As promised, I really did watch the sunrise over a glacier in Juneau.
This counts as a sunrise in Southeast Alaska.
WELCOME to Alaska’s capital city! We had our winter retreat a couple of weeks ago, meaning that all of the Alaska JVs gathered in Juneau for a whale-watching, guitar-strumming, flannel-wearing good time. Though, since our flight left Sitka at 6 am, we should probably add “sleep-deprived” to that list.
Our first stop in Juneau was the aforementioned glacier. We rolled out of the van, mourned the casualties of global climate change, asked Big Life Questions like “Why is the glacier so blue?” and then beelined for some waffles. This is becoming my retreat M.O. Early flight? That’s fine, I’ll just stuff my face with sweet breakfasty goodness. I knew with my first bite of cinnamon sugar-coated heaven that Juneau and I were going to be very good friends. The view didn’t hurt either.
The sky was clear, the water was still, and everything seemed to say, “Hi, welcome to Juneau. We’re like Sitka, but bigger—which means you don’t have to be outdoorsy all the time. Sometimes you can just eat fancy waffles, and that’s ok too.”
The retreat itself was kind of a blur. I caught a pretty decent cold, so my brain was in bed even when the rest of me was not, but I did manage to get outside and appreciate the scenery. (Not pictured: whales. Why? Because I’ve learned my lesson, people. I learned it on our 8th-grade trip to Boston, when I wasted an ENTIRE disposable camera trying to capture the perfect whale-watching moment. Now I have 24 pictures of choppy water and zero pictures of the North End.)
Juneau is a cool city. They like books, they like buildings that evoke the Wild West (Will Smith, where you at?), they have really tall mountains, and they sell giant stuffed moose at Costco.
The Pacific Northwest is burrowing into my heart like a Pacific Northwesterner burrows into a bin of granola. It’s got that effortlessly cool coffeeshop vibe, genuine care for the environment, down-to-earth friendliness, unbeatable views, and a generous helping of quirkiness. The people who live here are stealthily and unpretentiously talented. This past Saturday, we volunteered at a fundraiser/ dessert auction: these weren’t your grandma’s chocolate chip cookies. These were the kind of baked goods that use words like “infused” and “raspberry coulis.” Way to go, Sitka.
My taste buds are so happy here. Kat’s parents generously sent us a gift card to the Larkspur Café, so we celebrated Valentine’s Day by treating ourselves to a housemate dinner. Because Sitka is weird and wonderful, the Larkspur traded paper hearts for pinstripe suits, paying homage to the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre with unabashed hipster affection. They had a jazz band, fedoras, and menu items like the “Machine Gun Kelly.” I would not like my nickname to be “Machine Gun,” which brings us to Michael Scott’s age-old question: would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.
The next night, my roommates dragged me from bed at 11:45 pm because they’d heard rumors that the Northern Lights were out. So we scraped the ice off the car using our fingernails, a keychain, and a JVC: Northwest binder (simple living for the win. A week later we found an actual ice scraper in the glove compartment) and set off for the end of the road (yes. It’s just what you think). Did we find the Northern Lights? Debatable. The sky was lighter by the rim of the mountain, but it definitely wasn’t as colorful as the Northern Lights in Balto–which is based on a true story, so I can use it as a reference, right? I took a picture, so you can debate amongst yourselves. It’s one of my finest photographic moments.
Life in Sitka is always an adventure. Sometimes it’s the kind of adventure that lets you hike HERE
And sometimes your hiking companion (besides lovely roommate Anne) is the dog who comes with your housesitting gig: an adorable, frenetic, fetch-obsessed, sexually-frustrated yellow lab who likes to make monkey noises. Because adventures, children, come in all shapes and sizes.
In any case, Sitka’s got it made. The Bethel JVs visited us for a few days before the retreat, and they happened to catch some of the best weather we’d had in months: sunny in the low 40s. Coming from a town that hit 70 below this winter, they were beyond excited by the warmth—but they were also just excited to see trees. And mountains. And boats. They seemed so thrilled by the bookstore and the cafés and the scenery and everything that makes Sitka what it is.
I went through a phase in early January when the rain was cold and unceasing and I suddenly realized that every round-trip flight to Florida is $1000 and that I am essentially stuck on an island in a subarctic rainforest. I felt a little lost. The feeling didn’t last long, but the fact is that I felt it, which seems silly after seeing my friends look at trees like the 8th wonder of the world. Why did I ever doubt this place? Sitka’s amazing. The Bethel kids called it “Alaska light,” which is fair, but also not. Sure, it doesn’t fit the Alaskan stereotype quite like Bethel does, out there on the tundra with its bush planes and moose-hunters. It’s easy to say that Bethel is the “real” Alaska. But I’m not going to buy into that. Sitka is part of Alaska too. It’s got bears, whales, sea lions, fishermen, hunters and snow-covered mountains. It’s got a rich Native cultural history, with stories and traditions that people are working hard to keep alive. It’s also got warm weather, yachts, sushi and a seaside café. This is Alaska. Welcome to it.
There is no real Alaska and fake Alaska. It’s damaging to assume that there is, and it’s even more damaging to assume that we have the right to decide what counts in this world. This whole “real life” myth? It’s a myth. Real life doesn’t wait until graduation, it doesn’t wait until your year of service ends, and it doesn’t belong only to the serious or the ordinary. I still think Alaska’s hilarious, because it’s the kind of place where people do things like put a stuffed polar bear in a glass box and then put that box in the airport and call it decoration, but that doesn’t make it any less legitimate. Every place has its quirks. (The Sarasota airport has paintings of clowns on every wall. CLOWNS. I’ll take the polar bear, thank you.) This is real life. It’s all real life.
On the last night of the retreat, we came together for what they called the Coffeehouse. It was basically an open mic event, but in the Pacific Northwest, “open mic” and “coffeehouse” are the same thing. SO. First of all, you should know that I have a serious weakness for acoustic guitar. You should also know that “Wagon Wheel” makes me nostalgic, because it reminds me of summers in North Carolina. The Bethel house rewrote “Wagon Wheel” with custom, Alaska-themed lyrics, and then they all sang it for us while one of the guys played guitar. I was putty in their hands.
As we all huddled together in the lodge, singing along with the chorus (So rock me Sitka like a bush plane flight…), one line stuck with me in particular: “If I die frozen, at least I will die free.” In Bethel, dying frozen is an actual possibility, but I think the spirit of the line is just as true in Sitka. I think I’ve landed in a place where I feel free. I didn’t expect it or plan it or go looking for it. I’m not even sure I understand the full meaning of freedom, because so much of mine has been handed to me. All I know is that I am where I am by choice, and my horizons have never felt broader. I never thought I’d be in Alaska, and loving this place just makes me want to go EVERYWHERE ELSE, to see what other corners of the world I can love, to see what other lives can be led on this earth, to see who I meet and where I fit.
So where will I go next? I’ve got some ideas. I shared them with Anne on our hike, and she voted for San Francisco. Turns out, the guy we were house-sitting for was at a salsa dancing conference in San Francisco (where he saw Obama HOLDING A BABY—um hello this place is magical). That night, we had dinner with our friend Ellen, who said she might want to move to San Francisco next year. Then we watched The Parent Trap–Lindsay Lohan version, OBVIOUSLY–and next thing you know, Dennis Quaid and gang are all gathering in (say it with me now) SAN FRANCISCO. Oh this is SO happening. We’re all going to Northern California next year and starting a winery and having footraces through the vineyards. It’s on.
Till then I’ll just keep chasing the Northern Lights.