I was saddened to see a fresh iteration of the typical ‘NYC vs rural Alaska’ story in the Jan. 28 Anchorage Daily News by none other than Seth Kantner. The reasons for my disappointment are numerous — one being the author’s success as a writer. If anyone should resist the temptation to draw divisive lines, it should be people like him; people whose voices are already heard, respected and read, looked to for guidance.
I was also saddened as native of New Jersey (and New York), now living in Alaska. I wish I could say I came here, to a place where people lived their lives at the edge of the civilized world, with less judgment and disdain for people who are different… but that would not be true. It seems it is commonplace in these parts to share the following narrative: life is empty in [any large city, but most frequently New York], filled with vapid vessels of greed who have no idea what it’s like to really live.
For my part, I was born in Passaic County, roughly 20 miles from Midtown Manhattan, and spent a vast majority of my adolescence in the Northern Catskills (a further 100 miles from NYC). I went to college, as many Northeastern people do, in Boston. In August 2012, I moved to Alaska, and am currently living in the Interior.
It’s difficult to pass up an opportunity to remind Mr. Kantner of something he might have missed during his short trip to Manhattan: a short train ride from Grand Central will land you deep in the woods, with black bears, white-tail deer, bobcats, foxes and coyotes in your company. People ski, camp, hike, use snow machines, ice fish, fly fish, hunt and climb in the Northeast, just like we do in Alaska (but even if they didn’t, are they worth less as people?)
The countless parks, landmarks, contiguous states, and other nearby cities (also the foundation of America as we know it: NY, NJ, PA, CT, MA and NH were six of the original Thirteen Colonies, if you’re into that sort of thing) are visited frequently by those ‘plastic faces’ and ‘aliens wearing headphones,’ who you may be surprised to hear are people just like you. That they live somewhere different, experience different things, wait a bit longer in line for coffee (but not much longer, because we move very fast) and take the subway to work instead of a snowmachine does not make them worse—or you better.
A friend of mine posted a request recently while visiting Manhattan, asking for recommendations: while suggesting she visit MoMa, The Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I happened to see a reply from one of her other friends: “Avoid it… is that an option?”
Can someone please enlighten me as to why someone from one place would avoid another, solely for the sake of doing so? New York’s only crime as it stands in Alaska is that it’s different from here. The beauty of this country, and indeed much of the world is our freedom of choice: a girl from North Jersey can pick up and move to Alaska; and a caribou hunter can take a weekend voyage to Midtown Manhattan.
Perhaps Mr. Kantner should have hopped a ferry to the Statue of Liberty, or even Ellis Island, the first stop of millions of our ancestors, fleeing from persecution in their own countries for committing the same crime: possessing belief systems that diverged from the majority. He conveniently skipped over the miracle of modernity: that one can shoot and skin a caribou on the tundra, hop on a plane and be in New York half-a-day later, and proceeded directly to the ‘immense wealth’ of the skyscrapers, an extreme simplification, especially when you consider we Alaskans live in a rentier state, whether most of us want to admit it or not.
The ‘immense wealth’ he speaks of is part of the larger narrative of why Alaskans can eat watermelon in January; why we can order furniture on Amazon Prime, and how and why it’s affordable for many of us to fly out of here at any time of year. The worst of this kind of article, though, is the idea that other people in other cities don’t experience the same things we do—that they don’t have hopes and dreams as we do here. To create caricatures New Yorkers is a habit that only creates more distance between one person and another. We are all people. None of us are made of plastic, and if there are aliens, I am fairly sure they don’t use public transportation.
We live in a world where it’s easy to be afraid, to be ignorant of others, to be apathetic to the rest of the world: but I promise you it is even better to live your life without disdain for those who are different. So many people I’ve met in Alaska are these very people… but not enough. We need more of them! I apologize for the cliché, but it is real: we should embrace our differences, and express curiosity and awe at the lives and experiences of others.
The point is, my issue is not that some people don’t like New York… it is the lack of curiosity and open-mindedness, and the propensity, especially in today’s political climate, to so easily find reasons to detest people who live different lives, in different places. Instead of looking for the good and the interesting, people find reasons to feel our lives are the ones all people should live, and to not choose the same is to be devoid of something important. We all spend our lives wondering what is real, what is important, but those conclusions are individual, not universal—and to muddy the romance of Alaska with judgment of those who don’t share your landscape, your life choices, your priorities, is to rob it of its essential beauty.
I dreamt much of my life of living somewhere like this. But not so long ago, I was sitting on the MBTA, with my headphones on, shuttling to work in Boston. Life is strange and beautiful and filled with choices, thanks to many of the ideas it is easy to twist into the deplorable. On my next trip home, I will remember with sadness that even in the wildest, most beautiful place on earth exist people who, despite being surrounded by unsurpassed beauty and calm, will always look for reasons to feel disdain for others who don’t share their lives and their priorities.