Letters from an Alaskan exile

Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2009

Lately I feel like a displaced person, like a refugee forced to flee his war torn homeland to live in some strange new environment. It all started about a year ago when I boarded the ferry boat Columbia in Juneau bound for Bellingham. After being an Alaska resident, born and raised for over thirty years, it was a somber affair, but I swallowed hard and tried to enjoy the scenery as the land I knew and loved scrolled by outside the rain drizzled windows of the ship.

In Bellingham I drove my car off the ramp and thought to myself "this isn't so bad." The streets were narrow, it was raining, and there were only a hand full of street lights. Then I got on the freeway. By the time I made it to my rental in Portland, Ore., the optimist inside had turned on me and we were no longer on speaking terms. Days, weeks and months went by. Each person I met asked me where I was from. When they heard Alaska they always got big eyes and asked me a million more questions in rapid fire secession.

"How did you like Alaska? What did you think of the weather? Where did you live there? What do you think of Sara Palin? Do you like Portland?" It was always the last question that caused the most discomfort. I have never been much for confrontation, and I've always been told I have a way with people. I'm a natural conversationist, I know how to talk to people, to chit chat, and I make friends easily. That's why I found that question so hard. How do you tell people in a friendly way "No. I don't like your town, I don't like your State, and I really don't like it here."

Lately I have been meeting people from Alaska. There's a surprising number of them, I call them Expatriates. They are hard to spot, you don't know them until you strike up a conversation, but a lot of Alaskan's leave to live in the Pacific Northwest - wanting to leave Alaska's harsh winters but not daring to stray too far south. The conversation lasts longer when you talk to a fellow Alaskan, and they always get the same wide eyed expression, the look of longing. Their eyes glaze over a bit, like they are searching their minds eye for that last image of the landscape. The conversation always ends with a shrug of the shoulders and a quiet sigh of defeat.

Last week I sat in my lawn chair in my back yard and listened to the sounds of cars buzzing by on the street near my house. The temperature was over one hundred degrees. I survived on cold Alaskan Amber - an imported beer here - and grilled shrimp that I am pretty sure I could have cooked right on the concrete if I was so inclined. A recent conversation with my close friend, a fellow Ex-pat from Anchorage, had my mind meandering through all the things I loved about Juneau.

My imagination took me to the parking lot of Bullwinkles Pizza where I trudged through the January slush, inside to enjoy a zesty slice of pizza and a cold half pitcher of ale on tap, the game playing in the background and kids screaming around the video arcade. Then I was taken to an early morning trip to Deharts, where I filled up my arms with mountain dew and bags of Sea Salt and Vinegar chips for my early morning departure by boat bound for deer hunting on Admiralty Island. Sucking in the salt laden air, breathing in the morning dew, that great mix of ocean and petroleum as I fired up the boat and headed out of Auke Bay past Spuhn Island and out into the passage.

Lastly I thought of one of my favorite pastimes. Sitting with a friend downtown, watching the throngs of summer tourists spilling off the ships heading for trinket shops and historic sites. Cameras in hand, clear plastic emergency rain coats thrown over them, arms hanging with shopping bags they set out on the adventure of a life time. We would people watch, drink a coffee, note the flow of traffic, the building frustration of the drivers down town as they honk cautionless photographers out of the street in front of them.

We always knew that in a few more months the vibrancy of the down town area would die back down, the shops would close for the winter, and the throngs of tourists and summer time Alaskan's would get back on their boats heading south. We knew they were taking their experiences and stories, photographs and tales back with them. We imagined that they would go home and tell there loved ones all about the Great Land, tell them about the eagles and the bears, the glaciers and the fjords, the salmon and the whales, and the breath taking sunsets. We always imagined they would use phrases like "Magnificent, awesome, incredible." We also figured that at least some of them would say "What a great place to visit."

The more I look back on my life in Alaska, the more I know. Alaska is not just a great place to visit, it's a great place to live!

Wayne Mitchell

Portland, Ore.

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