“Geeze, how long are you guys staying for?!” the 26 year Alaskan asked whilst heaving our multiple bags into the back of his battered old Ford Focus. “Only a couple of days, just, well it’s a long trip in total, plus I have a lot of shoes!” I protested and climbed into the back seat whilst Blonde did the same into the front.
“Thanks so much for picking us up from the airport, we are so tired, soooo tired, we flew all night and I haven’t slept in a week because SOMEONE talks in her sleep and hogs the bed and now I’m super tired, so super tireddddd” I was starting to get a tad delusional; the difficulties of sharing a bed with Blonde, late nights and now the overnight flight from Hawaii were all taking their toll.
“I don’t hog the bed” protested Blonde. “You don’t just hog the bed, you steal the cover and you talk, yesterday morning at around 3am you rolled over to me and said ‘don’t be in there mean guys, stay there instead, cheers’ which made absolutely no sense but freaked me out enough to think there was some murderer lurking in the corner” I announced. “That didn’t happen” Blonde laughed “it did! It really did! I spent half the night staring at the corner thinking I was about to get murdered and when the sun finally came up the shadow turned out to be my suitcase. Any way, I’m tired!” I followed this up by singling a little song to myself completely unaware I was doing so.
Alaska, who was driving by this point, swung his head around, a dark mop of curls, big brown eyes and a smile that lit up to his eyes turning them into melted chocolate; completely amused at my bizarre behaviour. “I’m singing to myself aren’t I? Aghhhh” I shock my head and waved my hands trying to shake away the growing cobwebs of sleep; this didn’t help make me seem any more sane. “Sorry, aghhhh, tired” was my only explanation; Alaska laughed and turned his head back to the road. “I’m tireeddddd” I moaned from the back seat “ooh mountains! Look!” I pointed out the window as if the rocks had just appeared out of nowhere.
“He looks a bit like Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, don’t you think?” I muttered to Blonde with closed eyes, pulling the blanket over my shoulder, “I haven’t seen Game of Thrones” answered Blonde, putting her ear plugs in “well he does, only less stoic faced” I decided before falling into the pit of sleep.
A few hours later, having regained some sense of normality, I emerged from the mound of blankets and drifted downstairs; Alaska’s house was a large modern structure, located off a hidden turning from the free-way somewhere outside of Anchorage. All wood and glass, designed by his father, room after room, sparsely decorated as though they’d just moved in but as I later discovered, only furnished enough for necessity having had no hint of a woman’s touch since his mother had left in his childhood. Blonde and I roamed the empty communal rooms, holding up beaver scarves and wolf pelts found draped over the sofa arm against our bodies, measuring the length; we pulled up stalls in the kitchen island as the gentle hum of Alaska’s motor carried through the house, signalling his return.
We headed out to dinner with a few of his friends “what are your plans whilst in Alaska then?” we were asked by the locals. “We don’t really have any plans to be honest, we’re sort of winging it” I explained, “yeah, we’re here for a couple of days then need to hire a car and head up to Fairbanks, hoping to see a national park or something” Blonde continued. “Well I’m off work all week, I can take you guys camping if you like? Do you like camping?” Alaska enquired. “Err well..” I began before being interrupted by Blonde “I love camping, that sounds great!”.
I think camping in Australia might be very different than that in the UK; my experiences of camping all involved rain, lots and lots of rain. Oh sure, it’s all fun and games when everyone setting up the tent, sharing beers around the camp fire and roasting marshmallows but then you have to go to bed; you’ll inevitably need to pee at 3am from all the beer, be forced to risk those serial killers that pray on campers all alone as you seek out those drop loo things with the help of your iphone torch if the battery hasn’t already died, before returning to the tent, spending half the night freezing cold and then wake up groggy, dirty and with a half wet sleeping bag from the bag having be squished up against the tent wall and all the moisture soaking in.
