I'd told myself I was coming here to teach, to write, to study, to live in a way that meant I was constantly being confronted by the age-old questions that have troubled humans for centuries: Who am I? Why Am I here? Where am I going? I'd told myself it would be good to be among others of my "tribe" – writers, scholars, those who are most comfortable in the periphery of things rather than the center of them.
I am no different – no more remarkable nor any less so – than anyone else who traveled north and fell hard for something almost-unknowable and then wanted to stay in its company. I have returned here every year since I moved from Fairbanks four years ago, circling back again and again to what I first loved, to what I've lost – or what I've, perhaps, given away. Isn't that the subtext, after all, of all the great love stories and travel adventures of our literature: the hero's journey, Campbell called it. My story, though, is less than heroic and it gets all tangled up with a creature that looks as if it lumbered out of the Ice Age one gray twilit morning and stumbled right into modern history.
And so I return, again, deep winter, to the far-off place that set its indelible mark upon me and helped to shape me into the woman and the writer I am today. When I arrive, my daughter, Kelly, and my granddaughter, Sarah, are waiting by the baggage carousel, waving wildly, both of them, with that bright toothy smile they inherited from me. Sarah tells me it is warm outside tonight, almost 10 above. And there are stars, she says, still in awe of what is beyond her, still amazed at her good fortune in being this very child in this very place. It is good to come home.
Ian and I saw Spike Jonze's film adaptation of Maurice Sendak's children's book, Where The Wild Things Are, two weeks before I flew up here to Fairbanks. By the time the runaway boy had arrived, in the movie, at the wild island, after rowing all night under the stars, and had come upon the large beast, Carroll, smashing the dwelling-places to sticks and twigs, I was both inside the story's spectacle and outside of it. How could I not have seen it before? There was something about those shaggy beasts, something about the horns, the large brows, the untamable nature of the beasts, something still a bit wild and undomesticated in how they looked at the boy, something in them that reminded me why I'd stayed, what it was that had drawn me to a mysterious city so far-removed from my own comfortable little piece of America, something that reminded me of what had sealed the deal I made with the university in Fairbanks ten years ago, reminded me yet-again of just what had driven me to sell my soul to that particular devil. ~
In February 1999, I flew to Fairbanks to interview for a job teaching creative writing and literature in the English Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a writing program which proudly billed itself as "The Farthest North MFA Program in America." It was -35 degrees Fahrenheit the night I first stepped from the warm, well-lit airline terminal into the night air. When I took a breath, I felt the little hairs freeze in my nose. My eyes stung and blurred. My skin tingled. My fingers throbbed with the cold, then slowly numbed, inside my gloves. And my "heavy" wool coat was, clearly, not heavy enough.
What am I doing? I thought in a panic. Then, as I was raised to do, I lifted the façade into place again and smiled back at my hosts – a faculty fiction writer and one of the graduate student writers – and, for some reason I still can't fathom, I willingly let them carry me off into that starry, below-zero arctic night in a battered blue station wagon whose windshield had wide cracks running across the width of the glass. Three shotgun shell casings, strung together with twine, dangled from the rearview mirror. The car's floorboard was littered with old candy papers and crumpled cigarette packages. The car had been sitting in the airport parking lot for half an hour and the engine had gotten so cold the heater was blowing cold air, instead of warm, from the vents. It was a bit like sitting in front of an open refrigerator door. From the front of the car's grille, a thick blue electrical cord snaked its way up the hood and was wound around the driver's side-view mirror where it blew in the wind we made traveling and tapped erratically against the side of the car's door as we drove. The car slid over black ice as it took the curves and moved over the iced streets.
Where are the lane markers on the streets?
No yellow lines. No white lines. No turn lanes. Just a dirt-riddled sheet of ice and snow. There were stop-lights and streetlights and yield signs and it seemed to me, just then, as if "yield" was all one could do on these streets – or in this cold country. Yield to your destiny. Or your undoing. The only way to tell the streets from the rest of the ground was by the occasional rise of a roadside curb. When the curbing disappeared, it was all luck or misfortune for anyone who was driving late night. It was a bit like playing some Fairbanks version of "Russian Roulette:" road or roadside ditch? It was anybody's good guess where you'd end up.
