I suppose it was the bitter cold wind that startled me to my senses. We were in the middle of a particularly mild winter, well, that sort of thing is pretty relative. Any winter in Alaska is cold, especially when you’re hanging out the window of a vehicle that’s merrily, if not drunkenly, speeding its way down the highway. And, to be fair, I wasn’t so much startled to my senses as I was sharply sobered. I suppose if you’re gonna read this you deserve some background info.
Right about now I suspect you’re piecing together a few of the vague details from that last paragraph and quietly asking yourself, “Drunk? Window? Vehicle? Highway?” At the time I likely couldn’t have elucidated that any more clearly myself. Fortunately for you the reader, and me the writer, I am in a rare state of sobriety and posses the faculties to clear up some of those question marks.
In the winter of 1989 I lived in Palmer, Alaska. Palmer at the time was a small, mostly rural town in the fertile Matanuska Valley located approximately fifty miles north of Anchorage. As you can likely imagine, there is very little for a young man to do in a town whose cultural highlights are a single McDonald’s and one 24 hour grocery store. The highlight of a typical weekend would likely include drinking stolen beer while driving a 1976 Dodge Duster through shallow riverbeds and shooting off fireworks and small caliber firearms from the open windows of the increasingly unstable vehicle’s interior. The Dodge Duster won’t win any design awards, and although it was a dependable and solid vehicle made mostly of steel, it really wasn’t meant to serve duty as an off road amphibious vehicle.
Fortunately it was my brother’s car, because we fucked it up pretty good. For some reason, the solitary car dealer in town had promised my brother, in writing, two thousand dollars in trade-in for that beat up red Duster. That wasn’t as surprising as the fact that he let us take the Duster home that night and complete the trade in the following day. Sucker.
When we rolled into the dealer the next day, the Duster was making all the noises one normally associates with mechanical failure. It sounded for all the world like some mischievous gremlin had stuffed gravel and nails in the oil pan and filled the gas tank with crushed coffee cups. It was wobbling a bit and tended to pull to the right, likely due to the unusually large amount of river mud, ice, and fist sized rocks crammed in the engine compartment and behind the wheels. Occasionally one of these glacier swept granite baseballs would be released by road vibration or centrifugal force to go spinning into oncoming traffic.
I suppose that was kinda reckless, but we had gotten really drunk that night and frankly not only do I not remember most of what we did to place the vehicle in such a precarious state of failure, but I was also too hung over to care about any further potential damage we may cause on the way to the dealership. The deal was struck and I swear I saw the salesman shed a single tear when he saw that poor busted up ol steed, but he honored his contractually binding legal document and within a matter of an hour or so we drove off the lot in a 1986 Isuzu Pup mini pickup.
Were you a fan of the American automobile you may have noticed that my brother has a knack for purchasing vehicles that really can’t be described as “good.” To further cement that impression I’ll tell you that his next car was a 1987 Dodge Omni. Cooter Davenport he was not.
After introducing the newly acquired truck to the riverbed we used to trounce the Duster, and nearly submerging the new vehicle as well, we decided to break in the little bugger with a more lengthy and more drunk excursion. We just happened to have tickets to see Warrant the next weekend at the Egan Civic and Convention Center in glorious downtown Anchorage. It seemed the perfect opportunity for extended highway speed tomfoolery.
Yeah, Warrant. Give me a break, it was 1989. Warrant was on the top of their game with their double platinum album Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich and the chart topping anthem, Heaven. Ya gotta give those guys props, it’s not every double platinum act that has the balls to play in Alaska. The land of the midnight sun isn’t exactly known for its grand venues and record breaking crowds. The Egan center for instance was little more than a glorified concrete pad with walls, ceilings and restrooms. It would barely seat two thousand people, if it had seats. As an audience we were forced to stand for the entire show.
A rock concert, even Warrant, would be the teenage social event of the year. I had missed out when Sammy Hagar came to town during Junior High and I wouldn’t be denied the smug appeal of brandishing a fresh concert T at school the following day. With the sleeves smartly rolled up to reveal the curvy triceps of my entirely heterosexual teen ensemble I would be the envy of every loser who couldn’t attend and belong to that special club of individuals who looked just like all the rest of us. After all, simply Belonging is the most important part of High school.
It wouldn’t have been a Crappy Concert Adventure without cheap beer and danger! Several six packs of that tricky whore, St. Paulie Girl, were acquired by means both nefarious and illegal. I would reveal more details, but I fear the long arm of the Alaska State Troopers. The first part of the evening lapsed in what had become a familiar ritual. After acquiring the sweet, sweet, beer, we chugged the first six-pack of green bottles to hasten our intoxication before entering the vehicle and beginning our journey. As we left the valley for Anchorage I gently nestled one of the frosty beer hall bitches in the warming crevice of my crotch where I could stare longingly at her delicious cleavage and awesome amber fluid.
