My bucket list has a new check mark. After a trip to Alaska last week, I've set foot in all 50 of our great United States.
Travel is broadening, meaning it provides understanding of things not in one's backyard -- not necessarily of broadened girth from road trip calories. I may have gained both during eight days in our 49th state. Misconceptions were clarified with serendipity embraced. And then there's the seafood.
First: I learned it's a very long journey up there. Ironically, I flew from Houston, biggest city in our second-largest state to the largest state. When I nonchalantly picked the Houston-to-Anchorage non-stop, I didn't notice the duration hidden in time zone changes. Returning later to choose a seat, it hit me. Seven hours and fifteen minutes airborne is longer than flying to Europe from the East Coast. Alaska is not just nestled up somewhere northwest of Montana.
Second: I will never again complain about Daylight Saving Time and long periods of summertime evening shade here in the lower 48. I touched down at Ted Stevens Anchorage International the very evening of the solstice; my first full day in Anchorage was the longest day of the year. "Longest" is a weak superlative in Alaska just as are tallest and widest in The Land of the Midnight Sun. The darkest hour or so near midnight equates to mere dusk in the lower 48.
Third: Anchorage is not so large a city. With freight and passenger jumbo jets coming and going with frequency, it feels bigger than its 350,000 population. There are 150,000 fewer residents in greater Anchorage than metro Northwest Arkansas. Statewide, there are three quarters of a million people in "AK" versus three million in "AR." Another telling metric is that the smallest state, Rhode Island, has the same number of Walmarts as the largest: Nine.
Fourth: Based on the people you encounter there, Alaska doesn't seem all that diverse ethnically. But that's a misconception caused by those who visit, not those who are local. The perceived monochromatic nature of Alaska seems rooted to me from white, Texan good ol' boys come up temporarily with oil field work or outdoor sport, escaping the ever-increasing population and gentrification, if you will, of former wild lands in the Lone Star State. The Hill Country is becoming Napa Valley on the Pedernales and West Texas (à la Marfa) has spawned way too many art and literary festivals. Then there are the Minnesotans and Wisconsinites, Nordic in their roots and appearance, fitting right in with the sylvan mountains. Why on earth these people descend on a land colder than their own baffles me. Have the Ericksons and Bergstroms never heard of family vacations spots in Florida, or even Lake of the Ozarks, where one can warm up a bit?
My trip was that of an overview, so I did not do any deep woods hiking or fishing. Even so, I did make the hike to the Russian River Falls to see the salmon jumping upstream and I encountered a momma moose and child. The day cruise I took from Whittier provided views of a flapping tail of a whale, several sea otters and seals as well as glaciers calving. A fun overnight discovery was Talkeetna, a quirky village with a Eureka Springs-type vibe. They once elected a cat as mayor.
Fifth: The people, whether locals or those just passing through, are incredibly cordial. Not once did I encounter anyone cross or regretful that they were there.
Sixth: As to the food, the halibut was so-so except when fried as though a Popeye's chicken sandwich. The salmon and the king crab were authentic and excellent, better in taste but no less expensive than back home. Reindeer sausage in a blanket for breakfast (Rudy in a Parka, so dubbed) was tasty.
Finally, the mountains! Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) is literally the crowning peak. But by mid-week I was overwhelmed. Magnificent forests, mountains and glaciers at every turn became just so much nougat and marzipan in a French confectionery display case. It was hard to keep my eyes on the road.
Once you visit Alaska, you will return, it is said, as with Hawaii, where I've been multiple times. I must return to our 49th state as my sampler of The Last Frontier did not sate. But next time I will break it up with a stopover in Seattle for the Chihuly glass gallery, source of those dramatic sculptures at our museum in Bentonville. Yeah, it was a long flight.