Friday, December 01, 2006

In Alaska we didn't HAVE coats...

I grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska.

We moved there in November when I was in 3rd grade. Woodriver Elementary was just blocks from our new home, so I walked. It was cold, probably 20 below or worse, and I remember my nose hairs freezing, my eyes watering. My eyelashes froze. My thin acrylic scarf filled up with condensation from my breath and also froze, thawing into a musty soggy knot inside the school.

The sound of my feet crunching sulkily on the road took on a peculiar glassy high pitch at that temperature. Cars drove by, exhaust trailing forlorn behind them for several minutes. Much colder and all the pollutants will stagnate near the ground, creating "ice fog". No, really, Google it.

It seemed like years before I liked anything about Alaska. Shuffling along that stiff iced path, it was impossible to lift my head and look around without allowing frozen air to infiltrate and spontaneously explode my lungs. It just didn't seem worth the risk.

I began to move toward enjoyment of snow and Fairbanks in teensy tiny baby steps. The first time I liked anything there was probably while cross country skiing. I liked the sounds, the warm-cheeked sense of controlled risks. Once I swaaaah- swisssssed my way into an opening off the side of the trail behind the university. I looked up at the trees, boughs bent with an unusually wet load of warm-air snow, and decided I stood in a singularly lovely spot.

Why not take off the old skis and explore a bit? WHOMP! Instantly hip-deep in snow, I swam in it as it swam in around each hemmed chink in my down stuffed armor. Climbing up and getting the skis back on was hard work. When I returned to the trailhead a friend's mom warned that people had been dangerously stuck in just such stunts- probably bull, but I still remember it. Skis = good. Snow = fluffy.

I know it's cliche, but snow really is just a fact of life in Fairbanks. I don't think of it as a symbol of Christmas because it showed up as early as September, still hung around there through April, sometimes continued to muck up the roads in May. It honestly wasn't much of an obastacle. Now that I'm in the wimpiest city in the world when it comes to flakes, I can't imagine relying on it to establish the atmosphere of winter for me.

In exchange for just enough snow to freak out the unwashed masses, Portland provides random days each winter of such sunny, sixty-degree crisp beauty as to restore one's faith in God. Seriously, every so often you wake up and look out at Hood & Helens and it makes you wonder who came up with all that glory.

Someday I suppose I'll morph into that Grandma, chiding Tobias' kids for complaining about the cold while telling the uphill-both-ways stories. Hopefully T himself will visit Montana and Alaska enough to understand what winter really means. Eggnog, Hot Cocoa, Grand Marnier! Can't we have winter all year long?

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