Persistent rivulets of icy rainwater had breached the narrow gap between my shivering neck and my poncho collar. Having slid inside, they were now gleefully chasing each other down the spinal causeway indented into the goose-bumped surface of my back. Soon they would join the thousands of rivulets that had preceded them into the very soggy pit stop formed by the seat of my pants. I reflected miserably on the inscrutable irony of how the sun can be blazing so cheerily in the sky above Copper Center, while a few miles past Kenny Lake, as the Edgarton Highway begins its descent toward Chitina, thick, sticky, gray clouds can pounce out of ambush to suffocate the sun. Then, as if they were made of wet tissue paper, the bottom falls out of the clouds, dumping torrents of rain all over a hapless dip netter’s windshield and saturating the gear on his trailer. I guess that’s just the price a guy has to be willing pay for attempting to capture the best salmon in the world…the legendary Copper River Reds.
I love fresh salmon. I love it baked, grilled, or smoked. I love it in chowders, in sandwich spreads and in salads. I love salmon cakes and salmon steaks. I like it plain, with barbecue sauce, with Old Bay, with lemon and butter, with dill, or with tartar sauce. I even love it on my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I’ve learned the hard way, though, that not everybody seems to share my gastronomical love affair with the delicacy. One time, in my naïve exuberance, I carefully nursed a frozen salmon through airport security so that I could proudly prepare it for some relatives I was visiting in the Lower 48. I was shocked and hurt when some of them refused to even try it, explaining condescendingly that they didn’t care for fish. Fish! FISH? What sacrilege! Calling a Copper River Red Salmon a mere “fish” is like calling Italian white truffles “mushrooms”! Other relatives at least gave it a try, tentatively plopping a tiny flake onto their plate, only to turn green and gag when they bit into it! Incomprehensible! Prior to that traumatic moment, it had never crossed my mind that any healthy, mentally stable human being could fail to be enraptured by the heavenly succulence of Alaskan Salmon.
It was precisely that heavenly taste of which I kept reminding myself as I sat impaled on that spine of slimy rock, blinking the raindrops off of my eyelashes and blowing them out of my moustache. For a while I had feared that my numb fingers might conspire to make me drop my dip net into the raging Copper River current. But that fear had abated several hours previously when I noticed that, fortunately, my hands seemed to have become welded solid onto the dip net handle–net and hands merging into a single indistinguishable blob of ice. I wasn’t sure how I would be able to tear my hands free in order to remove a salmon from the net if I should wind up catching one. However, if I could only stave off hypothermia and remain conscious long enough to recognize the telltale bump of a salmon hitting my net, I would deal with that pleasant crisis when the moment arrived.
I had to catch at least one salmon. I simply had to. The alternative was unthinkable. You see, my honor was at stake. This whole trip had resulted from a bet I had made with my friend Zebedee Clanston, who was visiting from Minnesota. Zeb is one of those disgusting anglers that that refuse to listen to my fishing stories, but instead, insist on bragging incessantly about their own fishing exploits to everyone within earshot. Most guys like that you can dismiss with a few well-timed smirks, a raised eyebrow and a knowing, “Whatever you say, there, Sport.” But Zeb couldn’t be so easily ignored. At the first flicker of incredulity, he would whip out his iPhone, jab at it with a tanned finger, and, before you could flee, thrust the phototgraphic evidence of his fishing prowess in your face. It was ghastly. You would be compelled to view a gratuitous shot of his leering mug, somewhere in Chilean Patagonia, triumphantly brandishing aloft an obviously photoshopped stringer of fat brown trout, each one as long as my leg. As you would grimace and attempt to back away from the sickening sight, Zeb would poke the screen again and up would flash another picture of him gloatingly straining to prop up a 150lb. Atlantic Sailfish at Onjango Resort in Luanda, Angola, Africa. Like some sort of nightmare, in rapid succession the visual assaults would just keep coming: the Great Barrier Reef, Australia; the St. Lawrence River, Ontario; Pinas Bay, Panama; Munster Blackwater, Ireland. There were muskies and bass, flounder and barramundi, tigerfish and zander, albacore and grouper, all in ridiculous numbers and of grotesque sizes. I had finally grown nauseated by the pompous pretentiousness of it all and decided to shut Zeb up once and for all.
I coaxed my lip into a pitying, yet tolerant smile. “Not bad for a beginner, Zeb. Some of those fish were almost worth keeping.” I attempted to make the compliment sound credible enough to seem genuine, yet a bit detached in a bored sort of way. I even allowed him to observe an unsuccessful attempt to stifle a yawn. I patted him on the head, reassuringly in my best fatherly fashion. Boy, that worked even better than I had anticipated! His face turned brilliant crimson and he slapped my hand away from his head as if it were a poisonous spider.
“Not bad?” he hollered. “Almost worth keeping? I’d like to see you do any better!”
That was the opening for which I had been maneuvering. “Oh, don’t sell yourself, short, Sport,” I murmured magnanimously. “You could have done worse. A lot worse. After all, not everyone can be blessed with access to the best fishing in the world. Just because I might be able to bring home more fish than you, pound for pound, on any given day, is no reason to kick yourself.”
The corner of Zeb’s left eye began to twitch and engorged veins commenced pulsating purple in his neck. “Stop talking down to me like I’m some kind of cheechako! I won’t stand for it. I have dropped a line in every fishing hole in this state, from the Togiak River to Lake Illiamna, I’ll have you know.”
I patted him on the head again. “I know you have, Sport, I know you have. Don’t feel bad. You did the best that could be expected with a rod and reel. You’re just not a resident, and so there are some privileges you just don’t have access to. I understand that, and I certainly won’t hold it against you.”
“Is that a fact, Sir Blabsalot?” blustered Zeb. “Well pick the day and the species, Buster, and by the end of the day if I don’t have more fish in my cooler than you, I’ll eat the brand new $500.00 G. Loomis GLX spinning rod I just ordered from Cabela’s.”
I literally purred with satisfaction. He had taken my bait like a 24 inch grayling sucking in a Red Tail Mosquito dry fly. I had played him like a pro and was now poised to scoop him up with my landing net. “OK! You’re on, Sport. How about this Friday? The species is Copper River Red Salmon, and by the end of the day if I don’t have more fish than you, I’ll eat the $4.95 can of fluorescent PowerBait I just picked up at Wal-Mart.” Grinning victoriously, at my own cleverness, I leaned forward, waiting for him to start flopping around, gasping for air like a trophy King in the bottom of my boat. I was going to enjoy watching him hem and haw and try to backpeddle out of the bet.
However, my triumphant smile wilted a bit as, instead of admitting defeat, Zeb grabbed my hand and shook it enthusiastically. Was he actually accepting my deal? After all, avid fisherman that he is, I thought he’d know that dipnetting in the Copper River is classified as a Personal Use Fishery and is restricted to Alaska residents only. But the sly look that had crept into his eyes was beginning to unsettle me. What could he possibly know that I didn’t? He didn’t stand a chance, did he? Why, I could harvest my household limit of 30 fish, while his daily non-resident sportfishing bag limit had to be, what? Surely not more than six, maybe ten measly fish? But he had foolishly thrown down the gauntlet, and now I would crush him. I had to crush him. I wasn’t going to let a Minnesotan out-fish me in my own stomping grounds.
But now as my aching arms swept the churning back eddy with a dip net whose aluminum handle had become permanently melded to my frozen hands, I was growing desperate. The only bump I had felt in my net for 12 hours had come from a floating tree branch which had ripped a huge gash in my netting. I had tried to repair it with the drawstring from my poncho hood and now the hood wouldn’t stay up. I was getting real tired of all those icy rivulets using my back as their own personal racetrack. I honestly didn’t know how much more of this I could take, and yet at this rate, Zeb would only need to catch one salmon to win the bet.
Maybe a huge lunker was hovering just below my net, laughing at me. Viciously, I stabbed the net deeper into the current. As I did so, the rock on which my left foot rested broke off and toppled into the river with a splash. If I hadn’t previously displayed the foresight of letting my wife nag me into roping myself to the bank, I might have followed the rock’s example. As it was, I almost did anyway. The only part of the bank I had been able to find which seemed secure enough to support me had been a flimsy willow shrub. As I began to fall, I jerked heavily against the rope, snapping it taut against the willow shrub. The plant shuddered and promptly ripped out of the cliff face to which it clung.
With instincts honed by many years of backcountry experience, I screeched hysterically. I’ve developed that technique for just such an emergency situation as this. You see, hundreds of hours of research have taught me that screeching stimulates a savvy outdoorsman’s adrenal gland and tones his diaphragm muscles. I find that it also alerts any passersby to avoid the dangerous area until I have been able to assess the situation and render the environment safe. I plummeted about three feet toward the torrent of instant death, until one of the willow shrub’s roots held, abruptly arresting my freefall. Since my hands were still frozen to the dip net handle, I deftly caught myself on the jagged corner of a rock by my cheekbone. Sadly, one of my boots, not noticing that I had stopped, continued its plunge. Undaunted, I quickly whipped up an improvised dye, consisting of a mixture of 75% blood from my gashed face, and 25% raindrops. Using the tip of my nose, I carefully dripped them into the river at the precise spot where the river had swallowed my boot. Perhaps later I could return to the location and recover it. Right now, though, I had fish to catch.
