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Appeal of staying in Anchorage often trumps lure of leaving for wilderness

Alli Harvey
Bill Roth

Anchorage frequently tricks me into spending too much time here.

In my mind I’m always pursuing some kind of Alaskan wilderness adventure. However, in reality I’m frequently chained to my desk at work, or at home sprawled out on my bed, gazing at Instagram photos.

What’s more, my real-life daily excursions out into the wilds of Anchorage can feel like wilderness adventure enough. My joys and struggles follow the rhythm of the weather forecast.

On nice days, I will drive to a trail head only 20 minutes away and huff and puff my way up a beautiful mountain that overlooks the city. Or, I’ll run on our awesome trails. I will also ride my bike to work even when it is pouring rain, which it sometimes does for days, or weeks. When this happens, Anchoragites like me glower at the meanness and unfairness of summer.

Seduced into staying

However, the rain does stop, inevitably giving way to the most gorgeous day in Anchorage history (or at least in recent memory, since the bar was re-set so low by 100 days of gloom). My theory is that Anchorage knows when we, as a community, have reached a breaking point. At the last minute, we are sent flowers in the form of sunshine to make up for the bad behavior.

Yet, somehow, even though I know this routine, I am always seduced into staying. I stick by Anchorage even when it is not so nice to me; even when the water on the asphalt spits up off my bike tire to create a thick stripe down my back.

After all, the effort it takes to actually leave the city for a weekend is something just shy of gargantuan.

First I have to select a place I want to go and create an itinerary involving a departure and return time.

Then, I have to think about the logistics of getting there — take my car, or someone else’s? Where will I sleep? What about food? What will I need to bring? If I am coordinating with other people, like my family, I can multiply these logistics by 10 plus a headache.

I’m exhausted just thinking about planning all this fun away from my compact apartment that is close to Costco.

I never need to leave.

Or so I think.

Taming a tornado

Sometimes I think about the distance between the Lower 48 and Alaska. I ponder the hours of flying it takes to even reach Seattle. There is a lot of distance between Anchorage and the rest of the world; a lot of ... vastness. What is out there? What does it look and sound like?

It looks and sounds a lot like what we can access from Anchorage. The trick is, it takes leaving Anchorage.

I got my act together last week to pack up and head north one night after work. Packing up sounds easy here, like assembling pre-measured ingredients from stainless steel bowls the way they do in cooking shows. In reality it’s more like trapping and taming a tornado of food, clothing, and gear in the back of the truck.

But once the truck was packed, the tunes were set, and I had made it through Wasilla, the daylight started lasting longer. It was 11 p.m. and I could see Denali, and those long, limitless miles stretching out on either side of the highway. The sun illuminated trees with low, warm light.

The next day, I made it into the park and had an even more pronounced sense that I was out of my element, in a way both exciting and reassuring. I like that feeling of being proven tiny and insignificant by a landscape, and Denali gave me a shortcut. In Denali National Park itself, on either side of the park road is wilderness. This is outrageous, if you think about it — to step out of your car, walk a few feet, and be in a nationally designated wilderness that looks and feels wild and remote. It feels wild because it is: Denali’s wilderness area alone is bigger than the state of Massachusetts. This is not something you get in the Lower 48 — wilderness is typically, by nature, more remote. You get it if you work for it. This is also not something you get in Anchorage, even on the most remote corner of the Chester Creek Trail.

I didn’t stay long, but I wanted to. I wasn’t sad to come back to Anchorage, exactly, but the weekend had to end because I have a life to tend to — a life involving desks, quick out-and-back hikes after work, and some rainy bike commutes.

Anchorage is an awesome city, with great trails and proximity to rugged remoteness, if you’re willing to work a bit for it. It also offers all the creature comforts of suburbia, like convenient parking and two Olive Gardens. I won’t go as far as to parrot the “20 minutes from Alaska” saying, because I think the best parts of Anchorage are the uniquely Alaskan parts (the cottonwood smell on the trail, the wildlife, the people). However, Anchorage is only a tiny blip on the map that is our entire state, and I need to force myself out more often so I can get out there and explore. Even when it means dealing with logistics.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.