Dying in an avalanche was one fear that had never plagued Peter Fontaine. But glancing up at the walls of snow rising on either side of Nick's Audi, Peter thought that might have been an oversight. Nick's expression remained unconcerned as they wound their way through a narrow canyon of snow. Peter's chest tightened. The snowy walls seemed to be leaning toward him. A chunk of white fell to the wet black ribbon of road. His heart hammered as he envisioned himself being buried beneath the building-sized blocks of snow. Sweat beaded his brow. He glanced at himself in the mirror on the back of the passenger-side visor.
A gray-faced ghoul stared back at him.
From the driver's side, Nick asked, “Are you all right?”
Nick, of course, looked absolutely handsome. Through a vigorous regimen of snowshoeing, he'd retained his summer tan all the way till Christmas and beyond. His brown hair was streaked with straw-colored highlights. He wore a trim beard and mustache. It kept his face warm in the winter, he claimed. His pale blue eyes seemed like they could have been made from winter sky.
“I think I might be feeling a little confined,” Peter admitted. “How stable do you think these walls are anyway? Have any DOT snowplows gone missing in the last few weeks?”
Nick gave him a level glance. “We're almost there.”
“Seriously, this is like driving down a Manhattan alley,” Peter heard himself say, heard the note of hysteria in his voice, and yet was unable to stop himself talking. “Have I mentioned how much I hate Manhattan alleys?”
“Maybe you should try to think of something else.”
“Tell me about the article you're going to write.”
“You always write an article for the Hamster
about every place we ever go.” Nick smiled easily, carelessly, as if he had no fear whatsoever that he would be imminently crushed under tons of snow, which was probably the case.
Peter took a deep breath.
“I think it will go something like, Anyone who stays in Bellingham for very long will become familiar with the number 542. You see it on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and even occasionally on “scenic highway” road signs. Highway 542 goes fifty-five miles east and five thousand feet up from Bellingham Bay to the Mount Baker Ski Area. If you're lucky enough to not be suffocated in a freak highway avalanche, you will reach Artist Point
“We're not going that far,” Nick said. “The sno-park is just past Glacier.”
“Hooray,” Peter weakly rejoined.
“Once we turn off the highway it will be more open. I promise,” Nick said. “I didn't realize you were so claustrophobic.”
“I don't think it's claustrophobia so much as fear of being buried alive.”
“If you want me to take you back to Bellingham, I can do that and still make it back up in time for the festival.”
Peter shook his head. “I really want to be there. I can tough it out. I promise.”
Nick nodded but seemed worried.
“It's just that I don't ever remember you saying you liked snow camping.”
“I like the idea
of snow camping,” Peter offered. “And I want to be with you for New Year's Eve, and this is where you're going to be, so...”
Nick broke out in the sort of smile that had once made him the darling of the Manhattan gallery scene.
“I really think that after you get used to the cold you're going to like it. The Freezing Man festival is a lot like Burning Man, only colder and with fewer hippies on acid--and with more snow sculpting.”
“But there will be some
hippies on acid, right?”
“Only if you invited your friends.”
When Nick had first proposed the idea of spending New Year's Eve huddled together in a recently erected igloo, Peter had been torn.
Because their families lived in different states, they had decided to spend Christmas apart. Nick had entertained his cousin Kjell's family at the Castle, the enormous, cliff-face domicile that Nick had inherited from his first partner. Meanwhile Peter flew to Austin to visit his folks, who had moved to Texas once Peter graduated from college.
One guest at the Fontaine Christmas barbecue, Larry Polk, happened to be a newspaperman. He happened to offer Peter an interview at the Austin Chronicle
. Peter happened to accept.
He'd been drunk at the time, but he'd agreed to the interview again, sober, three days later.
Hamster is too small a venue for an award-winning journalist
,” Larry had told him in his flat, east Texas drawl. “You need to come on down here. We'll treat you right
Peter loved the Hamster
, loved the city of Bellingham, loved his friends here, but he also had a little something called ambition. And to satisfy that he would have to trade up. He needed a bigger city with a bigger paper and bigger circulation.
He hadn't told Nick about either the job or the fact that he'd agreed to an interview; he couldn't. He, constantly talking, constantly writing copy in his head, could not find the words to say that he was thinking of leaving Bellingham. Not even now.
Peter found himself staring out the window and made himself look at Nick instead. He filled up his eye with the image of his lover...felt himself relaxing enough to stare hard at that beard Nick been wearing since November.
