Ideas & Short Essays
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Alaska and/or Bust

I wrote up a humorist piece (attempting to channel a bit of Melville) as a therapeutic way to bring myself some resolution after my rather harrowing three-thousand mile road trip when the malevolent tire that wrenched itself free from its axle and attacked my Fiat 500. I wrote this piece to be read/heard, and I read it at the Thursday Open Mic Night at the Golden Saloon here in McCarthy. It was well-received by some, but the venue wasn’t very suitable to read a long piece like this — but I had a good time. I thought that I would repost it here. It’s been written to be read/heard, but I think that it should fair fairly well on the page/screen. The greatest inconvenience will probably be that I italicized words or phrases that I wanted to emphasize, in the reading.

Golden Saloon. McCarthy, 2016 http://mckinneymakesmedia.com/

When road tripping to Alaska, while traversing the remote terrain of northern British Columbia, Yukon Territory, or driving the highways and byways of the remote edges of the Great North, you may happen upon a beat up car or rusted out bus with the words “Alaska or bust” painted on the side or proudly displayed on a cut-out cardboard sign taped to the window.

For sake of accuracy, though, I think that the conjunction ought to be modified to read, “Alaska and/or Bust,” because it isn’t always an either-or scenario — Alaska or Bust — as I learned on my own recent road trip to Alaska. Sometimes you make it to Alaska but you go bust in the process of getting here, in which case it’s more accurate to say “Alaska and Bust.”

Going bust can be as simple as buying an expensive plane ticket that requires that you empty your checking account, dig out all of the quarters from the couch, pawn a family heirloom, or take out a small loan from an amiable friend or not so amiable relative. At other times going bust takes the shape of a harrowing road trip.

I purchased a tiny subcompact car last fall, a Fiat 500, aka “The rollerskate.” I think of it as a roller skate because the car is really narrow, which makes it appear to be just a little on the tall side, resembling, to me, a hightop shoe, and what with the wheels and all, I think that my Fiat resembles a roller skate.

The Fiat is great for where I spend the winters, squeezing into small parking spaces in the city of Santa Cruz, where I work, or zipping up and down the Santa Cruz Mountains, where I live, twisting and turning about on the weird roads that wind through their way through the Redwood forests. It’s a great car for that, but when it came to driving her up 3,000 miles to Alaska, I had my doubts, and although my doubts would prove to be well-founded, the opportunity for adventure and a long road trip proved too seductive. It had been too long, so I thought, since I’d done the commute by land.

My first stop was Seattle. I’d made a new friend at work, and she was immediately intrigued when I told her about my summer home in McCarthy. At work, she would regularly give me McCarthy weather updates, especially in April when she was shocked to see how warm it was in McCarthy this spring, sometimes warmer in fact than the weather we were having in the central coast of California.

When my friend found out that I was driving through, she set up a get-together in Seattle, with some good friends of hers whom she had met years back while doing Dave Matthews shows. I drove, she flew, and we spent a day drinking, smoking weed, and listening to what must have been every single song that Dave Matthews ever wrote.

I left first thing the next morning, not because I had had too much Dave Matthews but because I was anxious to get going. It was a good time and a nice send off, as I embarked on the northerly route through Canada, but I was getting antsy to get away from America and back to Alaska, as I get each year when I’ve spent too much time away.

This is my tenth consecutive summer in Alaska, my sixth in McCarthy, and without fail I begin to feel an intense sense of urgency that pulls me to the far north, sometimes starting as early as December. It’s a pull to Alaska but also a felt-sense that I need to get the hell away from civilized America, it’s sort of a Star Wars like “disturbance of the Force” that I think Herman Melville understood when he wrote the opening lines of Moby Dick. Melville was talking about going to sea but his sentiments reflect my feelings about Alaska after I’ve spent a bit too much time in the Lower 48:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Cato throws himself upon his sword, Ishmael quietly takes to the ship, and I must go north, to Alaska. It would be an arduous trip, though, because my little subcompact car was stuffed with stuff — a guitar and clothes and supplies — and yet with all of that, I still had created a long area with just enough room to stretch out and sleep at night. I had converted my Fiat into something strange, something like a subcompact camper car. I had done this by stripping out all of the seats and anything else that wasn’t mechanically necessary to operate the vehicle.

After Seattle, I put in a good solid day of driving and slept at a rest area a few hours south of Prince George. I would make Prince George by midday of the next day, which meant that I was on the cusps of freedom, near to those vast stretches of wilderness that call to me. I felt better already, but this would prove to be the calm before the storm.

