I spent the past few days in Alaska. I had never been there before, and I was expecting the scenery and the landscape to blow me away. In that respect, I was not disappointed; in others I was. The flight was very long–the plane was antiquated by modern commercial travel standards–and very loud. It was crowded, cramped, and not much fun. Seeing out the windows was hard, but I managed to get a few shots of the landscape as we flew over Canada and some quite breath-taking country.
Once we arrived, we set about getting to our vehicles, and getting our bags taken care of, assisting passengers with theirs, and then eventually we headed to the hotel. I have stayed at many hotels, and this particular chain is a quite high-end hotel and comes at a premium price; we were all disappointed with what we got for our money. The room was small, and prices were inflated. Perhaps that is just the way things are in Alaska. There are a great many things different up there, as I came to find out. There are also many things that are the same as in the “lower 48″.
After my horrendously overpriced breakfast, I went out to visit the downtown area of Anchorage. Actually, prices are high for most every good in Alaska–gas, food, services–as everything has to be shipped, flown, or trucked up to the remote area that is the largest state in the union. That makes sense, and I had heard that before going there, but it was still a shock ($20 pancakes, anyone?) when I actually saw it.
I went out and saw the city, and as much scenery as I could find in walking distance.
I spent the first evening, and most of the second day playing tourist. I walked everywhere (the price of not having a rental car, since the rest of my crew took them to go fishing), but luckily for me Anchorage isn’t too big. I saw most, if not all, of the downtown area of Alaska’s largest city. What I found is that Alaska, like any place, capitalizes on tourism (and why wouldn’t they?). Now, I have traveled to many places around the world, but I have to say that there are few places where I felt the naked hand of capitalism so visibly. People who go to Alaska are certainly going there expecting a certain thing, and the local shops are all too happy to provide it for them. At a premium, it goes without saying.
The immediate feeling I had as I walked past, and into, gift shop after gift shop was sadness. This place, like no other I can think of, was commodified. I am not sure, seeing as I am not a novice tourist, why this was my reaction, but it was. I felt sad, and the whole thing left me feeling a bit depressed. Some other activities were necessary.
After a hike down by the bay, which was quite beautiful, I felt refreshed and recharged. The sun was shining, the air was clean, nature was bustling all around me, and there was a real, intense stillness all around. Now I remembered why I had been excited to come here, and why people who had been here raved about it. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling I had had that morning. Having traveled far and wide, I did what I always try to do when I go somewhere new: find where the people are. Where do they actually live, and what is their experience like? I headed off to find out.
What I found was even worse than I thought. With coffee in hand, backpack on my back, and camera over my shoulder, I headed off into the residential neighborhoods in search of Real Alaska. Clouds had crept over, and the sky threatened to rain; there would be no more sunshine after the first morning I was there. I could see mountains on the far side of the city (opposite of the bay I had hiked at) and set off in that direction. I wondered how close I could get to the mountains, and what I would find along the way.
I found a lot of shops that had closed up for good. Empty buildings, empty lots, empty streets.
What I found was depressing…even more than the naked commodification had been. The residential areas looked way past their prime, small, many of them run down, and many more simply abandoned. Streets needed repaving, trash was everywhere, and the cars in front of the houses looked like they were one trip around the block away from falling apart. I was shocked.
This looked like a neighborhood that I might find in some of the worst parts of my hometown. Seedy-looking characters lingered on corners, in yards, and wandered the streets. Homeless people slept on sidewalks. In the middle of the day, toothless men and women stumbled down the middle of the street, looking as if they had no place to go. I was intensely saddened.
There was not a tourist in sight.
I walked until I hit a fenced-off industrial area, with an airfield that I could not pass. I would get no closer to the mountains, and so with the rain beginning to fall, I headed back into town. I took an alternate route, but only saw more of the same. I stopped shooting with my phone at some point due to the rain and began shooting with the DSLR I had brought along. I will eventually post more photos of the day’s excursion when I have some time to look at them and give them a quick edit.
When I arrived back in town, I was hungry. I was also feeling really, really down.
I went back out to see some more of the town after a lunch break. More gift shops, more tourists, and more offers of tours that promised to show you the “Real Alaskan Wilderness”. At least, they promised to show anyone who was willing to pony up the $200 they charged to do so. So far, Anchorage had been a curious place.
Some of the things they advertised about themselves seemed silly to me–like Sarah Palin, for one. “I CAN SEE RUSSIA FROM MY HOUSE” slogans emblazoned everything from sweatshirts to shot glasses. Why you’d be proud of that, I’m not sure.
Maybe there isn’t a whole lot else to call you’re own…
When we left again on Monday morning, after a full weekend of this depressing reality of Alaska, I finally saw my crew again. We chatted about what we had each done. As they loaded up cooler upon cooler of their booty, they told me they had hired a fishing charter on each day of the weekend while I had been walking around. They explained that they had the time of their lives and couldn’t wait to return. The air, the fish, the water–it was all so great, they said. I just listened. And smiled and nodded. When asked what I did, I wasn’t sure how to answer. How to explain what I had seen–what I had felt?
“I went walking, and visited the gift shops,” I said. They wished they had had the time to pick up some souvenirs for friends and family, they lamented.
“But we got lots of fish!” They exclaimed, gleefully.
And we loaded up, and headed home.