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North Star

By Patrice Gopo

Aug 4, 2021

From the September/October 2021 issue

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Illustration by Ryan Johnson

As a teen, writer Patrice Gopo couldn’t wait to escape her Alaska hometown. As an adult, she grapples with what it means to return.

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The flight attendant pauses by our row. She leans toward my two daughters as they clean up crayons and card games in preparation for arrival and asks: “Are you visiting or going home?”

“Going home,” my oldest daughter responds. A smile of anti­cipation ripples across her face, one that matches my own. Home. She’s never lived in Anchorage. This is her fourth visit in her nine years of life. Yes, she’s tasted king salmon fresh from the Gulf of Alaska. She’s donned heavy boots and plucked a stalk of fireweed flooded with pink flowers. But there is no constellation of everyday memories shining with snow forts or day hikes to a glacier. My daughter’s response makes me want to hug her.

“I grew up in Anchorage,” I say, clarifying what perhaps matters little to the flight attendant. “We don’t live there, but it’s where I grew up.”

“Oh, so visitors then,” she states, moving farther down the aisle, having categorized us to her liking. No, I whisper. This is not a visit. This is a homecoming.

Anchorage, where I was born and raised, is constrained by its own natural boundaries. The east rises into the Chugach Mountains, and the west dips into Cook Inlet. Between mountains and water, a city thrives. As a Black daughter of this place, I once believed that Anchorage was too narrow for me to truly live here. I thought the landscape did not contain enough space for my story. I strained against these boundaries even as I enjoyed expansive summer days and snow tubing down packed winter trails.

My imagination carried me to sprawling metropolises and bustling sidewalks crowded with an abundance of faces like mine. I left for college, searching for those places, eventually settling in North Carolina. But while we may leave our hometown, our hometown doesn’t necessary leave us, her draw growing in power over time. More than two decades after I left Anchorage, boundaries that once confined become limbs welcoming a daughter home. I crave that embrace.

As a Black daughter of this place, I once believed that Anchorage was too narrow for me to truly live here. I thought the landscape did not contain enough space for my story.

My first book is a tribute to that journey: an essay collection about growing up as a Black girl in Alaska and searching for my way in the larger world. I’m returning to Anchorage to celebrate this book with my oldest community. My daughters and I will stay for a mere week, a week that will include readings and public conversations, an evening with a book club, and a day of workshops at my old high school. As the plane dips, I settle into the rhythm of a journey I’ve flown countless times. I turn toward the window and look past my youngest daughter to the clouds gathered in soft tufts.

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We land on a mid-autumn day when the chilly air is pregnant with the possibility of the first real snow. My older daughter, prone to occasional coughing fits, inhales deeply and breathes with ease. At an old friend’s house where we are staying for the week, I turn the faucet to cold. Ice water erupts from the tap and I drink deeply, quenching a thirst I didn’t even know I had. Later, when I stop the car at a traffic light and look into the distance, the reality of the city’s backdrop startles me for just a moment. A length of plum ridges and valleys is seemingly suspended from a clear sky. Then the panoramic view fades into my unconscious, letting me take it for granted as one is wont to do with backgrounds in their home.

Once, as I was walking in North Carolina, years after I left Alaska, the gray of Cook Inlet seemed to appear on the horizon, encroaching on mudflats and approaching a line of evergreen trees. The scent of frigid ocean torqued through the air. Across the foamy surf and steel-colored waves, clouds obscured a range of peaks. Then I remembered: I was in my Charlotte neighborhood. Not Anchorage. As my eyelids opened and closed and opened again, the mountains became clouds. The water transformed into a strip of sky. I wanted to weep at my mistake. For some time after, I longed for what I had left: the landscapes, the water, the signs of where I’m from.

What happens when you no longer live in your home, but your first instinct to make sense of the tangible occurs through the lens of that place? Then, a horizon might look like an inlet the color of flint. And what happens when you return? As my week in Anchorage unfolds, I realize that the city is not only as I remember her. New roads run through areas once forested and wide, paved streets have replaced gravel ones. Development and glossy new buildings alter the cityscape. When I visit my old high school, a student raises her hand and asks, “What’s changed since you went to school here?” She sits near a boy from Sudan and another boy from Thailand.

“So much,” I say. I stand before a classroom comprised mostly of students of color. The demographics have shifted. The structure of the building differs too. The hallways are larger now, the classrooms boast more light. A multi-year remodel has created common areas with circular tables. This is not my school even as it is my school. I wonder what my story would be had I attended this version of the institution 20 years ago. Would I still have heeded that call to explore? When I look out the windows, my eyes linger on what rises beyond. I finish by adding, “Those mountains, though, they remain unchanged.”

A few nights later, at a friend’s house, my girls borrow mittens and run around in the backyard with her children. We all gather for dinner followed by warm raspberry-rhubarb pie. I savor every bite. As our forks scrape the last of the fuchsia filling, I tell the story of the flight attendant on the plane. This is how I answer questions about what it’s like being back. “There should be another word that means more than visitor,” I say. “Even if I don’t live here, this will always be my home.”

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Growing up, each fall, when the leaves crumbled beneath birch trees and the air turned in the direction of cold, the salmon returned to spawn near my childhood home. Once silver, they were bright red with age, weary bodies finding their birthplace. They swam upstream from Cook Inlet, through slender waterways beneath the Old Seward Highway, arriving back in a comforting marsh. And each fall, my parents, my sister, and I would walk down the boardwalk built over that marsh and hang our heads and arms over the railing. We would watch as scores of salmon flicked their fins against the familiar currents, piercing a trail home.

A few summers ago, I leaned over my kitchen counter in Charlotte and wrote tally marks on the back of a used envelope. One for each year in Anchorage and one for each year away. Eighteen tally marks—almost—for my childhood. A tally mark for the year before I married. A tally mark for the two summers I spent in my 20s living at home. Twenty marks for years in Alaska. Eighteen marks for years away. With gratitude, I noted that I’d spent the majority of my life in Alaska. Now I am nearing 40, and soon, this will no longer be true.

“There should be another word that means more than visitor,” I say. “Even if I don’t live here, this will always be my home.”

Years, maybe decades, in the future, I don’t think it will matter whether I have lived more or less of my life in Anchorage. With plenty of silver hair and a slower gait, I imagine I’ll return to this place I call home. I hope I will sit at a table in my favorite restaurant and feast on an open-faced crab sandwich. That I will drive down the Old Seward Highway or Northern Lights Boulevard and take in the sight of fresh buildings and trendy coffee shops with an occasional storefront that hints at the Anchorage I once knew. Then I will head to the water, sit on a boulder near the mudflats, and watch the tide rolling back out to sea. I will turn my head to what lies in the distance. And I will see those peaks and breathe in their permanence.

At the beginning of our week, my girls and I arrived in the early afternoon. For the final portion of the flight, we had cruised above ridges buried beneath snow. “Look,” I told my daughters, pointing out the window to the glory of sunlight reflecting off peaks.

Now, at the end of the week, we depart in the middle of the night. A red-eye flight to Seattle and a return trip to Charlotte. As the plane ascends, leaving Anchorage behind, I find I straddle a space between my original home and the place becoming one. This time no flight attendant asks, “Were you visiting or are you leaving home?” But I no longer feel constrained by vocabulary. If asked, I would answer, “I am anchored.” Not a visitor, but anchored to this place.

Beyond the window, it’s impossible to make out the landscape cloaked in black. I pull my travel blanket around me and take comfort in knowing mountains and water remain, even as I go.

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