One day, a few years ago, my (now-ex) boyfriend Oz and I decided to go to Talkeetna. Now, if you haven't been there, Talkeetna is a fascinating little town. I do mean little; you can walk from one end of it to the other in about 10 minutes. But Talkeetna has an interesting and varied culture, despite its small size. It's the jumping-off point for those who want to climb The Mountain (Denali, which up here is often referred to as simply The Mountain, capitals implied). As a result of that, there is a summertime culture of outdoor enthusiasts, guides and pilots and various seasonal businesses that spring up in - well, the springtime, and persist all summer. Naturally, the tourist activities go up significantly as well: flightseeing, riverboating, fishing, what have you.
Still, despite all that human traffic, there is little in the way of car traffic, and little need for it, given the size of the town. Cars drive in and park at a convenient little parking area and then you get out and walk. You can have a nice browse around the shops, eat at one of the tasty little eateries, walk to the Talkeetna River before it dumps into the Susitna or cross the bridge and explore the opposite bank. At any rate, the main spur enters town and then takes a left-hand turn, after which it dead-ends a few hundred feet later. At the bend in the "L" is the parking area where nearly everyone gets out and walks.
The town has a decidedly counter-culture feel to it, with a wide variety of people - tough old Alaskans, hard-core mountaineers, pilots of many a stripe (professional, recreational, bush), tourists of all descriptions both from Alaska and Outside, seasonal workers, State wilderness employees, local Talkeetnans (is that a word?) - the variety is astonishing for such a small town. I don't know if it's this variety of disparate folks, or if it's some special magic of the town itself, but Talkeetna is quirky, unusual, offbeat and deeply charming in a way that takes me off guard. The most bizarre and unusual combinations seem somehow just right, when viewed from the perspective of the town's particular point of view.
I can't recall on this given day if we'd flown up and walked into town from the Talkeetna airport, or if we'd driven. In either case, we were wandering through the shops, stopping for lunch (excellent pizza), chit-chatting with various people beknownst and unbeknownst to us. I was doing some early Christmas shopping of the niece-and-nephew variety, and Oz was either browsing along with me or waiting patiently outside for me to finish my scouting.
We'd been all the way down to the end of the L and back on our wanderings, and I was checking two last shops for a raven-shaped hand-puppet. My targets were on the incoming Talkeetna Spur, right hand side of the road. A small two-door hatchback type of car pulled over on the far left shoulder, the driver jumping out to talk to a friend she'd spotted walking alongside the road. There was a sort of general squealing of delight and mutual hugging. It really wasn't a traffic hazard, there being so little traffic, even though she'd parked on the wrong side of the street and had left her car idling with its driver's-side door wide open. I glanced over at the sound of happy reunions, smiling a little, the way you do when you see people you don't even know being all bubbly and excited.
What made me smile even more was that I noticed that there was the most adorable Jack Russell in the front seat of the car. He had semi-pricked ears and a wiry, scruffily-bearded muzzle, and his little tail was straight in the air, wagging madly. He craned his little neck to look out the windows, but kept to the vehicle.
Good little dog, I thought. I would never trust MY dogs to stay in the car with me standing 15 feet away, door wide open, and the inducements of a warm summer day and lots of people all strolling back and forth, some carrying (and dropping, perforce) food of various descriptions. My dogs would probably all leap out to romp around my feet, or mug toddlers for their ice cream cones.
But this little JRT did neither, evidently taking his car-guarding duties seriously. Spying a large black Labrador ambling along the L on a leash - crossing impudently in front of the car, without so much as a by-your-leave - the Jack Russell immediately launched a challenge at the intruder. Barking furiously, he leaped to his feet, putting his forepaws on the dash for a better view and hopping up and down on his hind legs, making abortive attempts to scrabble up the curved shoulder of the dashboard. For some reason this tightened my focus on the dog. Suddenly I realized he was taller than before, and a microsecond later I saw why. He'd planted his hind feet on the automatic's on-floor gearshift.
"Um -" I said, to no one in particular. Oz looked at me. I started to point across the road, just about the same moment that the Jack's bouncy little barks produced the results that evidently my subconscious mind was anticipating. He shoved off hard with his hind feet, attempting to launch himself up onto the dash - but succeeding instead in shoving the gearshift into "drive".
It was one of those moments where you can see the impending events unfolding as if in slow motion in your mind, mere fractions of a second before they occur in real life - but you are powerless to stop them, by virtue of distance. The car began to roll forward at a stately pace. The driver, caught up in the excitement of her friends, did not, of course, hear the tires moving over the sandy verge of the road. The wide open door bumped gently against a telephone pole and slammed shut.
The Jack Russell, thrilled to be approaching his quarry, barked excitedly on.
"HEY!" I said, loudly, trying to attract attention as the car proceeded, slowly gathering speed. (I'll grant you this wasn't the most articulate thing I might have said, but somehow screaming "Dog driving car! Dog driving car!" didn't seem quite right, either.) One part of my mind is observing this all with some bemusement; it seems peculiarly fitting, in a way. It's Talkeetna. Of course there is a dog driving a car down the street. Why not?
Several strapping young men stood in the middle of the road at the L-turn, mock-punching and shoulder-bumping each other animatedly in an exuberance of testosterone and youth. One of them either heard my exclamation or noticed that the car, proceeding at a regal pace, was being piloted by none other than a small white terrier, yapping with glee as he bore slowly but inexorably down on his sworn enemy the Labrador, now passing from starboard to port across his bows. The young man leaped into action, diving at the front of the car, bracing his hands against the hood and digging in with his considerable thigh muscles to slow the car's progress. Two of his buddies and at least one random passer-by threw themselves into the fray as well, bracing their brawny chests against the hood and their feet against the silty hard-pack of the road, all the while being pushed slowly back cross it like the Spartans at Thermopylae - unfortunately without benefit of either leather loincloths or Gerry Butler.
Meanwhile, the JRT, having seen his nemesis escaping off his port bow, had moved so that he was standing behind the steering wheel. His efforts to climb the wheel for a better view levered down against the spokes of the steering wheel (whatever those are called), swinging the car into a wide left-handed arc. The Jack Russel - no doubt delighted with this turn of events, as he was now following his prey through the L of the road - celebrated by making several bank-and-turn leaps off the steering wheel. Muffled by the closed window, he none the less sounded completely demented with elation at his success.
Meanwhile, the now five young men pitting their strength against the car's forward momentum are being pushed inexorably back, their cross-trainers skidding against the road. The car is slowing, but not completely stopped, and people are towing their children briskly out of its path. The driver of the car, her attention brought at last to this scene, gives a shriek. The left front of the car is now clear of the roadside obstructions, however, and one of the car-matadors dives toward the door, yanking it open, deftly inserting himself behind the wheel and stepping hard on the brake. He manages this maneuver without allowing the JRT to escape, puts the car in "park" and shuts down the ignition.
There is general applause for the car-matadors (who aw-shucks it and shove each other around a little in bashful fashion, fugitive grins on their faces.) The driver rescues and scolds her JRT. And the Labrador escapes into the crowd, foiling the JRT's attempt at world domination via automotive mastery.
Well, after that, of course, anything else would be anticlimactic, so that pretty well put paid to my shopping for the day. I never did find the raven hand-puppet I was looking for, but on the whole, in terms of entertainment, I have to say it was a good day. I mean, how often do you get to see a Jack Russell terrier driving a hatchback down the street and steering it around a turn? For sheer offbeat charm, it's hard to improve on that.
Well... maybe if you added Gerry Butler in a leather loincloth...