Michael Phillips, The Airstream Chronicles - The Lost Alaska Letters

The Lost Alaska Letters

Note: the following eight letters arrived at the Airstream yesterday. No details concerning the author can be found. The letters are not dated, but they are believed to be intended for the spouse of one of the travelers on the Art Bell Alaska Cruise. While the crew on the cruise made a grand show of collecting mail every day, waltzing through the ship shouting, "Outgoing air mail! Outgoing air mail!" they actually just let the letters and postcards accumulate in a sack, and intended to dump it all into a mailbox when they returned to California.

Letter One

Dearest Hildebrand,

Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here. The weather is lovely, but the customs do seem strange! Yesterday we saw one of the natives consuming a disgusting tidbit called "intestine with Goat Cheese." Ghastly. We'll soon be home though, and all will be well.

Went to see the catacombs of the Most Imperial High Ruler King Janus yesterday. Our native guide told us the story of the ruler and his long lost love, and how he had the monumental catacombs built while he was pining away for her on one of her extended vacations. It seems she would often leave the High Ruler high and dry, and go off on fact finding missions and sunny holidays in distant kingdoms. Well, the poor fellow got to feeling so lonely during one of these absences, he undertook the massive project to occupy his idle moments, of which he apparently had many, because the things are huge. Anyway, just before the laying of the final ice block, the Most Imperial received the following message from his beloved: "Dear Janus, Have fallen into the hands of a most delightful savage tribe. They wish me to stay on and become their Mystical Princess. Hope you understand. Love, Vanessa."

Well, upon hearing the news, legend has it that the High Ruler ordered the catacombs sealed forever, with him on the inside! I don't know how much credence one can lend to these old tall tales, but lordy, it does stink down there, so I suppose it could be true.

Well darling, I must run, as we're scheduled for a scenic boat cruise up the "Rivers of Hades" this afternoon.

Much love, and give my regards to Mr. DeMille.

Rod.

Letter Two

Dear Light of my life,

My what an exciting day I've had! It seems there was a bit of a mix up in the translation regarding our departure time for the Rivers of Hades trip, so we spent the entire afternoon waiting in the freezing cold before being informed that the actual starting time of the trip was dawn! After considerable grousing and exaggerated threats, we filed off to our rooms to rest. I arose at three a.m. to prepare for the cruise, as I did not want to risk being late and holding up the entire group. I arrived at the bank of the river just as the sky began to lighten, ready for the trip into the dark unknown. The others straggled in, sleepy eyed and foul tempered, still angry at yesterday's wasted afternoon, and we all milled about waiting for the Boatman.

After about an hour I'd resigned myself to the fact that he was going to be late, so I amused myself with a few of the locals who've been helping out during our stay. I try daily to teach them the Queen's English, and a small pocketful of manners. One fellow in particular has become a favorite of mine. He is a large, jolly chap, known only as "Nanuk the stenchful," who persists in his attempts to steal my luggage and trick me into strange contracts and absurd agreements. I, however, can see past his gruff, dreadful exterior, and continue to guide him down a path of righteousness and decency.

This morning, he regaled us with a rather unlikely tale concerning a rabid dog, a discarded sock, a blind Rabbi, and a jute sack full of coca leaves. The mind reels at the thought of trying to recreate it here, so I'll leave it to your imagination, though nothing you could possibly dream up could be more absurd, frightening or demented than his queer tale of misfortune and deviance. As to the cruel nickname, "The stenchful," he will surrender no details or clues, though he refuses to answer to anything other than the full, distasteful moniker. As a result, any question or comment you may have for him must begin with "Nanuk the stenchful." For example: "Nanuk the stenchful, please hand me that bludgeon," or "Nanuk the stenchful, would you please get off my toe," etc.

