Leaving a piece of her heart, 1,600 miles behind

[by Elise Giordano]

from the Dec 2016/January 2017 issue

Adventure is a word thrown into hashtags, screen-printed T-shirts, and adaptations of cliché John Muir quotes. There’s the old adage that adventure isn’t so much about the destination as it is about the journey. I suppose I find that mostly to be true.

I’m certainly guilty of all of the above: too many hashtags on my Instagram feed, too many tees covered in names of my favorite places, and too many hours spent looking for the next adventure. Alaska was my adventure for the last three years.

For many, the Last Frontier is the ultimate destination: a dream tucked inside travel magazines and National Geographic documentaries. But few understand the actual commitment and sacrifice needed to brave a state the size of Texas, California, and Montana combined. In a word, it’s an adjustment.

My first Alaskan summer was 2013. I had just completed my junior year at the University of Florida, and I was eager for adventure. The Skagway News accepted my application as a reporting intern, and I hopped on a plane bound for the mountains.

After a full day of flights and a night in Juneau, I sat next to the pilot during my first ride on a puddle jumper. Skagway bound, we flew over glaciers and snow-covered peaks painted against a cornflower-blue sky. I was stunned by the vast beauty of it all. Even after three years, that never wore off.

Skagway is situated in the Panhandle of Alaska, at the very northern end of the Inside Passage. During the Klondike Gold Rush, the seaside town served as a gateway for stampeders in search of riches and prosperity. It was a Wild West sort of place, with prostitutes and gamblers, murder and mayhem digging their heels into the town’s dusty roads.

Today the roads are paved and the mayhem has subsided, but the streets still have rustic charm with gold rush–style facades decorating downtown. The two-mile long municipality is home to about 800 year-round residents. That number grows to 2,000 each summer as Skagway welcomes seasonal workers to accommodate the cruise ship industry. But even with the exponential growth, it’s a very small town.

Living in a little place is no anomaly. But living in a place like Skagway is a singular experience.

The closest city is Whitehorse in the Yukon. It’s a 2½-hour drive through a very picturesque middle of nowhere.
The nearest U.S. airport is a seven-hour ferry ride away, followed by an over-night in Juneau. Getting to the Lower
48 generally requires at least two days of travel.

Food and supplies come to Skagway from Seattle via barge. By the time fresh fruits and vegetables reach the shelves, they aren’t so fresh anymore.

Netflix binges are an unrealistic luxury. In Skagway, the internet is not unlimited.

During the summer tourist season, AT&T’s only tower is inundated with thousands of users, often making a simple phone call impossible.

Overnight shipping is nonexistent.
At best, you can get something in four days. FedEX shipments are likely to never arrive.

But despite the roadblocks, you adjust. You find replacement items for the ingredients in your Pinterest recipe. You rent movies from the video store (yes, those still exist). And if you can’t get something shipped in time, you ask to borrow one on the local Facebook page. What Skagway lacks in amenities, it makes up for in hospitality.

I suppose that’s what brought me back after finishing my senior year.

Walking into any restaurant, bar, or the local IGA, you’re guaranteed to see someone you know, even when wearing your sweats and makeup from the night before. Shopping becomes more of a social event rather than a quick errand. There’s charm in that.

I grabbed hold of that charm and decided to make Skagway my destination. I became editor in chief of the paper, and I set strong roots in the tiny Alaskan town.

The author found adventure in the mountains around Skagway, but opportunity knocked, and she’s moved to the Outside.

It was easy to make Skagway my home. The community embraced me with open arms. And I am the rule, not the exception. If you open up your heart to Skagway, it will open up its heart to you.

When friends are diagnosed with cancer, the community is there to fund surgeries and hospital visits. When parents become ill and are too far away, the community funds travel costs for flights back home. And when someone simply needs a helping hand, hug, or friendly smile, the community is there to give it.

I suppose that’s what made it so hard to leave.

I recently moved to the other end of the Inside Passage. After three years of spectacular vistas and small-town living, I relocated to the big city to focus on my photography career.

There are many ways that Seattle is different from Skagway. I don’t see people I know in the bread aisle. There are fewer smiling faces. And if the streets are any indication, I doubt many would offer assistance if I became ill or in need. But it’s a new journey and a new destination.

Despite the 1,600 miles separating us, I still feel the arms of the community wrapping me up in support and love. Should I ever feel the need to reroot myself, Skagway will still be there. And I like to think that it would welcome me with the same friendliness it did three years ago.

But today, I’m moving forward. I’m still on my journey, and the final destination is unknown. These last three years were fundamental in creating building blocks for the next three, and I am happy to leave a piece of my heart in Skagway as I adventure on.

Elise is a photographer and writer based in Seattle. She works for Outdoor Research and enjoys exploring the beauty of the Pacific Northwest in her spare time.

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