crosscountryski

Hi Ho, Hi-Ho, It’s Off to Work I Go…

Where I’m from in California, it’s pretty much essential to have a car. Public transportation is lacking (to say the least) and even if it was better it still would be near impossible to get to a friend’s house in the boonies without some other added mode of transportation. Why not walk? Walking the roads is like tip-toeing on railroad tracks. Often there’s little to no shoulder and blind curves are plentiful. And so, although I’d prefer to walk or bike it’s often much more efficient to drive to work. Almost everyone I know has their own convenient individual machines and…Hi Ho Hi Ho, off to work we go. It goes a little like this:

Going to Work (Anytime) in California:

Steps 1-5 to get out the door: Wake up early enough to go for a walk or run. Take a shower (you have hot water that pours straight from the wall!). Eat breakfast. Caffeinate. Make lunch.

Step 6: Head outside to your car (likely already warmed a bit by the morning sunshine). Insert key and search for some music to play through your phone while the car warms up (while sipping coffee).

Step 7: You’re off! Ugh, it’s so hot in here. Put back the sunroof and get your summer highlights and your vitamin D intake started.

Step 8: Stop for snacks. What’s a workday without a little chocolate? Stop at your favorite local hippie mart (today Andy’s market is on the way) and grab some goodies and hey, while you’re there why not a specialty coffee drink? You could really go for a Dirty Chai today (if you haven’t had one, try one. You can trust me on this).

Step 9: Arrive at work, cozy and caffeinated.

Step 10: Work. Maybe go grocery shopping on your lunch break (you have a hankering for a good Bolognese tonight. Maybe some zoodles? I think I was banned in California from saying that word too much. Zoodles too are delicious. Try them. I am living my culinary fantasies through you).

Step 11: You’re done! Get back into your cozy car, run an errand or two and head to your warm house. Hey, maybe even meet a friend for Happy Hour or go to the gym. The world is at your fingertips, my friend.

 

Going to Work in the Winter in Alaska:

Steps 1-around 50: In Order to Get Out the Door…

You wake up (seemingly) early enough to get all of your chores done so you can leave the house (and know that you’ll never wake up early enough to do them all…so you immediately start prioritizing once you’ve risen). Put on water to boil. Make a fire. The dog will tell you if she’s ready for breakfast or not (she likely will be if you’re running late, she likely won’t be if you’re on time. She’s good at testing you like that). Brush them bucks and wash your face after the water has warmed on the stove. Do a little bird bath action (oh, to have an on-demand shower). Pour the water into the coffee pot and while it’s circulating through the grounds go outside to check the machine. You glance at the thermometer: last night it got down to -13 but now it’s 15 above.

You assess: how many layers will I need this morning? Big gloves or light gloves? Parka or double lighter jackets? Check the gas and the oil on the machine. Low and low.

Head to the gas drum and loosen the air escape, unhook the hose and pump the arm until you fill the gas tank (and likely overfill. Ah, the smell of gasoline all over your clothes first thing in the morning. At least you already built the fire). Tighten the air escape and replace the hose. There’s a bit of water in the gas from melted snow so pour the gas through a water filter so the machine will run more evenly (apparently water in gas is a bad thing…makes sense). Find a can of oil and add it to the machine, careful not to overfill this too (a funnel would be helpful but…naw).

By now your coffee is ready but you only have enough time to find all of your layers and get dressed before it’s time to leave (you didn’t realize the gas can was empty so you are now minus ten minutes, no coffee interlude this morning). This is when the pup decides she’s hungry but she’s so cute you can’t help but concede.

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She sleeps with her tongue out. Enough said.

O.k., now it’s really time to hustle. As you’ve been doing chores throughout the morning you’ve been planning your layers so you can be quick to dress. You find all the components and start dressing just as you look and see that you forgot to take the liners out of your boots last night (I have never had to do this before this winter. I didn’t even know liners came out, probably because I’ve never had a boot with liners since I’ve never lived in snow so needless to say, I’m out of habit). Oh well, things could be much worse than cold feet for the day.

You dress and tie your hair back, pack the coffee into a to-go mug, put extra layers in your backpack and head outside.

