February 5th, 2010 - Ruth Underhill
Heavy snowflakes accumulated over the DC metro area on February 5th, 2010. Anticipated road closures required me to make special arrangements for commuting to work the next day. It would not be the first time obstetric nursing demanded I navigate impassable roads. So, I planned to sleepover with family who lived just two miles from the hospital, shortening my usual commute by ten miles. I packed an overnight bag. Hair elastics. Socks. Deodorant. Mascara. Lip balm. Nivea. Panties. Ballpoint pens.
I woke to 30 inches of snow before dawn on February, 6th and slogged through hip-deep drifts, past unlit houses and buried SUVs. Headlines called it Snowmageddon. The snow shifted under me to the right and to the left. I fell often, but kept getting back up. Eventually, sweaty and exhausted, I reached the plowed highway where I hitched a ride to work.
Under florescent lights in the nurse's locker room, I peeled off layers of wet clothing and reapplied mascara. I threw on a pale green scrub top. Hairs shot off my head in static strands, but I harnessed them into a tight bun. I stood like a drunk flamingo and dropped my shaking legs into matching scrub pants, one by one. Synching the drawstring tight around my waist and chomping a power bar, I started my shift.
Pregnant people still arrived despite the record snowfall. One woman, trapped at home in active labor, called 911. A snowplow and ambulance drove tandem to her door and back to the hospital like a Snowmaggedon motorcade. She loved it, she told me just before I helped her give birth.
A year before Snowmageddon, wanderlust beckoned me out of central Illinois where I started my nursing career. February 2009 found me employed in San Antonio on my first travel nurse contract. Then I went to Philadelphia, where I was housed next to Independence Hall.
After Snowmageddon, I spent the next six years circling Washington, DC, but I lived in three different apartments and worked in six more hospitals. I was spinning, holding on for dear life and yet the movement felt natural, even unavoidable in its surges and rotations until I took my next leap to California. Six months after landing in California a nurse told me about work in Fairbanks, Alaska, the city where my mother was born. So, I purchased an arctic jacket. I kept gripping the monkey bars, swinging forward, not looking back.
In February 2016, I arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska and spent my first Saturday morning at the start of the Yukon Quest. The city cheered on dog sled teams as they set out on a thousand mile journey which included especially bad ice jams on rivers. That year's weather made perfect conditions for ice to pile high, but I sensed unprecedented flow in me.
During solo travels around Alaska, the southeast city of Sitka caught my attention. It called to me as I walked through the most beautiful forest I had ever seen. It was the Tongass, North America's largest forest, and a wild temperate rainforest. During my first short stay in Sitka, I watched salmon dragging themselves over river rock toward home. I left Alaska at the end of 2016, and it was Sitka's wild abundance I dreamed about most, while missing the rawness of Alaska's interior too.
I completed my graduate degree while traveling between Vermont, California, Illinois and Nevada throughout most of 2017 and 2018. Two months before graduation, I returned to Alaska.
On February 5th, 2020, I walk inside Sitka's rainforest. Soon, I find myself at Mosquito Cove, surrounded by mountains and on a beach covered in smooth stones. Just last week, I watched a dozen eagles spiral slowly down on warm air currents at Silver Bay. Across the cove today, mountain mists rise off exhalations from old growth cedars, spruce and hemlock. Nearby dense moss drips under partial thaw. I've been here for just one year, listening to rocks make a gentle knocking sound under lapping waves, like a thousand ravens rallied in one choir. It's clear I'm a flight risk, but whenever I leave Sitka, so far, I fly right back home.
Ruth Underhill lives and works in Sitka, Alaska as an obstetric nurse, childbirth educator, adjunct profession at the University of Alaska Southeast and a forest lingerer. She is busy sinking her roots deep in the Tongass National Forest which covers millions of acres in Southeast Alaska, including Sitka. Ruth loves drinking warm beverages out of very large mugs and taking long walks far away from politics and traffic. She is quite passionate about many things including the end of famine and war in Yemen where she spent six years of her childhood.
Ruth suggests giving to Save the Children who work with Yemeni people to provide medical assistance and food to children in Yemen where a child dies every ten minutes from preventable causes like cholera. Yemen is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world at this time. Click HERE.