Fairbanks, Alaska: Everyone I meet seems to be on the run.
The taxi driver nods nonchalantly when I’m tell him I’m from Singapore, followed by a superfluous “You here to see the lights?” He’s from Florida – moved to Alaska a couple of years ago.
“Maybe you can visit Singapore sometime.”
“Hell no. I came here to escape the heat.”
He certainly came to the right place. The temperature hovers at a steady negative thirty and even a short walk to the gas station requires at least four layers of clothing.
The cashier at the convenience store winks and hands me back my change.
“Do you want a receipt, or destroy the evidence?”
I stay at an old family-run hostel, the kind that attracts both long-staying regulars and transient backpackers. Jim, a grizzled veteran, parks himself in front of the television in the living room all day. Every few seconds, he chuckles in a way that invites you to lean in and ask what’s so funny. He points – it’s a deodorant commercial, a Christian TV mini-series, a Judge Judy knockoff – and declares:
“Ha! Now that’s funny. Coooouul.”
He says it just like that. Coooouul. Like it’s a hard marble rolling along the tongue. Or one of the dozen pills he pops every day.
The other regular is a middle-aged woman who grew up in Connecticut. Several years ago, she decided that she hated the corporate life and left for Alaska. She still stays over at the hostel for the holidays. Whenever I see her, she’s wearing a tie-dyed jumper and typing away at her laptop. Like everyone else in the hostel, she’s prone to short, intense bouts of conversation, before falling back into long stretches of silence. It isn’t a companionable silence, but it isn’t a hostile one, either. The best image I can think of is two polar bears in the snowy twilight circling wide around each other, acting in full knowledge of their counterpart’s presence but taking great pains to avoid interaction.
The isolation, the cold, and the long nights can drive you nuts if you don’t do something. The girl from Miami wrote a novel in a month. She’s on exchange at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and she wishes she could stay forever.
“It’s the people, I think. People are real here, you know? Down-to-earth.”
She’s right. The Alaskans approach the landscape with studied nonchalance, the kind you cultivate after years of experience. They smoke on the porch and squint at the 4 PM sunset. Miami girl tells me a piece of advice she got: “If you see a bear, lie down and let it beat you up a little until it’s bored.”
I read. I pick up Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God at the second-hand bookstore. I’m drawn to the vibrant tree on the cover of the book – I clutch it to my chest as I trudge through the snow, like a talisman against the frozen quiet. I take long walks at the bird sanctuary. I do the whole tourist routine: Santa Claus House, Chena Hot Springs, Aurora Ice Museum.
Mostly, I wait.
I wait for the Northern Lights, because that’s what I came to Fairbanks for, like other tourists at the hostel. The regulars feign interest as best they can: “Oh, you’re here for the lights? Interesting.” I stay up till 3am every day refreshing Aurora forecasts and looking out of my window. There’s a special kind of disappointment reserved for Aurora chasers. You hear it in the Vietnamese lady’s lament: “I stayed up for the whole week, no Aurroura.” The way she says Aurroura – lilting vowels and rolled r’s – infuses it with a dreamy, flowing beauty. You see it in the nervous pacing of the Indian couple on their honeymoon. You feel it deep in your bones, after a six-hour drive to the Arctic Circle and you step out into the cold and the forecast says that tonight will have the strongest lights all year but the sky is slate gray, covered in clouds, clouds, clouds. I don’t see a single wisp of color for six nights. It’s the disappointment that leads you recall Hurston’s warning: “All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped…”
I walk with Jim to the bus stop. He’s headed to Sam’s Club; I’m going to the Museum of the North. He peers at me through yellowed coke-bottle glasses, measuring his steps in small doses.
“Don’t want to slip. Although the VA would take care of that.”
He’s buying groceries for the Christmas Eve dinner. There’s going to be a beautiful pie, he says, and beans, and roast turkey, and soup.
“Been doing this ever since I started coming to Alaska. I think, twenty, thirty years it’s been.”
He grew up in Missouri. He was a kid when the Gateway Arch opened in ’67 (“all the kids got to go. You could see school buses lined up for miles. Coooouul.”) He doesn’t tell me why he left for Alaska. Maybe he’s running away. He tells me about the hundred-thousand-dollar losses he racked up in casinos. Or maybe he’s just waiting, passing the time by watching TV and playing virtual slot machines on his tablet and making dinner with the regulars until it’s time to go home again.
At the museum, I find the exhibition the woman from Connecticut told me to see. A corner of the building is dedicated to the internment of Japanese-Americans in Alaska during World War Two. Hundreds of families shipped off to the West Coast where they worked and suffered the unfamiliar soil. They weren’t running away because they wanted to: this was exile. The indigenous Aleutians, too, lost their homes: the authorities feared that the islands off the coast of Alaska would be taken over by the Japanese. Their evacuation camps in Southeast Alaska were cold, dark, and cramped. Disease easily claimed the lives of the vulnerable.
I read the Evacuation Order, turning over the sad euphemism in my head. I think up more honest phrases: forced relocation, deportation, incarceration. I am surrounded by the evidence: bold print announcing that Japanese Americans were suspect, dangerous, so they had to be evacuated for the safety of others. To be excluded: all people of Japanese descent or “half-blood.” The only exemption: “Japanese women married to white men.” I imagine lines drawn in the snow: exemptions within exclusions within an evacuation. I read diaries full of fear and bitterness, of disease and hunger, of little girls longing to escape exile. I read the faces of the tourists looking at the artefacts – some impassive, some frowning. I think about Alaska, and the lights, and running away. I think about the internees, waiting to go home. How waiting or running away seems to be the same thing in the end, hanging onto the hope that something better lies ahead. Each chasing the other like night and day.
I stop by an Asian market on the way back, a rare oddity in the numb tundra of Alaska. It’s decked out with flags of Southeast Asian countries; the owner is Filipino. I find what I’m looking for: frozen rice balls filled with sesame and peanut paste. It’s dong zhi jie, the Winter Solstice Festival, when families traditionally eat tang yuan (glutinous rice balls in ginger soup) together. It’s almost Christmas Eve, too: I’m thinking of reunion. I share the tang yuan I made with everyone at the hostel. Two more nights until I leave. I still don’t see any lights. Every second drags, weighed down by dimming hopes. The Vietnamese woman leaves without ever seeing the aurroura.
My flight leaves at 2 a.m., Christmas Day. I decide it’s now or never, trekking out to a small open field the moment it gets dark. Every house twinkles with Christmas lights. I jam my hands into my armpits and run on the spot to stay warm. My breath freezes on the collar of my parka. It’s too cold. I gave the sky one last look before heading back to the hostel, disappointed.
I’ve just brought down my luggage to the door when another backpacker tells me the lights are out. I drop everything and run outside. Two hours before my flight, the sky has decided to come alive. A thin thread of green snakes across the horizon, followed by a cluster of twisting purple rays. The light undulates and weaves across the night like a wish granted and I’m dancing, shouting, celebrating. The other backpackers are also cheering with relief. For a moment we’re free of our worries, free from hoping and waiting and running. For once, now is enough.
But Jim barely looks up from the television; he’s waiting for something else.