Arctic Dreams

When I was a kid, I counted down to winter. I was fortunate to have spent much of my adolescence in New York state, where those winters are long; and I can’t ever remember being excited for spring. I learned to ski shortly after I could walk, and as an adult, currently taking a hiatus from skiing, the whoosh of skis on hard pack will always hearken back to my youth and young adulthood. Like language fluency, when you learn to ski young, it is as natural as breathing. I loved skiing most on the coldest days, when the trees moaned in the wind chill and my eyes watered if the seal of my goggles was broken… the kind of Northeastern wind that turns your legs lobster red under your ski pants and lets loose a primordial scream from deep in your bone marrow.

After an emotionally trying first year in college, I escaped to Uppsala to earn some cheap credits and visit my mother’s Swedish family. I felt I had grown up in many different worlds: the world of open, kind and adventurous Scandinavians and Italians having entered the US via Paterson, New Jersey; and my father’s coal mining Carpatho-Rusyns, who settled in Northeastern Pennsylvania with the rest of their kind. Slavic people, in my experience, were more fearful; neurotic; insular and wary of the outside world. Their culture was no less rich, and my travels through the former Eastern Bloc are a story for another day. I was also trapped between city and country, born in urban New Jersey but raised in the Catskill Mountains.

It was my mother’s parents who infected me with a travel obsession; the postcards in Swedish and the dinner table prayers; the stories of summers on Lake Mälaren and broader Nordic world; the elephants that adorned my grandparents’ home, many of them brought back from travels abroad, especially from Southeast Asia, where my mother’s father served in WWII. My grandfather died unexpectedly shortly after I arrived in Alaska, and my sister read my eulogy to him in New Jersey. An excerpt,

The shelves of elephants were more significant to my hopes and dreams than any other material possessions I encountered in my youth. Your trinkets from afar—the elephants, the Dala horses, the wicker dragon from Vietnam, all of which rest on shelves of mine here in Girdwood—paved the roads I have traveled in my life, far away and often solo. I loved your adventures, alone and together, around the world. To be a child and to think of India and Vietnam and Germany—to be able to see and touch pieces of those faraway places, to listen to stories—made them real, and within reach.

And so I reached.

Each item, marked with yours and Nana’s human history, gave me hope in traversing the earth for the same knowledge and understanding, to find my place in the world, the same way you had found yours, with each other. Many of these items, tucked away in bags and backpacks and luggage, through wars and business trips and vacations, were brought back with unflagging devotion, over years and decades. I became unsure at times, reflecting on your journeys, which was more important: the departure toward the unknown, or the return to what you really loved.

My years wandering through Scandinavia changed me, as did the Danish and Icelandic professors at BU who took me under their wing and helped me get to where I needed to be, who traded research projects for teaching assistance in their graduate classes. I felt as though I gained some glimpse of who I was, of where I belonged, and all the errant dots slowly connected over the following years. And, down the road, I found myself back in my adolescent hometown, looking north while being whipped by wind chill. Traveling to Ottawa & Toronto, to Newfoundland, to Iceland, Finnish Karelia, to the Yukon. Long weekends I would drive up to Dartmouth College and spend entire days looking through hundreds and thousands of Arctic expedition letters and lantern slides, housed in their incredible Stefansson Collection. I read hundreds of books on the Arctic, on polar expeditions, survival stories, creation myths, Icelandic sagas. I made online penpals of Nenets people in Archangelsk, of archaeologists in Oulu, of Arctic teachers across Canada and Hudson Bay Company historians.

I slowly began accumulating lithographs from Cape Dorset, which cushioned the doubt I felt in ever being able to eek out a life at the right latitude… and I continued to return to the north. I dragged my entire family up the coast of Norway in 2009. Two years earlier, in 2007, I brought my mother to Alaska, and I remember sitting on a boat in Prince William Sound wondering what it would take to live here. I did not believe it was possible. I wanted too many things.

Fast forward to July 2012, the month of thus far the happiest day of my life, pulling out of my parents’ driveway in Pennsylvania to drive to Alaska, car full of whatever I needed for the first few months until the rest of my stuff showed up. I had pretty much shed tears of joy every night before I even flew up for the interview process, knowing full well this was it, I was moving, and this was happening… feeling slightly as though I was being released from a nice enough prison, and my life was about to begin. I’ve been sure of very few things in my life: this was one of those moments. It was time.

