One weekend in October, I parked at the bottom of the Chugach Mountains, just outside Anchorage, threw on my pack, and started up. The Chugach are largely covered by tundra, which is spongy under the feet and which turns out to be not one plant but be a salad of many tiny interwoven plants, each turning a different color in the fall and thus turning the tundra into an infinite Persian carpet. I didn’t have to lug that barbell of a rifle because I’d ditched it for a single-action .44 Magnum revolver as long as my forearm that rode my hip effortlessly.
Topping a gentle false summit, I found two big brown hummocks on the far slope, about fifty feet away. Then I noticed they were moving. Grizzlies. A sow and a yearling, blithely nuzzling berries out of the tundra. I put my hand on the big revolver. It was instantly obvious that it would be effective only if I was firing it while already in a bear’s stomach. A gust of cold north wind hit me in the face; what saved my life that day was that the wind was coming from the bears to me instead of the other way around. I backed away.
An hour later I made a nice little campsite on a north-facing cliff overlooking Persian carpet stretched out to the north horizon. Though I could think about nothing but bears, and kept looking around as though guarding my pockets on a subway, a more immediate threat loomed. A heavy lid of charcoal clouds sat atop the far horizon, but strangely, the swirls of yellow, red, and light blue in the tundra below were not thrown into dark shadow; they appeared to be turning white.
That was a snowstorm out there, and as I watched it I could see its straight front edge galloping across the valley toward me. Ten minutes away, max.
That storm may have saved my life earlier when it pushed scent from the bears to me instead of the other way around, but if I stayed put, it was going to cover me with wet snow and, all alone up here and ignorant of Alaska’s ways, I could find myself in real trouble. As fast as I could, I dismantled the tent, stuffed the sleeping bag, and started quick-timing down the mountains. By the time I reached my car, I was fighting a full-on blizzard. On the way home, I stopped at a supermarket and used its pay phone to call Barbara and invite her and Julie to dinner. It’s fun to share bad weather.
It became the heaviest winter storm I’d ever experienced, and it was only mid-October. The wind whistled through the leaky windows of my cheap apartment, and snow drifted so deeply against my front door that about thirty pounds of it tumbled comically onto my floor when I opened the door for Barbara and Julie.
Paella was the fancy thing I cooked in those days, and I’d made a huge one for the three of us. We ate, drank wine, and while Barbara washed dishes, Julia and I played horsey on the thin, stained carpet.
The phone rang. I answered it.