In the second stanza of the song of the song, Rogers outlines the reasons for seeking the Northwest Passage and the success of the plethora of explorers who tried to find the Passage.
“Westward from the Davis Strait 'tis there 'twas said to lie
The sea route to the Orient for which so many died;
Seeking gold and glory, leaving weathered broken bones
And a long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones.”
In this stanza, Rogers describes the beginning of the actual search for the passage. But it as much a metaphor for the start of any exploration. We each have our own beginnings in understanding life and our struggle to mark our being. In our personal exploration and adventure to understand ourselves and mark our being with some sort of achievement to distinguish ourselves so as not to be forgotten, we risk all. We have our own dream, and our own beliefs as to how we will achieve immortality. We seek the metaphorical “gold and glory”, and in spite of our best efforts, we fail. But we are not alone in our quest. Others have come before Rogers tells us, and we find “weathered broken bones” along the way. In the end, those other explorers, both real and metaphorical, leave a “long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones.” In some cases, it is all that marks their being and their quest.
And so at our life's end, at the end of our quest to understand ourselves and do something that marks our having been alive and a contributor to the proliferation of life on earth, we still leave that “long-forgotten lonely cairn of stones.” And what is a grave marker but a type of cairn marking our existence, and occasionally carrying some message for future generations.
In the third stanza, Rogers introduces himself into the search for the metaphorical “Northwest Passage.” But his is a search for his own personal meaning and understanding. His search is like those of others who have embarked on a quest of self understanding and the desire to mark one's own existence in some way. And his quest is like our own quest.
“Three centuries thereafter, I take passage overland,
In the footsteps of brave Kelso, where his sea of flowers began
Watching cities rise before me, then behind me sink again
This tardiest explorer, driving hard across the plain.”
In short, like Kelso and many other explorers he begins his journey to understanding. He travels as they did, the implication being that he travels without a map as to how to achieve the end. All that is known is that there is an end, ie., a passage
Rogers watches as cities rise and recede in the distance. The cities represent milestones along both his real and metaphorical journey in search of his own personal passage. He is, if we are to understand the final line in his lyric, feeling some sense of urgency in his quest, “This tardiest explorer, driving hard across the plain.”
In stanza four, we are told that he drives “through the night.” Again this reinforces the urgency of his quest since he did drive while he would normally be at rest. It suggests the restlessness of the human spirit and of Rogers himself.
He thinks or meditates upon other great explorers, Mackenzie, David Thompson, and others, and how they continued on their quest and how they found a way to “crack the mountain ramparts” to find a way to the Northwest Passage.
The terminology of cracking the ramparts is most appropriate in that a rampart is a raised mound, but it is also a source of protection. In this case the mountains had literally prevented some explorers from progressing further, but once he mountain ramparts were breached, it opened up a new path to explore.
On a personal level Rogers suggests that the search for our own paths to success can use the examples and routes that others had blazed. It is important to note that while others provided trails and guidance in their quests, not all of them met with success. Indeed, many of them met with failure and again we are reminded of that fact by the “cairn of stones” left behind. A cairn is meant to mark the path way to something. The question is, what path is marked by the cairn. It is not clear where a path might lead, only that it leads somewhere.
The final stanza poses a question: “How then am I different from the first men through this way?”
On a literal level, Rogers and each of us, is certainly different from other humans. And Rogers is different from those early explorers in that his experiences are different. He rides in a car and covers hundreds of miles in a day over a path that took Mackenzie months to achieve. He already knows the elevations, and the final destination and what is at trail's end. He knows also that the closest point to the Northwest Passage that explorers reached was the Beaufort Sea, a place so desolate and remote from China and he Orient that it proves useless for most of the year.
But on a metaphorical level, Rogers, and each of us, is very much like those early searchers. Like them, in our restlessness, we leave a “settled life” working perhaps in a factory or some other “normal” life. But like early explorers we strike out on “the road not taken”. The Northwest Passage of Rogers was perhaps the success of his music and the source or wellspring for his writing.
“To seek the Northwest Passage at the call of many men.
To find there but the road back home again.”
Interesting words, and one might think that they are a bit confused, but there is a story from Rogers' life that puts the sentiment in perspective.
As a young man just starting in the field of music, Rogers had dreams of playing in a rock band. As the story goes, on a visit to the maritime provinces to see his aunt he was encouraged to learn and play some of the local folk and sea chanteys. Rogers fell in love with the music. With encouragement from his aunt to write about the life he knew, Rogers began to create his own brand of Canadian folk music. So in a sense, Rogers returns to his roots. And in four short years he created a legacy of music grounded in the stories and life that he knew.
In this sense, Rogers achieved his Northwest Passage. His music and words achieve a kind of immortality and mark the fact of his existence in this world. While most of us have a head stone (our personal cairn) to mark the fact that we existed, lived, loved and were loved, and to point the way on the path of being, Rogers created a more lasting legacy. And still he found that the road led back to the beginning; “the road back home again.”
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.