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.
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.
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!
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 close, but 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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.