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Meandering in the Magic

Being in Alaska is like being a grandma. I get to drop in every now and then and when it gets to be too much, I can take a break. But the truth is, the interior of this massive state is beginning to grow on me, and rather than wanting to head south, I dream of becoming a forest dweller, building a cabin, reading and writing poems by the glow of a wood stove, snowshoeing around the edge of a pristine lake, learning to speak the language of ravens.

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Since my first visit north, way back in 1993 when my daughter, D, and I flew up to check out the University of Alaska, I’ve known there was big magic here. The shimmering aurora borealis, the three rainbow-suns of a mid-winter parhelion, the extremes of cold and heat, dark and light, the moose, and musk oxen and muskrats, and mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds. The state has 3 million lakes and the tallest mountain on earth from base to summit. And that’s just the obvious magic that any tourist can see.

But when you’re here for a while during those long, frigid months of darkness that make you feel like hibernating, and any time after December 21 when Fairbanks gains seven minutes of sunlight each day catapulting circadian rhythms into the stratosphere, and in the in-between times when everything turns gold and the sandhill cranes fly south, or when the river ice breaks up in May and the mallards fly in, you see things in a different light, more akin to magical realism. And that’s what makes me want to stay.

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Sure, at first glance the Alaskan Interior might seem to be a flat-brown-endless-oh-God-get-me-outta-here kind of place. Like this afternoon, I was stir-crazy from doing that sit down and write thing and my knees were killing me, so I grabbed my camera and set out on a walk along the dirt road paralleling the runway and float pond at the edge of which D lives. You can see my route, above. Nice dirt, eh? Inspiring, right?

Anyhow, I’m ambling along, trying not to think about the buzzing halo around my head. I have sweet blood, according to my mama, and as usual I forgot to zap myself with anti-bug juice. I’m about to turn back when, poof, a fairy dust breeze twirls around me and the skeeters skedaddle into the bush. Pure magic!

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And then, at the side of the road I stumble upon this personal message hanging from a green mailbox with a fish scratched into it. I know in my heart that if I just reach inside RIGHT NOW I’ll find a smartphone with a direct line that could turn me into a saint for all eternity. My hand is this closebut it occurs to me that I only have half an hour before little r wakes up and I have to be back home for Gooma duty. I saunter on.

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Ahead, there’s another sign that says something silly about this not being a public road, but a taxiway for aircraft. Yeah, right. Where are we, Eielson Air Force Base? And then I see a yellow Cessna 185 Skywagon heading toward me on the dirt road, the same one I’m currently standing on, and I figure this must be punishment for not opening the mailbox in a timely manner. I calculate I’ve got less than a minute before decapitation but, like I said, there’s magic here. In a flash, the pilot turns off the road toward the runway, revs up his single engine and takes off south, toward Anchorage. I’m saved after all!

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My time is running out, like darkness in Fairbanks. I need to pick up the pace. Whoosh! Right in front of me another mailbox appears. This one is welded to an old Honda dirt bike that’s seen better days, like my knees. The elder-bike is worn down, but still useful. This is the kind of thing that happens here. Metaphors are plopped right in your path so you can’t miss them.

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When I reach the end of the road, just past Dutton’s Aircraft/Sheetmetal Repair, a sprawling bush gallery of lifeless land, air and water vehicles awaiting cannibalization, I cross to the other side and speed-walk toward home. This side of the road is dominated by hundreds of airplanes parked in fields or in hangars next to the runway like colorful ducks waiting to take flight.

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And when I’m just a few driveways from our own, I notice something behind a screen of paper birch that must have been there all along. How did I miss it? Covered with rust and road dust, spiderwebs and some kind of bird tracks, the paint is faded gray but I can see an undercoat of black, and the two yellow lights on the front grill glowing like the Alaskan sun in June make me gasp. Is it possible that this is the same 1947 Ford sedan that my parents drove for years until they replaced it with a more streamlined blue and white ’53 Chevy?

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I want to wade through the pond that lies between us, give the car a good sniff, a gentle pat that will maybe trigger a memory…like the one of my dad telling stories as he drives us up to Chesapeake Bay for a crab feast, or my mom reciting Longfellow from the front seat, “And things are not what they seem.”  But the mosquitoes are dangerously dense and my time has elapsed, though I know I’ll be back tomorrow, maybe with little r who, like me, is always too spellbound to ignore the magic.

All photos are by the author, with the exception of the aurora borealis in Fairbanks which is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

18 thoughts on “Meandering in the Magic

    • I don’t know, I think you’ve gone a little middle-stir-crazy . . . i hear it’s a disease of middle Alaska! You know a wealthy powerful sexy man wanted me to marry him and live in Anchorage. He tried to show me how special the place was. . . I ran as fast as my feet would go in the direction of Santa Monica! BTW, there is a book you must read — Wild Comfort by Kathleen Dean Moore. Alaska to Corvallis connection. Huggs.

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      • Katie, you’re clearly an adventurous kinda gal! Anchorage to Santa Monica. Love it! I will definitely look for Wild Comfort when I head back into town on Monday. Tomorrow, we’re taking the train to Denali. Can’t wait. Huggs back.

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  1. Thank, Peter! Alaska is definitely not for everybody, especially the Interior, which gets crazy cold. And yet, even then the light is so extraordinary that you feel like you’re in a dream. Plus, there aren’t any bugs then. 😀

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  2. Thanks, Peter! Alaska is definitely not for everybody, especially the Interior, which gets crazy cold. And yet, even then the light is so extraordinary that you feel like you’re in a dream. Plus, there aren’t any bugs then. 😀

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  3. The beat and intensely descriptive first half stands in glorious contrast to the vivid wonder of the walk–I learn so much from your insights—Have you read John Haines–an Alaskan writer of great note–your words in that first half echo what he attempts to explore and articulate.

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    • Susan because now you have me curious about poets and poetry:

      Young Man by John Haines

      I seemed always standing
      before a door
      to which I had no key,
      although I knew it hid behind it
      a gift for me.

      Until one day I closed
      my eyes a moment, stretched
      then looked once more.
      And not surprised, I did not mind it
      when the hinges creaked
      and, smiling, Death
      held out his hands to me.

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    • I appreciate your thoughtful feedback, jd. I’m learning from you as I plod along this ice-heaved road. As far as John Haines is concerned, I first read his poetry in Ice Floe, a journal of circumpolar writings. “For the Homestead Friends,” I believe. Love him. I’ve since met another Alaskan poet laureate, Sheila Nickerson, who dazzled me by being present for Poetry Alive! a gig I did with four other poets before I headed north. I will check out JH more carefully. Thanks.

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    • Yes, they are. I’ve been reading as much of Haines’ work since you brought him to mind, ordered some books, people are lending me collections of his poems, etc. Trying to concentrate on Alaskan writers while I’m here. What better setting, eh?

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  4. Fantastic adventures. I love travelling by reading blogs. What a riot about the plane landing and the ’47 sedan. I’m looking forward to reading more of your stories. 🙂

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