Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What DO People Do In The Wintertime?

You Say Tomato, Skagway's health food store, across the street from my studio
Skagway in the winter is an interesting place to be, and I’ve been here since Thanksgiving—the idea being that it’s just as easy to look for nonexistent work in Alaska as it is in the Lower 48. Which I’ve been doing pretty much since my neighbor/friend/boss replaced me with a twenty-year-old kid just out of community college.

I still think it was a despicable thing to do, but I sure as heck am glad she did it. My son introduced me to Skagway and seasonal work, driving motor coaches full of tourists into the highways and byways of Alaska and the Canadian Yukon. A much better lifestyle and I have the blood pressure to prove it.

Anyway, so here I am after three seasons, trying out Skagway in the wintertime. I’m keeping myself busy working on my book Skagway and the Dead Horse Trail and applying for everything from park ranger to police dispatcher to bank teller—and the usual office administrator and web design positions. All the while, I’m immersing myself in the history of the 1897 Gold Rush, reading, writing, drawing, my creative nature for the first time in years surging forth. I wake up each morning in the dark, wind howling outside; go to bed at night in the dark, wind howling outside. (They were not exaggerating when referencing this wind!) Rarely have I been happier. And it’s occurred to me that Skagway’s one million summer tourists every summer might be interested in what this place is like in the frozen dark months. What the heck do people do in the wintertime? How do they get through the day with a smile on their faces?

One of the things they do is socialize.

Arizona Lunchbox, a long way from home
I arrived on Thanksgiving. The room I’d rented at Windy Valley Lodge (a once-upon-a-time motel remodeled into apartments across the street from You Say—actually, You Say Tomato; I’m giving you the local lingo here) was not available as expected. Not for a few days anyway. What to do? Did I say they weren’t kidding about the wind here? Temperatures below zero, snow everywhere, wind punching down off the pass. I sat shivering in my car, my faux-fur-lined jacket meaningless, watching the boughs of Sitka spruce whip and snap. Mitty! I could call my buddy Mitty. I’d met Tim Saulter while working for Alaska Excursions the summer of 2010. He’s a year-round resident. With shaking, numb fingers I poked at his name in my cell phone. “Sure, come on over!” he boomed out, talking tightly around his ever-present cigar.

I was once sick while driving for HollandAmerica-Princess…could hardly talk for the barbed-wire ball lodged in my throat. “Mitty,” I’d texted, “Can you go buy me some throat lozenges?” Half-hour later he showed up at my hotel room (HollandAmerica housed us in the old Westmark, two to a room, kitchen and free laundry down the hall for a measly $196 a month—love, love, love that company) with a grocery bag full of stuff that he tumbled onto my bed. Throat lozenges, EmergenC, ginger root, fruit popsicles, mixed nuts. “What do I owe you?” I mouthed.


In the biting cold, I drove over to the corner of State and 15th. This is how we identify residences here. No street numbers, no mail delivery. “I live across from You Say.” “I live on the corner of State and 15th.” “I live behind the Molly Walsh Park.”

Tight quarters at Mitty’s. In winter, he cooks lunch three times a week for the senior citizens. His living room is a storage room for a winter’s worth of canned peaches, boxes of pasta, sacks of flour and rice. Floor to ceiling. This is where you'd head should World War III break out. It’s also the place to be when you have no place else to go. But Mitty barely had time to buzz my cheek with a kiss and mumble around his cigar “make yourself at home” before flying out the door to Thanksgiving dinner. Like I said, everyone socializes. Being Thanksgiving, all my friends were over at someone else’s house. Lonely, but not lonely, I poked around and opened up a can of Mitty's tomato soup.

So this is Skagway. This is where you never go homeless, where you never go hungry, where friends move over and let you have their bed. Even it means they have to sleep on a camping cot next to a bicycle next to a crate next to a freezer. They socialize up here, but I do have my boundaries.

Mitty cooking for the senior citizens.