I made it. I suppose it would be more accurate to say I can see how I will make it in the next few days. I am at the last stage, as far as the planes can take me, at a fishing camp called Laika Star. From here I travel by dogsled, a prospect that both thrills me and fills me with no small amount of fear. You remember how I loved Jack London and read it to Paul when he was ten? Suddenly the prospect of a real mush stands before me, and I am not as intrepid as I believed myself to be. Strange when dreams come face to face with reality. I am to meet the dog driver tomorrow. She will go over my equipment and supply anything else that I need. It should take about ten days, which is a long time to be in the Alaskan bush in winter.
I think of you often here. I'm not sure you would like this country. Alaska is vast and lonely and haunting. It's one thing to hear about it, another to travel it. Most of the state's population lives near Anchorage or Fairbanks. Good roads connect those two cities, but the rest of the state relies on planes. You know all that, of course. I'm sorry if I'm telling you more or less than you need to know. It's been years–back to our courtship, really–since I wrote you a true letter. And I am beyond email, or any electronic communication. Even to call would take a satellite phone, and I suspect we should stand by our decision to take a break for a while to sort out what our marriage means or how it should end. Letters seem like a more reasoned way to communicate. I hope you understand and I hope you'll write back.
I also wanted to say I know you think this trip is a bad idea. I understand. I do. But I have to see where he died, honey. I just do. I don't know if it will change anything, or bring me any peace, but I feel I must do it. I can't go forward until I know more. I want to know how he spent his last days, and what he thought and felt, as least as far as such things are knowable. I'm sorry if my need to do this causes you pain.
On a lighter note, I should mention that you would like my cabin. It is a model of efficiency and low-tech elegance. Everything is fashioned out of logs, like a boy's dream of a Lincoln Log cabin. Martha Stewart meets Sergeant Preston of the Yukon! A Vermont Castings stove sits in one corner, and you can open the doors to the stove and it becomes a fireplace. Beautiful, really. I have it running now and the room smells of cedar and pine and oak. The beds are firm and the linens top quality. The trout and salmon fishing around here is world class, I gather, and they routinely fly in some big names. In the dining room I've seen pictures of Bobby Knight, the famous basketball coach, and George Bush Sr. The proprietor, a man named Gus–shouldn't all proprietors be named Gus?–pointed out a dozen more photographs, but I just nodded and did my best to appear impressed, because clearly I was supposed to know who they were. TV stars, I guess. I didn't recognize any of them, and that simply confirms that I am hopelessly out of date.
I am eager to hear your news, but I will understand if you decide not to write back. I am not trying to gloss over the troubles we've had in our marriage. I understand that we may not be capable of mending our life together. I want you to know that I am sorry for my part in our rifts, and that as hurtful as I have been at times, it was never my intention to do anything but love you. I failed, of course, but I did not mean to fail.
I have a way to get the mail quickly to you, as remarkable as that must seem for someone writing from the Alaska outback. Gus puts his mail on the regular plane to Anchorage, but the bush plane operators provide a FedEx connection. FedEx does an overnight thing, and if it all hits correctly you can get mail to anyone in the lower forty-eight in about three days. They claim when it works right it is faster, if more expensive, than regular mail. So I want to get this in an envelope before I go to bed.