Using the handle of my dip net as a lever, I was just wallowing back into a position of relative safety when my wife’s voice floated down to me from above. “Are you alright, Honey?”
“Of course!” I snapped. She’s always interrupting the serenity of my fishing trips with banal chit chat. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because you just screamed like a woman? Is that blood on your face? Where’s your boot? I think you better come up here and take a break and drink some coffee.”
“I’m fine! I didn’t scream. I was just yawning loudly.”
“And about the boot? I…uh…I took it off because my foot was getting hot and sweaty.
“Just one foot was getting hot and sweaty?”
“In this weather?”
“That’s what I said, and I’m sticking to it. What is this? The Spanish Inquisition?”
“I’ll ignore that. Where’s the boot? I just bought those for you.”
“I…uh… and accidentally knocked it in the river, when I…I was fighting with that big King I caught. That’s where this blood on my cheek came from. Yeah, that’s it. It’s salmon blood.”
“So where’s the salmon?”
“It got away.”
“Whatever. But if you fall in that river and drown, I’m gonna kill you.”
From there, the day took a turn for the worse. By midnight I had only caught one and a half Reds. The half of one hadn’t been dead long. It’s other half was probably still flopping in some Grizzly Bear’s stomach. Glumly, I trundled my single solitary fish, my gear and my wife back to where my truck patiently waited at O’Brien Creek. I wasn’t looking forward to facing Zeb at our pre-arranged rendezvous at the Hub in Glennallen. My only hope was that some tourist in a Winnebago had backed over his fishing pole in the Klutina River campground or wherever it was he had decided to fish.
When I arrived, I steeled myself and peeked into the bed of Zeb’s rental truck. I expelled a huge sigh of relief when not a single salmon met my inquisitive gaze. About then, I felt Zeb’s big hand slapping me on the back. “How’d you do?” he boomed cheerily. Uh-oh. That wasn’t a good sign. It was never a good sign when Zeb boomed cheerily after a day of fishing.
I summoned my most nonchalant tone. “Oh, not bad. Not bad. You?”
Zeb grinned like a Cheshire Cat and out came his iPhone. “Let me show you. A picture is worth a thousand words. And in this case it’s worth a thousand fish. Actually, thirty-five hundred and twenty seven Copper River Red Salmon to be precise! I caught them in about 45 minutes.”
I was staring in stunned disbelief at the picture of a boat’s hold overflowing with massive fish. Beside the huge catch was Zeb’s leering mug, and he was holding a newspaper with today’s date clearly readable. I found myself compelled to sit down suddenly. Zeb eased me onto his tailgate and began to fan my face. “How…where…what…?” I managed to squeak out.
“Sorry for the shock,” he snickered. “I guess I must have forgotten to tell you that I own a 30 foot gillnetter. I call her the ‘Four Leaf Clover’ and I keep her docked in Cordova. For the last three years I’ve owned a limited entry commercial permit to harvest salmon near the barrier islands along the Copper River Delta. Can I get you some Pepto-Bismol or anything? You look like you’re about to throw up.”
I shrugged off his proffered hand and staggered toward my truck. “No thanks,” I called over my shoulder. “Right now, I have some fluorescent PowerBait to swallow.”
DATE / TIME MARK: 8-899^120*096 (estimated)
FROM: sQreev-Y, Prime Sentient Component of Transgalactic Probe tYx^951*332.
TO: sWomglu-K, Coordinating Overseer of pRuglugrion Scientific Exploration Bureau.
RE: Long-range data compilation mission to rWezik Galaxy / Sector DdF^893.
PREFACATORY NOTE: Please accept my regrets for the inefficiency of the primitive digital transcription and data storage method I am compelled to utilize in compilation of this report. In explanation, it must be noted that Exploration Probe tYx^951*332 experienced a de-orbiting incident resulting in an uncontrolled atmospheric entry. This caused the probe to impact a planetary surface as detailed later in this report. At that time, all of my telepanscription technology was rendered non-functional by a major system disintegration.
After fully regenerating from my organic malfuncions, I was eventually able to locate a quaint and time intensive device called a Dell Optiplex GX745 Core 2 Duo, which seemed to possess rudimentary information compiling capacity. Although my non-organic database had been erased, my organic databanks retained sufficient memory of ancient pRuglugrion technological history for me to extrapolate and reconstruct the crude techniques necessary to preserve this report.
I appeal to your Primeness’ logarithmic prowess to calculate the statistical probability of my capacity to compile this report by any more adequate means, within the limitations of the circumstances herein described. I am confident that in the event that this record comes into the possession of fellow pRuglugrions, it will be capably decoded into a more readable format. I trust its contents will reassure all sentient components of the pRuglugrion Scientific Exploration Bureau that I, sQreev-Y remained true to my mission until the final logoff of my organic systems.
After a routine transport, we disengaged the Probe’s baryon propulsion engines in order to drop out of hyperdrive. We remained in transwarp until our quark confinement status had achieved chromodynamic equilibrium. Then using our thrusters, we maneuvered to our target coordinates and assumed orbit around the planet that was to become our next subject of study. We were precisely on schedule.
The planet proved to be a relatively small one, positioned third from a class ^5 star in Sector DdF^893, which was itself located in an obscure section of the galaxy designated “rWezik”. As our preliminary long-range scans had suggested, the planet was indeed inhabited. Short-range scans confirmed that it was cluttered with life forms of an unexpectedly wide range of complexity and variety.
Accurate and complete data, however, was impossible to collect, because our scans were severely compromised by a number of factors.
First, the stratosphere of the planet churned with debris. It resembled an asteroid belt, except that the majority of the debris appeared to be metallic and bore unmistakable evidence of having been assembled by intelligent design. Of the thousands of items orbiting the planet, 85% were fragmentary or non-functional. To our great frustration, these tended to drift across our scanning grid, just at the moment when a critical computation was being formulated, thus skewing our results, and requiring us to re-initialize the entire scanning process.
However, some of the debris appeared to consist of functional devices. Of these, the majority seemed designed to capture sonic, photonic, or electro-magnetic radiation and reflect it back to a non-standardized variety of towers and parabolic discs on the planet’s surface. The devices emanated just enough energy to create feedback on our sensors. We could determine no practical purpose for such an array of devices, and finally determined that they had been planted in position to serve as a planetary defense shield to prevent effective scanning by a non-indigenous culture such as ours.
It should be noted that the Probe’s Technical Intern, sTwox-P proposed a hypothesis that the orbiting devices were some form of primitive communication network. I was able to convince him of the logical fallacy of his hypothesis by pointing out that as underdeveloped as this culture obviously was, yet the fact that they had mastered the rudimentary science of successfully placing reflective devices into orbit, presupposed that they had a working comprehension of basic electromagnetic theory. Therefore, the reason they would expose themselves to the danger that microwave radiation poses to the cellular structure of carbon-based organic life forms must be a compelling one, and beyond the scope of mere convenience. I am pleased to add that sTwox-P accepted my argument and retracted his flawed hypotheses.
Another factor that corrupted our data scan was the presence of massive chemical, particulate, biological and gas cocktails that hung suspended over much of the planet. These appeared to consist primarily of methane, byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion, and a small percentage of highly hazardous chemicals. The pockets appeared most concentrated over areas of high population density. Once again, their function appeared unclear, but it is possible that these were artificial atmospheres precisely mixed according to the inhabitants’ unique physiology in order to maximize the beneficial effects upon their respiratory systems.
A third factor was the constant occurrence of abrupt thermal activity that appeared at unpredictable intervals across the planet’s surface. In certain subcompact regions it seemed that thousands of thermal explosions were occurring simultaneously. These explosions varied widely in frequency, size and duration, however we also noticed that they seemed to be accompanied by a concentration of biological life-sign, many of which would vanish or fade after each thermal burst. The only conclusion we could draw is that these represented weapon discharges.
We had nearly determined that the planet did not fit the parameters requisite for a scientifically viable survey when I spotted a large land mass in the northern quadrant of the western hemisphere not far from the northern polar icecap, which appeared remarkably free of interference. There was no artificial atmosphere, we detected few weapon discharges and I could discern a visible break in the orbiting debris.
Hoping to justify the resources already expended on this mission, I determined to descend to a low altitude above that point. I calculated that I should be able to obtain a relatively clean, if limited scan, and then we would move to the next destination in our itinerary.
Just as I was maneuvering to initiate descent, Probe tYx^951*332 was struck on her starboard stern by a piece of debris that had been orbiting at a higher altitude than I had guessed possible. As we were knocked into an uncontrolled atmospheric entry I was able to briefly observe the debris. It appeared to be some type of small pod containing two hatches. I believe it was nearly white in color, with the designation “Frigidaire” inscribed on its fuselage.
The collision had damaged our starboard thruster array. Caught in the planet’s gravitational pull, it was impossible to engage our baryon engines. I did not regain control of the Probe until we were just above a dense cluster of green, obelisk shaped vegetation growing beside a geometrically asymmetric conduit, through which flowed a solution of hydrogen dioxide and silicon dioxide.
Beside the conduit I observed a single life form. It was a biped, ^03 nOrkins tall, with a small cranial capacity and a profusion of filaments protruding from the bottom of its elliptical head. It was grasping a narrow flexible shaft in one of its upper appendages. From the flexible shaft was suspended a small-diameter filament which the life form seemed to be dipping in the dioxide solution.
