by Joel R Dennstedt
Sarah is singing A Sentimental Journey.
Her short, smooth legs reach barely from the hem of her light cotton dress to the dashboard of our little Toyota pickup truck. As the days pass, Sarah provides us with music: this single melody, for Teddy has no radio and Sarah has no repertoire. Teddy also has no air conditioning. In all respects, Teddy is quite basic. We have, however, provided him with a camper shell to cover our life’s belongings. He was allowed two full trips to move us from California to Colorado, but he has only one go at getting us to Alaska, and we have packed him accordingly. Amazingly, we have included our sofa love-seat.
I do not tire of Sarah’s singing. Her choice of song is most appropriate; besides, her voice is comforting. She sings with a sweet and sultry combination that is erotically soothing. At times I know that she has begun the song again, but I cannot tell when she has last left off. No distinctive moments mark our passage. Either we talk incessantly, or she sings A Sentimental Journey, or we are silent. Each has a rhythm unpunctuated by decisive breaks.
The time is wrong for driving to Alaska.
Our decision to leave a threatening situation was spontaneous and immediate, and it required that we plan a stealthy midnight exit in mid-November. We packed everything we could fit into Teddy’s covered bed, but we left most of our possessions at the apartment dumpster. We loaded Teddy in the dark, fearing that our landlord would catch us out. Although we left many possessions behind, we do carry some unusually heavy debt that cannot be abandoned, and we take very little cash. We also brought a tent and sleeping bags in order to camp beside the road, but we will discover that mid-November on the Alcan Highway is not conducive to casual camping.
We spend our first morning at a truckers’ rest stop, Teddy’s engine running for heat as we sleep fitfully in the cab. Next to us, a large Peterbilt also rests with an ever-running engine, and the fumes from our two trucks provide a thickly disorienting fog in which to idle. The Peterbilt’s low, undulating rumble at our side is like having a snoring companion; somewhat reassuring, somewhat annoying.
Alaska will be our last stop; a chance to recreate our life together. More simply, it is our escape plan. We do not know what lies ahead, only that we have to leave behind our recent escapades. I am not stupid, but I am reconciled, if necessary, to life in an igloo. I do not see this as desperation, perhaps because I do not see forward clearly.
In Canada, we buy an engine-block heater for Teddy. The heater plug permanently extends from Teddy’s grill, looking much like my father’s tongue when he was engaged in thoughtful work. We carry a thick blue extension cord with which to plug Teddy in each night. San Diego natives, neither Sarah nor I have ever seen a parking lot filled with vehicles plugged in for the night. For us, it suggests an evening at the drive-in, but with midget speakers. Teddy enjoys his personal heater, and he quickly and faithfully starts up each morning, even when his wipers are stuck fast to the window and his parking brake lets go with a loud crack like a broken rod.
We try camping out.
After dark, we unload our tent and sleeping bags, but the campground is closed. During winter, travelers do not camp in these casual by-the-road sites. We are relieved that our stay will be free, but we fear that we might be evicted if noticed. We use a flashlight to assemble our light-weight domed tent. Sarah figures out the poles – she is a master of patience – while I hold the flashlight.
We are in a remote spot of Canada; no light, man-made or from the skies, lights our view. We are starving. Sarah does manage to make peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches from our meager stash of groceries, though she is the first to note a problem.
“This doesn’t taste right,” she says.
“It’s all right,” I answer, but I am only concerned to reassure her, for I am now preoccupied with the bitter cold.
“No. There is something wrong. It doesn’t taste right.”
I just want to finish eating and climb into my sleeping bag.
“I know what’s wrong,” Sarah announces. “The bread is molded.”
“Crap,” I say.
The flashlight proves her point. The bread is fuzzed over with bluish hair that seems to glow under the light.
“Should we finish them?” I ask.
“Jesus, Josh,” Sarah mutters.
