By Mark Muro
Nov. 12-18, 1998 / Vol. 7, Ed. 45
A former Cheechako Remembers and Quivers
"Termination Dust." I remember the first time I heard this extraordinary little phrase. I was waiting for a bus at some bleak and pointless Anchorage intersection, huddled against the elements inside the remains of a busted-up plastic lean-to-type structure - a kind of Plexiglas human gerbil tank thoughtfully erected by the city to protect the patrons of public transportation from the pitiless Alaskan weather. Sharing this modern-yet-Pleistocene shelter with me were a nice young couple. He drank beer and spoke on all matters Greatland. She remained silent, watching for the bus. They looked a little rough, like they might have just crawled out from under the woodpile that stoked the fire that heated the trailer that sat on the homestead that somebody's uncle Jack acquired with a shotgun, a sack of Bisquick and a few bottles of Ol' Claimjumper. You know, modern, yet Pleistocene.
And that's when I first heard it. "Termination dust." I was new to Anchorage and still enthralled by it's colorfully folksy frontier lingo. The unique colloquialisms that seemed to buzz around everywhere I went. At the bank: "Permanent Fund" Hell I already spent mine on a moose rig." At the supermarket: "Hey, this ain't real sourdough bread! I ain't spendin' my hard earned Permanent Fund money on this." And at the bus stop: "I ain't got my Permanent Fund yet, and there's termination dust up on the mountains. I ain't never gonna get my gun out of hock in time for caribou. Hey, you got five bucks I could borrow?"
It was all music to my freezing Cheechako ears. "Termination dust" - a loaded phrase both poetic and technical. A rare combination of the euphemistic and the unvarnished. "Termination," as in "terminus," the end of the line, the last stop, that"s all she wrote, shut up already it's over. And "dust," as in ashes to ashes, what's gone is gone, go back home and play Pictionary or something. "Termination dust" - so final. So uncompromising. So inevitably sad. As if some grouchy, itchy little god with eczema is flaking his rash down upon us poor mortals.
Now that it's here, some of us will ski. Some of us will shovel. Some will leave altogether, and some will sit around for the next six months and whine stoically. There's no other topic in Alaska that generates as much goofy vernacular or as many complaints as winter. Because there's no other topic in Alaska that makes living here so oppressive, aggravating, and miserable. (Except for maybe your job, or your relationship, or the people upstairs.)
The average American is supposed to have over 600 channels of cable by now; the average citizen of Anchorage has at least 600 words for winter. Half these words have to do with road conditions, other people's driving habits and the perennial annoyance of dry skin. The other half are words unprintable even in this beatnik rag.
Winter is known by many names in many other lands. In Tibet they call her The Yeti with the Tic-Tac Breath. In Finland, The Fickle Reindeer. In Russia, The Wolf with Two Heads (one will sing of vodka and bread while the other chews your toes). In Canada, our neighbor to the north, winter is playfully known as The Molson No Man Can Finish. In Denmark, it's simply The Bitch with Cold Hands. Even on the tropical islands of Hawaii, winter is no stranger; there she is poetically known as the Great Green Goddess Who Crowds Our Lobby Stains Our Carpet and Drinks Much Rum. Here in Alaska, winter goes by as many names as there are conspiracy buffs in the Bush.
For many of us living here in Anchorage, winter will always be symbolized by the profound radiant beauty known as "The City of Light." Other good citizens may choose to see Anchorage as someplace a little less idyllic, however, a bit closer to reality - say, "The City of Dead Flowers." Or "The City of No Sidewalks, Not Enough Busses, High Rents and Low-paying Jobs." Or perhaps "The City of The Nasty Politician Who Punishes Poor People." Or "The City Run By Mediocre Boobs."
Yes, Anchorage is a great place to gain weight, pay bills and slide into debt - just like anywhere else, only more so. But not all Alaskans dread the icy pinch of winter's pincers. Many people here actually welcome the cruel and unusual delights of the long, cold, dark season. For them, the advent of winter usually means just one thing: it's time to stop killing animals that live in water, and start killing animals that live on land.
For the hearty outdoorsman or outdoorswoman, winter can be the best time of year. You get to pull on that big stinky itchy sweater from Ecuador - the one that smells like a campfire goat - fasten some klunky alpine apparatus onto your shoes, go outside, move around vigorously in freezing temperatures for a few hours and then barge into the nearest bistro with a crimson face and a runny nose to drink a giant latte with both hands. Winter gives you the perfect opportunity to finally get out there and do all those things you dreamed of all summer while sleeping deeply after an exhausting day of dangerous summertime activities. Stimulation abounds, whether it's the exhilarating rush of a snow machine out of control, the unexpected thrill of plowing into a group of geriatric tourists on the beginners' slope, the ear-damaging snarl of a chainsaw ripping through your neighbor's favorite lopsided cottonwood or the adrenaline high you get from clinging to a frozen waterfall while a flock of irate ravens pecks your face. (Oh, those kooky tricksters.)
And for many of us winter in Alaska is a celebration of the simple pleasures of indoor life. It means we can finally go inside and stay there, hopefully until April or May. Some of us may even elect to stop bathing - and why not? We who cherish the life of the mind care not about our worldly scent. Especially when we're free to contentedly pursue our deepest loves. Perhaps some of us are bookworms, desiring nothing more than to curl up in the toasty orange glow of a space heater, rereading the classics: The Heidi Fliess Story, Whipsuckers of the Old West, The NATO Portable Rocket Launcher Deployment Manual. Some of us will capitalize on the diffused and fleeting light, using it to soften the unappealing impressions our misshapen faces and bodies create. Because above all, winter is a people-first season that encourages random romantic encounters with those as desperate as ourselves.
Best of all, winter is the season for creative expression. Painters, sculptors, exotic dancers, guys who glue clocks to driftwood, women who weave dream-catchers from dogfur - all thrive under the inspirational spell cast by our great Nordic night. For wordsmiths, the solitude of winter offers perhaps the greatest rewards. Scribblers of verse will finally complete that epic poem on the life and loves of the pinworm or that cycle of haiku commemorating the parole of Leona Helmsley, while the writers of "fiction" who toil selflessly on that Great Alaskan Novel will blatantly exploit their friends for material, ending up alienated from everyone they've ever met. Video geeks, computer nerds, and Internet junkies love the massive amounts of undistracted time winter affords. Some of these cutting-edge visionaries will happily work their way through the complete episodes of Star Trek again and again, while others will meet the cybermate of their dreams in a watersports chatroom.
May the utility company not forsake such brave Alaskans.
And finally, for that rare Alaskan, who seeks something slightly more enlightening than the pleasures of a 4 a.m. pizza delivery, wintertime is an invitation into the mystic. A time to stop resisting and come to accept winter as part of the earth's natural cycle of creation and destruction. Like studded tires or hockey. The seeker of truth knows the only way to survive is to become one with winter, to embrace her chilly bosom. Learning to live with the discomforts winter brings is to face the ultimate responsibility of our collective scruffy rash, because we understand that underneath all the polypropylene and Gortex, we are really just one big patch of interconnected flaky epidermal tissue waiting for the soothing ointments of spring. Until then, the choice remains: dance with the frigid goddess or scratch with the itchy little grouchy god? Winter. What's not to like?