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The Outside World

ISSUE:  Spring 1995

When Gusty opens her eyes, sunlight explodes on glaciers hanging above blue water. It’s almost painful to look for more than a few seconds, so she leans back and shuts her eyes again. Other passengers on the ferry wear glacier glasses so they won’t miss any of Alaska, but they are tourists; they wouldn’t actually want to get inside the scenery. Gusty did. For nearly a year she lived alone in a black spruce forest north of here. When it was time to leave, she didn’t say the word bushed to herself; she just got in her truck, drove down to Anchorage two days early, and camped in the airport parking lot. She fell asleep soothed by the roar of the planes, and woke just a couple of hours before Celia arrived from New York. Gusty was genuinely glad to see her mother.

Celia is tapping her arm again. “I think I saw something jump.” Gusty shades her eyes with her hand and opens them into the brilliant sunlight. “Something big.” Celia stands next to Gusty’s deck chair, holding binoculars to her eyes, her thick white hair flattened by the wind. “A whale!” she exclaims, and a moment later the loudspeaker announces two humpbacks and the rails are clotted with people pointing cameras. Gusty is surprised by the quickness of Celia’s eye: she has spotted whales, porpoises, seals, and bald eagles before anyone else on deck. Her binoculars hang ready around her neck, and she scouts the water and green cliffs of the Inside Passage as though survival depends on her vigilance.

“How wonderful.” Celia settles back in her own chair. “My friends won’t believe I’ve seen so many exotic things.”

“Your friends think New Jersey is the wilderness,” Gusty says.

Celia laughs. Her letters to Gusty this spring were filled with the warnings of friends: they have snow in June, you’ll be miles from a doctor. Celia has about a thousand friends in New York—in the orchestra where she’s a cellist, in the apartment house, people she’s met at parties, on planes, at the dentist—and they all urged her not to go to Alaska. When she finally decided to go, they advised her about the toughest slacks and shoes with the best grip, as though she were setting out on an Arctic expedition.

“You look wonderful,” she keeps saying to Gusty. She was worried, waiting a month between letters, although Gusty explained about the slow mail and getting snowed in until the neighbors plowed her out. Gusty thinks Celia expected to see her daughter altered in some grotesque way after living alone so long in the bush. “But you haven’t changed at all!” she says.

Gusty gets impatient with this; obviously, she is not the same as she was three years ago when she left New York for a visit to her good friend and sometimes-lover Tom, who’d come out here the year before. She ended up cashing in her return ticket and asking Celia to mail out her books and clothes. They haven’t seen each other since Gusty left New York. She watches the way Celia’s face, shielded by the binoculars, falls into a tired frown while her eyes strain to see something in an unfamiliar landscape. Celia’s two closest friends both died this winter; their two hearts just instantly gave out within weeks of each other. Obviously, Celia’s not the same, either.

For a few years after nursing school, Gusty worked in a city hospital and had her own apartment, but once she came to Alaska she realized that her New York existence was just the outline of a life she’d never be able to fill. When she first decided to stay here, she got a nursing job flying out to remote towns on the North Slope. Tom works in a clinic in Barrow, and he’d recommended her. What happened after that was predictable, Tom said: Gusty fell in love with the north. She wanted to see what it was like to live in the bush, so she saved up enough money to get food and other essentials for a year, and Tom lent her his vacation cabin in the black spruce forest A year in the bush took all of Gusty’s resources—in every sense of the word. As soon as Celia leaves she’ll have to head to Anchorage and look for work again.

By early evening the sun is less intense and she has opened her eyes. Couples stand at the railing with their hair blowing, kids skid over the deck, and two guys are having the inevitable Pipeline argument while Celia listens and throws out an occasional question. Gusty watches people now the way she watched moose or coyotes on Tom’s land: they are fascinating, but she doesn’t recognize herself as one of them. She’s startled when they come close to her.

“Have you seen your friends lately?” Celia asks during dinner in the ferry dining room.

“I saw them last year,” Gusty says. Most of the people she knows here are also workers for the North Slope Borough who fly in and out of Anchorage, lead erratic lives, and frequently run into each other at the airport. They all accept the enormity of space here between places and people: a hundred miles becomes around the block, a year of absence becomes a week.

Celia doesn’t seem to have heard Gusty’s answer. “Do you think this is a real letter someone wrote?” She’s taken the ferry company brochure out of her straw carry-all and is rereading the letter supposedly written by a young woman to her parents, all about how wonderful it is to be a teacher like they always wanted her to be, but in a place where she can live among self-reliant men and strong women and watch bears rolling down hillsides.

“I don’t know,” Gusty says. Probably Celia would like to believe that it is real. She’s not naïve enough to think her daughter is that simple, but she does like to keep up appearances. When Gusty’s father died, Celia carefully purchased a new mink coat. Probably without lying, she would have conveyed to her friends a picture of Gusty living in a quaint house among New England-sized trees, not far from a town with old clapboard buildings. It’s rare for Celia to dwell on emotional realities; she handles the awkward things, like death and Gusty’s life in the bush, deftly, quickly, like burning objects for which she has instant asbestos gloves.

