Words and Photographs by Jen Kinney
THE ROAD SOUTH OF ANCHORAGE IS DRAWN LIKE A BALDE BETWEEN SEA AND MOUNTAIN. We were speeding along it, Don grinning as he gunned it through a rain-slick curve and told me his tale. He wound up in Alaska because a friend had told him fantastic stories: land up here for the taking, squatter’s rights to dream of, a lavish minimum wage. Don and this buddy, who in the time it took them to plan the trip had gone and acquired a family, drove up from Nebraska in a full Winnebago, with Don’s BMW motorcycle hitched to the back. A sharp turn, a slick road, and the bike, his get-a-away, was dashed against a wall of rock and ruined. The stories weren’t true. The promises broke. Stunned at a payphone in Anchorage, Don hung up too proud to dial the numbers and ask the favors that could get him home.
He laughed telling me this, decades later, still in the state of his exile. By the time he had saved up enough dough to buy an alarm clock radio and a guitar, he no longer wanted to leave. The night we met I had just touched down in Anchorage, where Don picked me up at the airport and drove me to work as a waitress in his fish and chips restaurant. I hadn’t thought to ask many questions about him or the restaurant or the town, just took the job and flew, so when I arrived that night, the landscape was clean and unburdened by stories. Don’s, spat wryly from the side of his mouth, were the first I heard. Above us, the mountains were flat, thin sheets of paper. At their feet was the narrow, mud-choked inlet of the Turnagain Arm. It was so named in warning, Don told me, by Captain Cook after his expedition discovered they could not sail through it to the ocean. The only hope of escape was to turn back they way they came.
That night the tide was low and the Turnagain was an expanse of mud, scrawled illegible with long, snaked fissures. Don warned me not to ever set foot on the mud flats, lest I meet the same fate as the honeymooning man who sank to his waist and had to be pulled out by helicopter. He looked at me meaningfully over his handlebar mustache.Only, what was below the waist never came out.”
It’s not a story you’ll find in a newspaper, but drive the Turnagain with an Alaskan and he’ll swear you up and down it’s true. The honeymooning man did not respect the power of this great earth. He did not know enough to fear it. So the earth did what it does: devoured and dismembered him. That’s what Alaska will do to you, the storyteller will say. And it will be true, just as true when you hear it from the rusty old man who’ll tell you how he once caught a dozen halibut already bled, gutted, and fileted. He knows damn well he snagged them off the bottom after a fishing boat knocked the day’s catch into the harbor, but he’ll still genuflect to the memory like it was a blessed and unbidden miracle.No, the man in the mud flats is a true story, it just didn’t happen that way. It’s a Frankenstein, two tales ripped in twain and sutured together. But Frankenstein is fiction, and this is a yarn of two cold bodies buried in the mud.”
A bride and groom, just married and giddy like tin cans skittering across the pavement, set out across the Arm on four-wheelers at low tide. It can be deceptive then, the mud smooth and even, the memory of water distant and unreal. The wife’s four-wheeler stuck and she hopped off to push it. Just like that she was mired and sinking fast. Her husband wasted too much time trying to free her himself. He was so proud, loath to defeat. When help did come with their moonboots and their shovels it was too late. The bore tide bears down fast, a 10-foot wave sweeping the Arm at 15 miles per hour. The husband wept and retreated to safety. The wife watched the wave come, powerless against it.
Before her, a soldier out hunting, tracked a moose onto the mud at low tide and stuck. Rescuers arrived by helicopter, from which they threw down a rope and shouted for him to tie it beneath his armpits. The man tied. The helicopter, hovering like a fly over the moonscape, pulled. With all its might, it could lift him no more than it could change the tide that was all the time approaching. The rope snapped. The water rolled. The man emptied his rifle of ammunition and closed his mouth around the barrel. He held it aloft and used that rifle as a breathing tube when his head went under. It was his last lifeline to a world fought gruesome for, but he succumbed to hypothermia and drowned in the muddy tide.
Don didn’t tell me this. Not then, on my first drive down the Turnagain’s blade-thin ribbon. First I would work a summer in that kitchen, Don and I and the rest of us in tie-dyed aprons and ball caps, until one hell-bent, storm-ravaged morning I ate a bowl of cereal on the clock and Don told me to think about whether I really wanted this job. I walked home and then back in the rain and at the backdoor of the restaurant I said, “I don’t.” Don put out his cigarette in a flooded coffee can, walked down the steps, walked right past me, would have walked through me if he’d known how. Then he stopped and turned. He snarled a pitying grin. He slowly drew his arms out like a cross. I walked into his arms.
Before I learned the truth of the man in the mud flats, I left town and logged a thousand miles in the passenger seats of stranger’s cars, who all the way from Homer to Talkeetna told me of seashells on the tops of mountains and Chihuahuas carried off in eagles’ claws. I left Alaska twice and returned three times. I became a teller of tall-tales myself, a charlatan, a dissembler. But that night on the Turnagain I did see my first glacier. Its face was a blue nearly painful to look at, raw and unashamed and naïve as it was.