As a native Illinoisian, mine was a childhood of highways, humid summers, and Hardees. So when I learned I’d won a grant from the City of Chicago to visit Alaska I wondered if I’d come back alive.
Alaska would be my first encounter with actual geology, a foreign concept in my home city of Chicago, blue island of glass, steel, and pension crises in a sea of King James red. Topographical lust was partly what attracted me to Alaska, though the real dram came from Alaska’s promise of ‘frontier.’ The most frontiersy Chicago gets is when an armless body washes up on the beach by your apartment, and even that I’ve only seen through hearsay. Alaska’s landmass is equal to 21% of the 48 contiguous US states (‘The Lower 48’ in Alaskan parlance), though the Lower 48’s population is nearly 42,000% greater than Alaska’s. But in place of people, Alaska has bald eagles, bears, and bergschrunds. And according to the CDC, the highest suicide rate of any US state.
My ultimate destination was Homer, a town of roughly 5,000 permanent residents on the Kachemak Bay and a hub for regional tourism five hours south of Anchorage by car. Homer is the eleventh largest city in Alaska by population, and for reference, my neighborhood on Chicago’s north side has a density of 33,000 people per square mile. To the urbanized Lower 48er, Homer is a hamlet.
What brought me to Homer was the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference. Not that I have any attraction to writers conferences per se, but I’m only used to the writers’ culture in Chicago—a shoddy network of vagrants and white collar slaves (like myself)—and was curious how writers in Alaska get along with themselves and their surroundings, and what’s the Alaskan’s general perception of the creative world in the Lower 48. This was my would-be journalistic angle, anyway. The other angle, and how I got the City of Chicago to fund this exploration, was that the conference would aid my professional development as a writer. Which it did, though not how I expected. But before I go there, I need to get to Alaska first:
I was to land in Anchorage around 10:00 on Wednesday night, mid-June. For the first five hours of the flight I studied the back of the seat in front of me because SkyMall is only funny for, like, ten minutes. Whose weird uncle designs textiles for airplane interiors? Will the woman next to me break her neck next time she nods off? Why doesn’t the second hand on my watch line up exactly with the hourmarker? Maybe it will line up next time around. Or maybe next time.
Once we broke through the cloud cover somewhere over the Prince William Sound, my boredom was interrupted by my imagination, which found itself on an alien planet: an ivory sun hanging low casting shadows farthings deep, snowcapped mountains serrated by centuries-old ice and snow, glacial lakes cerulean and pure. Neither the doldrums of the Ted Stevens Airport nor the $600 car rental were enough to snap me out of my reverie.
From the airport I went to meet up with an old friend of mine currently serving as a First Lieutenant in the US Army. As kids we spent our days staging military conflicts in our backyards and he never stopped playing. Now he’s responsible for $10 million worth of war toys and that many soldiers. He lives in Anchorage and offered that I spend the night at his place before hitting the road. A nice gesture, though he’s a serious outdoors type and his place is packed with some crucial fucking gear—quickdraws, hexcentrics, helmets, boots, skis, knives, crampons, hooks—that made my plastic safety whistle and paracord bracelet look like breast implants.
We grabbed a bite to eat at the Village Inn restaurant off Northern Lights Boulevard. Nothing special save that it’s one of the city’s few 24-hour establishments. Late at night it seems to draw mostly young 20-somethings, many sporting fashions that were cutting-edge ten years ago. By the time we left it was nearly midnight, though the sky was as bright as Chicago dusk. In the summer, Anchorage averages nineteen hours of daylight. The other five are twilight and never pure dark. The opposite is true in the winter when Anchorage only gets the sun for six hours; Fairbanks, farther north, gets four, and Barrow, in the Arctic Circle, gets none.
