The Slope Effect (or I’m not in Cleveland Anymore)

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When I lived in Kansas, my arch nemesis wasn’t a person, but a place … Cleveland.  There is no need to go to Cleveland with my new job, so I wondered what my new Cleveland would be.  I was sure, the North Slope would be my new Cleveland.

I am in Day 4 of my week on the slope.  I have about 48 hours to go until I get on a plane for the return trip.  At the moment, the slope is the most uninhabitable that its been since my arrival – the temperature is -31°F (-35°C) and with a light wind the wind chill is a whopping -59°F (-50°C … yeah, it’s so cold that Celsius is warmer).  Just in case you are wondering, I’m not dead.  In fact, I am quite comfortable.  I know I am comfortable because I seem to be keeping close track of any effects this place has on me.  There is nothing normal about this place, which keeps me wondering what it could mean to me.

It amazes me that we are here at all.  The word, uninhabitable, rattles around in my consciousness every time I leave a building.  Just the slightest of winds makes it so that exposure of the outside air can cause permanent damage to you.  It is a sobering thought, but people have lived here for tens of thousands of years.  Everyday thousands of people step out the door into that environment and come back to these camps uninjured, safe, and happy.  Yet I am made aware of the danger over and over.  Prudhoe Bay qualifies as a desert, it gets little moisture falling from the sky.  At first seeing the foot of snow on the ground would make you think otherwise, but then I realize that the constant cold means no snow melts.  What fell in September, October, November, it is still there outside, and it will be there come April, May, even June.  The only change is the way the wind washes away any evidence of disturbance.  The winter then becomes almost timeless in nature.

The one thing I am most aware of is a constant low drone of sound.  Every location I am at is powered or heated by generators.  Sometimes the noise is just fans blowing warm air in a room.  Sometimes it is the actual hum of a power source.  Sometimes I don’t know what makes the noise.  But in every building, every hall, every room, there seems to be that drone.  While I know the sounds are manmade, I can’t help to feel like it has some connection to the world outside of the window.  Maybe I am most aware of it when I look out the window, or that is what hangs in my head from the first time here and I sat in a glass lined room looking over the tundra.  But as I sit here and type and picture the snow scape and freezing world the sounds in my mind are that of that steady quiet drone.

I wondered what the dark would do to me.  I haven’t seen the sun since the day I left Anchorage.  There’s some cloud cover, but that isn’t why the sun hasn’t shown on me; the sun literally not high enough to break the horizon.  It skews my time of day some.  Every common area (halls, lounges, lobbies, etc) never change their lighting, whether they keep it lights on or lights dim it’s the same 24/7.  Depending on the lighting in a room, I sometimes feel like 9AM is the crack of early, or I should be getting ready for bed at 2PM, or 11pm is no different than any other time of day.  Truth is, it’s not completely dark all day though.  From about 10am until about 3pm, there is enough daylight to see.  When I could, I would make the effort to look out the window every day during that time, for curiosity for the most part to see what it’s like out there.  That light, though, is like a trigger of warmth.  When the sun comes, it is there and you become aware that it’s not just a fog of dark but a place with buildings and tundra and space.

What amazes me the most about this place is that I prepared for what I felt would be feelings that were as dark as the sky and as cold as the snow.  I felt that I wouldn’t be comfortable, that I would be constantly worried of the things I would see.  Don’t get me wrong, I know this is no paradise, and I doubt I could handle a rotation here for very long like the real slope workers do.  What surrounds me, though, is a reminder that this is a unique place like no other I have ever or will ever see.  This place is special, and as much as we respect the bad ways this place is special, I can’t help to be effected by the all else about it.

Who knows, the slope could become my new arch nemesis.  But not today.  Not this week.  That I can say for sure.  I can also say, I will never mistake this place for Cleveland.

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