Saturday, July 09, 2011

North to Alaska, Part VI

He loved Dawson City. It was the perfect realization of all his boyhood fantasies of the frontier: the 19th-century architecture, furnishings, decor and graphic design. Even the modern touches - debit machines, modern vehicles, cell phones (still inoperable) - hardly fazed him. The aura of the place enveloped him like the naive tourist he was, and he wandered in a happy daze over the wooden slats that served as sidewalks.
One hotel even featured saloon doors, and he wished he had a friend with him to shoot a photo of himself bursting through them. Or, even better, being flung through them by a rough-housing black-hatted villain.
He wandered the streets for several hours, periodically checking the phones to see if the connection had been repaired yet. After 48 hours, he knew that Sylvia would be very worried, but what could be done? He could only do his best to suppress the guilt as he enjoyed himself, hoping Sylvia wouldn't be too upset by his silence.
It seemed as though every door in Dawson City was open to the curious traveller, and Earl roamed at will, poking into every beckoning doorway. How marvellous to step into a carefully-preserved past without the distractions of guides, roped-off areas and other tourists!
The Palace Grand captured his heart. The moment he stepped inside its empty, echoing halls he fell in love with an idealized Old West, imagining the raucous laughter, the spirited dancing and ribald comedy that must have echoed off these old walls.
He could have spent days here, dancing with the ghosts, taking the stage to orate to the empty seats, hamming it up for the joy of using his long-forgotten, little-known gift of projection. Frustrated actor, frustrated politician, frustrated writer, forever cursing himself for failing to live up to his own potential, held back by shyness and the absence of confidence. On an empty stage in an empty house, he could work wonders. When no one is watching, every performance is perfect.
At last the phones returned to life, and Earl called Sylvia, explaining what had happened. He'd get some sleep, then wake up early for the trip to Whitehorse, he told her. He might take the scenic train from Whitehorse to Skagway, Alaska, as his parents had done a couple of years earlier. And then he'd return home, fully refreshed and ready to take on the working world once more.

He rose early as he had intended, early enough to enjoy a leisurely breakfast. He filled up the car with gas and headed south. He was on his way home, his senses full to bursting with the beauty of a truly northern summer. It had been a perfect journey. He eased behind the wheel, plugged in his phone and enjoyed some music for the road.
But then, halfway between Dawson City and Whitehorse, a strange sound tickled at the edge of his awareness: a faint but consistent tick-tick-tick-tick.

Strange, he thought. What could that be...?

He turned down the radio. A terrible thought struck him instantly: oil. It seemed impossible that the car could run out of oil, for he'd had the vehicle serviced mere days before leaving on his trip. It was fully loaded with oil.

Tick-tick-tick-tick.

Rounding the top of a hill, he flicked the gearshift into neutral and let gravity pull him down the other side. The ticking stopped.

You fool, he thought. Any minute now the oil light is going to come on. It was the very scenario he'd worried about, the only thing his imagination had thrown at him.

But it was impossible. He'd been careful. He'd had all the fluids topped up -

An oilcan icon flickered to life on his dashboard. It was happening. He couldn't believe it...but it was happening.

He checked his map. Carmacks was only a few kilometers distant. He could buy oil there, save himself, save the car. Would he make it?

The ticking increased in volume and tempo. He shifted into neutral whenever he could, gambling that allowing the engine to rest would give him the range he needed to reach sanctuary. His heart pounded. How much would it cost to repair the car here, in the far north? The cost of this "cheap vacation" may have just doubled, tripled.

He forced himself to be calm. Carmacks was just a few twists and turns of the road away. It might be just around this next bend...tick-tick-tick-tick.

And it was. He drifted into the nearest gas station, immensely relieved. He bought a bottle of oil and fed it remorsefully to his thirsty car; it drank deep. Earl took the wheel again, started the engine, and listened.

Nothing. No warning tick, no oil light. He'd made it. He felt anvils fall from his shoulders as he took to the road again, practically whistling with delight. It had been a near thing, a veritable close shave. But he'd been lucky and quick-witted enough to solve the problem.

An hour later, the ticking started again. His eyes grew wide in horror. He was midway between Carmacks and Whitehorse; useless to turn back, useless. What had gone wrong?

It hit him instantly. You idiot, he thought. You stupid shut-in bookworm. Did you really think it would only take a single bottle of oil to lubricate an engine run dry? Why didn't you ask someone at the station how much you should add?

He begged the fates to forgive him one more time. He apologized to his car over and over, pleading with it to go just one more kilometre, just one more, then one more, then another...

