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Reflections upon visiting Alaska

By September 28, 2011travel

“Everyone here has a story to tell,” Ross says. “And it’s not one that they necessarily want anyone else to hear.” Ross has been to Alaska several times. It’s my first visit so I file his comment away. Maybe it’ll make more sense later.

Flash back to the day before.

Becky and I arrive at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage and it’s already late: 1 pm local time, 4 pm biological time. But we stop at Fletchers, the hotel bar, for a nightcap. There we meet a German cargo pilot who flies all over the world. He loves Alaska and comes here frequently, as do many cargo pilots, because a lot of cargo flies through Alaska.

Who knew?

Jurg tells us that he had to go to the local mall to pick up some winter clothes. He only had T-shirts and shorts.

“You didn’t know it would be cold here?” I ask.

“Yes, I knew. But I didn’t know I’d be here today. My flight was supposed to go to Vietnam, but we were re-routed to Alaska.”

Hmmmmm, so you could wake up one day and think you were going to Vietnam, but wind up in Anchorage instead? The most interesting stories tend to be about how people wind up in Alaska.

Two nights later we’re sitting at the the bar of the Glacier Brewhouse chatting with the young bartendress who tells us she’s originally from Dallas.

“How’d you wind up here?” Becky asks.

“Oh…an Internet romance,” she says with a sheepish smile.

“That’s cool!” I say quickly to disperse the awkwardness.

“Oh, not me,” she says. “My mother.”

Unlike most of the Alaskan residents we meet she’s not completely in love with the place.

Alaska is huge and overflowing with freedom. But size is always relative. For instance, Anchorage is the ‘big city,’ but it has less than 300,000 people. Even in the biggest city it’s hard to get a bead on “normal.” People have come from everywhere, and there is every kind of language and accent being used.

Friendly people abound, but they’re not cheerful like folks in other places. They have a purpose that’s hard to pin down, and if you interrupt them they calmly respond to your questions. No one seems to mind explaining where they’re from or how they wound up here.

So what about these people that Ross mentioned? The ones who don’t want to explain their stories.

One clue comes from our car rental agent as we are renting an SUV to drive down to Girdwood for the weekend. She explains the reason for their extra security check (they won’t accept a bank debit/credit card).

“People who come here from outside will frequently not return their car,” she explains. “We find the cars by the side of the road in a remote place, if we find them at all.”

“Why would they leave them in a remote place?” I ask.

She pauses while she considers the proper rental agent response to this question. Then she decides to just blurt it out. “A lot of people come to Alaska to get away from some kind of trouble, and they don’t want anyone to find them.” She shrugs, and then adds “you don’t need a passport to come here since it’s part of the US, but it’s easy to disappear once you get here.”

If you want to disappear you’d better be good at living in the woods. That means knowing what to do if a Moose approaches. Frankly, even if you live in a town like Anchorage you need to know what to do when encountering a Moose.

Becky rode on a coastal trail and wound up next to a large bull moose. She didn’t know what to do, and froze in place (which it turns out is a good thing to do). Some bikers came along and helped her out. They told her that you can usually avoid Moose before you see them; Moose give off a weird unpleasant odor that travels a long distance.

Living in Alaska might rekindle some unused primitive instincts. Since I’m not going to be living here anytime soon I feel compelled to learn as much as I can about Alaska. I’ll have to re-read John McPhee’s Coming Into The Country. Amazon book reviewer James DeWitt argues McPhee’s book is the best one on Alaska:

“I’ve lived in Alaska most of my life. McPhee…give[s] you a much more accurate glimpse than the writers and hacks who try to ‘describe’ Alaska.”

I’ve only spent a few days in Alaska, but it seems hard to grasp the essence of this place. I’m glad I got to see it first hand, even if I can’t possibly describe it. And it’s nice to know that if bad trouble comes I won’t need a passport to ‘disappear.’

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