“So what brought you to Alaska?” My first go-to question when I found out someone was not born and raised in the ‘last frontier.’ My husband and I have only been in Alaska for three days and already the people we have met and their stories have been as fascinating and wild as the mountains and uncharted nature the state is known for.
Me asking this question all stated on the plane ride to Anchorage. The man sitting next to me came to Anchorage for a military assignment, “A long time ago,” and decided to stay. Our conversation progressed and he shared that since life is so temporal, fleeting, you may as well spend it where you want, doing what you want. He scrolled through photos on his phone of his kayak business he now owns in Alaska. They were pictures of smiling people and families against blue ocean waters with the backdrop of breathtaking glaciers. “After all, that’s the only thing we truly know in life right? That one day we are all gunna die. Everyone, everywhere. Death is an awesome equalizer,” he grinned a little wider as he said it. I nodded as he continued to scroll through photos on his phone. He ran his fingers over his wirey grey beard contemplatively, still smiling as he observed each of his photos with the upmost attentiveness. As if he were seeing each photo for the very first time. I glanced past him at the mountain range visible through the small plane window as we prepared to land in Anchorage, pinks and oranges of a setting sun splayed out over the perfect canvas of snow covered mountains. How could you not look at this everyday as if it were your first time seeing it? I thought. Maybe no matter where you live, though, that’s a good outlook to have, I decided as the pilot captain came over the speaker preparing us passengers for landing.
In the welcome center, we met a smiling, jovial, white haired with multiple missing teeth, visitor-center-volunteer. He eagerly showed my husband and I travel brochures and recommended areas to pull off the highway for photo opts. I naturally started to assume he was a born and raised in Alaska with his affinity for all things Anchorage, but after we asked for some travel tips for our voyage to Seward, Alaska, he smiled wide and placed his hand near his heart. “I have a soft spot for Seward,” he said, his voice a little softer and more serious. “See that’s where I decided to jump ship. I jumped off a boat when I saw those mountains, swam for shore, hitch hiked to Anchorage and been here ever since.” Jumped ship? How indescribably fascinating, I thought. But as I started to ask him more, he scurried off to assist a free-spirited looking man with a large backpack asking for directions. I watched him pointing exaggeratedly to assist the lost winter traveler. I guess sometimes you just know where you are supposed to be, I thought. Maybe I too could be more forward about things in life. When you know, you just know and that should move you to action. Hell, even if that means jumping into ice laced seas to get there.
I soon learned that not everyone who migrated to Alaska was running to the last frontier. Some people come to Alaska because they are running from things.
During a sled dog tour we met a guy, late twenties, dark hair and weathered skin, wearing layers of well broken-in snow apparel. His handling of the dogs and sled equipment came second nature as if he had been doing this forever. But he later shared that he was from Hawaii and came to Alaska because he was running from an ex girlfriend. Like literally running, fearing-your-life-and-safety running. “I gotta apologize if I seemed rude, I’m just a little jaded still,” he said to me as he pointed to where to sit on the sled. “Understandably so..” I said shaking my head as I took my seat on the sled. I guess if you’re going to run from someone, Alaska would be the place to do it, because apparently she hasn’t found him yet.
While in a local diner we met a woman with long blonde hair and the kind of blue eyes that can be described as piercing. She asked where we were from before she took our order, “No shit! That’s where I’m from too!” She exclaimed when we told her. We went on to share stories about changes that have occurred in the area over the past 20+ years since she’s been there. “I figured it hadn’t changed much. That’s why I left ya know,” she said as she placed the napkin squares down for our drinks and started to pour glasses of water. “See I was a loud, opinionated, outspoken women and in my time that didn’t fly. I wasn’t going to change who I was so as soon as I graduated from high school, I started traveling the world. I came here to see the northern lights and have been here ever since.” She smiled wide and looked up slightly. “You know I’ve thought about that place from time to time, but I have never looked back. I have never regretted making the decision to leave.” I smiled back at her and nodded. Because sometimes that’s the best thing you can do, look at someone in the eye, smile and absorb their words with your very being. A piece of me connected with her in that moment, that search for belonging and a place that accepts you as you are. And I was happy for her, truly happy for her.
Leaving the diner we drove along the mostly frozen waters lined with snow covered mountains and blue bird skies. I can see why people would live here, I thought as I closed my eyes and allowed the midday sun to cover my face.