Nanuk has become somewhat of an unofficial guide for our merry band though, which suits me just fine, as our professional and costly guide has assumed the role of hopeless drunkard and lunatic. As we prepared to board the vessel (the Boatman finally did arrive, shirtless, foul tempered, and reeking of camphor at shortly after 8 a.m.), Nanuk warned us of an ancient curse on the Rivers of Hades which could only be thwarted with the sacrifice of several small animals, one or two female virgins (he was a bit unclear on the exact number), and the flinging of much currency into the stagnant, murky waters at the river's mouth. Since we lacked small animals and virgin(s), and were nowhere near the mouth of the river, we had to instead fling our currency at Nanuk, who promised to perform all the necessary rituals sometime in the near future. Thus convinced of our safe passage, we embarked up the mist shrouded river, anxious and expectant.

Alas my dear, the hour grows late and I can barely keep my eyes open to see, so I will have to leave it til next time...

Love and kisses,

Faithful Elrod

Letter Three

Dear Woman-without-whom-life-would-hold-no-joy,

It's dreadfully cold this evening, and here I am crouched near the campfire, nursing my wounds (superficial, not to worry), and reflecting on another insane day in an insane land. I'll get to the details of the Rivers of Hades trip in a moment, but first I simply must catalogue the indignities one is faced with day in and day out on this wind-blown, God-forsaken crust of rock and snow.

Upon waking (usually to the sounds of some poor animal or member of our group being ripped to shreds by a pack of vultures that shadow our every move), one is faced with the already oppressive cold and wind, making bathing and others preparations next to impossible. Even without the wind, blowing snow, and dim sun, washing would be difficult, as our washbasin is no larger than a teacup, and fresh water almost nonexistent. Fortunately Nanuk and his band of nomadic imbeciles do all the packing, leaving us the task of foraging for some scraps of leaves or dry berries to breakfast on.

Oh all right, all right, I won't continue this blasted complaining. After all, I did get reduced passage on this excursion, and all in all the company and provisions are proving to be adequate. You know how I tend toward exaggeration when I'm lonely, but honestly, just yesterday I was asked to dine without the benefit of a salad fork! Imagine my dismay! I'll be the first to admit that I'm perhaps a bit too fastidious, but really, such savagery!

Oh darling, have I told you about Barnes? Surely no more stupid human can exist. I'm afraid Nanuk has already taken him for most of his supplies, and all of his ready cash, and we're only three days into the trip! Now don't misunderstand me, Barnes is a most agreeable fellow, but I for one cannot suffer fools gladly. It seems he is from an extremely wealthy, and equally moronic family of ex-circus clowns made rich by lucky investments in Coca Cola some years ago. Details are not very forthcoming though, as the poor bastard has practically no memory whatsoever. I have gleaned from him however that his family sent him on this trip to "broaden his horizons," and presumably, to get him out of their hair.

Every pertinent, interesting fact learned, every wonder we encounter, seems to fly over the head of this unfortunate dolt, who seems interested solely in measuring and recording the differing barometric pressures we encounter. His exhaustive record keeping and constant readings baffle us all as to their pertinence or value. One can only humor the fellow, and pray he comes to no harm. The fire is dying dear, so I must close.

Oh yes, the rivers of Hades were more like the Creeks of Cleveland, and I look forward to something slightly more interesting tomorrow.

Much love dear,

Roddy

Letter four

Darling,

Ah my love, it seems like ages...I'm wondering if I haven't made an awful mistake in opting for the least expensive outing in the brochure. Things are certainly not as plush and glamorous as one is lead to believe.

Last night we arrived at a broken down hovel that I would not let our scruffy family dog spend the evening in. When I learned it was to be our hotel for the next three days I was crestfallen. It certainly is a hotel, as the sign leaning against the building advertises: "Gr nd H tel - Ac om da ions F r Th Disc rn ng Tr vel r." The sign itself seems to have fallen from a rusty hook over the front door of the place.