Before I tell you about meeting the dogs, and the wonder of all that, I have to tell you a funny anecdote. It turns out that you have to feed a woodstove all night! I must sound like a bumbling idiot, but I went to bed without giving it a thought, assuming, I suppose, that Gus had some form of backup heat. I woke at two in the morning and I have never been colder in my life! I don't know what I was thinking. Plain stupid, really. Stocked properly, the stove can easily make it through the night and keep the cabin warm, but I didn't think twice before going to sleep. So, you would have watched your husband on his hands and knees, blowing carefully onto a twist of paper and tinder, trying to get the last dying embers to flame up. I did it, too, and I have never seen a more welcome sight than those first few flames. I fed that fire with more tenderness, more attention, than I have lavished on anything in years. (That sounds horrible . . . I should lavish attention and tenderness on you, shouldn't I?) But you know what I mean. Eventually the fire got going and I filled the stove full, and the cabin is so well insulated it began warming up in no time. I glanced out the window at a thermometer on the porch post and saw it had dropped to -10. Cold, but not as cold as it will get. Not by a long shot. I climbed back under the blankets, and sat up in bed and gauged the heat as it moved slowly through the cabin. Wonderful, wonderful heat. I tried to go back to sleep, but I felt restless, and a little excited to be meeting the dogs in the morning, so I read a while, The Three Musketeers, of all things, but I couldn't quite get involved. I finally gave it up and I slid out of bed one more time to open the doors on the stove. You can imagine the wonderful light the fire gave. I hustled back into bed and watched the flames for a long time and I felt a million things.
I felt young, sweetheart. That might sound crazy to you, but I did. Propped up on the pillows, watching the flames, about a dozen Hudson Bay blankets weighing me down, I thought about you, us, our student days in Providence. Do you remember that art project the RISD student did on Benefit Street? He talked the town administrators into letting him cover a block of that beautiful old street with grass sod and then brought in two enormous Jersey cows, their udders virtually dragging on the ground, and for one afternoon and evening the street became a rural countryside again. I thought it was brilliant in its way; it made us look at the street with a different perspective. Anyway, I've never told you, but I think that's the first time I saw you. I know we met later, and we talk about that as our first meeting and I never wanted to spoil that, but I have a memory of you, or a dream, and you are dressed in black–a black skirt and a turtleneck–and you are riding one of the first English bikes I ever saw, with handlebar brakes, and you ride by on the other side of the street. It doesn't really matter if it's true or not, but I swear you entered my consciousness that day. You were so beautiful. Your hair was in a French braid and you looked straight ahead, not particularly solid on the bike, and I saw you as if somehow magically you had brought the countryside to good old Providence, and it was something out of Thomas Hardy, a girl with radiant skin, and serious knees, pumping away down the street. I never told you before because I've never known if I imagined it, or had dreamed it into being, and besides, I remember our real first meeting vividly, too. In any case, you were tremendously present in the cabin with me, alone in Alaska, both of us far down under the covers.
You must think I've completely lost my mind.
After my strange night–you really were in the cabin, you know, but a younger you, a college girl you–I woke early. I should tell you a little about Gus. He lives out here by himself. He has a girlfriend, but she refuses to spend the winter so far north. She retreats to Anchorage and visits him now and then, but only when the weather permits. She is a pilot, so she can buzz up here when she likes. Her name is Cindy. She spends the summers here, working as a pilot and a guide. He does all the cooking, the grounds work, and so on. They hire a crew of kids to serve as kitchen help, and they pay them top dollar. It's prestigious, I gather, to work at Laika Star. The kids pass down the jobs to brothers and sisters. The season is short, but they make a killing because of the fishing. The river near here, the Yankawalett (an Inuit name), has the finest grayling fishing in North America. People try to collect different fish the way old-time hunters collected big-game heads, and grayling, with an outsized dorsal fin, are a must. Fly-fishing, according to Gus, has become wildly popular, and plenty of CEOs and corporate bigwigs don't think twice about dropping a pile of dough to get to remote rivers. That's how Gus gets by.
(Don't worry, by the way . . . I have winter rates, which are much more reasonable.)
Gus fixed breakfast in the main lodge. When I asked if it wasn't a bit extravagant to keep the lodge heated during the winter, he mentioned that he expected a snowmobile party in ten days' time, and if he let the heat go out the cold would sink into the wood and it would be the devil to get heated again. Cheaper, he said, to keep it going. So we had the enormous lodge to ourselves, and Gus ate with me–ham, bacon, eggs, beans, sourdough toast, and oatmeal. I didn't feel hungry when I sat down at the table, but I ate and ate and ate, and I still don't know why. Maybe the good air.
