The middle of August has arrived, and I find myself immersed once more in the Tundra Bubble.
The Bubble is relatively large, incorporating not only Nunap but also the Hub and rest of the school district where I work. This gives the Bubble an area approximately the size of Ohio. I have yet to explore all of this space; the reality of travel in this place combined with a limited amount of things to do in each village means that I’m usually content to stay in Nunap and the surrounding environs. Those that love to hunt, trap, and fish have more reason to travel from place to place, as different game can be found on the coast as opposed to inland. Likewise, the locals who grew up in a different village will frequently travel to visit their families. Neither of these descriptions apply to me, however. I typically travel only when chaperoning school sports teams or for required in-service meetings at the Hub. Sometimes I go up river to visit friends at the school in the next village. For the most part, though, once school starts my world effectively shrinks to a radius of about thirty miles.
Back in the mid-Atlantic states, thirty miles can have quite a lot to do, especially if it includes a major city like the one where I grew up. There’s the zoo, at least seven different museums, opportunities to see live theatre productions, malls, stores, restaurants, movies, libraries, and numerous other opportunities. And transportation isn’t too complicated: If I want to get somewhere, I have my car. When I lived in the city, my apartment sat near at least eight bus routes that could take me just about anywhere in the city if I didn’t feel like driving or didn’t want to bother with parking. I could also walk to a variety of places.
Thirty miles in the Tundra Bubble, however, is quite different. With transportation limited to plane, boat, four-wheeler, or snowmobile, getting someplace can be a challenge. Then there’s the fact that most of these villages started as seasonal gathering places for Alaska Natives; even today, many families in Nunap head for their traditional fish camps from May through August. The Hub, being an actual town, has roads, cars, a few restaurants, several stores, even a small museum and nature center. But most of the villages are lucky to have one general store and a post office.
During the school year, I’ve found that the world beyond the Bubble takes on a sort of dream-like quality. I’m still aware of what’s going on, thanks to the Internet, letters from home, and phone calls. But the distance lends a softness, I guess you could call it, to things that don’t happen right here.
This distance makes for some interesting, and in some situations startling, observations. One of the first things I noticed when I moved up here is that, while Alaska is technically part of the US, many times it get treated like a separate entity. Nowhere is this more apparent than when shopping online from a retailer like Amazon. While Amazon itself has no problem shipping things to Nunap, quite a large number of third-party sellers on the site throw Alaska under the heading of “international shipping”, which means that they either won’t ship or will charge an arm and a leg.
Something else I quickly learned is that when most people hear the word “Alaska” they think of Anchorage and its surrounding area: someplace not all that different from smaller metropolitan areas in the Lower 48, aside from the occasional moose wandering through and the extreme daylight differences. They picture the mountains, and a cooler temperature, and scenic lakes and rivers and wildlife, and roads. You know, where services like UPS and FedEx can quickly reach you. I’ve had more than a few phone conversations with customer service reps about why it’s really easier for me if they ship care of the USPS (while we do get UPS and FedEx in Nunap, it can take two or three times longer than the post office), and when I explain that there aren’t any roads where I live you can almost hear their minds screeching to a halt.
This lack of awareness goes both directions. While I can’t pinpoint exactly when I truly comprehended just how big the U.S. is, I do know that by the time I entered third grade I understood that Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut were all part of the same country. In contrast, I can only think of two kids in my current class for whom the names of other states aren’t some near-mythical place, and that my stories of traveling during the summer aren’t just a fantasy. Given that many of the kids in our school rarely travel beyond other villages or the Hub, I can’t say that I’m too surprised.
The Tundra Bubble also resides in my mind, in that I don’t really expect much to change when I’m gone for the holidays or for summer break. I know that I’ll still see many familiar faces when I go to the store or the post office, no matter the time of year. I can count on certain kids tagging around after me anytime I’m outside. Even the new faces at the school each fall are to be expected, as is the feeling of hiding a part of me until I know them better. This mental bubble can be pierced, as when I returned this fall and noticed that the one church (which sits between my apartment and the school) had collapsed. But for the most part it’s the lens through which I view life here. Life in the Tundra Bubble is separate from life outside, and for the next few months, I’m back on the inside.