The ticking turned to clanking, then clanging, then thumping. Smoke belched from beneath the hood. He rounded another forested curve, and looked up in despair at a long, steep incline. If he could just reach the top...

He couldn't. Halfway up, the engine seized. Every light on the dashboard glowed remorsefully at him.

He stepped out to wait for rescue, flashers blinking. Only moments later a Yukon government truck stopped to assist, loaning him a set of warning reflectors. The driver pledged he'd send help, so Earl settled back and waited.

The hours crawled by, and no one came. He waved aside several other offers of help, not wanting to abandon the car when another rescuer was presumably on the way.

But the afternoon waned into evening, and finally he realized that his first rescuer had somehow failed. A young woman about his own age pulled over.

"You've been here a while," she said. "I saw you out here hours ago."

"Someone was supposed to come..." he said lamely.

"Well, you'd better get in. There are bears out here; the rangers called an alert."

He climbed into her truck. She told him he was fifty kilometres from Whitehorse. So close, he thought. On the outskirts of town, cellular coverage returned. He called Sylvia with the bad news while his rescuer phoned hotels. Another call to AMA secured a tow truck.

The banal routine of the stranded traveller followed. He thanked his rescuer, booked a room, was picked up by the towing company, retrieved the car, towed it back. He retrieved a few essentials from the car - the cameras, some clothes, his father's laptop.

He knew he'd destroyed his car. He was infuriated by his carelessness, his own slack, stupid belief that he didn't need to plan or prepare, that everything would turn out fine with little work on his part.

It was only a car. It was just a silly oversight. The car was ten years old, Sylvia told him. We'd been talking about replacing it anyway. We needed something bigger. It was okay.

Her kindness and support only made him feel worse, and he hated himself for it. She deserved so much better than this self-pitying anger. His hotel room closed in on him as he waited for news from the towing company. He paced. He slammed doors. He ground his teeth and tried to suppress his boiling, self-directed rage.

He lost control of his thoughts. The events of the last few years collapsed over him at once. Every failure suddenly screamed at him. Every circumstance he couldn't fix became overwhelming. His head spun as long-buried anguish finally came screaming into the foreground: his terror at losing everything, his parents, brother, friends, wife. There was nothing rational about it, and the intellectual corner of his mind understood that it was pure hubris to lay claim over events he couldn't control.

And yet he felt responsible. He thought of everyone he'd ever disappointed, he imagined failures yet to come, and he punished himself for being human.

And so he screamed. He clenched his fists and screwed up his face and howled like an animal.

And then his eyes popped open and he stopped, shocked by the unearthly sounds. It was like an infected blister popping all at once. He lay back, drained, blinking, his breathing steady, relaxed. Suddenly he felt better than he had in years. Embarrassed by his loss of control, yes. Ashamed of his carelessness, yes. But suddenly at peace.

He phoned Sylvia again and told her what happened.

"I'm glad it happened," she said. "You needed that. You can't keep things bottled up for years at a time."

He agreed. Rational again, he reacted calmly when the shop called and told him the car's engine had been destroyed. He went about the mundane business of picking up the pieces. He went to Wal-Mart, bought a big suitcase, salvaged what he could from the vehicle, signed the registration over and left his faithful car in a lonely Whitehorse junkyard. He looked back only once, and he didn't take a photo.
He took the Greyhound to Grande Prairie, an 18 hour trip. The driver pulled over so the passengers could gawk at grizzlies:
His ever-patient parents picked him up in Grande Prairie and brought him home to Edmonton. He realized how lucky he was. Yes, he'd destroyed his car. Yes, he and Sylvia would be paying for a new one for half a decade. But he'd suffered no truly irrevocable calamities. He had Sylvia. He had his parents, his younger brother. He had his friends, and a career he loved. And for a little while, he'd had the solitude he needed to replenish his spirit.

Who had the right to ask for more?

4 comments:

Andrea said...

Will this story ever be completed? Has Earl suppressed the memories of the horrors of the disaster? Has he grown too sick of the third person narrative?

WE MAY NEVER KNOW...

Earl J. Woods said...

It'll be completed this week!

Anonymous said...

Nicely done Babe. Fantastic pictures!

You are much too hard on yourself. I admire you for allowing your readers to get a glance of who you are. It doesn't seem fair that I be the only one with that privilege.

All I ever want is for you to come home safe and happy. It's that simple.

L, Syl

jbsantos said...

That was poignant, brutally honest, and, most of all, human. Often, the enemy each of us is at war with is none other than ourselves, and that's a battle where there are no winners.