AWAI Writing Challenge Honorable Mention:
“Alaska, man! Let’s Go”
… Bob Bois’s First Road Trip
“It’ll be so cool.” Tony said. “Just imagine the bears and the fish and the oil fields. Alaska, man! Let’s get out of here.”
For a 50-year-old man who’d never been on a road trip in his life, these were bold words. I hardly recognized my friend.
Danny and I looked at him in amazement. We had just torpedoed our jobs at a Texas home for emotionally disturbed kids by reporting the foundation that ran it. They weren’t providing adequate nutrition. And while the owners drove expensive cars, the kids slept on old, urine-stained mattresses. Of course, we’d be fired. No problem. We were burnt out and underpaid.
Danny, a quiet Vietnam vet from west Texas with a classic drawl, said “How the hell do you suppose we’re going to get ourselves to Alaska?”
Before I could stop myself, I said “We’ll go in The Beast.” My 1977 Chevy K5 Blazer had 244,000 miles on it and was known to us all as “The Beast.” It didn’t matter to me that the driver’s bucket seat was propped up with an empty beer cooler. Or the fact that she had an obstructed brake line that caused her to shudder and go up on two wheels when the pedal was pushed. My companions looked skeptical, but there was nothing for us in Texas any longer. We were compelled to journey to Alaska (or so we told ourselves).
We left two weeks later, on a foggy March morning, after stuffing into the back of The Beast three guitars, four duffle bags, a tent, a camp stove, several hatchets, a gas lantern, two coolers, and some cold cuts.
We decided not to buy an Atlas, reasoning if we just continued traveling North and West on North America we couldn’t miss Alaska. We were sure we’d find jobs in either the oil or commercial fishing industry and be swimming in money by the end of the summer. It was going to be so cool.
“There, that looks like a good place to stop for the night.” Tony pointed to a stand of weeping willows next to a lazy, rambling river. The trees looked like women drying their hair on the riverbank.
We unpacked some gear, erected the tent, got a fire going, and then brought out the guitars. I was a self-taught player with a large music library in my head. Danny was just learning to play on a guitar I had given him to help him get through his latest divorce.
Tony was a gifted musician but completely lacking in self-confidence. Danny and I knew why. Tony found out, at the age of seventeen, that he was adopted. His father was killed in a bar room fight over his beautiful mother (pregnant with Tony at the time – and present at the fight). This information somehow left Tony adrift in the world. His relationships with women lost momentum and died. Jobs came and went with alarming frequency.
We played music into the wee hours, that first night out. We didn’t talk much. The start of a road trip is a retreat from the workaday world; it leaves one pensive. I drank in the smell of wood smoke and river mud.
By the third or fourth day, we had the tent up and were singing in front of our fire in twelve minutes. And as the stars pinwheeled across the black sky over the Great Plains, we let the fire draw down to cherry-red coals, and, paraphrasing Robert Frost, we said some of the best things we ever said.
One night, sitting under a stand of enormous Ponderosa pines (with pine cones the size of footballs), Tony stopped in the middle of a song and said “This trip is doing something to me. It’s like the further we go, the more I’m becoming who I was always meant to be.”
We continued northwest, truly talking to one another: Danny spoke of being a tunnel rat in Vietnam and his inability to keep a marriage together; I was in culture shock since returning to the US after being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Asia.
All through western Canada we played our guitars under the stars, at times drawing an audience of other campers or bikers. People on the road. Some completely free and propelling themselves into an unknown future, others securely tethered to ‘home’ with the family pictures and other domestic relics they carried in their RV’s like religious icons.
We reached Alaska after twenty-two days on the road. No longer road trippers, we were now job seekers. We would, in fact, find jobs in the fishing industry in Seward, a town not far from where the Exxon Valdez dumped millions of gallons of crude oil all over everything.
We spent the summer months wet, cold, and stinking of fish. We lived on ibuprofen so we could play our guitars after twelve cold hours cleaning fish. Some nights we couldn’t move our hands and just fell into bed.
“So, when does this get cool, Tony?” Danny would ask when the work was particularly boring, and we wondered what the hell ever made us want to road trip this far to live like this.
“Sorry fellas,” Tony would respond with a sparkle that I know he did not have before we left, “it’s been the greatest time of my life. I think I’m staying here.”
Danny and I looked ahead to the end of summer and the ensuing months of cold darkness. This plan did not sound therapeutic for a man who was prone to major depressive episodes. We feared for our friend.
But I’ll be damned if Tony didn’t stay in Alaska. He is there to this day, serving the native Alaskan population as a social worker. So, the road trip left an enduring mark on Tony’s life – for the better, as it turned out.
They say Alaska calls to all freedom seekers and misfits. Tony qualifies either way. He’s found his home.
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