ALASKA

By Benjamin Roberts · 5 March 2024

Adventure & Meaning at the Last Frontier

“What I wanted was to die among strangers, untroubled, beneath a cloudless sky. And yet my desire differed from the sentiments of that ancient Greek who wanted to die under the brilliant sun. What I wanted was some natural, spontaneous suicide. I wanted a death like that of a fox, not yet well versed in cunning, that walks carelessly along a mountain path and is shot by a hunter because of its own stupidity.”
— Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask

As I made my way into Anchorage, a hunchbacked Indimo woman called out. Apparently, I was the spitting image of her son. She told me she had eleven children with a German. Every single one blonde-haired and blue-eyed, despite all evidence to the contrary. I attempted to continue on my way. She stopped me, reached into her pocket, and pressed the hilt of a hunting knife into my palm. “You’re gonna need this where you’re going, kid.”

Of all the places I’ve traipsed through in either drunken stupor or adrenal ecstasy, Alaska reigns as the most enigmatic and beautiful. Half open-air insane asylum, half God’s country, the far-off territory reels in and keeps the country’s outliers. Its borders act as one great sieve, filtering through the phenomenally bizarre, the shockingly brave, and the aspirationally interesting.

My first trip to Alaska took me north of the Arctic Circle. Flying in an eight-seater plane, twisting through storms over the Yukon River – this captured a hint of doing something novel. It was close to what I wanted. The summer was beautiful and largely monastic. But this pastoral isolation hadn’t scratched the itch. I was looking for something rough, something dangerous, something senseless. I wanted the kind of adventure you see in movies and read about in old books, replete with violence and sex. I wanted something heavy. 

So, I went back. Unfortunately, the great splendor of journeying to the Last Frontier now mostly consists of being hassled by the airport DMV until you fall asleep with a crooked neck on your connecting flight. Instead of a romantic voyage, I ate mediocre sandwiches throughout my pilgrimage from JFK, to SEATAC, to Anchorage, to Seward.

We skittered into Seward on an old bus driven by an even older man. Resurrection Bay crept over the treeline, and as we finally skipped and rattled out of the thin pines, it exploded in panoramic glory. Black sands, ice-capped mountains, sunbathing sea lions, all of them accentuating the simple shimmer of the sun across the water. In the summer, the sun never goes down. Under that midnight sun, I’d meet many people. I’d encounter the sublime. There, I’d find that heavy ‘something’ I was looking for.

***

Getting off the bus, I saw the ‘forty-plex’. It was drab, cheap, and long. We were there to work for the restaurant king of Seward. The Kenai Mountains loomed over the place, flecks of snow and ice melting into the rich viridian heath that ran down their slopes. We all lived together in the king’s apartment complex (apartment is a generous word). As a result, our personal and work lives melded into one uninterrupted existence. We threw our bags into a studio apartment retrofitted for four people. Two bunk-beds, one bathroom. The other workers gathered around, eager to meet the newcomers. They were an eclectic group. Very few of them did the best living, but almost all of them did the most.

In my room were my hometown friends. In the room to our left, there was Wyatt, the career seasonal worker. He showed up high on heroin and low on shoes. They were stolen by the junkie he partied with the night before. He came from a wealthy family, but chose to pocket his summer money to surf in South America the rest of the year. On the floor above were the Mormon girls, a trio so benevolent and innocent it was almost hard to believe. The Alaskan adventures they sought were pure; riding horses in the heath, taking boat tours to see the local wildlife, that kind of thing. I was looking for something else. Not far from their suite were my two managers. One would ultimately break four of my teeth and three of my ribs. The other I’d end up bedding. Last but not least, at the far end of the compound, I found Luto Desesperanza, the Mexican head chef.

Luto stole $70,000 from the cartel. He fled across the border and pinballed from state to state, leaving twelve illegitimate children in his wake. An Indimo shattered his jaw after he made a pass at his girlfriend (who would later bear him a child). The list goes on. He quickly took to our little group. We all enjoyed his company. Every beer, every piece of advice, seemed to pantomime paternity. When the midnight sun was dipping in the sky, after the booze ran out, he would tell us about his children. There was pride in his voice, but there was also mourning. You got the sense they were dead, even though they were very much alive.

