Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Winter Again

Flying from Anchorage to Fairbanks is a route over mountains that jut below the plane like jagged, gleaming teeth. They stretch beneath the flight path for hundreds of miles and I have never felt anything but comforted by them. My father’s youngest brother lies somewhere among them. His plane was led astray by the Northern Lights and exploded in a ball of fire when it crashed into Mount Sanford. I never knew him; he was only a story that has always made me feel that these mountains are mine.

The land suddenly becomes a flat blanket, studded with lakes, with seams of rivers. In winter it is piercingly white and the dark ribbons of trees are soothing in that relentless light. Then where a river curves is an unlikely cluster of buildings that is Fairbanks, still an outpost long after the Gold Rush days.

The airport is small and the runway that the plane locks into feels like a landing strip out in the bush. When I walk outdoors, the cold air burns the hairs in my nostrils. The dry purity of it is almost like breathing bleach. Even in the soft air of twilight, when the glitter of the snow is muted into a deep blue tinge, the flat white is almost blinding. The cleanliness of it overwhelms me after twenty years of being away from interior Alaska..

It squeaks under my feet and I almost bend down to make a snowball, but my gloves are fashionably fingerless and the snow is too dry to pack into a shape. It turns the fading light into something magical; even at night the snow catches moonlight, the glow from windows, the beams of headlights and shines into the darkness.

It’s below zero but I’ve been much colder in warmer places. This dry cold is dangerously deceptive; frostbite comes without warning. Once I didn’t know my hands were frozen until I tried to open a car door and found that my fingers were wooden and useless. Unlike the damp chill of Anchorage with its knife-blade winds sweeping off the inlet, the winter cold in Fairbanks is seductive. It’s the terrain that Jack London wrote about in his classic short story, To Build a Fire. It’s beautiful right up to the moment that it becomes deadly.

I tried living alone in a little cabin with a wood stove the winter that I turned twenty. I scavenged wood from old mining sites until I’d taken all that was portable, My last fire was built from a long, thick plank that I’d dragged home. I had no saw so it projected from the small stove onto the floor. The next morning I packed my suitcase and flew home to my parents.

Heat is almost an entity in Fairbanks and people pay dearly for it. Alaska’s legendary high paychecks are devoured by winter heating bills and every place I went on my last visit was much warmer than the temperature I maintain in my small Seattle apartment. When I lived in my own Fairbanks house, I often kept the thermostat hovering around eighty. Inside nobody wants to feel the slightest hint of cold.

Outside the large window of my sister’s living room stretches a river that flows through downtown Fairbanks and off toward the mountains. In February, in town, the river is still flowing, open water. In the olden days, it froze so solid that when it thawed it often took out the bridge. Even twenty years ago, people rode their snowmachines on the ice of the Chena River. Now my sister says she won’t walk on it anymore.

The sight of a moving river in the coldest time of the year hit me hard as we flew over the Chena before landing in Fairbanks. For an Alaskan, that’s a sight as surreal and menacing as the melted watches in Dali’s Persistence of Memory. I push the image out of my mind with mental snapshots of stunted black spruce made lovely by the snow that covers their branches, of deep blue shadows caught in the tiny crevices of a snowbank, of all the beauty that I refused to acknowledge in the years that I struggled to leave Alaska.

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