The Imortan is dead. Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Imortan Joe in Mad Max: Fury Road, and Toecutter in the original Mad Max, has passed at 73.
I was just watching the final 40 minutes of Fury Road last night (cause, as a rule, if I happen upon that film on cable, no matter where it is in the story, I stop down to watch the rest; and, when I’m finished, if I happen to see it on another of the movie channels starting at exactly the place I came in before, I turn over and watch it all again). Such a well-crafted, perfect film that drops you into a pre-built world with characters who were living lives before you got there (well, some of them) and will keep on living them after you depart (fewer still of them, I’m afraid). And you get the immense pleasure of getting to spend a couple hours watching what they do and the amazing machinery they get to drive across a fascinating and desolate hellscape.
Hugh Keays-Byrne as Imortan Joe was a truly great villain. His backstory and motivations, like that of most of the other characters, we are largely left to guess at based on the clues we’re given. But the clues are there if you’re paying attention.
I truly don’t think you need to have seen any previous Mad Max films to enjoy Fury Road. It gives you everything you need, which is kind of the case for each of the Mad Max films. They don’t carry a lot of baggage. If you have not seen it, I demand you stop down and do so. Easily the film I’ve enjoyed the most of the last decade.
A theatrical monologue of mine has been published in a new anthology entitled In the Midst: A COVID-19 Anthology, by Inspiration for Writers, Inc. As you might gather from the title, this anthology was inspired by the chaos and shared experiences caused by the global pandemic we’re all trying to get through. Over 30 writers and artists from around the world have contributed to this anthology in the form of essays, poems, fiction, monologues, photographs, and art.
My contribution, “Fish Bowl,” is a monologue originally commissioned by Jason Young of Clarksburg’s Vintage Theatre Company, who was looking for pieces that would showcase how the pandemic was affecting the mountain state. However, at the time I was in Mississippi, helping take care of my parents as my father recovered from spinal surgery. So, instead, I wrote a monologue that is one side of a telephone conversation inspired by the many such conversations I had with my dad through the window of his room during the weeks he was doing in-patient physical therapy during that facility’s lockdown. And while much of this conversation is fictional, the monologue also accurately depicts the way I came to learn that there had been an outbreak of Covid-19 in his facility.
Big thanks go to Sean Marko, an actor from Clarksburg, who recorded multiple versions of “Fish Bowl” which assisted with the workshopping and refining process. Without being able to hear the words said aloud, it is sometimes difficult to know how to make a piece designed to be spoken better, and he was integral to the part.
In addition, a photo I took during one of these chats through Dad’s window has been included on the cover of the anthology as well.
Check out In the Midst: A COVID-19 Anthology available at Amazon.
My dad saw the 20th Century Fox film Alien during its original theatrical release. He found it so fascinating and unsettling that he decided to tell me the entire movie in an expanded beat by beat synopsis, during a long car trip. When he finished, I said, “Tell it again, Daddy,” because I too was fascinated and unsettled by it, but wanted to “see” it again, if only in my head. So he told it all again.
I loved the story of Alien, but had no desire to actually see the film. You see, this very same father had then recently taken me to see the late`70s theatrical re-release of Jaws, and it had been enough to permanently warp my fragile little six-year-old mind. I knew for certain then that movies could be scary and sleepless nights invariably followed. For days. No, it was far safer to have your dad tell you the story without things jumping out at you.
I avoided horror movies for years, to the point of turning off TV commercials for films I knew would be terrifying. (The Shining being a chief example. The TV spots told you NOTHING about the plot, but the stark, icy imagery and sinister announcer voiceover was enough to tell me I wanted none of that. I still haven’t seen it to this day, which is truly a crime of laziness at this point.) In the mid 80s, I began to take a distant interest in horror. I was an avid reader of Starlog Magazine, so I read a lot about scifi-based horror movies. Ghostbusters and Gremlins, tame as they are, let me know I was capable of surviving the occasional scare. And then, in 1986, Aliens was released and I felt a burning need to see it. The idea of Ripley returning to fight not only a similar alien, but multiple aliens, was delicious. However, I was still too much of a wuss to actually buy a ticket. Instead, I hatched a different, safer plan. I bought the movie novelization by Alan Dean Foster.
In the `80s, movie novelizations were ubiquitous. If you released a movie, it got a novelization. I’d read several, having been trained to reading adaptations by Target Books Doctor Who novelizations. Alan Dean Foster was a particularly prolific writer of novelizations (as well as his own original sci-fi novels). If it was sci-fi and wasn’t adapted by Peter David, chances were pretty good it was by Alan Dean Foster. I not only bought his Aliens book, but purchased Alien as well to read first, just to refresh myself on the story I’d only been told before. I found the Alien novelization every bit as fascinating as my dad’s telling, but it was also a bit different because it contained scenes that did not appear in dad’s because they weren’t included in the theatrical release. (They were filmed and appear in the directors cut release of Alien, but aren’t necessary unless you’re just curious to see them.) After reading Alien, I felt safe enough to rent Alien on VHS. And because I knew where the scares were coming, I was able to just sit back and enjoy the story from almost a clinical standpoint. It quickly taught me how to hack the horror movie viewing experience–how to see the movie’s creators pulling the strings, through music swells or sudden silences, to bring about the scares and effectively tell the story. I then devoured the novelization of Aliens, and found it as good as the first movie if not even better. And when Aliens was at last available for home video rental, I snatched it up and loved it. No sleepless nights necessary.
