High Clouds in Chatham Straits, calm seas. On board the State ferry Taku, Jan and my favorite form of transportation. We have traveled on it so many times the Purser asks me for 500 words of my next book before he will give me a key to a stateroom, and Mary, the bartender will embrace us on the street if she sees us. If I were an eccentric billionaire I would travel by no other means than horse, ship and train. I would never leave the surface of the earth.
I will save my love of terrestrial travel, specifically the Taku for another entry. I’m returning home, the round about way from Fairbanks.
I volunteer as a board member for the University of Alaska Press and we meet once a year, always in Fairbanks where the press is headquartered. Fairbanks can give a lot of impressions to a casual visitor. I first visited there in the eighties in the wintertime working on a case. In the nineties we lived there for a year when Jan was going to graduate school. Just dropping in and working cases, I had no ties to the University community or to any real functional community. I went into my first crack house in Fairbanks: broken pipes, a barely functioning electric heater, no furniture, people laid out on the floor in blankets, I remember the large burn marks on the rugs. I had a subpoena to deliver. I dropped it on a heap of blankets with a person underneath and left. Ice fog: the frozen exhaust of cars hanging in the lowest parts of town. I remember a stabbing of a homeless man on 4th Avenue in front of a bar, and how the blood spatter lay like ribbon dry on the sidewalk in the photographs taken in the sub zero cold. I remember driving my rental and spilling my notes and making the rookie mistake of putting the keys in my mouth before bending down and picking them up and the pain of them sticking to my skin.
But when we lived there we saw the side of a community life. We had a toddler and everyone offered help with whatever we needed. When going to parties if Jan was carrying the baby more than a block in the winter a stranger would stop and ask if she needed a ride. This is a place where people look out for one another.
Then there is the extraordinary beauty. I’m sixty one years old and it keeps knocking me out. I love southeastern, but I do feel claustrophobic at times: crowded in by mountains, and clouds, rainfall like a curtain pulled in front of the seascape for weeks on end. Walking out of a building on the ridge of the University of Alaska this weekend I had that sensation akin to that first time I walked through the tunnel in Yankee stadium and out into the field and felt the exhilaration of space… but expanded to the dimensions of the planet. Great battle cruiser clouds casting shadows on the flat plane of the earth, meandering rivers, and a distant horizon that seemed to hold layers of clouds and weather to come. Then there are the subtleties of birch trees and the black pine, and the rolling hills that appear to welcome you to walk or ski upon their backs, as opposed to our mountains that stand like jagged challenges.
The Institution of the University in Fairbanks is also remarkable. Not enough is said about what a gathering of great minds and generous souls are gathered in all the campuses of the UA system. Sure. I know. We can complain. But when we complain mostly we complain because we want more of it. We want more and we want it now. Every time I walk into the University and visit with the people there I learn something, from the other people on the Press board, from the staff. from the friends I know in the community. There is a wind that blows in popular culture that is afraid of the University community, thinking that it is “elite” and somehow “against the populous” . This could not be further from the truth…. and I’m saying this as a writer who did not come from a writing program. The University is a place where “the populous” comes to find and take joy in exploring the deeper complexities of the truth. And in the case of Fairbanks: take saunas and watch their body hair freeze, river raft in the summer, watch incredible aurora, while gliding along on skis. discover remarkable painters of birch trees, and poets of the rolling hills, delve into the actual data of global warming, witness a rocket launch, and now be a part of remarkable northern press that publishes valuable northern science and literature.
When I arrived in Fairbanks on this trip it was almost one in the morning. I got a cab ride from a man who had been born in Trinidad. He was dark skinned black and his accent was lilting and musical. His cab was a late model pick up truck and I sat in the front seat. I talked a bit about Sitka and I asked him when he arrived in Fairbanks, and he said fourteen years ago. He said he never intended to stay but.. “you know, how it goes, sometimes things, they just happen that way.”
“Yes,” I said, “I do know,” and we drove toward the hotel where I would spend two nights. We drove through the huge black subarctic night, with the thin, pointy trees jabbing up at the stars. I asked the driver questions just so I could hear his lovely voice as we drove onward chasing the cones of light his headlights threw and I wished we could have driven on, through the snow and the night, straight on to the morning when the top of the world would begin to shine.
One fat Merganser
flapping hard from wave to wave
finally finds the air.