The story of my mustache began in the North, so it was only fitting it would end there. In the final days of the Mustache-a-thon, my mustache and I were scheduled to be in Anchorage, Alaska, where a case I work on was set for trial.
Even before I made the trip, I had a real-life premonition that, in Alaska, my mustache would be out of its league. At Poste, the sleek hotel bar in the downtown Monaco, I met a man with a real Alaska mustache. He was a former Ted Stevens staffer who, in the off-season, drove a fishing boat in the Bering Sea. He had a denim shirt with the sleeves rolled up, forearms bigger than my biceps, and a woman on his arm, a Hill staffer with died blonde hair and pearls. That guy had a mustache, let me tell you: Jet black and thick, with a lustrous nap that shined like the coat of a Himalayan Yak. It was a fearsome mustache, the kind that could stop a charging grizzly at 50 yards.
My mustache would never have broken a grizzly’s charge. When it came in, I really did look like Ned Flanders. It didn’t collect “oohs” and “ahs,” it collected reluctant endorsements from people who were already my friends. “It’s not bad,” they would say, before confirming that I was only growing it for the contest, and then asking again when the contest would be over. By the time I stepped off the plane at Ted Stevens International in Anchorage, the bare patch on the right side had filled in, and I had gotten used to its sprinkled flecks of gray. That, really, was the most you could say for it.
It turned out that my mustache and I were in for an adventure. The day after we arrived, Mount Redoubt, a volcano 110 miles southeast of Anchorage, ended a 20-year slumber by launching a giant ash cloud into the sky. The eruptions kept coming. Sometimes there were several in a day. The cloud they formed loomed on the horizon, drifting slowly toward Anchorage. By Monday, it had forced the cancellation of all flights heading south, the only flights connecting Alaska to the lower 48 and the only flights that could take us home.
The trial was a different kind of slow-motion disaster. It was like one of those dreams in which you can’t move your limbs. Its signature qualities were torpor and pain. Every afternoon, at least once, the judge clutched his head in exasperation. He looked like a priest wrestling with his dying faith. “Can’t we speed this matter along?” he would plead.
A pattern set in. Every morning, we’d check the Alaska Airlines site on our Blackberries, and learn that the sky had cleared just enough to allow southbound flights to leave. In court, though, the trial would drag on, grinding our hopes to dust beneath its immeasurable weight.
Finally, late in the afternoon, when our hopes were almost completely gone, Mt. Redoubt would erupt again, crushing them completely.
It went on like this all week.
“My God,” my co-counsel Sarah said one afternoon during a break, gripping my shoulders as she spoke. “What if we never get to leave?”
Anchorage was beautiful, but its beauty was rugged, threatening, and surreal. We were in an upscale hotel, but it felt like we were merely surviving. My room was always cold. The automatic lobby doors of the hotel were always flying open, sucking gusts of freezing air inside and forcing the desk clerks to dress in winter coats. Every time it happened, I was terrorized by a stark fear: nature was winning.
Outside, all the other men in town wore mustaches. I know it can’t be true, but in my memory, every single other guy had one. It was like a haunting vision. On the street. In restaurants. Maybe these men were all just excessively burly, and my mind filled in mustaches where there were none. But it was what I saw, and it was unsettling.
By Thursday we were desperate. We drove to the outskirts of town for sushi and ended the evening in the hotel bar. We had run out clean clothes. No one could work late anymore. The cold, the prolonged trial, and the darkening ash cloud had broken our spirit. It was as harrowing as Shackleton’s expedition on the Endurance, if Shackleton had been trapped in the Anchorage Marriott.
Through it all, my mustache failed to pull its weight. It offered no protection from the cold. No one seemed to think it was intimidating. Once, someone on the street even asked me for directions. Forget bears. My mustache couldn’t even ward off common strangers. Not to mention that it felt scratchy on my face.
A host of alien influences wracked my soul. I didn’t feel, or even look, like myself. Still, there was one thing I could change. On Thursday, I realized that my only remaining Mustache-a-thon obligation was to send in my weekly photograph for the website charting each Mustache-a-thon participant’s progress. As soon as I sent in my photo, I could shave off my mustache. No one in D.C. would know.
And so, that evening, I took a self-portrait in my room and sent it in. Then I trimmed my mustache down to its stubble, spread shaving cream on my face, and used my razor to finish the job. In twenty minutes the mustache was gone. Like an adventurer from a bygone age, it met its end in Alaska.
On Friday, a miracle. The trial ended.
Then, on Saturday, another miracle. Mount Redoubt stayed silent just long enough to let us all go home.
For more information about the Capitol Letters Writing Center visit capitolletters.org. To photos of Sean and the other mustache-a-thoners, go to www.capitolletters.org/moustacheathon/