Yesterday, a young twenty-something couple came to the counter at the library where I work and wanted me to tell them about Homer. They didn’t want statistics as much as they wanted to know what it’s like to live here. They told me they are moving to Alaska, touring around the state, trying to find the community that best fits them.
I talked with them for twenty minutes about why we chose to move to Homer from Eagle River seventeen years ago, reaffirming to myself the reasons I love this place. I talked about how so many people who live here have chosen this place because of what it is, not because it’s easy to get by here. That is why you’ll meet men and women who have three different jobs in order to make ends meet for their young families. It’s why you’ll meet people who have chosen to live unconventionally, away from the mindset of career advancement and consumerism. But today, looking back on the conversation, I’m thinking less about the place I live now, and more about the person I was when Dean and I moved to Alaska nineteen years ago.
In 1992 we bought our first house in the Eagle River valley. I was twenty-four years old and six months pregnant. Dean and I were two months shy of our second wedding anniversary. We were both in the process of a gradual, but natural departure from the religious world we had been a part of when we met and got married. I was beginning to consider the world in a different way; a way that included more possibilities than I had ever imagined. It was exciting but it felt a little dangerous stepping into new territory like that. Moving to an extreme place like Alaska seemed fitting.
We shared the valley where our cozy log home was nestled with black bears and grizzlies. We didn’t see them often, but I’d find their footprints in the glacial mud down by the river. Even though I knew they were there I didn’t have a healthy fear of them like I should have. While Dean worked the swing shift of his job, I’d hike my pregnant self and our brown dog Jessie down to the state park trails and go exploring. I didn’t make enough noise, and aside from my dog, I was alone out there late in the evening when the light was beginning to dim.
The Eagle River valley is stunning. It narrows as you drive toward the east and steep mountains tower on either side. A visitor center at the end of the road, right next to where our house was located, is the beginning of a trail system that can take you either up into the mountains or to the river itself; fast running and cloudy with glacial silt. Living near the trail system was a gift. Over the year and a half that we lived there we found our way to it almost daily; became familiar with individual cottonwood trees along the way, enjoyed its bounty of lignonberries. But as beautiful as it was, the time I lived there was one of the loneliest times in my life.
For those first few months in Alaska, before Dillon was born, I spent a lot of time alone. And I wasn’t yet comfortable in my own company. To pass the time I read, went for walks, and called my mom and sisters. I made friends with some of the neighbors. One of them, Gretchen, was expecting a baby right around the same time as me. Although I was thankful for the new people I had met, I missed the informal, easy company of the family I’d just left in Colorado. Another factor that contributed to my feeling of isolation was that every morning almost all of our neighbors would make the twenty mile trek into Anchorage for their jobs. Sometimes after Dean would leave for work later in the afternoon, I felt like it was just me out there, with the moose and the bears.
It took me a while to adjust to living in Alaska. As most things go, it was different than I’d imagined. Before moving here I had never lived in a coastal environment, had never lived in a place where it stayed light into the early morning hours or lived in a place that was so vast and undeveloped. That first summer here I read stories in the news that haunted me; about a family that froze to death on the Denali Highway the previous winter when their car broke down, about Chris McCandless, a young man my same age, that wandered off into the wilderness and died of starvation, about a family in Craig, Alaska, murdered one night when their houseboat was untied from the dock and set on fire. I had never lived in a place with such extreme stories.
I’m sure that regardless of where I would have chosen to live these last nineteen years I would be looking back at myself and marveling at how much I’ve changed. But I think living in Alaska has sent me on a path of self discovery that would not have been possible anywhere else. This is due in part to the landscape itself, its depth and its magnitude. It’s due in part to its climate and latitude, making me embrace the extreme light and darkness both within myself and in nature. And it’s due in part to the people I’ve befriended here. Alaska attracts remarkable people; passionate people who believe in the power of art and self-sufficiency, courageous people who take chances and learn from their failures. More than anything else, the people here have challenged me to see the world and conventional society with a critical and creative eye. Knowing them and being around them has helped me figure out what it means to be myself.
As I think about the young couple I met at the library I wonder if they know what they’re getting themselves into. I wonder what they will learn about themselves along the way. Maps and travel guides and information gleaned from the library can’t possibly prepare them.