When I ventured out to cross the continent from Toronto to Anchorage in the summer of my last year of graduate school, I had little money, cheap camping gear, and an old white Chevette that was utterly inadequate for the task. I also had a travel companion, Norman, a rugged Canadian writer with curly red hair and a smile that could melt glaciers. We had met six months earlier and quickly discovered that in addition to writing novels, we also shared a burning desire to get lost in the wilderness for a few months.
We were definitely lost on this Friday in August, meandering through the entrails of a vast forest between White Horse and Fairbanks. After chugging along gravel logging roads for several hours, we were both in a rattled mood. We wanted adventure, and when we got it, it always seemed to be the rotten kind.
I couldn't even blame anyone. I had tried anyway, and the result was what I should have expected. Norman's wall of silence stank up the car. I rolled down my window to let in fresh air, but we were driving too slowly and several mosquitoes flushed in. To get rid of them, I pressed on the gas pedal, translating my anger into forward motion.
Through the underbrush that lined the road, we spotted a green patch that looked like it might be big enough for our tent. I pulled over. The grassy area looked very much like a bog—so soggy that even brambles refused to grow on it. My heart sank and stuck firmly to the brake pedal. I wasn't going to drive another foot. This would have to do. I climbed out of the car and was immediately assaulted by more mosquitoes. I slapped and cursed, fumbled for the mosquito hat on the dashboard, and finally pulled it over my head. I was too slow. Stings itched on my forehead and a taste of wings irritated the tip of my tongue.
I fought my way down the steep embankment through twenty feet of blackberry thorns and shrubs I didn't care to identify. There weren't even ripe berries to compensate for the scratches. Norman followed, still silent, but he stomped around and used a stick to create the beginnings of a path.
We managed to set up the tent and cooked two packets of ramen on the stove. The warm broth relaxed our bodies and soothed our tempers. A bird sang variations of a complex melody, right above me but out of sight. At least it wasn't raining, and we'd be sleeping on soft ground. While Norman wiped out the empty bowls, I pulled out my notebook and bled my general misery onto the ever-patient paper. As I settled into writing, the incessant humming of the mosquitoes faded into the background.
Maybe an hour later, the approaching roar of a huge truck, mingled with the whining of heavy metal music, ripped my attention from the page. My pen stopped, pressing into the paper. This sounded ominous, especially in an area where lumber workers had nothing better to do at night than get drunk, drive around, and look for trouble. I glanced at Norman, who'd been moping on his on own paper. I saw concern in his face, which revved up my discomfort, but we were still not talking. So we just sat, waiting. I stared at the opening in the bushes where I could see the rump of our parked car and a small slice of road.
The truck appeared after half a minute, a black, mud-splattered Bronco with super-sized wheels. A big shape hunkered at the wheel, like a bear driving. It thundered past, spitting sharp rocks in our direction, expelling wafts of gasoline from its poorly tuned engine. The sounds stretched away, the thumping of the bass in my bones eased. My tension started to drain. Then the engine was forced into reverse. It whined closer again. Before the truck came back into view, its noises stopped, strangled. It was terribly quiet. Everything seemed to wait, stiff, frozen in the moment. Two doors slammed—so there were at least two people, two of us against two of them. Their raw voices, male, argued at brawling volume, then dropped to a rumble.
My mind went into overdrive. I was all prey now. Were they going to take our stuff and abandon us? Leave us naked to be eaten alive by the bugs and call it a great joke? Rape us for our soft white city skins? When they were done, would they leave our bodies to rot in the bog? Nobody would miss us for weeks, not until the start of term. We'd better run. I stood, dropped my journal, and looked for an escape route. Then I realized that we couldn't run or drive off without our gear. If we did that, we'd be as good as dead, too. And if they took it as a challenge, our little car would end up steam-rollered by their gigantic machine.
Norman slapped his notebook closed and stood up. I shook my head to banish the run-away scenarios and focused on my man. He had lived a rougher life than me and the creases in his face bore witness to that—no middle-class bourgeois childhood, no Palmolive hands. This man had grit. With his hacked off (by me) curls, wide shoulders, rough cotton pants and workman's boots he looked like he belonged. He would know what to do.
"What now?" I asked, breaking the silence between us.
He shrugged, scanning the embankment. "Not much we can do. Talk our way out, I suppose."
This was not the reassurance I was looking for. My throat tightened as I said, "How?"
"Just talk to them." When I kept staring at him, he let out a breath and his stance softened. He tilted his head and looked back at me. We were traveling together again. "We don't even know what they want, if anything. Let's just see and talk to them. If they're trouble, all we can do is talk anyway."
"OK, you do the talking." I didn't exactly feel confident, or protected. I pulled my utility knife from my backpack and stuffed it in the back of my jeans. The tip of the sheath rested on my tailbone, in easy reach, giving me a measure of reassurance. I grasped on to the hilt and felt stronger, until I realized I was wielding a toothpick to face grizzly bears. We positioned ourselves between the tent and the path we had trampled through the bushes, a couple of feet apart from each other to preserve our freedom of movement. We watched the embankment, a platoon of two, waiting for our visitors to make their way over.
