The snow was getting deeper. I could barely see through the swirling clouds of crystals. My headlights were so attenuated by the blizzard that the road was invisible more often than not. For the tenth time in as many minutes I cursed myself for starting south so late. At best, I could only see about ten feet ahead. As a result I was only moving about twenty miles an hour – and that was reckless, but I needed to get to the lodge soon.
Normally, I head south as soon as I get laid off. This year, however, I had tarried at the request of friends who were wintering over in Alaska. We played and partied until after Halloween. They insisted the Moose Club's traditional dance and costume party was well worth it. It was fun. But it wasn't worth going through this shit. Nevertheless, here I was, driving through the Northern Canadian Rockies in a blizzard trying to stay alive until I reached the next roadhouse or motel.
I work on a fishing boat in the summers in Alaska. The country and the seas are beautiful and bountiful, the work's a good alternative to a normal life, or to working out (the job is physical enough to allow me to drop my winter fat gain in just a few weeks), and the pay is great. Five months of back-breaking work and long hours allow me to do pretty much what I want for the rest of the year as long as I save up enough of my wages during the season.
Staying through the winter is out of the question, though. I've managed to get an option on some land there and plan to build a little house when I can afford it. But paying Alaskan rent while I'm unemployed would wipe out everything I save all summer. So I became a "snowbird", packing all the stuff I'll need until spring in my truck to head south.
That's the downside of the whole thing -- getting back and forth. It's a long drive from there to anywhere decent for the winter, and, as interesting and exciting as the first few road trips are, it was getting old. This was my tenth trip down through the wilderness that is Northern British Columbia. It is my long-range plan to have homes at both ends and just fly back and forth. With a home and a vehicle at both ends it will be just a matter of packing my clothes and climbing on a plane. The trouble with that is primarily a financial one. A secondary problem is Rebel.
Oh, I could do it differently. A lot of people do. I could drive just far enough to get on the Alaska State Ferry system. I tried the ferry once and for me it was great, though more expensive even than flying. For Rebel it wasn't so good. He had to stay down on the car deck except when we were stopped in the various ports along the way. I guess I should introduce him before I go on.
Rebel is my four year old German Shepherd/Husky mix. I acquired him by accident during my second season up there. I had met a woman named Sherry who was in Alaska for the first time. We had reached the stage of talking about both of us becoming real "sourdoughs" by spending the winter in the North Country. With my unemployment and her wages from the restaurant we figured we could make it. She moved in with me and we split the rent on the house, though I was out fishing most of the time. Of course we had some great sex when I was home.
A woman she worked with had a dog. It had puppies and Sherry fell in love with Rebel. I had to admit he was a cute little fuzz ball and he was smart, too. We became one big happy family. It was great – for a while. Then, somewhere around the middle of August, I came home from work one morning and found a note. Rebel watched me read it. He nuzzled my knee and helped me through the sadness. Sherry and I had only been together a few months, so the pain evaporated fairly quickly. Still, I was left with an empty bed and the obligation of Rebel. He's a good friend but he complicates things.
I'm thirty seven. My story isn't all that different from a lot of other guys. I tried college, but I was nineteen and I wanted to stretch my wings. As a result of my truncated education, I've worked at a handful of different jobs, some for years and others I couldn't get away from quick enough. I have spent a good deal of my adult life alone. So the loneliness of these trips back and forth wasn't really a hardship on me. It was kind of like taking my everyday life on the road. I have had two wives and two divorces.
After the second divorce I headed for Alaska. I dated some local women in my summers up there, but Sherry was the first one who didn't seem to have a problem with me being gone so much. After she left, I decided that a dog was all the long term company I needed. If I was the only one making the dishes dirty, it was easy for me to wash them. In the long run I guess losing Sherry was a kind of blessing in disguise, though the lack of sex was tough.
I've learned that a long road trip alone allows my mind to travel a lot of obscure trails. That's okay in nice weather. It isn't good, however, to let myself get distracted when the snow is whipping around the fenders. A couple of times I had already slid, once nearly into the ditch. While I was remembering Sherry and how Rebel came into my life, I almost missed a curve. I skidded and nearly lost control. My old high school driver's-ed class came through for me, though.
