Dean Sadler, the way he talked, made you think he was nearly asleep. Dr. Allan Housman, puffy eyes, wrinkled clothes, sat in a swivel chair across from the dean. He remarked the recent wedding photos of Dr. Sadler’s oldest daughter. The ceremony was held at Disney World, or Disneyland. Housman wasn’t sure. The message of the meeting had been this: we’re pulling for you Housman; it’s a shame your marriage fell apart, but didn’t you see it coming? They were, after all, friends—Housman and Sadler—in the institutional sense.
“Allan you’re taking a sabbatical,” said the dean. He stood up and walked over to his fish tank where a single goldfish flitted about the artificial kelp.
“There used to be two,” mumbled Housman.
“The other one croaked,” said Sadler.
“Why don’t you get another?”
Sadler sprinkled some fish flakes on surface and waited for them to snow down. He returned to his desk and sat heavily.
“Take a trip. Go somewhere. Denver. Salt Lake. Don’t just mope around Casper. We’ll be here when you come back and you can restart the Humanities-in-the-High-Schools program,” said Sadler.
Housman looked out the window. Bare branches of ornamental trees trembled with gusts. Dutch elm, weeping cherry, flowering pear—they were never meant to exist in Wyoming. It was three weeks before Christmas and Housman had nowhere to be. His grades were in. A student hurried across the empty courtyard. Housman wondered what Maddy was doing now that the divorce was official. With the proceeds from the sale of their house on Durbin, she was able to buy a house in Florida where her sister lived. She was three blocks from the beach. Housman was renting again for the first time in thirty years.
The winter raged. Housman stayed away from the outreach. He worked on a piece about Edward the Confessor. He didn’t fish, not once. The North Platte froze all the way to the dam. Housman swam laps at the Y, but that didn’t help much.
His nephew, Boatswain Mate Carl Housman, called in February and left a message on the voicemail.
“Hey, Allan, this is Carl. I’m up here in Valdez. I’m getting hitched in May and was wondering if you’d drive Anne-Beth up with a few of her things?”
Housman thought Carl and Anne-Beth called it quits years ago. He decided he’d wait until the next day and then leave a message that he couldn’t make it. He didn’t know if the roads would be open. He had never been to the North. He wanted to go back to his work on Edward the Confessor. He had notes and a few pages already. That night he lay awake in his bed and thought about Alaska, the devil’s club and other gnarled underbrush, the streams thick with rotting salmon, the muskeg and tussocks. He had a notion of what was up there, but he had never tested it. Ice-fog, oil pipelines and their corresponding roughnecks, Inupiaq who did nothing but buzz around their ramshackle towns on Sno-Gos.
And what would it be like to drive 3,000 miles with a girl who was roughly the age of the juniors in his “Rediscovering the Classic?” He had, over the years, lost touch with who they were, who he was, what they were all gaining from the experiment. Awake in bed, he Googled the directions to Valdez and saw a thick blue line, like a varicose vein, going up and up, over the curve of the earth.
Anne-Beth flew from Omaha to Denver. Housman came down to Denver a day early to sit in the soggy nosebleed seats and watch a baseball game, to wander LoDo with his hands in his pockets. The street drummers were unexceptional. He bought some marijuana candies and ate them in revolt against his current condition, to express solidarity with the rain showers, to rage against the status quo. The candies only made him sad.
At the airport he held a sign with her name on it. He saw her before she saw him: she had lost weight, and become something else: a green-eyed seraphim. Her dimples, the tattoos on her shoulders and wrists, the jet-black hair with Old School bangs. She was strutting, carrying a pet crate with a white cat inside and talking on her cell phone. She nearly walked past him.
They ate Indian food at a restaurant by the interstate, then drove to Casper in spits of sleet and snow. She spent an extraordinary amount of time fiddling with her phone, plugging it in for power, checking the weather, texting. Her Omaha friend, Linda, called and they talked for an hour about parties and yoga. She said to Linda, “That’s not the story I’m telling. My journey isn’t that anymore.” She hardly talked to Housman.
