Apparently spring officially began a few days ago, which feels about right. I had noticed a sharp rise in birdsong, non-lethal temperatures had begun to make appearances, and we were getting about 17 minutes of extra daylight every day. On my morning walk, I noticed that I could at last see chunks of gravel and the color brown, a shocking development since heretofore white had been the only available color on the canvas of the physical world. In a place where the natural world is basically held in a cryogenic pause except for like, 6 moose, any signs of life are highly noticeable.
Scanning the road for signs of life as I walk, The Owner of the lodge where I’ve been employed for the last 102 days drove up beside me. She was driving “my” car, which was now shared between her, the handyman and myself. It had become the community car because yesterday she and the handyman had driven over an industrial aluminum rake, puncturing 3 of the 4 tires on her beat-up Saab. When I picked them up from the gas station nearest the scene of their raking, the handyman was putting air in the tires (why?) with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Keena, a black-lab that lives at the lodge, was in the back of their car, happily wagging her tail. She knows not the agony of blowing out three tires at once. When I asked The Owner why she brought Keena into town, she turned, a look of surprise and fatigue on her face. She said neither of them had known Keena was even in the car, a startling illustration of their divorce with reality.
Anyway, as I walked, she pulled up in the silver Taurus, asking if I wanted a ride as she rolled the window down.
I always thought it dangerous to roll down any window in Fairbanks that’s more than 20 years old because of the high chance that it will never again roll up and the interior of the car will merge with the frozen landscape, frosting everything over, including your hula dancer girl. But the window was already descending so I asked her if she’d drive me to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, not far away. It’s quiet, with many small branching trails off of it, with a good chance of seeing moose, and a guarantee of seeing chickadees.
Trundling over the patchwork of ice and dirt, it looked cracked and in disrepair. Mostly, though, it was shocking to learn that there was a road under all that ice at all. I had sort of assumed that Fairbanks was perpetually covered in ice and that this “summer” thing was a work of fiction people had created to give them hope. The cold and darkness had been such reliable guests in my consciousness that I had begun to view them as permanent tenants, not the nomads that they were. As we drove, the sides of the road were still stacked with a berm of angular ice-chunks and snow, all dirty like unwashed dinner plates. Bits of dog shit were now becoming visible here and there, and the whole of the country road had a bit of an unwholesome look to it.
“You’re going to miss spring.” She commented absently as she turned onto the main road.
“Yeah, it’s kinda too bad. This transition stage looks a little gross, but I can see why people deal with winter here. I imagine spring is awesome.” I said.
“Oh yeah, well this is just the beginning. Wait till the snow really melts and all the garbage and bodies come out.” she said, matter-of-factly.
I wasn’t really sure what she meant by that.
“Bodies? What kind of bodies? Like human bodies?” I asked.
“Yeah, there’s bodies every year.”
I still didn’t really believe her. This must be melodrama or exaggeration.
“What do you mean? Like, bodies reliably show up when the snow melts to reveal them?”
“Yeah.” She said. “This isn’t Washington.”
She dropped me off at the top of a dirt road that runs parallel to the pipeline. I put my gloves on and surveyed the thin boreal forests around me which I had just learned was full of bodies.
Winter the Destroyer
One is not legally allowed to walk on the access road that follows the pipeline under prosecution of the Alyeska Corporation, but it seems to be one of those things that people do, like how it’s technically illegal to sell drugs in elementary schools, but we all still do it, of course. Clearly the locals used the pipeline access road like it’s their own back yard, as evinced by the endless smattering of footprints, tiny paw-prints, and snowmachine tracks. I stood at the top of the pipeline, and the flaking bark of the thin birch trees looked and sounded like 1,000 tiny flags.
Tiny Birch Flags
As I walked, I considered the bodies that may or may not have been all around, and to be honest, as with anything The Owner tell me, I had very little sense of what part of her admission was based in reality, if any. Most mornings she told me about the newest bit of health-science she had read, effectively rendering everything else she had ever previously known irrelevant, so I tended to regard her claims with suspicion.
The presence of frozen bodies didn’t seem impossible, given what I have personally experienced in Fairbanks, however. Given the climate, poverty, high rates of violence and murder and generally challenging nature of winter in Fairbanks, it was not incomprehensible that she was sharing a morbid fact with me, and not a dramatized myth. It’s not easy to live here. The word “survival” gets sighed a disproportionately high amount. The country can snuff out a life with shocking ease, which I think imparts a sense of respect and mandates a kind of awareness and appreciation of the natural world from people that inhabit it, even those living in the “city”, but especially outside the city limits.
