Authors: Kristin Hannah
Mama was obviously angry with her mother, and yet she’d gone to her for help and hadn’t even had to ask for money to receive it. Leni couldn’t make sense of it, but it unsettled her. How could a mother and daughter fall so far apart?
Mama turned into their driveway and shut off the engine. The radio snapped off, leaving them in silence.
“We are not going to tell your father I got money from my mother,” Mama said. “He’s a proud man.”
“This is not a discussion, Leni. You are not to tell your father.” Mama opened her car door and got out, slamming it shut behind her.
Confused by her mother’s unexpected edict, Leni followed her across the squishy, muddy grass in the front yard, past the Volkswagen-sized juniper bushes that climbed raggedly over one another, to the front door.
Inside the house, her father sat at the kitchen table with maps and books spread out in front of him. He was drinking Coke from a bottle.
At their entrance, he looked up and smiled broadly. “I’ve figured out our route. We will drive up through B.C. and the Yukon Territory. It’s about twenty-four hundred miles. Mark your calendars, ladies: in four days, our new life begins.”
“But school isn’t finished—” Leni said.
“Who cares about school? This is a real education, Leni,” Dad said. He looked at Mama. “I sold my GTO and my coin collection and my guitar. We have a little cash. We’ll trade in your Mustang for a VW bus, but man, we could sure use more bread.”
Leni glanced sideways, caught Mama’s eye.
Don’t tell him.
It didn’t feel right. Wasn’t lying always wrong? And an omission like this was obviously a lie.
Even so, Leni remained quiet. She never considered defying her mother. In this whole big world—and with the specter of their move to Alaska, it had just tripled in size—Mama was Leni’s one true thing.
“Leni, baby, sit up. We’re almost there!”
She blinked awake; at first all she saw was her own potato-chip-crumb-dusted lap. Beside her lay an old newspaper, covered in candy wrappers, and her paperback copy of
The Fellowship of the Ring.
It was propped up like a pup tent, yellowed pages splayed out. Her most treasured possession, her Polaroid camera, hung from a strap around her neck.
It had been an amazing trip north on the mostly unpaved ALCAN Highway. Their first true family vacation. Days driving in bright sunlight; nights spent camping beside raging rivers and quiet streams, in the shadows of saw-blade mountain peaks, huddled around a fire, spinning dreams of a future that felt closer every day. They roasted hot dogs for dinner and made s’mores for dessert and shared dreams about what they would discover at the end of the road. Leni had never seen her parents so happy. Her dad most of all. He laughed, he smiled, he told jokes and promised them the moon. He was the dad she remembered from Before.
Usually, on road trips, Leni kept her nose buried in a book, but on this trip the scenery had often demanded her attention, especially through the gorgeous mountains of British Columbia. In the ever-changing landscape,
she sat in the backseat of the bus, imagining herself as Frodo or Bilbo, the hero of her own quest.
The VW bus thumped over something—a curb, maybe—and stuff went flying inside, dropped to the floor, rolled into the backpacks and boxes that filled the back of the bus. They screeched to a halt that smelled of burnt rubber and exhaust.
Sunlight streamed through the dirty, mosquito-splattered windows. Leni climbed over the heap of their poorly rolled sleeping bags and opened the side door. Their rainbow-decorated
ALASKA OR BUST
sign fluttered in the cool breeze, the sides anchored in place by duct tape.
Leni stepped out of the bus.
“We made it, Red.” Dad came up beside her, laid a hand on her shoulder. “Land’s End. Homer, Alaska. People come here from all over to stock up on supplies. It’s kind of the last outpost of civilization. They say it’s where the land ends and the sea begins.”
“Wow,” Mama said.
Even with all the pictures Leni had studied and all the articles and books she’d read, she hadn’t been prepared for the wild, spectacular beauty of Alaska. It was otherworldly somehow, magical in its vast expanse, an incomparable landscape of soaring glacier-filled white mountains that ran the length of the horizon, knife-tip points pressed high into a cloudless cornflower-blue sky. Kachemak Bay was a sheet of hammered sterling in the sunlight. Boats dotted the bay. The air smelled briny, deeply of the sea. Shorebirds floated on the wind, dipped and rose effortlessly.
The famous Homer Spit she’d read about was a four-and-a-half-mile-long finger of land that crooked into the bay. A few colorful shacks perched on stilts at the water’s edge.
Leni lifted her Polaroid, took pictures as fast as the developer would let her. She peeled one photograph after another out of the camera, watched the images develop in front of her eyes. The buildings sketched themselves onto the shiny white paper line by line.
“Our land is over there,” Dad said, pointing across Kachemak Bay to a
necklace of lush green humps in the hazy distance. “Our new home. Even though it’s on the Kenai Peninsula, there are no roads to it. Massive glaciers and mountains cut Kaneq off from the mainland. So we have to fly or boat in.”
