We left home the day after college graduation. Dale picked me up from my parents’ house, the house I grew up in, and I told my parents and sister goodbye. I was 23 but still so attached to my parents that you might say it was via umbilical cord, yet here I was, moving thousands of miles away. I climbed into the Ford Ranger, its camper stuffed with our belongings, and turned to give my house one more look. Then I started to cry. Even after we had hit the highway and were headed north, tears continued to stream down my face. It started to rain, a storm so heavy that Dale could barely see, but he said later that no way was he going to stop; I would’ve made him turn back. I cried until we hit Dallas, and then, suddenly, I quit looking back, and the tears stopped.
It was May, 1993, and Dale and I were moving from New Braunfels, Texas, to Alaska.
This was Dale’s idea. We’d been talking about getting away from Texas ever since we started dating. We both had dreams of living somewhere else. For me, it was California, which lured me with its ocean and endless sunny days. Dale wanted to go someplace much further away, to Ketchikan, where his brother Mike lived. Once the idea of moving to a forested paradise (as he described it) sunk in, I let California go and agreed to give Alaska a try.
Ketchikan sits on a tiny strip of the large, mostly uninhabited Revillagigedo Island, in the Inside Passage of Southeast Alaska. In order to reach Ketchikan, we drove to Canada and caught the ferry at Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and our first view of our new home was from the deck of an Alaska State Ferry.
The city was a small patch of development clinging to the edge of the island. The mountain that rose behind it stood tall and furry and seemed indifferent to the presence of the little town hugging its base. With a quick shake, it could fling the village off of its back, and yet the town grasped on with all its might. Leave it to Alaskans to build in such a place!
Ketchikan is nicknamed “Gateway to Alaska” because it’s the southernmost city on the Inside Passage. It’s the first port-of-call for the luxury cruise ships that explore Southeast Alaska and for the Marine Highway ferries that start in Bellingham, WA, and Prince Rupert, BC.
We stayed with Mike and his family—wife Debbie and children Denise and Michael—until we could afford our own place, which took a while. We were fresh out of college and stone-cold broke, so we went out and got jobs right away. Dale first worked in a salmon cannery, which was dismal work. No matter how often he showered he smelled of fish. That job didn’t last long. He then took a position at a restaurant on the Coast Guard Base, and this was much more tolerable.
I had worked as a cashier in high school and college and was hired at one of the local grocery stores, Super Valu (now called something else). It was your typical grocery store with the exception that it sold groceries in bulk to people who lived in the boonies or worked in remote camps or fishing boats. These folks came to town infrequently and bought huge quantities of everything, which then had to be packed in boxes, something with which I had no experience. The first time I had one of these customers, their groceries were piled high on the counter, a bigger order than I’d ever rung up in my life, and I had no idea what to do with it all. But with practice I got the hang of being a grocery clerk in Alaska.
Throughout this time we were also applying for work in our fields. I had a degree in English and a teaching certificate and eventually got on as a permanent sub at Ketchikan High School. Dale applied to police departments in Ketchikan, Fairbanks, and Anchorage and went through the lengthy application process with all three cities.
Because Ketchikan is on an island and the only means of out-of-town travel is by water or air (and therefore expensive), we couldn’t afford to explore the rest of Alaska, so instead we got to know the town very, very well.
For thousands of years, Ketchikan Creek, which runs through town and empties into the Narrows, was the fishing grounds for the Tlingit Indians, and the cultural heritage of three distinct indigenous groups still has a strong presence in the area. Ketchikan has the largest collection of standing totem poles in the world, including some of the oldest ones in existence. Several Master Carvers live in Ketchikan and surrounding communities.
Logging, mining, and rich populations of salmon brought Russians, Americans, and others to Ketchikan in the early twentieth century. The town, which was for a time the biggest city in Alaska and had a reputation for lawlessness, was filled with fishermen, lumberjacks, and men working the canneries, mines, and mills.
Women with a unique skill set were also welcome… in the red-light district. Prostitution was an active trade in Ketchikan until 1954.
These brothels and other buildings were constructed on a boardwalk known as Creek Street. Almost 20 houses once lined the creek, and today, the buildings have been restored and are now filled with shops. Creek Street is one of the main tourist attractions in town.
