Fairbanks is frightening. First of all, it is possibly the most remote city in the world. I don't know where else on Earth you'd find a city of 60,000 people with nothing else for hundreds of miles around. No other towns, no farms, no suburbs, no industry, nothing. There's not even any mountains. Its just flat and empty. The only other inhabitation in the North Star Borough is the string of isolated cabins running north from Fairbanks along the Elliot Highway (more on that later). Secondly, the desolate downtown looks like it was some kind of Soviet urban planner's wet dream. The few buildings resemble guard towers in a gulag, their drab facades presiding over the dusty streets and two bridges over the muddy Tanana River. There is a cylindrical supermarket - that's right completely round - and if that's not enough, their city hall is also cylindrical, wooden, and without windows, and located within an amusement park.

But scariest of all, everyone looks like they want to kill you. I'm serious about this. I never got so many terrifying looks from so many people in so short a time. Its all the more frightening when you consider that many of these people live in the afore mentioned cabins and have taken great pains to move as far away from civilization / other people / the law as possible and still be within the United States. There I would be, walking across a parking lot on their main drag, International Airport Blvd., minding my own business and hoping to purchase supplies and get the hell out of there, and someone, probably on their way back from the That Dog's a Bitch Saloon (such a place exists, I'm not making this up), would be giving me a less Mediterranean and more backwoods version of the evil eye - for no reason.

And in the summer there was no cover of night. Driving around at 11pm, it is still hazy twilight and you can still see them staring at you! I assume winter is the horrible reverse - shady figures lurking behind parking lot lamp posts in the 2pm dusk, everyone huddled in their layers to protect against the -88 degree cold.

Fairbanks does feature a strangely large proliferation of Mexican restaurants. I cannot explain this, nor can I possibly communicate the sheer ammount of lard that was in my refried beans. The one cool thing is Alaskakland, the amusement park with the city hall, which also features some buildings from the turn of the century era in which Fairbanks was a bawdy mining camp, as well as president Harding's train car that he used to inaugurate the Alaska Railroad. I would like to see what that train car looks like under black lights.

The University of Alaska is in the adjoining municipality of College, and is probably the largest employer in Fairbanks. Their campus is on a hill which overlooks Fairbanks/College and features a bunch of signposts giving the milage to various other places in the world. All of the distances are big.

Impressions garnered from a (mercifully) brief pass through of Fairbanks while driving from Anchorage north to the Arctic Circle in spring 2000. The author of this piece does not wish to portray all residents of Fairbanks in a negative light * - in fact his heartfelt sympathy goes out to most of them.

* the low angle of the sun actually takes care of that anyway

First, some basic facts about Fairbanks: it is the second largest city in the state of Alaska, with a population of around 31,600. The entire Fairbanks North Star Borough, which encompasses a geographical area the size of Delaware, has a population of about 84,000. Contrary to popular belief, the ratio of males to females is fairly even, with women making up 48% of the population in 2000. This proportion may, however, seem skewed to the casual visitor, especially if you happen to be a woman in a bar in January.

Fairbanks is located in the Tanana River valley, with the foothills of the White Mountains to the north, and the Alaska Range to the south. The climate is dry, with an average 11 inches of annual precipitation, and extreme seasonal variations in temperature. This, along with discontinuous permafrost, keeps the trees small and of limited variety. Winter temperatures can go as low as –78 F, and several weeks of –50 F weather is common. Summer temperatures, on the other hand, go as high as 93 F, with a daily average in the low 70's. The sun rises and sets in the south in the winter, creeping over the top of the Alaska Range for a minimum 3 hours 44 min. of daylight on winter solstice, and rises and sets in the north in the summer, for a maximum 21 hours 48 minutes of daylight on summer solstice. What these incredible variations result in is endless parties to distract you from the darkness in winter, and to celebrate the glorious daylight in summer. Solstice parties at both ends of the year are common, with events like the annual 10 km Midnight Sun Run starting at 11 pm on June 21.

In harmony with the climatic extremes, people who live in Fairbanks seem to either love it or hate it, both supporting their arguments with a passion bordering on the irrational. There really is no in-between. The ones who hate it are usually "serving time" in the military or University, or are tied to a spouse who has a lucrative job in the petroleum industry. The ones who love Fairbanks are usually those who moved there intending to stay a season and are still hanging around 20 years later. Two things that both parties will agree on is that summer in the Interior is a marvelous and miraculous thing, and that winters in Fairbanks are hard. And not merely hard in an "oh, I might get frostbite" sort of way, but hard in an "oh, I might die if I twist my ankle walking to the store" sort of way.

Winter is what separates those who tolerate Fairbanks from those who love it. The difference is that the short-timers (for lack of a better word) look upon winter as something inflicted on them that they are just putting up with until they can get-the-hell-out-of-here-dammit! The lifers have a bizarre love/hate relationship with winter. Oh sure, they gripe about the cold to each other, but only when it's really cold (as in, colder than –30 F). Anyone who does it all the time might as well just tattoo "Nancy-boy" on their forehead and have done with it. And to Outsiders, Fairbanksans boast about the propane in their heaters gelling and refusing to burn at –65 F; they joke about square tires and cracked CV boots on their cars; they count the number of consecutive days below –30 F with a kind of masochistic glee. It's a squinty-eyed, clenched-teeth, leathery-skinned kind of attitude that makes them come off even tougher than they already are to anyone who doesn't know what's going on.

That said, Fairbanks itself is a town that is large enough for residents to keep their privacy, yet small enough that you always run into people you know at Fred Meyer. People tend to value their privacy and defend it fiercely (sometimes with firearms), but they are also wonderful neighbors who will lend you tools, give you part of their moose, and pull over to give you a ride to town when your truck breaks down.

Considering the size of the town, there are a reasonable amount of social things to do, as long as you don't mind most of the interesting ones taking place in bars. The bar scene, and almost everything else in Fairbanks, is low key and informal. People tend to disregard appearances, with the result that you may see a woman in an evening gown standing next to a man in Carhartt overalls, and both will be considered appropriately dressed. I have dined out at a very nice Italian restaurant in pajama bottoms and a t-shirt and not gotten a second glance. This is a rare and wonderful thing.

If you are unfortunate enough to be under 21 in Fairbanks, socially you are flat out of luck. For years I thought I just didn't know where the activities for under-aged people were taking place, and then I looked on a web page entitled "Stuff to do in Fairbanks" and realized that there simply were none. All the activities listed fell neatly into three categories: movies, bars, and sports. So, unless you have a huge tolerance for rental movies, hockey, and local productions of The Nutcracker, you are going to be in some rough shape by April. You can always do what my friends and I did and get creative with seeing how different substances (soap bubbles, mercury, your skin) behave when exposed to –40 F, but don't worry too much – the summer will make up for it.

*Information was taken from the City of Fairbanks web site, The Alaskan Center web page, the University of Alaska Fairbanks web page, and extensive personal experience – oy.

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