Fairbanks, Alaska “Aurora Borealis, Shining Down in Dallas”

So I get to the Taco Bell and it’s closed, but the sign says the drive-thru is open until 3am. I am without car, so I walk around back to where a line of pick-up trucks are waiting to order. I step up to the menu to figure out what I want. A group of stunned teenagers shouts to me from the car at the front of the line.

"Are you okay?" they ask.
"Yeah," I say.
"Where’s your car?"
"I don’t have one."
"How are you going to order without a car?"

I’m familiar with the policy of banning walk-ups from the drive-thru — some inane insurance thing.

"I’m going to see if someone in line will order for me," I say.
"Oh…that’s a good idea. Hey, why don’t you have a car?"
"I’m taking a walk."
"Where did you come from?"
"I live in Seattle."
"So why are you in Fairbanks?"
"I’m here to see the lights."
"Oh." One of them tilts his head out the window. "You can’t see them tonight."
"Right. That’s why I’m at Taco Bell."

This is my third night of waiting for the aurora borealis. I caught a glimpse of it last night. It was beautiful, but nothing I could photograph or conceivably dance in front of. I’m starting to worry that it would take a global extinction-level magnetic storm to produce such a circumstance.

But I persevere. And I eat Taco Bell.

I would trade all the food in France for a chalupa with two things of fire sauce.

I found a place to sit across the street, outside the Fred Meyer. This comes compliments of the 10 second timer delay.

I’m a few months from finishing the video, which means I will soon have to endure seeing myself on TV. I’m trying to eat a bit better, but I fall off the wagon…a lot.

For what it’s worth, I did walk a half hour to the Taco Bell. And as penance, I bought an apple from Fred Meyer.

Apples are the most bearable fruit I’ve found, but I’m not terribly fond of the taste or texture. It is a nice bonus, though, that I can toss it out the window when I’m through and it’s not a crime against the little woodland creatures.

Speaking of little woodland creatures, Fairbanks makes an impression on you from the moment you step off the plane. The people of Alaska want you to know their state can kick your ass.

My knowledge of the aurora borealis is pretty sketchy. I’d done a bit of research from home and it seemed like Fairbanks was the place to go. Confirmed, again, before I even made it to the baggage carousel.

There are a bunch of factors that affect the presence and visibility of the northern lights. Geomagnetic activity is the big one. That seems to go in cycles with a spike every week or two. Season is another one, and end of winter is a pretty good time for it. You want the moon to be as dim as possible — it was at its nadir two nights ago. Then there’s weather. A cloudy day can ruin the whole thing, and as we all know that’s a hard thing to predict more than a couple days out.

I picked these three nights to try to catch it, with an option of a fourth if I change some flights around. It looks like I’m going to have to do that, as I’ve got nothing to show for my time here and tomorrow appears to be the big one. The Alaska University geophysics department is giving it a rating of 4 out of 9. Last night and tonight were a 3. My first night here was a 1. A 5 or higher is a bona fide geomagnetic storm, and that doesn’t happen very often at all.

On my first day in Fairbanks, I woke up to the sound of snowmobiles buzzing past my window.

There was some sort of race happening on the river.

A security guy at the hotel called them a bunch of idiots. Two hundred people with snowmobiles on top of a frozen river in 46 degree weather.

Yeah, that sounds pretty dumb.

Despite their obvious adolescent appeal, I find snowmobiles to be loud, lazy, obnoxious, and wasteful. I wish conservatives were a little more interested in conservation.

Yes, Alaska is a red state, and you can feel it in the little details. The region has a reputation for free-thinking people, but not the "Be the change you want to see" kind of free-thinkers so much as the "Get off my land!" kind.

I kid Alaska. I get plenty of thoughtful, considerate emails from Alaskans and they come in all stripes, just like any place else. And it’s not like I’ve taken the time to converse with anyone. The Taco Bell encounter was the longest chat I’ve had since I got here. I’m pretty focused on my solo, nocturnal pursuits.

One thing that does interest me is dog sledding. Assuming the dogs are well cared for, that’s something I can get onboard with. There’s a lady who offers to take people out. I keep calling her every morning, but she’s not returning my calls. That could’ve been a fun time and a great dancing clip. Oh, well.

