Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Journey to Rural Alaska: Have and Have Nots

Trips away from home are always a good reminder of what I have that I normally take for granted—be it gas for less than $6 a gallon, or milk for less than $9. Cost of goods aside, there are still a lot of little things that cause me to appreciate the details of my everyday life that I don’t normally notice.

Take the temperature of water in the shower, for example. Taking a shower here is cause to get a bit nervous because the temperature swing is extreme. The first time I experienced the scalding jump I leapt onto the edge of the tub and used the shower curtain as a shield to protect my burning legs. I have since picked up on the slight decrease in water pressure that precedes the temperature jump. This has saved me much internal screaming, though the length of my current showers will make any water conservationist proud.

Also going to be appreciated when I return home? A general value for aesthetics. The apartment we live in, while bigger than our condo, and two floors to boot, feels a lot like a dorm. This is probably due to the weathered couch, mismatched furniture, drooping curtain rods and other window coverings merely thumb-tacked to the wall.

The wall decorations are a generous smattering of posters by a Californian photographer who likes to capture Alaskan landscapes and wildlife. Creepy bear picture? Check. Mt. McKinley? Check. Sunset over mountains? Check. I think all the classic Alaskan photography bases are covered. Also in attendance? Burnt orange counter tops and dark wood cabinets, circa 1973.

Even with the lacking décor and unpredictable water temperature, it’s impossible to complain about the location. Not only are we a (literal) stone’s throw from Curtis’s work, we are also right off the boardwalk—a system of wooden sidewalks that are stilted above the tundra. These offer a more scenic route than the shoulder alongside the road, not to mention you don’t have shield your eyes from dirt getting thrown up by passing vehicles.

Yet the biggest surprise I have found while being away is my enjoyment of a lack of cell phone service. Sure, I have the internet, and online communication keeps me more than connected to what is going on back home and beyond, but the absence of one more device that is tied to me when I go out has been refreshing. When we head out on walks, no one can get a hold of us. When we are visiting with neighbors, no one can interrupt. I feel like I’m pretty liberal in my ability to ignore calls until it is convenient to return them, but just knowing that there aren’t any calls or texts to get back to can be freeing. And perhaps the biggest factor is that most people know they can’t get in touch with me except through online communication, and so whatever would normally be important or urgent is inevitably put on hold.

When Curtis and I were at the campout last month we ended up talking for a while to the resident that had just finished this rotation, asking her about everything from what to bring to what her experience was like. She made an offhanded comment about feeling so overwhelmed in being back, so many people, so much busyness, it just felt like a lot to her.

I guess I will probably feel a little bit of the same, even though I have not been here for the whole term. There is an absence of duties in being away, and even in the midst of potential boredom it feels like a bit of a vacation. Sure, most people don’t head off to rainy tundra when they have time off, but getting out of town and away from it all is relaxing no matter where you end up—even if it’s surrounded by dorm décor and posters with curling corners. It is no resort, but at least it has a lot of personality.

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