When you live in “The Bush”, as we do, there is a cyclical rhythm to your wants and a constant balancing between your wants and your needs. Ice cream may sound delicious but not at the price of an 8 hour drive into town. Ta-Da! Balanced.
When you are fresh off the highway from a Town Run you are so happy to be home that no convenience of modern life could sway you to return. But the erosion of that stance sneakily begins the moment you return. For me, the rhythm of wants and the balance between want and need concerns items and actions that are threefold.
List of Things I Lust for While Living in the woods:
Freshly returned from town you are flush. You have fresh fruits and vegetables (although only heartier fruits and vegetables since a sweet peach will likely perish on the trip in, while fruit like apples and veggies like carrots and broccoli are sturdy road dogs) all of your pantry staples are stocked and you even have the special extras like good chocolate and maybe a bottle of nice wine (if you didn’t get too overwhelmed and just say “screw it” when you looked at your non-necessities list, yea we organize them that way). Heck, you might even have fresh herbs (I think I just heard a chorus of angels sing “Hallelujah!”).
At first you eat vegetables at every meal. Then the cooler that serves as our refrigerator starts getting a little sparse. You can see the bottom. So you slow it down. You opt for two pieces of lettuce on a sandwich instead of four, you chop the vegetables finer so you use less and feel like you have more and you might even break into the frozen stock in order to slow the depletion of fresh.
But then, the cold snap of weather you’re experiencing (20 below) breaks and it starts to heat up (30 above). The cooler starts to warm even though you place it in front of the door by the draft to cool it via the winter air. The water bottles you put outside at night to freeze to keep the refrigerator cold don’t freeze as quickly and suddenly…
The produce starts to turn.
Now it’s go time. You question yourself. Why did you wait so long to eat it? Why did you pace yourself? Now you’re in a race against spoil. So you get to preserving and eating and sharing. We all know the feeling out here of bringing a salad to a potluck and watching time stop. Tummies stand still. Could it be? Greens? (Cue those angels).
Eventually the produce party ends. You eat your last apple, you commence the carrot countdown and the idea of salad is something you only dream of in potluck fantasies. The only fresh thing left is growing in your living room, but hey, in the middle of nowhere every little bit counts.
At this point you are at the mercy of your friends. Thankfully, they are merciful. But when someone is coming in from town, fresh items are the hardest to ask for. It’s not a simple 24-pack of beer that can be thrown in the bed of the truck. You question how necessary items are. You estimate: Do they have room in the cooler or the cab? Left out, the produce will freeze. It’s equivalent to asking someone to go to a specific store for a specific bottle of wine that needs to stay at a certain temperature during transport (after they’ve already performed the task 100 times for themselves). But that’s what friends are for and so for a few weeks you are supplied with just enough eggs and carrots to feel like you’re warding off the scurvy until the next time when you are the friend going to town.
For the first ten days when we returned in December our shower was not functioning. We had purchased an oven in town and it had taken over the original shower area and so we had to move everything around to find its new place beneath the stairs.
Real talk: The shower had been an item of high anticipation for me. For months I tried to comprehend via diagrams and explanations from The Chief how this whole indoor shower minus indoor plumbing was going to work. I wouldn’t say it was an issue of comprehension but more of denial. As much as I love food, I love showers, and that’s a lot. Due to the drought in California I had significantly reduced my water use but I still would shower near daily and fully enjoy my short time with my sudsy self. In the summer in Alaska we had an outdoor shower that could get a little chilly or buggy but was pretty amazing nonetheless. We used it almost daily. But when I asked The Chief how often people shower in the woods in the winter and he replied “Oh, every ten days or so” I nearly fell off my high horse and bumped my shampooed head on the way down. What?!
Extreme cold I’ve never experienced? Bring it on.
Removing myself from family and friends? Ok, I’ll miss them but at least I can still call them and connect.
Being in a town in the middle of nowhere cut off from civilization? I’m game.
But a shower in a bucket every 10 days or so? No thank you.
*It should be noted that having a shower in your house in the woods is not a given. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had gotten extremely lucky by having any sort of running water at all (and hot water at that).
Eventually with some quick construction a la The Chief the shower found it’s home beneath the stairs and as long as I refilled the tote reservoir I could shower every day if I liked. But it turns out that every day is simply not feasible here, at least not for me. You just don’t have the time. The house needs to be warm enough so that you aren’t freezing in your little tote tub. The water has to be filled (and that can take a whole day, remember?) Plus, do you really have the time to let your hair dry? Go outside and it turns into icicles (you’re quickest route to a haircut if you’re too handsy). It’s a process I couldn’t have totally understood until I went through it but now it makes a lot more sense.
