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North to Alaska, Part 3: Fiction Friday

800px-Glenn_Highway_and_Mount_Drum(Griffin Harris)– On his second day of driving, John began having bouts of carsickness. The long hours on the road were taking their toll. Queasy and generally unhappy, by noon he’d considered calling it a day. John rolled down the window to take in some fresh air, but the air he took in was not the air he was used to. In Manhattan, fresh air is not really fresh. In fact, it’s not really air either. It moves like air, sure, and you breathe it in like air, but it is not air, exactly. The “air” of Manhattan, or of any urban area for that matter, is inevitably flavored by the fumes of a productive society: smoke and smog and exhaust and the coughs of sick people. But Rocky Mountain air is different. Rocky Mountain air has no taste; it is just air. It is crisp and invigorating and seems to fill not only the lungs but the whole body. As John rolled down his window, this was the air that he met. It blustered against his face as he sped down the highway. John inhaled deeply, and, without realizing it, was irreversibly spoiled. Never again would he be able to breathe city air without knowing, however subconsciously, that it was not the real deal. Taking a few more breaths, John decided he could drive for a couple hours more. He rolled down the passenger seat window, too. The wind rushed against Uncle Murph’s urn.

—–

Never before had John seen mountains such as those he saw now. For the first couple days, John had been so focused on the road as to overlook his surroundings. The mountains had simply been a backdrop. But now he saw them, and in them he saw something new. Sure, John had seen the Green Mountains of Vermont, and had once been to the Alleghenies, but the Rockies were a different beast altogether. Their jagged, icey peaks could been seen for miles in any direction from the road, stretching impossibly upwards into the earth’s blue dome. John had thought the towering edifices of New York were impressive, but that belief was now thrown into doubt. That spindly towers of steel and glass were deemed “skyscrapers” seemed almost laughable; they knew nothing of the sky. John thought himself embarrassed for not having seen mountains such as these before. His New York world felt a bit smaller, and so did he.

—–

The menu at the Toad River Bar and Grill did not look very promising. Normally, John would not have eaten at a shabby, roadside establishment such as this one, but trail mix, crackers and other road-trip-food gets boring quickly, and John had decided he’d needed a hot lunch.  On the menu (which wasn’t even laminated – it was just a piece of printer paper folded in half), he read over the chef’s specials: Meat Casserole, Toad River Moose Burger and Stu’s Stew. Meat casserole? That was so general it was scary. Technically, possums were meat, and so were raccoons. So meat casserole was out. Stu’s Stew? John pictured a man named Stu making stew. Stu’s hands weren’t washed; he had long, dark arm hair, and he’d been wearing the same flannel shirt for three days. So Stu’s stew was out too, and a Moose Burger it was. John put down his menu, and peered across the table at Murph’s urn, which he had brought in and put on the chair opposite him. The urn was so short that only its very top peeked up over the table’s edge. “What’ll you have, Murph?” said John jestingly. There was no response. “Not hungry? Okay.” John chuckled a bit to himself, but then quickly looked around to make sure no one had seen him. He was sure the wait staff  already thought he was crazy for sitting across from a jar, and he certainly didn’t need to be seen talking to it. John ordered his moose burger, and it promptly arrived on a Styrofoam plate. He bit into the off-colored patty, expecting little. It was good. It was better than good; it was delicious. John had paid fifty dollars for burgers in high end restaurants. He’d paid well over a hundred for steak. Yet he could not for the life of him remember one piece of meat he’d had as good as the one he was having now. A goddamn moose burger, of all things. John devoured the burger, ordered a second for the road, left a sizable tip, and grabbed Murph’s urn. Happy and full for the first time in a while, he hit the highway.

—–

A denizen of Manhattan would be lucky to see a handful of stars on a clear summer’s evening. John, thusly, was blown away when he first saw the Milky Way. Staying the night at a lodge outside of Jasper, Alberta, John had decided to take a walk outside. He felt sick from driving, and wanted some fresh air; also, his room’s TV wasn’t working. Taking a glance skyward, he was stunned by a sight both so beautiful and so utterly novel to him. A million points of were light splashed across the sky, each one set against an ether of a pure, deep blue, so as only to highlight their luminescence more. They clustered here and there, glowing in resolute silence, organized in no way in particular. John wondered how he could have gone so long without seeing this beautiful spectacle. He wondered what else he had missed. After a bit, he went back inside, and got Murph’s urn, which was waiting on a small desk in the room. He took the urn outside, and set it down next to him. The two looked up at the heavens together.

