Becoming a Fairbanksan

Three weeks in Fairbanks down, many more to go. Between my college years in the cornfields of southern Ohio, several cross country drives, and the Appalachian trail passing through backwoods of 14 states, I appreciate the feel of small towns. I love big cities, but having all my needs contained within a 12 minute driving radius certainly has its charms.

My life here is simple and good. I’ve settled into a productive rhythm of playwriting and submitting my work for production. I also started painting for the first time since college, taking advantage of Black Friday deals to stock up on supplies. I’m riding an artistic wave, which was a major hope for the winter. I’ll share more about all this in a future post, suffice to say, it’s crazy how creatively charged I feel when I don’t spend 40% of the day worrying about my direction in life. Imagine!

The sun currently rises around 10:00am and starts setting before 3pm. We will continue to lose about seven minutes of light per day until Winter Solstice (December 21st), when daylight begins to slowly creep back in. Temperatures have largely been in the single digits and teens, with a couple balmy afternoons in the 20s. I’ve already acclimated to thinking of single digits as “not too cold”, because that’s what everyone up here says. The same way someone in southern California this time of the year would shrug off 50 degree weather as totally doable. Newsflash: three degrees is still cold.

I flew into town during the first major snow dump of the season. Over a foot and a half has fallen thus far, which is not too bad compared to Great Lakes winters, though it will not melt until spring. It started snowing unseasonably late this year and the temperatures have remained warmer than expected. It’s almost as though a drastic change in weather patterns is actively underway. Hmm, wonder what that could be about (furrows brow, pensively strokes beard). A thick layer of snow and ice is necessary to properly insulate pipes when temperatures plunge in the coming weeks, so let’s hope enough has accumulated.

I keep a watchful eye on shoveling the driveway. Even a half-inch dusting can lead to ice if unattended and packed down under tires. It usually takes 30-45 minutes to clear, a handful of times per week. It’s a good workout, no complaints. And it’s “not too cold” yet, if you recall. 

Once my background check clears, I will begin substitute teaching. The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District is in desperate need of temporary staff, so the hours should be as steady as I want. I will continue to focus my attention on artistic output until tour season begins again next May. I’ve taught in several capacities over the years–from swim lessons in high school to working at one of the Chicago’s top actor training programs–but never in a substitute capacity. I’m curious how I’ll take to it. Starting next semester, I will work in afterschool programming, helping to develop  theatre-based activities to build literacy skills. I’m particularly excited for this.

Side note: All temporary employees with the school district must take an online training course about detecting and reporting child abuse. Alaska’s rates of abuse have dipped in the past couple years, but they are still almost double the national average. Very troubling information.

I connected with a small theatre company called Breadcrumbs that uses Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) techniques to work with vulnerable and disenfranchised populations in Fairbanks. They are leading some fantastic workshops with incarcerated young men at a local jail. I studied TO in college and used it to co-develop a piece addressing the reprehensible culture of sexual assault on my campus*. It’s a methodology I greatly respect but haven’t engaged with in years. I am hoping to train the company members in Viewpoints, a movement-based performance language that I believe will seamlessly augment their work. I have used and taught Viewpoints for years, making this an unexpected opportunity to mesh skills from different eras of my training.

The only major hiccup I’ve encountered so far was being scammed into buying a lemon car off Craigslist. Thankfully I got my money back from the asshole, a gruff old Fairbanks lifer. He compared doing business with me to working with a woman, which, to his confusion, I took as a great compliment. This is not an easy place to be without a car and I don’t feel comfortable using the homeowners’ with the slick roads. I now have a reliable ride with some clunky personality. It has an “Alaska windshield” meaning it is cracked in several places, very common with the questionable road conditions throughout the state.

A couple days ago, Anchorage suffered a Magnitude 7 earthquake and I felt the tremors hundreds of miles away. I won’t pretend to know how magnitudes are evaluated, but the largest earthquake ever registered was a 9.5, and 7 is a lot closer to 9.5 than 0. I’ve experienced small tremors before, but this was the first time a quake actually jostled me around.

