A trip to Zambia, house hunting in Alaska, and a new puppy. Facebook has been serving me some life-changing “on this day” memories.
Six years ago David and I flew to Anchorage to find a house to rent. I was sooooo grumpy that weekend. David likes to remind me that just 10 months earlier I had happily agreed to move with him to Alaska with hardly a second thought. It is true that the previous fall, when he asked me what I thought about his opportunity to take a field engineering position for 2-3 years in Anchorage, I was all in. The adventure was appealing, the money would be good, I could be flexible. Unfortunately our move date depended on how the project timeline developed in Alaska and so I couldn’t even pencil a target into my calendar. Time ticked by and as our move plodded toward reality, my eagerness faded. We sold our house in preparation for the move and it was hard living in the in between. I was engaging new projects in the Portland area, friendships were deepening, and our kids were getting older. The move to Alaska felt increasingly like disruption.
I had just barely landed back in the country after a work trip to Zambia and was not at all interested in moving to Alaska a couple weeks later, but there I was on this August weekend, flying to Alaska to make decisions that would set the course of my life in ways I could not yet imagine. I got off the plane in Anchorage that Friday afternoon in a very bad mood. I was convinced we could not find a good place for our family to live with just this short weekend to look and decide. And besides, I didn’t want to live here anyway.
Poor David was caught between a good career opportunity and an angry wife who was convinced nothing good was about to happen. The grey sky matched my mood and hung heavy over our heads as we got our rental car and left the airport that afternoon. And then, while checking into our hotel near the airport, they casually mentioned that their wifi was down and it might not be up again till the following day. I KNEW IT.
But in fact, we managed to solve that problem quickly by booking an overnight stay at a downtown Bed & Breakfast – with wifi. On to the actual problem. How could we choose a neighborhood and find a house for our family in just three days? Against the cool August air, gloomy sky, and my grumbling spirits, the first thing we looked at, a bland midtown condo, was not the least bit tempting. Now, all these years later, I find myself driving by that place nearly every day and sometimes I remember what it was to look out those windows onto the busy highway and across the street to the high school. Angry, trapped, perched at the edge of panic. We quickly decided No and moved on to dinner where I studied Craigslist and David made a few phone calls and sent emails. I was in a rotten mood.
I suppose we drove around some neighborhoods later that evening. I don’t remember specifically looking at anything else, but perhaps we did. We had several appointments set for the next morning. First up, a house in south Anchorage. It was a newer home and nice. The yard was landscaped nicely and it was huge. The location was a short bike ride over to Kincaid Park. We imagined the layout, where would our family and friends stay when they came to visit as promised? We imagined what it would be like to live in the “suburbs,” a kind of a cookie cutter neighborhood with a nondescript, but nice, house and a landscaped yard and a huge play structure. The house we’d just sold had a long list of needed improvements and its “landscaping” suffered from my insatiable compulsion to dig holes.
Choosing a neighborhood from scratch raised all kinds of questions. What kind of people are we anyway? This house held interesting possibility even if it didn’t feel like an obvious fit. But we weren’t buying it. As renters, the stakes were much lower. This whole exercise was an exploration of self in so many ways. However, when we learned that the landlords were moving out of this house and into the house next door, our decision came clear. Our boys were accustomed to a semi-wild backyard where they could explore and play and even ride their bikes. Learning how to live in a structured backyard under the watchful eye of the landlord? No thank you.
We moved on to look midtown in the Roger’s Park neighborhood, an older community with nice sidewalks and trees and appealing yards, but the houses available there weren’t great options for us. There was another house or two in the mix. And then the house off of Goldenview Drive. That listing seemed pretty much amazing, but it was on the south edge of town, up the side of a mountain and we had no idea what that would actually mean. We made a phone call, but couldn’t see it until Sunday morning so we went to lunch at Fire Island Bake Shop.