Fleeing from the cartel after executing a large-scale theft and impregnating your way across the Latina and Eskimo population of the United States is no mean feat. However, ultimately, he had fled to the literal end of the earth to avoid responsibility, to avoid the results of the dice throw. He couldn’t go farther north, there was only oil and ocean. It wasn’t just responsibility he abhorred, but the dice throw itself – at every opportunity, Luto fled from chance. It was clear he wanted a family and chance obliged. Again and again. But his independence was always more important. Ironically, in rejecting chance, in overturning fate to pursue freedom, he ended up trapped at the edge of the world.

In this, Luto was a botched variation of Camus’ Don Juan. For Camus, Don Juan knows his fate, and pursues his pastime regardless. He doesn’t seek true love, and his eventual frailty and solitude are unsurprising to him. Putting aside for a moment that Don Juan exists as a philosophical abstraction, Luto fits all the criteria… except his solitude did catch him by surprise. However, I don’t believe he could be any other way: his being was in a sense defined by his womanizing and wandering. He was doomed to be himself, and not another.

This was a common archetype in Alaska – it seemed to be the last stop on the Wanderer expressway. One of those others was Travis, the local taxi driver. Travis’ cab took us to work, to the bars, to hiking spots – anywhere we needed to go. As a result, I got to know him quite well. As I took out the trash and an eagle flew overhead, Travis pulled in with his cartoonishly yellow taxicab. He was a prolific smoker, with teeth the color of a latte left sitting out until it soured. The motion was fluid, one clean swoop into his coat pocket, a flick of the wrist perfectly ejecting a cigarette from the crinkled silver rapper, a twirl of the fingers onto his lips, finished in a bright orange flicker. He had an immensely vulgar panache, and when he grinned at us, his trademark Marlboro 70 flickered between his overly wide smile like a snake’s tongue, as if something was going to leap out from behind his cobbled wall of teeth. During his prime he had been a man of considerable physical prowess, spending his earlier decades as a bouncer in Las Vegas during cocaine’s blistering zenith, after which he worked his way back to Alaska, to the North Slope. He labored in this manner for years, throwing his weight around until his hair color matched the silver packaging of his favorite cigarettes. His life eventually settled down into the worn, frayed microsuede of the taxicab.

Travis’ mind was an immense encyclopedia of every possible profanity, but he was jovial and friendly. I frequently paid him in slices of pizza and beer, and whenever Luto tried to bring us into his secondary apartment (a dilapidated and irreversibly stained cocaine parlor, the cocaine being a mixture of drywall and methamphetamine and the parlor being a shithole motel room), he flung his arm in front of us to prevent us from joining.

Even the Mormons were endeared by his affability, looking through the never-ending litany of crass anatomical humor, into the sharp edge of his wink, the leather creases which pulled on his eyes during a laugh. He had enjoyed great adventures, high-highs and low-lows, but when we met him, his only real connections consisted of us, the seasonal workers (and a Latina sugar baby somewhere in South America). From fighting with cocaine dealers at casinos, and facing down blizzards working in petroleum on the North Slope, to this. Yet, he was content. He enjoyed his life, and his ultimate fate hadn’t snuck up on him like it had on Luto. Travis was wise. From the driver’s seat, he gave remarkably insightful Alaskan armchair psychology. The land itself was manic-depressive: the sun never goes down, then it never comes up. There are tourists everywhere, then nowhere. Travis had seen enough people come and go to know that Alaska had the final say on who you were. He wryly noted the contrast between the empyrean beauty around us and the rather lower lives of its inhabitants. His life could fill a novel, but not even a single anecdote would hang in posterity’s rafters. Then, and now, I wonder. Is it worth it?

***

This thought was cut short as I piled into the cab. To my right, there was a beautiful girl. I made some conversation with Travis, and then shifted my attention. I did my best to woo her. She told me her name was Valentina. At the time, I thought it was brilliant to say “has visto un guapo y tu lo sabes… quieres bailar conmigo?” She was the Latin beauty par excellence, with a figure that could sift and strangle time itself. I was going to the cafe to read and write – she was going there for work. After some throwaway attempts at courtship while ordering my third espresso, she invited me over.

