© Copyright 2020 by Tom Mattson
The ferry moved on imperceptibly through the close night, and I was still shivering more than an hour later. I knew from the last two nights on the deck that it would take at least two hours for my body to warm enough to the down inside the sleeping bag for me to pass into sleep. And yet those 120 shivering minutes turned out to be an unexpected blessing. Though I lay freezing, the sky was extraordinarily beautiful, illuminated by millions of stars, countless pinpricked holes in the dark curtain of night. I have never seen so many stars in all my life.
I stared up into multitudes, a stronghold of stars. The rich tableau of starry night sky was so enthralling that I felt I could look at it forever, a riddle I would never comprehend yet couldn’t tear my eyes away from. The planets and countless shooting stars, at least one every few seconds, fired my imagination and left me breathless with awe.
During the day I stood out on deck in the stinging wind under a pale sun that emitted no warmth and kept my eyes peeled for sperm whales, which we had been told there was a possibility of seeing. In my deepest heart I hoped to see something chilling and massive like Ahab’s whale itself, see it smash the ferry into driftwood and send bodies flying into the gelid sea. Part of me wondered what that would look like.
I never saw anything other than a few porpoises.
I had bought a used Kawasaki Vulcan 750 cc motorcycle. I had feverishly negotiated its price down from $7,000 to $4,000. The irony is that I ended up spending far more on repairs and logistical costs than if I had just bought a brand new bike to begin with. No one has had their motorcycle break down in more isolated, remote parts of the planet than I have.
Continuing my quixotic year when I was questing for knowledge and desperate to expand my world, I found myself on the Vulcan driving north from San Diego to Alaska on the Pacific Coast Highway—US Route 101—during a sunless, surprisingly cold month of June. June, it turns out, is not a warm month on the California coast. Who knew? It was freezing.
It was overcast the entire way. The sun never poked out once until I reached Alaska. I would be cold the entire summer—for six months straight—a harbinger of things to come. I loaded the bike onto the Alaskan ferry in the port city of Bellingham, Washington, near the Canadian border, and looked forward to a chance to rest my sore ass on the ferry for a few days. An ocean journey is always one that’s closest to my heart.
I had noticed another bike lashed against the hull in the cargo hold next to mine, so I knew there was another rider on board. A rider usually isn’t too hard to find in a contained world such as a ship at sea, because riders usually have a certain appearance—facial hair, tattoos, an antiauthoritarian loner glint common among the biking community. When I saw the leather jacket with the bald eagle and the word Freedom the size of a billboard marquee emblazoned on the back, I knew I’d found the other rider.
It didn’t hurt that I was wearing the exact same thing.
approached him in the ship’s bar one afternoon and, introduced
myself. He had seen my bike in the cargo hold too, and we quickly
made a plan to meet outside the docking bay when we arrived in
Haines, Canada, and ride on to Anchorage together. His name was
Rosie. He was around forty-five years old. He was a pit boss in a
casino in Reno, Nevada. Being older, he had an enormous souped-up,
tricked-out motorcycle that was closer to a spaceship than a bike. It
had a huge wraparound windshield that blocked out all wind, a CD
player and satellite radio playing a steady stream of baby boomer
hits like the Eagles, a heater at the torso and legs like a Mercedes,
even a seat heater, and a massive ass for luggage that rivaled a
Datsun’s. I looked down on his bike with disdain. At that level
is it even like riding a motorcycle anymore? You might as well just
slap two more wheels on it and call it a car. My rough-and-ready
Vulcan was closer to a bicycle with a jet engine tacked to the back
with bungee cords than a motorcycle. It was lean, stripped down to
the nuts, with no extra features. Its only extra feature was myself.
My windshield was closer to a geisha’s fan than an actual
windshield—it didn’t even block out any wind because it
was only as high as my nipples. Heavy, frigid winds gusting out of
the North Pole beat my face relentlessly like a fraternity’s
hazing paddle for the next seven thousand miles. But I wouldn’t
have it any other way. If I’m riding, I want to feel it all.
Why else do it? Otherwise just buy a car.
As we moved further and further north, during the frigid, teeth-chattering nights on the deck of the ship I gazed out at the lightless coast, black and forbidding, haunting and calling to me at the same time. Finally one cold afternoon we reached Haines. Haines is a tiny port—I wouldn’t call it a town—in northern British Columbia, Canada. Despite having an official population of six hundred, you’d be hard-pressed to find two people. The town consists pretty much of the port itself, a tiny motel, and the road out.
From here it was an ass-murdering eight hundred mile haul to Anchorage. Although we’re only talking about Haines, in northern Canada, to Anchorage, Alaska, the distances in Canada are so vast, that this ride is roughly equivalent to a third of the way across the United States. I had no idea until I got here that Alaska is a jaw-dropping two thousand miles north of the US-Canada border. That’s two-thirds of the distance across the United States.
This far above the sixtieth parallel, it was light almost twenty-four hours a day in summer. It only got dark for a couple of hours between two thirty and four thirty in the morning, and even then the sun just barely dipped below the horizon. Its pearly orange lid sat right at the sphere horizon, its scalp sliced just finely enough by the sharp straight line of the horizon that you could see flares flying up from solar storms on the surface of the sun.
When the ferry docked, I swooped down into the ship’s hold to collect my bike. The other bike was already gone. That was fast. I wondered if Rosie had taken off without me. When I rolled my bike out, he was in the parking lot waiting for me. He sat astride his motorcycle, which was already turned on and roaring in idle, his sunglasses on, arms folded high across his chest, his face granite, ready to go. He looked impatient. This was the moment he had been dreaming about, possibly for years.
