Illustrations By Lisa Hanawalt
“Why not just call it shit?”
I have been staring out the window at a blur of wildflowers, and this is the first sentence to leave my mouth in 45 minutes. A high-speed conveyor belt of daisies and Arctic violets is pulled through my field of vision as we zip along a desolate Alaskan road. In the backseat of an SUV headed south on the Kenai Peninsula, I am as much out of place inside the car as outside of it. A seven-year inhabitant of Manhattan, I am woefully unfamiliar with what the rest of the country drives. It’s difficult to be in any vehicle without staring suspiciously at the dashboard, keeping an eye on a meter that’s not there. Like a limb long since blown off in some unnamed war, but which I persist in scratching. No one in Alaska notices me doing this, and they wouldn’t—inhabitants of the “Lower 48” are notoriously suspicious and amusingly paranoid, mistaking mountains for glaciers and asking dumb questions about avalanche triggers. Why should my reaction to a family-size vehicle be any different? They’re probably amazed I didn’t try to lick the tires or get in through the windows. I’m a little amazed myself.
The only reason I even know I’m in an SUV is because when I retell this story to friends back home in the weeks that follow, I describe the vehicle as “like a van but nice.”
My friend April, in the passenger seat, twists around.
“Why not just call what ‘shit’?”
“Bear poop.” I giggle, pushing forward into the gap between the front seats.
I am more like a child in Alaska than I have been in years. Probably more like a child than when I was a child. Everything here is new and tremendous, and this feels like vacating in a way all other vacations have not. Not only am I physically dwarfed by the scenery, but going to Alaska seems like something my family would have done in the 80s but never did. Do people fly across the country just to see it anymore? To tour the homes where presidents were born? Do they go to the zoo and buy plastic visors? Make pilgrimages to houses made entirely of corn? They should. American appreciation vacations have become the purview of the very local or the very foreign. Which is a shame. The song doesn’t go “If you can’t be with the one you love, leave the country.”
But back to the poop. After a hike in the woods outside Anchorage, I have learned that bear feces is called “scat.” Actually, “woods” is a bit of a misnomer. The strip of trees in my parents’ backyard, that sacred burial ground for our pets, is “wooded.” The voodoo-stick-doll-sprinkled camping grounds of
The Blair Witch Project
are located “in the woods.” I, on the other hand, was tripping on the root structures of pine trees taller than my apartment building back home, trying to avoid poisonous plants the size of my toilet.
That’s where I spotted the sign that (a) taught me my new word for the day and (b) warned me against “engaging a bear,” should I cross one’s path. Since the latter bit of information was easily dismissed (I get it: The bear wins; I’m not going to ask it to play poker), I chose to focus on the scatological. At the time I did not make the connection between the adjective for “prevalence of shit” and its abbreviation in noun form. Perhaps this is because, for longer than I care to admit, I thought “scatological” was an adjective for “all over the place.” On countless occasions, I had accused other people of being “scatological,” meaning “mercurial; please try to focus.” When in fact I was accusing them of being full of shit. This explained a lot. And if you believe something for a long enough time, it’s hard to replace that belief, even if you know it’s wrong.
“I think it’s because it’s not just feces,” says Jeff, my friend’s fiancé, in the driver’s seat. “It has something to do with the percentage of the shit that’s actually in scat. There’s fur in there. Other fur.”
But of course.
. Why not? Only a few days in and nothing surprises me about Alaska. It is a land of casual extremes, a place located not only on the fringes of the planet but on the fringes of all normalcy. A place where you could wake up one morning to a caribou giving birth in your backyard and you’d go to work anyway. You’re not even sure where your camera is. Life is both worshipped and expendable in equal doses. And the human population is as serious as the scenery. Here is a list of the six types of Alaskan residents, not including native tribes:
1. Military personnel
3. Nature enthusiasts (by which I mean raw, in-your-face nature; bird-watching is for house cats)
4. Hippie nutballs who looked at Portland, Oregon, and thought,
This is way too urban; I have to get out of here
5. People who have at one point done something very illegal involving a sawed-off shotgun and freezer bags
6. This guy:
When I boarded my flight to Anchorage in Chicago, I went to wedge my trashy magazines into the polyester pouch in front of me. There was something more substantial than usual in there between the
catalog and the safety card. It was a library book. I was intrigued. It was like finding an abandoned toy in a random bathroom stall, but less creepy. I let the pocket snap shut before opening it again. On the spine in big, bold letters, it read:
The Amityville Horror: A True Story
. Nope, just as creepy.
Passengers were still streaming down the aisle, clutching their boarding passes and looking above the seats, as if trying to remember the alphabet. I quickly shoved the book into the pouch to my right and tried to forget about it. My seatmate turned out to be a state-builder Alaskan. His grandfather had a small bay named after him. He was on his way home to visit his mother, who made custom shotgun cases.
“Well, no”—he looked at me thoughtfully—“she doesn’t make the cases themselves, but you should see what she does with them.”
