© Copyright 2010 by Susy Kelly
On June 15th, just over two weeks into our road trip from New York to Anchorage, by way of Los Angeles, my friend and trip companion Nina and I pulled into Tok, Alaska. The name is either from an Athabaskan word meaning "peaceful crossing", or it's short for "Tokyo camp" which seems less likely, but it's pronounced "toke". From here, we would go north to Fairbanks, to the Arctic Circle where the sun would not set at all this close to the solstice, before heading south again past Denali and down to Anchorage.
I wrote the following in my travel log before going to bed the evening of June 15th:
"Tonight we're staying in a 'hostel' in Tok, AK. It's a unique place. A large lady named Margie runs it. She was on the phone with her brother who agreed to call her back as they were about to embark on an hour or so of teleprayer. She has 4 brother and 2 sisters (or was it the other way?) and only 2 have found God. There's no smokin', drinkin', cussin', fornicatin', dopin', chewin', somethin' else, and no pets. House rules. And she seems to mean it. Sure enough, her brother called back and now it's night time here in Tok, 10:30, fully light out. We're staying in a trailer, a double wide. Ugh, I hate trailers. $25 a night each. Christ."
At first I was excited about a hostel and the notion of running into other travelers like ourselves (as opposed to the RV travelers we saw far more of), but this was no hostel. It was a small group of mobile homes and a quick scan of the surrounding suggested we would be the only guests. I was dubious about staying here by the time I was digging into actual money, a resource I treated carefully because it was precious and finite for me. Margie had been in a hurry to pay us out because her dear brother would be calling her back for their regular prayer session, long distance from Iowa. When Margie found out we didn’t have the fifty bucks between us to pay up front in cash, and that we’d have to run out to get some since she wouldn’t take a credit card, she became nervous, raising her eyebrows in dismay, sighing, throwing her great, doughy arms in the air as though she were batting away bees. Subtle.
“Now I’m gonna have to finish your transaction and give you the tour still before he calls me back,” Margie blurted. “I want to make sure you’ve had the tour before you get to your rooms.”
Tour? There were three trailers in roughly the same lot, and a long, dirt driveway that led from the highway across a field to this spot. Her home was one of the trailers/business office. And it wasn’t going to get dark. And we’d already made it this far on our own, all the way from New York, without a tour guide. Christ lady, give us a tour if you need to, I thought.
I suggested one of us, Nina or I, should run for the cash, while the other would stay behind for the tour. Margie was pleased with the compromise, but Nina and I were shooting mental odds/evens for who would make the cash run. I really didn’t want to hear much about Jesus, especially not without a partner to roll my eyes to. My husband Josh was raised by religious lunatics, and in the 12th grade, when I went to his parents' house the first time, they insisted on "praying over" us before we left. It was a long and unbearable prayer, and Josh kept trying to jam his thumb in my ass. If someone else you believe is normal and sane is around and you start to giggle at the lunacy of a religious weirdo, you can blame your giggling on your friend and hopefully avoid an on-the-spot exorcism. Nina or I would be forced to be all alone, potentially being saved, while the other found an ATM.
Nina stayed for the tour, I went for the money. Ultimately, there was no praying. I was only gone ten minutes, not long enough for Nina to get in trouble.
Money having changed hands, I filled out the guest log sheet and meanwhile Margie looked at my driver’s license. She asked in this spooky-psychic-old-lady way, “Were you sad this day?” I was so entranced, I didn’t know what she meant by the question. Who phrases something that way—were you sad this day?
Unsure of the proper response, I stuttered, “Uhhh, maybe.”
When we got outside, Nina said, “What the hell was that? Did she ask if you were sad today?”
“No, she said, ‘Were you sad this day?,” I clarified. I still had my driver’s license in my hand. I looked at it for clues. Was there an apparition if you held the hologram seal just so? Days before this picture was taken, I had bleached my two inches of hair to the whitest blonde I could safely manage just so I could have my NYU id photo taken as well as this new driver’s license photo—my New York license. I had on an orange sweater in the driver’s license picture, and my skin was nearly green, it was so washed out. My face was tilted up and I was looking down a little, and almost pouting. I think my eyebrows were even a little knit. Pathetic and sad indeed. I looked like Oliver Twist, my hair tousled and my face pleading. Please suh, could I have some more?
I handed the driver’s license to Nina. She glanced down, taking note of the face I was making.
“Pff. Well there ya go,” she said,
and handed it right back.
We left immediately after check-in to find something to eat. Not far from Margie's hostel we found a diner called Fast Eddie's. Even though Margie hinted we shouldn't stay out late, we came back to our room around 10:30. We were exhausted. I showered and made sure the windows were plenty covered and tried not to think about how much I hated trailers until I passed out. Nina, whose body and perhaps soul craved an actual bed instead of a reclined bucket seat in a Honda Civic, probably found sleep easily. She wasn't thinking about how all trailers smell the same like dust and polyester shag carpet with pee stains and polyester curtains yellowed by cigarette smoke, and fuel oil from the furnace which always seems to be too strong of a smell to be safe; and how there's always at least one door that sticks because the plastic doorknob broke or the door just doesn't fit in the jamb anymore but either way you have to slam it to get it shut. I lived in a handful of them growing up and ran in and out of the adjacent trailers with the pack of semi-feral neighborhood children (although, thank god, we never lived in a trailer park per se), but I don't know if Nina had even been in a trailer before.