Upon observing the Probe’s arrival, the life form emitted a piercing sonic tone, released the dipping shaft and followed it into the solution. The life form was borne some distance in the current, primarily submerged, but periodically displaying an appendage or head, until it emerged in a quadruped state 4^60 nOrkins from the location where it had entered the solution.
It then emitted a series of harsh staccato sonic tones accompanied by the expulsion of a jet of dioxide solution from an orifice concealed within its head filaments. Slowly, it reverted to a biped state. Upon completion of this change, it removed a tubular metallic device from a compartment positioned low on its torso and pointed it at our Probe. The tubular device abruptly discharged a thermal burst precisely like the ones we had previously observed. As a result, a tiny cylindrical fragment of lead and copper was projected at our Probe.
In retrospect, I can only conclude that against the exponentially unlikely probability, that tiny metal fragment entered the Probe’s antiquark venting port, traveling up the asymptotic tube until it reached the baryon manifold. Of course, the lead and copper reacted with the bWabnium isotope bank, effectively destabilizing the chromodynamic equilibrium of Probe tYx^951*332.
As the only sentient component of the Probe that proved to be salvageable, I have not been able to locate either resources or technology adequate to construct another Probe, and thus expect to prematurely experience organic logoff. Now that I have located this Dell information storage device and entered this final log, I must regretfully request that I be relieved of duty. I can no longer fulfill my obligations to the pRuglugrion Scientific Exploration Bureau. I expect to occupy my remaining time avoiding the biped life form who seems intent on capturing me. My thoracic carapace is becoming quite discolored from the quantity of lead and copper fragments that the biped has discharged against it.
Proud to have served pRuglugria, I remain her loyal component,
Back in the days when Black Rapids ski slope was open to civilians, my wife wheedled me into renting some downhill skis, and buying a pass and a lift ticket. She bribed me by describing panoramic vistas, exhilarating outdoor air, fun, excitement, and exercise. I didn’t realize that the “romantic bonding time for our relationship” she was extolling was going to involve me bonding with every tree, bush and rock on the slope.
Oblivious that my sweet and devoted spouse had made a Faustian pact with the abominable snowman, I told myself that downhill skiing couldn’t be that bad. You just stand on those little planks with the pointy curves on the end and ride them down the hill. Right? After all, didn’t they give you those sticks to jab in the snow and stop yourself with if things get hairy?
As I rode the lift to the top, I mentally perfected my style. I had seen some really cool moves in a James Bond ski chase scene that I wanted to try out. I licked my lips in anticipation and then spent the rest of my lift ride trying to unstick my tongue from the steel tubing of the T-lift. When the thing reached the top and I tried to get off, I found that I couldn’t. Not only did I have the tongue issue, but somehow, the strap of my snow pants had gotten snagged on the stupid lift as well.
With all our modern technology, you would have thought that they could make a ski lift stop at the top to let a skier dismount and retrieve his taste buds with dignity. But, no, it just kept moving. Frantically, I gave a mighty wrench and felt a pair of tearing sensations–one in my tongue and one in my pants. I didn’t much care about the pants. They were an old duct-taped pair of camo snow pants, blackened by the patina of a dozen hunts. It was my tongue that disappointed me the most. I was going to have difficulty managing those snappy James Bond one-liners now.
As I reeled backwards, my skis and poles simulated a Viet Cong man trap, forcing me onto the snow with my leg canted under me in a painful and unnatural position, and my ski poles impaling me in the calf and ribs. To add insult to injury, I looked up to see some skier in a three hundred dollar pair of goggles and color coordinated pastel ski suit peering down at me with an expression of revulsion.
“Good grief, man!” He sneered. “There should be some sort of screening protocol for purchasers of lift tickets. Are you OK?”
I lifted one eyebrow in an expression of disdain. “Thaken, not thtirred,” I replied in my most debonair British accent. It was difficult to maintain a British accent with two thirds of my tongue surface missing. The skier shook his head and shot away in a hiss of skis and a flurry of snickers. Carefully I began the process of untangling myself. It proved to be a procedure that I became very adept at as the day wore on.
About then, my wife showed up. She wondered why I why I wanted to lay around making snow angels when there was a mountain to be skied. I just smiled enigmatically and using my poles, managed to gingerly ratchet myself into a standing position atop my skis.
Then she began to give me pointers. It was something about bending at the tongue, leaning into the knees of your snowplow shift to turn, and weighing your boots to stop. The only thing I clearly remember was her admonition: “Just remember, if you start to feel out of control, all you have to do is fall down!” From my vantage point, teetering on the brink of the expert slope, I didn’t see how her advice was particularly useful, since it appeared like skiing was basically going to consist of a prolonged fall down a mountain anyway.
All of my 007 fantasies forsook me and I became obsessed with but one thought—how do I get back to the chalet alive? It seemed decades later that, crawling on hands and knees, I found the beginner’s trail. It was slightly more sloped than the top of a pool table, and slightly wider than a football field. It was the most frightening thing I have ever encountered.
Some four-year-old kid shot nonchalantly by me, leaning into the tongue of his boots with his poles tucked, forgotten, under his armpits. He didn’t have to rub it in. I briefly wondered if ski poles would work as little kid shish-kabob skewers, but by then he was at the bottom of the slope, and riding the lift back up.
I vaguely remembered my wife saying that if the slope was too steep, I could zigzag back and forth across it to control my speed and angle. I fastened my bindings, took a deep breath, and pointed obliquely down hill. At first I tried my skating freeform style, thinking that the wind milling action of my arms might provide some gyroscopic stability. It seemed ineffective, so I sat on the back of my skis in the fetal position and covered my head. I became one with nature—or at least that small part of nature that consisted of an alder thicket on the far side of the slope.
It took some time for me to distinguish between ski poles, alder trunks, arms, skis, and legs. When I had gotten them all sorted out, I aimed at an even shallower angle for a very soft looking snowdrift on the opposite side of the trail and pushed off. I was able to practice steering this time. Lean. Pivot at the hips. Dig in with the edge of the skis. Let the snowdrift gobble you up.
It took me an hour and a half to make it down the beginner’s slope to the chalet. I would simply shoot across the slope until I encountered an accommodating bush, snowdrift, or rock. It would stop me. I would then chase down my escaping skis, pick a new drop zone, and repeat the process. I was still picking impacted snow pellets out of my ears and nostrils the next morning.
When I reached the chalet, I knelt and reverently kissed the level ground before it. I kissed the chalet. I kissed the little four-year-old kid. I even tried to kiss the bull moose that stepped out of the brush. When he chased me inside, I kissed a tall mug of hot chocolate until my wife arrived with frost in her hair, a glow in her cheeks, and a sparkle in her eye. I didn’t talk to her, let alone kiss her for about a month.
During Alaska’s brief summer it is sometimes hard to tell who is a sourdough and who isn’t. While it’s balmy out, clever resourceful tourons and cheechakos are usually able to fake it enough to blend in with the experienced Alaskans. As long as they don’t start talking, that is.
Once they open their mouths, they give themselves away. Inevitably, they’ll blurt out a telltale question like “Do you think we’ll make it back before dark?” Or they might refer to a “woodchuck” they spotted near a highway turnout, or the “huge crow” they saw in a “pine tree”. Often it will be place names that they fumble. They’ll mention returning from Anchorage via the “Tock” Cut-off, or brag about the halibut boat they chartered out of “Val Dezz”.
But assuming they have sense enough to limit their conversation to terse monosyllabic grunts, their behavior can uncannily mimic that of a true sourdough. After all, sourdoughs, like cheechakos, do spend Federal Reserve Notes at the store. Sourdoughs laugh and sneeze and scratch their chin just like a touron might. Everybody, sourdough and non-sourdough alike, wears pants and drinks Coca Cola and carries a cell phone. So, if during July, for instance, you spotted two strangers walking toward you, and somebody challenged you to identify which one was the sourdough and which one wasn’t, you might be hard pressed to do so.
The thin mask is jerked off, however, as soon as winter hits. A person who has never experienced authentic sub-arctic weather simply cannot fathom it. They have no reference point by which to process it. They may have read all the Jack London Books or National Geographic articles they could get their hands on. They may have watched all the television specials that were ever produced on the subject. They may even have pored over reams of meteorological data and consulted every blog and Wikipedia entry that they could Google. Still, it is impossible for such people to be prepared for Alaska’s winter, and as a result, they will miserably fail to believably feign nonchalance toward it once they find themselves immersed in its cold reality.
You see, there are certain skills–little tricks–that one picks up to compensate for the gaping ragged chunks of dignity that ice, snow, howling winds and fifty below temperatures rip out of one’s comfort zone. In order to survive, a sourdough has learned to broker a humble truce with the elements. Compromising where he must, and improvising where he can, he acknowledges that he must play by Jack Frost’s rules or be mercilessly destroyed. A cheechako has not yet come to grips with this humbling reality.