When I woke up early the next morning, my friend had already left for Fort Richardson, where he’s stationed, so I hit the road for Homer, which is 220 miles south of Anchorage by car (122 as the crow flies). I stopped to get a bottle of caffeine at a Walgreens on the edge of city limits, partly to wake up and partly to see what an Alaskan Walgreens is like. No surprises: just as many diuretics as the next one. In the car I put on Fugazi’s Red Medicine, the best driving music, and got onto AK-1, the Seward Highway. This heads straight south for a few miles until it T’s at the shores of Turnagain Arm, the massive body of water that forming the northern boundary of the Kenai Peninsula, itself framed on the west by the Cook Inlet and on the east by the Gulf of Alaska. All saltwater.
The Seward Highway is the only road in or out of Anchorage that allows access to the Kenai Peninsula. After Anchorage it follows the northern shore of Turnagain Arm and mountains abut the other side of the road. There is no Midwestern synecdoche for this, but fortunately there are well-marked sightseeing pull-offs aplenty along the highway and I allowed my cameras to take full advantage of their amenity. Spotted a few dall sheep and bald eagles within the first hour, and across the waterway, snow-capped mountains, broadsides lush with evergreen beneath the weather line, cutting clouds into the atmosphere. A sightseeing train line connecting Anchorage to Seward shares the same acreage with the highway for a hundred-or-so miles. At one of my many stops, the train broke the morning quiet. It would have made for a great picture, save for the upper decks lined with blue hairs, fanny packs, and matching t-shirts.
In 1989 the US Forest Service declared the Seward Highway an official scenic byway and in 2000 the US Department of Transportation declared it a National Scenic Byway. This highway earns its title, which is probably why it took me nearly three hours to make the 90 miles to Tern Lake. There I turned onto the beginning of the Sterling Highway, which terminates in Homer. I’d finish the rest of the Seward Highway drive in a couple of days so I set my sites south. The Sterling Highway has a lot of turnoffs and passes through a handful of small, rustic towns, but aside from a moose-and-calf sighting and my first encounter with a bona fide Alaskan meth head (handing me my lunch from behind the counter at a Taco Bell in Soldotna), the rest of the drive was uneventful.
Aside from the grand geology and green seas of pine, another endemic feature of the region is social: trucks. They’re everywhere. Broncos, Rams, F150s, 3500s, Ridgelines, Frontiers, Tacomas, Silverados, Titans, Tundras, 4Runners, and sundry truck subspecies: SUVs, Jeeps, Land Rovers, Expedition Vans, Hummers, and scores of Frankensteinian jalopies welded to survive napalm warfare. My compact car with its decorative spoiler looked like a bichon skipping into a run of the wolves. But the wide-ranging and drastic fluctuations of the Alaskan weather necessitate the rugged utility afforded by studded tires and 4×4 power. Thus, unlike in the Lower 48, owning a truck in Alaska seems far more about practicality than penis size.
The approach to Homer is cinematic. Once you pass Diamond Ridge Road, the trees on the south side of the highway open up to sweeping views of the Kachemak Bay and the mountains of the State Wilderness Area on the other side. Most of the homes in Homer are in the hills and ridges over the main road, though Homer’s most distinct feature is ‘the Spit,’ a narrow, 4.5-mile-long strip of land stretching into the Kachemak Bay. The Spit is the locus of Homer’s tourism, with scores of camping and RV sites, shops, restaurants, deep- and shallow-water docks, and lodging along the road (apparently the longest road into ocean waters in the world, according to the Homer Visitor’s Guide). The conference was being held at the end of the Spit at a resort that appropriately calls itself Land’s End, though it looked less like a resort and more like an assemblage of cheap vacation condos, vinyl siding and all. Because I wasn’t interested in shelling out $400 per night to stay at Land’s End, I opted for the quietude of a cabin on the hillsides of Diamond Ridge overlooking the town.
