In mid April, most of the snow that fell throughout the winter remained and the temperature still hovered just above freezing during the day. The darkness vanished and light lingered late into the evening. The sound of water dripping was pervasive as the snow began to melt and become saturated. Spring was rapidly approaching in the Arctic, yet I was impatient. The darkness, cold and relative isolation had taken its toll on my mind over the course of the winter.
During the season, I had found joy in exploring the landscape on skis, reading, writing and passing time with friends. I had also found loneliness and a sense of purposelessness. In a community of 11, much of my time was spent on my own. I’d visit with others in the community or friends down the valley in Coldfoot, but some of the time it didn’t prove to be enough. Without a phone or access to the internet, I was shut out to the outside world. This feeling of loneliness was often amplified by my relative lack of skill compared to others in the area. I’m the cheechako, the newcomer to the area, with the next newest resident having moved here over 20 years ago. Those around me are highly skilled, while I find myself largely incompetent. There is no in-between, often resulting in a sense of frustration on my end.
Before leaving my previous job as a tour guide in Coldfoot, I amassed a large chunk of savings that allowed me to set myself up in the cabin and would cover my expenses for a few years without work if need be. I was burned out on tours well before the end of last summer’s season and made the decision not to work throughout the winter. My time was my own. Not only was this an opportunity for physical freedom but mental as well. I was able to wrestle with new topics from various books and had plenty of time to think deeply about new ideas. This thinking could often lead to self questioning and doubt. What opportunities am I missing out on by living here? How worthwhile is pursuing this lifestyle? Is this the right place for me? I had a vague sense of purpose during the latter half of the winter through preparing for the Winter Classic. But with that having been passed, the questions and a sense of restlessness returned.
My immediate solution to my predicament was to flee south, escaping the last days of winter by venturing to the southern portion of the state on a road trip. My first stop was Valdez. The jaw dropping vistas were a welcome sight. Arriving after the winter season and before the summer crowds, I wandered and lazed about town for a couple days. The weather was outstanding and I was reluctant to continue on, but made my way out of Valdez and west towards the Mat-Su Valley. A few miles outside of Palmer, it began to feel as if I was in another state. The two lane highway funneled into an interstate with an endless stream of cars. Strip malls lined the road. I entered what a neighbor of mine likes to call “the urban vortex.”
I spent a couple days in Alaska’s version of a concrete jungle, Anchorage. Everywhere I looked, I encountered business and street names of wild places throughout the state, Arctic Blvd, Kobuk Rd, and Denali St. The streets may have names of wilderness areas but the place was anything but. Without the names as a reminder, one could forget they are even in Alaska at all. Sure there are mountains in the distance and moose in the neighborhoods but the focus is placed elsewhere, on the outside world. Crime is high, concrete and asphalt abundant and the people have the urban sense of coldness or indifference to strangers. I had my fill quickly and moved on to Seward, where I visited friends who had just moved to the area.
Before leaving Anchorage, I reconnected with a former coworker who also had some time on his hands. He was planning on doing a backpacking trip along the southern coast of Alaska and I invited myself along. After returning from Seward, I flew to Yakutak and spent 12 days hiking and paddling along the Lost Coast of Alaska. The trip was just what I needed, rejuvenating my mind. I flew back to the city to find that nothing had changed. After spending time in the wilderness, the urban environment proved to be too much. Initially, I wasn’t planning on returning home immediately after the trip, as I had training in town for a new job in just a couple weeks. However, homesickness, the hustle and masses of people drove me north once more.
Returning to my cabin, I found a different environment than the one I had left behind. Snow no longer covered the ground and the waterways were open and flowing. As I pulled up to my cabin, a small pit filled my stomach. Stumps and trash were strewn about the yard, no longer hidden by the snow. I had put significant work in the previous fall to clean-up the area, but my work seemed to be far from complete. Inside the cabin, a couple dozen flies buzzed about on the window. Part of me yearned to return to the simple shelter of a tent, where these problems don’t exist. Don’t like where your home is located? Toss the tent in the pack and walk somewhere else. I can and have packed heavy loads. But a cabin seems to be out of my physical capabilities.
The questions from last winter still haven’t been answered. What lies ahead? I’m not sure. There are new developments that should improve my quality of living. I had a phone line installed, allowing others now to reach me rather than having just one way access. Furthermore, new friends have been made, increasing my social opportunities in the area. Taking a step back, my problems are almost non-existent. I have a roof over my head, wood to provide heating in the winter and plenty of food to fill my belly. I’m in the position of trying to find out the answers to some of the more challenging questions in life concerning meaning, purpose and how one should fill their time. For now, the questions remain unanswered.