As a result, when it comes to winter, a newbie will tend to make one of two mistakes. On the one extreme, some cheechakos assume that sourdoughs are wimps who like to lie a lot. Convinced that Alaska can’t possibly get as cold as we claim, they figure we are either exaggerating or pulling their leg when describe such experiences as having our upper and lower eyelashes freeze together from the ice balls formed when we exhale. They just know that it is impossible to get frostbitten fingers from merely not wearing gloves during the five minutes it takes to fuel up their car at the self-serve gas station. This naivete proves to be their undoing. I can’t count the number of cheechakos I have found at the service station, dead as an icicle, still standing upright with their hand frozen around the gas pump nozzle and their eyes welded shut with ice balls. The look of incredulity on their face is enough to make a grown man break down in “I told ya so’s”.
On the other hand, certain other cheechakos assume that Alaskans are simply tougher than outsiders, and that the shortcut to sourdoughood can be achieve by pretending that the cold doesn’t bother them. Consequently, it is not uncommon during a cold snap to find the ground littered with the stiff carcasses of cheechakos who have succumbed to their own misplaced sense of bravado. Ironically, if you brush the frost from their lifeless faces you will find that most of them will still have a plucky grin frozen onto it.
This brings me to the first secret little trick that a sourdough learns early. It’s called long underwear. Since long underwear is by nature–well–underwear, it can’t be seen. Thus the secret factor. It’s not that sourdoughs are trying to keep it a secret particularly, it’s just that modern people have been trained not to discuss that category of their wardrobe. So cheechakos don’t have any way to know what they’re supposed to be wearing under there. The poor shivering cheechakos suffer under the impression that we, like them, are wearing nothing but goose bumps and skimpy cotton skivvies under our blue jeans.
That we sourdoughs should let such a thing happen is an outrage, really. Think about it. People comment about each others’ clothes all the time: “Nice hat.” “I love your tie!” “That skirt looks nice on you.” “Where did you get that jacket? It’s really sharp.” Yet, when is the last time you met somebody in a restaurant or at church and jovially called out the following exchange?
“Hey, Frank, good to see you! What are you wearing these days, boxers or briefs?”
“Are you kiddin’, man! It’s November! I’ve been wearing my Under Armour long-handles for at least a month.”
“Under Armour, huh! Well, that high-falutin’ Cabela’s stuff is OK, I suppose, if you can afford it, but why mortgage your house to take out a loan for underwear when you can just go to Value Village and pick up some good old brown polypropylene. Military surplus. The baggy kind with the little lint balls all over them that always smell like dirty laundry no matter how many times you wash them.”
I think the world would be a better place if more people could have frank discussions like that. That’s why for many years now I’ve been a tireless outspoken advocate of removing underwear from the list of taboo conversational subjects among polite company. If more Alaskans would have the courage and compassion to begin to open dialogues about their underwear choices, I believe we could avoid hundreds of hypothermia and frostbite cases each year. We might even save some lives.
Then again, maybe not. I suspect that many cheechakos are aware of the existence of long underwear, but refuse to wear it, because they haven’t mastered the second trick in the sourdough’s winter survival bag—fashion immunity. One cannot be addicted to high fashion and hope to survive in Alaska’s winter. Especially if one is a female. For some reason that I have never quite understood, female fashions tend to expose skin rather than to cover it. This is quite self-defeating, seeing that the ability to survive sub-zero temperatures is inversely proportional to the percentage of the epidermis that is exposed to the ambient air. I suppose that the female leg can be attractive under the appropriate circumstances, but I have never personally admired a female leg that was beet red, with white blotches and bright purple knees.
So, a sourdough learns to be immune to the snobbish and impractical demands of fashion. After, all, isn’t fashion invented in places like Paris and San Francisco? If I wanted to be fashionable, I’d move to one of those places. On the other hand, if fashion designers worked out of Delta Junction or Fairbanks, you know that all the supermodels would be strutting the catwalk in bunny boots and Carhartts and wolverine fur bomber hats.
Speaking of bunny boots, sourdoughs understand that proper winter footwear provides more advantages than warmth alone. The importance of choosing a boot with good traction is incalculable. For every cheechako I have found frozen at the gas pump or toppled over beside the sidewalk wearing little but a plucky grin and a stiff upper lip, I have encountered dozens who were performing acrobatic break dancing routines on an icy walkway. Such routines are typically spectacular but brief. Generally the only folks who appreciate such a performance are orthopedic surgeons.
Sadly, it is sometimes difficult for even a sourdough to identify whether the soles of a new pair of shoes will have good traction or not. I have bought shoes with treads that looked like a banana peel yet amazingly, they stuck to the ice like Velcro. Then there have been those that looked like their bottoms had been carved out of an X-treme ATV tire. However, they might as well have been skis, for all the traction they provided. Alas, a cheechako has never learned about the fickle nature of footwear manufacturers. Instead, he will naively trust whatever the company says about the aggressive traction characteristics of their latest product. A sourdough, however, wisely distrusts all shoe and boot manufacturers. What would somebody in Taiwan know about walking in my driveway, anyway? No, a true sourdough keeps from fracturing his coccyx by relying on an old Forty-Niner technique called the Ice Scootch.
You see, back when Forty-Niners were digging up the Alaskan and northern Canadian landscape like gophers, there was no such thing as Vibram soles. Their boot treads came in two varieties: smooth leather and smooth leather with hobnails. The problem was that the business owners in places like Skagway and Dawson City took a dim view of customers scraping and scratching across their expensive hardwood floors with hobnails. So hobnails were banned in any place where a prospector might be inclined to blow a poke of gold dust on a weekend.
Needless to say, this created quite a dilemma. At first, the Forty-Niners, like modern cheechakos, tried to step outside onto the icy street and set off with their characteristic long stride. That didn’t work out very well for them. A long stride requires the strider to stretch his leg out in front of him, plant his heel, roll forward onto the ball of his foot and then push off with his toes as the heel of the opposite foot is being planted for the next step. That’s fine and dandy on gravel or meadow grass, but on ice, such an ambulatory technique results not in a mile-eating pace, but in an instant somersault. Sometimes they would somersault backwards immediately at the heel plant. But usually they would somersault forward during either the ball of the foot roll phase or the toe push-off phase. This is the reason why all those old prospectors wore a hat with a brim that was smashed flat in the front. It also explains the disproportionate number of missing front teeth in the prospector population of the era.
Happily, those who survived to become sourdoughs developed the Ice Scootch walking technique which has been preserved virtually unchanged to this very day. Mastery of the Ice Scootch could literally render Alaskan orthopedic surgeons obsolete. Here, then is the technique. Instead of moving the feet back and forth, move them up and down, sort of like the way you use a toilet plunger to unclog the commode. Carefully. Very carefully. Plant the entire right foot–heel, instep, ball and toe all at once. Once it is planted do not move it or slide it in any way until you are ready to pick it straight up again for the next step. Do not shift your body weight forward or backwards by more than .005 degrees. Now, while your right foot is planted, very slightly ease your weight sideways until it is balanced directly over that foot. Next, lift the left foot that you have just shifted your weight from. Remember, straight up! When it comes back down, it should be incrementally forward of its last position. Now begin the process of shifting your weight back to your left foot. Repeat the process, alternating feet. If you now are walking like a cross between the Michelin Man and a tactical SWAT team member, Congratulations. You have just graduated to sourdough status!
Wesley Montrose was a pudgy, bespectacled fellow. I didn’t know him well. None of us at my alma mater did. It’s hard to get to know a fellow like Wesley. Let me rephrase that. It was hard to get to know Wesley specifically. There were no other fellows like Wesley. I don’t suppose there ever will be either. The reason it was hard to get to know him was largely because nobody could understand him. I don’t just mean that he had an eccentric non-social personality, although he certainly had one of those. We couldn’t understand him simply because when he opened his mouth to talk, pure gibberish came out.
This was most disconcerting, particularly when we knew he spoke fluent English. English was his first language…and his greatest love, evidently. His grammar was flawless, his diction was impeccable, and yet he spoke gibberish. For instance, he liked to proudly describe himself as a hippopotomonstrosesquipedalian quidam. That sounded like something we didn’t want living in the same dorm with us, so we threw him in the cold shower and held him there until he simplified the term. It took him three tries until he got it into verbiage that we could actually understand. The result was anticlimactic. Instead of admitting to being some sort of weirdo, he was basically calling himself an unnoticed person with an exceptional vocabulary. Well, he was certainly right about that. The guy knew words that nobody else had ever dreamed of. Even worse than that, he used them in every sentence.
The frustrating thing about it was that his words were always legitimate, and could all be found in some official dictionary somewhere. That made people like me who considered ourselves to be above average at language skills feel pretty ignorant. Before I met Wes, I had viewed myself as a Scrabble champion. But playing Scrabble with Wesley was like a three-year-old trying to beat Garry Kasparov at chess. It was humiliating on a visceral level. I only did it once. Nobody else was foolish enough to try. As a result, for Wesley, Scrabble became a solitaire game. That didn’t seem to bother him very much, though. He could play Scrabble with himself for hours.
On a positive note, Wesley was a great guy to know when you were working a crossword puzzle.
“Hey, Wes! Give me a five-letter word for a ball of ceremonial rice. First letter ‘p’ and middle letter ‘n’. ”
“Pinda,” he’d shoot back without a microsecond’s hesitation.
Or, “Hey, Wes, a nine-letter word, for silly, beginning with ‘d’?”
“Desipient,” he’d yawn.