The conference wasn’t scheduled to start until the next day, so I spent the afternoon on the Spit exploring the tchotchke shops and watching seabirds loiter under the piers. I spotted some dorsals (beluga, most likely) surfacing on the dark waters of the bay and mists shrouded the mountain forests across the water. A light drizzle fell from the overcast sky and the smell of freshly caught fish beckoned, so once I worked up an appetite I stopped for dinner at Fat Olive’s, one of Homer’s fine dining establishments not on the Spit, and ate some halibut. Required eating, I thought, for the self-proclaimed ‘Halibut Fishing Capital of the World.’ My waitress was a red headed, raspy-voiced North Dakotan who’d be living in Homer for the past ten years. I asked her what people do around here. Fish, she said, smiling.
When I awoke the next morning the light outside was the same as when I went to sleep, though the clouds had parted. In their place, skies bluer and deeper than the ocean. The view from the front window of my cabin framed an expansive panorama of the bay. Without cloud cover I could make out the hermetic silhouette of Augustine Volcano, which stands at 4,100 feet on its own island 69 miles southwest of Homer. I sat for a while in the ante meridiem silence before finishing my wake-up ritual with some satellite TV and a hot-water shower, because this wasn’t Walden. These amenities seemed to me like luxuries, but they’re actually par for the middle-class course of residential Alaskan life. The winters have minimal daylight and temperatures hit arctic lows, so satellite TV becomes a de facto best friend. And with little to no urban infrastructure, septic systems and on-demand hot water are the housing standard. Because city runs in my blood like a virus, I thought this warm hovel struck a happy medium between, say, Truman Capote and Jack London.
The conference was to start that evening, so I set out for some local hiking. First I stopped at Fresh Sourdough Express, a bakery ‘focused on local and organic ingredients since 1982.’ The staff spoke in foggy tones and wore tie-dye shirts and beads in their dreadlocks. Signs on the wall announced peace and love for all. They warmed my muffin in a microwave.
After breakfast I headed east out of Homer on East End Road, not quite sure what to expect. The road zags along the northwestern side of the Kachemak Bay with occasional unpaved roads and driveways leading to backwoods homes. Like most dwellings in the area, these ranged from modern cabins, permanently anchored RVs, and worn-out shacks to idiosyncratic ranches, tents, shipping container homes. Each sprawling piece of property had broad views of the bay and the occasional grazing moose. I found the Eveline State Recreation Site along the way and stopped to explore its alpine meadows and evergreen groves singed from recent bouts of wildfire. Purple lupines danced in the grasses and in a hedge I found the desiccated husk of a rusted out car half buried by fallen branches and fireweed.
I also hiked the Homestead Loop back in Homer, an ‘easy-to-moderate’ hike and the town’s most popular trail, according to the Homer Visitor’s Guide. The trails looked empty from the trailhead and I didn’t think much of it until I was a mile in and had slipped and fallen twice on the rain-slick roots spread varicose along the serpentine path. But I was determined, and at one point, when the trail broke into a grassy grove, I found a dilapidated cabin. I pushed my way through the wet, waist-high flora to get a better camera angle, failing to account for the mutable terrain. One step, terra firma, the next, a four-foot drop into an alpine stream running beneath the raveled grass. By the time I got back to my car I felt like Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn, only instead of tattered GI fatigues and malnutrition I had a soaking wet pair of $200 Japanese denim jeans and a bruised wrist. This is what happens when you take the Chicagoan out of his element. The nail in my pride coffin came from the family with two toddlers and a stroller starting on the path as I was leaving. I nursed my wounds with a late-afternoon pint of Alaskan beer (the brand, not the demonym).
After I recovered I headed to Land’s End to sign in for the conference and listen to the opening address from Alice Sebold, the keynote for the weekend. Before she read there was the typical ‘now I’d like to introduce’ preamble and some conference in-humor that was lost on me. There were maybe 200 people in the main room at dinner. Most were women. Average age of all attendees was mid- to late-Baby Boomer with a handful of early Gen X; some Millennials on one end and a few seniors on the other. Lots of University of Alaska faculty, too. Nametags announced locations and what tags didn’t say Alaska had the highest concentration in the Pacific Northwest and dispersed from there. There were no other Chicagoans that I could see. Sebold’s reading meandered from Godzilla to rape memoir to dysfunctional families to nerd culture and she ended with a Q&A session. One woman began her question by saying she’d never read anything by Sebold, partly because it’s so “dark” (her words). She asked how it is that Sebold is able to go to such dark places without getting “pulled in.” Sebold answered with a few wry generalities, though I suspected that because she was on the clock, she had to keep her East Coast repartee in check. If you’re scared of darkness, you shouldn’t be writing. You should be watching satellite TV.
