It's Not Easy Leaving Alaska

"We don't give a damn how they do it Outside!"

As kids born into the 49th state, we didn't question this sentiment, which was often the only thing holding up the limp bumpers of our parents' rusty pickups or old Datsun station wagons. Growing up in the 1960s and '70s, Outside (with a capital O) was not a magazine but rather the Lower 48—the contiguous United States on the other side of Canada. My Grandma said that, when she was a girl, they hunted snowshoe hares right inside the Fairbanks city limits. Beyond 8th Avenue, however, was "the end of the end of everywhere." We were taught to be distrustful of anything that came from Outside, unless it was ordered from the Sears catalog.

I think a more accurate bumper sticker would have been: We don't have a clue how they do it Outside, which would explain why some of us are still trying to get a solid footing on that slippery concept. My first trip out of Alaska was to drive the Alcan Highway with my dad and three sisters in 1976. Canada was bumpy, muddy and unpaved; we had abundant flat tires, and several times had to hitchhike back to service stations we'd passed hundreds of miles earlier. The trip took over a week with all that backtracking, not to mention the day we locked the keys in the car in Prince George.

Somewhere near Dawson Creek, my father tossed my Leif Garrett eight-track out the window, probably during Leif's 600th rendition of Johnny B. Goode. My sisters and I looked at each other, then continued singing all the songs anyway, having memorized them over the previous thousand miles. I was 11 years old, but every minute of that trip is etched into my memory, as if carved there with my first pocketknife. We were heading Outside to live in a place called Carnation, Washington, population 500—defying our home state's ubiquitous bumper sticker.

Except it didn't last. My mother, who had also been born in Alaska, hated being Outside. She hated snakes and spiders and farms. She hated cows. (Carnation is home to the dairy of the same name.) After just two years, she threatened divorce, so we packed up the yellow Datsun again and did the whole trip in reverse.

There is no reasonable explanation for lumping the entire Lower 48 into one big blob called Outside, and then feeling utterly lost the minute the car veers south and Canada fades in the rearview mirror. We clung to Canada the way the royal family clings to its traditions, however weird—kissing second cousins and things like that. Still, those of us from this era of "not giving a damn" actually had a history of giving a huge damn. We felt deeply inadequate in the face of all things Outside, a trait that left us ill-prepared for everything from current fashions to knowing who the Grateful Dead were.

I followed in my mother's footsteps when it came to her inability to live Outside. I grew disillusioned after only one year of college in Oregon. I kept dropping out to go home, but then would pluck up my courage to "try again, damn it." I eventually gave up and finished at a small school in southeast Alaska. (It has since ceased to exist.)

I worked many years for Alaska Public Radio. I fished commercially and raised my kids on and off boats. Still, I felt remiss in not having succeeded in living Outside. Ever.

"I'm just going to move to New York City, where I can disappear and blend in," I announced to the newsroom one day.

"Yeah, good luck with that one," said a reporter who'd grown up in D.C.

"What? You think I can't live there?"

"No, I think you can't blend in," she said.

She couldn't explain why I couldn't slide between the bodies of the most populated place in America and disappear. It seemed like a magical, impossible feat, something accomplished only by apparating, à la Harry Potter.

More than 20 years after my failed college experiment, I got a journalism fellowship in Colorado. My Grandma called from her snug little house in Fairbanks and asked, "So, how do you like living back East?"

"I'm in Colorado, Grandma."

"That's what I said, honey, how do you like living back East?"

I liked it fine. It was like an extended vacation without winter—assuming winter is defined as months of darkness and below-zero temperatures. It was especially easy for my children, who were born after the bumper-sticker years.

"You love it?"

"Yeah, we love it. It's sunny," said my daughter.

"Nobody ever told us the rest of the world lived like this," said my son. "It's so easy."

"But aren't you homesick?" I asked.

What I meant was: How do you fit in so easily? That was a bit of a stretch; my daughter, for example, was shunned by the vegetarian group in her fourth-grade class in Boulder when she defended hunting. They called her "the girl who kills things." She begged to stay, anyway.

My kids still fish commercially every summer in Alaska, swinging their longer and longer legs over the side of the boat as if they never left. They return to high school in Colorado and college in Santa Fe, not as an experiment or a major accomplishment, but just as people who move around easily.

Now, when my Grandma calls from her snug little house in Fairbanks, I don't tell her Colorado isn't back East. I just say I'll be home soon—so she doesn't worry that I fell off "the end of the end of everywhere."

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock has managed to live in Lyons, Colorado, for two consecutive years, a personal Lower 48 record.

This essay first appeared in High Country News.