The descent into Fairbanks on a summer night is an exercise in cognitive dissonance. You take off from Seattle in darkness near complete, the last rays of the sun leeching out of the sky as the clock ticks past 9. For an hour, perhaps, the night reigns. And then, off in front of the plane, a patch of dawn appears, greenish bleeding into grey to indigo. Streaks of red fade in. Above the dark seething clouds below, the light resolves to white, graduating to teal and darker hues as you get higher above the horizon.
You land after midnight amid a rainstorm that continues all through the next day. The quality of the light doesn’t change that entire time.
Alaska exists on a scale that cannot be contained by the usual words, by “big” and “massive” and “vast.” The bounds of the land strain imagination; the sky refuses to end, even though you can see the curvature of the earth. Your lungs expand in an effort to fill the space.
To go on foot from Fairbanks, in the Interior, to Nome, on the western coast, would probably take you a month. You can’t drive, because there aren’t any roads that connect the two, 521 miles apart, though you can fly. There’s 663,300 square miles’ worth of land for 738,432 people in the state. It used to be four time zones wide, condensed into two in the 1980s. No one really noticed.
The city itself, divided by the muddy ribbon of the Chena River, is composed nearly entirely of… not sprawl, exactly, but it feels most like a helium atom, with a small downtown section and a couple smaller pockets of activity orbiting around, and large chunks of empty space between. This is another valley town, with rolling hills around and the snowy masses of Denali a couple hours southwest.
The downtown, formerly a red light district, is now an amalgam of touristy sites that cater to the busloads of Alaskan cruisers that get dumped off at the end of a trip, your general municipal buildings built sometime between the 1950s and 1980s, a few bars, and a bunch of shockingly good Thai restaurants. Their number is a bit of an oddity even to residents, who cannot explain why so many began appearing here; however, they certainly aren’t complaining.
Everyone is talkative and generous with their time, though some of that might simply be attributed to the presence of a new person with whom to share their tales. Life stories leap out of people in a wordy torrent at the bus stop, the café. Resumes are handed out for no reason other than the hander happens to be carrying a bunch of them.
Clichés exist for a reason, as do metaphors that are perhaps too on the nose. The beauty of the surroundings, currently lit by the sun for 20 hours at a time, belies a darkness in this city of 32,469.
Fairbanks Memorial Hospital last year dealt with 600 rape cases. That was up sharply from 2014 and 2015, according to the Alaska Dispatch News. And, as always with sexual assault, these are just the cases that are reported. The hospital staff is stretched thin as is, and is facing the loss of overnight forensic nurses. (The hospital, per the Alaska Dispatch News, says this is because the need for those nurses at that time of day is not high enough. Budget cuts are everywhere.)
Some of these cases come from the outlying villages, collections of 100 or 200 people out in the wilds away from roads and law enforcement and hospitals. The Alaska Native population, of which many of these villages are chiefly comprised, has been dealing with rampant sexual and domestic abuse, alcoholism, and mental health issues for decades, at least; these issues have been passed generation to generation, a wound that cannot seem to heal, and that now has the feeling of a cultural gene. The Tanana Chiefs Conference is attempting to stop the cycle, with counseling programs and a Sobering Center and outreach.
But such is the current state of budgetary affairs that there isn’t enough money for the types of programs that are actually helpful in keeping Natives off the streets while still maintaining their culture, says Adam John, a 77-year-old former Army engineer, advocate, and Alaska Native of the Athabascans. (He personally prefers the term “Indian,” actually, because “Native” doesn’t make sense in other countries.) Born on the banks of the Tanana River, Adam’s name is really Dats Del t’a, “One Who Flies High and Sees Far,” but the local church, he says, opened the Bible and picked out a new one for him.
“The alcoholism — alcohol wasn’t part of our culture,” he says. “They brought it here. And then you’ve got people passing laws saying you can’t drink, even though you put a bar right in front of them. The system keeps it all going.” He’s in favor of what he calls Indian Centers, spaces where Natives can come in any time, get breakfast, hang out, carve and bead if they want to. It keeps the culture alive, gives them something to think about and do. He ran an Indian Center up here in Fairbanks a couple decades ago before moving away to Seattle, and says upon his return he was told there just isn’t the money for a program that open-ended.
He foresees a lot more of that kind of talk, he says, especially with the current President’s attitude toward public benefits.