I have previously taken a number of light jabs at Alaska and Alaskans, generally. I’ve routinely made fun of the eccentric lifestyles that take root here, the weird, off-kilter residents, and the general wasteland-like expanses of unending ice. While I maintain that Alaska is for weirdos of the highest-caliber, I witnessed a small seed of understanding when I saw the real Alaska emerging from underneath the seemingly interminable ice. The obvious transition to spring filled me with curiosity to see what was next and a bit of pride that I had survived a winter. Though I would not get to physically see the animated musculature of the rising Alaska, I could see that there was, in fact, a thing living, encased in ice. The country was biding it’s time until it was safe to come out again.
Alaskans: Kinda Into Nature, Kinda Into Gambling
Interior Alaskans have all kinds of rituals and symbols tied to the changing landscape. I often heard references to the symbolic moment of “break-up” when the ice on the river finally “breaks up”, making a crunchy rumbling chorus and signifying that the fun times are upon us at last. There is a whole festival involved around setting up a tripod out on a frozen river and placing bets on when it will tip over.
Locals gather at a nearby park in town and place bets on when the first migratory goose is going to show up in town. Why no one has ever thought of buying a goose and rigging the game and getting rich is beyond me.
On Solstice, Alaskans send out messages to loved ones over the radio, wishing good tidings at the long-anticipated return of the sun. There is no gambling involved in the solstice, unless you count the gamble of surviving another winter.
In these ways, it’s obvious that Alaskans are tuned into the pulse of the natural world in a way that most of us can’t relate to. While delving into ascribing a value-judgement to the modern world’s divorce from relating to and gleaning information from natural world (where now most things can be programmed into helpful alerts on one’s phone) is not what I’m going to do, I will say that there is something special in the closeness of the relationship of Alaskans to the wild thing that the boundaries of “Alaska” claim to be. (I know that sentence was awful, but I am not changing it.) I will also say that if you’re not from here like I’m not, the prospect of going to a party where people are talking about when ice will melt on a river is baffling.
The Land of Pretty Tough People
As I saw a distant dog-mushing team run between the black spruce and over several-dozen bodies, no doubt, it occurred to me that it’s the sheer inhospitality of the climate that keeps people psychologically tethered to the natural world. Everyone is a mechanic, everyone is a hunter, everyone is a fisherman, everyone is a carpenter and a handyman because everyone has to be all of these things. Only in a place where the natural world can so casually end your life would you find such a skill-set in the hands of every citizen. I, of course, don’t want to paint a simplistic image of Alaskans as bearded tough-guys and salty women, motley mechanics, technophobes, or hardcore isolationists, although let’s be real, there is plenty of that to go around. There are plenty of mechanically inept Alaskans, I’m sure, but they are a rare bird, and one that probably won’t last the winter. I probably haven’t met them because they are all in the emergency room receiving urgent care. The demands placed on residents necessitate a certain level of physical proficiency. It’s like living in San Francisco and not knowing how to google something. Those people surely exist, but they are getting pretty fringy these days.
I will say that I have become very fond of Fairbanks and I have never encountered more people that move to a place because they feel at-odds with normal social intercourse. Berries do not judge you as you pick them. Rivers do not make you question if you are “cool”. Firewood does not care if you were into Wes Anderson films before he got real popular. With no social pretense, you can be as much of a weirdo as you want to be in Alaska, and not like those “Keep Portland Weird” flavors of quirky weirdness that the whole family can enjoy (even grandma!), but legit bizarro shades of the whole spectrum. The price for admission is high, of course, because you have to be okay with living in semi-constant danger.
If you live 25 years in the Interior, you can call yourself a “sourdough”. It’s basically a badge of honor, showing that you’re not some kid who wants to have a real neat experience to go and blog about, but Alaska is your home. Like everything in Alaska, there are no shortcuts. There’s no 3-year expedite process, no workarounds; you slowly labor and survive until you earn the title. It’s a long time to avoid ending up under the ice and snow, and I can’t say it’s a badge I would strive to wear myself, but I will say that those who I’ve met that wear it have strange attributes you won’t find all over the world. Strong-minded, independent and impossible to kill, a real sourdough is a real tough loaf.
How many sourdoughs would come rising out of the snow this spring? I won’t be here to find out, but there’s probably no escaping it. Between the bears, the punishing freezes, the slick ice, and their own axe-wielding neighbors someone’s bound to lose a life out there.