Alaska Culture Shock

I know I’m well past jet-lag and should be acclimatized and climatized and normalized and you name it by now…but the fact of the matter is, spending 9 weeks in Alaska (during one of their record-breaking snowfall years) really tweaks one’s sense of perception.
My first reaction coming home? Everything looks so pale; almost anemic. Here in the North Carolina mountains, spring grows brightly out of pale browns and greys. There are daffodils, of course, but most of that green stuff is still hiding beneath the duff. Having been in bright white snow–so much snow that it reflected anything at night, too, making the darkness seem to glow–and deep evergreen forests for a few months, the return home came as a shock. My eyes hungered for mountain peaks with lines smoothed by blanketed snow. My sense of time was, and still is, off–how can it be light out at 7pm? What time is it again? Why is the sun so bright, so fiercely overhead?I give up.
My second reaction coming home? Where’s all the good meat? I ate locally hunted or caught venison and salmon left and right in Alaska and I felt better for it, too. I even got to go hunting once with a pal. I was blessed again and again as a guest in people’s homes and at community potlucks where this food came in abundance. In communities where subsistence living is a way of life, meat doesn’t always come easily but it surely comes and it is much needed, too. Tonight for supper with my parents, we ate pot roast from a cow raised and slaughtered just down the mountain from us. This was a rare and expensive treat and we all loved it. It felt good–and right, somehow–and it made me want to learn how to hunt so that I could take one deer a year and be more connected to the process.
My third reaction? I need community. Part of this has to do with my Alaska culture shock but it also has to do with being on the road too long. In Sitka, however, you had 8,000 people living on 14 miles of paved roadway on a 100-mile long island…everything else was 17 million acres of wilderness (the Tongass National Forest). That kind of physical set up does something to a place and its people and whatever that thing was, I liked it. Here in North Carolina, I have lots of friends that are dear to me…but we’re spread out across two counties, living anywhere from 10 to 20 to 60 miles apart. Getting together requires scheduling, since a chance meeting on Main Street, for instance, doesn’t necessarily lead to a potluck with six of your best buddies.

My fourth reaction? I’m tired. I need and want to stop traveling. I’m ready to settle down. (Did I just write that?) I need support and consistency and regularity. Getting so much of that in Alaska made leaving bittersweet–because it meant facing up to the fact that my commitment to my career and this tour is not conducive to the things that I need for my personal life right now. It’s scary to see how badly you want something and to also realize that you have chosen to set it aside for a very, very long time. Even scarier to realize that you’re relatively powerless to institute change for at least another six months.

Call it culture shock, call it the open road blues, call it stubbornness. Either way you look at it, it might be March and Spring in the North Carolina mountains, but a very big part of me is still frozen into that wonderful, terrifying, joyful wintry white world of Alaskan winter. I’m not the same person I was before I left. Then again, I never am after coming back from The Last Frontier…

Today’s Monthly Fiction quote is from “The Last Thing They Might Have Seen”:
Next, the men blistered through the Carolinas, topping and pulling fat, green tobacco leaves sticky with trichomes. Burley, Brightleaf, Perique. They used sickles and stringers, whatever was kept on hand. They talked while they worked—they would spend their pay on sopas, on a Mustang, on a new stereo system. (Read the rest of this story…)


Showing 3 comments
  • Mary

    I hear you. Try moving away after seven years. However, the same insularity can turn on you and bite you too in a place like that …you take the bad with the good. I've found though that you can find that same sense of community in other small towns not in Alaska. It's not quite the same..couldn't be. Anyway when it is time to be done, it is time to be done.

  • Ed R.

    I so enjoy following your writing, and enjoyed meeting you here in Sitka. I agree with you on the sense of community. I often wonder what a return to the lower-48 would be like, and the withdrawal I might suffer as a consequence of leaving behind things I never knew I needed.

  • Andromeda Romano-Lax

    It was great having you in Alaska. Was just checking to see where you were, hoping to wrangle you into an Alaska party in April, but alas — you've already left us! Hope to see you again soon.

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