Of all the places I’ve visited, none has felt more different from the norm than Anchorage. On the surface it’s like any other city, but underneath, there’s a sense of remoteness, of isolation, yet also of independence and self-sufficiency and deserved pride.
Towards the end of my incoming flight a few days ago, the plane banked, so I glanced out the window; I hadn’t seen anything but sky when the plane was level, since I was in an aisle seat. The moment I looked out, enormous, imposing, steadfast mountains filled the window – snow-covered, with dramatic black-edged contours. A few minutes later, flatter land appeared. Dark jabs of pine trees articulated the harsh topography; a frozen lake the shape of a bear was flooded in white. It was 3:30pm and 9 degrees Fahrenheit. The sky had already begun to darken, and not a trace of motion caught my eye. We then curved over a bay, which was crowded with silvery ice floes the texture of tree bark; squiggly trails of slush pursued them, colliding in the current. What water remained was golden from the fading sun. Far off in the distance, pink-capped peaks were visible in the dusk.
By the time my luggage arrived at baggage claim, the sun had set and the scenery seemed lit by the snow. On my way out of the airport, I spotted a large stuffed moose in the gift shop – then, on the way into the city, saw a huge, moose-shaped lawn ornament in someone’s suburban backyard, positioned with its head in a tree, as if reaching for food. I was very surprised a second later, when the lawn ornament moved, tearing off the branch and plodding around the lawn in search of more dinner. Apparently, moose aren’t scared of much; in the winter, when the snow gets too deep in the mountains, these statuesque animals roam the city streets, climbing up snowbanks to reach high, tender branches, and pruning residents’ arboreal landscaping. Yet no one I talked to seemed to mind.
Once in Anchorage, Natalie and I had a few days to spare. We’d decided to meet up here early, to rehearse away from the distractions of home life; it had worked well in Arnhem this past fall, and neither of us had been to this northern state before, so we were curious to give it a go. We planned to rehearse for several hours each day, and in our spare time we’d intended to go out and explore, attending a local event or two and soaking up the ambiance before giving our first concert of the tour and heading off on the road. It didn’t quite work out like that. Natalie’s flight was delayed by nearly half a day, erasing our first day of rehearsals. Record-editing deadlines for my Elgar/Vaughan-Williams album were approaching, so I worked on that in my room for a couple of hours each day. And lastly, it was terribly cold outside, dipping down to subzero temperatures at times. Locals are used to that sort of weather; I hadn’t encountered much of anything below 35 degrees since last February. So while Alaskans hit the streets hatless, in jeans and medium-weight jackets, Natalie and I shivered in multiple layers of bundling, and our skin slowly dried out in the arid cold. Needless to say, we found ourselves gravitating towards the indoors, admiring the region’s beauty from behind frigid windows. My violin, too, was caught off guard by the weather: my strings wouldn’t stay put, and a seam opened up (a seam is any place where two large pieces of wood are glued together), making my usually hardy Vuillaume sound like it had a slight cold.
We spent our first day rehearsing in a private residence. From the living-room window, we could see a packed-down trail in the forest behind the house; every so often, a cross-country skier, a walker, or a snow cyclist passed by. One of the house’s owners is a concertina player (evidently, he’s one of only three such musicians in Alaska), so after we finished our work, he led Natalie and me to his basement studio and gave us a live, very capable demonstration of his instrument. On the way back upstairs, I noticed bear-and wolfskins hanging on the wall, complete with head and claws; that was a little intimidating. But our hosts were as friendly as could be, and it was a memorable day.
The rest of the time, we rehearsed in local venues set aside for musical pursuits. One day, I completed an early-morning radio interview while Natalie caught up on sleep and, later, spent an hour talking with local string students. We did get out to the mall to buy some lunch one afternoon, but that could hardly be considered a cultural activity. What can I say? On rehearsal days, music comes first.
One thing I loved about Anchorage, something which impressed me every time I ventured out (albeit on my way to activities or rehearsals or the grocery store), was the beauty of the city and its surrounding area. It’s very clean: the snow is crystalline and pure, glittering in the sunlight. On the roads, it swirls in the wakes of cars and SUV’s, reduced to a white dust drifting over the pavement. Kids sled at recess. Trees are healthy; the air is clear; mountains aren’t obstructed by skyscrapers, construction cranes, or smokestacks. Nights, the sky is empty and endless, setting a perfect stage for the Northern Lights.
This is a huge state. For the concert, people came from as far away as Kodiak and Nome (where the great dogsled race, the Iditarod, ends every year). Anchorage is the center of activity, the focal point of Alaska. Apparently, it isn’t unusual for folks to travel by plane or boat, or to drive across the ice in the winter, traveling hundreds, even thousands, of miles to take in events, shop, visit friends, and treat their kids to museum exhibits, concerts, and shows. The audience was very responsive and very enthusiastic, cheering heartily and giving more than one standing ovation. It’s fun when that happens.
I woke up early this morning, to pack for my next destination (Scottsdale, AZ) and write this journal entry. Now, at 8:30am, I’m gazing out the window at a still-dark world; in half an hour, the sun will begin to light up the sky. For the time being, a man in a Russian hat toes the ice at the side of a road, waiting for traffic to slow so that he can cross. His breath is a cloud. He’s patient. Like any frontier, civilization in this city seems incidental. West draws further west; the calm of the unknown lures like a magnetic force of solemnity and freedom. Life here is quieter, stiller, slower, yet it could never be lazy; the impending presence of nature gives a sense of magnitude beyond the doorstep.
Yours from Alaska,