I knew the feeling.
As the bikes I had in those years were all bought used and cheap, they also had a great deal of mechanical problems, not least of which was frequent trouble starting in cold weather or when the bike had not been started for several days. Both conditions were in place this time. After turning the ignition a few times without success, my bike as lifeless as a sarcophagus, I looked up and met Rosie’s hard, disapproving glare. He was not a man who made much room for other people’s needs. I tried to ignore him.
“Come on …” I verbally cajoled the bike.
Castigating the motorcycle, you won’t be surprised, didn’t work. Finally I pulled out the choke—a kind of last-stop measure to start a bike—and the Vulcan belched and hacked its way to life.
The choke, on the left handlebar, is literally a string, like the one on the end of a tampon. Yanking it floods the engine with gasoline, like a surge of heroin to an addict’s bloodstream, and can goose a cold bike to life like beating your fists against a dead man’s chest and screaming, “Come back!” will bring him back to life in the movies. The problem is if you use too much choke, you drown the engine in too much gasoline and soak the ignition wick, making it too wet to spark, just as wet firewood won’t make you a campfire anytime soon.
The altimeter, another important instrument on the dashboard, hovers at just above two on a healthy bike. My altimeter was hovering a hair above zero. If the needle touches zero, the bike automatically dies. My bike was a speed bump, a pothole, or just catching a chill away from death. I grimaced. It could cut power at any time.
I glanced over at Rosie. He had been watching me hatchet-faced for the last five minutes. When I finally pulled out the choke and the bike coughed to life, he nodded brusquely. He said he thought we could do all eight hundred miles to Anchorage in one ass-killing ride. No breaks, just murder through it. This was not really feasible—about the most a rider can get away with in one day is five hundred miles, maybe six hundred if he’s a masochist. But Rosie’s implacable face told me he wasn’t joking. I realized he rode often enough that his ass had transmogrified into wood. For anyone who doesn’t ride consistently, as I didn’t, your ass becomes seriously uncomfortable after only a few hours on a bike. The longer you ride, the worse it hurts until it’s so painful that knives of shooting pain are radiating out from your butt over your entire body like a fistful of pinched nerves or being stung by a swarm of jellyfish. It’s hell, it really is. You have to pass through an extraordinary crucible of ass pain before you come out the other side and the powers that be transform your mushy ass from cookie dough into wood.
Only then can you call yourself a rider.
My companion rode parallel with me on the empty double-lane road, sometimes slightly ahead, sometimes slightly behind. We drove seventy-five miles per hour, but our bikes were close enough that I could easily have reached out and touched him. We rode in sync, as though both controlled by one brain. Like a harmonious musical chord made up of two adept motorcyclists instead of notes on a scale, we weaved in and out, in front and behind each other, riding in figure eight patterns like ice-skating partners but on a road instead of an ice rink, our collective one brain calibrating our rhythms without our having to do anything to make it so. Exposed on the highway with the ability to reach out and bump fists while hurtling along at seventy-five miles per hour creates a bond, a symmetry between bikers that doesn’t exist between car drivers.
Most car drivers seem to hate each other. The exoskeleton frames of cars dual-function as conductive antennae that give people license to channel their frustration and hatred at the people in the other metal exoskeletons around them. With no concern, thanks to no chance of meeting each other face-to-face, their rage can flow freely, safely, and, most importantly, unabated. Screaming at or berating strangers is somehow accepted in our advanced civilization as long as you are in a car. Following this to its logical conclusion, people would probably like to attack strangers on the street if only it were socially permitted. We haven’t evolved past the bloodlust of gladiators in the Colosseum. We just built cars.
But bikers all love each other. It’s a lovefest, man.
Once while I was riding in the far north, a black man rode into the same gas station where I was refilling my tank. Snow lay on the ground. I stood shivering next to a gas pump. The tall black man dismounted his bike. He was wearing snakeskin boots. I glanced at his Indian motorcycle. An entire crocodile’s skin was spread across the seat of his bike. He was wearing a thick silver fur coat. “I like your Carhartts, man!” he called to me. We clasped hands, and he reached out and hugged me. A stranger whom I had just met five seconds earlier.
It can happen with another biker.
Bikers are like prenatal twins separated at birth, newly reunited. There’s an automatic respect that exists between bikers without being spoken, one linked to our small number and the ever-incumbent danger of death, the omnipresent chance of becoming a pancake on the asphalt two seconds from now anytime we’re riding. We all know that every time we straddle the saddle and bolt down the interstate at ninety miles per hour with no armor, just jeans, beater, and black leather jacket, we’re putting our lives in God’s hands. It doesn’t have to be said. Gripping those handlebars, the only goddamn things keeping you alive, knowing full well that if your hands were to slip off the grips for any reason at all, you’d be just a bloodstain, a grease spot on the highway, there’s some subtle understanding that, in some way, we’re all trying to touch God, no different than Michelangelo was when he painted the Sistine Chapel. God resides in the thin line between life and death.
When bikers see other bikers approaching on the opposite side of the highway, without exception they ritualistically drop their left hand down into a low V victory sign in greeting—a universal greeting between bikers in all countries around the world that reinforces the bond between you and every other biker you pass on the other side of the road. You automatically and irrevocably belong to the same club.
