Somewhere in the dark of Alaska, George Mason is deep in fantasy.
It happens every February. He sits near a fireplace in Anchorage and dreams of the South Pacific. Of being warm. Of being on an island. Of sitting in the sun by a lagoon and carving up papayas for lunch.
But George will not leave Alaska, for that state is also his fantasy. He fulfilled a boyhood dream by moving there 10 years ago.
"I grew up in San Francisco and I remember that in about the third or fourth grade there was a reading primer and in it was a story about a boy trapper in Alaska and I just became fixated."
George was a teacher in a private school in the Bay Area, and each year he filled out applications to teach in Alaska. "Some years I even did interviews, but then I got bought off in San Francisco; I got a little more pay and took another step up the educational ladder."
But finally, George knew the time had come.
"Our ostrich ran away," he recalls. "Our dog got hit by a car and our house that we rented on the beach was sold. It seemed like all the signs were saying, 'Go north, young man. Go north.' "
The fantasy had always been Alaska or northern New Mexico--two places of drama and mystery and adventure where, George thought, the land rules you . His wife favored New Mexico.
"I said to my wife, 'OK, we'll be fair. We'll flip a coin: Anchorage or Santa Fe.' Then I cheated and told her it said Alaska. She was not thrilled. She was, in fact, in a panic.
"She told me right before we left San Francisco that she would give it exactly 365 days. She had this vision of Alaska as one large glacier, perhaps with a little stunted tree on it. We moved in February, which did not help. You can still see her claw marks along the Alcan Highway."
George swears that within six months his wife fell in love with the open space and fresh air and the joy of discovering that everybody knows everybody in Alaska because the numbers of people are small and the attitude is friendly.
She visited her sister in San Francisco that first summer and was astonished at the crowding and noise and city smells to which urban dwellers grow immune.
George and his wife had been commuters in the Bay Area, driving an hour each way to work.
"There's nothing unusual about that, but what happens is that it's a couple of hours every day when you could be enjoying life," George said. "And you get tired of driving Monday through Friday, so you stay home on weekends. In Anchorage I'm just a few minutes from work. Every weekend we are off with the kids, fishing or camping or horseback riding.
"We thrive on the out-of-doors. The activities here are much more intense because much of the rest of life is so simple. And we have those bonus hours that we used to spend in traffic.
"In summertime we play baseball at midnight. In winter it's cross-country skiing. Each day seems full of opportunities and choices. You really live up here."
Fantasies Are Good
George believes that fantasies are good for people. They took him to Alaska. They allow him to escape through the snow to the South Pacific in February. And then there is his summer fantasy in which he and his wife leave Anchorage and homestead in the interior of Alaska.
"But we're in our 40s now and I don't know if we have the kind of energy you need to homestead, or the wherewithal to put up with the kind of work you have to do to homestead. I have friends who do it. I know what's involved and how tough--and rewarding--it is.
"Maybe if they had some sort of intermediate step, like gentleman homesteader . . . wow! I could get into that in a minute."
George's eyes glittered at the thought. He was silent for the first time since he sat down beside me on a tour boat called Klondike that was sailing toward glaciers in Prince William Sound.
And what had I said to this tall, dark stranger to provoke such an impassioned revelation?
I had asked what brought him to Alaska.