“You hear that?” I asked. “Stop and listen.” Diane and I stood quiet, catching our breath, heart rates slowing.
“No, all I hear is Esther coming, crunching the snow.” We were walking single file on one of our frozen tire tracks. Esther was about half a minute back. We turned and watched her catch up with her ghostly moon shadow hooked to her feet, spreading across the narrow, snow-covered road.
“Esther, stop and listen. I think I hear something.”
A slow steady thud of a diesel generator greeted our ears, but where? (photo ©Stephan Pietzko|Dreamstime.com)
She stopped her march and stood. I looked at her and wondered what had brought her here to Alaska. She must have a curious life story to weave her fate with ours, near-strangers. How did a one-hundred-pound, sixty-year-old city-woman end up here with us trying to walk out of an Alaskan winter night? Whatever her story, she was game and her survival instinct strong.
John, our new neighbor, was lost, and we had lost him in an Alaskan winter. The kind of far north winter that had grainy snow that crunched when you walked on it. Snow so white, so bright, shadows disappeared, and you’d walk out into thin air not knowing, falling so soft, not caring, just a whoop, then laughter. The air so clear, so calm, so cold. Water vapor turned into tiny ice crystals that hung in the air. It was our beautiful Alaska, but now John was lost and it could become his deadly Alaska.
It was our beautiful Alaska, but now John was lost and it could become his deadly Alaska. (photo ©Michele Cornelius|Dreamstime.com)
Two weeks earlier, his wife Esther, my wife Diane, and I had driven John up the Steese Highway so he could look for gold in the frozen creeks while they were low. John was a dreamer, but then so were we. It was 1971, an era of back-to-the-land movements, when I was 23 and Diane was 24. We’d only known John for ten days, but we drove him up that highway so he could have his dream.