BARROW, Alaska — "Nine Broadway shows, and now I'm sellin' freezers to the Eskimos! Gimme a break!"
Richard Binneville, dark-haired, wiry and hyper-energetic, is running between his cash register and a hapless demonstration of an Eskimo fur yo-yo for some tourists who want to know how it works. The fluffy balls are connected by a string of yarn, and it should be twirled, bolo-fashion, until both ends are airborne, but he can't make it work.
"Ex-dancer makes fool of himself," he mutters through clenched teeth.
After a couple of hours in Barrow, the northernmost point in the United States, nothing, not even an ex-tap dancer from New York selling freezers to the Eskimos, comes as a big surprise.
From the Alaska Commercial Co., where Binneville also sells everything from TV sets to pineapples flown in fresh from Hawaii, it's only a short jog to Pepe's North of the Border Mexican restaurant, where Fran Tate, an ex-electrical engineer from the state of Washington, will sell you a Jose's Combination Plate No. 1 for $16.75, which makes it not only the northernmost Mexican restaurant in the world, but probably the priciest as well.
End of the Trail
Barrow almost inevitably gets bad press in the Lower 48 (which is what Alaska calls the rest of us), perhaps because locals like to wear T-shirts and billed caps with the slogan "Keep on Whalin'." Or perhaps because it's a sort of spiritual end of the trail for a clutch of adventurers, eccentrics and other lost souls who live here and work with or for the North Slope Borough or the native (i.e., Eskimo) corporations that own and operate almost everything for 88,000 square miles around.
We happened to be passing through Barrow on a passenger ship transit of the Northwest Passage aboard Society Expeditions' World Discoverer, so we arrived by sea almost too literally--we splashed in on an inflatable rubber landing craft.
Most visitors, however, come in by air, landing near a granite-and-bronze monument honoring humorist Will Rogers and aviator Wiley Post, who died when their plane crashed here in 1935.
There's only one road out of town, and it runs 11 miles out to the natural gas installation and stops. Dixie Figgins, editor of the local paper, Ukpiagvik's Edington Unedited, has put 20,000 miles on her van up here. "It's amazing how much you can put on just driving around town," she said.
Cold, Damp August
We met Dixie after we had trudged up the beach from our wet landing, clad in knee-high rubber boots and heavy Arctic parkas against the bitingly cold winds on a chilly, damp August morning.
Skims of ice lay on the puddles by the unemployment office, and the desultory sled dogs lying atop their dog houses scarcely lifted their muzzles from the warmth of their furry tails as we clumped by.
Nothing in Barrow seemed to be alive and moving that morning except one muddy pickup truck whose driver wore a billed cap that said, "It's hard to soar like an eagle when you work with turkeys."
His eyes flicked briefly toward us, but his face was devoid of curiosity as he watched us shuffle down the dirt street toward the Top of the World Hotel ($110 single, $120 double in summer; $83 across the board in winter.)
At first the lobby--blessedly warm--was empty except for a gigantic rampant stuffed polar bear in one corner, but then a pretty, breathless blonde wearing open-toed high-heeled sandals hurried in and asked if she could interview us about the ship. We agreed if she, in turn, would consent to being interviewed by us.
Dixie and her then-husband had come up to Barrow from Oregon to operate the telephone company. Nine years and a divorce later, Dixie and her daughter were still here. "I guess I consider myself an Alaskan," she says.
How Cold Was It?
But life on the North Slope makes the rest of Alaska look as cushy as California. Dixie showed us a May edition of her 16-page paper with a banner headline that proclaimed "Spring Festival Brings Sunshine to Barrow."
The bystanders, bundled up in fur parkas, watch the spring parade of vehicles crunch through the ice, steamy vapors pouring from their exhausts. Later, the children have an Easter egg hunt in the snow; the windchill factor is minus 40 degrees.
A full-page display ad on the back of the same issue reminds residents that the annual Barrow supply barge will leave Seattle on July 8, so all orders for next year's supplies should be in by June 1. Anything arriving in Barrow on the other 364 days has to come in by air.
The North Slope is a desert, not only figuratively but literally, with only four inches of precipitation in an average year. Water is scarce and expensive. ("My water bill last month was $385," Dixie told us. "I washed my car once and my daughter washed hers once.")
Here, 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the tundra is a tightly woven grass mat the texture and color of a doormat spread over the permafrost, the permanent layer of rocks and soil frozen solid for centuries, which, on the North Slope, can be as much as 2,000 feet deep.