Tonight it was 86 degrees at 6:46, according to my car thermometer. Welcome to late summer in the pacific northwest.
I moved from Alaska to Washington five years ago. I can now handle 75 degrees with ease, but 86 is still too damn hot.
I drove my car tonight while listening to “Sail to the moon” by Radiohead, and I experienced the weirdest sense of contrast.
There’s something strange about listening to a winter song like “Sail to the Moon” in hot weather.
I glanced up and noticed the sky’s dirty shade of pale blue; misty and faded from the hot temperature. Millions of little dirt specks dotted the blue sky above my head.
Rusty yellow-red sunlight bathed the tops of the trees as the sun began its slow descent beneath the summer horizon. The pavement stretched and the streets yawned, wanting the relief of cool night air.
Meanwhile, the crystalline winter music notes flooded my speakers all out of sync, and I thought about winters in Alaska when I used to listen to this song while driving.
I remember a specific night when the moon was full. That’s congruent; listening to a wintry song about the moon, under the full moon, in the coldest depth of an Alaskan winter.
The moon shone down upon the snow, 15 degrees, the black pavement shiny and reflective while great mountain shadows stalked over the land in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Big mountain shadows; my large and desolate comforting friends in the heart of cold winter.
I remember how the deep cold was comforting in a strange way. I remember that bizarre cold comfort.
You hate it, but you also love it in a strange way. You’re alive in this frigid environment. You’re alive inside the bone-level shiver that makes you feel totally awake and connected. That eternal comforting shiver. It’s something most people can’t relate to, or even conceive of.
But I was raised in Alaska. More than any other place on earth… Alaska will always be my true home. And nobody gets this shit except other people who were raised in Alaska.
Washington is my second home, but it’s not the same. I spent my childhood in Washington until we moved up to Alaska when I was 10 years old.
Washington State: The vast farmlands with cows and horses, persistent light rains, and all variety of strange & expansive foliage will sometimes conjure memories in my mind from my childhood.
I remember laying under big apple trees in the summer sun just staring up at the branches. Waiting for Ma to call me in for lunch and lemonade.
I remember looking at dropped apples on the ground, examining the worm holes and places where the apple had turned brown and just wondering about worms and bugs. Just simple childhood wonder. These bug holes and brown spots.
Just looking around at the pasture without any sort of judgement. Just wondering. Blank mind, blank canvas to write new information on.
I remember looking over at the horses behind fences in the pasture– these horses so ungodly huge to me at the time – horses to a 7-year old child – imagine the sheer size of a full-grown horse to a little child – just wondering why they didn’t just jump right over the fence and escape to their freedom.
Washington has important memories for me. But I believe that where you spend your pre-teenage and teenage years into young adulthood is your true “home” – and for me that’s Alaska.
People who are not from Alaska and have never been to Alaska understand this thing.
It’s wild to me that people sniff this out, but they totally do.
The first thing people often ask me when I say I’m from Alaska is “Do you miss Alaska?”
How many other places in the world elicit that exact reaction? Tell me.
People just know that there’s no other place on earth like Alaska. Even if they’ve never been there. Somehow they know it’s a place worth missing. And that blows my mind.
I grew up in the Mat-Su valley, but I also spent 7 years in Southeast AK, a totally different world from the Mat-Su-valley, but just as Alaskan in every way as its northern counterpart. Southeast is a combo of Washington State and northern Alaska, weather-wise. Less deep winter cold – more rain and grey drear.
Sometimes in Southeast Alaska, you’ll see green grass in January when the snow melts and the temp rises from 20 F to 40 F overnight. That’s the biggest difference. In the Mat-Su Valley, you’ll never see green grass in January. Unless it’s a really freak year.
While living in Juneau I often spoke with people who had moved to what Alaskans call “the lower 48” – which is a geographically accurate term describing the other states of the continental US, but also, mind you, a very snarky and pointed “those pussies down there beneath us” term – and I was amazed at the amount of people who had moved to the continental US for some amount of time, but then later moved right back up to Alaska.
One lady in particular, a Native Alaskan woman… she sticks in my memory because of how she phrased this phenomenon so well. She was a clerk at Safeway. I purchased balloons for a job fair. She was blowing up the balloons for me as we spoke at length about the “lower 48”. I think I was talking about my desire to move out of Alaska at the time. She described why she came back.
“It’s the way of life down there,” she said, “it’s too busy, too fast, too many people, just too much.”
I took note of that in my mind. But I was determined to “try” the lower 48 anyway. I was still pretty young. As far as I was concerned, people who moved out of Alaska and came back were antisocial failures at life.
My, how your perspective can change.
Five years later I totally agree with that gal’s assertion, and I find myself wondering if my ass will eventually just move back for all the same reasons. I miss the landscape. I miss native Alaskans. I miss Alaskans in general.
