The car wasn’t mine, but I loved it recklessly. For six weeks, Jonathan and I drove it (twelve of Alaska’s highways), ate meals in it (grape nuts, arugula, a lot of pasta), and slept in it (back seat, sitting up, sleeping bags soggy with condensation). We lived in it. Before the road trip, I might have assumed it would be challenging to love a car if it leaked a pint of oil a day or if its fuse box caught on fire on the third day I drove it. For Jonathan and me, though, our borrowed car’s leaks and fires became a source of pride; they were the symptoms of our brief, adventurous life driving through interior Alaska.
We called the car Muskeg. Muskeg is a type of peatland common in southeast Alaska, with scrubby trees and pools of dark water. Sinkholes sometimes absorb boots of through-hikers. Sometimes their bodies. Once, a whole train car. We called her Muskeg because, like this peatland, you never knew whether to be sure of your next step, or in Muskeg’s case, your next turn, gearshift, or parking aspiration.
Either despite or because of Muskeg’s idiosyncrasies, she became our mobile home and badge of exploration. We spent 3,500 miles with her. 18 towns, 12 showers, 38 pasta dinners.
She was a 1993 Jeep Cherokee. She was dark green with dented armor and a cracked windshield. Her back left door didn’t open. The tailgate handle on her trunk popped off. While there was a cassette player that dangled from the dashboard, the clatter and clamor of her engine drowned out any noise inside of her, including conversations. She also didn’t start with the first turn of the key; it took a just-right tap of the clutch pedal and flick of the wrist with the ignition. Once she started, the roar of the engine revved and jerked in neutral. She leaked oil; she leaked a lot of oil. Yella, the Danish mechanic in Anchorage, said that if we put a piece of cardboard beneath her at night, and the pool of oil on it was not wider than one of our forearms in the morning, she was okay to drive. He also said that, though she might blow up, he thought the two of us would have enough time to get out before becoming additional fuel for her flames.
Alaska wasn’t mine, but I loved it just as recklessly as I loved Muskeg that summer. Jonathan grew up on the outer coast of Baranof Island in southeast Alaska. I grew up in a suburb of New York in southern Connecticut. We met while running a marathon in Rhode Island, became friends while taking a Yale class about fish, and became more than friends while crossing glaciers with no crampons or ice axes in the mountains around his hometown. At the end of July, we chased the sun by driving north towards places where it still barely set. Upwards, Jonathan said, as he often did, driving through the Yukon on the first night of our road trip. Onwards, I replied, as I often did, willing my excitement to overpower my nerves.
Jonathan taught me about upwards-and-onwards movement in Alaska. He taught me how to light a campstove when it’s windy, how to make a daypack last tens of backcountry miles, and how to wear XtraTuf rain boots so I look like a local. Above all, Jonathan taught me how to seek and embrace Muskeg-like uncertainties during any of my Alaskan exploits.
On one of our exploits in mid-August, we left her at the end of a dirt road north of Denali. She stayed there for two days while we searched for the Fairbanks bus where Christopher McCandless had died before being made famous by the book and movie Into the Wild. On our way to the bus, we crossed two rivers, ran twenty miles, and encountered three people stranded on the far side of the last river. Two of the stranded people were unable to fit in our small raft and had to be rescued by a helicopter the following day. The article about the rescue in the Fairbanks News-Miner later specified the non-Alaskan roots of the stranded hikers we met, as well as the outsider roots of the more famous stranded hiker who preceded them.
The sun dropped as we trudged back to our mobile home. Our feet sloshed with each step. Our heels were blistered and our packs were empty of iodine, water, and food. We talked about Muskeg the way some some lonely soldiers might talk about their warm kitchens and mother’s cooking overseas. Muskeg was the only one for us; she would make everything better if we could only be with her again.
The trail eventually widened, and we saw her muted green exterior reflecting the hazy light of the moon. We climbed inside, huddled in front of the vents huffing musty heat, and ate ramen with honey and apple cider vinegar from the pot, with sporks.
I have heard that it is rare for young and reckless love to last. We drove south back toward Baranof Island in September. We drove for seventeen hours, passing through yellowing aspen groves and reddening carpets of tundra, alternating who slept in the trunk. We put three quarts of oil in her that day, and then placed the keys back in the well of the owner’s palm.
The next day, I found my way farther south, to the lower 48, as I had come to call them. I untangled myself from a shared life in a broken car. Jonathan stayed in Alaska. I had become so good at lighting our stove in the wind and rain, I had forgotten that I was his student, that we weren’t always going to make cheesy pasta on the side of the road below an 11 p.m. sunset, that a pair of rain boots and a car with character hadn’t made me an Alaskan.
In Connecticut, I rediscovered a life of automatic gears, warm beds, and dinnertime sunsets. I ached for the slight pomegranate aftertaste of water in the glass soda bottle that we had found rolling around Muskeg’s floor in July and then sipped out of through August. Every time I saw a Jeep, I thought about Muskeg’s stalls, her lurches forward, her parking lot puddles of leaked oil rainbows. I missed leaning over the clutch on an empty highway, trying to hear Jonathan read Into the Wild or Ordinary Wolves over the clanking of the engine. I missed the silhouette of black spruce and jagged mountains through her cracked windshield. I recalled with incredulity the night we swerved off the highway, a pint of blueberry cobbler ice cream in hand, to watch the green ribbons of aurora borealis swivel and spill overhead.
Toward the end of our trip, we had started losing seven minutes of sunlight a day. There is only so much sky a person can chase. I called my parents from a boat in Kachemak Bay and threatened not to return south. I changed my flight three times. I lingered an extra month with Muskeg. But the car wasn’t mine. And Alaska wasn’t mine, either. Come fall, I yanked my feet out of the shifty peatland I thought had consumed me completely, and left the place I had let myself believe was home.
Diana Saverin has chased the setting sun in the far north for the past four summers. Muskeg stalled when crossing the Canadian border on the last day of her road trip, and she hasn’t driven stick-shift since. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.