Waiting for the Bones to Set

Yesterday, I was walking through the woods in Anchorage, half trying to get lost, half thinking about how bad it would hurt to be stomped to death by a moose, when I came around a quiet corner and landed smack in the middle of a huge beach party. Men turned burgers on charcoal grills and bluish white women lolled on lumpy pink towels. Screaming kids tromped out into Goose Lake, some in red life vests, others dragging black innertubes out to where the buoys separated slow kayaks from cold water dawdlers. I stopped and stood like some creep watching suntanners from the trees. It has been three years since I've seen people doing summer things. When I checked the weather yesterday before heading out to walk, it was 59 degrees. One thing I love about Alaskan kids is that as soon as the sun's out, it's an opportunity to get in the water. I had on my sweater pants (no, not a sweater and pants--we're talking the softest, most sweater-y pants you've ever touched) and a light jacket, and here these people are, stripping down to practically nothing to soak up what I feel is one of the biggest sacrifices of being here: living so close to water and not being able to snap on my goggles and get in. Well, I could, but on most days, the double cold would make me miss the Gulf even more.

That scene, though--stumbling into what looked like some south side of Chicago lake shore picnic--is how it feels to live here for part of the year. I'm always coming around some corner in Alaska, tripping my way into an unexpected view or an unexpected realization of my place in this place.

A friend in the program writes about finding bones in the fields where he grew up caring for and killing cattle in Minnesota. Another writer showed slides of the bones he's found in deserts where the sand sticks up like small castles and few animals can tolerate the change in the weather's extremes. On my walk yesterday, running into him, I mentioned when I'd been Colorado three years ago, when I was waiting for those old knee bones they put in there to become my own, and sometimes, here, I feel like I'm taking all this cold, wet marrow into me to see if it will set.

I hate the houses here--poop brown, single-story shacks with overgrown grass and green trim--the sprawl, the strip malls, the way the trails I took yesterday kept ending up on some road. Sure, there is natural architecture--those Chugach mountains rise navy blue and angry just above Tudor Road, the one we take to the bar and the coffeeshop and the well-organized, over-priced Anchorage thrift stores. But this is no city for me. I will come here next year to finish my degree and buy used books, but I don't know if I'll ever be back after that besides as a stopover to smaller towns. In Sara's voice, I notice this longing to leave Alaska mixed with a stable--or at least stabling--loyal love that might keep her here for longer than she planned. I wonder if that happens to most of us. Is it by convincing ourselves that we make the hardest decisions?

Michael, the friend who writes about bones, described himself as a city mouse-country mouse kind of guy. I thought I might describe myself the same way, but as I think about going home to Colorado, I think of all the places we'll fly over that I've never seen. I want to find watering holes and wolves, vineyards, vultures, haunted hotels. Maybe I'm more like the "Give a Mouse a Cookie" mouse. Give me water, and I'll want to swim. Give me mountains and I'll want wild music. Give me bones, and I'll want to pick apart whatever's left in the ribs.