Aliens was my gateway drug to horror. After seeing it, I was all about a horror movie. I poured through neo classics like the Friday the 13th series, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and–still my favorite–The Thing. I then went back and began watching older fare such as Phantasm, which is just a masterpiece of weird. Thanks, Alan Dean Foster! I owe you a debt I hope now to help repay.
As you may have heard, in 2012 @disney bought 20th Century Fox and their entire catalog. As such, they also bought the rights to the publishing of the novelizations of the Fox movies, including all of Foster’s Alien books as well as his Star Wars novels and novelizations. These books are still in print and make money for the corporation. However, according to Alan Dean Foster himself, as soon as Disney were the owners they ceased paying him the royalties on those books that he is contractually owed. According to him, they have since been ignoring most inquiries concerning this from him, his representatives, and his writers guild. What little communication has been had was for Disney to demand he sign a nondisclosure agreement, meaning regardless of the outcome of any negotiations, he would not be allowed to speak of it publicly. This is a standard practice following negotiations, but prior to is not normal. Having exhausted other avenues, Foster has decided to speak out about the matter. It is very likely that he is far from the only author being affected by this behavior on Disney’s part.
In the interest of fairness, I have tried to find Disney’s side of all this online, but Mickey’s lips appear to be sealed.
If you like Foster’s work, or just don’t care for monolithic corporations behaving badly, I invite you to join me in letting them know about it. Check out the story I first learned of this at the link below. There are multiple others on other platforms now.
I had a great deal of fun recording this, because, as always, Smith’s characters are just so enjoyable and challenging to voice. In fact, I’d say two of my favorite character lines to have ever recorded are found within this book. (And if, after listening to it, you can tell me what either of those two lines are, you’ll win a prize.)
Being the third in the series, you should first listen to The Last Archer and The First Fowler. But to really know all the characters as well as their situation, you should, of course, hear Joel Clarkson’s narrations of Smith’s entire Green Ember series. The Green Ember Archer side-stories fall within and impact the framework of the larger Green Ember story.
I hope the series continues into further books, if only so that I get to bring back Matron Wilder, who is one of my favorite of Smith’s villains.
In this sequel to The Last Archer and The First Fowler, Jo Shanks is charged with aiding Emma on her mission to unite the secret citadels in their fight against the Preylord slavers. Alongside Cole and Heyna Blackstar, Jo and Emma must enter into the heart of a community in confusion.
Something is wrong at Blackstone Citadel. Can Jo and his friends solve the mystery and enlist Blackstones aid in time to rendezvous with their allies fighting for the Mended Wood?
A citadel on the edge.
An insidious mystery to unravel.
Who will target the terror?
Twenty years ago today, some kids got hitched.
(There’s some controversy there, though, cause my bride was actually wearing the preacher’s wedding ring when she said her vows, as hers fell out of his bible and onto the floor, seconds into the ceremony, and he just switched out his own for it to save a big awkward mid-wedding ring search. In a groom-daze, I failed to notice any of it, though, until he handed me his yellow gold ring in place of her white gold band, and all I could think was “That damn jewler! He sold me a painted ring!” It took some complex facial expressions on Ashley’s part to communicate what had happened and I finally realized it was the preacher’s ring. However, technically, I think this also might mean I’m married to him.)
Those kids then said their vows in what felt like a blur, smooched, and walked the aisle. They took their pictures, went to the reception where they hoped to party down on some fantastic wedding grub. Except every time they tried to get even one bite of their very own wedding food, plates were snatched out of their hands and they were shuffled away for cake-cutting and gift-opening and champagne-toasting and garter-tossing and bouquet-chucking. And with each plate-snatching, they were promised that copious amounts of wedding food had been packed for them to take on the honeymoon, so don’t sweat not getting to eat any of it now.
And they stepped out of the reception hall and into the February sun as man and wife. And their friends and family pelted them with bird seed, which ran down in their underwear and made the wedding night a little complicated.
And they piled into an automobile that any right-thinking mechanic would have warned them against traveling to Walmart in, let alone Gatlinburg, but they got there all the same and with most of the trailing cans intact.
And only there, in their cozy honeymoon cabin, the Smoky Mountains smoking outside and their bellies rumbling inside, did they discover that the copious amounts of wedding food that had been promised had been packed into the wrong vehicle.
At least they had the birdseed.
I’ve had 20 amazing years with this beautiful, crazy, mean-as-a-snake lady. I believe I’ll take 20 more.
I love you, Ashley Marie Holloway Fritzius.
We don’t normally buy each other anniversary presents, but 20 years is 20 years. A few weeks before our anniversary date, however, I began thinking what would make a good present for my bride. On major anniversaries in the past, we’ve taken return trips to Gatlinburg. For our 10th anniversary, we returned to our original honeymoon cabin. However, in the intervening decade, what had once been a quaint and remote little a-frame cabin waaaay up in the hills had now become just a house in a fairly crowded neighborhood of dozens of such houses. Walking naked to the back deck hottub during daylight hours was no longer an option. So on our 15th anniversary, we stayed in an entirely different mountain cabin in Pigeon Forge–which was also basically in a neighborhood, but had a better view. This year, though, we don’t have a lot of spare time for even a weekend trip, so I opted for something more material as a present.
