Copper River Record January 17, 2019
By Robin Mayo
You know when you are in your hometown when you plan your time at the supermarket based not on what you might need, but who you might see. Last week I ventured into the vast frozen food section at West Fairbanks Fred Meyer. Freddies was one of Fairbanks’ first Big Box stores, and when it opened we swore you could see the curvature of the earth in there. I was strolling slowly past the glass doors peering at an endless array of vegetables when I heard “Are you ever going to find it?” and turned to see Amy, a high school friend. We caught up very quickly, she enlightened me on the location of the Puff Pastry (next aisle over from potato products, with the fruit, of course…) and we wheeled our carts away. My social life in a nutshell.
I have not lived in Fairbanks for more than a few months at a time since 1983, but it is still very much my hometown. Although most of the town has been transformed with supersized retail and expressways, the west side around the University of Alaska has changed less. And the center of my family’s life, the 100 acre hay field and rambling log cabin where I grew up, seems to be frozen in time.
My parents came to Fairbanks in 1960 to attend graduate school, and built the cabin on a couple of inexpensive acres because the affordable rentals were all dismal. If you had told them that nearly 60 years later their 3 kids, all getting a little gray now, and 9 grandchildren would be crowding around the homemade table for chili on New Years Eve they would not have believed it. But perhaps they would have considered putting a better foundation under the “temporary” cabin.
After dinner, we walk to the botanical gardens at the university, a great place to watch the “Sparktacular” New Year’s Eve fireworks show. Along the trail, we are overtaken by a variety of travelers, including skiers, runners, fat-bikes with LED headlamps glowing blue, an old snowgo overloaded with teenagers, and even a unicycle. In Fairbanks, sharing trails is a tradition.
The distant pop and sulfur smell of fireworks surround us as we make our way through the parking lot and into the botanical garden, where groups of people are standing in the dark amongst the trees and flower beds. A friend who was a founder of WISE recognizes my voice, and we catch up quickly as the Sparktacular begins. A group of children nearby cheer at every rocket, and call out their descriptions of the display, “Shower, Waterfall, Popcorn, Flower….” As the show stretches on, they run out of ideas and seem to decide that Popcorn, if yelled loudly enough, works for almost everything.
Afterwards, I walk home with my best friend from high school. Walking in the near dark, side by side, it is easier to talk than facing each other with bright lights and tea bags to manage. We are even able to talk about politics, and respectfully agree to disagree, before settling into catching up on our lives and kids, and laughing about some wilder New Year’s Eves in the past.
“Alaska is a big village,” I’d tell my kids when they were looking for someplace they could be more anonymous, “wherever you go there is someone who knows Grandma.” At the time they saw it as an intrusion on their privacy, but I call it our safety net. You don’t have to agree on everything to be a good friend and neighbor, and someone is always watching the kids. It is one of the reasons I love the Copper River Valley, and I’m glad to discover it is still true for Fairbanks as well.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.