Lucky Number Seven

If you had told me at any point in time that I would last over 7 years in Alaska, I would not have believed you. I’ve always wanted to (start to) write about the unique experience of living in Alaska as someone who grew up in the Northeast, and the day after the seventh anniversary of my move to this state seems as good a time as any. It’s taken me at least this long to come around on some of the quirks of this strange place, and to accept it for what it is.

It’s fairly rare to find many residents from a Northeast metro area who have lasted as long as I have, though I do not think my transition would have been fruitful were it not for my many years in the Northern Catskills; I had already put in years in a rural area, complete with bears breaking into my house, long drives to the grocery store (or any civilization whatsoever), psychotic weather, blizzards, power outages and scorn for Arcteryx-clad city tourists using trekking poles on road shoulders. That said, I arrived here naively expecting to find no high-end food; no cosmopolitanism (note: there’s not much); locals clad in Carhartt overalls and not much to do other than fish, camp and backcountry ski.

Why did I move here? I still struggle to explain, and if I had a dollar for every person who told me before my move that I wouldn’t last more than a few months, I’d have moved to Alaska with enough money to not have a job at all. It was surprisingly easy for me to load up and move 4,500 miles from everything I had ever known; I even drove, and every day was an explosion of excitement. Nonetheless, my first 6 months were lonely and difficult, but still filled with the feeling of starting over and being completely anonymous — a stranger in a completely strange land. I had fantasized about (and traveled through) the northern latitudes and Arctic my entire life, and I had never dreamed I would be able to eek out a living in this region and also have a successful career and future prospects. Moving north with a high-paying, flashy job waiting was beyond my wildest dreams, and the day I pulled out of my parents’ driveway is still the happiest day of my entire life.

Seven years later, Alaska has certainly had its ups and downs. I’ve since bought a house, lived in it, renovated it, rented it out both on Airbnb and to long-term tenants; I’ve lived in the freezing-ass Interior in North Pole, lived in South and East Anchorage, I’ve traveled more widely throughout the state than most lifelong residents I know. I’ve changed jobs. I’ve started and ended multiple romantic relationships. I’ve weathered multiple car accidents and personal tragedies. I’ve watched a few friends succumb to depression and alcoholism and drug abuse, I’ve said goodbye to many other friends who had had enough of Alaska. I’ve agonized over these years about what it would look like to move away, and finally decided after a lot of fine-tuning my life that I’ve hit a perfect “sweet spot” and have no desire to leave. I have the ideal combination of incredible friends, swank living situation and an autonomous work arrangement.

I think the biggest takeaway, and the best thing Alaska has done for me was cement my lack of interest in social or career climbing. Like everyone else I want general success and financial security; but after many years of agonizing over how to balance my ambition with my desire to travel, learn and explore, I think at least for the time being I’ve found a way to keep my job interesting while filling the rest of my time with things that make me happy and residing in this arrestingly beautiful place.

Alaskans are interesting people. Strip away their small-town inferiority complexes, which manifest in bro-ing out, adrenaline-seeking and occasional antisocial behavior, and you have a population of people who care very little what anyone else thinks and have chosen their own priorities: primarily recreation and enjoying the outdoors. I remain somewhat mortified by how people dress up here, mostly in dirty yoga pants and Xtratufs, oversized flannel, etc… but I find there’s a certain charm in freeing yourself of expectations. These people have access to some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth, and that alone is worth more than many advantages you may reap living in the city. There is no commuting traffic. There is little pressure to overwork. Anchorage itself is a fairly grimy, ugly city, but it has always served as more of a resupply base than somewhere people stick around.

In my time here, I’ve defended people who clung to city life, and I’ve repeatedly called out Alaskans’ hypocrisy of labeling themselves as “independent” while relying widely on government handouts. If you were to read John McPhee’s Coming Into The Country, a seminal book on Alaskan culture written in the 70s, you’d find that not much has changed between then and now, and that’s not such a bad thing. Further, despite the very human need to place each other into buckets, it’s difficult to group Alaskan people. One of the most charming features of these people is that you don’t know who is rich and who is poor; there is little flaunting, because financial wealth is not a status symbol in the 49th state… in fact, if there is a status symbol, it’s freedom: freedom to pass your time as you wish.

I think back to when I was a kid watching Star Wars, believing the ideal situation would be to be able to walk into that bar on Tatooine and have no one look twice at you; this exercise in blending has fulfilled my desire to camouflage myself into any crowd; to fit in with any group of people. Alaska is frequently referred to as ‘the island of misfit toys,’ and I don’t think that is an unfair description. It takes confidence and open-mindedness to live and prosper here if you are not born here. There is deep loneliness, and a long dark season. The environment, the people and animals who populate it may try to kill you (and sometimes eat you). But ultimate freedom takes confidence and self-reliance. While I scoff at Alaskan fashion, there is no one I’d rather be on a sinking boat or downed plane with than a group of Alaskans, who have a natural ability to figure things out and survive, born out of necessity in the environment and far-flung geographic location of this place. People lose themselves up here entirely, and you have to hold onto yourself and who you are to survive happily.

There is no lack of challenges to living so far away: long flights just to Seattle; a very high cost of living; the daily danger of driving with so many drunks on the road, and the heavily armed population. Our state is currently in crisis, with a double-whamming homeless and opioid problem. Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, a core tenet of the culture up here, has caused a deep dependency on handouts and an expectation of free money. The boom and bust history of this place shows itself in the spending habits of its residents, many of whom make a killing on the Slope and in the Bering Sea only to spend it on hookers and blow on their weeks off: there is little sense of saving for the future ingrained into the residents, and this is a very reactive-minded place on the individual, corporate and government level. The male-dominated industries here create other social problems. People live “on the edge” up here in many ways.

I remember riding up the Alyeska Aerial Tram with a friend who told me early on my “Pollyanna crap” would eventually fade… he was wrong. I am still mystified by this incredible place, and I can’t imagine myself moving onto somewhere else without deep regret.  I’ve been blessed with countless time in small planes and helicopters and boats all over this state, surrounded by natural wonder people pay tens of thousands of dollars to see. Flying around Lake Clark National Park, hiking the Aleutian Chain, or the 40-minute drive to Girdwood are to feel what it’s like to really live. And for those many moments in time up here, it seems all the challenges are worth it. When I talk to my friends about their high city rents, or their commutes, or the any number of annoyances of living in a crowded, high-demand metro area (not least the fact that my high-earning college friends almost never go on vacation), I’m reminded of the way my seemingly odd life choices have converged to keep me here, and I’m curious to see whether anything is worth leaving Alaska for.

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