I imagined this man’s mother in a floral muumuu, beating the shit out of a sea otter on the front porch.
Apparently, what she actually does is decorate the cases. Causing no small amount of pride in her son, she was recently commissioned to make one for a Jerry Falwell-like figure I should have heard of but hadn’t. At the base, she Krazy Glued a bleeding crucifix of red rhinestones and her logo:
A Case of Class by Melina
. He handed me her card.
“I’m Earl,” he said, stiffly shaking my hand in such close proximity to his chest, it gave the illusion of palsy.
“Sloane.” I shook back, trying on the the-less-you-talk-the-harder-you-are theory of man-speak.
“This your first time going to Alaska?”
“Well, she’s a beauty.”
“Is she prettier than a boat?”
Earl opened his pouch, took one look at The Amityville Horror, shrugged, and saw it as a repository for chewing gum.
“Prettier. But she has a dark side. Weird stuff goes down. I don’t think people think of Alaska like that.”
“That’s more or less exactly how they think of it,” I said, and proceeded to index every ax murder I knew of on my fingers.
“So, Earl, you can see how the stories become geographically dense and objectively creepier as you move farther north and west.”
“I guess so.” He frowned thoughtfully. “Now that you mention it...”
Earl proceeded to tell me about a murder case in which a bakery owner was making brioche by day and picking up strippers at a club near the airport by night. This particular baker charmed the strippers into his prop plane and took them to one of the many secluded islands off Alaska’s coast. Once on the island, the man’s demeanor changed dramatically. He forced the strippers to get completely naked, pulled out a crossbow, and informed them that they had 20 minutes to hide, at which point he was going to hunt them down and kill them. As sure as the dough rises, that’s what he did. This man turned from baker to butcher, murdering about 20 girls in this way.
To be naked ever in Alaska is already to be inconvenienced. The place is exactly as cold as you think it is. But the most shocking part of the story was that the teller knew the subject. Earl and his mother and his mother’s BeDazzler lived down the road from him. On his way to his old logging job, Earl would get a coffee and bear claw (almond, not keratin) from him.
“He made the best jelly doughnuts I’ve ever tasted,” Earl said, in complete and total seriousness.
Tomorrow is the wedding of Jeff, the driver of our vehicle, and my dear friend April, the shotgun holder. Here I am referring to the term for the front seat of a car. I think we can all agree this warrants clarification, having nothing to do with killing sprees or unplanned pregnancies. The event has all the trappings of a destination wedding—jet lag, group hikes, a plane ticket for which I could exchange a month’s rent—but in fact, our little community of tourists is small. One hundred twenty out of the 125 guests are native Alaskans. I am one of the other five, a member of the bridal party. We are a nervous band of outsiders. We are quick to highlight our own ignorance, blurting out things like “I don’t know how to play ice hockey!” when someone casually points to a pond. We think if we surrender our pride early, the state will have mercy on us. The paranoia about wildlife is, frankly, a whole other animal. See: Is that a wolf? I thought I just saw a wolf. Oh, wait, that’s a dog. And it’s not moving. I think that’s a lawn dog.
Because Canada, the Great White North, is a very dark place, when our plane descended through the clouds, it was like landing in a secret city. I had the same feeling the first time I flew to England. After hours of ocean, I experienced an awe at the reality of the world. To have so much nothing and then something: When you are a novice traveler, London feels like Papua New Guinea. Compounding this sensation in Anchorage was the fact that the only regular pollution is light pollution. Though “pollution” is a little harsh. Anchorage at night is “movie dark,” a perpetual dusk in which the cameras have to capture the actors’ faces even though it’s supposed to be midnight.
For the first time I understood why people come back from Alaska with 50 pictures of glaciers or return from a honeymoon in Tahiti with 50 pictures of the same sunset. The world is so beautiful in these places, it is impossible to register that there will be more, more, more. Surely this is it. Negotiate with your ailing camera battery. How can it not stay alive for this? How can you believe that 20 minutes from now there will be an even taller forest, an even wider waterfall? We are only as good as our most extreme experiences.
When the bridal party arrived, we were less of a “party” and more of a bunch of separate people flying in from different locations. Still, April insisted on making trip after trip to retrieve us from the airport, scoffing at the idea of taxi services. This gesture seemed saintly by New York standards. Until I realized that it’s generally warmer in one’s car than anywhere else and there is no real traffic in Anchorage. Even if there was, I wouldn’t have minded waiting. The Anchorage airport is a pleasant place to visit. While you can’t eat off the floor, you can drop your scarf on it without hesitating to wrap it back around your neck. Which is more than I can say for JFK. Plus, the Anchorage airport has a gift shop called Moosellaneous. And a fiber-optic starry night on the baggage-claim ceiling, which one finds particularly hypnotic after a long flight. As I came down one of the escalators, there was a person in a polar-bear plushy suit, wearing a Native American headdress on top and handing out flyers. As he wordlessly pointed me toward the exit, I thought, Where is David Lynch when you need him?