In thinking about successful presents I’ve given in the past, the one that came to mind was a graduation present I gave the wife of a painting by local water colorist Jeanne Brenneman. I’d snuck the painting in and hung it on the wall in place of another one, waiting for Ashley to notice it. On the off chance I could create magic a second time, I went to Jeanne Brenneman’s website to peruse what she had for sale. And there I found the perfect painting, a watercolor of northern lights called Cosmic Chaos. Being from Alaska, the northern lights hold a very special place in my wife’s heart. She’s seen them with her own eyes and it’s one of the things she misses dearly about Alaska–one of the things only true Alaskans, who stay the winter-long, get to see on a regular basis. Seemed a good fit.
I wrote Jeanne Brenneman, explained that I was interested in her painting, and asked if it was still available and, if so, nearby–some of her work is on display in galleries far and wide, so it would be my bad luck if it was out-of-town on an extended tour. As it happened, the painting in question was hanging on her studio wall because it was one of her all time favorites too. We set up a time for me to come pick it up, on a day during which the wife was still out-of-town herself seeing her newly born grand niece in Kentucky.
Instead of waiting til our actual anniversary date to give it to her, I decided to do it on the day she returned–since our actual anniversary was packed with other obligations. I decided to hang it in a conspicuous place and wait for her to see it. And I picked the most conspicuous bit of real-estate our walls had to offer–directly beside the front door. It’s a spot we’ve never hung anything in the past, but was a nice chunk of space to accommodate a none-too-small painting.
The wife came home, opening the front door to enter the house, the door itself blocking her view of the painting. Once closed, though, the painting was very obvious–it’s purples and reds standing out against our tan wall. She didn’t see it.
I kept my phone ready to take video, but all I got were four shots of her walking directly past the painting on her way out the door to bring stuff in from her car. After nearly an hour, I finally decided to take the painting down for a bit. Partly this was because she asked me to go to Walmart to get macaroni for dinner, and I didn’t want her seeing it while I was gone, and partly because my in-laws were out for the afternoon and I knew they would want to see her reaction, too.
Later, once everyone was home, I put it back up when she was in the shower and we all began to wait.
Nope. She walked by it several more times, oblivious.
After an hour, my mother-in-law decided to try and speed things up by standing in proximity to the painting hoping Ashley would notice. She noticed Ma acting squirrely, and commented on that, but didn’t see the painting. I began to wonder if she’d already seen it and was just toying with all of us.
About the time I’d set my phone down and given up on capturing the moment, she finally noticed it. Only I didn’t get to see her see it. I only looked up when Ma was smacking the back of the sofa near my head to get me to pay attention. I turned to see Ashley standing directly in front of the picture staring into it with a look of awe on her face. She stood there in silence for over a minute, beaming.
“How does she do it?” she finally asked.
“I know,” I said. “I thought it looked great online, but it’s so much more impressive in person.”
“I love it,” she said.
“Happy anniversary,” I said.
Thanks again, Jeanne. It was just what I’d hoped it would be.
A couple days later was our actual anniversary date. I had a card for the wife and she had a card for me. They both had the exact same envelope and a near identical lump where a ribbon was incorporated into the exterior of the card therein. We burst out laughing, thinking we had–as we have in the past–purchased the exact same card for each other. But, no, just cards by the same company. She had also brought me an anniversary bouquet of Reese’s peanut butter heart flowers (Reese hearts taped to straws) which were poking out of holes punched into the top of a box of Lucky Charms. I was overjoyed. I would show you a picture, but I was forbidden to take one since the bouquet’s appearance didn’t quite match her mental image of what she’d been aiming for. (I took one anyway, but it somehow disappeared from my camera by morning. You might think Ashley deleted it, but it’s gone from Google Photos automatic upload backup, which she wouldn’t know how to access, so I think it genuinely disappeared on its own.)
Sadie Mac Dog took her final nap this morning. She was grumpy, too clever for her own good, prone to roll in deer poop at every opportunity, and was the bane of UPS drivers county-wide, but she was still one of the finest dogs I’ve had the pleasure to know. I’m heart broken, but am glad she is no longer in pain.
Some of my fellow Christians argue that pets do not go to heaven. I’m sure they have their reasons, but I argue that even making such a statement is in danger of placing limitations on God that I do not believe exist. Perhaps pets don’t make it to the afterlife. However, if God should want us to be reunited with our loved ones who have gone on before us, surely these joyous creatures he supplied to help make our miserable lives less miserable might also join us in the great beyond. He made them to begin with. He is the author of reality. He can do what he wants. And I hope that Sadie and I will wander the trails together again some day.
A video of my recent appearance on Cat Pleska’s WV Author program. I had a great time, despite my own mouth flubbings.
Here’s a fun drinking game you can play: when the author confuses the name of a famous deceased southern humorist for a famous living fantasy novelist, take a drink. And when the author’s cell phone blares out a Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy text notification minutes after he name drops Douglas Adams (and despite him thinking he’d turned it off before the taping began), go ahead and chug the whole drink.
Big thanks to Cat Pleska for the chance to chat.
This year, 2019, marks the 20th Thanksgiving I’ve spent with my wife in the over 21 years we’ve been a couple. In fact, the one Thanksgiving we didn’t share was when we were dating long-distance in 1998 and she sent me Thanksgiving in the mail—including a box of stuffing, a can of green beans, a can of gravy, a can of cranberry sauce, a can of chicken (to sub for turkey) and a can of tuna for the cat.
