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There was a man, a Bear really, dressed as a man. I was warmed by his blue eyes, seduced by his cowboy French. He was a Utahan by birth, an Alaskan by design. I followed him into the mountains out West. He made me confront my fear of heights. I confused fear with love. We fought like beasts. When it was all over, a crone told me make a collage of what I missed: someone who climbs mountains, is fearless, artistic, wise, compassionate.
“Be that,” she said. Eventually, I settled down with myself and a man less hirsute.
Following my break with the Bear, I threw myself at the feet of the Great Land. I sailed the Inside Passage to gaze l at the glaciers where his eyes came from, backpacked in the chill rain over the treacherous Chilkoot Pass, rafted the Sheenjek River above the Arctic Circle, and contemplated streams in the Kenai blood-red with salmon. In Alaska’s roadless heart I watched sled-dogs with his eyes mush through the famous Iditarod. I knew Alaska like one knows a long-distance lover. In fits and starts, I explored nearly all her parts, from the hidden folds of her inner passages to the hairless plains of her arctic refuge. I could drink repeatedly from her icy veins and never get chilled.
In Freudian terms, this obsession was a classic case of transference. Years after the demise of our would-be marriage, I can still thrill to the tenderness-com-rawness that Alaska elicits.
One winter’s day, while my friends flocked like migrating fowl to tropical venues, I flew alone to the cold, dark north. My destination was Talkeetna, an old frontier village, 130 miles north of Anchorage. The Bachelor Auction and Ball takes place every December. You might say I had unfinished business, and was curious about the event that pedals the very stock of a dangerous species.
Talkeetna has a healthy herd of men willing to go on the auction block and share themselves with the highest bidding women. These fine specimens seek women for a rural life together in the wilderness or for a night of fun, whichever comes first. Whichever lasts. As someone who has faithfully eluded domestication all her life, I wasn’t sure what I hoped to capture—a trophy or a good time. I was in a ten-year relationship that was comfortable. Perhaps I just needed a solo adventure, one last look at the “excitement” I’d let slip away.
It was eight below as I drove to Talkeetna. Winter was sublime. Everything from the peaks of the Alaska Range to the hoarfrosted birch forest, was magnified through air frozen with moisture. Denali, the “great one,” was my beacon. The peak blushed lavender at sunset 3:45 p.m. In the golden afterglow, I reached my destination.
I checked in at Talkeetna Lodge, then repaired to the local watering hole. The Fairview Inn’s 80-year history includes introducing the town to its first bathtub. I chatted with manager Collette Folk about how the village of 500, swells with Denali-bound tourists in summer.
“But winter clears ‘em out,” she said in her husky voice. “We tell ‘em sun doesn’t rise, and we grow horns and wings,” Folk laughed, skilled in Alaskan insider irony.
I threw back a coupla glasses of cheap wine to dilute my inhibitions and studied the walls and ceiling. They were dense with bear and wolf skins, moose and caribou racks, sheep horns, buffalo head, whale baleen, and various stuffed men— I mean fish.
Through the crosshairs in my mind, down the barrel of lost time, I sighted with a lump of unresolved grief, a man. Matthew. What is it about these long, tall cowboys who speak lines from Rimbaud and make you want to curl up in skins, throw your ambitions to the wind, and let them build the fires and, and, and . . .
Twelve summers had passed and I knew I would never again find the likes of him. If I did, I could only say the truth, that I enjoyed buddy breathing, reaching climaxes.
The rest of it sucked.
I began to dance with strangers amid the hunters’ talismans to the live music of Gangly Moose. Under the bearskin plastered spread eagle on the ceiling I entered my zone. That place I have gone to throughout life, alone, with no man, with no drugs but those that my body concocts when I am in motion. Motion and music has always been the most powerful mind-expanding cocktail I’ve drunk. During that fleeting psychedelic experience I saw that my life was fine and cozy, that down the line something big would occur. But for the time, I could enjoy my false sense of security.
During the band’s break, Darrell, a trucker from Anchorage came over and said, “You’re a great dancer.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“You competing in the Wilderness Women contest?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I said. “I’ll see how confident I feel.” The contest always takes place the morning of the auction. There is a qualifier, in which contestants must make a 100-yard dash over the icy snow carrying two 35-pound buckets of water, one in each hand. Only the four top placers get to compete in the remaining events, which include gathering fire wood, shooting ptarmigan (balloons), fishing for salmon- foam- and serving beer and sandwiches to an actively vegetating bachelor held captive by simulated sports TV.
The band started up again and I pulled Darrell on the floor to dance with me among a pack of men and women abuzz with the thrill of the next day’s love for sale.
