I arrived at Anchorage airport, early morning, 2 am. I got in my hired car, a compact car, which cost £300 for five days, I drove blearily until I hit the grid, familiar to most American cities.
Eventually I found the Alaskan Backpackers Inn in the area called Downtown. It looked very run down, the kind of place Charles Bukowski would have written about. I went into the front office, my boots sticking to the floor as I walked. A young man with a baseball cap and pale round blue eyes was working.
‘Hi!’ I said. ‘I’m Kerstin Rodgers and I’ve reserved a single room’
‘Can you sit over there in reception until I’m ready’ he whined. Already there was hostility.
‘Sure’ I waited.
‘What did you say your name was? How do you spell it? There isn’t a reservation for you.’
I goggled at him. The tiredness was kicking in, I just wanted to lay down.
‘I have the reservation printed out. I emailed you guys a couple of days ago’.
‘I’ve found your email.’
He then read it out, every bit of it, including all the signatures, the get out clauses, the legal gumpf you find at the bottom of an email. This took an age.
My ire is starting to rise. This is not going to be easy. His attitude is not- oh my god, you’ve come on your own from a very far away place, and there is no reservation, what a disaster, how can I help? Nope.
‘Why don’t you book at the Sheraton?’ He said meanly.
Another guy is standing next to the desk, he looks at me sympathetically.
‘If I had the money to stay at the Sheraton, you know what, I don’t even need to finish this sentence” I said wearily.
The other guy tries to be helpful:
‘Why don’t you take a shared room tonight? And decide what to do in the morning?’
Desk guy hisses: ‘I don’t need your help. I can do this job, I don’t appreciate you butting in’.
Under his baseball peak, his pale eyes skidded around. He looked deranged, about to fly off the handle. He is yelling at me and the other guest.
Finally I snap: ‘Look I don’t appreciate your attitude. I booked, I confirmed by email. I’ve done this in good faith. So there has been a mistake. But rather than trying to help, you are shouting at everyone.’
He pushed his chair back and fixed me with a stare.
‘I’m not going to rent you a room at ALL. You can leave.’
‘Whaat?’ both me and the other guy say.
I struggle to think of something to say. I’ve overplayed my hand here.
‘Have you no Christian compassion?’ I squeak.
God knows where that phrase came from. Must have been the Christians I saw at the airport: women in plain full-length cotton dresses, no make up, white napkins covering their hair and, incongruously for their Amish-style look, white trainers. (Are you a nun? I asked one. No I’m a Mennonite).
But it seemed to do the trick. Desk guy relented. He tapped into his big computer, handed me a plastic room key and said I could be in a room of four sharing.
I parked in the lot and went inside the building that housed the dorms. In the hallway there was dark red greasy vein of carpet. This place hadn’t been cleaned for centuries. The shared bathrooms had water on the floor and bins overflowing with toilet paper. The shower curtain was grimy. It looked and felt like a homeless shelter.
I sat down, weirdly buzzed and not ready to sleep, on a sofa in the corridor. A good-looking man sat opposite. He was a fisherman and he lived, when he was not on a boat, in this hostel.
Eventually I crept into my room where I could see the sleeping form of my room mates. I felt like I was in an episode of Orange is the New Black.
I laid down. Worn out ‘fitted’ nylon sheets, the sort with elasticated corner, kept springing off the bed. The pillow was not worthy of the name. It was maybe an inch thick, made of something synthetic and repulsive. Most of the night I was sleeping on bare mattress and vigilant for bed bugs.
In the morning I woke up and two women were looking at me.
‘When you came in the middle of the night, I thought you were a native woman, an inuit, because of your build and your hair’, one of them said.
The girl on the bunk above me stirred.
I looked up and jumped. There was something black and strangely shaped hanging down from a bar over my lower bunk.
The lady opposite laughs and says sadly: ‘Oh I think that’s just gum’.
