Posts Tagged ‘sense of belonging’

Discovering amazing places in the world is a gift and a curse. It’s a gift because it shows travelers the beauty and diversity of the world, a curse because it leads to this draw away from the comforts of the settled life and a struggle to choose where to call home.

When I was at The Pub a few weeks ago, I chose to wear my New Zealand All Blacks shirt from the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which NZ hosted and won while I was working and traveling there. The man seated next to me asked me the reason for the shirt, and I proceeded to happily talk to a complete stranger about my country for a chunk of the evening.

Over the course of our conversation, this father of a first year college student and a free spirited teenage daughter heard tales of my travels in NZ, China, and Mexico. Some of my adventures worried him as he thought of his own daughter, but mostly he seemed entertained by my tales. Toward the end of the conversation he asked, “Since you love New Zealand so much, what’s keeping you from going back?”

After my usual bs mumbling about visas, needing a job, and the cost of living, I stopped and reflected on how I’ve compiled excuses for not making a move to my favorite country happen. A few years ago I read a blog post about dreams and whether we pursue them or not. Unfortunately I can’t recall the exact line or find the post, but it said something like:

When our dreams seem too difficult to realize, we convince ourselves we never really wanted them that badly, and then we force ourselves to not want them any more. In making up excuses and moving around our dreams, we abandon them and never know what could have been.

The Importance of Big Dreams – similar yet different post by a great blogger

As someone who still gets more fired up to talk about New Zealand than anything else, that idea saddens me. I haven’t let the dream die, but I’ve realized that something else has gotten in the way. To explain, we have to return to the South Pacific.

Wanaka, a cute town in the Central Otago region of the South Island, wanted me to slow down and stay awhile during my travels. I arrived with only 5 days left in my ~4.5 weeks of wandering everywhere I could squeeze in down south, and I was greatly saddened that I had to catch a flight so soon. Though it’s a town situated on a beautiful lake and just down the road from ski areas and the Southern Alps, Wanaka seemed rather unassuming and quiet compared to the nearby tourist-saturated Queenstown. I quickly decided that its character and 4 season climate made it my preferred area to live.

While walking down the main street, I noticed The Picture Lounge – NZ Photographers Gallery, home of what I discovered to be a gorgeous collection of landscape and adventure photography. Naturally, I went inside to check out the beautiful images. As I took in the pictures hanging on the walls and flipped through the many albums, the unexpected happened. I began to cry.

I cried because New Zealand is too unfairly beautiful. I cried because I’d fallen in love. I cried because I had just about 2 weeks left to spend there.

As I struggled to contain myself, an employee walked over to chat with me. When I looked up from the album and he saw I was in tears, his expression changed to concern. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine,” I smiled through my tears as I worked on wiping them away. “Sorry, just give me a minute.”

Once I’d closed the albums, I was able to walk up to him and explain I had no interest in leaving his amazing country. He was relieved to know that was the only reason for a teary visitor, and of course he appreciated my mentality. Kiwis know how fortunate they are to live in a gorgeous country and be so distant from the rest of the world; one simple t-shirt design reads “Living in a better place… New Zealand.” I bought one.

Despite not wanting to return to America, I left New Zealand on schedule and have spent the last 5 years frequently daydreaming of my hobbit home and when I will return. Alaska – specifically Fairbanks – has been my home base ever since, but it hasn’t necessarily felt like home.

Being a homeless couchsurfer who typically floats into town for just a week or so between jobs hasn’t allowed me to establish my post-college life. Yes, I’ve found time for backpacking, dogsitting, biking, The Pub, and visits with friends. Until recently my stints in town have been too brief to really feel like I’m part of the community, though.

Now I’m back in Homer – home of the headquarters of Alaska Maritime NWR – and just a week away from leaving civilization for another summer on Buldir. After visiting Saturday’s indoor Farmers Market, I decided to step inside businesses I’ve ignored on my last 2 seasons’ worth of stays in Homer.

Enter Ptarmigan Arts, a co-op art gallery full of Alaskan photography, paintings, drawings, jewelry, pottery, sculpture, and woodworking. While browsing through the gallery, a feeling hit me as I realized…

Alaska. Alaska is why I haven’t focused my life on returning to New Zealand. Although I shed no tears, my visibility grew fuzzy, and I had to hold myself back from light crying as I gazed at the beauty – and more so the character – of Alaska captured by cameras and carved in wood.

I love Alaska’s mountains, glaciers, tundra, trees, flowers, and hot springs; its boats, lakes, rivers, islands, and ocean; its moose, bears, wolves, otters, and other furry animals; and its birds. I love its small towns, breweries, dry cabins, outhouses, plaid and Carhartts, hiking boots and XtraTufs, potlucks, and puppies. I love its funky daylight cycle and aurora borealis. Perhaps most importantly, I love its people who have welcomed me to stay for almost 10 years.

