Living in Fairbanks not for the faint-hearted—or prissy

Soon after I finished the unpacking of about 200 boxes of books after moving to Fairbanks, Alaska, in 2005, my roommate and I found ourselves needing to find a new domicile. Through no fault of our own, we were evicted because the landlord had other uses in mind for the house.

When you’re on a month-to-month lease with that clause in the contract, you don’t have much choice. So we began to look for a new home. That’s when I began to realize how very different Fairbanks is from the rest of the world.

According to figures (from the 2000 census) supplied by the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce and the North Star Borough’s Department of Research, there are 82,840 people in the borough, 30,224 in the city proper. There are anywhere from 189 to
384 rental units available during any one month in the Borough proper; a smaller number in the city alone. Most rentals are apartments, which, if you have a dog (I did) or don’t like living like rats in a maze, brings the available housing way down.

Them’s the facts, and when you’re looking for a place to live, facts are vital.

In my experience, when looking for a house, you have certain parameters to fill: cost, location, size, restrictions. And that goes for house-hunting here, but there are a few—how do I put it—modifications to one’s expectations that become necessary.

Our first consideration was cost, so that gave us a (very short) list of places to consider. I wanted to stay close, so I wasn’t forced to purchase a vehicle before I was ready. Rents in the Borough run anywhere from $350 to $1,700; the city median rent is $1,200 (median being the exact midpoint of the group of numbers). That’s pretty steep when your take-home pay averages about $600 every two weeks. And it doesn’t include utilities, travel, food, or other necessities.

So, we did what people in our situation usually do first: we looked in the classifieds.

Here’s where my first modified expectation came up.

There were actually lots of cabins listed for rent, many quite cheap. Well, this wouldn’t be so bad, I thought.

I noticed many were described as “dry.”

Well, that’s a plus for me. I certainly hate living in a leaky, wet house.

But wait—you can’t really rent a leaky house, so then I thought maybe it meant the building didn’t sit on a creek or river, and didn’t flood during breakup.

Well, again, that’s good. Having lived through a few “high-water” autumns in California, I’d had more than my fill of water to the hubcaps and splashing through puddles to get to work. I said as much to Mr. Roommate.

Imagine my consternation when he, after guffawing ‘til he cried, told me what that appellation really means.

“It means there’s no running water,” he said.

“No running water?” I repeated dumbly.

“No running water.”

Now, I ask you, as a civilized society, how can one live without running water? I don’t even like “roughing it” for a weekend—what in the world would I do on a regular basis?

It makes sense now, why there are showers at grocery stores, Laundromats, and truck stops. Not for the long-haul truckers or visitors stopping in town for a few weeks. Not for campers who don’t have the dough for a cute little cabin or a fancy RV bigger than some of the cabins we looked at.

No. They’re for residents. People who have homes but NO RUNNING WATER.

One question: how do you wash dishes, floors, dogs? I realize now my colleague who brings in her dirty dishes isn’t just cheap or dealing with recalcitrant plumbing. She’s dealing with nonexistent plumbing.

Okay, I’m willing to pay a little extra for a hot shower.

Next.

Another parameter when looking for houses is bathrooms. Now, in California, where I’ve lived most of my life, the biggest question is: How many bathrooms do you want? And the corollary: Full or half baths, a shower or a tub.

Foolish me, expecting it to be that simple here.

Nope.

Here, when you consider bathrooms, you don’t ask how many, or full or half—you ask, “Inside or outside.”

I never imagined, when living in California, I would have to decide if going to an outhouse early in the morning when it’s 14 below zero was worth paying a few hundred dollars less in rent.

But it wasn’t a difficult decision. Nothing is worth going to an outhouse early in the morning—at any temperature.

Once we established the parameters—running water, inside bathroom—we started looking in earnest. One thing I’ll say about Fairbanks: It’s an eclectic place.

And I mean that in a nice way.

We looked at big, rambling houses more than two people and a dog need; we saw one place smaller than my childhood closet, going for twice what we’d paid for the two-bedroom we were living in. We saw trailers: Double wide and hard to distinguish as trailers to ramshackle tin boxes I wouldn’t use for a kennel.

Architecture styles ranged from cute log cabins, snug and tiny, to old houses euphemistically called “fixer-uppers.” Nice little bungalows, tacky little trailers, roomy ranch houses.

And I came to appreciate the gamut of living places—even the “dry” homes with outhouses attached in back.

Because a range of residences means a range of personalities, a lot of cool people to get to know. I hate that most urban places have become so similar—cookie-cutter neighborhoods looking just like every other neighborhood, no imagination, no creativity. And the rising popularity of covenants that ban everything from RV parking to painting houses something other than beige is disheartening.

Fairbanks isn’t there—thank goodness. And the variety of living places reflects the variety of people living here—tough, competent, a little rough around the edges, but always interesting and creative. In most places in the Lower 48 (or “Outside,” as we like to say), the word “eccentric” is a pejorative. It describes weirdoes and strange people who look different and act different and are just not like you.

Here in Fairbanks, “eccentric” means “resident of Fairbanks.” I mean, you have to be a little crazy to live in a place where summer lasts about 3 minutes, and winter is interminably long and dark and very, very cold (we had a month of minus-40 or colder temperatures that year). When heating fuel costs $4 a gallon, and it’s not an option – if you don’t heat your home, your pipes freeze just before you and the dog do.

Fairbanksans are tough, independent, and, admittedly, a little odd. I fit right in. We care less about appearances and more about character. We don’t care how much your clothes or car cost – can you field-dress a moose and gill-net salmon? (I’m still working on those two things). That raggedy guy in the moose-blood-stained Carhartts with the long, scraggly beard sitting on the bench over there? Outside, he’d be considered a bum, and probably thrown out of the park. Here, he might be the richest guy in town. Who knows?

We’re starting to get some of those covenants and neighborhood associations and other nonsense, in town. Mostly because the military brings people in from Outside who are used to that. They like orderly streets and beige houses and manicured lawns. The rest of us? We move to ramshackle cabins outside the city limits, haul water (or have it delivered), and take our trash to the dump once a month. We get a fired sled dog, and then another, and another, and another … and the next thing you know, we’re running the Yukon Quest with borrowed and rescued Alaskan huskies.

When I mentioned to my mom that I might get an ATV with a plow attached for next winter, so I don’t have to pay to have the snow removed on my steep, dirt-driveway, she looked at me with horror.

“What?”

“Well, I don’t want to pay the neighbor to plow, and we have to keep the driveway clear.”

She looked at the dog, and shook her head.

“Next thing you know, Calypso,” she said to the husky-heeler mix, “She’ll be getting a snow machine and running the Iron Dog.”

Fairbanks does that to you – gets you out of the normal and into the special.

Who needs running water when you have that going for you?

(Me)