Home > The Great Alone(6)

The Great Alone(6)
Author: Kristin Hannah


Usually, on road trips, Leni kept her nose buried in a book, but on this trip the scenery had often demanded her attention, especially through the gorgeous mountains of British Columbia. In the ever-changing landscape, she sat in the backseat of the bus, imagining herself as Frodo or Bilbo, the hero of her own quest.

The VW bus thumped over something—a curb, maybe—and stuff went flying inside, dropped to the floor, rolled into the backpacks and boxes that filled the back of the bus. They screeched to a halt that smelled of burnt rubber and exhaust.

Sunlight streamed through the dirty, mosquito-splattered windows. Leni climbed over the heap of their poorly rolled sleeping bags and opened the side door. Their rainbow-decorated ALASKA OR BUST sign fluttered in the cool breeze, the sides anchored in place by duct tape.

Leni stepped out of the bus.

“We made it, Red.” Dad came up beside her, laid a hand on her shoulder. “Land’s End. Homer, Alaska. People come here from all over to stock up on supplies. It’s kind of the last outpost of civilization. They say it’s where the land ends and the sea begins.”

“Wow,” Mama said.

Even with all the pictures Leni had studied and all the articles and books she’d read, she hadn’t been prepared for the wild, spectacular beauty of Alaska. It was otherworldly somehow, magical in its vast expanse, an incomparable landscape of soaring glacier-filled white mountains that ran the length of the horizon, knife-tip points pressed high into a cloudless cornflower-blue sky. Kachemak Bay was a sheet of hammered sterling in the sunlight. Boats dotted the bay. The air smelled briny, deeply of the sea. Shorebirds floated on the wind, dipped and rose effortlessly.

The famous Homer Spit she’d read about was a four-and-a-half-mile-long finger of land that crooked into the bay. A few colorful shacks perched on stilts at the water’s edge.

Leni lifted her Polaroid, took pictures as fast as the developer would let her. She peeled one photograph after another out of the camera, watched the images develop in front of her eyes. The buildings sketched themselves onto the shiny white paper line by line.

“Our land is over there,” Dad said, pointing across Kachemak Bay to a necklace of lush green humps in the hazy distance. “Our new home. Even though it’s on the Kenai Peninsula, there are no roads to it. Massive glaciers and mountains cut Kaneq off from the mainland. So we have to fly or boat in.”

Mama moved in beside Leni. In her low-waisted bell-bottom jeans and lace-edged tank top, with her pale face and blond hair, she looked as if she’d been sculpted from the cool colors of this place, an angel alighted on a shore that waited for her. Even her laugh seemed at home here, an echo of the bells that tinkled from wind chimes in front of the shops. A cool breeze molded her top to her braless breasts. “What do you think, baby girl?”

“It’s cool,” Leni said. She clicked another picture, but no ink and paper could capture the grandeur of that mountain range.

Dad turned to them, smiling so big it crinkled his face. “The ferry to Kaneq is tomorrow. So let’s go sightseeing a little and then get a campsite on the beach and walk around. What do you say?”

“Yay!” Leni and Mama said together.

As they drove away from the Spit and up through the town, Leni pressed her nose to the glass and stared out. The homes were an eclectic mix—big houses with shiny windows stood next to lean-tos made livable with plastic and duct tape. There were A-frames and shacks and mobile homes and trailers. Buses parked by the side of the road had curtained windows and chairs set out front. Some yards were manicured and fenced. Others were heaped with rusty junk and abandoned cars and old appliances. Most were unfinished in some way or another. Businesses operated in everything from a rusted old Airstream trailer to a brand-new log building to a roadside shack. The place was a little wild, but didn’t feel as foreign and remote as she’d imagined.

Dad cranked up the radio as they turned toward a long gray beach. The tires sank into the sand; it slowed them down. All up and down the beach there were vehicles parked—trucks and vans and cars. People obviously lived on this beach in whatever shelter they could find—tents, broken-down cars, shacks built of driftwood and tarps. “They’re called Spit rats,” Dad said, looking for a parking place. “They work in the canneries on the Spit and for charter operators.”

He maneuvered into a spot between a mud-splattered Econoline van with Nebraska license plates and a lime-green Gremlin with duct-tape-and-cardboard windows. They set up their tent on the sand, tying it to the bus’s bumper. The sea-scented wind was insistent down here.

The surf made a quiet shushing sound as it rolled forward and drew back. All around them people were enjoying the day, throwing Frisbees to dogs and building bonfires in the sand and putting boats in the water. The chatter of human voices felt small and transient in the bigness of the world here.

They spent the day as tourists, drifting from place to place. Mama and Dad bought beers at the Salty Dawg Saloon, while Leni bought an ice-cream cone from a shack on the Spit. Then they dug through bins at the Salvation Army until they found rubber boots in all of their sizes. Leni bought fifteen old books (most of them damaged and water-stained in some way) for fifty cents. Dad bought a kite to fly at the beach, while Mama slipped Leni some cash and said, “Get yourself some film, baby girl.”

At a little restaurant at the very end of the Spit, they gathered at a picnic table and ate Dungeness crab; Leni fell in love with the sweet, salty taste of the white crabmeat dunked in melted butter. Seagulls cawed to them, floated overhead, eyeing their fries and French bread.

Leni couldn’t remember a better day. A bright future had never seemed so close.

The next morning, they drove the bus onto the hulky Tustamena ferry (called Tusty by the locals) that was a part of the Alaska Marine Highway. The stout old ship serviced remote towns like Homer, Kaneq, Seldovia, Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, and the wild Aleutian Islands. As soon as the bus was parked in its lane, the three of them rushed out onto the deck and headed to the railing. The area was crowded with people, mostly men with long hair and bushy beards, wearing trucker’s caps and plaid flannel shirts, puffy down vests and dirty jeans tucked into brown rubber boots. There were a few college-aged hippies here, too, recognizable by their backpacks, tie-dyed shirts, and sandals.

The ferry eased away from the dock, belching smoke. Almost immediately Leni saw that the water in Kachemak Bay wasn’t as calm as it had looked from the safety of the shore. Out here, the sea was wild and white-tipped. Waves roiled and splashed the sides of the boat. It was beautiful, magical, wild. She took at least a dozen pictures and tucked them into her pocket.

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