Tossing Lines: Alaska is a place of resurrection where the heavenly and ghastly collide

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Alaska, The Last Frontier, Land of the Midnight Sun, is a mountainous, majestic land of three million lakes and 29 volcanoes. Our northernmost state is not miles, but light years away, a physical and psychological landscape that some say can alter the mind.

My connection with Alaska arose when my son and his wife moved there several years ago. Both employed by General Dynamics, they’ve taken “working from home” to a new extreme.

I know the feeling of being an American, a stranger, in a foreign land, that innate sense that the rules have changed. That’s Alaska.

I first visited small-town Homer, on Alaska’s southern shore, where my son bought a house on a hill overlooking beautiful Kachemak Bay. Large bald eagles have perched on his deck rail. Across the bay were mountains and year-round glaciers. The long-running reality show, “Alaska: The Last Frontier,” is filmed next door.

Then, this summer, I traveled to my son’s new home in Palmer, 40 miles north of Anchorage, a little closer to civilization. Palmer is nestled against mountains, the scenery making it a challenge to keep one’s eyes on the road while driving.

The human mind stumbles to find adequate, grandiose words to describe the Alaskan landscape. It demands words of spirituality, existentialism. And that’s in broad daylight, never mind the ethereal Northern Lights illuminating one’s darkness.

In his 2010 book “Going to Extremes, A Search for the Essence of Alaska,” Joe McGinniss says the overwhelming grandeur of Alaska changes those who venture there to live. I can believe it.

Describing life in Juneau, McGinniss suggests that “the sheer, unbending intensity of it all — the weather and isolation, set against a backdrop of such magnificence — cause(s) the human nervous system to overload.”

He adds the “outbursts of excess — generally involving alcohol, narcotics, or members of the opposite sex — were the only valid response, or possible response, to such an excess of beauty and wretchedness as was provided by Juneau itself. To be there was to feel a sense of surroundings so powerful as to seem almost an extra dimension.”

This feeling of having entered an extra dimension occurs wherever you wander there.

Experiencing Alaska is to question human existence. You often feel surrounded by a higher power, sensing an acute reminder of your smallness in the world, as though your very being is suddenly inconsequential, almost a fluke in the grand scheme of things.

Altered days and nights also add to the absurdity. We left a club one night at 11:30 p.m. The sun was still shining. Sunglasses on, my circadian rhythms explored a new dimension. Like standing on Mars.

There are signs that Alaskans do become unfettered by overwhelming natural beauty and long days or nights, all of which may well shape the Alaskan sense of humor.

They’re known to do many crazy things, but there’s nothing that represents Alaskan fun more than Arne Hrncir’s (pronounced “Hern-cher’s”) 4th of July Glacier View Car Launch. Glacier View is 100 miles northeast of Anchorage, right next door in a state that’s bigger than California, Texas and Montana combined.

The launch began in 2005 when Hrncir’s wife hit a moose with her Volvo. Hrncir decided to launch the ruined vehicle off a 300-foot cliff (perhaps after a long dark spell?) All present recognized the activity’s future potential as a fun Independence Day celebration, especially since there are no fireworks displays, as the sun doesn’t set until midnight in July.

Today, the launch includes cars, trucks, vans, snow machines, campers and stretch limos, some pulling boats. They’re often painted with a message, advertisement, or theme to celebrate the holiday.

Just before take-off, a strap is used to keep the steering wheel straight and a piece of lumber is jammed on the gas pedal.

They launch at high speed, flying far into the air before crashing to the ground, where they bounce and roll down the rocky slope to the valley below. The flag-waving crowd goes wild. There’s likely alcohol involved.

A few years ago, a woman asked to place her husband’s ashes on the dashboard of a Cadillac on the launching pad. His remains soared, chasing his soul momentarily through the heavens.

In the days after the event, the community comes together to clean up the valley and haul the vehicles off to the recycling center.

The spectacle has become one of the largest 4th of July events in Alaska with huge crowds, food vendors and paid admission. There are YouTube videos available online.

And yet, along with Alaskans’ unrestrained sense of humor, there’s also a feeling that these folks have deliberately chosen to distance themselves from the Lower 48, to live by different rules.

Outdoorsy types obviously go for the spectacular, inspiring, yet overtly dangerous landscape, but there’s also an undercurrent of individualism, a sense of indemnifying one’s rights, a desire to keep an overbearing government at arm’s length.

At the end of that arm is often a gun. Alaskans are substantially armed, the gun permit process nearly non-existent compared to the Lower 48. But, it’s not only by virtue of the Second Amendment, carrying a firearm is a necessity. The wilderness begins at the edge of town, and Alaskans are responsible for their own survival. The rules of the wild haven’t changed since the beginning of time.

You don’t go fishing or hiking without a gun big enough to kill a charging bear. As such, an armed person in public goes unnoticed. Imagine that in the Lower 48.

I attended the Alaska State Fair, where the most popular booths were displaying and raffling off a serious hunting rifle. Imagine that here at the Big E or Sailfest.

One bumper sticker read “Sure you can have my gun. Bullets first.” Foolish home invaders sign their own death warrants. Calling 911 is Plan B.

Alaska’s majesty and lifestyle fills some yearning in the souls of those who choose to live there, and Americans do flock there to find themselves. I chatted up a twenty-something clerk in a shop in Palmer. She spoke of the crazy influx of outsiders, (i.e. “those” from down below), and the extraordinary growth of her hometown during her short lifetime.

Maybe Alaska remains the Last Frontier, no longer for gold or land claims, but for modern, personal journeys. It is, after all, like entering a cathedral, a place of resurrection, where you can live among heavenly magnificence, every view a painting, a gift, your consciousness unavoidably altered by your surroundings.

What other place questions your existence, “causes the human nervous system to overload,” and can change those who live there? A new dimension, indeed.

John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com.

 



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