Epilogue: Going Home. Actually: A Love Story

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

Kneeling on the pavement in the San Francisco hotel’s parking lot, I peered under my car and was flooded with relief.

Two weeks prior, while driving to the hotel the night before of our early-morning flight, I had run over a large piece of hard plastic. It had magically materialized in my lane, and banged and clattered against the undercarriage as we passed over it. For the rest of the drive, I was on high-alert for disaster: the check engine light coming on, smoking billowing from behind, car parts flinging off.

Everything seemed to remain intact.

Arriving at the hotel, I had looked underneath and saw no leaks or drips, no mangled pieces of car dangling down. But two weeks is plenty of time for something that is holding on by only a thread to succumb to gravity and let go. Throughout our vacation in Alaska, my thoughts drifted to the car. Upon our return, would we find a mortally wounded vehicle, a dark pool of motor oil, transmission fluid, or some other vital liquid spreading out from beneath the car, like blood at a crime scene?

But no. The pavement underneath was clean and dry.

Whew! Dodged that bullet! Time to go home to our beloved dog Jasper.

We threw luggage in the trunk and grabbed water bottles for the front. I waited for Martin to unlock the car. He seemed to be having trouble with the key fob, and eventually just unlocked the door manually. “The key fob battery is dead,” he said.

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Savage River Trail

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

We had an hour.

One hour for the Savage River Trail, an easy two-mile loop. It apparently meandered downstream along the Savage River, crossed a little bridge, and came back along the other side. We would then drive four hours back to Anchorage, return our rented Nissan Rogue, and properly pack our bags in the hotel room. I had literally thrown our clothes into packs this morning; Martin would be aghast, but not surprised, when he unzipped the bags later, revealing the rumpled disaster inside. We would then hopefully get some sleep (“nap” seemed more like a more appropriate word), and be up again at 2 AM to catch our shuttle to the airport, for our early morning flight home the next day.

We had a schedule to keep.

One hour is plenty of time for a nice, peaceful two-mile stroll. It’s perfectly do-able, perfectly complete-able, for normal people. Except we’re not normal, we’re us. The ones who stop and stare every two steps, who scan for animals, peer at plants, scrutinize the river (“If we were kayaking right now, would we want to go right or left at that rock?”), who photograph, record, breathe, listen, gawk, examine, linger, and are completely incapable of making any forward progress.

Ever. At all.

So we knew we’d be late. One hour isn’t nearly enough time for us to walk two miles. But we had to try.

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Hiking to the Top of the World: Savage Alpine Trail

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

We had arrived at the Mountain Vista Trailhead near the end of Denali National Park’s one paved road. Our plan was to hike the Savage Alpine Trail up and over the ridge, a total of four miles, ending at the Savage River parking lot on the other side. From there, we would catch the free shuttle bus back to this parking lot, and collect the truck.

As we started up the trail, some plants were in heady fall color, others were becoming bare. We would eventually enter unequivocally wintery conditions. But down here it was still fall, the air cool but not freezing, the shrubs and trees colorful and only starting to shed their leaves.

Starting up Savage Alpine Trail
Denali National Park, AK

We hiked up a gradual incline, climbing higher, with stunning snowy mountain ranges all around us. Plant life started petering out. We ate lunch – the last of our crackers, cheese, and that age-old turkey – overlooking magnificent views. We kept climbing, stopping frequently to get videos of us clomping along a wooden boardwalk, or photos of us hiking up the path. Or we’d stop simply to ooh and ahh at the scenery, and breathe the fresh air.

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The Magnificent Sled Dogs of Denali

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

A sled dog presentation? I had to be there.

Denali National Park employs Alaskan huskies to patrol the Park in the winter. Unlike snow mobiles, airplanes, and other heavy equipment, dogs don’t break down, or freeze up, or need hard-to-find parts. Just feed ‘em well, treat ‘em right, and they’ll get you where you need to go.

Indeed, the dogs – with their keen sense of smell, sharp eyes, knowledge of the terrain, wisdom, and amazing intuition – actively help the rangers by avoiding treacherous ice buried beneath the snow, finding remote cabins in impossible white-out conditions, and alerting them to all manner of danger.

