There are all sorts of people in Alaska. There's a crazy man who haunts the UA Anchorage campus on his bike, yelling at himself from behind a salt and pepper beard. One day this week, he was wearing a bear cape. Today, he had on a North Face.
Another type of person here, besides my MFA friends (a farmer, a go-cart park manager, a setnet fisher-woman, a Scottish economist, a whale scientist, and a handful of other sundry wonders) is what you'd call a cliche.
Like today at Kaladi's, the guy in front of me was wearing a wool LL Bean-ish sweater and also NO SHOES. Mind you, it's been 46 and raining for a week straight. His toes were dirty. I looked down at them. Then I didn't want coffee. I got tea. It seemed less similar to his feet. He saw me looking at his toes and looked at me. I looked at him and smiled. He frowned. Then we both looked back down at his feet.
Why do people doing things that beg to be looked at, look at you like you're crazy for looking at them? Because they're looking for something and it's called attention. Shoeless Joe was likely a Yale grad and had recently read Into the Wild. I think he was bored. I think people should wear shoes in public no matter what their ideals. We're in the 21st century here. We drink expensive coffee, we buy manufactured clothing. We have scruples about appearances and that's just the way it is.
There is also a Larry David look alike here who I can't stop looking at, and a number of hippies, and an even larger number of bandanas. There are people here who look like Boulder crunchies on expensive bikes and people who speak like they are thinking in poems, and exploring the unexplored. A lot of people here seem like they're proving something, and the ones who don't look intentionally Alaskan seem to be the ones who are Alaskan or have at least been here a long time.
Even though I'm feeling more at home, I'm still in between looking local and failing miserably. I got lost while I was talking to my mom the other day, missed the tator tot-french toast-donuts-and-bear claws dorm breakfast, and had to eat a Starbucks scone. It was a cranberry cardboard flavored one and I ate the whole thing. Not very Alaskan organic of me.
But for all the hippy predictables up here, I've also met some people who have a deep, fierce sense of simply doing what you need to do wherever you are. Maybe it's the cold or maybe it's that they've decided to inhabit a place where you have to create happiness out of 5 hours of daylight in winter. There's a solidness amongst my friends here who defer to walking in rain rather than driving, and shooting things in the woods rather than buying them. There are things to be learned from them, and I'm trying.
When I ask my friend Sara how she does it, lives on an island with just her husband, one-year-old son, and the bears, she says, "Well, we buy 100 pound bags of flour and sugar once a year and hope we have visitors who'll bring us snacks."
She plants all her own produce, pulls setnets full of silver salmon up out of the water when she's not looking for her son near the cabin, and cooks everything from storage-closet scratch.
But what's it really like, I ask her, wondering if I have what it takes to even attempt a full year up here of cold and subsistence. Can a city girl rough it? Can a wild child become a happy urban transplant? Sara grew up in Kodiak, and used to get dropped off by her dad for 24 hours to brave the wilderness as a form of amusement.
"Well, it's beautiful," she says, "But it's also incredibly lonely," and I see that all the beauty here is not free: it costs some people their families, their kids' college funds in fuel, and the acute acceptance of being largely alone.
For now, I'll be the person who brings the snacks.