Next morning, the cold, dry air was clear and bracing as gin. I was game for public humiliation so I signed up for the contest. There were only 22 of us women willing to test our outdoor skills. A race official in beaver fur, divided us into pairs. She gave us bibs, insulated bunny suits and boots.
“Don’t lift your feet,” Darrell whispered as I took my mark, “shuffle them over the ice.” He blew his words into my ear as if to thaw my core. Matthew had already blown Alaska deep into my soul with endless stories about the Haida and Tlingit and the Yupik on the Bering Seas’s St. Lawrence Island.
His imagination was as rare and forbidden as walrus tusk ivory, as wild as the Far North. But what does it profit a woman if she gain the north and lose her soul?
Darrell’s advice was helpful. I did a damn good bunny-boot shuffle. The sloshing water froze instantly in Rorschach designs as it splashed my black suit. I clocked 1 minute and 18 seconds, my lungs seared by dry cold. To cheers of encouragement I collapsed on the ice in oxygen deficit. Darrell helped me up. “You were great.”
“I’m sure I didn’t place,” I panted with relief. I collected myself around a radiant bonfire being fed birch and spruce limbs in the square—not far from where bush planes were parked as if they were cars. Laughter and steamy breath billowed in the crisp air as ptarmigan-balloons were burst with BB guns and a contestant treed a “moose.”
Tracey Logan, 28, from Anchorage, won the most points. She would be crowned with a fox-fur hat that evening at the auction. I realized I never even had a chance when one of the runners-up, Laura Klein, a native Alaskan, dismayed at not winning first place, proudly threw back her head of long ringlets and announced, “Hell, I just hiked 18 miles into the wilderness and killed a real Dall sheep.”
Around the fire, I met a few of the men going on the block, including the Bachelor Society’s founding member, 46-year-old Robert Petersen, a gold-mining engineer known as Grog to his friends. Clad in rawhide and skins from hat to boots, Grog was the quintessential frontiersman looking for someone “to live remote for more than one night.” He had lived in Alaska for 24 years in a cabin off the grid. He joked about telling outsiders, like me, “Yes, I have running water—I’m always running for water.”
My toes and fingers went numb throughout the day, so I made warm-up visits to the funky Fairview. I asked Folk if the bar served any fancy winter drinks. “Hot buttered rum or coffee with whiskey,” she rasped in her smoke-and-liquor-edged voice, “People drink for results in winter, nothing social about it.” I may just as well have asked a priest if his church offered cherry-flavored Communion wafers.
I talked with Jean Beird, a science teacher from Minnesota.
We paged through this year’s Male Order Catalog, in which the 32 brave bachelors had gathered bios and pictures.
“Anything hot?” I asked Jean.
“Depends on your definition,” she said. “None has that stop-you-dead-in-your tracks look.”
Matthew, with his cold eyes and warm paws, did. He had the swagger of Clint Eastwood, but could paint me a perfect rose in minutes, discourse on Jung’s dreams and symbols, and cry over a Dylan Thomas poem, all this in his completely impossible way. He wanted me to change my name to his, to stop writing, to breathe as if we shared a lung, and other insurmountable tasks. Friends distanced themselves from me and told me he was a Bear, but I still saw a man.
Jean and I sized up the bachelors, none so dangerously alluring as Matthew. What they were looking for ranged from “a long fair-haired leaping gnome” (Bachelor #14) to “just a pulse” (# 27).
“Reminds me of the cliché,” said Beird, “The odds are good but the goods are odd.”
“Reminds me of Mae West,” I said, “she only liked two kinds of men—domestic and foreign.” We laughed and I felt my own swagger. “Gimme the buttered rum.” I begged Folk.
Beird and I toasted, “May the best man—or woman—win tonight,” I said.
I entered the VFW hall where the auction began at 8 p.m. sharp. The men were already strutting their stuff on a floodlit stage, stepping nervously up to the limelight to merciless shouts:
“Take off your shirt.”
“Lift up your tails!”
“Show me your tits!”
Some men complied with the brash commands and stripped to bikini bathing suits. Others expressed talent. Burly, bearded John “Dancing Bear” Saily, his head hugged by a wolf pelt, ignored the crass requests and played his Native American flute.
Auction rules allow the highest bidding women (must be 21 or older) to procure one drink and a dance from their bachelors (“anything else is strictly up to the parties involved”). Past years’ events, a resident told me, have resulted in everything from a 12-year marriage (ended in amicable divorce) to a love child, now an 8-year-old boy.
I noticed a lot of older women who had not attended the Wilderness Woman Contest. I remembered what Darrell had told me ar, “What’s a gold mine in Alaska? A woman with a job.”
