Heroes of the Frontier
In his latest novel, Dave Eggers follows Josie, a former dentist escaping the loss of her practice and a divorce, and her two children, Ana and Paul, as they take a road trip through Alaska. In this exclusive excerpt, they break into an abandoned ranger’s cabin to wait out a wildfire and hide from a man who Josie is convinced is pursuing them.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
In the afternoon, having slept through the day, Josie felt reborn. She raised herself from the futon, feeling unaccountably strong, and noticed that her children were nowhere in sight.
She called to them. No answer. She leapt up, her heart in her mouth. She pictured a pair of wolves carrying them off. She yelled their names.
“Out here,” Paul said.
She threw open the door to find Paul and Ana outside, on the gravel walkway, huddled around a black mass of fur.
“What is that?” Josie roared. The fur shook and whimpered.
“It’s a dog,” Ana said, and took its face in her hands and turned it toward Josie, as if to demonstrate the nature of the species to her unknowing mother.
“It was scratching at the door,” Paul said.
They’d opened the door, and the dog had quickly slipped inside. “We didn’t want to wake you up, so we brought her out here,” Paul said. He was telling the truth. He was frighteningly considerate. But whose animal was this?
“Does he have a collar?” she asked.
“Just this,” Ana said, and pulled a plastic flea collar from its neck. Ana had moved to the side, revealing the full shape of the dog. It was tiny and black and looked like a malnourished pig, with short hair and triangular ears.
“It’s shivering,” Josie noted.
“She’s hungry,” Paul said.
“Keep your hands away from its mouth,” Josie said.
“Her mouth,” Paul said. “It’s a girl.”
“If you get bitten you’ll be in the hospital for days,” Josie said. “And we’re not near any hospitals.”
“Can we feed her?” Paul asked.
“Did you name her yet?” Josie asked. “Ana did,” Paul said.
“Follow,” she said.
“That’s her name: Follow,” Paul clarified.
“Because she followed us,” Ana said. Last year she named a fish Waterlover.
“I thought you said she scratched at the door,” Josie said.
Paul had a way, when caught even in the whitest of lies, of staring at Josie, unblinking, for a few long seconds before he spoke. It was not done out of any sense of strategy. It was more that he was seized by, inhabited by, a kind of truth spirit that insisted upon full revelation. He took a deep breath and began.
“We went outside. Just to get some sticks,” he said, indicating a small pile of sticks that, with orange duct tape, they’d made into swords. “When we were walking back, she started following us. We closed the door, and she started scratching on it.”
Paul exhaled in a quick burst, as if in punctuation and relief. He was happy to have gotten through it, the unadulterated truth. His posture relaxed and he allowed himself to blink.
“Can we feed it?” he asked again.
So they had a dog. They brought Follow inside, and fed her old fried chicken and salad, and she devoured it. Josie knew what a bad idea it was to feed a stray like this, but the animal seemed traumatized, unable to stop shivering. She conjured a narrative whereby she was the ranger’s dog, but had run away, and the ranger, unable to find her, had left without her. Then she’d returned to find him gone, the door locked, and her tiny self surrounded by a murderers’ row of higher carnivores only too happy to lunch on her vibrating flesh. Somehow she’d survived the days since, but was a wreck of nerves and was starving to boot.
Josie examined the dog, looking for cuts or fleas or some sign of disease, and found her to be startlingly clean for a dog that had been out in the wild for days or weeks. “You can pet her,” she told her children, and she sat on the futon, watching them fawn over Follow, as the dog shook and ate, and shortly after eating, fell fast asleep. They continued to pet her black fur as she slept, as she breathed unevenly, her hind legs periodically jabbing at the floor.
Josie had the feeling that with Follow, they had become some kind of frontier family. They broke windows and altered gates. They took in strays. And they hadn’t even been in the cabin one night. The kids would not leave Follow, so they stayed inside as the night came on, and Josie built a fire, and the winds outside whistled an eerie tune. The cardboard they’d taped over the kitchen window inhaled and exhaled but held. She brought her children with her under the covers, and they slept through the night, Paul’s arm hanging to the floor, where he could be sure of Follow’s well-being.
A ringing woke her. It was still dark, the fire weak. Who could be calling? She hadn’t even seen a phone. She slipped out of bed and to the kitchen, hoping the kids would sleep through it. In the dark she swept her hands over the counter, and finally, under a pile of maps, found a landline. It was still ringing. Three rings, four, each one rattling the cabin. She couldn’t pick it up. Finally after six rings, it ended.
