Searching For Alaska
Searching for #alaska
Words / Natali Grayling
Photos / Viktoria Szabo & Natali Grayling
“I’m not who I am because of this place. I could live a life like this anywhere. I don’t get it why people think Alaska will turn them into something they’re not. It won’t. I could be living in Montana, or Colorado, or even California, it wouldn’t make a difference.” – Aaron Park, #alaska
My name is Natali Grayling. I live 5,000 miles from Anchorage, near the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. I’m 27, Hungarian, and I wrote a book called #alaska, a novel set in Anchorage. Oh, and I have never been to Alaska. Please don’t hate, we’re on the same team. Let me explain why my skin is thick enough to claim I know just as much, even more about Alaska, than some of the people who have actually visited.
As a little girl, I read stories and watched movies about American kids going to summer camp or just camping with their families and I just wished I could have been one of them. It seemed as though they always had new places to discover and the adventures never got old. For reasons such as the small size of my country and the fact that my family could not afford holidays abroad, my adventures did get old after a while, so this longing for the American wilderness just got stronger with time.
Alaska is not just a place, it’s a phenomena. Over centuries it has earned its reputation through the stories told by writers, poets, travelers, adventurers… but rarely the people who actually lived there (at least that was my impression when I did my research). A story about Alaska always begins with the end of a journey. The narrator speaks as our hero steps off whatever transportation they use – it’s always something dramatic: scenic railways, cruise ships, planes, boats. He’s usually one of two things: an ignorant snob who could buy a whole town but couldn’t fry two eggs in a pan for the life, or a foolish young kid who thinks Alaska is some kind of petting Zoo where he can find his true self in nature’s loving arms. The snobs usually die various gruesome deaths and their bodies are never found. The young kid goes into the wild a fool and an optimist, kills a moose and a bear and comes out an experienced woodsman, grows a beard and says something very deep every 5 minutes. I have read/seen so many of these before, it’s not even funny. However, I found out that the more cheesy stories I read, the more badly dramatized wilderness reality shows I watch, the more stereotypes I know, the clearer my vision becomes about the true face of Alaska. Sometimes you can only find the truth through lies. Have you thought about that? Have you ever been on a first date and decided, "whatever they say, I’ll think the opposite is true." If so, I wonder how that escalated…
After getting a tummy ache from all the sugar-coated bullshit I’d seen, I started purposefully looking for those stories that were a little odd, just like me: the Hungarian girl with an “Alaska fever.” It started in a hospital bed, early spring of 2009. Kidney infection, dehydration, I wasn’t having the time of my life. When reality sucks, I always find a way out through reading, but at the time I had no books with me. So, I crawled to the newspaper stand and, since I wasn’t going to leave for a couple more days, I knew a magazine wouldn’t do. I randomly picked a cheap soft cover romance novella collection because there was a couple on the cover and they were drinking coffee, wearing knit scarves, and standing on the balcony of some log house in a snowy pine forest. My whole life changed on that day. Thank God the hospital didn’t have Wi-Fi.
“Hard Luck, Alaska – a town that needs women! Location: 50 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Population: 150 – mostly men – but growing! Because the O'Halloran brothers, who run a bush-plane service called MIDNIGHT SONS, are heading a campaign to bring women to Hard Luck.” Debbie Macomber’s Midnight Sons series is the story that made me fall in love with Alaska, unconditionally –these books aren't something I would normally read (I’m not a fan of romance). The whole premise was so unlikely: a young woman from Seattle finds herself in a semi-pseudo librarian job set up especially to “lure” a hot, intellectual female to a male-dominated arctic town. And, of course, the saying “the odds are good but the goods are odd” is soon proven accurate. This was the kind of weird I later kept looking for. It felt too real: the place, the people, the serendipity… I wanted more.
For about 2-3 years I kept my obsession tamed. Hungary is not exactly the place where you want to embrace your peculiarities. Remember, we used to be a hardcore socialist country. Individualism has never been one of our strengths.
