Alaskan odyssey

Our last wilderness is a place of enduring angst and enlightenment.


Zachary Karabell
May 8, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

"So I'm thinking of going on a vacation," he tells me.

"Really, that's
great," I reply.

"Yup, thinking of taking a trip and my wife doesn't want to
go." Long pause.

"Well, Neal, I mean, yeah, great ..."

"So I'm thinking of
going to Alaska."

OK, so now I'm trying to figure out what my taciturn friend
is talking about, and it dawns on me. "And you're telling me this
because -- you want company?"

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"Yeah, of course," he replies, as if to say,
"You want me to spell it out for you?"

So here we go, into some image of the Alaskan wilderness, a consultant having
a premature mid-life crisis and a recently divorced New Yorker. No itinerary,
Anchorage and the Kenai peninsula, looking for something.

Alaska, the last wilderness, they say. Alaska, bigger than the United States
east of the Mississippi, they say. Alaska, virgin land, hardy people,
glaciers, mountains, eagles, Eskimos and Dr. Fleischman, Maurice the
astronaut and the rest of the "Northern Exposure" crowd. Alaska, pipelines and
oil spills and strange young men wandering off into the wilderness of Denali,
Jon Krakauer tells us. Alaska, fishermen and endless night and nightless day,
and frozen wastes. Alaska, what we once were but aren't anymore.

Alaska has become a giant projection screen for the angst of the lower 48.
Against the backdrop of the Alaskan wilderness, the conundrums of late 20th
century urban/suburban life suddenly become less perplexing. They also appear
in sharper relief. Juxtaposed to pristine mountains, angry weather and vast
open spaces, the foibles and worries and fears that beset us in cities and
subdivisions seem absurd. They also become more troubling.

The day of departure came. I woke up in New York; 10 hours later, I stepped
off the plane in Anchorage. It was 9 p.m. It was twilight. The sky was
filled with luminous gray clouds, and the snow glowed on the mountains
surrounding the city.

My friend had rented a car, and he picked me up at the airport. We had a
quick meal at a place called The Humped Whale or The Frolicking Seal or
something to that effect. Salmon, halibut, steak, hamburgers, salmon steaks,
halibut steaks, halibut burgers, halibut tacos and of course, salmon tacos.
For the next week, halibut and salmon would haunt my waking hours. Salmon
from the Kenai Peninsula, the Copper River, the Kenai River, the Prince William estuary, salmon from streams and oceans, salmon
spawning. And halibut from trawlers, halibut from the fishing ships docked at
Homer, docked at Seward. Halibut that signs informed us we could catch, for
$100 here or $150 there.

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Lesson No. 1: Alaska isn't cheap, at least not for the average tourist. Improved roads and
communications around Prince William Sound and on the coast south of Juneau
have made Alaska less expensive in recent years, but it still costs more than
most parts of the United States outside of New York and San Francisco. The
high cost of this wilderness is one of those unmentioned ironies of modern
life. To spend a meaningful week in a motel on the edge of nowhere, or to sleep
under the stars in order to be kept awake at night by the cacophony of nature
costs more than most people make in a month. Getting away from it all is a
luxury that not many can afford.

After a night in the Captain Cook hotel, we drove off to the Kenai Peninsula,
heading for Homer. Alaska is vast, but the Kenai Peninsula is compact. It's
less than 300 miles from Anchorage to Homer, which lies at the tip of the
peninsula. What Kenai lacks in scale it more than makes up for in scope. It's
often said that Kenai is Alaska in microcosm, containing rivers, forests,
mountains, glaciers and fjords, and surrounded by ocean. Because it has one of
the only real highway networks in Alaska, Kenai in summer gets clogged with
RVs, hotel rooms are scarce and dear, and everywhere you go, sightseeing
companies try to entice you into day-long "wilderness" adventures.

In June, with more than 20 hours of daylight, the ethereal beauty of the
night sun cast our journey in a peculiar light. Surrounded by glaciers and
volcanic mountains, our conversations about urban ills had a pure simplicity.
"I have everything," my friend told me one evening, "a perfect job, a
wonderful wife, money, and this glorious little daughter. So why the hell am
I so miserable?" In the background, the mountains fringed with snow rose
starkly from Homer Bay. "I didn't realize how numb my life had become until I
felt the joy of being around my daughter."

Lesson No. 2: Ever since modern man invented the wilderness, we've tried to find ourselves
there. There's something so very American in seeking truth in the land, in
going west to find answers to the ennui of our lives. It's been said that
before civilization, humans looked at the grandeur of the mountains, at the
wide expanses of space, at the majesty of nature and saw -- nothing. Today, we
see what we want to see, and in Alaska, we see the antithesis of America, the land
of malls, interstates, high-rises and suburban sprawl.

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When my friend and I spoke, the words had an echo. Like a man speaking
ancient Greek at an Amish picnic, they were out of place, and the feelings
behind them were detached from their source. I talked of my recent divorce,
he mused on the gap between how his life looked from the outside and how he
experienced it, and we both felt oddly -- OK.

Lesson No. 3: The people we encountered in Alaska fall into distinct categories. There were
the fishermen, not much different from the hard-drinking, hard-working souls
who cling to the shores of New England. There were the oil workers and
executives, who live in Anchorage or Fairbanks. There were the people who
work in various service industries that cater to tourists. And then there
were the refugees from the states, the ones who moved to Alaska in the past
two decades in order to remain in the '60s and commune with the land.