I tried to explain my concerns to the group but was quickly shot down that I was just a ‘wuss‘ and that camping is in fact, extremely fun “we should go” I was told. “Fine, but there had better be smores!” I demanded. “What are smores?” asked Blonde. “What? How can you not know this? This is an American staple! You get Graham crackers, a small slab of Hershey’s chocolate, roast a marshmallow and make this ambrosia of the gods creation that is a Graham cracker, melted chocolate, marshmallow sandwich of glory, otherwise known as a smore” I informed. “What’s a graham cracker?” she asked.
“If we are going camping we will need to get you ladies decked out” Alaska announced, I wasn’t sure what ‘decked out‘ entailed but I thought best not to ask. We pulled up at a large wooden house at the foot of some woods. “This is my buddy’s family’s house, they’re really out doorsey and have loads of gear” Alaska explained’
Hey” he shouted a hello as a tall, blonde haired, slim man appeared wearing a checked shirt, old jeans, and a pair of glasses perched on the end of his nose. We sat in the family living room as Alaska introduced us; the dad was extremely tall with that natural quietness about him which can but only draws people in, a Geologist who once declared that he found rocks more interesting than people, that was until he met the woman who would become his wife. A lady so full of life and energy, dressed for comfort and practicality, with a million projects to finish at once, always fixing and making and starting something new; seeing the tiredness starting to seep back out of me, she swiftly pulled a blanket from the dryer and wrapped me in warmth, followed by presenting a plate of freshly baked cookies, still warm from the oven “you can leave me here” I told Alaska before turning to the family “could you please adopt me? Please?” I pleaded as I sank my teeth into a gooey cookie.
The son, who’d gone to school with Alaska was an image of his father, and like his grandfather on his mothers side and his father too of course; was training to be a Geologist himself. I turned to Geo “you should come camping with us!” it was decided. “Right let’s get you girls something warm to wear” announced the mother. Blonde emerged with a pile of thick fleece jumpers, a blanket and some thermal, bright red lady bug printed pyjama pants. “Are you sure you don’t want to borrow an extra jumper?” I was asked, “no I’ll be fine, I’m tough, plus I’ve got thermals at the house and a hoodie, I’m all good thanks” I said foolishly.
The next day we returned to the family to pick up Geo, his pet dog and the gear before heading out. With the dog following our heels, we cycled around the neon blue, glacier lake, snow peaked mountains reflecting in the waters. “I’m helping” I yelled excitedly whilst waving tent poles above my head, watching them wobble back and forth, Alaska took the pole from me with one raised eyebrow and proceeded to raise the tent properly. As Geo set about cooking the mac and cheese, complete with chopped up hot dogs, Blonde and I walked along the glacier shore collecting drift wood for the fire.
“Here, help me carry this log” Alaska called from the tree line. “I’ve got it” I bubbled, piling my sticks on top of Blonde’s bundle; I managed five steps of heaving the log through the trees towards the camp site “I’ve not got it, I’ve not got it!” I dropped the tree, letting it crash to the ground in a spark of flying bark. Blonde deposited her sticks into my arms and took over, I ran ahead, dropping my sticks next to the fire “I’ll just take pictures of you two instead, see I’m helping! Is it time for smores yet? Oooh mac and cheese! Can I make myself a marshmallow stick? Hey, I’ll carve us all sticks, I’m like a wild man! I totally belong in the wild, I can hack Alaska, this is easy! Just call me wild Bec. No wait, that’s a shit name, I’ll work on the name. Can I have a marshmallow now?” camping was turning out to be rather fun after all.
Having eaten my weight in smores, washed down with Alaskan beers we sat around the camp fire, the sun just starting to tire in the sky, a sheath of warmth cloaking half the mountain, turning the lake into a pool of gold. Alaska pulled out his tooth brush “what time is it? I asked, questioning why he was preparing for bed so early, “it’s nearly midnight” he informed. “No it’s not, the sun hasn’t even set yet! It’s like 6.30 or something” I insisted, hunting for my phone in the tent “what! It’s 11.48pm! How is that even possible! What witch craft is this!” I joked, “I told you, 17 hours of sunlight at this time of year, messes with your mind doesn’t it!”.