We throw our sandwiches away and turn in for the night, still hungry. We never do get warm. We awake the next morning with temperatures and body fatigue; possibly the flu. Our throats are sore; we are congested; we are feverish; our heads are mush. We need maternal care.
One knows when not to go on in the same manner as before, and God bless Sarah for deciding that we shall get a motel, a hot and healthy home-cooked meal, and a full night’s sleep in a real bed. This will be a fateful and costly decision. We eat an early dinner at an all-you-can-eat home-style buffet, and we do eat all that we can eat, and then we sleep for twelve hours straight in what might be the world’s most comfortable bed.
The next day we are completely restored to our senses. Because of this small indulgence, with its delightful consequences, we do not camp out again on our way to Alaska, though as our spirits rise, our cash dwindles.
The Yukon, north of Canada, provides a long presentation introducing us to the land of the Arctic. We are numbed by the vast beauty surrounding us; high, snow-covered mountains and forests like frost-covered carpets extend outward to the horizon. Inside Teddy’s heated cabin, we can still sense the brittle crisp of frozen day outside. Driving along the narrow paved road into the midst of forest is like Dante coming into mid-life; we are as lost as he, nosing forward only on faith and resignation.
The days are short, with mid-summer beginning after 9:00am and twilight dimming soon after 3:00pm. Although we have anticipated the beauty, we are surprised by the emptiness, especially the lack of human presence. We see no habitations, only an occasional gas station with café attached, and no other drivers pass us while we drive. In many respects, we are running on empty. Fuel for Teddy is available maybe twice a day, as is the opportunity for feeding ourselves. After the episode with the stale bread, we are inclined not to carry a cache of food. Images of imminent disaster, as well as lack of space, also preclude our packing extra gasoline.
Emotionally, we survive on Orange Cappuccino and a small stash of premium pot. Each morning, Sarah fills our thermos with boiling water, either from a motel room carafe or from one in the dining room. Several times a day, usually when hunger and boredom threaten our equanimity, she performs a ritual made sacred from our earliest days together.
While I navigate the interminable highway and try to keep the ride smooth, Sarah spoons two tablespoons of powdered Orange Cappuccino into our tiny ceramic mugs. My cup is a dark, shiny blue, and looks like ancient, glazed pottery; Sarah’s is a shiny, yellowish-brown of the same provenance. Although we could easily switch and share our cups, we never actually do. Adding hot water to each little mug, cooler as the day progresses, Sarah mixes up a potion of sugar, caffeine, fat, and the inexplicably soothing coffee flavor of orange-infused Cappuccino.
Drinking this beverage envelops me in a sense of weightless serenity combined with heightened awareness: a calming high otherwise experienced only during formal breathing meditations. Another inevitable effect is to make us talk more…a lot more. And faster.
In a similar ritual, Sarah stokes our well-used and bowl-charred, semi-sacred pipe with a generous pinch of budded pot; she ferociously clicks a depleted Bic lighter, frantic to get a flame, and then gently lights the pressed weed into a tiny crackle of red glow. She intakes a shallow gasp, as if surprised, and passes the pipe to me, urgently it seems, as if the pipe is hot, while her eyes remain slightly bulged. At these moments, I cannot take the pipe from her quickly enough.
After three passes, Sarah taps the ashes out, cleans the pipe, and meticulously restores it to the little box nestled in Teddy’s glove compartment. She then begins singing A Sentimental Journey, while I lapse into my introspective thoughts. We drive like this for days.
Before leaving Colorado, we were warned about the traveler’s hazard known as black ice. Telling San Diegans about black ice, however, is like our telling out-of-state visitors how to find Jamacha road. The road’s name is pronounced ‘hamashaw’; San Diego being a Spanish-settled town. Visitors cannot find this road, although they take suspicious note of one they call Jamaica road. Like us, they are simply mistaken about what they are looking for.