Step 51: Driving

The machine (snow machine) got cold along witht the weather last night and so it is a little sleepy to start but after a few extra pulls you get her going. You rev the engine lightly and listen for the drop in pitch to let you know you can take the choke completely off (even when you’re rushing, you still have to make sure to treat your equipment like a queen, lest she decide to cast you out the Realm of the Riding). You rev a few more times, listening for her to tell you she’s ready to rumble. You give it one last big rev and she jolts forward. She’s ready! Get on the rest of your gear (goggles and ear protectors (these machines are loud)) and you’re off!

You decide to take a different route this morning so as not to disturb your neighbors (it is 7:30 in the morning, after all) and head out to the road just in time to see the deep blue as the sun makes her ascent over the mountains.

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It’s a great big snow globe world out here

You also already hit a good enough speed on your short route so far to realize that you have indeed under-dressed. You’re still still learning. Some days 15 above feels like 40 and other days it feels like 15 below zero. Moisture, wind and other scientific stuffs all affect how we feel at the same temperature and today, well, you underestimated. Now, you can decide one of two things:

Drive as fast as you can to get there as quickly as you can so as to minimize time in the cold

or

Drive slowly to keep the wind down and stay warmer but endure a longer trip

You decide to compromise: you’ll stand up while driving as fast as you can (safely, Mom, don’t worry). Sounds counter-intuitive, right? But because your windshield is busted it is actually less windy above the windshield. Tadaa! Plus, since you didn’t get to go for a walk or exercise this morning this will be your stand-in for a workout (it takes muscles I didn’t even know existed to be able to drive this thing). You bounce around following the river and trying to learn different limits of the machine (and your driving ability) until…

Step 52: The River Crossing

In order to get to work you need to cross a (mostly) frozen river (mostly being the most operative word here). Two months ago, the crossing was impossible due to the breaking of a glacial lake in the mountains which, subsequently, opened up the river.

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Open water along the river path commute

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Time to cross over the bridge, I guess

But, now it often is possible. The bridge is an alternative, but a unpreferable one at best since, due to the warm weather (up to 45 degrees above zero!) we’ve been having lately, all of the snow has melted from the bridge. This makes it a spark-filled adventure to cross on the metal skis of a snow machine. Therefore, if possible, it’s best to take the river.

 

The first time I crossed the river by myself I was pretty sure I would fall in the whole time.

This had been my preparation:

“How do I know if it’s cross-able?” I asked everyone I ran into.

“You’ll know.”

Oh, I’ll know? That seems unlikely. I mean, I’ve been here for one winter. I don’t think that makes me any sort of ice expert. I’m more of an ice cream expert.

But, yes, if I approach the river and see it gushing, sure, I’ll know not to cross. Yet aside from the an obvious flow, how do I know if the ice I see is ice to cross?

The Chief and I had talked about dark ice being precarious and to watch for overflow (essentially when there is water out on the ice) because this indicates that water has broken through somewhere and is flowing, making the ice very slippery and less stable (though not necessarily impossible to cross).

As far as I had surmised, it seemed the key ingredients to crossing a river were:

Inspection (looking at the river, maybe even turning off the machine and listening to the river – the only problem with that is that even a crossable river may have an audible flow of water beneath it)

and

Intuition/Decisions (see: going for it). Once you’ve decided to cross, you’re crossing and if you start to fall in, the only option is more speed. Great!

On my first solo crossing I already had concluded on one ingredient: I was going across. Probably, it would have been best to decide that after inspection but, hey, I’ll admit I’m stubborn. I was ready and I was going. I did pause at the top of the hill that leads down to the river and although it was jagged and craggy with icebergs as speed bumps, what I could see looked doable and so, I went.

As I started out, the ice quickly changed pitch below me. At first the skis made a deep rolling sound on the ice but it quickly changed to a hollow growl.

Eek!

Time for a second helping of the ingredient of speed.

I hurried across the remaining crossing and once on the other side stopped to see my path.

I had made my first crossing.

By myself.

I let out a holler a wolf would be proud of and then promptly texted The Chief that I was alive (he apparently was not as surprised as I was, you know, that whole undying faith in me thing and all. I don’t know where he gets it, but I’m sure glad he seems to have it in bulk).

