Commentary: Feeling smaller than life in Alaska

For the first time in 10 years, I got on a bicycle yesterday. It took a good 10 minutes to retrain myself how to ride without falling over, but when I took off, it felt like absolute freedom.

The wind hit my face and I stopped pedaling as my downhill speed increased. There were no cars, no distractions, not a sound in the distance except the wheels of my bicycle. It was a moment of peace I wish I could have held onto forever.

Of course, it probably helped that I did this in Alaska. Not only had I waited a decade to ride a bike, but I had done it in a place often referred to as The Last Frontier.

I came here on a whim, mostly to lay a foundation for returning for reporting trips. The inexpensive plane ticket I managed to wrangle didn't hurt either.

I found myself driving a neon-orange rental car among black, white and gray vehicles on a scenic byway offering the most breathtaking views I have ever seen. I made my way from Anchorage to Seward, one of the busiest fishing ports in the United States, where I had a sandwich in a cafe that doubled as a laundromat.

Suddenly, grabbing a coffee while waiting for your laundry didn't seem like a far-fetched idea.

I visited a musk ox farm in Palmer, the agricultural heart and center of Alaska, where long hours of sunlight produce gargantuan vegetables.

I stopped in Wasilla, the home of former Gov. Sarah Palin, to see where the woman who once was a candidate to become vice president of the United States lived.

In downtown Anchorage, I watched the sunset from a roof-top restaurant while mulling over how much this city was, and also was not, like any other I have visited.

I ate Siberian dumplings in a hole-in-the-wall while listening to country music and the distinctively familiar chatter of a group of Russian Americans.

I hiked up trails and near river beds until my shoes were no longer visible under the mud and debris they had collected. I rode a tram to the top of a mountain that was surrounded by seven glaciers, and I toasted the journey with an Alaskan ale.

During my visit, I met a woman around my age who had driven to Alaska from "the Lower 48" and decided to work here at a farm for a few months before heading off somewhere else in search of something else.

We talked for a while about living in Alaska, about what had compelled her to come, about what she was doing next.

"I don't know what I'm doing with my life," she said. I know that feeling well, as I imagine most people from my generation do.

On the last day, as I looked out at the wilderness and seemingly never-ending miles of forest, I realized what had drawn me to this place, away from all the distractions of modern life. It is the same thing that has drawn me, over and over again, to leave and explore, the same thing that had perhaps drawn my new friend too.

You need reminders that the world is bigger than you are, that life is not all about college, marriage, jobs, kids, real estate and retirement. You need to feel small, to feel insignificant even, to realize that life — and, to a larger extent, your expectations of it — can change and that your path does not have to look like anyone else's.

You need to be reminded that you are human, and when you're standing atop a summit, surrounded by seven glaciers with the wind and rain in your face, you feel it. And if you're lucky, that insignificance will be all you need to keep life bold without second-guessing yourself.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

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