In Juneau, we’re apparently more likely to say “see you later” than “goodbye.”
I’d never noticed this until Megan Pratt, a cinematographer from California, pointed it out to me last weekend. Megan, the producer of a film tentatively called “50/50: A Dating Documentary,” is someone I’d trust to know about goodbyes. She’s spent two-and-a-half months exploring dating, relationships, and “what happens when strangers collide” on a road trip with Alicia Ostarello, who has gone on at least one “first date” in each of 49 states (Hawaii is the last stop). Megan has filmed each of these dates.
The project began when Alicia, a 30-year-old writer from Oakland, Calif., decided she needed to “get out of Dodge” in the aftermath of a breakup. She wanted to leave everything behind and feel better about herself, and her idea for doing so was to go on a date in every state. Her friend Noah Veneklasen heard about this, signed up as executive producer, and drafted Megan as both line producer and Alicia’s road trip companion.
Alicia is the protagonist, but the project isn’t only about her love life. Dates have blurred with interviews as she has asked single people across the nation about their experiences with dating, be it in New York City or a North Dakota town of 120 people. Alicia sees part of her mission as to show “that dating doesn’t suck,” and maybe, just maybe, to be something of a “dating fairy” to people she encounters along the way.
I met the pair last weekend, when they spent two days in Juneau collecting dates from their 49th state. Actually, I first met Alicia the way she has met most of her dates around the country: on an online dating website. Like offline dating, Juneau offers a pretty small pool compared to larger cities. And as in offline dating—you know, like trying to dance with people during Folk Fest, or making sure you sit next to the cute friend-of-a-friend at a dinner party—when someone new and interesting shows up online, you’ll probably notice and want to make a move. Intrigued by the project, I sent Alicia a message, and our correspondence led to plans to meet up while she was in town—when she wasn’t dating, that is.
Alicia’s first Juneau date was scheduled for a couple hours after she and Megan arrived in town, which was fairly typical for the project; when you’re trying to date in each state on a limited budget, there’s no time to waste. The same could be said for powder days in Juneau, however, and Alicia’s date was an hour late coming down from skiing. She took it in stride, acknowledging that many people were ambivalent about participating in the project in the first place.
“Why would he prioritize me?” she said. “There’s this date thing, or there’s actual skiing.”
But, while waiting for her date to show up at the Alaskan brewery, a friendly guy walked in and agreed to be a stand-in date. Talking to him felt “totally normal,” she said. “Oh, we have things in common. We’ve both taught, we both like music.” He even asked her to dinner, which she had to turn down because of other dates.
“Which makes me wonder, could I have just gone around the country and not online dated, and just walked into town and said, ‘I’m looking for a date!’ and talked to strangers and made a date for the next day?”
“I think that would have worked if we’d done all small cities,” Megan said. “I’m not sure that would have worked so well in New York.”
Alicia’s original date eventually showed up, and they went sledding at Eaglecrest and out to dinner at the Island Pub. When she described the guy, I was pretty sure I knew who she was talking about. It’s hard to be anonymous for long in Juneau, something that Alicia picked up on after less than 24 hours in town.
“I don’t think you can hide from anyone here,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like you can hide from your exes or people you’ve been on bad dates with.”
The upside of this is that there is an incentive to behave decently to each other.
“All you need is one girl saying that guy is a [jerk], this is what he did, and everyone’s going to know. It might as well be front page news.”
On Sunday morning, I accompanied Alicia and Megan to the glacier for filming and conversation. They debriefed Saturday’s dates on film, I interviewed them about the project, and we walked out to Nugget Falls. I couldn’t help drawing parallels between a date and what we were doing, so I asked Alicia how she would define a date. Did there have to be potential for something more later? She didn’t think so.
“A date is when you have expectations of yourself, not the other person,” she said. “You want to present yourself in the best way.”
Alicia met her Sunday afternoon date at Silverbow and they went to the Juneau Symphony’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. I wondered whether her dates here fairly represented Alaska, or even Juneau. We’ve become increasingly accustomed to analyzing how movies and television shows portray us. But unlike many things filmed in Alaska, our state will, at best, play only a small part in “50/50.” The Alaska dates are just two-and-a-half of nearly 70.
“At least for me, the project was not so much about regional differences in dating but what is it like on a whole wide spectrum,” Megan said.
A friend, intrigued when I told him about the documentary, wanted to join us for a drink Sunday evening. In the calm before the Folk Fest storm, the Alaskan was nearly empty, but there was the requisite dog running around, and someone was even sharing fresh herring eggs from Sitka. My friend asked a question Alicia had fielded many times before.
“Everyone asks, how many did you hook up with? And it’s like, nobody. People are like, really? And I’m like, do you want to ask Megan? She was there the whole time.”
Indeed, the most significant relationship that developed during the course of the film seems to have been the friendship between the two women, which Alicia called a “life-changing experience.”
Megan was getting tired, which Alicia immediately noticed—the familiarity bred from spending so much time together was evident—and we said our goodbyes, complete with hugs and promises to keep in touch.
The Alaskan felt especially empty after they left. There was still half a pitcher on our table, so my friend and I sat back down. We talked about their project, about dating in Juneau, and about being in social situations where you’ve been romantically involved with half of the room. At one point I turned to him. “Hey,” I said, “are we on a date?” We laughed.
When I asked Alicia and Megan the next morning, they said no, that didn’t count as a date. But they added that they thought my friend was quite a catch, in the way only other people can talk about someone you’ve known for years.
You can learn more about the “50/50” project and read blog posts from the trip at fiftydatesfiftystates.com.
• Katie Spielberger writes from Juneau.