I wish there was an easier way to do this. I do. The breath is sucked out of me. I tell myself it’s the fear and not the cold, not the fact that I am standing in the parking lot of the Tesoro by the Fairbanks airport because it’s the only place I could find diesel, standing in a sweatshirt when it’s thirty below, standing there without gloves on and pumping the fuel into a red gasoline jug. It’s not the cold that vacuums the air from my chest. It’s the panic of thinking I’m doing this for the second time today and the truth that there is no choice. It is a matter of survival, but I am one who has been fortunate enough to have convenience and security in my life. The reality that it must be done feels anything but real, and makes me want to laugh and shrug it off.
The first time was a miserable failure, an uncertain walk up a frozen, wobbly three-rung ladder, gas tank awkwardly balanced on my shoulder. My five feet didn’t have a chance against the ice and the weight of the diesel and the angle of the tank’s opening a good eight to ten inches above my head. So I’m doing this again and this time my coat and gloves are in the dryer at the Laundromat in town and I’m breathless, suddenly, at the horrifying thought of my very flammable clothes causing the machine to explode. Can that happen?
* * *
A month before, I sat in a bar with a friend, Ann, drinking hot toddies and reading submissions for the literary journal I was editing. We had gone together to look at the cabin. It wasn’t much, we agreed, but it was better than nothing and I didn’t have many options. It was encouraging—she and a few other friends said it would be perfect for me. Not too far away from the University and yet on the side of town I liked—the good side of Goldstream Valley. The quiet side. It’s where I wanted to be, despite the horror stories of driving Ballaine Hill in the middle of winter and the constant sound of howling sled-dogs running circles at all hours of the night in every neighbor’s back yard kennel. It didn’t take long for the truth to become obvious: they were good friends. The following spring I would find myself standing outside the cabin with Ann, looking up at a cat named Wolfbait who had arrived recently and insisted on living in my roof and opening cans of tuna fish to lure it down, and the full picture would come into view—an oddly shaped plywood box with little insulation; a misshapen roof and an awning that drooped on the right side like it was melting off; a front door that let beams of daylight shine through a bedroom wall that, for most of the winter, held that same frostiness that Popsicles ® get when they’ve been in the freezer too long—and we’d look at that image, and she’d shake her head and say, “Yep. You live in a shack.”
But it was a good deal. Supposedly, it had no slop bucket. Supposedly, I could just let the water run from my 5-gallon blue jugs into the sink and then into the ground. The outhouse was only a short walk. The outlet to plug my truck into was right next to the front door. The small things that make living in a dry cabin in Alaska feel more convenient.
* * *
My brain, spent on crafting the language to convince oil companies to come to my cabin on such short notice and calculating where I could get the right type of diesel fuel for my tank, was clearly lacking the common sense that tells one not to throw a jacket covered in diesel fuel into a dryer. I mentally cross my fingers and load the red jug into the back of the car, hoping for Ann’s sake no future disasters will occur in the fifteen minutes it takes to get back to the cabin. She had been nice enough to let me borrow the car while she was out of town. Most of the people I knew didn’t stay in Fairbanks through the winter, and generally I wouldn’t have either. But I had to take care of things—namely, learning to take care of myself in the sudden face of dangerous inconvenience.
He calls on my way back across town, needing to know, immediately, the address of a mutual friend. I should know these things and unfortunately, I do. But I can’t give the information up without at least some fight, some little jab. He is filling out an application and needs a reference. He is moving into an apartment. With running water. I want to believe this makes me tougher, but I’m not sure it does, so I say, Do you have any idea what I’m doing right now? He apologizes, but doesn’t ask what I’m doing and still needs the address.
My things have already been moved. They had to be gone that morning, and so they are sitting in a dangerously cold cabin. A bottle of wine that I will find later has cracked and stained my basket of assorted hats, gloves, scarves. The endeavor is promising me an expensive day of laundry.
So this second try is a failure as well. I get back to the cabin and déjà vu strikes and this time, when I come down from the ladder, wet and smelling and with an empty container, I throw the clothes away. And I think, I hope, that at least some of the diesel found its way into the tank.
But no. Not enough. The small Toyo heater doesn’t even pretend to try. It pumps cold air into my face and I can’t imagine how it can feel even colder inside than it does outside. And yet, it’s an enchanting moment. This place is mine. It will be mine.
* * *
My first trip to Denali National Park happened only because a friend had won the lottery. Just before they close the roads down for winter, they let a certain number of people every year drive to Wonder Lake on a road not normally accessible by private car. Two and a half hours in and two and a half hours out. Vehicles pulled over to the side of the road clued us in that there was something out there, some wildlife, so we stopped and got out and squinted into the hills to see what they could see.
Down in a lower section of the hills, a family of bears was loping along slowly and we felt silly but joined the crowd just the same. Small dots of brown moving and stopping and moving again, either oblivious to our presence or just tired of caring. Binoculars came out, cameras snapped. And while everyone stood there, a brown-black dog joined us, became part of the crowd for a moment, looked in the same direction we were looking. And then he seemed to say, what’s the big deal, and walked past the crowd and sauntered down the slope. People began to wonder.
A ranger further up the road said, yes, it was a wolf. No longer afraid of people and hardly afraid of anything, it would live in the park as long as it felt like it, and then cross over the boundary into the real world, the unforgiving world, and no longer stand a chance. The ranger shrugged. She seemed less than hopeful and resigned to the situation.