And so we resort to daily cat baths and to showers as often as we can. This voice of shower apathy doesn’t sound like me, yet it is because by the end of a long work day the idea of getting water, heating the house, setting up the shower, blocking off the upstairs for anyone else (goodness forbid if you forget something you need for your shower up there), showering, disconnecting and draining the shower and air drying wet hair can sound like a whole other work day and you decide you’re just not that dirty.
And for months that is fine. But eventually the idea of a real shower starts creeping in. You start daydreaming about suds-ing up with the water still running. Luxury at its prime. And so, as your food starts to dwindle, you start to plan for that shower…maybe even a bubble bath.
#3: EATING OUT
The last thing I lust for in the woods is the joy of going out to eat. It’s the thing I miss the least but it’s still in the top three because although it’s an entirely unnecessary luxury, it’s a luxury just the same. You see, when you live in The Bush you make everything you eat. Except for the occasional potluck or dinner invite your three meals a day (who am I kidding, we rarely fit in three but at least two, with snacks is feasible) are yours to create along with the dishes that come with them. In some ways it’s one of my favorite things about living out here. I know my food. I know what it contains (for the most part) and I know how it was prepared.
But there are times when no one wants to cook and the idea of recreating the pasta wheel just isn’t the experiment you are up for. Carrots in pasta? Should be good, right? (Ok, it was, but that’s not the point). Sometimes you just want to sit back and enjoy a meal without having to cook it or clean it. Sometimes you want to order a drink at a bar that has ice in it instead of snow (and is at a bar instead of your living room).
And so between the food and the showers and eating out, the town lust starts to creep in.
In reality, if you stop to think about it, you don’t really want to go. It’s just lust, nothing real. To leave you’d have to leave the house to freeze (meaning take out everything that can’t freeze and drain all water), you’ll have to find hotels that take dogs or ask your neighbor (her uncle) to watch your pup (meaning you also have to be away from her) and then, you have to scrounge up the money for the trip to resupply.
When you stack all these needs against the wants of fresh produce, showers and eating out they pale in comparison and so you wait again for the next friend to come in and put off town for another stretch…
Until you no longer can.
You see, sometimes, town has a plan for you.
In our case, this plan was enacted via a sinus infection. The Chief has had a sinus infection since the second week we came home. Tough as he is, it’s been tougher to get him to a doctor. And so, after one round of antibiotics with little results we finally (meaning The Chief finally had time off from work and I finally could convince him to leave) decided it was time to put our heads down and head into town.
A Town Run (cue the ominous music).
But this time was different.
We were actually getting a little bit excited instead of totally weary of the idea of the big city. We would see the doctor, go to the dentist, shop and leave. Bing bam boom! Take care of things, get in some good shower time, eat out and leave. Our friend even decided to come along and it ended up we would be there the week of the Iditarod start (though we would leave on the day of the ceremonial start). Still, a quick Wednesday to Saturday trip was exactly what we needed. Three amigos on an adventure.
Spirits were high and pockets were full (with enough cash at least to last the few days). We all kept remarking that we surprised by feeling excited to go to town. Fur Rondy was happening (a pre-Iditarod event) so we all brought any fur we owned (thanks to Miss K-Po I had an Arctic Fox stole to parade around in) and prepared for a few days of fun and function mixed into one.
Sidenote: Yes, California, I hear you gasping. Fur?! The thing is, fur here is like an insulated rain jacket from REI in the lower 48. It’s what you wear because it’s the best way to handle the elements. Fur is what has been used since people first inhabited this place and it beats anything synthetic. No, I haven’t suddenly become PETA’s worst nightmare, I’m not sporting a mink bikini and chasing down polar bears but my ideas about fur have shifted as I’ve seen people’s need for and appreciation of it throughout this winter.
Ok, back to town. We prepared for fun.
And it was fun. We went out to eat and out to drink, watched toilets flush and showers stream, saw friends from home and made new friends. We were even surprised with the gift of a sunset helicopter ride over the city and the water from our third Amigo (muchas gracias, senor!)
Two days into our trip and one dentist appointment down, we had one doctors appointment to go and a half day left to shop. Then we were home free. We made our way to the hospital. The appointment was at 9:30 so we had waited to eat. It wouldn’t take long. A new round of stronger antibiotics and we would be on our way to breakfast, right?
You see, when you live in the woods your pain tolerance seems to start to skew. The Chief had been dealing with this infection for almost three months with no more than Advil to calm the pain. He didn’t even complain, he would just close his eyes and take a deep breath as the swelling and pain would visibly go up and down (Disclaimer: I may live in the woods but my pain perception is straight on and my need for a kissed boo-boo is intact. I’m not that tough yet). The doctor couldn’t believe he had been able to last this long with this bad of an infection. She sent us for a CT Scan and before we knew it…
“Can you stay until Monday?” (It was Friday, we were set to leave in the morning, post-shopping).
“Not really. Why?”
