By the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, we still hadn’t told Gary’s sister Karen whether we would come. An email from her daughter, Kristen, saying “please please please” promised cheesecake and “maybe” a lemon meringue pie. Our desire to go had been sincere, but now we could taste it.
But our failure to confirm didn’t stem from ambivalence, forgetfulness, laziness, lack of courtesy, or even—my personal favorite—lack of wind power. It was just too cold. Nights dropped to 36 degrees below zero, then 38 below; if temperatures didn’t rise during the day, the wind did.
So, without a break in the weather, Thanksgiving travel was a non-starter. Literally. We were pretty sure my car wouldn’t start, and dead certain when even the snowmachine balked.
“This is not good,” Gary said. Ella hates swearing, so Gary has developed a gift for understatement.
My car is parked in town, thirty miles away and more than an hour’s travel by snowmachine. It’s not a trip we’d voluntarily make in those temperatures; it’s dangerous in extreme cold to be sitting still, let alone on a machine that creates its own wind chill. But without a snowmachine, we’re truly stranded. In an emergency, we would have to email friends to call one of the local bush pilots, or go out to the road hoping to flag down a passing musher.
The day warmed, the snowmachine started, and we found new energy to prepare for the trip. Our cabin and everything in it would freeze once we left, so we had to deal with anything that wouldn’t survive and ready things to return the cabin to its toasty state quickly when we got back.
On Monday we’d taken care of everything that wasn’t time-sensitive. Some things were basic: changing the bed, gathering six weeks of laundry, tidying, making shopping lists, packing. Gary built a wooden box for Ella to ride in behind the passenger seat. On Tuesday we did the things we’d wish we hadn’t if we did end up staying home: we put away tools, skis, snowshoes, and anything that might walk away (snowmachiners sometimes explore the area) or disappear under a snowfall. Gary began packing the sled with the space heater and battery charger for my car, gas containers to be filled, and coolers to fill with groceries for the return trip. He split birch wood into kindling to start a very hot fire very quickly when we got back. We gathered sleeping bags, fire starter, flashlights, and extra warm clothes in case we broke down on the road.
I focused on food. We had two enormous bags of carrots, several pounds of sweet potatoes, purple potatoes Gary and Karen had cultivated in their mother’s garden during the summer, a couple of onions, a bag of garlic, and a flat of apples, none of which take well to freezing. I must have spent an hour grating carrots, missing my Cuisinart for the first time. When I couldn’t stand grating anymore, I mixed the grated carrots with crushed pineapple and raisins for a salad to take as our contribution to Thanksgiving dinner. The rest of the carrots I blanched in stew-sized chunks, so they would still be sufficiently carrot-like for cooking when we got back. I blanched the purple potatoes, too, and Gary baked the sweet potatoes atop the wood stove in the Dutch oven. The salad and the rest of the perishables he wrapped in a sleeping bag and set in a cooler to make the round trip.
I emptied the water filter for fear its ceramic elements might otherwise crack if they froze. Ella packed her food and dishes—well, someone did, anyway. When we went to bed late Tuesday night, the temperature was eighteen below. Not bad. We were almost ready to go.
Wednesday morning we woke early. Now it was twenty-eight below, pretty close to some unspoken cut-off point. We ate quickly and downed our coffee. We gathered bowls and buckets and pans, pouring in only a couple of inches of water in each; that way the ice wouldn’t warp the containers and it would thaw quickly when we got back. Gary finished packing the sled and carefully tied it all down while I finished dressing.
I wore two pairs of long underwear, three pairs of socks, mukluks with two insoles—tufts of hair Ella had been shedding sandwiched between them—a pair of wind-resistant pants, and down over-pants. Then came a wool camisole, a silk turtleneck, a cashmere turtleneck, a Swedish wool zip turtleneck with a long shirttail (sweatertail?) and thumbholes—great for eliminating the gap between mittens and sleeves—and a wool plaid shirt. I waited until I was outside to don the giant hooded synthetic down parka—sold to us with the understanding that it would be uncomfortable in temperatures above zero—a neoprene ski mask, goggles, and a wool hat. I topped all this with a windproof, canvas, knee-length hooded anorak with a thick coyote ruff. Only then could I cover my cashmere-lined leather gloves with bulky wool knit mittens, which went inside gigantic over-mittens.
