Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Behind the Scenes: Travels with Lynne

My friend Lynne Cox is the author of the memoirs Swimming to Antarctica and Grayson. She is also one of the best open-water swimmers of all time. In October 1992 we went on a driving tour of Alaska together, and wrote up the story for Westways magazine. At the time, Lynne was well known as a swimmer (she had swum the Bering Strait a few years earlier) but not as a writer. Her goal, she said, was to publish something in The New Yorker. Sure, I said (name a writer who doesn't want to publish something in The New Yorker). In 1994, she spent a few weeks at my apartment in New York, working on a memoir about her swimming career and shopping for an agent. The latter was a frustrating experience and the manuscript languished. I moved to Tanzania, and we lost touch. Then, in 2003, I opened up The New Yorker—and there was Lynne's byline! Read on for the behind-the-scenes story of our Alaskan road trip, for which we gave ourselves the pseudonyms Mad Dog (Lynne) and Booh (me). 

The Alaskan Adventures of Mad Dog and Booh
By Sara Tucker and Lynne Cox

It was Booh who first proposed that she and Mad Dog take "the trip that Thelma and Louiseshould have taken." But Booh had been picturing something along the lines of a vintage Thunderbird convertible, equipped with a CD player, speeding across the Arizona desert. They would spend a week or two catching fish and frying them over a campfire, rafting down the Colorado, and shooting pool with gentleman cowboys.
  It was Mad Dog who said, "That's too boring. What about Alaska?"
  Their plan was to make a loop that went north as far as Fairbanks and south as far as Homer before returning to Anchorage. Using a map and a calculator, Mad Dog figured the trip would be about a thousand miles. (It turned out to be twice that.)
  For the first two days, they drove around Anchorage, which in mid-October was cold and sleepy. They ate mounds of succulent crab claws at Gwennie's and juicy halibut at the Hilton. They got an introduction to Alaskan culture at the Museum of History and Art and an advanced course at Mr. Whitekeys' Fly-by-Night Club, where a musical revue billed as "the Alaskan show that the department of tourism does not want you to see" was packing 'em in.
  Now the two of them were ready for the open road.

Here I must confess that both Lynne and I had flunked the off-road driving course that we'd been given prior to our Alaskan adventure. The instructor, Joe, was an editor for Four-Wheeler magazine, and Lynne, who is real good at talking people into stuff, had arranged for him to give us some driving lessons in an ATV park in the high desert east of L.A. Off-road driving sounded like fun, but it was actually pretty hair-raising. You can get into a lot of trouble with an electric winch if you don't know how to use it, and neither one of us did, despite the how-to video that Joe loaned us. The reason our Montero didn't have a stick shift was because Lynne backed that one into a Subaru, a fact that did not make it into the Westways article. The article actually got us in big trouble with the folks at Mitsubishi, who felt we didn't talk enough about the car they had loaned us (which we nicknamed "Buddy"). It was a nice car. 

They were driving a borrowed four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Montero. With fog lights on top, extra gas cans mounted on the rear door, two spare tires and a high-lift jack—not to mention a winch, a CB radio, a package of flares and a first-aid kit—it was ready for just about any challenge the back roads of Alaska had to offer. But neither Booh nor Mad Dog knew much of anything about off-road driving. Booh could drive a stick shift while eating a cheeseburger and wearing a silk blouse, but that would hardly get them out of a ditch.
  On their first day out of Anchorage, they drove Buddy as far as Palmer, 40 miles north in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and checked in at Glacier House. The bed-and-breakfast inn was built into the side of a butte facing the Knik Glacier and thus had a stupendous view. The Mat-Su was settled 5,000 years ago by ancient Athabaskans and, more recently, homesteaders, miners, railroad workers and Depression-era Midwestern farmers. The region is famous for its giant vegetables (75-pound cabbages, 16-pound stalks of celery). But since it was after harvest, there were no cabbages to be seen, and there wasn't enough snow yet on the valley floor for dogsledding. So Mad Dog and Booh contented themselves with hiking to the top of the butte behind Glacier House. 

Our host in Palmer was a guy named Wayne who took one look at Buddy and said, "Nice car; let's drive it out on the glacier." Getting Buddy swallowed up by a crack in the Knik seemed like a sure way to piss off the folks at Mitsubishi, so we declined. Wayne was so disappointed that we offered to let him drive Buddy up onto the roof of his B&B, which was dug into the side of a gently rising slope. We handed Wayne the keys. He drove up onto roof as if he'd done it a million times. We took some pictures. Then Wayne pointed out a 100-foot dropoff at the edge of the slope, a few feet from where Buddy would ideally come to rest after rolling back down off the roof; funny how we hadn't noticed it earlier. To come to a complete halt before hitting the dropoff would take some very nimble maneuvering. Wayne started to pace around, looking nervous. He suggested that one of us might want to take the wheel. No way. Buddy made it off the roof without a scrape, but Wayne managed to sprain his ankle. Until then, I hadn't realized it was possible to sprain an ankle while driving a car. We left Palmer a little more sober than we'd been when we arrived.

To be continued.

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