When thinking about this black ice, I remember myself as a young boy scrutinizing a big chunk of obsidian. The glossy-black, glassy-smooth, and sharply jagged rock is a sensory delight. Inside one large facet, the shadowy image of my face is entrapped, looking like some super-prisoner floating weightless around the interior of the Phantom Zone. The magic is tangible; the beauty is astonishing. Similarly, black ice sounds deeply intriguing.
I assume that black ice will look like obsidian on the road.
Likewise, I assume that beauty can never be tiresome. However, I discover while driving this long Yukon highway that beauty can become monotonous and deadening, and that black ice does not look like obsidian on the road.
Desperate and eager to escape Colorado, we did not foresee this dampening of enthusiasm, nor our increasing eagerness to reach our final destination. We should have realized both, for this is not a vacation, something to be savored slowly, but a necessary move to new surroundings and opportunities. Each day on the road finds us more deeply in debt and lower on cash. Although our credit cards will not be confiscated and destroyed for another month, their limits have been reached. We try to hoard our cash. It is imperative that we get to Alaska and find work.
With such preoccupations on my mind, our sentimental journey is becoming a marathon, and I am anxious about getting to the end of this damned highway. I know that it could be worse; it can always be worse. The Alcan Highway was once nothing but miles of loose gravel and dirt. It is now paved the entire route, so we do not worry about slushy ruts. I realize that this is no worse than driving the back roads of San Diego.
Therefore, I have brought Teddy up to sixty-five miles per hour, and I am considering another increase in speed. If I raise Teddy’s speed to 70 or 75mph, we can be at Watson Lake before dark. Not bad.
Sarah is singing A Sentimental Journey.
Teddy is gliding smoothly along at 65mph, sideways.
What a strange and appalling effect it is to see the forest whipping along right to left across Teddy’s front window; a kind of dioramic effect. The effect in my stomach is nausea, akin to butterflies inside. When I turn to look at Sarah, I note that I am looking forward. Sure enough, our way lies straight ahead, through her side window. That is why I turn Teddy’s steering wheel in her direction. I hear my guardian angel chuckling. With the inane effects come inane words.
“It’s okay,” I say.
“I know,” Sarah replies.
“It’s okay,” I repeat.
“I know,” she says.
The pavement is still gliding directly toward us, though it now approaches from my side window, not Sarah’s. Things are happening too quickly. I am twisting my head like a meerkat orienting himself to danger. And yet, I feel like I have all the time I need to analyze the incoming data; to formulate an appropriate and effective response; and to pull us out of this deteriorating situation. There might even be time for Sarah to have input about my changing plans.
“Hang on,” I say.
“I am,” she replies.
“Hang on,” I repeat.
“I am,” she says.
My warning is literal. My final assessment is that we are going up and over the two-foot snow berm lining the road, and I know the land is not flat on the other side.
“Hang on,” I say.
“I am,” she says, as calmly as before.
Not just up and over, but through the berm we go, skidding again as Teddy is determined to head back for the road. I am sure his tongue is out as he tries to turn his nose around. In the end, his rear slides down the non-flat land, and he comes to rest with us canted awkwardly over to the right.
The immediate silence is eerie and absurd.
“It’s okay,” I say.
I crack open Teddy’s door, having to push outward and upward. I scoot myself out and dangle my legs down into the snow. Teddy is buried to his rims. I look back at Sarah; she is donning her wool leggings, small snow boots, and a coat.
“Sweetie,” I ask, “did we bring the shovel?”
“In the back,” she says.
“And the chains?”
“Behind the seat.”
Grabbing my own jacket, I button up and retrieve the snow shovel from the back. Sarah uses some kind of dust pan she finds to scrape snow from under Teddy’s belly. It is slow and grueling work.
Every so often I look back to the highway, searching for help, but an hour passes with no vehicles showing. Fortunately, we are only yards from the highway; the snow had been a natural decelerator. We have snow chains that we brought for the ice. Our plans now are to dig Teddy out, dig a trail back to the highway, put on the snow chains, and have Teddy climb his way out. My concern is that it is nearing sunset, and I am not sure my optimism will last into darkness.