The grizzled old fossil at the "front desk" (actually two empty hazardous waste drums topped by a sagging door that still has "Room 117" painted on it), doubled over in a fit of laughter and deep, hacking coughs when I inquired as to the morning breakfast menu. Well not to worry, Nanuk has procured several sacks of seal brains for us to consume. He assures me they are a delicacy, and offered to eat mine should I decide against it. I am not yet that hungry, but he thoughtfully left a greasy bag on my bed, should I reconsider.

The group has gone out on a tour of the village, and I have stayed behind to catch up on my rest and correspondence. My cell has two cots, a small window painted over sometime during the Spanish Inquisition, and a radio. Actually, the outer shell of a radio, as I discovered when I attempted to turn it on. At the end of the hall is a bucket, and the tattered remains of a shower curtain hanging from a single nail. This, I can only imagine, is the latrine.

There was some confusion upon our arrival, as there were not enough rooms to go around. A brief scuffle ensued, during which, Barnes thumped the proprietor on the head with a barometer, and ran off into the mist wearing my pith helmet. I do hope the lad returns. This ozone-hole sun would simply ruin my delicate complexion. As if being left without headgear were not enough of an insult, I also discovered that my bags had been thoroughly searched and inspected without my approval. Thankfully, the only item missing is the pair of argyle socks your mother gave me on our wedding night.

It is unbearably cold and smelly in here, and though the window will not open, somehow thousands of winged insects have made their way in to share my accommodations. They are massing around the bag of seal parts as I write this, so perhaps I had better go take care of this before it gets out of hand.

Oodles of love,

Elrod

Letter five

Dearest sweet love...

Feeling odd...strange things happening...feel like someone...slipped me a mickey...weird sensations...colors...people chattering...no sense of time...space...vaguely remember a fortune cookie..."An opportunity for travel and adventure"...trying to hold on to s a n I t y....... WHATEVERSIMONSAYSISTHELAWINTHESEPARTSFRIENDIFYOUL
NOWWHATSGOODFORYOUNODOGSN
OSNAKESinbrainstogethercornerstonesdontknowwhoyouthinkyouaresirbutOy
OuIdon
TOweapologiesorSYMPATHYORharmonyorpesticidalresponsesofaNYkindof
HellishNAS ALWHINESwonthelpyouinhell
IfyouthinkthereforYOUarentneversaydietilIsay
Itstimeto
SaY

Darling,

I'll endeavor to make this as legible as possible. The gibberish above was written under the influence of some sinister local plant I was given in my afternoon tea. The sweating and hallucinations started almost immediately. I awoke groggily hours later with a plucked chicken in my bed, and the situation became more macabre from then on. I'm not certain who planned my afternoon of hell, but I have my suspicions. More on that later.

Still wondering if the trip was a mistake. Time seems lost. No sense of accomplishment or...oh, I don't know why I complain so. Most would die for the chance to take an excursion to such a strange land I'm sure. Perhaps I'm just missing you so terribly that all else seems empty and hopeless.

We've a side trip planned for tomorrow to a place the locals call, "Satan's Festering Bunghole," and while I know no specifics of the place, it does not seem to bode well for me. Perhaps my head will have cleared by then, and I'll have a renewed vigor and interest. I certainly hope so. Sweetheart, I know you have hopes of a book coming from all this adventure and folly, but I'm not sure I have the fortitude to stick it out long enough to glean enough interesting information and anecdotes for an entire book. Most assuredly there is a book's worth of intrigue and strange customs, odd characters and senseless action, I'm just not sure I'm man enough to put it all down on paper.

Incidentally, we found Barnes last night. We had to extract him from a bordello of sorts, where he was "taking readings" of some of the "girls." None of us had the heart to inform him of their actual gender.

'Til next time my love,

'rod

Letter six

How do, love?

Greetings from "Satan's Festering Bunghole" darling! A picturesque name if ever there was one, and not at all inaccurate.

The trek to this attraction seemed to last for days on end, though realistically it was probably a mere 70 or 80 miles. On foot. Through desolate tundra. And of course we embarked just before noon yesterday, so as to encounter the maximum amount of ozone-hole sun, and abject misery.

