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Breaking the Law

All names in this story have been changed. You know, just in case.

In my hometown of Petersburg, Alaska, there is one road that stretches from one end of town to the other, traversing but not circumnavigating the island on which my hometown is located. I think generally people tend to think of islands as little round circles of land in the ocean, which one might conceivably drive around and around forever, like a brass ball in a roulette wheel. But that’s not how things are, and islands are often shaped inconveniently, or pockmarked with gigantic mountains or bodies of water or even volcanoes, which can make logical traffic accommodations wacky. Anyway. In Petersburg, the road goes from one end of the long, arrow-shaped island to the other. This straight-line trajectory has even led locals to refer to driving toward the rural end of the island as “going out the road.” Interestingly, the city limits do not extend to the end of the road, but rather, end some several miles earlier. This means that the city police cannot legally enforce the law beyond those city limits, creating a kind of rogue, lawless wilderness on one end of the island.

This is, as you can likely imagine, terrific news for teenagers.

You’d think that this Mad Max area of town would be a non-stop bacchanalia, a veritable hedonistic anarchy playground, and you’d be part-right. The problem was, of course, that police are smart, and just as surely as there was only one road out of town, there was also only one road back to town. We knew exactly where the city limit was. Getting out to the beach to drink wasn’t the problem. Coming back was. Officer Karver or Westfield would often just sit at the city line in their cruiser, waiting for miscreants to come back home after a night of debauchery, only to be flat busted the minute their vehicle crossed into Petersburg proper.

Not to mention the possibility of State Troopers. See, policing on an island was different from policing in the contiguous United States. State Troopers, for example, were not a permanent fixture on the roadways the way they were elsewhere, and only came through episodically to bust chops and say, extend the otherwise amputated jurisdiction of local police to the end of the aforementioned road. It might not even need to be said, but the state troopers never announced their arrival or departure in my hometown. They just weren’t there, and then they were. Like a special surprise that made you get kicked off volleyball or swim team for one season.

At age 18, I was keenly interested in drinking illegally and not getting caught. My friends shared these interests, and we pursued them vigorously, together. It was dicey and exciting business, not getting caught. Anyone who’s ever managed to secure illicit alcohol as a teenager understands the imperative: finding a place to drink the hard-won wine coolers and Bud Light is a personal decree. This kind of pressure led to many compromised decisions, and activity combinations that were neither safe nor particularly appealing: snowmobiling and spiked cocoa, quarry fires and vodka, and even — the horror — cat sitting and church wine. We did all of these things to escape the mundanity of our small-town youth and tear open the wrapper of something resembling the adulthood we’d been imagining. Sex, booze, and driving: these were the primary gifts of adulthood, and we were ready for them now.

It was with this spirit of rebellious adventure that we set out, one fateful Friday night, to leave Petersburg city limits and spend the night drinking consecutive Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers amongst like-minded peers. My boyfriend Max had a 1979 Ford Bronco, which seated like seven people legally, and somewhere around 50 illegally, if folks didn’t mind sitting on each other. We were teenagers, so we were basically all waiting to sit on each other, really.

Max and his best friend Nick, and their other friend Tom, had somehow gotten their hands on many wine coolers, and a bottle of vodka for our evening. Nick’s girlfriend Mackenzie and Tom’s girlfriend Dannika joined us to ride out the road and seek oblivion on a relatively warm spring night. We rode without interference or interruption out to Blind Slough, an inlet and camping area around 20 miles from downtown, and just a few miles past Petersburg city limits.

We made a fire in the campground fire pit and stood around, smoking cigarettes, drinking, and generally being obnoxiously loud and silly. Max and Tom weren’t drinking: Max never drove drunk. He took our safety really seriously, for a punk-ass kid. But the rest of us were guzzling booze like we had to get it done, which, if you think about it, we did. I announced I needed to pee, and me and the other girls wobbled off into the woods to find a safe place to unburden ourselves, laughing and shouting to each other and our boyfriends as we navigated the branches and saplings to find a suitable place to squat. At almost precisely the moment we reached the tree line of the woods, headlights swung into the access road for the campground. Mackenzie shouted, “TROOPER!”

