| Daniel Smith
tiny town of Talkeetna is a sort of crucible in southcentral Alaska. It has the
sort of end-of-the-road allure that attracts quirky characters and weirdos to
similar places across the state, but it's accessible enough to be both a
routine stop for tour buses and a destination for Anchoragites wanting to play
log cabin for the weekend. Its location between Anchorage's thinly-stretched
sprawl and the more rural Interior makes for a motley population-a mix of
Anchorage yuppies, out-of-state tourists, and crusty locals who look like they
just crawled off their mining claim-all of which inevitably come together at
the historic and fabled Fairview Inn.
blend of characters was never as evident to me as it was the first time I went
to the Fairview, my vision still clear and unjaded as a relatively recent
transplant to southcentral. It was November, and after skiing on the river
Teresa and I went to the Fairview because they were advertising music which,
characteristically, never materialized. As a result the bar was quiet but there
was still a handful of people sitting around under the dim lights and
taxidermied heads, including a pair of women in snowmachine gear, drinking beer
and keeping to themselves. We chatted with them a little, and they said they had
rode in from a cabin in Trapper Creek. They had had to detour around open water
on the river, but seemed unperturbed by that and by the cold and dark that
awaited them on the return journey. They spoke of it as if it were nothing,
just a routine trip to the bar, and sounded all the more badass for their
at the bar was a group of three or four people, probably in their mid-twenties
like us, who we had seen galavanting around town throughout the day. They moved
around the bar as if they had some business other than just PBR and whiskey
like the rest of us, as if they were locals with obligations around town. They
dressed the part, too, in full Carhartt winter gear despite being in the warm
indoors. They were a boisterous bunch, and when someone mentioned conditions on
the nearby Susitna River one of the guys exclaimed "Oh yeah, we were out
playing around on the Su yesterday," making sure to use the river's local
nickname and in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. The snowmachiners
looked their way, took a sip of their beer, and, I like to think, rolled their eyes.
we amusedly watched this crew we reviewed running into them earlier on our way
into the brewery for dinner.
guys gotta check this place out, it's so good," they had said, despite us
already being halfway through the door. "Can you believe there's this
restaurant in the middle of nowhere in Alaska
and it just has the best food?!"
still new to southcentral ourselves, but it was clear to us that these people were essentially tourists,
hanging out in Talkeetna just long enough that they could go home and say they
survived the Alaskan winter. Believing they were in "the middle of nowhere"-13
miles off the Parks Highway, just a couple hours outside Anchorage-showed they
didn't have anything to compare it to. But they were determined to fit in and
prove how Alaskan they were-that they, too, wore Carhartts and "played around
on the Su" as if it were no big deal, all the while making a big deal of it.
They were insecure in what I later coined as their "Alaskulinity"-one's sense
of how Alaskan they are-and, classically, the harder they tried to prove their
Alaskulinity, the more insecure they appeared.
sense of how "Alaskan" one is, in terms of time spent in the state and
experiences had therein. A social construct, it is based less on physical
presence in Alaska and more on competitive comparison of one's experiences to
those of others. One is generally most aware of one's Alaskulinity when it is
lacking or underdeveloped, often resulting in compensatory measures like
boasting or exaggerating.
come into Alaska like the new kid at school, wanting to fit in immediately as
Alaskans, but find an inherent rift between themselves and established
residents. This is a state where one has to earn their residency over time,
evidenced most concretely by the PFD: a rite of passage which separates the
permanent residents from the seasonal ones like gold dust left in the pan after
washing the debris away. Newcomers develop insecure Alaskulinities from the
fear of not being accepted, or worse, of being considered a tourist, so they,
like the Talkeetna crew, attempt to compensate for inexperience with bravado
and facade. But a fashionable new pair of Xtratuffs only helps to keep one's
feet dry in the Great Alaskan Pissing Contest that inevitably ensues.
we first moved to Anchorage we found ourselves socially quarantined into the
class reserved for the city's many transplants: a holding pen where the
cheechakos are left to acclimate amongst themselves before being released into
greater Alaskan society. I found it a bestial place to be, where the newcomers
flaunted their feathers and clashed their proverbial horns to prove their
dominant Alaskulinity and vie for acceptance. Simple social events took on competitive
undertones as new acquaintances locked antlers with questions like "Where are
you from?", "How long have you been in Alaska?", and, more brazenly, "What all
have you done in Alaska?", inviting a contest of Alaskanness.
living in Alaska previously, it always seemed that whoever I talked to had
unfailingly been in the state longer than me, had been more places than me, had
had more quintessential Alaskan experiences than me, or had more connections
than me. If nothing else, they had at least had more fun than me, with a carefully-curated Instagram to prove it.
