There’s nothing quite like having guests from out of town stay for a weekend to make me realize how not-normal my life is.
I think about the past weekend in clips.
There’s a big group of us — guests and Alaska friends — clattering down to the frozen blue-green lake in 7-degree temperatures, sitting down and tugging on skates.
There’s gazing at ominous deep gray clouds building behind a snowy peak at Hatcher Pass, the mountain popping against the grey in an unbelievable bright white.
And the burning feeling in my calves as I’m reminded I’m very far out of hiking shape as I head up Lazy Mountain in a snowstorm. Sledding down, I drench myself in snow spray, shriek, try not to bowl over my friends and forget all about the hike up.
By the end of the weekend, I am bruised, deeply tired and very satisfied that this weekend is just a routine part of life.
Contrast this with my upbringing in the suburbs of Massachusetts. Weekends were about going to the mall or the movies. I’m sure that routine would have become more sophisticated if I’d stayed. Maybe I would have gone to new restaurants and shows, or gone out of town for a long weekend.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m as much of a fan of cities as anyone else, and plenty of people choose to live where there is a concentration of human-powered activity and entertainment, not to mention the access afforded in the Lower 48.
But Alaska’s culture is different, varied, and frequently can’t be bought and consumed. It takes place over card games, in community centers, at dinner tables, in churches and, yes, on trails, ice skates and my butt while shrieking down a hill in the snow with my friends.
It’s not that the weekend activities themselves were really different than our norm, although we crammed more of them in than usual so our guests could see and experience more. But everything we did was made better because we got to experience it through the eyes of visitors.
Seeing them get excited helped me remember that the kind of access to wildness and outdoor experiences we have as Alaskans is not normal. The views we have here are extraordinary in and of themselves, and we get to pay those views a visit by hiking up into the mountains.
It helps to have guests that are game. It’s also critical for them to know what they like and where the limits are. Alaska pushes and pushes and pushes. A visitor one time exclaimed, frustrated, “Alaska takes normal fun things and makes them extreme!”
That’s true. Lazy Mountain lies in its name (the original Lazy Mountain trail is a straight shot uphill — who needs switchbacks?). Lake ice can feel treacherously bumpy and uneven, even on good skates. Studded bike tires aren’t completely fool proof; neither are Microspikes. One of our guests opted to hang out and enjoy a hot bath with a view of the snow one on of the mornings. To me, that’s a pretty great way to take things in without pushing past fun.
The phrase “quality of life” is a sterile way of talking about the cumulative experience of getting to feel joy and connection on a regular basis. At its best, this is what Alaska offers. It’s hard to beat those day-to-day activities that feel routine, yet are anything but. I’m grateful for the visitors to help me reconnect with my sense of awe in what is seemingly normal life in the great north.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.