Machines can’t do any of that.

Holly, always ready to lead us to safety

It reminded me of a hike that Martin and I once took with our golden retriever Holly. In the mountains of Arizona, we had hiked a four-mile loop trail through an open forest. Returning a month or so later, we decided to hike in the opposite direction. Halfway along the trail, it began to snow, heavily enough that the trail became obscured, completely covered in snow. The forest was open enough that we couldn’t easily discern the path through the trees. There were blazes on the trees, but they were far enough apart that we couldn’t see from one to the next.

We found ourselves casting about, wandering through the snow, looking for the blazes – and always Holly was waaaay over there, waiting for us. We’d call her; she wouldn’t budge. We’d tromp over to grab her – and a blaze would be above her. She was squarely on the trail. That happened several times – we’d lose our way, wander around looking for blazes, become frustrated that Holly was so far from us, then discover she was on the trail – and finally we just followed the dog. She led us unerringly back to the trailhead, in the snow, down a trail she had been on only once before a month prior, in the opposite direction.

I love dogs.

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Trapped by Snow: Eielson Visitor Center

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

We were bouncing down a dirt road in an old school bus, making the eight-hour round-trip journey from the Wilderness Access Center to the Eielson Visitor Center, 66 miles deep into Alaska’s Denali National Park. Only the first fifteen miles were paved; the rest of the trip was on a narrow gravel road.

Of Denali’s six million acres – six million! – there’s only one small dirt road snaking through it, minimizing human impact and intrusion on the land. Miles and miles of totally untouched wilderness stretched out on either side. The vast majority of people stay close to the park entrance, maybe traveling down those fifteen paved miles to the Savage River, the turnaround spot for private vehicles. Many people don’t even hike the few trails at the park entrance. A subset of people will, like us, go as far as Eielson. A much smaller subset will go all the way to Wonder Lake, 85 miles in, and either come back the same day (12-hours round-trip) or camp there.

And a few crazy folks will get off a bus somewhere along the way and hike up a nameless canyon, or down an unexplored creek, or over an indiscriminate ridge, and disappear for a while.

Tracy, our bus driver, was chatty and informative. She had the heater blasting, which was wonderful to the point of discomfort. It was a freezing cold, overcast day, so the heat felt good, but the heater was right at my feet. I was soon stripping off everything I could while remaining decent, and would later look back longingly at being so toasty warm.

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Doing What Comes Naturally: Fun on Triple Lakes Trail

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

We were feeling overwhelmed.

Standing at the counter in Denali National Park’s crowded Wilderness Access Center, we had intended to buy bus tickets into the backcountry. One road snaked deep into the park; the ticket allowed you to get on and off any bus, anywhere you wanted, and explore the backcountry, as far in as your purchased destination.

But apparently we didn’t fully understand the system. Yes, one could hop on and off any bus, the ranger patiently explained. But we must first choose a specific departure date and a specific departure time. Buses left every hour. Which bus, exactly, would we be on? The ranger’s fingers hovered over the computer keyboard, ready to punch in our answer, while a long line of people waited behind us.

I hadn’t anticipated needing exact dates and times. In retrospect, it makes sense– they don’t want to oversell any one departing bus. But we felt pressure as we stood there talking to the ranger, holding up the whole line as we tried to sort out the information in our heads. Quick! Which bus, what time? So we stepped aside to discuss things.

It felt like a stressful start to our day.

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Perched on Denali’s Doorstep: Healy Alaska

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

Today we would leave our gorgeous cabin in Seward and drive through Anchorage and beyond, about seven hours north, to the town of Healy, perched on the doorstep of Denali National Park.

Seven hours of driving? We better be fortified! We stopped at a little coffee shop on the edge of town, where the clerk took our order for coffee and scones. That should do it for seven hours, right? As she handed us the bag, she chirped, “Scones are still warm, freshly delivered by the bakery/hardware store!”

A combination bakery/hardware store!