Paul and Ana were still asleep, but Josie knew she would be awake for hours. She brought a chair out to the deck and sat, jittery, listening to the night, running through possibilities. She wanted to believe the phone call was random, or simply intended for the ranger who lived there. But then there was the possibility that it was Follow’s owners. Or the process server. Or the police.
No one is looking for us, she told herself. She even manufactured a scoff, meant to put herself at ease.
It was Ana, alone, on the porch. Josie couldn’t remember Ana ever getting out of bed alone. Usually, when she was out of bed after hours, it was part of a scheme Paul had conceived, a dual attack meant to prove that sleep was impossible for all in the house. Really, though, it meant that Paul hadn’t been able to sleep, had woken up Ana and brought her with him. Only Paul was burdened with the near-death implications of sleep and the night’s invitation to consider mortality and insignificance. Ana was too young to have come to these places.
She was standing in the doorway, her mass of red hair matted on one side, misshapen and a faded shade of orange, like the last pumpkin chosen from the patch. Her hands were stuck to either side of the doorframe, as if she were holding the two sides at bay.
“Are we staying here tomorrow?” she asked. “I think so. Maybe for a few days,” Josie said.
“Really?” Ana said, and her face and shoulders dropped in one beautifully coordinated collapse.
Ana had similar sentiments last winter, when they were headed back to school after holiday break.
“Do I go to school this week?” she had asked.
“Yes,” Josie had said.
“And the week after that?”
Ana had been astonished. Winter break had brought something different each day, and now, going back to school, where things did not vary so much day to day, offended her. The repetitive nature of the system assaulted her sense of the heroic possibilities of a day.
“Go to bed,” Josie said, but instead Ana came and crawled on her lap and pretended to suck her thumb.
“Don’t worry, Josie,” Ana said. “I won’t tell Paul.” Now she gave Josie one of her looks, a conspiratorial look that said they could drop all the formalities and role-playing, the silly game of parent and child.
“I don’t like you calling me Josie,” Josie said.
“Okay, Mom,” Ana said, making the word sound absurd.
“Go to bed,” Josie said, pushing Ana off her lap. Ana fell to the rough porch in a heavy theatrical heap. She crawled back into the house, and though Josie expected to hear from her again, after ten minutes there was no sign that Ana was awake, which meant, for Ana—who usually fell asleep in seconds and stayed that way till morning—that she was actually asleep.
As if in protest at losing Ana for the dark hours, the howl of a coyote spiraled through the night.
The ringing again. Josie opened her eyes, saw that her children were already awake, huddled around Follow as she ate beef jerky, her tiny jaws snapping.
“Who’s calling, Mom?” Paul asked.
“Wrong number,” she said.
Josie realized that the presence of a dog did not help their situation. They wanted to be invisible, but wasn’t there a chance Follow’s owners would return for her? She had the thought that perhaps Follow belonged to someone else nearby, and that like many a puppy, she had simply been exploring when she encountered Paul and Ana and followed them to the cabin door. There was a chance the owners knew the ranger, that the dog had come here before, and they were calling to check if he’d seen her. Or there was the possibility that it was simply a telephone, that people made calls, that it rang, and none of it had anything to do with Josie and her children. She could unplug the phone, but what if the ranger called, found out it had been disconnected? She had to leave it be.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she said, not telling Paul and Ana that she thought there was at least some chance that Follow would lead them to her actual owner and real home. And so Josie packed a backpack with crackers and water from the bubbler, they tied a rope to Follow’s flea collar and made their way up through the mine and into the woods beyond. The animal was tentative still, walking ahead, then circling back to the children, then running ahead for a spell before coming back again. She was either a deeply troubled dog or not very bright.
When they reached a stand of birch trees, though, some sense of purpose seized the dog, and she led them down a steady slope until they heard the sound of rushing water. Follow brought them to a narrow stream cut through a tight valley, and drank deeply from the rushing water.
“Mom?” Paul said. “Where do languages come from?”
He wanted to know why there was Italian and Hindi and Swahili, and not just English, and why they spoke English, and was English the best language? Josie made a brief stab at the origin of languages, the vicissitudes of distance and isolation in the formation of foreign tongues. People living far from anyone else, she explained, as they were, might be the sorts of people who created their own tongue. They could, she said, create their own words for anything, and to demonstrate, she held up a rock in the shape of a man’s head. “I could call this kind of rock tapatok, for example,” she said. “And from then on all the people who came after us would call it tapatok.”
Ana picked up a rounder rock. “I call this Dad.”