Interestingly, if you talk to other bikers at gas stations, both of you scuffing your boots against the concrete bank of gas pumps while your tanks refill, in motel lobbies at check-in or check-out or at the stand-up coffee and doughnut breakfast, in diners over bottomless cups of hot coffee and hash browns drowned in bacon grease, or at casino blackjack tables, you find that you somehow share a similar life philosophy and have certain basic things in common. You may come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, yet in some foundational way you are the same person. Bikers are freethinkers—iconoclasts. All serious bikers share an abiding love of freedom, a real devotion to it, and a very deep patriotic love of America, or their own country. Patriotism and love of freedom run hot-quick through our blood like molten quark-gluon plasma, the hottest goddamn thing in the universe. We bleed American. Hell yeah. When I ride, the American flag is plastered to nearly every inch of my shoes, bike, gear, saddlebags, helmet, and clothing. It’s hard to see anything other than stars and stripes. I look like Apollo Creed straddling an oblong rocket between my legs.
And then there’s the mystical experience, what we really ride for, when you leave the interstate behind and find a secondary road through dense, dark nature. Yellow-and-gold trees spin past dappled in spindly gold sunlight, swaying tranquilly in the breeze, with no other sound than the hypnotic purr of the cruising motorcycle and the wind kissing your face. Something about the movement of the bike, your face screaming down the wind, and that rich, close nature as God intended it—the Bavarian forest, the wheat-streaked golden field—sweeps you into a world that’s much more beautiful and mythic than our own.
On the road we were traveling there were no intersections, no stores, no gas stations, and no infrastructure other than the road itself for 140 miles. My bike’s tank was only good for 100 miles. Using the reserve tank I could squeeze out maybe 120 miles on one tank of gas at the absolute most. Because I’d bought my bike used, it was old and no longer worked optimally and ran out of gas much sooner than I expected. Rosie’s bike was large and brand-spanking new—he could do 200 miles on a single tank of gas easy, he said.
Back in Haines, having been warned that the next 140 miles had no gas stations, I bought a red plastic gas can, the kind sold at Walmart, filled it with gas, and lashed it to the back of my bike with bungee cords. When we reached 100 miles in, I waved Rosie off the road. He waited as I refilled my tank from the spare can.
I had felt nervous for the last ten miles. There is no more worrisome feeling to a biker than the prospect of imminently running out of gas. One moment the bike is running fine. Then suddenly it jerks violently, and rockets forward for just a moment with its last gasp of life before instantly cutting power and dying, all its gauges collapsing to zero, a microcosm of the future death of the universe. I had run out of gas on the road before; it’s not a pleasant experience. After it happens it takes at least ten minutes for enough gas to trickle down from the reserve chamber into the main tank for the bike to start up again, and while you wait, there’s nothing to do but stand idly by and twiddle your thumbs. Once the bike sputters back to life, then the clock is really ticking. You have only fifteen or twenty miles to find a gas station before the reserve tank runs out, and then you’re properly screwed. As I poured gas into the tank and gave it time to trickle down into the engine, Rosie’s chin drooped to his chest in a catnap.
After ten minutes I fired up the bike again. I nudged Rosie awake, and we rode on together for perhaps another twenty miles. That’s when it happened. As we rounded a big leafy bend in a tight curve, I looked up and saw a true American bald eagle flying low overhead, twenty feet up. It was my totem. It was mystical and beautiful. I felt strongly that it was here for me. It was amazing. It was spiritual, positively ethereal. I pulled the right handlebar tight into my chest and had the bike so low to the ground that I caught the g-forces that allow one to accelerate inside a tight curve. I was just straightening out when I heard, or rather felt, a faint click somewhere deep inside the bike, not in its bowels but somewhere deep in its soul, inside the engine. Suddenly the bike’s acceleration died, the engine disengaged from the gas pedal, and the bike rolled to a benign stop, the engine still purring away as though nothing had happened. Odd. I rolled my right wrist down on the throttle, and the engine surged as usual, but the bike didn’t move an inch. Then I opened up the gas full throttle. The engine roared like a racecar, but the bike didn’t budge. The throttle and gas had been disabled from whatever makes the bike go forward.
In one moment everything had been fine. In the next, apropos of nothing, my bike had suddenly died. It was still on—the engine was running —but it no longer had any power. Rosie circled back. I told him what was wrong.
“I never heard of that. That sounds bad,” he said blandly, and I had a feeling he was right.
If he, a serious rider, hadn’t heard of it, then it probably was bad. It dawned on me that this wasn’t something I was going to be able to fix with the rudimentary set of socket wrenches in my tool bag.
I shrugged, sanguine.
I looked around and breathed in the sharp Yukon air. It was crisp and fresh. Rosie had no more patience for me. He said he was going to continue apace to Anchorage, hauling ass for the next seven hundred miles without stopping until he got there. Damn, that is one long ride.
Rosie had a phone with a SIM card for Canada. He let me borrow it so I could call AAA emergency service.
Luckily his phone rasped out a signal. Someone picked up and I gave them my location as best I knew it—“One hundred and twenty miles inland from Haines on the road to Alaska, somewhere near Kluane Lake, wilderness, middle of nowhere.”
They put me on hold for a long time. Rosie fidgeted. He hated burning daylight standing upright like this. Finally AAA came back and said that the closest place with a mechanic was Destruction Bay.
“Destruction Bay,” I repeated. Rosie whistled. It’s not me who’s screwed, I could see him thinking. He took his phone back, nodded a brisk farewell, and took off like the survivor in our postapocalyptic future with better equipment and more water. As he rode away I yelled after him to give me loose slot machines if I ever came to Reno. He dashed a finger off his forehead like a pilot, and I never saw him again.
Now I was truly alone on a desolate highway
in the middle of nowhere, abandoned. I looked around at the wide
expanse of nothingness. I was marooned in the Yukon.
