Emerging victorious from a midwinter getaway

“Hey, do you want to fly somewhere warm for a couple weeks?” I asked.

I didn’t think she’d bite.

But one month and one redeye flight later, my friend and I blinked in the early morning sunshine of Phoenix, Arizona.

It was a smooth journey. I only slept through one opportunity for Biscoffs (aka beverage service) during the flight, and had the other stashed safely for later in my carry on. We schlepped our many bags to our rental car, and after a few adjustments of a mirror here and the Bluetooth there, we commanded Google Maps to take us to the nearest Trader Joe’s.

It feels like a miracle stepping from the slushy, snowy curb in Anchorage, to the squeaky-floored, brightly lit, echoing in between of the airport, then herded onto a metal tube lined with seats, and then after sitting for a while emerging somewhere completely different. Warmer. Brighter. Bluer.

Foreign-sounding birds, and so many of them, shrieked my disbelief back at me. We stood in the sun in the grocery store parking lot, taking it in with eyes closed for a moment. After picking up an obscene amount of kombucha, a cheap cooler, camp chairs, and ice cold drinks with straws we were finally ready to head to our campsite.

We’d booked a site unseen at White Tank Mountain Regional Park on the outskirts of town. Our calculus for selection was, 1) what was available at this (apparently) popular time of year?, 2) what was within reasonable driving distance from the airport? After some digging, we found that there were four reservable sites left at the Willow Campground. We quickly locked one of them in.


When we rolled into camp, it was midday, high 50s, and puffy clouds skidded across the sky pushed by a dry and persistent wind. Saguaro cacti rose cartoon-like and in regular intervals across the landscape and all around us. Mountains framed the campground, rising steeply behind us.

Those birds. There were so many! We looked around and looked at each other, gawking and also exhausted. The bags that we’d packed in Alaska and hoofed into our rental car were retrieved and unloaded; tents, sleeping bags and pads, and cookware spilling out. We set up tents first thing, climbed inside, and lay down for the first time in 48 hours.

The nylon buffered the cool desert breeze and my down bag was cozy and warm. The feeling of being horizontal and comfortable after a long time of not feeling that way, and getting red-eye flight half-sleep, is uniquely delightful. I reveled in it. Surprisingly, for me as a non-napper, I slowly drifted to sleep.

What I didn’t yet know: not one, but two major winter weather events would descend on the Lower 48 during the coming week. The cold weather would only reach us residually, but it would still be unseasonably cool. One night, we would head to our tents at 7 p.m. due to high winds. Throughout the night, my tent poles would bow periodically into my shins as the wind raged outside, stopping only when the downpour began around 5 a.m. That’s when I finally went back to sleep.

Still: we’d wake up in the morning to early fall-like temperatures, the air still humid and cool from the intense rain but warming and drying rapidly in the rising sun. Birds flitted excitedly from cacti to cacti, calling in a cacophony too diverse to count. How many were there?

We heard coyotes in the night. They sound like shrieking children with their eerily human voices, yowling and yipping all at once until they abruptly stopped.

One afternoon, the sun blazed high and (as advertised) 70 degrees. We lay out blankets and camp chairs, and alternated reading and chatting with cracking cold carbonated slightly-flavored beverages and basking in the warmth. It was the kind of fierce sun that required more than sunscreen: we had loose layers on to protect our skin, and take in even more of the warmth.

I felt victorious. It was the rare feeling of, if this is all that I get this week I’ll be OK. This is what I wanted, and I’ll bring that feeling back to Alaska.

We hiked through canyons, found unlikely water and gawked at cacti.

But we didn’t know any of that the first night. We just knew we’d arrived, and it felt like a miracle, but we were also too exhausted to fully comprehend it.

That evening, we emerged drowsy from our tents just as the sun got ready to set. It was cooler than expected out, in the low 50s, but still a far cry from the temps back home. We wandered around our campsite and the rest of the campground drowsily, taking it in and realizing that we’d stumbled on a gem.

We cooked a quick dinner from Trader Joe’s odds and ends in headlamp light. Again, it felt like getting away with something: How had we managed to get here? How were we outfitted perfectly to be outside, in a climate that was much more welcoming than Alaska? How did we have such a tasty assembly of food. How had it actually worked out?

I went to the car to stash food and grab my toothbrush, and as I rifled through a backpack I saw it: the Biscoff from the plane ride.

What a strange and amazing world, I thought as I enjoyed the airplane cookie in the cool, starry desert night.

Alli Harvey

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.