You may be wondering how I could move or breathe.
Ella and I walked to the road while Gary warmed up the snowmachine. I thought he would stop to lock the gate, so I took off my hood and goggles; since I couldn’t do anything with my mittens on, they came off, too. However, as it happened, Gary had no intention of taking time to lock the gate; he had the same problems with movement and overheating—it’s as much a matter of safety as comfort to avoid getting wet with sweat in that weather—and was none too happy about waiting while I struggled to get my mittens and goggles back on.
I faced backward on the snowmachine for two reasons: to reduce the wind in my face, and to watch and comfort Ella, who is happy to run alongside and then catch a ride in our arms when she tires, but did not want to ride in a box. I stuffed my overly mittened hands into the box next to Ella’s warmth, peering at the passing landscape from beneath my fogged-up goggles. Gary reached back and gave me a reassuring pat on the leg.
After several miles he pulled to the side and stopped. I tried to turn toward him, but only a few of my layers turned with me, so I couldn’t see him. All those hats and hoods create a pretty convincing preview of what my hearing will be like if I live long enough, so when I heard Gary’s voice I assumed he was saying, “A musher’s headed this way,” or “I have to pee.”
But he wasn’t. Frustrated, he shouted, “Look!” and pointed.
I managed to turn enough to see a gorgeous bull caribou in his winter-white cape.
“What did you think I was stopping for?” Gary said, more quietly now that he had my attention.
“No idea,” I said. Even more than a few words seemed difficult with all the layers.
The next time we stopped, I worked harder to get both myself and my clothes to face forward. Good thing, too: Gary wanted to show me a gorgeous view of the Mountain. Here, “the Mountain” refers to Mt. McKinley─Denali. It’s the same as San Franciscans saying “the City” when speaking of their town. It would have taken too long for us to dismount and get back on, so I handed Gary my camera.
If I have your address, you will probably get our holiday card with the photo Gary took that day.
Less than ten miles later we reached my car. The battery was dead. Even the heater─the one we had brought to heat the engine─wouldn’t start until we thawed it in our friend Diane’s home. I hoped what I saw dripping as Gary carried the heater back to the car was melting ice, but when Diane stepped back inside from feeding her goats, she found me sniffing her floor.
“Uh, we dripped fuel oil on your floor,” I said awkwardly. Confession seemed like the only option.
“That’s OK. Are you kidding? It’s not the first time,” Diane reassured me cheerfully.
Then she pointed out the outhouse, seemingly apropos of nothing. I looked out the window and realized she would have had a perfect view of me peeing out front when we first arrived.
“Oh, great, thanks!” I answered weakly, deciding against confession this time.
A couple of hours work got the battery charged. Gary had transferred everything from the sled to the car, and we were ready to go again, except now the Subaru’s back gate didn’t want to shut tight, leaving us with the interior lights on. Dark was closing in, and we had several hours of driving on snowy roads ahead of us. We unscrewed the bulbs we could reach and drove on. After a while we pulled over, and by then the tailgate was more cooperative. Soon we were able to get a radio station to come in. A reporter stated that 42 million Americans were traveling over the holiday weekend, most by car. We saw about 42 of them in the first couple of hours of driving.
When we finally pulled in to Karen’s drive it was well after the dinner hour, but we found a warm welcome, pizza, a microwave, and a shower. It wasn’t Thanksgiving yet, but we were very thankful.
Sunrise: 10:32 a.m.
Sunset: 3:09 p.m.
Weather: High 17, Low 7, snow and wind.
Note: In the hustle of the return trip, I lost my camera and the photos for this posting. When I come up with similar ones, I’ll add them.