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Alaska—from Denali to the stuffed bear on an Anchorage street, "plays havoc with your senses and turns everyday logic on its head," Pico Iyer decided. (Charles Mauzy / Corbis)

Alaska's Great Wide Open

A land of silvery light and astonishing peaks, the country's largest state perpetuates the belief that anything is possible

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We were flying what seemed only inches above a slope of the 20,300-foot-high Mount McKinley, now more often called by its Athabaskan name—Denali. Below our six-seat Cessna was a glacier extending 36 miles from the great peak. The doors of the little plane were open so that a photographer swathed in gloves and sweaters could lean out and capture the scene. I tried not to think about the statistic I'd spotted that morning on a bulletin board, a tally of the year's climbing figures at Denali: "Missing/Fatalities: 4."

It was a sparkling August morning—eight inches of snow had fallen four days before—and the snow line, after a chill and rainy summer, was already hundreds of feet lower than usual for this time of year. After barely six hours of sleep in semi-darkness, I had awoken at Camp Denali before dawn to see an unearthly pink glow light up the sharpened peaks. My cabin offered no electricity, no running water, no phone or Internet connection and no indoor plumbing. What it did offer was the rare luxury of silence, of stillness, of shockingly clear views of the snowcaps 20 miles away.

I'm not an outdoors person; the cabin's propane lamps defeated me daily and walking 50 feet through the cold near-dark to get icy water from a tiny tap was an amenity it took a while to appreciate. Northern exposure has never appealed to me as much as southern light.

But Alaska was celebrating its 50th anniversary—it became the 49th state on January 3, 1959—and the festivities were a reminder how, in its quirkiness, the state expanded and challenged our understanding of what our Union is all about. In almost 20,000 days on earth I had never set foot in our largest state, and as I stepped out of the Cessna and collected my heart again, wondering if forgoing travel insurance made me an honorary Alaskan, I was starting to see how Nature's creations could command one's senses as grippingly as any artist's perfections along Venice's Grand Canal. Wild open space holds a power that no museum or chandeliered restaurant can match.

Alaska plays havoc with your senses and turns everyday logic on its head. It's the westernmost state of the Union, as well, of course, as the northernmost, but I was surprised to learn, the day I arrived, that it is also (because the Aleutians cross the 180th meridian and extend to the east longitude side) the easternmost. Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas, I had read, yet has fewer miles of highway than Vermont.

When faced with such facts, one reaches for bearings, for ways to steady oneself. Hours after I touched down, from California, I set my watch back an hour, walked the few small blocks of downtown Anchorage (ending abruptly at a great expanse of water) and realized I was surrounded by Canada, Russia and the Arctic. The unpeopledness and scale of things made me feel as if I had fallen off the edge of the earth, into an entirely otherworldly place like nothing I had ever seen (with the possible exception of Iceland or parts of Australia), with people sitting on benches in the weird gray light of 9:30 p.m. and indigenous souls selling turquoise-colored teddy bears along a busy street. The shops in the scrappy center of town were offering "FREE ULU KNIFE with purchase of $50 or more" and "Raven Lunatic Art." One store's signs—advertising salmon-leather wallets, Sahale nuts and sealskin tumblers—were in both English and Japanese. Large stuffed bears stood outside other stores, and a stuffed moose stood guard outside a Starbucks.

Yet all around these desultory and somehow provisional signs of human settlement there was a silver sharpness to the air, a northern clarity. On clear days, you could see Denali, 140 miles away, from downtown Anchorage. At midnight, you could read a book on an unlit street. I remembered that naturalist John Muir had found in the local skies a radiance and sense of possibility that seemed to border on the divine. "The clearest of Alaskan air is always appreciably substantial," the Scottish-born visionary had written—he had set off without his bride to scout Alaska days after his wedding—"so much so that it would seem as if one might test its quality by rubbing it between the thumb and finger."

You don't come to Alaska for its cities, I started to understand, but for everything that puts them in their place. An Anchorage resident pointed out a reindeer sitting placidly in a cage in a small downtown garden maintained by an eccentric citizen.

"Your first piece of wildlife!" my new friend announced with pride.

"Actually, my second," I countered. "I saw a moose grazing by the road just outside the airport, coming in."

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