Blonde returned from the drop loo, clad out in lady bug bottoms and layered up in multiple jumpers “looking good!” I called, she robot danced her way down to the camp fire in celebration of her outfit. I stood in the wilderness, in the 17th hour of sunlight, with the sun casting shadows in the trees and the smell of pine trees all around me, perfectly at peace as my electric toothbrush buzzed away in my mouth.
We sat around the fire for a final time before retiring to bed, the smoke blew in my face, I shifted my seat away, the smoke followed. I stood up with a huff and retreated to the other side of the fire, the smoke came after me “fuck you smoke! Why does it always follow me?!” the others only laughed at my troubles.
“What is that?!” I demanded as we settled down to sleep, all four of us lying side by side. “What? The gun? It’s a revolver” explained Alaska. “Yeah, I got that! Why is there a gun in the tent?” I continued with a roll of the eyes. “For bears” Alaska justified. “Oh for bears, well of course” I said dryly. “I’ve got bear spray on this side” Geo interrupted, waving a can at us. “Bear spray? Like bug spray for bears?” Blonde asked “can we spray some?”. “No, this stuff is so strong, a tiny drop and your eyes will be crying for hours! It’s illegal to use on humans, if we sprayed any in the tent then we’d all have to sleep in the car” Geo went on.
“If we have bear spray then why do we need a gun?” I asked innocently. “Well bear spray will keep a bear away if he is just roaming around but if that sucker charges at you then that’s not going to stop him” Alaska rationalised. “So why don’t you have gun too?” I asked Geo, “my family never uses guns, bear spray is fine, you just have to be careful not to leave food lying around or be stupid” he remarked, my mind traced back to the marshmallow that had melted off my stick and was still sitting at the edge of the fire pit outside the door of the tent. “I’d rather rely on the gun personally” said Alaska, tapping it next to him.
“Ok so, if a bear comes a sniffing, I grab the gun and shoot at his head, got it” I announced, feeling more and more like Bear Grylls. “Not the head! The bullet wouldn’t even get through the skull, you want to shoot for the knees, it won’t stop him instantly but it should slow him down” Alaska instructed. “We’ll be fine, they don’t normally come near people anyway, plus they’re more scared of us than we are of them” said Geo. “Ahhhh, I want to see a bear” I complained. “I want to hug a baby bear” interrupted Blonde “can we find a baby bear for me to hug?” she continued. “No! You will get us all killed!” Alaska laughed, “but I just want to hug one, I won’t take it with me or anything” she justified. “I’m not sure the mother bear will like that” responded Geo.
I slipped the spare oversized fleece trousers over my double layer of leggings and pulled the hood of my jumper over my head before climbing into my sleeping bag, clutching my childhood stuffed toy to my chest because there was no way I was going into the wild to battle bears alone.
We settled down, Blonde getting comfortable in her double layer floor covering, sleeping bag and pile of blankets. “Alright over there in your four poster bed?” we teased her. “Yes thank you, I’m quite warm” came her reply. “Night Becky, night Geo, night Alaska” she called out “night dog” she followed, calling up to the pup asleep in the truck outside. “Night owl” said Geo, “night tree, night moon” I joined in, “fuck you smoke” came Alaska’s input.
It began with my toes, my tripled sock covered toes, the cold seeping up from the ground, sucking away the warmth in my blood, stealing all feeling. Like a vine the ice wrapped frozen tentacles around my bones, slowly climbing its way up my legs. It’s roots dug into my stomach, tangling vines amongst my rib cage. The calories gained from the smores did nothing to protect me, only bloating my belly, threatening to let farts sneak out into the tent. The ice sent frozen darts slicing down each limb and up the spine. I pulled the sleeping bag above my head but within seconds I was suffocating. Whilst the others softly snored in wilderness bliss, I tossed and turned; switching between a frozen nose to gasping for air depending on the sleeping bag being over my head or not.
