As life crashes onward at the wintry lodge, I have bested a great many foes: living in a dry cabin, drunken chainsaw lessons at night, total isolation/incessant chatter. As I continued to swat down these agents of anxiety and emotional fatigue, I felt a sense of calm welling up inside of me. Perhaps I could survive this winter, after all.
That was before I met a young Japanese couple determined to visit an unquestionably villainous place in Alaska. If Fairbanks is the Golden Heart City (a claim of which I am skeptical), then North Pole, AK is the Withered Black Heart City.
Formerly Davis, the name was changed to North Pole in the 50’s to entice toy manufacturers to set up shop there. Clearly whoever was in charge of that decision didn’t know a great deal about business. Setting up factories in remote, unpopulated locations with a harsh climate is probably not a wise business move.
So armed with the name North Pole, they figured they could build “Santa’s House”, a year-round gift-shop with seasonal ice sculptures to see, slide on, or lick. (To the sculpture’s credit, they are pretty basic, but fairly neat if you’ve never seen ice-art before) But we are here not to discuss frozen water carved into shapes. We are here to dive into the thing itself: Santa’s House.
A Rickety Contraption Skids Into The Abyss
The Japanese guests said they’d like to go to North Pole. I tried to appeal to their sense of reason.
“There’s really not much there.” I said, hoping to redirect them to something more meaningful. “Have you been to Fairbanks, yet? There’s some pretty neat stuff to see.”
But it was too late. They had read a blurb on google whatever and now they had blacked out and would stumble blindly toward santa at any cost.
And that cost happened to be $40, a number I arbitrarily chose. In hindsight, I should have doubled it. The journey was long, treacherous, and our only vehicle was a sub-functional Nissan Pick-up. I’m not a guide, nor am I a taxi driver, so I’m sure it was illegal, but I also needed that money. (I still do, so please give me money for this writing.) A few things of note from our drive:
- The roads were awful and I was fairly certain that I would kill us all. There was a line of cars trailing behind us as I drove about 25 miles under the limit. Roads outside Fairbanks are well-maintained, but at -20 Fahrenheit, I’m always nervous.
- The Nissan pick-up really only seats two. The woman had to lean into her husband, her legs awkwardly askew to get clear of the clutch. She claimed it was fine.
- It smelled strongly of dog, oil, and gas, and no doubt removed at least a few hours from our lives
- My window had no handle to roll up and was slightly down, causing part of my face to get cold and numb when I drove.
But after twenty minutes of driving, we saw the first candy-cane street-light. They are shaped and colored like candy-canes, which is of course why North Pole has an absurdly high rate depression, drug use, and violent crimes. There are about 2,100 residents, and I don’t doubt that smallness+isolation+weather+year-round holiday “cheer”=depression.
We pulled into “Santa’s House” which, to me, looks like a sort of slapdash Nordic barn of some kind. I had been here, once, in January. It was packed. Families, lifeless automatons that they were, traipsed through the snow guffawing at imprisoned Reindeer, sliding on ice-slides (okay, I have no snarky comment for that, because again, it’s pretty neat), and of course, entering the sacred home of the omnipotent amalgam of so many unrelated belief systems, all tied up in a pro-consumer, pro-capitalist ribbon: Santa Clause.
Michael Negotiates The Rising Tide of Cheer
The scene is at once familiar and jarring inside. All the trappings we’ve come to expect from the holiday rush are present and accounted for: saccharine music and fudge that’s equally so, children with eyes pried-wide by the prospect of acquiring new toys, and parents with a drifting and sleepless look on their faces. This scene is different from the norm of last-minute pre-holiday mania because the volume has been turned up to 10 on all channels, so to speak. It’s like a photo of the consumerist idea of Christmas that has had the saturation turned up to the point where it’s blinding and difficult to see where the human spirit ends and the evil begins. Children are everywhere. They are shrieking. The word “Santa” is yowled from every corner of the store, cutting through cheesy saxophones and croonings on holly-jolly-such-and-such. Bodies and tacky sweaters jostle through the store, turning sideways to squeeze through the corridors of other families. All this din is crowned, of course, by the young woman’s pronouncement into a PA system of of which family may now approach Santa. Bustling, I guess. It is bustling. Here is a rough approximation of the scene, with some minor edits for impact. Note the instance of the classically terrible dad line, when I child says she wants to see Santa and he responds: “Well, I want (something), but blah blah blah”.
Santa’s House, Dec 23, 2016
To be honest, I didn’t get a great look at Santa, ironically. Nor did I even hear his speech, or his ho ho ho-ings. Sad, given my penchant for hearing all things. However, it is justifiable in terms of self-preservation. One does not crash into the sun if they are interested in studying it, and I felt that if I approached Santa or looked directly into the scene of a small child asking him for a nerf-rifle or whatever, I would burst into flames.
Eventually, my overexposure to manufactured cheer and shrill voices had elevated me to a fugue state, and I had to escort myself out of the house. A reality wherein I scrooged everyone out of their torpor was not far off, and I couldn’t risk being arrested. I would just endure the cold and stand outside to wait for my Japanese masters. I held the door for two older ladies and one of them said, “Thank you! Sheesh, three-and-a-half hours to see Santa? No thanks!”
I could not even register that as reality. What were these ladies doing trying to see Santa? Didn’t they have lives to live? In either case, if you’re willing to be in your late 60’s and come to the end of the universe to see Santa, you should be willing to wait around a few more hours to check it off your list.
Outside, I looked out over the vast parking lot and noticed, and true Alaskan fashion that many of the cars were idling in the cold. Vans and SUVs were packed with families, and I realized many of them were whiling away their nearly four-hour wait-time confined in a car. If being on a 4 hour, motionless “road trip” with your family will not net you that new Playstation you’ve been wanting, then nothing will.
For my part, I could no longer tolerate the intense cold, but I also couldn’t risk returning into the house of our Nordic Lord. The only space left was the truck. I’m not ashamed to say that I sat in the truck and probably would have idled into old age had the Japanese couple not texted me saying they were ready to leave the wonderland.
And so I drove up to the front door, flinging open the passenger door and ushering them back into the cramped coffin and we lumbered off into the darkness, at 3:00 PM.
On the drive I asked them about their experience, but their English was limited, and my Japanese does not exist. They seemed to have a good enough time. I felt a little guilty taking their money for such an abomination, but I guess that’s life. Sometimes you get paid for saving the rainforest and sometimes you get paid for driving a dilapidated truck to Santa’s house.