Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Just A Little Drive To Alaska And Back: Anchorage 1983

So we decided to go to Alaska.
This was in May of 1983. We three were still in Iowa City: Brock had just graduated, I had one semester of school left and Matt had longer. The spring semester over, I had gone back to Des Moines to spend some time with the folks, then Matt and Brock drove over--stayed at the house in Urbandale on 65th Street a day or two--before we headed out. Matt had the car: a 80 or 81 Chevy Vega, small, red, used. Our plan was to head to Seattle--Brock's home town--spend a few days there and prepare for the long haul up through British Columbia to Anchorage where we'd look for summer work, maybe find some fishing jobs or something. We didn't know. But we left Des Moines, drove to Sioux City, Iowa--Matt's home town--and stayed there a couple nights. Matt's mom lent me his younger brother's sleeping bag. Matt's younger brother had killed himself--accidentally as it turned out--hung himself while masturbating which, as I understand it, could produce intense climaxes. But it killed him. And now I had his sleeping bag. Their family dog also died while we were there, the day before we left for Seattle/Alaska. Though I was somewhat prone to omens in those days, I did not see these odd morbidities as such.
And so we drove through South Dakota--through Sioux Falls, my home town by birth--and Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, camping the whole way (camped in the snow around Buffalo, WY) and then a longer route along the Columbia River through Oregon to Portland with a stop in Vancouver, WA to see my old house and school (I lived there from age 5 to 10), then finally to Seattle where we stayed at Brock's (in the suburb of Redmond, I think). In Seattle Brock bought a tent and more gear, we ate salmon and other delights, got a taste of the city (I had not been out there since I was a kid), then started the long drive north, crossing into British Columbia at a small border town on Highway 13, near Lynden. We must have camped somewhere in southern B.C., or maybe we drove all the way to Prince George, where we got off the main highway and took Canada 16 west towards Prince Rupert and the coast then later turned onto Highway 37, which was not the usual or safest route and was mainly an unpaved road.
We headed north on this thin rough road through the endless trees and mountains, mainly seeing loggers in their rigs and hunters in pickups--tough vehicles only--human emptiness all around. It was quiet as quiet gets, except for chainsaws in the distance now and then. And when you were on a hill, you could tell if a vehicle was coming toward you because the dust would rise up in a trail, like camp smoke, through the fuzzy pines. We camped another night with no one else near, the sun low like a nightlight for your tent, sky scattershot with stars, then drove up into the Yukon, camped at a crowded spot in Whitehorse that sold showers for three bucks apiece. Then it was into Alaska.
We were stopped at the U.S. border and our car--the little red Vega--was searched because a dog had sniffed out marijuana and there were marijuana seeds on the floor mat. This was Matt's doing--Brock and I had no idea he had any with him and we had none--but they found nothing substantial and we were let go and on our way again. Spent the night camped near a river at Tok. And the next day we drove into Anchorage.
Matt's father had an ex-coworker who lived in Anchorage and we visited him and his wife--nice people. I think his name was Wayne Rockne, don't recall Mrs. Rockne's. He offered to let us stay in his motor home out back, but we declined. We found a campsite that was free in Eagle River just outside the city. The campsite became our home while we lived in Alaska.
So there we were. Young and jobless, living in tents in Alaska. I shared a tent with Brock, slept in Matt's dead brother's sleeping bag (which, no disrespect intended, weirded me out sometimes) and it was cold and rainy and there was no hot water at the campsite (no showers) and we didn't have much money.
In Anchorage we got a post office box so that we'd have an address when we applied for jobs. And we occupied ourselves that way, driving into town, looking for work, seeing the sights, drinking beer in low-rent bars, meeting strange people. We drove down to Seward one day, hit that town's unemployment office where we tried for fishing jobs, but the guy dismissed us when he found out we weren't from Alaska. Then back in Anchorage we gravitated to the university there. It was a small school--U. of Alaska Anchorage--but nice. We found that we could hang out there, could use its facilities like we were summer students--so that's where we showered, dressed, where we stayed out of the rain. They even had a sauna that we used.