Peter didn't know if he liked it, but thought maybe he might. He wondered if he should grow a beard himself, before remembering that he couldn't. Mustaches barely managed to take hold on the outcropping of his upper lip. An entire beard would never grow on the thin, barren planes of his face.
And he could probably count on never having too much hair on his chest, unlike Nick, whose hairy Viking ancestors probably had never needed to wear shirts at all.
Though not born a true Pacific Northwesterner, Nick had nonetheless adapted to local ways and therefore ran the air conditioner in his car anytime the thermometer went over sixty.
Peter preferred to engage the car's heated seats rather than the air conditioner, but then, that followed. An old boyfriend of his had once remarked that he was “as cold as a woman,” and that was just about right. He didn't have a lot to keep him warm. He had what some kindly referred to as a “runner's physique” and others, such as his grandmother, called “skinny little string bean.”
He had no idea how he was going to survive the weekend in the wilderness and even less idea how he would bring up the job in Austin.
Because he didn't want to leave, really. He didn't want to leave the Pacific Northwest, and he didn't want to leave Nick. But he wanted to level up--go out into the larger world and prove what he could do. Comfort, even affection, couldn't satisfy that desire to compete, to go further. It stayed in Peter's chest, a hard, gnawing anxiety.
The anxiety apparently showed on his face, because Nick said, “You know, there's a lodge on the property about half a mile from the campsite. If it's too miserable, we can always go there.”
“That wouldn't impress your outdoorsy friends much.”
Nick snorted. “Once they let me out of the army, I no longer had any desire to exercise my machismo.”
“That's because you have a natural rugged manliness that makes machismo completely unnecessary,” Peter said. In spite of his claim of imperviousness to the opinions of others, Nick beamed smugly at Peter's comment. “I, on the other hand, wouldn't call myself rugged.”
“No,” Nick agreed, “you're more like a greyhound. Sleek, skinny, and always on the scent of a good story.”
“And exactly like a greyhound, I think I'm going to be shivering in this snow.”
“You can always curl up on my lap for warmth.” Nick grinned.
Peter rolled his eyes. “There is no way I'm going to cuddle up to you in front of all those burly, sporty dudes.”
“You will, once you're cold enough. Or drunk enough.”
“There isn't enough vodka in the world. And you would die of embarrassment if I did.”
“So you think.”
“So I know, Mr. I-Don't-Even-Hold-Hands-During-the-Pride-Parade.” Peter laughed. “You're shy. Just admit it.”
“I admit nothing.”
Nick turned right and started up a narrow, slippery side road that seemed more like twin ruts in the snow than a paved surface. Though it was more treacherous, Peter felt better about this road than he had about the snow canyon that was 542. Sliding into an icy ravine seemed preferable to being crushed beneath tons of snow, though he couldn't generate any logical reason why. After ten minutes of slow, careful driving, he saw a handwritten sign ahead:
FREEZING MAN PARKING.
AVALANCHE WARNING IN EFFECT.
HAPPY FUCKING NEW YEAR!
* * * * *
Like many of the trails systems in Whatcom County, Salmon Ridge Sno-Park had been built by a team of dedicated snowshoeing enthusiasts, including Nick's second cousin, Kjell Van Beek.
Kjell had taken up plein air painting as a way to express his feelings during a personal crisis he'd experienced in his midthirties, and five years later he'd become not only quite good but a well-known fixture in Bellingham parks and on Whatcom County's many scenic byways. Like Nick, Kjell had a near-superhuman tolerance for cold. Peter had once seen him standing at his easel in the middle of Boulevard Park in a prosaically beautiful snowfall wearing a parka, snow boots, and cargo shorts.
Peter had met Kjell before, briefly, when Nick had had a show up at Mindport Gallery. He'd talked mostly about his recent conversion from painting with oils to painting with acrylics.
More than the sign, it was sighting Kjell standing alongside the road in that very same outfit which told Peter they had arrived at their destination. The fresh, powdery snow stirred up by Nick's car stuck to the dark, curly hair on Kjell's meaty thighs, but he didn't seem to notice, being deeply engaged in scumbling a thin layer of white paint over the painting on his canvas, giving the thing the same hazy, misty look as the surrounding scenery.
“Shouldn't we stop and say hi?”
Nick shook his head. “He wouldn't talk to us if we did. He's in the flow.”
“Do you ever do that?”
“Get in the flow? All the time.”
“No, I mean stand around painting exactly what happens to be in front of you at the moment.”
