Alaska is a unique place, and traveling around this state is an exercise in eccentricities not encountered anywhere else in the country. If you’re from here, you know what I mean. First of all, it’s huge. If you plop Alaska on a map of the contiguous (and if you’re Alaskan, you understand the difference between that and “continental”) United States, it would stretch quite literally from coast to coast. It would take four days to drive across it, if it had a road across it, which it doesn’t. It also takes about five days to drive here from the nearest other state, and by “here” I mean to the Canada-Alaska border, which is still a few hours from the nearest town and seven hours from anything you’d call a “city.” But the roads you’d travel to get there cover only a tiny fraction of the state and are roads, not highways.
All of our intrastate travel off the road system is by ferry, air taxi, Alaska Airlines jet for the privileged few communities with big enough runways, or private (think forty year old Cessna, not Citation or Lear) airplane. Communities are small, small, small. Tiny. They might not even have running water. Once you fly in, you don’t know exactly when you’ll get to fly out – the weather is unpredictable.
Because I make a big portion of my living from this kind of travel, I am pretty well-versed in the things that, though passing for “usual” in Alaska, are pretty strange to Outsiders. And yes, we really do call them that. There’s Alaska, and there’s Outside. Here are a few quirks of traveling in Alaska:
Normal end-of-stay behavior includes removing the spare bed’s blanket and comforter from the curtain rod where you wedged them in a desperate attempt to keep out the 24-hour summer daylight.
You made your flight reservations simply by calling the reservations desk in another village and giving them your name.
Watching the jet circle overhead four times before departing into the sky is a familiar feeling. You’re stuck where you are for ANOTHER day because that damn Seattle pilot is too chicken to land in Kotz in the fog.
In the more visited communities (the ones with tourism), playing the spectator sport of watching tourists get off the plane and visibly freak out because they don’t have cell service keeps you entertained. The steady parade of “do you have wifi?” inquiries directed to the bartender in the half hour after a plane lands are pretty funny, too. When the wifi network is called “Ask Bartender,” it’s even better.
Your bag may well have gotten bumped to make room for cargo (your bag does not make the air taxi service money, but the cargo does) which means you may never get it during your stay and there is not thing one you can do about it.
You smirk at the tourist who gets on an Era or Pen Air flight with two bulky carryons and is stunned to see there are no overhead compartments. She looks to me: “Are you using the space under your seat?” Me: “Yes, it’s for my feet.” Bonus points when this happens on a 40 minute hop to Cordova instead of the four hour drone over to the Pribilofs. Chances are, though, that I’ll just let her put her stupid bag under my seat because this is Alaska and fundamentally we are supposed to take care of each other here.*
Speaking of Era and Pen Air, if you’re an Alaskan you’re used to showing up just 30 minutes before your flight because there’s no security to contend with. Bring whatever you want, no one’s gonna check. Hell, go crazy, even bring WATER to drink on your flight.
If the local six seater shuttle plane, affectionately nicknamed the Vomit Comet, is grounded by weather, a crab boat is a reasonable alternative to get to your destination. A few days later you are faced with a choice: return via Vomit Comet, or take a ride on the village hovercraft? That was pretty much my own personal Sophie’s Choice.
The seat assignment lottery doesn’t even faze you. People who lay claim to particular seats on intra-state flights are in for a disappointing day, because weight and balance trumps all on small planes. The only thing that annoys an Alaskan on an airplane is someone kicking up a fuss and making it possible to miss the weather window, so sit where the flight attendant tells you to sit and shut up.
On your first night in a new village, if you accidentally lock your laptop in the clinic office, you can get it by going to the bar to ask where the mayor’s house is, because the mayor is married to the clinic manager and the bartender will tell you where their house is. But he’ll also tell you that everyone’s at bingo tonight so you should to go to the community hall to find her and she’ll give you the key. And that’s exactly how it happens. Try THAT in the city.
The TSA pays six people to open the security line to screen a total of two passengers.
You watch with bemused patience as a federal employee in town for some meeting or another acts imperious and demanding at the rental car counter (which is also the counter at the diner) – if you’re used to traveling in Alaska, you can quickly spot those who aren’t.
When you get home you spend half a day reflexively popping your hand off the steering wheel to greet passing drivers before you realize you’re doing it and everyone in the big city of Anchorage thinks you’re crazy. Because strangers don’t wave.
*You will find that in the bigger Alaska cities, this ethos is no longer apparent. It’s one of the biggest tragedies of my life and it’s making it more and more painful to return to Anchorage after each trip. People in cities don’t give a crap about each other and they treat each other as disposable, most likely because of people who didn’t grow up here and moved up from elsewhere. This is a new state of affairs in Alaska; and being a young state (1954) it’s quite sad it only really took about 50 years for Outside to take over. One of these days I just won’t get on that return flight home. Though today, I was cheered by my neighbor, who found my keys where my exhausted self had left them – dangling in the community mailbox keyhole – and figured out whose they were by walking around hitting the “panic” button on the fob until he heard my truck’s alarm going off in my garage. Oh, Alaska, you’re still in Anchorage sometimes.