Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Lights of the North (Alaska, Part I)

Wednesday, February 1

My sabbatical begins well, with a lot of walking.  I arrive at the Seattle airport mid-morning, catch the light rail into town, and stroll around the city center for a few hours.  The weather is crisp blue skies and surprisingly cold—which is a relief since I am wearing my super heavy-duty Alaska down coat, lent by a friend, which was way too bulky to pack.  It feels good to be on sabbatical, though I suspect it will take me a significant chunk of time to settle into the new routine of no set work routine. 

I meet for lunch with a friend and former CABI member who now lives in Seattle.  We enjoy a terrific falafel—maybe the best I’ve had outside of Israel—and I notice that I don’t mind the incredibly slow service, as don’t have anywhere I have to be any time too soon.  What a luxury. 

After more walking—cranes everywhere in the downtown core of this booming city—I meet Tanya at the Capitol Hill light rail station around 3:45, after she finishes her classes at Bastyr.  It’s great to see her, as she picks me up in her still-newish car I bought for her last summer.  I think how blessed I am to have a grown up daughter who is driving me around her city.  We go out for a delicious early vegan dinner and ice cream and then she drops me back at the light rail, where I catch the train back to the airport for my flight to Fairbanks.

The flight is happily uneventful and I arrive around 10:30 pm.  I remember the airport here from my last visit, back in 2009.  It’s surprisingly large and lovely for this small and rather ramshackle town—no doubt a bit of political pork barrel.  Then I get my rental car and drive to the synagogue, Or HaTzafon, the Light of the North. 

When I pull into the synagogue, Charles and his family are waiting to let me in.  I’m amazed that his young daughter is up this late but they’re all in great spirits and so welcoming!  I unpack, settle in, and go to sleep.

Thursday, February 2

I start my sojourn in Alaska with a wedding.

Michael and Shi Yi were hoping to get married under the aurora but the aurora didn’t cooperate.  So instead, they ask if I’ll marry them at 10:30 am (just as the sun is rising) in a field at Arctic Roots, the farm where they are staying outside of town.
I drive out there—about 25 minutes down the snowy Chena Hot Springs Road—and do the wedding, knee deep in snow in front of a small herd of yaks.  The only witnesses are the couple who own the farm—a hardy pair who previously lived in a cabin they built together, off the grid, with no plumbing or electricity.  Michael and Shi Yi exchange their rings and vows, I chant the sheva brachot, the yaks nod “Amen” and he breaks the glass on a wooden board atop a patch of hard-packed snow.

For lunch, I have the first of several Thai meals, as Fairbanks seems full of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.  There seems to be a significant Asian population here.  In fact, I noticed that Fairbanks is far more diverse than I’d expected.  I suppose some of this comes from the large military population, and the tribal community, too.  Many mixed race couples.  I learn a bit more about the history at the Morris Thompson Cultural Center downtown, on the banks of the frozen Chena River.  Then I go shopping at Safeway, to stock the refrigerator and pantry back at the synagogue.  One of my goals for this sabbatical is to eat healthily and lose some way, so having a good supply of fruit and vegetables and healthy snacks is important.  Of course everything costs twice as much as at home.  It’s expensive to live in Alaska, given the cost of transporting stuff up here to the far north.

I rest and read and study the map of the city.  I really want to get a feel for the lay of the land.  One of the hazards of Google maps and GPS is that you can get around a city without ever orienting yourself.  You just go where the technology tells you, with no sense of direction.  I don’t want to do that.  And Fairbanks is small, so I can learn it pretty quickly.  I want to be mindful, to know where I’m going.

And where I’m going tonight is Cleary Summit, a suggested spot for watching the aurora.  It’s about 25 miles out of town, down the Steese Highway.  It’s mostly pretty easy driving, then gets a little tougher the last few miles as we climb up the mountain and the road becomes icier.  But when I arrive, around 11 pm, there are quite a few cars and a couple busses full of Chinese tourists.

We all sit and stand around in the flat lot atop Cleary Summit.  I’ve heard that for many Asian couples, coming to Fairbanks for the northern lights is a kind of pilgrimage.  It’s said to be especially propitious to make love under the lights—a path for previously infertile couples to be pregnant.  Nobody is making love up here.  Most are sitting in their cars, a few get out to set out cameras on tripods.  It’s around -10 degrees, the sky is crystal clear.  I find it bracing and love walking around in the cold. 

And then others start coming out of their vehicles and the busses empty out—the aurora arrives.  Sort of.  It’s a faint, greenish band stretching low across the northwestern sky.  I take a picture using the “starry sky” setting on my new camera.  The long exposure—thirty seconds—yields an image that is, in fact, way more vivid than what we see with our naked eyes.  It’s beautiful on the camera screen.  In person, it’s lovely, too.  Not amazing, but lovely.  And I get to say the blessing over astronomical phenomena: Baruch atah. . . oseh ma’aseh b’reishit—Praised are You, Holy One, who makes the work of creation.  I’ve waited a long time and come a far piece to have this opportunity and I treasure it.  We all watch, and wait, and then, around 1:00 or so, the lights fade and we head home.

No comments: