Exploring Alaska’s Urban Wilds
by Lucian Childs
Cross-posted from 49 Writers.
When people Outside think of Alaska, they imagine snow, rugged mountains, sled dog races, grizzlies, homestead cabins and “The Deadliest Catch.” That people would be living up here in an urban context would probably not occur to them.
But over half of us Alaskans live in cities. What makes our experience unique is the dichotomy we often feel between our ordinary travails—taking kids to school, dashing into Carrs for groceries, or meeting friends at the PAC for a musical—and what we think of as the Great Land, that vastness teeming with wildlife. Our lives are as helter-skelter as city folks anywhere, but we live surrounded by wilderness, which exerts a mighty influence on our lives.
This hit me last spring when I flew into Anchorage for my semi-annual sojourn. After I picked up my car, I drove to my friend’s house on Government Hill where I was to stay. It was early evening, one of those days we get in the spring: cloudless and crystalline. Near my friend’s house, I pulled off at the park that overlooks the Tank Farm. All the expectations about my upcoming stay—the dinner parties and meet-ups with friends—all that dropped away. Beyond the oil tanks and our small port, Mt. Susitna reclined and the Alaska Range disappeared down Cook Inlet, white peaks silhouetted against the approaching sunset. I’ve lived in Anchorage almost twenty-five years, but I’d forgotten the formidable beauty in which it is located. Looking down Cook Inlet took my breath away.
In an hour, though, I was showered and shaved, catching up with my friend Julie over a good Chardonnay in the bar at Kinley’s. To me, this combination of activities is as deeply Alaskan as setting a trapline or dipnetting for reds—being awed by the beauty of the Inlet, then having that glass of Chard at a fine restaurant with a friend.
To be honest, I haven’t always felt that other Alaska writers share this sentiment. As compelling as their work is, so often it concerns the natural world and our place in it. So, when Martha Amore and I started reading submissions for the anthology we were editing, Building Fires in the Snow: A Collection of Alaska LGBTQ Short Fiction and Poetry, I expected works relating climbing accidents, backcountry bear encounters or childhoods in remote homestead cabins. Let me say, there is nothing wrong with those stories. I love those stories. I’ve even been part of some of them. But where are our Alaska stories with that glass of literary Chardonnay?
To my great delight, we found them in the submissions we read: stories of a couple interviewing for a rental house and unexpectedly finding a new friend, roommates dealing with a hornet’s nest, a lovelorn young man pouring his heart out to a stranger over drinks at Mad Myrna’s. There were urban bonfire parties, journalists, geologists, fiddle players, bloggers and roller derby enthusiasts. There was the loving mom thinking back on her wild and crazy single life; the long-time married couple, recent transplants to Anchorage, unhappy with the choices they’d made.
Martha and I worked hard to identify writers whose work was set in rural and bush communities, but as so many of us live in Anchorage, many of the stories and poems we read were set there as well. Yet always there was wilderness lurking at the edges, glimpsed in the rearview window, appreciated on an afternoon hike. But more than that, the characters in these stories and poems looked to nature for models of how to live. A lover ponders a difficult relationship by walking the Chugach Mountains alone. Taking a wild and wooly road trip through Pipeline-era Alaska, a young girl finds herself. A man on the cusp of old age accepts his new situation, seeing the way trees cling to life at the edge of a bog. In those stories and poems, the two halves of the dichotomy were wed—the urban and the wild.
Certainly, there was work we read that took place in non-urban locales and where wildness exerted its instructing influence, such as Jerah Chadwick’s stunning poems set in the Aleutians. Here, men grappled with themselves and a life with a lover while hauling in provisions or stoking a potbellied stove.
After all the submissions had been read, we selected works for the anthology from twenty-six contributors, including Martha and myself. These writers, some established pros, others emerging artists, weave the rich tapestry of Alaska life, for the first time using stories and poems from our LGTBQ community.
As I prepare to return to Anchorage for the launch of Building Fires in the Snow, I’m excited to soon be a part of this unique place again. I look forward to dinner at a friend’s overlooking the Inlet, Redoubt letting off steam in the distance. To celebrating the end of a long day’s hike by having an honest Alaska brew at a downtown eatery. To First Friday-ing in the sharp autumn air. To being an explorer again in Alaska’s urban wilds.
There will be launch events for Building Fires in the Snow all over the state this fall. You can check out what’s happening at here at our website and keep up to date on our Facebook page. Martha and I hope to see you at an event and to learn how wilderness and the city come together in your life.