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.
9 thoughts on “State of Uncertainty”
I think you have touched on something a lot of people, including myself think about. What does it mean when, after twenty or thirty years, you still call someplace else home, at least some of the time? What does it say about the realities of living here? That could be the subtitle of my entire thesis.
I thought of you when I was writing this post, Michael. I know you’re another who feels strong ties to another place.
As someone who has moved nineteen times in my life, I can affirm that place matters. That said, I have found contentment more easily when I’ve left comparisons behind. Nothing is like a book, not even the life that the book is based on. No one writes about the day to day grind, the boring do-the-laundry days. New holds an allure, but there is something to be said for nuance. I love this rumination, but I know how hard it is to live with your heart’s bags packed by the door. Thank you for sharing your journey.
Thanks, Erin, for listening to me ruminate in person on a near weekly basis! It’s people like you who make the missing of another place more bearable. I think you’re right with your statement about leaving comparisons behind. It’s something for me to practice.
Sometimes when I yearn for where I came from, I wonder if I’m really longing for the youth I left there.
Oh, J. I certainly wouldn’t want to relive the youth that I had there. I think I’d like to go back as the person I’ve become. Thank you for reading.
I love your blog.
I give honor to your stories of the exploration of life. As i was reading this post This thought occurred to me while I compared my perspective and lifestyle to yours.
” You can tell what your priorities are by the time you allot to them.”
Consider the cognitive dissonance of a history teacher trying to reconcile the excuse of her teenage pupil’s story that they didn’t have enough time to complete their over the week end homework.
Wherever you domicile, your time will still be spent developing your craft of communication and storytelling, caring for your loved ones, and contributing needed resources for your family.
I am looking forward to reading more of those stories.
Could it be that you are on the event horizon of being able to shift your priorities just a little to experience the things you have been dreaming about for these many years? Is the siren song of the more raw Alaska calling you?
I live off grid 5 miles from the highway, some would say my life is complicated chopping firewood, building fence, trimming horses feet, gardening, commuting out to the road by snow-machine.
But today I will go out for a ride with my horses, feel the cool fall breeze on my face and with the advantage of being up so high, look for more cranberry bushes. And I will consider again just how fortunate I am to be me living my life.
Have you ever heard the saying
” Life is like a dime. Once you spend it its gone.”
Considering this is my 50th year on this planet, this winter my time will be spent on 2 priorities I have been wanting to do for a long time:
Teach my mare to pull a wagon, and chariot in tandem with my gelding. And run behind a dog team.
So wish me good luck because on Mon,Tue, Wed, I will run dogs, and Thurs,Fri,Sat I will work with the horses.
And if all goes well you might be able to go for a covered wagon ride in the woods this summer.
Give yourself the permission to have your cake and eat it too.
“Magic is the science and art of creating conformity and change with one’s will.”
Is it your will to add more peak life experiences? It sounds like it to me. Good fortune to you. I look forward to reading about them.
Thanks for reading and for your insight. Yes, I believe it is about adding more peak life experiences and finding beauty and pleasure in the small, day to day aspects of life. It sounds like you are not just living a life, but crafting one you can feel good about. A lesson for us all! Enjoy your dogs and horses!
Emotions about a place are more powerful, more indelible than the place or event in my past. Returning to some of my past haunts, I realized much had changed and what I longed for was that “feeling” instead of place. At the same time being in a particular place, feelings flooded me. The extreme of Alaska geography, I think, can have a particular hold on us, perhaps in an extreme sort of mysterious connect.