Nanuk, our questionable leader in this folly, rode the 80 or 90 miles on a mean spirited donkey. This was necessary he said, because the lead man was responsible for finding the "bottomless glacier sucker holes," and, he assured us, the donkey he was riding had a certain "sixth sense" that would steer us clear of the horrors of such a death. After fifty miles or so, we began to feel like the "sucker holes," but by that time there was no turning back.

We trudged on through the night (afraid to stop, fearing we would certainly all freeze to death), and finished our 90 to 100 mile march at dawn.

Believe me when I tell you dear, that mere words cannot adequately describe the sight of "Satan's Festering Bunghole" in the growing light of the morning, but suffice it to say, it was less than spectacular.

The "bunghole" itself is actually little more than a pit, approximately twenty yards in circumference, containing a bubbling sulphur/tar mixture, the unbearable stench of which drove our donkey to take its own life.

We looked at each other in disbelief, while Nanuk stood, beaming a toothless smile, at the edge of the hole. Now I'd be lying if I said I wasn't overcome with the urge to push the ruddy bastard in, but some higher form of morality, or perhaps fear of prosecution, made me check my immediate, murderous impulse. Barnes however, had no such qualms, and leapt a good twelve feet through the air, straight at Nanuk. The poor fellow had been despondent since the whole distasteful scene at the hotel, and one can only assume the sight of the "bunghole" pushed him over the brink of despair and anger. The two men wrestled and tossed about in the snow while the rest of us turned our gaze back towards town, and calculated the time it would take to trudge the 100 to 110 miles back to what passed for civilization.

Fortunately Barnes didn't succeed in flinging Nanuk into the pit, since he was the only one with any clue as to how to return, though he did threaten to "lie down with the donkey and die like a dog," since we were so unappreciative of his guidance and effort. He did jump up and lead us off though, just as we were about to put it to a vote whether or not we should respect his wishes and let him stay behind. I imagine he feared the outcome of such a vote.

I must close now, as we begin the 110 to 120 mile trip back.

Bubbling pits of love,

El

Letter seven

Dearest of all dear,

Greetings Darling. Well, the trip is coming to a close, and I can't say I'm completely sorry about that.

The trip back from the Festering Bunghole took somewhat longer than expected, as Nanuk spent most of the time in an indignant pout, running us in circles (on purpose, I think). More than a few members of the party grew hungry enough to suggest cannibalism, but cooler heads prevailed, and Nanuk lived.

What a sight we must have been, trudging into town hungry, ragged and rabid. There was much whispering and pointing of fingers among the good people of the town, and quite a large amount of money changed hands when we were spotted. I learned later that there had been bets placed on our safe return, and many people lost.

Betting is a way of life here, and the people don't show much interest in a thing that they cannot wager on. Consequently, they will wager on practically anything. For instance, one morning Barnes was climbing a tree to take his 7:45 a.m. "reading," and Nanuk sidled up to me and said, "Loan me a dollar, Sport," (he'd recently taken to calling me "Sport," in spite of my dark glances every time he did so) "I've got to...buy supplies." I foolishly handed him the bill, and watched him go round the corner and throw it into a large pile of money on top of a rickety card table. The men gathered around the table studied Barnes intently, and when he fell from the tree a combination cheer and groan rose from the group, and the lucky ones snatched their winnings from the table and trotted off to purchase large bottles of the flammable local liquor called "Crackmeister." They consume the pungent brew from first light well into the night, and by 10 p.m. or so, the shrieks and bloodletting can be heard for miles. They are not a violent people by nature, but by nightfall their blood is toxic with the devilish liquid, and the sheer mindless viciousness of their disagreements is amazing to behold.

