"Going all the way to Barrow?" the Alaska Air ticketing agent confirms somewhat incredulously.
"And just one of you traveling today?"
"You're fortunate the flight is leaving as scheduled. It's rather cold there today," she says smiling.
It is 5:30 a.m., and my previous night's slumber had been thwarted in turns by a violently active sleeptalker in the adjacent hostel bunk and my own ruminations about the effect of severe sub-zero chill on exposed skin. But here I am, mentally prepared (daily temperatures in Barrow the prior week had been in the -20°F to -30°F range with clear skies and little wind), adequately clothed (even donning snowboard boots), with a sense of anticipation and excitement as I have not felt in a while. Still, this enthusiasm is marred by the nagging distraction of what "rather cold" means in "Barrow" terms.
Boarding pass in hand, I contemplate the day ahead of me. Barrow, Alaska, is the northernmost town in America at three hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle and is the seat of North Slope Borough - the largest municipality in the world, roughly the size of Minnesota. Barrow's population of around 4,000 is made up primarily of Inupiat Eskimos.
Professionally, the town is a mix of civil servants governing the oil-rich borough and whaling merchants. As part of a week in Alaska snowboarding and sightseeing, I felt compelled to visit this settlement on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. To experience, if only for a day, being on Top of the World.
"What should I do in Barrow?" I ask an impeccably dressed businesswoman who's been there before (but on this flight is disembarking - along with most of the other passengers - at Fairbanks). "Get a cabbie to drive you to the local dump where, if you're lucky, you might see scavenging polar bears," she replies. If that's luck, I'm tossing my four-leaf clover into said dump! I inquire hopefully about other activities and confirm my suspicion about the lack of a thriving tourism industry in Barrow.
"Just walk around," she suggests. How Zen.
About five minutes from landing at Barrow airport, all I see is an infinite blanket of pure white snow. The occasional communications tower is the only blemish. Suddenly, the village appears. A single highway is the predominant civil engineering feature. From this 1,000-foot vantage, the village seems quite conventional - almost familiar. Not an igloo in sight! The only anomaly is the stark white expanse.
It is then that the captain matter-of-factly announces the current weather conditions. -40°F with a wind chill of -95°F!! Rather cold, indeed. Certainly not familiar.
Over the course of the day, I discover just how diabolical a wind chill of -95°F is. It seeks out a path of least resistance in my protective armor (such as a molecular opening in my jacket sleeve or collar), and worms its way into my inner sanctum like an insidious acid vapor. Breath condensation on my eyeglasses becomes more than an annoyance as it freezes instantly and thus cannot be wiped off. Perversely though, amidst this circumstantial blinding, I am not permitted to shut my eyes or even luxuriate in a blinking reflex on account of the little icicles that have formed on my eyelashes! Efforts to document this experience in real time are of course stymied by the ink in my pen freezing up and the camera batteries going into hibernation.
All this helps me realize why there are over 70 words in the Inupiaq language for describing ice.
My first guide for the day is Cruz from Venezuela, a cab driver who, like much of the non-Eskimo population, is here for the high wages. Cab drivers here can earn up to 5x what they would in Los Angeles – though on the flip side, cost of living is 3x the national average.
Other highlights of Cruz's cruise include a memorial erected for Will Rogers and Wiley Post who died when their plane crashed sixteen miles from Barrow during an exploratory 1935 flight; the new Ilisagvik College, where Eskimos receive free tertiary education; several large bowhead whale skull monuments by the roadside; and of course, the dump! Unfortunately, there are no hungry polar bears to be seen today.
Hunger, however, soon strikes closer to home and the obvious choice is.....Mexican! Pepe's North of the Border is possibly the northernmost Mexican restaurant in the world and is a cozy respite run by the affable and eccentric Fran Tate, whose adventures have landed her on The Tonight Show and Good Morning America. Pepe's remains memorable not only for its fortifying enchiladas but also for providing me with one of two functioning pay phones in the entire town.
Somewhat alien and disappointing is the experience of complementing my meal with a cup of tea rather than the customary margarita. This experiment stems not from an inspired culinary statement - it is simply a matter of obeying the law. I already knew Barrow was cold, I now painfully discover it is "dry" as well.
The effects of alcohol intoxication are exaggerated in the case of Inupiats, who tend to possess a genetic predisposition towards lower tolerance. A tragicomic example of a typical "drinking and driving" casualty in Barrow would involve someone leaving a party late at night having over-imbibed and hopping onto his snowmobile to drive the short distance home. Instead, he would become disoriented and make his way speedily out over the Arctic ice pack, eventually beyond the visual cues afforded by Barrow's meager night lights and into a chilling and utterly empty oblivion. The prolonged and inevitably fatal overnight freeze that results then makes the urban version of instantaneous death by sudden impact seem all the more merciful.
For the time, within the womb-like sanctuary of Pepe's, I have been lulled into a state of atmospheric intoxication. Relaxing comfortably beside my mound of temporarily-shed winter wear, penning postcards and gazing outdoors at the chutes of exhaled breath, I savor the lingering bliss of my virtual single-malt. Acutely aware that I could be coaxed into dreamy paralysis all day, I snap myself up and into my waiting mound of warmth. I am determined to "walk around".