I was the last to arrive. When April and I walked through her front door, there were clear signs that merriment had gone on without me. Around her condo were scattered open greeting cards with miniature lace dresses glued to the covers, stained wineglasses, and slicks of soft cheese on a plate in the sink. Everyone was asleep, and all the beds were claimed. April showed me to my room, a cot in the laundry room with a sleeping bag unfurled on top. She reemerged with a second sleeping bag. “Oh, I already have one.” I pointed to the cot.
“I know.” She also pointed to the cot.
A frigid blast came through a crack in the window and knocked the paper brides on their faces.
It is the next morning, and Jeff has graciously agreed to spend his last day of bachelordom driving his fiancée and five of her girlfriends down the coast. Part of me thinks this is the least he can do, as all of us have flown past Canada to get here. This is a common observation among our group, a default fascination triggered by the sight of one’s breath or the glare of the sun at night: Dude, we’re above Canada.
The state of Alaska itself is like one big whale. Chunks of ice the size of Rhode Island exist like barnacles. They could detach from a glacier up north and no one would notice. During my time there, no fewer than three people explained to me that if you took the outline of Alaska and superimposed it over the continental United States, it would stretch across the country end to end. They must teach this in elementary school up there, because it had the same delivery I like to employ for “Well, you know, yellow’s a primary color” and “A tomato is actually a fruit.” It makes sense to imagine Alaska in this way, as a giant sheet of shadow pulled over our cities and hills. It is a dwarfing place. It manages to be both roughly lumbering and quietly graceful, light about 20 hours a day but dark on the ground. Every mountain passed is so imposing, it would be the mountain if transplanted south. What I see from across a gas station on a dirt road would be the main attraction in, I don’t know, Missouri. As we drive, the combination of soaring mountains and low clouds gives the illusion of smoke—of a series of forest fires. So much so that the sight of each mountain sets off a small panic in my chest until I grow accustomed to the view.
In a less tangible way, I feel I am in Alaska at a very fragile time. I arrived at the Ted Stevens airport one week after the senator had been ousted from office for accepting illegal campaign donations. Now I insist on tooling around the town of Girdwood as if I have a crush on Ted Stevens. I am looking for his house, which was built with the blood of baby caribou. Or just dirty money. Meanwhile, banners line the paved streets of Anchorage, announcing that the following year is the state’s 50th anniversary. I feel the way the Italians and Chinese must feel when we point to the Liberty Bell and say, “Look at this old thing we built. We are pleased with it.”
At one point, April’s mother notes that there is something in the air these days besides the usual (just more air). In addition to the mysteriously high number of bear attacks this summer, there are rumors that Alaska’s otherwise unknown governor is on the short list for the Republican vice-presidential ticket. She refers to this woman as “our Sarah Palin,” which strikes me as pleasantly loyal. Our Sarah Palin. Perhaps it reveals a political passivity on my part, but I don’t think of any of New York’s politicians as mine. Not in the “Our little Mikey’s all grown up” way. Then again, I wouldn’t elect a child to office, and perhaps that’s the way it should be. Their feet flail around when they sit, and they have a tendency to stick gum underneath the desks.
Palin’s nomination will serve as a strange social call to arms among the Alaskans I know living in New York, like the way one twin can sometimes feel the pain of another from miles away. Except in this case, one of the twins considers the other an embarrassment, the worst Alaskan PR tragedy since Jewel started publishing poetry or—as even Earl put it—“the time that moron walked into the woods to die in a bus.” Each time Palin winks at the world, one of my Alaskan friends feels a deep pang of shame. But like the rest of the country, right now I know absolutely nothing about Sarah Palin. For now I think, Good for Sarah Palin! Good for April’s mom! Good for Alaska! Politicians are like Olympians. Every four years they bloom into the American consciousness, but they’ve been there this whole time, putting down roots beneath the surface. I am excited for this sneak preview of what’s to come. I look forward to parties back in New York in which I will know a thing or two about contemporary politics.
“And there”—Jeff ducks forward a little and points—“is where we used to camp and fish when we were little.”
I scan the solid patch of spruce trees to which Jeff has gestured. I look for a path or even a gap in the foliage. Starting from the sky, there’s a layer of light blue, then a layer of white, then a layer of green, and then a layer of dirt. If the Alaskan state flag were striped instead of starred, these would be the colors, and this would be the order.
“But”—Jeff’s voice trails off—“you can see how overrun it’s become.”
My heart goes out to Jeff. To the naked eye, he is far more out of place on this road trip than I am. He is our lone star of testosterone in a galaxy of chick. I spend much of the car ride wheeling through my iPod, on the hunt for songs that don’t instantly conjure footage of hipster girls ironically sipping Pabst with their cheeks sucked in. I must have music that corresponds with the dead-serious consumption of Pabst. Even a band called Grizzly Bear feels too tame. Jeff is millionth-generation state-builder Alaskan. His family helped create the state—specifically, the railroads—which connected oil towns to fishing towns, and fishing towns to gold-rush towns, and so forth. This fascinates me in a way that does not fascinate Jeff himself. He is used to his own background, even used to outsiders’ interest in it. Absolutely no one will ever say to me, No way, you grew up in suburbia? Man, that must have been amazing.
