Three o’clock in the morning. Looking out a second-story bedroom window. This is the Charlie Simmons/Sheree Dohner once-abandoned barn, now, after more work than I care to think about, transformed into an honest-to-God estate, 15 miles west of Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s May 6 and never gets dark. That diffused all-night light (you can read a book off it) is what I’ve missed most.
It’s been 19 years since I lived in Fairbanks, and I’m back on a two-week farewell tour. I loved Alaska and that has stayed with me, but like everything else, love fades. There is no chance I’ll ever return here to live and very little chance I’ll be back for another visit.
So, I want to soak it in this time. I’ve acquired a $49 RCA Small Wonder camcorder as witness. The beast takes shockingly good video and records equally good sound. Imports directly into iDVD. The idea is to video everything.
I planned on arriving May 6. Wanted snow on the ground, barren trees, no tourists, and no mosquitoes. Over the next seven days, spring will explode, snow will melt, buds and then leaves will rocket outward from abeyant birch, poplar, alder, willow, and aspen tree branches. This is one of the great shows on earth.
As I hoped, the day after I arrived the temperature popped up to 65 degrees and sunshine. That was Wednesday. By Friday, tiny green buds appeared on one million tree limbs. By Saturday, those buds are tiny green leaves. On Sunday, the fetus leaves, still small, are ten times bigger than they were a day previous. That’s three days. Three more days and Fairbanks will be transformed.
I drive around in the cheapest Alaska-Airlines/Hertz Rent-a-Car deal I could find. I’ve agreed not to drive on unpaved roads, which is like going to Maui and promising not to look at the ocean. My Hertz vow lasted less than ten minutes once I left their parking lot. I don’t know anyone who lives on a paved road.
I lived here for 25 years, and every mile, corner, and back-road rut coughs up memories. Many local monuments are as they were. A long list of saloons, schools, churches, grocery stores, Laundromats, diners, junk yards remain in place. There are blocks of wood-heated 1920s log cabins, right out of Robert Service, still serving as somebody’s home, in downtown Fairbanks. Most of Second Avenue (notorious during pipeline days), is as it was. Although I must note the sad demise of the Flame Lounge, the Polaris Building, Cottage Bar, Tommy’s Elbow Room, and the legendary Savoy Bar.
But, these are memories of a kind you would have if you returned to Des Moines after a quarter century. Here is the house where you first had sex, over there is where you smoked your first joint, and there your first drunk, first job, first car, first serious fistfight…in other words, this is where I was young, much like the place where you were young.
What’s different about Fairbanks is that so much of it happened in the dark, at 40 below, and far from America.
Frontier is different things to different people. If you were brought up like my host and friend, Charlie Simmons, who is third generation Alaskan, raised on homestead land, 14 miles out from Fairbanks, when Fairbanks had a population of 9,000 and 14 miles was a far, far way to go, when living in a tent with mom/dad/ brother/sister through Arctic winters was real, I don’t think romance of frontier would be in your working vocabulary.
But, for those of us (none born here, by the way, and most raised middle-class white) who came up in the 1960s and ’70s from San Diego or New York or Boston or Buffalo, Fairbanks was like no other place under American jurisdiction.
Unless you’ve been here or one of the few places in the world like it, you can’t imagine the scale of wilderness. How close it is to you, how far it goes on once you’ve stepped into it, and what it does to you when you live nearby.
But, that was then and those times are as dead as 40-cent-a-gallon gas. Now, I arrive at Fairbanks International Airport wearing tan khakis, a close haircut, dragging a packed-to-the-tits doublewide Samsonite suitcase, a twice-too-big computer briefcase stuffed with cameras, prescriptions, tape recorders, iBook, polo shirts, and socks. Plus, one Sherpa nylon pet carrier holding Margaret Rose, my miniature Dachshund. If I had a pair of Bermuda shorts and a beach ball I would have need of nothing.
There is no way back and only a fool would look for one. I drive to old haunts and video, play with Chas and Sheree, then do what I do at home: Tai chi, sit, look at birds. After that I watch leaves being born.