I’m having a blast in the world of oral storytelling, and you can hear me tell my latest story in the podcast Two Truths & a Lie. In this live storytelling show, three performers share personal stories. The catch? One of us is lying. For this episode, the topic is: Cheats. Can you guess who the liar is?
“-est”… That’s how I’d describe Alaska. It’s the United States’ furthest northwest state, with the Aleutian Islands reaching further west than Hawaii. It has North America’s highest mountain – Mount McKinley – the largest national park, the largest national forest, the globe’s third longest river system, and the world’s largest sub-polar ice field. The state is larger than most nations: divided in half, each half would still make the largest state in the Union. Lake Hood, four miles outside Anchorage, is the largest float-plane base in the world. Alaska boasts the northernmost railroad, in Fairbanks, the continent’s northernmost town, Barrow, and the southernmost tidewater glacier, Le Conte. It’s the lightest, darkest and perhaps boldest, harshest, prettiest place on the planet.
I heard the groans and felt the snap of calving glaciers.
My first trip to Alaska revealed characteristics of the Divine I’d never before imagined. Laden with supplies, I hiked across spongy tundra trying to imagine empty-handed Alaska Natives dwelling for more than 3,000 years in what appeared to be useless, barren land. I witnessed a bold land of non-stop daylight, heliotrope flowers, soaring eagles, black bears, blond grizzlies, moose, foxes, Dall sheep, caribou, snow hare, jumping salmon, humpback whales, puffins, and more. I heard the groans and felt the snap of calving glaciers. I watched forty-foot tides sweep over the deadly mud flats surrounding Cook Inlet and viewed lingering evidence of the 1964 earthquake – the most powerful quake in North American history.
“You hear that?” I asked. “Stop and listen.” Diane and I stood quiet, catching our breath, heart rates slowing.
“No, all I hear is Esther coming, crunching the snow.” We were walking single file on one of our frozen tire tracks. Esther was about half a minute back. We turned and watched her catch up with her ghostly moon shadow hooked to her feet, spreading across the narrow, snow-covered road.
“Esther, stop and listen. I think I hear something.”
She stopped her march and stood. I looked at her and wondered what had brought her here to Alaska. She must have a curious life story to weave her fate with ours, near-strangers. How did a one-hundred-pound, sixty-year-old city-woman end up here with us trying to walk out of an Alaskan winter night? Whatever her story, she was game and her survival instinct strong.
John, our new neighbor, was lost, and we had lost him in an Alaskan winter. The kind of far north winter that had grainy snow that crunched when you walked on it. Snow so white, so bright, shadows disappeared, and you’d walk out into thin air not knowing, falling so soft, not caring, just a whoop, then laughter. The air so clear, so calm, so cold. Water vapor turned into tiny ice crystals that hung in the air. It was our beautiful Alaska, but now John was lost and it could become his deadly Alaska.
Two weeks earlier, his wife Esther, my wife Diane, and I had driven John up the Steese Highway so he could look for gold in the frozen creeks while they were low. John was a dreamer, but then so were we. It was 1971, an era of back-to-the-land movements, when I was 23 and Diane was 24. We’d only known John for ten days, but we drove him up that highway so he could have his dream.
When I lived in Alaska, I interviewed the youngest girl to summit America’s highest peak, Denali. I interviewed then-12-year-old Merrick Johnston before her 1995 climb. She said she used to be afraid of crevasses, but after plenty of training she liked to stick her head in them just for fun. My news director interviewed her after the climb. He asked, “How did it feel when you reached the top?” Her answer: “I had to pee. Then I threw up.”
Today is the official release date for my book, They Only Eat Their Husbands: A Memoir of Alaskan Love, World Travel, and the Power of Running Away, and while I’ve spent recent weeks in a flurry of excitement, now I feel kind of like Merrick did on the summit of Denali. I’ve been drinking chai today and I need to pee, and if I think about the book too much I might throw up.
On one of the closing days of an Alaska summer, my husband and I take his sister and her husband to the State Fair in Palmer. When I lived in the Last Frontier, I enjoyed the fair year after year, even though it’s small – because it’s small. This will be a perfect way for siblings and in-laws to enjoy an activity together, regardless of differing interests.
Dale’s brother-in-law, Nathan, and sister, Luann: the Alaska State Fair is a perfect place to enjoy an activity together, regardless of differing interests.
My sister-in-law, Luann, has suggested we go to The Beach Boys concert at the fair. A California Girl flying from Denver to Alaska to see The Beach Boys? That’s too much irony to pass up. However, I wonder, “Aren’t they Beach Men yet?”
As our car approaches Seward, Alaska, clouds crowd the mountaintops. When we reach Resurrection Bay, they’re sagging low and heavy, like pregnant women ready to give birth. Certainly their water is breaking. Nonetheless, I call the kayaking company, to see if they’re planning to go through with the 3-hour guided paddle at 1:00. It’s 11:00, and they’re still not sure. They’ll decide by 12:30. The forecast calls for 3-to-5-foot waves, but often those forecasts come to nothing.