Ok, let’s return to the Journey to Work (Step 52 continued):

Since by now (two weeks into work) crossing the river is old hat (see: you still get nervous every time because every hour on the river is potential for change. You could be able to cross in the morning and by mid-day the river could be flowing) you approach the river with healthy inquiry. It’s like being a kid at a crosswalk. Stop, look both directions. Grab your mommy’s hand (oh, darn. Mom, can you visit now?) and go.

You cross without incident and now you are more than halfway to work (a little celebration dance follows). Your legs are starting to get tired from essentially performing a twenty minute long squat but, hey, you’re not exactly hitting the gym out here so why not? Plus, it’s helping to warm you up. Well, most of you.

Step 53: Arrival at Work

You arrive at work with frozen fingers (you had to stop once just to blow on them because they started hurting so much) and remind yourself to keep heavier gloves in your ever-expanding backpack (it’s filled with an every-growing array of potentially needed items). You arrive early because you always try to leave early in case something comes up (everything from running into a friend to running out of gas becomes a possible time swap and so I always try to build in a buffer) but today you’re using this extra time to warm up before you start your shift. Plus, you need time to disrobe.

It’s funny to arrive at work and the first thing you do is start undressing and re-dressing. Your pile of outerwear takes up half of the back table (the other half is for the chef, you’re working at the local saloon/restaurant that’s just opened again for a quick blip in the pre-season for the film crew in town) and that ever-growing backpack comes in handy as you swap out for a new shirt (turns out that 30 minute squat really got your blood pumping). Finally your fingers have defrosted and now, it’s time to start work. It feels like a whole workday has gone by just getting here, but really it’s just the beginning.

Three hours later, coffee and breakfast served and dishes done and your shift is over (youwork split shifts of three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening). It’s 11am and you’re free until 5:30. What to do?

Step 54: Getting Home

You figure you could use a little walk so you leave the machine (and most of your outerwear gear) in town and head home, walking the hidden paths the machine can’t power through and crossing the frozen river on foot.

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Crossing a footbridge…look to the left…

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and look to the right.

Step 55: Making Use of Home Time

And so, a little over an hour later, you return home. The fire needs to be stoked but at least it’s taken away the morning chill. You survey the scene: what needs to be done? Haul water, do laundry, do the dishes, finish outside projects…etc. and then decide what’s feasible in four hours (since now, having left the machine in town, you’ll need at least an hour to get yourself back to work). You spin the chore wheel in your head and then the fun wheel for your post-chore reward (I think today it might be a nap) and set out to get things done. Or not. Some days, you’re tired and you go straight to the fun wheel (read: nap time).

Step 56: The Journey Back

Alright, it’s 4pm and time to head out again. Since you left most of your outerwear gear at the restaurant (it’s too hot to walk that far in) you suit up with lighter snow pants and layers that can go under your bulkier outerlayers or into your backpack for the ride home on the snow machine tonight. You decide why not go for the whole trifecta and ski to work? Plus, the pup could use some exercise. She’s ten so she can’t run with the snow machine anymore, but she can lap you even on skis and so you interrupt her from her afternoon snooze-sesh to go on an adventure. You call her “Uncle” who’s working construction in town to make sure he can give her a ride home in his truck. It’s settled. You’re off.

Well, almost. You forgot an extra pair of shoes (since ski boots probably would be a bit slippery for work). The ever-expanding backpack is getting ever-heavier now.

Ok, now you’re off. Packed like a mule and ready to glide like Tanya Harding (oh wait, we liked Nancy Kerrigan, right?).

Thirty minutes in and you’re to the river crossing.

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Little Lou inspecting the grounds

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Perked ears listening to the water below

It’s eerie to look down into the craggy ice and see and hear water below, knowing that only hours earlier you took hundreds of pounds over the same spot. But at the same time, seeing the thickness of the outcroppings of ice and testing it with jumps and prods with  poles overpowers any fears, at least for now.

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18″ thick ain’t bad

Plus, when your dog runs ahead of you, you immediately feel safer (and even if it’s an unjust sense of security, it’s security nonetheless).

And so, you cross again.

