I live in a van, in a weedy lot, for now, a sort of junkyard where willows grow from the engines of old cars. I’ve pulled one of the seats from my van and set it up on a wooden flatbed trailer that catches the light. It’s my recliner, the place where I sit in the endless evenings and read arctic adventure books from the nineteen eighties (I have read all of the eighteen hundreds already, fox pelts and white flour and cooking pots, and now I am caught up, almost, with today- with snow machines and the destruction of nature’s aesthetic and nature as a place to look for something, to look, look, look for something you have lost). The sun sinks into peachy-orange milk in the dusty sky and the air cools around eleven, and the mosquitoes come out, nature’s eyelash-kiss phlebotomists, with their tiny whining engines, they land politely on the bare tops of my feet and stash one drop of blood into their cargo holds. I don’t mind. I mind insomuch as I’ve strung army-green mosquito netting over my bed in the back of my van because when I’m sleeping I do mind, but I don’t mind that they take a little, here and there, in the mornings when I’m brushing my teeth, spitting into the sand and in the evenings while I’m reading. I don’t mind because each summer I spend in Alaska the bites itch a little less, to the point that this fine Friday of the year 2009 I may have one hundred red mosquito bites, but only one mosquito bite will itch, most likely on the side of my foot or the back of my thumb, and then for only ten minutes, in the afternoon. I don’t mind.
I have one friend in Fairbanks and she has lent me a bike, kind soul, a rusty mountain bike she bought off some man on the street for thirty-five dollars. It’s been three months since I rode a bike and so I am infinitely, endlessly, bottomlessly grateful as I turn that rusting crank on these hot and sprawling streets. I could be walking everywhere, walking everywhere in the heat, like a slow and dusty turtle, the cars honking and spitting rocks in my direction. But instead I have a bicycle and I can cruise around at the speed of light, hair blowing in the car-wind, I can go to the library and to the food store and to the thrift store where I find the perfect summer plaid, light cotton with pink and purple and peach in it, all the colors of a two a.m interior Alaska sunset/sunrise combination. And I roll the sleeves up as high as I can get them and tuck in the bottom (but not too much) and put on my new hat and then I wonder why I’m doing any of this at all. (Is there a sort of scurvy, I think to myself, that you can get from lack of queers? If so I am suffering from it. I have forgotten what my hair is for, why I bother to collect so much plaid. My collective cultural memory is being washed away in the aesthetically revolting land of straight people. And I feel a sort of hunger deep in my gut, like a craving for fat.)
The friend who lent me the bike, her name is Meadow. I know her because she was one of the other riders of my craigslist ride up the Alcan, the ride that crashed and rolled in the fifteen-below weather south of Whitehorse. She is an old soul, as they say, twenty-two with the bedside manner of someone who wakes up each morning surprised and delighted to have lived another day. She sleeps in a cabin made of canvas, plywood and plastic sheeting on a wooden frame, abandoned, with half the foot-thick insulation spilled out by the squirrels. Black mold flowers on the ceiling and the deck is rotted into the taiga, and the mosquitoes rise up in great stormy clouds like vapor from the earth. Meadow was, for a while, sleeping in a discolored plywood lean-to in a broken truck-bed and then a dirt-biking friend found this place for her, on a faint track through the forest off a powerline trail in the hills outside of town. She moved in immediately, lining her trinkets up along the windowsills, watching the sun sparkle on the mossy forest floor. A friend built her a loft out of thin air and two dumpstered two by fours. There was one artifact in the cabin from the previous occupant- a calendar on the wall- nineteen ninety-one mountainscape. One day a woman showed up in sandals and, shading her eyes with her hand, told Meadow that she could stay. This was her land, the cabin was built by her son, who had died in a car accident long ago. She could stay, so long as she swept up the broken glass on the deck.
I ride my borrowed bike around this town and Meadow shows me the free-box at the coffee shop, the free coffee at the bookstore (farthest north used bookstore in North America!). She takes me to a meadow where homebums are drinking beer from cans in the mid-afternoon and playing guitar in the grass, their bare chests sunburnt, their beards tangled. Meadow is a little drunk too, and she crumples her empty can and tosses it in the street, her cheeks and nose pink and shiny from the sun. “You should come to the M bar later, for the open mic,” she says. “There are lots of people there who aren’t straight.”
The day before she’d gone with me to Fred Meyer to buy chicken salad because I don’t have a stove so can only eat cold things and we’d run into another friend of hers, carrying a roast chicken he’d found in the trash. He’d found a few hundred pounds of meat in the big dumpster, he said. Every day he came here and boxed up the meat for his dogs, carried it home in his bike trailer. “I got a cold pit,” he said, “big hole I dug in the permafrost next to my cabin. I put it down in there and it doesn’t go bad. Any extra, I take it out to the airport and they fly it to my buddy on the river, to feed his dogs. His catch wasn’t so good this year.” And by dogs, of course, he means dog team, as in sled dogs. He’s wearing stained carhart overalls and his forearms are tanned from the sun, looks to be about my age. He looks at Meadow’s value village bag full of tank tops and summery things. “What are you girls doing?” he asks. “Girly things?” And I am reminded, once again, that I am in a foreign country, a sort of nineteen-fifties homesteader back-to-the-future. Interior Alaska- The future and the past, in a not unattractive, though sometimes unappetizing, salad.
Later I bike around town forever, across the river with its hanging flower baskets and benches that wait for no-one, through the eerily empty downtown with its shuttered tailor shops and dark-windowed coffee shops, chairs upended on the tables, all the way out to the edge of town where the highway forces me onto a hot field of sand and weeds, all the way to the great glinting box stores that appear to have been built just yesterday, their lots choked with cars. I am attempting to soak in and make sense of the weirdness that is Fairbanks. Is it the quality of the light, the thin inland air? It is not thin, of course, Alaska’s great endless forests make it full of oxygen. Is it the way that sound carries, the feeling that I am at the literal top of the world? It is not my home bioregion, that is for sure. I am not used to the dryness, the sun, the lack of leafy rustling. Where I come from, in south central Alaska, the summertime is a fetid flowery orgasm, every surface flickering and damp, and the meadows practically sing to you, and the creeks do too, and you are absolutely enchanted, and you want to lay in the dappled shade of the forest floor in a bed of horsetail until you are digested. The only problem is that in my home bioregion, south-central Alaska, the flowers may be reliable but the sun is not. So, one thing for another. At least here in the desert Interior I am getting a tan, and learning to appreciate the aesthetic of great rolling hills and dusky river valleys.
And I like it here- and I mean to find friends, I mean to turn over every rock I see until I find them. And in the meantime, there is this– something I might take for granted if I was still in Portland but right now feels like a sort of blood transfusion from a fantastical and oh-so familiar land, for which I am extremely grateful.
So I bike around town, my feet pushing the rusty chain rings, solitude eating at the pit of my stomach and feeding me, all at once- and I come to the conclusion that what I see- at least what I think I see- the weirdness, the eerie stillness, the slant of light- is the memory of wintertime. It’s in the way the buildings sit, their shoulders square, the way their shutters gimace. It’s in the buckled concrete lots, the stark small houses. The sun cannot chase it away, no matter how bright, how hot, how endless. This is, more than anything else, a land of wintertime.