Right Place, Wrong Time

About two weeks ago, sometime after midnight, I found myself in a blanket nest on the living room floor of Alison and Matt’s place in Talkeetna. My mission was to keep Silna from hopping on the kitchen counter and raiding the cupboards while also keeping Crozier from breaking a window in his incessant inside-outside all-night-long dance. Dogs can be a real headache at sleepovers, and it was Alan’s turn to get a good night’s sleep, so I was on duty.

To keep myself busy, I was browsing the internet for cool property listings. Alaska is overflowing with them, and I love reading about all of the amazing places I could someday live or visit. It’s fun to spin up a little fantasy around the spare descriptions and the features of the maps. I have a few sites that I check pretty regularly (some people have instagram, I have Alaskaslist) and so when I came upon this listing I knew it hadn’t been up long.

photo cred: Alan

It was beautiful: it looked like Arctic Village and was at about the same latitude. There were two cabins on ninety acres in a river valley open to the south. It was at the confluence of two waterways, and way far up the Dalton: remote enough to be wild, but still pretty road-accessible. The property line was only steps away from Gates of The Arctic National Park, a place I’d fantasized about visiting for years. I’d never seen anything like it. My heartbeat started pounding – I swear, I had an actual physical response to this listing – and my imagination kicked up to warp speed: I was there, riding my Bravo through the trees, snowshoeing with Silna, setting up the second cabin as a rental, teaching my imaginary kids to fish in the little pond and snare bunnies on the trail.

I’m not one to fantasize idly. I wanted this thing, and I knew it wouldn’t be listed long. It was priced way under what I’d think was its real value. So I got into gear and started doing my homework. What would it take to get up the Dalton to have a look? How much money could I scrape together for a down payment?

Within a few days, Alan was in and he’d gotten his dad to agree to cosign on a land loan through a local credit union. Those imaginary kids were looking blonder by the second, and now, look! Here’s Alan, teaching them to hunt ducks and pan for gold in the creek that runs down the middle of the property! Looks like he just got in from a sheep hunt in the Endicotts, let me go make him some cinnamon rolls in our wood-burning cookstove.

photo cred: Jane!

Within two days, the loan application was filed and we had an arctic oven tent (mine is still up north with Geoff, whose comment on this whole thing was, “good luck, better get it before Neil Young snaps it up”) and a satellite phone rented and ready to pick up in Fairbanks. By the end of the week we had everything packed and were waiting with bated breath for the Alaska DOT to declare the road passable after a wind event. When we got the news that it was, we threw everything into the Bronco and headed out to pick up Jane (who is always game for an adventure). The Bronco promptly broke down, but we were offered a loaner truck as an alternative (thank you Madison!) and were on the road by noon.

Does this all seem a little rushed to you? Me too, frankly, but this is Alaska! What’s Alaska without a rush and a boom? North to the Future!

And you know what? We made the drive up without incident. We snowshoed across the Dietrich in the dark and pitched our tent near the smaller of the two cabins by the light of our headlamps. We had a bad scare when Crozier got himself caught in a wolf trap (I’m working on a whole essay about that, so I won’t say more about it now; the details are coming eventually) but he came through not too much the worse for wear. The whole experience was overwhelming and dangerous and vital in the dark, and in the half-light of day it was overwhelming and dangerous and vital and stunningly beautiful.

photo cred: Jane again! She takes some pretties ❤

I don’t think the sun ever made it up over the horizon while we were there, but we got to drink in that pale light that shines out of everything in the far north in the winter: I think I was starved for it. We poked around the cabins, found the spring and the creek, snowshoed into Gates of the Arctic.

photo cred: Jane! I absolutely adore this picture of Silna.
We made it into Gates of the Arctic!

