After the Road Ends

— Meridian Johnson

The road doesn’t end. It begins the first page of a story, a shard of glimmering sun crushed like paint powder, mixed, and loosened into the matrix of fluid substance. The ocean water at the end of the road is pure appetency, which lends our bodies to the belief that we might fall into it; we might want to dive and swim. Our desire might take us under. And deeper within.

Our road atlas, The Milepost, promised we would find “The Alaska of our dreams.” My roommate had given me a copy of the infamous guidebook of Alaska and Northwestern Canada when I told her about my plans to travel back to Minnesota from Juneau, Alaska, with my boyfriend Don. “We didn’t have a plan,” I’d said. We just wanted to see some things we’d never seen before.

“Then this is your guide,” she said.

I had been studying at the University of Alaska Southeast for the spring semester. I lived in Juneau all winter and walked, hitchhiked, or caught the city buses. I took fixed-wing lessons and flew above the city with my instructors, hundreds of miles away from Juneau and over the fjords of the Inside Passage. But when I left Juneau it was in a new Honda Civic, purchased for a few thousand dollars more than a person would pay in the lower 48. Thanks to my dad, who said, “You’ll need a car. We’ll help you buy one.” And so Don and I had wheels to begin exploring just the tiniest portion of the wilderness called Alaska. The day before he arrived, I installed a CD player, something I thought we would need for traveling from Juneau back to Duluth, Minnesota, Don’s hometown. A long drive. The first leg of it on water.

I packed the car with our condensed collection of camping gear. We had been together long enough that we’d begun speaking about “our camping gear,” items that had been passed down to us from one set of parents or the other, the word “ours” implying the kind of commitment we had already come to in the first year of our relationship. We had purchased a few things together, headlamps and fishing rods, but our gear was far from high-quality. We hadn’t come into that kind of priority yet. We knew we could go anywhere and still sleep soundly at night in a tent given to us by my parents, purchased for a minimal price. My mom or dad probably hadn’t envisioned shoveling a three-foot swath of snow from the ground and pitching the tent on a pad of ice when they were deciding which ultra cheap tent to purchase. I had a lot of books, which I insisted on traveling with, “to ease my mind,” I had said. I didn’t want any new collections of poetry to go missing when sent via USPS media mail. But the books had an immediate purpose. They gave weight to the little hatchback Honda Civic. They gave the wheels a good reason to grip the roads still covered with snowpack. And during our days in the car, when I thought I might read Adrienne Rich or N. Scott Momaday, I found that I could not: I read solely from The Milepost. I read numbers on the odometer. I read the constant change in terrain.

Juneau, Alaska, has approximately forty-five miles of paved public road at the disposal of local residents and tourists. If you want to see Juneau you must fly or take a ferry, unless you rudder into town on a small watercraft or an ostentatiously sized cruise boat. There are no other roads leading to the state’s capital. Still, it is a good place to own a car. Something happens when you drive to the far reaches of town, “out the road” they say here, and you see the pavement going no farther; this event forces you to imagine the beginning of your next journey. I can go no farther, and so now, I must imagine what is next. You will stand by the water at high or low tide and people will be parking their cars in the nearby parking area at Echo Cove. Some will have kayaks or canoes. Some will have small fishing boats. It doesn’t matter. You’ll watch them ease their boats into the water, mindful of the tides, load their gear, and push off onto the glassy expanse that is itself an occurrence after the road ends. Standing in the silty sand you will begin to wish for something. Longing will find you and rise in your being until you find yourself piloted purely by an unnamed desire. You will make a plan, conscious or unconscious. You will return to your car, start driving, formulating the next step in pursuit of your personal wishing well. Wish well, and what you wish for might come true.

There’s no mystery to longing like the mystery of wanting to connect with a place that you have never been before. Feeling a location on the earth, or imagining it, and noticing the pull it has on your body. Thoughts are like gravitational force fields, pulling the body lustily as though a pact has been reached between two or more parties who are inextricably attracted to one another. If I don’t get there soon I feel as though I should die. The unknown fixtures of a place call to the imagination of a person, and that person in turn calls to the place. Lovers vocalizing into a darkened abyss, hoping to find themselves in the arms of one another, soon. Please.

This is how Juneau called to me.

For over fifteen years now the story of Juneau has been living within me like an orb of light, unhinged somewhere in my cells, strange and unrecognizable at times in the glyph that is my common reality. The way I think about things. The methods I move by. And here come the story’s main characters: the minke whales in Gastineau Channel. Here comes Elvis A. Presley of Yukon Territory. Here comes the grizzly bear leaving its prints on the cabin window, and the spring-weary bed where my boyfriend and I huddled together, making a sport of love. Here come the purple-blue mountains in the middle of winter. Here comes the cold breath of the Mendenhall Glacier and the terns nesting there. Here, a bald eagle chorus of thousands. A mother seal soloing on the beach at high tide. The tall Sitka spruce and western hemlocks surrounding the mysterious Shrine of St. Therese. And there’s me, for hours on the rocks at the end of the road, staring out into shimmering ocean cupped by uninhabited islands.

Some things are stories and other things are ideas on loan from the universe, hopping like spittle in the fire of the mind for a while. Sometimes an idea becomes a story; often, an idea solidifies in the mind, and what was at once a brief pattern dispatched as impulse from the brain to the hand becomes the hand reaching again and again, each morning throwing off the bedcovers, picking up the little yellow notebook on the bedside table, flipping the pages with a thumb. Now removing the pen cap. Now describing an image, dream, or the first clear thought of the day. The idea that becomes a story is the body roving repeatedly in the same direction until a draft of the story has been written in full.