Our kayak guides had never met each other before, but they even looked alike,
bedecked with clothing instantly traceable to Haight-Ashbury circa 1975.
"We've been living here for two years," the woman told me. "My boyfriend and
me, we got this place, and we're almost done with the room. It's cool, you
know, because we're off the grid." The other guide, who was in his late
20s, made an approving face. "Off the grid," he nodded. "Cool." Noticing
our incomprehending looks, he explained to us. "Off the grid means off the
power grid in Homer. So we don't use electricity and contribute to the oil-producing economy."

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I asked how they heated their homes and what they used for
light. "Kerosene."

It occurred to me that the environmental difference between kerosene and oil
was about as great as the difference between renting at Avis and renting from
Rent-a-Wreck. One cost less and had a certain hipster cachet, but no matter
which, you're still renting a car. "Off the griders" in Alaska may buy their
own kerosene tanks from the local store and they may avoid paying a monthly
stipend to Alaska Gas & Electric, but they aren't exactly roughing it or
saving the earth.

Many people have come to Alaska in the past three decades in order to
escape post-industrial America and its corporateness, yet without the
Alaskan pipeline, without Exxon and Mobil and various oil consortiums,
without the supertankers trolling Prince William Sound, and without the
fishing ships that load up on that oil in order to catch salmon and crabs and
halibut, and the canneries that package the fish, and the
ships that then take those cans to the lower 48 for sale, those people
couldn't live off the grid with their kerosene tanks and macrame.

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Lesson No. 4: In Alaska, you learn that, unless you subscribe to the Outward Bound philosophy of pushing your body to the brink, you need civilization to enjoy the wilderness.
Unless your taste in travel runs to privation, freezing and suffering,
Alaska is enjoyable to visit because it's so easy. Nowhere in the world,
except perhaps Switzerland, can you so effortlessly transit from the creature
comforts of modernity to vast expanses of land, ice and forests. An entire
economy has developed to help people experience the wilderness.

We could wake up one morning, take a trawler out into the bay to a tiny
island, get in a sea kayak, start to paddle around the island, and spend the
day surrounded by sea otters and their babies, plus the occasional seal, with
more than a dozen bald eagles flying over our heads. Then we could head back to the town
for beers and an NBA playoff game on ESPN in the bar.

This odd melding of virgin wilderness and modern amenities somehow added to
the appeal of the Kenai Peninsula. One minute we were sitting by a
glacier lake with no sound but the breeze and the ripples; the next, we were
eating hot cinnamon buns at a roadside bakery. Two miles of ugly stores, gas
stations and McDonald's would give way to 50 miles of unadulterated beauty. One
night we were getting drunk in a honky-tonk bar while a dead ringer for Frank
Zappa sang John Mellencamp songs and some nurse on leave from
Anchorage draped herself over some guy just out of the merchant marine
dripping with tattoos. The next morning we were heading out into Seward Bay,
waves high, rain in the air and volcanic cliffs jutting angrily out of the
ocean.

Day by day, I noticed a peculiar cadence to our conversations. As we
meandered through the peninsula, we talked, sometimes elliptically, sometimes
in long, intense bursts. Yet these conversations, about life, about finding
some meaning, about purpose and vision, about what to do, all took place in
hotel rooms, in the car or in restaurants. When we were hiking, or kayaking, or
walking, or boating, thoughts of that world -- of work, family, children,
aging -- evaporated, as if such concerns were of another life, felt by other
people in other realities. Divorce has no meaning next to a cobalt blue lake
carved millennia ago and hardly touched by man since. Financial consulting has
no substance in the midst of an electrical storm.

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Lesson No. 5: You cannot escape your demons. Once enveloped -- cushioned -- by the familiar accoutrements of modern life, our baggage
reappeared in the wilderness with a vengeance. Our questions and conversations seemed so starkly
middle-class, so very post-Freudian, with a twist of New Age and a dollop of
therapeutic jargon. But the struggles were very real, and the pain of life,
of mortality, unmet expectations, and the unknown demanded -- and rightfully so -- our attention. That's
why those who flee to Alaska find their demons chasing them there. Two guys
can go hiking for a day or traveling for a few weeks, but if my friend and I
had moved to Alaska in the hopes of avoiding ourselves, we would have been
quickly disillusioned. Living off the electrical grid doesn't take you off
the emotional grid.

Still, as a contrast with the streets of San Francisco or the bars of New York,
Alaska underscored just how insidious modern American angst can be. In our
daily lives, not only do we feel that vague disquieting ennui, but we are
constantly reminded of how trite those feelings are. My friend is not
supposed to feel depressed when he possesses the external trappings of success,
and if he does, then he is reduced to a caricature of modern man. In his
quotidian existence, he hears in a thousand indirect ways that he doesn't
have the right to have the questions he does, that having them is pathetic
because he has so much materially.

No wonder, then, that he felt the need to leave his life and go to Alaska,
even if it was only for two weeks. No wonder so many disoriented souls seek
in Alaska that which they have no room to find in the lower 48. For a few
weeks, the distance makes the pathos bearable. The vastness and power of the
land puts it in perspective. And in the quiet of the glacier lakes, no one
can hear you cry.

At the end of our trip, we splurged at a Westin ski resort 30 miles from
Anchorage. At the top of a ski lift, there was a four-star nouvelle cuisine
restaurant, with 360-degree views of the steep peaks. And there we sat, and
talked late into the night, sipping scotch, filled with the warmth of that
endless sun and the sureness of a friendship. I grew sentimental about my
ended marriage, and he spoke of depression. And we sat, in that strange
juxtaposition of worlds, and it grew quiet. And for a moment -- final lesson -- everything was
still.

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Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of "What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education" (Basic Books). His new book, "The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election," is published by Knopf.

MORE FROM Zachary Karabell

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