Farewell to Alaska:
some thoughts on leaving my home state
A speech by
to the Alaska Historical Society
6 October 1995
Alaska has always been a land of myth and image -- a state of mind at least as much as a state of the union. From the earliest days of Western contact, legend has played an encompassing role in describing the last frontier and defining life for its immigrant settlers.
As with any terra nova, details and descriptions always took a back seat to fantasy and imagination. Many of the early explorers may have simply been too ignorant to tell the truth about the vast new country they'd uncovered; others likely had other reasons for perpetuating the myths that have persisted even unto our own times today.
I have collected a few antique maps of Alaska over the years, and one of my favorites is a colorful atlas page from the 1772 voyage of Admiral de Fonte.
Although Mt. Fairweather is, as always, plainly and accurately sited along the Gulf coast, across much of this Alaska map is a legend printed in French that translates as: "Region of the Pygmies, as indicated by the Japanese."
Travelers to Alaska in those days knew better than to put too much faith in those maps and instructions; today's inhabitants, likewise, need to be warned off some of the myths being so freely circulated and so widely indulged.
What myths are those?
Some might cite the myth that tells us virgin forests are an inexhaustible resource, forever available for exploitation. Others might recognize the myth behind all those "if we build it, they will come" development schemes that rely on state-subsidized dams and power projects and gleaning, deep-water ports.
We might not be so quick to recognize the myths that lie closer to our own core: for example, the myth that says Alaska is a land of rugged individualists where citizens are tested by the arctic climate and the frontier ethos and only the strong and pure survive.
To be fair, this is indeed a myth of considerable resiliency, a mutual delusion of such charm and appeal that we continue to espouse it long after the last vestiges of reality have vanished. Anchorage residents in $300,000 Hillside homes leave heated garages in climate-controlled Land Rovers to meet friends at a Yuppie restaurant and complain about the hardships of the frontier.
Workers building the trans-Alaska pipeline once threatened riot when their customary dinner of steak-and-lobster was reduced to a choice of steak OR lobster.
Businessmen and homeowners in Anchorage pay lower taxes than almost any similar-sized city in the nation, yet still complain of burdensome government and vote to reject school bond appeals.
The plain fact is that this Alaska -- self-identified home of rugged individuals and government-hating patriots and loud partisans of free enterprise -- is certainly one of the most socialized societies in North America.
These Alaskans complain bitterly about the interference of the federal government, but gladly accept more than three federal dollars in aid for every single dollar of federal taxes paid.
We howl for cutting the federal budget but applaud Sen. Ted Stevens in his never-ending quest to milk more dollars for Native corporation operating losses or protected military bases or the study of capturing energy from the dancing aurora borealis.
These Alaskans have adopted the classic cry that Wallace Stegner identified as the anthem of the whole West: Leave us alone and send more money.
On the state side of the equation, the balance is, of course, even more lopsided. Alaskans pay no state income taxes at all and many -- including those in the largest city, Anchorage -- pay no sales taxes, either. Property taxes are modest by most American standards, and in Anchorage and elsewhere, even those are limited by tax caps that make it all but impossible for mill rates to rise.
On top of this, of course, some 542,269 Alaskans this year will receive Permanent Fund dividend checks from the state that total almost a thousand dollars per person.
Many a family of five or six in Alaska will receive far more money from the government than it sends in.
Beyond this, ours is a society that pays senior citizens $250 a month to live here, whether they need it or not, and forgives even the modest property taxes due from multimillionaire homeowners the moment they turn 65. We pump state money into coal generation projects that will produce power that isn't needed at prices above those already paid.
When we had the bucks, state government gave cities money based on nothing more meaningful than population count. Anchorage, to name an example, managed to convert that Arab's gift of high-priced oil into a $70 million performing arts center, a $40 million headquarters library, a $25 million sports arena and other fully paid for amenities including a civic and convention center, museum addition and coastal trail.
During that Project 80s spending spree, one critic noted, it "looked like we wanted to buy ourselves a Houston off the shelf."