The alarm didn't wake us in the morning, and when we did roust from our bunk beds, we didn't hurry getting ready to leave. I listened to NPR while Nina took a shower, some story about the use of dioxin in herbicides sprayed along the Alaska Pipeline followed by a story about a movie a group of Alaskan high school girls made called "What Am I Going to Do with These Japanese Eyes?" that won some contest.
By the time we put our bags together and walked out of the trailer, I was sure we missed the four-course breakfast Margie promised. As Nina and I loaded up the car, Margie emerged in her house coat to say good morning and find out how we slept. Breakfast, as Margie described it during guest registration, would be at 8:30 a.m. and would feature a smorgasbord of eggs, pastries, and bacon and sausage. But only if we showed up promptly at 8:30. I felt rude, sleeping through the breakfast hour, imagining Margie in there slaving over the stove and having no takers. We hoped to sneak out, to miss breakfast so entirely as not to be missed at all when we rode off in the red Civic. Even though Margie clearly felt obligated to provide breakfast as part of the cost of admission, we were willing to press on and eat some donuts or pie or something down the road, and pretend like the fee was entirely for the beds, shelter from the sun, and use of the shower.
Beyond being a fair businesswoman, Margie was motherly about the morning meal, and she circled and flapped and like a nervous hen at the idea of our leaving without full bellies. So we agreed to come inside and have some fruit and cereal. There was no aroma of coffee and bacon and fried eggs still lingering in the house, no leftovers except what Margie made for herself and didn't finish. Beyond the cash register and counter where we checked in the night before was a table strewn with styrofoam dishes and spoons, a few boxes of open cereal, a banana (a small miracle of its own--fresh fruit wasn't easy to get out here), some bread and a lot of crumbs, a couple of containers of yogurt and most of a gallon of 2% milk. I poured some warm, thin milk on a bowl Rice Krispies and tried not to make a face while I ate it and listened to Margie. Crunchy cereal is important to me in a way that is likely very weird to other people, and I like to keep it to myself. Since no one else can do it for me, I have to say how brave I was here. These Rice Krispies were hopelessly warm and mushy from the first bite, and I ate the whole damn bowl politely.
First Margie asked Nina and me about ourselves. We explained that we had both just graduated from NYU the month prior with degrees in Media Ecology, and naturally she wanted to know what that meant. After two years of studying, we didn't know how to answer the question yet because Media Ecology is everything. As new students, we were given an analogy from biology: a medium is an environment in which a culture grows. To illustrate the point that media ecology was really the study of any medium and the way it effects and is effected by culture, Nina said her thesis was about Cuban film, I said mine was about PlayStation. We got no closer to explaining Media Ecology to ourselves or Margie, but Margie seemed genuinely interested anyway. Mostly she wanted us to help her understand marketing, and how she could direct more business her way, because Nina also mentioned her parents were in advertising. Through the whole conversation, Margie kept her Jesus comments to a minimum (although you could tell she was waiting for any inclination that we might be receptive to the Word), and we roped in our liberalism, and it was nice.
Margie told us in her spare time she was writing children's books including "How Stinker Got His Name" (spoiler alert: when she was a kid, they had a dog who fell in the outhouse), which she also illustrated. The faux-wood paneled walls were covered in her paintings, which could be classified as above-average pieces from the Bob Ross School. Margie showed us some home video footage from the 1950s and 60s, while narrating her life story. Originally her family started out in Idaho, and at some point when Margie and her siblings were very small, her father left her family in Idaho for a year, as he found himself intrigued by the North. Margie and family didn't hear from Father or get any money from him during that year he was gone. Bears could have eaten him for all they knew. Finally he came back for the whole family, including Grandma; they moved in an old woody to Delta Junction as homesteaders. Delta Junction had become important by then because it marked the place where the Alcan and the Richardson Highways connected, in a fertile valley where the Tanana and Delta Rivers meet; and because the army set up Fort Greely nearby to keep an eye on the Russians, and to train soldiers how to fight Russians in Russian terrain.
As homsteaders, the Mullinses were required by the government to plant crops covering a certain acreage, but they were not required to harvest all the crops they planted. The distinction may not seem important, but harvesting is hard and expensive especially considering they couldn't afford a combine. After the Mullinses harvested by hand enough to eat and to can for the winter, they let the bison do the rest of the harvesting, which was a little like having pet bison in the yard. Back then, this land was even more wild than Nina and I were experiencing, if either of us could believe it possible.
The videos depicted a lot of happy kids, a beautiful mother and a sturdy, handsome father. Perhaps Margie noticed Nina and I getting warm and fuzzy watching these idyllic pioneer images from only a generation or so before us, because confided, "A lot of hurtful, lasting remarks were made," and that finding Jesus helped her know that someone loved her and was on her side. It was at once difficult and quite easy to imagine this happy family secretly being crazy somehow. People could go crazy if they were here, at once trapped together and isolated from anyone else for hundreds of miles. Crazy enough for Margie to be all alone out here still, praying over the phone with one of the only two siblings she seemed to feel connected to.
