North to the Future (Part 3)

What other places have I visited? For work: over the Arctic circle to Kiana and Kotzebue, the interior to Lime Village and Stony River, Bethel, Russian Mission on the shores of the Yukon. Outside of work: Eagle River and Chugiak, Talkeetna, Hatcher Pass, Fairbanks.

John, Kyler, Jesse, and I set aside a weekend to drive 6 hours up to Fairbanks. I love road trips. The collaborative playlists, the gas station snack stops, spontaneous pullovers to admire the view, watching miles of scenery slide past my window. Some highlights: Kyler closing my finger in the window because he couldn’t hear our conversation over the wind (what he would have heard is John telling me “put your finger in the window”), Jesse driving for the second (?) time in her life, gorgeous craggily mountains, fireweed ice cream. After a failed camping attempt (the mosquitos were ungodly), we decided to return to Anchorage, completing the round trip in less than 24 hours. Around midnight, the sun dipped toward the horizon, and the sky hung in perpetual sunset for several hours before distilling into Anchorage overcast.

Even though they have been in Alaska all their lives, my friends still appreciate the beautiful landscape, and I love them for that. There have been so many moments I wish I could capture between my palms – napping on the river shore in Talkeetna, chasing each other with water guns at Hatcher Pass, catching our breath against boulders on mountain hikes with the entire world spread out below.

People keep asking me if I like Florida, if I foresee myself staying there. I never quite know how to answer. This summer has made me reflect a lot on place, especially as so many of my friends partake in the post-undergrad diaspora from Gainesville, and so many coworkers recite the stories of how they found their way to Anchorage. I believe that, with effort, I could make any city feel like mine – find the right people, the right peaceful corners – but some places are harder to love than others.

When I think of Florida, what do I think of? My family, my childhood home, the hum of cicadas so loud and constant that when I was younger I thought it was the sound of the sun itself, which is often just as loud and constant. I think of pressing my fingers to the AC grate in a hot car, of shimmering asphalt and skin sticking with sweat. Foliage that is green in an untroubled way, a blue sky with no clouds, light filtering through the atmosphere after an afternoon thunderstorm – pink or green or yellow. I think of the people I love most, of sitting outside on a warm evening with a cold drink in hand. Lethargic swamps covered in duckweed. Familiar birds on the electrical wire and lizards that dart between my shoes. Some days I love it fiercely, and I miss it most on Anchorage’s rare sunny days – in Florida, I never worry that I’m wasting a warm day by spending it indoors, because I know there will be another tomorrow – but other days, all my reasons to love it become reasons to hate it.

I think often of my mother. She was born and raised in Canada, and her parents and siblings all still live there. When she was my age, she backpacked in Australia and later spent a few months teaching English in Mexico; both ventures were at least partially solo. After marrying a fellow Canadian, she traveled down to Florida and put down roots. She loves Florida, and talks (mostly tongue-in-cheek) about moving even farther south, where winter never comes. Some days it's more difficult for me to understand her than others, especially when the AC is broken and even the pool is too hot to provide relief. But Florida is her place – the result of searching, adventuring, working hard. Someday, I hope to find that too.

I don’t know how to say all that in fewer words, and so when people ask about Florida, I tell them it is hot and flat, and I don’t know if I’ll stay.

Field notes:

  • On the drive home from a hike, a black bear ran across the road! My first bear!
  • The mountains that were snow-covered at the beginning of my summer are now green! They are lush and dreamy.
  • The wildflowers are beautiful. I notice this when I visit my family in Canada too – like the flowers have less time, so they bloom extra bright to make up for it.
  • There is a law banning billboards because they interfere with Alaska’s natural beauty. One of my friends here visited Alabama (evil cousin of Florida) and was appalled by the giant sex store advertisements. You gotta love the American south – Lion’s Den whatever followed by GOD IS WATCHING! REPENT NOW!
  • There is also a law that the native wildlife and cultures of Alaska cannot be commercialized. That’s why there’s no Alaska Native restaurants and no salmonberries at the grocery store.
  • Big trucks and Subarus.
  • My favorite bird I’ve observed so far are the bank swallows. They’re small and blue-gray with white bellies and v-shaped tails. I haven’t seen any in Anchorage, but they’re all over the communities I’ve visited, zipping back and forth so fast I can hardly keep track. In Russian Mission, nearly every house was mounted with a utilitarian little bird house, and the swallows poked their heads out to watch us go.
  • I have a secret fear (perhaps not secret now) that after this summer, I can never return to Anchorage again. I feel like I’ve stumbled into the perfect combination of people and circumstances, and I don’t know if I can get that lucky twice.