That Time I Accidentally Moved Away From Alaska
I have a vivid memory from the autumn of 1998. At the far end of the Denali National Park Road the tundra is speckled with hardy spruces. Hills usher the way to the looming giant on the horizon, Denali. From my seat on the wooden step of a weather port, the mountain was bathed in morning light. Overhead the sky was decorated with spirals of thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes, their trilling calls echoing out over the glacier scoured valley. The frost evaporating from the blueberry, lingonberry, crowberry and Labrador tea created a heady vegetative fragrance that I will forever associate with Alaska. Sipping the sharp cinnamon tea in my cup, I knew in my heart that this was the place I was meant to be. And for 21 years it was. Until it wasn’t.
I grew up in the West and am at least one quarter coyote. Wild places are where I go for guidance and comfort. It was no surprise that I ended up in Alaska. Like many Alaskan transplants, the beauty of the state was only the first lure of many that kept me in its thrall. The people that live in Alaska are another of its treasures. Upon my arrival in Alaska I was welcomed like an old friend, offered food, places to live, dogs, anything I needed. My partner and I committed to the full Alaska experience. We moved into a “dry” cabin in Interior Alaska. A “dry” cabin means no running water and an outhouse. Not an abnormal way to live in Fairbanks where plumbing causes a myriad of problems (frozen pipes, frozen lines, water deliveries). When we arrived we were in our twenties, so we saw it as an adventure. The temperatures plummeting to -40 during the winter didn’t phase us. The summer and fall days were warm and glorious. The endless daylight allowed for gardening into the late evening, followed by a swim in the neighborhood lake. For many years despite the usual bumps and bruises of life, I loved it. Sure there were struggles, it is not an easy place to live. Winter is hard, it is dark and cold, and it took a toll on my mental health. But the thing about Alaska is every time you feel like it is about to break you, it performs a magic trick. Minus 30 below, but the sky is lit with the glimmering lights of the aurora. Half frozen water slopping up your boots, but a wolverine crosses your path, a dark comet against the brilliant snow. We set down roots, eventually buying an off-grid cabin. Still without running water, but now with the added work of a solar electric system and a temperamental creek. Our log cabin sits on a piece of land that transitions from tundra and spindly black spruces, to huge white spruces rising to birches. I know those acres intimately after walking them for years with our dog. I established a big garden. I planted perennials. We made improvements to the cabin, claiming every inch of its 400 square feet. However, living in an off-grid cabin made an already challenging place, much harder. It took dedication and lots of time. In the summer when the midnight sun illuminated the solar panels, we made more electricity than we could use. But in the winter we had to run a generator that would not operate below -15 degrees. Our water had to be hauled from town in 5 gallon jugs for our house needs, regardless of the season. When the temperatures plummeted, the wood stove had to be constantly monitored to keep the house warm. Somewhere in the middle of the relentless march to keep an off-grid house, a full time career, and a relationship functional, I began to falter. More than falter, I began to sink.
Here is the truth, despite my love for Alaska and my pride in the years I lived there, I never stopped feeling like a fraud. Vital to living in Alaska, especially Interior, is getting outside. For the first several years, I commuted to work by bike, even during winter. Until my knees started complaining that biking at sub zero temperatures absolutely sucked. I grew up skiing so being able to click on my skis in our front yard and ski for miles, was amazing. I did have some truly transcendent solo skis, but I was annoyed when I returned home and couldn’t take a warm shower. I tried it all: fat biking, gravel biking in the summer, backpacking, skijoring. It was fun, but I never fell head over heels for any of it. Another common activity for Alaskans are remote cabin trips. Why would I ski or bike in the sub zero temperatures to an off-grid cabin, when I lived in an off-grid cabin? Then the other aspect fundamental to Alaska life started to waver. Our community of friends began to change. Some started families, and we didn’t. Other friends moved away. We found ourselves doing more things alone. We used to host huge Thanksgiving dinners at our house. It was one of my favorite days of the year, we would cook all day and gather around a temporary plywood table large enough to fit everyone. The first year we realized that we would be spending Thanksgiving alone, it was heartbreaking. Neither of us are the type to wallow in our situation, so we attempted to find ways to make it better. We began to travel more during the winter, spending a month or two away from Alaska. I tried harder to enjoy outdoor activities. We talked about temporarily moving to a town in coastal Alaska for six months. I quit my secure job to chase my dream of being a writer. But life had other ideas.
After leaving my job, we planned to spend a month or two with family in the lower 48 and then return to Alaska. Shortly after arriving in Colorado, our dog was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition, one that made traveling difficult because her medications had to constantly be adjusted. I stayed a little longer in Colorado to work on my novel and care for the dog, while my partner returned to Alaska. And then a global pandemic happened. And then a cancer diagnosis in our family. I grew up in Colorado and swore if I ever returned there was only one small town I would live in, and we found a house there to rent. Two years later, we are still here. I haven’t returned to our tiny cabin since we left believing we would be back in a few months. Two years away from my books, my kitchen, my garden, the wilderness outside our front door. And I’m okay with it. Better than okay with it. Distance from our Alaska life has made it evident how much time and energy I dedicated to simply maintaining a functional home. Of course I miss Alaska and my friends, but I think it was time to move on.
When people I meet here in the lower 48 are impressed by how we lived, I feel a bit embarrassed. I want to tell them: “Really, I am not unusual or particularly tough. There are people who do these things every day in Alaska and never complain about it”. By comparison I was on the low end of the badass scale. Maybe I never was a “true” Alaskan.
So I accidentally moved away from the place that captured my heart, where I thought I would live forever. Perhaps it was time to go, like a relationship that had fluttered and faded, the romance and spark were gone, it had begun to feel like drudgery. I imagine my log cabin as it sits there empty, the northern lights dancing above, the moose cheerfully munching away at my perennials. Maybe someday I will return. I was merely a blip on the greatness that is Alaska, but the perfume of the tundra will always be my favorite fragrance.
This is so evocative. I love how disappointment and doubt are juxtaposed with such magic, mystery and beauty. Also powerful the way your cabin waits for your return, or not. What does it mean to inhabit a place without a sense of belonging?