The Talkin’, Stuffed in a Winnebago, Can’t Catch No Silvers, Blueberries Out the Yin Yang, Bumping down the Frost Heaves, Grand Lodge Experience, All Gonna End in Tears, 20th Anniversary Horribly True Fan Blues

Over the 20 years I’ve been writing them, my Horribly True Tales output has tapered off quite a bit.  I’m sure this is mostly down to maturity allowing for better decision-making skills on my part, and the ability to purchase a better class of automobile, since most of the earliest stories seem to revolve around car trouble.  Despite their infrequency, the stories have still developed a small but faithful fan base with those who’ve found them through Facebook and my Horribly True website.  However, the audience has been extended beyond those avenues, largely due to the efforts of my sister-in-law, Amber.  Amber has been a fan of my tales since the late `90s, and has been known to share them with friends and co-workers, whenever there is need to spread a laugh or lighten a mood.  And because Amber’s husband Jim is career Army, she’s been subject to frequent moves with each new base assignment and has held half a dozen new jobs over the course of 15 years.  With each one she has spread my tales to new ears—often in the form of live in-office readings.  However, in the nigh on two decades that I’ve known Amber, she’s never actually appeared in one of the tales as a participant.  That is, until we took a two week family trip to Alaska in 2016.

The state of Alaska holds a special place in the lives of my wife and her family.  In the mid-`70s, they moved there from North Carolina, after her father found work as a mechanic helping construct the Alaska oil pipeline.  It’s where they spent the 25 years and where my wife and Amber grew up, living in different locales with varying degrees of electricity, plumbing, and access to paved roads.  It was a real Little House on the Prairie existence for much of that time.  Frankly, their stories of their real life adventures rival my meandering nonsense any day.  I think the reason they like my stories so much is simply because it affords them the opportunity to think things like, “Oh, you had some car trouble one time?  Yeah, that’s cute.  Ashley once hit a moose and her Ford Escort station wagon turned into a cloud of metal confetti, unrecognizable as having once been an automobile.  She was almost decapitated.  Oh, and another time, we had to barricade ourselves in our home-made log cabin because a bear was trying to break down the door and eat us.  But you keep telling your little stories.” 

In the mid-90s, my wife left Alaska, traveling across the lower 48—in a different Ford Escort station wagon—all the way to Blue Mountain College in Mississippi, where she would finish up her undergraduate studies.  She never intended to be away from Alaska and her family for more than a couple of years.  However, two things got in the way of this: A) she decided to go on to medical school and there are no such schools to be found in Alaska; and B) she had the questionable fortune of meeting and marrying me.  The Alaska-return timeline wound up getting delayed by a couple of decades, most of it spent in our current locale of West Virginia.  And during those years, her family all moved to the lower 48. 

The state itself remains strong in the bloodstream of her family, though.  And if you’ve ever been there, you know perfectly well why, because your blood has probably picked up some of it too.  It’s one of the most gorgeous places on earth.   I find it stress-inducingly beautiful because I myself have experienced near panic attacks there in an area called Glacier View, which you can see while traveling along an area of the Glenn Highway.  The road runs along the Mantanuska River valley in which you can indeed view a glacier.  Hell, you could drive on down and lick it if you wanted.  The craggy lush mountains, capped with snow even in the middle of summer, are spectacular.  You want nothing more than to stop and stay a lifetime and absorb the beauty.  And the intense anxiety you feel gripping your soul is because you know you can’t stay, cause you have to motor on to catch a plane the next day. 

Beyond the beauty, one of the things that my wife’s family truly misses about Alaska are the blueberries.  In fact, if the word blueberry is mentioned in their presence—and I don’t recommend doing so—you may as well strap in, cause you’ve got a 10 minute lecture in store on the topic of how much better Alaska blueberries are compared to berries grown anywhere else.   I’ve seen them turn up their noses at homemade lower-48-blueberry-based treats on the grounds that it’s just a waste of their time.  Oh, sure, they might try a bite or two, but always with accompanying critical commentary.  “Well… that’s good and all,” they say in weighted tones that you can tell really mean, “Well, that’s a good try.” 

