In April of 2005, I was in a "going nowhere painfully slow" relationship that I'd been mired in for over 4 years. Sitting in front of the computer, wondering how long I was going to continue the path of my life the way it was, wondering what I was going to do with my life after I turned 35, and pondering my life up to that moment, I decided to look at prices for tickets to Anchorage for the following October. With credit card in hand, and totally on a whim, I offered $350 on Priceline for a ticket from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Anchorage, Alaska. Fate smiled on me, and the price was accepted. I could stop here and say "the rest is history," but that would ruin the story, wouldn't it!
After I booked the ticket, there was no toning down my excitement or enthusiasm. I began to think about the things I wanted to do for the 10 days I would be in Alaska over my birthday. I began looking for places to stay, things to do, places to go, and fantasizing about how wonderful Alaska was going to be and what a life altering trip I was going to have. I wanted to see the hospital I was born in (Providence Hospital in Anchorage.) I wanted to see the home my parents lived on when I was born (off of Nelchina Street in Anchorage.) I wanted to take the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks, a 10 hour train ride that would show me not only the coast, but the landscape changes from Anchorage north.
I spent all of my free time (ok, and some of my work day too) from the day I booked my ticket to the day I left for Anchorage researching what activities were available after tourist season ended. I found that all of the marine tours closed at the end of September, so no marine tour would be taken on my trip. I was disappointed that I wouldn't be able to see whales, marine life, calving glaciers and the normal things that tourists look forward to seeing when they come to Alaska during the summer months. However, coming in October gave me the opportunity to see and do other things that tourists who come in the colder months get to do. Plus, it gave me the opportunity to act like I would if I lived in Anchorage, instead of acting like a total tourist. Because money was tight, I booked stays at youth hostels in Anchorage and Fairbanks. I bought tickets ahead of time for a play at Cyrano's Playhouse on 4th Avenue in Anchorage. I printed out all the bus routes I'd be using on the People Mover. I planned a day to visit the Anchorage Museum. I purchased my train tickets for the flagstop train from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and decided to fly back from Fairbanks instead of taking the train so that I'd be able to spend additional time in Anchorage. I checked the tourism and travel website for Anchorage daily from April to October to see what was going on during all the months I wasn't there, and for the activities happening during the time I'd be there. I even read the Anchorage Daily News on a daily basis just to keep up on what was happening in Anchorage! I planned everything down to the minute, including time it would take me to drive places in my rental car, and how long I'd stay at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks. I drove all my friends nuts before my trip by talking about it non stop. My heart was firmly rooted in Alaska before my body was, and I didn't have any room in it for the "go nowhere relationship" I'd been participating in. The relationship finally ended for good a mere few weeks before the beginning of my trip. So, when I got on the plane to go to Alaska, I was open and ready for any and all opportunities and experiences I would have on my trip.
I had everything planned out: travel routes, time schedules, I'd even planned on attending a job fair when I was here, just to see what the job market was like. The thing I found though, is that life never really goes according to plan. My mother says that I'm a master of "planned spontaneity," and this trip was no exception. Yes, I had it all planned, but on the train ride, I met a lawyer and his new wife who told me something I will never forget. I was sitting there with my itinerary, and he said to me, "Cristine, sometimes you have to throw your itinerary out the window and take hold of random opportunities that afford themselves to you. More often than not, those small opportunities end up allowing you to have experiences you would have never dreamed of. To live big, you have to take big risks." Up to that point, I'd followed my plans to the letter. When I got to Fairbanks, I took that lawyer's words to heart and opened myself up to the Spirit of Alaska and let me take it where it led.
I met a wonderful Tlinkit Indian man at the youth hostel in Fairbanks. He was there for the Alaska Federation of Natives conference. He asked me to go to a place north of Fairbanks called Chena Hot Springs. Big city girl that I was, I imagined being taken by a man I didn't know into the wilderness of Alaska and being killed and buried where no one could find me. However, I had a dream that night that an eagle landed on my back, wrapped its wings around me, and just said the word "trust." The next morning, when Jeff came down the stairs wearing a sweatshirt with a native American symbol of an eagle on the front of it, I took that as a sign that going to Chena with him was the right thing, and what I was supposed to do.
Chena was amazing. I didn't even know that a place like that existed in Alaska, or that I'd meet someone as amazing as Jeff. He told me about the native peoples of Alaska, gave me an appreciation for their culture, their heritage, their humanity, their art, and their love of the land. He treated me better in 2 days than the man that I'd dated for almost 5 years, and he didn't want anything from me but my friendship. I didn't see the Northern Lights that night, but I was so happy, and my heart was so full, that if I had seen the lights that night, I think my heart would have burst from the joy.
The next day was my birthday, and as I headed back to Anchorage on the plane, I was still open for anything that came. When I got back to the youth hostel in Anchorage, I was invited by some new friends to go out of the night. After going to the Peanut Farm for dinner and to watch a game, we headed back to the youth hostel. Sue, the gal driving, looked up in the sky and said, "I think the Northern Lights are going to come out soon." All I saw was a cloud. She pointed out that it wasn't a cloud, as clouds don't "glow green." What followed was nothing less than a symphony of color across the black sky above. With every loop and twirl of color in the blackness above, I felt that this display was my invitation and welcome home to Alaska. It was the best birthday present that I've ever gotten.
We decided to go to Seward the next day. We stayed at the Hotel Seward, with all of us sharing a room on the floor where we shared a bathroom with the staff. I spent the day we were there walking around Seward and going to the Sealife Museum. On the way back to Anchorage so that I could catch my flight, we took a side trip to Exit Glacier, just outside of Seward. I watched my last sunset over the Cook Inlet, and it was time for me to head home.
I never did make it to the job fair or the Museum of the North. My trip the the Anchorage Museum was informative and insightful. The play at Cyrano's was so much fun and the environment was inviting and friendly. The flagstop train ride was such a blast. We stopped along the way to pick up travelers literally in the middle of nowhere, just to drop them, their dogs and their generators off in front of cabins just north of nowhere. In those 10 days during 2005, I felt more at home and more at peace and more grounded than I ever had in my life. I knew that I had to live in Alaska. The spirit of this place, when I opened myself to it, poured in and filled every cell of my being. Leaving Alaska and flying back to Virginia Beach, I felt my heart being ripped out of my chest. I was crying before the plane even taxied to the runway! The entire plane ride back to Virginia, I was making plans to move to Alaska. By my next birthday, I was living in Anchorage.
Now, two years after my initial trip, my life has changed in more ways that I could have ever imagined. I'm still in touch with some of the people I met at the youth hostels I stayed at here, and I will never forget the others I met that left their mark on my life during those 10 days. They will never know how much their kindness, friendship and advice changed my life and helped me become the person I am today, and who I will be in the future.
Walking boldly into 2008 with my arms open wide to all that life has to offer me, I'm excited about my life, excited about the friendships I will make this year, and the ones I will continue nurturing this coming year. I find myself more in love with Alaska than I thought possible and love it more every day. I've lived, truly lived, more in the past year and a half that I've been here than during my 35 years before my first trip here.
Alaska isn't just a place, it's an experience, a spirit, a way of life. Alaska is my heart.