My sister tells me that no matter how many legs her plane trip to Alaska entails, she can always tell without even looking at her ticket when she’s on the final leg that will take her to Anchorage. According to her, people start looking different at that point. They dress differently and have an entirely different air about them.
I’ve often wondered if the Carharts weren’t just a dead giveaway. But surprisingly, not that many Alaskans wear Carharts on plane trips anymore. Go figure. I guess that’s what happens when we get all citified.
After I went to the Sports Show at the Sullivan this year, it struck me that I knew exactly what my sister was saying. While Carharts were certainly represented in the crowd there – we haven’t yet lost all standards, for heaven’s sake – that wasn’t what clarified her statement in my head. In fact, I don’t know if I can really put into words what did, except to say that anyone who wants to really know where Alaskans live and what they look like needs to go to the annual sports show.
As I walked in the front door, there was a group of men standing around something that looked vaguely like a sheeted tepee who were seriously discussing the ramifications of various shelters in blizzards and below zero weather as though it were the most natural thing in the world to hunt, fish and camp in those conditions. Inside, there were more ways to catch a fish, launch a boat, kill a moose or scale a peak than there are freeways in New Jersey. And every booth was filled with Alaskans who not only could discuss the latest ramifications of federal fisheries policies on salmon futures but, at the same time, could choose the best knife for dressing out a moose from a selection of over 100 varieties.
When you visit the lower 48, you are always hit with just how differently we still do things in Alaska despite our pretensions of having actually grown up into a state with an urban center, a vibrant arts scene and enough latte stands to drown Vermont.
The difference that usually strikes us first is that you are expected to keep your shoes on when you go to visit people in their homes. I always screw that one up the first week or so I’m there. By the time I get it straight, I’m on a plane back to Alaska where I have to relearn the protocol of indoor shoe etiquette. Haven’t we all blushed under the startled looks we’ve gotten from friends and family as we entered their house for dinner or a party and immediately kicked our shoes off and brought out the slippers we were carrying in our bag?
There are also some not quite so obvious differences you tend to notice the longer you live in this state. For instance, few people in the lower 48 truly understand the urge that comes over Alaskans every spring to clean out their freezers in preparation for the next moose carcass or salmon/halibut catch. In fact, people in the lower 48 don’t even truly understand what a freezer is. They think it’s that little attachment to their refrigerator that we use for our ice cubes or frozen salmonberries.
As every true Alaskan knows, your freezer is in your garage, it is filled with fish and animal products you personally killed, dressed and hauled home or, at worse, traded for with someone living in the Bush who has access to the whale and caribou that is so mysteriously missing from most local markets. People from those other states don’t get that these freezers need to be emptied and cleaned every spring, and people at the zoo or Bird TLC can’t imagine what they’d do if Alaskans didn’t spring clean their freezers and pass the old stuff on.
I think what my sister sees as she travels closer and closer to Alaska is more of an attitude and state of mind than any particular state of dress or undress. Granted you may be able to tell Alaskans very often by their comfortable foot wear, heavy coats and inability to be parted with their gloves even when traveling to Hawaii, but more than that, what she sees are people who belong to a land that they know is the best land god ever created and who will only be parted from it when carried out feet first.
Or when they finally divide up the entire corpus of the Permanent Fund to each and every Alaskan and we all race south for that warm piece of land we’ve had our eye on in Mexico. We may be loyal, but we aren’t completely crazy.