Among the traditions my wife and I have at Thanksgiving time, one is the annual re-telling of a Horribly True incident which occurred during our very first Thanksgiving as a married couple. I have previously shared a highly summarized version of the story in an early Horribly True Tale. However, due to its very tragic and inexplicable nature, the story itself has evolved to become an oral tradition warning to future generations of humanity that some ideas are crack-brained and some people, while well-intentioned, are idiots. For many years I refrained from writing more about it simply to spare the feelings of certain parties involved (i.e. the crack-brained idiot). However, I realized this year that the one and only time I met the idiot in question happened to be at that Thanksgiving and this person has not only since fallen completely out of our lives but is also someone whose name neither of us can remember. This being the case, I figure I’m free to roll them anonymously and cheerfully under a bus by writing it down.
The horribly true incident in question occurred in Charlotte, NC, in the year 2000, our marriage newly minted nine months prior. It was not only our first Thanksgiving as a married couple, but also our first ever to host, taking place in our very first apartment. Some weeks prior, we put the word out among friends in the region and beyond that we were holding Thanksgiving at our place and anyone who didn’t mind the drive was welcome to come. Our friends John and Ramona Underwood, who were closest in Newport News, VA, accepted. Our friend and occasional Horribly True participant, Joe Evans, came up from Missisisppi. And our friends James and Denise Martin drove in from Mobile, Alabama. Being a hospitable kind of gal, the wife also invited fellow employees at her mall-retail place of employment. One of these fellow employees, a young lady we shall call Judy Iscariot, chose to accept the invitation.
In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I was sent on several trips to the grocery store for meal preparation. I got a giant turkey, of course, as well as ingredients to make dressing, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and other traditional Thanksgiving items. Our guests were also bringing dishes, so it wasn’t on us to cook it all. However, one of the dishes that we were providing was the gravy. Even though we’d stockpiled giant cans of chicken broth well in advance, when it came time to actually make the gravy we just didn’t seem to have enough at hand. I was sent to the store multiple times for more broth, two of them on the day before Thanksgiving and then one on Thanksgiving Day itself. I don’t even recall what the problem was, other than broth is often used in so many other Thanksgiving dishes that it kept getting commandeered for those and none saved for the gravy. Despite this, a giant vat of gravy was eventually produced.
The guests arrived and the Thanksgiving meal was served. Having only a tiny breakfast nook of a dining table back then, we used it to put the food on so that everyone could file by buffet-style, taking their heaping plates on to the living room to eat while we watched an early tape of the first episode of the Patrick Warburton version of The Tick which James had “borrowed” from the TV station at which he worked. We all stuffed ourselves stupid and blessed the cooks for their efforts. Afterward, the men retired to the living room to watch traditional Thanksgiving “feetball” and the ladies all went to the kitchen to clean up. (This was in the year 2000, remember, before the towers fell, back when such roles were still divided along gender lines. This year, for instance, I cooked all of the Thanksgiving meal by myself and my wife and mother-in-law lounged around looking at their phones and watching football. So, see, times have really changed.)
Soon after the cleanup had finished, Judy Iscariot, who was the only guest not staying the night, excused herself to return to her own home, thanking us for inviting her. We said things like, “Sure,” and “Any time,” and “Come back soon.” Little did we know.
Hours passed, much digesting was accomplished and hunger began to stir again. As they felt the need, folks began to filter to the kitchen one-by-one for traditional Thanksgiving leftovers sandwiches. And during the process, certain phrases were uttered and then repeated among each of the guests. Many formed inquiries such as “Where’s the gravy?” and “Has anybody seen the gravy?” and “I tell ya, I’d kill a man for some gravy about now.” Eventually, it was my wife’s turn at the leftovers and her turn to ask about gravy. She was then seen searching high and low within the refrigerator on a quest to find whatever opaque margarine container had been used to store a fraction of the gravy vat we’d made. On seeing this search, Ramona cautiously approached and in a small, hesitant voice said, “Um, there is no gravy.”
“Whuh?” the wife said, understanding each of Ramona’s words on an individual level, just not how they related to one another.
“There’s no gravy,” Ramona repeated.
“What do you mean there’s no gravy?” Ashley said.
There came a pause.
“Judy… Judy poured it all out.”
“She poured it out?” Ashley said in disbelief.
“Yeah. Down the garbage disposal,” Ramona said. She then went on to describe how during the chaos of the kitchen cleanup, with everyone bumping into one another in the tiny space, trying to find where things should go, Ramona had turned to see Judy pouring the whole kettle of gravy down the drain of the kitchen sink. Ramona had tried to stop her, but Judy insisted that it was fine to pour it all out because, as Ramona quoted Judy as saying, “Gravy doesn’t keep.”
Allow me to repeat: Gravy, she said, doesn’t keep.
We were utterly staggered by the revelation about our precious gravy’s demise. We felt betrayed and bewildered all at once. I mean, just think what kind of bassackward horror show of an upbringing Judy Iscariot must have endured in order to bring her to a mindset in which she truly believes gravy somehow doesn’t keep? A sad, dry, life devoid of moistened food, is the answer. Probably throws out leftover stew after the first day. Probably thinks you can’t resuscitate cold French fries and chucks them right in the bin. Has never been known to ask for a doggie bag in a restaurant in her whole ding dang life. That kind of sad.