Wesley was a career scholar. He’d been a sophomore for nearly a decade and a half. I think he purposely flunked the final exam of each semester, so that he would not have to graduate and leave his beloved enclave. I once asked him if he had any career plans outside of academia. I don’t know why I wasted my time. His reply was completely unintelligible:
“I eschew chreotechnics, and nummular pursuits are my pisaller. My habromania, however, is vortiginously appurtenant on an apinoid phrontistery, with untrammeled sufferance to sedulously and omniligently chymify illimitible pendects. That would veritably render me squabbish and blithe.”
How do you respond to something like that? I tried to tell him that he needed to come out of his nerdy little world and try being normal like the rest of us. That seemed to rile him a bit. To my suggestion, he responded that no matter how renardy I might fancy myself, a neanthropic clamjamfry like me simply was incapable of being caritative toward a pedantic dockhma like him. I was pretty sure he had a point there, but I had no idea what it was. From there, the dialogue degenerated into an exchange of insults. At least I think it did. I know I was trying to put him down, and by the look on his face, he seemed to be responding in kind, but I never would have been able to prove it by what he said.
“Your momma dresses you, funny!” I taunted.
“My cisvestitism is incidental, you valgus gynotikolobomassophile.”
“Oh, yeah! Is that what I am, huh! Well…well…you have dandruff.”
“Epicaricacy isn’t your forte. You jargogled your recumbentibus, you ichthyomancing sneckdraw, because, serene in my fecundity, I irrefangibly ostend my furfuraceous cranial vertex. Interregnum, I descry your fashious hircismus and podobromhidrosis.”
There’s something creepy about being insulted so eloquently and yet so obscurely. If he had cussed me out like a sailor, I would have felt better about it. As it was, I could only respond to his psychological profanity with the vocabulary equivalent of “phooey on you, you meanie!” Deep inside, I realized that I was way out of my league, but like an idiot, I wouldn’t admit defeat.
“Go ahead, descry all you want, but at least people can understand what I’m saying.”
“Oh, I wamble!” He whimpered. At first I thought I had him, then I recognized the sarcasm dripping from his voice. Evidently, he wasn’t really wambling at all, whatever wambling was. “Oops, I xenobombulated.” He continued with a smirk. “Funkify, before you wane agroof, analagous to a nimptopsical muckibus, you dasypygal creodont!”
At that point, I mumbled something and left the room. As I did so, I had a nagging intuition that I was funkifying, but I didn’t care. It was time to cut my losses.
Gradually, I began to develop an odd fondness for Wes. In spite of his eccentricity, I grew to realize that he was a human being too. Perhaps the thing that softened my attitude the most was when I began to notice him gazing at female classmates from time to time with the universal tell-tale wistful expression. It had never occurred to me that Wes might want to date. I had always assumed that he had no interest in girls, absorbed as he was by his passion for words.
I broached the subject with him. With the help of a pocket dictionary and some creative negotiation, I was able to verify my suspicions. Wesley Montrose was lonely and he did indeed have romantic aspirations. After a fair amount of persistence, the two of us were able to hammer out a communication system. Eventually, I was able to elicit the name of the girl with whom he was most anxious to become better acquainted. Her name was Ellen. She was gorgeous and captain of the women’s volleyball team. My instinctive reaction to this disclosure, rather set back our relationship for a few weeks, but I determined to make up with him, and I had the perfect plan for doing so.
It took all of my persuasive powers, but finally I managed to secure Ellen’s agreement to let Wes take her to Big Bob’s Putt Putt Course and Burger Barn, on the condition that I would come along as chaperone and interpreter. When I told Wes the good news, he was so shocked that he began to speak normally. The biggest word he used for half a day was “unbelievable”.
By date time, however, he had fully recovered. In fact, his nervousness seemed to bring out his most preposterous vocabulary. When Ellen finally emerged from her dormitory and slipped into the passenger’s seat of his waiting car, Wesley might as well have been speaking Tagalog. It was a weird evening.
“Ok, like, what’s he saying now?”
“Um…I’m not sure. Hold on. Let me check the dictionary. Hmmm… ‘osculate’… ‘osculate’… here it is. Well, Ellen…uh…it looks like Wesley is wondering about your opinion of kissing on the first date.”
“Yeah, that’s what he said.”
I tried to salvage the situation. “Yeah, I know. Crazy. You’ll have to excuse him. Wes is a little naive when it comes to the whole social protocol thing.”
“No. I mean you, George. Get out.”
“Get out of the car. Wesley and I obtest an interval to conduce suaviation. Our apanthropy is reciprocal.”
Last week I spent some time with Ellen and Wes and a couple of their grandkids. They’re about as proud as grandparents can be. It turns out that the youngest one just said her first word. Well, two actually:
I wouldn’t be quite the man I am today if I hadn’t grown up in a rural Alaskan village. Moose Hole added a perspective to my formative years that would have been impossible to replicate in any other setting. Its remoteness and rusticity have colored my outlook on life until this day.
The village didn’t have a single street light until my late teens. The closest clinic was 76 miles away. The nearest traffic light was 210 miles away. The fire department, which was only functional if the neighbors weren’t out at fish camp, consisted of an improvised mix of garden hoses, fire extinguishers, and a lake water bucket brigade. Except for the occasional passing State Trooper, there was no police presence in Moose Hole at all. There was no Chamber of Commerce or Better Business Bureau to complain to when the Cleaver sisters threatened to put you in a headlock if you didn’t listen to their Amway presentation. Children on their walk to and from school frequently experienced dangerous run-ins with bears, mother moose, and rabid escapees from Jake Flemblaster’s squirrel menagerie. The closest thing to an animal control officer to be found in Moose Hole was Klondike Clancy who was always eager to donate his expertise with the Ruger .44 magnum that swung from his ever present gun belt. During the winter, everyone knew to keep one eye peeled for wannabe musher Sally Blunt. Without warning, Sally had a tendency to burst out of the brush in the oddest places, lashing her mongrel dogsled team onward with a pink foam swimming noodle. Cross-country skiers or firewood cutters would have just enough time to hurl themselves out of her path before the yelping pack would go careening by with inches to spare. In short, Moose Hole provided all the adventure a kid could hope for.
I loved every minute of it until that fateful day when my parents finally gave my downy derriere the swift kick which toppled me out of the nest. When I landed with a resounding “kerplunk,” I found myself sitting disheveled and confused on a college campus near Indianapolis. To my dismay, I soon discovered that my new environment was much more lonely and savage than Moose Hole had ever been. To assuage my homesickness, I began to entertain the other residents of the freshman dorm with stories of back home. As a result, half of my friends began to regard me as some sort of a feral nut case, while the other half revered me as a living legend who had strode out of the sunset after surviving a harrowing ordeal in a primal no-man’s land. All of them, however, shuddered at the thought of being forced to live in such a God-forsaken outpost as the Moose Hole I described.
So taxed was their credulity, that I periodically found it necessary to defend myself against charges of making it all up. In all honesty, their comic reactions to my narratives did present a fertile breeding ground for fictional tall tales. Nevertheless, as you can imagine, I made a point of conscientiously resisting the temptation to prevaricate. Exhibiting Herculean self-control, I restricted myself to only embellishing the isolated details which I determined to be particularly lackluster. Since then, as my readers can attest, I have matured into a responsible and serious journalist who has abandoned even such marginally ethical forays into hyperbole.
However, in spite of my best efforts to describe the excitement that had enriched my childhood, it was incomprehensible to my gape-jawed freshman listeners how I had managed to survive those years without dying of sheer boredom. They wondered if I had used a lot of drugs or drunk a lot of beer to compensate for the absence of skateboard parks, movie theaters and basketball courts. No, I told them, I hadn’t ever gotten around to it. There was too much fun stuff to do.
Not that drugs were unknown in our enclave. In fact, Skeeter Moss was notorious for experimenting with mind altering substances. We once found him passed out in his uncle’s cache with a soda straw protruding from his left nostril and a bottle of trapline lure spilled all over the front of him. He was stoned for a week until the right side of his face swelled up like a beach ball and they rushed him to a doctor in Fairbanks. Evidently, while he had been happily snorting lure by means of a straw up each nostril, one straw had become plugged. As a result, poor Skeeter had accidentally huffed the whole lure-laden straw up into his sinus area where it had become lodged. There it began to serve dual functions as a time release muskrat urine dispenser and infection incubator.
But I digress. After wondering how I could stand the boredom, my college friends would do a sudden mental flip-flop and express surprise that Moose Hole didn’t somehow disintegrate into anarchy. I guess my description of Klondike Clancy, a civilian, sauntering about while wearing an actual handgun in plain sight evoked stereotypical images of spaghetti western brawls and Ozark mountain feuds. Quite the contrary. The insipid statistic was that our village never experienced a single violent crime. Why, if any Moose Holian had ever contemplated committing such a thing, one quick glance at big, hairy Clancy pre-emptively rehabilitated them on the spot.
After considerable reflection, I have decided that it all boils down to a difference of world views. My college friends had come from a mentality that considered comfort, convenience and security to be necessities. I had come from a mentality that placed self-reliance and elbow room higher on the priority list than having life handed to me on a silver platter. As a kid in Moose Hole, my imagination was captured by heroes vastly different from the ones which must have inspired my college friends. When I went outside to play with my friends, we reenacted the exploits of Daniel Boone and Robert Peary and our very own Gomer Clodhopper who lived in a sod-roofed cabin that canted precariously out of the sphagnum moss down by the river, and claimed to be the “fust white feller ter drop a tree in these hyar parts”.
