We knew my cousin Glenn was getting married, but he had talked of a courthouse ceremony. His seventeen-year-old daughter, Danielle, was having none of it and began planning a small but lovely event in Anchorage’s Hotel Captain Cook on the winter solstice. Glenn sent us an email not quite two weeks in advance, asking if we could come. Then, a week later, another email came from Glenn and his lovely bride, Terri, asking Gary to be the best man. We consulted Danielle about the dress code, via Glenn’s sister Joan, since we don’t text.
“Gary should wear a suit, and Barbara should wear a dress,” the answer came back.
This triggered a frantic search through the cabin, outbuildings, and even Glenn’s cabin next door—anywhere we might have stored clothes.
“Don’t laugh,” Gary said, coming down from the loft in one of his father’s old suits.
His arms dangled from the sleeves, but the pants looked hot—and very likely to rip. He modeled two more suits, of unknown origin, each worse in its own way. The final option was an “Alaskan Tuxedo,” a sort of arctic safari suit made of good, heavy wool in Austrian green. Gary had bought it for his oral exam to become a licensed game guide, circa 1986. The Alaskan Tuxedo (not this particular one) dates back to the 1920’s, and it does have a strong, authentic look. Sadly, the style appears to have inspired the leisure suit. Another no-go.
I had it easy, or so I thought. My brother, Richard, and I had attended a party the night before we set out on our drive to Alaska (see “Driving Miss Lazy,” September, 2011). I wore a simple black dress with a turquoise-and-gold scarf my friend Savi had brought me from India. An extensive search turned up only the scarf. No dress, no hose, no shoes. The only other dress I had was sleeveless and on the slinky side. I’d brought it in case Gary and I wanted to dance all alone in our cabin, not realizing our only potential dance floor is a three-foot by five-foot space dangerously close to the wood stove.
Clearly we would need enough time in Anchorage to shop before the wedding.
When we went to Anchorage in mid-October to pick up our snowmachine, we didn’t know when we would next be in that shopping mecca. Anchorage is no San Francisco, but it is home to some 300,000 people, two Costcos, a natural food store, a cheese shop, and an upscale deli/grocery offering a surprising assortment of ethnic cuisines and ingredients. It has the usual big box stores, too, Nordstrom, gun shops that aren’t even in bad neighborhoods, and some eccentric specialty shops with clothing, hardware, and sundries for people who live, work, or vacation on boats or in the bush. We shopped at many of these stores on our last trip, doing our best to bring back everything we thought we might need if we didn’t leave home again for months. As it happens, we’ve been back twice since, once to spend Thanksgiving with Gary’s sister and her family, and this time for Glenn’s wedding.
But first, Gary and I spent the weekend before the Wednesday ceremony preparing for the freeze-up of the cabin, much as we had at Thanksgiving. As soon as we heard about the wedding, we worked to eat as much as we could of the fresh produce that we didn’t want to freeze. We incorporated fresh carrots, sweet potatoes, and onions into our daily diet, and we each got a whole banana on our daily oatmeal instead of half. Oranges became more than a snack: we dried the peel atop the wood stove for kindling. I cooked up some onions for future French onion soup, but the remaining produce—apples, garlic, and more carrots than I wanted to cook—would travel with us to Anchorage and back in a cooler wrapped in a sleeping bag within a cooler to prevent it from freezing on the snowmachine leg of the trip.
Instead of putting an inch or two of water in our various pots and pans (see “Three Days to Thanksgiving,” December, 2011), this time we made ice in cake pans all weekend, thinking it might be easier to thaw. Good idea; bad timing. The day before we left, a Chinook wind warmed temperatures so close to freezing we almost couldn’t make ice. But I managed to fill a bucket and a couple of stock pots, and it was, in the end, more convenient when we got home.
We left the cabin Monday just before sunrise—which is to say, a little after 10:00. The warmer temperatures inspired another innovation: instead of riding backward on the snowmachine as I had been doing, facing Ella in her box with my back to the wind, I rode facing forward, reaching back to put my arm around Ella’s neck. Ella seemed calmer, and it was much more comfortable for me. I loved being able to see the Mountain, the moose, and the mileposts. I tried the driver’s seat briefly, but carrying two passengers and a sled made me too nervous to enjoy it.
The car battery was dead when we arrived at our friend Diane’s, where it’s parked, but we were expecting that. From Diane’s, travel was easy, and we made it to Glenn’s in time for dinner at 6:30.
We devoted Tuesday to clothes shopping. (I’d brought my one dress, and Gary had brought his Alaskan Tuxedo, just in case.) We had no luck as Gary dragged me around Value Village and Saly’s (Salvation Army), his preferred clothing recyclers, so we enlisted Terri and Joan, who made short work of the problem. No one had ever seen Gary in a suit but he often wears a vest, so Joan suggested one now. For me they thought a wrap would ameliorate the defects of the sleeveless slinky dress, and Gary quickly spotted an earth-tone knit shrug as we headed out of Penney’s on our way to Nordstrom. Making our way through the mall we ran into Payless Shoes where I found something for ten percent of what I was willing to pay if only I could see the inside of the Nordstrom. But once I bought the shoes we were fully outfitted, so I never got there. My idea of a bargain used to be forty percent off at the semi-annual Armani sale. I’m learning skills now that go way beyond the wilderness.
I’m old enough to feel a sort of surprised relief when reuniting with friends and family is an occasion of joy and not sorrow. Gary is like a brother to Glenn and Joan, and this gathering gave me a chance to meet a few of their childhood friends. I listened to stories from long before I had met Gary or my Alaskan cousins, and got to see for myself how well-loved Gary is by those who have known him longest. The wedding was intimate and low-key, a delight. And there is no truth to the rumor that I made a flying leap to catch the bouquet. It fell right into my hands.
We relaxed with friends and family the day after the wedding, and on Friday we did laundry at the laundromat (running four washers at a time makes quick work of it, even when you have several weeks of dirty clothes) and shopped for provisions. Circling the Costco parking lot and sitting through green lights while young men pushed cars out of icy, snowy intersections made us even more eager to get home. It had snowed eight inches overnight, but later in the day the skies cleared. We left at 7:30 on Christmas Eve morning and got home by 2:30. The return trip was quicker since we didn’t have a dead car battery to contend with.
Once we were home, Gary put the kindling he’d prepared to good use. I put one of my stock pots of filtered ice on the stove and began moving frozen food we wanted to keep frozen out onto the porch. Well-traveled Subway sandwiches don’t sound like a great Christmas Eve dinner, but they were easy. It would still take a good day to unpack everything else, put away weeks of laundry, and restock our water supply. But what did the calendar mean to us now, home alone together in our little cabin?
Sunrise: 10:36 a.m.
Sunset: 3:23 p.m.
Weather: High 4°, low -25°, with most of the day hovering around the low; yesterday, too. But sunny and beautiful, the mountains brilliant and the sun’s higher arc in evidence as sun starts to hit Glenn’s cabin.