Six Notes on Juneau, Alaska
I arrived in Juneau, Alaska about 17 hours after I left the Boston area. I must confess that I did expect most people to be baseball hat and flannel wearing men with pickup trucks and maybe that’s not far off though this is also Subaru country. But, city folk need to admit that often times we associate a simple life with simple minds. There are plenty of smart, educated thinkers that choose to live in a place where a simple life is possible, where one’s health, family, and lifestyle trump work or bigger picture goals.
Alaska is a place where many make a home for themselves because it allows for a simple, relatively safe life. True, some may come here because they are running away from something, and others may just end up here for work, but, those that choose to make this home usually do so because it’s a winter wonderland of sorts that enables one to take advantage of Mother Nature and outdoor sports year-round.
People around here hike in the winter, ski both downhill and cross country, and snowshoe, among other things. There are many more miles of hiking trails than there are roads in Juneau. There’s also a decent art scene and good government jobs, with pensions and possibly even no FICA. Plus there’s the annual payment one gets for living here, which was reportedly about $1500 last year. Oh, and there’s the cheap wild Alaskan salmon.
For most that’s not enough to leave the Lower 48, but there’s something alluring about Alaska. There’s a kind of peace here that can be found in the mountains all around you, the snow covered trees, the drive-thru coffee shacks, the glacier. I never thought I’d find myself saying this, but I’d like to come back to Alaska in the summer and explore more – walk some trails at the glacier, go on a fishing trip, take a helo (helicopter) to a dog sledding ride, go to Ketchikan, Sitka, and Anchorage, and maybe even leave the Southeast.
For now, here’s a list of observations from a day in Juneau.
1. The must have gear here includes: a rain jacket and XtraTuf Boots. Monday morning I was in Rainbow, the local health food grocery store, and I asked an employee “what are those boots called again?” To which she responded, “you’re new to Juneau, eh?” Yup. “They’re called XtraTuf. They’re really warm and comfortable, though Bogs are warmer but Tuffboots have better traction.” Nuff said.
2. People are proud to live in Alaska. Overall it seems to be a choice but for those who landed here for work. Most locals are welcoming and it seems easier to meet people here than in a bigger city, but be careful of putting down their town.
3. People seem to talk about their retirement funds, even when they are only about 30. Maybe that’s because many have government jobs and know it’s an option to retire earlier than most Americans. Maybe it’s also because unlike us city folk, they know how to relax.
4. People seem concerned not only with their own wellbeing but seem proud to live in a state that’s financially in the black and where the environment is important. Apparently all electricity in Juneau is sourced from hydro power from dams but the power often goes out. People seem so used to power outages that they know where the candles and flashlights are and are rarely phased, even if it’s due to an avalanche warning.
5. Most people seem trusting and friendly. It’s a bit bizarre at first after a year in Boston and seven in NYC, but Juneau residents seem quite genuine. I was at the post office and a woman with a baby in her sling offered me a stamp after the machine failed to work for me. I was here not even two days and my friend’s friends lent me their car and any gear I needed to borrow. People see folks they know in the grocery stores and around town. Some don’t always lock their doors. It’s nice to see there are places like this but it’s not averse to crime, no town or city is. It happens everywhere and proof of that is the Department of Corrections office I passed today, and the hobos and addicts that hang down on Franklin near the soup kitchen.
6. One thing Juneau residents have in common is a near obsession with Alaska Airlines miles. Juneau is part of what is referred to as Southeast Alaska, or as my Barrow-based cousin said, the rainforest. The point is, if one lives in Anchorage, there are a number of airlines that fly to the lower 48 and outside of the U.S. But, in the Southeast region, which includes Juneau, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka, and a few other spots, which might be stops on a flight dubbed the “Milk Run,” one is dependent on AA –Alaska Airlines. So deep is this dependency on miles to make those much needed occasional escapes that some often count how many minutes it takes to get their luggage at baggage claim because AA will give you 2500 miles if you have to wait more than 20 minutes.
Sure, Juneau is isolated and small at just 31,000-strong but it has character. There’s a warm vibe from many I’ve met that explains to me why some would feel a suburb of 80,000 is an undesirable place to live. Suburbia is just a temporary respite from the everyday chaos that is the conventional American existence. It’s only when forced outside thickly settled areas that one can truly relax, if they let themselves. Then again I’m just a woman on holiday.