Holiday Costs When Your Partner Lives in the Arctic

Photo credit: Dawn Ellner, CC BY 2.0.

Rochester, New York is a small but sprawling city in the western corner of New York state, caught between “true” Western New York and the Finger Lakes. Buffalo is to our west, and Syracuse to our southeast. Though my downstate family members laugh at how far away I am and how supposedly remote Rochester is, this is a judgment that only a born and bred New Yorker could make; we have a legitimate airport, and there are several more airports within a 90-minute drive. We’ve got Amtrak, Greyhound, and no shortage of highways. This is where I live, in my 350-square-foot apartment in the heart of the city. It’s where I want to be for a long time, and it’s where I met my partner one year ago.

Lander, Wyoming is a much smaller place, and much more remote. It is about three hours away from the only city in Wyoming the rest of the country seems to know about (Jackson, commonly known as “Jackson Hole” out of state) and also two to three hours—depending on the season—from Jackson Hole’s airport. In practice, however, it’s too expensive to fly into Jackson Hole, so most people tend to get to Lander via Salt Lake City or Denver, both four to six hours away by car. More often, though, people pass through Lander on cross-country road trips to see the famous sights of the great Wild West: the Tetons, or Yellowstone National Park. Lander is where my partner lived for four years; more importantly, it’s where his son lives.

Tulugak*, Alaska is smaller still, a tiny Iñupiat village of seven hundred people on the Kobuk river. There are three stores, a post office that shuts down and fails to function on a regular basis, and a K-12 school. No alcohol is permitted in this village. To get there, you have to first fly into Anchorage, then leave the part of the airport with real security to board a small regional plane to Kotzebue, the “capital” and “gateway” of the Northwest Arctic region. There, you’ll await (and I do mean await) the services of a bush plane so basic you’ll have to keep your parka and snow pants on. It may arrive or depart vaguely on schedule; it just as well may not. Storms that stick around for days on end—or any inclement weather, really—can derail all flight operations with such small planes. When your plane finally does leave, it may go straight to Tulugak; it just as well may stop in Kiana, the next village over, before touching down in tiny, frozen Tulugak.

And Tulugak is where my partner lives now.

My partner Jeff has a master’s degree and one prior year of teaching, back in Wyoming. This year is his first in Tulugak, and he will make $63,724, plus a stipend for coaching sports teams each semester. His living expenses are laughably low; so is his access to creature comforts like cell phone service, internet, basic privacy, and green vegetables. If I had to get in touch with him right now (by, say, calling or texting), I probably couldn’t. If I had to get up there in a hurry, for some kind of emergency, I definitely couldn’t. It would take me easily two or three days to go on short notice; I’d also be guaranteed a case of frostbite, lacking as I am in the right gear.

When I’m especially cranky or busy—and when the Tulugak Wi-Fi is strong enough—Jeff sends me dinner from my favorite vegan restaurant via Grubhub. Sometimes he ships me bits of gear or books ordered on Amazon. I, on the other hand, cannot send him Grubhub treats, because there are no restaurants in Tulugak. I’ve often felt the urge to send him a long, romantic letter, then immediately thought better of it, based on how many damaged, empty, and no-show packages and letters (including credit cards and bank documents) he has experienced in his first three months. The chances that a single, plain envelope would arrive relatively intact, or in a somewhat reasonable time frame, approach zero. He was advised to use heavy-duty plastic totes, zip-tied shut, for anything he planned on shipping to Tulugak.

Jeff had been having trouble finding a job in Rochester, and then, one week in late July, he applied to the job in Tulugak, interviewed, and was accepted. This all happened within 48 hours, all of which I happen to have spent in and out of delirious sleep, sick with a sinus infection and unaware that any of this was going on. Less than five days later, he was gone, back in Lander to get his bearings and see his son before he moved to Tulugak.

“I can’t say no!” he told me, over the sound of my hysterical sobbing, so many times. The money, it’s true, is good. He ran the numbers and told me he could wipe out his student loans and what was left on his truck in two short years, all the while saving buckets of money and building a nest egg that would set him (and us, he kept insisting, though I refused to see myself as part of this) up for anything he wanted.

