unscheduled landing into Reykjavik, Iceland. Approximately
thirty-five minutes ago, we experienced an explosion in our
number two engine and that engine is now inoperable. The
ticking sound you hear is the wind running through it, spin-
ning the blades backward, much like a household fan. You can
probably also tell that we are tacking toward Iceland — much as
we would in a sailboat — as our current
engine configuration will not give us
full power in a straight line.”
Now Rebecca is awake and looking
at me wild-eyed. “The man likes a meta-
phor,” I say, and o=er a small smile.
The light out the window has
strengthened and I can see whitecaps
on an angry gray sea.
“I always kind of wanted to go to Iceland,” I say, but by now Rebecca is no
longer looking at me. She has her eyes
closed tightly, has given herself, I imagine, to prayer.
“We will be landing in approxi-
mately fifteen minutes,” the captain
says. “Please give your undivided atten-
tion to the flight attendants as they in-
struct you in landing in the brace
I like that he did not say crash. I like that he is a language guy.
The ocean is getting quite a bit closer, no sign of Iceland out my
window, and I hope that Reykjavik Airport does not turn out to
be a metaphor for fucked.
Just when it seems that our wheels have to be skimming the
water, land and runway lights appear, and then more of them, so
many lights it is hard to count them, a sea of spinning red and
blue, every ambulance and fire truck in Iceland seems to have
come out to greet us.
“Holy shit!” I say, just before the wheels hit the foam and the
foam splashes up and covers all the windows, throwing the cabin in
a half-light exactly like waking up in a tent after a snowstorm, and
then everyone is cheering as the plane glides to a jerky, sticky stop.
Much later, in an upstairs blank space of terminal, as we are
being fed rice with some kind of yellow chickeny goo all over it
by something resembling the Icelandic Red Cross, the crew tells
us the reason for the emergency equipment. When the number
two engine exploded, it spit jet fuel all over the fuselage. We were
a Molotov cocktail hurtling through space, is the way the literary
pilot puts it, there was no way to be certain that the friction of the
tires on the runway wouldn’t make a spark and ignite us, turn us
into a ninety-mile-per-hour ball of flame.
clImbIng off the tarmac up into the bright red and
orange four-seater owned by Wrangell Mountain Air. There are
just enough clouds, I know, of the big white pu=y variety to create shadows that will make these most spectacular of all mountains even more spectacular.
I have had the good fortune to circle
Denali in a small plane, to fly into and
out of the Himalayas, riding in the cockpit both directions, but these mountains, the Wrangells and the Chugach
and the St. Elias, rising from sea level all
the way to the peak of Mount St. Elias at
18,008 feet in ten short miles—glacier
after glacier after mountain after
mountain—are, in my opinion, the
most dramatic in all the world.
This plane will take me to the other
side of the Wrangells, north of the
Chugach, close to the Yukon border, by
anybody’s measuring stick one of the
world’s most remote locations. There
I will ride reluctant horses through
boggy tundra, listen to eager hunting
guides play the washtub and the spoons around the fire, keep my
eyes and ears peeled for brown bears, and try to teach six Alaskan
women and one man from Nova Scotia how to write.
William — from Halifax — and I drove the long road from Chitna
into McCarthy together. He is tall, handsome, moderately literary,
towheaded, and still very much hung up on his ex-wife. Something
about the way our conversation turned us inevitably back to her six
or seven thousand times in three hours has thrown me deep into
abject loneliness, which lately has been a pretty short trip.
When I left on this month-long adventure, Ethan gave me a
Mike Schmidt baseball card and dangling poet earrings, black on
black. Now the woman who lives in his cell phone says, “Ethan is
not available,” with just a hint of impatience in her voice.
I am up front, next to the pilot, Halifax William behind me,
a woman from Juneau next to him, our three packs taking up
every inch of space in the tail. The pilot turns the plane in a tight
circle, we accelerate and lift o=, and before he has even pulled
in the flaps the first glacier is in front of us, huge and dirty and
violent with stretch marks, plunging out of the cloud cover and
into the shimmering sun.
Instantly I feel that old surge come back, that seizing of my own
life on my own terms. It is such a physical thing, like the time I had
my forearm shattered and the nurse came in every four hours on
there are just
enough clouds of
the bIg WhIte puffy
varIety to create
shadoWs that WIll
make these most
spectacular of all
mountaIns even more