Housman was appalled when they arrived at his rental in Casper and she went inside to shower while he wrestled her three hulking bags of luggage up the steps. One of the bags was full of household items. He could hear blenders, coffee presses, wooden spoons, and silverware crunching together within. He didn’t see any camping equipment, no indication of foul weather gear. He poured himself a drink and sat down to flip through the Milepost while she showered, her music blasting on her cell phone. The music was hard to place, a sort of Neo-Pop Country with overtures to the Urban Experience. He couldn’t place it.
“Do you think we should go through Edmonton, or maybe cut across BC?” said Housman. She was out of the shower now, fiddling with face creams, the door half open. He had to raise his voice to overcome the music.
“Sure,” she said. She stepped out of his bathroom in veils of steam and vapor. She wrapped one of Housman’s towels around her shoulders. He saw lattices of tattoos crawling up her legs. Her body was overly muscular like that of an endurance athlete. He looked away.
By the time they made Great Falls, Housman had told her all about himself: how he went into teaching, his left-leaning politics, his divorce, his ongoing gripes with her generation. She told about how yoga had come into her life, rescued her. She told him how Carl and she got back together the summer before when he showed up at a party in Omaha. They were at a lake, but she didn’t know the name. She said they used online chatting to build their connection, and that Carl was the only boy she had ever loved. “We occupy the same energy,” she said. She said she had no real opinion on Alaska other than the fact that it snowed a lot. There was a studio in Valdez called Healing Tides where she thought vaguely about teaching classes, putting her certification to use.
“We’ll get transferred in a few years and be out of there anyhow,” she said. Her cat, O.G., sat in her lap as they drove toward the Canadian border crossing at Sweet Grass. Housman felt nervous when he handed their passports through the window to the border guard. Anne-Beth sprawled in the passenger side, her un-socked feet on Housman’s dash.
“Do you have shot records for the cat?” said the guard. They handed them to the guard. He read them, or pretended to. He asked where they were going, how long they’d be in Canada, how much alcohol they were bringing. Housman showed the guard his single bottle of bourbon. The man frowned. Then they were free, or freed, sent forth into the plains of winter wheat and sugar beets, the defunct farming communities, the grain elevators you could see way before you made the collections of buildings and churches they called towns. They were giddy, refreshed by the scrape with authority. In her lap, she rolled a joint. He was shocked that she had smuggled drugs into a foreign country and he said so.
“Chill, Housman,” she said.
They stayed at a campground in Banff. Anne-Beth was angry that her cell phone did not work at all in Canada. She thought she had paid extra to mitigate this before the journey. Housman put up his tent, while Anne-Beth walked around the campground holding her phone at various angles to make it work. She stood on a picnic table and held it aloft like a torch. Housman inflated her air mattress and arranged her sleeping bag in the Volvo. He piled the luggage in the front. He flipped the seats down in the back. There was plenty of room for Anne-Beth. Housman fed O.G. one of the putrid cans of what-have-you.
The bathrooms were closed for cleaning when Housman arrived, his bar of soap glowing pinkly in the last bit of sunset, his towel flopping in the glacial silt of the parking lot. Clouds were moving in. Anne-Beth and O.G. were already in the Volvo. The windows fogged over. He could see only the pale illumination from her cell phone.
The problem with camping in your fifties, thought the professor, is that your neck doesn’t line up with your torso the way it used to. Housman tossed and turned all night. Snow showers pipped against his rain fly. He was cold. Other campers shuffled by his tent on the way to the restrooms. They remarked the dropping temperatures and proclaimed that if it kept snowing they might head to town and get a room.
“That’s a great idea,” said Housman from his tent, his neck cranked at an extreme angle, “go and get yourself a room in town.”
At five a.m. Housman had to pee. He unzipped from his frozen tent and stumbled to the bathroom. Rescued by the fluorescent lights, the heater, the warm water, Housman steadied himself. He put on gloves and went back to take down his tent. He rapped lightly on the Volvo until he heard her yawn inside.
