Alaska Friday Round-Up

We put on our dress sweatshirts and went to the Iditarod Mushers Banquet last night. This was a big deal because all the very cool and fresh off the dog sled mushers hang out at the Mushers Banquet plus it was our anniversary. So it was quite the gala. Mushers got their start numbers and Hobo Jim sang, frequently and for a long time. They served steaks the size of dinner plates and big slabs of chocolate cake because, you know, dog-sledding requires calories and it is Alaska, after all, where nothing is small, everything is oversize and a little bit rough. Or a lot. Depending on how rugged you are.

Iditarod musher Paige Drobny sat at our table with her husband who is also a musher but not in this race and whose name I’ve forgotten. The two of them may have been the healthiest people I’ve seen in years, well-scrubbed but dripping with sled dogs, their happiness in what they were doing bursting in the air like millions of blooming daisies. They drank heartily and without care, leaning over to nod with each other and then looking back to the rest of us to laugh and chat. There isn’t a person alive who wouldn’t rather be them than whoever they are at the moment, me included and I never envy anyone.

Yesterday I talked to a woman who, at the age of 60, took a job as teacher and principal in a 21-student school in a village in Alaska’s interior. The interior is what they call the part of Alaska that has no roads which is basically the entire state. Anyway, Susan told her husband in Oklahoma that she’d be back when school ended in June and she took off. She hires other teachers to help but they keep quitting. She says they don’t like hauling water in 5-gallon jugs which apparently she doesn’t mind. She goes home in the summer and stays inside with the air conditioning blasting. Susan doesn’t like being hot.

How white people erased so much native culture became clearer to me yesterday. In an exhibit at a native museum there was a long explanation with photos of how villagers – out of their sense of respect and accommodation of newcomers – quickly regarded white teachers and priests as the “new elders.” And in so doing, children were gradually taught to ignore the teaching of their actual elders, disrupting centuries of the transmission of cultural values and language. It was a free museum, halfway shut down because it is off-season here, and no one paid us any attention except to say hello and goodbye. It was one of those gems you find when you stop anyway.

We rented a little truck with 4-wheel drive. It doesn’t do to tool around Alaska in an itty-bitty rental car even though one would probably suffice. Places that get a lot of snow are generally very good at clearing it off the roads. Every trip is playacting though. Go to Florida, you imagine the Florida life and it has limes everywhere and smells all the time of Coppertone. Up here, it’s about boots and hoodies, road dirt that obliterates license plates, windows that roll down. We would be tough if we moved here, we think. Really tough.

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