Everybody wants something. Late in the day, around eleven o’clock and still light outside, Jude Blanchette, the lone mechanic in Destruction Bay who had been contacted by AAA, pulled up in his truck and tied my bike to his tailgate. He proceeded to drag my poor bike thirty onward miles to Destruction Bay.
In the cab of his truck, Jude, whom I didn’t know from Adam, and beginning from zero pleasantries, began telling me the lurid story of his life—he was a disgraced Vietnam vet who’d been convicted of murder and spent the last eighteen years in a federal prison for shooting and killing two of his own men one night in Nam, as he called it. He admitted without remorse that he’d killed the two guys in his unit on purpose for fun, for sport. He confessed all this to me within the first five minutes of our meeting. Jude had spent the last half of his life in a military prison.
“Was it Guantanamo Bay?” I asked him.
He craned his neck around and stared at me with dead, reptilian eyes. He didn’t say anything for a long time. It was getting a little awkward so finally I shrugged and raised my eyebrows in a “Well?” expression.
“No,” he finally said.
When Jude was released from prison, he retreated to the most isolated, immutable part of the world he could find, a place bleak and destitute enough to match his black heart, which just happened to be where my bike broke down.
Jude, speaking softly, gradually moved the conversation from murder to money, apparently his two favorite subjects. “How much money do you have?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said vaguely. “A few bucks.” I chuckled uncomfortably and glanced over to see if he was chuckling alongside me. No such luck. I wasn’t sure whether he wanted to know if I could afford to fix my bike or if he was just after my money. I hoped it was the former, but my heart already knew it was the latter.
There was nothing between us but five inches of empty space. I thought about him murdering his two best friends eighteen years ago just for fun, for sport.
I wanted to ask him, “How did it feel when you killed your friends?”
But I already knew his answer. “Good. It felt good, Tom.”
Suddenly I was glad I was wearing an A-frame T-shirt, cowboy boots, and a scarred but indestructible leather jacket with a huge American flag emblazoned across the back. Grime, soot, and oil from the road were baked into my face. I was unshaven and swarthy beneath a moisturizing layer of dirt. I smelled like gasoline. If you lit a match to me I would have exploded. I probably didn’t look completely easy to take down. I’m six feet and 180 pounds. Yet Jude stood six foot four and 240 pounds, built like a Samoan linebacker. I was puny beside him.
“I could fix you up, get you back on the road,” he said with persiflage, as though he’d said it before.
“That’s great!” I gushed, relief flooding over me.
“For a thousand dollars,” he said.
I stared at him, but this time he was looking straight ahead.
“What …?” I said. “The deductible is only two hundred dollars; AAA pays you the rest.”
Jude waved away my words with a soft motion of his hand before I’d finished speaking. He was practiced in all responses from experience. Nothing I said was going to throw him.
“Do you know how long AAA takes to reimburse me?” he said. “Nine months. It’s not even worth it. I’m not going to spend the money on the parts myself and wait around that long to be paid.”
I knew he was evil, but his argument almost made sense even to me. I said, “I’m not going to give you a thousand dollars. The whole bike isn’t even worth that much. I don’t have it anyway. I only have three hundred dollars on me.”
That part was true—I only had $300 left in cash on me, and I knew there was no ATM in Destruction Bay. I hadn’t been expecting to see one until I reached Anchorage, which now seemed as far away as Alpha Centauri.
“Then,” Jude said lightly, “we have a problem.”
I sighed. I looked at him sitting across from me. This time he was looking straight at me, his neck coiled around with that dead, snakelike coldness in his eyes. I knew things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.
When Jude pulled into his house, I turned down his extortionist bid again, and his expression hardened. He unhooked my bike from the hitch of his truck, rolled it inside his garage, and pulled down his garage door and locked it right in front of me as I stood there watching.
“Want your bike back? Think about it,” he said, looking at me with what can only be described as a vast reservoir of hate.
He walked inside his house and shut the door.
Standing there in my cowboy boots with a duffel bag and $300 in my pocket, I turned and walked up the hill to the main highway, turned north, and walked about twenty minutes until I reached Destruction Bay. Its lone gas station appeared ahead of me on the left.
I walked into the tiny office. Bells jangled from the top of the door, as they do in small towns. A slender, late-middle-aged man sat behind an old brown desk circa the 1970s. Beside myself, I told him what had just happened.
“Jude knows the value of a dollar,” came his memorable reply, followed by a slur so pungent it made my eyes water.
The slender man looked me straight in the eyes from his seated position, one of his eyebrows arched high like Mr. Spock’s. He said nothing more, but in that moment he had told me he knew exactly who Jude was and that he wasn’t on his side. He would prove a key ally in the days ahead. I soon learned that he was the gas station’s owner. Fortunately he also rented three rooms out back that functioned as the godforsaken town’s only motel. Two of the rooms were already taken. There was just one left, and I grabbed it. If that room had been taken, I’m not sure what I would’ve done. I may well have had to sleep in the forest that night. When you break down in the wild and are left at the mercy of insane locals in Appalachia or something like it but worse, things can turn south in a hurry.
I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. and woke up in the middle of the goddamn night. It was freezing cold even in the tiny motel room, which had only the thinnest sheet siding for walls. Shivering, I pulled on my jeans and opened the door and walked outside, where I was plunged into icy darkness. I walked down the highway to Jude’s house in the dark, a stranger in a strange land.