“We’re leaving,” he said. “We’ll grab some breakfast at the Tim Hortons.”
“Whatever,” she said. She said she wasn’t cold, but that maybe they should spring for a hotel next time. And her cell phone had died completely.
The Icefields Parkway was catching the first beams of sunlight as Housman piloted his car through the skiffs of snow and slush. Hardcore backcountry skiers were setting off with their backpacks and goggles, heading up the ungroomed slopes for a taste of heroics. Anne-Beth had never seen a glacier. She would have to wait. The snow storm fell upon them and the visibility diminished. At Jasper they had a hot breakfast and discussed their route. Housman argued for the fastest way, through Edmonton. But the weather was worse up there. Anne-Beth wanted to go west first, over to Smithers, then up the Cassiar Highway, a four-hundred-mile highway that may or may not be open.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” she said. It was her turn to drive. Housman had several audiobooks. He selected Black Elk Speaks and fell asleep between descriptions of buffalo hunts and conflicts with white soldiers. They drove all day, for hours after the end of Black Elk and into the nacreous, wetted twilight. Near Prince George they saw their first bear, a big boar feeding on spring grasses by the highway shoulder. Anne-Beth had never seen a bear before. She wanted to turn around and go back. She wanted photos. But there was traffic on the roads and they kept going.
“There will be more,” said Housman. “I bet we see a bunch on the Cassiar.”
They were getting road-goofy, a condition Anne-Beth described as too many miles and too much coffee. Housman took the wheel while Anne-Beth read from the Milepost descriptions of the towns they were passing through. At Houston, the “Steelhead Capital of the World,” they took a brief walk in the city park. Housman posed beside the World’s Largest Fly Rod. She snapped his photo while he pretended to cast.
“I was once pretty good at fly-fishing,” he said. The Bulkley River was the color of root beer. The volume of the rapids was sinister. No one was fishing. They ate Indian food at Smithers and pressed on to New Hazelton where Housman negotiated a room with two beds: popcorn ceiling, coffee pot, framed print of trappers canoeing an icy river. She went into the shower and blasted tunes from her cell phone. Housman went out into the drizzle. He stood on the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley rivers. The rivers carved through the bedrock and crashed against the cliff walls. He saw little wood lattices where the Gitxsan stood in the fall with hoop nets and hoped for salmon. It seemed impossible that someone would stand on these flimsy ladders risking his life for a fish. Had he ever risked anything? Probably if he and Maddy had children he’d be able to understand this type of desperation.
Anne-Beth was in her bed when Housman came back dripping wet. She had made herself a drink from Housman’s bottle. There was nothing on television but hockey and a documentary on Rock music, Jimmy Hendrix and the Stones.
“I used to teach a History of Rock class,” said Housman. “It was the only class that filled.”
“Jesus,” she said. “You make it sound so appealing.”
While he showered he thought about the previous year, how his life had crumbled, down the drain so to speak. He knew it was coming, but denied it as long as possible. He dried off and dressed in his PJ’s. They watched some of the show and then Housman began to tell her some other tidbits he picked up about pop culture and music. He did his Michael Jackson impersonation, always a hit at departmental parties, and she belly-laughed. He had to use the bathroom a final time, so he stood and moon-walked his way to the flimsy john.
The next bear they saw was on the side of the road near the ‘Ksan Village. The bear had a mouthful of dandelions in her mouth. No cubs yet. Housman wanted to make one thousand miles that day, but with the moose and bears stirring, he slowed down and watched the shoulders for animals. They saw two more bears before they reached Dease Lake. They filled up the tank at a liquor store/mercantile. Housman bought jerky. The bulletin board was full of missing persons reports, mostly Native girls who disappeared along this stretch of highway while hitchhiking. Anne-Beth read them while Housman navigated the store with two fresh cups of coffee.
