The drive back from Valdez wasn’t too tricky at first. Maybe it just seemed easier because the weather was good and I basically had the road all to myself, but during the trip back to Glennallen and for about the first hour or so west of there I was feeling pretty confident about my ability to get us back to Anchorage before dark and in one piece.
Then it started to rain. And then it started to storm. And then came the single lane, switchback road. And then, out of nowhere, came the semi’s grill in my rearview mirror. And the steep downhill grade. I must have made some kind of panicked noise, because just then the Jarhead sat up and as calmly as he could, asked me not to brake. And by ‘asked’ I mean ‘begged.’ And although what he said was “please don’t brake” in his tone I also heard “or we’re going to die.”
I wanted to grant his request. I swear I did. But there was no way I was going to be able to drive that car down that hill at that speed in the rain and live to tell the tale. From the way my blood was pumping, even if we didn’t careen off the side of the mountain and die in a fiery crash on the banks of the Matanuska River, I was still going die—of heart failure, a stroke or aortic aneurysm.
So I tried to conjure a third option and, to my relief, spotted one almost right away. It was a sign that said there was a runaway truck ramp just a short distance up the road. And it was on a straightaway, so if I decelerated too quickly for the semi’s comfort, at least he could move over to the other lane long enough to get around me.
As I signaled my intent to exit the road—my hands, arms, and neck tingling from how tightly I was gripping the wheel and my legs trembling from trying to resist the urge to slam on the brakes—the Jarhead urgently asked what I was doing. Unsure whether he had missed the sign or had seen it but didn’t want me to take it, I ignored his question, applied the brakes, and all but slid sideways off the road and onto the gravel platform.
It was all I could do not to start bawling like a baby the second the car came to a halt. As it was I shook for several minutes as I tried not to cry. Having felt the semi whiz past us at a terrifying rate of speed, I knew I’d made the right call even if the Jarhead disapproved. Our chances of survival were better with a sleepy person in control of the vehicle, I told him as we unbuckled to swap seats, than with this chicken sh*t behind the wheel.
I almost rescinded that remark an hour or so later when we came literally face to face with a moose cow and her calf as we made our descent out of the mountains. The Jarhead was gawking at something to his left at the time, and just happened to glance to the right in time to see my panicked face bracing for impact. Thinking I was overreacting again—a fair assumption, I’ll admit—he casually returned his gaze to the front with just enough time to hit the brakes and come grinding to a halt a few feet in front of them.
“Why didn’t you say something?” he asked as we watched them meander off the road and into the woods.
“I’m sorry. I was so scared I couldn’t find my words.”
“How about ‘MOOSE!’”
Oh sure. As if that would have worked.
Even if he would have heard and understood me, based on my track record, he wouldn’t have believed me. And even if he had taken my word for it, Mr. Sedate would have assumed it was standing off in the distance somewhere and then eagerly asked “Where?”
Anyway, we didn’t hit the moose—or anything else, for that matter—and thanks to his grace under pressure, we made it back to Anchorage. It was later than we’d planned, but at least we had arrived alive.
Perhaps that’s setting the bar too low, but it works for us. And I’m okay with that.