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Notes from an author: Adam Weymouth on Alaska

For all its remote and rugged beauty, America’s Last Frontier can offer powerful lessons in humanity — even if you never visit it at all.

By Adam Weymouth
Published 7 Oct 2019, 17:00 BST
Inspired by the vast landscapes and unique characters he encountered there, Adam Weymouth set his novel, ...
Inspired by the vast landscapes and unique characters he encountered there, Adam Weymouth set his novel, Kings of the Yukon, in the US state of Alaska.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

'I may never in my life get to Alaska,’ wrote Edward Abbey, ‘but I’m grateful that it’s there.’ 

That line worked for me, too — but to a point. By the time I hit my late 20s, I felt little choice but to go and see the state for myself. 

Where the seed came from is hard to say, as it so often is. An article I’d read a couple of years before made it clear to me that Alaska was the perfect place to explore the lunacies of how we thought about our planet: the scramble to drill for oil while melting ice freed up new territory. Or, in my early 20s, a temporary obsession with Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into the Wild, like so many had in their early 20s (in Alaska, people still make pilgrimages to that bus). Or seeing Disney’s White Fang in the cinema, when I was just seven. 

And so I went, for the first time, in 2013, and found myself immediately at home in one of the strangest places I’d ever been. It was as though the place clicked with some inner part of me still only dimly understood. This is not uncommon; only 39% of those who live in Alaska were born there. The reasons, I heard from the incomers, are myriad: they came seeking rumoured wealth, in gold or oil; and they came seeking themselves. They were getting out of a broken relationship or staying one step ahead of the law. I lost count of the number of people who told me they’d moved there because it was as far as they could get from their family while still remaining in the United States. People came, they liked what they saw and they stayed. And then there were the Alaska Natives, who could trace their lines so far back that they scratched the beginning of time. Point Hope, which I visited on that first trip, is a strong contender for the longest continually settled place on the continent, where its 800 inhabitants still harpoon bowhead whales from boats made of sealskin.

But how to explain feeling so at home, so far away? All great travel writing, I think, is a result of the author discovering some unexplored facet of their character embedded in the place. That first trip is shot through with memories. Hitchhiking south down the Parks Highway, huddled on the flatbed of a pickup in a blizzard. Camping on the shore of Cook Inlet, looking across at snow-capped volcanoes. Flying so low in bush planes we could see the faces of moose, solitary in forests of spruce. The splintering of candle ice. The first sighting of a lynx. The first taste of wild salmon. And the log cabin where I stayed for a month in Fairbanks and was adopted by a sprawling band of dogs and people, days swimming in lakes and parties that went on all night. The sun never set, so why should we? 

There’s a strong vein of libertarianism running through Alaska, spanning from left to right, and while I might have questioned some of the politics, there was a distinct sense of the individual that I couldn’t help but admire, and along with it, a rugged hospitality. People were fully formed, as though each one had been carved out of the landscape. I learnt to write character in Alaska, because I was so spoilt for choice. I learnt to listen, because the stories were incredible. I cried when I left, and I meant it.

The first time I went back home, the resolute certainty I had that there was nowhere else that I could possibly live was no longer so acute. More trips and more research taught me that, like anywhere, Alaska has its share of problems. And yet I keep thinking about it, about ways to get back; about the moment I can take my daughter on her first canoe trip; about the Lost Coast, where I so desperately want to walk. And how so many of the questions I want to explore with my work played out in microcosm. Where the power of people to affect land, and land to affect people, are both abundantly clear. Where the indigenous fight the oil companies for the right to native lands. Where the barbarisms of colonialism are all too plain, but where people still pass on their cultures with pride. All this in a state that makes up one fifth of the US yet has a population the size of Nottingham. As I increasingly consider the morality of flying to such places, even if it’s to write about climate change, it feels ever further away. But whether or not I make it back again, I’m beyond grateful that it’s there.

Follow @adamweymouth

Published in the Adventure guide, distributed with the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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