Well let me just tell you—and you can pass it on to future generations of your own families—gravy damn well does keep! In fact, it gets better with age. And when you’ve used it to the fullest extent of its gravy properties, it then can become the base-matter for turkey soup. (And I refer you again to the previously mentioned Horribly True Tale, for which this story serves as a prequel, and which concerns the very same holiday and, indeed, bird.)
After dabbing the tears from our eyes and finding our bearings once again, we had to go sit down for a while and spend some time contemplating Judy’s well-meaning treachery. It nearly put us off our second Thanksgiving sandwiches—our dry, dry Thanksgiving sandwiches.
Judy Iscariot sold us out. All of us. She would forever more be cast from our tribe, banned from our village. All future Thanksgiving invitations rescinded. She could not come back any time, soon or otherwise. And despite what we said to our gathered guests that prior to digging into the Thanksgiving meal, we were no longer thankful for Judy Iscariot. Judy Iscariot was dead to us. At best, she would become a cautionary tale that there are true dangers in the world and that some friendships come with too high a price.
And now, this warning has been passed on to you.
The Talkin’, Stuffed in a Winnebago, Can’t Catch No Silvers, Blueberries Out the Yin Yang, Bumping down the Frost Heaves, Grand Lodge Experience, All Gonna End in Tears, 20th Anniversary Horribly True Fan Blues
Over the 20 years I’ve been writing them, my Horribly True Tales output has tapered off quite a bit. I’m sure this is mostly down to maturity allowing for better decision-making skills on my part, and the ability to purchase a better class of automobile, since most of the earliest stories seem to revolve around car trouble. Despite their infrequency, the stories have still developed a small but faithful fan base with those who’ve found them through Facebook and my Horribly True website. However, the audience has been extended beyond those avenues, largely due to the efforts of my sister-in-law, Amber. Amber has been a fan of my tales since the late `90s, and has been known to share them with friends and co-workers, whenever there is need to spread a laugh or lighten a mood. And because Amber’s husband Jim is career Army, she’s been subject to frequent moves with each new base assignment and has held half a dozen new jobs over the course of 15 years. With each one she has spread my tales to new ears—often in the form of live in-office readings. However, in the nigh on two decades that I’ve known Amber, she’s never actually appeared in one of the tales as a participant. That is, until we took a two week family trip to Alaska in 2016.
The state of Alaska holds a special place in the lives of my wife and her family. In the mid-`70s, they moved there from North Carolina, after her father found work as a mechanic helping construct the Alaska oil pipeline. It’s where they spent the 25 years and where my wife and Amber grew up, living in different locales with varying degrees of electricity, plumbing, and access to paved roads. It was a real Little House on the Prairie existence for much of that time. Frankly, their stories of their real life adventures rival my meandering nonsense any day. I think the reason they like my stories so much is simply because it affords them the opportunity to think things like, “Oh, you had some car trouble one time? Yeah, that’s cute. Ashley once hit a moose and her Ford Escort station wagon turned into a cloud of metal confetti, unrecognizable as having once been an automobile. She was almost decapitated. Oh, and another time, we had to barricade ourselves in our home-made log cabin because a bear was trying to break down the door and eat us. But you keep telling your little stories.”
In the mid-90s, my wife left Alaska, traveling across the lower 48—in a different Ford Escort station wagon—all the way to Blue Mountain College in Mississippi, where she would finish up her undergraduate studies. She never intended to be away from Alaska and her family for more than a couple of years. However, two things got in the way of this: A) she decided to go on to medical school and there are no such schools to be found in Alaska; and B) she had the questionable fortune of meeting and marrying me. The Alaska-return timeline wound up getting delayed by a couple of decades, most of it spent in our current locale of West Virginia. And during those years, her family all moved to the lower 48.
The state itself remains strong in the bloodstream of her family, though. And if you’ve ever been there, you know perfectly well why, because your blood has probably picked up some of it too. It’s one of the most gorgeous places on earth. I find it stress-inducingly beautiful because I myself have experienced near panic attacks there in an area called Glacier View, which you can see while traveling along an area of the Glenn Highway. The road runs along the Mantanuska River valley in which you can indeed view a glacier. Hell, you could drive on down and lick it if you wanted. The craggy lush mountains, capped with snow even in the middle of summer, are spectacular. You want nothing more than to stop and stay a lifetime and absorb the beauty. And the intense anxiety you feel gripping your soul is because you know you can’t stay, cause you have to motor on to catch a plane the next day.
Beyond the beauty, one of the things that my wife’s family truly misses about Alaska are the blueberries. In fact, if the word blueberry is mentioned in their presence—and I don’t recommend doing so—you may as well strap in, cause you’ve got a 10 minute lecture in store on the topic of how much better Alaska blueberries are compared to berries grown anywhere else. I’ve seen them turn up their noses at homemade lower-48-blueberry-based treats on the grounds that it’s just a waste of their time. Oh, sure, they might try a bite or two, but always with accompanying critical commentary. “Well… that’s good and all,” they say in weighted tones that you can tell really mean, “Well, that’s a good try.”
I thought they were all delusional until I finally got to try some Alaska blueberries for myself. I found it to be a transformative experience. In an instant, I went from “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, Alaaaaaska bluuuuueberrrrriiiiiies,” to “Holy shit! Where have these been all my life?”
