A journey to the ends of the Earth. This is one man’s journey to Barrow, Alaska and how his appreciation for life thrived, through the deprivation of things.
San Diego, California is a fantastic place to turn 30. If Portland, Oregon is where “young people go to retire,” in San Diego, those of relative means emerge from unsteady twentysomethinghood onto a palm-studded terrain bursting with occasion for sensorial gratification. Temperate and affluent, it’s a petri dish of pleasurable ways to pass the time.
I spent three years there, migrating from Oregon in time to clock in my third decade with a grilled cheese party (my inner five-year-old was thrilled) in Mission Beach, a notably revelrous node of a town distinguished in revelry. Posted up in its gentrifying inner core, my strolling radius traversed no less than five renowned breweries. (Mike Hess, your Vienna cream ale still haunts my dreams.) I sailed. I joined a flying club. I went to Mexico and tasted their beer, too, and it was very good.
It was prime easy-going living. But eventually it grew dull, and betrayed my instinct that life is best lived as a crusade of progress. My inclination to better the world—and myself—plateaued, and by the end of 2013, I was restless. Two things affected me around then. One was reading Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, an outstanding chronicle of the 1804-06 Corps of Discovery commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, and, particularly, of its young leader, Meriwether Lewis. Contemplating his 31st birthday in mid-expedition, Lewis wrote:
“I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now sorely feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. But since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future . . . to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.”
— Meriwether Lewis
Spelling aside, Lewis’s sensibility is recognizable to anyone who’s crossed the same threshold: the ripening of the young adult mind. As I eased in my own thirties, I felt like I was reading a diary entry I could have written two centuries ago. The second, and far greater, impact was the chance to stake out a new life in the Arctic, where my girlfriend had landed a teaching job. What exactly I would do there was not yet clear to me, but what I knew I would not do is settle for a lifelong pageant of what-ifs.
And so—not without some regret for the fish tacos and artisan meatballs going unconsumed on my account—like Odysseus shoving off from the isle of the Lotus-Eaters, I traded my board shorts for Bean boots and a parka and struck out for the far north.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CABIN FEVER
At the other end of every conceivable continuum from Southern California is Alaska’s North Slope. The city of Barrow, stylized the “Top of the World” by its 4,500 residents, lies 320 miles above the Arctic Circle on a frigid wedge of tundra joining the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas of the Arctic Ocean. Its unpaved roads connect to nothing but themselves—a blessing in disguise with its $6.50-per-gallon gasoline. It is at once America’s northernmost city, and perhaps its most alien. In terms of geography, climate, and culture, it has more in common with the Moon than the mainland. Sixty percent of the population is Iñupiaq Eskimo. Their harvest of bowhead whales, seals, caribou, fish, and polar bears carries on a subsistence tradition that predates Christ, the Great Pyramids, and the first written laws. Subsistence remains vital to the social fabric of a generous people who have long considered themselves blessed with abundance, a notion tested by the relatively recent introduction of western concepts like private property and wages. Crossing the 71st parallel doesn’t come with a passport stamp, but make no mistake: living here is living abroad. This is their country.
Arriving on the frontier with a partner has several obvious advantages. (I don’t know what the Tinder scene is like here, but am grateful I can leave that subject unexplored.) Still, when the mercury dips below minus forty and the two-month stretch of polar night descends upon the town, our one-bedroom apartment can feel cramped. As odd as it sounds, this is by design: spending this much time indoors with another person, undistracted, really lets you know them. Every facet, good and bad, soon shows itself. Since we both have longer-term ambitions to live overseas, it’s hard to think of a better litmus test for our compatibility than the crucible of Barrow.
Most people we’ve met here assume we’re married, probably because most couples here are. After correcting bus drivers, dentists, and coworkers’ conjectures from “wife” to “girlfriend” several times, I let it slide. I think the assumption says more about the meaning others assign to marriage and partnership than it does our situation. It’s reasonable to expect commitment in an adventure of this proportion, but in observing the way some people elevate, say, a wedding ring, to a talisman against heartbreak, we’ve acknowledged what and who we are not, and grown closer in the process.
APPRECIATION THROUGH DEPRIVATION
The lack of distractions extends beyond our own walls. Barrow is an ascetic nirvana. The city is “damp,” meaning that alcohol can be possessed with a license, but cannot be purchased or sold here. (The other seven villages on the North Slope are dry.) Grocery costs are double to triple those in urban areas. There are a handful of restaurants, none too compelling for the cost of a plate. We get a box of organic produce flown in once a week, and prepare 98% of our meals at home. Our diet has improved, and includes less meat—largely because it’s so damn expensive. It helps that there isn’t a movie theater, a bowling alley, or so much as a Taco Bell for 500 miles. You’d better believe this town gets into high school football, though:
I don’t mean to suggest we’ve cut ourselves off from the good stuff. We have a stockpile of cheese that would warrant an intervention in decent places; our favourite decadence is seizing DiGiornio thin-crust pizzas when they’re on sale and blanketing them with extra mozzarella. Glass breaks easily in transit, so I’ve cultivated a deep gratitude for boxed wine drunk from former pesto jars. We relished a care package of Trader Joe’s goodies from my aunt. It’s hard not to cherish finite, fleeting mementos from civilization in these far-flung environs. As the kids say, it’s the little things.
