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  • Kai Straw

Anchorage: The Cold

I’m writing this at 7:41PM in Anchorage, Alaska.  There’s ground beef sizzling on a stovetop pan in the kitchen to my left, two small lamps are glowing golden by the couch at my right, and outside of the windows the city is covered with snow; I just got back from hiking the Matanuska Glacier.  My first day here it was something like -10° F; and to give you some context, a freezer is generally set at 0° F.  Before this, I hadn’t been to the snow since I was 13 or experienced temperatures this cold ever – and from the first moment I stepped outside of my ride from the airport to my apartment, I liked it.  When it hit -35° F, I voluntarily stood outside to wait for our group instead of sitting in the car.


I didn’t know this, now I do, but you cough when it’s that cold.  I didn’t know this either, but when the sun’s out and it’s that cold the air freezes, essentially, making it look like the air itself is shining – like it’s filled with luminescent dust.  When it’s that cold – above factories, the steam stops lifting into the sky and holds motionless in midair.  The same thing happens to the fog you can see around streetlamps – as if time is stolen from whatever is wholly embraced by the cold.  And lastly, on the freeway as snow is set free from the sides of the road by speeding cars – it floats across the road in strange shapes, close to the ground but dancing behind the cars like the cars are being trailed by frozen cobwebs.  There’s a magic in all this that I’ve never felt – a language I’d never had the opportunity to hear.


“Was he depressed?”  I asked our guide.  He was talking about Christopher McCandless, the college kid from Atlanta who abandoned his life to live in the Alaskan wilderness and was subsequently killed by it – upon whom the book ‘Into the Wild’ is based. “Him coming out here – was he depressed?”  I asked.  The driver replied, “ – why else do people move to Alaska?”  He himself was raised in Atlanta – was in his late twenties – and was once inspired by McCandless.  I couldn’t help but view the conversation as some kind of admission.  “Everything that happens in The Lower 48,” said someone else, “ – it don’t matter up here.  You just turn off the TV.”  He was originally from upstate New York and sounded like Joe Pesci; his right canine tooth was sharper than the rest.  Everyone I’ve met, except for one person, was born and raised elsewhere, and The Lower 48 is what everyone in Alaska calls the rest of the country – everyone.  Also, it’s not called a snowmobile, to them it’s a snow machine.  And the straight-line distance between point A to point B is – as the crow flies; I’d never heard the term used in casual conversation until my time here.


Something about the brutal cold and my protecting myself from it has felt foundationally familiar.  Throughout my stay it has warmed up to about 10° F instead of -10° F, and the cold not biting my nose and not slowly taking claim of my toes and hands has somehow felt like a disappointment.  Bring the cold back, some part of me says – which has made me reflect on why I might feel that way; my yearning for the cold has felt representative of something deeper – as if maybe some part of me feels most comfortable when there’s something I need to protect myself from.  And if that’s the case, when something gets warm – say, emotionally – how much of me is fighting to let the cold back in?  It’s like I end up in the cold not because I forgot the map, or because home is just beyond the ridge, but because some part of me likes it.  The struggle is the point.  And in this way I’m reminded how much of myself can fight against good things, and how my own comfort isn’t always a compass pointing toward what is healthy.


“I feel like a wartime general,” I used to say in private conversations about the lack of peace in my own heart, “ – most comfortable when I can smell the napalm.”  There’s some part of me that’s rabid for problems that I can find solutions for – rabid for some kind of cold to push through.  We see someone trudging through the tundra and might say, “ – look how strong that man is,” when in reality, it may be a weakness that gives him that ability, because if you were to see that same man’s heart in the throes of vulnerability – you’d see his actual tundra, and maybe you’d see in his eyes what you feel when you walk through whatever may be yours.  He pushes through the frigid abyss because on some level that’s where he’d rather be.  I have been described as having discipline, work ethic, and a relentless focus.  I know what weaknesses sit on the other side of those coins, though, and I’m humbled by them.  The polar bear will thrive in an arctic wasteland, but on the other side of its coin – it cannot survive the heat.


It has been a lifelong aim of mine to soften my heart.  My love of the cold, the isolation it demands, and the protection it requires – has felt like home; and like this, it seems like I’ve found my way inside a metaphor.  Sometimes we like and lean toward things because they speak the language of our shadow; the language of our coldest self.  I know for what things my own darkness whispers for, and my time here in Anchorage has reminded me I should constantly work to distinguish what is comfortable from what is good – because sometimes what is comfortable, what feels good – is actually the cold – and if given time, if I were to mistake that comfort for something good – if I were to lean into that isolation, if I were to lean into my need for an oppressive force to protect myself from or fight against – the cold would take me, and it would keep me, like it does everything else.  “I am fine, I am at home,” I would say – alone with frostbitten fingers and an unquenchable appetite for a longer colder road.


To better understand what it means to be human, I think it’s good to keep in mind – sometimes, for some people, the hard thing is easier; the hard thing is where they feel safe.  A struggle is sought after because they do not know how to behave without one.


My goal is – I can stand the cold, I can do the hard thing; I’ll keep that – but my heart stays warm for whoever needs it.  I can walk one hundred miles alone, or maybe just a dozen steps while holding the small hand of my future daughter.


Discipline is victory of the mind, but peace is victory of the heart.  It’s my aim to claim both – lest I’m taken by the cold like the cold takes time from the fog.


Kai Straw

Anchorage, 2024


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