The rest of the conference included a wide range of sessions. There was a four-person panel called “Courting Lightning,” discussing inspiration and strategy for the writing process. There was a session by poet Kwame Daws on ekphrasis and other poetical subversions. There was session with insider info on how to get published, lead by Heidi Bell, an editor, and Katherine Fausset, a literary agent. A standout session for me was conducted by award-winning essayist Scott Russell Sanders, where he discussed the essay “as a mode of thought.” His presentation was a bit disjointed because, in his words, he was cramming a 16-week course into 90 minutes, but what he ultimately presented was a suggestion; that an essay should mirror thought, not guide it.
I appreciated Sanders’ suggestion for two reasons. For one, it’s good writerly advice. For two, it was a suggestion, not a hard-and-fast rule. As often as writing professionals say there are no rules for writing, many would-be writers still want statutes and codes. That’s because ours is a world of certifications and security clearances and it’s easier to follow the rules than it is to rejoice at their falsity. I think this administrative tendency partly explains the popular appeal of realism and naturalism still ruling American letters. Realism certainly took center stage at this conference, and while the teenage me wanted to blame the conference crowd and their unrelenting politeness, the present me wonders instead if the culprit is actually the Alaskan landscape. When you’re surrounded by such astonishing natural environs, why wouldn’t you want to keep it real? Experimentalism and the avant garde are perhaps better suited for the dissatisfied city dwellers and flatlanders who find inspiration in ressentiment. Of course, not all experimentalism is transgressive and not all realism is pedantic. Much of the former is shit and much the latter is stunning, but rules should be the last thing a writer worries about.
Sunday morning there was a two-hour boat tour of the Kachemak Bay for a small group of conference attendees. The wind was crisp, cool, and coming in from the north, but the sky was sunny, patched with translucent clouds. A rocky outcropping sits roughly a half-mile off the end of the Spit and is known locally as Gull Island. There nested hoards of gulls, cormorants, and a handful of puffins. They were presided over by what a self-described birder on the boat called an ‘immature’ bald eagle, which meant that it hadn’t gotten its white crown yet, though I preferred image of a young eagle smashing mailboxes and making fart jokes. At another outcropping was a group (“raft”) of sea otters. The adults can weight up to a hundred pounds and when not underwater the otters swim on their backs. Those with young pups carry them on their stomachs like ferry passengers. There’s no cool way to say how cute this is.
I spent the rest of that morning and early afternoon at conference sessions before leaving Homer to get closer to Anchorage for my last overnight in Alaska. When I was planning the trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect with road travel and closures, which is why I kept the last night open. I wasn’t thrilled to leave the conference before its official end, but the mark of its professional benefit has already proven indelible. This indelibility is a quality, not a quantity, which is to say that the conference was not just a group of meetings, but it was an experience with its own seen and unseen relevancies and references. As with all experience, I will be able to look back on these events and conditions at various points in my life to extract new meanings or intentions, and all will be true for their moments. It was for this reason, among others, that I chose a writers’ conference in Homer, Alaska, rather than, say, DeKalb, Illinois.
Overcast skies and rain followed me out of Homer for the 170-mile drive northeast towards Seward (80 miles as the crow flies), where I was to spend my last night. I blasted Meshuggah (Swedish hardcore metal) at top volume in the car to stop myself from thinking. Because I didn’t get to see any glaciers up close in Homer, I chose Seward because it’s home to the accessible and popular Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Here you’re able to walk within a few feet of the active Exit Glacier, which is seep from the Harding Icefield. The road leading into the park has signs with years—1890, 1910, 1920, etc.—that mark where the glacier once extended. Though still monumental with its deep, enigmatic blues and babbling snow melt creeks, Exit Glacier is a grocery store sampling of glacial greatness. I attempted to hike part of the Harding Icefield Trail, but without water, whistle, or hiking partner, I turned back early. On the way out I noticed a trail registry I should have signed when walking in; a subtle hint that I made the right decision not to hike the eight miles solo.
