Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Hello FBX

Well, so I think most of you know where Alaska is. I don’t know the geography like a native, but I can tell you that the area of the state is about 1/3 that of the lower 48. There are several major geographic regions. Anchorage is down in “South Central” which also includes Valdez (where Volodya taught me to fish 3 years ago), the Kenai Peninsula (where Miriam works), and Kodiak Island (where friend Jeff lived as a kid). “Southeast” is the panhandle that is stuck down in British Columbia and includes Juneau (where friend Ellen lives on a boat), Sitka (where more boat friends work), and Ketchikan (where sister-in-law’s sister Danielle will work this summer). The Aleutians are the long skinny strand of Volcanic islands that stretch toward Eurasia and include the fishing capital of Dutch Harbor where I started a research cruise a couple of years ago. North of Dutch, on the coast near the Bering Strait is Nome, where the same cruise ended. In the center of the state, just below the Arctic Circle, is Fairbanks. The Alaska mountain range lies between Anchorage and Fairbanks and contains Denali Park and North America’s tallest mountain. Between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay lies the Brooks Range. Single highways along the oil pipeline connect Anchorage and Fairbanks and Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay. The former is generally well-maintained, but winding roads mean the journey is 8 hours at 50 mph. The later is treacherous and prohibited by the rental car companies. The area north of the Brooks Range is known as the North Slope and includes the National Petroleum Reserve, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and native villages including Barrow.

So Fairbanks is the capital of the Interior, as it’s called. It has one of the most extreme climates on Earth. For the two weeks I’ve been here, nights have dropped to -10 to -35 F and days only creep up to 5 to 15 F. This summer, days can reach into the 90s F. When I was here a few years ago in August, it went from 90 F one day to 40 F the next morning.

Fairbanks isn’t much to look at. The city is in what is called the Tanana Valley. There is a tiny downtown, but nothing of interest is located in downtown, so there’s no reason to go there. Instead of throughfares, the town is crisscrossed by a few expressways that link the few places a person would want to go to (auto repair shops, Sears, Wal-mart, Fred Meyer grocery, local water pump, a couple of Thai restaurants). Along these expressways are a mix of rundown houses, abandonned-looking trailer homes, and random commercial properties (suntanning salons are popular). There are no zoning laws in Fairbanks. This is a poignant statement on the Alaska philosophy of life. Alaskans believe that people should be free to build what they want, where they want, and not be concerned with contributing to a collective welfare of any kind. Similarly, they believe there is no reason to keep your possessions in your house or garage if you can keep them on your front porch or lawn. Maintaining a lively “downtown” would require a value for public space and collective expression. Why bother, when you see everyone you know at the grocery store, anyway?

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