Editor’s Notebook: Heading back to the place you came from
When I am filling out governmental-type forms and they ask you for your ethnicity, I am always tempted to bypass the standard “Caucasian” and to check off “Alaska native.”
I am not a part of the Eskimo race, of course, but technically, checking off that box could be true enough. I was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, of all places, where my dad was stationed for a few years in the early ’70s with the U.S. Air Force.
We moved away in 1974, and I never did go back until my wife and I went up to Alaska on our vacation last month.
We saw Anchorage, Denali and Seward, Homer and Talkeetna. We saved Fairbanks for last on the itinerary, not least because it’s 400 long land miles from Anchorage.
Fairbanks always assumed a kind of totemic image, in my mind, because it was my birthplace and because it was so very far away from everything else in these United States. It was a bit rare, to be born an Alaskan, and I always told myself that eventually I would have to see the place where I came from.
In reality, of course, Fairbanks is a fairly ordinary place. There are strip malls and apartment complexes and tourist shops, and a fairly charming downtown park with the Nenana River cutting a swath through it. But there are other places in Alaska, like Kenai Peninsula or Prince William Sound or even Anchorage, that are far more majestic than humble Fairbanks.
Yet it still exudes a pull on the imagination, when you look North and realize: this is the end of the line.
It’s the furthest north major city on this continent, and maybe in the world (Reykjavik, Iceland might win in a tie). The active mind can imagine the endless ice flows, swirling white into infinity, that sit just a few hundred miles away at the end of the land.
And the climate, of course – in June, we saw it at its best, but the winters in Fairbanks are bestial and raw.
The temperature variations in Fairbanks are some of the most severe on earth. In the summer the hot, dry rolling plains can top 90 degrees; in the winter, the Arctic wind will howl across frozen tundra and it could be 50 below.
The cars of locals in Fairbanks are easy to spot: they have dangling electric plugs attached to their front grills. The plugs are used in the winter at convenient power outlets placed around town to keep a car’s engine warm when not in use. If you didn’t use a plug in winter, your car would have the feel and consistency of a giant block of ice, and probably wouldn’t start if you lit a firecracker in the fuel tank.
But in June, the sun beats down with a needle sharpness, and you’d think you were in Arizona, except for the fact that unbearably bright sun just doesn’t go away at all, save for a few twilight hours in the middle of the night. Your eyelids feel strained and overburdened, because of all the light.
My favorite part of our visit to Fairbanks was attending the Midnight Sun Festival. The summer solstice fell during our visit to Fairbanks -the longest day of the year, which, in Fairbanks, clocks in at about 19 hours of sunlight.
Downtown Fairbanks, a street festival is held to commemorate the midnight sun. The town heads out to party from noon to midnight, the sun shining all the while.
The people of Fairbanks were happy and playful in the midnight sun, families and leather-clad bikers and military personnel. I felt like we humble tourists got a brief glimpse of the “real” Fairbanks then – of a place of bizarrely changeable weather and a sun that’s either always shining or perpetually dark -and how people can learn to deal with any strangeness if they love a place enough to call it their home.
I didn’t feel any huge swelling of the heart and stirring of the ancestral memory as I stood in Fairbanks – I guess I’m a member of the gypsy generation we all seem to have become part of, and home is a place you stay in between moves.
I’m not a real Alaskan -I can’t fish, small airplanes (the main mode of travel, off the tourist track) give me claustrophobia and I’ve never told a dog to “mush” in my life.
Technically, I am an Alaskan native, but Nevada County is the place I did most of my growing up in and its pine trees and red clay and slick granite have always rang truest to me.
But Fairbanks was a nice place to visit, and a place as good as any to call the place you were born.
Sierra Sun Editor Nik Dirga grew up in Nevada County.
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