The value of exploring the unknown

Coming off visiting 10 countries in six months, I’m taking a breather—for three weeks, exactly. The questions I’m asked most by friends and family are: are you back yet and where are you going next? Truth is, I get “itchy” if I’m not on the road, seeing new things, giving my brain stimulation, connecting with other cultures and fellow explorers. So, in three weeks, I’m heading to Nome, Alaska, to witness the finish of the Iditarod.

Alaska might as well be another country because every part of it is unique. I’ve never been to Nome, but it feels as remote and “off the beaten path” as any destination I’ve been to so far—and that includes the end of the world in Ushuaia, Argentina, where I managed to get spit at by a guanaco and bit by a wild horse. A quick look at a map verifies that the town of Nome is cut off from the continental road system, closer to Siberia in Russia than to Anchorage. So yeah, isolated and out there. My kind of place.

When I think about Nome, a few images pop into my head. I see an old timer with a long grey beard, panning for gold, biting into a nugget with his few remaining teeth to test its purity. I envision muskox roaming through downtown or tied out to a saloon, like Alaska’s version of a vintage Texas western. I picture battered waterfront buildings and homes, unsheltered from the storms of the Bering Sea.

I have a wish list too.

Snowy owl
Photo by Michelle Theall

I hope to find a snowy owl, because rumor has it that Nome is a burgeoning hot spot for birders these days. An arctic fox or moose would be a bonus. And because it’s March, I’ll haul a tripod and check the nightly aurora forecast for clear skies and northern lights activity. Of course, I’m also in search of the stories, because at the end of the day, it’s the local people who make a trip worthwhile. I plan on slinging back a few at a bar on Front Street to see what rough-hewn, character-infused tales emerge. I yearn for hearing the kind of epic legends that only come from such places. Perhaps a mammoth bone discovered after washing ashore or gold found when excavating for an outhouse. A good shipwreck or bear story works too.

After almost a decade at Alaska magazine, I can attest to the wonder and excitement of the often-overlooked destinations in the state. While Denali, Kenai Fjords, Lake Clark, Katmai, and the Inside Passage make bucket lists, it’s the far-flung hidden gems that reveal the true identity of Alaska and its people. Excavate those treasures, and you might find they’re worth more than all the gold in Nome—and from what I hear, that’s still a lot.   

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