Alaska – New Pilgrims for a New Plymouth

THIS Uncle Sam of ours is a trifle old-fashioned, or he would not possess an attic; for modern houses boast only a cupboard or two, and unused space is nowadays considered an extravagance, in such a crowded world.

To have a spacious attic like Alaska and not to use every inch of it, does seem rather shockingly wasteful—especially for an elderly gentleman who talks so very sagely to his nieces and nephews about the virtues of economy! And he himself will admit that rooms downstairs are getting crowded, even though he has given up his former lifelong habit of keeping open house and welcoming all neighbor folk who wished to come and make a home with him.

I happen to be one of Uncle Sam’s nieces who has lived for many years in his attic; and I have found it so pleasant a place, both summer and winter, that I wish more people knew of all the treasure hidden here. Although it lies close up under the world’s white roof-tree, most people do not know that it is heated to a most agreeable temperature by warm air currents and hot-water heat from below.

High and aloof, reached only through a steep climb up that ladder of the parallels which narrows to the Circle and the Pole, this land of Alaska is truly a spacious attic, lying above the forty-eight rooms of state below. Treasures unexplored await a rainy-day unearthing here. Perhaps a time may come when Uncle Sam will say : ” I need some coal, and the oil is running low. I have to go to my neighbors’ market for fish and meat, and I’m afraid I’ll have to make a trip soon to the bank, for gold. I need some copper and a mite of tin, for mending. Where can I lay hand on them? The neighbors want to keep their own, and do not like to lend. There must still be some of these things stored about the old house, somewhere.”

When that time comes, we who have poked our inquisitive noses under the attic eaves and in its crannies, opened old trunks of tucked-away valuables, and explored dark corners where spare goods were carelessly piled-back in the prodigal days when Uncle Sam’s great house was builded-we who know and love the North will say to him : ” It is here, all you are looking for! We who have lived here long, up under the ridge pole of your house, have sought out all its treasures for you. Just carry them down-ladder, and they will run your house-hold for unnumbered years, in peace and plenty.

For Uncle Sam’s attic is a place which he, like many another busy old gentleman, has always planned to ” do something with, some day.” But he has never yet got round to it. He has been so occupied in running his big hospitable home down-stairs, he seldom has occasion to go “up attic” and explore there for himself. But the time will not be long, now, when he will be needing extra room, and here is room a-plenty. A whopping big room this, larger than any one of his forty-eight below stairs—one fifth as large as his whole house, twice as large as his biggest room Texas, five hundred times as large as his smallest room Rhode Island.

Back in 1867 people who knew next to nothing about Alaska declared this attic to be just so much waste space. They called it ” Seward’s Ice Box ” and ” Seward’s Folly,” because it had been Secretary Seward who persuaded Uncle Sam to add the attic to his house, as a protection from strong and then prevailing north winds. They thought this space not worth the price of keeping the roof mended

which is about all that has been spent on it, in all these intervening years! But many of those things are here which you yourself find stored in your own attic—things you don’t need just now but which may come in handy some day: all the worn-out and the old-fashioned things you send ” up attic,” including many well-designed but antique bureaus (some dating back to colonial periods for inspiration, of Jacobean twist, of a George III solidity), whereas one up-to-date, substantial, built-in Cabinet piece would be so much more useful to us who make our homes here!

But those who think there’s naught but worthless rubbish stored inside Alaska, are vastly mistaken. Like all attics, it has gathered dust but ours is yellow dust of gold. And, too, those who search here may find

” Budgets of dream-dust, merchandise of song, Wreckage of hope, and packs of ancient wrong, Nepenthes gathered from a secret strand, Fardels of heart-ache, burdens of old sins, Luggage sent down from dim ancestral inns, And bales of fantasy from no-man’s-land.”

Before we go any further, however, I think it only fair to warn you. By those who do not know the North, Alaska is considered a very dangerous country. This is quite true, for she is Circe of most strange enchantments. But if ever you should come to know Alaska, you too would love her; for the land creates a strong and subtle spell. And so, if you are one of those shy timid souls who only love the warm hearth-side of home and never stray, even in thought or mind, then please do not read any further here; for knowledge of that wide and spacious and all-but untenanted attic will bring you only vague uneasiness and mild unrest.

This is the story of today’s Frontier as seen by one who knows the sharp call and yet sharper edge of life on that Frontier, from own intensive living there. And the call of The Frontier is dangerous–to the frontier-minded. You never pick up a magazine nowadays, it seems, that somewhere between its covers you do not read these phrases: ” The Frontier has departed;” “There is no more free land;” “The limits of the U. S. A. have been reached and settled; ” ” The frontier spirit has departed because the Frontier has departed.”

