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States of Exception

Summertime run with a sled dog team

I had a great weekend. Which was much needed, because I’d had a hard week.

Our blog posts represent, in many ways, states of exception. I think we volunteers tend to write about the parts of our experiences that stand out, are interesting, and demonstrate–to ourselves most of all–that we’re involved in a kind of adventure. It’s no fun for me to dwell on, or write about, waking up at 5:30am last week to cover the morning news shift. It’s less fun to recall how I felt after those 10- and 12-hour days. Less fun still to whine about having to do that again this week. And least fun of all to make others to read about it.

Friday after work I scrapped my plans to go skateboarding because I felt too tired and worn out to brave the mid-30s cold air. Instead, I laid supine on our most comfortable couch and read back-issues of The New Yorker that had arrived that day in my first care package. Tara and I made dinner together, and then four of us rushed to a birthday party. Slowly but surely we are making friends outside the radio station. It was fun, and social, and we all stayed out later than we expected without regretting a second of it.

On Saturday, Emily, Tara, and I piled into the KNOM truck and barreled down one of the three unpaved roads trickling out of Nome to visit the 9th annual Teller cultural festival. None of us had been to Teller before, one of the few communities you can get to from Nome on the roads. The landscape was incredible, the drive a pleasure. Twisting silvery streams weaved between burnt orange flares of tundra. Mountains and valleys stretched out around bends, casual vistas of immense power. We stopped the car to stare at our first pack (heard? Brood? Gaggle?) of musk ox. But Emily thought it too risky to linger, and made us climb back in the car.

At a potluck before the dancing and drumming in Teller started the three of us tried seal meat, salmon eggs, and walrus blubber soaked in seal oil. Some was delicious, some less delicious. I felt self-conscious and nerdy taking out my recording equipment to collect audio during the dances, but it relented as I got wrapped up in the events themselves, realizing after songs ended that I’d been bobbing my head or tapping my foot to the drums. This was exactly a piece of what I’d hoped volunteering and reporting in Western Alaska would be: new experiences, the lines between work and exploration blurred, fascinated and captivated.

I drove back that night, still so excited about my newly minted Alaska driver’s license that the immense blackness (no street lamps) and periodic horizontal snow (it was snowing. In September.) only dampened my enthusiasm. It took two-and-a-half hours to get home, and we stayed up talking to Anna Rose about everything we’d done that day; repeating it partly for our own sake to double-check it had all really happened.

Sunday I went dog-mushing for the second time. The musher lives about 13-miles out of town, in a small cluster of homes that feel enmeshed with the landscape in ways that Nome-proper does not. We got harnesses onto all his dogs (I managed to do exactly one all by myself), and, as there’s no snow on the ground yet, we hitched the 12 muscular dogs to a four-wheeler, the next best thing to a sled. Once we got going I sat propped on the back, feet dangling over the right wheel. It felt very unsafe, the kind of thing my mom would have forbidden back home in Connecticut, my ancestral home. And then I got used to the bumps, the jolts, branches whipping wherever the trail narrowed, cracking over thin ice on the surface of shallow creeks. Towards the end of the run I got to steer for a bit. I didn’t tell my very generous host that I’d never driven a four-wheeler, but I think he sensed it when I had to be shown how to turn it on. It was really cool. Which I kept repeating, out loud, over and over. Like a total n00b.

After getting back home, Emily and I went grocery shopping, which is cementing into a Sunday afternoon routine for us, a pleasant ritual. For the next few hours I listened to podcasts while making dinner for our other Sunday ritual: family dinner. All five volunteers, and our friend Jen, hunched over our plates and a glowing knot of candles (also from the care package), grazing and chatting happily. Compared to the hurried and somewhat Spartan dinners I’d eaten the week before, it felt like a feast.

The weekend was great. There were moments when I felt acutely, actively content, which is not at all a given for me. A weekend like that is not the normal state of things—not a fully representative portrait what the experience has been like since arriving a little over a month ago. But it’s definitely part of the full portrait. We don’t seem to write much in our blog posts about the banal, the repetitive, the swaths of time that are dully monotonous and monotonously dull. We don’t, for example, write much about sleep. Which, I’ll be honest, takes up a big chunk of my time. The adventure parts happen in a context, the totality of which isn’t uniformly exciting. But, the consistency and regularity make the exceptions all the more exceptional. And nobody can live in perpetual adventure. Not even in Western Alaska.