Life Travel

Growing up in Alaska

PHOTOS: Torie Howdeshell

Everyone I meet nowadays is asking me where I’m from, and it’s becoming harder and harder to answer because ‘America’ doesn’t really cut it. Born and raised in the heart of Alaska would make it the most feasible answer, but I left Alaska over years ago and if you’ve talked to me recently, you know that I’ve said I’m never going back. For a visit in the very distant future? Maybe. But I don’t have any plans to move back. And although I don’t like the dark icebox that it is, growing up there wasn’t so bad.

Every time I tell someone I’m from Alaska, their eyes get big and they say, “you’re the first person I’ve met from Alaska,” followed by, “is it cold?”

Heck yeah, it’s freaking freezing!

Another thing that often comes up is, “I know so & so that lives in Alaska, do you know them?” I don’t think people are aware of how big Alaska exactly is—it covers half of the US!

But then they give me a name and then I have to give in and say… yes, actually I do know them.

I’ve seen the Alaska State Troopers, Bush People… what have you, and we don’t have to hunt our food before winter comes; we have restaurants and grocery stores. Walmart exists! I didn’t grow up with guns and penguins or live in igloos (although I used to fool people into thinking we did).

So I’ll tell you what it was like, once and for all.

I grew up in Fairbanks, located in the heart of Alaska, away from the sea and deep in the valley. It takes about twenty minutes to drive across town, and most of my friends lived in the hills surrounded by trees, wilderness, and quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. I lived in ‘downtown’ Fairbanks (if such a place existed) and only had to walk across the street to get to elementary school.

The perks of a place with no people and suburbs everywhere was that I had a lot of freedom as a kid. I could bike the streets without a care (I remember chasing the ice cream truck more than once). And once I got a little older, I could bike the town, which usually brought us to the soccer fields or sand volleyball courts.

Because I played sports, I did know practically everyone in town, and all of my friends played sports too. The major disadvantage of being an athlete in Alaska (unless you played hockey) was that there was no competition and the level wasn’t very high. In the summers, we had to play boys teams older and younger than us, and my mom started the only volleyball club in town. Competing out of state wasn’t easy.

But the biggest perk was having the nicest soccer fields was that we could play whenever we wanted! I live in London now and you have to schedule and pay (a lot) just to be able to kick around for a measly hour. I really do miss hitting the fields with the boys at midnight.

So, to answer the question is it get cold, yes, it is. Very. Cold.

The winters are dark and long and there is nothing to do. There’s always at least two weeks in the winter where the temperature dips to 20 below zero and never comes back up. The coldest it had ever been was -70 degrees Fahrenheit, and school doesn’t shut down until it hits -60. Everyone wears sweats and layers of jackets. You have to start your car thirty minutes before you plan to go anywhere and you’re always driving over ice. You can toss liquid into the air and it evaporates. And no, polar bears don’t roam the streets, but moose do.

People don’t believe me when I tell them having a moose in your front yard is a real excuse for not going to school.

The best parts of winter are 1. a snowy Christmas and 2. the northern lights (which are incredible). And there is a place called North Pole just twenty minutes away where you can go to Santa’s house and the light poles are painted like candy canes. If you think I’m lying, look it up.

Summer, on the other hand, is short and it does get hot (up to 95 degrees). The rumors are true, we get 24 hours of daylight, and if you’re wondering how do you sleep? Well, you blind your windows or you just get used to it. I got my driver’s license at 16, and since night never came, we could stupid shit like trying to float the river on air mattresses and camping in the hills on a whim. And other nights, we would play volleyball outside until the wee hours of the morning because 2am felt more like 10pm. And then we usually went to Denny’s for milkshakes around 4 in the morning because nothing else was open.

Summer in Alaska could give you the sense that you owned the world while it was sleeping. The freedom we had as kids gave us the ability to make the world what we wanted it to be. Besides the swarming mosquitoes, these are the times I get nostalgic about.

But during my last summer there, it snowed in May. I had really just had it.

My last few years in the state weren’t the greatest. I lived in Hawaii for a year, and after moving back, everything was ten times duller and all I could see was grey. I felt the cold more, the restrictions stronger than ever and the sadness that came with a lack of sunlight. All I could think about was leaving. I’ll tell you why.

After spending 16 years in Alaska, I had been surrounded by the same people, the same atmosphere, and the opportunities were quickly shrinking. There was no more soccer team to play for, my friend count shrunk significantly, and I felt utterly helpless. Leaving the place wasn’t that simple, as travelling costs a fortune and going anywhere without at least one layover didn’t exist. I didn’t know at this point that I wanted to pursue a creative career, but if I never left, I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to give it a go.

So there. I could say so much about Alaska, but I’ll leave it at this; it is the small town that people escape from just to get a taste of Jamba Juice or Dairy Queen because we didn’t have it our self. I always wished I grew up in a different state, and sometimes a different country, but I came to realize that I’m glad I grew up in the US (explanation for another time), and ultimately, I’m thankful for the childhood I was given in Fairbanks because without it, I wouldn’t be where I am now. But Alaska is one of those places that you either hate or love. And let me tell you, I really don’t love it.

If you have other questions, you need only ask!

Where did you grow up?

Honestly,
Song

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