—–

John hadn’t seen a grizzly bear in the wild before. Come to think of it, he had never seen anything larger than a deer in the wild. He was not sure exactly how to react, then, when a few hours past Fort Nelson, he saw a hulking mass of brown fur crossing the road a quarter-mile in front of him. John slowed down as he approached the bear, right hand holding Murph back, until he was close enough to see the creature in detail. He was captivated by the feral splendor of the beast; it seemed to carry itself with an almost quiet dignity. Of course, John did not want to get too close, as, right before the trip, he had read much about how grizzly bears were basically killing machines. They could weigh 800 pounds, they could scale trees, they could sprint at over thirty miles an hour, and they had razor-sharp claws and teeth. When the grizzly stopped in the middle of the road, and turned his gaze towards John’s car, then, John became a bit uneasy. The road was narrow, windy, and mountainous, and John was hesitant about putting the car in reverse. The bear took a few steps towards the car. John wasn’t happy about that.  He recalled that bears had excellent senses of smell, and had been known to break into parked cars and eat the snacks found therein. John looked with terror towards the half-eaten bag of trail-mix on the dashboard, then looked back at the bear. “Oh Jesus, he smells it!” John said aloud, and, in a moment of panic, rolled down his window and threw the bag of trail mix out towards the woods. The bear, completely uninterested, turned his gaze forward and continued off the road, his bulky figure disappearing into the underbrush. Hitting the gas as he drove on, John let out a nervous laugh, then a regular one.  He would have to get more trail mix.

—–

Elk Lake was at the base of Elk Mountain. It was a good sized lake, about half a mile long and a quarter mile wide. Its waters were glassy, reflecting the pine-covered slopes and snowy peaks of the surrounding mountains, because, it seemed, nature had decided one mountain range was not enough. John stood on a shore of water-worn pebbles, holding Murph like a football under his left arm. His car was in a small lot a little ways back. While driving, he had seen a sign for a “Scenic Outlook” only a mile off the main road, and had decided to stretch his legs there. He was glad for his decision. John could not recall being in a place so quiet, where the only noise was his own. His phone rang from his pocket. Gingerly setting Murph down, John grabbed his phone and saw that it was work calling. During the first part of the trip, he had been excited to get calls from the office. They brought him back to New York. They were his connection to his normal world and his normal life. Yet John was now annoyed at receiving this call. He was annoyed at the obnoxious sound of his phone, and how it tore so easily through the silence of the lake. The call was almost certainly an important one; people at work knew not to bother John about frivolous things. There was a large merger between two pharmaceutical companies which GGWM was handling. Someone was probably calling about that. But John didn’t want to hear about that right now. He let the call go to voicemail, and turned his phone to silent. He stood there for a few minutes more, then got in his car, and began the last leg of the journey.

—–

Not long after, John was pulling into the town of Delta Junction, which marked the end of the Alaskan highway. For so much of the trip, Delta Junction seemed impossibly far away. But now Delta Junction was here, and though John had traveled thousands of miles, he found he wanted to drive a few miles more. He drove a little ways past the tiny town, out into a huge clearing with a view of the mountains. He got out of his seat, walked around the front of the car, opened the passenger side door, and unbuckled Uncle Murph. He grabbed the urn; it felt heavier than he remembered. A wind blew across the clearing, bending every blade of grass. John took the lid off the urn, lifted it, and turned it upside down. Murph slipped out in a grey cloud that hung there, just for a second, before fading away with the wind. The trip was over, and now the urn was just an empty jar.  For the first time, it hit John that Uncle Murph was gone. He had known that Uncle Murph was dead, but now Uncle Murph was also gone.

If you are interested in submitting whole or excerpted fiction writing for publication on the site, contact Marie Lambert at mlambert15@amherst.edu.

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One comment on “North to Alaska, Part 3: Fiction Friday

  1. Siraj Ahmed Sindhu
    March 10, 2014

    Cool story. Thanks for the read, Griff!

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This entry was posted on February 28, 2014 by in Fiction and tagged , , .
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