"Biggest number of bears I ever saw in this guy's backyard," another worker piped up, "was 52. He used to go round with a stick and put a roll of toilet paper on one end. Doused in kerosene and then lit. Shake that thing, the bears stayed away.
"Only time he killed a bear in 40 years was when one came into his house."
I've lived in the American West for more than four decades, but I began to wonder if I had ever really seen—or breathed—true American promise before. Every time I stepped off a boat or plane in Alaska, I felt as if I were walking back into the 19th century, where anything was possible and the continent was a new world, waiting to be explored. "Last time I was here, back in 1986," a Denali dinner-mate told me, "some folks from the lodge decided to go off panning for gold one evening. Over near Kantishna. One of them came back with a nugget that weighed a pound."
Once the season ended at Camp Denali, in mid-September, many of the young workers would be heading off to Ladakh or Tasmania or Turkey or some other faraway location. More surprisingly, many of the lodge workers and bush pilots I met, even those no longer young, told me that they migrated every winter to Hawaii, not unlike the humpback whales. Avoiding the lower 48, they crafted lives that alternated between tropical winters and summer evenings of never-ending light.
It was as if everyone sought out the edges here, in a society that offers no center and nothing seemed abnormal but normality. In the blowy little settlement of Homer—my next stop—kids in knit caps were serving up "Spicy Indian Vegetable Soup" in a café, dreadlocks swinging, while across town, at the famous Salty Dawg Saloon, weathered workers were playing Playboy video games.
Some of the shops nearby were selling qiviut scarves, made from the unimaginably soft fur of a musk ox, while others sold photographs of the unearthly wash of green and purple lights from the aurora in winter. Out on the Homer Spit someone had spelled out a message in twigs that seemed to speak for many: "I am Driftin'."
Roughly three out of every five visitors to Alaska view the state from their porthole as they sail along the coast. Many visiting cruise ships embark from Vancouver and head up through the Inside Passage to the great turquoise-and-aqua tidewater sculptures of Glacier Bay, the silence shattered by the gunfire sounds of chunks of ice ten stories high calving in the distance. For days on the ship I boarded, the regal Island Princess, all I could see was openness and horizon. Then we would land at one of the wind-swept settlements along the coast—Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan.
In these rough, weather-beaten towns sustained by vessels that visit only a few months every year, you can sense the speculative spirit the state still inspires, translated now into a thousand tongues and a global hope. In Skagway, amid the old gold rush brothels and saloons, I came upon two doleful Turks selling lavish carpets at a store called Oriental Rugs. At the Port of Call shop around the corner, haunted mostly by crews from the cruise ships, a Romanian was chatting on a cellphone rented by the minute, while stewards and chambermaids browsed among piles of papadums and banana nuts. Next door, a man on a Webcam had awakened his wife back home in Mexico.
Alaska's state motto is "North to the Future," though of course the future never arrives. I walked around Juneau on a foggy, chill, late-summer morning (Southeastern Alaska's towns see an average of half an inch of rain a day), and the first statue that greeted me commemorated the 19th-century Philippine hero José Rizal, the poet and nationalist who was the most famous martyr of the Philippine Revolution, presiding over what is called Manila Square. Downtown I found a tanning salon, a Nepali handicrafts shop and a large emporium advertising "Ukrainian Eggs, Matreshka Dolls, Baltic Amber." Juneau, the only state capital that cannot be reached by road—"only by plane, boat or birth canal," a resident told me, in what sounded like a well-worn witticism—is nonetheless the home to fortune seekers from around the world drawn by its sense of wide-openness. Not far from downtown lies the Juneau Icefield, larger than Rhode Island and the source for the now receding Mendenhall Glacier, and in open waters half an hour away I saw humpback whales spouting and fanning their tails only a few feet from our boat, while sea lions cavorted even closer.
Alaska's central question is the American one: How much can a person live in the wild, and what is the cost of such a life, to the person and to the wild? By the time I reached Alaska, much of the world knew the story—dramatized by Jon Krakauer's book and Sean Penn's film, both called Into the Wild—of Christopher McCandless, the high-minded, unworldly dreamer who hitched his way to Alaska to live according to the back-to-the-land ideals of Thoreau and Tolstoy. Camping out in a bus near Denali, the idealist soon died. And every time a bear clambered across my horizon, I thought of Timothy Treadwell, another American Romantic archetype, who had spent summers in Alaska living with grizzlies, giving them names and convincing himself they were his friends, until an encounter with one went bad and he paid the ultimate price.