LAKE CLARK — People who meet me for the first time often ask about my Bush lifestyle and how often Anne and I make trips to town for supplies. When I tell them I fly my own Super Cub, they're fascinated. Little do they know that these trips are nobody's idea of a good time. Usually, a trip to town is synonymous with a lengthy list of to-dos and to-buys. When months go between supply runs, an extensive blueprint of where and how to shop is imperative. And there's always the nagging question of what to leave in town if we have no space left in the Cub.
Before departing Lake Clark, we inventory what we have on hand. Usually Anne volunteers to climb into the loft or slip under the cabin to shout through the ceiling or floor, "Three coffees, two bags raisins, one olive oil," as I recline in my zero-gravity chair and scribble feverishly. There is no question about quantity of fresh fruit, as apples and oranges are normally long since digested.
When the inventory is done, a debate ensues: I lobby for more Pilot Bread; Anne for less. I give up my hope for peanut butter and agree to up the number of sour creams from three to four. And so it goes, through cracked wheat, cheese and toothpaste.
I once thought that living in the Bush depended mostly on such skills as how to butcher a moose, fillet a salmon or fell a tree. Just as important, it turns out, is knowing that condiments are in Aisle 10 or that dark rye bread has one heck of a shelf life.
New, improved, never-ending
Inevitably, we start a new list as soon as we return from civilization. Then it grows and grows. "Did you add jig-saw blades and baking soda yet?" Anne asks. "No," I reply, "but I wrote a note to add them to the list. I'm just not sure where I put it."
Anne, weary of creating the shopping list anew each time, insisted we make a master list, since so many of our needs remain the same year after year. Now we just leave the items to be purchased on the next trip in black ink and adjust the quantities. The rest remain in red — which means not this time, but soon. My main contribution to the design of the list is the small boxes in front of every item. I feel more efficient and a tad more official, checking off items one at a time. It's a nerdy obsession, I admit, but filling in those boxes makes me feel like I'm making progress. Check. Check.
Even more challenging is when Anne sends me to town alone. Usually it's easy: three of these, four of those, plop plop, plop into the cart, no problem. But there are always the on-the-fly decisions: No organic eggs — do I go for cage-free, all-natural brown or try another store? Even if I had one, I couldn't exactly whip out my cellphone and call Anne. No cell coverage at our place to date.
Then, just last year, there were the totes. Anne needed a couple to fit a particular space, so dimensions were critical. Having walked down a tote aisle or two in my life, I thought that they came in every conceivable combination of sizes — five-minute job, max. After swinging by the tool section to borrow a tape measure, I pulled some down from the shelves and spread them out.
Two inches too wide.
A little narrow, but good on the length.
A half inch too high.
Almost perfect, but pink?
I wrote down the dimensions and color of the most likely candidates and headed to the next store. And the next. By that time, any white space left on my town list was filled with tote vital statistics, none of them matching exactly what Anne wanted.
I finally found the perfect sizes in store No. 4. Success! And yes, I'm holding it over Anne's head that now, more than a year later, those totes sit unused in our shed. Not that I haven't been guilty of similar offenses. In fact, the totes are sitting right next to my torque wrench, still in its original wrapper.
Not a secret anymore
Recently, because we had helpers due to visit us at the lake, we created an epic list and hit the store aisles in earnest. When Anne and I pulled up to the checkout lane of one of Anchorage's members-only big box stores, we were tired but proud. Every item was checked off of our multipage list. The worst was over, except trying to fit it all in the Cub. We had piled food into the carts with wild abandon, and already we began wondering what might get left behind or sent via the sluggish U.S. Postal Service. I suddenly had the feeling that we had purchased way too much. But I wasn't worried about paying: Our wallets were stuffed with cash.
Or so we thought. While Anne helped reload carts on the far side of the register, I started to twitch in anticipation of the tally about to present itself. I had a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach that wasn't caused by the food samples handed out in the sausage section. When the numbers on the cash register tripped into four figures, I winced.
"Anne, how much do you have?" I asked, as I gutted my wallet. She dug in her purse and shoulder-to-shoulder we stacked bills like we were making an aggressive acquisition of Park Place, Boardwalk and a railroad or two. We were a little short. Anne was eyeing the cart for her idea of superfluous items and I wondered if we had enough gas to avoid a stop at the filling station.
Then I made a decision I may regret: I revealed to Anne (not to mention several clerks and a dozen or more folks watching) my secret stash of cash. And although it got us out of the store in timely fashion, perhaps I should have kept my secret.
All I can say in my defense is something a lot of Alaskans will understand: When the first thing that Anne grabbed to put back was the Pilot Bread, I panicked.
Steve Kahn lives on the north shore of Lake Clark. He is the author of "The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship and the Hunt."