I live in a small Alaskan island community. Ketchikan has a Wal-Mart, a Safeway, a small mall with mostly local stores. The only restaurants in town that are not local are McDonald’s and Subway…oh, and Godfather’s Pizza. I’ll admit, I frequently miss living in the foothills outside Denver…largely for friends and intangible things. But I also miss the wonderful variety of retail shopping, the plethora of restaurants throughout the city and suburbs, the option of choice. Let’s face it, when Wal-Mart and the hardware stores are out of Christmas lights, you don’t have other possibilities a mile or two away, living on an island. And the funny thing is, Ketchikan is the big city for other surrounding island communities! People come over in droves on ferries to spend the day shopping here…maybe that’s why Wal-Mart is out of colored Christmas lights.
But small towns have other good things. The checkers in the grocery are friendly, and I hear people wishing each other “Merry Christmas” when I’m out and about. Ketchikan puts up Christmas lights and you could almost believe you have stepped back in time at the mall, except that everyone walking by has a cell phone in hand. There are singing Christmas tree productions, holiday celebrations listed in the paper. No one seems to be agitated if the term “Christmas” is used. Of course you can say “Merry Christmas!” This is small town America…no controversy about being politically correct here!
Alaska has an interesting combination of residents. There are a lot of transplants, like us, who have lived in the state a few years but will likely not be here too long…too far from family and the life we have had in the past. This is a passing through for us. But there are people who have multi-generation roots here. The state only just celebrated 50 years of being a state. And a lot of people who have spent their adult lives here came as children or young adults looking for adventure and higher pay. They say that Alaskans are independent in spirit, and maybe that is true. Alaska is also called the last American frontier, and that is definitely true. You need to be a bit hardy to live here, or at least to live here long. I think we’ve done ok because it is an adventure for us. The inconveniences are still mostly novel. But they also insulate the state from a lot of things that are more common “down south.” One of the positives is that life does seem just a bit more mellow here, a bit more old-fashioned. I actually have an account at the hardware store. I go in and charge to the account, not my Visa card. I never had a local account before. I also have that with the fuel oil company. Who knew these practices still existed? I thought everyone used credit cards almost exclusively now!
I’m not sure where we’ll live next…larger city or another small town. That decision has yet to be made. But regardless, I’m glad I’ve had a chance to experience small towns in Alaska, first Kotzebue and now Ketchikan. It has given me a glimpse of a world that I thought was largely gone, a world where you actually know people in stores or at the post office, where small kindnesses frequently happen and community events bring neighbors out to participate. Alaska still has Norman Rockwell charm, in spite of the rough and tough image people know from TV reality shows. And if you’re fortunate enough to visit Ketchikan, “salmon capital of the world,” check out the local restaurants for chowder and fish and chips…chain restaurants don’t get their fish fresh from the dock an hour before serving to customers. Small town grace and the best seafood you can get…now that’s a great combination!