Gusty has to admit to herself, though, that her own expectations of life in Alaska might actually have matched those of the girl in the brochure. She had anticipated outer adventure, deliberate change. Instead, the adventures were mostly inner, and the changes came on slowly, almost imperceptibly, like the disappearance of spots from a fawn’s coat.

The ferry rocks slowly through a cool moist night. Lying in a chair out on deck, wrapped in her sleeping bag, Gusty rocks with the boat. Celia has a stateroom, but there’s more air up here. All around Gusty, other passengers spread sleeping bags on lounge chairs, pitch dome-shaped tents, and threaten kids who are running in the dark. The cliffs lining the narrowing waterway grow into great black shapes; when the ferry pulls into a port, lights are clustered like drops of glowing water in a dark basin. The boarding passengers bring on the noise of the bar where they’ve been waiting, and Gusty lies still, encompassed by all the sounds and light. She feels oddly protected, alone out here. Celia is down in the stateroom, but it’s almost as if she were back in New York. Gusty isn’t used to this kind of proximity: the channels for it are closed within her.

It’s strange to think that hundreds of miles north of here the cabin still sits in its clearing, the one room that Tom had chinked the summer before; the long wall with the window, the short wall with two Inupiat prints. One is a brown and green design of the tundra in summer. The other is a picture of ice fishing, done in many different shades of white, with tiny dark figures in the background. She got to know that immense sweep of white paper very well.

Around the cabin are miles of black spruce forest and muskeg, with a line of snow-veined mountains in the distance. When she first arrived last summer, the tree-covered hills rolling out in all directions seemed full of infinite beauty and power. She spent most of her time outdoors, walking, gardening, splitting wood, coming in only to eat or sleep. Every week or so she drove to town for supplies and mail. During the long dark winter she gave up on the articles she’d planned to write about working on the North Slope. Instead, she kept a detailed journal, read, and taught herself how to build things—shelves, a small table—with Tom’s tools. By the time the sun rose higher and the snow was melting in wide circles around the trees, Gusty could hardly remember living anywhere else. In fact, she could hardly remember the years of wrangling with Tom, the events surrounding her father’s death, or any of the other things that at first tormented her when she was alone. She spent hours outside in the forest, standing very still and growing roots. The woods were her cocoon: all hundred miles of them visible from the cabin window.

Just as the melted circles were starting to meet, the sky dropped one last layer of heavy wet snow. Gusty walked through the storm, thinking how her money was running out and how she’d have to look for work after Celia’s visit. Getting to the city and finding a job seemed an enormously complex task. She passed whole trees bent into permanent arcs by the winter’s storms, rotting logs lay everywhere, and she plodded through a stretch of muskeg that almost sucked offher boots. It snowed and snowed. The mountains, usually visible through the trees, disappeared, and she decided to heed back to the cabin. Walking quickly down a small rise, she met cleated footprints coming uphill.

She stopped and looked around, peering through the trees. By this time she could always sense an observer, and would turn quickly to face a staring motionless deer or a bear that would pound offinto the bush. Now, she couldn’t see anyone, though someone besides herself had been walking Tom’s land. Imagining poachers, then murderers, blood on the snow, she stuck her foot into one of the prints: it fit. After a moment of confusion, she realized it was indeed her own cleated footprint, and that she’d just been in two places at the same time. She was astounded. It was like being one of those people you read about who suddenly dropped off into another century for a few seconds, and then reappeared walking through the park with their friends. She’d slid onto another dimension of time and space without even knowing it.

When she realized she was lost, she panicked, a tight stiffening sensation that still comes back to her some mornings when she’s just woken up. Three hours later she finally found the cabin. Feeling as exhausted as if she’d been traveling for weeks without sufficient rest or food, she went to bed and lay there listening to the owls call.

Spring was anticlimactic. The wind softened, and the light lasted longer each day. Snow seeped into the earth and wild flowers appeared: first buttercups, then lupines, then roses. Once, she took a long walk off Tom’s land and down a dirt road to the place where several families lived, including the people who’d plowed her road over the winter. She’d visited them a few times. The houses were built mostly of scavenged wood and hunks of old trailers; the house belonging to the snowplow family had a cut-out crescent moon in the wood overhang above the porch. Another house had pots and pans dangling from hooks around the front door. Gusty stood for a long time behind some trees, looking at the crescent moon, at the pots and pans, at the kids and dogs playing in a field across the road. Then she left, without visiting anyone after all. A few days later she locked the cabin door and drove down to Anchorage to meet Celia.

Lying in bed at night during those last few weeks in the bush, she sometimes heard her name called, but when she got up and opened the door, no one was there.

