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The word cheechako (or chechako, or sometimes cheechaco) was coined around 1895 from the Chinook words chee just now + chako come.   It means a greenhorn, newcomer, or tenderfoot. 

Since I had spent ten years living in the mountains in Colorado, I rather arrogantly assumed that I would not “really” be a cheechako in Fairbanks.  Actually, I was better prepared than a lot of newcomers, but I still had a few things to learn.

We didn’t have a whole lot of extra money to buy warm things, so I  planned on wearing layers to keep warm.  Actually, I may have done this even better than anybody else around the campus.   By the time it got to be December and we were experiencing temperatures way below zero, I was wearing long john top, a turtleneck shirt, a sweater and a nylon windbreaker, long johns and wool ski pants, hat, mittens and scarf.  I was pretty comfortable as I walked from building to building. 

People would look at my windbreaker and ask with great concern, “Aren’t you cold?”  I informed them of my layering strategy, and they would shake their heads.  Finally, a gentleman of my acquaintance brought me an Army surplus parka.

The only part of me I had trouble keeping warm was my feet.  My footgear was not suitable.  What I had was very good Lowa hiking boots.   Even with good bootsocks, they were not warm enough.  The problem was they were rigid, and did not breathe well.  When I was in class my feet would sweat, and then my damp feet would be confined inside the hard leather boots and get cold very fast.   As soon as I had some extra money, I went to the surplus store and got some mukluks.

One of the lessons I learned fairly early on was that it was a complete waste of time to put on makeup.  First of all, the very fact that I was a woman endowed me with Miss Universe quality beauty in the male eyes around me.  Makeup was a completely unnecessary accessory. 

It was also a detriment to the overall  “look” as soon as I had walked down to the Commons for breakfast.  As I walked, my breath condensed on my eyelashes, eyebrows and any hair that escaped my hat and scarf.  When I entered a warm building, that frost buildup would melt, and the mascara would run, and I got a raccoon mask thing going that did nothing to enhance my attractiveness.  I gave up on makeup then, and have never really re-established the pattern. 

As I spent time in Fairbanks, I learned to identify which newcomers would go home at Christmas and never come back.  These were the folks who would start wearing their 100% down Mt. Everest climbing equipment as soon as the snow flew in October.   Since these folks had their warmest stuff on before the temperatures ever got close to zero, they never did adjust to the deep cold when it finally arrived. 

I don’t think it is possible to adequately describe the feeling in your body when you walk out of a building that is 70 degrees into air that is -40 degrees.  That first breath slaps you right in the solar plexus.  Sometimes it felt almost like a physical blow.  The lungs object to that frigid dryness, and after that first gasp, you almost have to force yourself to take the next breath.  After that, the shock is over and you can proceed.

Of course I don’t have to tell you that you absolutely do not touch metal with your bare hands at that temperature.  I only had to tear my hand off a door handle once to have that permanently etched into my behavior pattern.

It was finals time at the end of the first semester.  I had survived without frostbite.  I was attending the last class before the test: the review.  As was my customary habit, I was seated in the front of the room.   The building was super heated that morning, for some reason.   I had stayed up pretty late the night before studying for a history exam, and then putting the finishing touches on a paper I was typing for a grad student (I typed at $1.00 per page to earn spending money.)   The combination of long johns, the heat in the room, and the lack of sleep made it virtually impossible for me to stay awake during the class.  My head kept dropping, and then I jerked awake — over and over.  Finally, the professor actually asked me if I was okay.  I just wasn’t my usual bright eyed and bushy tailed self that day.

That weekend it settled down and snowed determinedly.  On Monday, I woke up ready for my first final, and looked out on the campus.  It was covered with 14 inches of new snow.  I wondered, would they have finals with all that snow?   My student adviser advised me that they most certainly would.   I put on my gear and trudged through the pristine snow.   None of the streets were plowed yet, none of the paths cleared.   All over campus were lines of footprints through the snow, leading to the doors of buildings.  Sure enough, we had finals, and this was my first real clue that in Alaska, no matter what the weather was doing, the business of living and working went on. 

When you realize that, adjust to it, and are able to function along with everyone else, you are no longer a cheechako.

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Someone made a comment on my site about making oatmeal.  I am motivated to give you the recipe in a spot where you will not have to dig through my comments section.  This is from my recipe book Whole Grain Gastronomy:

1 1/2 C Water

pinch of salt

some raisins

1 C oatmal

Bring the water, salt, raisins to a boil.   Add oatmeal, stir to mix and when the mixture returns to a boil, put the cover on the pan and remove it from the heat.  (If you have an electric stove, I advise you to move the pan to another burner.)  Let it sit for 7 to 10 minutes, and serve with honey and milk.

For an extra taste treat:  replace 1/3 to 1/2 the liquid with coconut milk (NOT pina colada mix or any product that lists corn syrup as an ingredient).  This bumps up the calories considerably, but it also makes it the perfect meal to eat before you go skiing or hiking.  You can also garnish with toasted almonds (or other nuts) and toasted coconut. 

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