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Learning how to "winter" after a decade of snowbirding

Three weeks in Alaska showed me another way of considering time.

By: Amanda E. Machado + Save to a List

Alaskans look to fireweed to mark the end of summer. In August, I see the magenta petals blooming everywhere: on trails, on sidewalks, on the side of the highways. But when the fireweed begins sprouting white, wispy, cotton-like fluff around its magenta bud, that means there’s only six weeks left until winter.

I had booked my Anchorage ticket to visit my friend Mat for late August, hoping I would experience the long Alaskan summer days. But once I arrived, the bright maroon and rusty red colors of almost every bush and plant startled me. The fireweed already had sprouted its cotton-like fluff. Mat informed me autumn had already begun, usually a brief, only weeks-long span of rapid leaf-changing before the “ice season” — a new liminal season in Anchorage created by climate change where the rain freezes off-and-on throughout October. Then, the heavy snow arrives and stays until May.

In Mat’s apartment, I sleep on an air mattress in a spare bedroom filled with plants, and a humidifier to keep them thriving in Alaska’s extreme dryness (one local tells me winters here can get “so dry a pair of Levi’s fresh out the washer can dry in twenty minutes. I used to put my laundry out in my living room just to humidify the place”). In the corner of Mat’s dresser, I create a temporary “traveler’s altar” to sit with for the two weeks I’ll live here.

I arrive after a year of intense pandemic grief: rifts in some of my closest friendships, estrangement from some of my closest family, a break-up with a long-time partner, a long phase of unemployment and erratic work. The energy of Mat’s home feels right for healing. In small nooks around their apartment, they’ve posted handwritten notes of affirmation, blessings, and prayers: on the front door, a prayer to say before exiting the house and entering the outside world; on their bedroom wall, goals for the new moon; on the fridge, their affirmations for artistic work. Every morning while brushing my teeth, I read to myself the note they've posted above their bathroom light:

“MOVE AS SLOW AS THE EARTH.”

Though I accept the accidental Alaska autumn I arrived in, I still find myself searching for warmth whenever I can get it. Alaska forecasts will still say “mostly sunny” when the sky is 90% gray with a sliver of blue — “Alaska Sunny,” Mat calls it –– so chasing sun becomes a full-time, on-alert, activity. Whenever sunlight peeks out from behind the clouds, I head west on the highway to Turnagain Arm, and I sunbathe on seaside rocks for the brief hour before it eventually disappears again.

During my visit, Mat had just finished reading the book Wintering by Katherine May, a book that argues for the “power of rest and retreat during difficult times.” Winter is Mat’s favorite season in Alaska. Unlike me, they find more solace in the cold. They tell me that so much of their trauma responses involve their body getting hot, so “cold has become soothing to me, something my body actually craves.”

In contrast, my body has always felt more safe in the heat. For five years in my twenties, during every US winter, I’d travel down to the southern hemisphere or the Caribbean and cleverly outwit the seasons. Even when I somewhat “settled” in Oakland, I left the city every time even the meager California cold rolled in, and I'd land in a place where summer had already begun. I had never heard the term “snowbird” until I had accidentally already become one. I literally went eight years without experiencing a year with all seasons. The pandemic year was the first full winter I had endured in almost a decade.

During that pandemic winter, I’d often repeat this affirmation: “Nothing in nature blooms all year long.” And yet at my core, I still wanted to be the exception that did. I was resentful of winters. In those eight years scheduling travel around chasing summers, I had tried curating my life in a way that could bypass the difficult times, a life so good it would never be in need of rest or retreat, a life that was always blooming. Wintering always felt like failure. I didn’t want to move as slow as the earth.

But in Alaska, everything in nature seemed to want show me another way of considering time: the fireweed of course, but also how the lines carved onto shoreline rocks show where the glaciers stretched before they melted, or the way the trees on one side of Idlu Bena became orange before the other side of the lake because they absorbed less sun. Time, in Alaska, felt contextual, interdependent, relative to what I took the time to notice or deem important. It didn’t feel as simple as four designated seasons, and the strategic way I could schedule my way out of the one I hated most. The fireweed, the glaciers, the reddening trees lived based on a time that felt bigger than that.

One Sunday, on the trail to Rabbit Lake, Mat pointed out the elder bushes that grew along the trail. If you looked closely, you could see that even in September, the bush had already made its buds for the spring.

Mat learned from Wintering that most plants actually do this:

“Even as the leaves are falling, the bud’s of next year’s crop are already in place, waiting to erupt again in the spring. Most trees produce their buds in high summer...We rarely notice them because we think we’re seeing the skeleton of the tree, a dead thing until the sun returns. But look closely and every tree is in bud.

...The tree is waiting. It has everything ready... It is far from dead. It is in fact the life and soul of the wood. It’s just getting on with it quietly.”

For years, I had confronted my winter resentment by reminding myself that nothing in nature blooms all year long. But here, the elderbushes asked me to consider another idea: even when nature wasn’t blooming, our buds were already in place. Even during winter, nature was so much more ready for blooming than I ever imagined.

I had arrived in Alaska still ashamed of all the pandemic winter time I spent feeling stagnant at home, grieving grieving grieving, every day, without any idea of what could come next. The whole pandemic year felt like a winter, a dead thing that would never come back. And even then, once spring came, I still had no idea how I would make anything in my life bloom, how I would even have the energy to birth it. Blooming, after all that, felt so intimidating. Going through the work of creating my own buds — an exhausting ordeal.

But that day near Rabbit Lake, when I paused on the trail to take a deep breath between the mountains, I felt the most alive I had in more than a year. I had made new friends, I had somehow found work that felt sacred, I was falling in love with my life again. Even after what felt like one of the hardest, most seemingly stagnant seasons, the blooming had happened with ease. It turned out, so much of myself had been getting on with it, quietly.

Maybe I spent so many years avoiding winter because I never could bring myself to trust that quiet kind of growth. I never trusted that if I moved as slow as the earth, I could still somehow create everything I wanted.

Even now, back in Oakland at the beginning of our own autumn, I drive down Peralta Street, lined with sycamore trees with browning leaves. I notice the softer, golden autumn light begin to fall on them by mid-afternoon, and I notice myself getting fearful again.

I try to keep thinking of the elderbushes. I try to believe that what I’ve produced in this high summer has already created my buds. I try to move slowly. I try to trust that I don’t necessarily have to do anything now this winter but wait, and stay present with the cold.

This piece was originally published in Amanda Machado's weekly newsletter "Countries with No Language" -- a newsletter on race, gender, travel, and the outdoors. To subscribe to that newsletter and/or view the archive of entries, click here.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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