Fast forward to Fall 2014. I met a guy at my university with the same obsession which, I think, was the reason why we lasted for 7 months. Other than our love for reading, American movies, Metallica, camping and contemplating our great escape to Alaska, we were the complete opposite. He was always the rational one. He’d had a job for 6 years at the same company, he had just got promoted while we were dating. He lived with his mom so that he could save money. He had two cars, one to go to work and a vintage VW Bug just for the hell of it. He was picture-perfect Hungarian. Dream big but think small – something I just can’t do. A couple months into the relationship I felt like these big plans of cashing out and moving to the 907 was something that went well with the taste of beer and cigarettes at the bar, but not with coffee and sandwiches at the office. I realized that reading "Che Guevara" and "Into The Wild" does not necessarily make someone pursue their dreams. Quite the opposite: we get off on talking about it so much that the urge to actually get up and do something is suppressed by big words of wisdom.
We broke up and I sobered up hard. I made myself a promise: less talking, more doing. I’d had an idea for a novel for quite a long time. So, after my exams, I decided to get to work. But my mind was blank and my writing stank. I tossed the project and felt like a failure – it turned out my ex was right, my dreams were too big for a little girl like me. I drowned my self-loathing into ice cream and looked for solace on social media. That’s how I ended up on Instagram and began to browse motivational posts from successful writers who claimed the key to success is not to strive for success. Easier said, right? But it got to me. It really got to me when I stumbled upon some people from Anchorage and started conversations. My messages were pages long at times. These people from Anchorage just didn’t understand what was wrong with me – how I knew so much about the states and about Alaska even though I’d never been there before. One of them even thought I was some creepy stalker living nearby, until our first video chat. That’s how I knew I had something special, something that was unique enough to make a good story.
Until this day, I think I wrote #alaska because I wanted to read it. I couldn’t find that real Alaskan flavor in any books I’d read because what I wanted to read about was still in progress. It involved the changes Alaska is going through RIGHT NOW – the Internet has really made the world a smaller place. There are so many questions yet to be answered: will the Internet attract more people to Alaska or will it have the opposite effect? Will it be easier for startup companies to grow or will it be harder because of the increasing competition? And what about communities? Will social media bring people closer together or is it just going to cause unnecessary trouble? Somebody out there must have written hundreds of pages filled with statistics and scientific terms on this topic, but what I wanted to see was the small picture – real experiences of real people whose daily lives are affected by these changes. I wanted real drama, real problems, and real solutions. As a foreigner, my only authentic resource was the hashtag #alaska.
Finally, I found a place where everyday Alaskans can speak. And not only through words, but also pictures and videos. The hashtags #alaska and #SharingAlaska have given me a true-to-life image of the Alaskan life.
I’ve been suspicious of everything that’s mainstream since I first studied marketing. This skepticism has given me the ability to see things for what they are and not what the media wants me to see. I took what my business education gave me, flipped it upside down, and now I’m using it to start my own little revolution by telling people the truth through fiction. My ultimate goal is to make people doubt what they hear, read, and see. I want them to ask questions and not settle for a half-assed, sponsored answer. For the latter part, I chose to self-publish my novel, with not even a dime in my pockets, which is proof that there’s no bullshitting involved. No makeup. No filter. #wokeuplikethis.
When you live in a place for a long time, you forget about its wonders. When you drive to work on the same route every day, you don’t count the trees or rest your eyes on mountain peaks. These things become distractions, and that’s absolutely normal. However, there are plenty of people living in Alaska who step outside every morning thinking their life is amazing, and they do so by choice. They choose to keep their eyes open to the little things, and they choose to love Alaska, for better and for worse.
I've met a lot of people through Alaskan hashtags. Here are a few of my favorites: David, a fly fishing guide originally from upstate New York, who taught me what the phrase “bank maggots” means and showed me some of the coolest spots on the Kenai River. Kaity, an amazing girl from Seward with a taste for adventure and eyes for beauty, whose photos make Seward seem like Wonderland. Tyler, who inspired a big chunk of my book by representing the enthusiasm of young Alaskan entrepreneurs building empires from scratch. The list goes on. They have great stories and I have the tools to share those stories. I believe we can show the world a different Alaska. A nothing-like-Hollywood adventure with characters built from blocks given to me by real Alaskans. None of it is made up. It’s fictionalized and I think that’s by far the most honest way of presenting the truth.