Anchorage, Alaska, is not exactly a beautiful city.
The setting is magnificent, certainly. It’s surrounded by sea on two sides with mountains shielding the back. There are 223 parks in town, measuring a whopping 382 hectares, and a 20-minute drive will get you well out into the wild. It’s at the edge of the world, right on the fringe of civilisation.
I mean, just last week, teams of burly locals raced down the main drag pushing dunnies.
The city’s infamous Outhouse Races are a highlight of the calendar, organised every year as part of the Fur Rondy festival. It’s held every March and dates back to the mid-1930s when hunters and trappers would come to town at the end of a long winter to reunite with their families and trade furs.
It’s easy to see why it’s America’s worst-dressed city. This look lasted five minutes. Picture: Kirrily SchwarzSource:Supplied
Anchorage is a gateway to some of the most spectacular landscapes on earth, from powerful glaciers to mighty rivers and glistening lakes. Recently, when I saw enormous hoof prints in the snow, I looked out the window and realised a van-sized animal was making itself at home in my street. It turns out, when you’re this far north, “There was a moose at the door” is a perfectly acceptable excuse for being late.
It’s no surprise, then, that tourism here is a massive industry. The so-called “Last Frontier” has a similar level of romanticism to the Australian outback, offering visitors a glimpse at one of the world’s last great wildernesses. Those living here routinely find themselves going head-to-head with nature.
When you’re this far north, it’s not uncommon to see dog teams training in parks. Picture: Kirrily SchwarzSource:Supplied
When it snows, the roads turn into ice rinks. The lanes disappear. If it really dumps, the load on the power lines might also knock out the traffic lights. About half a dozen people so far have merrily told me, “Welcome to Anchorage, where the lanes don’t exist and the lights don’t matter!”
People here don’t measure time in years. They measure it in winters.
I flew up in January, which perhaps isn’t one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. The only way to survive here, where -26 degrees Celsius is the norm, is to start piling on clothes. And never stop.
At least I can take comfort in the fact I’m among friends. Anchorage is, I’m told, America’s worst-dressed city. In fact, so many people have proudly repeated this factoid to me over the past few weeks that, as I look around the cafe where I’m sitting, I would say it’s hard to dispute.
It’s a little blurry, but this neighbour decided to temporarily move into Kirrily’s street. Picture: Kirrily SchwarzSource:Supplied
I can see double-fronted jeans, some with oil stains, some without. A local brand of gumboot called Xtratufs, which were created for fishermen and come in an iconic share of brown, is very popular. So too are well-loved flannel shirts, hidden beneath layers of hoodies and puffy jackets. Beanies are essential.
A quick Google proves this statement to be true, by the way. According to Travel + Leisure’s 2012 Favourite Cities survey, Anchorage really was ranked as the worst-dressed city in America.
It’s a far cry from the designer activewear and glistening abs of Bondi Beach.
Anchorage may be a gateway to some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, but it’s primarily an industrial town. There is, perhaps, no city that better represents the highest and lowest echelons of America’s economy than this. There are a lot of very rich people and a lot of very poor people.
A highlight of the local calendar is the annual Outhouse Races held in the main street. Picture: Kirrily SchwarzSource:Supplied
Though the dress sense may indicate otherwise, this city is actually home to a lot of millionaires. According to the Phoenix Wealth and Affluent Monitor, Alaska ranks number nine in the US for millionaires per capita, with 7.71 per cent worth more than $1.52 million.
Earlier this month, financial website WalletHub ranked it as the hardest-working in America, evaluating key job metrics to collating data to compare 116 major cities around the United States.
The local economy lives and dies by the price of oil. It accounts for 77,000 jobs in a state with just 737,438 people. Natural gas is a huge industry, as are mining, fishing and construction. Military accounts for 13 per cent of the population, due to Alaska’s strategic location at the top of the world.
Many people move here for work, either to seek their fortunes or serve their two-year rotations. They come from all over the world, creating some of the most racially diverse neighbourhoods in America and inserting more than 100 different languages into the Anchorage School District.
Others, like me, simply come for the adventure.
I struck up a conversation recently with an older gentleman, who told me he and his wife had driven up on their honeymoon in 1979 and simply never left. Now their kids and their grandkids live here as well.
Who knows? Perhaps I’ll do the same.
Kirrily Schwarz is a freelance travel writer based in Anchorage, Alaska. Continue the conversation @KirrilySchwarz
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