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A northern light

3 min read

Felicia collects fountain pens; I collect pencils. We each have an appreciation for the other's preferred tools, even with often vastly different tastes. This afternoon she showed me a pen she'd discovered. The pen was a dark blue streaked with clouds and wisps of vibrant green. It was named for the aurora borealis, and unlike many things that reference the northern lights, it actually seemed to embody them.

Boom. Instant nostalgia for a place I haven't been in decades.

My family moved to Alaska when I was all of two years old. Our old green Ford pickup bounced and banged along the pitted Canadian highways, carrying us from my Texas birthplace to a new, more remote home, one vibrating with wildlife and late-night sunshine. We stayed until I was six, then headed back to Texas, but we'd all been captivated by the north. We bounced between states for years and years after, but home always felt like Alaska.

We should definitely go to Alaska, Felicia said. When's the best time to go? The winter, when there's less light but more snow? Or the summer, when there's all the light and no snow?

All the times. All the times, that's the answer.

Photo by Jacob Vizek (Unsplash)

The last time I left Alaska was twenty-three years ago. If I'd known it would be so long before I would get back—and not having gone back, it might still be years, if ever—if I'd known what lay ahead of me in Nevada—I don't think I would have left. Thinking like that is a fool's errand, though. If I'd never left Alaska, I never would have wound up in California; I never would have met Felicia. A million billion things would be different. I would not be who I am now.

Should we go? No one else in my family craves living in such a place; Oregon already is a bit of a stretch. But we could visit. I would like to see what has remained the same in these two decades.

I would like to see the pale whales surfacing at Beluga Point. I would like to see Sleeping Lady on the horizon, or the first dusting of snow on the mountains over the Anchorage skyline. I'd like to see fleets of hot air balloons drifting through crisp blue skies. I'd like to ice skate on a frozen marsh, smell the clean, green air. Bike the same trails I did as a child. Gearing up to go outside, gearing down to come in again. Air so cold you can't smile because your teeth will ache. I'd like to play in a midnight sun softball game, or have lunch under a dusky winter sky. I even miss cars sliding through icy intersections, wildly honking their apologies, or carrying gravel and a board and a shovel for freeing a stuck vehicle. I miss watching the float planes take off and land from the watery Lake Hood airport. It's been too long since I've driven the Alaska Highway; when I was a kid it was called the Alcan Highway. I miss moose clopping through neighborhoods, bears pawing through meadows beside highways. I'd even like to see the aurora borealis again, casually, slowly undulating over the city like it's nothing special.

A pen can't bring any of that back, not for real, but it brought back a lot of memories, which will do for now. (That's more than any pencil has ever done.) One day, though, we'll go. My family will see it for the first time; I'll see how much it's changed. The Alaska I remember is almost certainly mostly gone, replaced with something new. Maybe I'll try to see it through my family's eyes, and remake it for myself, too.



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