Thank you for Alaska, Joe McGinniss

I was very sorry to hear about the death of writer Joe McGinniss. He had a large, and unexpected impact on my life, though we never met (but I did once see him at Bernie’s Bungalow in downtown Anchorage). He’s a big reason I moved to Alaska briefly in 1996, and again for a much longer 12-year stay starting in 2001. He wrote Going to Extremes.

Published in 1980, Going to Extremes was a sort of journal McGinniss kept as he traveled around the state, from southeastern Alaska to Barrow on North America’s northern edge, from Bethel to Anchorage and Fairbanks and along the pipeline — everywhere. He visited at the end of the 1970s and traveled like a local, using the Marine Highway (the ferry) to travel up from Bellingham, Washington and then ride with a gregarious salesman in a new pickup truck into Canada and back down to Anchorage in the dead of winter. He flew in small planes, tasted the bitter petroleum ice smog of Fairbanks, discovered the depression and racism of Barrow, and the culturally enticing yet isolating communities of the Y-K delta. He watched midnight sun baseball and recounted rampant drug abuse in Juneau at a time when the State was rolling in new oil money and didn’t really know how to govern itself.

I read this book back in the mid-1990s before moving to Alaska in the summer of 1996, after a failed attempt at teaching high school. I was drawn to the land of extremes, the world of possibilities that an Alaska re-invention represented. I left at the end of that summer, returning to reality in the Lower 48. But the romantic notions of the Last Frontier never left me.

I took my girlfriend to Alaska in March 2000 for a brief vacation and proposed to her in the back of a flightseeing plane after landing on a frozen lake. That wasn’t as romantic as it sounds, however, due to the drunk guys also in the little plane. But you know, Alaska and alcohol have a long history together. 😉

After the dot-com crash of 2000, things slowed down at my job and we looked west for adventure, for something new. I stumbled across a job in Anchorage, took my fiancee with me on an interview trip, and by February 2001 we were packed into a Honda CR-V with a dog, a cat, and a lot of stuff, heading north from Louisville, Kentucky. We figured if we didn’t try Alaska then, while we were younger, we’d never try it. We thought we’d move there for 2 or 3 years, then move back.

12 years later we finally left Alaska. But in those years we explored the state and hosted friends and family that wanted to sample the adventure. We were hugely separated from family most of the time, but we found a new community while there, one we’re not finding so easily now that we’ve returned to the Lower 48. Anchorage is a city of transition for so many, and we fit in there. Not so much down here.

Sure, McGinniss wasn’t the only reason I moved to Alaska. But that book had an effect. And I can tell you his perspectives from the late 1970s still apply today. Alaska is indeed a land of extremes, whether it’s the dramatic swings of day and night, of heat and cold, of ice (glaciers) and fire (volcanoes), the earthquakes, the political insanity (McGinniss also wrote a book on Sarah Palin), and the many cultures across the state. I even asked a friend in Bethel whether he’d met any of the characters described in McGinniss’ book. He had. Were the descriptions accurate? They were — absolutely. Some people were proud to have been in the book, while others thought the descriptions were unfair.

Naturally, I recommend the book, and I’m sorry to hear McGinniss has passed away. His writing fired up my imagination and allowed me to experience the romantic draw of a life on the modern frontier — a place where you can start over, where you can define yourself, and where you live in a community so small it’s naturally close-knit.

He’s better known for other books, but to me he’ll always be the guy that captured the spirit of Alaska like no other writer before or since.