It was utterly silent. The scuffing of my boots against the pavement made the only audible sound. I eased down Jude’s gravel driveway. Tiny stones crunched beneath my boots. The garage door was locked. I tiptoed around the side, walking ever so slowly so as to avoid making noise. There was a side door. Holding my breath, I twisted the knob. Eureka! It opened. I exhaled and slipped inside. Vague memories of summers in my youth in Michigan at my grandmother’s house drifted up out of the limbic system—a birdbath in the front yard; an attic; a delicious, perfect wood smell; an enormous, Oz-like hot- air balloon in a long open field in front of the house; fireflies and crickets chirping all night long in the warm languid summers outside the bedroom window. It was Dorothy country, Jem and Scout country—a beautiful childhood. People in the country don’t bother to lock their doors at night. They know the neighbors.
Not this neighbor.
I ran my hand flush along the inside wall of his garage until it fumbled across a switch. I flicked it up. The room crackled and spit to life in a dim halogen half glow. And there she was, my motorcycle—or what had once been my motorcycle. It was now a filthy dead husk that looked as though it hadn’t been ridden in a hundred years. It was dirty and lifeless from being dragged behind Jude’s truck. The bike having been my loyal companion these last many months, I felt as though I were rescuing a kidnapped lover that had been abused and was lying there unconscious. The bike in my sight, the need to save her before dawn took on new urgency. I looked around for keys to open the padlock on the front of his garage. Inside the garage of a stranger who had killed two men for sport and gone to prison nearly twenty years for it, a fresh sense of terror swept into me as I rifled through the toolboxes on his workshelf. I couldn’t find any keys. Damn.
I picked up the bike, and wheeled it around. It was extremely heavy with a full tank of gas in it. It strained against my body’s ability to maneuver the bike’s handlebars inside the tight space of his garage without using the kickstand. If the bike banged into anything or fell over and clanged onto the floor, it would be game over and I’d be dead meat. Luckily the width of my bike was infinitesimally lean enough to squeeze through the side door, as though the maker of the doorway had built it precisely with my motorcycle in mind.
Jude’s house lay in a gully, and I would have to push the bike uphill to get it onto the highway. It was a very steep driveway.
I was standing directly in front of Jude’s front door now, just five yards from it. His house loomed over me, frighteningly close. Sunlight bled out across the horizon. Suddenly an enormous fear rippled through me. In the country older men tend to wake at dawn, and I had a feeling Jude was one of those early risers, creepy bastard that he was. If he caught me, who knew what he would do? He had certainly shot and killed men for less. He would have an excuse this time too: he could simply say I was trespassing on his property. In America they let you shoot people for that. It’s called “home defense.” He could probably kill me and get clean away with it, especially in a place like this with no policemen for six hundred miles.
I gave the bike a good push up the hill. It didn’t budge. Not a centimeter. An icy rivulet of mercury slid down the back of my spine like a cup of icy rainwater poured down the back of my T-shirt. My heart sank. The Vulcan was too heavy to push up the hill. I simply couldn’t do it. Suddenly my options looked very bleak. I looked at the sun—it was rising! And damn fast too. A primal fear welled up inside me. I looked back at the house and its darkened windows. Jude would be up at any second and look out his window and see me standing in his front yard. It felt edgy and dangerous. I imagined the shotgun Jude kept beside his bed.
I kept glancing at the house, waiting for the lights to switch on and Jude to come bursting out the front door and shoot me dead, knowing he could legally do it. There were no neighbors, no other houses nearby. No one lived within shouting range, and, more to the point, no one cared. The place was named Destruction Bay, for Christ’s sake. There was a reason for it. It had earned its name. The census said the population had dropped from fifty-five people in 2006 to thirty-five in 2011. You tell me what happened to those twenty people. On second thought, no need. Jude. That’s what happened.
I didn’t know what to do, so I just let the bike roll back down into the gully. I paused to think. I decided to try and get a running head start to get the motorcycle up onto the driveway’s forty-five degree angle.
I ran, holding the bike upright as best I could. The machine was so heavy that it nearly tipped over, and I had to stop and brace it against my hip with all my might just to keep it from falling over. If it crashed into the ground, it would make a huge noise that would wake up Jude. I cursed the bad luck of having just refilled the tank before the bike broke. On an empty tank the bike was literally half as heavy. Most of its weight comes from the gas.
The sun was splashing down now and had nearly lifted into full light.
Inhale, exhale. Breathe in, breathe out. I calmed myself, tried to slow my racing heart, and decided just to take things very slow. I crouched down nearly to my heels and coiled all my strength in my core like a panther. Then I pushed up from my legs as hard as I could. My thighs quailed beneath the weight of the bike. I felt the front wheel move infinitesimally. The bike advanced up the hill an inch! I squeezed the brakes on the handlebars tight to maintain the inch I’d gained and prevent the bike from rolling back down into the ditch.
Yes! I’d made an inch. I rested for thirty seconds. Then I coiled my core and pushed up hard through my legs again. The bike scratched up the face another inch. I clamped down hard on the brakes. I realized that if I did this all night I might eventually reach the top of the hill, perhaps in four or five hours.
Push, clamp down on the brakes to preserve the inch I’d gained, rest, push again. I cannot remember a feeling of greater relief or joy than when I realized I was going to be able to get my bike off his property. At around six o’clock I reached the top. It hadn’t taken four hours; it had taken one.
I made one last huge lunge and pushed the heavy bike onto the pavement. Yes!
I turned around.
Reader, his lights were on.
I had been so engrossed in the work that I had completely forgotten about his house for the past hour. I’m glad I hadn’t turned around and seen his lights on while I’d been pushing the bike because I very well might have panicked and dropped it over.