All three of us girls hurtled ourselves into the woods, scrambling like prison escapees into the dense thicket next to the campground. Nick had also bolted at the sight of the headlights, carrying the remaining bottle of vodka and four-pack of coolers with him as he, too, joined us in our mad scrabble away from the edge of the woods. By the time the trooper’s cruiser pulled up next to the fire where Max and Tom stood, Nick, Mackenzie, Dannika and me were 20 yards into the forest. Unfortunately, because we were so far from the fire and in deep canopy, we could see almost nothing in front of us. And so it was that the four of us found ourselves standing waist-deep in a muskeg pond. The trooper and his ride-along disembarked their vehicle and approached Max and Tom. Although they were far away, the sound carried in the relative silence of the slough. We could hear the crackling of the fire, even from where we were. So we stood stock-still and waiting, for any distraction to allow us to move farther away. The trooper walked over to Max and Tom, and asked them some questions about their drinking. They were both sober, but the trooper didn’t believe them. Dannika and I, the two farthest into the pond, started trying to make our way to the back of the pond, backing up slowly. The muck at the bottom was unforgiving, and noisy. We moved like cold honey, breathing in shallow gasps.

Tom looked stricken — he was clearly very nervous about the whole thing. But Max looked lazily defiant. He didn’t wink at us, because he couldn’t clearly see us, but he didn’t need to. I could feel it. The trooper threatened a Breathalyzer, and Max dead-eyed him, and said, “Yeah. Go ahead.”

The trooper and his sidekick motioned for Max and Tom to come sit in the back of the cruiser. This was our chance. We smurched our feet out of the muck and moved as fast as we could to the edge of the pond. Just as Nick and Mackenzie cleared the edge and flopped down behind a gigantic old-growth pine tree, the trooper’s sidekick came striding out from behind the cruiser. He yanked a maglite out of his belt and stalked purposefully toward the treeline. There was nothing we could do. Dannika and I looked at each other, and sat down as far as we could in the pond, trying to disappear into the murky water, behind the small stand of skunk cabbage. Skunk cabbage is a strange type of Alaskan foliage, vaguely gynecological in appearance, that smells the way a skunk would smell if it were a plant. It’s not particularly tall or robust, so it provided poor cover. This is important because, as the flashlight beam passed over the woods, we were forced to do what any sensible drunk teenager hiding in a muskeg pond would do: we dunked under water.

If you’ve ever had occasion to dunk under the water in a muskeg pond, you don’t need me to tell you that you shouldn’t open your eyes. There’s nothing in there you want to see, first of all, but more importantly, muskeg ponds are water the same way that beef stew is a liquid. A combination of moss, mold, mud, dirt, insect detritus, and miscellaneous bog parts immediately glump into your eyeballs, never to be completely removed. But if you’re waiting for a state trooper’s flashlight beam to finish passing over your pondy hiding spot, you’re kind of out of options. (Also, if you’ve ever wondered what skunk cabbage tastes like when it rots into water — and who hasn’t — it tastes just exactly like you imagined.)

The sidekick stood for a long time while me and Dannika bobbed up and down in the water like two ’80s-haired versions of Whack-A-Mole, until finally he seemed either satisfied that we weren’t there or was needed elsewhere, and beat a clipped retreat to the cruiser. En route, he kicked out the fire before he hopped into the vehicle. The doors slammed and the cruiser left, carrying Max, Tom, the trooper and his partner toward the city, and leaving us in absolute pitch black night. Without the fire or any light from the moon, we could scarcely see our hands in front of our faces. We didn’t dare say anything for a few minutes after the cruiser had departed, all of us equally convinced that the car could come back down the road any minute, having successfully lured us out of the woods. So we sat, hunched and soaked, shivering and waiting, for many long minutes. Finally, Mackenzie spoke up. “We should get the fuck outta here before they come back. This is a shit hiding spot.”

She was right, of course. We couldn’t go too much farther in, and we certainly couldn’t stay in the pond forever. Sooner or later the cruiser would come back, and we’d be busted. Not getting busted had always been important to me, but now it was a singular fervent aspiration. More than anything else in my life, I wanted to get away with this. I felt a resolve and a determination that I hadn’t felt in years. I wanted to win.

We emerged from the woods, finally making our way back to the now smoldering remains of our fire. As if on cue, a fresh set of headlights whipped into the road, tearing toward us like a racecar, spitting gravel behind it like a wake. We had no time to dash anywhere, but it didn’t matter, because in seconds, it was clear the car was Tom’s brother Donnie’s powder-blue Chevette.

