Then there was Michelle Baker. We were both 13. When I first saw her she was getting snowballed by Johnny Osborne on the Resurrection Trail hike. Johnny was a big hillbilly kid who had an amazing pitching arm. The day before he was snowballing Michelle Baker he was clocking ptarmigans with rocks all up the trail. Now, a ptarmigan is not a smart bird, and will just run away if you throw rocks at it. It takes a while to remember it can fly. Still though, that is a moving target, and Johnny Osborne was clocking them right and left.
So when I saw him hucking snowballs at this girl I was a little worried. This snow was old and chunky, and I knew it would hurt when it hit, especially coming off the arm of Johnny Osborne. So I was amazed to see this girl just swatting them out of the air and smiling. Later on she arm wrestled him and beat him. She was challenging everybody around and crushing all takers, but for some reason she kept skipping over me. She would not arm wrestle me.
It made me feel extra wimpy to be pitied by a girl like that, but also a little bit relieved to be spared the shame of being beaten by girl. Plus I started noticing how hot she was. She was obviously a tomboy, but she just as obviously had nice boobs. She tried to hide them under a baggy three-quarter length T-shirt, but they resisted being tamed. She wore makeup too, a little bit too much, but she wore it in the metal way with lip liner and lots of eye shadow, and she teased her hair up irreverently with hairspray. That was exciting, and even moreso because her look was so incongruous with the pristine wilderness setting we were in. She also talked like a Valley girl, but that was 1983 in Alaska, so I had no idea what that meant. I just knew it was cool and kind of trashy, and it helped me fall in love with her.
The Resurrection Trail hike was a big church event held every summer. The youth from all the Nazarene churches in Alaska would get together and spend five days hiking over this mountain range. We would hike all day, then make camp, play games and do churchy stuff in the evening. Michelle Baker and I got together on that hike. And by got together I mean we talked sometimes (overusing the words “totally”, “like” and “cool”, which she pronounced “coo-all”), looked at each other from across the fire pit during the evening churchy parts, and I guess that’s about all. I had never had a girlfriend before, and was super shy, so I had no idea what to do. She was this tough metal chick around other people, but with me she got just as shy and hesitating as I was.
The Resurrection Trail ended and she went back to Anchorage and I went the opposite direction back to Kenai, and I didn’t see her again until the next big church thing several months later. In the meantime we worked on our budding romance in the safe space of long letters. She wrote hers in loopy girl script, in purple glitter pen on colored paper that she scented with perfume. I wrote mine on whatever. What did we write about? Metal bands we liked (mainly Def Leppard), outrageous shit that happened at school, outrageous shit that we had to put up with from our fuckin’ parents, and how much we liked each other and couldn’t wait for our next chance to meet. Lots of exclamation points. Lots of Xs and Os.
We only saw each other three or four more times that year. There was church camp, the state fair, the all night youth bowling thing, and I went to her church when my family drove up to Anchorage for shopping. In contrast to the passion of our letters, we were just as standoffish as ever when we got together. We managed to hold hands a little bit, but at the bowling thing we didn’t even talk at all the whole night. We were both getting into the dark, morose teen thing. She was getting very metal, and she smoked, which I thought was so rad. We both thought church was total BS, although it was useful for getting together. Her dad was a pig, and I got to hear about that a lot. In fact she had quite a few problems, including being disgustingly fat, so I spent more and more time listening and consoling on those points.
The next summer there was the hike again. I was tenting with my best friend Charlie, who hooked up with Krystal, and he and she got busy making out right off the bat. I realized I was way behind in that area. I stepped up the handholding but was having a really hard time making my move to the next level. She was completely passive, and was not helping me at all. At church camp she seemed even more distant and morose than usual, and she was starting to talk about killing herself. That was a buzzkill for sure. One night during the churchiest part of the prayer meeting she collapsed and had to be taken back to her cabin. I never found out what was the matter but it was a pretty good sign that things were going downhill. Her letters kept coming but they were more and more devoted to her many troubles. I was still madly in love, so my stomach was in knots with worry over her. I was far away and could do nothing to help her.
The last time that I remember seeing her I was determined to go in for a kiss. We were in the woods behind Krystal’s house. Michelle was just standing there expectantly, looking off to one side. I was looking at her and talking, trying to figure out what to do. I couldn’t figure it out so I kept talking. I told her I really wanted to kiss her. She didn’t say anything. I said, I’m gonna do it. Silence. I couldn’t move. I stopped talking but I still couldn’t move. Eventually I started talking again, about some random thing, and we moved off to join the others.