In Anchorage, it’s really spring. All the snow is gone, and the air smells like dirt. And the sea, too, although I cannot see it, beyond these dead potted plants and ratty driveway, ground down by winter’s ice-age of weather. I can smell the sea, though, and hear the seagulls. I know it’s close to me, the sucking mud beach, the flat shallow water, the reluctant whales. The white volcano in the distance, just across the water. I forgot about the volcano! I suppose this town should be covered in ash, buried. Well it’s not. I was here when Redoubt blew the first time, in like 1989 or something. I was approximately seven. The skies turned black and for days ash fell like fine dirty snow. I went to buy groceries with my mother’s food stamps, and a man on a bicycle handed me his paper dust mask. I collected the ash in a pickle jar, labeled it, put it up in a closet, and forgot it when we moved.
Earlier today I was sitting out here, on a friend’s peeling front stoop, breathing the good sea-air, and some kids were playing on the cracked pavement of the road, riding a little pink bicycle in the gutter and rowing the ground with their feet. I used to be those kids, I thought, not far from here. I lived, at one time, just down the road, in a neighborhood just like this, sort of sinking and neglected, with lots of children. When I lived here, and was a kid, the whole city, it seemed, was like that. Sinking and neglected, cracked and peeling. There were rich people, sure, and everything still cost a lot. But the rich people lived off somewhere, and you didn’t see them. And I’d walk along the silty sidewalks, head into the car-wind, with my paper bag of cheeseburgers, or whatever. And at the traffic light I’d hit the metal button, pong, pong, and the loneliness of all the poverty of the world would pour down around me in the form of rain, and hit the dirty snowbanks, whose gravelly crusts sported sad sprinkles of straw wrappers, crushed drink cups, and cheeto bags. I’d plod, it seemed, for miles on those sidewalks. And when I left Alaska in high school, that was always what I remembered of this place- the plodding. Lonely, hungry, empty-pocketed plodding. I’d had no magic tickets for anywhere, no street-smarts other than the ability to dumpster chalky old candy bars from behind the drug store.
Anchorage is different now. The first summer I was back here, twenty years old and hitch-hiked up the Alcan to meet my dad for the first time, I rode a borrowed bicycle to the low-income apartment complex where I’d lived as a child- Tyee Apartments, it was called, on Northern Lights Boulevard- slate-colored buildings that smelled of ramen noodles and echoed with the cries of playing children. Four years- it was the longest we had ever stayed in one apartment. A happy place. That first summer back I pressed my hands against the wrought iron gate that encircled the place, that had never been there before. The TYEE sign was gone, the one that had always blown over in the mid-winter Chinook winds. In front of each apartment, now, was a sleek SUV. A gated community? Really? The shopping mall next door, where we had dumpstered the candy bars and dragged them to the woods to devour among the spruce branches, was closed. Its sign had been gutted, windows black. The carpeted halls held no-one. There had been a library inside, once, where I poured over Seventeen magazine in my stained pink winter coat. Now it was all gone, just like my childhood. Like a movie set, that rolled over. Now it was someone else’s story- the people with the SUVs. But what were their stories, exactly? I Moved To Anchorage Because I Got A Really Awesome Job Offer And I Like To Wear Gore-Tex And Go Hiking? What kind of a story was that? An un-story.
Yesterday I was sitting in River’s van in front of the bookstore on Northern Lights, waiting for her to come out. We’d driven down from Little House the night before, stopped to sleep in a pullout next to a frozen lake a few hours outside of town, but her bed was too small and our blankets were too few and finally we gave up, me reading an Augusten Bourroughs library book in the four a.m. dawn as we drove the rest of the way to Anchorage, giant jagged-edge mountains that showed flakes of dull grey beneath their white winter coats circling the horizon, and then the stoplights, overpasses, and newly-built strip-malls of the edge of town. Wasilla. This is where Sarah Palin lives. We started our errands early, as soon as the shops opened their doors. We breakfasted on sausage and hash browns from the Fred Meyer deli and one organic cucumber, delicious cellulose tube. And then I waited while River was in the bookstore, watching all the yuppies in their five-hundred dollar arcteryx jackets pour from the coffee shop next door. I was feeling delirious and sleep-deprived and prone to mild epiphanies that flashed like the last flare of a dying headlamp in the cabin at night.
