There are signs. The fireweed is in bloom. The morning sky is gray and pink. It begins to rain.
Red sky in morning -
It works like this: when the purple blossoms start at the bottom of the fireweed stalk, denizens of the north know summer is still in full swing. When the tips of the fireweed turn deep purple. Everything prepares for change.
The salmon are running. Having spawned they're zombies, literally decaying while they swim. They're no good to eat unless you're a bear. Then you reach into a stream, pull one out, take a couple bites, and toss it aside. The riverbanks smell like garbage dumps. They're thick with decaying fish.
The humpbacks are bubble-net fishing. They swim circles around schools of herring, surrounding the fish in a cylinder of cavitation that traps them as surely as a seine net. Then they take turns rising up through the bubble tube, mouths open, swallowing fish by the hundreds.
The sun rises at five AM now. It sets by nine.
The air smells like ice.
Coming from the city I find it remarkable that you can find people almost anywhere on the planet.
I was born in New York city, and lived almost all my childhood between there and the suburbs of either New York or Chicago. I went to university in cities like Miami, Florida. My jobs have always been close to major metropolitan centers like, San Francisco, California. These are all places full of people. At any time of day you can't move more than a couple hundred yards without running into someone going somewhere.
And they run into you.
When I got my first California house, I discovered a road that went over the first set of peaks in the Mount Hamilton range. Riding over the crest of Mount Misery, I discovered an uninhabited valley just beyond the hills. There, no more than ten miles from the sprawl of San Jose and Silicon Valley, was a land of manzanita and rattlesnakes that stretched as far as I could see. In fact, I knew from maps that the nearest big town to my east was Fresno, some 100 miles away, and with a telescope I could see the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada range.
That's a lot of space. It's sparsely populated, but lots of people go back there. Yet, there was a strange sense of agoraphobia that came with that space. It was sort of a mini version of looking into the Grand Canyon. I'd take my mountain bike and venture over Mount Misery, into Hall's canyon and up Mount Hamilton behind it. I'd have to push myself to go into it. It was like a controlled descent into a bottomless pit I wasn't sure I could get out of. Irrational fears came into my mind.
What if I was attacked by mountain lions? What if I was trampled by deer? If I fell off the side of a cliff I might not be discovered for days.
Compared to the Joshua Tree National Monument, Hall's Valley is a major metropolis. Lots of people from San Jose go into it to "get away" for a while. Criminals do drug deals back there. Gangs dump bodies. And occasionally, mountain lions do eat someone.
But if you ride a bike back there for a couple hours you'll be passed by automobiles and hikers. Lots of other bikers. It's rare to spend more than an hour there without seeing someone. You're really not alone.
It took me a couple years mountain biking back there before I became entirely comfortable in that relatively desolate space. It took a long time for me to become comfortable not hearing anything except the occasional sound of a passing plane, crickets, and birds. Coming from the city, my security blanket was the ready availability of stuff: electric power, internal combustion engines, internet storefronts, 7-Eleven clerks for whom English was a fourth language.
Then I moved to Alaska. It's easy to be close to the earth here. Lots of times there's nobody around but you and the planet.
I bicycled up a trail this weekend. The hill wasn't nearly as steep as my familiar hill in Los Gatos, but it was muddy and full of obstacles. Roots and rocks. When I got to the top after four miles of what would hardly be called a climb in California, I turned to look from where I had come.
There was nobody there. Only the ocean. The ice. A couple thousand miles of air between me and a tiny place called Okmok, which is still not as far as you can go and still be in Alaska, but so far from anywhere the department of tourism has to highlight the lichen-watching season among the primary reasons for visiting.
I remembered California, then. I remembered Starbucks and sunshine and my house in the suburbs. Traffic jams and radio stations across the dial.
I remembered my children.
It occurred to me that we are so alone in space, and so close in heart.
We walk through one. But we should always live in the other.
I have to live in the other.
You can be anywhere, and never be alone.
In Juneau you can walk through the parking lot of any store and find vacant cars idling. Keys in the ignition. Radio blaring. Nobody home.
This morning I came to work and I mentioned to a native Juneau-ite that I'd seen running cars left in parking lots, their owners obviously off for so quick a jaunt they didn't feel the need to incur the inefficiency to stop and restart the engine.
"In California," I said, "it would be the obligation of any passerby to either hop in and drive away, or at least reach in and turn off the engine."
"Well," said my native co-worker, "In Juneau it's rude to get involved with someone else's business. And if you stole the car, it's not like you could actually drive it anywhere."
He was referring to the fact that you could drive the entire length of every road in the Juneau area and hardly put 80 miles on your car, even accounting for doubling back to get out of dead ends.
When I got home that night I mentioned to my landlord that it was so different from California, this unabashed trusting in humanity to leave a car running while you bolt into the grocery for a gallon of milk.
She said, "Cars do get stolen here. Usually, it's kids, though."