Taken altogether, the history hardly supports the myth of uncompromised individualism. Yet even in the face of such overwhelming evidence in direct contradiction, Alaskans cling to their self-image of rugged self-sufficiency. Such is the power of myth.
Let me offer you two additional myths for consideration: alternatives, if you will, in our continuing effort to understand what Alaska really means.
The first and most powerful of these is the Myth of the Prospector. In contrast, I will offer a more humble but ultimately more enduring alternative.
The prospector stands in Alaska legend as the archetypal romantic figure. He is definitionally self-sufficient, a hardy loner who roams the canyons and creek beds in constant search of wealth to be wrestled from nature's grasp.
He is endlessly celebrated in song and legend: I wanted the gold/ and I sought it/ I scrabbled and mucked like a slave. Was there famine, or scurvy? I fought it/ and hurled my youth into the grave.
From Robert Service to Soapy Smith, from Anvil Creek to the Klondike, the legends grew to mythic proportions.
The myth retains much of its vitality today because it is still so apt a metaphor for development in Alaska. Although remote seismic testing and helicopter field assays may bear little real resemblance to the explorations that fanned out from the Chilkoot Pass, Alaska oil exploration and development is still a clear descendant of Alaska's prospector heritage.
Many of Alaska's cardinal virtues are well represented by this myth: toughness, resiliency, optimism. The prospector's life, after all, is fundamentally a life of faith: belief in the bonanza just down river, in the mother lode hiding just around the bend.
That optimism has long been the engine of Alaska resource development, and it has fueled the discovery of vast riches in the northcountry. An unbroken line of dreamers and doers stretches from the first Russian fur seal harvest to the most recent North Slope reinjection plant.
These are the men -- almost all men -- who have bankrolled Western life in Alaska.
Alongside the mythic silhouette of the prospector stands a far more modest figure: a homesteader, let us call him.
Where the prospector jingles a handful of precious nuggets, the homesteader may cradle a handful of seeds. In place of the dancehall filled with music and booze, the homesteader builds a barn.
Diamond Tooth Gertie becomes somebody's mother. The sluicebox is replaced by a plow.
This is a far less epic saga, but it is a far more meaningful one.
Where the prospector's ethic is use-it-and-leave, the homesteader settles in for the long haul. Where the prospector toughs it out heroically in a lean-to just this side of survival, the homesteader chinks the cracks in his cabin and keeps it warm enough to raise a family.
Robert Service didn't write about the homesteader; historians who love Alaska surely will.
When the creek is panned out and the prospector long since gone to the next bonanza, the homesteader's garden will still be feeding a family. Wife and husband will plant so their children can build; the children will build so the grandchildren can study. Thus does civilization and culture march to the northcountry, and thus does the myth of the homesteader finally eclipse its more romantic rival.
The song of the future has been sung.
Play-acting the role of rugged pioneer while demanding the comforts of a colonial ascendancy creates too great a dissonance to survive in modern Alaska. Many Alaskans still cling to their frontier expectations, but it's no longer that kind of frontier:
"I've paid my dues" they tell us, as if the country owed them some kind of living. It's no longer tenable.
The social wage can no longer pay you to live here; no huge salary awaits unskilled workers simply because they're in Alaska; longevity bonus payments to wealthy residents will go away; subsidized, tax-free lives paid for by oil won't last forever.
Having quoted Robert Service and even myself in these remarks, let me try to redeem my literary credentials with a summing-up drawn from a real writer -- Wallace Stegner, the native son of a wandering Western family whose words -- like these from a 1992 essay -- were written for the Western United States but seem somehow perfectly aimed at Alaska:
"Deeply lived in places are the exception rather than the rule in the West. For one thing, all Western places are new; for another, many of the people who established them came to pillage, or to work for pillagers, rather than to settle for life. When the pillaging was done or the dream exploded, they moved on, to be replaced in the next boom by others just as hopeful and just as footloose. Successive waves have kept Western towns alive but prevented them from deepening the quality of their life, and with every wave the land is poorer.
