Looking for Alaska
Gasoline. I couldn’t shake the thought that this entire book, if not the entire state of Alaska, existed only because of the availability of gasoline.
It was not what I’d expected when I set forth.
For decades now Alaska has loomed large in my imagination. In an earlier lifetime, when I had reconciled myself to existence as one half of a couple, I planned to travel there for my 40th birthday. Instead I got divorced.
Yet the fascination remains. At this point I’m certain my eventual Alaskan encounter will quite probably be from the deck of a cruise ship holding on to a walker. Until then, there’s always books.
Travel writing is not really a genre I seek out. When things cross my path, though, I read them. Bruce Chatwin‘s In Patagonia. Cela‘s Journey to the Alcarria. Bill Bryson‘s A Walk in the Woods. (Walking the Appalachian Trail is another long-time obsession, though one I’ve indulged in parts here and there.) It’s always been random.
That randomness is long-lived. As a library-working teen I was able to preemptively grab any book that caught my eye before it went back on the shelf. That’s how I discovered Peter Jenkins. Sometime in 1979 a book entitled A Walk Across America showed up and I tore through it.
It was the right book at the right time. Like many another high school senior I felt trapped, clawing at my skin and psyche, seeking relief anywhere but where I was. Jenkins, almost a local hailing, as he did, from Greenwich, Connecticut, showed a way out. All it took was shoe leather, a backpack and a dog.
The book was one of those pieces of post-hippie writing that searched out the good in a country where so much had gone so wrong. Jenkins focused on ordinary people and just talked, his dog Cooper walking along beside him. The book stuck with me if only because in this tale of people and promise doom struck. Cooper didn’t even make it to the end of the book. As I recall, the caption under the photo of Cooper’s burial was “Goodbye Cooper, my forever friend.” Just like Old Yeller, I cried.
I read the sequel, A Walk West, and, except for that caption which occasionally surfaced in memory, stopped thinking about the book and its author. Then the Alaska book showed up priced at a buck. I had to grab it.
So what do you get for a buck? What I didn’t get was some jolt of recognition. How can I politely say this? Jenkins isn’t a stylist. Some writers you can identify from a random passage, some pen lines that stick in your memory like a vine or burr. Jenkins mode is more conversational, focused on telling you about the people he encounters.
This time he’s brought an entourage. No longer a young man (hey, I can say that, it applies here, too), Jenkins is divorced, remarried and has children from both marriages. He now lives in Tennessee which I think is where Cooper also rests.
It’s not easy to walk away from such infrastructure and so at the outset the Jenkins family–all 6 of them–head north to live for a year. As the book progresses that slims down to a nuclear unit of three but there’s a constant coming and going that almost makes you forget it’s a hike from anywhere to Alaska.
Yet it is and, as in other Alaska tomes, once you get there every place you want to go is another hike from where you are. The Jenkinses plant themselves in Seward, on Resurrection Bay about two hours south of Anchorage. Jenkins, though, is still a roamer, and so he’s often driving very long distances or sitting in a small plane wondering about landing. Alaska’s bush pilots are infamous for handling an environment unsupported by, and inhospitable to, the sort of technological support small plane pilots enjoy in the lower 48.
Jenkins is also no longer a random kid with a backpack. NPR, at least the local branch, saw him coming and, although it’s offered as an aside, he also evidently took on a side gig as a visiting writing prof. The point is, Alaska, despite being nearly three times bigger than Texas and 4 times California, is so sparsely populated that it’s a small town. The locals know he’s coming.
So Jenkins has entrée that you and I will never have. We see him on a fishing expedition in the southeastern portion of the state with a gang of legislators who are native Americans. That enables a side trip to Haida with a personal guide few of us would just chance to meet. He even spends a week deep in the back country–in March–with a family that has built a life 60 miles from the nearest town and road.
Jenkins is at his best with these people when he largely lets them speak for themselves. Everyone has a story and he lets them tell theirs to weave a tapestry of Alaskan life. The land, vast, unyielding, even dangerous, is always there. And while there’s plenty of time spent on the landscape it somehow feels secondary.
In other books about Alaska, say John McPhee‘s Coming Into the Country, I got a much stronger sense of the interplay between humans and nature. In this book, nature is always there but it’s something to be considered or taken as a given or so awesome we ought to pay more attention. This might not be his intention but I felt like I was in cathedral meeting the congregants rather than experiencing the unity of building and community.
That brings me back to the gasoline. Planes. Boats. SUVs. Snow machines (snowmobiles to us tenderfeet) and 4-wheelers (ATVs in these parts) abound. No matter who we encounter, no matter how close they live to the land, they burn a lot of gasoline. I feel downright responsible in my fossil fuel consumption after this read.
I could pick nits about padding and picking on the helpless which might raise objections. In the end those are not major issues. If Cooper saved the first books for me, the loss of Jenkins mother–which predates the move to Alaska but figures in the telling–sits prominently in this one.
It’s a place we all come to eventually, unlike Alaska. Or maybe that vast emptiness is the same thing,