I slowed down even more after that. I knew that the little place I usually stayed at on this part of the road wasn't too much farther. It was an old place along the treacherous road that skirted Lake Muncho. There was a newer place just before I got to it, and I had stayed there once. But to me a hotel room -- especially on a 'point A to point B' trip -- is just a place to flop down and restore from the day's travel. The place I had found on my first trip down the highway was quaint and friendly. It was a café and gas station with a few rooms to rent.
What won me over, really, was the sign. It wasn't the sign on the pole by the road. It was the sign nailed to the side of the row of their five rooms. I arrived late that first time. I wasn't sure there was anybody around. A light shone from the main building's second story, and there were three lights burning over three of the rooms, so I was encouraged. When I pulled in, my headlights flashed across the sign that had another dim, bare bulb above it.
The sign said, "After 9PM, pick a cabin with a light on and see the manager in the morning". It rang my bell. I suppose they occasionally lose a night's revenue from people arriving late and leaving early, but I believe that most people -- up here, at least -- are basically honest. People in the North Country (capital N, capital C) have to depend on each other too much to make a habit of ripping others off. I found a room and crashed for the night.
I wasn't even sure that place was still open this late in the year. I knew the owner pulled his boat ("Fishing Trips! Fish Guaranteed!") out of the lake the last week of September. I passed the newer lodge and kept my fingers crossed as I rounded the next half dozen curves along the lake.
As I came around the last turn the glow of lambent light from the Double G filtered through the whipping snow. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was 'home'. At least I was home for the night, and I told Rebel. He thumped the door with his tail in his joy, but his chin never left my thigh.
I crunched through the icy rifts piled up around the parking area. Over the five doors, there were four lights still burning. As the sign said, the way their system worked, a lit bulb was the signal that the room was vacant. The only other vehicle there was a Jeep Cherokee. There wasn't much snow in its tracks, so I knew it was a fairly recent arrival, too.
I left Rebel in the truck and walked to the lighted door two down from the one that was dark. I tried the knob and the room proved to be empty as promised. I returned to the truck and brought my duffel and dog in. I brushed the snow from Rebel's paws and stomped my boots before removing them. The owners provided an oversized wiry coconut mat just inside the door for the purpose.
I knew already that there was no phone, no TV, and no coffee service. This place was rustic. It was my kind of place for this kind of trip. I fed Rebel and set down his water bowl. After that I just stripped down and crawled between the cold sheets, shivering. The thick blankets contained my body heat and my shivering stopped soon enough. I slept.
The next morning I scolded Rebel, but not too severely. I woke to find his doggy breath wafting over my neck. The dream evaporated -- it was about a leggy blonde who kept snuggling up to me. I pushed him off the bed and felt my nose. It was cool, but not frigid. I slipped out of the bed and hurried to turn on the shower. I stuck my cup under the hot water and stirred in a spoonful of instant coffee. I took it into the shower with me.
Fortunately, Rebel was on 'road trip mode'. He had become conditioned to wait until I was ready to take him out for his morning constitutional. At times, he became rather antsy with the waiting, but it usually worked out. He was sitting by the outside door when I came out of the bathroom. I dressed quickly and pulled my watch cap down on my damp hair. Before I opened the door I pulled the curtain on the small window back. It was still dark, but the snow and wind had stopped. The lights of the three unoccupied rooms reflected off the ice crystals that topped the snow that lay in a thick blanket over everything.
We went out. I let Rebel range on the end of the leash as I swept the snow from the windshield of the truck with my gloved hand. I opened the truck and started it, closing the door quickly after making sure the heat was on high. By the time the dog was done, the cab was still cool, but warm enough to let him in. He would just have to wait there until I repacked and had finished my business in the office/cafe. The sky was paling fast and I wanted to get a good start.
