Three roads lead out of Nome, Alaska. We’ve tried all three, dead-ending in Eskimo villages and endless miles of tundra. So what now? We’re here for a week, visiting my son Steve who’s a pilot for the little airline that flies the natives back and forth from their villages to Nome. Not much to do in town. Two restaurants. Lousy food.
“There are other roads, Dad,” Steve says. “Dirt roads. I haven’t tried them, but you might.” He shows me a map with several dotted lines leading out of Nome. “You need four- wheel drive,” he says. “And of course, you need to look out for grizzlies.”
I’m game, as is Lizzie, my twelve-year-old daughter, who’s with me for the whole summer, part of the amical divorce agreement with my ex. Lizzie’s having the time of her life watching the Iditarod dogs racing the hills near here, dragging dune buggies behind them, yapping madly, training for the next race. All kinds of dogs, not just huskies. I want this summer with her Dad to be special, something she’ll always remember.
I flip the switch to four-wheel drive on our rented jeep and head off on one of the dirt roads, bouncing over rocks, driving through creeks, eyes strained for reindeer and musk oxen. Living the wild life! The road is a series of hills and valleys; we chug up the hills and plunge into deep ditches, most often filled with water. We roll up the windows and splash ahead. Full on adventure.
It looks like quarter past five in the afternoon. In fact, in summer, Nome always looks like it’s a quarter past five in the afternoon. Even though the sun never sets this far north, it also doesn’t shine overhead. It’s there all day long and most of the night, low in the sky, masked by clouds. Which means it isn’t hot or sticky. Perfect for an adventure. Today is no different as we freewheel our way out of Nome.
Until we come to a dead stop. We’re at the bottom of a ditch, not one full of water, but deep. I push the accelerator, the wheels spin, the tires dig in.
“Not a problem,” I tell Lizzie. “I’ve gotten into worse fixes.” Well, that’s not exactly true, but I have seen a video. “It’s just a matter of digging a shallow hole under the back wheels,” I tell her, “and filling the hole with stones.” Lizzie looks for flat stones while I dig the holes with a stick I find along the road. No shovel in the jeep, naturally. Next I put the jeep in reverse, and rock it back and forth to get leverage. The wheels spin deeper into the soft earth.
“Are we okay, Daddy?”
“Of course,” I say. “We just need more stones. Smaller stones this time for friction.”
“I’m on it.” Such a terrific kid. Skinny as a rail, long freckled legs, big brown eyes. The baby we thought might save the marriage. And didn’t.
Once again, we rock the jeep back and forth. Once again, the wheels dig deeper into the ruts they’ve made. I can’t believe this isn’t working. But after an hour of spinning wheels, I give up, “Might as well start walking. We’ll get the rental place to come get the jeep.”
“How far?” Lizzie asks.
I look at the odometer. “Ten miles,” I say. “We’ve driven ten miles.”