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To the Ends of Roads, and Beginning Anew

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To the Ends of Roads, and Beginning Anew

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Nancy Townsley reflects back twenty years ago to when she married her husband in a remote part of Alaska, and the rich and colorful characters they encountered.


The owner of the tiny store leaned across the glass counter on one elbow and rubbed his grizzled chin with the opposite hand. “As long as you’ve come this far,” Jim said to us, wiping his mouth on a flannel-clad forearm, “you might as well go to the end of the road.”

Wisdom from the northernmost corner of the continent was in no short supply as my man and I mingled with a small sampling of the world-weary and frost-proof folks who inhabit the Land of the Midnight Sun.

We traveled to Alaska in the middle of January in 2002 to get married, choosing snow over sun, spare over sumptuous, community over crowds. Our nuptials were a study in spontaneity—the date and destination were just about the only things we had down for sure when we boarded a middle-of-the-night flight bound for Fairbanks by way of Anchorage.

In the midst of it all, while the ceremony lingered as a sweet memory and the honeymoon had only just begun, we wandered into Jim and Sandy Crabb’s restaurant, sited at the exact spot where civilization intersects with the Steese Highway.

Sandy wasn’t around, so we asked her husband whether it was worth our while to travel another hour up the road from Circle Hot Springs to see what we could—or couldn’t—see.

His words came slowly, like errant pipeline oil in winter, trusting in their own timing. Despite his encouragement, in the end, we opted to remain at our little hostel on the edge of nowhere, its satin sheets and eyelet-edged hand towels potent distractions from other, less-swanky surroundings. But we’ll long remember Jim and his generosity as important pieces of everything we experienced on our northern exposure wedding trip.


Wisdom from the northernmost corner of the continent was in no short supply as my man and I mingled with a small sampling of the world-weary and frost-proof folks who inhabit the Land of the Midnight Sun.


Everyone we encountered had a story, and all of them wanted to know ours.

The hotel’s night watchman. The saloon-manager-turned-dishwasher-and-sometime-guitarist. The former Rockette who cooked every morning when she was in the village and fed 75 hungry men aboard a seagoing barge the other eight months of the year.

And the genuine Alaskan pioneer who took his meals in a cabin next to the inn and aimed to turn 103 that long-ago April. “That’s the only reason they keep me here,” Harrie said, referring to his advanced age, which he assumed was a draw for curiosity seekers from all over.

We told him that the people who visited him just might be interested in his perspectives as a veteran of both world wars, a onetime mining camp overseer, and a federal deputy marshal for the Yukon territory.

“Well, maybe,” he allowed, unlatching a leather attaché case that had to be as ancient as he, filled to the top with cassette recordings of his life’s stories.

There was Brian, the 30-something minimalist landowner, who plopped down next to us on a couch in the reception area right after we checked in and rarely left, reclining here and there in the same camouflage-print sweatshirt each of the three days we stayed at the inn.

He’d worked as a bouncer at drinking establishments in Key West and the French Quarter. He had a 6-year-old son and some ugly memories from his first marriage. He came to the wilderness and bought property, he said, to escape the “crushing demands” somebody or other had placed on his life.

“I have my own brand of justice,” Brian said in a measured monotone, nodding his shaggy head, gnawing on a toothpick. He leaned forward, clasped his hands together, and shared another philosophical pearl, “You can’t afford to bring any baggage with you up here. You’ve got to keep moving. But if you stop, you’d better get busy building a fire. Otherwise, you’ll freeze to death.”

It turned out that our guitar-strumming crooner friend—marooned in Alaska, he said, because “they” wouldn’t let him go back whence he came—was also an expert at crafting illegal firearms. On a short break from the small stage and his tall glass of bourbon, Steve disappeared into a back room and emerged with a sawed-off shotgun he cradled like a baby, one of a dozen weapons checked behind the bar that night. He invited us to admire and touch and even shoot the thing. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he cooed, tossing a pipe onto the table and asking if we smoked—and he didn’t mean Marlboros.


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It was risky and redemptive stuff we got from the locals—and I believe we gave back—as each of us came to know something about the other over 36 hours’ time.

One or two of them made us sweat for sure, even outside the 140-degree geothermal dream of a hot pool we soaked in under the stars both nights. But the gifts of grace that sprang from the free spirits who hung around the springs, for whatever reasons and in whichever ways, were truly appreciated and most special.

We came home with souvenir coffee mugs from Jim Crabb’s place and a couple of hand-hewn swizzle sticks from Gary, who regularly parks himself inside the Central Motor Inn and dispenses sharp-tongued diatribes that somehow seem to endear him even more deeply to his fellow barflies.

LaVerna, reluctant proprietress of the Arctic Circle Hot Springs lodge, literally gave me the shirt off her back the day after we arrived. “It binds me under the arms, dear, and you’re smaller than I am,” she explained as she pulled the gold-fringed garment from a drawer in her second-floor quarters, clogged with clothes and dozens of beaded ornaments she selected from daily to adorn her soft, platinum blond hair.

Twenty years of reflection have me believing that the most extraordinary offerings and exchanges occurred both inside and outside the candle-illuminated space where the two of us were wed.

They happened in places—conversations in hallways, piano gigs at the bar, a last-minute peek into an off-road church seen to on alternate Sundays by an itinerant preacher and a radio weatherman.

And they happened in faces—the new ones we met and, most significantly, those of our children, some who stood with us and some who could not, all of them loved more than they may ever know.

That’s the kind of beauty and bliss you can find when you venture close to the end of the road and begin the long walk anew.


(Steese Highway, Alaska; photo by Nancy Townsley)


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Nancy Townsley

Nancy Townsley is a retired community newspaper journalist living in a floating home on the Multnomah Channel near Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, NAILED Magazine, The Riveter Magazine, Elephant Journal, The Manifest-Station, and Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life (2012, Forest Avenue Press), as well as the essay collection 2020* The Year of the Asterisk (2021, University of Hell Press). She is working on a novel about a journalist-turned-activist in a time of devalued news.