Keep Alaska Weird
Portland, OR and Austin, TX both make a dubious claim in their unofficial motto: “Keep Portland weird” and “Keep Austin weird”. It is a nearly incontestable fact that both of these cities are home to an above-average number of jugglers, stilt-walkers, artists, groovers, shakers, weirdos, and generally left-of-centered folks. In my time spent in Alaska over the last year, however, I have witnessed an unparalleled level of strangeness and beauty. Underneath the northern lights is a country that, even with its tiny history (or perhaps, in part, because of) keeps on revealing more and more of its uniqueness.
Like a curiously-shaped house, much of what gives Alaska its charm is based on its foundation. The picnic-blanket upon which the unique feast awaits, as it were. Alaska is so large it’s stupid. It is twice as tall as California, four times as wide, but contains less people than San Jose. And, given that almost half of them live in Anchorage, one can imagine that virtually all of these four Californias’ worth of space are almost totally devoid of human impact. Grappling with this kind of bigness is tough for the mind, and there really is no comparison that can be drawn in the rest of the United States. According to one report, almost 95% of Alaska, a state twice as big as Texas, is uninhabited.
It’s Getting Cold in Here, So You Should Probably Put On a Parka
On top of the basically incomprehensible size of Alaska, the climate also adds another layer of uniqueness. Even as far south as Anchorage, the temperature frequently drops well below freezing, but for most of the state, the winters are extremely cold. Thirty and forty below are not at all uncommon. In addition, at high latitudes, these cold winters have days that are sometimes just a few hours long. Of course, the converse is true as well: The summers can be very warm with little-to-no night-time at all.
So imagine living in a country where one can scarcely find another human to bump into and the year can swing from deadly cold and dark to unendingly sunny and warm. Now add into the equation the very-recent history of gold-mining, using dog-sleds to get around, and late-in-the-game statehood (1959) and a picture starts to come into focus. It has by far the lowest road density of any US state but also some of the most beautiful, undeveloped nature in the world. For the conservationist or the nature-lover, there is no better place. There are places that have literally still never been seen by humans. There are still rivers and lakes without names, mountains that are not mapped. Living side-by-side with a place that is too big to even make sense of or fully explore helps keep the humility alive.
When traveling in Alaska, it becomes clear that people are there because they want to be, and the proximity to the wild world is important. At the risk of generalizing, Alaska is one of the least plugged-in places I have ever been, by choice. Most of my friends and coworkers in Alaska don’t own cell-phones. Interesting, this is not some kind of rejection of technology, or post-modern choice to make a statement. This is not the proud announcement that you are leaving Facebook. I never even thought to ask them why they don’t own cell-phones, because they simply don’t have a use for them.
“I just am where I say I’ll be, when I say I’ll be there.” said my friend Jeff. Many people would counter that sentiment by asking “What if there was an emergency and you needed to call someone?” This is totally ironic, of course, because Alaska can be a dangerous and inhospitable place where a cell-phone might actually come in handy. Yet, technology is not widespread in the same way.
The Land O’ Plenty
With the country being so spacious and technology being less ubiquitous, Alaskans kind of take on a mythical, solitary persona. Many residents of Alaska moved there because they want to be able to live their lives peacefully without interference the outside world, be it a crowded city street or the federal government. This sets the stage to meet a lot of fiercely independent, strong-willed types. Many people would find that they don’t fit into the conventions of life in the lower 48, or whatever their home country might be. Alaska is a safe-zone where one can literally stake a claim and start anew. In this vein, an amazing 1 in 61 residents in Alaska owns a plane. For this reason, I find the people of Alaska to be endlessly fascinating. Strong-minded and not concerned with the scrutiny of others, it is inspiring to be around such proud confidence. The picture would not be fully painted to leave out the fact that anyone who can live happily through an Alaskan winter must basically be made of steel.
Indeed, these uncompromising distances and landscapes of Alaska can make life fundamentally different. In many parts of Alaska, beyond the cities, people still live without running water, and sometimes without electricity. Many times this is by choice, but often it is not. Peppered throughout the state are water-filling stations where people stop and fill 50-gallon tanks in their trucks with water from what looks like a gasoline nozzle.
This description doesn’t even take into account the funhouse of self-denial that is life above the Arctic Circle. Up there, where all the heretofore described facets of Alaska’s uniqueness are amplified, life is stranger still. In a sort of soundless paradise for the willing, places like Coldfoot are home to few, and the nearest city really requires a small prop-plane to get to. And the experience of getting a ride out to one of these places and sitting next to a passenger-seat’s worth of chips, toilet paper, and clothes is definitely worth having.
All these elements, the seemingly endless space, the beautiful hiking, the history of self-made prospectors and explorers, the mysterious northern lights and the uncompromising seasons create a bizarre and amazing universe to explore. Of course, getting to know a place that is so vast and varying can be challenging, but to those who dare are in for a treat. Like reading the first few pages of an engrossing and massive novel, the real challenge becomes putting the thing down.