Round trip flights in or out of Tulugak will typically run you somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,600. During peak times, such as the spring break week that several bush village schools have in common, that figure is closer to $3,000. Even if you’re making good money, and saving, and collecting miles on your Alaska Airlines credit card and cash from your petroleum fund dividend, that is a lot of fucking money. It’s also an agonizing, long journey, rife with opportunities for failure, delays, and missed connections. Getting to Anchorage—which is where you might buy a vegetable, or see a doctor, or open a bank account—is a relatively affordable $600, give or take. I don’t know if it’s funny or tragic that when Jeff and I met up in Anchorage in September, my flights (including trip insurance) were cheaper than his.

Winter break is a merciful two weeks long. Jeff and I will spend it in Lander with his son; his mom will join us for part of it. This is the most expensive holiday of my life.

I’m Jewish, so it’s no shock that I don’t do Christmas. Sometimes I travel. Sometimes I buy one or two gifts, for people who are very close to me, and because the timing just works out that way. Sometimes I make an extra large batch of potato latkes for friends, or give obligatory flowers or booze to a host. Mostly, I end up spending money on functions, gas, and having drinks with people I don’t see often enough. The most expensive holiday season of my life wouldn’t have to be that expensive, really.

Here are the basic costs that Jeff, his mother, and I are incurring this holiday season.

  • Jeff’s flights: $239.60 (+30,000 miles accrued with Alaska Airlines)
  • His mom’s flights: $900
  • My flights: $492.60
  • Our rental car: $250
  • Her rental car: $509
  • Airbnb in Denver (day of arrival): $117.83
  • Airbnb in Lander (two weeks): $1,166.30
  • Hotel in Denver (night before outbound flights): $83.25

These costs do not represent gifts, treats, or holiday feasts (all three of us share a bone-deep distaste for all things Christmas, so we will not be observing). These costs exclude what we’ll spend on meals, groceries, and outings, not to mention gas between Denver, Jackson, and Lander. I’ve left out the extra warm clothing that I needed to get in order to be comfortable in a Wyoming winter. This is just what it is going to cost us to spend time—time that just happens to coincide with “the holidays”—together.

This is what it is going to cost me to sleep next to him, see his face unscrambled by spotty Wi-Fi, cook dinner and watch Pixar movies with his son, and share a pot of coffee in the morning.

What price can I put on the agony of our travels? Will I be amending these costs to reflect a night he had to spend in Kotzebue or Anchorage when his flights didn’t connect? A similar issue on my own side of things? I have one connection and he has three, and so the chances that both of us will arrive in the Denver airport at our scheduled, convenient times are… well, let’s just say the odds could be better, based especially on what we know about flying in and out of the Arctic Circle.

I don’t have PTO, so I can put a price on the money I won’t be making for those two weeks: $1,100. But who knows? It could be missing out on a lot more money than that. People get generous during the holidays and I’ve seen some fat tips in Decembers past. My weekly tip average has been steadily climbing, so my $1,100 estimate is conservative. And imagine the tips I’d make working Christmas Eve, the lone Jewish employee happy to ensure no one else had to sacrifice time with their family!

I spent $70 at Lush two days before Jeff left for Tulugak, in the name of finely scented self-care. I spent a lot on takeout that week, too, because I was never home, had no time to shop or cook, and was too sad to do that anyway. Whenever I sat still, I’d start to feel a vise closing, slowly, around my throat, counting off all the camping trips, all the travels, all the long hikes, road trips, lazy days in bed, fun dates in the city, meals cooked at home, trips to our favorite brewery, that were no longer in my future. Every time I was upset for the next month, I could only choke out one thing: it just happened so fast.

I can’t put a price on how shocking and sad it was for him to leave so suddenly, even though I agreed he had to take this job. I can’t put a price on how it has felt to be apart for three straight months when I’d never expected us to be long distance, and certainly not so soon, nor so long distance. The disagreements, the tense conversations, the arguing about whether or not this was right after all: what has that cost me, him, us?

What has it cost me—in time, in tips I didn’t make because I couldn’t be sharp or pretty or friendly enough, in days I’ll never get back—to look around at all the literal and figurative expenses this incurs and wonder how long he’ll be up there, and what will come of it? My dread doesn’t come attached to a number.

