Half a dozen paws, churning in the snow: That’s what I see, what I hear, when I think of my first year in Alaska. It was only one moment, but it’s stuck with me for more than a decade.
I came to Alaska never intending to stay. I was an AmeriCorps volunteer, and I’d signed on for a year of service with the American Red Cross as part of their disaster response team. I spent nine months responding to local house fires and getting shipped out of state, occasionally, to help with larger disasters elsewhere.
How does a person fall in love? For me, it started with mountains. Growing up in Illinois, I was used to vision as a superpower: You can see forever in the Midwest, miles and miles of cornfields and hayfields and soybean fields, and only the occasional tree or farmhouse to interrupt your gaze. But when I arrived in Anchorage, the Chugach Range loomed over me, hemmed me in, made me feel hugged by the landscape.
Then there were the dogs. In AmeriCorps, we did projects to help us get to know the community. In March, we manned the log cabin at the Iditarod race start in Willow, handing out hot drinks and snacks to the dog handlers and security volunteers. A couple months before the race, we visited a musher at his home and walked into a wall of sound: dozens of dogs, all barking because they knew what was about to happen. The musher put a handful of them on a gangline hooked up to a four-wheeler because there wasn’t enough snow for the dogs to pull a sled. I climbed aboard, we took off, and I felt stinging bits of ice, kicked up by the dogs, pelt me in the face. Watched the way the muscles in the dogs’ backs rolled as they worked, the way the landscape slid by. I was hooked. I would never be a musher myself, but I would follow the Iditarod every year, endlessly fascinated by the kind of person who could be drawn to such adventure, such solitude.
I was drawn to solitude, too, which made me the ideal candidate for a very specific job out of graduate school. I left Alaska for North Carolina to get my MFA, thinking I would return as soon as I had my degree. But one of my writing teachers told me his friend John Irving was looking for a literary assistant; three months later, I found myself not in Alaska, but Vermont, living down the street from an Italian grocery and an independent bookstore, and driving up a hillside every morning to work for one of my literary idols.
Working for John was pretty special. Not only did I spend my days transcribing his handwritten novel pages and watching how a full-time novelist worked, but I had the time and space I needed to start my own book. John had warned me that in the past, his assistants had found the small Vermont town where he lived a little secluded, a little isolating. But the quiet and the time on my own gave me an opportunity to really dig into an idea that had been hounding me (no pun intended) since grad school. I had a story in mind about a missing girl, a sled dog team, a family in remote Alaska who was in some sort of danger, but I didn’t know how the pieces fit together.
It’s funny how a lot of seemingly unrelated elements—dogs, distance, mountains, solitude—come together when they’ve marinated long enough. Alaska gave me a context; Vermont gave me time. And that little bookstore in Vermont gave me Some of Your Blood, a 1961 horror novel about a man who liked to trap small animals that made me ask, What if this book were about a woman?
That’s when I found my protagonist’s voice. Tracy Petrikoff, the teenage girl at the center of The Wild Inside took hold of her own story and led me where I needed to go. What I started in Vermont, I finished in Alaska; Tracy and I went back to the source of the story, back to Alaska, a place I realized I had started thinking of as “home.”
Nearly sixteen years after that AmeriCorps gig, here I still am: in Anchorage, in a pile of snow, counting the hours of daylight on one hand, and tapping my outdoor temperature gage to see if the mercury won’t perhaps, maybe, please get above zero. It’s cold, it’s dark, spring is years away—but I love it. I love getting up in the morning to sit at my desk, the night hanging onto morning, the dark like a sort of cave around me as I write to figure out what the next story is.
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