We should spend a second talking about Donnie. Donnie had always been someone somewhat, let’s say, artistic with reality. He kind of seemed to do whatever he felt like doing, at any moment. He didn’t so much go to school because he should as he went because it was more interesting than not going to school.

Donnie was somehow both the kid most likely to make a million dollars and the kid most likely to call for bail from a Mexican prison. I liked him a lot. He pulled up aside our ragged crew and rolled the window down, weed-smoke billowing out the windows. He eyed us up and down, and tipped his head to the side. “I passed the trooper,” he said. We all started talking at once, telling him everything from the fantastic time we’d been having to the swamp-diving we’d unwittingly done and how clever we were, escaping when we did.

“Except now you’re fucked.” Donnie said, lighting a cigarette, and generously passing the pack around to us. When nobody said anything, Donnie rolled his eyes and explained further. “Because the trooper will call the cop shop? And they’ll have somebody sitting at city limits waiting for you to come back in?” He took a drag off his cigarette and pointed with the glowing ember as he exhaled. “And you all look like you’ve been hiding in a pond.”

That sobered us up. As if in response, Nick handed us the bottle of vodka, and we all took a pull. Donnie finished his cigarette, and flicked it into the gravel. “I’ve got an idea. Get in.”

He opened his door and unfolded his lanky body from the tiny car, flipping the lever and folding down the front seat so we could climb in. From the passenger side door, another guy emerged, taller and lankier still than Donnie. He was older, maybe as much as ten years, and he had a long scar down one cheek. His hair hung in greasy strands, and he sort of curved like the letter C when he walked, like an old spring. “This is Snake.” Donnie said. Naturally. He nodded at the car. “You’ll have to pile in.”

Snake sized up the lot of us, and must have done some rapid seating calculations. He sidled into the back seat, folding his spindly legs into the space like a spider. Me and Mackenzie were both tall, so we crammed in next to him, and Dannika flopped across our laps. Nick sat up front, next to Donnie.

In the future, I would remember this night, and with it, a valuable lesson: be cautious in agreeing to a plan that Donnie is unreservedly excited about. And he was very, very excited about his plan. The trick, he said, was to circumvent the city limit line. He said he thought he could sneak us back to Max’s house. Max lived about five miles out of town, so the likelihood that we’d be spotted by the trooper or the cops was slimmer than if he tried to get us all back to our own homes in town. He reasoned that the trooper would go back out to Blind Slough looking for us before coming back to Max’s. We’d have just enough time.

Donnie’s plan was to take us home via the old logging loop road. It started a little farther out than where we were, and was not really a loop, in the classical sense. It was more a series of bushwhacked short roads that mostly connected, and eventually descended behind Reeves’ Gravel, which was almost exactly across the street from Max’s house.

Our plan had problems. Problem one: logging roads aren’t roads, per se. They are kind of wide paths that gigantic logging trucks struggle to traverse. Max and I had attempted to drive up them on many occasions and had to stop because the middle of the “road” was interrupted by a gigantic tree stump, around which the clearance was so narrow that his Bronco couldn’t circumnavigate the obstacle without plummeting down the ravine. We had reversed precipitously down as many of those roads as we’d ascended. Two: a Chevette, while a dapper vehicle in which to get entirely stoned and an excellent place to carefully examine the finer works of the Dead Milkmen, was not a gigantic logging truck. It was a Chevette. It had “ette” in its name. Nobody ever bought logging equipment that ended in the suffix “ette,” and if they did, it was in French, and meant “a slightly smaller version of a colossal thing.” Three: Donnie didn’t have much gas. This drive was long — maybe twenty-five miles if we made it the right way the first time (which we wouldn’t), and if the road took it easy on the engine (which it wouldn’t), and if we had a normal number of pounds of human cargo in the vehicle (which we didn’t). Four: who the fuck was Snake? Was he killy? Super killy?

As we set out, against formidable odds, Donnie’s eyes gleamed with a kind of wild glee. “They’ll never think we went this way. They probably don’t even know you can!” At this moment I realized that Donnie and I had more in common than I would ever publicly admit. I knew it was crazy to do what we were going to do. But we were absolutely, certainly going to do it.