"(Yet) Somehow, against probability, some sort of indigenous, recognizable culture has been growing on Western ranches, and in Western towns and even in Western cities. It is the product not of the boomers but of the stickers, not of those who pillage and run but of those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.
"I believe that eventually, perhaps within a generation or two, they will work out some sort of compromise between what must be done to earn a living and what must be done to restore health to the earth, air and water. I think they will learn to control corporate power and to dampen the excess that has always marked their region, and will arrive at a degree of stability and a reasonably sustainable economy based on the resources that they will know how to cherish and renew."
Like Wallace Stegner, I am proud to claim a vision that is ultimately optimistic. Alaska may need scolding now and then for failure to achieve its promise, but that is true mainly because its promise is so wonderful.
Alaskans may need reminding now and then that their frontier virtues were not bequeathed wholly made from their ancestors, but must be won anew each generation.
Alaskans may need reminding, but they are worth it, for Alaskans, like their land, are truly special.
Eight years ago I was asked to speak on the topic, "Is Alaska Still the Promised Land?" After a few pages of fussing and worrying not unlike that which I have shared with you tonight, I came to this conclusion:
"Is Alaska still the promised land?
"For those whose values touch its strengths, more so than ever.
"If your primary value is on dollars, this may a good time to leave. But if you value opportunity and challenge, there's never been a better time to stay.
"Alaska remains a land of bounteous promise, but its promise is no longer so promiscuous. No more the wide-eyed virgin, whirling between uncertainty and anticipation, today's Alaska presents a more mature promise.
"It is a more demanding promise today -- not the something-for- nothing bonanza of the gold beach at Nome, but rather the accomplished satisfaction of a longer, harder-won victory.
"Is Alaska still the promised land?
"It has disappointed those who sought to remake Anchorage into Tulsa and Valdez into Gulfport, but it's a land of promise renewed for those who embrace its special character and challenge.
Alaskans who are willing to pioneer can still create a new order, tailored to this place and this society."
Let me leave you tonight with these thoughts:
A heart that has been set free by the sweep of a Brooks Range valley won't easily be captured by the simple cycles of the economy.
A midsummer twilight on Kachemak Bay is just as breathtaking when oil is $10 a barrel as when it fetches $30. That's why values that embrace the sunset more closely than the checkbook prove the more enduring.
Alaska's authentic frontier ethic -- of egalitarianism, of fair dealing and tolerance and honest relations -- encompasses virtues that will serve us well no matter what the legislature is up to. The bright dreams that live inside free women and free men are independent of the fortunes of fickle politics.
John Donne told the story four hundred years ago: "How small, of all that human hearts endure/ that part that laws, or kings can cause or cure/ Still to ourselves in every place consigned/ our own felicity we make -- or find."
In Alaska, more profoundly than in most places, your felicity is still yours to make -- or find. Alaska is still the land where verbs matter more than nouns, where doing is more important than being, where the vitality of the land can still animate the vitality of the people.
My message tonight is simply this: these promises are yours only if you embrace them. The verbs work only when you speak them; the magic lies in the doing, not the describing.
A columnist at the Daily News wrote years ago that "all a reporter really wants is to be at Armageddon with a notepad and a pencil." I argued with him then, and believe even more strongly now, that there is one story even better than Armageddon: the story of Creation.
It's just as big a news event, you see -- and there's even an audience left to read your story when it's over.
And that is Alaska's story: present at the creation. This is a community still defining itself, a society where the rules are still being written.
In the suffocating cloisters of Cambridge, a friend reminded me that "England has been ruled for 2,000 years with two words: Not done. I knew as he said it that Alaska's motto could hardly be more different.
I leave that message in the care of other hands, and minds and hearts as we leave Alaska later this month for a different adventure. We travel South in full recognition of the majesty we leave behind, with emotions brimmed full to overflowing, with one eye already cocked to some future rendezvous.
Wherever that adventure leads us, for however long, our road returns to Alaska.
© 1995 Howard Weaver
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