Lessons from Alaska
Venturing to see the Northern Lights in February with my buddy Kay results in us deciding we don't even care if we do see the lights, after our bar-owner host takes us around on snowmachines and lets us run up a ridiculous tab consisting mainly of bloody marys. The Great White North teaches us lower 48ers a thing or two, and everyone but the salmon we eat comes out better on the other side.
SO THEY SAY:
"it's about time you finished this zine, jackass"
- Kay, aforementioned travel companion
After trudging through knee-high snow and stomping our feet on the pine boards of the porch, we walked in. Much like at Dave’s place, were hit with a wave of stove heat before fully crossing the threshold. Tons of jackets and scarves and random wintertime clothing paraphernalia were strewn about on top of tables, as were dirty plates and dishes from the bar along the few tables that peppered the joint. The wood stove was smack in the middle of the room, with the well-lit bar off to the left side. The rafters were exposed on the ceiling, the walls were covered with antlers and framed photos of wilderness scenes, and the only human in sight was a stocky girl in her 20’s sitting at the bar alone, eating nachos off of a full-size pizza tray.
She noticed us, but waited for us to proffer a greeting first. As soon as we did, she mushed a handful of nachos into her face and walked off to go fetch Joe. She came back fairly quickly, and, just after swallowing her last chew, said, “Joe’ll be right out for ya.” Then, after standing there in silence for a few moments, wondering exactly what “right out” meant, she asked, “You ladies like dog sleddin’?”
I didn’t exactly know how to answer this question. I didn’t know if I did like dog sledding, because I’m from New Jersey. But I did know to say ‘yes’ to every single potential offer of adventure, because I’m from fucking New Jersey. Our state thrives on the idea of escapism. Every few years, people petition the government to make ‘Born to Run’ the state song even though it’s about leaving New Jersey.
“Sure we do,” said Kay, always the first to shake herself loose from her internal monologues and offer up a response. The girl’s eyes seemed to widen and approve. “Well, you’re in luck, because there’s a big burger run that’s happening tomorrow that ends right here at the lodge.”
You could see that both Kay and I were on the verge of asking for clarification on just what a “burger run” was and what it had to do with dog sledding—did the dogs chase after burgers, like carrots on sticks?—but just at that moment, a tall, broad-shouldered, white-haired old man walked in. He wore a red-and-black flannel shirt, looking like the paper towel Brawny Man’s dad and sporting a mustache just as large. He looked particularly irritated, and had no qualms about expressing this to us in the form of heavy sighs and steady glares. In fact, I think he slid us the invoice over the bar before even speaking a word to us. As he turned around for a moment, Kay took a look at the bill and gritted her teeth in an aside to me. “It’s actually more than he quoted me on the phone,” she gulped, “But I really don’t want to say anything about it now.” I wholeheartedly agreed.
“One of you girls take the car around back to cabin #3, and one of you come with me so I can show you where the bathrooms are,” Joe said gruffly after we signed on the dotted line. I shrugged, and volunteered as tribute. Kay headed to the car, we bade farewell to Miss Nachos, and Joe led me around to the side of the lodge and handed me a flashlight. It was one of those hefty ones that seems like it could double as a police club, and I was fumbling in the dark twisting the top of it, but nothing was happening. I had unscrewed the whole thing and screwed it back together again with no illuminating results. I mean, I’m not the most gear-savvy person in the world, but I was still a bit befuddled that I couldn’t figure it out. It was then that I glanced up to see Joe staring straight at me, delicately removing the flashlight from my hands, pushing a button on the bottom of the shaft to turn it on, and handing it back to me silently—all without breaking an intense eye contact that not-so-subtly communicated that he thought I was a complete moron.
We crunched through the snow towards the back of the compound, and suddenly four miniature peaked-roof cabins—with their own teeny front porches—came into view. I glanced up to the sky above them. Nothing but a thick cloud cover; not a clearing in sight. Despite Joe’s annoyance over our late arrival, not to mention my demonstrated incompetence in powering on a flashlight, I was following behind him with a stupid smile on my face. We were lurking in the woods in the biggest state in the U.S., heading to a cabin owned by an old grumpy lumberjack.
After a quick gesture towards the bathrooms—“there they are,” Joe muttered as he pointed to a small shack adjoined to the lodge—we ended up at cabin #3, where Kay was already waiting. Joe let us in. It felt colder inside than outside. There was a double bed in the middle of the room, a tiny table and chair in the corner, and an enormous black pipe bursting from the floor to the ceiling that looked like a boiler.
Kay said something like, “This looks cozy,” but Joe wasn’t about to take any small-talk bait. He asked, even though he must have guessed the answer, “You girls know how to work an oil-drip stove?”
As opposed to the dog sledding question, I knew how to answer this one right off. “Nope. What do we have to do?”
He pointed at some gage that was along the side of the thing, and turned a dial up to 2. The stove came alive. “This is how you adjust the temperature. If you accidentally go past ‘5’, though, you gotta come get me,” he said. He scanned our blank faces, which had been expecting to absorb a bit more of a lesson. “Any questions?” I’m not even sure if he stuck around to see us shake our heads before he bolted out the door without any send-off.
Kay and I sat down on the bed, flopped our suitcases onto the floor, and removed 1.75 liters of Bulleit whiskey from Kay’s bag. Swig, swig.
Welcome to Alaska.