Tonight I had dinner with a nice couple for whom I will house-sit in May. This was the first time I'd met them; they live "out the road" in the other direction from where I'm house-sitting now. We had a very nice meal together--roast, potatoes, roasted carrots, salad, and a rich chocolate mousse for dessert. I haven't had roast in...I don't know...months? Years? It was a damn fine meal. Particularly because the ol' food budget is sparse at present, so although I'm eating just fine my meals tend to be more along the lines of oatmeal and lentils and less along the lines of roast and mousse. Which, you know, lentils and oatmeals are good for the veins and the bones. But when you're living on a slimmer budget, having someone treat you to a feast does feel special.
My time with them this evening felt so Alaskan for me. For example. When I house-sit for them I'll be taking care of their 9-month-old Schauzer puppy, Sofi. She's cool. I dig her. I was saying to the husband of this couple that it'll be nice to have a dog to walk with, because I'm often afraid to go on trails for fear of running into bears. And the husband was like, "oh, well I have a gun if you ever want to borrow it when you go walking." And I thought--now there is a sentence that, if you heard it spoken in Oakland, would mean a whole different thing.
Then he showed me around the house. It's a nice house. Big. Spacious. Fanciness in many areas. And they have a vintage Mustang in one garage and a swanky SUV in the other one. He was like, "obviously, you'll be driving the SUV. But if you do need to drive the Mustang, the keys are in it." And this is why I love Alaska. Mind you, not everyone in Alaska lets you drive their vehicles at the drop of a hat. But when people don't let you drive their vehicles, other people look at them weird. In two of the places I've house-sat, the people didn't let me drive their cars while I was there. When I reported this news to local friends they were like, "What the hell is wrong with those people?"
Also, at another point in the evening they were telling me about the little Alaskan town (800 people) where they lived for five years when they first moved to Alaska. They talked about all the kids roaming freely, the way that you ordered your groceries weeks ahead of time and they were delivered on the plane, and you ordered your clothes that way too. And this couple were like, "yeah, it was so great in those days." And then the wife said, in a melancholy tone, "Of course, it's changed a lot since then. The streets are paved now. The airport is moved to a more convenient location." They both sighed sadly.
And this is why I love Alaska.
For another four weeks I’ll be in the place where I am now. Moving around so often is starting to wear on me, but on the other hand it’s cool to see so many different parts of Sitka. This place where I’m at right now is a humble abode, I suppose you’d say, but it’s my favorite so far. It’s got the best view by a long shot, and it has the kind of authenticity I can really get behind: quotes pinned up all over the place, bookshelves made out of split logs and 2x6s (not because it’s hip, but because it’s functional), and the original hand-built cupboards from 1941 (again, no hipness happening, just real life). Cast iron skillets in the kitchen and not much else by way of pans. A drawer full of re-used tin foil. Binoculars and tide books.
And then the place I’ll stay at in May—where I just had dinner—is fancy. Hot tub, big screen TV, a freezer full of local fish that they said I could dine on every night if I want. Big-hearted people sharing what they have. Including their guns. (And you have to understand that these people are not the gun-totin’ caricatures that so many liberal folks fear. Before they retired, the wife was a librarian and the husband worked doing things like overseeing trail maintenance of national parks.)
From a certain angle, Alaska can sure seem utopian. Especially if you’ve just spent three years in a deeply urban area where you craved wilderness every day. And especially if it felt ungainly and sad, in that urban area, to almost always meet up with people in places where money had to be exchanged (restaurants, bars, coffee shops). From that perspective, suddenly living in a place where strangers invite you into their home (and are wearing sweat pants when you get there, as per the norm in this state) and feed you feasts, a place where wilderness is run rampant in every direction including underfoot and overhead, a place where kids’ whole existence is free ranging….well, yes, it does feel utopian.
But it’s a lot more complicated than that, of course. The alcoholism rate in Alaska is very high. The suicide rate per capita is the highest in the nation. Three weeks ago in Sitka, a man in his early 20s overdosed on heroin. Many young people (and probably older people) use meth. And the relationship between Native people and white people is complex and, in many ways, difficult and painful. There may be no other state besides Hawaii where it is as stare-you-in-the-face obvious that this land is the ancient homeplace of one group of people who live here, and not at all the ancient homeplace of the other group who live here (who have the vast majority of the power). There’s nowhere I’ve lived where it’s more obvious that I am part of the colonizing people group, and I can’t figure out any way to think about that that makes me really feel okay about living here long-term. But then I think about how white people are in the exact same position in the Lower 48, but because of the existence of reservations, and the general annihilation of Native cultures, it’s just so much less part of white consciousness than it is in much of Alaska. I suppose maybe if I were to spend time with Tlingit people and get to know them, and then ask for their permission to live here, and if I felt like they gladly granted that permission, then I might feel okay about it. And even this, as painful as it is, draws me to Alaska.
I want to have a tidy way of ending this post. But at the moment, I don't. Goodnight, dear friends, from Alaska.