I started my month-long journey across Alaska sick. After arriving to Juneau from visiting colleges, I had a day and a half to pack and make sure I was ready to leave for Anchorage. In that time crunch, sleep was not in order. Before I knew it, I was on the plane after getting five hours of sleep and feeling a familiar itch crawl up the inner workings of my throat. By the time I was in Anchorage, I knew my trip would be off to a rocky start.
I was right. For the first week, I was knocked out on the couch, going in-and-out of hourlong nap cycles. The emotional mood swings hit, or as my friend likes to call it, I was in an “emotional hangover.” What was I thinking, traveling around Alaska? Without a plan? A confirmed way to get from place to place? How serious could I be about hitchhiking, or couchsurfing, when I didn’t know the first thing about either? Why didn’t I choose to go elsewhere, somewhere warmer and sunnier, like Indonesia or something?
I’d be lying if I said I cast my fears of being a travel novice aside, and that everything went smoothly thereafter. Instead, I trekked on with fears in hand, straight into a party limo taxi that drove me from Seward to Kenai at midnight while I was still shaking off my cold.
My first strange travel experience, I spent the whole day pacing around Seward with my 50 liter ocean blue backpack and sleeping bag, for which I had neglected to bring straps. Being too afraid to actually hitch hike down to Homer as I had set out to do, I did something a little easier: I found a ride via Facebook. This ride dubbed itself a taxi ridesharing service, carrying its riders inside — you guessed it — a party limo.
I rode to Kenai in a car with rock music roaring softly from the stereos, a girl huddled and napping under a set of blankets in the back, stale cigarette smoke, and lava lamps and disco lights dancing at the sides of the car. I made it to Kenai around 12 or 1 a.m., a pitstop on my way to Homer and later, to my ferry to Kodiak Island.
Except, my pitstop lasted three days as I scrambled the courage to get on the road and actually stick my thumb out on the Sterling Highway. The day before I was set to leave, though, my hosts offered me a deal: a free fishing trip up the Kenai with his buddy and we’d figure out a way to get me down to at least Ninilchik the following day. When I finally got the nerve to leave, I ended up at a coffee shop in Ninilchik, in a farm in Anchor Point, and finally, to Homer where I slept on the futon of an office the weekend of the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival.
Per usual, I had no plans, but two weeks away from my initial cold I was at least less sick. By chance, a friend saw a recent photo I posted of Ninilchik — he was going to be in Homer soon too, and hey, did I want to take the extra ticket that his group had for the festival?
In my travels, I’ve been able to learn a little more through a series of chances: I’ve circled the Kenai Peninsula, hiked the marled paths of Kodiak Island with a group of midwestern wildlife interns, waited (unsuccessfully) for the sun to set in Utqiagvik, stooped my worries in Fairbanks’s nearby Chena Hot Springs, met a few wandering solo travelers in Denali National Park, and plucked geese with a friend in Kotzebue.
Life is funny that way: a whirlwind of chances hit, unexpected every time, making life sweeter with each surprise.
I’m ending my trip with a few days in Anchorage, a place I’ve stopped over many times but have always thought of as the convening place. I remember going up to Anchorage in high school for tournaments, and how during our Academic Decathlon state tournament a few years ago, our team would wander to the start of the Iditarod trail and make our way down to the carnival a few blocks away, snow crunching beneath our feet. Walking aimlessly around now, it’s hard to see Anchorage the same way, and expanding, Alaska the same way.
One of the travelers I met on the road asked me why travel Alaska, when I’ve lived here all my life. Because while Alaska is my home, its familiarity is what makes traveling here even more unexpected, surprising, and different than traveling elsewhere. Home is home, but you never know everything about it even if you go out looking.
• Tasha Elizarde is a recent high school graduate living in Juneau. Contact her at Tasha.email@example.com.