TRIGGER WARNING: This section contains discussion of gender identity, sexism, and sexual activity.
On the surface, my trip to Alaska was about getting a feel for the university, the setting, and the people. But, as most things were at that time in my life, it was really about being better than Mountain Man. In Alaska, I took the self-sabotage up a notch. Today, I will share with you the first of three experiences that occurred while I was up there.
Before I dive in, I need to explain something about myself. In terms of gender, I identify as a woman. However, my hobbies and ideals tend to be extremely masculine, so, naturally, I tend to relate to men more commonly than to women. As such, I often forget, surrounded by men, that I am a woman. It doesn’t help that I enjoy a good “mine-is-bigger-than-yours” chat, which I tend to do as a means of initiating friendly conversation with like-minded male persons—more often than not, they think that I am flirting with them. They think it’s cute, when I talk about my truck, or the components on my bike, or guns, or knives, or how excited I am to have inherited my father’s tool collection. When I was younger, I was blind to this discrepancy. I was so oblivious that I wouldn’t realize that my friendly intentions had been misperceived until the man I was trying to befriend was trying to make a move on me. At that point, I would often just let the move be made, because it seemed too awkward to explain myself, and I hated disappointing people. Needless to say, I endured a lot of uncomfortable situations and self-hatred before I finally realized what was going on. This is the story of one of these misunderstandings—in fact, I believe this was the very first time that this happened.
On the evening of my first day in Fairbanks—March 22, 2016—I asked my host, Terri, to drive me to a bar. She obliged, and covertly tried to tell me to be careful. She even said I could call her if I couldn’t get a taxi (Uber didn’t exist in Fairbanks in 2016)—even if it was 3:00 AM and I was wasted. I mumbled a thank-you, but forgot about it the minute I walked into the bar.
From what I can remember, the bar had a sort of shotgun layout—that is, it was one, large, rectangular room, with the entrance on one of its shorter walls and the bar occupying most of the long wall to the left of the entrance. In the far wall, directly in-line with the front door, was a little nook—presumably, where the bathrooms were. To the right, opposite the bar was a door that opened onto a little smoker-friendly patio.
I went straight to the back and sat at the bar opposite the patio door. I started chatting with the bartender, and at some point, we were joined by a redheaded lumberjack, who took a seat on the stool beside me. Inevitably, the subject of where I was from came up, since the lumberjack and the bartender, having lived in Fairbanks since childhood, had pegged me for an outsider. I said, innocently, that I was from California.
Mistake number one. Having spent most of my life in California until this point, I wasn’t aware that Californians have different reputations, depending on where they go, outside of the state. As much as I hate stereotypes, this is a fact, although it does seem to be losing weight these days.
But I wasn’t just a “Californian.” No, I was a California girl—a rarity in Fairbanks; and, just as white men killed the buffalo in North America for status, California girls are a respectable notch in a countryman’s belt. I was about to find out that Katy Perry’s horrendous song—“California girls, we’re unforgettable…California girls, we’re undeniable”—speaks the truth; at least, it did in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2016.
Immediately upon hearing that I was from California, the bartender and the lumberjack reacted in exactly the same way. They exchanged a look. Then, the lumberjack turned on the stool so that he was facing me, his legs apart like he was riding a horse, and the bartender propped his elbows on the bar and leaned on them. They fixed me with the same look in their eyes—a look that was unreadable to me at the time, but that I would today recognize as hunger—but in the lumberjack’s piercing stare, it was stronger.
Then they spoke almost simultaneously— “Californy, eh?” said the lumberjack, and, “Do you have any green?” the bartender hissed.
I didn’t understand their piqued interest, but I certainly enjoyed it. I told the bartender that, as a matter of fact, I did have some green—and invited the both of them out to the patio for a smoke.
Standing out there under the clear night sky, wrapped in the scent of tobacco and weed, I was in seventh-heaven: here were two dudes, each some ten years older than I, who lived in a rugged, rural place—a life that I envied—giving me their full attention, laughing at my jokes, and showering me with compliments. I regaled them with the tale of the peanut butter incident, naively assuming their interest in the story to be respect for my machismo.
And then the bartender had to get back to work, and it was just me and the lumberjack.
“Have you been to the dump yet?” he asked me.
I was taken aback, and laughed. “What? Why would I have gone to the dump?”
