As we prepared for our February trip to Alaska, I had one thing on my mind: the weather. Living here on the Oregon Coast has left me largely with a closet of lightweight jackets and rain gear — all of which seemed fairly inadequate. Should I buy something new — knowing by the time it was needed again it would be completely outdated? Should I swallow my fashion pride and wear my 18-year-old ski jacket? Or perhaps the white wool coat, now at least seven years old and which did nothing to keep me warm the last time we traveled north?
In the end, I grabbed a couple pair of gloves, packed and then unpacked my ski hat (it would only mess up my hair) and threw in the puffer jacket I’d bought on a whim on sale the summer before. I knew it was meant for chilly temps, but probably not freezing. I recalled winters in Anchorage when the cold was so bitter, the air glistened with ice crystals and I had to beat on my thighs to get the blood moving. I told myself we wouldn’t be outside much anyway.
We were Anchorage-bound for the last scheduled out-of-state reading of my novel “Wander.” The tour had taken me to New York City, Pennsylvania, Denver and of course, numerous places here in Oregon. Now, I would finish with a Saturday afternoon reading at Barnes & Noble. The trip was scheduled around our 34th anniversary and my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday. In on Friday, out on Tuesday. If I was going to freeze at least it would be short-lived.
We arrived in Anchorage on one of the smoothest flights ever, even landing a half hour early. I looked out the window and saw a world in white, with more of the fluffy stuff coming, and a thermometer that read 28 degrees. It did indeed look cold. I zipped up my coat, slipped on my gloves and prepared for the Arctic blast. But outside, I was reminded yet again that 28 degrees in Anchorage is just not that cold. I’d experienced this once before after having been away from Alaska for a few years. I suspect it’s because Anchorage’s cold is a dry cold. I patted myself on the back for not splurging on a new coat and climbed in our friend’s pick up.
As some of you may know, I am no fan of winter driving, but I don’t worry so much in Alaska because generally someone else is driving and that someone else lives there and has lived there for years and they know what they are doing. At least they’re supposed to. But when we got out on the highway, I saw all around me cars in the ditches, cars upside down, cars ahead of us skidding and fishtailing. And flashing red lights everywhere. Later, someone reminded us that it had snowed very little the previous two winters and people forgot how to drive in true winter conditions.
We were scheduled to drive ourselves to the Mat-Su Valley for the birthday celebration Monday and, while we had reserved a large SUV rental, I was already worried about that 60-minute drive. Did I dare make some excuse and stay put?
We got to the reading Saturday without a hitch, though the snow continued to fall and the city apparently does not have the budget for much snow removal. Sunday, we moved to the hotel where we’d spent our wedding night and enjoyed a day walking around Anchorage — brisk but not bitter. After a few blocks I warmed up so much, I had to lower my zipper to cool off.
As I’d feared, the drive to the Valley was on snow and ice, and again we saw vehicles overturned by the side of the road. But the rental company had kindly upgraded us to a GMC Yukon with every bell and whistle you can imagine and I figured if we were going to crash in that thing, we’d probably survive. Probably. That afternoon the hubs shoveled his parents’ deck wearing only a t-shirt and jeans.
In the morning, we headed back to the airport. The highway was clear, the snow had stopped, though the ice fog was a bit harrowing for a few miles.
And then, there we were back in Portland. It was a cloudy 41 degrees, and I began shivering from the moment we stepped outside, swearing I was going to freeze.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.