Capital's undeserved negative reputation overridden by natural beauty, diversity

Experiencing Juneau worth it

Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2002

I don't know what the exact mathematical formula is, but as the number of days of the legislative session decreases, the number of lobbying efforts increase.

That's only logical. Everyone wants to do whatever necessary to help move a favorite piece of legislation to successful passage. What's illogical is how many people dread making these trips. I'm always amazed when someone groans when they tell me they have to go to Juneau as if they were being punished and sent to Siberia.

Don't hold it against me, but I love Juneau. Alaska's Capital City is picturesque and charming. A quirky mix of city sophistication, down-home hospitality and too much politics. A place where high heels and Juneau sneakers are equally fashionable. A place where you just never know who might be drinking coffee next to you -- so watch what you say.

True, it rains. A lot. But when the sun shines, it may be the most beautiful place on earth (except, of course, for the Kenai Peninsula). The scenery surrounding the capital can only be described in superlatives. It never fails to take my breath away -- rain, snow, sleet, wind or shine.

In the few days I was there earlier this year, it did all of the above. The quickly changing weather captures the city's essence: never a dull moment. Politics-wise. Weather-wise. Alaska-wise.

As much as I love Juneau, I hate to drive there. While some people dislike the adventure of flying in and out of Juneau, I'll take my chances with a plane any day over the frustration of having to drive downtown, especially after a snowfall or in the midst of tourist season.

That's why I have a hard time understanding those who think building a road will solve Juneau's perceived access problems. Juneau may be the most accessible capital city in the world -- once you get there, and as long as you don't drive.

The 12 years I lived there turned me into a walker and lover of public transportation. When I owned a car, I never could find a place to park it. Every time it snowed, the car got towed. It didn't help that I'm not the greatest of drivers and downtown Ju-neau's steep, narrow, one-way streets don't leave a lot of room for error.

With access to a rental car the few days I was there, I was reminded again why for most of the time I lived there, I didn't drive. You can walk almost anywhere you want to go (or take the bus) in less time than it takes to find a parking spot. With fresh snow, and lots of it, I managed to get stuck twice in less than 10 minutes. I saw more accidents and cars in strange places than I see in a whole winter on the peninsula. I was tempted to turn in the car early. Who needs the aggravation?

Unscientific as it is, I have a theory about why so many Alaskans seem to dislike Juneau: They never walk it; that is, if they've ever get a chance to visit in the first place.

The best way to develop an affinity for a place, any place, is by exploring it on foot. All your senses capture the flavor of the experience. You feel the rain (or sun or snow) in your face; you smell the bread baking; you see where the mountains meet the sea; you hear the bells chiming the time. You smile and say "hello" to the stranger you pass. You stop and satisfy your curiosity when you see something that piques your interest -- without having to find a parking place. You connect to a place by walking it in a way that's not possible in a drive-by visit.

Plus, there may be no better fitness program in the world, especially in Juneau. I know, because I now carry several unwanted pounds that were not part of my life when I walked Juneau's steep sidewalks and staircases to get where I wanted to go.

It exasperates me when I hear people talk about wanting to move the Capitol or the legislative sessions. I have another unscientific theory about that: Most of those people who buy the move arguments haven't been to Juneau. If they knew Juneau better, they would see that Alaska's unique Capital City perfectly matches the uniqueness of the Last Frontier. True, it's expensive to get there; although cheap fares can be found. The fact is, however, it's expensive to travel anywhere in the state from any place else in the state.

If Juneau could just separate itself from some of the politics that happens there, it could probably improve its reputation. After all, the city isn't the politics or the politicians. Does any other community really want the political messes in its own back yard?

So, for those who think you've drawn the short stick when business or politics takes you to the Capital City, here's my list to turn your trip into a mini-vacation:

n Simplify your trip and leave the driving to Juneau residents. The Capital City has a great bus system if you need to go long distances -- just don't try eating a candy bar on one of them.

n Pack your walking shoes and explore. The docks of Harris and Aurora harbors are among my favorite places. Juneau also has a great walking map that highlights points of interest -- and there are many. Don't miss the Alaska State Museum.

n Don't just make a beeline for the Capitol and think you've experienced Juneau. The city is multi-faceted; politics is just one of those facets. The city has a thriving arts community. Enjoy.

n Don't be a slave to a flight schedule. When my flight out of Juneau is canceled, I consider it a completely free day and a wonderful gift. Likewise, when the flight overheads.

After all, when was the last time you visited Ketchikan or Sitka? And just how important is that meeting anyway?

What some perceive as the difficulty of getting in and out of Juneau is really a wonderful cosmic reminder that humans, including legislators, don't control everything, and we take ourselves and our work far too seriously. Those flight delays and cancellations help put life in perspective.

Besides, do we really want a world that runs on time all the time?

Lori Evans is the Clarion's executive editor.

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