Light streamed down from his second-story windows like light streaming down from a rift in the clouds on the rim of a raging storm. Suddenly a terrifying hulking shadow split the right-hand window. Someone was up: it was either Jude or his wife. I couldn’t see who it was, but the stooped shadow, scent of evil, and betting money all said it was Jude. He seemed to have just risen and not yet looked outside. That was a stroke of luck—enough sunrises had inoculated him to their beauty and he no longer looked outside first thing in the morning. If he had just glanced out his window, he would have seen me standing in his front yard, completely exposed. He was probably stumbling bleary-eyed to the john. In this case, it was probably the call of nature that saved me.
I straddled the bike, and stretched my warm blue-jeaned crotch over the familiar well-worn seat, that motorcycle seat that was more of a home than any other I have known in my life. Like the well-worn diner booth where I began each morning with a cup of hot coffee, that seat was all comfort and self-knowledge. I kicked off the pavement with both legs like a swimmer kicking off the deep end of a pool and got the bike rolling. As I scooted down the pavement, I swiveled at the hips and flipped the bird back at his house.
I figured I had at least ten minutes before he came downstairs and discovered the bike was missing. By then I’d be nearly at the gas station. After an adrenaline-fueled, nerve-wracking, frisson-sending fifteen minutes holding my breath to hear heavy boots running up the pavement behind me, Jude with shotgun in hand, ready and willing to shoot me in the back, an open grave somewhere nearby, I finally glimpsed the gas station up ahead of me in the dim morning light. I looked back around into the hazy dawn. A mist had crept in. I couldn’t see a thing beyond twenty paces back. I heard no footfalls, no thudding of footsteps on the pavement behind me.
Scarcely daring to breathe, I rolled the bike behind the motel and covered it up with some branches and leaves as best I could. I peered around the side of the building.
Jude was there.
I couldn’t see him in the mist, but I felt his presence as surely as you can feel the presence of a stranger inside your home. I slipped inside my room, exhausted, and lowered the blinds so that Jude wouldn’t be able to look in my window.
My brain was whirring. In my mind I was
still rolling the bike uphill one inch, two inches at a time in the
close, threatening dark. Light bled out over the horizon. I stood a few
paces from Jude’s front door, waiting for it to open, waiting for it to
open … Suddenly the door flew open wide, but no one came out. Scared, I
looked inside and saw only a dense black maw, a thick clot of darkness.
A sick feeling emanated from it and I turned away in fear. Then I was
pushing the bike uphill again, teetering under its weight. It was
getting harder and harder to hold the bike upright without it falling
over on one side. Suddenly my arms were flailing and I couldn’t hold
the bike upright anymore. Thinking about it again and again in an
endless loop, like I had to do it again, like I had to do it forever, I
fell into a troubled sleep plagued with nightmares.
I woke in the morning and for a good three seconds had no idea where I was. Then it all came rushing back to me. I groaned. I got up, checked to make sure my motorcycle was still behind the motel—it was—and then took breakfast in the gas station’s restaurant, the only restaurant in town, also owned by the rail-thin gas station owner, a person who I instinctually felt was an ally in this hellish place.
With no repair services capable of fixing the bike for six hundred miles, I abandoned my motorcycle to the Yukon. There was a way out of Destruction Bay and fortunately it wasn’t in a body bag. An eighteen-wheeler stopped for gas on the way to Anchorage, and I asked the trucker if I could hitch a ride with him. After three days in Destruction Bay, I had only $150 cash and a duffel bag of clothes. I was footloose, freer than ever, but I had lost my only friend, the motorcycle.
The delay had created another problem that threatened to undo my entire reason for going to Alaska in the first place. With the loss of the three days in Destruction Bay, by the time I arrived in Anchorage the fishing season had already begun, and I had missed the hiring window for the floating canneries at sea. The hiring season had ended three days ago, and all the recruiters for the fishing industry had pulled out and left.
I was alone in Anchorage with no motorcycle, no job, and no other purpose for being here. I had come all this way to get hired for the fishing season and I’d literally missed the boat.
So I did the only thing I knew to do. I’ve found in life that it often comes down to one thing, which is just the next thing. I went to city hall in Anchorage to inquire about any leftover fishing jobs. The clerk at the counter told me the same sad story—all the recruiting for this year’s fishing season was finished. I was too late. The workers had all been flown out to their floating bergs of migrant labor in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and I couldn’t join them because the companies that arranged those flights weren’t arranging any more. There was no way to get out there even if they would employ me. Besides, they had filled their quota.
The woman at the counter lowered her eyes to the sheaf of papers in front of her in the sign that it was time for me to move on.
I tried once more.
“Is there anything else I can check?”
“No,” she said and looked down at her papers again in the universal sign that means, It’s time for you to leave now.
I didn’t move.
After a while she looked up again. It finally seemed to get into her head that I wasn’t going anywhere. Presently she set down her pen and said, “Well, there’s a job board in the back you could check.”
I walked to a perforated corkboard at the back of the room. Everything on it had been ripped down. Only a few tattered shreds of paper remained under pushpins. There was just one ad left on the board. I squinted at the handwriting.
Large looping letters, leaning right, suggesting an analytical, even creative person. Good sign.
The ad was signed Chuck and promised a real fishing job aboard a boat in the ocean, like the Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel. It was exactly what I had come to Alaska for and what I had been unsuccessful finding on subscription job sites before I had come, which had all turned up goose eggs. I seized a phone on the table and dialed the number.
A man with a low Texan drawl picked up. “He-llo.”
“Is this Chuck?”
“Ye-p.” The p sound popped over the phone like a chew toy being ripped out of a baby’s mouth.
“Is the job for crewman still available?”
A pause on the other end of the line. I held my breath, pressed my eyelids tightly shut. Come on. Come on.
“Where are you?”
