We drove up the snowy, winding road towards the cozy A-frame cabin we'd rented for the weekend. As we climbed the hill, Renee tried to keep our wheels set in the powdery grooves left by some other vehicle before us but it felt like the road was driving us rather than the other way around. We slowed as she navigated a particularly tight curve and I felt my stomach sink at the distinct sensation of tires spinning without purchase. The tell-tale whir of a revving engine filled my ears as our progress suddenly ceased. Renee eased off the gas and we slid gently down the road a few inches as the packed ice beneath the powder carried us to a gentle stop.
I'd grown up in Alaska but had left after college and hadn't been back in nearly a decade. Renee was a Californian at heart, unwilling to admit defeat on any road but unaccustomed the the distinct midwinter phenomenon of snow covered ice. I'd hoped to show her the land where I'd grown up and to propose to her under the northern lights but that wouldn't happen if we couldn't even reach our rental cabin at the top of the hill.
Renee tried the gas again but the tires only sang their falsetto tune as they slid impotently on the ice. She eased off the gas then tried again and we actually slid back another foot or two. She gave an incomprehensible oath then turned to me. "I think we're going to need to put on the chains."
I laughed to myself and remembered my first encounter with tire chains at the age of 24, two years after I'd moved out of the state. "I hate to break this to you, but they don't really use chains up here."
"Well how in the hell are we supposed to get to the house then?"
I gave a neutral shrug, not wanting to frustrate her further. "I think we just need to try it again. Do you mind if I trade you spots?"
The look she gave me was somewhere between hurt and fury but it softened quickly to a playful guile. "If you think you can do it, go ahead!" She clearly didn't think I could do any better and, honestly, I wasn't sure either but this was my opportunity to show off my arctic cred.
I opened my door and stepped into the shin-deep fluff. I quietly cursed myself for not changing into boots when we first arrive at the little local airport. Snow quickly poured in between my socks and the side of my tennis shoes and my ankles chilled in a way I hadn't felt in years. Acknowledging the ice layer under the freshly fallen blanket of snow, I adopted the distinctive, yet effective, penguin walk that every child learns when they grow up near icy sidewalks.
I could feel Renee watching me through the rear view mirror and imagined her vengeful smirk, sure that I would fail the hill climb just as she had. As I reached the driver side door, she threw her leg across the center console and crawled deftly into the passenger seat, her ankles warm and snow free. I opened the door, kicked the snow off my my shoes then settled into the drivers seat. She laughed at me as I adjusted the seat back to remove my knees from my nostrils. "Alright Shackleton, lets go!" she said, drumming a rhythmic march on the dash board.
I gave her a look that begged "Please don't," and she smiled and leaned over to give me a warm kiss. "For luck!" she said.
My bravado suddenly revived, I sat bolt upright and with a look of devastating gravity declared "Where we're going, we don't need luck!" I then moved the automatic transmission into reverse and collapsed dramatically into the distinct road-goblin posture of someone carefully trying to reverse down a winding snow-covered icy road.
Renee stared at me with concern but I was laser focused on safely reaching the well graded road we'd originally turned off. On more than one occasion, the car slid backwards beyond my control but we were righted every time by the old reflexive wheel turns my dad had taught me in my middle school parking lot when I was learning to drive. After a few tense moments, we were finally secure on the bare asphalt of the main road.
Though I was quite pleased with myself for not killing us, Renee (not without a little awe, I imagined) reminded me that we still had to get to the top of the hill if we were going to avoid a chilly night in the car. I looked at her a gravely and told her I would need a little more luck before attempting the climb. She gave me a smiling kiss, one of my favorite flavors despite the awkward toothiness of it. "For luck... Again!" she said as she pulled away.
Bolstered by her encouragement, I eased down on the gas pedal and began our climb in earnest. We almost stalled at the very beginning when our wheels moved from blacktop to the snowy pillow accumulated on our side road. The tractionless wheels sang for a split second before inertia pushed us over the berm to be catch on the other side.
With steely determination, I claimed the entire snowy road as my own. I rode the invisible currents carved into the surface and gently danced my foot harder or softer on the gas pedal as the whims of winter demanded. The snow that had filled my shoes as I'd taken the captain's seat had now fully melted and soaked through my socks to the toes. Still I felt nothing but the road beneath us, I was more car than man as we climbed!
Ahead of us I could see the curve that had ended our first attempt and my grip on the steering wheel tightened. Where Renee had slowed, I accelerated, determined to keep our traction, come what may. Though the turn wasn't completely blind, I still beeped the tiny horn of our rental car to warn any oncoming traffic then sped into the turn.
Our front wheels kept their grip this time as I pulled a wide arc into the opposite "lane." (Lanes mean very little when you have more than six inches of powdery snow on the road.) But while the front held, the back wheels slid laterally in a fish-tail that kicked up more snow than I would have liked. I forced the steering wheel left then right to compensate and with a tense breath we were righted and rolling up the hill in full control.
The road beyond our evil curve was downright welcoming! Whether it was because of the extra speed I'd gained in the curve or because the nature of the snow was changing as we gained elevation, we made it the rest of the way to our rental without incident. As we pulled into nicely plowed driveway, I think I allowed myself to take my first breath in a minute and a half as I looked to passenger seat..
Renee's look was a mix of crushing jealousy and overwhelming attraction (at least that's what I choose to believe). "Honey, we're home!" I said proudly, affecting an outward calm to hide my shotgunning blood pressure and the new patch of fear-bleached hair I'd acquired. She turned her body toward me and wrapped her arms around me in a tight hug and kiss.
"Can we go look inside?" she asked as she opened her car door.
After that climb, the rest of the trip went exactly as planned. Two nights later the northern lights came out in full force and I proposed to Renee on the porch of our A-frame. She said "Yes" and we will be celebrating our 20th anniversary in a few days. We haven't been back to Alaska since that trip but I will always remember that climb and the wet sock-prints I left on the heated tile floor when we first walked into the rental. Renee and I watched the print evaporate away then she looked at me and declared "This place is magical!"
It really was.