This is a series in which you help me not be a dum-dum about America.
Rosalie was born and raised in Boston, and now lives with her husband and two daughters in a small town in Alaska (population: 2,000).
I met Rosalie 13 years ago, when we were living in Paris. (In fact, she was the first friend I made there!) Back then, she was working in finance and was a nationally ranked boxer. In her spare time, she took intensive cooking courses at the Ecole Escoffier and learned to prepare venison.
Needless to say, I thought of her as the girl who could do anything. We’ve kept in touch over the years, as she moved and lived around the world. I was so intrigued when I found out she’d settled in Alaska, and I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did.
Can you tell me more about where you live?
I live in a small town in rural Alaska in the Southeast part of the state. Population is less than 2,000 in the winter and rises to about 2,500 in the summer.
Juneau is our closest “big” city: over four hours by ferry, or 30 minutes in a little plane. A very little plane. Little enough that you have to tell them how much you weigh before you climb on board.
Unlike a lot of rural Alaskan communities, we have a road: it takes us four days to drive to Anchorage. (I think it only takes two days for people who have no children and bladders of steel.) We have two grocery stores, a handful of bars, a couple of restaurants and a very nice coffee shop slash natural foods store.
Here in the Southeast, the climate is fairly mild for Alaska. Still, it starts snowing in October and goes right on through April. We are out most days skiing or snowshoeing or just hiking and walking, depending on conditions.
Summers are cool and gorgeous: daylight through midnight, fish leaping in the rivers, whales in the fjord and lots of cute, fuzzy brown bear cubs and their slightly less cute and fuzzy parents.
Did you say people in Alaska live in towns with no roads!!? How do they get anywhere? And how do the groceries get to you?
Let’s see… In the old days there were no groceries, just a lot of hunting supplemented by trade. People used the waterways in the summer and dog teams in the winter.
Even today, our road is not very important for day-to-day commerce; our groceries all come in by barge and our mail comes in on the little planes. The road connects the Marine Highway (which is mostly ferries and barges) and the interior of Alaska and seems mostly to be used to move people and fuel oil around.
How long have you been in Alaska? What brought you there?
My husband and I moved here two and a half years ago. My husband was born and raised in Alaska, in villages even smaller than where we live today. His parents were schoolteachers in “the bush,” meaning they taught in native villages not accessible on the road system.
He had joined me overseas with the birth of our first daughter in 2007, but was ready to come back to Alaska. His parents gifted us the property, where we have just finished building our house. It is a special place: we live alongside a salmon stream that connects a pristine lake with the end of a long fjord.
Did you have any reservations about moving to such a small town? (I’m extra curious because my significant other is trying to get me to move to Seattle, and while I want him to be happy and I do enjoy that city, it seems too rural for me!)
Well, I certainly wouldn’t recommend the rural life to everyone. Our society today is so focused on career and earnings, and it can be hard to buck that trend. I think one of my personality strengths and flaws is that I forge ahead, full speed, with whatever I am doing and don’t spend a lot of time on reservations, regrets, or longings for birds that are not in my hand.
It is as wilderness-y as it seems on your blog?
Yes, Kerry, it is as wilderness-y as it seems from the pictures, even more so, as I’m not much of a photographer. I think you have to see it to believe it.
What has surprised you most about living in small town Alaska?
I’ve always been a city girl, so living in a rural area has been a real change for me. I would say that city-to-city is an easier progression than city to rural, even when it is New York to Paris or Washington, DC to Sao Paolo.
It can be frustrating to be a beginner all over again at this stage in my life, but it is very stimulating as well. All those years of parallel parking, when I really needed to be learning how to drive a snow machine. Never thought I’d say this, but: thanks, Mom and Dad, for making me to shovel our driveway all winter when I was growing up.
I’ve been surprised by how some of the drawbacks of living in a small town turn out to also be the great advantages. First, everything you say can and will be used against you: assume your every action is noticed and discussed at length by your neighbors and colleagues. On the one hand, this can feel stifling after the extended anonymity of the city, because you have to be on good behavior all the time. But on the other hand, this can be freeing: everybody already knows who are you and if they don’t, they will, so you can stop pretending now.