What nonsense are these people talking? Don’t they know any better? Are they really unaware that in their own Alaska ninety-eight per cent. of the land is still free land, ownerless, masterless-and so, as Uncle Sam often growls in his beard, untaxable? Have they forgotten the very existence of Uncle Sam’s wide attic and all its inviting space, these witless writers? Or do they have some twisted misconception of our climate so fixed in their minds, they think that ” white folks ” cannot, do not, live here? I wonder, every time I read such statements, at the closed minds that must lie behind them. I long to stand out in the market places of the world and shout: ” Dolts! Blockheads! Men with the muck-rake ever looking down! Look up! Here is the promised land of this our day.”

The American Frontier is not closed to our generation, for Alaska is still gloriously open to us. There is no cold wall here, there is no barrier of an alien soil. The land is ours, in faith, if we but go up to possess it. The wholesome presence of The Frontier, so long a free-blowing wind sweeping away the fumes of a superheated melting pot, need not to-day be lost to our American life. Westward leading, still proceeding, the movement has gone on ever since Roger Williams left behind the first Massachusetts settlements and preferred to face the wilderness and the savage rather than suffer a cramped mind. Here in Alaska, now, as in New England, then, we see the vast extent of a continental mass stretching back from a rock-bound coast —a continent simple in its physical and geographical features, sufficient in time for the growth of an almost unlimited population. In the past the influence upon American ideals of an ever-apparent possibility of growth has been in very truth incalculable, and there is no need to lose this influence now. Although to the rest of the United States the days of the Frontier may seem far away, a thing of different years and of lost ways, here in Alaska they are close at hand and actual, in every thought and deed. Here you can see American colonial history telescoped, drawn near and in the making, now, to-day. The Frontier is not closed. Only climb the attic stairs and you will see for yourselves that this is true.

So I invite you to a look at the north edge of the map, where travellers draw (according as they themselves are visioned) fabled Chimera—or the Land of Dreams Fulfilled. I invite only those who have a wholesome curiosity to know more about the continent of their birth. I invite only those who care to poke their noses over the world’s rim and sniff the savor of what lies beyond. When we our-selves went North we knew we had a deal to learn; but what is learning but adventure? And so, we pushed the great door open to the attic stair. So, we began to climb.

I have written this in memory of that adventure, for I will not tell you of Alaska as one who went there as a tourist; nor aid I make a trip to Alaska to gather information for a book. I lived there eight years, in the heart of it. I went there in the wake of a mining-engineer husband, who was sent there by Uncle Sam himself. It was our home, our much-loved home; and I have never called place ” home ” with such a zest and love as I have felt toward Uncle Sam’s own attic.

I cannot tell you all about Alaska, for it is far too big. I’ll tell, rather, about one woman’s life there. Call it a rainy afternoon’s browsing, if you will, under the attic eaves—a few old treasure trunks of memories and hopes glanced into. Nine tenths is my own personal experience, the other tenth the observation of faith-worthy Alaskan friends. The best that I can wish for you, who read, is that you sometime may go ” look-see ” for yourself, and find there all that I have missed up in that windless country full of deep cisterns of silence. I hope that you may find, as I have done, both the Friendly Arctic and the Social Arctic Circle.

But first, to get to any attic, one must climb—and so must we. A very vital part of living in Alaska is the getting there. It takes planning, it takes time. And like the early settlers in New England, one is always conscious in the new land of all that distance, that width of waters, lying in between. The distance is much more than a mere physical fact to be overcome; it is an abiding mental background. You may live a lifetime in Alaska, but you will always have in the back of your mind the remembrance of all those miles which separate you in unsurmountable time and space from the Old Country, and the ways and faces of those loved there.

The older Pilgrims had to sail long distance round the globe to find the place of their new colony, but we must sail long distance up. The slow churn of the boat’s propeller steadily draws us away from all we ever knew and loved, and brings the equally steady, slowly dawning consciousness of an approach, not only to a new world but to a newer way of thought. Looking back, I can see now we were indeed like Pilgrims, taking passage on a Mayflower of to-day: leaving behind much that was old, yet taking with us much, of all that old, which had been very precious—not only in our personal bag-gage and in our freight of household goods, but in Our thoughts as well. For there are memories one does not easily leave behind in storage warehouse when shipping on a new adventure.

And, like the Mayflower folk and those who followed them, we only guessed in part how much, of new experience and of hazard, we were to see and find. And yet, as they did, we looked eagerly ahead and with good hope and covenant strained all our eyes to pluck the landfall of that new horizon, which so would shape us to new worlds of friendship.

For to live in Alaska today is not only a personal adventure, it is an American adventure. American colonists are to-day shaping here for America a new colony of new hope, free and wide and warm with promise—as English colonists of olden days sought out another rock-bound and inclement-called far coast, on which dashed high the beating waves of yet another ocean.

This is the story of our coming to The Great Country, as the Indian word Alaska means. After long years of living here, we too have learned not only to call it so, but truly to know it so: “The Great Country.”