I met April when she was spending her postgraduate years in New York, where I was spending mine as well. April was raised in a city where the fog has been known to freeze and fall on people’s heads. A city where the swank downtown neighborhood is dubbed SoNo (South of Nordstrom). For a place with so much clean air it was strangely suffocating. She was ready for something a bit more fast-paced in SoCa (South of Canada). New York was her first choice. We exchanged a few sideways glances during a health-care-benefits orientation at work. Then we went around the conference table sharing arbitrary facts about ourselves. I divulged that I had never been stung by a bee. April said she was from Alaska.
“Alaska!” The human resources lady brightened. “Hey, now! I’m sure New York will seem like Jamaica to you.”
April gritted her teeth and let out a fake laugh, the kind where one pronounces the word “ha.” The assumption of dramatic regional evolution is one of humanity’s odder tics. I, for example, do not listen to every schizophrenic hobo muttering to himself on the subway or cover my ears when the train comes. But must I be diagnosed by the rest of the country as legally deaf? How many times has it been suggested that I will actually have difficulty falling asleep in someone’s peaceful country house? People of central Africa, I beg you: Never come here unless you are willing to sit in a locked sauna and have some bozo say the words “I’ll bet this feels like air-conditioning to you.”
“It’s a little infuriating,” admitted April, as we sat on the metal benches of a corporate office park and ate salad-bar lunches.
“It’s like they want to take away my socks and dunk me in ice water. I never realized how little people knew about Alaska.”
Perhaps to appear more knowledgeable than the human-resources lady, I told April the only thing I knew about Alaska. It was an old news story about some local Anchorage kids who decided to sneak into the zoo’s polar-bear exhibit and swim across the moat. Alaska may have a free-for-all Noah’s-ark quality when it comes to breeds of puffin, but a polar bear is a big deal. Those they lock up. The tragedy was amplified each time I heard it. In one version, one of the kids was being mauled and crying for help as the other two jumped back in the moat. Sometimes only one of the boys swam back. Sometimes none of them swam back. Sometimes they were all found dead, floating in the red water. It took on the quality of a morality play, awkwardly undercut with Darwinian themes of stupidity.
April rested her plastic fork in her salad bowl and, in the same tone Earl would employ when discussing jelly doughnuts years later, said, “I had homeroom with those boys.”
“Oh my God.”
“No”—she put her hand on my knee—“I’m kidding.”
“Actually”—she laughed—“I’m not. But I wanted to get that worried look off your face.”
We quickly made the transition from amicable coworkers to voluntary friends. Eventually we moved a building away from each other on the same block in Manhattan. It was like a Broadway musical, if only in set design. Our apartments faced the same inaccessible courtyard, and a typical phone conversation might go something like this:
April: Hey, it’s me. Do you smell that?
Me: No, smell what?
April: Walk over to your back window. I think something’s burning.
Me: I think... Yes, that’s definitely barbecue.
April: Good, just checking.
Most people have at least one friend in New York who never gives up the crusade to make their lives feel rural, and April was mine. Assuming you’re not one of those “no furniture, no hot water, no problem” people, we all have elements of self-comfort in the beginning. Means of making our lives feel a bit more civilized. But gradually the city fights back, like crabgrass. Not that you know what crabgrass looks like anymore. You stop setting your alarm clock early and start vowing to run only when chased. You make peace with those cracks and corners of your apartment that came ground to the floorboards with rust and dirt. You tack up articles about museum exhibits, only to tear them down months later when you realize the show has moved to Moscow. The diligent sheen wears off your book club until it’s more of a wine club until it’s not even in someone’s apartment anymore until it’s just drinks and a movie and enough last-minute cancellation emails to, ironically, fill a book.
But April really went to the museums and the book clubs and the black-and-white movies in the park. She painted her walls, stripped her floors, and drilled nails into the exposed brick. From these she hung matted photos of Alaska so green you got the sense the air quality was better in the space around the frame. Photos that looked like they were shot for the very purpose of selling picture frames. Whose mountains are so lush? Whose nieces so perfect and healthy? Perhaps those related to a woman who would regularly go into bodegas and inquire about the freshness of the clementines on display outside.
She read in Time Out New York that it was possible to go down to a pier in Chelsea and go kayaking in the Hudson. As if this weren’t miraculous enough, she actually succeeded in getting me to do this with her. With the caveat that she would inoculate me with Purell beforehand and pay for a Turkish masseuse to scrub me down with steel wool if we capsized. While I eyed the slick rainbow bubbles on the water’s surface, she let her paddle rest on her lap and tilted her face up toward the sun. When she opened her eyes again, she said, “How much farther do you think we can paddle out?”