“We’re going to need you to stay until Monday. You need surgery. There’s no way we can safely send you back to The Bush with just antibiotics. The bones in your face could break from the pressure of the infection at any moment. You are literally a ticking time bomb. We are surprised you’ve made it this long without incident.”
So much for in and out with antibiotics.
That morning, on our way to the hospital while planning just what and where exactly I would eat that day I had thought to myself:
“Thank you world for letting us get through this trip without bumps.”
A lot of times, people end up in Anchorage much longer than planned. A car breaks down or needs more work than planned or some other surprise arises and suddenly a three day trip turns into two weeks. I was so thankful that hadn’t happened.
I guess I thanked too soon.
The requested stay until Monday turned into Wednesday (and a quick appointment turned into leaving at 3pm, starving). They couldn’t just operate and let him leave. Potential adverse effects of the surgery would show up within 24-72 hours so they begged us to stay the week and do a post-op appointment before we left.
We had budgeted to be here for four days. Our friend had budgeted to be here for four days. It’s not like he could just rent a car and drive home. There aren’t any rental returns anywhere nearby nor is there public transportation to our home. No one we knew was headed back into town. I was supposed to go back to work (I got a job – cue the celebratory trumpets – which I was now missing – cue the sad trombone). Our whole world was turned upside down within minutes. Things were going a little off course. But what did I expect? This is Alaska after all, the Laugh at You State when you try to make plans.
Besides, The Plan doesn’t really matter. Not when a doctor tells you your boyfriend’s face is an infection’s playground ready to blow. And so we buckled down and settled in for the stay. We compromised to leave Wednesday to give us enough time (hopefully) to notice any adverse effects from the surgery and to let The Chief recover enough to make the long trip back home (the pressure changes throughout the drive certainly pose a bit of a treat for him and the thought of driving in snow for the first time in my life on an Alaskan highway was a sweet surprise for me).
Bright Side Benefits:
Because of the extended stay we did get to see the Iditarod ceremonial start. I love puppies as much as I love pancakes (puppies, food and showers and I’m pretty much set for life, oh and The Chief too, please).
…and we did get to see the Running of the Reindeer (think Running of the Bulls in snow… with reindeer).
We did get to keep flushing toilets and taking showers and ordering in.
We did get to go to a carnival too (though The Chief couldn’t ride anything for fear of face break).
The thing is though, the sparkle of town wears off in a few days, sometimes faster, no matter how many puppy pancakes you get (and especially when your face becomes a medical anomaly). Anchorage Angst is the expedited way to explain what starts to happen the longer you are here.
Here’s the long version (and it isn’t a slam against Anchorage at all, it’s just the juxtaposition of living in the woods and getting stuck in the big city versus choosing to be there. Perceptions start to shift):
Having money and spending it is so foreign (the only time we have a transaction at home is for poker night or to pay a friend back from brought in groceries) that at first it almost feels like playing Grocery as a kid. Heck, I even almost forgot to pay for something and just walked out because it felt so unreal. But once you realize that it is real and your funds are dwindling it loses it’s glitz pretty fast.
The shower you so adored just starts to feel excessive. I don’t need to use all that water. I don’t need to leave the water running as I suds up, buttercup.
Dining out starts to feel like a chore (and a strain on your pocketbook). Eating out can end up being a great meal or terrible but either way it’s a. a strain on your funds and b. probably not all that healthy. Your tummy starts a rebellion. You grocery shop to try and offset the cost but you can only eat yogurt and apples for so long before you go insane. You miss your own kitchen and knowing your food.
And all the while, as the Angst is building, we are prepping for surgery (an extra side dish of nerves). Surgery after which The Chief isn’t allowed to do anything to exert himself for 6 weeks.
Logging doesn’t count, right? Does chopping and carrying firewood? Do hauling water and building projects count? Going to work on a construction site? Driving a snow machine?
Our life is built around exertion and I like it that way (lack of exertion also adds to the Anchorage Angst. Being gone for four days I figured I could get by without my running shoes, I could handle surviving on walking and yoga in the hotel room. A week and I’m feeling like a caged pup. Atrophy Angst). I like feeling tired from tending to our life and I know The Chief does too. But we will have to work around it. Just as we didn’t plan to still be here, I know I can’t start to plan what life will be like after the surgery. All we can do is show up and be grateful that we finally caved and came in.
And so the rhythm of wants changes her beat again. Days ago we couldn’t wait to arrive. Days later we are chomping at the bit to leave. It’s the ebb and flow. But even as we sit antsy in our hotel room watching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” for the umpteenth time we have to remember that soon we will return home and start the rhythm all over again.
Soon we will be home with fresh vegetables, maybe even herbs, maybe even chocolate, so glad to be home and not even able to think about another town trip…
and then, before we know it, the hankering for an iced cocktail and a B movie re-run might come over us…
I can’t wait to get there.
Until then, wish us luck.
To be continued…