But the evening isn’t over. After I say good night to Phil, the receptionist at the Best Western tells me there’s a hot tub out behind the ice machine. Eager to warm up, I find myself in a steamy cabin tub filled with nearly naked Coast Guard members. They’re stationed on the island and look to be about 18. Thankfully, none of them offers a marriage proposal; they are too busy telling me where they hope to meet women once they get off the island. They sound like Washington women, fantasizing about places that teem with men.
California, says one. Ohio, says another.
“No, no,” another says dreamily, his muscular frame forming a dark silhouette against the gurgling water. “New Jersey. . . . That’s where the girls are.”
“Can I touch it?” I ask.
I’m in an Anchorage hotel, watching a parade of men with impressively long facial hair compete in the state’s annual beard and mustache contest. Turns out we arrived the week of a big winter festival, Fur Rendezvous, or Fur Rondy. Fur Rondy grew out of the February swap meets where trappers would sell their wares, but these days it’s mostly about drinking, outhouse races, and the Miners and Trappers Ball, at which men from across Alaska display their facial topiary.
The contest has 13 categories, including one for each beard color and one for the “Walrus,” which, the rules specify, must be a “moustache with hair below the upper lip, MAY have connecting sideburns. NO CHIN HAIR.”
The top honor is “Mr. Fur Face.”
“This is very serious stuff, you guys,” a news anchor serving as emcee tells the crowd. “The winner goes to the world competition.”
I’m tentatively running a finger through the bushy red beard of Tommy Smith, 31, a public defender who has just won the “Red Fox” category. I thought it would feel like a Brillo pad, but it is soft.
Smith says his beard — which curls away from his chin like the one sported by Yukon Cornelius, the character from the stop-motion classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — took just three months to grow.
“We’re in Alaska,” he says. “Everything’s bigger here.”
All righty, then. Moving on. . . .
Presently, I become aware that a man with broad shoulders and a doughy, friendly face is beaming at me. His name is Caleb Aldeman. He’s in his 50s and divorced, and owns a small tour company; he lives in Wasilla. When I tell him why I’m in town, he wants to know all about my life in the contiguous States, which, it soon becomes apparent, he views as an entirely separate country.
“Do you like it down there in America?” he asks.
There’s something oddly charming about Caleb, despite the fact that he explains to me in graphic detail how to butcher a moose. I let him buy me a drink, and we dance to “Soul Man” underneath a canopy of rainbow balloons.
Later, we hug good night, and I head back to my hotel. At midnight, my phone rings. It’s Caleb. By way of greeting, he asks, “Are those the warmest boots you have?” and wonders if I want to go to the opening of the Iditarod dog sled race the next day.
He arrives in the morning to find me stuffed into a down coat and ski pants. “You’re bundled up like an Eskimo, I love it!” he says. He’s wearing a bolo tie made out of a walrus tooth. (What’s with all these guys wearing animal parts around their necks?)
I ask if we can stop at a Starbucks, and he frowns. “Why do you want to drink burnt coffee?”
We head north out of town, the wan morning light playing off the Chugach mountain range. It’s the last day of the trip, and I want to quietly commune with the scenery, but Caleb keeps up a running commentary about electric cars, energy conservation and mineral rights.
“As you can see, I like to talk,” he says.
We make a quick stop at his house so he can drop off milk and bread for his 17-year-old daughter, who is off at church. The house is creamy yellow and sits amid white spruce, far off the highway — close to Sarah Palin’s place. We can’t see Russia from his house, but he says he knows someone who can.
He drives me around the property, 80 acres of “pristine untracked powder snow” and points out where he’d like to build an underground house some day. It feels lonely and remote.
Charming as he is, I start wondering if I could ever fall for a guy like this. Caleb grew up in a log cabin with an ermine as a pet, and he remembers waking one morning to find a grizzly bear lying outside his picture window. He traps, fishes and hunts. When he dreams of traveling, it is to other parts of his home state.
We end up in the small town of Willow, where dog trailers are parked in a semicircle on a frozen lake, the sled dog teams readying to depart for their 1,049-mile race to Nome. While we wait for the mushers to harness their dogs, Caleb borrows a snowmobile, and we ride across the frozen, sunlit expanse of lake. He guns the engine, and snow sprays everywhere. I clutch him from behind and hang on through the exhilarating rush of snow-tinged air.
“Isn’t this better than sitting in your cubicle, banging on your computer?” Caleb asks.
When it’s time for the race, spectators line up at the starting gate to watch the first teams of dogs barking as they whoosh by. Afterward, as we’re walking back to the car, Caleb raises the possibility of an Eskimo kiss.
“Want to try it?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, and we rub noses. His nose feels cold and slippery, and although it is the perfect way to end the day, I suddenly feel glad I’m headed home in the morning.
Annie and Tara
In four short days (and long nights), we have gotten stuck in snowdrifts, watched fishermen haul in tons of cod, tramped in dog-sled tracks, and photographed bald eagles. We’ve met a banjomaker and a snowboard guide and a smoke jumper and an oilman and two moose hunters and legions of fishermen.
In some ways, they are the same as Washington men, or men anywhere: They like their toys, they like their drink, they pursue their ambitions. And yet, there are also real differences. Many of the men we have met came to Alaska to get away from something — a string of bad marriages, a stint in jail, a drug problem — and, unlike Washington men, they are not into image control. They are upfront about their flaws and vulnerabilities — which can be both off-putting and wonderfully refreshing.
As our plane lifts us away from the landscape of snow and ice, glaciers and volcanoes, it is time to wonder what lies ahead for us back in Washington.
That night at the karaoke bar, Georgy the gold hunter told me he wanted to fall asleep with his arms around me. I didn’t take him up on that, but I was moved by his openness and the way we fell into an easy chemistry. Maybe I just needed to be reminded that there is a world outside the Beltway, where people feel okay taking chances, where they can sparkle a little for each other without worrying about getting burned or — worse — embarrassed. Alaska, for all its weirdness, felt homey and familiar to me, and I return to Washington determined to look for the people hidden between the cracks, the ones with their own odd glimmers.
Back in Washington, it’s spring and the tulips are in bloom. It’s 70 degrees, the city is at its best, and I feel bad for having had mean thoughts about it. Walking up K Street, I spot a quintessentially clean-cut guy in a blue suit, pink tie and shiny shoes, so deeply engrossed in texting that he almost walks into oncoming traffic. To my surprise, I get a little misty-eyed.
Tara Bahrampour and Annie Gowen are Washington Post staff writers. Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report. To comment on this story, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.