There is no place I’d rather be during the summer than Alaska. If family and friends want to see us, they’ll just have to come north.
And come they have. We currently have nine relatives from my husband’s side of the family staying with us, including five cousins for my two daughters to play with. Some of them, like my father- and brother-in-law, lived here for many years before heading south to Florida and North Carolina. For my 16-year-old and 9-year-old nephews, however, this is their very first visit to Alaska.
No matter where we live, many of us find that when visitors arrive, we discover all the local places and activities we ignore because they’re just down the road, too close for notice. I’ve walked on glaciers I never paid any attention to, gone to musk ox and reindeer farms I had never stopped by, and driven to parks I never gave any thought to, all because we had relatives in town.
But this time, my house guests have reawakened my senses to some of Alaska’s most basic elements.
“The air,” said my 16-year-old nephew. When he first arrived, his mother (who grew up here) said to him on Facebook, “Just smell that air …”
Air? It doesn’t get more basic than that, but as I stood on my back porch and breathed in deeply, I thought I could almost smell what they do — a cleanness, a hint of birch boughs and spruce trees and mountain rock and snow melt, dry, clean, good air. If air could sparkle, this air would.
It got me thinking. So I asked my 9-year-old nephew what he liked about Alaska so far.
“It’s cold, and there are mountains everywhere.”
Cold? We’d had a regular heat wave, highs close to 75 degrees that day. But compared to Florida’s near 100-degree temperatures, I suppose it does feel colder. And at night it drops to the 50s or lower, and all the time there is a kind of crispness beneath the warmth, the glaciers and mountaintop snow fields always blowing a cool breeze against your skin.
Then I asked my mother-in-law what she notices when she visits.
“The silence. It’s so quiet, especially when you’re out on the river.”
So I listened, and I heard the silence. We can go hours at our house without hearing a single vehicle or airplane. Sometimes the silence has unnerved our visitors. They have trouble sleeping when it is so quiet. But Pam said she found it restful and serene, and I agreed.
As we talked, though, we started talking about bigger things, like culture and attitude. She said she appreciates the way people feel like they can be themselves up here, they can dress the way they want to dress, and don’t seem to be as consumed with technology and materialism.
Then my father-in-law offered his view, which is unique, too. Jim grew up in Florida, then raised a family here in Alaska for 30 or so years, and then moved back to Florida. His visits north are a kind of homecoming. When he first came, he came for the wilderness, he said. And then he grew to love the people. With Alaska’s small population, a person can feel immediately a part of things. But now, these years later, he says once again it’s the wild that draws him.
So now as I drive along the highway, I am noticing all of this — the quiet, the gray-blue mountains, the crisp air, the great swaths of wilderness and the sense that I could step out of my vehicle and immediately be swallowed by that wilderness.
Once again I am grateful to be here, at home, in Alaska.