We were let out of school at 2:30 pm because the teachers of the small Alaskan bush school my four siblings and I attended knew that during mid-winter, by the time we made the nearly half-hour skiff ride home, it would be dark.
As soon as the clock’s hands hit 2:30, we donned our cold winter gear, grabbed our backpacks, and ran down to the dock to wait for our dad.
The village kids either took the small, winding trail home (there were no roads in the 29 population fishing community) or accompanied us down to the dock that was lined with our relatives’ trolling boats, to jump in their small skiffs.
They only had to cross the harbor. We had to head out onto the open strait in a sixteen foot, wooden skiff our dad had built himself, and cross an unprotected bay before we reached our home in the ruins of a burned cannery.
We chopped up slimy, iodine-scented bull kelp and flung it at each other as we waited. By the time we heard the distinctive sound of our dad’s 50hp Mercury outboard and saw the silhouette of him at the back of the skiff as he approached the entrance, the sky behind him was ruddy and rapidly darkening.
When he pulled up to the dock we saw his beard was encrusted with frozen salt spray. We glanced at each other before settling into the skiff and braced ourselves for what we knew was going to be a rough, cold ride. We’d be splattered with icy Alaskan water and be so stiff when we climbed out at home we could barely walk. By then dusk had set in and when we crossed the sawdust trail through the forest to get to the house we’d just built, we had to follow our white dogs: the last bit of light made them glow.
We raced each other the last distance to be the first ones in the house to plunge our frozen hands into the canner on the woodstove that was always full of hot water. Sometimes I didn’t bother to jostle my way through the bodies to get to it. Instead, I’d run upstairs to my room and with chattering teeth and numb, shaking hands, I’d light my kerosene lamp and grab the western I’d been reading the night before.
I always chose westerns that were set in the desert. Nothing felt better than putting myself in the hero’s creaking saddle as his horse plodded across the shimmering sand. The more he sweated, the more parched he became, the more I liked it.
As soon as I finished one, I’d pick up another. My two favorites were WANDERER OF THE WASTELAND and THE DESERT CRUCIBLE by Zane Grey. No one wrote with more detail or gusto about the deadly heat of the desert than Grey. I listened to German pop group Nena as I read, and the desert became eternally imprinted on their music.
These days, after shoveling snow off the deck of my floathouse from morning till evening so it doesn’t sink under the weight, I turn to Tony Hillerman. In the middle of an Alaskan winter, I love to read his Navajo mysteries set in a hot and dusty corner of Arizona.
If I’m too tired to read after scraping snow off the roof, or spending hours firewood logging in 20 below wind chill, I’ll watch the three movies PBS made from Hillerman’s novels. My favorite is “Coyote Waits.” The first words spoken in it are: “It’s a hot, hot day on the rez.”
The more arid scenes there are of red-stone rock bluffs, desert scrub plants, basking lizards, and humans complaining about the heat, the better.
It’s no accident that the only house plants I own are a cactus and an aloe vera. When I buy calendars I spurn ones with seasonal photos. Instead, I gravitate towards ones that have titles like “The Tropics” or “American Deserts.”
People often ask me how I cope with Alaskan winters out here in the wilderness, since most people who own homes here make sure to only visit during the temperate summers. I tell them I was fortunate enough to grow up out here so I’m used to it. But the underlying truth is that at a young age I discovered that the key to coping with anything is how well you can manipulate your own mind.
As a child I recognized that if you can engage your mind in an experience that is different from what your body is experiencing, your mind can find a way to free you from the environment and moment you’re stuck in.
Now, on this cold winter day as I sit inside my floathouse with the sleet hammering the roof and obscuring the view out my window, I’m going to find my battered 80s cassette of Nena’s album “99 Red Balloons” to play on the stereo.
And escape to the desert.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)