Turnagain Mud Flats


Published in American Recreation, February 2014

The road south of Anchorage is drawn like a blade between sea and mountain. We were speeding along it, Don grinning as he gunned it through a rain-slick curve and told me his tale. He wound up in Alaska because a friend had spun fantastic stories: land up here for the taking, squatter’s rights to dream of, a lavish minimum wage. Don and this buddy, who in the time it took them to plan the trip had gone and acquired a family, drove up from Nebraska in a full Winnebago, with Don’s BMW motorcycle hitched to the back. A sharp turn, a slick road, and the bike, his get-a-away, was dashed against a wall of rock and ruined. The stories weren’t true. The promises broke. Stunned at a payphone in Anchorage, Don hung up too proud to dial the numbers and ask the favors that could get him home.

He laughed telling me this, decades later, still in the state of his exile. By the time he had saved up enough dough to buy an alarm clock radio and a guitar, he no longer wanted to leave. The night we met I had just touched down in Anchorage, where Don picked me up at the airport and drove me to work as a waitress in his fish and chips restaurant. I hadn’t thought to ask many questions about him or the restaurant or the town, just took the job and flew, so when I arrived that night, the landscape was clean and unburdened by stories. Don’s, spat wryly from the side of his mouth, were the first I heard. Above us, the mountains were flat, thin sheets of paper. At their feet was the narrow, mud-choked inlet of the Turnagain Arm. It was so named in warning, Don told me, by Captain Cook after his expedition discovered they could not sail through it to the ocean. The only hope of escape was to turn back they way they came.

That night the tide was low and the Turnagain was an expanse of mud, scrawled illegible with long, snaked fissures. Don warned me not to ever set foot on the mud flats, lest I meet the same fate as the honeymooning man who sank to his waist and had to be pulled out by helicopter. He looked at me meaningfully over his handlebar mustache.

"Only, what was below the waist never came out.”

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