When you return to a place you basically fled because your life wasn't working, you find out who your true friends are. They will drop everything to hike through a frozen world with you even though this kind of cold, mixed with an ocean wind and the punch of humidity that makes it feel even colder, can be dangerous if you don't bring the right gear (which I didn't). They will come and pick you up and transport you to their cabin overlooking the ocean and you will talk about marathons you ran with them, about those miserable 22 mile training days when the rain was horizontal and bone-chilling but you went on anyway, all the way out to the end of the only highway in town, fourteen miles in all, out and back, out and back.
Laura and I crunch along in our microspikes, the cold settling into our bones. My fingers cramp inside of their inadequate gloves. But we press on, across the Cross Trail and up Indian River. In the harbor, a layer of fresh water has frozen like plates on top of the salt. I have only seen this once before, years ago, when I was determined to escape the island for a few hours. Then, I beat at the ice with my paddle, forcing my way through to open water. Only one other paddler was out there that day, braving the bitter cold. We paddled close, exchanged a smile. People who live here are tough like that. But today, nobody is on the water. The boats are frozen to the dock, only a few brave souls in open skiffs running between islands.
Who comes to Sitka in January? The same person who goes for a run at nine degrees, the warmest it will get all day. I bundle up and run in the park beneath the big spruce trees. Ghosts dog my footsteps, all the rollercoaster life I lived here coming back to chase me down, but I can outrun anything today, my breath a frozen halo, sea level running effortless after years in the mountains. The friends I have here warm my heart, they bring me in from the cold. They have seen me at some of the worst of times and they had my back then. They still do.
A place is never as good or as bad as you remember it. I've lived enough places to stay away from the egocentric view that there is only one good place. Just like good people, they are everywhere. But sometimes I think at heart I'll always be a little bit of an Alaska girl.
(You can buy this bumpersticker HERE.)