Come on in! Get your blueberry muffins here! Would you like nails or screws with that? Half-price sale today on all cinnamon rolls and garden hoses!

I love Alaska. It doesn’t do anything like everyone else.

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The Seavey Dogs: Iditarod Champions and Trail Runners Extraordinaire

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

We were rushing breathlessly down the trail, the last ones to arrive for the 10 AM group tour of the Seavey Sled Dogs. The Seaveys are a multigenerational family of dog lovers and Iditarod champions. The Iditarod— a grueling 1000-mile dogsled race across the face of Alaska— takes place in the freezing dark of Alaska’s harsh winter. Only the most intrepid even attempt it. Only true champions finish. The Seaveys have done it— have won it!— multiple times. We were here to get a tiny taste of the Iditarod by being pulled in a wheeled cart by the famous dogs themselves.

We joined the group and tromped down the trail. Our guide stopped before reaching the kennels; one of the sled dogs was on display, standing on a large box while the guide talked about the dogs, the brutal race, the Seaveys—

Actually, I have no idea what he said.

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Exhilaration on Resurrection Bay

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

We presented ourselves to the Kenai Fjords Tours office for our 12-hour boat cruise to Northwestern Lagoon (two fjords over from Seward’s Resurrection Bay) for wildlife-ogling and glacier-viewing. Dark clouds loomed overhead. Rain spit from the skies; the forecast promised significantly more. Inanely, the tour operators said: “The weather isn’t good.”

Apparently we had three options. We could: (1) cancel the boat tour for a full refund, (2) put the tour off until a nicer day, or (3) go for it, understanding that the captain might elect to turn back early, in which case we would receive a partial refund.

Well duh! That’s easy! Door #3, please!

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An Unparalleled Day: Kayaking to Aialik Glacier

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

We presented ourselves to Kayak Adventures Worldwide at 7:15 AM. The skies were clear and blue; it was freezing cold. This is summer? We met Nick, our guide, and were told that we were the only people who had signed up for the Aialik (“Eye-AL-ick”) Glacier kayak tour.

A private tour? Works for us!

We boarded a water taxi, captained by a vibrant 30-year-old woman, a 4th– generation Sewardan. “We have life rafts for twenty people,” she quipped to the crowd of way over twenty people. “First come, first served!”

I liked her.

It was a three-hour boat ride out of Resurrection Bay, around the rocky cape, and into Aialik Bay (where we would climb into kayaks and start our paddle to the glacier).

Martin and I spent the entire three-hour trip pressed against the front of the bow, gripping the railing, admiring rocky cliffs and green mountains, and scanning the sea. Looking straight down, we could watch the boat slicing through the water, could feel the waves below. It was cold and windy. Bundled up in my hooded sweatshirt and Gortex jacket (hood cinched tight, wrist cuffs sealed, all battened down!), Gortex pants and gloves, I was toasty warm. Not one other passenger spent the entire time in the front with us. They’d venture out and quickly scurry back into the boat cabin’s warmth.

Loving every minute!

Loving every minute!

But we were exhilarated. As we left the protected bay and entered the actual Gulf of Alaska, the swells increased and I rode them with pure joy, surfing them up and down, using my knees. The boat soared up to the crest of a wave, then plunged down into its trough – and I would find myself airborne, clinging to that railing for dear life, whoop whoop whoop!– then the boat was tossed up another wave and crashed down the back side again. Over and over and over, those swells kept rolling in.

It was a thrilling, wild ride. I loved it. I kept looking back up at the Captain, and she’d grin at me, giving a thumbs-up.

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Falling in Love at the SeaLife Center

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

It rained hard all night, and was still raining as darkness brightened to gray. We propped ourselves up in bed with comfy pillows and, through the huge windows, watched a sea otter swim slowly by. It dove and rolled in the bay, feeding and grooming as rain poured from the sky.

Watching sea otters while lying in bed. I’m never, ever leaving.

