"You've figured out Joel's crazy," our waitress said as she topped off my girlfriend's coffee.
It wasn't a question.
After spending half the day before with Joel it was pretty clear, even to a couple of outsiders like us, that Joel wasn't towing a full load and that was before we heard the stories and Joel told us as much himself.
Joel makes his living off the misfortunes of others. That's not to say he doesn't provide a valuable service, he does. It's just that you'd rather not meet Joel if you don't have to.
In other words, Joel owns a tow truck.
He operates his truck along the Canadian stretch of the Alaska Highway that runs through the Yukon Territory along Lake Kluane. Joel's operations are based in a place whose name could not be better for business: the town of Destruction Bay.
My girlfriend and I met Joel in late October, shortly after our little red Subaru came to rest on its driver's side in a snow field and my girlfriend stopped screaming, "OoomahGod! OoomahGod! Are you all right! Are you all right!" as she dangled and flailed from the passenger's seat in the air overhead.
Her seat belt restrained her body, but didn't do much to control her panic.
Not that I was any calmer. My own level-headed, shriek reflex went something like, "OK! OK! Get out! Get out!"
I was mildly concerned about burning alive. The engine was still running, you see, and I had no idea where the gas was going, plus, action movies had taught me than if you so much as wink at a capsized vehicle it will burst into flames.
We were moving to Kenai from Syracuse, N.Y., and I, for one, couldn't remember why we thought this was a good idea.
While we waited for the tow truck to arrive, an elderly German man, who had been the first to stop, served us tea in the back of his VW camper van the kind from the '70s equipped with a built-in sink, stove and hard little sofa that pulls out into a harder little bed.
As we made ourselves uncomfortable on the little sofa, he told us he was a documentary film maker, pointed out the windshield and said he was hoping to catch a couple rams butting heads on Sheep Mountain.
"It's mating zeezon, you know," he said, in a thick German accent.
We didn't know, and frankly, it was hard to care, with our clothes, which had been riding in a nylon cargo carrier on the roof, now accessorizing the road side. It didn't help that all our host had to say about the accident was, "People are zo stupid. Zey drive zeeze roads too fazst."
That's all he had to say on the subject, but he said it about a thousand times.
I never did figure out if he was intentionally calling me an idiot me being the driver of the wreck or if he was just a poor conversationalist.
Still, he poured a mean cup of Darjeeling.
We had a stiffer drink with Joel, in the bar of the restaurant/motel/gas station that pretty much is Destruction Bay, after he towed us the 20 miles to town.
Joel is a big guy in his late 50s or early 60s. He told us he was an American veteran who moved to DB years ago to stay out of trouble, but trouble still seemed to find him. He said he'd once rear-ended some guys who'd made him mad and shoved their truck off the road into a snow bank. The guys brought charges, but they were dismissed.
"I was only jokin'. It was just guys workin' things out," he told us.
Still, he'd gotten in less trouble in DB, with its population of 26, than he would if he lived in a place with more people, he said.
"If I wasn't livin' here, I'd probably be in jail or killed someone, or I'd be dead."
Joel paused a moment to think about the gravity of what he'd just said, then grinned.
"I used to get a lot crazier when I drank more," he said, before he killed the rest of his Bud and offered to buy the next round.
The next morning, after refilling our coffee, our waitress took a seat at our table and explained what she meant when she said Joel was crazy. She wasn't gossiping, she just wanted us to know what's what, she said.
Andrea told us she liked Joel, but that didn't change the fact that last summer he'd threatened to strangle her and her boyfriend, albeit by mistake.
Andrea had totaled her truck and her boyfriend got the bright idea one night, after a couple beers, to salvage the stereo from her truck, which Joel was storing for her at his house.
It was after midnight when Joel heard them. Andrea said he came charging out the door, red-faced with rage, brandishing one of those long, metal flashlights like a club and screaming, "Who's on my property?! I've got piano wire! I've got piano wire!"
Joel calmed down before he strangled anyone, but told her that this is how people get themselves killed.
Another time, she said, Joel showed up at the restaurant in the middle of the day with his flashlight and just sat, for a long time, in the corner. Andrea asked if he'd brought the flashlight because he was planning on sitting there until dark.
"I'm meeting someone," Joel said, and smacked his palm a couple times with the flashlight. "He owes me money."
She wasn't telling any secrets, Andrea said. In a town of 26, this was all common knowledge. Joel had a temper, but would never actually hurt anyone. Still, she thought we should know Joel could get a little crazy.
A little crazy or not, I'm glad I met Joel and that he was there when we needed him.
Personally, I like crazy. I wouldn't want to live in a world that wasn't a little crazy. Crazy adds color. Living in a world that wasn't a little crazy would be like being confined to a beige room, in a beige house, where everyone wore a beige uniform you know, prison.
Who's to say what's "crazy," anyway. One person's crazy is another person's epiphany.
Amazingly, the next day the insurance company paid to tow my little red Subaru wagon on a flat bed the final 900 miles to Kenai. However, since Joel didn't own a flat bed, we had to hire another driver. We rode along in the cab and arrived at midnight, some 15 hours later.
The northern lights weren't putting on a show, but I swear the sky was brighter than a couple days before, and more colorful.
Mark Harrison is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.
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