Driving down from Tok along the Glenn Highway, I saw my first real-life glacier. “Dang,” I said to myself. “That just looks like a bigger version of the snowpile that accumulates behind Channel 8 every year.” The melt from the snowpile goes into the storm sewers while the Matanuska Glacier feeds the Matanuska River, but as far as I can see the principle is the same.
My pal Catherine is as slim as a willow, but her delicacy conceals a very resilient character. A few years ago she and her husband flew across Alaska in a bush plane. “I was terrified the whole way,” she told me.
I begin to understand why. So many Alaskan mountains are jagged hunks of rock. There is none of that weathering and foliage that you find on lesser mountains. They stick straight up in the air, massive expanses of cleaved, snow-covered, empty rock.
The Tok Turn-off passes through vast unoccupied spaces as it heads west. There are few guardrails and some rough patches. I found myself thinking that if we went off the road into a steep ravine, we might not be found for years.
It wasn’t until we turned on to the Glenn Highway that we began to see signs of human habitation, mostly in the form of holiday vehicles.
Passing Wasilla, I mused about its most-famous resident, Sarah Palin. Wasilla itself seems an absolutely average American city, but it’s plunked down in an empty and unforgiving landscape. Go a few miles out of town and you enter an entirely different world.
What would it mean to grow up here, to be married to a commercial fisherman, to raise your kids in a place that’s barely a pinprick in endless wilderness? This state is home to grizzly bears, but according to experts, polar and Kodiak bears are even more aggressive.
I would for sure want to know how to fire a gun and ride a four-wheeler. I would hope to have neighbors who knew me, and yes, they would probably gossip about me—because that’s what small town America does. It’s the flip side of that mutual responsibility thing.
Perhaps our presidential elections should involve dog-sled races, lobster fishing, mining, or a cattle drive instead of highly scripted “debates” between interchangeable candidates in interchangeable suits.
Alaska is home to nearly 90 Russian Orthodox parishes with a total membership of over 20,000. These are almost all indigenous people, and the churches date back to the 18th century. Secretary of State Seward bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867. The deal looked iffy at the time but paid off handsomely when gold was discovered in the 1890s.
As I watched military convoys moving north out of Anchorage, I wondered how different the Cold War might have been had we not bought Alaska.
“They’re our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska,” Sarah Palin said. Indeed, it is awfully close.