(This essay was also published in the Anchorage Press.)
On occasion my wife Sara and I fall into old-fashioned roles when it comes to parenting. We’re both moms, but sometimes I feel like a total dad. I’m sure this happens to her, too.
Her mom trait is worrying. She once Googled “crawling helmet,” she tracks childhood illness outbreaks like she works for the CDC, and she always knows the weather forecast. I just don’t worry like she does. It’s not in my wiring.
“It’ll be just fine,” I say, calm as Mr. Brady in the den. And, usually, it is.
One night a couple of weeks ago when we were having that stretch of warm weather, my friends Abraham and Lam came to town for a journalism training and I decided to take them for a drive.
This was a Thursday. As it happened Sara was taking care of Leo, who is three, and I had baby Neri, who is six months. He fell asleep about the moment I plugged him into his seat in the minivan. Before I left, Sara told me not to go anywhere steep. Freezing rain in the forecast, she said.
“It’ll be just fine,” I said.
I picked up Lam and Abraham and we decided we wanted to see a view. While I was thinking about where to take them, I looked up and saw the Arctic Valley star glowing on Mt. Gordon Lyon. Great idea!
The roads were dry as we drove out the Glenn Highway toward Arctic Valley. It had rained but the temperature was mild and I figured the cloud cover was high because I could see the star.
As we started up Arctic Valley Road, Abraham, who has a baby Neri’s age, asked me about driving a minivan. His tone was neutral but we both knew what he was getting at: a minivan is the telltale sign that you’ve lost the battle to stay cool after becoming a parent.
I told him that it was a hand-me-down from Sara’s parents, and totally practical for hauling children and gear around. I’d only been driving it for five months, I said. It took a little getting used to because though it had snow tires, it’s the first car I’ve had that isn’t four-wheel drive.
Up we went into the mountainous dark. The trees were spooky in the headlights, branches white with frost. At the first pullout, the city lay before us like a twinkling blanket. The baby was sleeping and I decided to keep driving to the next, higher, viewing opportunity.
I might have driven another 15 minutes, and I might have lost track of the fact we’d turned away from the view, heading up toward the ski area. A few raindrops splashed onto the windshield. A quick little squall. Minutes long. But suddenly the road ahead looked different. Shiny. It took me a minute or two to process.
I felt the car struggling to climb and slowed to a stop. Time to turn around, I said. We were on a steep incline. The road was carved into the mountain, a tree-filled ravine on one side of the road and an upward slope on the other.
I started to maneuver the van in reverse, but the rear wheels couldn’t get a purchase on the roadway. Soon we were perpendicular to the road. I gave the car a tiny amount of gas, trying to regain control and back up. The wheels turned, but the car began to slide, sideways, downhill.
So. Totally. Not. Just. Fine.
I ground the brake into the floor, but we were still sliding. Over the shape of the baby’s car seat, I saw the city through the van’s long side window. The sensation of sliding felt like vertigo.
“I don’t like this,” I whispered. Lam and Abraham said nothing.
My thoughts coalesced into a brutal reality check: I was on the ice in a front-wheel drive minivan in the dark, sliding sideways down a mountain, and I couldn’t make it stop. Oh: and there was a baby with me. (Insert lightning bolt of terror) How had I been such a total idiot?
We were still sliding. Were we picking up speed?
One of the possible outcomes of our sideways movement was that the minivan might roll. Or go off a cliff? I wanted to be anywhere else. Watching an infomercial. At the dentist. Making yet another peanut butter sandwich for a school lunch. Just not here in this car sliding to my death with my tiny, innocent son.
The car stopped.
I took a breath.
“Are you a good driver?” I asked Abraham.
“Not on this,” he said.
I put the minivan in reverse and managed to work it toward the side of the road until the rear wheels made contact with soft snow. We were angled uphill pointed the wrong way, but secure. I pulled out my cell phone and called my car insurance company’s roadside assist number. I told them we needed a tow truck. I also texted Sara. She called my cousin’s husband, John, who has a Ford F-150.