White locals profess sympathy for the struggles of the Alaska Natives, acknowledging the generational trauma. James, a special needs teacher who also owns a small Alaska-centric bookstore in town, sees the impact on kids, and the difficulty in breaking cycles of sexual abuse and alcoholism and suicide.
Yet unease runs beneath this sympathetic surface: One local recounts a story of an intoxicated Native man mistaking her apartment for his friend’s, forcing his way into the living room through the sliding glass door.
This darkness does not only run in Native circles: alcoholism and suicide and sexual assault are issues in the broader community. The U.S. military’s presence, a couple bartenders say, has provided its share of trouble — certain bars have had such trouble with new recruits, fights and the like, that they don’t even allow military personnel inside.
The endless winter nights and skin-shattering cold work in tandem with the plethora of bars and firearms to provide an environment that practically invites aberrant behavior. “You take them from Florida or wherever, 18 years old, and stick them where the sun doesn’t shine,” one bartender says. “Of course you’re going to have problems.”
And then, James says, there are the non-military people who come up here precisely because they feel they can get away with stuff that might not fly in the Lower 48 — there aren’t many of them, he adds, but they do exist. For establishments that serve only alcohol, with no food available for purchase, a two-drink legal maximum per person has been installed. Whether that particular regulation is helping matters is an ongoing debate.
However, the military is a prime mover and shaker here; you can’t go more than 500 feet without seeing someone in uniform. “In the villages, especially,” says Adam, “you either go to college or you join the Army.” Too, it provides the main means of ingress of new blood. Men and women move here for their significant others in the military, from states like Wyoming or Montana or Washington or Oklahoma; some bring children. And they stay, even after breakups and divorces and discharges. It’s a nice place, they say; people know each other, and say hi in the grocery store. Folks are good, here, they add, generous and kind and interesting.
Besides, what are they going to go back to?
There’s a synagogue here, way up here, 140 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Congregation Or HaTzafon is the northernmost outpost of the Tribe of Judah — the name means “Light of the North.”
It’s easy to blow right past the low-slung building, or mistake it for a house or, say, a small dental practice operating out of same. A small wooden sign out front and two stars of David over the doors are the indicators that this is the home of the “Frozen Chosen,” as the congregants have dubbed themselves. Many other residents express surprise when informed there’s a synagogue in the city.
“That’s sort of by design,” says Beth, middle-aged, who works in the office. “We want to blend into the community as much as possible” — a small Jewish community in the wilds of Alaska might raise more than an eyebrow. But they weren’t on the receiving end of any bomb threats, and the only vandalism they’ve suffered of late was the destruction of the lights in front of the sign, no spray-painted swastikas or the like, thankfully. “We did install a security system, though,” she says, nodding at the monitor behind me, which has six camera feeds.
“It’s a sign of the times,” she adds, quietly.
They’re a small congregation, about 45 families, Beth says. Not everyone comes for Shabbat every Friday, particularly during the winter, but they do hold services at 7:30 every week just the same, even when the sun doesn’t set at anything approaching a reasonable hour.
Or HaTzafon doesn’t have a permanent rabbi. Not only is it hard to find someone who’ll put up with months of unyielding dark, the congregation just doesn’t have the money to pay a full-time rabbi. Instead, there’s Jenn the student rabbi, on loan for her second summer here in Fairbanks — she loved the first one she spent, and would love to come back yet again. Beth grows animated talking about the upcoming activities Jenn has planned: “Jews in Canoes,” where they’ll canoe down the Chena River and have a havdalah service at the end.
A rabbi from Miami happens to be visiting during the same stretch as your correspondent, an Orthodox Jew originally from Manchester, England. He gives a lesson to an audience of six, including your correspondent and the student rabbi, on a Tuesday evening with an impossibly blue sky, rife with mosquitoes the size of your thumb.
The subject is Shavuot, the holiday they’ll be celebrating in a week, the celebration of the giving of the Torah to Moses atop Mount Sinai. Questions are asked about the timing of the golden calf construction versus Moses stumbling upon the sleeping Israelites, and even how certain rules work for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews. Some members of the congregation are more skeptical than others; some are operating with knowledge from Hebrew school classes 30 or 40 years ago.
It’s clear that while the community does its best, there’s something about the presence of a real rabbi, a leader, that binds and enlivens. A permanent one just doesn’t seem to be in the cards, though. Beth spreads her hands in a gesture of wry acceptance.
