I noticed that rough, hardened look of Alaskans the moment I landed in Anchorage. It’s what happened to the local’s faces after years of braving winters of sometimes -60 F and almost total darkness. As it is by the sea, Anchorage has a more temperate winter, but its a gruesome one none the less.
These faces would only worsen when I headed deeper into the desolate Alaskan interior. It’s when your nose had just gotten frostbite and you lost all feeling in your lips, cheeks, ears, and you begin to whimper out of self pity, but even your tears begin to freeze. All while your eyes long for a sun that seems to have abandoned you. Finally you become the dreadful face of the Alaskan winter itself.
This won’t happen to me or so I hope. I came here to work as a photographer for what I heard was a euphoric summer of 24 hour daylight and a break from the sauna-like-heat of the rest of America. The Far North’s summer is the world’s way of rewarding Alaskans for surviving through another temporary Ice Age.
I wasn’t the only non local walking out of Anchorage airport. The roads outside were crawling with slick skinned oil workers and whiskey drenched fishermen, all soon to work grueling 16 hour days for three straight weeks, making thirty grand a summer to blow it all in Mexico or Thailand by the fall. Just like the old gold rush days, the Last Frontier is where men go to make quick, hard cash and blow it even quicker.
Confused and delirious from an exhausting day of travel, I asked a few fishermen where to catch the 7PM bus to Base Camp Anchorage, the hostel I booked near Spenard St.
“Man it’s 10:30. The busses stopped running hours ago,” he said.
It was only early May and the sun was already still up at 10:30, so much so that it completely distorted my sense of time. It’s what the midnight sun does to you. First couple nights you get confused, then you begin staying up later and later with this unbound energy until Solstice comes, when both sleep and the concept of time become irrelevant.
I began walking towards the road to see crowds of people hitchhiking, a sight I saw on every road I traveled in Alaska. It wasn’t only legal to catch rides, it was encouraged. I would soon discover that hitchhiking wasn’t about catching free rides as it was the great mystery of who will pick you up and the stories that you’ll both share.
Within minutes of walking out of the airport, I met an overly jolly bus driver and his lightning lipped Colombian girlfriend. I told him who I worked for in Healy, which was 250 miles away. He slapped his leg and said, “I know the owner Bill! Alaska…it’s a big state in a small world.”
I jumped in his back seat as the truck thudded into dusty, downtown Anchorage. It was a slow, strange town more than a city, which was exactly what I wanted after flying out of New York. Anchorage is watched over by the snow crusted Alaskan Range instead of tall buildings and you’re more likely to get run over by a moose then a car.
Somehow half of the state’s population of 500,000 lived here. A state that encompasses a third of the size of America and half of its people live in this little ghost town of a city.
The man let me out and gave me his number “in case you need any help, which will happen here.” That was the thing about the people here. Alaskans are tough bastards, but they are kind.
They had this sense of community and wanting to help that made you feel safe even in a vicious land. Every one of them needed to rely on one another more times then they’d like to admit and they were forever paying it forward. He picked me up just like the stranger with a snowmobile, who saved his life when he got stuck in a harrowing blizzard hours from civilization. He spoke to me just like the uplifting conversation he had with an old friend after he hadn’t seen daylight in months.
I checked into my hostel and watched the sun dip down low and smooth over the mountains around 11. When twilight hit, the air grew brisk and the seedy sidewalks cracked from strange characters of the night. Curious about the type of people who grew up here, I went out for a beer.
I’ve always been fascinated by Native Alaskan culture and I heard there was many natives throughout Anchorage. There was something intriguing about a people who grew up in some of the world’s harshest conditions for thousands of years, killing polar bears for fur and spearing whales for food. But every native I saw in Anchorage was harrowingly drunk and begging for spare change in their land filled with gold and oil. It was a tragic sight I knew all too well like the Aboriginals of Australia or the Maoris of New Zealand. Before I leave here, I hope to one day meet one that still holds true to the values of their ancestry. Today many of the languages and practices of Native Alaskans have drowned out, the last remnants swirling like broken cork at the bottom of a cheap wine bottle.
What can be said when entire civilizations thrived for millennia, but were ravaged in decades by the fickle hands of imperialism?
I noticed a white man heckling one. He pushed the drunk native into a bench, yelling “sit down!” He took his cigarette, screaming about how the end of days is due to sinful men like him. I walked over to say something, but he stopped when he saw me. The man had a belligerent passion for violence and religion. He was undoubtedly a Trump supporter.
“This man does not walk the righteous path of God! He must and will pay for his sins!”
“Oh are you a Christian?” I asked
He laughed and smiled devilishly, “You fool… I am God!”
I left to go back to the hostel, I was exhausted from a day of travel and the moment when I met God in Anchorage.
The next day I made friends with people on vacation from California and Las Vegas. It was a beautiful spring day and we sped off into the mountains. When we made it to the stretching white land of Hatcher Pass, we chilled our wine in the fresh snow and had a snow ball fight at dusk. Back in the Lower 48, many states had soaring temperatures of 80F, but the Far North had just begun to thaw.
Before we got there, we cracked a few beers at the magnificent Eklutna Lake, where a couple friendly locals brought their huskies and children to play. The month of May meant rising temperatures and longer days, but more than anything it meant the death of winter and the rising of summer. There was this radiance upon the face of all Alaskans, an adoration for the sun that I would never know.
But I too was at an ecstatic peace, it was the moment I finally realized where I was. For months upon months, I typed out emails in my cubicle until my fingers went numb, while daydreaming of my great escape to the Last Frontier. Finally I was here, jaw dropped in the Alaskan Range with the verdant forests spanned the horizon, my first ride of many on the infinite Alaskan Highway.
At night, we had a few beers at Chilcoot Charlie’s, a wild factory-sized bar on Spenard where the clientele ranged from the Mayor to a man with a tattoo of a cheeseburger on his neck.
In the morning, some of my new friends would head off to cruise through glaciers in the fishing town of Seward, one would soon go to live on an island off the Kenai Pinnensula, and in a few days I would hitch a ride north to Talkeetna, making my way towards my summer home of Denali National Park. We walked off into the night like the original Alaskan pioneers, there was a sparkle in our eyes of men in search of gold and we laughed gloriously from journeying into a land that few others new existed.
Article by Spencer R. Morrison