Alaska always seemed like a dangling thing to me, not a state so much as an idea, the kind of place I thought about fleeing to when life started to suck. How nice to be away from all this: the bears and the glaciers and the famous 10:1 burly-logger-to-female ratio, which I learned about in an episode of Oprah featuring lonely Alaskan fisherman looking for love. Did I even know you could drive to Alaska? Did I care? Alaska was just a fantasy squished onto the top of the continent. A place people only talk about going. A place people see from cruise ships.
To Alaska? What the Hell?
About a year ago I met a guy who had spent three weeks driving from California to Alaska. I'd dabbled in roadtrips, but nothing like that. To Alaska! What the hell? His eyes widened when he talked about it. “A once in a lifetime adventure,” he kept saying, and I believed him. He talked about the land and the mountains and the sky, an emptiness so vast you begin to feel as though the earth might swallow you whole. Not an easy trip either, he said, and described weeks spent driving along the winding mountain passes of the Alaskan Highway. Was he just trying to impress me? It worked. I felt the throb in my heart: This was something I had to do before I died. Hike the Himalayas, see the Savannah, drive to Alaska.
My friend John knew none of this when one day, as we were talking about my upcoming roadtrip, he asked, “So are you going to Alaska?”
It hadn't even occured to me. “God I'd love to go, but I would never drive that alone.” I told him of the isolated stretches, the chewed-up roads studded with potholes.
“That's too bad. I've always wanted to go to Alaska.”
“Me too. But yeah, I just can't.”
“Hmm.” He was quiet for a moment. “What if I came with you?”
And then, suddenly, I could.
But Wait a Minute.
I'll be honest, I never thought John would go through with it. Nothing against him — I just thought it was the old Alaska fantasy-machine in motion. Wouldn't it be nice to drive to Alaska? Wouldn't it be nice to frolic with the polar bears, fish with the eskimos, swim with porpoises? Even as we met to plan the trip, chose a date when John would meet me in Seattle, even as we bought guidebooks and traded URLs for Alaskan Websites and wrote breathless emails to each other about calving glaciers and brown bears, part of me thought John was bluffing. I waited for the hesitation to bubble up, for the sentences that began with “But …”
Reality crept into focus, threatened our well-spun fantasies. John only had two weeks of vacation. The ferry back from Alaska took a whopping four days. We'd barely have enough time to drive to Alaska, far less enough time to explore. Was it worth it? I wrote him an email full of sighs and disappointment. “I want to go, but I'm looking at our schedules and I just can't make this thing work.” Fortunately, John didn't get that email until later in the week.
“Don't be mad at me,” he said the next afternoon when I picked up the phone.
“I won't be mad at you.” I braced myself.
“I bought my ticket to Seattle.”
Two months later, we were on the road.
And So We Drive.
And so we drive, and drive, and drive. 3300 miles, to be exact, up through British Colombia and the Yukon. (I mean: The Yukon! How the hell did that happen?) We cross into Alaska and through Tok and up to Fairbanks and down to Haines and none of this means anything to most anyone, except we know all about it, because we spent 10 days running our fingers over maps and connecting the dots between Fort Nelson and Whitehorse and Skagway. We know all of these cities, which is so funny to me now, so funny that this big square blob in the upper corner of the map — once a white space, completely blank save for what? the bears? the glaciers? — the blank spot is now studded with cities that mean something to me. I know the difference between Kluane and Kenali — this is what traveling does.
But so anyway, we drive. We drive all day and sometimes pull off the road to take a hike or look at waterfalls, where we stare and climb around in the mud and feel the cold spray on our faces and take pictures that will never come out right. We sing The Strokes and Britney Spears and Radiohead. We talk for hours. We argue about irony and Hitler and the proper inflation for my front tires. John teaches me about language theory, and I teach him about Brechtian theory. We tell the stories of everyone we've ever dated. We list our favorite fruits.
And all the while, there is the road outside. Mountains marbled with snow. A frozen lake, one crack running down the middle like a split seam. The slushy edges where the blue-green water is just starting to peek out. Even better: The lakes that are no longer frozen, whose color hypnotizes me so that sometimes I kind of almost run off the winding road and I say things like, “Holy shit, that's teal.” Or later: “Goddammit, that's aquamarine!” I'm obsessed with the color, can't stop talking about the color, and we jump out of the car and I snap pictures of the lake that will never come out, of John looking at the lake, of John realizing I am taking pictures of him and so making funny faces, of John doing a yoga pose I taught him the day before, holding one foot behind him and one hand stretched out parallel to the ground, all of the pictures saturated with this teal, with this aquamarine, with this color I don't even know what.
We point and make strange, excited noises when we see an animal. Ooh-ooh-ooh: a moose. A herd of buffalo. Caribou. Animals we didn't even know existed.
“What the hell is that?” I ask, pointing to a shaggy brown character staring at us from the side of the road. “Is it a moose?”
“Or is it a deer?” John asks. We find out later it's a mule deer. (Who knew?)
We take a sidetrip to a hot springs, plunge into the warm, bubbling waters, swim to the one part where you can sink your feet deep down into the murk at the bottom, almost to your knees, although it gets hotter the deeper you go, and we giggle as the mud squishes through our toes and across our skin. We sit on the sides and lean our heads back to look at the mountains, the mountains marbled with snow, and breathe as deep as we can.
And then we drive, at least eight hours a day. We drive into the night, because the further north you get, the less night matters at all, because the sun doesn't set until midnight maybe, and even then the sky seems lit at the edges. As John drives, I snap pictures from the car that will never come out. The moon sliding through the trees. The moon shimmering on the lake. The moon warm and orange, low on the horizon.
Sometimes we don't camp until close to midnight. We set up our separate tents and walk out to the lake.
“Ooh-ooh-ooh.” I tug at John's sleeve. “Is that a beaver?”
“Or is it an otter?”
And we can't decide, so we call it a botter, and watch it swim in circles, the slick black head poke up from the water. There are no calving glaciers. There are no brown bears. There is only this silence, and this stillness, a botter swimming in circles, a midnight sky pink at one end and lavender at the other.