North to the Future! (In which I experience a quarter-life crisis, Alaska-style)

When I first started making noises about moving to Alaska, it seemed like everyone had a Last Frontier story to tell—a cousin who’d come up to work in Denali for a summer and never left, a cruise or RV trip taken by a grandparent, a piece of Palin trivia, that sort of thing.

Exploring Alaska: Year 1. (Photo by Alex Wilson.)
Exploring Alaska: Year 1. (Photo by Alex Wilson.)

In keeping with my longstanding tradition of over-thinking things, I found this trend both hopeful and unsettling. On the one hand, I figured if I was going to haul my cookies four thousand miles away from everyone I knew, I’d like to end up in the sort of place people fall in love with. Still, the prospect of moving so far away—coupled with another question I often got, “Do they even have grocery stores there?”—left me feeling uneasy about the idea of putting down roots in Alaska.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. (There are myriad grocery stores in the greater Anchorage area, but that’s not what I mean.) The first few weeks of my new life in Alaska were busy and stressful—the beginning of grad school, starting a new job, shacking up with a partner for the first time—and while I was often struck by the beauty of the surrounding landscape, I mostly felt homesick. I kept waiting for it to hit me, but it never did: When would I fall in love with Alaska?

That first winter seemed to drag on endlessly, and by the time I emerged into spring, I wasn’t sure I could take another season up here. The Last Frontier, it seemed, had chewed me up and spit me out.

But time heals all wounds, I suppose, or perhaps my stubbornness just got the better of me: I couldn’t bring myself to drop out of grad school. A year after I’d first arrived in Alaska, I reappeared, refreshed from a sunny Colorado summer.

You’d think two very cold, dark winters—the second of which brought significantly below-average snowfall—would be enough to teach me a lesson, but in a brief period of blue skies and good skiing, I signed on for a third season.

A sunny afternoon in the aforementioned period of blue-sky-temptation, Year 2.
A sunny afternoon in the aforementioned period of blue-sky-temptation, Year 2.

“You’re a glutton for punishment,” a friend said on the phone when I told her the news, “What are you still doing there?”

It was a valid question. I’d spent the whole winter feeling under the weather, moping about crappy snow conditions and exhausted from burning the candle at both ends. Still, when it was time to pack my bags and skip town, something stopped me. Had I finally fallen in love with Alaska?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that whenever I think I’ve reached my limit, this place finds a way to reel me back in.

“Having trouble relating to others? Sick of the long nights? Missing your friends? Here,” Alaska said to me, “spend a few weeks on the Harding Icefield. It’s fun, see?”

Okay, I figured, I’ll give Alaska another chance.

The next season it was all, “Sorry for the whole no-snow thing, but I promise, that was totally out of character for me—it’ll never happen again!”

I’m not so sure, I thought, Things have really gone too far.

“Come on,” Alaska insisted, “Here, take this great job! Enjoy these two weeks of perfect weather! Isn’t springtime grand?”

I showed up for my third season in Alaska with high hopes and low expectations. I so desperately wanted to fall in love with the place, to have something to show for my months spent in darkness, to answer “I never want to leave!” when asked how I like it up there. I hoped it would feel like home.

Last week as I trudged around the block with the dog, trying to make the most of what passes for daylight around here, I felt farther from home than ever.

But Alaska never leaves me hanging for long. The stars aligned in our favor last weekend, and we lit out of Los Anchorage in Saturday’s wee hours, bound for the Interior.

Finding places that feel like home, Year 3.
Finding places that feel like home, Year 3.

We eased the Forester into an empty parking lot at Mile 3 of the Denali Park Road, where plowing ends and grooming begins, and spent the next two days skijoring through miles of taiga, past those iconic spruce, over caribou tracks in the road, toward otherworldly alpine sunrises. We listened as wolves howled, their surroundings glowing pink in the subtle tones of Interior January. We smiled as their long-domesticated brothers, the famous Denali sled teams, answered, snug from their vantage point in the park kennels.

There was no moonrise. It was dark, silent, utterly devoid of humanity. We skied to the car, slid in, marked time as we drove to our own cozy kennel. The Interior is the Upper Midwest, but with mountains. People wave at you, if you see any people at all.

Maybe I’m falling in love with Alaska, a little.

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