I thought they were all delusional until I finally got to try some Alaska blueberries for myself.  I found it to be a transformative experience.  In an instant, I went from “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, Alaaaaaska bluuuuueberrrrriiiiiies,” to “Holy shit!  Where have these been all my life?”

Alaska blueberries don’t grow on tall bushes, as they do in the lower-48.  Instead, they are found growing plentifully in very low bushes, often in mossy tundra areas.  And while they’re not large, this just seems to concentrate their spicy flavor in a way that other blueberries can only aspire to.  They make excellent jams and jellies.  My wife once traded a shipment of 24 jars of her apple butter for a similarly sized shipment of Alaska blueberry jam from her friend Laura.  As good as the wife’s apple butter is, we still got the better end of the deal and should probably have sent a second box of it to make up the difference. 

With the powerful draw of blueberries in mind, in 2014, for my mother-in-law’s birthday, my wife gave her a gift certificate good for one trip to Alaska to pick blueberries with her daughter.  It was basically an excuse to make a family trip back home, but blueberries would indeed be picked.  Ma finally cashed in the certificate in 2016, and plans began to form for the trip.  Amber and Jim wanted in on this too, so we all synchronized calendars and came up with August as the best time to go.  We rented a Winnebago in Anchorage—which is one of the best and cheapest ways to see the state—restaurants and hotels being as expensive as they are there.  Even with five of us crammed into it, the Winnebago only really felt crowded while we were on the road, because at stops we could always just step outside and extend our living space into the amazing scenery wherever we were. 

We spent two weeks driving wherever we liked in search of blueberries and/or salmon, whichever hopped in our baskets first. 

Now, there are three species of salmon regularly found in Alaska: pinks, silvers, and reds.  The red salmon, which are the best—particularly from the copper river—unfortunately spawn earlier in the season, so we would have none of them.  The pinks, which are the least palatable salmon, were spawning currently, but we didn’t want them.  Our best hope was to catch a few silver salmon.  They, it turned out, were pretty thin in the streams.  It was technically their spawning time, but all the fishermen we ran into said the silvers had either already passed through or were yet to arrive. 

The blueberries, however, were plentiful.  We found them throughout the trip—in boggy fields on the side of the highway near Denali, on remote hillsides just outside of Fairbanks, and out in a huge field near their old home territory of Salcha.  You couldn’t miss them.  We would venture out, the smell of alder in our noses, each of us keeping an eye out for bears, and pick until our grocery store sacks were near bursting with blueberries, raspberries, crow berries and more, which we took back to the camper, sorted, and vacuum-sealed.  And we only stopped picking when there was no more room in the freezer.  

During the trip, we stayed mostly in RV campgrounds where there was access to water and sewage hookups, not to mention regular showers.  We weren’t scared to stay in a pull off on the side of the road, or the driveway of a friend if need be.  Near the end of the first week of the trip, though, we got a look at some fancier digs.  We stopped near Delta Junction, to visit a a family friend who works at the Lodge at Black Rapids.  The lodge itself is nestled on low hill overlooking a stretch of panic-inducing gorgeous scenery, vast fields, rivers, more snow-capped mountains, the Delta River, the Black Rapids Glacier itself, and the historic 100-year-old Black Rapids Roadhouse. 

I was particularly taken with the lodge.  I’ve never spent any time in a lodge, I’d only seen them on TV.  But the Lodge at Black Rapids was what I’d always imagined one would be like.  It’s the kind of place that must have taken half a forest to build the timber structure and half a mountainside for the slate-shingled exterior.  It’s the sort of place where well-heeled outdoorsy folk fly in to stay, spending their days hunting, fishing, and rafting before ambling back for nights of sumptuous meals and drink at a giant rustic table, beneath hand-hewn beams before retiring to a comfy chair around the stacked stone fireplace for a snifter of bourbon, cigars, and some manly talk before bed.  I wanted to stay and get to know it a while—at least until I saw how much it would cost to do so.  I made a mental note, though, that one day I wanted to stay in a lodge just like it.

