The first thing that happened in Alaska was that we lost our sense of time. There were three of us at that point. George and I had picked up our friend, Guy, in Whitehorse, in the Yukon, where he’d flown up from Vancouver. We drove to Destruction Bay the same day, staying the night on a large, windswept gravel field owned by a character named Loren, who informed us, apropos of various plumbing challenges he runs into, that we were standing two feet above permafrost, which then went down another 65 feet. The next day, after driving through the sublime Yukon landscape, we entered the sublime Alaskan landscape, and drove toward Valdez, on the southern coast, staying a night in Gakana on the way.
By the time we’d spent one of our two nights in Valdez, we all realized that we not only couldn’t figure out what day it was, but it seemed we’d been traveling for weeks. Occasionally, when I’ve driven long distances over a relatively short time, I need to get reoriented to time. And, over the course of our adventures, my relationship to time has changed. After a life governed by calendars, clocks, appointments, I stopped wearing a watch at some point. It often takes me a second to figure out what day of the week it is. But this was different, and has lasted the whole time we’ve been here, as if a spell was cast somewhere along the Yukon highway, or as we crossed the Alaskan border. If I really think about it, and check my phone for the day and date, I realize we’ve been here three weeks, but without that effort, it feels like we’ve been in Alaska for ages.
In stories, it’s usually the witch or the evil magus, not the good fairy, that casts the spell that makes you lose your sense of time, your memory of the past, an interesting way to look at the importance we place on both. And not just in our busy, technological present. Ageless oral traditions speak to the fear that peoples who forget their history and their stories lose their sense of who they are. But for individuals, it’s often a relief to leave the deafening clatter of the past behind, and it’s the good fairy that places us in the expansive present.
I haven’t figured out what accounts for this sense of timelessness, but it may be part of what makes people unwilling to leave Alaska once they get here. There are lots of stories that start with “I came for …. and never left.” There’s a ‘here-ness’ to Alaska, a sense of its remoteness from so much else, of its being its own place, apart from all other places, apart from other times. I can see how appealing this would be, how you would want to live with this sense of not only being far away from everything, but out of the common understanding of time, in the endless summer days, the long silver twilight of winter, in all this vastness.
And surrounded by unbelievable natural beauty, literally everywhere. The towns and cities aren’t beautiful, but they are all set in great beauty, and driving along the roads is awe-inspiring, in sunshine or rain, which is good, because there’s a lot of rain. There are not, however, a lot of roads. There’s a loop of two-lane highways linking Fairbanks, Denali National Park, Tok, and Anchorage. From that loop roads split off south to Valdez, Seward, and Homer at different points on the coast. Two roads lead in and out of the state. There’s a rough road up to the Arctic Ocean because of the pipeline. Communities have local roads. That’s it. A total of 32,000 ‘lane miles’ in a state of 663,300 square miles. In contrast, New York has 242,400 lane miles in a state of 54,500 square miles.
So, everywhere you look you know that the beauty you see goes on and on beyond your vision, mountain after mountain, waterfalls cascading down their sides, enormous ice shields spilling glaciers over their tops, valleys of meadows and bogs, vast stretches of green forest reaching to the next mountain, the next glacier. The constant presence of shimmering water, in bodies large and small. Vivid magenta fireweed lighting up the landscape. Yesterday is already rapidly receding. Last month is gone. Your whole history is somewhere way off in the distance.