These yuppies weren’t here when I was a kid, was what I managed to come up with. And then the reality of it hit me- really, they weren’t. They really, really weren’t. There were no eco-friendly parents pushing babies in jogger strollers, no tattooed hipsters here for summer jobs on the Kenai Peninsula. Way back then, back when, it was just me, and the city. Wasn’t it?
It’s strange how our memories of a place from the past and the realities of a place in the present can fail to reconcile. The don’t overlap or blend, one does not cancel the other out as the More True Reality. Nothing, really, is resolved. They both just are, stacked one on top of the other, a fine, thick wall between them that’s just as real as the passage of time and just as strong.
And yet, it’s amazing, sitting here on my friend’s flaking front stoop, watching the pale eight pm sky begin to darken, how being here makes me feel the same sort of hope I used to feel, when all the world was opening up, the daylight running into the evenings, the sun warm on the boggy ground. I had a fierce belief, even then, in the god-like power of springtime, of summer, of fall, of winter. The seasons were a god, I was sure, the passage of time, a god, the seagulls were gods, the trampoline of moss in the forest was a god, and I was in awe of it, it would make me drunk, and I would fall down into it, and it was, in the end, the only real thing at all. And then, of course, I would be free. Because if Nature was the only real thing, then what were cities? What was flaking paint, second hand smoke? What was hunger? That was nothing. That was nothing in the face of forests, of sucking mud-tide, of glittering white snowbanks in the dark of winter.
I guess, what I’m saying, is that Alaska gives me Hope. Even if it feels like another world and Sarah Palin might as well be president of the whole goddam thing, even if the forests are just an illusion, the last scrap of wood pulp waiting for the world to trash its last ream of Xerox paper. The bears are just props, the wolves, disposable, hunted down from bush planes when the moose fail to walk into the sights of trophy hunters. The musk-oxen, hunted to death by the first people with spears who came across the land bridge ten thousand years ago, are re-introduced from Greenland. The weather makes no promises anymore, just like everywhere else. The ocean currents carry PCBs from all the corners of the world and deposit them in the breast milk of the coastal Inupiat. There are over four thousand LUST (Leaky Underground Storage Tank) sites in this great green state, and they hold enough persistent organic pollutants to single-handedly birth a thousand generations of autistic children. And on and on and on.
Is it stupid, to have hope, in the face of it all? Is it stupid to sit on the peeling stoop and smell the sea-air and have hope? I’m alive, after all, I might as well act like it. And if Nature is a god then she is a strong one. And by Nature I mean Life. Life is strong, I think. Sometimes I don’t feel it, sometimes I forget. Sometimes just being alive feels like driving a broken car until the engine blows, not caring when or where. Just driving this stupid fucking car, for no reason I can understand, and all I know for sure is that the car is going to break. And even if I’m alive, I’m still stuck in a car, which isn’t like being alive at all. And I don’t know how to feel alive, I don’t know what to do. And there aren’t any instructions telling me what to do, no books I can get from the library. There never have been, really, and it doesn’t seem like there ever will be. All the books already written just sort of skirt the subject, never looking it dead in the eye, because if you look it dead in the eye it’s just gone, and there you are, and you have more questions than ever, and no answers.
River was telling me, once, about how when she was a kid the Athabaskan elders in the village would tell stories, they’d sit in a wooden chair and tell stories that just went on and on and on, and the stories wouldn’t have plots the way our western stories have plots, now, and the stories wouldn’t have story arcs, and hooks, and soft rounded edges that tie the world up all neat like yarn in the corners of a woolen scarf. They’d just go on and on, and then they’d end, without any resolution at all.