Throughout my nearly three decades living in Minnesota, I’ve fudged my way through my story of origin. When someone would ask if I were native to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, I’d explain that it’s all I’ve ever known — though I wasn’t born here. Which would inevitably lead to further inquiry: Well, then, where were you born? In Alaska, I’d explain, in a small southeastern town called Ketchikan. Soon there’d be cooing over the postcard-worthy backdrop, the bountiful wildlife, the laid-back lifestyle. But the discussion would grind to a halt when I would sheepishly reveal that I hadn’t returned since I was a toddler. I’ll get back there, I would halfheartedly promise as the topic of conversation shifted.
But to be honest, until very recently, I didn’t really have a yearning to return. Once the travel bug bit, I started checking other destinations off my list, inevitably pushing my birthplace to the bottom of the page. I just wasn’t interested in visiting an Alaskan hamlet when I could be exploring the elaborate temples of Bangkok or strolling the cobblestone streets of Prague. But you simply must go, I’d be told time and time again. And you must be at least a little curious, I’d be urged over and over.
And then, all of a sudden, I did want to go back. And I was curious. But I was also overcome with an unexpected anxiety: What would it be like to be a tourist in my own hometown? Could I find my way home?
Instead of planning the bejesus out of the trip, as I am so wont to do, I found myself avoiding the subject altogether in a futile attempt to avoid these perplexing emotions. When it came time to pack my luggage, I shifted into autopilot and convinced myself all was fine. And then, while I was standing in the airport security line, that unexplained apprehension returned. It lasted for the duration of the journey to Seattle and then on to Ketchikan, an itinerary that somehow seemed lengthier than the long haul to Asia. When I finally arrived shortly after dusk, it was dark and foggy, what I assumed this part of Alaska must look like most of the time.
The next morning when I pulled back the bedroom curtains to reveal picturesque Nichols Passage, I felt my angst slowly starting to melt away. Later that day, when I explained why I was there, that I was born there, a new line of questioning emerged: Did I feel a connection to the city? I smiled, unsure how to answer. To be honest, I didn’t. The oversize Salmon Capital of the World sign, the cruise ships moored at the dock, the myriad tourist traps hawking their tchotchkes and trinkets — it didn’t feel like home.
But then I decided to cut myself — and my birthplace — some slack, to stop taking it all so seriously. And that’s when I dove into the experience wholeheartedly. I fished for salmon, my biceps burning after reeling in an elusive king. I took a floatplane out over Tongass National Forest, marveling at the millions of acres untouched by man. I watched a bald eagle pluck a fish from the water with its mighty talons, its prowess on full display. I stood amongst the towering totem poles in nearby Saxman Village, humbled by their history. I toured the town with Joe Williams Jr., hanging on his every word as he explained the rich culture and heritage of his people, the Tlingit tribe.
And then, all of a sudden, it hit me: a feeling of connection, of belonging, of hometown pride. The unadulterated beauty of the land, the pure air that somehow fills your lungs a little fuller, the undeniable sense that a great adventure awaits right outside your door — I can lay claim to it all. And Alaska, as it turns out, can lay claim to this Minnesotan’s heart.