One situation which sums up quite succinctly what I'm describing happened only a few nights ago in a grubby little tin shack/barroom we were herded to just outside town. One of the townsfolk had inherited a large sum of money upon the death of a favored relative ($59.67, a comparably huge sum of money around here), and was throwing a party for his closest friends and associates. A drinking contest had developed, pitting the host of the party against a lumpy bulk of a human three times his size. They were matching each other drink for drink, with barely a breath between gulps. Everyone around them was tossing cash onto the table, shouting encouragement, leaping about, and generally carrying on like lunatics. With every drink the assembled throng would whoop with glee, and throw down more money, sure that their combatant would emerge victorious. I stood watching the spectacle for a while, and was just about to leave when the smaller of the two men, the grieving relative, fell back from his stool and couldn't get himself up off the ground. No one made a move to help him, as apparently this was part of the challenge, but much attention was focused on the poor devil as he writhed about and flapped like a fish out of water. It appeared the giant had got the best of him, and he raised his arms in victory.

At that very moment the fallen man let out a groan, shook violently, and vomited for some minutes into a nearby mailbox. Having accomplished this, he dragged himself back up to the table and boldly clutched his empty glass. Much arguing erupted at this point, as some of the witnesses considered vomiting to be a form of cheating, and wanted the match declared finished. The giant himself pointed out that if he had known vomiting was allowed, he too would have utilized this brilliant strategy to increase his consumption greatly. Well, push came to shove, and blows were exchanged. Kicks, gouges, biting, cutting, tearing of flesh and general mayhem ensued for some fifteen minutes. The table holding the wagers was upended early in the melee, and beggars and children had run off with the spoils. A policeman did amble on to the scene eventually, and was sucked into the fray, not to be seen again.

Come daylight the toll could be figured: Two dead, five missing limbs or digits, sixteen whole but injured gravely, and the whole lot of them out their money. I was told this was a sorry excuse for a brawl, the usual casualties being much higher.

I myself have refrained from the gambling and consumption of local firewaters, being witness to the strange behavior and carnage they produce.

Well darling, only a few more days here, and I'll be winging my way back to you. I pray you'll still have me, as I'm afraid this journey has made me a different man.

A double shot of love,

El

Final letter

Dearest Lady!

At last we begin making the preparations for the trip home! I never thought a word could sound so sweet: "home."

I've missed you terribly and longed for your steadfast company in these trying times. I realize my letters have been lacking in some pertinent details of places and things, historical facts, flowery descriptions, etc., but some things are better left untold I think. You can question me upon my return, and I will provide as much information as my feeble memory allows.

The strange customs, food, people and places sometimes make my head spin with confusion, and I become dizzy and nauseated trying to file it all away. When hundreds of tiny snow monkeys descend upon your lunch table, or total strangers accost you in the street wanting to "tell you a secret," one can only step back and wonder if life itself is sort of cruel nightmare from which we can never fully awake.

So many times I worried that I'd not live to see you again my sweet, and when in the grips of certain doom, your beautiful name was always upon my lips.

It occurs to me that I've not told you nearly enough about my fellow travelers, though one wonders if they're even conscious of me sometimes. You are familiar of course, with Nanuk the stenchful, and the poor, unfortunate Barnes, but indeed there are others.

A shifty fellow named Stanton, who never missed an opportunity to make a joke. Often at my expense. For instance, we were all gathered in the lobby of one of the countless seedy hotels we were forced to endure, preparing to check out, when Stanton rushed up to me and asked in a rather urgent tone whether I had left the traditional $50 gratuity in my room. Not being one so innocent and gullible as to fall into that trap, I told him that indeed I had, in fact I had left a considerably more sizable tip than that since my fondness for our lodgings was so overwhelming. He then took on quite a relieved look and said, "Ah well, very good then. Some of these ignorant bastards weren't aware of the gratuity law here, and if I hadn't informed them, the border guards would have certainly been notified and then the poor fools would have been jerked from the ship and beaten senseless. You know how these bloody two-bit backwater tin-stars are, eh, Heatherington?" And with that he whacked me on the back and walked away.