Many of them quietly paid out the highest bids—$200 and more—and disappeared with their bachelors, not to be seen the rest of the evening.
I shot photos of the men onstage, then took a seat next to a bleached-blond who was flipping through the Male Order Catalogue.
“That guy sounds promising,” I remarked to her, pointing to a man posed with his rifle and bush plane.
“Him!” she sneered, “you gotta be kidding; he’s a legend in his own mind. Look, I was a waitress for two years over at the Latitude Motel. I know too much, Hon.”
She turned her attention to the stage and hooted. The emcee, a short, heavy woman in men’s tux, was rubbing up behind the next guy as she introduced him. “Hold me back,” breathed the blond. “He looks like Harry Connick, Jr.”
He did. Sort of. He had perfect pectoral muscles and Paul-Newman bright eyes.
“Hold up your thumbs and tell us your shoe size!” the blond shouted and proceeded to outbid everyone. She got Harry for $150.
The auction began to wind down and the odds didn’t seem so unfavorable for men. Even auctioneer Robert Forgit, former weather anchor for KTUV in Anchorage, brought in $300, the evening’s highest bid.
I decided to buy Sandy. He was slight of frame, had attractive chiseled. But I watched as the teacher from Minnesota, Jean, claimed Sandy.
The men were going, going, almost gone—I had to have one. I slowly raised my hand and got the next to the last of the batch, Pete Reilly, a mellow 33-year-old, who was looking for “one who is going to stay in Alaska.” He was barrel shaped with a groomed goatee. He handed me a carnation whose long-stem vanished in his paw. Someone snapped a Polaroid of us and pasted it to an official document that certified that I was “in apparent possession of all faculties” when I made my purchase.
We joined the revelers who packed the Fairview for the ball.
“What would you like to drink?” Pete asked.
“Brandy,” I said. He was gone a long time.
Woody, a twentysomething man who had seen me taking photos of him as he preened on stage naked from the waist up, approached.
“Hey, do me a favor—don’t let those photos anywhere near Utah. I don’t want my mother to see them.”
“I won’t,” I promised, touched by his display of vulnerability. “I don’t go near Utah, if I can help it,” I teased.
I met 34-year-old John, a landscaper. He winced as he recalled the shouts from women to bare some flesh, though he had complied.
“I felt like a piece of meat,” he said. But he was proud to have brought in one of the high bids, $165.
“You’re worth a lot more,” I said.
Pete came back with my drink.
“To Alaska,” I toasted.
We made boilerplate talk, both of us guarded and wondering what the other expected from this transaction. He loved fishing and stalking wild game. He thought he had brought in only $65.
“Oh no, I paid seventy bucks for you, but you’d have gone for a lot more. Women were out of money.” He smiled.
“When you going hunting again?” I asked, trying to loosen up the conversation.
“I don’t know, I’m having trouble with my feet—fallen arches.”
“Try yoga,” I suggested.
“Yes. There’s a woman in town who teaches it.”
I asked Pete for my dance. He delivered it and another drink. The band, Nervis Rex, had a fine brass section for swing dancing, which was not good for Pete’s arches. Although he was a dozen years my junior, I knew he could never keep up with my energy and the things I loved—in life, not necessarily in bed. The air was moist with sex, whether for one night or longer. For Pete and me it was not even a faint scent on a distant trail.
Amid the bacchanalian atmosphere, we drifted apart. Charlie, also burly and in overalls, with a salt and pepper ponytail, was a great dancer. People cleared out of our way as he twirled me. I enjoyed rebounding off the cuddly spare tire of his middle. There was Darrell, too, whose flattery was not unwelcome, though there was not the right tension between us. I got offers, I could refuse—like Charlie’s suggestion that we head to his place in the backcountry.
At midnight, the party segued over to the Roadhouse for biscuits and gravy and sourdough pancakes. I headed to bed.
I awoke before 9 a.m. when it was still dark, in time to catch sunrise bleeding down the snowy crown of Denali. From the birch deck of my lodge, I had an unimpeded view of the mountain as it rises dramatically from the flat tundra. It’s more often than not shrouded in cloud. But this winter day it was out in all its glory as the sun rose in concert with the setting of the full moon. I felt like howling. A man on the deck with me said, “I live here and I never get to see McKinley like that.”
I live here, too, I thought, irrationally for a moment.
After Matthew had taken over my computer, my apartment, and a significant portion of my checking account, he wanted to marry me. I said yes, then I said no. In the end, he never got my name, or my pen. Ours was a relationship that could have gone everywhere inside the organic comfort of bearskins, but nowhere outside that archetypal space. Yet, its craziness gave me my bearings, my sense of true north, in life and romance, and there is this sweet, unconditional love for a place like Alaska.