Attempting to Describe Anchorage, Alaska

Ahh, summer.  The days of driving home late with one headlight, cruising down empty roads under magenta skies, watching the moose calfs grazing on the side of the road and listening to top-40 radio with terrible reception.  The days of hiking, biking, going to work and getting out of town on days off. Let’s recap.

I’ve started working again at the busiest restaurant in town, a desirable job for someone my age.  Unfortunately, I was denied the bussing position I was told I would be able to get, and am stuck back at the bottom as an assistant hostess, almost completely devoid of tips (the reason why people work in restaurants).  A job is a job, and I can’t complain, but it’s hard to be enthusiastic about stressful 8-hour shifts at minimum wage when all my recent jobs have paid upward of $20 an hour doing fun things I thoroughly enjoyed.  C’est la vie, I guess…

However, time spent not working has been put to good use.  On Saturday, I went biking with my brother, cruising down the Coastal Trail from Kincaid to Westchester Lagoon, playing some frisbee golf, and zooming back to Kincaid.  A few days before that, we went rock climbing.  I met Nic downtown one day, discovered a “chocolate lounge” about 100 feet from my workplace, and wandered around looking at all the things that are so bizarrely Anchorage.

Anchorage is difficult to define – to an Outsider I’m sure it looks like nothing, an awkward mix of urban sprawl/suburbia, basecamp for nature lovers, hick town, tourist trap, and something more trendy that has grown only in the recent years.  It’s a strange place.  Highways span forested marshland, from the hillside mansions of Southside, through sporadic groupings of Safeways and Wal-Marts, to more marshes, to run-down trailer park neighborhoods, to homogenous suburbia, to Midtown with REI and all the oddities of Spenard (Anchorage’s former red-light district, where I attended high school), through classy, older neighborhoods on the Westside, hidden in the trees, so close to Lake Hood and the airport that the overhead drone of aircraft is almost constant. Pilots don’t even look upward, just listen and say, Ah, must be a Beaver on floats.  Twin Otter.  Piper on wheels. Then they might look up, stare at that speck in the sky, and say, Hey, whatdya know!  It’s Bill! From there roads go downtown, a tourist trap with a Nordstroms, a handful of nice restaurants, homeless people, gang members (apparently), and a growing number of trendy boutiques advertising Alaskan high fashion like Dansko clogs and snow skirts (Anchorage’s “fashion scene”).  A large percentage of the buildings have some sort of log cabin theme and sell earrings made of moose nuggets (feces) and Ulu knives.  Without any sort of public transportation that many people use, roads are clogged with traffic – mostly hunter/fisher republicans in gigantic pickup trucks mixed with the skier/hiker/biker crowd in their Subarus and Toyota hybrids.  The very conservative overshadow the environmentalists, but both coexist in the same place for the same reason: nature.  Nature that provides oil to drill and animals to kill, or nature that must be loved and explored and preserved for ever and always.  Anchorage is a weird place, a surprising mix of seemingly contradictory elements and an immense cultural diversity for its size, surrounded by pristine mountain peaks and the ocean (read: mudflats).  To many Outsiders, I’m sure it seems small, almost laughable as Alaska’s largest city – but for every Alaskan who lives outside the city limits, Anchorage is an urban metropolis, unfathomably huge, the center of everything new and modern.  Our friend Michael seemed slightly uncomfortable on his visit, kept saying things like I can’t believe I’m here, it’s so surreal.  Look at all the cars! All the chain stores! That said, I suppose Anchorage is everything.  Simultaneously enormous and tiny, conservative and liberal, redneck and classy, very American and very not.  It depends how you choose to look at it.

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