That’s just how it is. We operate most of our lives in a bubble of protection but somehow we can’t keep ourselves in it. We venture out, we wander, we get lost. But we have to. And of all the things we saw that day—bears, dall sheep, moose—the one that had so quietly inserted itself into our pack and then slipped out again, like it could belong if only it wanted to, was the one we talked about later.
* * *
The heater still isn’t working, either because I am mechanically incapable or because there just isn’t enough oil in the tank. It has become clear, finally, that I need to give up the solo part of the mission. The options are limited, but they exist. Thankfully, something exists. I drive down Willow Run, a road that has become familiar to me in the few years living here. A one-mile rollercoaster of dirt and gravel. Ann’s cabin is the very last one, her driveway full of snow, and it’s just starting to get dark when I get there.
I can feel the temperature dropping even more, but I have no way of keeping track of it. I’m sitting in her driveway, staring at her empty cabin, knowing that I have to rummage through the hay in her dog house by the light of my cell phone to find the spare key. I send her a text to make sure it’s okay to stay. She assures me that it’s fine, but says I have to go out back to the oil tank and turn it back on, then restart the heater and wait for the cabin to warm up. Her tank is different from the one I was just messing around with and at this point it’s pure stupidity to keep trying, so I call her neighbor, an older woman with a crazy love for this part of the world and the strange notion to stick around especially for the winter. She has the same type of oil tank and heater so I imagine she might have some idea of how to get it started. But her landlord usually does it for her and he’s not around right today.
I’m tired and on my third change of clothes. It’s cold and it will be dark for another 17 hours.
* * *
I’ve spent days and nights walking this road. This road, in some ways, has been responsible for ending a marriage and creating many friendships. For a reevaluation of self and the world. It’s a witness.
It has seen early mornings with four dogs I’m taking care of, a frozen landscape, trees encased in ice. Nights with friends and mugs of wine that begin forming ice crystals after only a few minutes, walking with heads tilted back and talking about how there just is no way to describe the northern lights without sounding ridiculous or cliché. They just dance. There’s no other way to put it. Surreally bright midnights with bottles of home-brewed beer that get ditched at some point behind a tree and recovered sometime the next morning on a hung-over the-universe-has some-fucking-explaining-to-do kind of walk.
* * *
Eleven at night I go back up the road to my old place for the last few things that I need to get, one of these being my dog. On the way there, I see a car off the road, nose buried deep in the snow. A girl about my age is trying to dig her tires out so I stop and ask if she needs some help and she says she would love some. She was in an accident and totaled her car earlier. This is the rental. I tell her that I’m just on my way to my cabin and that I’ll grab a shovel and be right back. She thanks me, but says that if I don’t come back, it’s okay. I wonder if I look that unreliable.
The girl’s situation reminds me of a walk with another friend one morning. We had spent a good five minutes turning to look behind us, suspicious, before we realized that the sounds we were hearing were actually someone calling out to us. And it took a good hundred feet of backtracking and squinting to see that it was a girl in a towel, hair wet and everything. Not what one would expect here and so the questions kept tumbling out over one another (how has she showered without running water and what in God’s name is she doing outside in a towel when it’s some twenty below zero?) until one of us realized the appropriate thing to do was to offer her a jacket. She waited. We walked briskly back and drove to her cabin with a phone so she could call her boyfriend. Later that night I went out to a bar and saw her working there as a waitress. These strange coincidences. She was understandably embarrassed, but thankful.
This road can make you feel like a hero and kill you at the same time.
My old cabin is bright and warm and things look as usual. They are as usual and I try to get my things and leave quickly but there is an eventual battle, impossible to avoid. The drama is cut short by a moment of remembering: the thing I need most here is a shovel. I stop yelling. I stop listening. Somewhere in my brain, I know that there is no heat in my new cabin and that things are probably bursting with the cold. I know that in a week I won’t have a car to get me ten miles to the grocery store or to fill my water jugs. I know that I’m supposed to be writing a thesis, not running around like some maniac.
But right now: I need a shovel. There is someone else who’s having a shitty day too.
* * *
It’s a gift to live like this. A gift to be aware of using the same coffee mug morning after morning and only rinsing it, or watering the plants with the old dog water.
A friend of mine—the friend who ultimately brought me to Fairbanks—told me before we left the east coast on our ten-day journey north: You’ll end up living in a dry cabin. You’ll probably get a dog.
Having dinner one night in the same friend’s living room, watching a movie on his giant projector screen and smack dab in the middle of my time in Alaska, he said, This is a place that, by nature, forces you to figure something out about yourself.
It practically demands of you: identify the parts, the important ones.
* * *
The important parts were these: I landed there, with the cabin and the dog, plus a Ford pickup and a bad habit of putting whiskey in my coffee. There, where I would first start planting chard and nasturtiums, and where I would have more than one birthday cake to choose from for breakfast, and where I would have my first visitor from back east. It was the place where I would first kick down a door—with the help of my future husband—and where I would first walk outside on a frozen night, only to turn and have the path blocked by a big mama moose standing in front of my outhouse. Both of us distracted by a dancing sky and howling dogs.
Born and raised in New England, Jessica Bryant Klagmann received an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. She writes and teaches writing in Northern New Mexico, and spends the rest of her time devising adventures with her husband and dog.