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.

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.