The Elusiveness of the Northern Lights

Travel Stories: After returning from the war in Iraq, Dario DiBattista road-tripped from Alaska to Maryland in search of peace -- and a way back into the civilian world

02.08.10 | 10:20 AM ET

Alaska Kenai River FlatsPhoto by Dario DiBattista

A bump in the road jars me from sleep; usually traveling on this icy path is a smooth affair. As I climb out of the pile of pillows and blankets, I glance at the digital thermometer above the front window of the Dodge Dakota. Looking at the thermometer is an odd game Andy and I play to maintain focus and alertness—we challenge each other to see who can observe the lowest temperature first.

Minus 38 degrees. Damn, it’s cold—though, it is still six degrees above the lowest temperature yet. Less than three months ago, in Iraq, 138 degree temperatures accosted my body: a 176 degree difference.

Andy, my travel companion and childhood friend, drives the truck in resolute silence. Only the truck’s high-beams, some digital instruments, and the moon and stars emanate light. I don’t know how he stays focused. It is so remote here in this part of Western Canada that, thus far in the trip, we’ve only passed a handful of living things.

Soon it will be my turn to drive—another three hour shift—and Andy will request that the weird screaming and twangy distorted guitar sounds of my music be lowered to a tolerable output. 

Andy used to lift me over his head like a barbell and pretend he was a helicopter when we were younger. He traumatized my sister for her weight issues as a child so much that she still hates him now, in her late twenties. I find it ironic how, after 10 years, our relationship has changed so much. Today, I am the rough-edged rebel returning from war, he is the polite Protestant pastor, and we are still best of friends.

Five days ago, Andy flew me out to Anchorage on his dime to accompany him, his truck, and a trailer with everything he owns, back to our mutual home of Baltimore. Andy hasn’t been home in five years; he moved from Baltimore to Kenai because of his love for youth and God. He’s moving home for the same reason. An interview for a different youth ministry position waits for his return.

Three days ago, I woke up at his small two-bedroom house in Kenai at 10 a.m., to a sky that had not yet woken up. The Alaskan sky in winter never rises; it only levitates slightly above the horizon for a few hours, hung-over, and then goes back to sleep. We went to his church, supposedly convening at 10:30 a.m. No one showed up till 10:53 a.m. and the service didn’t start till 11:19 a.m. During the day, we packed up his things, and took trips to say goodbye to his friends and family. I felt like a parting gift. The last things Andy’s friends would remember about him were tearful goodbyes and me—a shiny, short, jack-in-the-box Marine. They would remember him, and then they would remember me. I would punch them in the face and then take Andy away forever.

That night, his congregation encircled him with hugs, and a woman he pursued with no success for a long time encircled him with a painful noose of unsaid words. I felt phantom pains for the emotions he never showed. We left after midnight for our return to Baltimore and new lives.

I think Andy keeps the music off when he drives so he can reflect on the things he never said or showed. As we drive, I feel those things like feeling ice through a closed window.

A woman and many other things are on my mind, too. I turn the music up when it is my turn at the wheel to keep from thinking about that stuff. I had done enough thinking in Iraq. There were many things—death, returning home, friendship, survival, the woman I love—that had occupied my mind during my sojourn in Iraq that I did not want to think about anymore. Like Andy, I too am going home for the first time in a long time. Yes, I had stopped by my home in the weeks before; I was only an hour away, living and working around my base in D.C. Now, however, after this trip, I will be off active duty and re-assigned to the civilian world—as if this is an order that can be easily followed. I turn the music up while I am behind the wheel, oddly enough, because loud music soothes my spirit. Listening helps keep me out of my head and focused on our journey. Modest Mouse, Elliott Smith and others become a soundtrack to the most amazing world I have ever seen.

The mountains stand peaceful and calm, like resting elders keeping watch over their land. The frozen lakes are the smooth skin of these elders. The valleys are like cool hands placed on the Earth as if to revel in this creation in the same manner I do.

Forests stand strong and proud; they have been here forever and in the midst of this landscape they are bolstered in status. It is obvious mankind has not been here much. Buffalo, elk, moose and caribou are the only tenants—we’ve seen a few of each. These animals have the privilege of living the most peaceful and simple of lives.

Just passing through, I feel that same peace; it has already impacted me.

Because it will be my turn to drive again soon, I say a quick hello to check on Andy, look for the elusive northern lights that I still have not seen, and attempt to go back to sleep. Damn, it is cold. I cocoon myself in the blankets and reflect on the day. Tomorrow, Andy and I hope to make it to the U.S. border and—that far south—I doubt I will ever get a chance to see the northern lights again. 

I am happy my journey will come to an end soon. It is a new year; I am alive. I think about things that end and are ending. I am sad for Corporal Salazar. Although I did not like him, I think about his painful, last few hours before he succumbed to his mortal wounds; I mourn his passing. I think about the young lady I love and our souring relationship. She carried me home when I was 12,000 miles away. Now that I will reside only 12 miles away from her I fear our relationship will not survive. I think about the last day of my active duty contract with the Marines. I think things will be good.

Eventually, I drift back to sleep.

“Dario, wake up!”

I snap awake with an alertness conditioned in combat. For a second I am confused about where I am and whether I need to find shelter or a bunker. I feel the truck sliding—in a controlled manner—to a stop. “What’s going on?” I ask.

“Look up there.” Andy points to the top left corner of the front windshield. From the back of the truck all I see is the bodies of trees.