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Oh Turtlebackapack, how I love thee

Once on the other side, past the swimming hole

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(better suited as an ice skating rink nowadays), you run into three friends at one of the creeks people stop at to fills jugs for drinking water (pretty amazing, huh? Fresh, pure water flowing year-round. Yes please). Ten minutes later, updated on everyone’s latest happenings, you’re off again. Lou has already ditched you. She knows that where she’s going there’s a potential for french fries and if you’re around she’s less likely to get as many (yea, mom put her Little Lou on a little diet. “Husky” can’t serve as both her breed and her physical description).

Step 57: Lose the Layers

You get to work and start the undressing/dressing game again, clean up all the snow you’ve tracked into the bathroom, grab a makeshift water bowl for your thirsty pup, attach your skis and poles to the machine (better now than later in the dark) and clock in.

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Bungee cord jamboree

Step 58: The Hand-Off

Thirty minutes later, you’re outside again, handing Lou off to her Uncles (three came to collect her post work). It feels like you’re dropping her off at daycare. Puppy eyes and all, but in a few hours you’ll be home with her again.

Step 59: The Last Journey Home

And before you know it, you’re suiting up again, ready to hit the road and head home. You approach the river crossing but by now, near 9pm, it’s dark. You have sound and intuition to go on because your lights cast more of a shadow from up on the hill than provide information.

You decide to go for it.

In the few hours since you skied over you notice a chunk has collapsed in and so you pick up speed and evaluate the route ahead as quickly as you can as you race towards solid ground.

You make it.

Success!

A few more twists and turns and slips (since you packed your running shoes for work because a. your backpack couldn’t fit boots and b. it sounded fun to wear something other than boots for the first time in months, but it turns out they aren’t the best snow machining shoes. Grip is key. Duly noted) and slalom-esque tree avoidance and you’re home, sweet home.

Step 60: The Wind-Down & Reboot

The house is cold since the afternoon fire burnt out (The Chief is away for his post-op appointment, not just home letting fires burn out at home) and the has temperature dropped but you’re warm from the ride (you tried a different squat maneuver this time that was a real workout). Thankfully, you chopped wood during your break so that you wouldn’t have to chop it upon returning home and you build a fire in no time. Doubly thankfully, you’ve been fed at work because the idea of making a meal from scratch right now sounds like building the Wall o’ China (or something else equally difficult). You settle in with a good flick and cuddle with the pup and congratulate yourself on having taken care of the house solo and gotten to work twice without incident and settle in to do it all over again tomorrow.

Phew!

The End.

So yes, going to work in the winter in Alaska is a little different from what I’m used to. It feels like three days wrapped into one by the end of it and the steps are far more involved and plentiful than I could have ever imagined (geez, I used to balk at having to stop for gas once a week where the pump pumps for you and the trucks deliver the fuel to your fingertips). But although I do miss the luxury of stopping for chocolate at a health food store or meeting a girlfriend for a glass of wine, I’m grateful to return to our little house in the woods, warm or cold, where the wine is often in a box (all the better for transporting to share with neighbors) and the chocolate is shipped in via care package (thank you Katinka). It’s funny to think of the parallels this life has provided, for every reality we are used to is what we come to expect and now, in this new life, I never really know what to expect. I guess that is my new reality.

Cheers to the unknown and to that which will become known.

So, Are There Any Girls There?

I remember when I first started telling people I was headed to Alaska. The first reaction was always:

“Oh man! You’re gonna be the only girl there. Good luck.”

And maybe, in some towns that’s the case, but here, oh no. This town is buzzing with beauties. Beautiful women from the inside out. Women who can beat you in a race up a mountain, catch all the fish, raise gorgeous gardens and can ice climb into spaces you wouldn’t dare attempt. They are powerhouses. Everyone seems to specialize in something from local plant knowledge to massage to mountaineering. I was beyond impressed by the talents I saw but also by the harmony in which they all co-existed and the importance that was placed on girl time together.

But then, it became winter. Suddenly, the town was no longer abuzz. People were tucked away into their homes or had left for the winter. In the summer, the local watering hole was a good place to gain familiarity with someone over a couple of nights, slowly make friends and maybe eventually go for a hike or whatnot together. The slow build of friendship. In the winter, the local watering hole closes. There’s nowhere to randomly show up to, no place to start building familiarity, putting names to faces. Nope, like so many things here during the winter, you just have to jump straight in.