They saw another bear on a hillside near Jade City. Anne-Beth saw it first and wanted to stop for a photo. Housman let the car idle while she snapped away. Then, not a mile further, Housman sang out that he saw yet another bear. This one by the roadside.
“Gee willikers, we’re having a five-bear day,” he said.
But quickly he realized the animal was dead, struck by a truck probably. It was a large boar with huge paws and an angelic face. They stopped. They got out and looked. Eyelashes, whiskers, beer-colored eyes. A tiny hole in the shoulder puzzled Anne-Beth. There was blood on the bear’s mouth, a bit in his nostrils.
“Looks like this one was shot,” said Housman.
“People are always wanting trophies,” he said. Though he had no good explanation.
“Five is supposed to be a lucky number,” she said. She didn’t take a photo. She put her phone in her pocket.
They were getting so far north that the sun didn’t set without a prolonged lingering that lasted hours. Caribou and moose appeared on the roads. A fox. A conspiracy of ravens. There was no way they could make Whitehorse. It was just too far. You couldn’t argue with the distances. So they camped by the river at Teslin. There were widgeon and mallards all over the mud flats. They heard cranes but didn’t see them. At the café they ate German food with homemade spaetzli. Housman built a fire at the campsite, but Anne-Beth was too tired. She was gloomy about the dead bear. She read the Milepost in the Volvo while Housman stood around and toed the fire with a bourbon in his hand.
Before they went to sleep, Anne-Beth cracked open the windows of the car and asked Housman if he enjoyed teaching college kids in an oil town.
“What were you trying to teach them anyway?” she said
“Maybe a little about what matters,” he said. She closed the door and zipped up her bag. Housman wanted to elaborate, but she was already gone. If she were still awake he’d tell her that he was trying to locate actual humans, that it was becoming more difficult these days. He was trying to teach them how to discover other humans, if they happened upon some. The idea amused him. The moment didn’t last. Whistles and bird calls he didn’t recognize came up from the mud flats. He couldn’t find his binoculars to look. They were probably in the car and he didn’t want to wake her.
The wedding in Valdez? It rained. But everyone was nice. Housman made a toast wherein he faltered and cried big tears. He had to pause for long, agonizing moments to regain himself. No one knew exactly why Housman fell apart. She was proud of him, though, for sticking it out. She wanted to tell everyone that this was the guy she came up with. Most people would have walked away, but Housman stood there crying in front of strangers. She never got to tell him how proud she was. None of it mattered much now, as the marriage to the Coast Guard guy only lasted a few months.
By September she found herself in an airport terminal at Sea-Tac with a six hour layover. She had O.G. in his crate. She was talking to Linda about the rain in Valdez, how she just wasn’t into marriage. The other Coast Guard wives drove her batty. Healing Tides was managed by phonies. She was trying to explain why she split. She used the word delamination.
Then she started telling Linda about this guy—Houston? Hurston?—who drove her up the AL-Can Highway. It was months ago and she forgot a lot.
“Just a normal-looking guy, not good-looking. Not bad-looking.”
He drove most of the way and paid for the hotels and food. They had seen five bears one day, but one of them was dead. She told about it. Linda wasn’t listening at all. Anne-Beth could hear the television on in Oklahoma. That’s where she was headed. Anne-Beth had been talking to another man back there, a possible boyfriend. She imagined the reservoirs and the beer parties, the jet skis bumping over the green water at the reservoir. Suddenly she was crying.
“Girlfriend, get a grip,” said Linda.
But Anne-Beth kept talking. She wanted to tell about this odd guy whose name she couldn’t remember, how he talked about fly-fishing but didn’t do it anymore. Jets were struggling out of the airfield. Rain streaked the glass observation area. She didn’t want to hang up. The phone was all she had. She gripped it. She was nearly sobbing now.
“Are you okay?” said Linda.
“I don’t think so,” said Anne-Beth. Linda was listening to her breathe. Neither said a thing as another jet took off.