I went to Boston recently, to see my daughter in boarding school. Of course I miss her and wanted to see her, but I always dread going to Boston. A lot of people love that area, I hear, but for me there are few places that feel more like nowhere. I certainly don't get that feeling on the tundra, or the sea ice -- although obviously many people would.
The good part was packing up food to take to my daughter, China. She's been missing caribou meat, and moose, and seal oil, and the carrots we have remaining from the garden -- all the kind of food we eat at home. Down here at the terminal Shane Schaeffer checked us in. My little battered suitcase was heavy, full of frozen meat, dried meat, and jars of food. My wife and I were in the last of the line through security. At the gate, Saima Johnson, the Alaska Airlines customer service agent, and I started chatting about trapping mink and martin. I sort of forgot everybody else was already on the plane.
Twenty-two hours later, when we got off the final jet, I instantly got the same feeling I always get in Boston -- who are these people? Over the years, I've had little luck trying to communicate with people in that area of the country. It doesn't help that I don't know anything about sports -- they know roughly that much about nature -- and I like strangers and they don't. On this trip though, they were all talking about nature. The airport televisions were endlessly shrilling about one big scary chunk of it, coming their way. They even had a human name for it: Hurricane Sandy. Being that I'm upside down and backwards, the name made me not think of a person, but a million tons of sand sloshed and whipped around and dumped in the gears of this place.
The Thrifty shuttle driver drove us a long way to the car rental company. We got a car that smelled like an ashtray -- with a warning of a $250 fine if we smoked -- and finally another car that didn't. My wife climbed behind the wheel. It was 5 p.m. on Friday. I certainly was not going to drive. We pulled out into a river of traffic, followed the fast steel horde in a tunnel under a real river, another tunnel, bridges, wires, signs -- all further into nowhere I wanted to be. Definitely nowhere I wanted to hunker down for a hurricane. As a 19-year-old, out alone in the world for the first time, I'd lived through the eye of a hurricane in Fiji. I'll never forget those struggling palm trees lit by lightning, the roar of 120 mph sustained wind, and the unearthly screams of sheet metal slicing overhead in the darkness.
Later, after picking my daughter up at school, that night at my brother-in-law's I fried caribou hindquarter. I put big chunks of fat in the frying pan. Part way through the meal we remembered to get out the jar of cranberry sauce we'd brought. China was happy to have us there, and she kept going back for more caribou. It was great to see her. This past fall was the first that she hasn't been along with us getting caribou and picking berries, and she missed us and all the gathering we do as a family.
The next day the sun was shining, pretty leaves falling, and we met her teachers. Come evening I cooked a moose roast. So far I was staying sane.
The following day we drove to a mall to look for a dress for China. I brought along my jar of bear fat with tinniq berries and a Ziploc of strips of dried moose. It was starting to rain. At Nordstrom's Rack we didn't have any luck finding the right dress. It was a weekend; a lot of girls and women were dressed fancy. The boys and men mostly wore baggy jeans and untucked T-shirts. It has always seemed a double standard to me -- how society expects women to dress full-on sexy all the time, spending tons of money doing so -- while men can slump along like shapeless drones. With my daughter a teen-ager now -- and a big storm just out to sea -- I was significantly less thrilled about the frilly clothes, sky-high price tags and all the rest.
At the entrance to the changing room, the attendant was a late teen. His hair looked like it had been cut with an ax -- not that he would know how to use one -- and his face like he'd gotten half done shaving and just quit. His Nordstrom's uniform was a stretchy neon green shirt. All the attendants wore the same top. The front read: I can help. The back: I'm here to check you out!
"Great," I muttered. "Idiocracy comes to Nordstroms."
Walking the mall, I realized that a lot of the manikins were faceless, the heads just oval smooth plastic. It made me feel weird. Did faces not matter anymore? I realized that peoples' clothes didn't show what they did with their lives. I saw no Xtratuf boots, no greasy Carhartt pants, no beaver hats, no sawdust in the creases of knees. No sign of life on their clothes. Unless you counted mister I'm-here-to-check-you-out.
China needed tennis shoes. A sales kid wearing a wool hat falling off the back of his head helped her choose a pair. His skinny pants were falling off; he wore black slippers and his ankles were showing. I felt bad for him for being so skinny and hideous. I wanted to tell him, "Pull up your pants, get some real shoes." Of course I didn't.
"He's so cute!" China whispered.
I dug in my pockets for a pencil -- to harvest the only thing I could.
As we headed out the exit, hidden speakers murmured a song. "You know you could never make me love you more," a woman sang. It was a catchy song. We started looking for the car. I thought to myself, I could never love this at all.
The parking lot was huge and we hadn't paid perfect attention to where we parked. "I hope nobody steals my bear fat," I said. My wife and daughter smiled and rolled their eyes.
Eventually, strong wind and slashing rain came. The center of the hurricane hit further down the coast, to the south. Our plane was cancelled. All planes, actually. In Boston the weather was pretty much like our weather at home half the summer, except dark, and with trees. Those heavy hardwood limbs bonked some cars and knocked power out. The TV quit, which was kind of a relief -- the news was too much drama, the newscasters trying to stand in the wettest windiest place possible, breathless, relentlessly reminding us to be terrified.
Tuesday afternoon, as the full effects of the storm on New York City and New Jersey hit the news, we lifted off from Boston. By the pre-dawn hours Wednesday we descended over the Arctic Circle. The frozen land and ice stretched away into endless dark distance, bathed in moonlight. Off across Hotham Inlet, the village of Selawik was a tiny lone fuzzy orange dot in the vast nightscape.
I pictured all those crowded people in New Jersey and New York and all along that coast, sifting through their wind-blasted belongings, and I was doubly thankful to be home in the arctic.
Seth Kantner is the author of "Shopping for Porcupine" and the bestselling novel "Ordinary Wolves." He lives =in Northwest Alaska and can be reached at sethkantner.com. His column runs on the second Sunday of each month in the Daily News' Arts and Life section.