My cellmate opposite turns out to be a rather strange woman. Underneath her metal bunk bed, she keeps a bowl of pasta covered in a plastic bag. While chatting to me, she repeatedly dips a tissue paper containing a spoonful of coffee, into a cup of hot water.
‘I have to do this a lot of times so that it becomes coffee’ she explains.
She is 52 and just broken up with a 25 year old guy. She later tells me he had done jail time for a relationship with an 11 year old. He was obviously a fan of generational gaps.
She tells me that during the winter this place is full of raging alcoholics. There is a doss-house next door and the welfare office on the other side. In winter, when they all come off the streets, they come here.
‘Thing is the hostel takes $150 for the weeks’ rent but say you can’t smoke or drink here. Of course, as they are alcoholics, they all smoke and drink. So they get kicked out after a day, and the place keeps the money.’
‘It’s an awful scam,’ she sighs.
This lady doesn’t have a job and lives on welfare because of mental health issues.
It emerged she literally had not a penny to live on. She seemed to have no friends and no family.
Many people move to Alaska because they get a yearly bursary, called a PFD, a Permanent Fund Dividend, paid in September, normally around 2000 dollars.
‘When you have a big family, that can add up to a good amount.’
This money, from oil revenues and land-leasing, is paid out to people who have lived in Alaska for a full calendar year. It’s also recognition that living in Alaska is expensive. The population of the entire state is around 750,000. Not even a million people. Alaska is the biggest state in America by far, twice the size of Texas.
‘But most people move to Alaska because of the Alaskan Fantasy’ she elaborates.
‘What is that?’ I ask.
It turns out it is similar to what I call The South of France Fantasy; most people have one of these lodged somewhere in the back of their mind, along with The Tropical Island Fantasy. South of France and Tropical Island fantasies have obvious appeal; good weather, good food, sea, sand, palm trees.
The Alaskan Fantasy is somewhat different but has features in common with the aforesaid fantasies; it’s about freedom, isolation, escaping society, being independent, survival and proving to oneself that one can survive. The Alaskan Fantasy isn’t a holiday, it’s hard, with a tough life guaranteed.
Americans escape from the Lower 48, as Alaskans call the rest of the States. They escape bad families, taxes, stultifying work routines. The call of the wild.
On Alaskan cars, the number plates say ‘The last frontier’. To a people that had to colonise the Wild West, Alaska is very appealing, it harks back to that kind of grit.
The lady tells me she wants to go back to Baltimore to look after her dying dad. But she had recently ‘retrieved’ the memory that her dying dad had sexually abused her. She went to see him and confronted him in a car park with this information. Needless to say step-mom doesn’t want her to have contact anymore. So this lady is now contacting lawyers to get access to her dad so she can look after him.
I suggested: ‘This may be difficult seeing that you have also brought up these abuse issues?’ getting drawn into the conversation despite my caution.
She starts laughing hysterically.
‘He is being held hostage by his wife, my step-mom. He is a vulnerable adult. She’s controlling him.’
Then she said coyly: ‘I just want to look after daddy’.
Minutes later she says: ‘ I’m going to read some of my thoughts about him.’ I’d known this woman for approximately 2 hours.
She opened a large notebook filled with scribblings. ‘He did this’, she circled it with a pen, ‘and this’ another circle, ‘and this.’
We go out to breakfast, to a diner she recommends as cheap. ‘A piece of fruit costs $2 minimum in Anchorage.’
Alaska has a very short intense growing season lasting three months. Fresh vegetables are at a premium. Food in general is expensive. You pay between $30 and $45 dollars for a main course. Even fish, plentiful and local, is expensive to buy.
The lady tells me: ‘People don’t buy it here. They go fishing and catch a big one. Then they chop it all up and store it in the freezer. They will have a freezer full to last all winter.’
This was confirmed by a guy that worked at the next hotel I stayed at.
‘I don’t go out to eat. I have fish at home, fish I caught’
After breakfast, I decide to move hotel even though they cost a fortune in Anchorage. Also the woman really scared me.