In and Out of the Arctic

At the age of 25, I left the East Coast. I drove to Alaska, “running from something or towards something,” they say here. I solidified a travel nurse contract while at a gas station parking lot near the border. I started the job in an Intensive Care Unit a week later, after not having worked in an ICU in over five months. I refused nervousness or anxiety. I stopped every thought I didn’t need, like, “Did I smile enough?”, “Did I hesitate before shaking their hand?” and “Did I laugh at the right time?”.

The first trip I went on after I got here involved driving 450 miles of gravel road to the northernmost point accessible by car in the US, into the Arctic Circle. I crossed hundreds of miles of fall tundra, shrubs changing into dull yellows and light browns, berry leaves transforming into bright streaks of red, and grasses shining neon green. Fall tundra lacked the decaying wet leaves of the East Coast. The air became cooler the further north I went, as if tundra strips the air of any possibility of heat. The perpetual up and down jerking of the road’s uneven surface put an ache in my back. The rocks kicked up by semi-trucks and pick-ups forced me to pull all the way over each time one came near. The constant fear of running out of gas, busting a tire, or shattering my windshield kept my body alert even after hours of staring at the road. And the pipeline, the constant companion running not-quite parallel to the road, the straight silver metal line that marked the US conquest of this northern land, the reminder that this country only builds infrastructure to chase profit margins, the only reason the road I drove on existed. I arrived in Deadhorse ambivalent, in a man camp where candy and ramen were the only food sold at the sole convenience store, where gas prices hit over $5.50/gallon, where a thick layer of mud covered every vehicle and human from the waist down. I turned around as soon as I got there and slowly drove that car back south, through thick fog, crossing the Continental Divide on an unpainted surface while using the rock face curving on the right side of the road as my guide. I picked up hitchikers on the second day south, with a constant sprinkling from the sky, intermittent downpour, and perpetual cloud cover.

I first stopped for a hitchhiker as soon as I left the campground in the morning. Igor, an older Russian man with a 4-foot tall pack barely covered by a black garbage bag, claimed he hitchhiked from Ushuaia, the southernmost point of the Americas, and hadn’t been back to Russia in three years. He provided few details and didn’t have a neatly prepared script to provide when talking small. I welcomed the company, since I hadn’t spoken to anyone in days, but couldn’t relate to him much. He wanted a list of camping spots in New York State, which felt irrelevant as we bumped along this northern Alaskan road. He told me about his time in my family’s home state in India, and asked whether I’d heard of Amma. I laughed and said, “Amma is the word for Mom!” His travels had taken him far enough that I didn’t know how to communicate politely with him.

Then Emily. As we crossed the pass, a slight girl with a pack looming a foot above her head waved us down with both hands. I pulled over, at least to say hello, in the frigid, 36 degree, pouring rain, and she barked, “Where are you going?”

“Fairbanks.”

“PLEASE TAKE ME. I need to get out of this.” Her voice cracked and her eyes were wide, desperate, afraid of being left behind. Her face scrunched up with worry, she was drenched in rain, and her garbage bag, too, didn’t quite cover her pack.

“Well, I gotta rearrange some things in here…” I said noncommittally.

“PULL OVER UP THERE AND I’LL MEET YOU.” She saw my sympathy. As I headed towards the pullout 100 meters away, I recognized that I could easily drive away, cruelly leaving a young woman in the freezing rain to the will of truck drivers and man camp dwellers.

I pulled over. We loaded her things, water pouring out of them, and she got in the car. She peeled the soaked layers off her now shivering body. She thanked me as she described her morning realization that she can’t defeat 60 mph winds and rain and hypothermia in order to backpack Atigun Pass. “I stopped shivering. I woke up this morning and realized I stopped shivering so I knew I had to get down to the road and get warm,” she told us. After we cranked the heat for half an hour, she explained how she got here. A childhood of canoeing the Boundary Waters with her family for weeks at a time. Backpacking since the age of four. A dad who trusted her to set her own limits. Her easy laughter and bravado filled the car with excitement as she warmed up. She ran through her thoughts as she hiked down from the mountain this morning, the mountain she’d intended to conquer. It takes a unique confidence to know one’s limits. Her ability to learn from this failed attempt at solo backpacking, and her vulnerability as she admitted her downfall while planning her next trip, impressed me.

I ended up driving almost a thousand miles of gravel road and still don’t know how to change a flat. I don’t always know my limits. I refuse the limits set out by others, I search for limits that are actually mine.

I was born to do the hardest thing first.

I refuse to do the hard thing when others think I’m ready. Urgency is a normal state of mind for me, an Intensive Care nurse. I walk fast, because dawdling through grocery store aisles or ICU hallways is simply a waste of time. My body is a ticking time bomb. I’ve seen too many 26 year-old’s with no past medical history develop aut0immune disorders and become suddenly confined to a bed. Too many 30 year-old non-smoking runners who die from lung cancer. Too many sudden strokes from uncontrolled hypertension.

Every day, I am closer to death. I think most people know this, but I live it. In every decision I make, every place I go, I refuse comfort. I work on finding ways to do the least harm, the most good, and chase fun. I don’t know if every ICU nurse has developed this obsessive do-the-most-every-minute-counts philosophy. But damn, every day I go to work, I appreciate my opportunities, privileges. I appreciate that I am still looking for my limits. I can still do the hardest thing first.

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