Because of the now-constant sizzling noise coming from under Teddy’s carriage, I had not heard the approach of the man in the jeep. He is a large fellow, thank God, and he appears over the berm carrying a shovel.
“Hey, I went off the highway yesterday,” he says. “But I had to be towed out.”
He scrunches closer. His face scrunches up too.
“What’s that noise?” he asks.
“What noise?” I say.
“That sizzling noise,” he says, pointing to Teddy’s underbelly. “Jesus, buddy, you’d better turn off your engine; you’re going to overheat; then you’ll be in real trouble.”
Overheat? In this cold?
“Yeah, the snow is bunched up under your engine. The heat can’t dissipate. Bad news.”
I climb inside Teddy where the temperature gauge is maxed out in the red. Red is not good. I shut the engine off, along with Teddy’s heater, and the sizzling immediately begins to die down.
“Yeah, I see what you’re trying to do here. Hey little lady!”
Sarah has just appeared from the other side of Teddy. She is a little lady, but still. She raises her hand in greeting; then moves to Teddy’s rear to continue her snow removal.
“Hey buddy, I’ll work on clearing you the trail.”
“Thanks. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your coming along like this.”
We all work hard for the next hour, when an old pickup truck pulls up behind the jeep. Another man, even larger than the first, steps out. God is great.
“Hey all! Went off the highway? I went off the road just this morning. But I had to be towed out.”
I wonder where the tow trucks are coming from.
For the rest of the day, we see only these two people.
All goes according to plan: we dig Teddy out all around; we create a clear trail up the slope, through the berm, and onto the paved road. We tie Teddy up with snow chains, and after a single spin his wheels catch the trail and pull us up onto the highway.
The road is still slick with black ice. The moment I climb down from Teddy, I fall hard on my butt and slide down to where Sarah is waiting. Sarah cannot get to her door either; she just keeps sliding back to where she was. Eventually, we have to four-leg it on hands and knees, slipping and sliding all the way, until we grasp Teddy’s door handles and pull ourselves up. By that time, the two burly angels are gone.
Our nighttime trek into Watson Lake is torturous. Even with snow chains, Teddy continues to glide at frequent but unexpected moments, and he refuses to accelerate beyond 35mph. Every time we go weightless, Sarah jerks in a move resembling ‘rigor’ and puts a death grip on Teddy’s dash. She is not soothed by my ‘mortis’ grip on the steering wheel, nor by my inclination to jerk it her way during the slides.
“It’s okay,” I say, but she does not answer.
Once, in our headlights, we watch a wolf slink across the road. The same way, around 11:00pm, we slink into Watson Lake. We are exhausted by the day, the shoveling, the stressful skids, and we are worn ragged by the incessant vibration caused by the snow chains clanking against the road. We do not feel strengthened by our experience, nor does the unknown now seem so adventurous. We are depressed.
On the map, the road looks to be all downhill from here to Anchorage, but that is not a good metaphor for raising our spirits.
We check into an old log-cabin motel and plug our boy Teddy in for the night. Our room goes mostly unappreciated, except for the four walls and the bed. We do not shower. We do not brush our teeth. We barely undress. We kiss each other good-night and we fall asleep.
In the morning, the outside air is crisp and cold. The sunlight is paradoxically dim and bright. Teddy’s right rear tire is completely flat, and his chains hang limp and puddled around his flattened foot.
“It’s okay,” I say sadly. “It’s okay.”
Sarah does not respond.
The morning remains silent.
Joel R. Dennstedt, born and raised in San Diego, California, now resides in Mérida, Yucatán. Having spent fifteen years in Alaska, where most of this book takes place, he is now basking in the warmth of Yucatan and is hard at work on his most current novel. He also writes a weekly column for The Yucatan Times, and is serving on the Travel Secrets TV – Mexico Advisory Board.
photo by Angela M Campbell