North to the Future (Part 1)
I’m spending this summer in Anchorage, Alaska working as an engineering intern at Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC)! (Estimated reading time: 8 mins)
I’m spending this summer in Anchorage, Alaska working as an engineering intern at Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC). This is my first time in Alaska and the farthest north and west that I have ever been. When I left Florida, it was a sticky 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Everything burst vivid with summer. When I landed in Anchorage, the temperature coasted around 40, and the landscape was in the midst of brown season – winter was over, and (most) of the snow had melted, but green had yet to bloom, leaving everything in muted hues of brown and gray. I was shocked to see sporadic snow patches still on the ground – it had been an unusually long winter, and the last snowfall had been only a week prior. Now, hard packed, icy banks of dirty snow piled beneath roof awnings or hugged curves in the road, swept into piles until they would slowly melt away. The ugliest time of year, according to my Uber driver, but to me it was novel, and so I was in awe. A friend lent me the phrase “aesthetically dreary,” and it fits like a glove.
Of course, the mountains are breathtaking. I’ve always felt intrigued by Alaska, ever since my dad taught me how to use Google Earth in elementary school and I spent hours skirting the mountain roads and wondering how some place apparently so magical could be real. I enjoy feigning superiority over my peers who rag on Jacksonville (hometown) or Gainesville (college town), but I must confess I am not completely immune to youthful bitterness, and so I can’t help a tiny bit of resentment toward the place I come from – Florida, with its hot, green summers and flat, kudzu highways – and Alaska is in many ways the opposite extreme (although I’m beginning to realize this spectrum may be more horseshoe-shaped than anticipated). From the moment I exited the airport, the mountains were there, rearing from the horizon. You can see them from almost anywhere: the bus stop, the window of my shitty apartment, the Fred Meyer parking lot. Right now, they are calico, sugarcoated with snow on their north faces and brown on the south. Wherever I am, they crescent my peripheral. Sometimes I still can’t believe they’re real – in the pale morning, they look like faded cardboard cutouts pasted to the horizon. Other times, they feel alive – I imagine the hiss of snow melting, the rush of wind gasping between peaks. They make me think of the invisible, empty-air hum of a church’s arching ceiling, and so it feels a bit sacrilegious to perform mundane, unaesthetic activities with the mountains quietly behind me. The mountains shouldn’t have to see me take out the garbage; they deserve contemplation or poetry (luckily, I know myself and anticipated this sort of melodrama, and I brought a collection of Robert Service poems for this very purpose).
But without the gorgeous mountain backdrop, Anchorage is a little apocalyptic (I hope no Anchoragites take offense here). In the winter, the roads and parking lots are sprayed with sand and gravel so vehicles can maintain traction. Now that the snow is gone, dust billows in the wake of big-boned pick-up trucks and gravel wedges itself into the treads of my sneakers. I squint in the desert howl. Street sweepers cleared most of the roads, but many store owners couldn’t be bothered to do much more than brush all the dirt into piles. Many of the commercial areas are vast expanses of asphalt with no trees. Dilapidated strip malls are bleached colorless and full of vacant storefronts. The freeze-thaw cycle pockmarks the roads. I don’t have a car and I’m too stubborn to buy a bike, so instead I crawl around Anchorage on foot or by public bus. Anchorage was not made for pedestrians. Sidewalks are infrequent, gritty, and have the tendency to dissolve into nothing. Crosswalks appear every half mile. My daily commute takes me through UAA’s housing district and across a four-lane road to the ANTHC campus, and I spend most of that commute balancing on the curb, jaywalking, perching on medians until the traffic clears, and jaywalking again. The architecture is gray, boxy, pragmatic. Buildings weather the winter, then crouch pale and exhausted through the summer. The urban center of Anchorage is also fairly flat, geographically at odds with the pitch and yaw of the ragged mountain peaks; it only aids the impression that the mountains might just be a stage backdrop. Outside of the commercial sprawl, the roads begin to dip and curve around evergreen swells. The neighborhoods that reveal themselves are full of wooden a-frames or lofted cabins painted blue-gray or forest green – I can imagine these houses laden picturesque with snow in the winter, their windows fogged. Someone walks their husky, its tail cheerfully curled. There is a lump of old snow in the middle of the cul-de-sac.
