March Thaw

Red balls, March thaw

Alaskans love to share wisdom with a cheechako, so early on I learned that ice cleats can keep you from busting your butt, unless you don’t mind crawling across a parking lot on your hands and knees. I do mind that. I learned that a moose can stomp you to death, so head the other way, fast, when you see one walking across the street. Or hide behind something; I wonder if a stop sign is a good enough deterrent. I learned that earthquakes happen nearly every day, but a big one isn’t likely to happen for several hundred years. When it does, drop, cover, and hold on.

I learned that you can make tea from stinging nettles, that ferns are poisonous past the fiddlehead stage, and you do not need ice for meat and fish purchases. I am not planning to make nettle tea or cook fiddleheads, and I asked only once for ice in a grocery store in Anchorage. The guy behind the counter looked me straight in the eye and said, “You’re not from around here.”

Most Alaska long-timers are also generous with tips on coping with the dark months of November, December, and January. Starting in August, they say, sit in front of a SADD light for a couple of hours a day (I do, while I work at my computer), stay busy (I’ve never needed encouragement), exercise (of course), go South (which I can manage for a couple of weeks in the winter).

Last year, several people told me to beware of March. “It’s the worst month,” they said. “Very bad for mental health.”

“What’s so bad about March?” I asked. No one seemed to have a convincing explanation, other than its still chilly temperatures and occasional snow. But having lived happily through two Alaska Marches, I think I’ve figured it out.

While the Lower 48 hoops and hollers through March Madness, Alaska oozes and slogs through March Mudness, when snow melts and dog poop thaws. Everything covered by snow and winter darkness is exposed. Alder, aspen, and willow are bare. Snow is infused with black grit. Wherever people walk and drive vehicles, beer cans and liquor bottles emerge from the ice, some still wrapped in the brown paper bags that are supposed to make people think the tipplers are slugging down health drinks.

There is mud, and there is dust. The wind whips it into miniature tornados on sidewalks and streets. Trucks roar along Sterling Highway whisking up clouds that nearly obscure vehicles. I hold my breath as long as I can when they pass by.

In my house, bright sunlight, about 12 hours a day now, blasts through grimy, streaked windows exposing my sin of omission, the lick-and-a-promise approach to housecleaning this winter. Dust glistens on baseboards, table tops, books, lamps. The car is coated too, inside and out, except for the arcs cleared by windshield wipers, and mud is splattered from tires to door handles.

Of course, I am not despondent. I know that, come May, leaves will bud on trees, and we’ll see green again. Weeds, including dandelions big as saucers, will cover the litter. And by then, I will have run Silver through the Star Wash a couple of times, vacuumed the interior and wiped the dash clean. I will have dusted inside the house, too, maybe with a little more attention to detail as summer visitor season draws near.

I may have planted something in my muddy yard to block the invasion of pushki, the cow parsnip, which resembles gigantic Queen Anne’s lace. It’s edible, but it can cause dermatitis when you pick it. Go figure that one.

For now, I’m putting on hiking boots to tromp the muddy Reber Trail. The temperature has soared to a balmy 41 degrees and the skies are that Carolina color everyone loves whether they’re a Tarheel basketball fan or not.

Copyright 2014. Genie Hambrick