That’s me, age 16, sitting on a bench at Anchorage International Airport, late summer 1974. I was waiting to board a red-eye flight to Seattle. I was finally going to look for America.
Through much of my childhood, everything I thought I knew about the rest of the country, including Hawaii, came from television shows and movies. Alaska felt so remote that we had several ways to refer to the contiguous states – ‘The Lower 48,’ ‘Outside’ and ‘Down South.’ For me, America seemed a mythical land of endless summer, glamorous cities and countless landmarks. The first time I took a cross-country trip west to east, across the center, I kept asking my traveling companions and driver, ‘Is this the Great Plains? This?’
A Canadian friend once described a similar feeling toward the United States as ‘living in the attic of a house having a party.’
And boy did I want to attend that party. Another friend from Rhode Island thought it interesting how me and my pack of friends, who he deemed ‘Little Pioneer Women’ because we wore long cotton skirts and hiking boots, a fashion for awhile, laughed at how we all ran around talking about ‘the STATES’ (yet another phrase used to describe the rest of the country). We were going to ‘the States.’
Whether it was the emerald green forests of Puget Sound, or the cliffs of Northern California coastline, or the cable cars of San Francisco, or the Empire State Building, I knew of it all and wanted to see it all. On that first trip, I only had planned to fly to Seattle, then with my companion, hitch-hike to San Jose, where my friend’s mother and brother, a junior high boyfriend, then lived. After that, I was going to take Greyhound buses all the way to Phoenix, my final destination.
I chose Phoenix because the winter before I met a college-age friend of a friend who was from there. He was passing through Anchorage on his return home after working a lengthy stint at a cannery in Southwest Alaska. Flush with cash, one day he sat me down to tell me he wanted to help me leave Alaska, since that was all I talked about, and gave me $100 to donate to the Kim Discovers America fund.
I am still friends with him and his family to this day.
That night, in typical teen fashion, a dozen or more friends came to the airport to see me and my friend off. Ironically, as much as I wanted to travel Outside, I felt bonded to a large group of friends. Most of also viewed the Lower 48 somewhat cynically the older we got, figuring it was all overcrowded and ruined, until Alaska where we barely had one ‘freeway’ in Anchorage.
I must have thought I was coming back. And did eventually, over and over again through my teen years. But that night, me and my crew of hippie-like friends, took group photos and partied in the airport until time to leave.
At some point, I decided to capture the moment in my journal – which I kept through all my teen years. I must have been tired, or that frown was just your average teen look of angst. Or I was tired. I was only 16. I think about this now and I’m horrified that someone so young was out doing such things. I had no idea whether I would get along with my traveling companion (I didn’t) and the adventures that were ahead of us.
I remember many ‘firsts’ from that trip – the first time I experienced 100 degree heat at night, specifically at Midnight in Redding, California. I still recall the night I stood outside a party in San Jose, staring up at the stars, listening to ‘Free Bird’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd, feeling homesick and excited all at the same time.
I still recall the day we traveling to Santa Cruz to visit the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Later, I would eventually board a Greyhound bus for what seemed an endless trip from Northern California, down to Los Angeles, where I transferred to another bus bound for Phoenix. What amazes me is I don’t remember feeling afraid, at least not on that trip.
I still don’t know where I found the courage.
Kim possesses an M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University. She continues to write and teach at University of Louisiana Lafayette.