Columns 2006

Strange Alaska highway lights

There is a scene in one episode of the show “Everybody Loves Raymond” where his brother’s new girlfriend is finding out for the first time just how crazy the family can be.  Ray’s wife comments that she sometimes forgets how weird the family is until a new person comes into their lives and looks at them with horror. She adds, “And now I’m one of them.”

Sometimes I feel that way about being an Alaskan.  I don’t realize how strange some things are here until I hear them described by someone from outside who has arrived in our state recently enough to still notice the oddities.  And so it passed that I was driving to a meeting with a friend not too long ago and bemoaning my lack of night vision.  Oddly enough, I told her, when I was back East visiting my sister I was able to drive at night throughout Atlantic City and Margate without a problem.  The streets were well lit and the lane markings actually visible so that driving down Atlantic Avenue, unlike driving down say Northern Lights, was not a wild rodeo of large trucks jockeying for what they believed was a lane while small cars darted out of the way with fright.

My friend, who has been in Alaska for 15 years, said that one of the things she and her husband had both noticed on arriving here was the weird street light system and that maybe that was part of my problem.  Weird street light system?  What could she possibly mean?

What she was alluding to was something that I take for granted as a 34 year Alaskan and she still sees as startling as a relative newcomer.  As true Alaskans know, your credibility on the subject of all things Alaskan is directly proportional to how long you’ve been in the state compared to the person with whom you are conversing.  In this case, I felt that she obviously didn’t know what she was talking about because she’s only been here 15 years.

We were on the Seward Highway as this conversation took place and she pointed out to me what she felt was a rather bizarre arrangement of lights for the highway. As much as I hated to cede any ground to a Cheechako, I had to admit she might have a point.  So after that night, I started taking more notice of the placement of streetlights on our highways, byways and streets and this has led me to one question.  Were all the road planners drunk when they decided where to put streetlights?  Did they grab some darts during a drinking game at �Koots and just toss them at maps of our roads?  Because there are definitely places along the road system in this fair city that look like that’s how the placement was decided.

Get on the Seward Highway and you have parts that are very well lit. Then you pass, for instance, the Dimond Exit going south and suddenly you are plunged into the heart of darkness until you get to the Huffman Exit, which is lit up well enough to land a jet.  Get on Minnesota going south.  It’s well lit till you pass Tudor and suddenly you are on a dark curve with no lane line even dimly visible through your headlights despite the presence of streetlights.  It’s like entering a tunnel that suddenly ends as the curve ends and you hit the straightaway past the south airport access ramp where the lights begin to make a difference again.

It’s like this all over town.  Brightly lit streets suddenly swallowed up in total darkness only to have streetlights again appear a few blocks away. Any sane person (and now that the legislature is back in Juneau, there is a chance of finding some in Anchorage) has to wonder what the thinking was that led to this variegated pattern. Was it just to make us nuts?  To keep us alert?  To make driving just that much more of an adventure?

I spent Christmas Eve at dinner in the company of an older woman who has a similar problem to mine with night driving. She told me that she has a route figured out from downtown to her place in South Anchorage based on streetlight availability.  It may be a bit circuitous for some, but it gets her there and back and allows her continued freedom after dark.

For a city as dead set as Anchorage seems to be on funding a viable public transportation system, you’d think they could at least use some of the money to standardize the lighting scheme so that everyone can use their car after dark. Or is this just another frontier moment that I don’t quite get even after a 34-year residency?