We Alaskans

Stampede Road - Smelling north

Editors' note: We asked 14 of Alaska's best writers spread across the state — from Tenakee Springs to Dutch Harbor to Utqiagvik — to grapple with a question we all face in our lives: Why do I live where I live? This piece is part of that collection.

STAMPEDE ROAD, HEALY — After a summer in seasonal housing in Denali National Park, I moved out to Stampede Road for cheap rent and an old adopted sled dog. Over 12 years, one dry cabin led to another, and then, happily, to a place of our own. One old sled dog led to two, and then, sadly, none.

Dear friends have moved away, leaving behind snowmachines, dipnets, gaps in the neighborhood. So many reasons to leave: It's cold, remote. It's two hours to Fairbanks for groceries. Sometimes it's noisy: chainsaws, shotguns, 10 dog yards within 3 square miles. No bookstores, no art shows. Wind.

Yet also: Sky-sized clouds. Great horned owls staking out the aspen grove, reliable company. That black winter night nicked by stars, triggering its lonely wonder. Tundra prickly with Labrador tea, puddled with melting ice. Sandhill cranes so low I can see their belly feathers from my outhouse seat. Friends who help each other: walk a baby, stop drinking, roof a cabin, haul trash to the dump, buy three avocados in varying stages of ripeness so they'll last until the next town trip. So many reasons to stay.

I have lived in Talkeetna, Cordova, outside of Sutton and in pre-hip Spenard. Parts of each of those places I dearly loved. But here's the country that has claimed me. When I cross Broad Pass and tuck through the Nenana Canyon, when I point my nose west toward the Stampede taiga, I feel a loose unbuckled joy.

I smell north. I know home.

Christine Byl is a professional trail design and construction contractor at Interior Trails, and the author of "Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods."