Lori Tobias is a writer now living on the Oregon Coast with her husband, Chan, and pup, Mugsy. She moved to Alaska at the age of 18 and stayed eight wonderful years.
Dear Kenai Peninsula;
The truth is, I didn't start out loving you decades ago when I first called you home. I was a 24-year-old city girl who loved shopping and dancing, and got my fresh air fix at nice, green urban parks. You were 16,075 square miles of vast rugged wildness, with just a smattering of people. You were an outdoor adventurer's dream, the kind of place where moose were as common as the neighbor's dog and a chance encounter with a bear, grizzly or black, was completely the norm. You baffled me dear Kenai Peninsula, and scared me a bit, too.
"So how do you like our little paradise?" locals would inquire.
"I hate it," I said in a way that embarrasses me to this day.
We left Anchorage in early October bound for a new job in your small town of Soldotna. It was a perfectly fine autumn day in the city, but as we crossed Turnagain Pass the flurries began, then multiplied to near blizzard conditions. All around us, cars sat stuck as a police officer beckoned us to the side of the road. But my husband had a date with the time clock in the morning and on we plowed while your officer watched us with a disbelieving shake of his head - and, I thought, just a bit of grudging admiration, too. Perhaps he had once also fought his way through bumper deep powder.
Our first home in a duplex in your rural Sterling sat at the bottom of a curving hillside road, bordered on one side by a pond and the other an electrical transformer box, leaving me to wonder every time I navigated that piece of icy potted gravel, if I would make the final curve, or fail, and if it were the latter, would I take out the transformer or bust through the ice? Oh, dear Kenai, it was a rough winter that first snowy season with you. No phone, no friends, but oh, the places to go. Sometimes I would drive your rural roads for hours just to see what there was to see - and there was plenty. There were whales, seals and sea lions to be spotted, moose and eagles, of course, and caribou, mountain goats and Dall sheep.
Then came that fateful morning, still autumn and not yet too cold. I started up your Pickle Hill bound for the grocery store, then found myself spinning like a jet-fueled top, whipping across both lanes on the black ice I'd never suspected lie in wait. I watched in the rearview mirror as the car rocketed toward the edge of an embankment and wondered how big of drop I was about to take. And then, just that quickly, the dry pavement grabbed the tires and the car stopped, and I was surprisingly and inexplicably safe. But oh, how I trembled in fear every time I had to set out on cold, wintry days, wondering black ice or no?
Winter turned to spring, better known as break-up, that muddy messy time that no one minds too awfully much because it means summer is coming and what is more wonderful than all those long, long hours of day light. We moved to another of your small towns, Kenai, to an apartment on the bluffs of the Cook Inlet. That was the summer our many new friends introduced us to the secluded lake, and we spent long weekends camped out, cooking wild game and salmon on the open fire, shooting skeet, paddling the canoe and skinny dipping.
Soon there was another move, this to the first home of our own, a 640-square-foot log cabin on an acre and a third. We had no phone, and though we did have electric, we couldn't afford it, and I learned to build a fire, learned how lovely the warmth from a woodstove can be. One day as I climbed down the ladder from our bedroom in the loft, I sensed someone in the room with me, and turned to find myself face to face with a bull moose, not a foot from my nose, separated only by a pane of glass. He watched me - rooted to the spot in awe and much trepidation - then chewing his cud, turned and wandered away.
Then one day a funny thing happened, I realized that I was not the city girl I used to be. I had learned to drive across frozen lakes, to warm my home with fire, to never, ever, ever do anything sudden on black ice and most importantly, I learned I didn't need to run life at mach one, didn't need all the shopping, could dance just as well to the stereo in my own home, or by the fire to the homegrown music of a guitar. In our little bitty cabin in the wilderness at the end of one of your many lakes, I understood what it was to be content. I understood that in spite of all of my protests and resistance and yes, occasional, loneliness, I had fallen in love. I thought I would never leave you. And even when the 1980's economy made doing so a necessity, I pledged it was only for the winter. I promised I'd be back.
Alas, as it turned out I returned only for visits, visits that always make me wonder if maybe we shouldn't just sell everything back in the lower 48 and stake out a new claim on your beautiful, rugged terrain. But in the end I always board that plane again, knowing that even though I am no longer one of your own, I will always have you to thank for helping the girl in me discover the calmer, wiser woman she could become.
Until next time,