The time we drove upstate to visit the small, artsy town of Beacon, she seemed disappointed that it only took two hours to get there. She had rented a jeep. We ate French onion soup at a diner with cake plates on the counter. As we cleaned the cheese from the side of the bowl with our fingers, I asked April whether there was anything she didn’t love about this Alaska of hers. She thought for a while. She was dismissive of Juneau and Fairbanks. She mentioned the people there wearing Carhartts all year round. When I said, “What are Carhartts?” I was told with exasperation, “They’re very Fairbanks.”
As the day wound down, we ducked in and out of the crafts and antiques shops of the rainy Rockwellian streets. April picked out a set of hand-painted mugs.
“Look at this one.” She held a yellow striped mug by its handle. A three-dimensional porcelain bee stuck to the rim.
“When are you going to use that in real life?”
“I just installed mug hooks in my kitchen,” she replied, as if it were the most obvious answer in the world.
“And”—she sidled up to the antique cash register—“this is real life.”
I was distraught when she moved back home, though my sadness was tempered by the shipping rates to Alaska that resulted in her unloading half her worldly possessions onto me. Among other things, I became the proud owner of three “decorative” ledges, a set of ice-cream bowls, and two egg coddlers—everyday objects that I couldn’t conceive being a part of my everyday but that made me miss April each time I ate lo mein out of the ice-cream bowls or used the egg coddlers for bourbon.
It was only six years later, as I arrived in Alaska just past midnight, that I understood how strange it was for her to be in New York in the first place. If you’re lucky enough to become truly close with a stranger in New York, there will still be a part of you and a part of them that’s reduced to novelty. You can know everything about them, every detail of their childhood—every name of every hamster—and there will always be something that you can’t help but view as an accessory. It’s difficult to parse out someone else’s formative moments from their trivial ones when you weren’t there to witness either. April’s being from Alaska was no different from her being my adopted friend or my actress friend or my friend who fact-checked at a magazine by day and stripped at Scores by night. Her Alaskanness was the piece of her framed on the wall. A point of entry taken for granted, no more a part of the room than the door frame.
In the weeks before we left for the wedding, the other members of the bridal party, now securely fastened in their heated SUV bucket seats, displayed the same level of casual awe and anticipation regarding our trip to the top of the planet. Email chains wound back and forth. This time next week, we’ll be in Anchorage: can you believe it!? I couldn’t. Alaska felt like a slightly exaggerated trip to the Northwest on one hand, and like Pluto, that forlornly demoted planet, on the other.
As I laid out my long underwear, I took my globe down from a bookshelf and sat on my floor with my legs stretched out. It is a world in which one can still book a flight to Yugoslavia. A world in which there is a dotted line that curves down Germany in semifetal position, dividing it into East and West. I imagine the boardroom discussion about the globe, the now-dated debate as to how to represent the Berlin Wall.
Globe Guy #1: Let’s look at the Great Wall of China. What’d we do there?
Globe Guy #2: That’s not a border.
Globe Guy #1: Well, we can’t go around just doling out lines. If tomorrow I make a bay out of banana peels, do I get to have an estuary? No, I don’t.
Globe Guy #2: But you can’t cross the wall without getting shot or paying someone not to shoot you. So, by the Mexican definition, they should get a line.
Globe Guy #1: You’re fired.
Globe Guy #3: [_leaning on a stack of atlases in the corner, sporting a watch fob; he lights a cigarette_] You could always make it… dotted.
[_Silence all around_]
Globe Guy #2: You know you can’t smoke in here.
I rotated the globe east, my finger fixed on the latitude at the crown of the world. Printed in eight-point type were the dates explorers first set snowshoe on the North Pole. Except, because it’s my globe we’re talking about, the paper had been scratched away, and instead of reading Reached North Pole, it says ached North. I found this so amusing, I immediately emailed it to the one other bridesmaid who refers to Central Park as “the woods.”
She responded: That’s hilarious! Are you bringing your own waders? Because I’ve been looking online and I think it might be unhygienic to rent them.
But now, one week and 4,000 miles later, it appears I have been duped into false camaraderie. I know these women call the urban centers of the Lower 48 “home.” I’ve witnessed some of them order brunch as if they’re competing to see whose food gets spat in first. But apparently they have also been camping in northern Michigan and skiing in Colorado. Voluntarily. All of a sudden it turns out they spent their childhoods spotting coyotes outside Jackson Hole or hiking the Appalachian Trail. I begin to suspect we share a different definition of “amateur” when it comes to the greatest of great outdoors. As they select fly-fishing rods without hesitation and brandish Clif Bars at the slightest stomach growl, I realize these women are not kindred. They are nature’s pool sharks. A few days on a glorified Outward Bound excursion, and out come the hourly declarations of their need for fresh air, reveries of piney appreciation and mountain worship that peak with vows to chuck their mainland lives and move to Alaska at once. They are up for everything and I am down for the count, slipping on some rocks and falling ass-first into the Russian River wearing head-to-toe fleece. They have cameras with multiple lenses and a base tan of outdoorsy-ness that prevents them from asking inane questions about why ice melts. Whereas I am bright red with ignorance, my dilettante skin verbally peeling in the backseat with each mispronounced inlet.
