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Murph had chosen to be cremated. A silent and stoic observer of the proceedings, his urn sat there on an ornate table in the funeral home. John had been made nauseous by the drive up. Shaking hands with people he’d never met, nor cared to meet, he tried to play his nauseated expression off as a grief-stricken one.
When the funeral was over, John’s mother and Marsha came up to John. Mascara streamed down their worn faces. John hugged them both, and said something vague and nice about Murph. He had a headache and it was getting worse. Marsha thanked John for coming, and said she knew how busy he was. She then told him that a local lawyer would be reading Murph’s will later that evening. She told John that since he was close family, he should come, as Murph may have left something to him. John smiled and nodded and said more hollow consoling words. He then walked out of the funeral home and got into his car.
John was none too pleased about the prospect of staying in Derby for several more hours. He had planned on driving back to New York as soon as the funeral ended, getting in by around 10:00 p.m. Now, however, he might be forced to stay the night. Why would Murph leave him something in the will anyway? The two had talked perhaps a dozen times in the last ten years. Plus, John thought, what in God’s name does Murph have that is will-worthy? His paltry savings and his orchard he would surely leave to his wife. What trinket was John to receive? He did not want to stick around just so he could get a bushel of apples or a rain-stick or his uncle’s second-favorite bong.
John pulled up to a wooden building that looked like it had been made at the turn-of-the- century by a less-than-capable carpenter. The squat, two story structure was slanted a few degrees to the right; it was Derby’s own leaning tower. On the front lawn swung a rectangular wooden sign that read “Law Offices of J.M. Schmidt” in faded gold letters. John walked up a set of wooden steps, each creaking louder than the last, and opened the heavy front door. He found himself in a small, stuffy waiting room. In the corner were a few ancient chairs, and a coffee table with a 1988 copy of Vermont Outdoors. Noticing there was only one door that lead from the waiting room – it too was labeled “Law Offices of J.M. Schmidt” – he knocked on it, and was told to come in. His mother and Marsha were already there, along with Marsha’s two siblings, Clark and Robin. Murph’s brother Terry was also there. An aged, bespectacled Mr. Schmidt sat in a large wooden chair at his desk, shuffling papers. John was the youngest in the room by perhaps thirty years. He said hello to everyone in a somber manner, and sat down next to his mother.
The reading of the will was going as John had expected. Murph’s estate and savings had been left to Marsha. Murph’s brother had been left a broken ‘58 Chevy. The two had wanted to fix it up but had never gotten around to it; it sat idle under a tarp and an inch-thick layer of dust in Murph’s cluttered garage. Marsha’s siblings and John’s mother had been left small items of great sentimental value and no actual value. After about half an hour, John noticed that Mr. Schmidt had reached the last page of the will; John began fidgeting and checked his watch. Perhaps he could make it out of Derby today. Mr. Schmidt read the final passage, “Finally, there is the matter of what to do with my ashes. I traveled a great deal in my younger days, and I suppose I regret not traveling more during my sunset years. There was always one trip which I wanted very much to take, and that was a road trip up the great Alaskan highway. If I have not yet done this before I die, I would like my ashes to be driven up the Alaskan highway, from Glacier to Delta Junction – with me in the passenger seat, like a real road trip – and be spread once the end of the highway is reached…”
“Well,” thought John, “I suppose old Uncle Murph was a bit more senile than I gave him credit for. He wants his goddamn ashes to go on a road-trip? What kind of – ?”
Mr. Schmidt cleared his throat and continued reading, interrupting John’s thoughts, “Furthermore, it is my wish that my nephew John drive me. John and I never got the chance to take that trip I wanted us to, and I figure this is the last opportunity we’ll get.”
John choked on his own spit. He could not have possibly heard that correctly.
