Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Characters We Have Met Along the Way

In the early '90s, there was a television show about the lives of quirky Alaskans called "Northern Exposure." I thought the characters, odd and bizarre, were meant to be exaggerations as most television characters are, but I am here to tell you that we recognize the writers' inspiration.  Here are merely the impressions of the intrepid travelers, Marcy and Clay.

We thought Alaskans would be frontier people, testing limits, pushing boundaries.  The best indication that this is not so is their driving habits.  We wondered why everyone was driving so slowly, and the answer is that they were simply following absurdly low speed limits for wide and empty roadways. Yes, I may have a lead foot, but must we go 30 mph when there are two cars within sight and only mountains in our peripheral vision?  We learned the hard way when Clay noticed in his rearview mirror the colorful flashing lights of a police car.  Officer Brohm politely asked Clay if there was any particular reason for our rush as we had exceeded the speed limit, and told us that we were going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone -- hmmmm.  Proof positive that the Alaskan drivers follow their rules, but the real question is WHY a 35 mph speed limit?  One other example, among many, is when our hotel clerk was very clear about how to use a parking spot because "there is always the chance you may have to cross a double yellow line, and the police are watching for that."  Uh-oh -- I might hit the pedestrian who comes along once an hour.

When asked by any polite soul "How are you?", beware of responding "I'm fine, thank you, how are you?"  This will elicit their entire life story.  I now know more about the busy lives of several Alaskans ("3 jobs in a season"), one's tension headache at 7:30 a.m., another's busy work schedule that precludes her ability to check the weather report, and a great deal about the social lives of several young women, at least two of whom were mothers barely out of their teen years.  So the Alaskans seem to need to make all their conversation in the 3 months that comprise tourist season. They have nonetheless been very friendly, open, and generous to a person.  Just leave time to listen.

I have been impressed by the industriousness of women who are running businesses and, I imagine, juggling much more.  Most every business we have encountered (our kayak tour, several restaurants of all kinds, shopkeepers, a winery) has been managed, if not owned, by women. The guys are out fishing for a living. I get a sense of Grrrrrl Power, which puts Sarah Palin into context a bit.  Her style is not unique here -- the outgoing, "glad to meetcha" demeanor is quite common. She just inexplicably has too many people listening. We waited, however, for an Alaskan to bring her up before we ever did, just curious to see how long it would take.  Once someone did mention the ex-gov on Day 5, it was with derision and indignation, reminding us that Ms. Palin has an 80% disapproval rating in this state.  The same woman who told us that made the good point that 60% of the voting population in Alaska is male, much of it single fishermen young and old, most of it white.  Need we say more?

For all its land size, Alaska is a quiet, fairly parochial place.  The hard-working folks are as fascinated by our "exotic" NYC home as people are that we have met abroad.  I have yet to meet an unlikeable soul, and I've gotten to know much more than I expected about plenty of them.  And they are clearly dog-lovers, and you gotta love that!

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