Now I had grave doubts about his story, but thought it wise to check with some of the others, just to be certain. Well, it seemed he'd gotten to all of them, for they all shared his fanciful tale of the doom awaiting anyone foolish enough to try and skip out on the lawfully required gratuity.

At first I thought it quite bold of him to try and dupe the entire congregation, but as the minutes ticked away and we prepared to leave, an unexplainable panic surged within me and before I knew what was happening, I was running at full speed back to my room. I had already returned my key, but luckily (or so I thought) the door was still ajar. I reached in my pocket for a fifty, but to my dismay I had only two hundred dollar bills. In fact I had made change for Stanton just that morning, the evil bastard. I rushed about the floor knocking on doors and asking for change. Those who spoke English and weren't suspicious or terrified were unable to change the bill, so with time running out I dashed back to my room and tossed a hundred dollar bill on the orange crate night stand.

I bounded down the stairs two and three at a time, only to discover our party gone, leaving me behind. I learned later that Stanton had told them I wished to stay behind for something or other, and would catch up with them at the next stop. Realizing I'd been duped by this fiend once again, I hurried back upstairs to retrieve my money. Unfortunately I had locked the door behind me this time, fearing the unattended cash would be too strong a draw for the shadowy figures that seemed to lurk about the hallways of the hotel. Back down at the desk I could find not a single hotel employee (no doubt they were already spending my money somewhere), so I had no choice but to try and catch up with the ship. I found them at the next stop after a $179 taxi ride in a twenty year old Russian Trabant driven by a dwarf with a patch over one eye and a total disregard for traffic laws.

"Good lord man," Stanton smiled, "We've been waiting here over thirty minutes! I say, are you all right?"

A few of the others snickered unashamedly as I simply walked over to Stanton and jammed a sharp pencil into the side of his neck with all the strength I could muster. The snickerers gasped and shouted, running to his aid. I hadn't hit any arteries though, and after some basic medical attention, Stanton was as good as new. He never did speak to me after that though, for which I am eternally grateful.

Then there's miss Teapott and her parasol boy, Clinton. Looking at this fragile, tiny woman you wouldn't figure her for the bold, adventurous type, but in every situation, at every God-forsaken backwoods stop, there she was, smiling ear to ear and exclaiming to everyone within earshot how "stunning" and "gorgeous" every little thing was. Whether slogging through stinkwater swamps or trudging through miles of blinding sun and snow, or even climbing the sheer face of a cliff, there she was - perched majestically atop Clinton's shoulders - proclaiming each sight "stunning" and "gorgeous."

And the others: Mr. Simmons the persnickety, Arnold Ziffle, who turned out to be a bit of a pig, Cleveland Jonestown Wilkerson Jr., a pasty faced adolescent pervert, Mr. And Mrs. Buttz, who could often be heard long into the night spanking each other, Milton DeBergerac, whom I befriended after some of the others would not refrain from taunting him about his unusually large nose, Ignatius J. Reilly, a hulking bulk of a gent who was never seen without his woolen ear-flap hat, Pirious Orginathy, who claimed to be a descendant of Marie Antoinette, Farney Brown, plumber, William B. "Billy" Braithwaite, a Southern Baptist preacher studying to be a dentist, Fritz Shoutzenhoulter, Vienna Sausage maker, and a few others who were so strange or repugnant that no one ever learned their names.

All in all though, I would have to say it was a favorable experience, peppered indeed with days of abject torment and misery. Lonely, freezing nights spent in hovel-like rooms with a single bare bulb hanging from frayed wires, food which was so bad at times, even Mr. Ziffle refused it, and of course, many landmarks of questionable historic or social significance.

I have made friends though, and we are all bound by our common experience. Some in fact, have proposed making this an annual event, meeting in different strange locales to while away the odd week or two. Everyone agrees though, we will never come back here again. The horrible memories are just too overwhelming, the bitterness and rage too fresh in all our minds. No, they'll never see us again here in Alaska.

Winging my way back to you,

Elrod

9/3/97

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