All eyes in the room turned towards John, confirming to him that he had not just had a stroke, and that he had indeed heard the will read correctly. He looked towards his mother; her eyes had welled up and she looked at him with silent hope. He turned towards Marsha; tears were rolling down her wrinkled cheeks, and her hands were folded up in front of her, as if she were praying. John looked around the room, and saw a love for Murph manifested in five noiseless gazes. Nothing was said; nothing had to be said. Finally, with a deep breath, John turned back towards Mr. Schmidt, and, with newfound conviction in his voice, said, “No. No fucking chance. This is insane.” Marsha let out a despairing sob. John’s mother began, in a soft voice filled with sadness, to implore him, “John, it’s his last – .” John cut her off, “Ma, I know Ma, and I’m sorry, but this is just crazy. I got sick just driving up here to Derby. I’m not driving a jar to Alaska, Ma, I’m just not going to do it. I’m sorry.” John’s mother gave a long pause, then said, “Your father would have wanted you to do it.” John was afraid she’d say that.
John’s father had loved Murph like his own brother, and Murph had felt likewise. A lawyer too, John’s father had, unlike John, appreciated Murph’s philosophies on life, and thought there was a great deal he could learn from the happy apple farmer. John could never understand his father’s closeness with Murph.
In all likelihood, John’s mother was right. John’s father probably would have wanted him to do it. This ugly, hard truth rose up within John’s conscience, and, looking again at the despairing face of his mother, he knew he’d have to do it. He’d have to do it not for Murph or Marsha, but for his mother and father. John let out a deep breath.
“Fine, fine, I’m sorry about what I said. I was just a little shocked is all. I’ll do it. I’ll take Murph up the Alaskan highway.”
Marsha let out a sound of pure jubilation, and embraced John, kissing his cheeks and saying “Thank you, thank you.” John’s mother just smiled sweetly at him.
Thus occurred the first known case of a man being guilt-tripped into taking an urn to Alaska.
John had hesitations about checking Murph’s urn in at baggage. It was protected well enough, surrounded by a roll of foam material and packing peanuts. The box it was in read “Fragile – Urn.” No, John was not particularly concerned with the urn being damaged; he was, however, concerned with it being lost. Airlines didn’t have the greatest record with baggage, and losing this parcel would have been a bit more serious than losing a duffel bag full of shirts. John imagined standing in front of the circular conveyor at baggage claim, becoming more and more nervous as fewer and fewer bags came around the track. If it didn’t show up, he’d have to walk over to the employee at lost luggage, who’d probably look at him with disdain, and ask in a falsely sympathetic voice what the matter was. John would tell the airline employee that a piece of his baggage had been misplaced, and the employee would apologize for the airline and ask him what had been lost. John would tell him that the airline had lost his dead uncle. He was unsure how the employee would respond to that.
Of course, the alternatives to checking the urn at baggage were worse. Had he attempted to carry the urn on board, the TSA would have probably taken issue. Not flying at all, and driving thousands of extra miles to get to Montana, was, of course, out of the question. John, thus, hesitantly checked in Uncle Murph at baggage. At the airport in Helena, he was greatly relieved to see a cardboard box with “Fragile – Urn” written on it come around the conveyor.
Technically, the Alaskan Highway begins not in Montana, but in Dawson Creek, British Columbia. It snakes nearly 1400 miles through millions of acres of northern Rocky Mountain wilderness, and ends in Delta Junction, Alaska. Most road-trippers, however, including Murph and John, begin driving near Glacier National Park in Montana, meeting up with the true Alaskan Highway as they head north. This adds many additional scenic elements to the drive; it also adds nearly one-thousand extra miles. John was not particularly thrilled about this addition. John, in fact, was not at all prepared for the size of the country he was about to enter. He was used to maps with a scale of a few miles, and to states that took a few hours to drive across. The tiny distances of New England were dwarfed the Rockies’ massive tracts of space, and though John was a smart man of thirty-three, the largeness of the world had never really been impressed upon him. After driving for nearly seven hours during the first leg of his journey, he pulled over at a rest stop, and searched the large map inside for the red “You Are Here” sticker. John was appalled to find how close that sticker was to where he had started; he’d barely made a dent.
Check back next week for the final installment of the story!
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