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By Daniel Smith
Genre: Non-fiction Level: Adult
Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest


Daniel Smith

The 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.

This 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 modesty.

Also 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.

As we amusedly watched this crew we reviewed running into them earlier on our way into the brewery for dinner.

"You 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?!"

We were 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.




One's 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.

People 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.

When 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.

Despite 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.

The "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.

I 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.

"You're from McCarthy? Like, you grew up there?" I asked, half intrigued, half antagonistic.

"Well..." she started, admitting that she had just worked there for a couple summers, and I won't deny that I reveled in her chagrin.

In 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?"

Figuring 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.

But 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.

Now, 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.

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