In Alaska, I would sometimes walk a few miles on my lunch hour. Usually this involved dodging speeding, rusting trucks that held a lascivious males and lolling-tongued Labradors as well as nesting magpies who would swoop, divebombing their fierce little beaks towards my shining head. Apparently to the men in trucks, who honked and gestured, I appeared to be some sort of
northern, professionally dressed prostitute. I learned that most women don’t wear any length skirt in Alaska, even when the temperature finally reaches at least 60 degrees and tights must be worn to stave off frostbite.
During these walks I did a lot of thinking, and composing little poems in my head while I listened to Sigur Ros and Charlotte Gainsbourg on an Ipod nano (that a coworker had given to me, originally thinking it was broken therefore buying a new one, and upon discovering that it indeed worked, giving it to poor pitiful me so I didn’t have to listen to rough advances from the neighborhood’s assorted horny, Grizzly Adams types). Some days, especially in the months of April and June, the sky was so blue it appeared to be made of crystal, and the mountains in the not so far distance weren’t covered in the frozen haze of smog and pollution that wavered over the city. The birch, and cottonwood trees were finally unfurling their little green leaves, and the spruce and pine were losing their dusty, forlorn look. The grey-black snow that remained in the shadowed sides of buildings were being washed away by rains and the hoses of city workers, though the streets and sidewalks were so slushy that I still wore my herringbone rainboots everywhere.
Usually, I’d walk to a coffee shack (there’s almost one on every street corner in Anchorage) or to the library to return a heavy bag of picture books and novels in exchange for another heavy sackful of picture books and novels (and also drink coffee – the library had a small cafe inside). In any direction of the office I worked in were a number of directions to take, places to see, neighborhoods to avoid. Some of the park benches that lined the path between mirrored, corporate towers (one of which had been designed by one of the architects that I worked with) were covered in vomit, or frozen-over spilled coffee, or urine. Anchorage’s homeless population is not quiet or invisible. Even the most pristine groomed lawns are dotted with sad reminders of have and have not.
There was a clean bench that I liked to sometimes sit on while I wrote in my journal. Its close proximity to a Kaladi Brothers coffee shop (housed in the fancy headquarters of a Native Corporation) and the shade provided by a beautifully lush little copse of aspen and birch made it a pretty haven in the middle of my usually dull, un-inspirational workday. I could even see a bit of the Chugach Range reflected in the office building windows. It was lovely.
Towards the end of my career as an architectural administrative assistant (add another checkmark to the jobs I’ve had and jobs I’ve hated list), when I was trying to decide whether to carry on and keep pocketing a decent salary doing something I hated (and finding it harder and harder to shoo away the lustful attention of an inappropriate suitor/younger/Irish/male/coworker), and spending all day away from my beautiful blonde four year old son and my ever-traveling husband, I found myself sitting at the bench for longer periods of time. The days in Alaska grow long quickly in the Spring, and the twinkling black and silver Winter is shaken off by the bold, yowling perpetual blue of the Summer sun. Every day, about a quarter after 12, I could be found with a pen, a black and white speckled composition notebook, legs crossed, sunglasses protecting my eyes and a nubby grey sweater keeping me warm. I would stay about twenty minutes, not too long, because I deeply loved (and still love) walking and wish I could do travel by foot everywhere. This pleasant little interlude repeated itself for about two weeks, with only slight variations in time (I even started devoting the entire writing period to composing efficient, neat, swift little haiku poems) and accoutrement. Rain didn’t’ keep me away; Alaskan rain is usually a misty, vaporous mix, there was only one thunderstorm our entire time there, and it was a hundred or so miles away, deeper in a Valley, farther from the ocean than we were. I never carried an umbrella.
One day, while admittedly feeling a bit tired of the distance and the trouble and the overwhelming, almost painful beauty that fills those who fill those who live in the very far north with a sort of stirred-up unsettled feeling, I made my usual way to ‘my’ bench and was super chagrined to find it covered in pink-tinted vomit. It had dripped, and crusted down the sides of the white iron bench, pooling in the scrubby grass below. My sweet little bench was soiled, and I realized that ‘my’ bench was probably someone’s bed at night.
This made me both very sad and very angry. The pink in the vomit was probably blood from the liver, or cherry schnapps, or lifted-from-a-convenience-store Pepto Bismol. I kept walking that day, bipassing the bench and heading straight for my beloved library, where I could sit in a leather armchair in complete quiet. Who needed the outdoors? The library had a huge picture window that overlooked midtown Anchorage and the mountains. For whatever reason seeing my special spot soiled so thoroughly and publically hurt my feelings deeply. I felt like the city was shoving its dirty, underbellied truth right in my face. Why should I whine about missing my son at preschool and my husband who flew over the snow and ice, chasing herds caribou from a plane with a video camera? There were people far worse off than me, who had been born in Alaska, whose bodies and souls were tired and sick. I felt like a fraud. A snob. A cheechacko*.
We left almost a year later, under even more crystal skies. Beautiful June was tickling our bare skin again, but we weren’t fooled. We knew by then Alaska’s beauty was harsh sometimes, and you shouldn’t fall asleep in its lap.
*A person newly arrived in the mining districts of Alaska or northwestern Canada