Second, unless you are a harbormaster, there probably isn’t a job open in your chosen field in our small town. So be prepared to be flexible with what you consider a career and, if you are city-trained like I was, you should be prepared to see your earnings potential drop by a factor of ten. (Oh, I ask with perfect hindsight, why did I spend my summer internships in asset management and not heavy equipment operation?)
But in a small town like ours this loss is less important than I expected it to be. No gym memberships are necessary; there aren’t any private schools; a pair of hiking boots and skis are pretty much all you need to access our world-class entertainment.
Our restaurant budget is as limited as our options, but it is hard to feel sorry about that when it’s all you can eat wild-caught salmon, moose steaks, deer ribs, Dungeness crab or spot shrimp at home. Take that you urban locavores.
And the unexpected flipside of the reduced career opportunities of small town life is the amazing career opportunities of small town life. For example, I always wanted to be a writer, so I just asked the editor of our local paper if he would assign me a few articles every once in a while, stuff I could write from home because of the girls. Sure, great! Now I am a features writer. Pretty cool. I’m not making a living, but I’m definitely living the dream. Want to be a DJ on the radio? Walk on down to the station and ask. The list goes on.
The third surprising thing for a city-cynic is that people really do care for each other in a small town. The ties that bind are strong and I am only just beginning to understand the depth of this. This past year I joined our all-volunteer ambulance crew as an EMT.
When did you become an EMT?
I first did my EMT (Wilderness EMT, actually) in college. And I re-did the course last summer because it’s a great skill to have around here. We live ten miles away from town, which has limited medical care in any case, and we are often in even more remote areas.
One of my first calls was a man with severe chest pain. We were able to stabilize him for air evacuation to a hospital. I held his hand, and thought, “I saved this man’s life, I am linked to him forever.” I looked up at the other members of the crew and thought of all the lives they had saved and I had a bit of an epiphany.
Out here, if you have a heart attack, you will know the person who saves your life. And they will drop everything to come to your aid. If your house catches fire, you will know the firemen who risk their lives for you. And these threads, thick and thin, multiply into an amazing web of support.
What do most people do for a living in your neck of the woods?
Up until about 20 years ago, the big employer in this area was the logging mills. But the easily accessible big trees have been harvested, and more extensive access to logging in the Tongass National Forest has been restricted by the Federal government. We still have a fair sized commercial fishery (salmon, crab, or shrimp).
Tourism hums along in the summer, we get about one enormous cruise ship a week.
Other than that we kind of work for each other: we have doctors, nurses, police officers, teachers, snow plowers, more snow plowers.
As an aside: why must our economic models all portray success as based on growth, growth, growth? Why can’t we come with something that seeks a comfortable stasis, where the money just goes round and we all trade our goods back and forth like a little village?
The state government of Alaska is comparatively rich (oil and other natural resources) and so grants and state-supported programs are a surprisingly large part of the economy here.
And are there any schools for your daughters? Seems like there aren’t enough people to fill a classroom.
We have one public school, and the class size can vary from 12 to 25. The teachers seem to be very good.
What does, say, NYC life seem like to you, now?
I might be no longer fit to live in the city. I would forget to lock my car. I would let everyone and their auntie merge into traffic. To put on pantyhose and sit in a cubicle for 10 hours a day after breathing all this clean mountain air? Seems harsh.
There are things that I miss (fresh fruit, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), but there are a lot more things I don’t miss (traffic, crowds, pollution, leash-laws, parking, traffic).
The last time I bumped into the mayor, she asked me: “Did you ever think you would end up in a place like this?”
I responded, “I never thought I could be this happy in life. Anywhere.”
You know the mayor?!? Do you know everyone in town?
But take this with a grain of salt. I know that this is an interchange about place, but at this point in my life, geography is secondary to family. I have two wonderful little girls and a husband whose company I enjoy immensely and I would be happy with them anywhere.