It was around noon of the next day when I came upon Prince George. I skirted around the city and was soon traveling on Highway 16 heading west to the Cassiar Highway. It was all starting to sink in, just then: America was hundreds of miles in the rearview and the animal within me was back in the wild, and just knowing this gave me that familiar feeling that motivates us all to do strange things like convert a subcompact Fiat 500 into a hack camper car.

But it was just about then that the crazy FREAKISH THING happened, the kind of thing so unlikely and so absurd that if I didn’t know better, I might be inclined to listen to my fundamentalist father, a minister, who would almost certainly tell me that this calamity was God’s judgment for all the smoking and drinking I did in Seattle and for all of the partying to come in McCarthy.

A camper was coming from the other direction, on Highway 16, and suddenly a tire sprang loose from the camper and began to brashly bound toward me. I swerved to the right, but then it swerved as well, following the same trajectory. For a split-second, I thought that I might be able to avoid it. My Fiat, after all, is a damn good car for quick swivles and tight turns, but the tire seemed to be gunning for me, continuing to follow my path. Then the wheel took a big bounce and seemed destined to plant itself on my side of the windshield, a facial plant.

Realizing that a collision was inevitable, I had my frozen-in-time moment, as people often eperience in these situations. It was a mere moment, a blink of the eye before impact, and I felt like I could see the treads of the tire, and to my eyes, in that moment, it appeared as though the rubber grooves seemed to form into a snarl or a sneer. But at the last moment I was able to swerve just enough so that the snarling, sneering wheel hit the car on the side, missing my windshield but ripping and smashing the side. (I had been so certain that the tire would hammer me head-on on my windshield that I was surprised, later, that my windshield was in tact and hadn’t shattered.)

As I talked to the driver and witnesses, after the accident, I learned that it was not a spare tire that had come loose (as I had assumed) but that the rim had blown on one of the rear wheels, on the camper itself. Witnesses who were driving behind the camper said that after losing the tire, the camper began wobbling wildly, tilting back and forth. After losing one of the wheels, the woman driving the camper had been on the verge of rolling the whole rig. Amazingly, she held it steady and brought it to a stop on the side of the highway.

Hence began my many encounters with a good deal of Canadians, Canadians who, I’m happy to report, all lived up to their reputation for niceness, something I particularly appreciated as someone in need of a little assistance. The cops were nice and the woman driving the vehicle was nice.

“I’m just glad no one was hurt,” she kept saying as she lit cigarette after cigarette with shaking hands.

“It doesn’t matter if I die,” I heard her say, “just so long as no one else gets hurt.”

After the initial formalities were completed and statements had been taken, I sat in my car to wait for a tow truck. It would be a long wait, and after an hour or so, the bright sky darkened, and it began to rain. I had to hold the driver’s side window up to keep it from sliding down, and even then water still dripped into the car, running down my arms and settling in the seat. Then, as if the rain weren’t enough, and as if my car hadn’t taken enough of a beating already, hail began to pound the poor little Fiat.

The tow truck driver was nice too, although he also seemed like the kind of person who was easily rattled. He was confused as to what to do with me and with my car, which irritated him. “Where do you want it towed?” he asked, yet again.

But how was I supposed to know.

The driver let me make some calls on his phone as I rode back with him to Prince George, trying to figure out what to do with my Fiat, now resting on the truck bed behind us. He was a young guy, all tatt’d up, and as he drove he told me about how he had moved away from Vancouver and purchased some land just outside of Prince George, so that he and his partner could have some space to live. (Given how jumpy he seemed, I figured that having a little space would probably be a good thing for his mental health.)

He asked me how things would work with insurance. By this time I had learned that British Columbia has nationalized auto insurance, called “ICBC,” which is just one big public company that handles everything and charges reasonable rates. I tried to explain how things worked in the States.

I began to talk through how we have private insurance companies and in the case of an accident, you report the incident to your insurance company, and the other driver reports it to theirs and then the respective insurance companies battle back and forth because private insurance companies are motivated to make as much profit as they can get away with. Hence, I said, the insurance company representing the at-fault driver has an inherent and fundamental motivation to pay out af little as possible.

“Oh,” I said, “and also there are levels of coverage. So I only have what’s called ‘liability insurance’ because it’s pretty much the only thing I can afford, but this means that my insurance company only pays out damages that I do to other cars, in the event of an accident where I am deemed the at-fault driver.”

I thought I was explaining it well enough, but when I looked over, my young friend seemed confused and also annoyed.