We motored on, traveling south to Valdez, on the southern coast, for the last few days of our trip.  It was lovely there, too, despite the fog and rain and the thousands upon thousands of super gross pink salmon piled up on every shoreline.  Most were still technically alive, but they had either already spawned or had failed to spawn, and were by then just pale, rotting, ghost fish who didn’t yet know they were dead.   Even in great health, pinks are the Spam of the salmon family, but even bears don’t want to eat ghost pinks.  No silvers could be found among their stinky ranks.  And after a day or two of waiting for their foretold arrival, we gave up and just bought frozen silver salmon from a local fishery, packed them into coolers and headed north on the first leg of our trek back to Anchorage.

Hours later, we turned west onto the Glenn Highway at at Glennallen.  And as we drove into the early evening, the glow of the sun reflecting off of the snowy whiteness of Mount Drum behind us, we started checking phones and atlases for likely stopping places for the night. 

On the map we spied a tremendous body of water called Lake Louise.  Gotta be fish there, we thought.  And while looking for lakeside campgrounds, what should I spy on the map but three magic words: Lake Louise Lodge.  Immediately, I was dazzled by visions of the Lodge at Black Rapids, of sitting around the stone hearth, watching the sun set at 11 p.m. through a two story window, a craft beer in hand and a belly full of fried sea creatures.  According to our phones, the Lake Louise Lodge was only $20 a night for RV parking!  My grand lodge experience was within reach!  Everyone else agreed as well, we should go forth and check it out.  The only downside to this plan was that the lodge was located 20 miles north of the Glenn highway itself.

Now 20 miles might not seem like much of a problem for those of us used to paved road conditions in the lower 48.  Roads in Alaska, much like the blueberries, are a different kind of creature.  Because temperatures often dip well below zero throughout the Alaskan winter, the ground expands and contracts as the upper layers of soil repeatedly freeze and thaw.  This creates frost heaves in the earth.  And when frost heaves occur beneath paved roads, those roads become quite lumpy.  It takes every day of the warmer months for the state to maintain the primary highways of Alaska.  Side roads, such as Lake Louise Road, don’t see as much attention. 

The frost heaves we encountered were so bad that we had to keep the Winnebago under 15 mph or it would have been rattled apart.  It took us 20 minutes to go only five miles, at which point we arrived at a pull off area beside a pristine little lake, which was across the road from an even larger and more pristine little lake.  (“Little lakes” in Alaska are what most of us just call “lakes,” while “big lakes,” like Louise, are what most of think of as “seas.”)  We pulled off, had a look around at the stunning scenery, and everyone in the vehicle declared that we’d found our place for the night.  

Everyone, that is, except me. 

As picturesque as our surroundings were, I didn’t want to stay at the pull off.  For one thing, there was a cluster of three up vehicles at the far end of the pull off, including a dark and possibly abandoned, pull-behind camper.  There was no activity around them.  But my fiction-writer’s mind began conjuring up images of a caravan filled with hungry Alaskan vampires who were just waiting for the sun to finally dip at midnight, at which point they would emerge to devour us.  It was a dumb image, I knew, but I couldn’t shake the shudder of dread whenever I looked at the dented up old camper.  If not vampires, there were at least a few cannibal serial killers in there.

However, the even more potent image that I couldn’t shake was my memory of the Lodge at Black Rapids and the Grand Lodge Experience that was surely to be had at the Lake Louise Lodge.  I could practically taste it and now the plate was being yanked away from me.  Everyone else was content with the stupid gorgeous lakes by the vampire pulloff, but I kept imagining how much better it would be at a lodge by a huge honking lake bigger than 200 pristine pull off ponds.  Sure, we wouldn’t be staying in rooms there, but we could certainly use the amenities such a place offered.  Jim and the others could go fishing, I could sit on the deck and enjoy the lakeside atmosphere. 

“I kind of want to check out Lake Louise Lodge,” I said with what I hoped was confidence.  “I mean, that’s where we were already heading, right?” I added.  I had them on this point.  The lodge was, after all, the entire reason we had taken Lake Louise Road in the first place.

