19 degrees Fahrenheit

Gabby Palko was on her way to her home, Alaska, for the winter. Her letter was lost with the onset of the cold and has only arrived now in spring as the snow melts.

19 degrees, 19 degrees… This number feels so painfully cold to me right now. My poor hands feel as if they’re about to disintegrate in the whipping wind as I load up my truck on a grey October morning. Quite possibly because I’ve washed them more in this one year than I have in my entire lifetime.

I have sat in this exact spot at -30°F on a January day, half excited at setting a personal-cold-temperature record, half nervous to turn my truck off. Conversely, I have also sat here on a sunny April day in nothing but a tank top at 30°F. Bluebird sky overhead, I had pulled over to bare my skin to the warm, spring sun as I blissfully peeled at a ripe mango. So why, I wonder, does this 19 degrees feel so painful, downright dreadful.

Fortunately, the compassionate voice in my head is louder than the one calling me a little bitch right now. “You’re just not used to it yet. Patience..” One of the great feats of homo sapiens is our remarkable ability to adapt. Adapt and evolve, adapt and evolve… this is the mantra.

Fall is a play of two parts. In the first act, things are bright, cheery, fun. The cold beer and reggae of summer are replaced with red wine and warm jazz. Favorite sweaters removed from closets, beloved skis taken out of storage. Leaves debut their brightest costumes and dazzle us with their annual performance. The Alaskan tundra becomes pollock-esque, morphing dramatically every day. I get to wear turtlenecks again.

But Act II is darker. It feels like grief. The flamboyant trees do their final dance then take a bow, leaving behind dark, bare limbs swaying in the wind. The psychedelic tundra paintings of Thompson Pass are now a grim shade of dark, dull brown. At 61°N, we are losing about six minutes of daylight per day. Save for the bald eagles, the common ducks, and a couple bears peeking out of the alder bushes, most of the plant and animal life around here has disappeared. It is cold and it is quiet.

This is also the part where the winter preparation chores pile up. Outboards to winterize, boat to insulate, elusive windshield scraper to locate. I’m having heater problems now that it’s dipping below 30 degrees, of course. Nothing to do but wait on shipped parts. I brighten up my boat home by hoisting two strands of christmas lights up the mast and boy do they make a significant difference in my evenings. $36 dollars of LED joy.

The snowline has been creeping for weeks. It hovers above my eyes but still feels far from my feet, which are standing on brown ground. I discuss the impending winter with friends in town. Many of us, typical winter enthusiasts, feel a range from unusual apprehension to pure dread for this one. Usually this time of year is for packing theaters with best friends to indulge the senses with the latest ski porn. Not this year. The hellscape of 2020 has rendered us emotionally exhausted, and now we’re being told to brace for a dark winter ahead.

Frozen sleet hits the big city of Anchorage (population 290,000) the morning of my departure after a big supply run. Grey slush soaking through my running shoes as I crawl back in my truck to head home, feeling anxious and a bit underprepared.

The drive from Anchorage to Valdez is fairly straightforward: head straight for 200 miles until you hit a stop sign, then bang a right. The precip freezes up as the drive goes on, with larger flakes forming and slick roads underneath. Very few cars on the road this afternoon, but one quick braker in front of me causes me to skid forward on the ice. Thankfully the winter driving lessons of my youth kick in (thank you dad) and I guide my little truck into the other lane then back, avoiding a fender bender that wouldn’t have been all that damaging but surely inconvenient and I’ve got places to be.

I slow to that first and only stop sign of the long trek and creep to the right. Onto the Richardson, the dark stretch home, and the snow really starts falling. Flakes illuminated by headlights create the illusion of warp speed travel when really I’m just doing 65 on an unlit highway through the woods. Through the vortex! Tired eyes and music at full blast, familiarity creeps into my hands on the steering wheel. The brain follows; this is how I’ve driven in past winters and this is how I shall drive for the next several months.

The handful of passing vehicles turning off their brights as they approach me and me them brings a welcome feeling. In the midnight-sun summers, one needs no headlights for months. The action feels like a courteous nod of acknowledgment of my existence; that’s how it feels to me anyway.

Sleepy eyes get the best of me, as does the water bottle I’ve drained, so I pull into my favorite little scenic pullout which is barely visible under two inches of white. Not much scenery as it’s all pure pitch black now. From the driver’s seat, I swap my little running shoes for my big winter boots, toss on my cowboy hat to keep the hair dry and open the door. Swing the feet out and feel that first soft crunch of snow underfoot. Big, happy flakes like chicken feathers fall calmly and quietly, unlike the hypnotic light-speed motion they were performing just minutes ago. Perception, perception. The sound is that peaceful incubated sound of perfect quiet and stillness. It is my favorite sound in the world.

I know this feeling, I remember this feeling. A peek at the truck dash reads 19 in little orange numbers. 19 degrees. And it is as warm as a steaming cup of espresso, as warm as a note out of Coltrane’s saxophone, as warm as a lover’s chest.


Written bu Gabriella Palko, @gabbypalko

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