Hello, everyone! Today, I am pleased to announce that Fulfilling Fernweh is launching its first guest post today by Catherine Swihart. Catherine has had many of her pieces published in Good Grit Magazine, and she has been a dear friend of mine for more than two years now. After she visited Petersburg, Alaska, I knew I had to ask her to write a post for Fulfilling Fernweh because she’s an incredible storyteller and writer. Read her elegant Alaskan stories below, and get inspired to visit there soon!
It seems strange to me that one pair of boots can carry you to new heights and personal growth. The past year of my life I have depended on a specific pair of Target-brand boots, wearing the creases thin from tip-toeing too much, pretending that I am some sort of urban-ballerina. They’re stained—covered in coffee dust from making and pouring coffee for strangers every day, but they’re sturdy. “Do you like those?” A stranger for whom I’ve just brought coffee asks about my blackish-brown shoes. They’re unzipped, as per usual, and at first I’m embarrassed to answer. They were no more than thirty dollars, and they’ve obviously seen better days, but the truth is that I love them. “Yes,” I answer, smiling mostly to myself. This person will never know why I love them and the things that they have been through, but they nod and reply that they were, “looking at getting a pair.”
Three weeks ago, I kicked off these same boots after a long day. I half-crawled onto my bed, staring at the mountain of books that were waiting, staring back at me. After a look of disgust, I grabbed my laptop off of the floor and made a decision for myself. Right there, in my Birmingham, Alabama, apartment, I bought a plane ticket to someplace that seemed very far from my reach: Alaska. And that’s exactly where my boots carried me to next.
After two weeks of anticipation and nearly 42 hours of seeing entirely too much of airport terminals and laughing through painful mishaps, I stepped onto the Alaskan asphalt. My shoulders ached from my backpack, but my boots rejoiced as if they found their soul (get it? Ha ha… because they’re shoes. Anyway…). Achy shoulders and all, I found the strength within my tired body to look up. — Have you ever looked at anything with sheer wonder and amazement? With the understanding that you are but one human being, small, and doing the best you can, just like everyone else? I have.
I took my first few steps off of that plane, which contained half Alaskan cargo and half Alaskan natives, and looked up into an overcast sky. Snow-peaked mountains peeked down at me, and I cowered back at them, but their intimidating gaze only increased my curiosity. After embracing my family and walking away from the one-room airport, I threw my duffle bag in the back of the jeep and we—my family and I—all set out on my very first Petersburg adventure.
Petersburg is located on one of the lower islands of Alaska, or as my cousin likes to call it, “the South.” I’m not sure if this was a joke or not, but I laughed, anyway. If only because the actual South looks nothing like the “South” put before me. Being an island, the town is relatively small. Everyone waves when you pass them on the “main strip” and grabbing coffee means knowing the name and life story of your barista. “This is the closest you’ll get to Mayberry,” my uncle calls from the driver’s seat.
My first ride around town was only the beginning. For the next week I was dragging my cousin, Sam, around to see the island he already knew like the back of his hand. We “jeeped” up mountains and wondered down alleyways (sorry, mom! I promised I would stop with the alleys). No matter where I went, this town had something to marvel at: The Norwegian flowers painted on most of the buildings, the harbor and it’s endless rows of boats, the occasional eagle just casually soaring above. Petersburg provided the perfect get-a-way from my overly busy lifestyle and allowed me the opportunity to sit still.
Mine and Sam’s mornings started before the sun, racing the light to get to the top of whatever mountain for the perfect “sunrise shot.” We’d grab our 5:50 a.m. coffee and talk about life; then we’d reach the top of a place named something like “Snake Ridge”, and I would climb on top of the jeep. For a week, our days started with coffee, no cell-reception, and the Alaskan sunrise.
I suppose as a travel blog, I am supposed to name off places to eat at and main points to see in Petersburg, Alaska. However, to me, Alaska is much more than a tourist destination. It is standing at the top of a mountain and, simultaneously, feeling small and as if you can conquer the world. It is finding a hidden fisher’s net tied 30 feet in the air, just to overcome your fear of heights and hammock in the sky. To me, Alaska is the place to not have a planned vacation, to not know what restaurant or coffee shop you’re walking into. It is trusting that Alaska holds something for you, no matter where you go.
Petersburg has a motto: “Little Norway. Big Adventure.” I have never loved a motto so much when exploring a town. So, in lieu of naming specific places to go, I encourage you to buy a ticket and see Alaska for yourself. Sit on top of a jeep and marvel at the view in front of you. It’s good for the soul—both yours and your shoes.
*all photos and words provided by Catherine Swihart