All was going well until we actually left the valley. There is but one path north from Anchorage to the remainder of the state. We traveled south on this, the solitary highway in Alaska towards the aforementioned metropolis. For a stretch of five or ten miles directly after leaving the valley, the Glenn Highway crosses the boggy morass where the Matanuska River runs into the northeastern branch of the Turnagain Arm. Before the 1960s the only road between Palmer and Anchorage was the Palmer Highway, now called the Old Glenn Highway. The Palmer Highway curved twenty miles farther east and north using several small bridges resting on firmer ground and going through the town of Butte. In the late 60s a single ridge of gravel and sediment was stretched across the marshy Rabbit Slough connecting short bridges over the short expanses of open water. It was a great idea, chopping twenty miles off the trip from Anchorage to Palmer and isolating the populace of Butte, whom no one really liked anyways.
Every great engineering gain of the mid twentieth century has its drawbacks though. Although the sediment surface was certainly hardy enough to hold up to traffic, there was only enough funds to place a narrow berth. It was only wide enough for two lanes of traffic with absolutely no extra room for break down lanes. It was a perilous road, with no barrier and one that frequently iced over; it was not unusual to see cars that had slipped over the edge canted at odd angles with their fore ends submerged. If there was an accident or broke down vehicle on this narrow stretch of elevated highway, traffic could back up for miles and hours.
It was this stretch of highway that my brother and I had just set on when we realized that god was about to punish us for being wicked underage drinkers. The unusually warm winter had turned what snow was on the ground to slush. During the few short hours of the day, the snow would melt and during the long evening it would partially refreeze. On the highway the cars in front of you would kick up rooster tails of half frozen muck that would splatter and obscure the entire front half of your car, most dangerously the headlights and windshield.
For normal cars, whisking away this greasy mixture of road filth and ice is no real problem. A judicious application of the windshield wipers and a small squirt of windshield wiper fluid every mile or so is all it takes to return the windshield to its normally transparent state.
Unless you just purchased a car that had been sitting on the dealer lot during an Alaskan winter. It’s a relatively common practice to drain the windshield wiper fluid reservoir to prevent the thin lines from freezing solid and cracking. We swiftly discovered that the windshield wipers alone were not up to the task of removing the filth from the windshield as it quickly became opaque. The wipers did little more than smear the communist standard gray mixture from one side of the glass to the other. Stopping to remedy the situation wasn’t an option as there was no place to pull the vehicle over that didn’t involve a head on collision, frosty bath in the marsh, or both.
It was a conundrum that could only be solved with a reckless drunken stunt. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it was my idea. I’d like to tell people that my brother hatched the hare brain stunt and then beguiled me into complying. Someone had to apply the only liquid we had to the exterior of the vehicle without stopping. With nerves born of hops and barley, I rolled down the passenger window and sat upon the sill. This is just about where I sobered up. You remember, way back in paragraph one.
The sobering wind filled my head with the whistling song of my fading mortality. I was half in and half out of a speeding pickup with a drunk at the wheel. On the other hand, the only hope that drunk had of seeing the road was if I completed my “Don’t Try This At Home” stunt. My choices seemed simple, besides, I figured it would make a great story if I survived. Also, I was drunk.
I had always wondered why some cars and trucks had those oddly placed hand holds near the passenger window. Now I knew. I gripped the hand hold fiercely in my left hand and leaned far over the windshield. With my right hand I tilted my hopy harlot and let her refreshing innards flow upon the windshield and clear the way for the driver’s vision. Here’s a little tip for all you idiots who may find the need to repeat this stunt. When you’re leaning over the hood of a speeding vehicle and pouring beer on the windshield, you have to pour the fluid at the bottom of the glass, not the top. If you pour from the top, the wind of your passage wastes the beer as it’s forced over the roof.
Despite the ridiculousness of it all, the plan was successful. For the next several miles I remained in my position, braving the cold wind and occasionally applying my beverage to the glass while the wipers whipped past my nose. My brother, being the kind soul he is, showed his appreciation for my chilly sacrifice by making loud “whooping” noises and swerving erratically within the narrow lane. As a point of interest, it’s nearly impossible to drink from a bottle of beer while spread across the front of a speeding pickup.
The tiny community of Eklutna is just southwest of the marsh and its narrow elevated highway. That night they were witness to a spectacle that predated Jackass by more than a decade as my brother came to a screeching halt at the town’s only gas station and the remainder of my body was flung from the vehicle and I spun to the ground, laughing and still clutching the remains of the safety handle I had torn loose as I fell. The young Athabascan man who was manning the station summed up the whole escapade.
“Woa. You drunk man? Or jes stupid?”
If you’re interested, the concert sucked. It’s a good thing we had fun on the way there.