We met her on Danger Day.
We’d left home on Saturday morning, the tires on the rental crunching the driveway gravel while the kids ran alongside the car and my mom waved from the porch.
The first time in ten years.
A vacation. An actual, real life, bonafide, just the two of us vacation.
Between pregnancies, babies, breastfeeding, and toddlers, vacation wasn’t a word in our vocabulary. And truthfully, even stepping out of those years and well onto the path of homeschooling, one income, and the farm…it could be another ten years.
We let the sun melt the frazzle as the ferry took us across the Sound. That night we puffed into the harbor of sleepy little Valdez, as far away as we dared to go to keep our checking account positive and our kids and home fairly close.
And it was magic.
It rained of course. But we didn’t care.
We fought of course. But we didn’t care.
Because after we figured out how to just be us again, there was no more of that and a quiet peace settled over our time.
The plan was to relax and explore for a couple of days then take the rest of the time to meander back home. I had our stops all mapped out. Except for Tuesday.
That was, in his words, Danger Day.
“I don’t want a plan. I just wanna go with it.”
When a true and faithful husband wants a little “danger “while his wife is hanging on his arm…you let him go with it.
I smiled at his grin when he pulled us out of the motel, squealing the tires a bit on the Taurus before we put Valdez in the rearview.
And I held his hand across the console and flipped on the radio as we dared off into the wilds of not having a plan.
To say we didn’t know where we were going is not altogether true. Here in Alaska, between towns, there is literally one road. He had an idea of our destination, but by not telling me, and me not asking or fussing over the details…we were dangerous.
We were footloose. Fancy free. Young again and not even thinking about what to make for dinner. Our car could’ve been a cherry red Charger. Or a Harley. Or the big blue Ford truck he picked me up in on our first date.
He opened the sun roof and let the hair blow free over his bald spot.
Danger Day wasn’t the destination. Danger Day was the ride. The mountains. The snow on my flip flops at the middle of nowhere pull-out. The waterfalls as tall as a hotel. My babies with their grandma. A clean rental car. Sunshine with my love.
The first vacation in ten years.
We do date nights when we can. And once a year we pay a babysitter for a weekend away to celebrate our marriage. But a whole six days? Never. Be still my matrimonial heart.
Five or so hours out, he pulled us into a crossroads gas station. It was like most places in our great state, rugged, homesteady, tough, Alaskan.
That’s where we met her. BJ.
She rung us up and she looked a little like a mother and a little like an aunt and a little like a longtime friend who comes to visit with your mom on Saturday mornings while you watch Looney Toones and listen in from the other room as they talk and smoke Virginia Slims and drink Tab on ice.
Her smile is big behind a rugged worry and her brow furrowed in a way that’s seen on the faces of folks who’ve worked hard and come by things rough all their life. She shines her eyes at us. Tired, but shining.
Her hair looked so pretty in her updo.
By the looks of her little store, we were the only ones who’d been in for hours.
I wanted to stay all day. I wanted to drink a Tab and even though I quit years ago, I wanted to crack a pack of Slims and sit down with her, just our jelly jars of soda with the ice clinking and an ashtray between us while we start up a game of Yahtzee and sit and visit the afternoon away at her little table behind the counter.
Instead I browse the shelves of handmade Alaskana and make small talk.
My dangerous husband perused her display of pamphlets.
“We’re thinking of going to the mine” he tells her.
So that’s where we’re going on Danger Day.
It’s pretty late in the day. You could go halfway in and stay the night with my friend up the road. She’s got a great little B and B. Cabins at the halfway point. I’ll call her and make sure she’s got one open.
She pulls out a paper and starts dialing her phone that’s on the wall behind her counter.
We keep browsing and she keeps talking and its quiet here and her Alaskana is so Alaskan and don’t the most peaceful moments happen when you don’t plan them?
She hangs up and it’s all set. We have reservations if we want them. If my tour guide gets really dangerous and we take another route and sleep in the car, fine. But if not, her friend Kayane will be looking for us later tonight and if we want it, we’ve got a place to rest. If we do come in, just stop at the main house before we go back to the cabin and her friend said she’ll send some bread with us for a snack and isn’t that the Alaskan way?
Everywhere, a friend.
Full up on danger for the day we mosey in slow and take hundreds of pictures along the way and when we arrive late we’re treated to a cabin in the woods and a camp shower by the roaring river. She’s not able to take Visa and just shrugs come payment time. Happens all the time. She assures me.
Just stop at BJ’s tomorrow on your way back through and leave some cash in an envelope if you want. I’ll pick it up on my next trip in. Or mail me a check when you get back home. Either way.
And she hands me a loaf of warm homemade cranberry bread. I’m in rugged heaven and we become fast friends with Kayane and her dog, and enjoy her tour of the little storage shed turned gift shop filled with handmade items.
I just keep some here so customers can shop. And then of course BJ lets me put some up at her store too.
That’s really how it is here in this place we call home.