“That’s complicated,” he said. “So, I’ve got ICBC, and if I was in an accident in California, I wouldn’t have to worry about all that. They would just take care of everything.”

I spent that night in Prince George, the city deserted for Victoria Day, and the next day another nice Canadian also helped me out. Roy at a repair shop in Prince George said that he would work up an estimate for the folks at ICBC, and he said that he thought that they could get me back on the road ASAP.

Roy had the grease monkeys in the garage bend a few things on my car, and Roy himself grabbed a big role of duct tape and tapped my car window in place, then tossed the roll of tape onto my front seat when he was done, just so that I would have it, with me, in case I needed some duct tape while in transit.

With Roy’s help I was back on the road. And so it was that with a full roll of duct tape, a newly purchased bottle of tequila, a few butterflies in my stomach, and a lot of pluck, I started north again, driving out of Prince George, for the second time.

I got in a good day of driving and that evening I slept in northern BC, and that night, I received a bit of reassurance, a few tell-tale reminders from nature that I was now in the Great North. I sipped my tequila at a hidden rest area that I had found along the way. It had been abandoned and so I had the place to myself.

The first reminder came in the form of big mosquitoes, mosquitoes that gradually began to swarm around me when I left the car. For perhaps the first time in my life, I was thankful to be swarmed by mosquitoes, since it meant that I was getting there, ever closer to Alaska.

The mosquitoes were easy to love, too, because, oddly, they didn’t bite. What kind of mosquitoes are these? I thought.

These mosquitoes seemed strangely tentative, like they weren’t quite sure what to do with me or what to do with homo sapiens more generally. So whenever I left the car they swarmed and we all just kind of congregated together, congregated together as I brushed my teeth or took a piss or as I simply contemplated the light of the night.

And this was the other reminder that I was getting where I needed to go: the light long lingered, the sun of the far north still going strong as I prepared to settle in for another terrible night’s sleep, hoping that the tequila would help me pass another night in cramped sleeping quarters.

I couldn’t find any decent coffee in northern Canada, but I did encounter a lot of bears. In fact, it was something of a bonanza of bears. I was excited simply to see any bears but after my third spotting, I kept a log of how many I saw. Seventeen bears later, I arrived in Alaska.

It wasn’t all serenity and kumbaya mosquitoes, though. There was also a psychotic truck driver that kept passing my battle-weary little Fiat, cutting me off or slowing down to let me pass then passing me again and either slowing way down again or else driving on the shoulder, the better to kick up dirt and rocks and shower my pitiable little car with gravel.

It was all more than a little disorienting, but I finally managed to lose the psychotic trucker and eventually relaxed again, at least somewhat, but by this time, I wasn’t precisely the picture of sanity. I’d put a few thousand miles behind me, on a trip that now spanned more than a week, and all that travel was taking a toll on my whole mental situation. I found myself in something of an alternative state of mind where my thoughts felt fragmented, floating here, there, and everywhere. I realized that I was having conversations with myself and caught myself saying things out loud, like, “Now you know what, I noticed that very same thing….”

I entered Alaska, then, only somewhat sound of mind, and I looked like a madman, sunburned, wild-eyed and crazy-haired. I hadn’t showered since California so I surely smelled the part as well, but I was in Alaska. I was here. I had made it.

And Alaskans didn’t seem to notice that I looked like a crazy man. So I chatted up locals at every stop, and everytime I told them that McCarthy was my final destination, they seemed to size me up with a little more respect. I’m sure that has to do with how remote it is, our rugged and primitive lifestyle and our well-connected community, but there was something else, too.

“You all know how to party,” one dude said when I stopped in Chitina. And it wasn’t the first time I’d heard that since entering the state.

In truth, this comment about “knowing how to party” made me curious and gave my meandering mind something to think about as I entered “the birth canal,” aka the tunnel by the Copper Valley River which would usher me onto the infamous McCarthy Road, a journey of 60 miles that would take me over three hours to traverse, despite the fact that the road was in excellent condition, at least so far as McCarthy Road standards go.

What does it mean to “know how to party”? I wondered. The obvious meaning was that we know how to get really fucked up. This was certainly true, I mused, smiling and immediately thinking back to last year’s Last Man Standing competition.

I’d bowed out super early from Last Man Standing, because I had to work in the morning and also because when it comes to partying, quite truthfully, I just really can’t hang with the big boys. Around seven the next morning I was walking through town and I found Jarrett sleeping on the street having rolled, at some point, into the cold ashes of the previous night’s fire, which of course gave him clear title as the undisputed champion of the 2018 Last Man Standing competition.