I’m told the Iditarod is going on right now. It doesn’t pass through Fairbanks, though. I read up on the event and learned this really interesting story about its origins.

I took a long walk around the town yesterday. There are ice sculptures everywhere.

I think there’s some sort of competition that goes on, and I’m guessing they spread the submissions around when it’s over. They’re all pretty melted by this point, but I still get a kick out of them.

My hotel is full of Japanese. Evidently they are crazy for the northern lights. There’s a belief that procreating underneath them will give the offspring good luck in life.

…pretty much every superstition I’ve ever heard out of Asia has to do with good luck. Light the candle for good luck. Rub the statue for good luck. Eat the genitals of the endangered animal for good luck. Come on, folks. Mix it up a little. Throw in an angel getting its wings or something.

I got back from Asia a couple weeks ago and have been loafing at home until this weekend. I have half-written posts from five different countries. Most of them I’ll never put up because I have so damn much to say that I’ll never get around to writing it.

Here’s a short synopsis:

Had a great time in South Korea and danced with a bunch of people in front of a 600 year old structure that burned down less than two weeks later. I also visited the DMZ, which was strange and fascinating.

The Hong Kong event was ruined by terrible weather and bad planning on my part. I didn’t do much there.

I did even less in the Philippines once I decided there was too much that I wanted to see and I’d have to come back some other time. I was fairly worn out by that point.

Got my second wind in Singapore, then met up with Melissa in Thailand.

I have about 300 pictures from Bhutan and a chronic condition where I can’t stop talking about it once I start. They paint giant penises on all the houses. They have a Minister of Happiness. The country demands effusiveness.

I stopped off in Israel on the way home to shoot a commercial for an Israeli travel agency. They carted me all over the place and made me dance.

I’ve got a couple more small trips this month, then I head off to the Middle East in April.

20 Responses to Fairbanks, Alaska “Aurora Borealis, Shining Down in Dallas”

  1. jdhoskinson

    Way to go, Matt. The Aurora Borealis is an awesome idea, but hopefully the conditions will be kind. Wait it out if you can. Heck, it’s only Alaska in March, how bad can it be?

  2. Matt

    It makes me sad that you won’t post the blogs with all the stories. I’m sure they are worth telling. And, having been an avid reader of all your blogs, that you haven’t finished a few already…Guess I’m selfish that way. happy travels. Welcome home.

  3. You sound tired and slightly disenchanted. Chin up – loyal readers everywhere don’t mind you going on and on about the nuances of the countries you visit. Finish your posts!
    Looking forward to more…

  4. You are such a bad ass. I can’t wait to see your next video. Your stories are great and I really appreciate you writing in such detail and posting here for free. You’ve created a great travel manual.

  5. San

    I agree with Kickster – you do sound a bit tired – hopefully you’ll get another wind soon; we’re all supporting you!

    Any chance of stopping by in Spain on your way to or back from the Middle East? Please consider Granada before the end of May (I’m studying abroad there right now)! The Alhambra is definitely something worth seeing…!

    Hope you got your clip in Alaska and good luck with everything else. 😀

  6. Mitch

    Now just wait for all the indignant Alaskans to roll in and say GUESS YOU HAVEN’T LEARNED MUCH FROM TRAVELLING, OUR STATE IS AWESOME AND HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY HOLD A DIFFERENT OPINION!

  7. Matt,
    You have seemed disenchanted this entire trip, I felt for a long time that maybe you shouldn’t have done this. Guess I’m looking at that from a “motherly” aspect. I have always enjoyed your blogs in the past; videos and pictures were just a pleasurable addition. I miss the writing, I think this is just a job now and the enthusiasm of the past is gone. With that said, I still come back and see what’s going on and I’m looking forward to you new video. I wish I’d been able to hook up on NY, CT or MA and been a part of it. Best wishes with anything you do.

