Urban Alaska

When we landed in Anchorage it was near midnight, but it wasn’t until we  walked out of the terminal that “land of the midnight sun” really  meant something to me. It was so light that we could see 20,000-foot Mount McKinley in the distance. Betsy pointed out that she could also see what looked like her worst far-north nightmare: a snowfall swirling in the air all around. Not snow, our Alaska friend Venable Vermont assured her, but millions of cottonwood seeds drifting on the summer breeze.

Venable, a Spartanburg boy born and raised, has lived in Alaska since 1983. His day job has been as an attorney, but weekends and summer vacations he’s paddled, hiked, and climbed over as much wild country as he could get his arms around. V majored in geology at Harvard. He’s read Robert Service’s poetry and John McPhee’s COMING INTO THE COUNTRY.  How could someone with that background not partake fully of Alaska’s wild interior?

He hasn’t forgotten his roots. Once a year V flies back to the South and turkey hunts with his brother John. He still misses the southern river swamps, and so a few years ago he brought back an acorn from a South Carolina swamp chestnut and planted it in his greenhouse. It’s now over six feet tall and pushing against the roof for northern sky.

V’s married to Kim McGee, a native-born Alaskan, and they have two boys, Keir and Ari. They live on a suburban street a few miles from downtown Anchorage. The beginning of our Alaska adventure was spent with V and Kim in the shadow of their immense hospitality. It was our introduction to urban Alaska.

Kim’s parents arrived in Alaska in ’47 when Anchorage had 10 times fewer people than it does today. “The Territory days,” the locals call that time. They prospered, raised a family, bought a little house near Knik Arm at the end of Cook Inlet in a small suburb. After the Alaska Earthquake of ’64 shook off the first several blocks of their neighborhood and deposited houses, streets, and trees in the water of the inlet they bought some land a little further out and built a house there on five acres. “The farm,” V and Kim call it, and that’s where we’d stay for several days. Pat McGee, Kim’s mom, still lives there, and the little patch of undeveloped land is a green suburban paradise complete with black spruce, magpies, three horses, a burro, two sheep, a goose, and a coop full of chickens. It’s country come to the city surrounded all sides by houses.

Our first morning V and Kim drove us downtown. The city of Anchorage sits in a bowl. In a state twice the size of Texas, Anchorage accounts for almost half the population– 200,000 souls. It’s a sprawl of buildings surrounded by a profound uplift of peaks. Look around and it’s a 360 degree feast: the Alaska Range to the north, the Chugach Mountains to our east, and the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula to the south.

We soon discovered Anchorage is a study in contrasts. The highway leading downtown is wall-to-wall contemporary Americana: Blockbuster Video, Home Depot, fast food and fast retail. But then something jars you back 4,000 miles north and you realize you’re not “outside” (what the locals call the Lower 48) anymore. A few blocks from the central city we saw a cabin where someone still lives with moose skulls covering the roof.

Once in the central city Kim pointed out a line of ugly buildings along 3rd Avenue, a main drag hit very hard by the ’64 earthquake: “You know, up here there’s a ban on architecture. If you’re an architect you can’t come to Alaska.” V pointed out a “Raise Taxes” banner on one of the storefronts. He explained it’s a protest to Alaska’s libertarian attitude toward taxes. They don’t have many taxes up there and now some people are beginning to question how it is that a civilized place could have civil society without public projects paid for with taxes.

If I lived in Alaska I’d probably choose Anchorage. It’s a place, unlike most cities, that encourages you to believe the human world is puny and temporary. That’s a lesson we need more in the world today. Being Southern we tend to think in turns of established human patterns. Not always so in Alaska. The dew’s still on the world up there, even a city like Anchorage.

“We’re a very young city,” Kim explained as we drove around downtown. “We don’t’ have anything that’s old. We have a very different history up here.”

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