Because it was forecast to rain all day, we decided on an indoor activity, and duly presented ourselves to the Alaska SeaLife Center. It is an enchanting aquarium full of informational exhibits and videos, glass tanks with all kinds of fish, crabs, and jellies, plus several large animal enclosures. Each exhibit so enthralled me that I could barely tear myself away – but then the next exhibit would enthrall me, too.

First stop was the aviary. I knew it’d be a cool place when I read the sign at the door: Please do not touch the birds.

Are you kidding me? Don’t touch the birds? They need a sign stating that? Is there even a possibility of touching them? Surely they couldn’t be that close, that accessible.

Yes they could, and yes they were.

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Seward, Alaska: Getting There

We were flying to Anchorage, the starting point for our two-week vacation in Alaska. And because “vacation” is the operative word, the forecast was, of course, for rain.

Heavy rain. Like, the entire first week. Possibly longer.

Looks like another classic Beebee vacation!

And since it’s Alaska, let’s expect some snow during our summer vacation, shall we? Why not!

From the plane, the panhandle of Alaska gave us stunning views of mountains, shimmering lakes, and snow. But as we neared our destination, clouds gathered and blotted out the majestic peaks and green valleys. We descended, diving down into the white-out, until suddenly the wheels were skidding across the runway.

Alaska! We couldn’t wait to get right into the middle of it.

In the rush to start our adventure, Martin left his jacket on the plane. You just can’t venture into Alaska, even in the summer, without plenty of warm layers. So he ducked back up the hallway from baggage claim, ignoring the conspicuous “Exit Only!” and “Do Not Enter!” signs, intending to slip onto the plane and grab his jacket. He made it about two steps before being stopped by a veritable wall of stern-looking, beefy security guards. For a bunch of big guys, they sure materialized silently, from seemingly nowhere.

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The Vanilla Latte

“One medium cappuccino, one medium vanilla latte!” the barista sings, sliding two cups towards me.

I step forward. Martin’s cappuccino has froth towering above the cup’s rim. Grabbing a lid, the barista expertly snaps it onto the cup, and a spray of milky foam squirts out through the drinking slot. The jet shoots into the air, then lands in a bubbly pool on the lid.

The barista grins, mopping up the excess foam with a towel. “I knew that would happen,” he says, gallantly wiping the lid.

I carefully snap the lid onto my vanilla latte without incident. No surprises, no squirting foam. I take a sip. Ah yes, such sweet goodness! I love vanilla lattes.

I carry the two cups to the truck, placing them gingerly into the cup holders between the front seats. I slide into the driver’s seat; Martin appears with thick sandwiches from Togo’s. We are starving after a day of hiking, and still have a long drive home.

Martin unwraps the sandwiches as I merge onto the freeway. Our golden retrievers Jasper and Eddy hear the crinkle of paper, sniff the air and rise from the back seat, watching the proceedings with great interest. Food? Is that food? That looks like food! Both dogs inch forward, jostling each other to place their front paws on the center console. They look back and forth at us, Jasper drooling copiously as we take big bites of thick sandwiches piled high with meat and cheese.

I always give them the last bite. When I am done, I offer a final morsel to each dog. Eddy accepts his politely and delicately, a perfect gentleman; Jasper practically removes a couple of my fingers as he snatches it from me, greedily swallowing it whole. My hand comes away wet with slobber.

I wipe it on my pant leg.

Reaching down, I pick up my vanilla latte and am surprised to see a foamy pool on its lid, like Martin’s in the coffee shop. Huh, that’s odd. Had the cup been jostled? What caused the coffee to be ejected through the drinking slot?

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Poem: Good Luck, Infection Control!

The Backstory

Every work site has its Brian.

The prankster. The jokester. The comedian. The disrupter.

Brian, an early-thirty-something-going-on-age-eight, loves his practical jokes. He calls the nurses’ station from a corner of the room and pretends to be a difficult family member, demanding information from the nurse, twisting her words and her thoughts until she becomes flustered and frazzled, whereupon he gives himself away with his hoots of laughter. The conversation always ends with the nurse slamming down the phone.

