The Alaska state trooper’s white SUV turned in at our gate. That sealed it: we had to get out, now. We were prepared. I had my heaviest parka, the one that’s uncomfortable in temperatures above zero, in a compression sack, which kept it to a manageable size. A small laundry bag held my warmest hat, mittens, liners and over-mittens, down over-pants, and ski mask. My Subaru was parked outside the gate just across the bridge, facing the road for a quick departure. In its rooftop carrier were sleeping bags, granola bars and other emergency supplies. Gary had put chains on the tires of his truck days earlier. We had hoped for more time, but time had run out.
The light snow that had started falling that morning with the first rays of the sun grew steadier as we packed, more insistent. The trooper’s visit had made it clear: if we didn’t leave now, we might not get another chance.
I’d thought we were alone and was surprised to look up from loading the red cargo sled with scrap lumber to see the SUV blocking our drive. I didn’t think to rein in Ella, and she ran to the driver’s door, ready to greet a new friend.
The trooper looked like the law, straight, dark, and serious. He ignored Ella and approached, introducing himself as the local wildlife officer.
“I heard someone was living here. Is it true you’ll be staying the winter?” asked Jim.
“That’s the plan.” I smiled uncertainly and glanced around for Gary.
Ella brought her purple ball and looked meaningfully from Jim to the ball and back.
“I’m your nearest neighbor,” Jim said.
If he was based in town, that put him thirty miles away.
Gary came away from stacking lumber in the nearby shed to join us.
“Is there anyone staying at Gracious House?” Gary asked, not bothering to introduce himself.
“No, he’s looking to sell. They’re gone. Your nearest neighbor out that way is Alpine.”
The folks at Alpine were the ones who fixed my flat tire on the final leg of my move here. That’s sixty miles away.
“What’s the snow looking like out your way?” Gary asked.
“About like this,” said Jim. “Same amount on the ground, too.”
Jim kicked the ball for Ella as he turned back to his car.
“I come through here most every day,” he called. “The road to the east will close tonight, and down my way we have maybe another week, but I’ll be out on the snow machine. I’ll stop in to check on you.”
Jim’s SUV was still pulling out as Gary and I finalized our plans.
“Get ready to go,” he said. “I’ll load the snow machine onto my truck in case we don’t make it.”
It was getting close to 4 p.m. and we hadn’t eaten lunch, but there was no time for that. We had to get my car into town, where we could park it for the winter. Soon—that very night, perhaps—we might not be able to make it out at all except by snow machine. I headed for the house, got my purse, keys, and the two bags of warm clothes, and raced Ella out the gate. I started my car and began clearing it of snow and ice while it warmed up. Only a few minutes after the trooper left, Gary and I locked the gate behind us and drove off, me in the Subaru first, him behind me in the truck.
This was my first time driving in any accumulation of snow. My new, studded tires held me steady as I led the way. I was tense and focused; Ella sensed this and made herself small in the back seat. I’d almost forgotten she was with me until she sat up, at attention, when we stopped for a small herd of caribou crossing the road. I counted ten bulls, cows, and calves. Before I could reach for my camera, they were gone. Just as well—I had forgotten to grab it in the rush.
I drove for more than an hour, keeping watch for Gary’s headlights in my rearview mirror, slowing when I lost sight of them and careful to downshift instead of using my brakes on the snow and ice.
Gary turned off when he reached our friend Diane’s house. Diane and her daughter had kindly offered us a place to park, with access to their electricity by way of a very long extension cord. This winter, when we do need my car, it will take us an hour or two to snow machine in and another hour or so to warm the car, hooking up the battery warmer as well as using our gas-powered portable heater, if we need it, to get the engine warm enough to turn over.
Ella and I watched Gary turn as we drove on. We had hoped to make the trip when the post office was open, in case we had any packages, but at least I could pick up and drop off mail. I stopped at the Tesoro for gas. After filling my tank and a red, six-gallon container, I stopped in to pay and buy a couple of candy bars. I’m always afraid I’ll drive off without paying—it’s hard to get used to pumping before paying!
When I stepped into the dirty restroom, though, I heard the voices of Gary and all the others here who prefer their outhouses to indoor plumbing. Lilly can’t even pay for her own liposuction, one scribble decried. Other graffiti was more predictable. I was starting to understand.
I hurried out. The whole place left me so disgusted I drove back to the post office before letting Ella out. We drove back to Diane’s, and though the light was fading I couldn’t resist a hot cup of tea—standing as a way of reminding myself not to linger—before we started our return trip in Gary’s truck. We shared the candy bars and counted the caribou tracks as we drove into the darkness.
Now we’re home alone together, with only each other to talk to. Though the road is officially closed, there’s still some traffic: an occasional hunter, the dog mushers training for the Iditarod or other big races. And the Alaska state trooper: looks like the next time we see Jim, he’ll be on a snow machine.
Sunrise: 8:48 a.m.
Sunset: 4:31 p.m.
Weather: High 29, low 12, snowy, with about 18″ of snow on the ground. Skis and snowshoes are now in use!