At the university they had a talking Coke machine. You'd put in your coins and it would say stuff like, PLEASE MAKE YOUR SELECTION and other things. This was a novelty. The machine was right next to a pay phone which we used when we had to call home. And we had to call home because we were running out of money. When Brock called his father (I think Matt and I had already called our fathers by then, asking for a cash infusion), while he was on the phone, Matt and I would hit the buttons of the Coke machine and the machine would say, in it's electronic voice, YOU NEED MORE MONEY. We laughed. Brock tried to keep a straight face, but the machine kept saying, YOU NEED MORE MONEY.
Anyway, we got more money and looked for less and less skilled employment. Finally Matt and I landed a job at a Shakey's Pizza Parlor, on Minnesota Blvd. The manager was young, a nice guy, willing to give us a shot. He, however, did not hire Brock. So he gave Matt and I these crazy striped Shakey's Pizza Parlor shirts, vests, bow ties and hats. A uniform. Which we wore dutifully  the next day when we started. Brock was still looking for employment.
Now, Matt and I felt very silly in the pizza parlor get-up. We were still living in our cold-water-flat-tent-campground up in Eagle River, still showering and doing our toiletries at the UAA. Matt also had a girlfriend back in Iowa City (Holly) and I had Cindy waiting for me in Chicago. Brock had no girl at that time (though he much later married Margaret, Cindy's one-time roommate in Iowa City). And I think it was only our second or third day of work when--as the two of us dressed and saw ourselves in a mirror, then looked at each other--that we quit.
We wanted to go back to Iowa City, to what was familiar, to our girlfriends.
Brock was pissed. (Now that I think of it, Matt and I were always pissing off Brock, disappointing him in some manner or another.) I still feel bad we never told the manager that we quit. We just didn't show up. Kept the goofy outfits. Guess he never trusted people like us again. . . Guess he should have hired Brock instead of us.
So, we gave up our search for settlement in Anchorage. We packed the tents, moved out of Eagle River and drove north, past Denali. Spent a few nights camping near Fairbanks, then drove south, back into the Yukon. At the Canadian border, they waved us on through. No sniffing dogs or questions or delays, just a friendly little wave.
We dropped Brock off back in Seattle--unhappy. We drove back through the northern tier of western states, to Iowa, where I disembarked in Des Moines and Matt went on to Iowa City, where he hooked back up with Holly and went to work for his uncle, doing construction and such. I went back to Iowa City that fall, getting my degree come December. Saw a lot of Cindy. Brock stayed in Seattle, worked at some warehouse, lived at home, and saved up some cash which he used for a car and then, eventually, a long drive to Key West. Matt never went back to school, never graduated (but eventually became an exceptional carpenter, after he unfortunately became an exceptional alcoholic). After graduating, I worked in Des Moines for a few months, then took a train to Santa Fe where I worked and lived with a friend (Joel).
If we had stayed in that motor home, had that sense of place and home with Wayne Rockne, maybe we would have made it. Or if Brock had also been hired, or if we had found better jobs, had no lovers and more gumption, maybe we would have stayed. At least for the whole summer. But maybe it was for the best. If we had stayed, maybe I never would have obtained my undergrad degree--like Matt, who let the Alaska trip break him from that goal. In the long run, some 25 years now, Matt lives in Sioux City and is a master carpenter, Brock is married with two young kids in the Minneapolis area, and I ended up in Florida. We are still friends, in a distant way, a lingering way, but do not contact each other much at all. Not in many years. . . Xmas cards from Margaret and Brock still come once a year.
Maybe nothing would have changed our courses, be it Alaska or love or work. Perhaps destiny--fate--is preordained for each of us and we all react in predictable patterns which, if we could only see them clearly, almost scientifically or statistically, we could stop ourselves from making stupid mistakes. Solve our errant and erroneous ways.
Then again, where's the fun in that?

No comments: