180° Day (Barrow to Fairbanks, September 22nd)

I don’t recall that Tolkien wrote too much about the long journey back home to the Shire. Are these lost chapters or was he just tired of drafting?

As the overall vector of the Journey swung 180 degrees back towards the south, a correlating change in our point of view was unavoidable. We knew we would return home much faster than we arrived. We were suddenly running out of time. There were now certain things that we were not going to accomplish – some trivial, some very important, but in any event a circumstance comparatively much easier to accept in this particular context than in others. There were also new goals to set before us – it’s impossible not to think ahead. Where to go from here is not merely a literal question. And, of course, there would soon be re-entry, remembering how to do transfer pricing in time for ‘busy season,’ adjusting to driving less than 90,000 mph when roads are good, wondering how camo went out of style so abruptly, etc.

Oh wait, camo totally is in style down here in the lower 48, it’s just a lot more subtle in the delivery.

And of course, there would no longer be anyone around who understood this etymologically weird blend of Engliswedeutsch that Farfar and I’d been cultivating over the past couple weeks.

One of the most ironical thing about getting to the edge of the continent was that we actually went too far to see the aurora borealis. While in Barrow, we would have been best off being back in Whitehorse (and according to various websites, we were a bit early in the ‘season’). The sky had two long whispy clouds that were aurora borealis-shaped, but it was not the real thing…those picturesque glowing colors undulating like a living blanket sheltering the Heavens. Yes, it’s possible that the faint wisps might have been a wee bit of aurora (the ‘clouds’ did not match anything we saw before or after), but they also didn’t really photograph, so I can’t prove anything. So, I’ll have to go very north again some day.

We woke that last morning in Barrow to a light snowfall and the beginnings of a cosmetic upgrade to the town that would probably rapidly pile up and last another 8 months or so. We hadn’t seen real snow yet, so it was expedient for us to get out into it. We headed up to the beach one last time (Richard, of course, still in jeans shorts, because Swedes aren’t made of sugar, and because they haven’t discovered camo shorts yet.) Barrow is just much prettier with snow. It brings out the colors here and there, softens the severity of the bare sienna Earth, and it seems to anchor the senses with the inner compass which simply expects snow at that latitude.

It would have just felt wrong if we’d left Alaska without experiencing a decent snowfall.

So, here’s something you didn’t know. Since Day 1, I’ve travelled north with a pink, heart-shaped, floral inlay keepsake which contains a small amount of Juju’s ashes. It usually resided on the bedside table in whichever room we were staying (or in Tank’s trailer, quietly out of the way, in a corner, while in Valdez). I truly wish that there was some magical feeling when you picked it up, that somehow physical contact with it conjured a mystical, otherworldly connection to commune with her. This thought always flashes through my mind when I pick it up. Although the surface remains cool and mute to the touch, we bring it with us whenever our family travels. It is so meaningful to us that she is with us on our travels – and we’ve done a lot that over the last 18 months. You see, our own journeying has offered us a needed change of scenery and (usually) the chance to be in new places that offer some respite from sadness about moments that now only reside in memory.

I personally don’t normally feel the need to bring the keepsake literally with us while out and about. Plus, it’s not exactly small, so it doesn’t really fit in the back pocket… But this morning was the last time (anytime soon) I’d be gazing at the end of the Earth, so I brought Juju out with us into the snow. She always loved the snow, and it was special since we’ve never really lived anywhere that featured a ton of snow. But in a desperately sad way it also reminds me of all the things that she missed and that we’ll never get to teach her, share with her, and remember for the rest of our days.

If just one fewer family can never feel this, this will will all have been worth it. Every moment, every thing we have tried and the time and energy we invested. We’ll probably never know who they are, but I’ve got to believe we will make a difference.

And for those wondering if there is a connection, yes, the keepsake is the other reason why the pink, heart-shaped stone found in my path on Point Barrow was so poignant to me, especially since I hadn’t had the real one with me. I understand, kiddo, I think I do. But damn, I still miss you so much…

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And so we left Barrow, with Crust, Crazy Maria and I parting ways with freshly head-shaven Farfar at long last. He’d been my constant companion for half a continent and what now felt like a half-lifetime of memories. I’m so grateful for so many reasons. But we continued on and made our way back to Fairbanks and to be reunited with MoshiMoshi.

The three of us took a shuttle (although there actually do seem to be a couple taxis in town) and made our way to the tiny 1.5 room airport – waiting room, baggage claim, check-in counters and security all sort of in the same space, with only a small chamber beyond security where presumably folks huddle before being cleared to trod across the normally frozen tarmac to their awaiting plane (which all seem to board in the back, since the front half of the fuselage is dedicated to cargo). We will milled about and couldn’t help but wonder what the conditions flying in and out would be in just a few weeks time.

On the plane, I was seated next to a woman living in Barrow who was now a local teacher. She was also a bereaved parent, grieving her adopted son, whom she had taught in another, yet smaller town in Alaska. He succumbed to what I learned were the many intense and difficult pressures that claim far too many young (native) Alaskans. I’m not sure what it is about Alaska, who we are or what we are doing that seems to attract bereaved parents to us, but maybe it’s just not as rare a thing as it really, really ought to be. I wish it were more rare, and I wish her so well.

Fairbanks was a bit of a relief, and we had a few moments to walk around town and take in the interesting cross of frontiersy small city in touch with its gold rush past, yet besmirched by the occasional office building with a glass facade. I got no takers for a side trip in the modest rain to North Pole, a destination of some fascination since I realized that there was such a place. Despite sharing almost no obvious characteristics with Barrow, it too left something to be desired without snow – certainly for those arriving in the quasi-suburb of Fairbanks purely on the strength of a curious sense of adventuring romanticism. City signage and streetlights played up the Santa’s Workshop theme, there was no cobblestone village square with adorned with impractical, old-fashioned shoppes. Rather, there was a massive retail edifice offering untold riches of Christmas kitsch.

For better or for worse, I was taken with the ornament depicting Santa seated in an outhouse, working through his ‘naughty or nice’ list, branded with ‘North Pole.’ Bet you no longer want to get your hands on that list, eh?