“Dad is already a word,” Paul said. “And why would you call that Dad?” His mood darkened, and Ana took note. Paul went down to the water to pet Follow, taking her into his tiny lap. Ana followed, then was distracted by something else, her head tilted. She took a few steps forward, stepping into a grassy bouquet of wildflowers, dropped the rock and pointed up.
There, cut through the cliffside above them, was a narrow white plume falling from fifty feet above. They all wordlessly agreed to walk to the waterfall. When they got close, the volume was far greater than it had seemed from the path. For a moment the faling water seemed utterly sentient, falling with joyous aggression to the earth, spitefully suicidal. The spray reached them first, and they stopped, sat, and watched the waterfall’s ghostly white fingers. In the wall of mist, rainbows shot off like birds taking flight. Follow kept her distance.
Josie strode to the waterfall, stepping on the wet stones, trying to find a way not to soak herself, and when she was close enough, she put her hand under the flow, feeling its strength and its numbing cold.
“Can we drink it?” Paul asked.
Josie’s instinct was to say no, of course not, but already the woods had calmed her, opened her, so she did something that she wanted to do but normally would not have done. She took their thermos out of the backpack, emptied it, and then held it under the rush. Immediately her hand was soaked, her arm was wet to the shoulder, and the bottle was full.
She turned to Paul and Ana, seeing their astounded faces, and raised the bottle to the sun and sky to see if it was clear. Josie and her children saw the same thing, that the water was perfectly transparent. There were no particles, no sand, no dirt, nothing. Josie brought it to her lips and Paul took a quick intake of breath.
“Is it good?” Paul asked.
“It’s good,” she said, and gave it to him.
He took a sip and smacked his lips. He nodded and handed it to Ana, who drank without caution. After she took her fill, Paul asked, “Are we the first to drink from this?” He meant the waterfall, but Josie took some liberty with her interpretation. This water, flowing at this moment? Yes, they were the first.
The days were like this, each was miles long and had no aim or no possibility of regret. They ate when they were hungry and slept when they were tired, and they had nowhere to be. Every few days Ana would ask, “Are we living here?” or “Are we going to school here?” but otherwise both children seemed to sense their time in the cabin was a kind of respite, apart from any calendar, that there was no inevitable end. In the mornings, Paul and Ana drew and played board games and cards, and near noon they walked to the waterfall, to splash in the shallow water. They were in the woods now, and the woods were unbreakable. Ana acted nobly, and her face shone with an otherworldly glow. Children, Josie realized, are truly like animals. Give them clean foods and water and fresh air, and their coats will be shiny, their teeth white, their muscles supple and skin bright. But indoors, contained, they will become mangy, yellow-eyed, riddled with self-inflicted wounds.
In those long days at the Peterssen Mine, Paul and Ana made bows from bent sticks and rubber bands. They created and destroyed dams in the river, they piled rocks to make walls and rock castles. They read by candlelight. Josie taught Paul how to start a fire in the hearth. They napped some afternoons, and other afternoons they explored the buildings of the old mine, the midday sun coming through the porous roofs in white bolts, dozens of tiny spotlights illuminating dust and rust and tools not held for a hundred years.
There were a hundred uncomplicated hours in every day and they didn’t see a soul for weeks. Was it weeks? They no longer had a grasp of the calendar. During the day all was quiet but for the occasional scream of a bird, like a lunatic neighbor; at night, the air was alive with frogs and crickets and coyotes. Paul and Ana slept deeply and Josie hovered over them, like a cold night cloud over rows of hills warmed all day in the sun.
They were growing in beautiful ways, becoming independent, and forgetting all material concerns, were awake to the light and the land, caring more about the movement of the river than any buyable object or piece of school gossip. She was proud of them, of their purifying souls, the way they asked nothing of her now, they slept through the night, and relished the performing of chores, liked to wash their clothes—and they were immeasurably better now than they were in Ohio. They were stronger, smarter, more moral, ethical, logical, considerate, and brave. And this was, Josie realized, what she wanted most of all from her children: she wanted them to be brave. She knew they would be kind. Paul was born that way and he would make sure Ana was kind, but to be brave! Ana was inherently courageous, but Paul was learning this. He was no longer afraid of the dark, would plunge into any woods with or without a light. One day, on her way back from the woods, she caught the two of them on the hillside near the cabin, both barefoot, gently shushing through the shallow leaves with their bows, watching something invisible to her. She turned, scanned the forest, and finally saw it, a ten-point buck, walking through the birches, his back straight and proud. Her children were mirroring it on the other side of the hill, unheard by the deer. They had turned into something else entirely.
All along she had been looking for courage and purity in the people of Alaska. She had not thought that she could simply—not simply, no, but still—create such people.