Sep 2, 2006

a solitary (wo)man

Posted by Mary |

Yeah, I put some Neil Diamond in my post title. What are you going to do about it?

I promised last week that I would post again to explain my little-sleep weekend. Sadly, it's taken me a full week to do it. It all began back in February when I was hired by Cooperative Extension Service. One of my many duties was to help plan and coordinate a conference for foresters, which finally came to pass two weeks ago. While I tried to plan ahead and get all the details lined up so that the actual week of the conference would go smoothly, things rarely seem to work out as planned. The end result was Mary storming around campus for a few days, cell phone ringing, barking orders like: "Those sandwiches need to be ready for the break, which starts at noon!!" or "You'll just need to JV the funds from our account. I e-mailed you the numbers last week and we faxed over the signed contract yesterday." I mean, I don't even know what JV stands for, but there I was talking into my cell phone like a yuppie day trader, throwing around the acronyms.

By the time the 2-day conference was over, I was tired from putting in 10+ hour days. I thought that joining the foresters on the 3-day field trip to Toolik Lake Research Station would be a relaxing time, and moreover I would be on the clock. To top it off, I got to use a bullhorn. How could that go wrong?

DAY 1 dawned bright and early as I finished packing and headed to the hotel to meet our charter bus at 7:30 a.m. The bus didn't show until 8, but that's OK because I had my friend, Motorola Razr, to keep me company. I got to say bon mots such as: "No, I ordered five 6-foot sandwiches, and they need to be ready by 8. I need 30 feet of sandwich on this bus before we leave." Lunch dilemmas aside, the bus set off on a rainy day and headed for Coldfoot Camp. Coldfoot was fun, mostly because they don't seem to get many single women under the age of 60 there. I amused myself by sitting in the bar alone, drinking beer and reading a book while men circled me like sharks. When the foresters returned from their presentation, there may have been a dramatic reading of a Robert Service poem, but I'll never admit to it.

DAY 2 arrived and was decidedly sunnier.
I bundled the foresters out of the romantic ATCO units that had served as our quarters for the night, and we hit the road. We stopped in Wiseman for an hour to wander through the town and interact with the locals. We asked one gentleman if the trading company could be opened, but he said (and I quote) "Well, 8-Ball isn't here today, and he's the one with the keys." A man named 8-Ball. How charming! Either he's good at pool or has a serious cocaine addiction. The locals also had made some unique choices in yard decorations. And they never let pass a chance to truly shine. Back on the road again, we continued north on the Dalton Highway. Have I mentioned the Dalton? No? Well, imagine a dirt road. Yeah, that's about it. It's probably one of the few highways in this country where you can stop a tour bus, let foresters wander about in the road, and then gather them together for a picture - in the middle of the road, mind you - without ever seeing another vehicle on your 30-minute break. As we continued up the Dalton, I kept trying to steal a little sleep. The foresters kept trying to spot wildlife, and would awaken me with cries of "Moose!" "Wolf!" "Sheep!" The 'sheep' usually turned out to be snow on the side of a mountain, but they did get to see some moose and wolves. After we climbed Atigun Pass and were officially on the North Slope, the weather turned against us, and we proceeded to Toolik under the cover of clouds. What can a girl say about Toolik? Well, it has a sort of Mad Max, post-apocalyptic feel to it. A motley collection of wall tents, trailers and heavy machinery, perched on the edge of a lake above the Arctic Circle. As I stood on the boardwalk by the lake, chatting with some foresters, I half expected the bad guys, who would of course be wearing dusty leather with odd metal embellishments and sport some scruffy facial hair, to appear over the edge of the hill, racing toward us on ATVs. We would scramble for the safety of the camp, possibly losing one member of our party off the boardwalks as we ran for safety so we could protect our precious oil. Other people just saw it as an opportunity to fish. and of course we can't forget the opportunity to use those Arctic outhouses. The university plans to operate Toolik through the winter this year. And if they're serious, they'd better invest in some blue foam. Because plastic toilet seats weren't cutting it in August.

DAY 3 was still cloudy and a little rainy. The bus, not to mention the foresters, had taken quite a beating on the trip.

Some helpful souls decided to clean the windows. This effort lasted about 17 seconds once we were back on the dirt highway, but it was a glorious 17 seconds. The trip was cloudy and gloomy until we got to Atigun Pass, where we left the cloud cover behind as we climbed. The mountains had gotten more snow overnight, signaling the end of summer, but the sunny weather held for a good portion of our trip home. We lounged around Grayling Lake, enjoying our lunch in the sunshine. We continued on with the long trip back to Fairbanks, but we were making good time. As the made the transition from the Dalton to the Elliott (which means the transition from dirt road to paved), the skies darkened and the bad weather returned, but still we pressed on. We kept going all the way to a hill at about 30 Mile of the Elliott. And that's where the bus stopped. Stopped dead in the middle of the road. 45 miles from town. On a hill. On a blind curve. On a road that sees frequent truck traffic. Dead. Our driver used Bob's satellite phone to call for a replacement bus. That proceeded to look for us at 30 Mile. Of the Steese. Which is not the Elliott. Several of the foresters got out with walkie-talkies to try to signal vehicles on the highway and prevent our imminent death from the collision of two tractor-trailers trying to pass us. The replacement bus finally arrived, which is when the luggage chain formed as we tried to transition from one bus to the other as quickly as possible. At this point, I was a little tired of the foresters. Nice people, but I'd just had a little too much of them, you know? As we pulled into an area with cell phone reception, I scrolled through my phone book, searching for a friend - any friend - who drinks. I made a call, ran from the bus once it stopped, hit the store for liquor and personal supplies (because nature has a funny way of reminding you that you're female when you're stuck on a broken bus full of foresters) and high-tailed it to Dara's house, where I relaxed, resplendent in my Alaska-woman glory of cargo pants, Xtra Tuffs and a bullhorn, and guzzled red wine.


gretta said...

The idea of Mary Haley weilding a bullhorn is just too scary. Those poor foresters!

John said...

Yark! I was just posting my own "Haul Road" story and saw that we'd used the same phrase (nearly) in the "Mad Max" vein. Great minds think alike!!