“I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
He’d hung up. I listened to the dial tone on the other end of the receiver. A rush of excitement flooded my body like a rush of gasoline flooding the engine from the choke. Woohoo! Here we go! Suddenly I had a reason for being in Anchorage.
I had lucked my way into a set-net fishing job in Bristol Bay in the southern Bering Sea working for intrepid lifelong fisherman Chuck Robertson. Chuck was originally from Texas and still counted family there, but he’d relocated to Alaska as a child when his father became a fisherman. When his father passed away, Chuck had kept right on fishing. His mother lived in Anchorage.
I had spent a month in San Diego researching jobs on Alaskan fishing boats, trying everything to secure a crew job before I left, even paying for a few subscription lists at ninety dollars per month promising fishing jobs and boat captains’ private phone numbers.
One of them I subscribed to,
With so many people eager to earn large paychecks in the short crabbing seasons, jobs can be scarce because of their popularity.
We have information how to find jobs offshore working in the processing plant where many crabbers get their start.
You will learn about what the Bureau of
Labor Statistics calls the world’s most dangerous job. For the
adventurous-minded the Alaskan fishing industry is hard to ignore.
These words sent a shiver of excitement pulsing through me, a quicksilver thrill, and when I read them I knew I wanted to do it. None of these paid lists ever yielded a lead, though. Very few of the phone numbers worked in reality; they were old and out of use.
Not one captain needed an extra crewman. One captain was kind enough to explain to me that these jobs are enormously popular and that once a crewman secures one, he tends to hold on to his spot season after season. I only got the job with Chuck because, by some lucky miracle, his crewman had quit the day they were scheduled to fly out to the Bering Sea to start the season, leaving Chuck holding the bag. Chuck couldn’t do the season on his own, so he’d been forced to cancel his flight and spin his wheels in Anchorage until he found a new crewman. Chuck said that his ad had sat on the board for three days without anyone calling.
“Three days!” he repeated, disbelieving.
How could that be? Because three days ago
the recruiting season had ended and everyone in Anchorage knew it, so
no one had bothered to come by city hall looking for a job since then.
Chuck had hired me on for the summer salmon season of set-net fishing, where you’re allowed to cast up to three nets within a thousand meters of shore anywhere you want along the coastline. We were fishing close enough to shore that I was always able to see land, so even if the boat sank I would probably be able to swim to shore, unless I succumbed to the freezing cold water first.
Chuck and I spent days, months, driving the boat up and down the coast, moving our net from place to place prospecting for fertile fishing grounds, a swatch of sea that was stuffed with fish. Fishing is fickle. It’s a little like an Easter egg hunt. Chuck would scout a location that he hoped lay in the path of some great diaspora of fish churning downstream from their breeding grounds at the source of the Egegik River high up in the mountains. We’d plant a net and leave it and then motor back to check the first net we’d already set that morning in front of Chuck’s cabin. There was always great anticipation when we pulled a net up from the water after being away from it for some hours—would it be teeming and stuffed to the gills, so to speak, fraught with fish? Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t. It was prospecting, which made it fun. And sometimes frustrating.
At midday when our brail bags were breaking beneath the weight of a full boat teeming with fish, Chuck steered the skiff out to sea and drove us to the tender.
Tenders are the enormous buying boats that park themselves about a mile off coast. Fishermen up and down the coast wagoned out to the tender once a day to sell their hauls of fish in exchange for receipts that they could hand in for cash at the end of the season in Anchorage.
Each day Chuck and I waited in line behind other fishing vessels for our turn to deliver to the tender. When we reached the front of the line, hooks like giant squid pincers unspooled down from a tower above and we clipped them to our brail bags. Then they hauled our catch, which weighed a thousand pounds per bag, clear up into the sky. After the last bag, Chuck clipped himself in at his belt and he too was whisked up into the sky on a wire like an actor in Peter Pan. Chuck nimbly alighted on the aft deck of the ship and the tender’s buyer, a large man in orange gaiters, scribbled out a receipt for our fish.
The price of fish was in the middle of a long decline that had been precipitated by the rise of farmed salmon.
During the summer the Bristol Bay fishery sent us a memo that said:
The analysis indicates that the outlook for the future is grim. Low fish prices and modest salmon returns are likely to continue and the economic disaster these have wrought will continue if the fishery is left unchanged. A substantial increase in the world’s supply of farmed salmon over the last decade and a decline in the productivity of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon stocks threaten the economic viability of one of the world’s great salmon fisheries and the region that depends on it. These conditions have placed the fishery and many communities within the Bristol Bay region on the verge of financial insolvency.
The fishery is nearly financially insolvent.
Last year, permit holders on average earned $4,000 after operating
costs, but before deducting for debt service on vessels and permits.
There isn’t enough wealth available in the fishery to support the
number of participants and the average annual incomes it once did.
As dire as the situation had become for Chuck and the other fishermen, there was no talk amongst any of them about changing their line of work.
When the fishing was really cooking and hundreds and thousands of fish were streaming downriver and plowing into our net, the whole thing would light up end to end in plumes of flying water like the fountain show at the Bellagio. Fish steamed into our net like flies onto halogen rods, and the whole ocean tilted up on an axis as though it were being hoisted into the sky by the moon’s gravity. When fish hit the net, they bucked and burst skyward in a last-ditch effort to escape, a final surge of their last energy, but the net always held them fast and dragged them back to the surface. The fish continued to struggle, which only ensnared them further. Soon they would be in our brail bag, and in a few hours more they’d be on the tender in a massive refrigerated hold the size of Andorra with a billion other fish, and a week later they’d be on your dinner plate.