Mama moved in beside Leni. In her low-waisted bell-bottom jeans and lace-edged tank top, with her pale face and blond hair, she looked as if she’d been sculpted from the cool colors of this place, an angel alighted on a shore that waited for her. Even her laugh seemed at home here, an echo of the bells that tinkled from wind chimes in front of the shops. A cool breeze molded her top to her braless breasts. “What do you think, baby girl?”
“It’s cool,” Leni said. She clicked another picture, but no ink and paper could capture the grandeur of that mountain range.
Dad turned to them, smiling so big it crinkled his face. “The ferry to Kaneq is tomorrow. So let’s go sightseeing a little and then get a campsite on the beach and walk around. What do you say?”
“Yay!” Leni and Mama said together.
As they drove away from the Spit and up through the town, Leni pressed her nose to the glass and stared out. The homes were an eclectic mix—big houses with shiny windows stood next to lean-tos made livable with plastic and duct tape. There were A-frames and shacks and mobile homes and trailers. Buses parked by the side of the road had curtained windows and chairs set out front. Some yards were manicured and fenced. Others were heaped with rusty junk and abandoned cars and old appliances. Most were unfinished in some way or another. Businesses operated in everything from a rusted old Airstream trailer to a brand-new log building to a roadside shack. The place was a little wild, but didn’t feel as foreign and remote as she’d imagined.
Dad cranked up the radio as they turned toward a long gray beach. The tires sank into the sand; it slowed them down. All up and down the beach there were vehicles parked—trucks and vans and cars. People obviously lived on this beach in whatever shelter they could find—tents, broken-down
cars, shacks built of driftwood and tarps. “They’re called Spit rats,” Dad said, looking for a parking place. “They work in the canneries on the Spit and for charter operators.”
He maneuvered into a spot between a mud-splattered Econoline van with Nebraska license plates and a lime-green Gremlin with duct-tape-and-cardboard windows. They set up their tent on the sand, tying it to the bus’s bumper. The sea-scented wind was insistent down here.
The surf made a quiet shushing sound as it rolled forward and drew back. All around them people were enjoying the day, throwing Frisbees to dogs and building bonfires in the sand and putting boats in the water. The chatter of human voices felt small and transient in the bigness of the world here.
They spent the day as tourists, drifting from place to place. Mama and Dad bought beers at the Salty Dawg Saloon, while Leni bought an ice-cream cone from a shack on the Spit. Then they dug through bins at the Salvation Army until they found rubber boots in all of their sizes. Leni bought fifteen old books (most of them damaged and water-stained in some way) for fifty cents. Dad bought a kite to fly at the beach, while Mama slipped Leni some cash and said, “Get yourself some film, baby girl.”
At a little restaurant at the very end of the Spit, they gathered at a picnic table and ate Dungeness crab; Leni fell in love with the sweet, salty taste of the white crabmeat dunked in melted butter. Seagulls cawed to them, floated overhead, eyeing their fries and French bread.
Leni couldn’t remember a better day. A bright future had never seemed so close.
The next morning, they drove the bus onto the hulky
by the locals) that was a part of the Alaska Marine Highway. The stout old ship serviced remote towns like Homer, Kaneq, Seldovia, Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, and the wild Aleutian Islands. As soon as the bus was parked in its lane, the three of them rushed out onto the deck and headed to the railing. The area was crowded with people, mostly men with long hair and bushy beards, wearing trucker’s caps and plaid flannel shirts, puffy down
vests and dirty jeans tucked into brown rubber boots. There were a few college-aged hippies here, too, recognizable by their backpacks, tie-dyed shirts, and sandals.
The ferry eased away from the dock, belching smoke. Almost immediately Leni saw that the water in Kachemak Bay wasn’t as calm as it had looked from the safety of the shore. Out here, the sea was wild and white-tipped. Waves roiled and splashed the sides of the boat. It was beautiful, magical, wild. She took at least a dozen pictures and tucked them into her pocket.
A pod of orcas surfaced from the waves; seals peered at them from the rocks. Otters fed in kelp beds along the rough shores.
Finally, the ferry turned, chugged around an emerald-green mound of land that protected them from the wind that barreled across the bay. Lush islands with tree-tossed rocky shores welcomed them into their calm waters.
“Kaneq coming up!” came over the loudspeaker. “Next stop, Seldovia!”
“Come on, Allbrights. Back to the bus!” Dad said, laughing. They maneuvered through the line of cars, found their way back to the bus, and climbed in.
“I can’t wait to see our new home,” Mama said.
The ferry docked and they drove off the boat and uphill onto a wide dirt road that cut through a forest. At the crest of the hill stood a white clapboard church with a blue-domed steeple topped with a three-slatted Russian cross. Beside it was a small picket-fenced cemetery studded with wooden crosses.
