Monday, March 08, 2010

Leave the city

Broke my heart to leave the city
I mean it broke what wasn’t broken in there already
Thought of all my great reasons for leaving
Now I can’t think of any
It’s true it was a hard time that I’ve come through
It’s made me thankful for the blues

— Magnolia Electric Co., "Leave the City"

I'll never forget my first few moments in Juneau, as I stepped off the ferry into a cold, black, startlingly empty summer night. It was July 2003. I wasn't an Alaska resident yet; I was a tourist, one of four friends spending an entire summer coaxing a sputtering Ford Econoline van around the 49th state. We left the van and our bikes in Haines. The ferry landed just before midnight. No one told us the terminal was 14 miles out of town. We stood in the dark with our overstuffed backpacks, somewhat stupefied by a sense of being stranded. After several minutes of indecision, we split into three groups. Geoff and Jen set up a tent in a gravel pit across the street. Chris hopped in a taxi. I started walking. By dawn, I had reached the downtown library.

We'd had big plans for Juneau. We were going to hike the trails our guidebook gushed about — Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts. We were going to see the glacier. We set up our tents at a small campground recommended by the same guidebook. Our site was literally notched into a steep hillside overflowing with mud and devil's club. The other campsites were strewn with elaborate tarp shelters, plastic bags and loose garbage. We later found out this "campground" was actually a city-sanctioned homeless camp. The rain started the afternoon after I hiked to the library. It didn't stop. All of our tents started to leak. We pulled them together, wall-to-wall, and threw our single tarp over the damp cluster. My sleeping bag got soaked. So did my pillow. For three days, we played cards and wandered around the T-shirt and trinket shops downtown, waiting for the rain to let up. It never did. We never even caught a glimpse of Mount Juneau or Mount Roberts, towering invisibly somewhere over the fog. We discovered only tour busses took people to the glacier, at 15 bucks a head, and we lost interest. When we finally boarded a ferry back to Haines, all four of us had relieved smirks on our faces, because we knew, unlike those unfortunate residents, that we had the power to leave this place. We had traveled all the way from the Top of the World Highway to Prudhoe Bay to the tip of the Homer Spit, with the Denali, Seward, Whittier and Richardson highways in between. We had it on good authority that Juneau was the worst place in all of Alaska.

I moved to Juneau in August 2006. It wasn't fully intentional. I was burnt out with my job in Homer, Alaska, and just happened to receive a cold call from the managing editor at the Juneau Empire. She offered me a job on the spot. It seemed like a sign. I'll never understand how I talked my ex-boyfriend, Geoff, into moving to Juneau with me — to this day, no matter how many pretty pictures I post on my blog, I still can't talk my friends Chris and Jen into coming back here to visit. But three years after bidding good riddance Juneau for good, I stepped off the Alaska Marine Highway ferry and set up my tent again, this time at the Mendenhall Lake Campground.

The new job was stressful. It took me three full weeks to find a place to live that would accept two cats and two people that we could afford — and even then, the single-bedroom basement apartment cost more than we had been paying for a large cabin on the ridge above Homer. I stayed 10 days at the Mendenhall Lake Campground. The August rains were thick and unrelenting that year; from Aug. 7 to Aug. 20, I never once saw the sun. During my last nights at the campground, the tarp shelter I had built over my tent — the same tent that accompanied us to Alaska in 2003 — had long since failed. My sleeping bag was soaked. My pillow was soaked. I used work clothes to mop up puddles of water on the floor. I couldn't believe I had dragged myself back to this dreary, soul-crushing place. I didn't think I'd last through September.

I've often wondered what makes a home a home. Is it the place where you were born? Where you grew up? The place where you form the most memories? Your favorite memories? The place where most of your family chooses to reside? How about friends? Is it the place where you find work? Or passion? Is home simply the place that you find yourself wandering day after day, moving through buildings and city streets and trails until they become an inherent part of your story, of you?

By the time Geoff broke up with me in April 2009 — and, yes, the split was a long time coming — I had come full circle with my feelings about Juneau. I was as hollow and homeless as I had ever been when we boarded the ferry to drive south. Geoff asked me what I planned to do when I returned. "I'm never coming back here," I said. "There's nothing for me here."

Even though I had already committed to return to the newspaper in July, for most of the summer, I believed I was done with Juneau. I reconnected with my family and trained for the Tour Divide and thought vaguely about my future — a frustrating and mostly futile exercise because all I could see were dead ends in every direction. I put it out of my mind.

During the 24-day Tour Divide, I relished in my homelessness. It was wonderful to wake up in the morning and realize that not only did I not know where I was going to sleep that night, but it didn't even matter. I had everything I needed in life strapped to a bicycle; the whole world was my home. Thoughts of a more substantial future started to creep back into my mind toward the end. I can barely recall the night I spent in the forest outside Cuba, N.M. I had been throwing up all day with what was likely food poisoning. I was dehydrated and sick and so tired I was delerious. I laid out my bivy sack in an open grassy meadow. Before I lost conciousness, I stared up at the Big Dipper. The moon, hidden behind mountains, cast a dim glow that turned the sky royal blue. I blinked with vague recognition. It looked just like Alaska's flag.

A storm moved in before the next morning, bring with it temperatures in the 40s, an overcast pall and steady, drizzling rain. I climbed up to 9,000 feet and looped around a stunning overlook of the valley below. The gray light of the rain drenched the ponderosa pines in rich greens, and wisps of fog draped over the treetops like silk scarves. It looked so much like the hillsides of Southeast Alaska in an August storm that I choked up with emotion. For the first time all summer, I felt truly homesick — not for the place where I grew up, but for Juneau.

It seemed like a sign.

... To be Continued.