Tragically, no one fought me on this.  Not even a little bit.  Maybe it was because I’d been a mostly silent-partner passenger for the entire trip so far, always game to do whatever everyone else wanted to do simply because they all knew the state better than I did, and knew what would be fun to do or see.  I could tell from their expressions that they didn’t agree with my proposed course for the evening, but they grudgingly climbed back into the Winnebago.  I took the wheel and we motored on north…   

*Ba duM BUM…  BA Dum bum*

…up and down the lumpy, frost-heave rutted road…  

*Ba duM BUM…  BA Dum bum*

…at 15 mph…  

*Ba duM BUM…  BA Dum bum*

… like driving over a twenty mile stretch of railroad track crossings…

*Ba duM BUM…  BA Dum bum*

And the soundtrack to this forced-march into idiocy, beyond the road, were the pained groans of the stressed metal of the Winnebago’s frame, as it was called upon to maneuver the heaves at odd angles from both ends.  Underlying the groans, however, was a bed of thick, seething silence of the kind that can only be achieved when four Winnebago passengers are completely not on board with the fifth one’s plan, yet also don’t feel like they can say anything without pissing off the easy-to-irritate guy who had rented the Winnebago in the first place. 

*Ba duM BUM…  BA Dum bum*

*seethe seethe seethe* 

Very quickly into this asinine crawl, the realization of just what a HORRIBLE mistake I had made washed over me.  Not only was it a horrible mistake, but I was forcing my loved ones to participate in my horrible mistake.  And because of this, it would not matter how good the Yelp rating was for Lake Louise Lodge or how good the fishing may or may not be there.  This was going to end in tears.  The only way I could envision this situation turning out in anything approaching my favor was if the Lake Louise Lodge turned out to be some kind of five star restaurant/resort combo and, in honor of the great effort we had made to get there, they would just comp us all room and board for two nights, with free massages, our own fishing Sherpa to guide us to their super-secret fishing hole—stocked with nothing but silver salmon and halibut they’d had flown in from the ocean—and, oh, what the hell, let’s throw in a perfect clear view of Mt. McKinley, a once-in-a-lifetime display of northern lights in August, and a free house concert by Stevie Ray Vaughan.  (Yeah, that’s right.  He came back from the dead for us in this fantasy, and that’s not even the least believable part of it.)

Far more likely, I thought, was that we would spend an hour getting to the Lake Louise Lodge, it would suck grizzly balls, and everyone’s vacation would be ruined because of me. 

 Unfortunately, as doomed as I felt, I could also see no good way to back down from my stupid senseless quest.  By then we were over 45 minutes into the horrible mistake and I felt we were too invested to turn back.  Plus, I knew there was no way I could get that behemoth of a Winnebago turned around on a two lane road—frost heaves or no. 

*Ba duM BUM…  BA Dum bum*

An hour of painful silence and gut churning road-conditions later, we at last arrived at the Lake Louise Lodge.  And it was… nice enough, I guess.  I mean, I wouldn’t tell anyone NOT to go there, but it was… okayish.  It was certainly no Black Rapids Lodge by any stretch.  It looked pretty much like a big log cabin that was kind of near a lake.  The property itself, though, looked less like a manicured resort destination and more like the cluttered back yard of somebody who lives way way out in the country, who had maybe been doing some home renovations for the last couple of months, hadn’t gotten around to cleaning up all the building supplies, and who isn’t expecting visitors.  It had a kind of in-progress, patched together feel to it—which can actually be said of most structures in rural Alaska.  (In the lodge’s defense, the really good view of the place is from the lake itself, which you can see on their website, and it’s lovely.  That’s not the view we had.)

We stared at the lodge with a mix of expressions from empty to underwhelmed to angry, no one saying much of anything.  After more silence, Jim went inside to arrange our stay while the ladies bolted from the Winnebago and gathered themselves into a lady huddle.  I was left at the wheel to think about what I’d done.  Clearly no one liked the Lake Louise Lodge.  I didn’t like it either, but I still didn’t see a good way out of the situation. I thought, Well, we invested a long and painful hour getting’ here, so I guess we have to at least give these grizzly balls a lick.  

Jim returned and led us to the RV campsite.  There was a reason it was only $20 a night, because it was located behind a long outbuilding that both blocked all view of the lake and which housed a diesel generator.  Which was running.  And noisily belching diesel fumes from a vent aimed directly into the RV site.  And, as far as we knew, it would be doing so for the rest of the night. 