Remember in Kindergarten when we were all too young to realize our vulnerability and you would simply ask someone “Do you want to be my friend?”.

Well, welcome back to class.

Without effort, it’s unlikely that you’ll see much of someone out here. Our houses aren’t all close to one another, a (sometimes) frozen river separates the town and to go anywhere is a bit of a to do. You aren’t just wandering around meeting people.

And so, just like when I was four, I found myself asking either blatantly or by suggestion: “Do you want to be my friend?”

This type of bare bones vulnerability is awkward but essential out here, unless you prefer to be alone.

Luckily, it’s worked out pretty well. The women around here can really rally (crossing rivers and wading through forests to meet up) and we’ve made it a point to have girl time.

You see, when you’re in a couple in the middle of the woods, in the middle of winter you spend all of your time together. All of it. You take down trees together. You build a fire together. You make dinner and breakfast and lunch and snacks together. You divide and conquer chores and to dos but overall, you are together. And it’s amazing but it also makes girl time that much more essential.

Years ago, I didn’t understand the importance of this. I was always the girl that hung with the guys. I could keep up with the dirty jokes and the beer and the pizza and it was great. Shoot, I was even a pretty good WingWoman. But something was missing. Slowly, I invested more time in girlfriends and found a whole other community I didn’t know I needed.

Now, being here, I am suddenly apart from my women people in body (though not in spirit) and so, again it was time to invest time in making another community.

The first new girlfriend’s house I went to made me realize just how different it is to make friends here than anywhere I’ve ever been. In California I might have met someone, gotten their number and asked them to meet up for a walk or a drink somewhere.

Here, a meeting place is likely to be someone’s house because there is shelter in case the weather turns. And so, a first meeting is a full on greeting to who this person is. Oh, and it’s also chock-full of interesting directions.

“You know where the airfield is?”

“The air strip or the air field?”

“The air field, where we get our mail.”

“Oh, ok, yes.”

“Ok, just before you get to the airfield you will see a snowbank on your right* with a quick opening, take that down the hill, veer right at the first fork. Then when you get to the cottonwood tree that looks like it’s doing a graceful side bend you will veer left. Then you’ll pass a trailer on your right, keep going and eventually you’ll hear the dog barking. He’ll lead you to the house.”

*Note: everywhere is a snowbank, so keep your eyes especially peeled.

It’s also fun to play the turn around game at a new person’s house. Will they have a circular driveway or will I have to figure my way out (one of our snow machines conveniently doesn’t have reverse)? It keeps it interesting and it keeps you on your toes. Man, I used to get anxiety about going new places when I had a map in front of me or worry about parking in San Francisco. This is a whole new ballgame. Missed your turn? It might be a while before you get back to it. Reverse. I had no idea how much I loved you.

The first time I took a solo snow machine trip was to a new girlfriend’s house. She and I had spent time together this summer so when I heard she was coming back in for winter I quickly solidified her answer to the question: “Do you want to be my friend?” She was in (yipee!).

I had a vague idea of how to get to where she was staying since I had been there once in the summer (though it took me about an hour longer than it should have since I got myself thoroughly lost). Funny thing is, you cover everything in snow and suddenly, the world you vaguely knew to begin with is a whole new mystery. Surprise! So, with slow progression I found the turn, found the tree, found the trailer and the dog found me and thus, a first girlfriend date began.

 

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The river had broken so I took the bridge route over it (aiming all the while not to tip over and fall in)

 

Our plan: skiing and waxing (not the skis)

Oh, you didn’t think I had a beauty regimen in the woods?

Actually, I’ve never been much of a waxer, but the juxtaposition of waxing in the woods really got my goat. It just seemed so opposite. It had to be done. And that’s lady love, to grow out your armpit hair for a friend, only to have her rip it out. Love or lunacy. I prefer to think of it as the former instead of the latter.

So, the ski. At the time I was still falling down while on a flat surface in my skis (if you’ve never skied before, which I hadn’t, just know that the main idea is to stay upright and the easiest time to do that is when you are on a flat surface. So, needless to say, I had some skills to work on). Therefore, the obvious choice was to choose a hilly backcountry trail (read: lots of tree limbs and roots to smack you in the face or trip over and a previously uncut (unattempted) trail)).