On the map, the island Gusty chose was a dark green circle outlined with lighter green. Approaching it on the ferry, there are hills piled with trees like green fur, and beaches full of rough boulders. The town has one dusty main street, with storefronts that need paint and one combination hotel-bar-restaurant called The Sod House. Like every place in Alaska, the island’s main attraction is natural beauty. In addition to that, there are gift shops with jade and ivory carvings, an assortment of houses built into the hills by local fishing families, and a beach where you can find petroglyphs. A few genuine faded totem poles line the waterfront, but mainly it’s the fat bright ones carved by the W.P.A.that decorate the supermarket entrance and the grounds of The Sod House. The smallness of the town doesn’t appeal to Gusty; she’d rather be in the city or in the bush—not in between.

“What a marvellous room,” Celia says when they’re seated in The Sod House restaurant.

“It’s true Alaska,” Gusty says. In the dim light they can see the heads of moose and caribou and bear making a frieze around the perimeter of the room. Opposite their table is a platform with a scene of stuffed coyotes and wolves; hawks circle overhead on invisible wires. The lower walls are painted with a dark wilderness scene of huge waterfalls and endless trees. For Gusty, it is like being inside an enormous diorama of her own life.

“This reminds me of Uncle Stanley’s hunting trip,” Celia is saying. “When he set up his tent, thinking he’d start out in the morning—”

“And then he heard a belch behind him.”

“Right! And he’d practically sat down on a bear!”

“I remember that,” Gusty says. There are so many of her own stories she could tell, but she picks up the possibilities like heavy stones, turns them around in her mind, and then places them back where she found them. The two golden eagles that flew over the yard just before she left: no. The eerie circular walk through the snowstorm: it’d worry her. Gusty knows her impulses are partly selfish, but she wants to keep her new life untranslated.

“You must feel like you’ve come back to some kind of strange carnival, after living out there,” Celia says almost absently.

Gusty stops eating her salmon. Silverware clinks all around her; smoke arises from the bar. The unexpected accuracy of Celia’s comment makes her heart race. “You’re right.”

“I just thought so,” Celia says calmly.

They look at each other hesitantly after that, and the conversation changes to Celia’s new part-time job organizing a youth orchestra. She likes the job, she’s certain of the orchestra’s success; she is incredibly optimistic for a woman living alone, losing her friends to sudden death. Gusty feels jaded beside her.

The calm water and damp packed sand of the Petroglyph Beach shimmer in the early sun. Gusty and Celia walk slowly, bending to look for designs carved into the rocks thousands of years ago, some of them barely visible now. The first petroglyph they find is a face with huge round eyes and a square gaping mouth. It is covered with white chalk left from a rubbing, so it is shocking, like finding a skull.

“It’s the spirit of the rock,” Celia says.

Gusty isn’t sure. She is trying to imagine the inhabitants of this island eight thousand years ago, isolated in a long waterway with hundreds of other islands. “It’s the picture of an experience,” she says. “Just the sketch of it.”

“I wonder what they did with them.”

“I don’t know.”

Celia looks at her, surprised, as though Gusty ought to know what no one else does.

“I had such a strange winter,” Gusty finds herself saying, as if that explains the petroglyphs.

Celia’s eyes squint at her in the bright sun. The beach is very still; the water makes only the faintest rippling sound.

“I kept shedding things I’d carried around for years. It felt great to be so light.” Gusty laughs a bit nervously. “But then I felt like I wasn’t on the same earth as everyone else. I got scared. It’s hard to describe—” She wishes she hadn’t tried to describe it.

But Celia nods. “I can imagine what it’s like. There’s so little you can say, sometimes.”

Gusty is relieved. “That’s true, isn’t it?” For probably the first time in her life she is grateful for Celia’s asbestos gloves.

They separate after that, and Celia continues to walk along the upper part of the beach, while Gusty heads down toward the gleaming sand left flat by the receding tide. She crouches next to a little pool with snails at the bottom, and dips her fingers in the water. When she looks up again, Celia is a small figure in the distance, a blue and khaki dot. Gusty looks to her left, and on a rock that would be submerged at high tide she sees the faint outline of a bird with a long beak and pluming feathers. It’s carved so that it faces the water, and it’s been washed into a bumpy outline of its former grace and clarity. Tiny sea plants cling to the rock around the bird’s head, making a sort of green crown for it. The plants remind her of a type of lichen that grows on fallen logs, and she feels a heavy homesickness that she’s ignored until now. She sits down on a dry rock and thinks about the actual hunt for work, the walls of a small apartment, the plane rides out to the North Slope in bad weather.

She remembers one of the last places she worked: rough shacks and green government-issue buildings scattered along a slender peninsula on the Bering Sea. In winter the ice pack would surround the place; in late spring, when Gusty was there, the wind still made it difficult to walk and the tundra had sprouted only an inch of pale tough grass.

She’d gotten to know an old Inupiat woman up there. Myrtle’s knees were bad, and she hardly ever left home anymore. As a young woman, though, she’d married a pilot from Pennsylvania and had gone to live outside with him. Once Gusty asked the old woman how she’d liked the outside world. The clothes were amazing, Myrtle said. Everyone was so dressed up, and there were a lot of things you had to do, like go to church. After nine years she left the pilot and came back home to the Arctic peninsula. She said she hadn’t learned anything outside, except how to save little bits of string too small to use.


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