Gus resembles every minor prospector character in every western you've ever seen. You know the type: gray beard, sharp, birdy features, a wide, wrinkled forehead, and a pair of red suspenders. Small and wiry. His right index finger is missing at the second joint, and his right foot lags out a little as if he wanted to ease a small dog forward with it. He's aware that he plays to type, but he's also perilously close to being a type, so it all works together in a funny sort of way. When he brought in breakfast I expected him to start babbling about gold in them thar hills, but he satisfied himself with sliding the food onto the table and that was that.
Good food, too. Nothing fancy, but he took pride in what he served. He told me he has an order in for a haunch of moose meat for the snowmobile party. They asked for it. He'll make some stews and a chili with it. Moose meat makes more sense up here than standard beef, he said, especially in winter.
The next part is about Paul. So skip it if it's too painful to read. But Gus knew a little about the accident from his girlfriend, Cindy, who knows all the pilots. It's a small world up here, not in land, but in population, so it wasn't surprising that he knew a few things. He fished around a little to figure out what I was doing up here by myself in the winter, trying to figure how I would take it, I guess, but then he told me what he knew. So here goes.
He never met Paul. Paul waited in Anchorage for three days, hoping to get decent weather. The school year up on the northern slope had a start date of September 1. I guess it's customary to buy all your groceries before going that far north, and people don't think twice about hiring planes. Paul was heading into the arctic night, which can be paralyzing, according to Gus. And the village where Paul was going to teach–I can't come close to spelling the name, but it's something like Ukallatahal–had the usual problems with alcoholism and domestic abuse and a dozen other things. They also fared miserably with the Alaskan oil rights. That is a very long story–and Gus told me most of it–but it's enough to say the village had money from oil rights, lost it, appealed to the government for protection, lost money again, and wound up back where it had begun.
Paul had new textbooks for his classes, and a year's worth of school materials. I like knowing that small detail and I hope you do, too.
Gus said the consensus held that ice had brought the plane down. That concurs with the official report. He said that dozens of planes go down every year, most from ice or some outside factor. He even said geese bring some planes down by flocks flying into them, and so on. They fly Otters up here, like the one Paul was in, and Otters are exceptionally reliable planes. But conditions are difficult and if you get in trouble, as Paul's plane did, you have nowhere to emergency land unless you can get to a lake. The pilot, from what Gus knew from Cindy, was experienced and steady. Irish Canadian, as you know. (I've blocked his name right now . . .)
That's all so far. I understand you think this quest of mine is self-punishing, or masochistic, but I feel I have to go through with it. I pushed him to do something different, to try something adventurous. And our beautiful son ended up dead.
I have to stop now.
I got your letter. I'm glad you made it there safely.
Thanks, I guess, for letting me know.
Still Nov. 10 . . .
Well, that was rotten of me. I’m sorry, I really am. I ran to catch the mail boat (yes, you read that right), but I was too late. It was just chugging away from the dock, disappearing into the fog. Honestly, it couldn’t have been more symbolic–me standing on the wharf, waving and yelling, while my letter to you disappears into the great unknown. Sound familiar? Sorry again. I’ll try not to sound bitter.
Okay, take two. I got your letter. And you’re right–it came fast, via FedEx. The thing was, it went home (it being home, you probably figured that’s where I’d be). But I’m not. I’m in a tiny, drafty, salt-soaked cottage on Monhegan Island. Jenny saw the truck arrive from next door and intercepted the envelope. She had them forward it here, to Monhegan. Expensive way to get mail. I can almost hear your rationale–you’re in Alaska, but it’s my trip, too, and you want to keep me up on the details as you learn them.
It’s beautiful on the island. I came out at the beginning of October, have been here almost a month and a half now–I just knew I needed to get away. I tell myself it’s not because of you, or because you’ve undertaken such a journey–such a pilgrimage. I honestly believe, with all the soul-searching I can muster (and you know I can muster plenty–no comments, please), that my coming here was all on my own, nothing at all to do with you.
