Truck Update: A Quest Revised
Quest 1 — digging through a truck of family belongings.
I came out to this cabin in the Alaskan wilderness to dig through a truck. That’s what first sparked the idea. After 17 years, finally digging through this rusted up box truck that had a previous life as part of the Purely Alaskan Water fleet and has now spent nearly two decades as an undisturbed storage unit. After 17 years, finally sifting through a mysterious menagerie of family possessions in search of: faded baby pictures? mildewed furniture to be salvaged? long-buried memories? all of the above? I had nearly two months to do it.
But the quest almost ended before I even had a chance to lay hands on the truck. My dad came up to the cabin with me for my first two weeks to help me get settled. During the last of those two weeks, we spent nearly all of our daylight hours outside in the rain and snow, under the hood of two different cars (a 1987 Subaru GL and a 1986 Toyota 4Runner) trying to get one of them to run reliably. Plus, one night of working by headlamp as howling wind whipped stinging rain at our faces and numbing fingers. The car that had previously been running okay gave out — clutch disk worn out. My dad’s ferry and flight back to San Diego was a day away, and he would be taking his car mechanics knowledge with him leaving me with the very little that I’d only recently learned from him (including how to drive stick shift). A car is essential out here when the nearest grocery store is a 50 minute drive away. I thought I would be forced to cut my time in Alaska short and leave with him because of the lack of vehicle — leaving Alaska and leaving the truck unopened.
Thankfully, an old family friend stepped up and let me borrow his little beater car. My dad left, and I was able to stay.
Less than two weeks later, I feared for my life as I drove that little beater car home with its nearly nonexistent headlights in the dark and in the middle of a snow storm. The nonstop snow that came in the next days forced me to face that this puny 2-wheel-drive subcompact Geo Metro wasn’t going to be enough in the winter weather that had arrived at last. Yet again, I wondered if I would need to leave Alaska before even attempting to open the truck.
Thankfully, I found a way to rent a car, a beefy Toyota Sequoia with 4WD and studded winter tires, and decided that it was worth it despite the dent to my savings and trimming my future runway. I was able to stay.
To be honest, before I got to the cabin, I hadn’t put much thought into how I would open up the truck. When I did think about it, I quixotically imagined that the most challenging part of opening the truck would be finding the key. I imagined that after finally finding the right key and opening the lock, it would just be a matter of dousing things with copious amounts of lubricant and then yanking up the door with a creak and a groan. If worse came to worst, I’d use bolt cutters to chop off the lock then proceed.
Efforts to open
Turns out that finding the key would be the least of my issues. Yes, I did try dozens of keys (none of which worked), but the plate on the truck holding the U-bolt that the lock went through was so rusted through that when I was fumbling around with the lock and yet another wrong key, the plate broke off of the truck entirely.
At first, a rush of surprise and excitement. Lock — solved. Now all that remained was pulling up the door, right? Wrong. The lever latching the door down was hooked around a rod. If a quarter-inch thick steel plate had completely rusted through to the point of breaking apart with my mere wiggling of the padlock, you can bet that the hook and rod were completely rusted together. Despite drowning the parts in Liquid Wrench and various other lubricants plus hammering the end of the lever with a large rock, I couldn’t get it to budge.
Thankfully, after telling my Viking-logger-neighbor, O, about my pathetic efforts, he offered his help and strength. I showed him the situation. He tested the lever with his weight. Then, with a grin, he said, “There’s a reason why my son is named Axe,” and pulled out a 3 ft long axe from the bed of his truck. With one almighty blow using the blunt back of the axe, he got the lever free.
I had long since given up on the idea of the truck door smoothly pulling up on its rollers. No, everything was swollen and cracked with rust. Instead, I slid a crowbar under the bottom edge of the door and heaved down with all my might. Things moved but not in any way I wanted. The bottom panel of the door did not budge up but outwards. It bent and bulged under my force. If I continued, the panel would bend until it broke.
I had utterly failed to conceptualize what 17 years in the Alaskan rainforest would do to this truck — freezing and thawing every year, 8+ feet of annual rainfall, the harsh salt of the sea air. The corrosive critter that is rust had gnawed all along the truck’s cab and body leaving red stains and bumpy scars wherever it bit. Tufts of moss had sprouted out of the white body sprinkled like green Dalmatian spots. It became clear to me that the only way to open the truck would be cutting through the door, and there would be no closing it. Once opened, there was no going back. I was prepared to do it. Axe and hacksaw at the ready. I called up my dad to tell him the developments and my plan.
His response? He forbade me from cutting through the door.
He didn’t want to destroy the “integrity” of the door and expose all of its contents to the winter weather. Despite my assurances that I’d build some sort of enclosure before I left, he was unconvinced. He didn’t want me to cut open the door before he had an opportunity to check it out himself and try things his way, but he doesn’t want to do any of this until summer when there will be no snow and marginally less rain.
It’s hard to know when it’s time to quit. Despite overcoming the countless vehicular and other issues, despite the oft-repeated “never give up!” and similar motivational directives, sometimes it does make sense to quit. Sometimes it takes strength to quit and admit failure. (Or so I’m telling myself).
