Peter sat on his barstool, gazing toward the back wall of the Salty Dog. There was a thought on the tip of his tongue, but he needed one more sip of beer to push the words out. The pause gave me a chance to look around. The Salty Dog, or “The Dog” as everyone called it, is one of those bars that people travel hours to visit. It’s a local institution and one of the few establishments out on The Homer Spit that stays open all year. It’s the perfect dive bar. Quiet, dark, and boasting an incredible jukebox selection. They may not have the drink you want at The Dog, but they’ll have the one you need.
The inside of The Dog is covered floor to ceiling with signed dollar bills — tourists who road tripped up from Arkansas, St. Louis Rams lineman, visiting nurses and flight attendants, and locals. They’ve all left their mark; almost everyone does. Everyone except Peter, who’d finished sipping his beer and broke his stare to concentrate on setting his bottle down on the thick epoxy-resin bar top. He looked up at me and began in a thick Louisiana drawl:
“Well, I feel like Alaska is my home. I’m connected to this place.”
This sort of, but not really, answered my question of “How do you feel when you go back home?” Peter, like so many people in rural Alaska, splits time between this salty little fishing town and somewhere else. In his case, that somewhere is New Orleans. To get the answer we both knew I was looking for, I played along and reworded the question, “All right, but how do you feel when you get back to Louisiana?”
This time no sip of beer was needed.”I get culture shock going back south.” Peter seemed to surprised himself with that answer. “There’s a lot of stop lights and people…unnecessary shit. Hell, every corner has a car wash…you don’t need 12 car washes.”
Truer words have seldom been spoken.
Walking back to our campsite in as straight of a line as my dive-bar-fuzzed brain would allow, it was hard not to agree with that wise old man sitting at The Dog. He wasn’t just right about his car wash theory, he was right about Alaska.
“I’m not always ready to come up to this place,” he said. “But driving into town I’m always infinitely grateful that I do.”
My girlfriend Jenelle and I had only been in town a few weeks but we also felt “connected to this place.” Though the trip didn’t start that way.
Arriving in Alaska, Jenelle and I felt restless. We were excited to be disconnected, exploring the frontier, but fully appreciating that this sort of change is easier said than done. Especially while the world seemed to be burning, literally and figuratively, all around us. Forrest fires raged in the Alaskan wilderness forcing a reworked itinerary, while in the lower-48, BLM, Trump, and Zika were grabbing massive headlines. At first, it was hard to strike a balance between our Alaskan disappearing act and our regular lives as ever-connected millennials. Each buzz of our phones felt like a tether to the real world.
Headlines, text messages, news-threads, updates, emails, Instagram, buzz, chirp, BUZZ, BUZZ.
We were attempting to have a wholly unique adventure while reminders of everything familiar swirled around us like the massive Alaskan mosquitos. This went on for a few days, until, driving to Denali, Jenelle turned off the RNC radio broadcast and mused, “Are we here to escape the world, or to go and find it?”
It was the sort of deep-thought-on-a-road-trip that kickstarts silent contemplation. Though it didn’t take many miles for me realize that, like so many others before us, we actually needed to disconnect in order to embrace Alaska. Dancing the line between online and off-the-grid was only holding us back. Plus it was exhausting. We buried our phones in our backpacks.
And so Denali became our stepping off point where the trip began in full. We kept our comments to ourselves (rather than sending snarky texts back home) when a group of tourists, after rafting class five rapids in 40-degree-water, explained how they felt Alaska was the “safe alternative” to going overseas. (This became even more ironic as another tourist was saved from their own unpreparedness, only days later.)
Leaving Denali in the rearview, we headed to McCarthy — part of the greater Wrangle-St. Elias National Park. It’s a town 60.6 miles down a dirt road and every inch of that distance from modern amenities. An isolated, Alaskan, Shangri-la. A place that offered freedom to roam and explore while grounding us in the realities of our long-craved solitude. Meaning: It’s easier to go off the grid when the grid is completely unavailable.
Over a cup of coffee in McCarthy, we talked with Jim — who built his cabin in the woods of Wrangle-St.Elias almost 31 years ago. “I tried that whole marriage thing once,” he said with the hint of a smirk, as he warmed to our questions, “We married and built the cabin together, in November we moved in and for six months we shared the one room of that cabin…with the spring thaw we went our separate ways. Haven’t heard from her since.”
Jim seemed to be rather happy about this development. “She didn’t stay because of me, but this place certainly didn’t help. It’s cozy, comfortable, relaxed and, fortunately, not for everyone.”
While we sipped our coffees, Jim explained that if you go to the Alaskan bush for ease, you’re probably doing it wrong, “If you don’t want to be warm, don’t get firewood. If you don’t get thirsty, don’t get water.” His smile broadened as he spoke. “Procrastination is optional and if you want modern amenities, you need to remember pumps, pipes, panels, that all takes effort to maintain. People move up here to escape the city lifestyle but they end up bringing the city with them. You don’t come up here to perpetuate effort. By virtue of living in Alaska…there’s plenty to do.”
Before we said our farewells and set off to camp in the woods, I had to ask, “Do you have a phone?” His weathered hands gripped each other and his soft eyes gleamed, “I do own a phone but the best part of owning it is turning it off.”
Our time in McCarthy was valuable, but we’d wanted to hit the National Parks trifecta, so we had to move on. We left our glacier-side campsite, hiked back to civilization, and drove from McCarthy toward the Kenai Fjords. The cellular, connected-world wouldn’t stand a chance as we disappeared on glacier tours and humpback spotting adventures.
Touring the Fjords, we witnessed first hand the harsh realities of global warming on this hyper sensitive climate. The void created by our self-imposed digital deprivation was replaced with more pressing matters — melting glaciers, disappearing fish, and migratory birds refusing to migrate. These problems that we’d only seen on paper for so long were suddenly present and unavoidable.
With that heaping dose of reality behind us, we ventured to Homer — a seasonal fishing town on the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula. We’d planned to hike a bit in Homer, and to kayak if the weather let up, but really, we were there to wrap up our National Park tour. To decompress fully before re-entering the world we’d fought so hard to escape. We set up and, as the bouts of rain grew less frequent, realized that weather was shaping up. Tomorrow, our last day in Alaska, we would kayak around Kechemak Bay.
Our six hour paddle was a reminder that disconnecting shouldn’t feel hard. Being with someone you love and doing something invigorating, that’s connection. And so, with smiles on our faces, we thought about the Fjords, and about Jim, we thought about McCarthy and the 60 mile dirt road. We paddled and sucked in the sea-air.
On our last night — with both Jenelle and I contemplating the ties that bind us and the ties that pull us apart — we walked to The Salty Dog for a nightcap. We ordered whiskeys, because Alaska, and sat down to reflect on it all. We tried to gather our experiences into one general heading, to put the pieces together.
In between sips I noticed a man sitting alone, the sort of man I wanted to chat with, looking all too content and completely connected.
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