Alaska blueberries don’t grow on tall bushes, as they do in the lower-48. Instead, they are found growing plentifully in very low bushes, often in mossy tundra areas. And while they’re not large, this just seems to concentrate their spicy flavor in a way that other blueberries can only aspire to. They make excellent jams and jellies. My wife once traded a shipment of 24 jars of her apple butter for a similarly sized shipment of Alaska blueberry jam from her friend Laura. As good as the wife’s apple butter is, we still got the better end of the deal and should probably have sent a second box of it to make up the difference.
With the powerful draw of blueberries in mind, in 2014, for my mother-in-law’s birthday, my wife gave her a gift certificate good for one trip to Alaska to pick blueberries with her daughter. It was basically an excuse to make a family trip back home, but blueberries would indeed be picked. Ma finally cashed in the certificate in 2016, and plans began to form for the trip. Amber and Jim wanted in on this too, so we all synchronized calendars and came up with August as the best time to go. We rented a Winnebago in Anchorage—which is one of the best and cheapest ways to see the state—restaurants and hotels being as expensive as they are there. Even with five of us crammed into it, the Winnebago only really felt crowded while we were on the road, because at stops we could always just step outside and extend our living space into the amazing scenery wherever we were.
We spent two weeks driving wherever we liked in search of blueberries and/or salmon, whichever hopped in our baskets first.
Now, there are three species of salmon regularly found in Alaska: pinks, silvers, and reds. The red salmon, which are the best—particularly from the copper river—unfortunately spawn earlier in the season, so we would have none of them. The pinks, which are the least palatable salmon, were spawning currently, but we didn’t want them. Our best hope was to catch a few silver salmon. They, it turned out, were pretty thin in the streams. It was technically their spawning time, but all the fishermen we ran into said the silvers had either already passed through or were yet to arrive.
The blueberries, however, were plentiful. We found them throughout the trip—in boggy fields on the side of the highway near Denali, on remote hillsides just outside of Fairbanks, and out in a huge field near their old home territory of Salcha. You couldn’t miss them. We would venture out, the smell of alder in our noses, each of us keeping an eye out for bears, and pick until our grocery store sacks were near bursting with blueberries, raspberries, crow berries and more, which we took back to the camper, sorted, and vacuum-sealed. And we only stopped picking when there was no more room in the freezer.
During the trip, we stayed mostly in RV campgrounds where there was access to water and sewage hookups, not to mention regular showers. We weren’t scared to stay in a pull off on the side of the road, or the driveway of a friend if need be. Near the end of the first week of the trip, though, we got a look at some fancier digs. We stopped near Delta Junction, to visit a a family friend who works at the Lodge at Black Rapids. The lodge itself is nestled on low hill overlooking a stretch of panic-inducing gorgeous scenery, vast fields, rivers, more snow-capped mountains, the Delta River, the Black Rapids Glacier itself, and the historic 100-year-old Black Rapids Roadhouse.
I was particularly taken with the lodge. I’ve never spent any time in a lodge, I’d only seen them on TV. But the Lodge at Black Rapids was what I’d always imagined one would be like. It’s the kind of place that must have taken half a forest to build the timber structure and half a mountainside for the slate-shingled exterior. It’s the sort of place where well-heeled outdoorsy folk fly in to stay, spending their days hunting, fishing, and rafting before ambling back for nights of sumptuous meals and drink at a giant rustic table, beneath hand-hewn beams before retiring to a comfy chair around the stacked stone fireplace for a snifter of bourbon, cigars, and some manly talk before bed. I wanted to stay and get to know it a while—at least until I saw how much it would cost to do so. I made a mental note, though, that one day I wanted to stay in a lodge just like it.
We motored on, traveling south to Valdez, on the southern coast, for the last few days of our trip. It was lovely there, too, despite the fog and rain and the thousands upon thousands of super gross pink salmon piled up on every shoreline. Most were still technically alive, but they had either already spawned or had failed to spawn, and were by then just pale, rotting, ghost fish who didn’t yet know they were dead. Even in great health, pinks are the Spam of the salmon family, but even bears don’t want to eat ghost pinks. No silvers could be found among their stinky ranks. And after a day or two of waiting for their foretold arrival, we gave up and just bought frozen silver salmon from a local fishery, packed them into coolers and headed north on the first leg of our trek back to Anchorage.
Hours later, we turned west onto the Glenn Highway at at Glennallen. And as we drove into the early evening, the glow of the sun reflecting off of the snowy whiteness of Mount Drum behind us, we started checking phones and atlases for likely stopping places for the night.
On the map we spied a tremendous body of water called Lake Louise. Gotta be fish there, we thought. And while looking for lakeside campgrounds, what should I spy on the map but three magic words: Lake Louise Lodge. Immediately, I was dazzled by visions of the Lodge at Black Rapids, of sitting around the stone hearth, watching the sun set at 11 p.m. through a two story window, a craft beer in hand and a belly full of fried sea creatures. According to our phones, the Lake Louise Lodge was only $20 a night for RV parking! My grand lodge experience was within reach! Everyone else agreed as well, we should go forth and check it out. The only downside to this plan was that the lodge was located 20 miles north of the Glenn highway itself.