I was shaken from a restless dream, very disoriented in my pitch black bedroom. It felt like someone was trying to yank my bed across the floor. The shaking stopped about 30 seconds after I figured out what was happening. I’ve never been lucky enough to live somewhere haunted, so I reasoned it had to be an earthquake. As far as I know, Fairbanks didn’t receive any structural damage . The sizeable destruction in Anchorage is still being tallied, with all public schools closed for at least a week.

A couple weekends ago I attended a live recording of Dark Winter Nights, an evening of Alaska storytelling. It was the hot ticket in town, nearly filling the impressive 1,200 seat high school auditorium. The stories were largely survival-based. One guy described in vivid detail how he and a friend escaped their two-person plane after it crashed into some trees and caught fire.  Another involved a fight to the death with a polar bear. You can read more about the popular event and listen to the podcast HERE.

The most memorable stories had a certain campfire appeal, worn-in and shared countless times. These are everyday people, likely unaccustomed to speaking into a microphone for an audience of hundreds, lending a pleasant shagginess to the storytelling.  A couple senior gentlemen lost their place along the way (“Did I already tell you about the hat?”; moments after telling us every detail about the hat). While these firsthand accounts of classic Alaskan grit are still fresh for me, I imagine the locals enjoy them more as communal comfort food. 

Speaking of which, I kept myself company during intermission with a baked potato covered in chili, part of a  fundraiser by the hosting school. Something about eating in a high school cafeteria in my bulky ass parka and snow boots, surrounded by reunions of neighbors and friends, completed the small town vibe of the evening.  

I ran into someone I knew at Fred Meyers (a Wal-Mart equivalent) the other day!! Pardon the excitement, but this is an unspoken rite of Fairbanks passage. Every single time I’ve been out with a friend, they have come across at least one person they know. I’m totally fine with the amount of alone time I’ve spent so far, but it’s nice slowly becoming someone who knows other someones and sees them in the cereal aisle.

I spent Thanksgiving with the son and daughter-in-law of the people I’m house sitting for, and their two young children. It was peaceful, stress-free holiday. Bonus points: they live two streets away. We feasted on massive Alaskan king crab legs, a regionally appropriate substitute for turkey. I brought along cheesy potato casserole, a novel dish for my hosts who are from Alaska and Washington respectively. It’s a staple midwest dish I can’t imagine Thanksgiving without, but I asked around and apparently it’s not a thing up here. I hope my casserole was a good ambassador and that I did my artery-clogged ancestors proud. I profoundly missed having a kitchen and cooking for people, so the holiday meal was good for my soul.

Fairbanks apparently has an entire economy of little drive thru coffee stands. You can’t turn a corner without spotting one. I still haven’t found my ideal coffee shop to perch and work for hours. There’s one very nearby with great baked goods and house roasted coffee, but limited online time and no outlets. No outlets! In a coffee shop! I mean listen. I’m fully capable of arriving with my laptop charged and I don’t need internet connection to write, but I’m a man of basic principle. 

I have yet to be gather two essential bits of information: who makes the best donuts, and where is the real deal fried chicken? Papa needs to know where his treats are, in all places, at all times. 

I caught glimpses of the Northern Lights in Canada at the end of my summer tour season, but I have yet to see them since my return. I need to get away from the light pollution from town. Now that I have a car I’m confident won’t die making the drive, that will happen soon. I haven’t show shoe’d or meet a sled dog; both are on the list. 

*Miami University. Lauded for it’s excellent educational track record. Known for its conservative values, overt displays of wealth, lack of diversity, and deeply troubling gender roles. I have hugely conflicting feelings about attending, and wish there was some way I could get it through the telemarketers’ heads that I will never donate to the alumni association, and yes, I’m absolutely positive I want to be removed from the contact list forever.

12 thoughts on “Becoming a Fairbanksan

  1. After 20 years living in Northern Alaskan wilderness an having left Alaska because of failing health
    I still enjoy reading a well written account of someones first months in the Fairbanks area
    thanks for sharing
    your words were
    a meal for my minds eye.

    Liked by 1 person

Share Your Thoughts and Questions

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s