It’s been a weird last month-or-so—personally challenging, professionally exciting and consistently, increasingly, unpredictable. My six-month anniversary was marked by the surprise of leaving not once, but twice.
I was given the opportunity to travel to Fairbanks in December for Archbishop of Fairbanks Chad Zielinski’s ordination, and then to Anchorage last week with Francesca for a data journalism conference. While we volunteers are afforded the awesome ability to visit communities in our region with relative frequency, it’s not as common to make it to those bigger cities further from Nome. It was super-cool to hang out for a bit in urban settings (closer to the environment I’ve lived most of my life in), but I have to say, one of my favorite parts was the act of returning to Nome—to its cold, character, and intimacy.
There are tons of fun things about the city: a plethora of restaurants (prepare ye self, stomach), commercial centers (infrastructure dedicated to pretty, thin, impractical fabrics), traffic lights (traffic) and 4G (I know, right?). It was interesting to be anonymous again—just one of many, many people wandering about—never completely alone, but I would argue, never completely connected (no matter how great your AT&T service suddenly is). I do miss public transportation and coffee shops on every corner. My nerdy English major self wants used bookstores and Barnes & Noble. Cities are absolutely Cool With A Capital ‘C’ and I’ve always enjoyed living in them. But walking around a mall for the first time in seven months made me feel like an animated character from The Sims.
I’m realizing that living in rural Alaska is toughening me up and making me more of a real person than I probably was before. While strolling about town in Nome, I’m in awe of the world, fascinated by its many forms and fashions, and aware of any stupid decision I might make to get myself hurt by an earth that is so evidently more powerful than me. Yesterday in Anchorage, I slipped on ice on the sidewalk and was annoyed at the ice. (Hellooooo, Jenn? Have you forgotten everything?!)
I’ll probably move back to a city one day because I know my extroverted self is happiest surrounded by people in a densely populated space. But I don’t want to forget the moment last week when I had to ask for help finding an item at Walgreens in Anchorage because staring at a wall of colorful plastic and cardboard displays was giving me a headache—over-stimulating my eyes to the point of paralysis and frustration. (Consumerism…yuck.) The daily sunrise-sunset bookends of nature never do that. The aurora borealis (a sight gleefully sought after by our out-of-town instructors at the data journalism conference) never does that. There are definitely more than a few things you can’t buy in a city.
Attending last week’s conference was refreshing because as a reporter at KNOM, I sometimes forget that our tiny, three-person newsroom is connected to a strong network of journalists throughout the state, all doing truly impressive work. I loved receiving advice and sharing experiences with journalists who have worked throughout the country and the world. At this very early moment in my career and halfway point of my year at KNOM, I’m extremely grateful for this time of learning, growth, and self-reflection.
So let’s flash back for a minute to the first time a Boeing 737 carried me from Anchorage to Nome. The world was blindingly bright. Waiting anxiously at gate C1, I watched the dozen Nome-bound folks around me chat, hug, laugh, grab some Starbucks and McDonald’s to go, likely bound for family or friends at home. (Does everyone in this town know each other?) I boarded the plane, kissed my super-fast cell service goodbye, and settled in next to my seat-mate—an older man who by the end of the flight was penciling in all the important geography on the in-flight magazine map, pointing out the mountains and rivers I’d eventually come to recognize and write stories about.
“Life is pretty much the same in Nome as it is anywhere else,” he says. Pauses. “Little more pressing.”
Six and a half months later, at gate C1, I squish a bag of Starbucks Christmas blend beans for the roomies into my carry-on, squinting out the window at the gorgeous mountains that were my first image of Alaska. They’re sort of purple in the slanted evening light of 3:30 p.m. And then I see a friend stroll over to the gate, on his way home. We exchange notes on our travels. Another friend. Five (six?) familiar faces. And the déjà vu simmers to the surface.
I snag a window seat on the plane, and my seat-mate is a fifth grade boy heading back home to Nome after a month away at camp. “Where are you from?” he asks me. “Well, um…now?” I reply, unsure what words to choose. “I guess Nome.” He grabs the in-flight magazine map to show me where he was, and then we’re taking turns pointing out the places in the state we’ve traveled to, and he tells me he’s been homesick and he asks if I’ve ever been homesick, too? “Totally,” I tell him, thinking of a lot of people and places I’m homesick for. But as his enthusiasm builds, every few minutes asking me what time it is and how close we are, I’m realizing that it’s contagious. Home might be sort of hard to define, but I’m excited, too.