I find steaming hot coffee in a thermos on the porch when we wake in the morning and we pray together and hug as we leave, promising to stay in touch. Then we venture forth, my husband and I, him having claimed a second day now for a Danger Day, and me being just fine with that, well rested, heart full, and loving to see him so relaxed and at ease because we’re not on any set schedule.
Our day is spent exploring the mine, dangerously not taking the tour. We venture on our own, enjoying the old quiet of a place steeped in stories and history and age. It’s just enough to explore and find a bit of copper before starting the long trek back.
By dinner time we find ourselves back at BJ’s, Danger Day 2 wrapping up and us needing to get back on the meandering path to home.
But I want to leave money for our stay at Kay’s cabin and tell BJ how right she was. That her friend’s place really is a slice of Alaska heaven. Tell her thank you for sending us. Get another Diet Coke for the last long stretch of the day.
My husband finds us a Klondike bar and as he looks around I visit with BJ and I suddenly have an urge to buy something from this woman who makes me feel like I’m eight again in footie jams, but who also makes me feel like a grown woman…a mother and an auntie and a proof, a womanly proof that we are all connected no matter where we live or what our job is or where our path in life looked like before or where it’s brought us now.
She makes beauty in her art and she lines her shelves carefully and it shows the people who grace her store that even though life may be rough and the road may be long and friends might be few and far between, there is beauty, always beauty in this world and it is important to take time to make it. Because sometimes, that’s just what a wanderer’s eyes need to see and what a friend’s heart needs to feel.
I pick up one of her birch bark baskets. I decide. I’m going to take it home. I want to have a piece of this place to remind me of BJ and her homey little gas station gift shop on this side of the state. Remind me of the smile she offers to the strangers-who-are-not that come into her corner of the world.
Alaskan art isn’t cheap but BJ’s got hers priced to sell. Even so, our trip budget is dwindling, and we’ve got one more hotel stay before home.
I expect my husband to remind me of that when he comes to check on me and sees me standing there with her birch bark basket in my hand. I expect him to tell me that I can get one later. I expect him to remind me that I have several friends who do birch bark art and that I could get something exactly like this one back home any day of the year.
But I say it anyway and I say it soft so she won’t hear. And I say it firm.
I want to buy one of BJ’s baskets.
In the pause I hear what I think he’s thinking so I go on.
She makes all this. This is her art. She’s over here in in the middle of nowhere. How many people look at her stuff? I want her to know it’s beautiful. That someone thinks it’s wonderful enough to take home. I know what it’s like. When no one sees what you made. She creates this. When you create you just want to put a little piece of yourself into someone’s heart ya know? She works hard on this. I want her to know it’s beautiful. I know we don’t have much money left but I’m buying one.
I prepare for his irritation. Except there is none.
And he helps me choose one we can afford.
It’s a treasure to me before I’ve even reached the cash register.
We get ready to check out. He pulls out his wallet and I pull out my hugs and we tell BJ good-bye.
Thank you for sending us to the cabins. And thank you for this basket. It will always remind me of this trip.
She hugs me tight, smiles that beaming tired smile.
After our goodbyes, I leave my basket and my Diet Coke on the counter, ask BJ if I could use her outhouse before we push on to the next town, tell my husband I’ll meet him back at the car.
The sun frisks the horizon and we pull out, a happy sadness filling the car.
When you look for beauty, you’ll find it every time.
When you set the schedule down, you’ll find yourself doing what you never knew you were wanting to do.
When you allow yourself a little danger, you’ll find safety in the joy of life.
Telling her goodbye reminds me of all that.
I grab my husband’s big hand, smile at the land stretched out before us.
I sure liked BJ.
He pauses and the road hums under us, no cars to be seen anywhere.
“You know babe? I think BJ sure liked you too.”
Yeah. Ya know, I’ll probably never see her again. But I felt like I just made a new friend that I’ve known for a long time.
We’ve not turned the radio on and he’s quiet for another half mile or so.
”I betcha if you look in that bag you’ll see that she feels the same way too.”
I reach in the back seat to find our bag and open it. There, wrapped in tissue and on top of my Diet Coke is the birch bark basket.
Except it’s not one I’d chosen.
It’s one that’s filled with intricate stitching and elaborate caribou hair tufting.
It’s one that would’ve taken her a very long time to make.
It’s one that served as a prime example of her pride in being an Alaskan.
He tells me she’d rung his items up, gotten a bag ready and that she’d gone over to the basket table and placed the one I’d chosen, the one he’d just paid for, back on the shelf and replaced it with this one.
I flipped it over in my hands as my eyes began to water, running my fingers over every inch of soft Alaska…the love…the care…the beauty…the friendship.
The tears touched the corners of my eyes and rivered over when my hand found the price tag she’d forgotten to take off in her rush.
She’d chosen one for me that cost three times as much as the one we picked to fit our budget.
She’d chosen one for me that was from the most expensive on her shelf.
“I think BJ really liked you too honey.”
The tears fall down my chin and slide into my lap.
And the glow of the midnight sun shined into the rearview and straight through my heart.
BJ’s basket sits on the window ledge in my kitchen to remind me.
It really is true.
Everywhere, a friend.