Born of Ice, (Excerpt from my book, Chiseled, A Memoir of Identity, Duplicity and Divine Wine
by Danuta Pfeiffer
(Junction City, ORegon)
THE TERRAIN CHANGED AGAIN FROM THE tundra and the black edge of a frozen river to the sudden iridescence of turquoise walls. The tires lost traction and the car began to slide sideways.
“What the . . . ” Mom released her foot from the gas and the car drifted to a stop against the sheer face. A cave of ice enveloped us. Smooth and glassy as an eyeball, it seemed to come out of nowhere. Wide bands of blue and green air bubbles arched overhead like frozen 7-Up. To the right, a wall bulged with gleaming veins of white and blue. To the left, the turquoise cascaded into a white and frothy fusion, sudsy as vanilla malt. Strange prisms of violet and red and blue twinkled around us.
“What is this?” The ice enchanted me.
“A tunnel, maybe.” Mom leaned over the dashboard to get a better look and said, “Listen. Do you hear something?” She rolled down the window. Above the hum of the car engine we heard the sound of water, trickling and plopping, echoing through the cavern as if we were in a huge tin can.
“Sounds like rain,” I said.
“Too cold for rain.” Mom rolled up the window.
“It’s a waterfall, Mommy,” Michael said, jumping excitedly up and down on the backseat.
Mom put the car into gear. “Let’s get out of here.”
She nudged the car forward and after a few reluctant spins of the tires, we made our passage slowly through the ice. It seemed as if Moses had parted this frozen blue sea just for us. And then, as quickly as it came, the ice cave vanished. The lost road that Mom assumed followed the river miraculously reappeared before us in the dark.
Half an hour later, at 11:30 at night, we approached Glennallen. According to the map, the village formed the junction of the Wrangell, Chugach, and St. Elias ranges, a monstrous kingdom of glaciers representing a Who’s Who of peaks in North America topping above 16,000 feet. And we’d trekked right through the middle of it.
After losing the road in a whiteout earlier in the day, climbing down a mountainside blind, and then creeping through all that weird ice, we were exhausted. The lights of the town promised comfort and hospitality. But this wondrous illuminated oasis turned out to be a small, smoke-filled tavern. Inside, unshaven, burly trappers, who looked like they’d spent too long in the bush, slumped around tables and slouched over the bar. The smoke and the stench of stale beer mixed with the onion-like odor of unwashed bodies made my eyes water. The clamor of the tavern fell to a hush and disbelief swept across the faces of the men, as if they’d never seen a mother with children before.
“Excuse me,” my mother addressed the bartender, whose drab apron held back a bellyful of beer. “Is there a place for us to stay the night?”
“Did you come down Highway 4?” the bartender said, loud enough to be within earshot of the curious patrons.
“Yes, and we’ve been driving for hours. We’re very tired.” Mom made a motion toward us. I held Paul, and Mike clung to Mom.
“But the road’s been closed for days. How’d you make it around the lake?”
“Didn’t see any lake. We drove through a tunnel, under some ice.”
“Tunnel? That was no tunnel. It’s the river! But nobody could get through that. River crested just before the big freeze, poured straight off the mountain. Washed over the road, into the lake. You say you came under it? That ice fall is gonna blow anytime.” He turned to the other men in the bar, who whistled and shook their heads.
“My children and I need a place to stay.”
The bartender wiped his hands on his filthy rag. “We have a bed upstairs,” he said, “but I don’t think you want it.”
“Actually, we want it very much.” My mother sounded extraordinarily British in this unrefined setting.
“You can check it out. Up there.” He tilted his head to a loft above the bar. Below the loft, nailed to the wall, was a makeshift ladder of two-by-fours. It looked like a ladder built by kids, nailed to the trunk of an oak, leading up to a tree house. The whole tavern watched Mom climb the improvised stairs. I cradled Paul and held Michael’s hand.
At least she was wearing ski pants and not a dress, I thought, as the men watched her. She clung to slats above her and wedged each foot sideways on the steps. After she scrambled into the loft, the men turned their eyes on me.
“Ow,” Michael winced as I squeezed his hand too tightly.
After what seemed like an eternity, Mom climbed back down.
Dusting off her hands she said, “I don’t mind the single bed shoved next to the wall. I don’t even mind the lack of clean bedding. But the smell’s unbearable. Toilet’s plugged and overflowing. It needs to be fixed.”
“Ha!” The man wiped the bar with his rag, “It ain’t broke. Just needs water. You gotta melt snow to flush it. Pipes froze. Got no water.”
“What about drinking water? What about the baby?”
“Sure sorry ’bout that. I feel for you, I do. But the pipes are froze. Need water, you gotta melt snow. We got whiskey, beer, you know.”
My mother scanned the tavern, searching the faces of the other men. I guess she didn’t want to know where they were sleeping, because she didn’t ask.
They weren’t melting snow, I thought. They went outside. How could we be sure we would be using clean snow? I guess Mom didn’t want to know the answer to that, either.
“I’ll pass,” Mom said. “Thanks anyway.”
“But you can’t go back on that road.” The bartender surveyed the room for agreement.
Mom clenched her jaw and squinted her eyes in a way that said she meant business. “I’ve come this far, I can make Anchorage.” She gathered us like chicks as a stunned silence followed us out the door and back to the car. With no room at the inn, we drove through the night. I slept against the door. The boys quietly slept in the back seat. Mom was the only one who didn’t close her eyes.
Early the next morning, the seventh day of our journey, Mom jolted me awake. “We made it, kids!” Anchorage rose in the dark light of the Alaskan dawn. Buildings and streets and flashing neon lights reflected in the snow like Christmas. I scooped Paul from his laundry-basket bed and Michael climbed over and sat between Mom and me.
“We made it, baby. We made it.” I kissed Paul and bounced him on my lap.
Mom looked at me. “You can do anything you set your mind to,” she said. “Never forget that.” At that moment Mom radiated beauty. Not in the pretty sense of the word. It was more like she glowed with a powerful fierceness about her and the kind of pride that comes from beating a dare.
Civilization sprang upon us without warning when we turned onto a wide street called Northern Lights Boulevard and stopped at a red light. It seemed strange to stop at an intersection, as if there were rules again, and driving codes, and other people in the world. As if nothing had happened to us. As if people didn’t understand what we’d just done and where we’d just come from. I thought how trumpets should blare. Parades of people should clap and shout, “Well done! Welcome! Bravo!”
I loved the gritty drifts of dirty snow mounded in gutters and the antlers and snowshoes decorating storefronts. The cold wind lifted wisps of snow off the roof lines like streamers lining our parade route.
“Look.” Michael pointed to a figure bundled in a parka. “There’s someone wearing a fur helmet. Is that an Eskimo?”
“Could be,” Mom said.
A few cars passed by. “Jeez!” Michael said. “Cars. Tons of ’em. But where are the igloos?”
Turning onto The Milky Way Drive, a sign on a tow truck read, “Moose Snort for Hire, Push, Pull or Tug.” Farther down, a sign over a Mexican restaurant displayed a cartoon of a moose eating a taco. A stuffed brown bear standing in a window snarled in frozen menace at passersby. There would be no more mileage charts and mountain passes, no more taverns and timber bridges. We were safe at the top of the world, halfway between New York and Tokyo, as far away as we could get from our past. Now it was time to rest our heads on clean pillows and sleep the sleep of the saved.
Our exodus was complete, or so I believed.