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Know the West

Playing the Alaska card

A native of the state explains the short-lived social power the state gives.


I call it playing the Alaska card.

It’s a sure-fire remedy for awkward silences at cocktail parties. Whenever I’m plummeting into a chthonian abyss of social ineptitude, it’s my conversational ripcord. Coolly and casually, I mention that I grew up in Alaska.

“You lived in Al-as-ka?”

(My interlocutors invariably lean hard on that second syllable as if to emphasize just how alien “Alaska” feels in one’s mouth. Think “Alpha Cen-taur-i” or “Zeta Re-tic-uli.” You would never say “Con-nect-icut” or “Wis-con-sin,” would you?)

Alaska is quite possibly the most evocative place-name in the English language. It’s the Last Frontier — words emblazoned across the license plates, in case you ever forget. Twice the size of Texas, with a fraction of Texas’ pavement, Alaska is the last, vast untamed expanse of ground in the United States. It doesn’t hurt the state’s image that the world map of choice in most American classrooms is the Mercator projection, which, with its obsessive preservation of right angles and its bias toward the Northern Hemisphere, makes Alaska look bigger than Africa.

Alaska represents romance — the struggle of the individual against the wilderness. It symbolizes the extreme — humans grappling with a hostile environment and deadly wildlife on a daily basis. People desperately want to believe that Alaska, rather than Space, is the Final Frontier. After all, moving to Alaska is possible. Getting your hands on your own starship Enterprise is another matter. Maybe Frederick Jackson Turner spoke a tad too soon. Maybe the frontier isn’t closed just yet; maybe there’s still hope.

Too bad it’s not true. Not for me, at least. In the urban jungle of downtown Los Anchorage, where I misspent my youth, kamikaze motorists and a highly visible and often stentorian homeless population were more conspicuous than any superlatives Mother Nature might serve up. 

Yes, Alaska is big. Yes, it’s remote. And, yeah, it gets kinda cold sometimes. But the mountains surrounding Denver are just as tall as those encircling Anchorage; Buffalo, New York, gets more snow; and winter temperatures are just as cold in Omaha, Nebraska. And is a three-hour flight from Seattle really that much of an ordeal?

But a little hyperbole — or maybe a lot — is what my listeners yearn for. They want a good story. They want to hear about life on the edge of survival. Above all, they want to believe that life in Alaska — anywhere in Alaska — is fundamentally different from life anywhere else. When people find out I’m from Alaska, I know they have expectations I can never fulfill. I’m supposed to look like I just walked out of a Jack London novel: battered slouch hat, stained plaid shirt, faded jeans, whiskers so unkempt as to be likely inhabited. I’m supposed to reminisce about the Gold Rush whilst pensively stroking my muttonchops: “Yep, back in the winter of ’89, me ’n’ ol’ Jack McGrew were comin’ down the Chilkoot Trail. …” 

So my social triumphs are inevitably short-lived. It won’t take you five minutes to realize Jon Krakauer is never going to write a book about anything I’ve done. The statement “I grew up in Alaska” is literally true when I say it, but it feels like a lie, or at least an exaggeration. It sounds like I’m bragging: “I grew up in the wilderness.”  

To be honest, I always found the Alaskan wilderness rather, well … scary.

Take bears, for instance. Many people go to Alaska with the express intent of having an ursine encounter. I’d rather get beamed up by cattle-prod-wielding aliens. Grizzlies accomplish in real life what hook-handed, hockey-masked psychopaths can only pull off with Hollywood special effects. Now that humanity has more or less gotten impaling, flaying and divers other gory diversions out of its system, a bear-mauling is about the only way a body can manage to get disemboweled alive.

Most people think of the wilderness as a place to see natural wonders, relax and rejuvenate. I find it difficult to relax when I know that big, furry natural wonders might be hungry.

Yet I do love the outdoors. A bike trail runs from downtown Anchorage to the south edge of the city, offering breathtaking views from cliffs rising high above the ocean. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of riding down that trail — exulting in the snowy grandeur of Mount Susitna, the craggy bluffs of Point Campbell and Point Woronzof, the summer sun shimmering on the silvery waters of Cook Inlet. While gulls screeched and sandpipers warbled around me, I’d breathe in the musky fragrance of the devil’s club, the pungent scent of Sitka spruce and the bitter brine of the sea.

Go ahead and call it Nature Lite. It worked for me.

And I got to keep my intestines.

James Thompson lives in southwestern Idaho, in constant terror of mountain lions.