Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Long, Dark and Snowy Road

In mid-February, wind-raged snow blustered outside the window as the Nor'easter picked up force on Saturday and continued through Monday morning. The landscape was an unceasing swirling white of steady flakes through day and night. I'd lost 2 shifts on the retail job for lack of work. When the day brightened on Monday morning, I was restless. The sounds of the news from my father's office and the classical music from my mother's kitchen radio were a discordant duet. For the first time in many years, I was in a live-in relationship where those that loved me cared about every move.

After shoveling the little deck and readying for a night shift, a subtle cloud of worry emerged around the 7-mile drive to work. The fears of my own (going off the road, getting stuck) were manageable, I was troubled by the potential of how the incident would impact the peace of their daily life, creating a small drama to become a part of family lore. The obstacles that I had tackled alone for many years were now faced with people who loved me and were physically present nearly all the time.

As I drove, there were drifts of snow in small stretches of fields in between the forests. I recollected the decision, made in 1995, to drive alone through the Yukon Territory during a deep cold wave. There was a deadline. The warnings of other people weren't strong enough to overcome my imprudent choice to carry on with the trip.

I was working for a small ecotourism trade association in the coastal community of Valdez. That first winter in Alaska was tough. Atypically, there was little snow. Blades of grass crunched, dust blew and I would trudge across an open ball field to a lonely office, and then return to a room in a trailer home that I'd rented from a traveling ice climber. My housemate shoveled snow and mowed lawns for a living. Lee was a lanky, long-haired, dim bulb of sweetness.

One night Lee asked me to go camping.  He didn’t have a car.  "We’ll go 4-wheeling Ellen", he said, as I drove carefully on the rough, rocky road up the mountain on the back side of town. The air was terrifically crisp, deep space clear, cold and unforgiving.   

We hustled into sleeping bags and ground covers, then covered again with blankets and a tarp. Our breath crystallized along the edge of our respective mustaches and hats. The northern lights flew and flowed. We were silent through the night. Amid that resplendent and magical song of the arctic skies, there was really very little to say.

Days later in January, as the job hired a new Director and needed to move the office to Juneau, I left just before first light to make the journey through the Yukon Territory to Haines. As I descended into the valley on the north side of Thompson Pass, I watched the frost creep out across the windshield. An 8-inch circle, directly above the full force heat blower, was the only spot remained clear for the road ahead.

I was dressed in heavy layers top and bottom. A bag at the ready for the small things I would need on the journey:  a hot thermos, extra layers, a book, a headlamp, calories, a collection of cassette tapes. My old Land Cruiser wagon was filled with computers, paper files and my own meager baggage.  

Here is the only photo of Buck the Truck that I could find.
This was taken on the return trip from Juneau to Anchorage
 about 4 years later.
With only a few hours of light for driving, my boss arranged an overnight stay with a member of the association that I worked for. I pulled into his driveway as the late afternoon slipped into darkness. The light of the outdoor freezer was on despite the fact that it was colder outside than inside. The house was a 100-degree difference than the temperature outside, a balmy 80. The large screen TV dominated the room. He mentioned that I'd sleep in a recliner downstairs, where it would be warmer.

"I'll show you around." he said, as we walked over to the nearby cabin where his hunting clients stay during the summer. The wolves were hanging there, swingingly slightly as we entered the space.  Their pelts deep and rich, soft and hairs just a little flexible despite the cold.
 "They are still being processed." he said, "I need to scrape them down again."
I noticed the small bits of flesh and muscle still on the pelts.    
"Can’t do it now.  Have to wait until it warms up."

The car was dead in the morning, not a glimmer of energy in the engine despite the block heater being plugged in. It was then about 30 below zero.  I’d also left it in gear overnight, a rookie mistake. My host fetched a piece of kindling and jammed it between the seat and the clutch pedal.

"We gotta warm it up enough to get it back in gear." He grumbled. I had now become something to deal with. He trotted off to the shed and returned with a can of propane and a long tube of metal with what looked like a soup can on the end.  He propped it up under the car, lit the burner and we watched and waited against the backdrop of tiny and resilient black spruce in this small cabin in the woods. The battery turned. The gear released. In hours, I was on my way again.
This day was the longest stretch between Tok and Haines Junction. I felt a small nip of frostbite on a fueling stop and felt the surge of the 18-wheelers as they passed me. They were my only companions on the road. The passage was a determined exercise of trust and faith. I pulled into the roadhouse in the early night, had dinner and resolved to wake up and start the car every 2 hours to prevent yet another freeze up. At 4 am, I sleepily rationalized that I'd let it go just a couple hours. By 6:30, the car was dead and I needed to get a tow to the garage in town. Then, I headed on the final leg. The open flow of the Chilkat River and the above zero balminess of the coast was a palatable relief. The ferry left for Juneau hours later, off to a new home and a new life.

Berner's Bay. One of my clients enjoying the
spectacular sunset. I worked summers in the field
while doing office work in the winter. 

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