There were a few catches. She lived with her parents, their house a few miles out of town. I would have to sneak in as the sun was dipping into the horizon, slipping away before it bobbed back up. It was the catch more than the woman that excited me. So, I put my finest clothes on and walked the highway out of town.

My mind was racing with would-be tales of my daring and seduction, how I would sneak in and out like a thief in the night, how I had five girls in the first month of summer…needless to say, something was coming to set me straight. I leaped the short distance from the ground to her bedroom window, and the rendezvous began. By the time I had undressed, just after the first touch of lips, her mother flung open the door. “Dime que no! Dios mio!”, followed by a litany of Spanish far beyond my grasp. Valentina responded in a series of negotiations similarly incomprehensible to me. Amidst the confrontation, I did what any brave young man would do: grabbed my clothes, jumped out the window, and ran away as fast as I could.

I had just gotten my last shoe on when a black sedan hurtled down the highway and screeched to a halt. A stout man in his 40s lept from the vehicle: “Get on your knees! You broke into my home, I’m calling the police!”. I stammered out, “Sir! It’s fine! I met your daughter at a cafe!”, which didn’t seem to defuse the situation. So, I ran away as fast as I could for a second time.

This time, I felt the thud of a forearm, locking into a grip around my torso, and wrestling me back to the car of its owner. A struggle ensued, and we tumbled into the stillwater creek which hugged the road. He held my head underwater, I gained the better of him and did the same, and this cycle repeated until we exhausted ourselves. We each refrained from striking the other as if entrapped by some unspoken fear of facing assault charges, or less likely, a gentleman’s agreement. When the stalemate became obvious, I swore to remain in that spot until the police arrived. He sighed, and we released each other. Leaping to my feet, I ripped his phone from his hand, shoved him into the mud, tomahawk threw his Android into the woods, and fled in the opposite direction. He was strong, but he wasn’t fast. My clothes were shredded by the brambles I hurtled through, and eventually, when I could hear nothing at all, I stopped to rest. Morning dew glistened on the thicket’s thorns and berries. I was hopelessly lost.

My phone had no service to speak of. So, I picked a direction and walked in a straight line, each bramble exacting its pound of flesh until I could hear the faint sounds of cars dopplering by. I rushed forward until I came to a tributary just wide and deep enough to be a major obstacle. But on the other side, I could see my ramshackle apartment building. There was a branch conveniently long enough to ferry me across. Surely, I could shimmy across it and trudge back unscathed. I was halfway across when it snapped in two, plunging me into the frigid depths of the ‘river’. At this time of year, the water is extremely cold, consisting mostly of melting glacial runoff. Sputtering and gasping, I crawled onto dry land. There was a chiming… my eyes snapped back to the riverbed, where, in that clear glacial runoff, my phone was very much alive, cell service restored, flooding with missed notifications. With no other choice, I dove back under to retrieve it. Stumbling to the entrance of our studio apartment crammed with four young men, I stripped my sodden clothes off and crawled into bed.

The next morning, I was buzzing with energy. The senseless excitement of seduction and brawling had come to me at last, and in fine form. In truth, there was no grand meaning to extract from the night. No revelation. Yet I felt grateful that the cocktail of choice and chance led me to such excitement. It wasn’t the first time I felt that way, nor the last, but that energy was what I had been looking for. Leaping into risk and hoping for the worst would become a mantra for me during those bright nights. And sometimes, the worst arrived.

Photography by Benjamin Roberts

One month and fifteen minutes later, right before closing at the king’s pizza parlor, a girl walked in. She apologized for coming in so late, and said she didn’t have any cash for a tip. She asked what she could offer instead. “Give me a few American Spirits and your number”. The girl obliged, and a thin slip of paper, blotted with ink, slid into my tip jar alongside her tobacco.

A day later, there was a beat-up old jeep rumbling outside at closing. It was her. I climbed in, and we set out for the beach. Rocks, roots, and black sands, maybe we’d catch a whale, or a sea lion, or an orca. All we really cared about was making out. The road curved around the bay, with a sheer-faced drop to the left, and a wall of sediment to the right. I looked over.