Burning off indulgent calories can be daunting in Barrow’s snot-freezing climate, and it was a qualm I had about moving here. I needn’t have worried; my fitness routine has become as orderly as an inmate’s. Getting around without a car, I accrue 24% more steps per week than in San Diego. After work, I walk to the high school, which opens its weight room to the public. The city’s Piuraagvik (“a place to play”) has a basketball court, a climbing wall, and a racquetball court. There’s a covered hockey rink with two barged-in Zambonis (you know, just in case one goes down). The public health department offers yoga, Zumba, and Insanity classes. I stick to the treadmill, but I know a few hardcore runners with studded shoes for sprinting across ice. Even shivering has merit as exercise.
MISSIONARIES, MERCENARIES, AND CRAZY PEOPLE
Alaska, people will tell you, tends to attract individuals from one (or more) of the above philosophical categories. It’s tough to argue. Barrow is exploited for its inflated salaries—the 1970s oil boom vastly enriched the North Slope—but also by those who relish worthy challenges in which they can play a greater role. With 7,500 residents, the entire North Slope contains slightly fewer people than the average U.S. zip code. A single voice travels further here.
My cause is sustainable housing and clean energy, which on most days puts me squarely in the missionary column. Much of rural Alaska is a patchwork of isolated, costly diesel power grids and neglected, overcrowded homes. There’s a lot of good to be done for communities that intend to outlast the shrivelling oil economy and withstand a climate that is increasingly turning against them. While that’s brought focus to the foreground of my work life, the scale of the task might ultimately qualify me for the third category: crazy people.
No written volume better animates the cranks and oddballs peppering Alaska than John McPhee’s 1975 frontier travelogue Coming into the Country. He meets characters like “Evil” Alice Powell, a steely roadhouse keeper in Talkeetna who prefers employing religious nuts to hippies because “they won’t rip off the cigarettes and the booze.” Another time, on a 737 into Kotzebue:
“One Captain Clayton came on the horn and said he would be pleased to play the harmonica for us as soon as he had finished a Fig Newton. Awhile later, he announced that his mouth was now solvent—and, above clouds, he began to play. He played beautifully.”
A friend once quipped of San Diego’s pronounced New Age vibe that he couldn’t pass a month there without a comment on his aura. By contrast, the Arctic offers much to the soul at odds with the languor of utopian existence, a potent deposit of the storied individuals you roam the wide world hoping to encounter. It sends a siren call to those enamoured with the extreme; in a former career, one of our friends physically located and relocated the South Pole. Couchsurfing.com has delivered us six fascinating itinerants since August, including a world-class Swiss kick boxer and a pair of North American Scrabble champions. Obviously, no one who comes to Barrow is just “passing through.” Whether it’s snapping photos of snowy owls or checking something off a bucket list, all the people who come this way have something in common: they made it happen.
A WORD ABOUT INTENTION
Nobody gets what they want out of life by accident. Now, I wouldn’t recommend anyone sort out their life out by retracing my steps. For one, it’s really cold and expensive, and there are hungry polar bears. But I can guarantee that whatever you might be looking for—focus, fulfilment, love, travel, health, career success—won’t be found where you’re most comfortable.
The good news is that no sweeping romantic gesture or career overhaul is in order. Little outward change is required at all. Intention is rarely a loud voice proclaiming itself from rooftops. Rather, it’s the shield that turns aside life’s unimportant distractions. It is the first, and most important, in a series of deliberate choices that focus time and effort toward a desire, whether that’s finishing a degree, learning an instrument, or simply introducing a deeper shade of adventure to your life. The aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry spoke of flying as a mental release “from the tyranny of petty things.” That’s the idea: the more focused your intention, the more it liberates you from trifles.
Intention should not be confused with unyielding idealistic rigor. Similarly, to be flexible and to be vague are not quite the same. Both are extremes that spawn disappointment. However, there is a fertile angle where intention meets flexibility that compounds the momentum of success. I was heartened by Captain Lewis’ revelation that he, too, felt discontent with his misapplied youth. To him, as history testifies, intention made all the difference between charting a new world and just walking around a lot.
To me, it’s made the difference between discovering a more capable version of myself and simply running out the clock in a cold, weird place. I’m healthier, more productive, and more appreciative of the people and the world around me. I have a good nine-to-five working on energy grants. With renewed vigour, I commit spare hours to my passions for building science and writing, communing with a miscellany of enlightened colleagues across the country who I enjoy and admire.
Life at the top of the world is good. Life almost anywhere can be, I’d argue, with nimble expectations guided by a conscious outlook. Depending where you’re starting from—and we all start in different places—this can take considerable effort to establish. It’s tempting to take it easy and not look back. But take it from someone who’s done both: taking it easy is never the easy way in the end.
Main article image courtesy of Eric Chandler at www.ericchandler.me