But stories that happen to the self, with full participation from the characters, of course, sometimes remain only stories and do not become the basis for some future reality. One looks back and wonders how the universe could have assembled so many intricate details to construct such an odd reality. And then, the reality lives also within the characters of each story. Maybe separate realities, converging at one or more points in the utility of time like multiple currents of water running concurrently along a groove in the earth, and then, crash, they collide. A story without a doubt continues to live within the body of each character, stored like a reserve of energy. To be tapped into. To be remembered, or to serve as caloric intake for later when the character is ready to digest one experience or another. Accumulated belly fat for the future of nursing a hungry baby. A pad of adipose tissue for hibernation. The stored story. The minke whale having come so close to shore. I remember her, as she remembers me. Deep. Hidden. In cells. In water.

We left campus immediately. I had been staying in my apartment illegally for three days, crawling in and out of the window late at night after having officially checked-out, returning my keys, receiving my security deposit. I had been living in the “smallest room on campus” the Resident Assistant had said. It was called the postage stamp room. The size, yes, was like that of a postage stamp on an envelope, not interfering with the white space of the apartment, barely visible except for its geometric shape in the corner. I stayed that semester in the handicap accessible apartment, which explains why my room was so minuscule, smaller even than the bathroom. My room was the leftovers, not really intended to be a room at all, but nonetheless. The other rooms in the apartment were made wide and ready for wheelchairs. At first I was disgruntled by the prospects of spending so many nights in this confined space, but I came to appreciate the way the four white walls drove me out of doors. At night I often hiked on the Spaulding Creek trail just outside the apartment complex, the snow so bright in the moonlight that tiny ice crystals sparked like metal on metal.

And then there were days of walking, mostly alone, along the misty highway leading north out of town, up Forest Service trails, and down to Auke Bay to watch the fishing boats come and go. I caught starfish by accident with my fishing rod. Sea stars, they’re actually called. Hard, fleshy yet fragile creatures that I had to carefully pry lose from the line. I played guitar and my penny whistle on the dock, painted, wrote poems in the rain. Met seals who came curiously close to the music I made, their whiskers so intelligent and intense that I felt poked by the sea’s meaning in their wiriness.

And then it was time to leave. Don and I left campus immediately because our desire to experience what we had not experienced before was pulling on our chests with such certainty. Two puppets being drawn forward in a stage show by strings held in the hands of desire. This is the feeling I imagined my dog used to feel when someone accidentally left the back door open and he’d leap from the back steps into the open air, dashing unabashedly through the neighborhood, not caring about punishment or the anger my mom or dad might feel after circling the neighborhood in their car for forty-five minutes. Let’s go dogs we said to each other. Let’s take the road now, and see what there is to see.

We took in about five minutes of the road. Five minutes to the Alaska Marine Highway’s Ferry terminal, and we only stopped to look at the docks, to see the place where we’d depart at 5am the next morning. We camped up the road at the Auke Village campground. But we hardly slept. As we lay in the sleeping bags, our eyes burned a skylight through the roof of the tent. Darkness is much shorter an occasion in May, even in Juneau, and we watched the stars circle our desire. We wished for these things. The burn holes of desire alighting our sleeplessness.

Perhaps it is a device of youthfulness, this desire to roam, to travel an open road, to keep the arteries of the heart blown clear of stagnancy. Perhaps it is the trail of human learning itself that necessitates the desire for adventure; learn to be free in longing and then turn experience into the stories that will free you again and again in adulthood. Perhaps the freeing element of these stories is not the memory of adventure itself but instead the feeling of the memory of adventure, which can be evoked in the body later on, in a moment’s notice. When one is about to make a gloomy decision that will hasten the process of stress-induced aging. When one is about to speak some sudden words that discombobulate the spirit, something like, I can’t lead the life I want because… It is the word “can’t” in this statement that throws the embodied spirit into sudden duress. The spirit says, What do you mean I can’t and says also There isn’t anything I can’t do or perhaps I can do whatever I desire. The body feels all of the shortcomings of the underestimated reality—constructed during moments of loathsome stress—when a person feels prisoner to the shackles of the words I can’t.

And so, begin packing your car. Take very few items, just your favorite books and a fishing pole. Whatever you will need to shift in a moment’s notice. Maybe you bring a bow and a quiver full of arrows. Maybe you bring sweet homemade marmalade. Bring whatever you desire, whichever set of shoes will make you happy. If you believe it will make you happy, bring these things. And if nothing will make you happy then bring nothing. Best of all, leave your despair in a box of tinder by the woodstove. Let someone burn your despair after you leave, while you are standing in the salt air, feet beginning to walk onto the Alaska Marine Highway’s beautiful ferry (one of many), the Columbia.

We boarded the ferry in the morning, early, for our short trip to Haines, Alaska, where we could begin adding mileage to the odometer of the Honda Civic. By the time we reached the ferry terminal I had added approximately thirty-six miles to the car’s lifetime. The 4.5 hours to Haines via Ferry would help in no way to break in the car, but what followed would go a long way to exposing the car’s engine to the open road. The Milepost said, You will fall in love. And we did.

To be broken in: to have tasted the open road: to have gone without showering for many days: to become oily, dust-covered, rank with wind-kicked silt: to have become relaxed: naturally without restrictions: malleable: without rigidity: to taste each bite of food and digest every particle in service of the celebration at hand: to find one’s stride: to be free of the little i: to be free to turn or twist: to, for once, at last, be free.

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