I love New Zealand. I don’t like being American, but I do love Alaska. Even though I don’t really have a home, friends always welcome me back.

So what to do? Beats me.


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Rather early on in my years in Fairbanks, I’ll admit I wanted to list myself as being in a relationship (on Facebook). Unfortunately I wasn’t able to specify my partner’s name because Alaska didn’t have an account. I couldn’t say I was “In a Relationship with Alaska.” Little did I realize just how correct that statement would become.

Apart from Michigan, Alaska is the place where I’ve spent the most time. I have an Alaska Driver’s License, am registered to vote there, and store the majority of my belongings there. However, it’s not the place to find winter wildlife research. The birds are down south, the bears are sleeping, and most everyone else gets forgotten during the cooler months.

I’m spending this winter working for The Nature Conservancy around the Sacramento area of California. Although I enjoy my co-workers and don’t mind the work, I’m not a California girl. I feel like I’ve abandoned Alaska this winter. I’ve lived through the driest January on record, but that’s not my style. I’m wondering,

Where’s the snow?

Hearing about the big snowstorms hitting the Midwest and East Coast is breaking my spirit a little. Being able to run in shorts and a t-shirt in January and February is convenient but just feels wrong. I don’t have the pleasure of frosted eyelashes, wearing Yaktraks, and wondering how many layers to wear. The ground here is generally green, but fields and trees are dead; the snow and frost of Fairbanks would sure look a lot more pretty.

As people grow they develop certain tendencies and interests. Whether by genes, fate, or interest; I became a northern girl. The 4 seasons make life beautiful, and I don’t particularly want to live in a place where they just differ by rainfall. Fall and winter are probably my favorites, and since my eyes seem to be more sensitive to light than most people’s, Alaska’s wintry darkness is the best. I’ve also found that warmth + light put me to sleep, so the dark chill of winter actually keeps me awake.

Apparently others have noticed my northern ways, as numerous friends have commented that my recent travel to Hawaii seemed rather out of character. One friend said, “Of all places I expected you to visit in your lifetime, Hawaii wasn’t on it.”

Areas of warm weather and higher densities of people are two traits that typically don’t attract me. A co-worker from Tutakoke round #2 said he was surprised to hear I was headed to California for winter. When I commented that it wasn’t my ideal location, his response was “Yeah too many people, haha.”

thumbs down

Too many man-made structures = thumbs down

My field co-workers know I’m not one for being around many people. At the peak population this summer, we had 17 people at Tutakoke. When I saw the spread of tents on the horizon, I wanted half of them to disappear. How was I to sit in my corner and read or journal with so many people around?

I mention all of this because – as I feel like I belong in New Zealand – I can tell I don’t belong in California. I know there’s a lot more to this state than the Central Valley, but I just feel it’s a state I’m supposed to pass through as a visitor. Despite the fact I’ve only been here for about 1.5 months, I already have itchy feet.

When I lived in my dry cabin in Fairbanks, I often enjoyed late night walks home under the Northern Lights. I’m not one for singing when other people are around, but I sing along to music when I’m alone all the time. At some point I decided I can decently sing along with U2’s song “With Or Without You,” a song that I find rather beautiful. It became my go-to song to sing when spinning around with eyes turned up to the sky, on my walks back home. With brilliant colors dancing overhead and the chill warming up my spirit, I’d belt it out to the skies.

“I can’t live with or without you…”

Only now do I realize just how fitting the song title is for my perspective. I dearly miss my Northern Lights. While in Hawaii and even now here in California, I’ve found myself getting excited about wisps of cloud that look like pale green lights, only to remember I’m not in Alaska. I miss -40F and hearing everyone complain about it; I know they actually secretly love it. I miss my puffy coat. I miss skiing to cabins and then climbing into a gigantic down sleeping bag. I miss waking up to the frosty inside of a tent and having my good friend Tad greet me with a friendly “Good morning beautiful.” I miss my failed sled dog friends. I miss gatherings of plaid-clad friends enjoying a pint in the Pub or in dry cabins tucked in the snowy woods. You can’t find camaraderie like that of Fairbanks folk frozen together for the winter anywhere else.


Start of Yukon Quest 2008

white mountains

White Mountains National Rec Area

But at the same time, what am I to do in the winters up there? Permanent field tech positions are few and far between. Also, travel in and out of the state isn’t exactly cheap, making it a less-than-ideal home base.

It seems I can’t live with or without Alaska. I suppose there are worse dilemmas in life.

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