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Dining in Gambell

Gambell School on St. Lawrence Island

Gambell School on St. Lawrence Island

I place a tangerine on the table, then an apple, and a few hard-boiled eggs. Then I pull out a bag of carrots, rip them open, and say, “Take what you want. I brought enough for three days,” and place the carrots next to the rest of the food.

“Thank you,” says the girl in the red sweater, sitting across from me, taking an egg and cracking the shell cleanly in two.

We’re perched on green chairs that sit a foot off the ground at an arched table that barely clears our knees. Posters in primary colors hang on the walls. Toys tumble out of cabinets. And storybooks spill across the tables. We’re in a kindergarten classroom.

“What brought you to Gambell?” I ask, nodding out the window to the snow outside.

“I’m with REACH. Doing presentations at the school for the next two days. You?”

“I’m with KNOM. Covering an Arctic Resource and Development meeting.”

I pull out my red Swiss knife and begin carving an apple. My dinner companion finishes her egg and stirs her Ramen Noodles. We met five minutes prior. In the kitchenette attached to the classroom.

“And why’d you come to Alaska?” I ask.

“Was here a few years ago. Always wanted to come back. Now I never want to leave. You?”

“For the job. And for Alaska. Though I never saw either coming,” I say, biting into an apple slice. “Now I’m on an island in the middle of the Bering Sea.”

“Even though both seem impossible, they also seem meant to be?” she asks, blowing on her noodles.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Yeah,” she says, taking a tangerine and peeling the bright orange rind, “me, too.”

 

“They set you up in here?” I ask, gesturing at the mattress on the floor.

“Yep. For two days.”

“I’m in the library,” I say. “In a workroom full of boxes of text books. There’s a mattress roll. And a cot I can assemble.” I take another bit of apple.

“Eat.” I say, waving at the food. “I have more in my bag.”

She looks at her Ramen and then takes some carrots.

We talk more. About Alaska, about its sunrises, about its sunsets, about how the deep winter darkness is worth the four hours of vivid pink and burning gold winter daylight. We talk about Alaska’s characters, who after experiencing this land can’t find fulfillment elsewhere, and we wonder if we might be two more.

“It has…” she starts.

“Magic.” I say.

“Precisely,” she says, snapping a carrot.

Conversation continues, dipping and spilling into college and boys and cities where we’ve lived. I feel like I’m in a hostel, backpacking around Europe again. Meeting fellow travelers, sharing food and conversation, revealing intimates parts about ourselves, unselfconsciously, even carelessly. Because with no history to frame us and no visible future to bind us, authenticity arises. And you share without agenda or expectation the most basic human necessities: nourishment and companionship. And I feel more myself than I do in most of my waking life.

At the end, there is no fanfare. No promises of friendship or even efforts to keep in touch. Just a “Nice to meet you.” And “Maybe see you around.” And “Have a good night.”

I pick up my bag, leaving some apples and tangerines on the table. And walk to the library. They say, Alaska is a small town in a big state. We might just see each other around.

My sleeping quarters in the Gambell School. Cozy, dark, and quiet. I slept great.

My sleeping quarters in the Gambell School. Cozy, dark, and quiet. I slept great.