We timed our trip to Alaska with our friend’s homecoming from Iraq. Captain Joseph Scarbrough just completed his year tour. Then, only two weeks before his arrival, we learn that he (and the entire 172nd Stryker Brigade) is extended for another seven months. Questions and emotions rise amongst family and friends as we all prepare for several more months of the unknown. We are still scheduled to board our flight. Captain Sean Loosen greets us at the Fairbanks airport. He is one of Captain Scarbrough’s close friends, and kind enough to host us in during our stay.
Captain Loosen shows us around town. Fairbanks is the second largest metropolitan area in Alaska, yet it is so completely rural here. Our tour ends at a small bar near his house. It is called the Speedway Inn, and is a one room wooden structure sitting at the end of a dirt road. Inside, the few locals enjoy a free turkey sandwich at the stainless steel stand that is pushed against the back wall. It doesn’t take long before we are on a first name basis with the regulars and feel as if we’ve known Captain Loosen for years.
Halfway through our time in Alaska, my childhood friend flies in from New York. We take a seven-hour drive from Fairbanks to Anchorage, driving through Denali National Park. Denali encompasses 6 million acres of Alaskan wildlife but you don’t have to be in a national park to be surrounded by the raw beauty still preserved here.
A gallery in Anchorage has offered to display the North Dakota painting and organize a gallery reception for our arrival. The owners were introduced to us through the gallery owner that we met in Montana. It’s a small world. Virtu Gallery turns out to be an amazing space and they take us to dinner the night before the reception. At dinner, we talk about the history of the land. The U.S. government offered Alaskan natives the choice between corporations and reservations. Agreeing to corporations they found a comfortable balance between traditional and modern wealth. It’s interesting how this relationship is a far cry from the destitute southern tribes. Ironically, the suffering and loss of tradition in the plains tribes is what inspired the painting that now hangs on a gallery wall in Anchorage.
It is the day of the reception, but first we drive down to Portage Lake to catch a glimpse of Portage Glacier. As a small ship escorts us to the extravagant blue ice formation. Floating ice sculptures drift by us. It feels as if I am bobbing along in America’s ice cold drink. Right as the boat turns to take us back to shore, we hear an echoing crack. I look to the glacier and as if it is happening in slow motion, a chunk of ice calves, crashing into the lake.
I am changing in the car as we drive back to the gallery. But right before, we stop at a small river alive with spawning red salmon. I follow the red river and while walking upstream taking photos, I suddenly hear Alfonso. He’s whispering my name and motioning me back to him. A look of fear has fallen upon his face, and his lips mouth the word “bear.” Now, at this point, I’ve been to enough national parks to be well-trained on how to react during a bear encounter. So naturally, I take off running…exactly what they say not to do. When I get safely to the truck I look back to see that less than ten feet from where I stood, a mother black bear with two cubs have come down the bank for a bite to eat. Thankfully, she chose red fish over red meat. Alfonso catches her on tape as she grabs a salmon and heads back up the bank.
We meet so many wonderful people at the reception and have a great time, but we are glad to return to Fairbanks. Captain Loosen has invited us to a meeting with Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld to discuss the return of the 172nd Stryker Brigade. It is an emotional conference filled with Q&A from the wives and family members who are searching for explanations.
The night before we leave to return to our journey in the lower 48 – just as I am feeling as if our Alaskan experience could not get any more exciting- the sky falls upon us. Strokes of green, violet and white dance over our heads. I can’t find words to justify the beauty of this phenomenon, so we just sit by the fire in amazement until the northern lights slowly fade away… And realize we really are all connected, by six degrees or less.