On tour for his new book, "Looking for Alaska," author Peter Jenkins said he feels like "a one-man promotion crew" for the Last Frontier.
Again and again he finds himself in the role of apologist, confronting stereotypes of the "they all live in igloos" sort, he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Tennessee. "The other day I was in Cleveland on a morning drive-time radio show, a Howard Stern, thrash and trash type, and one of the co-hosts goes, 'I would never want to go to Alaska; it's just too cold up there.' "
"I said, 'What in hell are you living in Cleveland for, where it's damp and gray and cold?' " Jenkins said.
I was pleasantly surprised by Alaskans' apparent disregard for what anybody thinks about them.
-- Peter Jenkins,
author of "Looking for Alaska"
Jenkins, best-known to date for his 1979 memoir "A Walk Across America," will appear in Juneau in the coming week. Today, at 3 p.m., he will give a slide show, reading and book signing at the Empire. His book tour also will take him to Anchorage, Fairbanks, Homer, Seward and Ketchikan. On Dec. 11, he'll be interviewed by Steve Heimel of Anchorage for his "Talk of Alaska" radio show, broadcast live in Juneau from 10-11 a.m. on KTOO, 104.3 FM.
"And I am doing about 25 other cities 'Outside,' as my friends in Seward would say," Jenkins noted.
Anticipating that readers will compare "Looking for Alaska" with John McPhee's "Coming into the Country," Jenkins complimented the competition with a qualifier. "I thought John McPhee did a wonderful book, but he went to only a few places."
Jenkins settled down in Seward for 18 months and used it as a base to travel around Alaska, meeting people and soaking up experiences. "I had nothing planned," he said. His daughter Rebekah, 19, contributed several pieces to the book, a sharing which he called "passing the baton."
"I was pleasantly surprised by Alaskans' apparent disregard for what anybody thinks about them," Jenkins said. "They don't care who you are whether you're (Gov.) Tony Knowles or the garbage collector," he said.
"Everything about Alaska surprised me," Jenkins said. For example, he went whaling with Oliver Levitt in Barrow and was impressed with Eskimos who split their lifestyles between waiting on pack ice for whales and running large, sophisticated corporations.
He had never heard of musher Jeff King before. "I have done a lot of things, but you don't realize what mushing is all about until you go 100 miles pulled by dogs," he said. "Most sports, like basketball, are in a nice warm building with a shiny floor. When you see the kind of country mushers are crossing and the unknowns like overflow and the complete unpredictability of it all, you can't help but be impressed.
"I was not prepared for any of it whether it was going up the Haul Road to stay with a family or living in Seward and being able to see and experience for months on end the life in Resurrection Bay," Jenkins said. "I would often go out with fishermen and ride around. Some of them are the most irreverent people I have ever met. But when there was gold fog on the water and a humpback whale, they would say, 'This is our church.' "
"Looking for Alaska" was the No. 1 seller in the travel category on Amazon.com as of Nov. 30, Jenkins said, displacing a book about Afghanistan. "I think people are tired of that crisis in the Middle East, although the national media is beating it to death."
With his book doing so well, Jenkins recalls the irony of his publisher, St. Martin's, going in to Barnes and Noble to market it, and being told it was "just a regional book that would sell only around Alaska."
"They have already sold out and had to re-order," Jenkins said, "and it's only been out about three weeks."
Jenkins is glad to be returning. "I feel a little funny trying to speak to Alaskans about Alaska, but I did want to come back because I have some of my dearest all-time friends there now," he said. "Without being corny, I want to say I love the place."
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.