In the car, I shuddered and smiled and hunched further down into my coat, trying to warm my frozen fingers with my own body heat, while my hosts merrily laughed and chatted about how they'd looked at every passenger who de-planed, trying to figure out which one was their candidate. It was true: they had seemed unusually glad to see me, shaking my hand vigorously and smiling widely, saying again and again how good it was to meet me, introducing themselves and making excuses for the department head who hadn't been able to meet me as we'd arranged because his team was having a volleyball play-off at the gym.
Volleyball? Who are these people?
I was trying to imagine any department head I'd ever known suiting up in sweatpants and a team t-shirt for a game of late-night volleyball in the university gym. My hosts were laughing about how, moments before I entered the gate area, they'd seen another well-dressed woman in the terminal who'd frowned at them sternly and how afraid they'd been that she was the candidate. No wonder they had been so glad to see me standing there in the gate area in my rumpled skirt and sweater, my thick tights sagging at the ankles, a suitcase in each hand, a woman looking lost and daffy and jet-lagged, my hair squished flat and unneatly-parted against the back of my head where I'd rested against the too-tall headrest all the way across the continent.
Finally, at the edge of town, the car slipped left and climbed the steep drive to the guest lodging. The student, Dean, helped me get my bags from the back seat and we said our farewells and thank yous at the door. As soon as they were well down the drive again, I stumbled through the arctic entryway and into the warm front room of the guest lodge.
Three days and nights. I can do anything for three days and nights.
The lodging was sufficient, as lodging goes in the far north: there was an upper-floor attic bedroom with several baggy mattresses thrown over two mismatched twin beds. Two thin blue plaid blankets were folded at the foot of each. Clean sheets. A sad-looking feather pillow in an oversized pillowslip. A chair. No closet. No dresser. And a small wall mirror on which the tin had worn so thin that my face looked back at me faintly, gray and spotted, like a woman in an old tin-type.
The only bathroom in the house was on the main floor and was to be shared among the guests who happened, that week, to be me and a visiting anthropologist who I stumbled upon in the kitchen and who kept hinting that he had a hot tub downstairs in his "suite" and wouldn't I like to join him in a hot soak later in the evening. When I said I hadn't brought along a bathing suit, he guffawed and then leered at me – or that was how it seemed to me – and said something about how people up here don't use bathing suits, they use their "birthday suits."
Oh dear Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.
So the far north-country also had its perverts.
I excused myself and settled for a lukewarm shower in the main hallway bathroom and I locked the door behind me and prayed the lock on the rickety doorknob would hold fast.
The plumbing in the main bathroom was "interesting," as my people are wont to say. Because much of the house had been built over a field of permafrost, the pipes were prone to freezing so the taps had to be left dripping all winter. Turn off that drip and you'd end up with frozen pipes and a flooded basement. Given the lecherous man who was inhabiting that space at the moment, I admit to having entertained the notion of turning off the dripping tap, to letting his bedroom and his hot tub fill with the water from the frozen and burst pipes. It was just a thought. No harm in that, I told myself. No harm at all.
The bathroom sink had permanent rust stains where the water continued to drip and the toilet bowl was crusted orange with its dull circumference of rust. The water level in the bowl was perilously low, low enough that I wondered if it would flush without backing up all over the floor.
The linoleum flooring must have been there since the late 60s or early 70s: the edges had come unglued and were curling up along the walls (there were no baseboards to hold them in place once the adhesive gave way) and along the length of the tub the plywood sub-flooring was exposed. Around the tub's tiled wall, what little caulking remained was spotty with black mildew. But someone had taken pains to fold several fresh towels and washcloths over the back of the toilet tank and there was a rather sturdy-looking cake of lavender-scented soap on the edge of the tub.
By the time I crawled under the covers, I was almost too weary and chilled to really appreciate that the little bed had been carefully placed right underneath the only window in the small attic room, a window which looked out over the snowy woods and how, when lying prone on it, I could shiver myself to sleep looking up at the clearest night sky I had seen in many years.
Comfort: zero. Room with a view: one.