Katie Eberhart: Digressive Travel

Walking along the Matanuska River

Laboring on yet another revision of my essay Driving the Dempster, I realized that I
could not include every interesting occurrence or idea but I also could not
bring myself to permanently jettison the deleted fragments.
In The Art of
Alain de Botton wrote “Journeys
are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal
conversations than moving planes, ships or trains. . .”
De Botton argues
that taking long trips by
plane or train positions us to collect large ideas within a wider and less
familiar space. A road-trip into the Arctic can have a similar effect.
At the MacKenzie River, we waited in a glum rain,
the river slithering north toward the Arctic Ocean. The ferry pushed away from
the far shore, beating against the wind and current, the engines audibly surging
as the vessel maneuvered to line up with the muck of the Dempster Highway.
Vehicles lurched off the ferry, tires flinging mud. When the deck was clear, we
drove up the steel ramp, following the hand signals of the gaunt ferryman who
expertly packed the cars and trucks onto the deck.
Travel transports me away from the “junk” drawers of
normal life and writing helps anchor memories. While crafting an essay, I
search my journals for suitable stories and musings, but not all the borrowed paragraphs
survive an essay’s multiple revisions and re-envisioning. Sometimes, even years
later, I come across deletions that were once part of an unfinished essay. Encountering
these narratives brings to mind past events and experiences and I hope these
accidental encounters with earlier memories reset the time-clock of forgetting.
The odd thing about saving deleted fragments in one file
is that meaning developed from careful positioning and entwining into an essay is
lost in the jumbled castoffs. Rereading the MacKenzie River micro-narrative, I
am struck by the metaphoric possibilities of a small river ferry, a rocking
deck, and a weather-beaten ferryman—yet trekking into familiar places also
stirs up thoughts and ideas.
When you live somewhere long enough you hear things—rumors or wishful
thinking or truth, it’s hard to tell. Was there really an Alaska winter when
“it never froze”? A story repeated but now rootless and undocumented, yet we
remember certain times as extraordinary—like the extreme cold and high-pressure
weather that grounded planes during the Omega Block in 1989 and in 2002 when
winter began so slowly that, on December 1st,
some men waterskied on Wasilla Lake. That year, the Matanuska River’s main
channel had shifted west and we walked south from the Old Glenn Highway bridge (near
Palmer) along the dry middle channel. Our shoes left prints in the glacial,
wind-rippled sand—sand flecked with polished, multi-hued pebbles and carcasses
of salmon, the half-buried fish transformed into armatures of bones and fierce
teeth tied with strips of taut skin.
While walking, we pieced together a story from logs that had once
tumbled into the river, to be jostled and twirled, sometimes an obstruction but
now stuck high-and-dry, barricades that slowed the wind so silt, or snow, settled
into drifts. Or the lee of the log that created a refuge for small animals, or
people eating lunch. We sat and leaned our backs against a smooth log that
would have once been a magnificent cottonwood but had become a relic mapping
climate—weather and water—over decades, or a century, the cracked gray wood
curving around nubs where branches had been. Leaning against the log and
relishing the mild December weather, I imagined some future moment when the
river would again shift, eating into the sand, undercutting one end of this
log, silt swirling into the water that might be gentle or roiling until
eventually the log tips and floats onward toward Cook Inlet.
Walking along the Matanuska River—only a short drive from
where I once lived—was an expedition that encompassed both the large-view
possibilities de Botton mentioned and the intimacy of a familiar place. As I
re-read these narrative-fragments, I see a glimmer of how I might weld on more
thoughts and moments also gathered from my medley of deletions. Between
recycled fragments, I’ll create diversions that show landscapes we’ve traveled
but also the direction that we’re headed. After all, the arc of an unfinished
essay is anything but linear; a spiral perhaps, with chambers like a nautilus
shell, or a chest of (junk) drawers—some drawers open, others still stuck shut.

Eberhart’s chapbook ‘Unbound: Alaska Poems’ was published in 2013 by Uttered
Chaos Press. Her poems have appeared in Cirque Journal, Sand – Berlin’s English
Literary Journal, Elohi Gadugi Journal, Crab Creek Review, and other places.
Katie has an MFA in Creative Writing and degrees in geography and economics.
She currently lives in Central Oregon where she blogs about nature and
literature at http://solsticelight.wordpress.com/
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