And then we waited. The baby didn’t stir. Pretty soon, some headlights came up the road. A big old diesel truck with 20-somethings inside. They stopped and got out, slipping and giggling over to our car. Did we need a pull-out? (Can I take an aside to say that this offer of help is so one of those things I love about Alaska.) No, thanks. They said they’d wait with us until John or the tow truck showed up. At least 30 minutes passed.
Then my phone rang. It was the insurance company. They’d called every tow company in the city, they said. No one was willing to come. Most of the trucks don’t have four-wheel drive, they said. (!) The companies were worried about getting stuck, they said. (!!) Call the police, they said. (!!!)
About then we saw another set of headlights coming up the road. But then they disappeared, sliding backwards, downhill, out of view. Up they came again. Down they slid. My phone buzzed. It was John. We had to walk down to him, he said, the truck couldn’t make it up. That meant abandoning the minivan on the side of the mountain. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get my baby down.
We left the van unlocked, gathered our stuff and tromped down the snow on the side of the road, the 20-somethings illuminating the way with their headlights. Abraham carried the car seat. When we got to the truck, he slid the seat across the icy road to John who put Neri in the car. Neri was still asleep, pacifier moving up and down.
“You took a baby up here?” John asked.
I didn’t answer. We headed down.
I felt horrible all the way. This is exactly how regular people end up getting rescued by helicopters when they get lost off well-traveled trails, or how people end up dying in canoe accidents on popular lakes in view of recreational cabins. They just forget for a moment that this is Alaska. My grandparents are buried here, and I’d forgotten.
The next day, visions of my minivan in flames on the roadside, I called JBER to see if they might sand the road so a person could drive down. Nope.
But, they said, they’d wait a couple days before they towed me.
“You went and drove a baby up the side of a mountain in a minivan?” said the guy on the phone.
Out of ideas, I called my dad.
“Let’s go investigate,” he said.
We headed up the mountain at sunrise in a Subaru with old-fashioned studded snow tires. Dad spent the ride telling me about how he used to go up Arctic Valley Road to go skiing all the time as a kid in bad weather. Cars just had chains back then, he said. Sometimes they had to back up the hills.
Pretty soon we started coming across abandoned cars. Then there was a guy standing with his sedan, looking terrified. And a tow truck, its driver putting on chains. We pushed higher, (I didn’t realize I’d gone so high.) passing a couple of big pick-ups on the side of the road, waiting for tows. We spotted the minivan, sideways, on a steep, slick incline.
Dad parked the Subaru above it and slipped down the hill, pretending to speed skate, looking back at me to see if I was laughing. It was one of those moments when Dad seemed ageless, even though he is 66. I am 36 but I felt like a child. I was alone in the passenger seat in the parked Subaru. All of a sudden, it started to slide. I saw Dad’s expression change. I jumped in the drivers’ seat and smashed the brake. The car skittered to a stop. Adrenaline flooded my raw nerves. Man, I’d had enough of that road.
Dad got in the minivan and started it. He inched forward on the ice. So far, so good. Then he started sliding downhill. Sideways. I screamed, watching him pick up speed. (Thoughts: I am totally going to be responsible for killing my dad.) He gained control, turned forward and kept going until I couldn’t see him any more.
I sat in the Subaru, breathing, too petrified to take my foot off the brake. My phone rang. It was Dad. Little slide there getting the van going, he said. Everything was fine once he took off the emergency brake.
“Come on down now,” he told me. I could hear the smile in his voice.
I let my foot off the brake.
We inched down the mountain that way. Him first, me behind, passing all the stranded motorists and the tow truck. My pulse returned to normal. The mid-morning light was golden. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been so terrified and so at a loss for what to do.
I stared at Dad’s taillights. He’d used the calm, “it will be just fine” dad voice on me. But there was more to it than that. Someday my kids will need me to take the wheel just like he did. I would have to be ready. Paralyzing fear like I felt on that mountain is a luxury a parent eventually has to give up. Because your kids need you to be stronger than they are.
It’s probably good to be reminded that I’m not as squared away as I think I am even if I have two kids, a mortgage and a minivan. Parenting is a lifelong project. There was Dad up ahead, still doing it.