  8. Rich

    “The people of Alaska want you to know their state can kick your ass.” LMAO…

    46 degree weather in Alaska? I’m in northern Minnesota and we saw about two hours of 50 degrees a couple days ago. Other than that it’s probably averaged a high of 10 F for the last three weeks. Why us… grrrr

    I went to college at Michigan Tech and we had Winter Carnival every year. They have mad lake effect snow so there were some CRAZY snow/ice sculptures. link to mtu.edu

    I wish you luck with your quest. I hope you got something. I’ve seen the AB 4 times that I can remember. 1 time was amazing, the whole sky lit up, but it was one color. Another time it was only in one direction but the colors were spectacular. I hope you got/get the video. :)

    Rich

  9. Tiago Luiz de Lima

    Great is the idea of dancing in all these places unprecedented, when love was for galápagos Islands, this is my dream since I biologist and biodiversity is enorme.Darwin revolutionized biology that the island with its argument about natural selection, I love both of his dance which posted a response to your video WHERE THE HELL IS MATT? Answer: where the hell is tiago?
    This dance is fun and takes joy the people who are around you.
    The boreal aurora is really beautiful, the closest I came it was playing SUPER STREET FIGHTER in the stage of cammy
    But everything will of course because you deserve the best that life can offer.
    And I would like to know when will South America, in Rio de JANEIRO BRAZIL?
    A strong hug.

  10. jdhoskinson

    Matt, I see you arrived back in Vegas today. Another zero-gravity dance on the Vomit Comet? I hope so!

  11. daniel

    matt, to tell the truth I didn’t know you even existed until I saw the AD for gulliver travel agency you did in israel, and since then you became my role model. I love your videos, I saw your lecture (on the web) the outtakes, interviews, everything… my dream is to become a game developer in a couple of years but for now, I want to finish my service in the israeli army, get some money and travel the world just like you, my sister came back from her trip to india 3 months ago, she has been to some places you’ve been, and she loved darmasala too. all I can say is that you really inspired me to see the world and that I can’t wait for your next movie in 2008.

    p.s: here’s a pic of my sis from her trip
    link to b.imagehost.org

  12. I see you’ve taken to Picasa. It’s an excellent service, especially for travelers. I map all my travel albums down to the individual pictures. It’s extra work but I think it’s well worth it.

  13. hannah

    can’t believe the timing regarding the burning down of the south gate in Seoul. Glad you got it before it happened; was fun =)

  14. Santiago LLauro

    Dear matt i find your experience very powerfull your pictures and texts describes the same.
    pls continue doing this
    regards Santiago from Buenos Aires, Argentina

  15. local-ite

    Hey loved your videos. Im from Fbks so I appreciate that you picked us out from all the other places in Ak. Fairbanks is…well…Fairbanks. Either you love it or you hate it. Sorry you didnt get the full effect even with the bears in the airport. Ive traveled quite a bit over the world but there is nothing like home. Next time you go to alaska, Check out a few of my non-fairbanks faves: Valdez (little switzerland), Chena Hots Springs at 40+ below (dip in teh hot water, pull your hair up and it freezes straight up -sorry but long hair is more dramatic :)and then dance)(just dont pull on the locks of hair – they will break off and then you get to keep the locks as souveniors of a bad haircut), Hyder (AK)/stewert (BC)(so you can get a little “canada time” and there is a road out of the city that goes way up in the mountains and overlooks glaciers); prudoe bay or deadhorse(whens its winter and overcast – you cant tell a horizon so its just white, you look like a blob of coats in front of a white sheet). Yeah someone should have told you it is easier to see the northern lights if you get out of town a bit. The lights of the city dull down the northern lights. Continue the fun-alot of us enjoy seeing the world through normal colored glasses.

  16. bounty1342

    I was a student in fairbanks this years. Was great, i’m from France, so the difference of the temperature was a choc. Chena is really cool too !

    When i first get to Fairbanks i was disapointed, but at the end i would’nt lived it…

    Matt, f you plan to visit the “calanques of Cassis” send me a mail, i would be glad to arrange that :)

  17. Mark

    Hi Matt-

    Fairbanks bores me, but if you go there in January / February you can dance at -40 F. Very cool (rather, very cold; fun though).

    I live in Anchorage, and that bores me too, but my job lets me travel to many Native Alaskan villages (Aleut/Alutiiq, Inupiat/Yupik Eskimo, Athabaskan Indian) on someone else’s nickel, and that’s a hoot, and very very much fun. Good folks there. If I can swing it (and I usually can) I’m happy to take you to a village or two and you can dance with the locals. You, and they, will love it…

    Best to ya,
    Mark

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