Note on text: My novel is about 19-year old Marisol, who leaves Dawson City, Yukon after assisting her grandfather’s suicide. Her rides have led her to Alaska, but she has decided to head south to find her best friend in Vancouver. The excerpt begins on her final day in Anchorage, where she has been making cash as a “gum and graffiti buster.”
Her hostel did not offer breakfast, but it was saturday, which meant the Baptists parked their station wagons outside with toasters and Wonderbread and vats of sour, filtered coffee. Their napkins had bible verses. The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation. Exodus 15:2. If God is for us, who is against us?
Marisol chose a blueberry bagel. The girl beside her ate toast. When the girl reached for the marmalade, her elbow knocked Marisol’s apple juice. They each grabbed a stack of napkins. Be still and know that I am God, the ink bleeding into juice. To fear the Lard is the begging of freedom.
After her bagel, she examined a map. She couldn’t see the highway to Juneau, so she unfolded the insert of South-East Alaska. That didn’t help either. When a woman with a dishrag over her shoulder asked if she’d like tea, Marisol presented it to her.
“Which is the highway to Juneau?” she asked.
The woman set down the teapot and wiped her hands on her apron. “There is none, hun.”
“There’s no land access. You can fly in or take the ferry.”
“The ferry’s nice. Real scenic.”
“Expensive,” said the Australian boy on the other side of Marisol. Australian or New Zealander— she could never tell.
“Get what you pay for,” said the woman. She lifted her pot and offered him tea.
“Well how do you get to British Columbia, then?” said Marisol.
“Glenn Highway. North,” said the Australian.
“But I just came from North,” said Marisol. “I want to go South.”
“Have to go North to go South,” said the woman with the tea.
So Marisol left the hostel with her pack and a styrofoam cup of thin coffee. She walked east on 26th Street until she found the visitor information bureau. The woman there said the same as the Australian. North on the Glenn Highway to Tok Junction, and then the Alaska Highway across the border. Marisol didn’t bother to reply. She dropped into one of the olive polyester chairs by the brochure racks and stared at the map of the world tacked to the wall. Visitors had pushed pins into their home cities. Red-beaded pins, into the United States, into Canada, too many pins for the island of Japan. Some of the pins had dropped out, or someone had removed them— the surface of Europe like braille. She stared at this map, and the pins, and the fat black fly that bumped against the window, and she thought she could pin the fly to the map. She could pin the fly to the red dot of Anchorage. One of the information counsellors had taped a red arrow there. You are here! with an exclamation point. You are here! You are here!
So with five days behind her, she hitchhiked the way she came. She paid one dollar and seventy-five cents for the bus to Centennial Park, and then she waited on the highway road-shoulder. She didn’t lower her pack. She didn’t hold the sign. She didn’t stick out her thumb. Her hip, maybe. Maybe she stuck out her hip. She wore her loose pale jeans, which had loosened more since she left, and a breezy cotton crop-top. She waited with her arms folded and watched the cars. She searched the windows for the drivers’ eyes, and sometimes they glanced at her, and sometimes they didn’t notice, but all the cars passed, except a silver Ford Focus, which slowed for her to cross. She did cross, out of embarrassment, and then she waited for a gap in the Anchorage-bound traffic to jaywalk back across the road. She thumbed after that. She trailed backward along the highway, watched the cars, the sun off their windshields. She gave them twenty minutes. Twenty minutes for one of the windshields to stop. She timed the cars by her yellow cereal box wristwatch. A woman pulled over after fourteen. She drove a mini van with two pink-snouted boxers in the back. She was headed all the way to Glennallen, so Marisol climbed in.
The woman worked as a substitute teacher, she said, but jobs were scarce, so she travelled. She had just spent a week in Anchorage at Pacific Northern Academy. The school offers fencing, she said. “The eight year olds. The eight year olds are fencing.”
They listened to an author read a story on National Public Radio until they lost the signal. One of the dogs tried to scramble over the console into Marisol’s lap. He smelled sour. A pearl of saliva swung off his lip. Marisol ignored him. She watched the blue road that ran like film tape, like an audience pressed rewind. Five-day backtrack, beneath the mountains and low floss of cloud. The dwarfed pines, too soft-needled to look woodsy. You could spend your life this way— on wrong turns and false starts, from car to car, for years and kilometres. It would be easy to stay lost.
From Eureka Summit, you could see four ranges. Mountains named in Inuit and Athabascan languages, Chugach, Talkeetna, which meant where the rivers join. She could not see the peaks— too much mist. But it would be a nice view for planes. She’d always liked how they made elbow-shaped islands on the other side of the sky.