“Not really. Sometimes I'll sketch something I've just seen, but I've never been much of a plein air guy. They really love to capture the light and energy and immediacy of their environment. The gestalt of the moment. Including whatever random bugs and twigs fall into their paint. Kjell once painted over a whole cloud of gnats that slapped into his painting during a windstorm. That certainly lent the piece a unique texture as only encountered outdoors.”
“But uniquely, organically bumpy.” Nick pulled the car alongside a string of around thirty similarly snow-worthy vehicles.
Peter hadn't expected the Hilton, but he had expected at least one building to be visible. The promised lodge, for example. Nothing, not even an outhouse, marred the expanse of snow and trees. He zipped up his coat, summoned his manly sense of adventure, and opened the car door. The air was chilly but not bitterly cold. Huge white snowflakes drifted down through the still air to alight on the cedars, the car, Nick's woolen toque.
A few yards down a gentle slope a few people in brightly colored winter gear tromped through the snow, erecting poles and packing snow into blocks. The puffiness of their parkas changed their proportions, giving the scene the impression of extremely industrious children busy making the world's greatest snow fort.
“I came up Wednesday and scoped out our site and started our structure.” Nick hauled rucksacks of equipment out of the back of the car. “It's right down there. See the red flag?”
The red flag was really more of a banner such as one might see a costumed knave carrying in a renaissance fair. Two golden letters adorned the red field: N
. It hung alongside a little mound of snow that seemed to be getting gently covered with a blanket of cotton ball-sized snowflakes.
Was getting buried in the snow his theme for today?
Without really thinking, he started to internally write his own obituary: Peter Fontaine, winner of the Investigative Reporter's and Editor's Award, died Saturday after being suffocated inside an artistic igloo. Fontaine's lover, prominent Bellingham painter Nick Olson, escaped the igloo with only a mild chill. Fontaine's blue, frozen body will be on display at the Freezing Man Snow Sculpture Festival until the North Cascades experience a significant summer snowmelt.
Perhaps sensing Peter's uneasiness, Nick said, “You know, I didn't realize you had this claustrophobia problem when I built the shelter. It's pretty tight in there.” Nick paused, seeming about to reiterate his offer to take Peter back to Bellingham.
“I'll be fine as long as there's enough room for you to warm me with your body.” Peter forced a lewd smile.
Nick smiled back--a smile of relief and gratitude. “There's sufficient space inside to generate heat-producing friction.”
“Then let's go down so I can see the accommodations.”
Nick led the way, dragging their gear behind him on a pulka that he'd made from a plastic sled he'd bought at Canadian Tire and some half-inch PVC pipe. Peter watched Nick--bearded, dressed in well-worn GORE-TEX, polarized shades, and dragging a sledful of cargo--and he didn't think that Nick could have appeared more rugged if he'd planned it. And he fit right in with the other men there, though it was sometimes hard to tell the men from the women beneath all the protective gear. The only sure indicators of gender were the colors pink and purple for women and beards for men. Otherwise everyone looked the same in snow pants.
They all seemed to be engaged in various stages of building snow shelters. Nick greeted them, introducing Peter as he went.
The igloo closest to the road was inhabited by a chef named Henry Swank and his wife, Janelle. Both seemed to be in their late thirties, and they had obviously been interrupted in the middle of an argument. They owned a catering business in Bellingham. Peter knew them from their Hamster
ad, which highlighted their organic produce and membership in Sustainable Connections, one of Bellingham's many left-leaning business associations.
Janelle smiled warmly and shook Peter's hand, while Henry only gave them a cursory wave. Peter couldn't decide who had been winning that argument. Henry probably, since Janelle had been happy to be interrupted.
Next came a Martin Wells, who seemed to be in his midtwenties. He and two friends, Rick and Shane, seemed to be bent on creating an entire mansion. Three domed humps stood clustered together. Peter wondered if they somehow had to make three different rooms to avoid sleeping close to each other. They seemed to be the type of guys who would be worried about being perceived to be fags.
“Martin's got an engineering degree but no job offer. He and two buddies apparently spend all their time on the mountain perfecting their snow- and ice-building techniques. I cannot compete with them.” Nick indicated his own snow mound. “It's only one room.”
“Igloo sweet igloo,” Peter remarked.
“Technically this is a quinzhee.” Nick crouched down and opened the tiny, cupboard-sized door. “You make it by mounding up the snow, letting it set, and then digging out the middle. We'll be cozy in here, that's for sure. Just about the only thing that can bring it down is rain.”
“What if it rains?” Peter thought it was a fair question, rain being quite common, even in January.
“Then we run back to the car and drive back to Glacier and get a hotel.”
“Can the hotel room have a hot tub?”