“What on Earth on are you looking at man?” I ask, annoyed.

The truck stops and Andy gets out. I climb over blankets, pillows and provisions and follow him. Andy has turned the lights of the truck off, but I can make out his silhouette pointing at the sky.

We stand looking up for the next 15 minutes, oblivious to the low temperature and ignorant to our tiredness. 

As if God is water-coloring the sky with a luminous paint, a swirl of red, green, blue and violet cascades above us in the shape of a helix. 

I say, “They dance, they really do dance.” We get back in the truck and continue our journey home.

Dario DiBattista currently attends The Johns Hopkins University Master of the Arts in Writing Program (dual concentration in Nonfiction and Poetry) where he continues to strengthen his platform concerning military and veteran's issues. He has been featured in The New York Times and he has spoken on Connecticut Public Radio about his writing and the plight of veterans. This essay was excerpted from his memoir, "Go Now, You Are Forgiven," which he is shopping to publishers. He can be reached via Facebook.

23 Comments for The Elusiveness of the Northern Lights

Eva Kaplan-Leiserson 02.08.10 | 1:50 PM ET

I feel the quiet peace of these moments reflected in the writing. Enjoyed this very much.

Kevin Fay 02.08.10 | 1:53 PM ET

Welcome home, Dario. Thank you so much for your service to our country and for this lovely story. Looking forward to reading more. Best of luck to you.

Colin D. Halloran 02.08.10 | 1:58 PM ET

DiBattista once again does a beautiful job capturing the brutal contrast veterans face in their lives.  Through describing his journey, he takes the reader on a journey not only to Alaska, but to Iraq and painfully back again.  His subtlety and vivid prose convey a clear and honest description of the transitory emotional state returning vets find themselves in, as well as the elusiveness of peace of mind that he finds, if only temporarily, in his elusive dancing lights.

There Can Be Only Ton 02.08.10 | 2:27 PM ET

The aurora borealis is something I have always wanted to see. Reading this only exacerbated that desire. Well written Mr. DiBattista! S/F

rosemarie dibattista 02.08.10 | 2:36 PM ET

I am so proud of you. Your writing is amazing !

Christopher Seneca 02.08.10 | 3:18 PM ET

Nice piece of writing. I particularly like the line about a woman pursued for a long time encircling the preacher with the painful noose of unsaid words. Very poignant and thoughtful!

Vera Marie Badertscher 02.08.10 | 3:28 PM ET

Good writing can be as elusive as the Northern Lights. Well done, and thanks for your service to US.

Paul Losada 02.08.10 | 3:50 PM ET

Actually makes me want to get out of my sunny, carefree bubble in Los Angeles and experience some real emotions in dark, cold reality!

Tobias "Lumberjack" Williamson 02.08.10 | 4:31 PM ET

Dibo! Well done my friend. I enjoy reading your work. Who would have guessed that our “Froto” would turn out to be such a gifted writer?! Keep it up. I look forward to more. ~Lance Criminals always.

Jesseca Pruner 02.08.10 | 5:02 PM ET

Beautiful piece…. I know I am sappy, but seriously at some point in your writing I always shed a tear, I am not sure why. Your writing speaks to me and makes me feel like I am there. Wonderful Job!

Heather Sullivan 02.08.10 | 6:48 PM ET

Amazing Dario… You have always captured my undivided attention as well as my heart with you writting and this time is certainly no different, I felt like I could have been there… Well done sir, well done!!

Kecianne Shick 02.08.10 | 7:26 PM ET

As I read this, I felt as though I were riding along in the truck with Dario and his friend—Dario’s descriptive prose lends an immediacy to the reader, an emotional pull that draws you in. I want to know what else happened on this trip. I want to know what happens to his relationship with the woman he loves. Making your audience want more is the mark of a talented writer, and Dario is certainly that. Wonderful work!

Glenn Clark 02.08.10 | 8:35 PM ET

This is breathtaking. Absolutely brilliant stuff. I’m blown away.

JP "you know who" 02.08.10 | 9:56 PM ET

Double D, you have a gift my friend, and you will go far in life sharing your experiences with the world.  Keep up the excellent work!

Da RockkMonstah 02.09.10 | 1:38 PM ET

Dibo!  Awesome writing, man.
Thanks for sharing and I look forward to reading more of you work.

Emily Mc 02.09.10 | 3:41 PM ET

Dario, congratulations!  I am so amazed at your writing.  I’m sorry I’m so late to rejoin the bandwagon.  I am definitely on!

G 02.10.10 | 6:22 AM ET

What a tease, I can’t wait to read this.

Dave "Chilis" 02.10.10 | 1:07 PM ET

Amazing story, keep up the fantastic work

pam 02.11.10 | 9:05 PM ET

THAT is a freaky gorgeous piece of writing. Whew. THANK YOU.

Sara Woods 02.13.10 | 10:32 PM ET

I love the extra stuff you put into it to make it so visual. Thanks for the paint with your words.

Mike Ferrara 02.14.10 | 5:49 PM ET

You had me intrigued the whole way through. I can see a giftedness in your writing. I pray God truly fans it into flame.

Rob W. 02.16.10 | 1:19 PM ET

Dario, thanks for a great story, but most importantly, thanks for being a MARINE!

Andy 02.16.10 | 4:16 PM ET

What an amazing story to expand on one amazing trip and changing moment in both of our lives.
I am glad that God allowed us to share a one in a lifetime trip together.

Keep up the good work Dario.

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