I paid for the room and used the pay phone to call my brother while my breakfast fried. I ate and enjoyed a cup of real coffee before gassing up and letting Rebel take another spin around the trees. As we were making that second run, I couldn't help but hear a battery being ground down to nothing. The Jeep Cherokee's driver's door hung open. I took Rebel back to the truck and got him, dusting the snow off his paws in as best I could, trusting that he'd stay on his own side.
Closing the door, I trudged through the seven or so inches of fresh snow to the door of the Jeep. Long black hair hid her face. "It isn't going to start. If you don't stop grinding it, you'll ruin the starter," I said.
I was surprised when the head whipped around and the beautiful lips spat out, "Well, the goddamn thing has to fucking start! I have to get to Fort-fucking-Nelson by tonight!" Even if I hadn't seen her, I could have told from her accent and the colorful adjectives that the speaker was no novice to the North. The women up here swear as well as the men do, sometimes even more picturesquely. More significantly, she had the bronzed complexion of a native.
"Well, it ain't gonna start right now," I said. She stopped grinding the starter and the silence was only broken by the purr of my truck's engine. She glanced toward it. Then she turned back to me. We assayed each other. I can't tell you what she saw, but what I saw was okay. I was sure now that she was a native, or at least part native, but her features were a blend. Her skin tone really wasn't too much darker than mine was after the months at sea.
She looked to be in her mid to late twenties. As I said, her long black hair hung free. She wore a thick parka with a fur ruff around the hood. Her jeans were faded and her pacs were unlaced halfway -- usually a sure sign you're looking at a Canadian, or at least a person who has spent a fair amount of time up north. Boots need to be removed when you go inside and lacing them and unlacing them is too much trouble. Facially, she was very attractive. At least she had the potential. Just at that moment her anger and disappointment with her vehicle made her features pretty rough. The thought drifted through my mind that I was really glad her anger was not directed at me.
She stood up and I backed off. Without another word she stomped off toward the café. I could have just gotten into my truck and driven off. Like I said, though, people up here help each other. I didn't know anything about her. She could be anybody or nobody. She said she had to get to Fort Nelson today. I mean Fort "fucking" Nelson. After a few seconds I followed her. Rebel barked just once to warn me that he was ready to go. I ignored him.
When I reached the office, I heard her yelling at the owner. "I can't wait for parts! I already told you I have to be in Fort Nelson today!"
"Well, Miss, I don't know that you'll need parts, eh? I only said that if I had to order them..." She cut him off.
"What can I do then? Will you please go and see what my problem is?" She seemed to be getting herself in hand. Her voice had dropped several decibels. I guessed she was resigned to the situation.
"Yes, Ma'am," the short bald man told her. I marveled at his patience. But then, he was seeing the same features I had. I could have been on the road and miles away by then. I wasn't.
We all traipsed back out to the Jeep after the man got into his outdoor gear. We cleared most of the snow from the roof and windows. She and I pushed and the little man steered as we pushed the Jeep toward the open door of his garage. About halfway there, she turned her head to me. She seemed surprised I was still there, but she didn't say anything.
Once we got it inside, he pushed a button and the door rumbled closed. A large heater hung on cables and pipes running from the ceiling, into it, and out through the wall. It roared to life and began to drive the cold back. The man hooked up a booster/charger to the battery and a hose to the exhaust. The hose ran across the floor and disappeared through the outside wall. He told the woman to try the starter. It only took a few seconds for him to determine that her starter was shot. "Maybe the alternator, as well," he added.
She slumped against the door of her car. Her long hair hung down, shielding her face. I glanced at the man and he looked back at me. He shrugged. It was too bad, it said, but he wasn't going anywhere. And neither was she – at least that day. I cleared my throat.
She raised her face to look at me. I had expected tears, but her cheeks were dry and flushed an attractive shade of bronze. Her anger had receded, but it was still there. There was sadness, too, and something else. "I'm heading south," I said simply. "I don't know what your situation is, but I can get you to Fort Nelson."