He squirts vials of saline across the room, the saline arcing overhead in a fluid stream to hit an unsuspecting nurse. She looks around in surprise, only to see everyone industriously charting. Including Brian. His presence makes any nurse instantly suspicious, however innocent he may appear.

He dons fake accents and pretends not to understand English. For hours.

And hours.

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The Body in Room 110

It wasn’t the body that surprised me.

I’d heard there had been a death on our unit; someone from the local mortuary was on his way. No, what surprised me was that the door to room 110 was wide open. I could see right in there, see the body carelessly covered with a rumpled sheet.

I was a little offended. Show some respect! I couldn’t imagine any of our nurses treating a deceased patient this way. That door should be closed! And that sheet over his face – we never pull linens over anyone’s face! We courteously tuck the person in as if they were sleeping, plump the pillow, smooth the sheets, and close the door for privacy. Leaving him like that – a sheet thoughtlessly thrown over him, in full view of the nurses’ station – was disrespectful to the patient, to his family, and to visitors.

Some people might find it very unsettling, walking past the room and seeing someone like that.

Mind you, I didn’t really know who had died. No one had said to me, “Gosh, my patient in 110 passed today,” or “When the mortuary staff arrives, direct them to 110.” I just knew someone had died, somewhere on the unit.

But I didn’t trouble myself with the details. It was obvious, wasn’t it? I mean, you see a body lying motionless under a sheet, what else could it be, except a dead person?

Nobody would sleep like that, would they?

The answer, of course, is yes.

So the mortuary guy shows up.

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Making Breadfruit-Cod Meatballs

I stared into the pot with disbelief. I was making meatballs, and it was not going well. Belatedly, I wondered if maybe I should have followed the recipe more precisely. My cavalier attitude towards cooking (read: my utter indifference to details like ingredients and measurements) could sometimes lead to, shall we say, disappointing results.

I really hoped this wasn’t one of those times.

It was Sunday in Samoa, which meant I was preparing for the weekly to’ona’i (toh-oh-NAH-ee), a post-church, potluck-style feast. Extended families and large social groups (which might include Peace Corps Volunteers like me) gathered to share and enjoy phenomenal food. Standard fare always included Samoan classics: breadfruit, a soft, fluffy, white starch, lighter and sweeter than potatoes; taro, a purplish-gray root vegetable, a starch much denser and heavier than potatoes; palusami, a velvety mixture of taro leaves and coconut cream, baked to perfection in a smoldering fire; and coco Samoa, sweet, rich Samoan hot chocolate. Raw fish; sweet and sour pork; fresh bananas, mangoes, papayas.

Everyone brought something; the food was always fantastic.

To avoid public humiliation given my unpredictable success with meals, I usually brought safe and unimaginative items like fresh bread (purchased that morning) or a package of cookies. But on this particular Sunday I was inspired. I would wow everyone! I would cook them real food. I would make breadfruit-cod meatballs!

The photo looked amazing, showing crisp, deep-brown orbs with a soft, moist interior. I was sure I could do it, if I just followed the recipe. My cooking would be talked about for days!

Here we go! Step one: Cook the breadfruit, then mash it into a paste.

Okay, I didn’t have any breadfruit. But that’s okay! I had taro. Way more solid than breadfruit, yes. But did it really matter? I doubted it. Starch is starch, totally interchangeable! So I boiled up the taro.

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In the Kitchen: A Recipe For Disaster

When I cook, I always use a recipe. Always!

The problem is, I rarely follow it.

I view a recipe as a helpful guide, a list of loosely-suggested food combinations accompanied by approximate quantities. Nothing is taken very seriously. I freely (Martin would say recklessly) substitute major ingredients, alter their amounts and cooking times, and change the order in which items are added. Every recipe seems to get modified, somewhere along the line.

Sometimes I do it because my way is just easier and faster. I mean, who wants to spend time boiling pasta, grating cheese, making a red sauce, cooking meat, meticulously layering everything in a dish, and then still have to bake it? That takes way too long! Throw it all into a pot, give the whole thing a stir, and call it done! Time to eat!