When you’re moody in Alaska – in the Matanuska Susitna Valley – during your deepest winter depression, you glance out the window frosted over completely from 0-15 degree temps in mid-November, maybe you’re in a cabin with a tiny little stove… you’re wrapped up in layers because that little stove ain’t doing the trick, it ain’t warming you enough… and you gotta ball your hand into a fist and rub the frost off the window in circular motions so you can look out that window….
But you just know that no matter how low you feel in that moment, you at least have the comfort of the frozen, vast, endless landscape full of depth and indescribable dark beauty to match your mood. It’s congruent. It’s totally congruent. And above all things, I am concerned with congruency.
If you live in Alaska for a year – you will no longer feel cold the way you used to feel when you lived down south or anywhere else. I don’t care if you’re from fucking Texas, you will adjust after about one year. One winter.
I invite you to survive one deep Alaskan winter encompassing 0-20 degrees for a few months.
During the spring when the temperature shoots way up to 40- or 50-degrees F, you’ll be stripping off your goddamn layers and wearing shorts plus a t-shirt all the sudden like it was 85 degrees in other places.
It’s amazing, and it totally happens to everyone that moves up there.
So then – The long Alaskan winter ends, finally.
Then comes spring season in Alaska! Spring in Alaska is the most amazing phenomenon on earth.
Spring creeps over the land so suddenly that you get whiplash.
It’s mid-March, “breakup” – as Alaskans describe this period – when the snow suddenly melts over a period of one month and snowmelt floods the land – the ice previously frozen solid over lakes, land, and waterways will break up and become liquid again. It flows over the land with nowhere to go until the soil absorbs this huge mass of water.
Moose, and sometimes dogs (sorry, but it’s true!) occasionally die as they wander the ice and fall into a soft patch of melted ice over the lake. They fall into the breaking ice, cannot get back out, and ultimately succumb to their demise.
It’s a sad thing, but every year in the summer people find dead dogs and moose in lakes throughout Alaska. Animals who succumbed in spring are discovered later in summer.
Alaskan Spring: Roads flood with tons of water from the melting snow– dirt roads are sopped and muddy – intolerable for driving, really.
No amount of car washing will do the trick – you might as well not bother washing your car at all during spring in Alaska. It will be all fucked up within one hour.
Spring in Alaska – Temperatures get warmer – then comes mid-April and early May, like a flash hurricane, and the daylight begins increasing exponentially. An unbelievable fucking miracle unfolds before your eyes. The snow is gone; the temperature shoots way up to 40 or 50 degrees and little buds start appearing on the birch trees.
Suddenly you’re in a completely different world, so goddamn different from the world you’ve just lived through during the past 7 autumn and winter months – that stoic, frozen mass of desolation… Jesus, it’s surreal. Surreal is the word.
Spring passes into summer – now we arrive in the heart of glorious summer! In mid-May the temperature averages 50-60 degrees – very warm to Alaskans- sometimes as high as 70 in June or July during a freak year, and when it’s 70 we are all practically dying of heatstroke.
In May and June the foliage is a bright limey green color… just so damn bright green – unlike anything you’ve seen anywhere else on earth; the brightest, lightest psychedelic neon green you’ve ever seen in your life… and there are baby plants in mid-May – baby plants just everywhere and they hatch out and grow so fast that by the time July rolls around the fireweed is getting so high, and the leaves on the birch trees are full sized…. and now in July all the plants are long, tall and full grown, almost overgrown, and the sun never goes down! It’s never dark, only dark-colored dusk for 2 hours at most.
During the day and long summer evenings you walk for hours along man-made paths; you walk along 4-wheeler ATV tracks on the side of the road in the town of Wasilla and everything sings into your body of the NEW. All the foliage sings into your soul, “new, new, new!”
The plants sing into you. The sun sings into you. Your life sings into you. Everything is new and you feel it. The earth is new – and you are reborn for a season.
In late May and early June, it’s 10:00 p.m. and the sun is just starting to go down.
At 9:30 p.m. the sun shines down in full bright day spectrum on lakes, rivers, and the ocean, like it’s 12:00 noon on a Sunday morning anywhere else in the world.
This is the “midnight sun” and it’s Real. Some nights in early summer it shines like this at 11 p.m.
You don’t sleep much at night unless you have black out curtains. Even if you’re tired during short Alaskan summers, you’re never in a bad mood.
You nap on a couch for a couple of hours, then pop right back up at 8:00 p.m. during an evening in early July and you say to the people in your house:
“Hey everyone, what did I miss?”
You didn’t miss any damn thing. The miracle is ongoing, and it will continue until mid-August.
The light slowly begins to recede. The temperatures drop little-by-little, and once again you prepare for the hard, cold winter.
The cycle continues.
Here comes that same old cold winter again, back upon your life; that hard winter all over again including the all-encompassing solace buried deep inside its strange beauty, and the weird comfort within its beautiful – and absolute – perfect congruency to your depressive nature.
And all of this is why I’m missing Alaska tonight.