Every adventure starts with an error; in this case, it was the plane making its final descent into the thick white fog that surrounded the Juneau airport and then—in the type of maneuver that seems both terrifying and impossible to those of us who view air travel as a constant reminder that someday we will all have to face our own death and that day just might be today—changing trajectory midair and jetting upward.
That was how I ended up in Sitka, Alaska.
I had never been to Alaska before. I’m about as unclear on Alaskan topography as I am on “how planes can move up after they’ve already started moving down,” so I immediately texted my Juneau host, musician and friend Marian Call, to see if she would be able to drive over to Sitka and pick me up. As many of you already know, either from reading Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union or from generally being a more informed person, Sitka is on Baranof Island—meaning I would be there until I had to reluctantly board another plane.
You might also know that Sitka is home to at least two other items relevant to regular Toast readers: world-famous pie and Outer Coast College.
I ate the pie. More importantly: I spent the night in one of the buildings that might become the future Outer Coast College.
“We’re exploring that possibility,” Will Hunt, member of the Outer Coast principal team—and a Deep Springs alum—told me afterwards, making it clear that nothing had been finalized. Still, I was as close as any of us are going to get to Outer Coast College until the day the first students enroll.
Outer Coast is a prospective Alaskan college based on the idea of self-governance, student labor, and community-building, as well as an emphasis on underrepresented groups and native Alaskans. You might remember what Mallory wrote about Outer Coast College back in November:
It would be different, somehow, at Outer Coast. I would be different, hard-limbed and keen-eyed and I’d rise with the dawn every morning and my genitals would be carved from flint and Marcus Aurelius quotations, and things would be different, there.
I am reasonably hard-limbed, thanks to genetic luck and years of near-daily workouts, and I’m keen-eyed if I’m wearing my glasses. (My genitals are none of your business.) I am also not at all the kind of person who would ever voluntarily attend Outer Coast College. If you ever showed up at my apartment, where I bake my own bread and slow-cook my own stews and keep my kitchen Jolie Kerr-level clean, you might think I’d fit right in—but I know that as soon as anyone asked me to kill a chicken or catch a salmon, I’d be out. Honestly, I’d probably be really ambivalent about weeding that garden. Is there a way to do Outer Coast where you only bake bread, fold clothes, and scrub toilets?
“When you’re here, you’ll learn how to do everything,” Hunt explained, when I asked him that same question. “Though maybe the best formulation would be when you’re here, you’ll take on whatever is challenging and whatever produces a lot of personal growth.”
In other words: I wouldn’t get to scrub the toilets. I’d be the person chasing a chicken towards its slow and inevitably mismanaged death, mentally comparing myself to Juniper or Bran Stark and trying not to think about whether I needed to re-become a vegetarian.
I ended up at one of the potential Outer Coast sites because my Juneau friends knew Sitka friends who were more than happy to put me up for the night. I sat at the corner of a room-sized wooden table while bright young people cooked up yams, discussed socialism, and bent down to pet an extremely chill dog. I still think of myself as young, but sitting in that room I realized that I wasn’t, really; they talked about the future as if it would change their entire lives, and I talk about the future as it relates to the life I already have.
They asked me what it was like to be a freelance writer, and I asked them what it was like to start a college. Not everyone at the table was involved with Outer Coast, but a few of them were part of the planning team. They were all planning other things, too; that night the room was full of plans, with me as a reminder that plans can take you somewhere unexpected.
I slept in a guest room that was both packed with books and displayed an animal skull on the dresser, and I went down the bookshelf checking off the ones I had already read and then thought That is a skull, right? I’m not mistaking it for something else? Some kind of small mammal, maybe? My knowledge of the world is both wide-ranging and limited. If I were able to travel into the past and the future simultaneously, Outer Coast could have been good for me.
I needed to be back at the Sitka airport by 4:45 a.m. “Oh, I can walk it,” I kept saying, because the airport was less than two miles away, the roads had sidewalk, and I didn’t want anyone to have to get up on my behalf. But at 4:30 a.m. a young woman gave me a ride to the airport. That’s the other reason why I would have a hard time at a place like Outer Coast—I am happy to work to sustain an institution, but I have trouble accepting help from people who want to sustain me. I’ve built my hard-limbed, keen-eyed life specifically so I can take care of myself, on my own, no matter what happens. On the other hand, nobody ever knows what will really happen, or when we’ll need support. I would have slept on the Sitka airport floor if it weren’t for the help of both friends and strangers.
When I asked Will how Outer Coast would be different from Deep Springs, he answered: “Integration with community, rather than isolation.” If it were Deep Springs, I might have made that walk to the airport. When you’re with Outer Coast people, someone else wakes up to give you a ride.
I got on the plane and made it to Juneau, feeling both grateful to my hosts and grateful that I would never have to be a college student again, that I could be an adult with good friends and a career I loved and enough time and money to take a vacation to Alaska. I felt a little strange about the idea that I never wanted to go back to college, that it was like a book I could take off the bookshelf without wanting to re-read, until Will Hunt explained it to me:
“The idea of the work program is not about getting everything done; it’s about giving students the experience of getting real things done.”
I get real things done every day. It’s one of my favorite parts of being alive, and the part that I know I’ll miss most, every time I get on a plane. There’s a lot of personal growth left for me—and some of it will undoubtedly be on the idea of community vs. isolation—but I don’t need to go to college for that, and it’s already clear that I wouldn’t belong there even if I wanted to. Instead, I’ll keep doing my work, learning at my own pace, and waiting to read the first Outer Coast students’ stories.
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer and ghostwriter. She had to stop ballet lessons before she went en pointe, but she has been in A Midsummer Night's Dream twice. Her work has been featured in The Billfold, Yearbook Office, Unbest, and Who Are We Now, and she posts weekly Tumblr essays about earning money as a writer.