We heard the gravel crunch before we saw them, swaying slightly. They were big and looked like oversized bullies; barrel-chested, beer-bellied, arms as thick as my thighs. They were dressed in the standard uniform of this area: work boots, blue jeans, t-shirts, thick flannel shirts, dirty baseball caps. The only difference between them seemed to be the color of the curls that spilled from underneath their caps; one was light, the other one dark. They carried no guns, but had knives on their belts and beer bottles at the ready. They stopped to kick the tires of our car and drew another swig. Their faces opened into grins as they assessed our camp from the road. Then they stomped down the slope, right up to us, not bothering with introductions. They planted themselves in front of us, dark-hair opposite Norman, blond-hair for me.
My hope that my fantasies had been grounded on nothing, that our visitors would turn out to be college kids with a desire for intellectual discourse, dissipated.
"Hey," said dark-hair. The way he said the one word, brawly, broad, possessive already, made me feel very small. They were already in charge. Their eyes roamed over our meager possessions, calculating. We were poor, but we probably still had enough outdoor gear to make it worth their trouble, considering that this was a freebie for them. At least I kept my wallet hidden in the car. If they got that, without money, we'd have no gas, and no more trip. And if they siphoned our tank, we'd have to walk out eating miner's lettuce and worms. I felt the slimy taste on my tongue already and wanted to spit.
"What's up?" Norman's voice rose as broad as the thug's, and strong as a tree. I felt like leaning against that solidity, but that would show weakness. I was glad I looked unwashed, and my clothes matched theirs. I had missed my swim this morning, and this once only, I loved my greasy hair. I looked over blond-hair in front of me, hiding my apprehension behind a slight smirk. He featured golden locks and a full set of silver teeth. He was clearly the source of the smoke and liquor stink assaulting my nose. I pulled back my shoulders, opened my mouth, and clamped it shut. If they heard my foreign accent, we'd be mincemeat.
"Just drivin' around," answered dark-hair, assessing us now, not very seriously. I stood my ground. I refused to acknowledge the black fear-dragon in my chest that clawed at my heart, trying to get it to skip, trying to break me from the inside. I grasped what courage I could muster and forced my attention outside. I stared blond-hair in the eyes pretending I was a saber-toothed tiger. They could swallow a bear like him for breakfast. He grinned, patronizing and in charge. I tightened my grip on the knife and thought, 'Not without blood.' I felt a surge of confidence. I had found a mantra to live by. I repeated it silently, allowing its spite to fill me up. At the periphery of my senses, I heard Norman talk to dark-hair in gutter-slang. It seemed to come out of his mouth as naturally as it read in his writing. 'Fuck' and 'damn' and 'shit'—whoever said it more often would gain alpha status.
We still stared, my blond thug and I. I pushed my fear down and roused the bitch I sometimes imagined I could be. I expanded my chest with a deep breath. 'I am strong like you. I am going to rip your balls off. My eyes will pierce you like a burning sword. Drop dead.' His eye-lids fluttered. I saw his moment of doubt. I threw nuclear defiance at him, and he swayed back, just an inch, but it felt like I might survive.
"Don't get eaten by the flies, eh," I heard dark-hair rumble. He shoved my guy, and we broke contact. "Bye, then," Norman said, his voice as neutral as I'd ever heard it.
The two thugs turned away and swayed and swaggered back up to the road like grizzlies off to find a better blueberry patch. Blond-hair looked back but didn't meet my eyes. We were just scenery now. The pair disappeared up the road, and a few minutes later the Bronco engine woke up with a roar. The giant tires ground into puny road gravel and the heavy metal noise faded into the distance.
I turned to look at Norman, to reconnect with him, to let go of the remaining fear in my gut. Blood ran down his neck and face, pale-red little streams that were blotted up by the collar of his washed-out t-shirt. I noticed a thick cloud of flies around his head. I touched my own neck. Through the mosquito netting, my fingers came off sticky with blood.
"Fuckin' black flies," Norman said. "You never feel them. They just eat you."
We didn't try to fight this new enemy. We crawled into the tent, sealed it up, and murdered all the insects we could hear, see, or feel. Then we slipped into our sleeping bags.
It was quiet. Very quiet. The stale lump of fear rose from my gut back into my stomach. What if they had not left? What if they had tricked us? What if they were waiting for us to sleep, then raided our camp and finished us off. They could. I moved close to Norman. He put his arm around me. We didn't talk. We listened. Listened for the mosquitoes and the flies and all the other blood-thirsty monsters of Northern forests. I strained my ears so I would not miss the faintest step. A branch cracked. A leaf rustled near the tent. Norman's arm slackened and his breath slowed. He snored a little.
I shivered. My body, tired from the stress, tired from the fear, demanded sleep. I refused. I tried to listen to my breath, slow down its rhythm. I counted mosquitoes. They mutated into giant black flies that jumped over fences, one by one, mandibles open, their probosces red with my blood. I shot up and sat straight. My heart raced. I had dozed off. Norman stirred and mumbled for me to go to sleep. I could not.
So I sat, in the twilight of the arctic summer-night, unable to stare down the biggest thug of all, Fear.