Donnie drove that Chevette like it was a beast. We skittered around corners and spat rocks and branches as we scaled the mountain, higher and higher, the road becoming less dirt and mud and more rocks and boulders. “The trick here, “ he said, as we bounced over what felt like a road paved with VW Bugs, “is not to get a flat tire. Because I ain’t got a spare.” (Five: no spare.) Since we were mashed together, we attempted to get to know Snake. We offered our names, and where we all were from. When we asked him where he was from, Donnie interjected, “It’s better if you don’t know.”

Snake chuckled, bowed his head and said, “If I tell you, I have to kill you!” And everybody giggled nervously. Then, by way of explanation, he added, “I just don’t want to get too far into it, because we’re carrying so much weed.” Then he laughed like a lunatic and said, “Just kidding.” (Six: overcrowded, gasless, spareless Chevette with one sociopath and possibly illegal amount of weed.)

The road got rougher and rougher, and it was as though Donnie thought we had less chance of running out of gas or busting a tire if he drove as fast as he could. We flew over giant rocky sections, more like Jurassic cobblestones than dirt roads. We skirted the snags and stumps in the road, the back end of the car hanging off the embankments tantalizingly until Donnie gunned us further down the road. We skidded, spun out, thumped and screeched over the incredibly rough terrain. What was amazing was that, as fast as he was going, and absent any street lights lights or illumination save the headlights, he never made even one wrong turn. Not one. Unless you’ve driven the labyrinth of half-roads, paths and convolutions that comprise logging roads in Southeast Alaska, you can’t understand how amazing that is. We finally started to descend. It felt like we’d always been driving these roads, and my bones no longer remembered what it felt like not to rattle like nuts and bolts in your pocket. I had adopted a preventatively slack jaw, to keep my teeth from breaking off in my mouth. Just as I started to feel like we’d driven to another continent, I spotted the streetlights, down the hill in the distance. We bombed the hill and hardly slowed to cut across the street to Max’s house. Donnie hopped out, and shouted, “Get out! Get out get out get out!” and we piled out as fast as we could.

Donnie saluted us, and then peeled off down the road with Snake, assumedly to continue on with whatever their evening had previously held in store for them. We never saw Snake again.

We stared at each other in dim shock for a moment.

We heard a vehicle turn down Max’s road. Without a word, we all ran into Max’s garage and hoisted ourselves up into the rafters. From there, we could see the trooper’s cruiser, with Max and Tom in the back. Max’s mom came out the front door of her house, and stood for a little while chatting with the trooper. The trooper was apologizing to Max’s mom, since Max hadn’t technically done anything wrong.

After a few minutes, they drove away, leaving Max and Tom standing in the driveway. Max’s mom stood there for a while as well. After the trooper was well out of sight, Max’s mom walked over to the garage and said, “You all better come inside before you catch colds.”

We dropped from the rafters, one by one, covered in muskeg pond scum and fear-sweat, and stood staring at each other. We walked into Max’s house smiling, each of us savoring the same delicious truth: we were filthy, we were exhausted, and we were still a little drunk. But we did it. We won.

3 Comments

Helmut Flaag

about 3 weeks ago

That was fun, thanks for sharing. What, if I may ask, is the connection between Alaska and Duluth? I've noticed a lot of Alaskans move here. Is it sort of like the lower 48 version without the amazing mountains and endless topography?

Anna Tennis

about 2 weeks ago

Thanks, Helmut! I don't know, although I've noticed the same thing. Strange. In fact, when I was back visiting my hometown a decade ago, we picked up a book about the history of Petersburg. In it, the early white families to live on the island (indigenous people were already there) were overwhelmingly from Minnesota. Wacky?

Helmut Flaag

about 1 week ago

Wacky indeed. I've always said, the truth is far stranger than we can imagine. Why just yesterday I was behind someone with AK plates. There is something weird going on here, or there. Yah, I feel so lazy and like such a pussy for not moving to Alaska. But I would miss bitching about Duluth too much. Besides, I'm just now getting a proper Man Cave going to work on my face melting xylophone riffs.  Oh how I wish I could find that cute chipmunk looking girl I met from Fairbanks that one time on the frozen beach whose friend was hogging her like girl friends often do until they realize they're freezing their balls at night and they need a man instead. I froze ass today now that you mention, I had ice cock too. Probably warmer in Alaska.

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