This could be part of a larger problem. If there is a line finer than my globe’s tiny stream of German dots, it is the line between acclimation and simulation. Between participation and sublimation. Basically: What’s being a good sport and what’s the plot of a bad romantic comedy? City gals don’t trek up glaciers in designer heels any more than country folk wander down dark alleys to ask gangbangers for directions. People tend to be more tofulike, able to absorb whatever environment they’re dropped into. But where does the adaptability end and your actual personality begin? At the rehearsal dinner, someone will tell me I bear a striking resemblance to the Inupiats, the only Inuit tribe legally allowed to hunt whale. I will be disproportionately flattered by this information and intrigued by the possibility of decreasing my Con Ed bill by heating my apartment with blubber. I have what it takes to be part of the Alaskan fabric. But that doesn’t mean I’m about to go out and harpoon a humpback.
I am satisfied with Jeff’s definition of “scat,” as it feels like what I have come to refer to as Alaskan Logic. That is, something so fundamental it never occurred to me. If you’d like to be reminded of your mortality, go into any drugstore around Juneau. Next to the deodorant and the toothpaste are packages of windproof matches and water-purifying tablets. The “welcome basket” in our cabin included a bag of granola, socks, trail maps, and a giant bell labeled “bear bell.” I thought this was a joke. Just the way “seal be gone” spray or “antipuffin” darts might have been a joke. But later, when April sat us down by the roaring fireplace in the middle of August and doled out a prehike lecture on bear safety, the bell seemed just a bit less funny.
I had a flash of April’s expression back in New York when I relayed my distilled version of the polar-bear story. A moat full of teenage-boy blood swirled around in my imagination. As recently as last week and as close as a mile away, a woman was on her front porch and was mauled by a bear. She had startled the bear by leaning down to pick a flower. She was without a bell. The fact that she was reaching not for a half-used cigarette butt but for a flower—one of God’s little sprinkles!—made the story exponentially worse. Unlike the legend of the polar bears, this one was far more real. Perhaps it’s just because I’m not a big swimmer, but I do like to pick a nice wildflower.
The other women dispersed to their neatly organized canvas totes and quilted duffel bags. A tinny chime set off as each bell made contact with its owner. I stood there, smiling into the middle distance between me and the fire, trying to recall if I had kept the bear bell or if I threw it away with the gift wrapping. April waved her hand to unglaze my face.
“Do you have your bear bell?”
“Do you want to go get it?”
“The bear bell.”
“Get the bear bell?”
“Yes, get the bear bell.”
“Sure, I’ll go get the bear bell.”
I ransack my luggage, removing most of the items from my suitcase until it is light enough for me to lift and shake. I listen closely, as if it were an enormous cell phone. I am filled with gratitude when I hear a faint ringing in one of the outside pockets. Clap if you believe in keeping your limbs, Tink! When I return to the fire, everyone is already at the bottom of the driveway, packing themselves into a big van. Most have their hair in high ponytails, with their respective bells tucked into their swinging manes.
Usually I am hesitant about wearing my hair in a high ponytail. I didn’t cheerlead for a reason. Also, I once heard that rapists prey on women with ponytails, pulling them like handles. But now that my pinnacle danger has been transferred to getting scalped by a fucking bear, I am only too quick to loop the ribbon around the tight elastic. I join the chorus of chiming initiated by every sharp turn the SUV takes. Safety first.
It’s 10:30 PM, and the sun is finally beginning to set. The sun itself isn’t directly visible from the backseat, but its presence is acknowledged by the snowcaps on each peak. These turn a deep pink when the clouds break above them. Jeff lowers his visor to avoid direct eye contact with the sudden flashes of light that bounce off the road. Meanwhile, the rivers we pass are an incongruously bright tropical blue, largely because they are not rivers. They are glacial runoffs, surging with the purest water on the planet. Alaska is what happens when Willy Wonka and the witch from Hansel and Gretel elope, buy a place together upstate, renounce their sweet teeth, and turn into health fanatics. The gutters swell with spring water. The streets are paved with Swiss chard.
As we round a bend in the road, we come upon a field of my favorite and only distinctly unhealthy Alaskan specialty, the Ghost Forest. In the past week, I have seen 12 sea lions, four otters, three moose, one bald eagle, and a crazed puffin with a seagull vendetta. But nothing reminds me I’m in Alaska like the Ghost Forests.
“Those are freaky-looking,” says one of the bridesmaids in dismissive disgust. As a policy, she oohs and aahs only at things with paws. Maybe I should get out of the car and slap some oven mitts on the branches.