There are Christian churches around, of course, Baptist and Catholic and Presbyterian and every other denomination. But there’s also an astonishingly large pagan and heathen community.
In a building dubbed the Co-Op, a store by the name of Woven Silver advertises candles and crystals and smudge sticks and Tarot readings, a sort of pagan convenience store. A young man with fading purple hair is the Tarot reader: “I’m the hoodoo guy,” he says matter-of-factly. He and his husband moved up from Oklahoma City not long ago; his husband is in the Army. The shop’s proprietor, Connie, served in the Army. Connie’s a pagan as well.
One of her partners in the business, Wayne, has stopped by. Wayne is a heathen. The difference, apparently, is that pagans wear their hearts on their sleeve and use magic. Heathens, per Wayne, are more rational, followers of a code of conduct; they prefer hard work to magic. He also puts it this way: “Pagans will do a spell to get something done; heathens would rather just bash your skull in.” He doesn’t look like a skull-basher, but it isn’t clear the exact extent to which he’s joking.
A crash course in specifics follows from the trio: Dragon’s Blood incense isn’t something to light around people with temper issues or ADD or ADHD. Rose quartz will bring good friendship vibes. “My magic is pretty,” the Tarot reader boasts: the flowers and herbs and candles used for spells are arranged artfully — and from that art comes power and purpose.
An artist friend comes into the shop, a burly bus driver named Ben. He’s agnostic, but one of his tattoos has a ward in it, obviously, because he hangs around a lot of witches, and he’s no fool.
Everyone extends an invitation to a gathering this weekend of the Fairbanks heathens and pagans, a hike and an outdoor meal. There are about 460 members of this particular community, Connie estimates.
Fairbanks is not only home to a synagogue and a rather large pagan and heathen population, but also to a nearly forgotten temple of American worship: one of the nine remaining Blockbusters in existence. This particular location isn’t just existing, either — it’s hiring.
The selection inside is wide, and nearly equally weighted to TV and movies. They are so keenly aware of the interest in their continued existence that they have Blockbuster t-shirts for sale, in black and a sort of periwinkle blue.
So, how does this Blockbuster still stand, in a city that is actually suffering from population decline? It’s independently owned, first of all, by the same guy who owns the other eight, based in Texas. There’s another one in Alaska, in North Pole.
Another brief detour must be made to the discuss the town of North Pole, about 10 miles southeast of Fairbanks. It is a town built entirely on the back of the Santa Claus industry, and business is, if not exactly booming, enough to kind of, sort of, sustain the place. The streets all bear names associated with the House of Claus — St. Nicholas Way, Santa Claus Lane — something all those irritating self-ascribed marketing experts on LinkedIn would no doubt cream themselves over. The street lights are all candy canes. There’s a small herd of reindeer living at the Antler Academy, where tours are $12.95 for towheaded nuggets alone, and more for their parents. These specimens of Rangifer are smaller than anticipated. Your correspondent does not fork over for the Antler Academy tour.
Anyway, the Blockbuster thing. The Alaska franchises work because the very infrastructure we take for granted in much of the Lower 48 doesn’t exist up here. While large swaths of the population live in slightly more urban settings, that doesn’t mean the world is at their fingertips: many don’t have cable, both because of how expensive the service is and because, in some areas, cable simply hasn’t been laid. Even neighborhoods that have internet may not be able to reliably stream video at 5Mbps. They may be dozens of miles from the nearest movie theater, or hundreds, and even if they were within a reasonable drive, winter keeps people fairly housebound.
And that is where the video store comes in.
On a Monday afternoon, around 1 o’clock, there are about half a dozen people in the store at a time. And this counts as slow, the clerk behind the counter says. Winter is their boom time, people checking out fistfuls of movies at once, even if they’ve seen them before; some buy heaps of used DVDs. The clerk makes sure everyone renting a Blu-Ray has a Blu-Ray player — they used to get complaints about “DVDs” not working.
They do still have to be somewhat wary of the online competition, of course. A woman with two young girls browsing the shelves repeatedly has to tell the kids they’ve seen a particular batch of episodes of some pony-based series on Netflix.
Thus the shelves of merch, even besides the Blockbuster-branded shirts — posters and movie franchise-based games and lunchboxes. The clerk says they were initially surprised at how well the shirts sold; they just had to order a new batch.
A large black and a medium blue come to $37.98, thanks.