Winter is creeping into Anchorage. Snow has been perched up on the Chugach range to the east for weeks, ebbing and spreading as the weather toys with us down here in the city- fifty degrees one day, twenty-five the next. Each day, the sun lingers a little less in the sky and we’re left in what feels like unfairly premature darkness, even in October. Opening up my blog again for the first time in months, I can’t help but notice the irony of the title I chose back in Turkey. Living in lights? Not so much. I never imagined then that I would soon enough be back in the United States, this time sharing a latitude line with Helsinki.I’ve moved around a lot in my life, but there’s one thing that always seems to stay the same. People really like complaining about where they live. I used to offer, unhelpfully, “if you hate it here so much, why not move?” Well, Young Sierra, first of all, not everybody shares the desire to pack up their lives and replant hundreds or thousands of miles away every six months. But more importantly, I finally realized they aren’t whining in earnest. Inside the moaning is a certain bizarre but apparently universal pride found in the oddities, discomforts, inconveniences, and annoyances of home.Something as simple as the weather quickly becomes a strange kind of race for last place. “Where I’m from, the humidity is so intense your clothes are soaked through five minutes after you leave the house,” the Floridian will half-brag, half-complain. “You can’t imagine how bad mud season gets up here,” the Vermonter will say, seeing a one-up opportunity. At this point, the Alaskan senses weakness. “I am from Alaska,” he announces. “The sun barely rises in the winter, and never sets in the summer. Winter, which lasts eight or nine months, is bitterly cold and terribly depressing. Lower 48ers who find themselves in our frozen northland after its onset can do nothing but huddle together for warmth and pray for a swift death.”I may possibly be exaggerating a slight fraction, but really now.
Anchorage is a strange place, that’s for sure. I’m not sure what I pictured on the long drive west from Boston and then north from Arizona, but it wasn’t quite this.
“Everything here looks like it’s from the seventies,” I remember saying to my boyfriend as we climbed out of the overloaded Suburban to stretch our legs in the Taco King parking lot. The faded colors, the nail salons with misspelled names, those hokey fan-driven balloon people bowing and straightening in front of tax attorneys’ offices and sushi restaurants. The… um, oh no, I’m compelled to use the phrase “antique charm”… of Anchorage gives it a small-town America feeling, which, combined with the city’s vast sprawl, makes it easy to forget that fully 40% of Alaska’s population lives here.
There’s a sense of disconnect, I think. The 38% of the population who was born and raised here, along with a surprising number of immigrants, seem to view themselves as Alaskans first and Americans a distant second. “In the States” doesn’t mean “in this country we all live in,” but rather “down there in the lower 48”. Very little west of Anchorage is accessible by road, meaning that the majority of this mindbogglingly enormous state is effectively marooned in the snow for the better part of the year. Not much of a surprise, then, that Alaskans hold six times more pilots’ licenses per capita than any other state.
Not a surprise either that people up here in this middle-of-nowhere, Last Frontier, former Gold Rush state seem generally pretty psyched about the things which set them apart. Anchorage’s dubious honor of being the least fashionable city in America and the completely unshocking fact that Alaska is the coldest state year-round are relayed in a tone of voice normally used by proud parents whose son got straight As.
Here’s what I think: Alaska is weird. And expensive. And remote. And freezing. And people up here pretty much like things like that.
Featured photo by Doug Brown