Everyone from my hometown has a Bruce Springsteen story. I grew up just miles away from the concert venue where The Boss got his start. I rode my bike through the streets of Asbury Park. I was the girl that lived down the block. My friends and I haunted the dusty beach roads, far past our curfews.
Somehow, the story of how my parents got engaged involves Bruce Springsteen. It’s not my story to tell, but I think the proposal happened the same night that Bruce decided to pick up his guitar and play a few songs at The Stone Pony during my uncle’s set.
The restaurant where I spent my summers waitressing, sweating and serving plates of seafood a town over from the one made famous by “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” displays a signed Bruce guitar above its entrance. To my knowledge, he’s never stepped through the doorframe crowned by his guitar, but at least three times a shift someone visiting the shore for the weekend would stop to take a picture and ask the closest waitress their Bruce story.
Here’s my confession, though. I was never a huge Bruce fan. I saw him once, walking through the streets of my Jersey Shore town with his kid on his shoulders. I clapped along when “Born in the U.S.A.” was blasted every weekend in the summer. I even indulged in the rumors that sprouted up every few months, that Bruce was going to make a surprise appearance at a small, local venue. I don’t know why, but I screamed “Bruce,” along with the crowd at a Bob Dylan concert hoping he’d show his face, but I mumbled through the lyrics of his hits when when my friend, a notorious fan, would put on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” even though we were on Eighteenth Avenue.
But when I moved to Alaska, Bruce became my confidant. He became my identity in a state 3,000 miles from home.
Here’s how it usually goes:
“How long have you lived in Alaska?”
A little less than a year.
“Where are you from?”
“Bruuuuce!!!! Thunder Road!”
If you’re from Michigan, it’s easy to connect over the cold. If you’re from Colorado, mountains bind you. If you’re from New Jersey and want to find something to talk to a sourdough about, it’s safe to assume they’ve heard “Thunder Road.”
In Alaska, Bruce became my common ground and, from there, became a favorite as I grew more fluent in the discography of the man ubiquitous with New Jersey. It turns out, his talent isn’t just hyped by the hometown obsession. That guy has a great voice, and I don’t mumble along anymore. You’ll find me belting “Blinded by the Light” down the Sterling Highway and actually getting most of the lyrics right.
Recently, I had a conversation with Alan Boraas, a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College, that was supposed to be related to work somehow but first:
“How long have you lived in Alaska?”
A little less than a year.
So, instead of the questions about salmon I meant to ask Professor Boraas, I was focused on these two questions asked of me: “Where is home?” and “Why stay?”
In his 2016 article, “Salmonfest captures the essence of why young Alaskans stay,” for the (then) Alaska Dispatch News, Professor Boraas described an odd phenomenon.
“We have a demographic situation that has never occurred in Alaska before and will likely never occur again,” Boraas wrote, and paraphrased in conversation to me on a recent snowy, December afternoon. “About 80 percent of my baby boomer generation were neither born nor grew up in Alaska. That is reversed for millennials and Gen Xers, about 80 percent of whom are from here.”
There’s a group of people who weren’t born in Alaska but who’ve been here long enough that it’s their life. It’s where they raised their families, own some land and had their glory days, but they still find themselves asking, “Where’s home?”
Then there’s the group that were born here, that know all the words to the Alaska State Song instead of “Born to Run” and know what it feels like to have the aurora rising behind them. The question they ask, though, is, “Why stay?”
Then there’s me. I’m stuck in the middle, asking myself both.
Where’s home? That’s New Jersey, the place where I could get away from my parents by riding my bike to the beach, the place where my family will be stifling their laughs through my grandmother’s singing of “O Holy Night” this Christmas Eve, before my uncle breaks out his guitar and harmonica to do his rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Don’t tell him I said this, but I think Bruce does it better.
Why stay? Because after my “work” interview with Boraas ended, I said goodbye and went straight to Tsalteshi Trails to go skiing. I’m not good at skiing, and that’s all right with me, but I love it. It gives me the chance to get out on the snow and experience the trails in a unique way, different from how I did in the summer when I first fell in love with them. Skiing lets me experience the entire world in a way that is a little faster and much more fun than running or walking.
I’ll answer the “Why stay?” with skiing, not because it has been, or necessarily will be, a lifelong passion. I’ll answer the “Why stay?” with skiing because it’s a challenge I’ve never faced before. It is the chance to learn something new and struggle, because strapping myself into a pair of skate skis for the first time was more confusing then I thought it should be and actually skiing on them was nearly impossible. I’ll answer the “why stay?” with skiing because it is a chance to grow.
I’ll answer the “why stay?” with skiing because I had some great teachers. From my friend, who dedicated time out of his day (and then multiple more days) to actually stay by my side as I floundered along the trail, to the helpful passers-by who could tell I was new. It’s easy to be receptive to unsolicited advice when the one doling it out is gliding along effortlessly and you’re, once again, about to do the splits instead of skiing. It’s even easier to glean a deeper lesson when you realize that you would know nothing if it wasn’t for the kindness of others.
Here’s what I’ve learned: keep your knees bent, kick out and forward, stay focused, keep your torso straight, look where you want to go and glide, don’t depend on the poles but put a lot of power in your poling, tiny steps when step-turning, you won’t be warm unless you’re moving, keep learning, smile at those who pass you, clap really loudly if you see a moose on the trail and something about a starfish.
Here’s what I know: I was worried that once the winter came, I’d be homesick and run back home to the “glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye.” Instead, I’m putting on multiple pairs of pants, hitting the ski trails and smiling every step of step out and glide of the way.
Fair warning for anyone who may be out there with me: I like to listen to music through my phone’s speakers while I ski, so if you hear me singing “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” know that I’m at home and happy to stay.
Reach Kat Sorensen at firstname.lastname@example.org.