Bottom line: the truck will remain closed for another winter.
Despite this quest being my impetus for coming here, I was surprised to find myself not terribly disappointed by this conclusion. Truthfully, once my dad left, I did not eagerly jump at the truck, throwing all of my strength and wits at the challenge of opening it. In my weeks of solitude after my dad left, I spent hardly any time at all thinking about or working on opening the truck. Instead, I felt compelled towards slowness and rest.
Maybe I was wrong. Maybe after drowning in chaos for the past six months, maybe after the end of my longest relationship to date with the first romantic partner I’d ever thought “wow, this could be who I spend my life with”, maybe after leaving all of the friendships and communities I’d spent the last 9 years building, maybe after all of the spilled tears and still incomplete mending of this wrecked heart, maybe after quitting the startup I’d poured so much of myself and the last 4.5 years into, maybe after selling/trashing/donating the majority of my earthly possessions, maybe after tearing apart the idea of a permanent address, maybe after I threw the scraps of a life I loved into the void letting the remnants fall around me in a cloud of ragged-edged confetti, maybe after all of that, I didn’t need to dive into a new endeavor. Yet another in the endless stream of striving that has been my entire life. Maybe I needed to come to the surface and allow myself to gasp for air.
Maybe what I needed was to be slow, to rest, to wake up and spend an hour staring at the branches outside heavy with their thick fur coats of snow and the steady stream of smoke from the wood stove — a curtain dancing in front of it all. Maybe like a field, I needed to lie fallow for a season. Channel the winter world around me and let certain parts of me lie dormant for a while. Those buds will bloom when the season comes for it.
And that’s what I did.
I relished in the pleasure of dipping my gloved hands into steaming, soapy water and scrubbing the remnants of last night’s pasta off of the bottom of the pot. Pleasure in this simple act of restoration. Pleasure in knowing that there was nothing else I should be doing. Pleasure in banishing my should.
I’ve realized recently that I’m not very good at wanting things for myself. Blame the patriarchy, blame society for teaching women to appease others at all costs, blame my Chinese mother’s Sisyphean expectations, blame myself for caring too much about others, blame the weather. For so much of my life, I have been dogged by all the things I should be doing. These shoulds were so much louder than the quiet desires I had for myself. Over time, those quiet desires seemed to become even more quiet. Now, here, at last, I was untethered. Alone. For better and worse, I was without a job, without my family, without my friends, without a degree to pursue, without my communities, without a continuous connection to the internet and its unending stream of should-ridden content, without a path to follow. Now, here, at last, I could try to find again my own quiet voice of want. Now, here, at last, I could banish my should.
I had needs — needing to fill up on water at the creek, needing to cook, needing to chop wood, needing to build the fire, needing to refill the propane in town, needing to tell my parents I was still alive. I had wants — wanting to welcome slowness, wanting to devour books, wanting to hike through the forests and along the river and by the lake and up the mountains, wanting to bake things soft and sweet, wanting to sing along to the tinny voice of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” from my dad’s tape player, wanting to sip my coffee every morning while looking at the glistening, white world outside. A few feet of snow blanketed the landscape outside and softened all of its edges. The snow buried the moss, the rocks, the mug I forgot outside weeks ago, the small saplings, and so many other things. I let this snow-buried world bury my shoulds, and I was left with only needs and wants.
What I found was a deep want for rest, and for the first time in years, I allowed myself to indulge in exactly that.
Not my solo quest
The other reason I’m at peace with leaving the truck unopened is that I’ve realized I was wrong in envisioning digging through the truck alone. The truck was not meant to be my solo quest.
Before my dad left me to my solitude at the cabin, the few days that we spent sorting through things around the cabin revealed how meaningful it was to do it with him. If I were to dig around the truck, it would mostly just be objects to me — besides the few things I may have distinct memories of and self-evident things like photographs. Without my dad, the 4 qt pot with a missing handle we found in the cabin would have been just that — a defective pot. But, he was there to tell me that this pot used to be my great grandmother’s and that she used to put it under the gutter runoff to serve as her dog’s water bowl outside the house and God, she loved that dog and that she gave the pot to my dad before he left for college and that it was missing a handle even when it first came into his possession.
I was wrong about this being my solo quest not because I need my dad to unravel the stories and meanings wrapped around these objects. It’s because the truck was not meant to be my quest at all. The days spent sorting through things in the cabin proved to me that these items and memories are my parents’ much more than mine, and the same is even more true of whatever sits in the truck. (After all, I was only 9 when I left Anchorage). I can only bear witness to help my dad along — listen to the stories and memories lifted off of these physical items, discuss what should be kept and moved to San Diego vs sold or trashed or donated, provide energy and motivation.
The truck is still sitting there. Covered in hoary clumps of snow. Still sealed by a ragged layer of rust. I will come back another time. I’m still determined to open up this truck even if my quest is just to serve witness. Until then, I leave Alaska and the cabin in serenity knowing that I did accomplish a revised quest for rest.