Three years ago, outdoor writer, photographer, and consummate sportsman Peter Mathiesen left his hometown of St. Louis to start a new life in Alaska. Here’s why he made the move, what everyday life is like, and how it feels to have Denali right outside your window.
By choice, Alaskans see life from a completely different perspective from most others in the U.S. We enjoy our isolation and independence. We feel little connection to the daily trappings of politics and the lifestyles of the Lower 48. None of my neighbors watch Jay Leno, or have any idea who the Kardashians are.
We call the lower 48 the “Outside.” Those who live there are “Outsiders.” You’ll always be a “Cheechako”–a greenhorn Alaskan–until you move here and live here year round.
Rural Alaskans can be welcoming, but feel you have to earn the right to be here. And until you prove yourself in the community, you will remain only marginally accepted. Here are some examples of what outsiders may hear:
“So, building a pretty nice house, eh…just for the summers, hmm?”
“You had a moving company bring all your stuff. Didn’t drive the ALCAN? Well, I guess that’s easier.”
“That’s a sharp looking new truck. You drive much in the Valley?” What they’re referring to here is that you’ll drive in Wasilla, get caught in a windstorm that pelts your truck with glacial arctic dust, and you’ll want to gut yourself as you hear the paint get sandblasted away.
It’s not as if they won’t offer advice, however: “You may want to install your heating oil tank a few more feet over to the side of the house. That way when the roof sheds, it won’t rip the line off that tank.”
This is where it gets tricky. You need to be attentive, because no one will tell you anything more than once. Especially if you respond by saying “Oh I think it will be fine.” You’ll not get another single piece of advice until a year after they see you cleaning up the heating oil that spilled as the ice from the roof hit your tank.
I thought I was doing pretty well during my first summer. I worked 14 hours a day on my house and slept on a cot in the garage, and drove a dirty eight-year-old truck. After nearly 90 hard days, I left the last week of October and drove back to St. Louis, returning in three months to finish the house.
After a treacherous February drive back up the ALCAN (my third of five trips) with more construction materials and another trailer load of household stuff, I arrived at my local hardware store with mercury hovering at 17 below. Bruce, the counter guy, stared at me.
“What are you doing here?” he asked with a puzzled look on his face.
“I’m back to finish my house,” I said. “Our lease is up on our apartment in St. Louis, and my wife will be here in about nine weeks. I have a load of work to do.”
He looked at me like I had grown a second head, cracked a smile and said, “Wow, you really are moving here. Everyone says that, and then they disappear for nine months of the year. Hey, driving the ALCAN in the dead of winter, not bad…and welcome home.”