On descent from the summit, the woman stopped the van in the centre of the road. She pressed her palm over the slats of her bob while she stared out the windshield to the far side of the highway. Marisol could only see the slope, the stiff thickets of copper road-bush. But then the bush juddered, and a white spectre of a sheep froze behind the brambles.
“Dall sheep,” said the woman. She glanced at the rear-view mirror, then returned her eyes to the road.
Marisol stared at the ram as they rolled past. Those great coiling horns, how the bone actually corkscrews. Sunlight reeling off the ram’s coat.
When you walk through Glennallen, all you see is Mount Drum. Stratovolcano at the end of the line, conical and breath-stealing. You can’t help but look up. She remembers this impulse from Anglican cathedrals. In London, with her Granddad, when she was five or six. Tourists ambled in, and their chins all lifted. Eyes running over sunlit saints, the rib-vaulted ceilings. Here, it’s lava and snow domes. Twelve thousand feet of ice and old rock.
At Sparks General Store in Glennallen, she bought beef jerky, two litres of water and a freakshow apple the size of two fists. She chewed the jerky outside on the curb. A neon sign said, Auto Repair Shop and Cellphone Store. X-Men First Class on DVD. Also have Thor! Another sign advertised game bags. Ten dollars for Moose or a four-pack for thirty. Caribou bags, twenty-five. The biggest sign was for ammunition, written in capital letters. SOFT-CORE REMINGTON AMMO. GREAT PRICES ON AMMO. SHOTGUN AMMO FOR BIRDS AND SLUGS.
She waited on the side of the road for two hours. You can panic in two hours, on the gravel between trees and the highway, the bears and the mountains. She’d seen bears— Dawson City dumpster divers, a black bear outside Tasty’s once, his head plugged inside a jar of jumbo pickles. But she’d never seen a wolf. Forty-five hundred wolves in the Yukon and she’d never seen one. You never knew how close you were, in the brush between pines, when you can’t see the sky or ahead of you ten feet. And here on the road shoulder, four cars in two hours— you wondered where you’d camp. And is it still camping if you don’t have a tent? At what point do you lie in the dirt and call it Shit I’m stranded in the woods.
She played jacks with gravel. Dropped the ball from her pocket and snatched rocks, assigned arbitrary points per stone in her palm. Each time a car rounded the corner, she scrambled to her feet, punched out her thumb and watched them pass. The man who stopped drove a sun-cracked blue cargo van. He didn’t unroll the window or open the passenger door, so she hovered at the side of the van and tried to peer in. A straw hat domed over the headrest, and she could see the arc of his shoulders in papery denim. There were no seats in the rear of his van, but a metal floor. Then she saw his eyes on her in the rear-view, so she heaved open the sliding door and climbed in. The floor was scattered with bulrushes— fifteen or twenty clipped fresh from the pond. She stepped between the stalks and ducked for a closer look— the seedy spikes on their shafts like candlesticks.
“Hi,” she said, as she climbed over the console and plunked into the front seat. “Thank you for stopping.”
He nodded once, but didn’t otherwise respond. He wore jeans the same pale blue as his shirt, and the denim sunk in hollow lulls off his thigh and the caps of his knees. She couldn’t pinpoint his age. Sixties, maybe. The corners of his mouth stained a rheumish yellow, crusted with the same oily nuggets you collect in the corner of your eye.
She lowered her eyes to her lap, then out the window. She could hear the bulrushes hush against the metal floor. “Do you collect them?” she asked. “The bulrushes.”
He kept his stare on the road and reached his hand for the rear-view mirror. A tube dangled there— she hadn’t noticed. He drew the tube toward him and plugged the grey clips into his nose. He breathed in. She couldn’t see the respirator, but it gurgled with his exhale. She looked away.
“My mother makes bouquets,” he said.
She nodded at the window and tried to spot the reflection of his breathing apparatus. She could only see the tube. How he kept the cannula looped off the rear-view mirror like an air-freshener.
They didn’t speak for ten minutes. Then, he told her he was fifty-five. He said he had smoked crack for thirty years and weed for forty, but he was clean now, too late. He said he was American, but lived in Canada half his life. When he was seventeen he bought a 1960 Chevy pickup, and drove to Long Beach on Vancouver Island, the Pacific Rim. You could camp on the beach, then, he said. You could drink cheap sherry and Labatt Blue till the tide went out, and then you could climb into your pickup and drive donuts in the sand.