4. North to Alaska: Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 – Life Out Here
With his back to our cubed mess of belongings, Zach lowered the UHaul door and secured our household goods with the combination lock from my Flathead High School days. I pitied any fool desperate enough to unlock and simultaneously unleash 12,000 pounds worth of stuff.
“We won’t need to check if anything’s shifted. That’s for sure,” Zach said of boxes, brooms, and bikes stacked deep and high. A buckled-in whiskey barrel of cleaning supplies, speakers, and the empty gas can sat in the passenger seat. The van, too, was weighted with leftovers and luggage and the aloe vera plant that never did make it to Alaska. But was good to max out on space with the Alaska Highway looming on the distant horizon.
Our last night in Alabama burned with orange and lapis blue clouds, heat lightning, and the familiar restlessness which precedes all pivotal mornings. Then, after months, weeks, and days of nailing down the details and tying up loose ends, the sun rose on the first day of July, and Abigail tapped my arm. Without debate, I let her snuggle close and held out as long as possible until the rectangular white light of the sun brightened our hotel room. We got our gear together, gathered up our dogs from the hollow house, and assembled the caravan at the front entrance of the hotel.
There, we took photos with our kids and dogs and Mom said, “be careful.” But Abigail told her and me both not to cry. A gathering of hotel guests watched us wave, heard me call out, “see you in Alaska!”
For good measure, and according to my nature, I played “Time To Move On” as hills rose to block out Prattville for good.
Then it rained. For four hours. I listened to music, to podcasts, to Jake Gyllenhaal narrate The Great Gatsby. I got bored.
At a Taco Bell in Hamilton, we discussed leading and following and walkie talkie rules. “I’ll turn on the four-way flashers if I need to call you, and vice versa,” said Zach. It was impossible to drive the UHaul safely while talking on the phone, and though headphones for the iPhone are a fine invention, we wanted to prepare for stretches of no cell-service.
“I don’t like leading,” I told him. But he needed a pilot car. “That way if the frost heave is bad, I’ll see how the van takes it so I can react accordingly.”
Then, for good measure, and according to my naturally superstitious ways, I played “Sweet Home Alabama” over the walkie talkie for Zach as we crossed the stateline. I ate a Moon Pie (because Taco Bell is not a good last meal anywhere). The walkie talkies died, but not before I warned Zach, “I think we’re headed straight for a flash flood. What should we do?”
But it was not the flash flood of Tupelo that got the best of us that first day.
It was the Mississippi River.
Memphis had me worried for one reason and one reason only: leading my husband, Zachary Raygoza, the driver of the largest UHaul they rent, through rush-hour [Memphis] traffic. It’s when I saw floating plastic, paper, and God knows what else that my worried brain kicked into high gear with a question I hate.
It’s funny how things like tornadoes are almost dismissible when you’re on the road as opposed to your couch where you can watch and wait all day long for that warning. Out on the road, in the middle of a riotous rainstorm, you might not even hear a tornado siren. Without a phone or radio, you might not even know of impending danger. All you might see is swirling debris as you drive into the next county where they’ve not had a drop of rain in weeks.
A tornado? Whatever. I have places to go.
But I am Kathleen Raygoza of Tornado Alley and I checked both radio and phone. Severe thunderstorm warning. That was it, yet the air was unstable cloud soup. With our couch buried deep in the UHaul and countless vehicles dodging dislodged tree branches to get across that river, we had no option but to move on out of that fuschia “severe thunderstorm warning” zone and into calm weather.
The bridge was crowded and orange four-way flashers blinked all across my watery windshield. My rear view mirror reflected a lamp shade, Izaak’s booster seat, and a camera bag. I looked to the side mirrors, watched the UHaul sway. Gusts pushed against the van doors. Over the guardrails, I saw the Mississippi as I had never seen it before: whitecapped from shore to shore.
That night, in Jonesboro, we did not check the UHaul for shifted items. Instead we rested, and I questioned the superstitious qualities of Tom Petty, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Moon Pies.