I drove to my new home via a slight detour: via Dawson City, ferry across the Yukon River and over the dusty Top of the World Highway into Alaska, to Valdez and across Prince William Sound, crossing the very place I had doubted myself years prior. I thought, car tucked into a little ferry over the Yukon, about the countless stories I had read, in John McPhee’s Coming Into The Country, in the follow-up by Fairbanks writer Dan O’Neill, A Land Gone Lonesome, and have spent these years with a sense of personal triumph punctuated by loving something with so much depth I want to know everything, even all its worst, ugliest parts. Some days here, in Alaska, I wonder what I am doing here after these years, and sometimes daily life is so grim and frustrating… and then I remember all of this.

There is a painting hanging in the Anchorage Museum by Rockwell Kent that sucks me in every time I walk through their Art of the North gallery. And I think back to his work, his books with illustrations which have accompanied my travels: Salamina; North by Northeast; the reproductions of women standing on the Greenlandic shore that hang in my home. I dove into a book today I have been lugging around for a few years and have hesitated to read: Jean Malaurie’s The Last Kings of Thule, and the preface ends with,

When, [with friends] certain scenes that we lived through together were evoked twenty years later, they were relived with infinitely greater intensity than when recalled after only a few months; as if time were needed for “the little sensation”–smell, color, emotion, astonishment–which is inscribed in the groove of memory, to protect one’s recollection of the event.

It was too early for me to have written this book in 1951, but I did not know that then. Curiously enough, great travelers–Humboldt, Jack London, Pere Huc–lived with their memories for years, publishing some of them only late or not at all. One lives with one’s memories–in the proper sense of that phrase–in order to grasp their internal order. The weakness of big travel narratives and reportages very likely derives from the writer’s haste to preserve vivacity at the expense of the deeper internal experience. It is the search for time newly refound that I offer the reader.

I came across this book because Malaurie’s relative was an internet penpal of mine, and a teacher in the Canadian High Arctic. Beginning this book triggered an immense tidal wave of all of these memories. It’s a distinctly human experience to be completely swept up in a long-dormant love and obsession. But as I look around and see stacks of Arctic books; Cape Dorset art and other traces of the north, I realize this obsession has been completely unwavering all these years, and my years in Alaska are years of my life I am the most grateful for. In my time here, I have been to Lake Clark, to Prudhoe Bay; to Dutch Harbor; to Nome and Sitka and so many other beautiful places. I have traveled this state more widely than most people I know, and I fully intend, despite likely having to depart for some time, to rest here indefinitely. I think these days it’s easy to generate content for Instagram, but that simplistic style of travel will never garner today’s feelings. This unflagging curiosity and deep love for high latitudes is a ridiculously large part of who I am, and it’s an overwhelming reality sometimes… and maybe it’s broader than that: the right way to love something, to dive so deep into it it becomes intertwined with your identity and chokes you up intermittently throughout your life. This is just one deep love of mine.

I remember reading in an Arctic novel ages ago that many explorers felt as though once they had crossed over the Arctic Circle, a piece of them was left there in the north forever. A close friend asked me to post, and so this is what I have today. It’s an appropriate post, as he spent a chunk of his own youth exploring the coast of the Hudson Bay, and landed squarely on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, another high latitude wanderer… we seem to find each other here.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
   The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
   The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
   The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
   I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
RWS

All Who Go Do Not Return

My mother gifted me a book with a note that said ‘this is the one you mentioned, I think.’ No, it was not, I had never heard of this book, but in an effort to offload a pile of heavy books to avoid transferring them into a crate, down the stairs, outside, across Anchorage, up some more stairs and onto a different shelf in a different house, I read it last week.

The story is one of an ex-Hasid who really just could not manage the oppressive lifestyle and ended up leaving his wife, kids and community to wear jeans and read Wikipedia… etc. His community’s rules were insane, and really not specific to Judaism; there are crazy people everywhere. I imagine this is a group of people, especially in the US, a lot of people don’t have much insight into. I had the luxury of growing up in the beautiful Catskills, which are conveniently mentioned throughout the book (see also: Borscht Belt).

I enjoyed the story and I felt immense sympathy for the author (I have a soft spot for people who leave, in a broad sense, having done it myself); I think secular and even religious Americans have a tough time separating the individual liberty we’re born with from the fact that ultimately these insular communities, and parents who raise their kids in them, choose differently. It’s always hard to leave something you’ve known in your formative years. While the extreme conservatism seems oppressive to me, people do leave, and other than fleecing the government for welfare, I’m not sure as communities these people are harming anyone collectively (side note, I also grew up in a town with a Bruderhof compound, so I have a high tolerance for strangely clothed people who think technology is mostly the devil).

I think it’d be easy for someone to be shocked and to assume the extreme culture of this Hasidic community is the culture of all of them; the author did mention this briefly but it probably could have been articulated a bit more. It was a good read anyway. Review from Chicago Tribune.