As a prelude to New Year’s Eve in Alaska’s largest city, a magnitude 5.0 earthquake rattled the Anchorage Metropolitan area, the news reported to America. In many places, this would have been a big shake, but in the 49th state people shrugged their shoulders and got on about the business of celebrating the passing of time.
Only about six hours after the earthquake, hurricane force winds started slamming the Anchorage Hillside. From about 4 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., a National Weather Service tracked wind gauge on the roof of a neighbor’s home about 1,000 feet high in the foothills of the Chugach Mountains above Potter March recorded gusts to or over 70 mph every few minutes.
Just up the hill, homeowner Tim Kelley snapped a photo of the dial on his anemometer peaking at 101 mph. His roof stayed on. The winds were just another moment of climate excitement in the ‘hood.
From 3,000 miles to the southeast, looking at Kelley’s email, I felt strangely jealous about missing out on the excitement.
More than anything, these are the sort of geophysical events that define Alaska. It is an easy thing to forget when you’re living in the 49th state, and a hard thing to overlook when you’re outside the 49th state.
The big blow attracted little media attention anywhere, even in Alaska. The Hillside – with its wind-beaten microclimate – is as remote as the Bush to many in the Anchorage Bowl.
And, of course, the people along the mountain had been warned.
“‘One-two punch’ of windstorms bears down on Anchorage,” the Anchorage Daily News had reported the day before in a story summarizing an earlier windstorm. The news from the first blow was “scattered power outages and closed ski lifts.”
“Building winds put a damper on ski plans Sunday afternoon. Arctic Valley Ski Area announced it would be closing for the day….Hilltop Ski Area also announced the closure of its chairlift Sunday due to wind, but said its beginner Tudor Tow lift would be open.”
Life goes on
Where else in the world would a ski area keep a rope tow running for the little ones when it’s too windy to safely operate the chairlifts? But hey, why not?
Kids are low to the ground. It’s harder for the wind to knock them over.
And this is Alaska where life is different, rawer, harder, a little less civilized even where it is civilized.
“We are here because we like to suffer,” a friend e-mailed from Willow where the temperature was spring like but not in a good way. All the nice snow beloved by snowmachiners, skiers and sled doggers was turning to something else that starts with an S.
And now it is turning back into ice. The Susitna River valley is forecast to see temperatures of 20 degrees below zero by the weekend.
Welcome to the new year in the land of extremes.
Temperate in all ways
In Michigan, it was 38 and raining, and 45 and sunny, and sometimes freezing at night and spitting some snow. Most of the bigger lakes were still largely ice free, and there were geese flying around.
The rain, when it rained, fell straight from the sky unlike on the Anchorage Hillside where it likes to claw at your face. But it being the end-of-year, start-of-year holiday nobody went out in the weather much.
When it is the New Year holidays and you are around family in the Wolverine State, the civilized thing to do is sit around and watch football teams lose. The University of Michigan took a shellacking at the hands of Florida in the Peach Bowl in case you missed it.
Michigan State tried to help take the heat off Harbaugh by losing six to seven to Oregon in the Redbox Bowl. Yes, you read that right: 6 to 7. No, this was not a baseball game. It really was a football game.
No one seemed too upset. Michiganers are getting used to post-season, gridiron failures. Despite the newspaper headlines, they seem to take losing in stride. The state is pretty laid back, very civilized – sort of like Seattle was before it got discovered.
Now most everyone in the Emerald City seems preoccupied with being in a rush. What they are rushing to only they know, but it must be important. They do share one thing in common with those here, though, and with those in most of the U.S. really, and that is a significant disconnect from the natural world.
It’s out there, but it has been pretty well conquered. Urbanity has taken over a lot of ground, and where it hasn’t the countryside is nicely carved up with roads and nature in all its forms feels a safe distance away.
Help is never far off. The animals are either friendly or road kill.
Sometimes they’re likely both, but no one seems to worry about that. Worrying about how animals die is for most Americans a subject of concern only in far off places like Alaska.
The daily motorized massacres on the highways of the Lower 48 states? Collateral damage.
The cost of doing business. An unavoidable consequence of the modern world. Just what happens.
You have to be from Alaska, where wildlife isn’t all that plentiful despite the myth to the contrary, to even notice the smashed carcasses littering the pavement everywhere in the blended mix of places not really rural and not really suburban that now characterize so much of Middle America.
And the rest of it, the ever more truly urban America?
So much of the rest of it is a river of humanity – people crowding the pathways of travel the way salmon clog the rivers of Alaska in a good year. Economic forces have pushed people into the cities in ways that could not have been imagined even 50 years ago.
Nearly one in three Americans now live in purely urban environments, and almost nine out of 10 Americans inhabit urban or suburban areas, most of which have far more in common with urban American than rural America despite what the people living in them might want to believe.
The data, according to the Pew Research Center, says a hoped for “rural rebound” in the 1990s failed to materialize and rural American continues to fade. These trends appear destined to continue into future.
Against this backdrop, Alaska appears on track to become ever more the outlier state. The residents of Anchorage and Fairbanks, the state’s two largest cities, are in many ways more rural in character than the suburban residents of this state who think of themselves as closer to rural than urban.
It is a different place Alaska.