I moved full time to my school bus at 46-mile on the Richardson Highway last spring. My boyfriend joined me during the summer. In early November, we went to Anchorage to dog sit and stayed until the middle of January. I enjoy chairlifts, electric lights and hot showers as much as the next girl, especially during the shortest days of the year. But I also had nagging doubts. Was I capable of living in my bus in winter? Would I have to run away every winter from my own home? What if I just couldn’t function?
After more than two months of odd jobs and powder skiing, it was time for me to go home. My boyfriend had more work in Anchorage and was going to stay. Feet of snow had fallen on my land since I left. I was going to have to ski to my property, dig everything out, haul in supplies and get the diesel heater going alone. It was minus 20.
I was scared. I had done sporty things in the cold, but that was in a much more controlled environment. I thought about the hours of working in solitude and I dreaded it. I thought about how cold my fingers get sometimes and how my mittens aren’t very warm. Even tying my skis onto my car in Anchorage, I had had to take breaks to warm up my hands. Did I really think I could do this?
I did have one ace in the hole: a pair of second hand powder blue down overalls. They were incredibly warm. They gave me confidence that no matter what happened, my core body would be warm.
I decided to do everything I could to make the trip as easy as possible. I didn’t buy food that would be ruined if it froze (or, sadly, beer). I packed my mittens and blue overalls into an easily accessible bag.
This was the only clear day in the forecast before another week of snow. The sky over the Glennallen taiga was psychedelic blue and the distant mountains rose up in fata morgana as if I was driving through the ocean. Then the gas pump burned my hand. The frozen metal left a welt across my fingers.
In Glennallen, I bought some water so I wouldn’t have to scout for a spot on the river right away. I put my cross-country boots on so they would have time to warm up in the car, but not enough time to get sweaty. I put hand warmers into my not very warm mittens so they would be warm when I put them on. I double checked that my headlamp was in my pocket. I topped off my car and filled a jug of diesel.
Every few minutes on the drive from Glennallen I repeated a mantra to myself: “Headlamp. Overalls. Coat. Mittens. Sled. Shovel. Skis.” This was the exact order of the things I would put on. By now it was getting dark.
The area residents have a little parking lot off the highway. I thought I would have to dig out a spot for myself, but I was lucky. Someone had plowed. I got all my stuff together, thankful I had organized it in Anchorage. I put a light load on the sled, not sure what I would be able to pull through the deep powder.
I wrapped the precious gallon of water in bubble wrap, and made sure the small cooler with my contact lenses was in the sled. I once put a contact that had overwintered in McCarthy in my eye. It disintegrated into shards on my eyeball. I have been careful with my contacts ever since.
I started skiing in.
This was not a life or death situation. I have neighbors. If all else failed I could have gotten in my car and driven away. But I felt like failure was not an option. If I was not capable of doing this by myself, I would seriously question my decision to live here.
Moving down the trail, with my sled behind me, stars overhead and the surprising sound of snipes I thought were gone, I thought “Oh my god! I’m doing it!” It was a moment where I didn’t believe I really was myself. The snow was deepest out by my place where no one had been, but there was only one spot where getting the sled through took all of my might.
To turn on the flow of diesel to the heater, I had to climb on top of the bus and shovel until I found the barrel and the valve. Climbing on the roof was horrifying in icy November when it was slippery and there was no snow to cushion a fall. This time it was fun. I built little steps out of snow to get up and a slide to get down.
The cold diesel took a very long time to flow into the heater. I stared at the base of the heater, willing it to work, trying to figure out what I would do if it didn’t. I reminded myself that my sleeping bag was warm enough to get me through the night, even without heat. Finally, a damp spot appeared in the base of the heater. I lit it.
I put my dog’s frozen water dish on the heater. In November, I came up with a system of rotating between two metal water dishes when the temperatures were really cold. One would melt on the heater, while the other slowly froze on the floor.
There is a landline grounded to a tree outside my bus. The last time I was away for a while, I came back and found a bunny had chewed through it. This time I picked up the phone and it worked just fine. I called my boyfriend to let him know I was OK.
I trudged back and forth with my sled, bringing in supplies. On the third or fourth trip, I realized the irony of my dog frolicking along next to me while I pulled the sled. At 10:30 p.m. I took a break to eat some crackers. The trail got easier with each load.
Every time I had to take my skis off I broke through to my waist. Over time, my paths would pack down, but that first night it was hard to move around.
There wasn’t room in the elevated outhouse for me to have my skis on, but I was wallowing in powder trying to step up into it. I realized I could take my boots out of the bindings, but still stand on the skis like a platform to push off onto the outhouse floor.
The propane tank was a long way down from the surface of the snow, underneath the bus. I didn’t want to dig down to it because the snow provided a wind block, keeping it warmer. I laid down on my stomach on my skis and I could just barely reach it to turn it on. It took a few tries to find the right technique to get up. The first time, I put my hand on the snow and my arm sank in up to my armpit. I had to roll onto my skis on my back to get my arm out without getting other limbs stuck in the snow. Finally, I got up carefully, balancing my hands and feet on the skis.
I had just one task left: adding the new jug of diesel to the tank. I put on work clothes because I usually make a mess doing this. I hauled the 40-pound jug up over the front of the bus and walked it back to the tank.
The new “safety” gas cans require specific pressure to open the nozzle. I have never been able to get diesel into the tank and maintain the pressure without spraying diesel all over myself and nature. The only technique that works for me is removing the whole nozzle and pouring fuel straight into a giant funnel. The funnel was unfortunately lost somewhere in the snow, so I had to work with the “safety” mechanism. This one needed a twisting pressure to remain in place, so I slowly soaked my mitten with diesel while holding the nozzle together. Lifting with just my other hand, I could not control the heavy jug well enough to position the nozzle over the hole. I re-positioned the jug with both hands, then reached over to control the safety mechanism. My former self would have been horrified at spilling even one drop of fuel on the ground, but the new me shrugged off the decent splash that disappeared into the snow.
I had finally done enough for the night. The bus was still cold, but getting warmer. My possessions were safely stowed. It was one o’clock in the morning. The next day, I would shovel the roof, unpack and organize, change the oil on the generator and work on a hundred other little things to make my life more comfortable. But for that night, I could go to sleep in my own bed, in my own home and I would not feel afraid.