Truth be told, I had already accepted the idea of not getting into graduate school and was already looking at other options when I received an acceptance letter from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, near the end of my gap year between college and graduate school.
While the rejections from other MFA programs, many in the top 20, had been very polite and several had some hand written notes or bit of encouragement, that didn’t change the fact they had all been rejections (though props to the University of Oregon — which had the best rejection letter in history; you felt better as a writer by the end of the rejection letter than when you sent the application in the first place).
So when the positive response came from UAF I was surprised.
That also changed everything for me. Instead of talking to AmeriCorps and Peace Corps, as well as looking at one year or two year gap plans to save money for travel plans or projects I was suddenly flying thousands of miles away to an area I had long been fascinated by while staring at a globe.
My time in Alaska was an incredible four years, and I visited several times afterwards. In fact, that would almost certainly be a yearly trek for me if not for the fact that the 2008 crash slammed me out of a dream job that gave me the freedom to visit my good friends and spend weeks back in the land I fell in love with.
While time & life march on, sometimes I still reflect fondly on certainly one of the most unique places I’ve ever lived, and there are definitely a few things I really miss about living in the Interior of Alaska.
#1: Have Beer? Join the Party!
I don’t know if this was a Fairbanks thing, an Interior thing, or an early 2000’s thing — though I hope this is still true. When I was attending UAF for grad school and spending every weekend possible exploring as far and wide as I could, I became aware of just how many people you could easily meet on the gravel roads and among the hundreds of cabins in the thickly wooded hills around the city.
In the summer it seemed like down every dirt or gravel road there was a pile of pallets creating the base of a bonfire. Turns out this generally was an unspoken part of the culture. If there was a bonfire all you had to do was show up with beer, and you were as welcome as any other guest.
The number of friends or cool random people I met because a friend and I would buy a 32 pack of PBR and cruise the roads until we saw the next bonfire was amazing and every single time, even when we were the first to show up to a stranger’s cabin — we became fast friends and were good to go.
I absolutely loved that and really hope it still is a part of the outer Fairbanks culture.
#2: The Northern Lights
Admittedly, I feel like I probably enjoyed this far more than the majority of others visiting or living in Fairbanks for one simple fact: I needed my hours of outdoor walking a day no matter what. So even when it was -40 I would be walking around a couple of hours or more outside, so I gave myself every opportunity to view the northern lights.
The Aurora doesn’t disappoint. No matter how many times I saw those green or yellow lights, they never got old. Pictures can’t even begin to capture how beautiful, how unique they are. I was also lucky — once I caught a shooting star going through the lights, leaving an incredible explosion of yellow light behind it while another time I saw the rare orange and red northern lights.
They were incredible sights, and ones I’ll never forget. Every winter I’m reminded how much I miss having that sense of wonder, that possibility of incredible random beauty every single walk.
#3: One of a Kind People
No one should be surprised that a one of a kind place like Alaska attracts a lot of one of a kind people. Aside from a special sort of camaraderie that has to exist for a city to exist in such an isolated and extreme climate area, it takes a special type of person to move there, live there, or even show up for a few years to study, check out the state, or see how life works in a very different place.
As a lifelong writer who comes from a family of story tellers, this was awesome. Every chat at a bar led to a story (or multiple), since about half the people I met didn’t grow up in Fairbanks there were tons of stories on how they arrived in Fairbanks, where they were from, and what kept them around. Ask a story or two about what won them over, and usually there were hilarious, amazing, or entertaining stories from those moments, as well.
#4: Easy to Grab a Hitch
If you’re a walker, you won’t have a problem hitching a ride. Especially in the Interior around Fairbanks. I lived in a cabin about 3 miles away from campus for a good chunk of time and walked all the time. I knew hitchhiking was common, but to be honest I was really shy in the beginning so just stayed to the shoulder and never stuck out a thumb.
Imagine my surprise when well over half of the time a car slowed and offered me a ride into town. I almost never knew any of the people driving by, and to put this into context: I was 6 feet tall with a giant mountain man beard and a very scarily compact 300 lb build. Bouncer or 1-AA offensive lineman build — take your pick.