Now 20 miles might not seem like much of a problem for those of us used to paved road conditions in the lower 48. Roads in Alaska, much like the blueberries, are a different kind of creature. Because temperatures often dip well below zero throughout the Alaskan winter, the ground expands and contracts as the upper layers of soil repeatedly freeze and thaw. This creates frost heaves in the earth. And when frost heaves occur beneath paved roads, those roads become quite lumpy. It takes every day of the warmer months for the state to maintain the primary highways of Alaska. Side roads, such as Lake Louise Road, don’t see as much attention.
The frost heaves we encountered were so bad that we had to keep the Winnebago under 15 mph or it would have been rattled apart. It took us 20 minutes to go only five miles, at which point we arrived at a pull off area beside a pristine little lake, which was across the road from an even larger and more pristine little lake. (“Little lakes” in Alaska are what most of us just call “lakes,” while “big lakes,” like Louise, are what most of think of as “seas.”) We pulled off, had a look around at the stunning scenery, and everyone in the vehicle declared that we’d found our place for the night.
Everyone, that is, except me.
As picturesque as our surroundings were, I didn’t want to stay at the pull off. For one thing, there was a cluster of three up vehicles at the far end of the pull off, including a dark and possibly abandoned, pull-behind camper. There was no activity around them. But my fiction-writer’s mind began conjuring up images of a caravan filled with hungry Alaskan vampires who were just waiting for the sun to finally dip at midnight, at which point they would emerge to devour us. It was a dumb image, I knew, but I couldn’t shake the shudder of dread whenever I looked at the dented up old camper. If not vampires, there were at least a few cannibal serial killers in there.
However, the even more potent image that I couldn’t shake was my memory of the Lodge at Black Rapids and the Grand Lodge Experience that was surely to be had at the Lake Louise Lodge. I could practically taste it and now the plate was being yanked away from me. Everyone else was content with the stupid gorgeous lakes by the vampire pulloff, but I kept imagining how much better it would be at a lodge by a huge honking lake bigger than 200 pristine pull off ponds. Sure, we wouldn’t be staying in rooms there, but we could certainly use the amenities such a place offered. Jim and the others could go fishing, I could sit on the deck and enjoy the lakeside atmosphere.
“I kind of want to check out Lake Louise Lodge,” I said with what I hoped was confidence. “I mean, that’s where we were already heading, right?” I added. I had them on this point. The lodge was, after all, the entire reason we had taken Lake Louise Road in the first place.
Tragically, no one fought me on this. Not even a little bit. Maybe it was because I’d been a mostly silent-partner passenger for the entire trip so far, always game to do whatever everyone else wanted to do simply because they all knew the state better than I did, and knew what would be fun to do or see. I could tell from their expressions that they didn’t agree with my proposed course for the evening, but they grudgingly climbed back into the Winnebago. I took the wheel and we motored on north…
*Ba duM BUM… BA Dum bum*
…up and down the lumpy, frost-heave rutted road…
*Ba duM BUM… BA Dum bum*
…at 15 mph…
*Ba duM BUM… BA Dum bum*
… like driving over a twenty mile stretch of railroad track crossings…
*Ba duM BUM… BA Dum bum*
And the soundtrack to this forced-march into idiocy, beyond the road, were the pained groans of the stressed metal of the Winnebago’s frame, as it was called upon to maneuver the heaves at odd angles from both ends. Underlying the groans, however, was a bed of thick, seething silence of the kind that can only be achieved when four Winnebago passengers are completely not on board with the fifth one’s plan, yet also don’t feel like they can say anything without pissing off the easy-to-irritate guy who had rented the Winnebago in the first place.
*Ba duM BUM… BA Dum bum*
*seethe seethe seethe*
Very quickly into this asinine crawl, the realization of just what a HORRIBLE mistake I had made washed over me. Not only was it a horrible mistake, but I was forcing my loved ones to participate in my horrible mistake. And because of this, it would not matter how good the Yelp rating was for Lake Louise Lodge or how good the fishing may or may not be there. This was going to end in tears. The only way I could envision this situation turning out in anything approaching my favor was if the Lake Louise Lodge turned out to be some kind of five star restaurant/resort combo and, in honor of the great effort we had made to get there, they would just comp us all room and board for two nights, with free massages, our own fishing Sherpa to guide us to their super-secret fishing hole—stocked with nothing but silver salmon and halibut they’d had flown in from the ocean—and, oh, what the hell, let’s throw in a perfect clear view of Mt. McKinley, a once-in-a-lifetime display of northern lights in August, and a free house concert by Stevie Ray Vaughan. (Yeah, that’s right. He came back from the dead for us in this fantasy, and that’s not even the least believable part of it.)
Far more likely, I thought, was that we would spend an hour getting to the Lake Louise Lodge, it would suck grizzly balls, and everyone’s vacation would be ruined because of me.
Unfortunately, as doomed as I felt, I could also see no good way to back down from my stupid senseless quest. By then we were over 45 minutes into the horrible mistake and I felt we were too invested to turn back. Plus, I knew there was no way I could get that behemoth of a Winnebago turned around on a two lane road—frost heaves or no.