Are you ready? I’m painting again.
That’s why I chose Monhegan–in the summer, there’s a real, true, working artists’ colony here. By the time I got here, the artists were starting to leave, head home. That’s okay–the desolation suits me right now. Jamie Wyeth has a house at one end of the island, and there are constant Jamie sightings, although I myself haven’t seen him. It’s a little how I imagine things might have been in Honfleur back in the days of Monet . . . “Did you see Claude?” “Claude just picked up his mail.” “Claude is down by the haystacks.” Etc. Jamie has that kind of allure and fame. I don’t care about Jamie’s allure and fame. I just care that I’ve picked up a paintbrush again.
The cottage is a shambles, but I love it. I rented it from an ad in the Boston Globe–two lines mentioning a sunflower garden and a water view. Even when I first got here, the sunflowers were dead. The water view requires jimmying a lock, climbing the ricketiest attic stairs you’ve ever seen, and leaning out the window to spy a distant patch of harbor between bare branches and pine boughs. When I called the owner to ask what the hell, he apologized and told me he hadn’t been there in a while, then offered to sell me the cottage for what sounds to me like a song. Seems he inherited it from his recently deceased mother–who was an artist and knew, of course, Jamie.
I told him I’d think it over. The truth, Sam, is that I want it. I can see myself here, and I haven’t been able to see myself anywhere. The kitchen smells of linseed oil and turpentine; the walls are lined with my landlord’s mother’s paintings. She was something of a primitive, but with poetry and soul–think Grandma Moses meets Gauguin. With a touch of Georgia O’Keeffe. Sutton, her son and my landlord, said she was a “character,” and something in his tone makes me know there’s much more to it.
I feel her presence with me. Almost as if she’s protecting, guiding me into these long, cold months. There’s something about the way the November weather on this island far at sea matches what I’ve been feeling inside since Paul died. I think she would understand. She signed her paintings “A.” That’s all–just A. So I feel I have the ghost of A here with me.
She’s with me right now, as I write this letter to you. I think I need her, too. This isn’t easy. Reading your letter from Laika Star, my hands are shaking. You’re really there? Why?
You say you hope I understand, but I don’t. You want me to know you know I think it’s a bad idea, and I do. What good can come from it? As much time as I’ve had to think about it, as hard as you’ve tried to persuade me, I still come back to the same thing: Alaska killed him.
You asked me to write back (aren’t you sorry?), so that’s what I’m doing. He was so dear and tender. He loved the outdoors, but never as much as you wanted him to. He wanted to save the world, but why couldn’t he have waited to graduate and then done that here in Maine, or New Hampshire, or Arkansas, or Texas, or any of the places Teach for America would have sent him? Why did he have to choose the most remote place on the globe?
Please don’t let’s keep this up. I can’t bear going back and forth with you on this; I hear myself seeming to blame you and realize that’s just what I’m doing. We loved him more than air. And we buried him. He’s gone, Sam–and you being there does nothing to change that.
Have a drink with Gus, and turn for home. I’ve decided I don’t want the house. You can have it–I’ll tell Charlie, and he can work it all out with your lawyer. I really do like it here. The winter might be tough, but I don’t care. The first snow fell last week, and I climbed up to the attic and stared at it falling on the harbor.
P.S. If you’re going to write again, send letters to me at
3 Lupine Hill Road
Monhegan Island, Maine 04852
You know I don’t agree with you on any of it–it’s yourquest, not mine, I never wanted you to go. So I give you permission to ask why I’m replying in the same way, overnight express. The truth is, I don’t know. Perhaps I just want to do my part in playing out this last act of ours.
Be careful. I didn’t say that before.
But please, can you be careful up there? We may be apart now, but that doesn’t mean I want both of you dying in that wilderness.
I have to run to catch the boat, to get this off to you.
Excerpted from The Letters © Copyright 2012 by Luanne Rice and Joseph Monninger. Reprinted with permission by Bantam. All rights reserved.