Speaking of sphagnum moss, Rory Smithers, was the only one of my childhood friends who refused to play our “stupid games”. There was nothing personal about it. He was one of those reluctant Alaskans who thought that anything originating in Alaska was stupid. His father, Roland, was a biologist with an energy consulting firm whose company had sent him to Moose Hole to “assess potential aerobic methane oxidation in a boreal Sphagnum-dominated peatland, and establish the viable biomass of methane oxidizing microorganisms in relationship to their probable controlling environmental factors, such as water table depth, soil temperature and pore-water methane concentrations”. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded important. The point is that both Rory and his mother chafed at their exile and worried every waking moment that their friends “back in America” would think they had become Neanderthal Eskimos whose dinner preparations consisted of mashing whale blubber with a rock.
Therefore, Rory wanted nothing to do with pioneer role-playing games. No indeed! On the rare occasion that we could persuade him to come out and join us, he insisted that we play things like “The Six Million Dollar Man” or “Starsky and Hutch”. You can guess who always got to be the Bionic Man. Back then, Moose Hole could only get one TV station. It had such poor reception that every show looked identical—faceless silhouettes jerking robot-like across the screen, barely discernible through a blizzard of static. As a result we had but a vague awareness of these popular shows.
Other times Rory would wheedle us into playing games in which he could impersonate his own real-life heroes. He would make us take the part of ordinance violators while he became an intrepid building inspector or IRS agent or health board official. We were supposed to dig a hole in a place that wasn’t zoned for digging, build a clubhouse that didn’t meet code, ride around on unlicensed bicycles, open an unapproved lemonade stand or some other equally horrendous crime. Rory would let us get almost finished, then he would pompously arrive on the scene with a clipboard to save the day. His day-saving consisted of fining us heavily. If we didn’t give him whatever we happened to be carrying of value, up to and including the shirt on our back, he would promptly throw a bucket of water on us, then taser us with a hair dryer before dragging us away to the dog kennel which served as our prison. It wasn’t hard for us to play our part convincingly since we had no clue about building codes or zoning regulations or suchlike. We couldn’t have pretended to keep the law if our lives had depended on it. As a matter of fact, we thought Rory was asking us to participate in some sort of futuristic science fiction scenario that he had dreamed up.
Usually those games ended in an argument. We would protest that his unfair law presupposed that we were so stupid and irresponsible that we had to be treated like a baby. Inspector Rory would bristle and slowly enunciate that it was all for our own protection, and did we know who we were talking to in that tone of voice? We would reply that, yes, we knew exactly who Mister Smarty Pants was, and if we were stupid enough to build a shoddy clubhouse and install a poorly constructed wood stove in it, he should grant us the dignity of being able to burn it down around ears without his regulatory interference. We demanded the right to break our own neck if we were stupid enough to drive our three-wheeler too fast without wearing a helmet. In fact we insisted that we be the ones responsible for our own actions, stupid or otherwise, and that our well-being really wasn’t any of his darn business unless we hired him to babysit us. The inspector would then pound on his clipboard and holler that we were big fat jerks who had better be grateful that he was trying to introduce a little civilization to our backwater corner of Redneckia. We stood our ground, invoking our constitutional rights and informing him that he was a retarded dork head whose jurisdiction we did not recognize. He would counter by suggesting we would be well advised to shut our booger faces and pay our fair share of taxes for the privilege of being so efficiently managed and protected. Being fed up with Rory’s version of civilized society, we would revolt, hold him down, and give him a noogie or a wedgie. As we ran off to play Daniel Boone, Rory would run squalling to the Maternal General’s office to tattle on us.
Come to think of it, Rory had the same mentality as my audience in those college dorm bull sessions. If I had to do it over, I would have simply kept my mouth shut. Some things just can’t be explained to another person who lacks the proper frame of reference with which to grasp the concept being discussed. Either a person is raised as an independent, self-sufficient type who knows at least three ways to make a fire or they aren’t. Either a person has been taught that real water doesn’t taste like chlorine or they haven’t. You’re either comfortable eating things that you personally picked off of plants or you aren’t. You either understand that a firearm is a useful tool that can be dangerous if used irresponsibly or you consider it the sum of all fears. Either you know how to operate a Dutch oven, a handyman jack, a pair of knitting needles, post-hole digger, a splitting maul, a rolling pin, a snow shoe, a hay hook, a canning jar, an Ohio blue tip match, a butter churn, and a calf castrator or you don’t. In an emergency, either you know how to quarter a caribou, perform the Heimlich Maneuver, fell a tree, rebuild an engine, field strip a Colt model 1911, operate a ham radio, and make birch syrup or you don’t.
If you don’t, I’ll cross my fingers for you that you never lose your electricity or your government assistance check. But if a disaster occurs, it will be somebody like me who will dig you out of the rubble and shoot the looter who is pummeling your wife with a half empty gasoline can. Then I’ll share my canned moose meat with your starving family. That’s just the way I was brought up.
Have you ever noticed how disappointing it is to see your favorite radio personality for the first time? Back in Pennsylvania I used to listen to a great morning show on my way to work. There were two co-hosts, a man named Steve and a woman named Melanie. They were witty, cosmopolitan, charming, riveting, and they had the most amazing voices.
Steve was a rich baritone with a full, resonant timbre and a trace of a dashing accent that might have originally been anything from South African to Australian. He enunciated with excruciating precision, yet had the vocal versatility to capture emotional nuances in a way that would make a brilliant actor delivering a Hamlet monologue sound like a robot in a bad Flash Gordon flick.
One day I made the mistake of turning the radio on when my wife was in the car with me and was quite annoyed to notice a dreamy expression creeping over her face when Steve started talking. Her head kind of tilted to the side, her eyelids began to flutter, and a faint exclamation of delighted surprise escaped from her smile.
As she turned toward me, I noticed her pupils were slightly dilated. “Why don’t you ever talk to me like that?” she scolded.
I squawked out some sort of an indignant retort which only served to reinforce her opinion of my desultory and unromantic voice. In frustration I reached for the knob to turn off the radio, but my hand froze in mid-reach, for just then Melanie laughed! I don’t remember what Steve had said to make her laugh, but I will never forget that tinkling trill that danced joyous from the speakers and floated around the interior of the car on fairies’ wings.
Then the goddess spoke. Her voice was like sunshine on buttercups in a breeze-kissed spring meadow. Its melody bubbled out of the speakers, caressed my ears as it entered, then slid giggling down to rest in a warm pool of comfort deep in my heart. I let out a long ragged sigh like a desperate dehydrated man in a desert with salt-cracked lips who has just discovered a gigantic pitcher of ice cold lemonade sitting on top of a cactus.
My wife reached over and slapped me. “Watch where you’re driving! You just about creamed that little old lady in the Toyota Corolla…and for goodness sake, wipe that goofy grin off your face. You’re giving me the creeps!”
Her voice sounded coarse and vulgar in my ears. “Have you ever considered seeing an Ear-Nose-Throat doctor?” I inquired. “I read somewhere that 15 percent of American housewives have polyps on their vocal chords and don’t even know it.”
Surprisingly, my wife seemed to be open to the idea and promised to schedule the appointment as soon as she got home.
“I’ll try to get it on the same day as your orthopedic appointment.” She winked.
“My ortho appointment? I didn’t know I had an ortho appointment. What’s it for?”
“For your cervical fracture.”
“But I don’t have a broken neck!”
She just looked at me then with a smile that made the hairs on the back of my neck snap to attention with a crisp salute. That panicked a flock of goose pimples that had been napping on my spine and they began stampeding from the base of my skull to my tailbone. I somehow lost interest in the topic and returned my attention to the radio.
I became aware that Steve and Melanie were announcing that they were broadcasting live from the Oak View Mall for a radio station promotion and would sign autographs for any of their listening audience who wanted to meet them. I tried not to act too excited, but I knew that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I only hoped I could talk my wife into going. I decided to try the roundabout approach.
Summoning my most nonchalant voice, I enquired, “Hey. Did you ever wonder what radio people look like?”
“I was going to ask you the same question.”
“Just out of curiosity, we could swing by the mall and take a peek at Melanie. Oh…uh…and Steve…too…of course. Melanie and Steve. It’d be interesting to see if they look as good as they sound.”
“Why? What do you think Melanie looks like?” My wife was eying my neck like a logger sizing up a Sitka Spruce.
“Oh…I…er…I have no idea…hard to tell from a voice, you know.”
Actually I had a very vivid idea of what Melanie looked like. She obviously had the skin of Nicole Kidman, the cheekbones of Michelle Pfeiffer, the eyes of Halle Berry, the smile of Julia Roberts, the body of Catherine Zeta-Jones, the pout of Angelina Jolie, the nose of Elisha Cuthbert, and the hair of Monica Bellucci.
“Really?” My wife had a faraway look in her eye. “You must not have much of an imagination, I didn’t have any trouble visualizing Steve.”
“Is that a fact? So what do you think he looks like?”
