One year ago today, I flew to Alaska for absolutely no reason.
Y'all already know about my mountain love, and for that reason alone my curiosity about the state was piqued. When I ran into my friend and Anchorage native Liz Leach a few weeks before Christmas break and she mentioned she was headed home for the holidays, I texted her later — half-jokingly — and said I had "decided I need to go to Alaska."
Without a shred of joking-ness, she responded, "Yay! When?" then proceeded to text me the dates that she would be home for Christmas break, suggested trip length, flight and airport instructions.
"I texted my parents and they're excited you're coming!" she said.
The next thing I knew, I was on Travelocity searching for reasonably priced tickets.
I usually (energetically! positive-ly! upbeat-edly!) pitch these things to my mom first, starting with something like "okay so, just spitballing here, but I have something I wanted to run by you," which is her cue to immediately begin laughing in this uniquely tired way reserved especially for me "running things by her." (I need to make a master list of things I have run by her at some point in the future, but they run an impressive gamut.)
So while I don't remember exactly how I brought this up to my parents, I know it was something along those lines. I also know that I was semi-seriously threatening to get a dog around this time, and I believe I hinted at the fact that I was either going to get a dog or go to Alaska; so some combination of parental love, weariness, and decided desire for me not to get a dog* led them to okay the trip.
Fast forward to December 26, 2015, I was standing in the Anchorage airport, staring through enormous panels of windows to the Chugach mountains they framed. Liz burst through the doors moments later, and soon we were on the road.
Liz chattered away, pointing out sights and peppering me with questions about what I wanted to do while I was there (which is useless, by the way, because I always want to do everything). Meanwhile, I think I would have been happy just to keep driving forever, staring at the peaks and ridges jutting stark against the sky above us.
You know how it feels when you're really thirsty and get a drink of water and it feels like you can't drink it enough? That's how it felt looking at these mountains — like my eyes couldn't see deep and wide enough to take as much of them in as I wanted. There should be a word for that kind of beauty, something you want to take in in enormous, visual gulps. That's how I feel about the Chugach mountains.
Liz drove the long way so I could yell about the view a little longer, then we piled out at some of her family's where I was immediately welcomed into lingering Christmas festivities and offered pie. Aunts, uncles and cousins set about building my Alaskan base knowledge, including (but not limited to) facts about the mileage of wilderness (a lot), the major cities (not a lot), the landscape, top tourist attractions, food I needed to try, the fishing industry, local Native American history and culture, dog sledding, and more.
I made a joke about moose at one point, which was fortunate because it turns out that Moose as a Factor in Everyday Life is a mostly true Alaskan stereotype, and I got to sit through at least an hour of Leach family moose encounter/attack stories. It was everything I hoped and more. I was gleeful.
Anchorage, too, was more than I hoped. A major city by the state's standards but still relatively small, it has an eclectic, communal feel to it that I found comforting.
It takes a tough, resourceful kind of person to call the extreme climate (and apparently rogue moose population) of Alaska home. People rely on one another, if only out of necessity. Anchorage reflects that same strength, creativity and interdependence in its collective personality — rough around the edges, maybe, but quirky and resilient and friendly.
We ate our way through the Leaches' favorite local joints, from crabby omelets at Snow City Cafe to reindeer sausage on several occasions, which always felt mildly morbid to my 6-year-old-self (...Rudolph?) but, hey, when in Rome?
The city is home to a thriving small business community, which this Austin girl loves and made the most of (Skinny Raven and Title Wave were, no surprise, my favorites); and of course, on a more culturally significant level, Liz made sure I saw important historical landmarks. Like the Captain Cook monument. And Balto!
The best part of the Anchorage Museum was a tie between the view from the observation floor at the very top (pictured above) (I cried) (I always cry) and the fact that we got in at all, because it took us three tries before we finally got our whims and their weird hours aligned and showed up when it was actually open.
The Iditarod Museum also took several tries to visit, mostly because it was very small and we drove past it a few times. The entire thing was contained by two rooms; the first of which was ninety percent a gift shop with some important facts and photos hung on the wall, and the second of which contained a list of race winners, some folding chairs, and two glass cases containing, I kid you not, two taxidermied Iditarod race dogs.
A plaque informed us that one was the winningest in Iditarod history, which I would still argue doesn't quite justify, you know, stuffing her for display.
"Liz," I hissed when I recovered from the initial shock of making eye contact with the dead champion. "Come here."
She came around the corner, spotted it, and recoiled. I was positively wheezing with silent laughter. We tried to get past it, but never really could. The woman manning the front desk looked happy when we finally left.
Despite bad weather (it was bizarrely warm during my visit, with frequent rainfall eating away at the existing snow), we set off down the Turnagain Arm one morning for Beluga Point, Portage Glacier, and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
We quickly learned that thanks to truly savage wind speeds, no one else was crazy enough to be out for a similar day trip; but instead of throwing in the towel like normal, sane people, we decided that we would spin it as me getting an "authentic" Alaskan experience and enjoy having all the sights to ourselves.
The hazy rain and high wind made the glacial blues of the water near Portage Glacier seem extra other-worldly. We risked being blown away entirely for Beluga Point photos. When we skated through the wildlife center, which was covered entirely in sheets of ice thick enough for a game of pond hockey, the animals were conveniently huddled in their shelters for up-close viewing, staring at us like we'd lost our minds. My stomach hurt from laughing the next morning.
In that same spirit of misadventure — and in spite of the same bad weather — People Who Know and the internet informed us that the Northern Lights would be at their peak during the middle of the night late in the week, and we decided to chase them.
We went to bed at 11 PM or so, napped until 1 AM, stuffed the car with extra layers and coffee and snacks and set off, heading generally upward and out of the city.
Liz knew of some spots a ways off that she thought might provide a break in cloud coverage, and we continued trolling the internet for other location ideas. Each time we reached a destination, we found the sky still thickly blanketed; and each time, Liz was determined to soldier on.
We drove for hours, further and further north. Finally, in a last-ditch effort, she headed for the highest possible point on a local mountain pass, where we would camp out for a while with crossed fingers.
Oddly enough, I think the drive up the pass was one of my favorite moments of the trip. The mountains at night had a completely different feel to them than that during the day. In the light, they were staggering, but beautifully familiar. At night, they were sleeping giants on the terrifying brink of being awoken at the tiniest, unfortunate disturbance. And here we were, rolling the dice with every inch further we drove up their backs.
My nerves snapped to attention, thrilled and ready at any moment for the mountains around me to somehow roar to life. As we finally reached our stopping point, though, everything stayed silent. We kicked back, hopeful, and at one point even swore we saw green glimmering behind the clouds. They never budged, though, and eventually we gave up.
Sometime after 6 AM, we pulled into the equivalent of an off-brand Denny's in Wasilla for emergency coffee and some fairly terrible pancakes. (I ATE EM THO.) We were delirious by that point — everything seemed funny — and to stay awake on the last leg of the drive home, we alternated between singing loudly and convincing each other that, yes, we totally had vaguely sort of seen the Northern Lights behind the clouds, it definitely wasn't just our imaginations or our sleep deprivation or our hopes and dreams.
On New Year's Eve, Liz's uncle offered us tickets to the Alaska Aces game, so we could ring in 2016 in a hockey rink, on earth as it is in Heaven. It was the perfect ending to a favorite trip, and a sweet start to this year.
Thankful for another year full of adventures, and even more so for the people that come along for the ride. (Like the Leach family! Hi guys.) Can't wait to see what and who this new year holds.
*Here is a screenshot I saved from the time I texted my mom about getting a dog last year and she responded with a critique of my entire adult life.