“Absolutely.” Nick opened the little door. “After you.”
Peter crawled through the entry and found himself in a surprisingly bright domed room. Though there was not quite enough height to stand up straight, the top of the ceiling was about five feet high. A raised platform took up half the floor space. A red votive candle stood in a nook carved into the wall. There was a small hole in the top of the dome that Peter imagined must be for ventilation.
Nick sat down on the platform, beaming.
“How do you like it?”
“It's pretty cool,” Peter said. “No pun intended.”
“This is our bed.” Nick indicated the raised platform. “The rest of it is our living room. Except the foyer, of course.” Nick pointed at the little tunnel leading to the cupboard door.
“Where is our bathroom?”
“You always think of the most romantic things,” Nick said. “We set up a couple of tents of portable toilets, and I've got WAG BAGs on the sled. We have to pack everything out, per Washington State regulations, and that includes toilet paper.”
“That puts an amazing image in my mind.”
“You can always go without. Kjell never uses it. He claims that a snowball does the trick, and you can just bury it afterward. The snowball, I mean. Everything else goes in the bag.”
“You know, Kjell is exactly the kind of person I would expect to wipe his ass with a snowball,” Peter remarked. “I think I'll go with the standard-issue TP.”
“I tried the snowball method once.”
“I bet you did. How was it?”
“Chilly. Very, very chilly.” Nick gave an involuntary shudder as he brushed the snow off his mittens. “Let's get our stuff inside so we can join the fun.”
After they moved their gear and set up their sleeping pads, Peter reluctantly acquainted himself with the toilet tent, which turned out to be not that bad.
It was two in the afternoon, two hours and twenty-nine minutes until sunset. Nick suggested they spend the time snowshoeing around the campsite so Peter could get the lay of the area.
In spite of only having worn snowshoes on one previous occasion, Peter got along fairly easily on his rentals. He followed Nick down a trail leading between snow-draped stands of western hemlock and fir. Overhead, the sky was deep blue. Weak winter sun shone from the south. Nick took him down to the trail's terminus at the edge of the North Fork of the Nooksack River. Even in deep winter, water still flowed quickly and freely at the center. He pointed out the line of the riverbank and the treacherous ice that grew in a thin, deceptive sheet across the surface.
“And if you look up there”--Nick pointed up at a field of snow--“you can see how there are fissures in the surface of the snowfield?”
Peter squinted up. “Yes, I think so.”
“That slope is highly unstable and likely to come down. I'd stay away from it.”
Peter couldn't help but smile at the seriousness of Nick's tone. He sounded like a troop leader addressing an errant and death-prone Boy Scout. Or maybe this was just his army survival training kicking in. It was insufferable in any case.
Peter said, “I don't know why you think I'm going to be traipsing around out here by myself. I don't even have a map.”
“You never know,” Nick said. “People get separated for a lot of reasons. And then they end up dying. And you should keep an eye out for tree wells too. If you fall in one of those, you could break both your legs.”
“I really don't think I'm going to be straying farther than the toilet tent.” Peter stopped, planted his ski poles firmly in the snow.
Nick stopped and turned to face him fully. “I'm only telling you this because you're naturally curious and inquisitive and also secretive. You're the kind of person who'll sneak off to check something out without telling anyone. I just want you to know that there are a lot of ways to get hurt out here, so you shouldn't go out alone.”
“I promise that if I decide to go poking around, I will take an equally nosy buddy. But seriously, I plan on spending most of my time here either looking at snow sculptures, snoozing in the igloo, or drinking vodka in full view of everyone, including you. Now please stop treating me like a girl.”
“It's a quinzhee, not an igloo.”
“I'll make a note of it for my story.”
Nick nodded, apparently satisfied. He stared up at the trees for a few moments, then said, “I'm trying to make sure you're safe.”
Peter thought: Nick Olson, king of communication, stated the obvious today on a snowy trail in the Mount Baker National Forest. Bystanders described his remark as “sincere but also easily observable by anybody.”
Then he stopped his internal rant. Nick should be given credit for saying anything at all. Plus he was right. Peter was nosy and secretive. He was withholding quite a whopper right that very second. He was just mad at Nick for knowing him well. He felt his ire leaving him.
Peter said, “But you know, drinking vodka is not the only activity I had planned for tonight.”
“Well, night's going to last for a long time. My only concern is that if I expose any flesh, I might catch a chill.”
Nick gave him a long, silent look and then smirked. “I think I can find a way to protect any flesh you may choose to expose.”
“We should probably get back and make some dinner and get right to bed, then.”