Hanging out of the car window there was her blonde hair, fine strands of honey, pollinating the wind. We were going one hundred miles per hour in an old jeep, careening around the bends and edges of a cliffside highway. She told me she loved speed, she couldn’t let it go. I told her she never should. A week later, she broke thirty-six bones in a motorcycle accident. She was a competitive swimmer, too. At the time I didn’t see any greater significance in the accident, but in a way, she got what we all want.

There is a death-drive inherent to adventure. Anyone with a romantic view of life has wanted to die young at some point or another. She got the best of both worlds. In fact, she got off lucky. She’s alive and recovered, but that isn’t what I mean. Her thrill-seeking was put to an end when it went blow for blow with asphalt. She died a pseudo-death, her adventurous youth foreclosed on by chance. That summer ended at the hand of what she craved most, and with it, that maddening drive to see the speedometer click up just a little higher evaporated. Travis and Luto never had that. They kept jumping from excitement to excitement until their bodies and pasts caught up with them.

Most of living today feels like a watery dream, a dripping veil constantly inhaled into our mouths, suffocated on and sputtered out. No suffering or exaltation satisfies, no adventure persists, and no moment satiates the insatiable fervor for feeling. Adventure is futile because it must at some point end: typically in death or the gravity well of mediocrity. Rarely, it ends in triumph. However, it is also the only thing which can rip the veil away, which hurls us into the possibility of something happening.

Something happened a lot there. The last I heard from the blonde was a text from the hospital. She was practically mummified, with casts on every limb and one hand left free to tap on her phone. I tucked mine into my pocket after that last text and got ready for my daily fight with Wyatt.

***

I’ve always enjoyed fighting – the sense of total presentness it brings is difficult to find elsewhere. I’d often box or wrestle with Wyatt, the psychonaut surfer, but this was only in good fun – we’d go until one of us ended up in the ditch. That night I returned home, but instead of my routine scrap, one of the workers promptly attacked my friend. None of us could understand what he was saying, but his actions spoke clearly: he had a long, knobbed staff, and was walloping my friend in the ribs. My blood began to pump. Viscous, hot. I leapt into the fray, ripped the staff from his hands, and made short work of him. Now, he may have been in his late 50s and more likely than not on opiates at the time, but hey, I’ll take victories where I can. We had just settled into our beers at Luto’s place when Milo, my manager, ripped the door open. He demanded to know why I attacked the old man. As the conversation came to a close, we made a fateful exchange of words: “Don’t ever do that again,” followed by a sneering, “I’d do it again right now”. 

A thunderclap echoed throughout the room. Bits of teeth and blood scraped like gravel across my tongue. It was a sucker punch, but it was the hardest punch I’d ever taken in my life. I attempted to return fire but took several more blows. Though my adrenaline blocked the pain, I heard my ribs crack with each strike as my friends attempted to separate us. The largest jumped on me, the smallest on Milo. I wouldn’t have won even if the restraints were reversed – Milo was a goliath. He threw me through a wall and hurled me down the stairs. I steadied myself and grabbed a rock. From here my recollection is hazy. The workers, who had by now formed a small semi-circle around the commotion, told me that I was laughing as I climbed my way back into hell. I bashed his skull with the rock as hard as I could (which by that point probably wasn’t very hard), after which we were finally separated for good.

When morning came, Milo and I piled into the same cab. After a few insults, we began to laugh. He would go on to be a close friend that summer. It was the most fun I’d had in a while. Senseless and pointless, it was as close to real living as I could get.

On my next day off, I went to one of the bayside cafes. I sat there, sipping espresso, reflecting on everything. I had found what I was looking for. The feeling would eventually fade, I knew. But while it lasted, it was excellent. Just then, a whale breached. Its tail was perfectly symmetrical, its enormity breathtaking. From the senseless thrill of sex and violence, the whale catapulted me entirely into the sublime, the undeniable. Alaska’s natural splendor at once reasserted itself.

***

I turned my back on the bay and headed home. At this point, I was living out of a tent. We had all been fired for pseudo-unionizing one too many times – a long story in itself. My friends and I were headed to the Harding Icefield. The familiar growl of Travis’ taxi beckoned us, and we made our way to the trailhead.

The Harding Icefield is a kingdom with no subjects, only guests. Reaching it requires ascending through several distinct biomes. As you enter, you walk through the forest, replete with towering pines and whispering rivulets. You gain about a thousand feet of elevation per mile from there. As I ascended, it felt as if every bit of grime, real and imagined, was scoured.