The sun sets late and rises early. On the summer solstice, Anchorage will receive 22 hours of sunlight. I’ve been told it is a special Alaskan talent to fall asleep in full brightness, but unfortunately a week has not been long enough for me to pick up this skill, so it’s me and my sleeping mask against the world. I live in a studio apartment on the outskirts of UAA campus, in what I’ve affectionately dubbed my “bachelor era,” i.e., my only furniture is a mattress (for the first night I didn’t even have that), multi-use cardboard box, and dusty metal folding chair I picked up from the curb. I’m on the second floor with neighbors above me, below, and on all three sides. The walls are so thin that every time someone clears their throat it sounds like they are in the room with me. Through this unfortunate intimacy, I know that the couple next to me has a baby and toddler (who fuss often), enjoys Megan thee Stallion discourse, plays video games, and likes to partake in certain carnal pleasures very early in the morning. My door and window open to an outdoor catwalk; once, I was adjusting my window (most homes don’t have AC, so my unit tends to get stuffy even if it is cold outside) and my neighbor walked by with his daughter, who broke into a wet grin when she saw me. So, despite the nights of poor sleep, I feel a bit endeared to them all.
I work at ANTHC, which is a non-profit tribal health organization that serves the Alaska Native communities. Primarily a hospital, Alaska Natives from all over the state travel to Anchorage to receive specialized care free of charge. My internship is in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering (DEHE), part of the preventative care side of the organization. My department, Construction Field Operations, has about two dozen projects in progress at any given time, all of them aimed at providing remote Alaska Native villages with clean water and sanitation services, whether that means updating failing infrastructure or installing new systems into communities that currently have nothing at all. Next week, I’m joining a supervisor on a site visit to Kiana, Alaska – a village of about 400 people in northeastern Alaska. Currently, Kiana’s drinking water contains unhealthy levels of iron and manganese, so DEHE is working to update the wastewater treatment plant to filter out these contaminants. To get there, we’ll take a standard passenger airplane from Anchorage to Kotzebue, and then a bush plane to Kiana. I have been advised to dress in layers.
So far, one of my favorite parts of the summer has been learning about the Alaska Native communities. As a lower-48 resident, I did not anticipate the footprint Alaska Natives would have on Anchorage culture; when I discussed this internship with friends back home and we contemplated the sorts of people I would meet, we only talked about white people – the anti-government fishing lovers, the Elmendorf-Richardson military boys, the crunchy Patagonia hikers. In Florida, the education we receive about Native Americans is limited and presented as unfortunate history (there used to be Native Americans here; did you catch the Seminoles game yesterday?). In Alaska, the Alaska Native culture has a much more active presence – as it rightly should, because they are not a people of the past, no matter what we’ve been taught. They persist despite all colonialism’s efforts. If I had to draw a comparison, it reminds me of the way some areas of the American South have begun putting more emphasis on celebrating African American history and uplifting black communities. Anyhow, I am naïve, but I am excited for the opportunity to educate myself and hopefully make a positive difference through ANTHC.
Some miscellaneous field notes:
- This week, I was not the only Jacksonville-native visiting Anchorage for the first time; so was heavy metal band Limp Bizkit, for some reason. I couldn’t have named a Limp Bizkit song the day prior (and I still can’t), but somehow I found myself in the nosebleeds of UAA’s sports stadium, watching shirtless middle aged men play human bumper cars in the mosh pit under a cloud of marijuana smoke. North to the future, I guess.
- Near the top of the mountains, the snow is still soft. I made a snow angel!
- My moose count is currently five, not including the taxidermized fellow in airport. I didn’t realize how nonchalant they would be – chumming on shrubs outside the UAA dorms or wandering the paths on ANTHC campus. My co-workers told me stories about moose entering grocery stores or hospitals via automatic doors.
- Other wildlife: muskrat, black-billed magpie, European sterling, robin, chickadee. Still waiting on a bear (preferably at a safe distance).
- There is no sales tax (I now know the satisfaction of paying exactly $7), but food prices are very high, since most things have to be shipped from the lower 48.
- This is my first time living alone without family or roommates, and it’s interesting to observe the impact of my existence (not much garbage, so many dishes). Apparently even in a one-room studio I can’t be motivated to pick my clothes off the floor.