Given Ketchikan’s latitude, the weather was mild (more similar to Seattle than to mainland Alaska). But it was also known for its extreme amounts of rain:
And we did get some snow:
Regardless of weather, we spent a lot of time hiking and walking. Most of Southeast Alaska is encompassed within Tongass National Forest, the largest national forest in the U.S. We were surrounded by a dense, largely uninhabitable terrain, with stands of trees so thick that the interior of the forest was all but obscured. We heard stories of people hiking in the bush, their sight so limited by the vegetation that they didn’t see the steep cliff in front of them until the moment they were falling off of it!
Needless to say, we stuck to the trails.
I often marveled at being so far away from Texas and in a place very different from any I’d known. I gained an independence that I would not have if we’d stayed in Texas. Sure, I got homesick for my family, but I also saw that I could live away from them and still love them. It was a compromise for sure, and I missed out on family gatherings and new memories and inside jokes, but I was living the life I wanted to live.
Eventually we moved into an apartment we could barely afford, a really crappy second-floor place that was unfurnished and had flat brown carpet as stiff and crunchy as stale bread. The steps leading up to the apartment were rotting and slimy from constant exposure to the rain, and we risked breaking our necks each time we climbed them. But it was ours, our first apartment as a married couple. It had a view of the the Tongass Narrows and the islands beyond, and we had a zen kind of happiness, filled with the exhilaration of being newly married and having all of life ahead of us.
Then, suddenly, in the summer of 1994, we found ourselves returning to Texas.
Dale’s mom Joyce had passed away unexpectedly in 1993, and the family took it hard. She was a spark of energy, and her sudden absence left a hole in everyone. Dale’s dad Larry was having an especially hard time coping. He visited us in Ketchikan several times but continued to live in Texas, in the home that he and Joyce had made. In the spring of of 1994 he started having heart trouble. He became acutely ill, and, with no family close by, he was going through this alone. Dale and I knew what we had to do. In June we moved back to Texas.
It hurt, leaving Alaska. We’d barely gotten started with our lives and here we were, turning back. It felt like failure—we hadn’t even made it off the island yet! To make matters worse, within days of deciding to leave, Fairbanks Police Department called and offered Dale a job.
But we returned to Texas, and from there life took on a normal hum. We found jobs, bought a house and cars, developed and changed careers. The time we spent there was very good. We were with people we loved and we made some very dear friends.
In the intervening 17 years, we stuck close to Larry, always living nearby, and in the last year of his life, when he couldn’t properly care for himself, we moved in with him. I know we were a comfort to him as he slowly declined, and I’m glad that we were there with him. He died in 2011 after years of living with cardiac issues.
We never regretted returning to Texas, but we also felt like we were living half a life, constantly looking off in the horizon, waiting for our real lives to begin. The disappointment of never exploring Alaska never fully left us; it picked at us like someone might pick at a scab.
We left Texas again in 2012, first moving to Seattle, and then, last year, taking off on an extended European trip. In December 2015 we returned to Texas for seven months to help my mom through some health issues and then set off again, this time on a U.S. road trip. We didn’t know what was next but left our minds open to the possibility of anything.
The further north we got, the more excited we became at the prospect of being in Alaska again. And when we crossed the border from the Yukon into the United States, it hit us both hard—we were back in Alaska. At some point it occurred to us—why don’t we just stay? We didn’t start our road trip with the intention of moving back to Alaska, but in hindsight it’s not surprising at all.
We’ve already put the plan into motion. I’ve accepted a job as speech pathologist in Seward, population 2500. I’ll be one of the few speech pathologists in town, covering the outpatient clinic, the nursing home, and the hospital (all six beds!). It will be fast-paced, challenging, and fun, and I’m very excited at the chance to have a new work experience.
So we’re finally finishing what we started. We’ve often wondered where we would be now if Dale had taken that job in Fairbanks. Would we still be in Alaska? Who knows. But we’re headed back, gifted with the opportunity to explore a place that captured our hearts 22 years ago.
Note: If you haven’t figured it out already, most of the photos in this post were taken in the 1980’s and 90’s, so excuse the blurriness!