She said this road we were on led nowhere. But I wasn’t a fool and had been with girls like her before. Long before reaching it, I knew about the end.
This particular Alaskan tarmac was called Out the Road, a colloquialism born of confusion. Residents didn’t know whether to call it Old Glacier Highway, its root road, or Veterans Memorial Highway, its state-given name. Anyone who lived in the surrounding area of Juneau, the second largest city by land in the nation, knew that none of this mattered when the roads in and out of town led nowhere.
In places where the pavement peeled away, the road revealed mixed potholes like bear tracks stamped into loose gravel. Tipsy construction vehicles leaned into ditches, abandoned in the misty Pacific Northwest fuss of late morning. It was the weekend and we had enough fuel, but how much we weren’t really sure. Neither of us cared to check.
I fell in love with Tessany one night not many weeks before our last few days together. She worked as a bartender, and I as a reporter, staggering in for what I promised myself would be one drink. The Baranoff Hotel was dark inside, hazy like a post-war foggy barroom abandoned by those who knew better than to show up without knowing a soul. It was dark like I imagined the outside should have been at that nightly hour, and I sat against the bar.
Alaska in winter, to those who know her, is an anguished continuance of darkness. All seems lost among the stars in the fake permanence of midnight. The lasting snow takes on a wavering plea against the winds that tickle at the distant mountains, a harsh abrasion best seen and never felt. I moved there because that’s what I hoped for. My intention was simple: move to Alaska, save enough money, and one day move into the woods where forever I could be alone. Solitude in the Lower 48 seemed impossible, but in the Last Frontier I felt that I could distance myself far from society, from people, from all my work- and personal-related stresses. Only then could I escape myself, whom I’d come to loath after many years of failed relationships—all of which ended because of my need to fantasize. Dreaming up how things could be led me astray. I figured if I could just imagine what the right girl for me would be like—artistic, shy, blonde—I could place anyone I met into that mold.
We met in summer, not winter, when the rain fell sideways and tracked along windowpanes like the filth of a meandering slug. No one bothered to clean up the streaky windows. It would do little good when the snow came and the streets once more fell under thick sheets of ice, adding hazards to anyone without metal cleats underfoot. So why then waste the time in summer, even in the rain, when there existed few sunny patches between, sucker holes of fun between storms and beneath rainbows, when thoughtless fun could be had, a time when love could blossom?
New in town, I heard all about the winters from where I sat at the bars. At the Baranoff, I wondered if it was late and couldn’t tell if I walked outside, my body not yet adjusted to the persistent sun. I was not used to the shift in geography, to a place where summer nights and dreams are without twilight.
Tessany and I talked about what books we were reading and shared coy, banal conversation through which I knew I’d have her anyway I wanted.
After my fifth round, she asked, “You new around here?”
“Yes, and you?” I answered.
“Been here all my life. Where are you headed after?”
“Depends on when you get off work.”
She was a pretty little thing, with short dark hair and sorry eyes. I imagined she was not quite nineteen. From her bedroom I could see Mount Roberts, its peak formidable and shedding what snow remained, a tram dizzying its way up to the restaurant and lodge near the top. Light avoided shining through her window and she knelt atop me, guiding herself with no real hurry. She offered me a drink and poured one for herself.
She asked if I liked it there, with her. I did. I wouldn’t think of being anywhere else. I said this with extreme conviction, slow and deliberate, so that she could remember the moment. But it was really me who wanted to remember. She was not nineteen, rather in her early thirties, and I in my early twenties. But still she was to me a pretty little thing. I loved her for a while longer, listening to her plans to one day reach Temecula and sharing my stories with her of hitchhiking through Truckee. Over several weeks, I returned to her place around the same time each evening.
In the car, on our way Out the Road, she was driving and reached for my arm. She was mostly quiet; she said the silence didn’t bother her, but her uneasiness showed in her trembling hands. There was hardly any light through the mist, a grey sheet of pebbled dusk. Trees, closely cropped high and tight, dappled either side of the road and cast out long shadows toward a cove I could hear but not yet see.
We were quiet because I had told her I would soon be gone forever. This would be our last drive together, one of many day trips spent trying to get away. I couldn’t take the suffocation, the seclusion. I needed the anonymity granted to a person adrift against the haggard indifference of a city of millions.
The car motored on.
Soon, we noticed the traffic signs along the road were replaced with orange cautions, warnings: blatant foreshadows. Flimsy orange plastic webbing: guardrails. The car bobbed violently along the unpaved road. We were long past mile marker zero, not that it mattered when the beginning resembled the end, the direction we traveled becoming irrelevant. Running out of fuel at any point would have only kept us together longer. But we knew reaching the end, together, perhaps at last, was only just a matter of time.
An hour later we reached Echo Cove, roughly fifty miles away from downtown Juneau, where a harbor and rocks jutted into an unnerving stillness of water like glass, interrupted in the distance by the backs of breaching whales, a hollow moaning like that of heartache. Hand-in-hand we walked, me wondering where to go from here, her wondering if there was any chance I’d stay.
I couldn’t. There was no fulfillment in trying to make something work when a fundamental part of the relationship was broken: my wants were ever shifting, and I could not find myself humbly accepting my place in a village that, because of its size, knew all about me. Tessany lived and thrived in small towns, but I needed something more ham-fisted and ecstatic. The pull of Manhattan was willing me back. I just didn’t know it yet and decided, like I’d always had, that running was the best option. I thought it had worked for me before, that leaving meant, at least internally, I’d arrived somewhere new.
She didn’t want me to leave and offered me a place where I could stay and write and be at peace, if only within her comforting embrace. It was a last ditch plea. But since that first night at the bar, the shimmer of her eyes had become like stone: rough and impenetrable. There was nothing left alive in her eyes, as if they were hollow lamps unplugged. It had become difficult to hold steady eye contact with someone I would knowingly come to hurt, someone I would soon devastate.
Looking out across the waters, I tried to imagine what staying with her would be like. I thought of winter near the fireplace, the crackle and smoke reaching skyward in a place we’d call our own. I dreamed of how things could be, not as they were.
The road can be a lonely place, even if you’ve found someone to take the journey with you. Since I knew this was the end, I had no one else to blame as the fog rolled in and I counted the hours until my flight back to the Lower 48. Knowing there was an end kept me world-weary, and ever curious. So in search of concrete emotions, in spite of my desperate wanderlust, I could not yet find consolation in this road that led nowhere, which, I imagined, was just one end among many.