“He has Matthew McConaughey’s smile, Patrick Dempsey’s hair, Viggo Mortensen’s eyes, Tom Cruise’s jaw, Brad Pitt’s abs, Jude Law’s chin…”
I cut her off. It was too humiliating to hear her talk like that. “Wanna bet?”
“If you’re right, I’ll do dishes for a week.” I thought that was quite generous of me.
“Very funny! We have a dishwasher. How about if I’m right, you take elocution lessons.”
“It’s a deal, and if you’re wrong?”
“I’ll make that ENT appointment!”
I did a U-turn right there in the street and headed for the mall. When we got inside, the line was so long that I couldn’t see Melanie no matter how hard I craned my neck and stood on tiptoe.
My wife tugged at my sleeve. “Can you see him?”
“Steve, of course!”
I couldn’t see him, or Melanie either, but something seemed odd. The people in line ahead of us were wide-eyed with anticipation, clutching notepads and cameras. The women giggled excitedly to each other over the makeup compacts that seemed to be universally and busily deployed. The men were all coincidentally standing in poses that bulged their unremarkable biceps and pecs, while at the same time rendering their bulging stomachs unremarkable. One fellow looked as if he might pass out before he made it to the front of the line from the strain of sucking in his considerable beer belly.
That wasn’t the oddest part, though. There seemed to be a steady line of other folks approaching from the somewhere ahead of us, and moving toward the exit. As they passed, I noticed that many of them had notepads and cameras as well, but they were in a completely different mood. Some hurried by, head down, as if embarrassed to be seen by us. Others smirked at us knowingly. A couple of girls were burying their faces in each other’s shoulders, giggling a high embarrassed sound like you would expect them to make if they had just dropped an ice cream cone on the front of their blouse.
I was about to ask my wife what she made of that, but she was busy with her makeup compact and some blemish cover. So instead, I crossed my arms so that my fists were tucked behind my biceps and sucked in my stomach. The line moved faster than I would have guessed and soon we were close enough for me to identify the radio station’s display. I clenched my fists a little tighter behind my biceps and craned my neck some more. I could see a couple of radio station employees sitting at a table handing out brochures, but Steve and Melanie were nowhere in sight.
About three minutes later, I had gotten close enough to the radio station booth to distinguish voices, and it was then that the awful truth suddenly struck me, for lo, out of the throats of those two employees came the unmistakable dulcet tones of Steve and Melanie.
It was unbelievable. Melanie wasn’t even close to what I had pictured. She had the skin of Tommy Lee Jones, the cheekbones of Michael Jackson, the eyes of E.T., the smile of Yoda, the body of Kirstie Alley, the pout of Gollum, the nose of Barbra Streisand, and the hair of Sinead O’Conner. Steve wasn’t much better. He sported Buster Keaton’s smile, Britney Spear’s hair, Steve Buscemi’s eyes, Don Knotts’ jaw, Chris Farley’s abs, and Jay Leno’s chin.
We didn’t even bother to get an autograph. We stepped out of line, went straight to the Hallmark card shop and bought each other one of those ridiculously mushy cards the size of a sheet of plywood all covered in ribbons and lace and poetry and stuff. As embarrassing as it was, a few good things came out of the whole experience. My wife got a clean bill of health from the ENT doctor, I no longer endanger little old ladies in Toyota Corollas while listening to the morning show, and both of us have learned to cherish the treasure we hold rather than some fictitious fantasy created in our own minds.
I am hopelessly addicted to smokering. For years I was deep in denial, pretending that my obsession was just a relaxing activity that felt and tasted good without hurting anyone. Nevertheless, I was recently compelled to face up to the fact that and I need help. Bad.
Last week, I started making some phone calls. At length I reached a person whom I will call Nat. He listened to my halting confession and reassured me that he hosted a support group for people just like me. He invited me to the group’s next meeting which was scheduled for the following night. I hung up on him, panicked by my self betrayal. That night, though, as I thrashed in sleepless turmoil, I came to realize that Nat’s support group might be the last barrier between me and insanity.
It was only 3.2 miles to the support group’s undisclosed location, tweaked into 29 circuitous miles on my odometer by the time I finished trying to lose anyone who might recognize me. It didn’t help that I drove past the place four times before I had the courage to actually park my four-wheeler and get off.
I slouched down a set of cracked concrete steps and knocked on a basement door until it was opened by a man silhouetted against the yellow light within. He smelled of smoke, and his eyebrows were missing. Instinctively, I knew what had happened to them–they had been singed off. Wordlessly he stepped back and motioned for me to enter. As he did so, I could see the burn scars on his forefinger knuckle. I felt a twinge of camaraderie. Could it really be that someone else in the world thought oven mitts were for sissies? Hope stirred within me. It had been a long time since someone who knew about my problem had not looked at me as if I were a pervert. With a ragged sigh, I stepped inside.
“Are you Nat?” I asked Absent Eyebrows.
He shook his head. “Bob. Nat’s in there.” He jerked his thumb toward the dull murmur of voices. Panicked, I turned to run, but Bob laid a hand on my shoulder. “Weber,” he said. That single word pierced my heart and I collapsed into his arms, blubbering. For the next few minutes, I couldn’t see very well through my tears, but I heard footsteps and low, reassuring voices. Firm but gentle hands guided me until I felt myself being eased into a chair.
As the blur began to clear I became aware that I was seated in a circle of faces, and that all eyes were on me. A plump, bespectacled gentleman smiled at me.
“I’m Nat. Welcome to Smokerers Anonymous. Why don’t you give us your name and tell us why you’re here.”
“My name is George, and I’m addicted to smokers.” The relief at admitting that out loud to other humans was palpable.
“Hello, George!” chorused the group acceptingly. I almost began to cry again.
Nat explained that no-one was going to condemn me. In fact they were all proud of me for having the courage to be there. I could join in the discussion or not, whatever felt comfortable for me. He asked who would like to start.
Bob put his paw in the air. “I guess you all figured out by the way I smell that I had me a relapse. Over the weekend I went to Wal-Mart and saw me this irresistible little Hibachi. I bought a plastic storage bin to hide it in, which I told my wife was for organizing the garage on Sunday, like she’d been pesterin’ me to do. I couldn’t think of anything but that Hibachi, until my wife left for the hairdresser. Then I drug it out, wrapped me some mesquite chips in a perforated foil packet and smoked me some kabobs. The bad thing is that I can’t make myself feel sorry.”
Nat clucked sympathetically. “I’m so glad you felt safe enough to be honest, Bob. What’s our motto, boys?”
“Just one smoker’s all you need,
Any more would smack of greed.
Though your taste buds crave burnt wood,
Doesn’t mean your fam’ly should!”
“Now what else could Bob have done,” Nat prompted, “when he felt the urge to spend money on another smoker that he didn’t need?”
“Suck on a piece of charcoal,” someone piped up.
“Burn a toothpick on the kitchen range and snort the smoke.”
“Drop a hot coal down the front of his shirt.”
Nat beamed. “Great answers. I see you all have been using your coping tools. Let’s not forget the disastrous results of allowing our addiction to take charge.”
A shriveled up little fellow name tagged Clarence nodded fervently. He was draped in an apron mottled with barbeque sauce stains “Yeah, like what happened to Morton.”
The guy next to me whispered an explanation. “Morton ran out of cottonwood chunks, so he tried smoking a moose brisket with some old pressure treated wood scraps he had laying around. They found the whole family sitting around the table mummified from the toxins in that treated wood. Didn’t even have to embalm them.”
I connected with this group on a visceral level. I felt I could trust them with my marinade drenched secrets. I raised a hand. “I need some help, guys. This thing just has a grip on me, and I don’t know what to do. During the winter months I get to thinking I have it licked, but about the time the Nenana tripod collapses, the desire comes back with a vengeance.”
“That’s good, George. Let it all out,” crooned Nat.
“It all started when I was a little kid in Moose Hole. I was walking by an Athabaskan elder’s smokehouse. His wife was just taking some salmon down from the drying poles. As she stepped out of that smokehouse that day, like a specter materializing from the billows of alder smoke, she smiled at me and held out the succulent amber meat, smoked on the skin. If I had known what I know today, I would have turned and ran until there was no more breath in my lungs. But I didn’t.
“She tore off one of several strips joined at the tail and handed it to me. ‘You like smoke fish? My daughter, he get them in fish wheel, out Tommy Creek. Eeeee, so many! Big one too!’ Tentatively I reached out and touched it. I expected it to be slimy, but it was firm and slightly tacky. It had been deeply scored at one inch intervals, so I pulled off a cube and touched it to my tongue. Oh the bliss! I had never felt such ecstasy! In one instant, all my cares were gone. I sucked that chunk of smoked salmon into my mouth so fast, I nearly bit my finger off. As I snatched the rest of the salmon strip, like a wolf cub, tearing at a gut pile, she cackled. ‘You like! You help me pick berry, I give you more.’
“That was it! I was hooked. I spent hours picking berries and cutting moccasin patterns out of moose hide, just for the chance to get my daily fix of smoked salmon. As time passed, along with the elders, the smokehouse began to fall into disuse. I needed to satiate my craving elsewhere. The stuff in the supermarket cost a neurosurgeon’s years salary per ounce, and wasn’t pure. The dealers had obviously cut it with fillers. It didn’t even taste like salmon. It tasted of pure salt. Nothing I bought could replicate that first experience with alder-smoked, Athabascan-style smokehouse salmon.
