Books can make you love a place, or at the least the spirit of a place. Lately I’ve been missing the part of the country where I grew up, and so I’ve sought out books that take me there. This week I read, Where Rivers Change Direction, by Mark Spragg. I used his stories, his experience, his adept configuration of words, to take me back to the Rocky Mountains. His love for the ranch in Wyoming where he was raised came through and I could hear the elk bugling, and the coyotes calling and the sound of water running over a rocky streambed. The way his characters talked—their concerns, their desires, the hardships some of them had to endure—they were familiar, like people I’ve known, or at least like people my people have known.
It’s a hard thing for me to admit, but I’ve been disillusioned with Alaska lately. Or maybe a better way to say it is that I’ve been disillusioned with my experience of living in Alaska. When we moved here looking for adventure nearly twenty-two years ago, we thought we had an idea of what living in Alaska would be like. No doubt about it, we were naïve. We thought that it would be just like Montana, but bigger. We also had no concept of the realities of full-time employment or of the way our lives would change once we had children and a mortgage. We never anticipated how difficult it would be to access so many of the wild places we hoped to explore or that getting to them would require more money, time and work than we could manage. We imagined a life in Alaska that was somehow like the books we had read: Margaret Murie’s Two in the Far North, Nick Jans’ The Last Light Breaking, Edges of the Earth, by Richard Leo, Shadows on the Koyukuk by Sidney Huntington and Jim Rearden, and Nancy Lord’s collection of short stories, Survival. Those books made me infatuated with this place. They gave me an idea of what I thought it meant to be an Alaskan.
When we planned our move north, I imagined us rafting interior rivers, flying into the remote Brooks Range and hiking for days. I imagined long winters with deep snow and of spending those dark, cold days tending a fire and writing, cooking, snow-shoeing to a neighbor’s house for a visit and a cup of tea. But even here, in this place that blows my mind with its beauty, a hectic life seems to have worked its way into the forefront of our existence. We go to jobs five days a week. We stress about paying the bills. We spend our weekends doing house chores and recovering from the workweek. When we have extended breaks we tend to fly south to visit family. And the Alaskan life we read about all those years ago in anticipation of living here goes largely unrealized.
I’m not meaning to whine here. I’m just trying to think this through. I’m trying to discern whether it’s a lifestyle I’m longing for, or a place. The two might be connected. The lifestyle I crave might be better found where the cost of living isn’t so high, where public land and diverse landscapes can be more easily accessed. I’m wondering if we should stay here longer and give ourselves some post-raising-children time to enjoy this incredible state, or if we should go be closer to extended family or to the part of the country I think of when I think about home.
And what does it mean that I still call someplace else home? It might mean more than all of the ways I try to rationalize, it might mean more than all of the books I read or sentences I write.
The discussion of whether to stay or go has been constant for a while now, so much so that I’m starting to get used to this state of uncertainty. But until we’re able to make a decision, or a change, I’ll continue to walk out my door every day and feel glacier-cooled air on my skin. I’ll watch the way the wind plays on the surface of the bay, turning it different shades of green and brown and gray. I’ll marvel at how the light and shadows settle and spill across the mountains. I’ll stand on this shelf of land where I live and look east toward the Fox River Flats and west to Cook Inlet and beyond. I’ll be humbled and inspired and overwhelmed by the bigness of it all.
My own story about living in Alaska is still unfolding. It may have more to do with exploring ideas of home and belonging than it has to do with climbing mountains or fording raging rivers. It may be that my story of living in Alaska is simply about uncertainty, and all of the ways this place has taught me to embrace it.