Alaska has a particular smell. The air itself has a certain crispness to it but the smell is a mixture of fresh camomile, pushki (cow parsnip) with just a hint of fish skin. This is the smell that tells me I am home.
I recently took my kids to my hometown for a visit.
Growing up I didn’t really believe that there was anything special about being from Alaska. In fact, I dreamed of getting out. And I did, as soon and as far as I could.
Essentially, this was me:
A cheesy small town kid in the big city with big dreams and terrible fashion sense.
Anyway, the farthest place I could think of was New York City. Mind you, I had never ridden on public transportation, there were no homeless people, there was one black person in our entire town, I didn’t “know” any gay people and I sure as heck had never seen a transvestite. “Going out” entailed doing town laps in a beat up Subaru and meeting in the grocery store parking lot or hiking into the woods to have a bonfire and to drink Lucky Lager beer from a can. “Break up” meant when the weather was warm enough that the ground started to thaw into mud and you had to switch from Sorrels to Xtra-Tuffs. And “tolerance” meant you could drink an old Salt under the table. I had never even eaten a bagel, for god’s sake! So NYC was the natural choice.
When I first got there I wouldn’t go out after dark. I gave money to every homeless person that asked, because how on earth could I say no? The subway was terrifying, people pushed and it smelled like urine. It was strange that people didn’t seem to see me on the street and nobody said ‘hello’. People used the word ‘soda’ instead of ‘pop’ and ‘on line’ instead of ‘in line’. And there were people, so many people, so many different people.
To me NYC was a vast wilderness of untamed beasts but eventually, I learned to survive in the wild. I quickly learned that the streets of NYC are just as safe at 2:00 AM as they are in the middle of the day. I learned that the same homeless man sits on the same corner every day and I learned never to give money to the one that took a taxi home at the end of the day. I figured out how to get anywhere I wanted to go on the subway. ANYWHERE! And I kinda got used to the smell and started using my elbows more. I ate every kind of food imaginable AND I could order it AFTER midnight. To top it off my lovely friends chipped in for a lap dance at a tranny dinner club for my 23rd birthday (and no, you may not see the pictures). My survival skills were honed.
The biggest thing that I learned was that where I grew up was actually interesting to people. Growing up I had learned about the ‘lower 48’ but soon found out that the lower 48 doesn’t grow up learning about Alaska, other than a lot of really poor stereotypes. You know the saying “there are no stupid questions”? Well, there are stupid questions. A lot of stupid questions. And I got asked the majority of them. But I was proud of the exotic, unknown place I was from in that superficial “there is actually something unique about me” kinda way.
But every summer I would get on that plane and make the 26 hr. journey home (at least 2-3 layovers and a 5 hour car ride). The smell of camomile, pushki and fish would hit me and quickly the rush and the noise of the city would fade.
This was when I finally began to truly appreciate where I had come from, when I began to carry Alaska with me like a locket around my neck. I could look at the mountains and recognize how beautiful they really were. I could appreciate the space and the quiet and the friendliness and that smell that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. Before, I don’t know that I had ever really paid attention. This is when I understood coming home.
Every time we go to Alaska my husband and I have the “how could we make it work” talk. I am lucky to have married someone who spent his summers fishing in Alaska and has deeper appreciation for it. As a side note: he also lives in Carhartts, knows how to chop wood, understands the magic of duct tape, can fix anything and can almost keep up with me at the bar (wink), all very under appreciated attributes out here on the outside.
I know my kids would adjust to being Alaskans in about 15 minutes flat. They would love the space and the wildness and the water and even the smell. I can imagine them growing up there. I can see them swimming in 45 degree water and fishing with their friends in the summer. I can picture them making snow forts and sledding down the gully out behind my mom’s house.
But secretly, I am afraid that I wouldn’t be able to hack it. I fear that I would have more of an adjustment than they would. I have gotten used to stop lights, cheap grocery stores, $25 pedicures and lord knows, I haven’t shoveled snow in years and to be honest, my tolerance is really down. I have even gotten used to traffic and noise.
In fact, I don’t mourn the fact that I have moved on and that I have made a life for myself in another state. I will always be an Alaskan. I guess the hardest part for me to accept is that my kids will never experience Alaska in the same way I did and to a certain extent, they will always just be tourists in my hometown.