The Smell of Alaska – A Two Year Retrospective


It smelt Alaskan, that was what I told myself.  It was a mixture of mossy green and pine; a smell I can still smell when I close my eyes and remember that place.  When I picture that small apartment with a tiny front room, breakfast bar, and a king size bed that swallowed up the bedroom; the first thing I can remember was that smell.  There was a small overgrown lot behind the place, fenced off with razor wire so that it isn’t turned into a tent village, but was much of the source of the smell.  Just finishing a two week span of 100° heat in dry Kansas, this cool wet air in the apartment beckoned me to find a new comfort.  I breathed it in shortly after leaving the airport.  It was a rainy day, but now that it cleared it remained wet, overcast, and some clouds rolled along the Chugach peaks.  As I pulled up to the apartment in a cheap rental car, I approached the door in blind faith.  I had two numbers in an e-mail, one for the key lock of the front door, one for apartment door – my apartment door.  When the lock opened I stepped inside, and I started my residency in Alaska.  There was nothing impressive about the little apartment I had for a temporary span; but it was my safe harbor on what was the greatest upheaval in my life since moving out of my home of 18 years to a college in a different state light years away from all that I knew.

That was two years ago this past weekend.

The  soundtrack in my head those days were full of energy and bravery.  I was looking for that chance to run forth into the great unknown and walk the line between where I controlled my world and the world controlled me.  In days I had my first run-in with a bear, in weeks my first run-in with a moose, and I chased the end of summer that came all too quickly those first few weeks with a pace that was exciting and relentless.  That wasn’t all.  I was on the cusp of a great opportunity, a job that I was unabashed to say I could “fix the world”.  I had hope, direction, and enough of the unknown to feel fear on my lips like sugar.  My wardrobe of t-shirts, ventilated hiking shoes, and loose shorts were cast off for sweaters, cargo pants, and waterproof boots; only the work clothes remained the same but they grew longer sleeved in short order.  My world immediately changed, and I changed with it into the great unknown of Alaskan future.

Things change though.  In months I moved into a house, I settled into a less rebellious routine, and even bought a dog.  That little apartment send me down the path of eating out alot, when lumped with a far more sedimentary job helped a weight gain back to when I was at my worst.  I grew a beard, shaved it, then grew it again – keeping this one for over a half of year, most of it promising myself to shave it off “this weekend”.  My work goals shifted from saving the world to saving my sanity; or probably more accurate ‘saving who I really am’.  I grew older, much older, the white in my hair becoming more pronounced, and it seems I have spent half this time up here with a bad knee or a bum ankle.  Hitting the gym is like a hell unknown to me like anything else.  I’ve lost parts of my life that I miss utterly, and wonder if I will ever get them back.

Yet there pieces of the last two years that were special were beyond special.  Rainy, snowy, dark days are only bad to me because I can’t see the mountains – the constant reminder of the purple/green beauty of this place.  Any simple drive around this state and you are welcomed by massive glaciers, tall canyons, and forests thick and full of life.  During the winter, the snow creates a blanket that is equal parts comforting and warming.  Summers may be short, but I learn every day recently how lucky we are to have it so short — every free minute I spent trying to enjoy the world outside of the glass windows and wooden walls just to make sure I don’t miss what I have.

The people, though, is what changed me the most.  Alaska is filled with the greatest variety of people I have ever lived around – from the roughest of edges to the most open of open.  They take care of themselves, but they share what they have.  They hate, love, watch, act, involve, enjoy.  What sprung from my arrival at the curling club are friendships that grew so fast and so enjoyably that I couldn’t help finding more of those friendships wherever I went.  If feels like I grow out of a shell, maybe back into a new one, but undoubtedly out of an old one.

There is an incredibly beautiful song by Bon Iver named Holocene.  It’s title comes from the geological Holocene era that started 11,700 years ago and continues today.  The concept is that point when you traveled far enough that you realized whatever road you’ve been on is insignificant in the grand scheme of things — like the 42 years of my life is nothing compared to 11,700 years of the Holocene period.  Yet the song flips it back, and says that to recognize there are some much greater things is to appreciate it.  I stand on my trail through the Alaska wilderness, long gone are the days when the mossy wet smell of Alaska permeated a tiny apartment.  Past the point where darkness enveloped the winters and light filled the summers.  Through the bad knees, the bad ankles.  I look back at these two years and the song’s lyrics come to mind: “And at once I knew I was not magnificent” — yet in those memories, in those days and nights, those many times embracing this state, I look back “and I can see for miles and miles.”


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