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
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.