I perched at a high table along the crowded back wall of the busy bakery and grumped about our situation, reviewing yet again the impossibility of our task. My mood had clearly not improved by running into the dead end of our morning work and having no afternoon plan. With nothing else to talk about, I flipped open my computer and clicked Craigslist again. But Wait! This is interesting, I said as I read a brand new headline listing a house on the west end of the Park Strip. It boasted views of mountains beyond the Inlet and lots of square footage. I called immediately and within the hour we were meeting the property manager at the house.
We started that house tour on the ground floor, seeing the recently remodeled master bedroom + bath, and large TV room, and then we went down to the basement where I was delighted by the wall to wall bookshelves. Wow! I honestly exclaimed, as if I’d actually ever want to spend time in a windowless basement. Oh, you just wait, the Property Manager said, and turned to lead us back up the stairs and then up another flight to the kitchen/dining/living room.
Sunshine had split the clouds to pieces by the time we stepped into that room, and warm light streamed through the three huge windows that hung across the south wall. The view looked over the houses on the hillside below, and out across the wide water to a horizon line of snow-capped mountains. It was breathtaking. Basement bookcases?Never mind. I can live here! I breathed in that gorgeous view. David breathed in sweet relief.
But there was one last property we needed to check. We had 24 hours to make our decision. The next morning we drove out to see the house up on the mountainside, south of town. Set on a fairly secluded 1/4 acre with 2-story floor to ceiling south facing windows the unobstructed inlet/mountain views were stunning. It was like a retreat center. Something you’d see in an Alaska travel magazine as you added bullet points to your bucket list. It was the same price as that house downtown. We were in a position to choose. But how?
We took a short walk around the block and studied the neighboring yards – this one had bikes in the yard, that one a trampoline. We imagined what our boys would experience, spending a couple years living way up here on the side of a mountain. We calculated David’s commute and considered the impact of snow and ice. We hadn’t come to any conclusions as we backed out of the gravel driveway and turned our car back toward town. Just about then a black bear cub scrambled across the road and alarm bells rang loud in my head. I don’t know how to be a mother in Alaska!
And so there we were. Sunday afternoon with a decision to make. While we worked on that, we took a tourist detour and drove down to Aleyeska for the tram ride up the mountain. The annual Aleyeska blueberry festival was in full swing and sunshine was beating back clouds to make a cheerful backdrop for our deliberations. My camera battery was dead, but this picture from my phone is what showed up yesterday in my Facebook memory feed. Back down from the tram ride, I phoned a friend and she listened as I quickly outlined our choices. What I’d seen. What I thought. She knows me well and heard the layers of fear and excitement, frustration and uncertainty all tangled in my words. She helped me sort through my weekend of thoughts and feelings, looking for some wisdom for this moment of decision, then she asked the illuminating question: What will you do in the deep winter dark? My answer was clear and strong: I would need lights. I would need streets I could walk. I would need access to people. We left Aleyeska and met the property manager at the house downtown.
I started writing this post because I’d been thinking about the rain that fell steadily out my window all day. That picture of the David and me had just come through my facebook feed, and I recalled the moment we exchanged our signatures and money for keys to the house. The property manager turned to me and said, Just remember, the blue sky doesn’t come with the house.
I never imagined I’d still be in Alaska, 6 years later. I don’t like Alaska in August now anymore than I liked it on that first hard August weekend. I still have mixed up emotions about living here. One moment you’ll hear me tell delighted stories of awe and wonder about the #alaskamagic of this place. But very possibly my next sentence will be a complaint about the rain or the bears or the very long way from home.
I’m feeling more grump than awe and wonder these days. The grey August sky has been hard. I’m grateful for our house and I love our neighborhood. Just a few blocks from where we started, it turns out we really could choose our neighborhood in just three days. But having bought a house near the Lagoon last fall, this is the first August that I’ve lived in Alaska and haven’t had the gift of a mountain view out my window. It’s also the first summer since we’ve lived here that I haven’t escaped for an Oregon fix of sunshine and produce and family and friends.
But I’m gonna be okay. I run in the rain and I watch for long views. I have walkable streets and lots of people. Sometimes the sun even breaks through and I rejoice in its warmth and sweet light.