Alaska, one of the last bastions of true wild left in the world. A land where you can canoe with whales underneath the gaze of glaciers, and traverse thousands of miles of country led by huskies. The journey to get here took me three hundred and twenty three days. In one continuous stream of travel I ventured upwards from the bottom of the Americas in Ushuaia, Argentina, to their most northern tip in Barrow, Alaska. Fifty thousand kilometres, thirteen nations and one broken leg, I stood out upon the shores of the Arctic Ocean and thought; ‘this is where the world ends, and begins.’ It is the glorious untouched nothingness.
The Beauty in Nothing
Alaska is the ultimate escapism. A place for vagabonds to leave everything and find sense in the wilderness. The story of Into the Wild, based on the travels of Christopher McCandless and his life spent in Alaska is hardly unique. I met a lot of people in Alaska who had moved up from the ‘Lower 48th’. The part of the continent that belongs to everyone else. I was picked up at a ferry terminal in Juneau by someone who had moved here from New York City; ‘for the peace’. He was absolutely right, it was quiet. It was cold this winter, but not ferociously, just one that gave a sense of calmness to the surrounding woods. Over the next couple of weeks of flying in and out of places and getting the Alaskan Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks I would see these vast and endless spaces of just nothing. Nothing of human construction anyway. Mountainous landscapes of snow, crystal clear lakes, nearly all of it untouched and frozen in both ice and time. The Alaskan winter holds a magnificent facade, because behind it, there is a real darkness.
After a time, existing in total darkness and freezing sub-zero temperatures plays on the mind. For many, only the strong survive. Throughout my travels I’ve lived in places where this is something that you just have to deal with. Summer is fleeting at best, and for so much of the year, Winter is entirely relentless. In Finland it’s negotiated by saunas with beautiful women and candles, but in Russia, it’s vodka and cigarettes. Obviously the latter is the worse way to go, the fragile end up slowly killing themselves. Because of this, many towns in Alaska are entirely dry, alcohol is a problem. Just walking through Anchorage bus station reveals how harsh the problem can be. It’s more homeless shelter, than public transport hub. It’s far removed from the ideal Alaska in summer, but it’s the reality. The mind needs an escape, and for some, alcohol is the solution.
The darkness changes you, changes your mindset. You feel as though you’re constantly at that time at 5am, just before sunrise. Where the senses are confused and you’re always trying to attain some kind of equilibrium. Your mind is trying to wake up, now imagine that for nine months. Alaskans are survivors.
The Rest of the World
Life isn’t easy here, of course it isn’t. You need to adapt to survive. There is a huge divide between those that can, and those that can’t, and those guys just leave. Alaskans are so far away from the rest of the world that there are so many things that will never bother them. Their sense of place in the world is inflated, everything is viewed through a lens of ‘How does this affect us?’, so much like Australia.
On the way to Juneau airport I got a lift with Kate, a young woman who worked at the hostel I was staying at. After her husband died in an accident she was now a single mother, trying to make ends meet. For Kate, all that mattered was her daughter, she’d never travelled outside of the States before and asked me how the rest of the world views America. What answer could I possibly give? I told her that what I had seen, and what the stereotypes are were entirely at odds with each other. Like all of the world, we’re all generally amazing people, and it’s only those few arseholes that ruin it for the rest of us. We all just want to be happy in a place that we call home, and live an amazing life. It doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, as long as it’s ours and we make it special. That’s what the States is, and that’s the American dream.