Our nearest neighbor, Rick, was a cowboy fishermen who just couldn’t bring himself to hang it up at night. Rick was so greedy that he left his nets in the water all night long while he slept, which was against the rules—you’re supposed to pull them up. Over the course of a night and that many hours going unpicked, the fish, unable to move, which is essential to the survival of a fish, eventually died in the net.
Chuck and I came out one morning to find Rick and his crewmen struggling to pull up the most massively full net of fish I’ve ever seen. It was full to bursting, nearly too heavy for three men to hoist, and when they finally lifted it out of the water, the bottom of the net broke. Seven hundred dead fish dropped through the bottom to the ocean floor where they rotted in a watery grave.
“Nice,” Chuck said.
Rick took a step back and wiped the sweat off his brow. “I don’t do good work but the good news is I don’t do much of it,” he said.
Then he added, “My head hurts—I think it hurts if it’s either too full or too empty.”
“Are you sure you want to pursue this?” Chuck asked.
Rick looked at me. “I used to be my harshest critic, but then I married my wife.”
“How is Courtney?” Chuck asked.
“I love her but she’s so crazy she could haunt a nine-room mansion from the front porch.”
Chuck shook his head.
Rick lost at least two more full nets of fish this way and maybe more. Even if the net doesn’t break under the weight of so many fish, after a long night being held captive underwater, the fish die anyway and begin to decompose. Rick didn’t care so long as he could toss them in a brail bag first thing in the morning and motor out to the tender and sell them before anyone caught on.
Rick started fishing all night long and straight through the next day without stopping like a maniac. He continued fishing all day and night even at the expense of taking the odd forty-minute drive out to the tender to sell the fish and come back. As a result, the fish lay in the bottom of his boat in the sun for too long and rotted. And the stench of rotten fish is impossible to hide.
Chuck watched Rick at it one morning. “Rick, you never did know when to pull out,” he said. Rick smirked. He was a rascal with a black handlebar mustache and bouffant black hair.
“I spent half my money on women and booze. I wasted the other half,” he said.
One of Rick’s greenhorns, perhaps tired from being awake all night, threw a fish in frustration and sat down in a huff.
Rick pointed at him. “Sourdough!” he laughed.
“What’s a sourdough?” I asked.
“A guy who’s soured on Alaska but doesn’t have the dough to get out.”
The season finally ended. One quiet, still morning shortly after dawn, Chuck drove me up the coast to Pilot Point, where he had booked the tiniest propeller biplane known to man to fly me the out of here. There was only enough room for one passenger inside. I climbed through a diagonal coin slot and leaned back inside a windowed coffin. There are no roads of any kind in or out of the Alaskan Peninsula: you have to fly over a towering rim of mountains called the Aleutian Range to get here from Anchorage.
After I left, Chuck stayed behind in Smoky Point to do God knows what.
“Fish by the rod, chill till the oil runs out,” he waxed rapturously.
I finally grasped that Smoky Point was
Chuck’s bliss, his heaven. He truly loved it down here. There was no
place in the world he would rather be than this desolate wasteland,
this nothingness that’s as nothing as nothing can be, living alone in
his self-sufficient house.
Back in Anchorage my new reality dawned on
me. My motorcycle was broken—trashed, destroyed. It was the end of
August and I would spend the next month dealing with very expensive
logistical and repair costs to the bike. The part that had shattered
deep inside the bike’s soul was obscure—called a stator. No shop had it
on hand. It had to be shipped from the factory in Virginia to
Anchorage. It would take three weeks for the stator to arrive. It took
forever. It was the middle of September by the time the bike was back
in Anchorage, repaired, and I could take off again.
I find I can ride forever in the north. When you’re riding long distances, hundreds upon hundreds of miles, which become thousands of miles, on a road that snakes on endlessly on a motorcycle in faraway lands in severe climates, your perception, heightened by the cold and the intensity of the climate, turns meditative. You lose yourself in the smooth purr and hypnotic thrum of the moving motorcycle that is like a spaceship ferrying you across the vast glittering cavern of the northern world. The frigid arctic wind slaps your face, scrapes your cheeks, rakes your skin raw. The intense isolation this far north seemed to mirror the isolation in my own heart.
On the bike one has an age to do nothing except look around at the swaying trees, the lilting lakes, the shifting nature, and bear witness to a cascading waterfall of stars that shiver across the heavens in a night basin so majestic that it dwarfs anything in the warmer climes to the south.
The colder the night sky, the brighter the stars gleamed. They twinkle and pulse with greater intensity for those who dare venture near the poles. The closer you come to world’s end, the more beautiful that world becomes.
During the day the fragrance of asphalt wafted up—an intoxicatingly sweet bouquet of gasoline, oil, and steaming-hot pavement that worked its way up my jeans and into my jacket like a fine leather grease, making the jacket feel supple and lived-in. Pulling on the jacket each morning bequeathed an astonishing amount of comfort that felt almost as much like home as the motorcycle seat. Footloose, restlessness kept at bay so long as I was on the bike, carrying nothing but a wallet pressed crisply against my thigh in my tight blue jeans, silver chain with an eagle pendant dangling around my neck, and a ring of keys with an Elvis Presley red guitar draped down over the black gas tank—all had an urgent, simplifying appeal. Motorcycle, jeans, flat stomach, eagle pendant on a chain, a few bucks in my pocket … what more does a man need? For me it just felt like home.
I finally returned to San Diego in November and started advertising my bike, hoping to sell it for the same amount I’d bought it for six months earlier.
What happened next was a whole different adventure.
I do not make my living by writing I assure you. I am nobody important with no published pieces to my name.