Hey, the only way to get better is to try.

We made it through the hairier parts to the top of the biggest and longest hill I had ever attempted on skis and before I had a chance to guess twice whether or not to try it, she was at the bottom.

Oh, ok. So we are doing this I guess.

I followed suit and zoomed down after her (and then almost into her and the dog. It turns out I didn’t get the stopping lesson down as well as I thought). But now, we had arrived to our destination: a big glacial lake.

 

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Perspective is a tricky thing. Just know that we are way up high and the lake is way big.

 

Just as we started to make our way to the edge of the overhang to view the lake, the dog took off after something. We turned to see him chasing off two moose.

 

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We made our way to the edge and she showed me where a large part of the glacier had calved recently, a piece so big that she had heard it from her house that was the twenty minute ski we had just taken away from here. She remarked on how when another glacial lake higher in the mountains had broken it had moved even the largest icebergs in the frozen lake.

 

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Broken ice and icebergs from water flow

 

I love living in a place where our time is marked by breaking lakes and calving glaciers. Where memories are based on the land and life is lived by understanding what is happening around us. Nature nerds unite.

 

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Eventually the sun started setting and as we turned to head back to the waxing palace the moon peeked her head over the mountaintops.

 

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Peek-a-boo moon

 

We picked up a trail she had put in a few weeks earlier and made our way through the deep snow, thinking the whole time how we need to find a harness to put that pup in to pull us away.

 

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Home sweet home and the wax is waiting but all that skiing worked up our appetites. By the time we had changed (my backpack contained an entirely new set of clothing to replace my sweaty ski clothes. It also contained a bottle of wine, a girl date staple in case you ever wonder what to bring. Oh, and chocolate. Bring chocolate. I don’t even care if that sounds stereotypical, it’s just a safe bet), snacked and made dinner we realized that we hadn’t even heated up the wax and since it had been on the floor of the cabin, it was now frozen.

And so out came the wine (from me) and chocolate (from her) (see, I told you) while we waited for the wax to heat on the fireplace.

A quick trip outside to refuel the generator gave light to the happenings in the sky: “The lights are going off! Bundle up” she said “We are headed out”.

“The lights” are the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis. They started off slow, a little glow here and a little ray there. “They’re shy” she said. “You have to sing for them.” And so we did. She whistled “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding while I sang along and before we knew it, the lights were dancing.

The show lasted long enough for me to reach for my glass of wine at the end only to find it stuck to the porch. A little colder than a red should be served at, no?

With a little love, it came unstuck and we decided to check on the wax status and warm up a bit.

It was time. My armpits shivered in fear. I’d never waxed them before. They would be shocked! We had always been so polite to one another. Here I was coming in with a wax army. I didn’t know what to expect.

You know, you really reach a new friendship level when you’re waxing your friend’s armpits.

My pores got angry and I started sweating. We couldn’t stop laughing, me nervously and her at/with me. Oh, and did I mention I’m ticklish. Probably the armpit wasn’t the best place to could pick, ya think? But we persevered and before I knew it (after she had tweezed the sneaky remainders, ouch), those things were smoother than a skating rink.

Is it weird that I’m telling you this? Well, this is the nitty gritty of how bonds are formed. You’re welcome for the look into the intricacies of female friendship.

The accomplishment had us both pretty jazzed and before we knew it the clock struck 1:30am and I still had to drive home, now in the dark, on my second ever solo snow machine trip. But hey, if I could survive winter waxing a la fireplace heat up I could handle making it home.

 

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It’s polite to pull down one’s face mask before a picture, lest one be confused for a ninja. Layers and layers and layers…

 

And I did. All the way home to my furry man (they say opposites attract, right?) who, although I had spent the last month with him and had seen him only 8 hours before, I still had missed. I guess that’s what living in the woods will do to you: force you to make quick friends and force you to find someone you can live in a tiny space with and still miss when you’re away for a day.

So, yes. There are girls here. Awesome girls (women, to be precise) and lucky for me (though my armpits aren’t so stoked), I get to be among them, of them and with them.

Thank you, Alaska.