The kindness of strangers

_Editor’s note: Running every Tuesday for the next two months, The Daily Illini is featuring a series of columns by Guy Tal, a graduate student who is bicycling across Alaska and Canada. Guy, who has previously biked across other parts of the United States, Eastern Europe and Israel, is submitting articles about his experience. Because of The Daily Illini’s two-week publication break, this column will only run online._

What does it take to create a community?

We’re several hundred miles into our journey, having just bicycled the breath-taking (and bike-breaking!) Denali National Park. The outskirts of the jagged Alaskan range loom large. Gray clouds pile behind them. Alaska, my friends, is a wet state, and the locals treat weather reports like lottery tickets. Its rained on us for days at a time and at night the blinding fog hugs our tent like a tourniquet. With nothing but polyester and fleece separating us from the elements our moods sync up with the skies.

Two nights ago a black bear ambled past our tent, made eye contact with Dan and, I suspect, considered eating his jangling bell. The next day a moose stood protectively between us and her grazing calf as we biked by. In the hills around us Dall sheep munched on their lunch. Today, grizzlies chased ground squirrels off the road beside us.

But that’s the Alaska you know from National Geographic. This state’s unsung charm, however, is its people. So let me sing you a tune.

…There’s Holly who let us crash on her floor, though her house was full, when the rain wouldn’t abate. Dudi who stopped along the highway to let us dry off in his van and play us some melodies. Shanny who treated me to her dinner of seafood Alfredo as I stepped into a pub whose kitchen had closed. Shey who let us dry our tents on her lodge deck and warm our feet by her fire. Autumn, who taught me to hula hoop. There’s Talkeetna, an 800 person flash-in-the-pan of a town brimming with ice climbers, gymnasts, artists, and circus performers with whom I danced, swapped tales, and jammed as though we were old friends, and the four Eskimo women who showed us how to pick fistfuls of wild blueberries in the marshes off the side of the road (breakfast!), and shared their homemade smoked salmon. There’s the nameless barrista at the Black Bear coffee shop who is letting me finish this article well after hours as she cleans up…

Few people we meet, save natives, are actually born here, but folks are quick to tell us how many winters they’ve braved, wearing their numbers like badges. I ask them why they come. They say: for love, for family, for the joy of mountains. But to this outsider, it seems that most come to slow down. To escape.

For the last few days the tallest snow-capped peak in North America soared to our west. Congress still calls it Mckinley after a dead president, but the locals call it Denali or “the high one.” An Athabascan legend tells that an old god turned his enemies’ anger into stone, and the largest he named Denali. Since then, others have come to this land of the midnight sun hoping to drop their worries and tensions, like rocks, at the feet of the high one. To escape. To let the primacy of the landscape change them. Thankfully, here no one asks how or why we brave the elements. They know how. They show us.

So here’s what I think. Dim the lights for 6 months, set the thermostat to -50 F, offer scant hors d’oeuvres, and little in the way of entertainment, and the hearty few that come to your party will develop a code. They’ll stick together, help all newcomers. They’ll be ruggedly independent and warm as a hearth.

Welcome to Alaska.