"Just kids. They usually drive into something or get stuck in the mud. The owner almost always gets his car back."
I got the same response from a friend when I mentioned that nobody locks anything in Juneau. Not their car doors (God forbid, they'd never get back into them to shut them off), not their homes, not their garages or sheds. One suspects there's no need for a vault at the bank.
"Oh, there's no theft," he said. "Only time something will get stolen is when school's out. It's kids."
"Kids. Like stealing your car stereo, or maybe your laptop."
"Yeah. But they always catch them."
In California, most theft is caused by people of the age we'd say branded them as "kids". Only in California, we also call them hoodlums or criminals or miscreants. We lock our homes, install alarms, buy and feed vicious guard dogs to protect our stuff from kids. An MSNBC special I saw yesterday said most murders are committed by people under the age of twenty.
The office manager at the place I consult has had his truck stolen. It was taken on a joyride and dumped in the Gasteaneau Channel. They fished it out with a crane and declared it totalled. He'd had his briefcase inside at the time. Lost his laptop and all of his paperwork.
"It was just kids," he said. There was no anger. No need for retribution. He doesn't know if they ever caught the ones who took his truck. Doesn't care.
For all anyone would care to know, there's no crime in Juneau. No reports of grand-theft auto. No street gang violence. No jail overcrowding. Read the police blotter: cat in tree. Husband arguing with wife, throws bric-a-brac cabinet out the back door. Man cited for public drunkenness on Broad Street. Taken to the tank to dry out. Man shoots at bear within city limits. Given ticket. Couple caught fishing without license. Cited and fined.
Car stolen by juveniles, recovered.
Imagine a place that does not require children to face penalties as if they were ten years older.
And it would be as far away from Florida as you could get.
Last winter, a man came out of a city-sponsored square dance, got drunk and morose, found a can of gasoline in a trailered boat, and set the boat on fire.
Oddly, the flames from the burning gasoline did not greatly harm the boat. But they did ignite the 100-year old church which happened to be standing right next to where the boat was parked.
The church burned to the foundation. The congregation relocated to another nearby church building, that allowed them to share space while they were waiting for their church to be rebuilt.
The sum and total of public outcry amounted to: "He probably shouldn't have got drunk so close to the church."
"How come nobody cares about the church?"
"Why do you say that?"
"Well, why isn't the guy all over the newspaper and television so we can revile him as the slime-eating jellyfish-spined cur he is?"
"Wait. Are we talking about the same thing? I think he got drunk, or something."
See, in Alaska there's a long history of people getting liquored up and burning down irreplacable monuments. And anyway, it was only a 100-year old church.
It's peaceful in Juneau. People are kind to each other. People take care of their children.
It rains all the time.
The other day I was talking to someone from Fairbanks. Fairbanks has the worst weather of any inhabited location on the planet. In the summertime, the temps are over 90F with high humidity. In the winter, it's -40. In the springtime, mosquitoes the size of baby thoroughbreds cruise the atmosphere in phalanxes of bloodsuckery so severe they've been known to bring down caribou by desanguination. In fall, temperature inversions trap every particle of smoke and engine exhaust at the level of the nasal passages of a typical human so that breathing becomes unhealthy.
I was speaking to a woman on behalf of my client when she asked, "Where are you located?"
"Well, I'm from California but I'm in Juneau, now."
"Uh oh. Something I should know about Juneau?"
"Well, it's just the weather. I was in Juneau once. I had to get out. The rain drove me crazy."
I said, "Let me get this straight: you live in a place where if you leave your dog out too long it will either die of hypoxia, heat stroke, hypothermia, or blood loss, and you think rain is a problem?"
No. Actually, I didn't say that.
Because I intend to get paid by my employer I said, "Well, heh. Yes, we do get a bit of rain."
I wonder if they have any trouble with their kids up there.
In Alaska, there are busses and trains. Bears walk the streets. Your business meeting will get rescheduled when the salmon are running. There's a gun for every person. Everyone knows how to tie a bowline, a square knot, and the kind that lets you loosen up or snug down at will.
Everyone goes outside on the weekends, no matter what the weather is. When you come to work on Monday, if you don't have a good story to tell about spraining your ankle on a trail, or getting bit by a halibut, or having a bear cross your path, they presume you had a family obligation or a visit to the emergency room.
They don't understand how things are done in the lower-48, even though most of them (us) are from there. They don't want to know.
The politicians are crooked and people vote just to get it out of the way. By the time the polls open up here, the presidential elections are already called.
Nobody cares about first run movies or getting the latest CD.
They worry about your boat. The size of your catch. Whether or not you're okay to go hike another trail next weekend with that sprained ankle.
It's relativistic here. Like we're passing the rest of the continent at 0.9c. So fast each of us sees the other's clocks slowed down.
But one of us is in the real world, with real time.
And everything else is a dream of the heart.
Deep purple fireweed, almost gone. Winter's coming.
While the rest of the country swelters, Alaskan mornings smell like ice.