I leave town under cover of night, as usual. It’s only seven, but it’s already been dark for hours. Every day the newspapers report the daylight hours, and any time I talk to my mom she passes it on to me: there were 5 hours and 42 minutes of daylight.
At first there are little towns, which used to be much much smaller towns when I was a little kid. Now they all have strip malls and fast food chains. My little sister calls and asks me to bring her some Arby’s from the big scary city.
“Are you sure?” I ask. “It’ll probably be a day or two before I’m there.” And me with this horrible lack of refridgeration. She changes her mind.
Soon I’m climbing into the mountains and there’s snow on the ground and the birch almost glow in the dark, in their holy way. They are like bones in the desert, bleached white by the sun, but I know when you hug them in the dead of winter they are warm on the inside. Last winter I could hear bluebells singing inside them, having retreated to their warmth for the winter, and I want to stop the van and jump out to listen right now, but instead I focus on the snow and the road.
Soon I’m higher and it’s all tundra and wind. Stunted little spruce, moss and hardy flowers hiding under the snow. The road is almost clean, from the snow, so I’m not squinting at all when I see a truck pulled over ahead. In Alaska, you stop. It’s just how we are and also there are laws about it. I stop. They ran out of gas, but someone else has already stopped and is bringing them some. It’s probably at least eighty miles to any gas.
Back in the van I turn the wheel to pull out on the road and there’s a crunching squeely noise. Hm. It’s rather grinding as I keep going, and I figure it’s probably that one brake shoe that’s sticky. I accellerate and it goes away, which I think means I was right and it came unstuck. At least that’s what I think until forty miles later there’s a strange flapping noise, like a broken belt. All the gages are fine though, and there isn’t really anything to do about it out here, so I keep driving. Another twenty miles or so down the road there’s a sudden squeeling noise. Whoa. I hit the brakes. They grind like crazy. What the hell?
On the side of the road the moon is waning and I check my brake fluid. Full. I check the power steering fluid, which would make sense because the power steering pump has something to do with the brakes and I’ve got a very small power steering fluid leak somewhere. But it’s still full. All the other fluids are full, too, and nothing looks wrong, except an odd ticking from the vicinity of the alternator. I get back in and try driving again, but it’s the same noise, the squeeling and the crunching when I stop or steer. Huh. I check the fluids again, and then take Bro out to pee and howl at the moon (he doesn’t howl, I do). I try driving again, and then check the fluids again. There’s no cell service here, and I’m rather inclined to just hole up for the night, but the side of the road’s never a good place to sleep.
A truck comes along and stops. Truck drivers have always saved my ass, I suppose because I have always been hitchiking and broken down and broke on the side of the road. He checks my fluids and looks at things. He doesn’t see anything wrong either. I start it up to show him the noise and it’s magically gone! I’m back on the road again! The noise comes back a little whenever I brake, steer, or go over a bump, but after a while it stops all together. Then there is a clicking noise again, like a belt come loose, and then that stops.
Luckily I’m only 70 miles from where my mom lives and I was planning to stop and pick my mail up from her porch anyways. I just sleep in her driveway. In the morning (well, morning to me, 2PM to the rest of y’all) I stop by the school to see her on the way out of town. My van is all better except that clicking noise, but I’m still irrationally paranoid about the idler arms and tie rods, so I get her to come out and jiggle the steering wheel for me. She listens to the ticking and says maybe I should wait for her husband to get into town and take a look at it. It’ll just be a few hours.
So I hang out at the school and by the time her husband arrives the clicking is gone and has been replaced by a whirring that he says is the brushes inside the alternator. He is one of those really, really good mechanics. The kind with engineering degrees and machinist jobs that just knows everything about all kinds of cars, trucks, heavy equipment, and draglines. He thinks I might need a new alternator, but he doesn’t see anything really wrong.
In the morning, they’ll follow me to the little big city, just in case. And I guess I’ll go to work on Monday and make some alternator money. Just in case.