The first time I went to NYC and told people I was from Alaska, they asked if I lived in an igloo. Unfortunately, no. I didn’t grow up in a house made of ice. That would’ve been way more exciting than our unremarkable middle-class house on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.
Aside the from location–2,000 miles away from the continental US–the town is in many ways a typical small town. Everyone knows your business. You wish you didn’t know theirs.
As a teenager, I felt trapped. Back then I watched TV and movies and music videos like any other kid and concluded our backwater town was sorely lacking in cultural amenities, especially when compared to Magnum P.I.’s glamorous life (No, the irony that Magnum was living on an island is not lost on me.) The Teen Me hated being so isolated, especially during the winter.
Alaskan’s refer to the lower 48 states as “outside.” I’ve lived outside for about the same length of time as my birth-to-graduation stint in The Last Frontier and more than ten years have passed since I’ve seen Alaska in winter. This year, I went home for the holidays (and it was weird).
Why did I just say I went home? I live in Washington. (I did say home, though.) Here’s the truth of my return:
Flying into Anchorage, bluish mountains are barely visible. The plane drops down into a familiar snow-covered world. Orange lights blink against approaching darkness. I smile like a child. I cry. My face shines out the plane window. I press my check into the cold.
I. AM. HOME. How could I forget how much I love this place? So vast–like an ocean–dangerous and wild and beautiful.
I hold my breath as we walk out of the airport into twenty-six degrees below zero F. Cold hits my face. I exhale a visible cloud, shut my mouth, and inhale. The hairs in my nose freeze together.
I am colder here, but more alive.
Leaving my now-home in Washington has returned me to my heart’s first home: this frozen, barely livable land. The place that formed me. It holds me. Like a lover I never got over. And I fall. Again.
But deep down, I know what I feel is pointless. I can never live here again. I don’t fit in this man-centric state driven by an economy that favors physical strength and fearlessness. Oil and fishing jobs are lucrative, and though most don’t require much training, dangerous conditions are the norm. These jobs are brutal.
I’m not tough. I am not fearless. The bravest thing I did was leave.
My dad loads the suitcases in his truck and the airport disappears behind us. I don’t want my parents or my daughter to see how being back here makes me want to cry and laugh and never leave. I start making idiotic jokes. “You call this a warm welcome, Mom?”
Days later, it’s clear that coming back has stirred something up. The timeline of my life collapses, folds in on itself.
I am in high school. I am dating the dark boy who will die after years of breathing the fumes of boat-repair resins, toxins thinning the lining of his arteries, until at thirty-five an artery will finally give way. But he is alive again in my mind and we are making out, legs threading together on his cousin’s couch in a trailer barely a mile away from where the land ends and the Cook Inlet begins.
On the edge of the bluff overlooking the Inlet sits my church. Every year the earth erodes a little more. Eventually the building with its neon cross will fall into the inlet, wash away. I used to ride to church in the backseat of our family’s orange Volkswagen bug wishing for leg room and a window to roll down when my dad passed the worst gas imaginable. When the bug is finally mine, I decide I love it–even the shitty AM radio. I drive to the cafe where I wait tables and make lattes, even though I don’t drink coffee, because I need money to leave.
My parents no longer live in the house I grew up in, so it’s not as bad as it could be. The first few days I’m back, I busy myself snowmachining and visiting old friends. A few days before Christmas, my husband arrives. We go to breakfast in the cafe where I used to work. It’s called Charlotte’s now. I’ve forgotten what it used to be called, so I ask the twenty-something blond waitress.
“Always been Charlotte’s,” she says, and I realize for her it probably always has been Charlotte’s, even though for me, this restaurant and the tinny sounds of “the best of the eighties and beyond” local radio have created something of a confusing time warp. Is this home? I hum along to a familiar song.
I would be the sunlight in your universe. You would think my love was really something good, baby if I could change the world.
The lines stick in my head, distracting me. My husband says that on the day he left me at the Seattle airport, he witnessed a car accident on his way home. Sunday afternoon, he went by the library to drop off my overdue books. No one was on the road except the car in front of him which accelerated inexplicably, lurched, and crashed hard into a light pole. The street was deserted.
My husband, a former EMT, jumped out and assessed the condition of the driver and passenger: an old man and woman. The man was unconscious and unresponsive. The woman was bleeding from her head and though conscious, she was in shock. Not speaking. My husband called 911 immediately and emergency response was on the scene in minutes.
“I doubt the guy made it,” my husband says, looking out the cafe window. “And the lady…I don’t know about her, either. They were both pretty old. Married, probably, for fifty years and that was the day that ended it. Their whole life. Done.”
I think fifty years with the one person you love would be amazing. A good life. I grab my husband’s hand. “At least you were there. To help them, I mean. Maybe they lived. You never know.” I hold on to his hand.
After breakfast we drive to the beach. The weather has changed since my arrival, warmed considerably. Salty waves splash up onto giant chunks of ice, melting them slowly, returning them home to the ocean. Water leaves and returns. What has the water seen? How has the water changed? Leaves and returns. Home is an ocean.
My husband makes channels in the ice. He looks out at the sea, then back at me. Smiles. I follow the little rivers he has made until we are standing side by side on the Kenai beach. Home.
Days from now my husband and I will return with our daughter to Washington. Home.
I press myself against him and hope for fifty years with this person I love, my ocean.
Notable features of Alaska in Winter:
- The sun sets around four p.m. and doesn’t rise again until after 9 a.m.
- Temperatures can drop below -30 degrees Fahrenheit and stay like that for days.
- Most people drive trucks, which means in the winter there’s sometimes a plow on front and usually either a snowmachine (no, we don’t call them snowmobiles) or a big stack of wood in the back.