A non-native Alaskan’s take on the eternal winter

Photo by Adam Chang on Unsplash

Every year at about this time in January, I am struck by the thought that it may never stop snowing. Even though winter solstice has happened, and I am supposed to be feeling the hope of light over dark, it seems as though the winter has painted so many layers on the land that green is nothing but a distant memory. It is during this time that I start entertaining apocalyptic fantasies. Every time I trek to the mailbox for some lousy bit of junk mail (maybe my Amazon box will come today!) dressed in twenty layers of clothing and still freezing, I think to myself, why do I live in this God forsaken country? Also, I think, If the Apocalypse happened right now, I would be dead within the hour. I am simply no match for this thick, oppressive ice, gravel, and darkness.

Then summer comes. And it is a freaking miracle. Everything about it feels special. It is a three-point shot in the last 3 seconds of the game when you’re down by two. It’s not just the sunlight — it’s the fact that the sun and the green seemed impossible two months before. That’s why summer in Alaska is so magical. Eternal daylight is cool and all, but the fact that summer has come at all is an outright victory. I walk around all summer feeling invincible. Like literally anything could happen. Because it did. The impossible night ended, the thick ice thawed, and all the dirt that made the roads passable was washed away. It is the miracle of birth and I am in awe every time.

I moved here from the tropics. Every day in the South Pacific, the sun sets and rises at roughly the same time. I knew exactly what to expect all the time. In some ways, it was awesome. I lived there for three years and owned exactly one pair of jeans. Also — all my shoes were open toed. My bedroom was like a sub-zero fridge, and I luxuriated in it. I loved it there, but it didn’t begin that way. I remember feeling oppressed by the heaviness of the air when I first arrived. I thought to myself, no wonder everyone moves so slowly here — the air itself is weighted and tired. I longed for the fresh feel of cold air, the energy of mountainous regions. I’m pretty sure this falls under the category of “the grass is always greener.” I adjusted, though, because even though the air was heavy, the Island was roughly what I was expecting it to be. The people were friendly and inviting, and there was always a lot to do and see.

On the other hand, Alaska was not what I expected at all. Like so many others, I thought of Alaska the way one may think of a mythical beast. I expected majesty, like jaw-dropping awe. What happened is that I showed up here in May and it was still rainy and cold. All of the gravel on the roads made it feel dirty and unkempt. It was light out all the time and I lost my bearings, sending my internal every day is the same clock into a mad frenzy that basically left me sobbing to my fiance that I was just not cut out to be an Alaskan.

Yet here I am. Divorced and living in Alaska. Yeah, life is funny like that.

I have been here now for eight years, and this is the truth I have discovered about this place: It is beautiful and ugly. Hopeless and miraculous. It is an absolute dichotomy that keeps me on my toes all the time. There is majesty here, but it is the kind that is reminiscent of that one relative everyone either loves or hates. If you like frank, out-spoken people, you will love aunt Karen. She will amaze and inspire you. If not, maybe stay clear. Alaska’s majesty is somewhat lost on me. I am not outdoorsy. I have no interest in hunting, fishing, or unexpected bear sightings. However, some of its more subtle majesties have had a profound effect on me:

  1. Sometimes time stands still. There are moments here when the changing light of twilight that in other places disappears in a moment is held for hours. It bathes everything in this kind of beautiful glow. I am always aware that the light is not supposed to last — that most people don’t have the opportunity to hold it as I do. It’s a little gift from a harsh land, and it reminds me to appreciate the way that life can create magic in unexpected places.
  2. When there is light, that’s your cue to move. The first thing I was told when I asked anyone here about dealing with the darkness, was to take advantage of the light. Open my blinds, go outside if possible. Look at the sky. The light here is fleeting — sometimes only lasting a few hours. It is easy to ignore those windows of opportunity. To shut yourself inside by the fireplace and feel the weight of the desire to hibernate. However, and I know this from experience, when you fail to take advantage of the little light that is available, it is very difficult to maintain hope for the winter to end. I try to recognize the light in my life now and despite my desire to hunker down and wait out the darkness, I let it in. Because even though I know the winter solstice marks the beginning of the end, it does little to bolster my hopes without the physical, visceral effort it requires to stand in the sunshine while I still feel chilled to the bone.
  3. Summer is the eighth wonder. After a long winter, it is as though Alaskans never sleep. I see people bicycling downtown at 9 p.m. completely oblivious to what time it is. Who cares? It feels like 3 o’clock! There is a certain kind of gluttony about summer that I find interesting. I have friends who literally will not clean their houses during the summer because summer is for being outside. Period. As I said, I am not super outdoorsy (or at all) but I can appreciate the sentiment that when there is an opportunity to play, one should absolutely play. In fact, they should play with wild abandon.

I don’t know if I will always live in Alaska. It is where my babies are. It’s where my friends, career, and life are for now. But I am not sure it is the place I would choose to be if I had my say. Despite this, I can honestly say that I have grown to love it for what it has given me. With all I have learned from it, perhaps the most valuable lesson is that gratitude and joy are muscles that must be exercised, and even in the darkest of nights, where the ice and snow claim the landscape with a violent sense of finality, one can find something worth a little wonder.

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