By 6am I’d had quite enough; with every hair standing on end and shaking limbs, I emerged from the tent, stomping my way to the car, where I pulled on every item of clothing I could find on the back seat. One thermal vest, a t-shirt, a hoodie, a padded body warmer and an extra thick fleece lined jumper. With a hat, all three of the jumpers hoods pulled up, a pair of gloves and the sleeping bag wrapped around me, I sat there, mentally channelling two of Snow Whites dwarfs – Grumpy and Sleepy. “I HATE camping!” I huffed to myself, mentally declaring ‘nope, never again! Next time I’ll do the set up and camp fire bit, the drinking and smore eating stuff is fine but then I’m leaving for the nearest hotel! One with heating. And a bed! And a hot shower!‘.
I sat in the car waiting for the others to arise, as much as I could appreciate the beauty of nature, give me a pair of stilettos over hiking boots any day of the week! Adamant that any blisters are better earned on a dance floor than climbing a mountain at that moment.
“What do you fancy doing today? There is a gun range nearby if you want to test your skills?” Alaska asked once we’d returned to the house and I’d spent far too long under a hot shower, all appendages successfully unfrozen. It turned out I was rather good at shooting “runs in the family” I announced to the surprised faces.
When mum had been diagnosed as terminal, when the chemo was given up so that she might at least feel able to leave the house for the last few months before the end came; she came to stay at my flat a night in London one weekend. She was thin and weak, the hair on her head growing back, short and grey. So frail, she felt all the cold; she borrowed my red padded body warmer, the same one I’d worn whilst huddling in the car camping in Alaska.
We went out that evening and came across a vintage fairground in a nearby park, the sort of rides and games she’d enjoyed at parish summer fêtes growing up. We rode the merry go round “it’s called a merry-go-round in England and a carousel in America” she told me “do you know what the difference is?” she asked, I didn’t. “Merry-go-rounds travel in a clockwise direction, carousels travel anti-clockwise” she explained, “who knows this stuff?!” I smiled at her, both of us leaning in, trying to capture the memory on my phone camera before there were no more memories left to capture.
“Oh look, come on, let’s have a go at this” she said excitedly, pulling me towards a stall. We paid, I raised my pellet gun, hitting two out of the five targets “not bad” she announced before raising her own gun and hitting every target. “Who are you and what have you done with my mother!” I demanded surprised at her skills. She only laughed and told me how at seven she’d run up to her older brother, who’d be hanging out with his friends at that very stall “can I have a go, go on, please” she’d ask, he knew the game “go away, you’re a pest, you won’t be able to hit any thing” he’d say to the laughter of his friends, “come on, please, just one go” she’d insist until he’d relent, she’d pick up the gun and hit every target, walking away smugly to the awestruck faces of her brothers friends. “Want to try the rifle?” Alaska snapped me back into the present.
With our feet dangling over the seats in front of us, we sat in a row in the empty cinema, the credits long finished, Alaska, his friends, Blonde and I too trapped in conversation to notice. “There are 70% men in Alaska, so the women get hit on all the time and because of that, the girls are really arrogant and mean! It’s hard for the guys up here” one of Alaska’s friends informed us. “Really? Oooh we should go to a bar here and check it out for ourselves!” I turned to Blonde next to me. “I’m up for that” she responded.
“You two will definitely get hit on if you go to a bar!” we were told, “nah, I never get hit on in a bar” I said “you will here, I’d put money on it!” came the reply. “Want to bet?” I asked “how about Friday night? We all go out and if we don’t get any attention in the first fifteen minutes then you all have to do the strongest shot in the bar, if we do get chatted up, then we’ll do the shot, deal?” I asked. “Ha, yeah ok, deal, prepare to lose!” Alaska answered “there is a saying here, ‘the odds are good but the goods are odd” he continued. “Are you saying you’re odd? We already knew that” I laughed to his smirk.
“Oh wait, we’re suppose to be leaving you tomorrow and heading north” I realised. “Well hey, I need to head up that way anyway, why don’t I take you up, saves you hiring a car. You can spend the night in the national park and I’ll pick you up the way back down the following day. We can go out that night” he suggested. I looked at Blonde “yeah, makes sense” I looked back at Alaska “sounds good to us”.
“Hey on Saturday we can all head down to Homer if you like? There is a really cool bar down there, we can camp before you fly out the next day” he proposed. I was nodding in agreement before I’d fully digested what he’d said “Wait, camping? Again?”.