Most of the video wasn't that emotionally weighted. We watched a Sherman tank roll across the yard in one scene, and Margie told us her father won it at an auction for $100. When Nina and I gaped at the low price, Margie said, "Boy was he mad! No one bid against him, turned out nobody wanted it but him and he could have bid a dollar and won it!"
There was footage of the kids and mom butchering their own game, skinning out deer and bears, and canning food. The kids picked currants and blueberries, a plentiful treat up North. I used to pick berries with my great-grandma at her house from a tall, thick blueberry patch she had beyond her pond. You could eat the berries as you picked, but in order to use a quantity for cooking, they would have to be cleaned--all the little twigs and stems and leaves and tiny spiderwebs had to be removed, as well as the stray green berries. We just put them in a strainer and rinsed them in the sink, most of the unwanted pieces fell right out and that was good enough. The Mullins family in the footage had a lot more berries to work with, and they came up with some clever ways to get all the sticks and stems out of their big buckets of berries. In one scene, an older and taller kid tips a bucket of berries into a bigger tub from a height of about 3 feet, on what appears to be a quite windy day. Margie explained that on a windy day like that, the twigs and small bits would blow away while the heavy berries dropped mostly straight down into the tub. Another scene depicted berry-cleaning on a less windy day. The kids got a canister vacuum and unhooked the hose. Then they poured the berries into a tub directly in front of the vacuum, which worked much like the wind had, sucking the twigs in rather than blowing them away. Finally, they figured out that if they rolled the blueberries down a wool army blanket, all the bits would get stuck on the blanket and the berries would come down clean at the bottom. Genius.
Margie said they never ate the big blueberries, the occasional lunkers worth mentioning to the other pickers. Instead they took the biggest, healthiest berries and mushed them into the ground with their thumbs, to give the best genetics the best chance at reproducing. Margie pointed out that people around her stopped doing that and now the berries are small and bitter. I don't know if this was wishful nostalgia, the inclination to imagine things were better than they actually were, but I found her logic valid and decided I would try to resist the urge to eat big, fat berries and plant them with my thumb instead on any future berry-picking outings.
Here's another story I can't verify but sounds true enough: the Mullins family saved Betty Crocker points, enough for a fire truck. The nearest fire truck to Delta Junction in those days had been in Anchorage, hours away, and on the roads as they existed then in a primordial state. The Mullinses also saved enough money to buy a small airplane. Margie said, "My mother and father were very forward-thinking, clever people." And here was Margie, still pioneering up here, separated from the family in the video. By the time we were finished watching the movie, Margie was nearly in tears because we'd not only stayed to watch and listen, but because we were paying attention and cared.
Her home was part dingy trailer, with the same gaudy, yellowed and stained, floral patterned, part exposed wood furniture, the same terrible owls and Jesus art as I had seen in every trailer I'd ever been in. And it was part business, with books and pamphlets about Alaska travel and religious literature everywhere. Margie wanted very much for Nina and me to believe that she stayed busy with lots of guests in her hostel, even though the dust and two or three dead mosquitoes in the bathroom sink in our room said otherwise. All the while she tried to find out more from us about how she could improve her facilities and marketing. We mentioned the Milepost, the annual publication which had been our North Star the whole way, as necessary to the survival of car travelers as water and food. We also said she should make sure she had a pamphlet at all the nearby stops on the road. Margie showed us one of the Alaska travel pamphlets, not for her hostel but for a restaurant somewhere, which featured a few of her paintings, of an eagle, a pond, and a mountain. It occurred to me only right then and there that I'd been seeing these kinds of illustrations on travel literature a lot like this the whole way from British Columbia to here, and that some individual actually painted them. For each one of those paintings, there was a Margie Mullins perhaps, sitting in a lonely, poorly lit trailer, listening to the radio and pouring her creative effort into the image, praying that God would guide her hand.
While we were talking about art and about New York and then inevitably about September 11th (it had only been just shy of two years since the attack), Margie told us about this ice sculpture she'd seen of a New York fireman. She described in close detail the features which expressed his strength and grief, and she nearly cried telling us about the angel at his side, sent from God to help ease his suffering. I wouldn't have given a sculpture like this a second glance, I realized. But to hear Margie tell of it and really see how deeply moved she was by its message, I also realized I'm often far too dismissive. Margie could relate to needing an angel to help carry her burden. What kind of an asshole laughs at someone for that?
A sweet woman, that Margie Mullins. She hugged us and didn't pray over us before we finally left.
As we rolled the window down to wave goodbye, Margie hurriedly told us the name of a nice place we might like to stay down the road, and she said, "Tell 'em Margie sent ya!"
Susy Kelly is still only an amateur writer and is
still working on a bigger, more coherent story of all the adventures
she had with Nina on the way to Alaska and back. Slowly but
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)
Contact Susy Kelly
Another Story by Susy: Two Days In Memphis