Out of the Office: From Florida to Alaska — A wild 40 years

Like true superheroes, every Alaskan has an origin story. The really cool origin story might involve being born a sixth-generation Alaskan from a sourdough ancestor who came up to work on the Alaska Railroad back when Anchorage was just a tent camp. The even cooler origin story goes to the Alaska Natives who have lived here 10,000 years or more.

My Alaska origin story starts in Florida, and it began 40 years ago when I got drunk.

I was born in Virginia, but my family moved to Tampa, Florida, when I was 2, so I consider myself Florida raised. I went to high school and college in Florida, and had every intention of staying in Florida. I liked Florida. I liked the warmth, I liked the sunshine, I liked the beaches, I liked the bits of wilderness still remaining and I even liked the weird people. A friend called me “Tropical Tommy,” and if not for the adventure of my friends Mark and Mo, I might have stayed forever in Florida.

It was the spring of 1979. I had graduated a few years earlier from New College of Florida in Sarasota with a Bachelor of Arts in humanities and a burning desire to write professionally. At the time I worked in student affairs at New College, a job that had all the benefits of being in college without actually doing the course work. One night Mark, Mo and I got drunk. China had invaded Vietnam and the world looked like it might fall apart. “Where could we go?” we thought, and in our drunken stupor, decided, “Alaska.”

Getting drunk and deciding to move to Alaska isn’t like getting drunk and getting a tattoo. When you wake up sober you’re not passed out at Anchorage International Airport; you’re still in Florida. Only the seed got planted, and danged if that summer Mark and Mo loaded up their Pontiac Trans-Am and headed north.

As Florida summers go, 1979 pretty much set the low bar for me. I got laid off from a job. My roommate and I couldn’t afford the electricity for air conditioning. Sarasota dodged a few hurricanes.

So when Mark and Mo wrote me letters about moose and glaciers and salmon, I began to think, “Hmm. Alaska.” That fall I got a minimum wage job printing silkscreen T-shirts and had not come any closer to my dream of being a bestselling science fiction novelist. Mark set the hook when he said they had a spare room in their Spenard apartment, and if I wanted to move in with them, I could.

On Dec. 1, 1979, I arrived in Anchorage. My sister Helen, the old Arctic hand after several years living in Finland, got me set up with a parka and boots. I had sold many of my worldly possessions, but with flying to Alaska and getting outfitted, I think I arrived with maybe $50 and a Swiss Army knife. No matter: Mark worked then in circulation at the Anchorage Times, and the first month I helped him out delivering newspapers in Turnagain and Spenard.

My first morning in Alaska I found myself poking newspapers in blue newspaper tubes on icicle-encrusted trailers and log cabins. My first month in Alaska, Mark and I got stranded on the Portage Glacier Road when his Land Cruiser slid off the road while we were on a Christmas tree hunting expedition. We got sucked into a bank robbery when we went to pick up Mo from work at her job as a teller. Adventures happen.

I got a full-time job working for the Young Adult Conservation Corps as an archaeological aide with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On Valentine’s Day in 1980 I sold my first short story. In July of 1980, the feds sent me to work in one of the more remote corners of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I got per-diem and hourly pay to be in a place people pay thousands of dollars to visit.

My life in Alaska since then has been a steady stream of amazing events only Alaska can throw at you and that I never, ever would have done in Florida. In random order, I have been to the top of the world, mushed dogs, worked on ancient archaeological digs, been charged by moose and bears, been shot at, slept outdoors in minus-30 degree cold, used an outhouse at 15 below, got lost once or twice, walked beaches from Juneau to Utgiaqvik, built a cabin, built a dog sled, trained sled dogs and met hundreds of wonderful people, many of them weirder than you can find in Florida.

I also have fallen in love and gotten married, seen my sister move up here, too (and marry a dang-fine Alaskan), gone to dozens of weddings and too many damn funerals, published five novels and dozens of short stories, gotten a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, and worked as a field archaeologist, faunal analyst, government hack, college instructor, and — the coolest job of all — editor of a small-town paper. I’ve learned how to ski and ice skate, run a chainsaw, chop wood, carry water, fire a shotgun, frame a house, kayak, work a setnet and find my way in the wilderness, sort of.

In short, I have done many of the same things any Alaskan would do after living here five years or more. It comes with the territory.

Alaska pulls people here and has been doing that since the first Alaskans walked or paddled over from Siberia. Would I have come up here without that invitation from Mark and Mo 40 years ago? Maybe. I don’t know. The irony is they left after only a year here.

So here I am, a Florida boy who never thought he’d leave the Sunshine State, and that has made all the difference.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

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