*Ba duM BUM… BA Dum bum*
An hour of painful silence and gut churning road-conditions later, we at last arrived at the Lake Louise Lodge. And it was… nice enough, I guess. I mean, I wouldn’t tell anyone NOT to go there, but it was… okayish. It was certainly no Black Rapids Lodge by any stretch. It looked pretty much like a big log cabin that was kind of near a lake. The property itself, though, looked less like a manicured resort destination and more like the cluttered back yard of somebody who lives way way out in the country, who had maybe been doing some home renovations for the last couple of months, hadn’t gotten around to cleaning up all the building supplies, and who isn’t expecting visitors. It had a kind of in-progress, patched together feel to it—which can actually be said of most structures in rural Alaska. (In the lodge’s defense, the really good view of the place is from the lake itself, which you can see on their website, and it’s lovely. That’s not the view we had.)
We stared at the lodge with a mix of expressions from empty to underwhelmed to angry, no one saying much of anything. After more silence, Jim went inside to arrange our stay while the ladies bolted from the Winnebago and gathered themselves into a lady huddle. I was left at the wheel to think about what I’d done. Clearly no one liked the Lake Louise Lodge. I didn’t like it either, but I still didn’t see a good way out of the situation. I thought, Well, we invested a long and painful hour getting’ here, so I guess we have to at least give these grizzly balls a lick.
Jim returned and led us to the RV campsite. There was a reason it was only $20 a night, because it was located behind a long outbuilding that both blocked all view of the lake and which housed a diesel generator. Which was running. And noisily belching diesel fumes from a vent aimed directly into the RV site. And, as far as we knew, it would be doing so for the rest of the night.
I backed the Winnebago into the RV site and Jim and I began trying to get the thing leveled out and the popouts popped. Meanwhile, the ladies continued to converse outside. I could see resigned and disappointed expressions among them. Then my wife walked away, by herself, into a stand of short trees. That wasn’t good.
Seeing no way to avoid it, I went outside to go check on her. Before I could follow, Ma came over and said something to me, but I couldn’t understand her over the noise of the generator.
“What?” I shouted.
“I said, `Is this place… as nice… as you’d hoped?!’” she shouted back.
“It’s… It’s all right. I guess,” I said. “Maybe we can finally catch some fish?” I added lamely.
The truth, though, was that I hated the Lake Louise Lodge. I even hadn’t set foot in the place, but already I knew with certainty that this was never going to be the grand lodge experience I had hoped for. There would be no craft beer or fried sea creatures. We’d be lucky to get a warm Shasta and a tube of Pringles. There was no chance of anyone having a good time. Everybody was disappointed and/or furious with me. No, this night was going to be miserable on all fronts.
And then, over the intestinal roar of the generator, I somehow heard Amber tell Jim that she felt a headache coming on from the fumes. And then I distinctly heard her say, “I don’t think I can stay here.” And with those words—those magic words—I suddenly saw the exit from my horrible mistake. After all, if Amber’s health was being affected by the fumes, we clearly could not stay there even a moment longer. Before I could say anything, though, Ma leaned close to me and shouted, “You need to go talk to Ashley!” She pointed into the stand of young pines where I could just make out my wife. She had her back to me as I approached, but I could see her wiping at her eyes. They were red and streaked with smeared mascara when she turned to look at me.
“We were at such a beautiful place at that pull off,” she said. “This is terrible.”
“Yeah. It is,” I said. “We should go.”
Her eyes brightened at this. It was like she was expecting protest and resistance from me—I cannot begin to fathom why—but, instead, she found a willing accomplice in a new plan to abandon the old plan.
We couldn’t get the Winnebago packed up fast enough. The popouts were yanked back in and Jim was barely aboard, with a refunded $20 in his pocket, when we pulled out with the wife at the wheel. Nice as it might be under different circumstances, we fled the Lake Louise Lodge as fast as we could. Which, turns out, wasn’t very fast at all.
*Ba duM BUM… BA Dum bum*
*Ba duM BUM… BA Dum bum*
During our 40 minute trek back to the pristine pulloff, I sat in the passenger seat and just felt awful about it all. My stupid, selfish, romantic dream of lodge-life almost resulted in a night of misery for my family. I couldn’t keep the tears back. The wife reached over and took my hand.
“It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay.”
Later, back at the pristine pulloff, we feasted upon the single pink salmon we’d caught a few days before. It was super gross, but we washed it down with some of Ma’s fresh Alaska blueberry cobbler. And the vampires who emerged from the abandoned camper to attack us at midnight weren’t even all that hard to kill.
Days later, back home in West Virginia, I realized that this was the first time Amber got to play a pivotal role in one of my Horribly True Tales herself. For all her work promoting them, I guess in some twisted way this story is my gift to her. It seems a poor repayment for all her work somehow—and especially in light of a horribly-true-related gift she gave to me earlier in our Alaska journey.
It was during the first week of our trip, as we were camped out in the driveway of a family friend in North Pole, that Amber told me the tale of one of her horribly true tale readings from a few years back. It was done at a hospice, where she and others had gathered at the bed of a dying friend. After days of sitting vigil and mourning the impending loss, the mood among them had indeed grown dark. That was when Amber took out her phone, fired up my website, and began reading horribly true tales. She said everyone laughed until they cried and that the stories were just the thing to help give them some light in the face of tragedy.
This is not only the greatest compliment my horribly true tales have been paid, it is the greatest compliment any of my writing has been paid. I will forever be grateful that my stories were put to such use. And to Amber for telling me.
Scientists believe sightings of Lock Ness could be an eel…