Ruminations of an Alaskan in Texas

Thursday, September 8, 2011 - 07:31

Although I tout myself as a lifelong Alaskan, I spent five years in Texas from 2002-2007 so that I could take advantage of a career opportunity in the energy industry. During that time I journeyed back to Alaska frequently where my family remained.

After setting up shop in Houston, I couldn’t wait to try out one of my favorite jokes: “If you cut Alaska in half, Texas would be the third-largest state.” To my surprise, Texans laughed and took no offense. Right away I could see that I was going to like these Southerners.

It was quickly evident that like Alaskans, Texans were strong-willed, independent and self assured. Devoid of even the slightest trace of insecurity, they were impervious to my boasts about Alaska. As one Texan put it, “we have lots of open space, great hunting and fishing, a wealth of natural resources, and our economy is humming along while most of the other states are sputtering.”

Over the next five years I roamed around Texas a lot, often driving my pickup truck to West Texas. During those trips I learned just how correct that Texan was. In the process, I developed a fondness for the state and its people.

I identified many parallels between folks in the Lone Star State and the Last Frontier. In the political spectrum, Texans are mostly conservative. Like Alaskans, they are staunch advocates of state’s rights and individual responsibility. They pride themselves on self-reliance. They believe in gun ownership. They strongly defend free-enterprise and encourage business entrepreneurship — something that philosophically has waned in Alaska during recent years.

But overall, the can-do spirit common to Alaskans is alive and well among Texans, whether they live in big cities like Houston and San Antonio, or small communities like Alpine at the state’s western fringe. They know how to get things done, whether it’s establishing world-class academic institutions like Rice University, developing offshore oil fields, building the most technologically advanced medical facilities in the nation or just putting on rodeos and barbecues. They are doers, not watchers.

Their snow is grass: During Houston’s winter months I enjoyed watching kids slide down west Houston’s grassy hills on sheets of cardboard. I’m sure most of them had never seen snow. But their exuberant laughter and joyful shrieks were no different from those of Alaskan kids frolicking in snow.

Adjacent to the park where kids slid on cardboard is a large area called the Barker Flood Control Reservoir, which was developed by the federal government back in the 1940s. Located about 17 miles west of Houston’s city center, the area is designed to contain flood waters. Combined with the nearby Addicks Reservoir, the area comprises about 26,000 acres. The area is not always flooded and I biked through it on a regular basis. Within the area I saw more wildlife in a month than I would normally see in Alaska in a year. Common sights on my bike trips were wild pigs, deer, coyotes, raccoons and hawks. Once in awhile in the bayous, although I wasn’t looking for them, I would see snakes and the occasional alligator.

Finding mountains: The Chisos Mountains in West Texas that lie within Big Bend National Park became my Chugach Mountains. I would drive more than 1,200 miles on extended weekends just to clamor up those peaks, some rising more than 7,500 feet above the desert. At first I thought the vast Chihuahuan desert looked dry and barren, but after awhile I began to appreciate its subtle beauty and changes throughout the year.

In the soaring temperatures of the desert and general absence of water, I learned that heat exhaustion can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than hypothermia or frostbite.

On one trip I climbed to the state’s highest point, Mt. Guadalupe, at 8,749 feet. I found myself shivering on the summit at 10 a.m., with the temperature at 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and actually enjoying it. It was the first time in Texas that I wasn’t hot!

On a couple of occasions my truck broke down on the road. And both times, just as one would expect in Alaska, people stopped to help.

During my treks to West Texas, I liked reading the local newspapers of Ft. Stockton, Marathon, Marfa, Presidio and other small bergs. Within those relatively thin, homespun papers emerged a simple truth: Residents truly cared about their communities. They not only discussed proposals and plans, but were taking action — whether it was approving funding for school improvements, libraries, road works or beautification projects. They argued and debated about some of the same issues common to larger communities, such as taxes, ordinances and regulations. But in the main, they rolled up their sleeves, joined together and pushed forward.

It made me nostalgic for the good old days in some of Alaska’s smaller communities where I’ve lived, such as Seward and Kodiak. Without a mountain of permits and regulations, people back then just did things, whether it was building bridges, parks, or simply planting trees. Today, the equivalent of an environmental impact statement is required to dig a hole in the back yard.

But I digress. Suffice it to say that during those five years, despite a 32-degree difference in latitude, I discovered Alaska in Texas. I found it in the spirit of the people, their industriousness and pride in their state; the abundant wildlife, the wide-open spaces and diverse terrain.

At night I sometimes drove 20 miles to the northwest of Houston, away from the city lights, to view the stars. The area was mainly farmland and very sparsely populated. On a couple of occasions I heard the distinct calls of coyotes.

And on one clear winter night, I definitely felt a touch of Alaska when unexpectedly, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the aurora.

 Frank Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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