There are times in each year when we tend to stop and take inventory of our lives. For many people, this inventory happens on New Year’s Eve. But for me it happens on Oct. 1. That’s the day, 43 years ago today, that I first set foot in Alaska.
I don’t know what expectations I had when I arrived. I’m guessing I was too busy sobbing from homesickness to really articulate any, even to myself. Being a New Jersey-New York-Pennsylvania hybrid, I would assume I arrived with a rather jaded attitude towards this whole Last Frontier shtick being tossed at me from real Alaskans. Of course back then, real Alaskans looked a little different than real Alaskans look today. Real Alaskans, Alaska Natives excepted, wore bunny boots and Carharts to formal affairs. They wore strange hats and gloves that had actual heads and paws on them. Some went into the mountains and came out only to resupply their flour and coffee rations. When they said they lived off the land, they didn’t mean that they ate from food carts at the corner. They actually killed what they ate. And if you went past University Mall at 36th and New Seward, you were heading into the country.
Forty-three years later, Alaska looks a whole lot different. Anchorage in particular no longer looks like a city hanging on the edge of a vast wilderness. I think you lose that whole ambience when a Nordstrom Rack opens within city limits. We are now a city full of amazing restaurants that serve an international banquet of foods. The only “upscale” place to eat in 1972 was a steak house on the ground floor of a hotel near the old ANMC. If you lived in Bush Alaska, coming to Anchorage meant making a beeline for the McDonald’s in the Sunshine Mall for a cheeseburger and fries – food not generally available in most of the Bush unless you were making it yourself and then it was apt to be caribou, moose or bear burger. Now my friends from the Bush are absolute gourmands, knowing where the best sushi, pho or pancit can be found.
I find myself wondering what I’ve got to show for my years as an Alaskan, aside from the aches and pains inherent in a life spent on four wheelers and snow machines. These thoughts are especially poignant right now since I recently saw Malala Yousafzai on Late Night with Stephen Colbert. She won a Nobel Peace prize when she was 17. Not only have I not done anything near what that young lady has done, but I don’t feel as though I’ve done enough to even be invited to the after party. We all seem to start out life with such amazing hopes and dreams but most of us end up settling for a decent life. The extraordinary lives seem to go to someone else.
While I will grant Malala that getting shot in the face at point blank range is not exactly the way I would have wanted my extraordinary life to start, she sure has done some pretty great things since it happened. I was once bounced off a skidoo while heading to the dump with a sled full of honeybucket barrels. I moaned and complained for weeks. I not only didn’t turn the experience into a Nobel Prize winning life, even I got tired of my whining after the first few days.
Some things have greatly improved in Alaska since I first arrived. Anchorage has great bakeries, and wonderful coffee stands, an amazing trail system and a vibrant art scene. And it’s not just Anchorage. The Valley is no longer a backwater, Fairbanks actually knows what an art scene means and Barrow has a Japanese restaurant. On the other hand, you don’t see many people going to banquets in Carharts or overalls anymore. And that sourdough who comes out of the hills once a year to trade his pelts for supplies is becoming a scarce sight.
As for me, I plan to start my 44th year in Alaska with a commitment to doing something that will not make me feel so inadequate when I’m listening to Malala. Or maybe I’ll just stop whining about the after effects of that fall on my back all those many years ago. Now that would be a truly heroic way to celebrate the day.