But she’s right. They are freaky-looking. In 1964, a massive 9.2 earthquake devastated southeast Alaska. It was by far the most powerful in US history, and one of the largest recorded of all time. It created a lethal tsunami that reached as far as the Hawaiian islands and pinballed between them. Back in Alaska, there were aftershocks—disguised as 6.0 full-blown earthquakes—for an entire year. I imagine the Alaskan terrain itself looking down at California and thinking, My earthquake eats your earthquake for breakfast. When the plates shifted, the land not only cracked but actually dropped toward the earth’s core. This happened so quickly that the root systems of whole forests were exposed, flooded, and destroyed. But the wood itself was preserved from the inside out by salt water. Refusing to rot like normal dead trees, the Ghost Forests remain to this day, the wet dream of Edward Gorey’s landscape architect. They are vegetative vampires—so pale they glow at night, branches sharp like fangs, not dead but frozen. As the car speeds along, I try to pick out one tree from the blur on which to focus, following it from the front of the window to the back.
That’s when it happens.
My seatbelt tears tight across my chest. My stomach lurches, gravitating toward my lungs. My neck bends forward and returns upright. The car swerves and the tires screech and I hear Jeff scream “Oh, shit! Oh, shit!” with unmitigated panic. Thoughts are corralled into half seconds. My head is on fire, my synapses cast in the role of hero and trying to get every image out of the back of my mind and up front to safety. I wonder if we are careening off a cliff. I think, No, it’s August—what’s there to glide on? Are we even on a cliff? I see ice. People can careen off ice. Am I going to die like this? Will I drown? And is that so bad? There’s more glory in smacking proactively into an iceberg than being smacked into by a taxicab. I try to remember what happens when you drown. Is it as merciful a situation as dying in a fire, where you pass out from smoke inhalation before you’re burned alive?
The car stops. We are propelled forward again, and then flopped against our seatbacks, and then… nothing.
No glass shattering. No explosion. I feel my face, checking off features with my fingertips. As I drop my hand and stare forward, I realize that our car is not the problem. The problem is the pickup truck which has flung itself from a side road and is ahead of us. Its driver is clearly drunk and swerving wildly. If anyone needs to be having half-second death fantasies, it’s this guy.
A baby brown bear comes ambling out of the woods. As Jeff’s cursing echoes in my head, my newly acquired vocabulary kicks in, momentarily translating “shit” to “scat.” But after the word zips around, it lands on my primary definition of “scat.” I think: Run, little bear, run.
But there’s no time. The truck plows straight into the cub. The driver speeds off in the same direction he approached (i.e., a sampling of all of them). The noise of the bear being hit is actually not so bad. But the visual isn’t doing my denial any favors. The bear rolls next to our car and goes limp, a mound of fetal fur moving up and down, but barely. We gasp in unison, the sound of our warning bells banging against our necks. As we crane to see whether the bear is still breathing, April and Jeff spring out of the car. Even for them, this scene is unusual. They flank the bear on either side, preparing to hail oncoming traffic to prevent it from getting hit twice. But no traffic comes. Jeff calls the park service, and we wait. There’s no telling how long it will take them to get out here. The animal attempts to distance itself from a widening puddle of blood, leaning on one arm for a moment before collapsing in exhaustion. He can’t seem to grasp why the bones and cartilage and muscle that were working so well a moment ago will no longer hold. The blood is growing darker, so that it looks like a flat extension of his fur. It is easily the most upsetting thing I have ever seen.
“I hit a moose in Montana once,” one of the bridesmaids says, trying to help.
Everyone turns to look at her. She starts to speak again but doesn’t. There’s nothing to say. A moose is worse for one’s car, but it’s ultimately much less cute.
I seek out the cuddly-paw fanatic, and sure enough, her bottom lip is trembling. She can’t hold back. She starts crying.
“It’ll be OK,” says the moose killer.
No, it won’t.
The girl becomes hysterical. But in the wrong direction. She worries that the bear will cryogenically heal and become rabid. Having seen her apply a similar level of concern over an egg omelet with cheese on top, which was supposed to be an egg-white omelet with cheese on the side, I assume her panic will subside at any moment. Instead, her words become increasingly nonsensical, a mixed bag of ranting and dramatic gasps that hack away at my sympathy for the bear. “It’s not that big a deal,” I want to yell. Except that it is that big a deal. My resentment is rising. I am trying to absorb the situation and would like to do my absorption in peace. In general, I prefer to record all traumas and save them for later, playing them over and over so they can haunt me for a disproportionate number of weeks to come. It’s very healthy.
I turn away from her and try to concentrate on the bear, who has now put his baby snout flat to the pavement, his eyes and nose forming a trinity of black spots that look up, searching for a spot on which to fixate. This is more nature than we bargained for, to be sure. Exactly how much more? I find myself longing for yesterday, when I was intimidated by trail mix.
Hysterical Girl continues to be so. I roll down the window, and April leans over me and holds her hand, trying to calm her down, but it’s no use. She frenzies herself into a dull mumble, leans over my lap, and implores April and Jeff to get back in the car. She screams as though gathering the troops to retreat on the beaches of Normandy. I rub my ear. I am on the verge of slapping her, convinced it’s the humane thing to do, when she pauses and, with the support of a giant heaving breath, belts out: “What about the mama!?”