Success is, admittedly, varied. Not every recipe survives my careless measurements and sheer bravado.

Take cream puffs, for instance.

I was baffled when mine ended up the size, consistency, and flavor of hockey pucks. Throw one of my cream puffs, and you could reasonably be charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Rock hard and virtually indestructible, they would have made excellent patio pavers, had I made enough.

I couldn’t fathom my complete lack of success. I had followed the recipe exactly! Then I learned that apparently you can’t just eyeball the required amount of flour by shaking it straight out of the bag. You have to actually measure it. Who knew? Likewise, you can’t slash the number of eggs by over half in a misguided attempt at being “healthy,” a questionable endeavor in itself, given that I was making cream puffs.

Live and learn.

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Nurses Are Difficult Patients

I had a battle appointment with my doctor recently. His heart must sink when he realizes that I’m in his exam room. I don’t mean to be a problem, but … nurses are notoriously bad patients.

I’d had a cough for about a week, which had recently developed into a sore throat. It hurt way down in the front of my throat, at the larynx. And because I’ve had, in the past, a two-year battle with C. diff, I am extremely reluctant to take antibiotics. In fact, I’m generally reluctant to take any medications at all.

My head has to be splitting open before I swallow a Tylenol. It’s just how I am.

So I showed up in his office on a Thursday morning, complaining of a deep, persistent cough and raw sore throat. I fervently hoped he had his magic wand with him, because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like any of his suggestions.

Predictably, the conversation went like this:

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Poem: Happy Birthday to the Best Mom on Earth!

The Backstory

My mom Margaret is truly amazing.

Start humming any old song and within seconds, as she figures out what key it’s in, her hands are flying up and down the piano keyboard, rocking out the song in a rich outpouring of sound and rhythm. Is the song too high or too low? No problem, she’ll just transpose it on the fly.

She can spell any word, and likely inform you of its etymolgy too. She will correct your usage of lielay, laid, and lain. With a passion for animals, she eagerly watches webcams of falcon chicks, and excitedly informs you as they are about to fledge. She educates everyone who will listen (and even those who won’t!) that rat poison is bad for hawks.

Reader: Do not use rat poison! It’s bad for hawks! (See Mom? I’m helping!)

(Reader: Seriously, rat poison kills raptors. Find another way to get rid of rodents.)

She follows politics and current events. She attracts people to her wherever she goes, resulting in a busy social life of choral events, luncheons, book groups, movies and plays, activism, and laughter. She takes long brisk walks. She has traveled far and wide with two of her best friends, Kathie and Betsy, who also happen to be her sisters. Those Snyder girls have always had a good time together.

And she makes puns.

Really bad ones.

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Dad’s Pristine Car

It was 3 AM when I heard it. The sound of screeching metal.

Screeching metal is not what you want to hear while camping. Especially when you’re borrowing your father’s pristine car.

I was nervous about using it at all. Martin and I were visiting California from North Carolina, and had intended to rent a car for our camping trip to the Eastern Sierra. But my dad, being wonderful, insisted we use his.

“Save your money!”  he had urged us. “Take mine!”

Martin was in graduate school; I was a secretary. Save money? That sounded good.

And yet… my dad’s car was always immaculate. He hand-washed and vacuumed it every Saturday morning. He waxed it twice a year, lovingly rubbing in the wax, polishing it to a high shine, and buffing every inch until it gleamed. The windows sparkled. The upholstery was spotless. Even the wheel wells were unsullied with oil or grit.

One did not eat or drink in the car. One did not leave trash in the car. One did not smudge its windows or bump the curb.

He understood we were going camping, right?

I was anxious. There would undoubtedly be dirt and pine needles inside by the end of the trip; of course we would wash and vacuum the car, but what if sap got onto the floor mats? What if the fuel bottle leaked in the trunk?

What if – God forbid! – the paint got scratched? Or the windshield chipped?

I would absolutely die, if my dad didn’t kill me first.

No, nothing even remotely approaching “screeching metal” had ever – in my wildest imagination, in my wildest fears – been considered. It was unthinkable.

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