I backed the Winnebago into the RV site and Jim and I began trying to get the thing leveled out and the popouts popped.  Meanwhile, the ladies continued to converse outside.  I could see resigned and disappointed expressions among them.  Then my wife walked away, by herself, into a stand of short trees.  That wasn’t good. 

Seeing no way to avoid it, I went outside to go check on her.  Before I could follow, Ma came over and said something to me, but I couldn’t understand her over the noise of the generator. 

“What?” I shouted.

“I said, `Is this place… as nice… as you’d hoped?!’” she shouted back.

“It’s… It’s all right.  I guess,” I said.  “Maybe we can finally catch some fish?” I added lamely.

The truth, though, was that I hated the Lake Louise Lodge.  I even hadn’t set foot in the place, but already I knew with certainty that this was never going to be the grand lodge experience I had hoped for.  There would be no craft beer or fried sea creatures.  We’d be lucky to get a warm Shasta and a tube of Pringles.  There was no chance of anyone having a good time.  Everybody was disappointed and/or furious with me.  No, this night was going to be miserable on all fronts.

And then, over the intestinal roar of the generator, I somehow heard Amber tell Jim that she felt a headache coming on from the fumes.  And then I distinctly heard her say, “I don’t think I can stay here.”  And with those words—those magic words—I suddenly saw the exit from my horrible mistake.  After all, if Amber’s health was being affected by the fumes, we clearly could not stay there even a moment longer.  Before I could say anything, though, Ma leaned close to me and shouted, “You need to go talk to Ashley!”   She pointed into the stand of young pines where I could just make out my wife.  She had her back to me as I approached, but I could see her wiping at her eyes.  They were red and streaked with smeared mascara when she turned to look at me.  

“We were at such a beautiful place at that pull off,” she said.  “This is terrible.”

“Yeah.  It is,” I said.  “We should go.”

Her eyes brightened at this.  It was like she was expecting protest and resistance from me—I cannot begin to fathom why—but, instead, she found a willing accomplice in a new plan to abandon the old plan.

We couldn’t get the Winnebago packed up fast enough.  The popouts were yanked back in and Jim was barely aboard, with a refunded $20 in his pocket, when we pulled out with the wife at the wheel.  Nice as it might be under different circumstances, we fled the Lake Louise Lodge as fast as we could.  Which, turns out, wasn’t very fast at all.   

*Ba duM BUM…  BA Dum bum*

*Ba duM BUM…  BA Dum bum*

During our 40 minute trek back to the pristine pulloff, I sat in the passenger seat and just felt awful about it all.  My stupid, selfish, romantic dream of lodge-life almost resulted in a night of misery for my family.  I couldn’t keep the tears back.  The wife reached over and took my hand. 

“It’s okay,” she said.  “It’s okay.”

Later, back at the pristine pulloff, we feasted upon the single pink salmon we’d caught a few days before.  It was super gross, but we washed it down with some of Ma’s fresh Alaska blueberry cobbler.  And the vampires who emerged from the abandoned camper to attack us at midnight weren’t even all that hard to kill.

EPILOGUE

Days later, back home in West Virginia, I realized that this was the first time Amber got to play a pivotal role in one of my Horribly True Tales herself.  For all her work promoting them, I guess in some twisted way this story is my gift to her. It seems a poor repayment for all her work somehow—and especially in light of a horribly-true-related gift she gave to me earlier in our Alaska journey. 

It was during the first week of our trip, as we were camped out in the driveway of a family friend in North Pole, that Amber told me the tale of one of her horribly true tale readings from a few years back.  It was done at a hospice, where she and others had gathered at the bed of a dying friend.  After days of sitting vigil and mourning the impending loss, the mood among them had indeed grown dark.  That was when Amber took out her phone, fired up my website, and began reading horribly true tales.  She said everyone laughed until they cried and that the stories were just the thing to help give them some light in the face of tragedy. 

This is not only the greatest compliment my horribly true tales have been paid, it is the greatest compliment any of my writing has been paid.  I will forever be grateful that my stories were put to such use.  And to Amber for telling me.   

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