When I stood on the frozen pond and looked back at the cabin, I spun up that dream, letting tentative feelers creep out of my heart and wrap themselves around the mountains and the creek. I fell in love with the place a little. It was the same rush and thunder, the same confluence of dizzying fear and reckless courage that I’ve felt at the start of every new romance in my life.

photo cred: Jane

In the evening, the mountains blushed with alpenglow as we packed up our camp. I was terrified of the enormity of the thing, but ready to do whatever it took to get my name on the title to that place. I was a total basketcase the whole time we were there, trying to take it all in and make sure we were being safe and asking myself, is this real? Am I really going to do this? Sorry, Jane and Alan, thanks for putting up with me.

With everything packed up, we drove south again, watched the sickle moon throw light on the mountains, and stopped in Coldfoot for dinner at the farthest north truck stop. Their burgers are surprisingly good. It sank in on that drive: I was in love again. I would give up everything in my life to start a new one in that place.

photo cred: Jane

But in the end, someone with ready cash beat us to the punch.

I was gutted. I still am.

But this is Alaska – some other remarkable thing will turn up sometime soon. I’ve already got a few ideas.

Skiing, snowshoeing, getting a little frosty, a little eccentric

It’s been all about the skiing with me lately. I’ve been out every day for a while now, excluding travel days and Fairbanks days. It’s like flying, when you hit your rhythm, and it’s a quiet way to move over the snow. I love it.

DSC04001 This is from last week, when Angel kept Ben, Terri and me company on an afternoon turn around the village. I miss that sunshine: it’s been cloudy here for ages now, and with the tipping of the earth, we’re only getting a few hours of daylight: I come to school in the dark and head home in the twilight. I ski every evening in blue half-light under the heavy clouds. Before too long, the sun won’t break the trees anymore, and the shadows will disappear into the deeper shadows until spring. I’m hoping for clear skies soon soon soon.

DSC04007 DSC04009I went snowshoeing outside of Fairbanks this weekend with a new friend. I flew to town to see some kids at boarding school in Nenana, but the weather was crap and I didn’t make it out to them. I ran a few errands (bought a sled, a bunch of ice cream for the school, and some parsnips) and had some food that I didn’t have too cook, but the best part of the weekend was easily the part where I was miles from Fairbanks, playing in the woods.

Scott broke trail the whole way as we climbed a steep hill and then hiked along a windy ridge. Stretching my legs and actually climbing for the first time in months felt awesome. By dusk, we’d only made it about four miles, and, with the wind whipping our tracks off the ridgeline and the flagging tape that marked the path buried in a rock-candy snow-crust, we opted to turn around rather than risk getting lost in the dark. The windward sides of both our faces prickled white with frost as the sun went down and we crunched back along the ridge. Later, sheltered in the trees, we all but skied down the mountain using the snowshoes to control the tumbling, galloping roll that gravity gave us. I loved it. That feeling of falling and the soft snow spraying all around made me giddy. The rest of the weekend I could take or leave, but that part was awesome. DSC04015 DSC04014

I haven’t wanted to stop moving since I got home. I went for a walk with some of my middle schoolers today, and skied to the post office after school to look for letters.

It really felt like coming home. When Pat dropped me off at Wright’s on Sunday, I felt a huge sigh burst out of my chest. I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath, but I guess I was. While I waited for my plane, a former student pulled me aside and asked me to bring her son home to Venetie and his grandparents. I boarded the plane with her kid on my hip and he fell asleep in my lap as soon as we lifted off the ground, a bush baby for sure, lulled by the engine’s drone and the smooth ride. I felt so comfortable, sitting with that warm little kid in his batman hat in my arms and watching the roads and the parking lots and the nasty brown slush peculiar to roads and parking lots wink out of existence below us. I was relieved to see Fairbanks disappear, ready to resume my real life, to be back in the bush.

Real life. A year ago, this week, I quit my job in Arkansas. I’d never been to Alaska. I’d never heard of Venetie. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

I have arrived. In so many ways, I have arrived. This independence and remoteness is my natural habitat.

I’m getting eccentric, though, I think. All I can think about when I think about going back to town is how much I hate parking lots.