Our walk home strained us - and sustained us

I really liked the walk home. It was dependable, tactile. For three and a half years it was always there at both ends of every day. We built our home one mile up the valley from the end of Jones Road. We chose the location primarily because the land was in our price range. Antiquated mining laws allow every miner to build a watchman's cabin on his claim. We weren't miners, but we had friends that weren't miners who had mining claims. So we "watched" from our home, on borrowed public land.

We had a dog team for the heavy lifting: hauling building supplies, five-gallon cans of kerosene for our lanterns, major groceries. But mostly we walked.

We were careful how we dressed. In the summer we kept our rubber boots in the back of the car. Park, slip off your street shoes, slip on your rubber boots, pants tucked in to keep clean. My wife and I usually walked together. If she was in town she'd stop at the shop and meet me for the walk home. Sometimes we'd talk, sometimes not. There was no stress about it, though. If we didn't cover something tonight we'd get to it tomorrow morning, or the next night. There was plenty of time, plenty of walking.

In the winter it took longer to get dressed. In Fairbanks, Alaska, minus 30 degrees F. is not a big deal; minus 50 is. We only found a couple of kinds of boots that worked. There were plenty of boots that would keep you warm; I wore sneakers on the hard-packed snow for months every year. But when it got good and cold, the squeaking of most sole designs on the hard pack would make you crazy. The ones that were quiet were the nearly flat, soft soles with almost no tread on them. Traditional mukluks were good, too, with plain hide soles, but we were too scattered to make them and too broke to buy them.

And while we're on the subject of noise, you can rule out wind pants: The nylon swish-swish as you walked meant you'd miss any chance of hearing what was going on by the residents of the passing brush and forest.

The walk started at the abandoned Jones homestead. The poor Joneses didn't read the university's bulletin explaining how to cope with permafrost, and all their buildings suffered beyond repair. At the end of the messy homestead was Windy Creek, narrow and deep in summer, all but gone most winters, rushing and huge in spring.

Some winters, who knew why, the creek was a real hazard. Windy Creek was spring-fed and slowed to a trickle under the snow most winters. Funny that snow can insulate water and keep it flowing at minus 30 degrees F., but where the trail crossed the creek the snow would always get compacted and build a little dam. The water would back up, soak the snow, freeze into a wider dam, and so on all winter.

Depending on snowfall, spring pressure, and temperature patterns, Windy Creek could expand to cover 75 yards of the little valley it formed. The dam would stack up to a bumpy wall of ice three feet tall on the upstream side of the trail. The water oozing over the top of the dam could end up covering the trail, freezing, and forcing you into the brush. A little bit of drama on our daily commute.

We shared the trail with moose. In summer we saw bears sometimes, their tracks sometimes. One morning, a bear crossed the trail during the half-hour interval between when I left and when my wife did. We watched the daily progress of a porcupine who favored a stand of spruce trees on the far side of the creek. If the bugs were bad and we didn't want to smell like insect repellent we'd have to outrun them. Summer drama.

Snowmobiles became much more dependable, therefore more popular, during our years living at the end of the trail. Some weeks you could smell them well after the weekenders had come and gone. We'd see bits and pieces of reflectors and plastic left over when they bumped into trees and bushes while trying to negotiate the Windy Creek ice. Snow drama.

We could hear dog teams coming for some time before we saw them. The jingling of their gear, panting, the sled runners. So we would get off into the woods and hide so as not to cause the musher any unpleasant surprise. He comes around a corner, his dogs flip out at the excitement of people to pet them or hurt them or feed them or otherwise distract them. Unwanted doggy drama! If the musher was good, he could negotiate the creek ice without event. Sometimes we could hear the ruckus while lying in bed half a mile away.

A year after we built the cabin we noticed a tumbled-down wreck of a place hidden in the woods less than six feet from where we had cut our trail off the main one. Where "Our trail" left the "O'Connor Creek trail." We made it turn sharp and kept it narrow so that we didn't get unexpected guests. Any sign, such as a trail marker or a "private property" sign stuck to a tree, would have been too gauche.

It is only dark for a short time every fall. In summer the sun works overtime in the boreal forest, and in winter the snow reflects even the slightest illumination from the moon and stars. (And the streetlights warm up the clouds even 10 miles from town.)

We preferred to slip and bump and feel our way along during that dark time. A flashlight isolated us in its narrow beam. We felt like conspicuous foreigners then, not as we usually did, traveling by ambient light on foot like the rest of our natural neighbors.

I miss the bugs in the summer, the biting cold in the winter, and the monumental effort of making it home after a late concert. Trying to start the car in the cold. Picking the dog hair, cat fur, and woodchips off our clothes when we got under electric light. Washing our hair in the sinks of public restrooms. There was sometimes drama, but always the walk.

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