“It became clear to me that my only remaining option was to try to smoke my own. That’s when I began my affair with smokers. My first boxy little Luhr-Jensen, wasn’t big enough to smoke a whole salmon, but it cranked out great chicken and shrimp…and burgers to die for. I began to lay awake at night inventing exotic marinades and brines.
“The snare tightened around my neck as I lost myself in the quest to create a unique taste that would thrill the palate. I discovered combinations that didn’t work. Never mix Thai fish sauce with fresh squeezed grapefruit juice and eggnog, for instance. Once I had pushed my sauces past their practical limit, I began experimenting with wood and game combinations.
“Cherry? Good with Dall Sheep. Not recommended for muskrat. Mesquite? Excellent with ptarmigan or moose. Awesome with squirrel. Doesn’t help lemming or lynx. Hickory? Great bold flavor that can even make fall grizzly palatable. Diamond willow? A good caribou cold smoke. Not bad with halibut. Spruce? Tolerable if you don’t mind your meat tasting like turpentine. Birch? A sweet smoke that goes well with snowshoe hare or King crab. Old creosote fencepost? Leaves a distinctively nuanced aftertaste especially great for serving to visiting in-laws and IRS auditors.”
Nat interrupted me. “Yes, yes, but we don’t need so many graphic details. We’re trying to recover here.” I noticed that Bob was drooling all over the front of his shirt, and that Clarence was chewing holes in his apron where the barbecue sauce stains were. “Would you simply share with us when you first realized you had a problem?”
I cleared my throat. “Sorry. My wife first noticed it last spring, when the diverted floodwaters of Jarvis Creek filled up the lower levels of my house. I was delirious with happiness. Because the flood had ruined the compressor motor in our little upright freezer, I now had an excuse to convert it into a smoker. My wife found this weird at the time, but it wasn’t until this week during a trip to Fairbanks that it became obvious even to me.
“What did Lowe’s have on display, but an entire section of grills and smokers? Without thinking I began fondling them and poring over price tags. I couldn’t stop myself! I had a beautiful smoker at home which I had spent months building from my old freezer shell, my shed was full of grills and smokers of all shapes and descriptions, and here I was craving another one. I tell you, guys, I’m beyond hope. Guys? Guys…Hello? Where’d they go?”
The room was deserted. Outside I heard the squealing of tires. I ran up the steps just in time to see Nat and Bob playing crash-up derby in the driveway, trying to beat each other to the street. Nat was leaning out of his window shaking his fist at Bob. “I’ll be at Lowe’s before you’ve cleared Tenderfoot Hill, you lousy so-and-so!”
“In your dreams!” Bob screamed. “I hope all the smokers are gone before you get there, and you have to stand behind me in line watching me pay for the last smoker grill they have in stock.”
I just shook my head, and trudged back down the stairs. At the bottom lay the trampled remains of Clarence’s apron. It smelled of hickory smoke. I sat down on the bottom step and began eating it, blissfully.
The Yukon Quest and the Iditarod have consumed my attention lately. Some of my earliest memories revolve around fledgling mushing aspirations. In fact, my mother tells me that my favorite breakfast as an infant was mush. I have never acted on those primeval instincts in a professional capacity, but I have done a lot of dribbling…er…dabbling.
I distinctly remember my first attempt at mushing. It was when I was a seven-year-old tyke living in the State of New York. Back then, my only companion was my beloved poodle, Suzette. As you can suppose, Suzette played a prominent role as a Beta tester in my maiden mush.
Now Suzette wasn’t one of those ankle biting yappy things that smell of perfume and wear ribbons around their necks. She was a very intelligent and faithful friend. She was actually embarrassed to be a poodle, so I didn’t hold it against her. She fulfilled many roles in my imagination drenched childhood—predatory mountain lion, circus elephant, T-rex, St. Bernard with a keg of chocolate milk on its collar, Winnie the Pooh, longhorn steer, packet of airdropped supplies for the French Resistance, etc. The part that will always be seared into my memory, however, was her stint as Balto.
Portville, New York that summer in the early 70s wasn’t exactly the North Slope, so it was necessary for my imagination to work overtime to transform my backyard into blizzard-choked muskeg. Come to think of it, Suzette didn’t look much like a Siberian Husky team, either–but I never was one to let minutia like that get in the way of creative playing.
When my muse breathed inspiration into my heart that afternoon, I knew that the fate of millions rested in my dimpled hands. The hysteria vaccine needed to get from the garage to the swing set, or Captain Hook would gobble up little Red Riding Hood and Gotham City would fall to ravaging hordes of bloodthirsty Apaches.
Only one intrepid soul dared smirk into the bared fangs of that god-forsaken gauntlet of a trail, where the freeze-dried bodies of men and dogs fell, fell, eternally fell between the bottomless blue walls of glacial crevasses, and Frostbite prowled with whetted blade. Only one weather-bitten sourdough had the nerve to harness his team with a sneer on his lip and a gleam in his eye. It was I, but I needed to get it done before Mommy called me in for my p&j sandwich and nap.
I lovingly broke out my Lightning Flyer dogsled. Every musher knows that the best dog harnesses are hand tied from your Dad’s lawnmower pull cord which has been carefully harvested using your Mommy’s favorite German sewing scissors. In a few moments the harness was expertly tied to the handle of my dogsled. Now came the almost sacred moment of communion between a musher and his lead dog—the moment for which each of them was born.
“Here, Suzette! Come here, girl!”
Suzette hung her head and tried to slink behind a burdock bush. It was her way of being humble whenever I invited her star in one of my epic adventures. When I reassured her that she had nothing but honor, prestige and Alpo advertising contracts awaiting her, she demurely allowed me to drag her to the sled. She was eager to have her name inscribed in the doggie hall of fame beside Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin, but was too classy to show it. For the benefit of any paparazzi or spying fans, she made a convincing show of whining and digging her claws into the ground as, both hands gripping her collar, I escorted her toward fame and glory.
With a few deft loops around the neck of Balto, I had her harnessed. I tied it off with an original and bewilderingly complex knot, conceived in the genius of the moment. Balto’s eyes were accusatory as she resignedly lay down.
“No, Balto! Mush!” I sang out. “The vaccine must be delivered.”
Balto gave a strange chuckle and pawed at the harness around her curly mane, no doubt admiring its fit and peerless design. I climbed into the dogsled and held onto the wooden slatted sideboards, anticipating the pending rush of wind in my face, when Balto lunged into the traces. “Mush!” I cried, “Mush!”
I have since learned that the correct command is “Hike”. This probably explains why Balto was so confused. She tried to crawl back into the sled with me. I guess she thought I was mentioning breakfast. She licked my face, assuming that the “mush” must be smeared where she usually found it.
I was getting frustrated. I pushed Balto out of the sled and disembarked after her. Seizing her harness, I tugged encouragingly. “Come on. Mush!” I pleaded. Balto started to make raspy sounds in her throat, anticipating the thrill of the chase. Jerking the harness out of my grip, she finally began to pull. The only problem was that she was in reverse. She was backing away from the sled, shaking her head and straining against the harness. The raspy noises got louder.
I knew Balto was gifted, and she could probably run for miles backwards, but I thought backing all the way to Nome was tempting fate a little too much. I didn’t fancy spending eternity freeze-dried and falling. Besides, if we reached the grateful and cheering throngs at our destination, I was afraid if Balto was running tail-first, the folks in Nome would think we were escaping with the vaccine instead of arriving with it and would lynch us.
I tried another tack. I ran a few feet ahead of the sled and hunkered down. “Come,” I ordered. Balto turned toward me, attempted to obey, staggered a couple of steps, gurgled and collapsed. The raspy noises were gone. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t making any noise at all. She wasn’t even moving. I shook her. “Suzette?”
What an actress! I hadn’t thought of this plot twist. It was brilliant! The vaccine had frozen and burst, infecting my entire team. Talk about pathos and drama! I followed her cue. Clutching my throat, I staggered around, as if I too had been overcome by the dread hysteria epidemic. Dramatically, I expired, collapsing onto the cold form of my devoted lead dog. In my death throes, my convulsing fingers entertwined themselves in Balto’s harness. I felt the monstrous knot loosen just as I shuddered out my last breath. Even in death we were one—man and dog lying in a frozen embrace as the Arctic wind mercifully hid us beneath a shroud of snow…
Then, for some reason, my faithful lead dog reverted to her lupine heritage. I felt a sting in the seat of my pants as she sunk her fangs into my overalls. She wriggled out from under me so fast that my head smacked the ground. I sat up and rubbed my head. My lower lip began to tremble, and my eyes pooled up with indignant tears.
Suzette’s yap told me in no uncertain terms that she had no intention of going to Nome, or anywhere else for that matter. It was one of those moments of disillusionment that every child must struggle with as the reality of life hits him. I sniffed the air, and it almost seemed that I could smell perfume. Was that a ribbon I saw, beginning to materialize around her neck?
It has been many years now, and Suzette has gone off to sign Alpo contracts in the sky, but when March rolls around, I still feel the mush flowing in my veins. I occasionally find myself gazing off past the clouds and murmuring, “Mush, Balto, Mush!”