Such people disguised their insecure Alaskulinities in boasting and pretension,
and as much as it annoyed me, I generally resisted engaging in their
one-upmanship, and as such they prevailed as ostensibly "more Alaskan." When
they walked away their unblemished Xtratuffs clopped like the hooves of a
jackass on the bone-dry ground.
"Where are you from?" question is especially poignant amongst transplants,
functioning more as a litmus test of Alaskulinity than polite conversation.
Those unconfident in their Alaskulinity like to claim "I'm from here," hoping
for unquestioned acceptance, but when probed further, it often turns out
they've only been "from here" for a relatively short amount of time.
once met a girl who claimed she was from McCarthy. Everyone wants to be from rugged, iconic McCarthy
but practically no one is, save a few curmudgeonly old homesteaders.
from McCarthy? Like, you grew up
there?" I asked, half intrigued, half antagonistic.
she started, admitting that she had just worked there for a couple summers, and
I won't deny that I reveled in her chagrin.
Anchorage, it's generally assumed that you're not from Anchorage, and the
"Where are you from?" question expects as much, but it's still a sensitive
subject for transplants in a place where newcomers are stigmatized. If I, for
example, answer literally that I'm from Michigan I might be perceived as new
and naive, which my Alaskulinity won't allow. But I can't answer "I'm from
here" either, because I'm not, and even if I identify as an Alaskan now I could
be exposed as an imposter, like the McCarthy girl. "I'm from Michigan
originally, but I've been here for almost five years" is the most balanced, if
garrulous, answer I've devised; it's honest and presents a self-assured
Alaskulinity. But it begs the question, in a city of transplants, how long does
one have to be here before they're "from here?"
out the "Where are you from?" question was part of my gradual transition out of
the tumultuous holding pen, and now, after four and a half years in Anchorage,
I find myself in calmer pastures. The shift coincided nicely with my transition
into my thirties, when I feel so much more self-assured in general. My social
circle is largely the same way, and as such I don't encounter Alaskulinity
issues now as much as I used to.
I still run into it occasionally, and it reminds me of what it's like to be new
to Alaska, except now with the benefits of retrospection and accrued wisdom. I
better understand what the transplants are going through, and I don't blame
them anymore for being overzealous, because moving to Alaska is exciting. It's a huge place, full of
unique wonders, and there's so much to experience that it can be overwhelming.
When other people achieve your goals
it's easy to be jealous, and then Alaskulinities flare up. I realize now that I
called out the McCarthy girl because I wanted
to go to McCarthy but hadn't yet. It's childish, but natural, and I think,
despite appearing hostile, clashes of Alaskulinity ultimately come from a
desire to belong and experience all that Alaska offers.
when I'm back at the Fairview, or in Hope on a summer weekend, or some other
melting pot of Alaskan society, I like to observe people like the Talkeetna
crew, watching with a knowing, wry smile hidden behind my beer. They're still
transparent and a little obnoxious, but they no longer get under my skin like
they used to, maybe because my skin is thickened by my time and experiences
here. They're a barometer of my progress as an Alaskan-they remind me of myself
when I was new and of all the goals my fledgling Alaskulinity was so eager to
accomplish. Goals like packrafting in the Brooks Range or fatbiking in the
White Mountains felt unattainable back then, but over time I slowly checked
goals off my list, and each one increased my confidence in myself both as an
individual and as an Alaskan. As I became more Alaskan I became more myself,
and didn't need to compare myself to anyone in order to do it. There are still
an unlimited number of goals left on my list, but there's no longer any
pressure, as I know I'll continue to achieve them on my slow transition to
becoming an old sourdough.