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Thursday, May 23, 2024

New places, old faces

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">Sabine Poux</a></span>

I almost rear ended the car in front of me last week when I saw it on the back window — a “Middlebury Crew” bumper sticker.

You don’t see Middlebury memorabilia much here. I live in Kenai, Alaska, a small town three hours south of Anchorage on the world-famous Kenai River. It’s known for its salmon fishing, but there’s a lot more than fish here — the landscape is also dotted with active volcanoes, scalable mountains and offshore oil rigs. Kenai and its sister city Soldotna are on the road system, which makes them significantly more accessible than other Alaska towns and cities you can only get to on a plane or ferry.

It’s an incredible place for a journalist. Alaska is the size of almost 70 Vermonts but has just 100,000 more people than the Green Mountain state. There are debates over natural resources that play out in real time, both on the Kenai Peninsula, where I live, and in the state at large. Many of the people who homesteaded on the peninsula in the 1950s and 60s, back before it was a state, still live here. Their family names are on street signs.

Just a few months in, I’m subsumed by this place. That’s partly because I’m a reporter, so I have professional permission to meet as many people as I can and ask them nosy questions.

But I imagine anyone who’s moved far away from home knows what it feels like to shift the center of their universe — for me, from New York to Vermont to Alaska.

That’s not to say my life here is dissociated from my past lives. I’m starting to realize it really isn’t. Home is part and parcel of everything I do.

I started my job search in Alaska because a Middlebury friend, Hunter Graham ’20, clued me in to a journalism job opening in Skagway, where her grandmother lives. One of my closest friends on the peninsula is a mutual friend of Professor Sue Halpern — she introduced us virtually when I got up here.

Last week, I had dinner with a Middlebury alumnus who’s been here for almost 30 years. He lives in rural Alaska and races sled dogs but he also knows what the inside of Mead Chapel looks like. The world is so delightfully small sometimes.

There’s also, of course, that bumper sticker. I’m still trying to trace it back to its owner.

Perhaps the biggest througline between then and now is the pandemic. I’ll never forget those early days of covering the virus as it barreled toward Vermont. My clearest memory from March 11, strangely, isn’t getting official word from the school but getting a call from editor Ben Glass ’20.5, who was at BevCo — seniors were scrambling to buy all the Keystone they could carry, he said, before they were kicked off campus indefinitely. It was a lesson in how college students react when they hear the apocalypse is coming for them.

I’m still covering that pandemic. The tenor of coverage has changed, but I still think about the conversations we had as a Campus team when I’m writing stories of my own here, over 4,500 miles away.

The newness of life here is bespeckled with fragments of familiarity. And time has seldom seemed linear these last 12 months. Not to mention we’re not fully graduated yet — an in-person commencement is still a promise for the nebulous post-Covid future. I think a few more classes will be joining in our post-hoc commencement than we anticipated last March (sorry, ’20.5 and ’21). 

Maybe we’ll even finally get our Gamaliel Painter Canes. I’m not confident mine will fit in an overhead bin. But it might make for good closure.

Editor’s Note: Sabine Poux is a member of the class of 2020 and was the 2019-2020 Editor in Chief of The Campus.