Alaska, Walt Whitman, and the Open Road 6/14/10
In the last month, I have made the big move from New Hampshire to Alaska. There is not much I have not left behind. I moved away from my home, my family, my friends, my dog, my job and a world of familiarity and security. Because of the complications and logistics of the move, my wife and I have to live apart temporarily.
Still, while you never know for sure in life, I think this is the right move. For someone who has always lived in the northeastern U.S., Alaska is a pretty big adventure. It is not just West Coast remote. We are talking four times zones away. Anchorage is a three and a half hour flight from Seattle.
After an initial two weeks in Anchorage, I can offer a few observations. It is hard to be prepared for the scale of Alaska. Flying in from Seattle, there are mountains beyond mountains extending for a long distance as you approach Anchorage. For a good chunk of the time on the flight, it looked like there were no people below. I flew into the city in late May and the mountains are all snowcapped.
Anchorage is nestled between big water and surrounding mountains. The views are lovely in many directions.
I was not prepared for the brightness of the light. I got some new sunglasses in New Hampshire before I left and I am glad I did. For whatever reason, the light seems brighter. Contrary to expectations of lousy weather, the first two weeks were beautiful. The temperature reached up into the 80’s and there was almost no rain.
I have found it is easy to lose track of time. By June, it was staying light til 11:30pm. As an easterner, I could easily have thought it was 7pm at 11:30 at night. I have enjoyed the late light. You simply need to tell yourself to go to sleep when it does not look like that time.
Being in a new city can be disorienting. It takes a little time to overcome feeling like an alien outsider. Af first, I did feel like brother from another planet. Driving around the city helped considerably. Anchorage does not seem like a difficult place to get around in if you have a car.
It is a large geographic area but the layout is straightforward. One of the first things I did when I got to town was to buy a good city map at Barnes and Nobles.
People have been very welcoming and open. I was put up by my new friends Cliff and Theresa who went way beyond the call as far as generosity. Greeting newcomers (and even welcoming vacationers) seems like a warm and deeply ingrained Alaska tradition and ritual. As a last frontier, Alaska seems to draw a potpourri of people like myself coming for a job opportunity, those down on their luck arriving to make a fresh start, loners and PTSD sufferers who are literally heading for the hills and prospective Houdinis who are trying to disappear into the woodwork probably because they want to escape something bad from the lower forty eight.
I would say there is more diversity than I might have expected. Based on initial observations, Alaska is quite a bit more diverse than New Hampshire. Native Alaskans, African Americans, and Pacific Islanders all seem to have significant concentrations in Anchorage.
While people have told me that the economy is better than the rest of the U.S., I did note the St Francis Shelter, the sizable local homeless shelter, and the nearby homeless campground. Some people freeze to death in the winter as even in Alaska some homeless people camp outside all winter. I am curious to see the extent of that.
My first weekend in Anchorage, my friends Cliff and Theresa took me on a hike to Hatcher Pass, a place 40 or 50 miles north of the city. It was incredibly scenic. On the way back we stopped in Wasilla, Sarah Palin’s hometown. While the former governor has monopolized coverage of things Alaska, I was surprised by how poor quality housing was on the city’s main drag. Parts of the downtown looked very dumpy. I expect there are lovely places on the back roads but I have not seen media coverage of how shabby the downtown row of shacks is. I have not heard any media commentator ask her about that.
No one will ever accuse Alaska of being manicured. Unlike places like L.A. where parts of the city look like a movie set, Alaska is down to earth in a way I like. It is not a place for stuffed shirts. It has a casual quality reminiscent of New Hampshire. People dress for comfort and in a more freewheeling, natural way than in many American cities where employees concoct fancy get-ups for their job. I like the informality.
On the other hand, I have experienced a degree of sticker shock at the cost of everything. Gas is at least 50 cents a gallon higher than in New England. Ditto for food prices. Housing costs are also quite high. Anchorage is not a cheap place to live.
I do expect to like living here. The whole experience of this transition makes me think of Walt Whitman’s poem Song of the Open Road. Since it is my personal favorite poem, I will shamelessly use this opening to hawk the poem. There are many lines that speak to me but my recent experience leads me to think of these lines.
“What beckonings of love you receive, you shall only answer with passionate
kisses of parting
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands toward you.”
Because I love Whitman, I will post the whole Song of the Open Road. It is hard to imagine a greater poem. I will be writing more about Alaska.