It is true that Jeff will put a huge dent in his debts this year, and that having fixed, comparatively high income has been a relief. He took this job for the money, but it is also true that Jeff is the most adventurous (and up there on the “impulsive” scale, too) person I’ve ever met, and that he thrives in remote settings. Living in Tulugak was one experience available to him in this life, and it came attached to income he very much needed. He knew almost nothing about the school, the town, his lodging, and the local amenities before he accepted the job.

He gave up a lot in leaving. He gave up proximity to me, to his family, to the easy plane ride to Denver (and drive to Lander) to see his son. He gave up what was supposed to be an entire month with his son; he had precious few days before he needed to be at new hire training. We had a lot of plans for August, for September, for all the months we have now been apart. We wanted to go to the Adirondacks often (we had been many, many times already). We wanted to see family in Philadelphia, on Long Island, in South and North Carolina, go on a giant road trip out west so he could show me what he left behind and missed so dearly. He missed his brother’s wedding, at which he was supposed to be the best man.

The week he left, one of my then-roommates gritted her teeth and said, “Jeff is a type of crazy I wouldn’t be cool with.” That’s a fair assessment. For 36 hours, I wasn’t very cool either. I was mad. I was crushed. I knew that I could never make such a huge decision so quickly, and the fact that he did was galling—and yet I didn’t kick him to the curb.

Instead, after 36 hours of crying, I woke up and spent the whole day running errands with him: Home Depot for ultra heavy-duty storage totes, Costco for a year’s worth of non-perishable staples, a good natural food store for green powder and vitamin D supplements, the Asian grocery for massive sacks of rice, sauces, condiments, and spices so he could dress up the chicken, rice, moose, caribou, and eggs he eats more or less every day. I was organized and practical and focused. Through the haze of misery, I focused on supporting him, hopeful that soon I would believe with my heart, rather than just my head, that this was a good idea.

That day cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $700. He parted with another $600 (later reimbursed as part of his relocation stipend) the next day at the post office. When he got to Tulugak, the town postmaster had quit and the post office was just re-opening. It took a month for his totes to arrive. Three were broken, one profoundly so.

Anything could happen, at any time. There is no estimating the personal or emotional cost of this job, nor its financial results. There is no estimating the personal, emotional, or financial cost of staying in Rochester. There is no telling what he will lose, miss, or gain in the end. Nothing is guaranteed.

What’s your price? What would have to be promised for you to risk moving to a place so remote, so inaccessible, so different, so dangerous? (A friend of his, who has taught in Alaska for many years, turned down a job at a particular school, and the woman who ended up taking the job was killed by wolves while out running.) What’s the magic number that would convince you to drop everything for the Arctic Circle? Remember, of course, that if you find yourself disappointed, depressed, or paralyzed with regret, you won’t be able to go to a therapist, or whine to the bartender, or even necessarily get in touch with your best friend back in the lower 48 to cry about it. If an emergency comes up back in your hometown, you’ll be out over $2,000 to get there, and probably three days late. What is $63,724 in the face of these realities?

Jeff’s income goes up every year he stays, and jumps significantly with the completion of certain post-graduate classes. If he stays in Alaska for five years, he’ll be fully vested in the retirement program, and he’ll have received PFD—the money Alaska pays its residents—for each of those years. He will be debt-free with a nest egg far above what the average person could dream of having at his age. Cut it back to two years, and he’ll still be debt free and sitting on a massive pile of savings. This year alone will blast away his student loans, and he’ll still come away with a respectable emergency fund.

If he were single, he says he’d stay indefinitely. With strategy, wisdom, and prudence, he could retire at 40. He could buy a house, a trailer, a new life in another country. He could have anything he wanted when he left.

There’s only so much to do in Tulugak, and so he has had the time to run these numbers, count the zeroes and commas accumulating. As life marches on—unpredictably—in Lander, in Rochester, in Tulugak, he can see those numbers, comforting in their relative certainty, stretching years into the future.

(*Real village name changed.)

Emily Rose Alvo is a barista, occasional freelance writer, and frequent traveler based in Rochester, NY. She enjoys petting dogs, drinking gin, and hiking, ideally all at once.

This piece is part of The Billfold’s Holidays and Money series.

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