Saturday, September 18, 2010

Frontier Days

Alaskans pride themselves as living on the last frontier. They boast of being the westernmost state, being twice as big as Texas, as wide as the continental United States, and having almost half the land of the lower 48, combined.

Certainly the facts (square mileage, latitude and longitude) cannot be argued. But just about everything else can.

Alaska, and Alaskans, certainly are different. But so are New York and New Yorkers, Colorado and Coloradans, and California and Californians.

Each place, and the people who inhabit them, have certain intangible qualities that help to provide definition and framing. And our media and common lore often play off these qualities, accentuating those characteristics that are different (think about the brash New Yorker, or the new age Californian) , while not really helping to explain why those traits exist in the first place.

Alaskans seem to pride themselves on their individuality, and their distance from civilization. Their connection to the outdoors, to the basic aspects of human survival, and human instincts. How that translates to truck sales, I don’t know, but it seems as though advertisers and marketers have certainly tried.

Over the course of a week in Anchorage, and a day in the capital city of Juneau, I began to develop a sense of the place. It’s pretty country, and rough no doubt. But in many more ways than not, it’s awfully familiar to the places we live in the lower 48, just more so.

To start, in the urban core of Anchorage, there’s plenty of visible poverty, in the form of a sizable homeless population. Restricted from panhandling by law, these men (I saw mostly young men) congregate in small public spaces, and bide their time with games and idle banter. Homelessness in America is no surprise in 2010. It was to me, however, in Anchorage, a place where it must be tough to be on the street in winter. And the volume of food shelters and pantries, some running up against each other in a well worn part of town, testify to the need.

Overheard conversations provide a cheap thrill, at times. But they can also provide an unvarnished perspective. Hearing some of the older men at a downtown athletic club gripe about the state of affairs in America, and what’s wrong with people today, provided some context on the recent success of Alaska’s former governor, Sarah Palin, and the tea party movement in general. Alaska may certainly be ground zero, or at least one of the ground zeroes, in the debate raging across the country. So in that way things are no different than in the other states. But up in Alaska the physical distance from Washington, DC, if not the rest of the country, does provide context for the criticism that regular folks have for the way government is run, and the way dollars are spent.

It’s ironic, however, given the size of the federal presence in Alaska, whether that’s in the form of the Interior Department, or the Defense Department, or the literal payback that Alaskans receive each fall from the oil revenue generated from drilling. But that seems to be an irony only to outsiders, and those few who acknowledge being progressive in a state where even liberal carry handguns.

Holing up at an area college on a project, conversations with the student population covered a range a bit wider than with a prototypical student,, but only with regard to there being more issues with fewer people. While one student missed classes over a week due to time out in the bush moose hunting, another was away due to the birth of his child. In neither instance did the student feel he should have contacted a professor to let them know of their absence, nor seek permission to be away. But in suspecting that their actions were perfectly understandable, and that it should not have bearing on their grades, these students were similar to their colleagues at campuses across the nation. Self righteous, and perhaps indignant had their professors gotten in their face about the need to communicate. But moose hunting? When was the last time you heard that one as an excuse for an absence. And acknowledging an out of wed birth? Same goes. Not your everyday occurance, though of course it happens.

Still, people up in Alaska, seem friendlier, at least initially. Whether it’s stopping in Wasilla, or strolling in Barrow, they are polite, civil, and seemingly meaningful in their actions. When someone says they will do something, they do it, and they mean it. Words seem to have meaning here, and words seem to be ways in which Alaskans bond with one another.

While no cross words were sent my way up north, some folks were free with their criticism of former governor Sarah Palin. One couple, in fact, asked if I would take her back to DC when I returned. Not to provide her with a political forum, but to get her out of their hair in Alaska.

So that surprised me. The bare criticism of this neo-celebrity, someone exalted across America as a demi-god of a movement, yet apparently lacking widespread support across the very place she calls home.

But perhaps in the end that is the quality that defines Alaska. People are much more than the two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that we have of them in our mind, and are more richly layered and textured following some time among them. And much like those New Yorkers and Coloradans and yes, even those damn Californians, there’s more to them than what you get at first, and there’s more to them than they let on, and even share.

Even if there’s no way in hell a place as uglified by strip malls and K-marts can in any way with pride call itself the frontier!