She stood up straight. It's a great thing to know that something you have done has put hope back into a disappointed heart. She seemed to buoy up; as if her car troubles had deflated her and my announcement had puffed some fresh air into the tires. "I'm just passing through, but I can get you there. Getting back here to get your rig is up to you," I added. (I have friends down south -- that's south of Alaska and British Columbia -- in the continental U.S. -- who tell me it is an anomaly to call vehicles "rigs", as if they were horse-drawn wagons. In the north, that's what they're called, so I'm sorry.)
She gave the man all her information while I trudged back to the truck and pulled it around to the door. I shed my own parka since the cab was nice and toasty by then (Rebel was panting). I turned the heat down. She came out and felt the heat when she opened the door. Quickly shrugging out of her coat, she poked Rebel's butt to move him into the back (my truck has an extended cab -- one of the reasons I bought it was to take these trips with the dog) and jumped up into the passenger seat. She slammed the door and held out her hand.
"I'm Marjorie Johns," she said. The surname is a common one in the north. "I live in Watson Lake." If you don't know, the town next to the lake has its name. She didn't actually live in a lake.
"Don Billings," I said and shook her hand. Hers was cool and narrow, but strong and calloused. Obviously she was used to working. We pulled out onto the road. Along the edge of Lake Muncho, there are no guard rails. I could only tell where the road was by the way the snow broke off suddenly to my right at the shore of the lake. The left side was thickly covered with trees at those spots where the rock face fell back enough. The road was the only unnatural surface in sight. It was flat and currently covered with a thick blanket of snow. I expected to come up on a plow at some point. The Canadian road crews were always working somewhere along the Alaska Highway, no matter the weather.
We drove a while in silence. After about ten miles (about fifteen minutes at the required speed) she turned to me. She asked about me. I told her as much as I wanted her to know. It was a new experience having company for this trip, so I probably let my mouth run a little more than I should have. When I stopped, she looked like she was going to ask something else, but I beat her to it. "What about you?" I asked. "What's so important about getting to Fort Nelson today?"
At first I thought she wasn't going to answer. Her mild expression turned stormy and she flashed me with an angry glance. Then her face softened. "I'm sorry. It's just that this trip is so fucking stupid. I shouldn't have to be here at all." I thought that was all I was going to get, but she went on a few seconds later.
"My damn boyfriend has gotten himself into trouble," she began. As the story came out, I learned more than I wanted to know about the Canadian justice system. Her guy had gone with a friend to help him remove some possessions from the house the friend had shared with his already ex-wife. Well, the split wasn't as clear cut as the friend had led them to believe. The ex-wife called the cops. The end result was that Marjorie's boyfriend and his buddy were in the custody of the Mounties in Fort Nelson, charged with burglary. They were both waiting for her to bail them out. Another kink in the tale was that if the boyfriend didn't get back to Watson Lake in a timely manner, he would lose his job.
"I can't thank you enough for helping me," she said. I looked at her. She was looking back. Her anger had, at least for that moment, disappeared. She smiled and it was as if the interior of the truck had lit up. I felt my face flush and saw how truly beautiful she was. I just shrugged an 'aw, shucks, ma'am' and said that I was making the trip anyway and the company was welcome. I turned my eyes back to the road and looked around us as the day brightened. The sky was still overcast but it was broken a bit. The snow reflected the gray light. Through those stretches where we left the lakeside, everything was a fairyland of white, nearly unbroken snow. There were animal tracks here and there, leading to and from the lake. There were a few places where the water was still open and they could drink. When the overcast started to break up more, the sun peeking over the tops of the mountains, things got uncomfortable for my eyes. I pulled my sunglasses from the visor and put them on. She dug in her parka and put hers on.
"I make the trip every fall and back north every spring," I told her. "I'm usually alone, so it's kind of nice to have company, especially when the company is so attractive." It was her turn to hide her blush, hiding it by turning her face to look out the window. I don't know if it was my compliment or just her own way of doing things, but Marjorie began talking again. A half hour later I knew all there was to know about her disastrous relationship. Her boyfriend seemed to be a real dick. I always wonder why these women hook up with this kind of guy.