Alaska’s “Piano Keys” Mountains

When my children were three and five, they stood with their friend Roan and gazed across the Tanana Valley towards the Alaska Range Mountains in the distance. It was a clear October day and the air was crisp. The tundra had turned shades of rust and ochre. Clearly visible, just below the serrated, snow-covered peaks of the mountains were the “piano keys.”

The alternating black and white streaks were left by the effects of geological striation. They looked like a perfect keyboard. “A giant plays the piano on them,” Roan explained earnestly. Yanni and Helen, unblinking, nodded solemnly. Her words carried weight. She was, after all, their senior by all of three months. 

In the blink of an eye all three grew up and traveled south beyond those mountains to the lower 48 States. They parted from their juvenile games and went in different directions to start college, kindled by what life could teach them. They could not have known what a strange and unfamiliar world they would encounter soon after. Just as they had settled themselves into an academic routine, made new friends and found a foothold in their life away from home, a pandemic swept through the world. It rapidly took over, infecting and sickening and killing. It swiftly replaced their bucolic college existence with a bizarre world of strict rules and regulations. 

At first, the measures sounded reasonable. By adhering to them, the pandemic could be suppressed more quickly. Thus, they abided by a “de-densified” campus, with a portion of the student population asked to remain away until Spring so that single rooms could be granted to those in residence. They would get used to campus pathways that were eerily still. They could grow accustomed to hybrid classes, which often consisted of solitary learning on a computer, interactions limited to a band of faces peering at them in zoom classes. They would familiarize themselves with libraries and lounges and gathering spots that were stripped of furniture to discourage mingling. One-way hallways and plexiglass partitions and virus testing stations could be accommodated. They would even sign “contracts” to minimize contact with others and promise not to gather secretively in their dorm rooms.

In time, it became clear that the situation remained upended. Infections were swelling. Deaths were escalating. Marches and riots were organized because of politics and police protests and pointed fingers. People were edgy and nerves high-strung. Even on campus, the “covid police” patrolled the crisscrossed paths, taking photos to report noncompliance and non-mask wearing students.

What was happening to the world?

It is the stuff that strange fairy tales are made of. The stories of our youth took place in distant, fantastic, make-believe lands. Only now we find ourselves in the midst of one. We used to listen, from a safe distance, to far-fetched tales that were tinged with danger and peril: stories about escaping witches in dark forests and harmful potions and fire-breathing dragons. Now we have become the protagonists of the tale.

Maybe it is time to use the fairy tales to our advantage. We can embrace again the appeal of those childhood stories. They always included a moral lesson. Obstacles were overcome by hard work. Generosity and kindness were rewarded. Good triumphed over evil. Like the heroes of our tales, we are capable of reflecting and adapting and being present for others. Together we can conquer our plight, steer towards a “happily ever after” and trust that the world will be well again.

Just like a trio of kids who, many years ago, believed in giants playing sonatas from the mountaintops in a great symphony for the world to hear.

Beyond Alaska

Helen, my youngest child, sits at the kitchen table on a Sunday evening, college applications spread out, fan-like, in front of her.  She turns to look at me, doubt clouding over. “What if they don’t accept me?” She has worked on her personal essay for days now, reshaping, rephrasing, trying to convey in a mere 650 words to an admission board the worth of her life.

I want to smile and hug her.  Of course they will, I want to tell her. You have excelled in your classes and scored highly on the SAT test.  You will tell them your story and win them over in an interview. You are young and strong. The world is beckoning to you.

Soon it will be her turn to leave.  She is ready to go, to the Lower 48 States, not because she doesn’t love Alaska, but because of practicalities. Fairbanks has yielded to her everything it could. She has tapped into every academic resource that living in a small town on the edge of wilderness could offer.  Her competitive soccer playing has dwindled, as players “age out” and teams to play against grow scarcer, far away, in Wasilla or in Palmer or in Anchorage.  She is brimming for more, she explains.  Proximity to the urban bustle of some larger city.  The cultural enrichment of museums and musical performances.  The social amenities of shopping malls and clubs and restaurants. A college or university that will offer her fresh courses, diverse topics, a new challenge. The opportunity to live on her own, resourceful and independent.

I share her excitement, smiling at her exuberance, encouraging her to go.  At the same time, I swallow. When has time started to gallop so?

“I should tell them about Alaska, don’t you think?” she asks aloud, even though the essay she has written follows a different prompt.

I nod.  It is the place that shaped you.

A Last Frontier, but she and the other kids, growing up, didn’t really know what that meant.  It is something visitors to the Far North said, something that is etched onto the license plates of cars. For them, Alaska meant waiting at snowy school bus stops and sledding down steep driveways. It meant looking out for the northern lights on dark winter nights, whenever they remembered to do so.  In the summer months it meant campers parked on gravel bars, and fishing for salmon in swift rivers, and going to the Tanana Valley Fair.  It meant combing the hillsides for blueberries in the fall and walking with dogs through the boreal forest. The usual. A typical childhood for them.

This time next year, in the fall, she will be honing her own path, wherever she finds herself.  In time, perhaps, after the exuberance of cities and universities become commonplace and their novelty tapers, she will remember again the land she left behind, bountiful in landscape and wildlife and adventure, the place she had given little thought to while she was growing up in it.  One day she might, even, return north.