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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

"A thousand."

"No."

"Ten thousand?"

"No. Three million." And with that he went back to driving his bus.

A few hours after I got out of the wobbly, swooping Cessna that had whooshed me out of Denali, I was getting into another tiny mechanical thing with wings to plunge down into the hidden cove of Redoubt Bay. I stepped out of the plane, with two others, at a small landing in a lake, slopes of Sitka spruce rising above us, and as I walked into a lounge (where an iPod was playing the Sofia National Opera), I noticed fresh paw marks on the cabin door.

"A dog?" I asked.

"Naw. A bear. Go to one of the three outhouses out there and you're liable to meet her."

I sat down for a cup of tea and asked one of the workers how far to the nearest road.

"You mean a road that takes you somewhere?" he answered, and thought for a long, long time. "Round about 60 miles," he said at last. "More or less."

This isn't unusual for Alaska, and many homesteaders live so far from transportation that they have to flag down an Alaska Railroad train when they want to go into town. (Some haul back refrigerators and couches in its carriages.) Small wonder that so many of the few souls who do set up shop here, so far from society, take pride in their eccentricities. "Met a guy down at the Salty Dawg in Homer," one of the workers at Redoubt Bay began, "told me he could make me a nuclear bomb, right there at the bar. I thought he was putting one over on me, but a physicist friend said all the numbers checked out."

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