Frostbitten Cheeks

One of the innovations that the Alaska Pipeline brought to the state were warm toilet seats. Understand that, in Alaska, plumbing is a challenge. If you live off-grid you don’t have any. And you need live only a couple of miles out of town to be off-grid. Your plumbing options are one: an outhouse. Imagine suiting up (parka, mittens, insulated boots, etc) to sally forth for your daily constitutional. Imagine putting your fish-belly white ass on a toilet seat that is ambient—say 30 below. You don’t spend much time paging thru last year’s Readers Digest; thirty below tends to make you exceptionally regular. Then came the Pipeline and, with it, blue foam insulation. My first two jobs on the Pipeline were laying 8’ x 2.5’ x 2”sheets of foam directly on the frozen tundra. Trucks backed up and dropped gravel on top of the foam to make the work pad. The foam insulated the tundra so that it didn’t thaw in the summer or with the weight (pressure lowers ice’s melting temperature) of the machinery working on the pad. It didn’t take long for a creative Alaskan to realize that cutting a hole in a square of foam and putting it on the toilet seat might substantially reduce the incidence of frostbitten cheeks in the state. It is effective—stunningly so. Within seconds of sitting on the foam, the warmth of your butt warms the foam which warms you. It revolutionized sub-arctic shitting. In Broken Angels, Annie and Ringer have foam on their seat. The outhouse at Ben’s cabin up the Alatna River, does not—to Kris’s distress. I turned off my...

Taking Off

Dad faced two chairs knee to knee and offered me one. “You tell me that your problem is being with people.” “Yeah.” If I were a burr and you a wool sock, I wouldn’t stick to you. “And that you are lonely and depressed.” The bleakness of life before Prozac. I was 19. “Isn’t hitchhiking to Alaska to live in the woods running away from your problems?” My father has this rational, reasonable, you-definitely-want-him-to-be-your-brain-surgeon air of competency and authority about him. “Yeah, maybe. Probably.” “Why are you going then?” “I got to.” It was an imperative. My folks dropped me off at the entrance to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was raining. Mom was crying. I didn’t do hugs; I shouldered my pack and walked to the end of the line of fellow travelers lining the road. It was 1974, hitchhiking still got you places. I stuck out my thumb. That winter there were days it dropped to 55 below. I sat in a chair I’d hammered together out of slabwood from a local mill and a piece of plywood picked out of a dumpster. I sat next to the wood stove, its belly orange red—the draw is terrific with a 120 degree differential. My off-stove side was uncomfortably cool. The weight of the sub-arctic night pressed on the cabin, squirting jets of air between the door and frame misting the moist cabin air. The pressurized gas lantern hissed; my face looked back at me from the blackness pushing into the window. I turned a page, Atlas Shrugged. Twenty-odd years later, Dad and I were hiking under the magisterial Sitka...