I’ve traveled back east to my hometown in suburban Massachusetts twice this fall, which means I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the differences between my original versus chosen homes.
One of the most striking things is that even in Massachusetts, a state that emphasizes and specializes in world-renowned health care and facilities, the landscape of the town I come from is not set up to support getting outside. My hometown caters to cars.
It’s not that there isn’t natural beauty. There are beautiful lakes and ponds dotting the landscape, rolling hills and forests populated by much more diverse plant life than the few hardy species that survive in Alaska, and quaint winding roads and lanes that have evolved from long before pavement. Stone markers still exist, pointing the way to this or that city center with the etching deep inside the rock. Beautiful old colonial-style houses, with their flat exteriors and “circa 1800” signs, sit right on roads that were expanded from carriage roads to narrow two-lane streets.
Cars zip terrifyingly fast around every corner, navigating this landscape in a blur of needing to get from one place to another. Sidewalk, you say? What is a sidewalk? They start and end randomly. In some neighborhoods, sidewalks don’t exist at all.
I go back east, visit with the family and friends I love and miss, and reflect on what makes me happy in life. What I find there certainly ain’t it.
I’m not sure how to present this without sounding incredibly judgmental, so I’ll just go ahead: what I’ve noticed is that the orientation in my hometown leans generally toward consuming things for happiness, while Alaska trends more toward intrinsic and appreciative happiness. I do think one is better than the other, but only because I think Alaska’s general orientation provides more contentment. I also think that this level of contentment is directly related to what’s right outside our door and our individual and collective experience of being outside.
What exactly do I mean?
Well, in Alaska we take pride in and routinely make time to experience getting outside. It’s what all those reality TV shows have picked up on — the rugged outdoor fantasy (and in many cases, reality) where we get to confront who we are with unpredictable, wildly beautiful and unforgiving wilderness.
My version of getting outside is kind of your cliched spandex-wearing, health-and-fitness inspired, marathon-running version — I like all of those things that get my heart rate up, because I’m a bit of an endorphin junkie who has to balance my outdoor opportunities with a sedentary office job. I run, bike, hike, ski, etc.
But there are tons of other ways Alaskans routinely access the outdoors: hunting, gathering, four-wheeling, snowmachining, fishing, or even just walking the dog or taking the kids to the sledding hill. Look at what surrounds us! A simple sunset against the Chugach Mountains can fill us with awe, and it’s generally understood and supported that each of us needs to take the time to get in our fix and/or fill our freezers.
Then, I go back east, and notice that people are generally at the mall, the movies, the gym, or just at home. Even for those outside of my hometown — and there are a million other towns like it with better infrastructure supporting outdoor access — the general orientation is toward consuming. Buy this, eat this, subscribe here, achieve this. On the one hand, it makes for diversity and excellence in all things consumer-culture — restaurants, stores, gyms, coffee shops, delivery services. Alaska certainly doesn’t have this. But, on the other hand, it creates a rat race. The intrinsic drive is set up for comparison, competition and, yes, consumption.
I understand why someone making enough money in this setup would find themselves with some kind of addiction. It’s all in trying to bring in more in order to attain happiness. It’s not enough about just sitting with or being active in a world and landscape that’s bigger than us. There is a spiritual element that is altogether missing. It’s hard to feel small, awed or lost — in a good way — in a twisting man-made landscape with oases of department and chain stores.
I know people live great and fulfilled lives back east. Not everyone has to have this kind of connection to the outdoors in order to be happy in life. There are plenty of wild places to live near or head toward as a weekend warrior, and of course people find fulfillment in other ways, through family, friends, religion, politics, art or education.
I’m biased, but I think Alaskans generally have the opportunity to have it better. Our orientation toward what is outside of ourselves, and what is wild and challenging, gives us greater opportunities to be expansive in our lives. This is, at its heart, different from existing in a landscape that’s pretty much man-made and toward products and experiences that must be paid for.
I know, my life choices are showing. But I’m grateful every day for getting to live in this place that fills my life with awe, not stuff.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.