About fifty miles from the Alaskan border and twenty minutes before they were supposed to die, the gray-haired couple from Terre Haute started to see the tops of the Wrangell Mountains. Well, actually not the tops. The peaks were high in the clouds. But the mountains were certainly taller, whiter and shinier than either Stan or Candace had ever seen.
“Is that not amazing?” Can said.
“Beautiful, just beautiful,” Stan agreed. “We should stop and take a picture, don’t you think?”
He turned to the man sitting quietly in the backseat of their Ford SUV. “Do you mind if we stop to take a picture?”
“Not at all!”
The two seniors had picked up John Nutley about fifteen miles back along the Alaska Highway. A poor schlub in an oversized parka that still exuded the new-coat smell of the tourist trap he’d bought it in. The fellow was fretting by the side of the road, lamenting the breakdown of the battered Tercel he claimed to have driven all the way from Ohio. Stan had wanted to leave him and phone for help, but Can wouldn’t hear of it. Their mobile phones hadn’t picked up a signal for miles. She felt it was unconscionable to leave a fellow American out here in the middle of nowhere. Can was sweet that way.
Now, only an hour or so later, Stan pulled over and killed the ignition. The couple and their rider trekked out to the scenic overlook, just beyond where the asphalt melded into gravel and snow. There was a bit of an incline, which caused the two tourists to puff a bit as they climbed. Not kids anymore, Stan thought. But still, it was worth the effort to be out here in the middle of nowhere, just a finger’s breath from heaven and stuff.
They reached a low stone wall overlooking a steep drop. Stan inhaled the fresh biting air. White majestic mountains. Beautifully lichened rocks. And pine-scented conifers. It was paradise. Stan and Can snapped away.
And poor, overdressed John Nutley merely gawked at the mountains, a camo-colored boonie hat hiding his prematurely balding scalp and a goofy smile climbing on his face. He could have been in his mid-forties or as young as their own son, who was a few years out of college. John Nutley had a strange way of looking past you when he spoke, which gave Stan an uneasy feeling. That, and the fact that the fellow’s pale-hazel eyes resembled those of a goat.
“Funny,” John Nutley said. “You’d think that there would be no snow, being summer and all. But up here, they’ve got snow all the time.”
“It’s what they do,” Stan said with a laugh. His cheeks were dangerously red. Throughout the trip, from the moment they rented the car at the Missoula airport, he’d been popping aspirin in addition to his usual blood pressure medication to help deal with the elevation. He was eager to report back to his doctor that his health had been superb for the entire trip. For sure, the golden years of his retirement loomed ahead as tempting and beautiful as the Wrangells themselves.
Stan let Can take a few pics on her own while he perused the brochures he’d picked up in Haines Junction. Right over the border there would be a few decent dining and shopping options. A BBQ lodge that specialized in exotic Alaskan fare. Elk steaks, bear cutlets, salmon grilled tableside. And there was another place, a supposedly fantastic sushi place, in the same shopping center.
He was starving, truth be known. The continental breakfast at the motor lodge two hundred miles back had not cut it one bit, what with all the extra exertion he’d put in this morning, trying to get John Nutley’s car to start in the brisk air of the Yukon summer morning. Stan just hoped to heck they could put the young man in touch with a ranger on the other side. Stan didn’t relish having to lug another kid around with them everywhere they went. Why, they’d only last month kicked their youngest out of the house. He’d been so reluctant to leave the nest. Young people today just weren’t very self-sufficient, were they?
“If you like, I could take a picture of the two of you together,” John Nutley said.
“Oh, would you?”
Can showed him how to work the camera. When he was done, and Stan and Can were still arm in arm and looking like a couple of overfed chipmunks, the young man cleared his throat.
“Well, you folks sure have been nice, but I’m sorry to say this is the end of the road.”
They laughed. “How so, young man?” Stan said.
To their dismay, John Nutley produced a gun from his pocket. Stan and Can gasped.