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Published: June 14th 2010
A major contributor to Alaska’s frontier image is just how foreign it is, in so many aspects, to life in the Lower 48. I heard Alaska described as “something like Oklahoma circa 1940,” and I feel like this is a pretty accurate assessment in a lot ways. You see, Alaska can seem like a different planet, and not just because this place is a lot like what our own planet looked like 25 million years ago (give or take a few glaciers).
The primary distinguishing feature of the state is just how sparsely it is populated. With just one person per square mile, Alaska is mostly vast empty spaces. Further, it is immense in size; from panhandle to Aleutian Islands and north to Prudhoe Bay it could stretch from Savannah to Los Angeles and from Jacksonville to Duluth. Let me repeat that: This state alone is as wide as the rest of the country (and all one time zone). Combine this expanse with a population one-eighth the size of Metropolitan Atlanta, and it can seem pretty empty sometimes.
Compounding this sparseness is the fact that forty percent of the population lives in Anchorage. Those towns that you’ve heard about in Alaska: Fairbanks, Nome, Juneau? There’s a good chance those towns are about the size of your high school. I camped on top of Wolverine Peak just above Anchorage last weekend, and from my vantage I could see almost half the population of an entire state.
Also contributing to the other-worldliness of the state is the very bizarre absence of a sunset. Now, at about 19 hours of sunlight a day, headlights aren’t even necessary at midnight. For the hours that the sun does break the horizon, the sky descends into a seamless crepuscule, the twilight of dusk and dawn indistinguishable.
Alaskans embrace this unique state identity with exuberance and spirit. For being populated mostly by immigrants from the Lower 48, Alaska has a state pride rivaled perhaps only by Texas. The state flag is everywhere. The Big Dipper on a Field of Blue waves from schools, fences, bumpers, homes, and TV screens at every turn. I saw one truck driving down the road with two great banners unfurled from the hockey sticks erected in back. One was the Alaska Flag and the other was the Stars and Bars. I can’t even remember how many “Alaska Girls Kick Ass” bumper stickers I have seen in my month here.
It is unsettling at first that the local media talks in terms of the state. Businesses will exclaim inside messages like, “We’re selling Alaskans furniture at lower 48 prices!” or, “Alaska’s greatest car dealership!” while every local newspaper reports on happenings within pretty much every city in the state. Perhaps as a consequence of Alaskan pride in combination with the intimate population size, everyone talks about Alaska as if it was their little town, not their state. It’s as if everyone in the state knew everyone else, and sometimes, I think they do.
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