Eventually, we reached Marmot Meadows. Earthen bouquets of the melancholy forget-me-not abounded as Harding’s glacial expanse came into view. This was the last stop before we entered its principality of silence and stillness. Per its name, we saw marmots wrestling and playing amid the flowers and grass. There was great peace in this.

As we climbed further, all vegetation disappeared. We had begun the strenuous hike across the black pulverized rock, and whatever peace existed prior had vanished. Everyone else had hiking poles and ice cleats, and each glance down at our shorts and sneakers left us less self-assured. Those ashen miles were a purgatory for me, with each slip and falter expiating a summer sin, each successful step forward a rung on heaven’s ladder. At last, we heard the first crunch of our weight on ice.

A dour sky blocked the sun as we dug our fingers into the path, trudging ever upward. Seven hundred square miles of ice lay just ahead. As we approached, all thoughts and feelings dissipated except one: awe.

There, I knelt and prayed. Silence, stillness, and the sublime. At the Icefield, there was no past or future, no reason or cunning, simply the eternal present. I have no idea how long we stayed there, but as we descended back into the world of man and vice, I understood why people made a life in Alaska. People like Travis and Luto lived in Alaska, sure. But that ideal Alaska, the one in postcards, with the bear-hunters, the dog-mushers, still existed. They were a dying breed, but they were there.

A year before, I was with those people. I was fishing, smoking salmon, and raising hogs for slaughter. I lived near Wiseman, a frontier town with a population of between twelve and twenty. They ate what they grew and killed, used solar power for their electrical needs, and basked in the Arctic’s glory. Their lives were impressive and admirable, but they existed as a pale shadow of what came before.

***

Alaska was, and is, the Last Frontier. The entire territory is one giant snow globe, something to shake up and peer into, oohing and aahing at its beauty, before retiring to the humdrum of everyday life. In many ways it’s a blessing that the settlement effort stopped – the land’s natural bounty remained unsullied. But it’s also true that the American civilizational effort in Alaska represented the last of a great conquering and expansionist people. The spirit of that last generation came to a head “in a long, fine flash”, leaving us with no clearer understanding of precisely why.

Living ‘according to nature’, an impossibility in and of itself, cannot mean being subsumed by it. Returning to mere subsistence, as impressive as it may be, in the throes of Alaska’s divine beauty, is not beautiful. It is regression raised to the level of axiom, a reasonably profound disgust at this world turned into retreat and isolation. In effect, it is sterile. Wiseman will not give birth to more settlements, to a muscular culture. It is and will remain a curiosity, alone at the Gates of the Arctic, fading back into the forest.

The thread between modern survivalists and the frontiersmen of old is frayed if not severed. Borrowing from Gobineau, we can see the survivalist “is only a very distant kinsman of those he still calls his ancestors. He, and his civilization with him, will certainly die…”, but still we can say the adventures of their lives have and will far exceed most.

The great expansionist drive of our forebears has ceased to exist. Whether our adventurous spirits were strangled out of us, or we put them down ourselves, I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that the Alaska of the past is just that – the past. Those of us that go there chasing that past, chasing adventure, find only a few fragments here and there. The juxtaposition of our collective memories and the reality on the ground is striking, and ultimately, absurd. Every young man, of course, must confront the absurd. On a cosmic scale, this has always been the case. But today especially, when ordinary life seems unfulfilling, there emerges a great desire for adventure, for risk, and for the real. 

One desires to give his life up to chance, to place his future firmly in the hands of a fickle and inscrutable master. Adventure is this: embracing chance as the arbiter of fate, as the gatekeeper of the future, as the final word. Whether for a season or a lifetime, wrestling with chance, which may also be called Providence, lets one slip through the fence and into the nettles, to risk grand or meager suffering, often for nothing but the trip itself.

The great adventure I have sought throughout my life always carried within the glinting silver promise of sin. Fever dreams of violence and womanizing, a great lurching phantom bonfire of debauchery. In Alaska, I found all of this. I also found, through the wonderful and dreadful echoing in every glen and mountain hall, a thorn of clarity.

Benjamin Roberts is an American writer. He can be followed @radicalbenjamin.

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