They crested the hill, came down on the other side, and got their first look at Kaneq.
“Wait,” Leni said, peering out the dirty window. “This can’t be it.”
She saw trailers parked on grass, with chairs out front, and houses that would have been called shacks back in Washington. In front of one of the shacks, three scrawny dogs were chained up; all three stood on top of their weathered doghouses, barking and yelping furiously. The grassy yard was pitted with holes where the bored dogs dug.
“It’s an old town with a remarkable history,” Dad said. “Settled first by
Natives, then by Russian fur traders, and then taken over by adventurers looking for gold. An earthquake in 1964 hit the town so hard that the land dropped five feet in a second. Houses broke apart and fell into the sea.”
Leni stared at the few ramshackle, paint-blistered buildings that were connected to one another by an aging boardwalk; the town was perched on pilings above mudflats. Beyond the mud was a harbor full of fishing boats. The main street was less than a block long, and unpaved.
To her left was a saloon called the Kicking Moose. The building was a charred, blackened husk; clearly the victim of a fire. Through the dirty glass window, she saw patrons inside. People drinking at ten
on a Thursday in a burned-out shell of a building.
On the bay side of the street, she saw a closed-up boardinghouse that her dad said had probably been built for Russian fur traders over a hundred years ago. Next to it, a closet-sized diner called Fish On welcomed guests with an open door. Leni could see a few people huddled over a counter inside. A couple of old trucks were parked near the entrance to the harbor.
“Where’s the school?” Leni said, feeling a spike of panic.
This was no town. An outpost, maybe. The kind of place one might have found on a wagon train headed west a hundred years ago, the kind of place where no one stayed. Would there be
kids her age here?
Dad pulled up in front of a narrow, pointy-roofed Victorian house that appeared to have once been blue and now only showed patches of that color here and there on the faded wood where paint had peeled away. In scrolled, gilt letters on the window were the words
. Someone had duct-taped a hand-lettered
TRADING POST/GENERAL STORE
sign beneath it. “Let’s get directions, Allbrights.”
Mama got out of the bus quickly, hurried toward the small civilization this store represented. As she opened the door, a bell tinkled overhead. Leni sidled in behind Mama, put a hand on her hip.
Sunlight came through the windows behind them, illuminating the front quarter of the store; beyond that, only a single shadeless overhead bulb offered light. The back of the store was full of shadows.
The interior smelled of old leather and whiskey and tobacco. The walls were covered in rows of shelving; Leni saw saws, axes, hoes, furry snow boots and rubber fishing boots, heaps of socks, boxes full of headlamps. Steel traps and loops of chain hung from every post. There were at least a dozen taxidermied animals sitting on shelves and counters. A giant king salmon was caught forever on a shiny wooden plaque as were moose heads, antlers, white animal skulls. There was even a stuffed red fox gathering dust in a corner. Off to the left side were food items: bags of potatoes and buckets of onions, stacked cans of salmon and crab and sardines, bags of rice and flour and sugar, canisters of Crisco, and her favorite: the snack aisle, where beautiful multicolored candy wrappers reminded her of home. Potato chips and snack-pack butterscotch puddings and boxes of cereal.
It looked like a store that would have welcomed Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Leni heard the clapping of hands. A black woman with a large Afro emerged from the shadows. She was tall and broad-shouldered and so wide she had to turn sideways to get out from behind the polished wood counter. Tiny black moles dotted her face.
She came at them fast, bone bracelets clattering on her thick wrists. She was old: at least fifty. She wore a long patchwork denim skirt, mismatched wool socks, open-toed sandals, and a long blue shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a faded T-shirt. A sheathed knife rode the wide leather belt at her waist. “Welcome! I know, it seems disorganized and daunting, but I know where everything is, down to O-rings and triple-A batteries. Folks call me Large Marge, by the way,” she said, holding out her hand.
“And you let them?” Mama asked, offering that beautiful smile of hers, the one that pulled people in and made them smile back. She shook the woman’s hand.
Large Marge’s laughter was loud and barking, like she couldn’t get quite enough air. “I love a woman with a sense of humor. So, whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?”
“Cora Allbright,” Mama said. “And this is my daughter, Leni.”
“Welcome to Kaneq, ladies. We don’t get many tourists.”
Dad entered the store just in time to say, “We’re locals, or about to be. We just arrived.”
Large Marge’s double chin tripled as she tucked it in. “Locals?”
Dad extended his hand. “Bo Harlan left me his place. We’re here to stay.”
“Well, hot damn. I’m your neighbor, Marge Birdsall, just a half mile down the road. There’s a sign. Most folks around here live off the grid, in the bush, but we’re lucky enough to be on a road. So do you have all the supplies you need? You guys can start an account here at the store if you want. Pay me in money or in trade. It’s how we do it here.”