They say if you give a monkey enough time, he’ll type Shakespeare. Presumably, you’d have to give him a typewriter as well. But that’s neither here nor there. Either way, the same is true for the neurotic. I whip around and blink at her, my bear bell following me.
“She makes a solid point,” I say to April.
When a squirrel makes a poorly timed highway excursion, I am not particularly concerned about its mother emerging from a tree to gouge my eyes out. A bear is another matter. This road cuts straight through a thick forest. Mama can’t be far off. And if the punishment for picking a wildflower is scalping, there’s no way crippling a cub has a lenient ending. April gets back into the car, her face red and scrunched. She wipes her eyes on her sleeve. Jeff is still on the phone with the park service, looking out for nonexistent traffic.
“Did anyone get the license plate?” he shouts.
“958XPO,” I recite. Everyone turns and glares at me, possibly even the bear.
“What?” I look around. “I grew up in the burbs. We were all afraid of getting kidnapped. I used to memorize the license plates of shady vans.”
I may not know how to gut a salmon or BeDazzle a gun case, but I am not without my skills.
Just then a car pulls up behind ours, and a man in a Navy Seals t-shirt and green fishing hat emerges. He adjusts the hat as he walks forward. He adopts a “What seems to be the problem here?” swagger that feels out of place. The problem is apparent, the picture painted: baby bear, injured, blood on pavement. The man and Jeff stand over the bear. The introduction of a stranger somehow reactivates the hysterics of the passenger to my right.
“Oh my God,” she snorts. “What’s he doing here?”
I don’t know, driving home? Making waffles? It’s his state, not ours. What are we doing here? I can feel the tingling in my hand as if I’ve already slapped her, so right does it feel. Before I left for Alaska, my sister told me to (a) fly safe and (b) watch out because “I hear everyone has a gun.” I glare at our sniffler. Now, I think, would be such a good time for that to be true. Although after her last revelation I wonder if she sees something I don’t. Perhaps danger has a color. Perhaps this man’s aura is flashing neon red and is visible only to unnerved women. Meanwhile, the conversation on the road is growing heated. I make a move to get up, only to realize I’ve had my seatbelt fastened this whole time. By the time I unbuckle it, the man has taken a wide step toward the bear.
“Hey,” I say, surprised at the sound of my own voice.
The bear tries to get up once again, this time with less success and the bonus indignity of defecation. We are helpless as goldfish behind the SUV’s glass. The man lifts the back of his t-shirt to reveal a small holster. He removes a handgun and shoots the bear point-blank in the head four times.
The blood goes black.
Our bells are silenced.
The sound of gunshots reverberates off the tree trunks and rocks around us. I wonder about avalanche triggers. There’s a collective whimper in the car. I have always wondered what I would do if I was in one of those movies where someone gets stabbed or eaten alive while I’m in the closet or under the bed. The last thing one wants is to be unprepared when one walks into the bathroom to find their spouse has been making toast on the ledge of the bathtub again. Now I know. I would do nothing. I would just stare. Make a note of it and replay it later.
Which I will, and recklessly. I know each time I tell this story, I damage my memory of it. Each time it moves a little further away from what happened. The visuals are fading, merging what dead-animal fur looks like and what I think dead-animal fur looks like. I remember the polar bears in the zoo and think perhaps it’s just a bear-specific issue. All stories involving bears and blood are subject to literal and mental disfiguration. And yet I can’t resist the retelling. Look how real Alaska got. Look at the beauty and the beasts. More than one person will react by saying, “Nice how everyone in Alaska has a gun in their car.” Prior to my Arctic excursion I would have dismissed this as a gross generalization. Now I nod. Yes. Nice.
I took 132 photographs in Alaska, 100 of which are of icebergs. Sometimes you can see otters or fishing poles in the background. Sometimes you can see the Ghost Forests, betraying their vampirelike nature by showing up in pictures. Mostly it’s a lot of ice. I blind people with iceberg photos. Here’s an iceberg from far away. Here it is again, up close. Here’s a chunk of it floating in the water. Here it is from the boat, from the shore, from the side, give me cold, give me big, you’re chiseled like an ice sculpture, you’re a cube and the ocean is your glass. Brrr, baby, brrrr. The pictures are frustrating.
What I want to say is: Here is a country that is ours but not ours. A crazed landscape of death and marriage with designated bells to acknowledge both. Here is the longest breath of fresh air you will ever take, the bluest stream you will ever dip your hand in, the humane thing to do. Here is my friend, who I miss so much. I may have found new people with new novelties, perhaps even better suited to my own. But none to go kayaking on the Hudson with me. None to look up more than they look down. None to remind me that this is, and has always been, the real world as long as people are here to witness it. Why does none of it show up on film? Maybe I just need a better camera.
© 2010 by Sloane Crosley, All Rights Reserved. Excerpted from How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley, to be published on June 15, 2010, by Riverhead Books.