I was running a well-worn route in my neighborhood recently when I experienced a sudden, ballooning sense of wistfulness and gratitude. No, it was not anticipation of the end of the run (which concludes on an uphill, because of course). It happened when I saw the familiar blue Alaska flag fluttering in the trees in front of someone’s home. Juneau was the first thing to come to mind.
Juneau is the first place I ever visited in Alaska. On the edge of leaving the state for an undetermined period of time as I am, I’m reflecting on what it means to have filled so much of my life with this place and what I will carry forward.
Spoiler: I may leave Alaska, but Alaska will never leave me. I’ve left the state for periods before and learned and relearned this. Notice that I’m not saying, “We’re leaving the state for good.” I’m pretty sure that’s just not how life works, and it’s certainly not how this brutal and gorgeous place does.
Juneau was the very first place in Alaska I visited. I was a wide-eyed, blank slate of a teenager donning a backpack and when I landed, everything felt new and thrilling.
The airport was unimaginably tiny, coming from Boston’s Logan International. Could an airport be this small? How was that baggage claim? How did outside pickup resemble a curb at a local (small) middle school?
The air outside was crisp and piercingly fresh. I landed on a gloriously rare bluebird late summer Juneau morning. I breathed in, and to my East Coast self it felt like the essence of what I love most about fall: the absolute clarity of it filled my lungs and my heart.
There was that flag; deep blue, with the dipper, fluttering insistently against the sky. I pinched myself. Was I really in Alaska? The flag and the extreme shift in my environment from humid deep-summer East Coast to brisk and cool saltwater breezes carrying the promise and vague threat of glaciers seemed to confirm it.
The views driving from the airport were the most casually spectacular thing I’d ever witnessed. Really. How were tiny, distant rivulet waterfalls like that even possible; threaded and faintly shimmering down the precipitous sides of looming mountains? How was the Gastineau Channel that color of ethereal green? I’d never seen anything like it. I openly gawked.
My cousin Becca and her husband John were my hosts.
Here’s how it works in families: one generation influences/advises the next, and at some point it all melds together. Becca had grown up with my stepmom Janet as her confidante and adult adviser (Janet was famously not shy about dispensing advice, which was always excellent even when it was maddening); in turn I looked up to Becca and John.
Becca and John were casual about what seemed to me a mind-blowing level of outdoorsiness. They eagerly shared what they loved about Alaska, offhandedly referencing strapping on backpacks after work on a weekday and walking until they hit ice. The “walking” they were referencing was, of course, hiking. But the way they put it, “walking” was a spirited, childlike feeling of being outside that was totally different from much of the gym-culture-exercise-as-punishment I was used to back east. They walked for the experience of awe, and I shared that awe by proxy. A life in which one simply decided to go for a world-class hike under midnight sun until a glacial ice field forced you to turn around? A life where one maintained a level of fitness that afforded adventure whenever you felt like it? This was a viable possibility for adulthood?!
John’s friend swung by the house one weekend morning as the trademark Southeast rain steadily poured from the sky in gentle yet persistent sideways sheets. I watched that gloomy rain from the warm, brightly lit coziness of their home and shivered thinking about the fact that John and his friend were going for a run. On a trail. For fun. Yet, again — I had that new and slightly nagging sense of curiosity and, what was that — kinship? What would my life feel like if I also pushed myself to do hard things in the spirit of fun? Could I, too, have friendships where the shared activity was something as seemingly impossible as trail running? They arrived back from their run dripping, muddy, and all smiles.
I pondered this, trying to absorb it. I was fascinated, disoriented, and increasingly, profoundly inspired.
Alaska. The amazing, varied and often brutally wild environment has, quite literally, worked its way under my skin over years of tentative, sometimes reckless, but consistent exposure. I have worked myself up to and into deeper outdoor experiences of this place, and in turn Alaska has gifted me an orientation to myself and the world at large that is now so deeply embedded in who I am that I don’t exactly know where one begins and the other ends.
The generosity afforded me by the Beccas and Johns — my mentors, peers, friends, coaches, acquaintances, full strangers reading this column, sometimes even writing me heartfelt messages — who are equally and inextricably interwoven with Alaska, has inspired me to keep going. There is always more to learn, in Alaska and life. I am continually humbled by the fortitude and perspective of those of us who actively and continually choose to live here.
It has been profound for me to have a venue through which to share my overflowing sense of this place for 10 full years, roughly three times a month. There is always so much more to say and share, but for now I’m shifting to a chapter that brings me down south and this particular stint of writing is coming to an end. When will I be back? I don’t know: the joke between my husband and I is, do you think it’ll be six months or a year before we look at each other and say … you know what I miss?
But I will. In some ways, I already do — that’s what I felt when I saw the flag through the trees.
Editor’s note: Alli Harvey has been writing a regular outdoors column for ADN since 2013. This is her final column.