“Oh, man,” he said, “you gotta go. That’s where it’s at.”
I laughed again, and asked him what on Earth he was talking about, but he said the only way to understand was to see it for myself. I asked him where it was and when it was open.
“They never close it,” he said. “It’s open right now.”
Without batting an eye, I said, “Well, let’s see it, then.”
With that, the lumberjack burst back into the bar and I lurched after him. I scurried along behind as he made for the front door, and the next thing I knew I was in the passenger seat of his truck and we were zipping away through the night—despite the fact that we were both relatively wasted. He drove us to either the East Farmers Loop Transfer Site or the West one; I’m not sure which, they look very similar. I don’t know what time it was, but it was certainly after 9:00 PM, and I was surprised to find the place relatively busy. There were at least six people there, pilfering through giant, metal bins or sorting a truckload of old junk into those bins.
As soon as we pulled into the lot, the lumberjack left the car running and made a beeline for an old box-spring leaning against the nearest metal bin. I watched, fascinated, as he snatched it and carried it with ease back to his truck. He tossed it in the back, then grinned at me through his open door. “You gonna check this place out, or what?”
I hopped out and did a cursory loop around the dump, but I didn’t do any serious poking around in any of the bins for fear of finding something that called to my hoarder genes that wouldn’t be totable on the plane back to Oakland. There was a regular business here, though: sorters and traders, people helping each other unload or load up, neighbors chatting as they sorted old magazines; it was fascinating. I observed that it wasn’t actually a “dump,” at least, in the sense that I’d figured it would be—it was a place that people could dump their unwanted things, and where others could obtain new things. It was basically a giant, unmonitored, unregulated swap meet, with no need for an organizer or supervisor, because everyone was aware of and respected an unspoken set of rules.
And then the lumberjack called me back to the truck. As we sped away, I was so enrapt with the concept of that transfer center that I didn’t realize, until we pulled onto an icy, potholed road surrounded by dense forest, that I had no idea where the lumberjack was taking me.
“Where are we going?” I asked him.
He didn’t answer at first, eyes fixed on the road, and then the trees gave way to a wide, moonlit clearing, on the edge of which was perched a little cabin and what looked to be an outhouse.
“Home,” he said, as he pulled up beside the cabin.
I realized then that there had, indeed, been a misunderstanding. But I didn’t fight it; I just followed him inside.
I learned, right off the bat, that he lived entirely off the grid. His cabin was made of recycled materials from the transfer center. The front door handle was a moose antler. The entire cabin was insulated with old mattresses and box-springs, and was not connected to municipal water, but drew water from tanks, which he kept full by filling huge bins with city water from a spigot at a nearby campground and transferring their contents manually. He had electricity, obtained via solar panels. The cabin was heated by a woodstove at its center, upon which was fitted a stovetop for cooking. He wasn’t connected to the sewer, hence the outhouse. He owned the land; he said he’d stayed off the grid because it was cheaper, and he didn’t have to pay taxes.
I think we drank vodka. After a few swigs straight from the bottle, my brain recorded the rest of the night into two, incoherent snippets. First, I remember having to pee, so I walked through the snow to the outhouse, only to immediately become paralyzed with fear that a monster would pop up from its depths the minute I opened the toilet lid, so I ended up peeing behind the outhouse instead.
Second, I remember lying next to him on the roof of his truck, staring up at the night sky. We must’ve been watching the northern lights, because I had a photo of them on my phone in the morning, but I don’t remember seeing them.
I woke up the next morning in the lumberjack’s bed. I don’t remember whether or not we had sex, but regardless, I realized right away that solely sharing a bed with a stranger constituted cheating on Mountain Man. The justifications came hot on the heels of this realization—it wasn’t my fault, I hadn’t intended to sleep with the guy, I had just wanted to be friends, so, “oops,” but, it was the lumberjack’s fault for misunderstanding—and I concluded that I needn’t tell Mountain Man about it at all.
The lumberjack drove me back to Terri’s the next morning. I didn’t see him again after that. Terri was peeved, but she was too polite to say anything to me. I did not take a moment to process what happened with the lumberjack—a fault that would become a theme. Instead, I pushed on, unperturbed by emotions and overthinking, open-armed and open-eyed, stoked to see what Alaska had in store for me next.