Like Homer, Seward is a tourist hub, though less for locals than for out-of-state visitors docked on cruise ships or in on the train from Anchorage. Tall, forested mountains flank the town, which opens into Resurrection Bay, home to orcas and all other manner of sea life. Yet because of its accessible location and its claim to fame as the original starting point of the Iditarod, Seward is fairly commercialized as such. I took the advantage of this to try a pepperoni pizza from a joint called Eureka Pizza. Definitely one of the top-ten pizzas I’ve had in my life (though I had burnt a good ten million calories on my hike and was hungry and desperate enough to have eaten a Thickburger® at Hardee’s, if there was one). Eureka does their pies NYC-thin-crust-style, but instead of the dough getting its quality from the mythological Brooklyn aquifers, this crust was straight-up glacial magic. I ate it in my motel room, which gave a lovely view of a parking lot, and killed some brain cells drinking more Alaskan beer and watching MTV on a TV set from the early ‘90s.
On the morning of my final day, though it was still raining, I hiked part of the Caines Head trail outside Seward. There in the mist of the dark pines and whispering rainfall I found a new melancholy; the beginnings of a bad case of Sunday Blues. Soon I’d need to get on the plane back to Chicago. To my job. To school. To the grid of streets and sidewalks. To the banal violence. To all other flat Midwestern things. The path I was on went along a low mountain face, and somewhere in the steep descent beyond the trees waves crashed against the rocks and the mist smelled of salt. I stood silent and tried to trap it all in my mind, hoping it’d work like a psychic balm.
I met up with my friend back in Anchorage for the rest of the day. He took me around downtown Anchorage, which reminded me any dejected rustbelt city; short, squat, quiet, semi-depressed (this last one might have been projection). He told me stories of the various bars and the gruff altercations that occasionally erupt between patrons after a few rounds. Sometimes guns or other weapons are drawn, he tells me, but moreso in the cocksure, Old West-way rather than the senseless, random Chicago-way.
It was this last afternoon in Anchorage, however, that also renewed elements of my appreciation about Chicago—despite how hard I tried to resist this. At the conference I met a veteran journalist who had written for a handful of Alaskan papers. He appreciated my wonder at Alaska’s wildlife and agreed that it’s one thing much of the Lower 48 lacks, but at least you have culture in Chicago, he said. Quiet Riot once played in Fairbanks on a reunion tour, he said, and that’s about it. This is another reason why Anchorage made me think of Rockford; it’s not a cultural hub. It gets the stuff that trickles down after a few years from everywhere else. On the other hand, it seems that people choose Alaska not to find culture, but to escape from it. Thus Alaska’s frontier mythology and outsider status. This will only increase as the general American population continues to trend towards cosmopolitan density and modern living, with all of the mediation, middle management, and ministration this involves.
My overnight flight back to Chicago was spent sleepless in coach between an overweight woman and a brooding man whose open-legged seating position cramped my flight style (dour, resentful). That Alaska is half a world removed from my day-to-day likely exacerbated these colorations on my consciousness. My wakefulness was a stubborn reminder that I was leaving a world like that, with active geology and prehistoric wildlife, and living in a world this, with obesity, open legs, and body odor. Of course, the grass is never greener on the other side, but at least the other side has grass.
The Alaska I experienced, as a final word, was not the Alaska of the Real—but nobody’s is. Despite this, Alaska has a truth; that it’s one of the last places in America, and possibly the world, where you can make your own.
I wrote this essay in fall 2014. And, yes, I’d go back in a heartbeat.