Despite that, the friendliness of the culture meant I never had trouble picking up a ride even without putting out a thumb. Young old, guys and girls, solo drivers or “jump in the back with everyone else,” it was a great experience where I got to meet people, enjoy their kindness, and help them do their good deed for the day.
Even then at a young age I knew that was a local culture thing, and that it was special.
#5: Next Level Weekend Adventuring
I mean when you live in Alaska, finding an incredible weekend adventure isn’t hard. Sometimes going out to the car to check out a hiking trail within an hour’s drive meant noticing there was a giant moose standing there, carefully making sure not to annoy the giant animal that could end you, wait for it to lose interest, then make it to the car where your friends were also not moving, and then driving through pure isolated wilderness to hit a hiking trail…to enjoy pure isolated wilderness.
Having friends from most parts of the state was great as this allowed me to live in Fairbanks but check out Palmer, Wasilla, Soldotna, the Kenai, Homer, Juneau, and Denali, among others. “I can’t drive but I’ll help pay for gas,” was enough to go on another two to five day adventure and it was amazing.
#6: Do You Like Hiking?
Hiking is by far and away my favorite outdoor activity. Considering that the University had miles upon miles of hiking trails through woods around lakes, and would even get you running into moose once in a while. There was no shortage of hiking trails, and I was surprised at the number of “urban” hiking trails that any other state would definitely not consider urban, as well as “little” 10 mile hiking trails connected to rest stops throughout the state.
Oh and there’s also that time we paid $40 for a water taxi to drop us off on the beach of a very isolated park (Grewingk Glacier) and come back for us in a few days. You know, for when you really want to get out there in the middle of nowhere.
#7: Endless Summer Energy
When there’s 24 hours of sunlight, you’re not likely to get a full 8 hours of sleep. I was always a light sleeper who didn’t need all that much rest to begin with, but when there was nothing but sunlight it was easy for me to run 20–22 hours a day at high energy and that lasted for three months.
The amount of stuff you could get done. The amount of adventures you could go on. Admittedly, the amount of trouble you could get into. Not sure if I would appreciate this as much now that I’m within shouting distance of 40 but in my early 20’s, I loved it.
#8: Incredible Pictures Everywhere
I’ve written a lot online about my times in Alaska, and thanks to good friends with a much better eye for photography than me, and who had good cameras (at least by 2004-ish standards) there’s no shortage of great pictures from my time up there.
#9: The Food — Oh My God the Food
“Hey, Shane, I have 40 extra pounds of salmon. You want some for your freezer?”
“Hey, Shane, I have a couple hundred pounds of moose steak to give away. Want some?”
“Hey Shane, ever have reindeer/halibut/caribou/some other delicious animal?”
So the food was incredible, and to get it in so many different forms was amazing. The buffets, the cafes, hitting Anchorage when the fresh crab was coming right off the boats — there was no shortage of incredible food and foodie experiences. And that was just a normal part of life.
#10: A Particular Type of Easy-Going Nature
Alaska wasn’t super friendly in the conventional sense, but there was a very hands-off attitude that most of the people who fall in love with the area all tend to share. The best way to describe it: “No one gives a f**k as long as you’re not hurting anyone else or stepping over someone else.”
There is something to be said about that, and people who couldn’t be more different politically, ideologically, or whatever would be able to mingle at the same party without issue. I know there was at least one very right wing pro-gun anti-government militia when I went up there, and at least one female only organic garden hippie commune.
People from both groups commonly stopped to give me a ride while I was walking or would chat with me if I spotted them at the Fred Meyers or one of the many bars I enjoyed visiting. Long as one group didn’t bother the other, no one cared. You could do your own thing and that was something I definitely appreciated.
Need to Visit Again
There was a time in my life where I could at least contemplate settling down there, and as much as I love the state, I’m not sure I would choose to live there now. Visit? Absolutely. Spend good chunks of time up there among old friends and eager to meet new ones? Sure. But times do change, and although living up there is probably not in the cards for me I would love to return again soon to enjoy a one of a kind land, full of one of a kind experiences, visiting some of the best friends I’ve ever met.