Last Man Standing, 2018, the morning after


So, yeah, I thought, we get fucked up, but doesn’t everyone, everywhere? People get fucked up in Chitina, people get fucked up in Seattle and California and everywhere else I’ve been. I’ve even scored ganja in a rural village in Tanzania.

And after all, I thought, this is Alaska. It’s the fortyninth state in the union and certain we rank somewhere around fortyninth in terms of sobriety, meaning that Alaskans the state-wide all tend to get really fucked up, at least everywhere I’ve been.

Do we in McCarthy get even more fucked up than anyone else in the state? Maybe, but I couldn’t help but think that there was more to it than that, because I don’t actually like to get fucked up just for the sake of getting fucked up, but I love to party in McCarthy, and I look forward to partying in McCarthy more than I do anywhere else in the world, Tanzania notwithstanding.

I look forward to partying in McCarthy but it isn’t because I get more wasted here than anywhere else. There’s more to it than that, at least for me.

For me, partying in McCarthy feels a lot more akin to a — Thanksgiving feast, a happy indulgance, like the extravagant old potlatch feasts put on by the indigenous tribes of the northwest as a celebration of what the year’s harvests had produced. It’s a Dionysian exuberance, a celebration of nature and place, of life and wilderness and freedom and community as well as self-reliance. It’s the joy I feel in all of the things that define our way of life in McCarthy, a way of life that, despite how simple it is, can be hard to find.

And so, with such thoughts, my little Fiat rolled into McCarthy, rattling and rumbling but still running. Yes, I was bust, had gone bust getting here, but I was in McCarthy Alaska, and arriving here in a daze of disbelief isn’t too uncommon, I’ve found.

And I’m sure you’ve got a yarn to share that’s at least as good. We do what we need to do to get here. Sometimes it’s hell, sometimes high water, but we’re here and that’s what counts.

So cheers to those of us who made it to McCarthy for another summer.

This entry was posted in: Ideas & Short Essays
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Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy; I pass the winters in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. I'm working on a memoir-based nonfiction book on the American Dream. I blog, quite frequently, and I also have a novel in process, set in Alaska.

9 Comments

  1. Nicely done. Converting catastrophe into a story? Hell, you converted a subcompact into a camper — you’ve got this!

    The only time I did an Open Mic the MC limited us to ten minutes each, and that was in a bookstore not a bar. I’m guessing your piece took about twenty. What do you think is the attention span limit for your crowd? You say it was fun, so you’ll probably step up again?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think I’ll do another one at open mic but I’ll look for other opportunities. There’s an annual word jam as well as a Tall Tales night. So I’ll get a few more opportunities…. It was difficult to forge ahead and give a good reading at the open mic because do many people were talking, etc. I knew that there was a small crowd listening but it just isn’t a very good environment to read stories. It’s a better venue for songs and such.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, I did it only once. I see your point about venues dedicated specifically to reading aloud. I’ve had a couple of email exchanges with a writer of short fictions who during bar open mic sessions runs a kind of game show for the crowd — he probably had similar experience to yours when reading his texts.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hm. Interesting. A game show? Do you know what that involves?

          I’m game for trying to make a saloon open mic night work as a venue for reading my writing. I’m on a creative space to work up some shorter pieces, anyway. But I think I’d have to rethink the whole approach, and maybe audience participation might be one angle to try.

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          • I don’t know, it took some effort to get even that much out of the guy. He’s an American expatriate in Madrid, and my guess is that it’s largely an expat Anglophone crowd at the bar where he performs — maybe not unlike your Alaska bar, patronized by people from all over. While Madrid has the reputation of being a late-night city, I’m guessing that it’s a more subdued partying style than you encounter in Alaska, so maybe lower-key entertainments work better there. Pure speculation. Around here (Raleigh-Durham NC) most Open Mics at bars seem to be standup comedy. That’d be a strange gig. A lot of standup routines are built around semi-autobiographical unpleasant events like your car fiasco, with the narrative and cadence tilted hard toward laughs. A distinct art form to be sure.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Comedy is definitely a district are form. I think I’ve got the feel for writing a comedy routine. In fact I have asked a few routines just for the hell of it, but I don’t think my nerves could handle the performance, i.e., being on stage under the spotlight. I think I would buckle under the pressure.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. That was a lovely piece of writing, with everything, adventure and excitement- your near death experience, and bears!!! and strongly moving – the description and words of the woman after the accident. Glad you made it. Enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

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