“Life is pretty much the same in Nome as it is anywhere else,” he says.
I’m settling into the seat of an Alaska Airlines 737 jet. The Xtratufs I was advised to purchase are making my feet sweat, and though my body feels like it’s approaching 10 p.m., the sun is hot and bright and in two hours, I’ll be the first of the 2014-2015 KNOM family to step onto Alaskan soil. (Er, Alaskan mud. Lesson 1: Waterproof shoes are invaluable.)
So, I’m on this plane. It’s flight number…three?…four? in an eventful day of traveling from Baltimore City to Nome, Alaska. The man sitting next to me immediately reminds me of my grandfather. Immediately, I feel too young and inexperienced and ill prepared for what I’ve gotten myself into as I explain why I’m moving to Nome. He’s flipping through the airline’s in-flight magazine, and when he finds the map of the Seward Peninsula, he begins penciling in the rivers and mountains we’re going to fly over so I can study my new home. (Lesson 2: You have more to learn than you have to give; listen, and accept knowledge graciously.) He’s traded me his window seat and I’m sipping black coffee, gazing down upon the sprawling tundra. Ice. Sun. Is that a polar bear? Probably wishful thinking.
“Life is pretty much the same in Nome as it is anywhere else,” he says. Pauses. “Little more pressing.”
I’ve been here for three weeks. It is, simultaneously, more jarring and more natural than I anticipated. I have enough self-awareness to know just how very little I actually know, and enough youthful, idealistic enthusiasm to jump in blindly. I thought Nome would feel empty—I’ve never lived somewhere this small—but it actually feels incredibly full, uncluttered, raw. Everything is happening in extremes. My senses are absorbing at max-capacity.
Of course, it’s a challenge being the new kid in town. I’ve been doing a ton of question-asking. A bit of friendship-mooching. A lot of learning—which at first seemed so frustratingly passive, but, hey, there’s a lot to learn. And it’s surreal to think that by the end of August, I’ll be here the longest of the volunteers. My introductory weeks of fumbling and wandering and losing (finding?) myself in this new world coincide with five others’ weeks of closure. We’re living in a little bit of limbo.
The people occupying my first memories of Nome—a little family I’m growing quite fond of—are not the ones I’ll see my first Alaskan snowfall with. And the incoming Vol Fam won’t know what the summer solstice looks like until 2015. It’s a peculiar arrangement, with these points of contact and sparks of relationship amid a massive reaction that’s changing everything. Authentic adjustment is a personal process. But I’m still incredibly grateful for the welcome, the advice, the patience, the honesty, the presence. Being here is equal parts solidarity and self-reliance.
And of course, there have been moments during my honeymoon with Nome when I stop processing everything. Moments of unquantifiable bliss during which the experience of being fully alive is all that matters. Plunging into the Bering Sea in celebration of the midnight sun, rafting down the Nome River despite the playful (vicious) onslaught of water-gun-wielding neighbors, gathering sea glass on the beach, driving through the tundra to Teller, drifting off to sleep at 3 a.m. with light crackling through slits in the curtains. (Lesson 3: Sunlight is a gift. As are kind strangers and warm clothing.) It may only be a year, Nome, but it seems we’ve been hitched and I’m ready if you are.
So, yes, life here is pretty much the same as anywhere else. But it all feels a little more…pressing.