This week on Voices of the Tongass we get to hear from Dylan Hitchcock Lopez. To listen to the episode, scroll to the bottom of this post. For more on the influence place has had in Dylan's life, keep reading.
Photo by Berett Wilber
Dylan Hitchcock Lopez grew up fishing off the coast of Baranof Island, and has since lived all over, including Fairbanks, Homer, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wales. Yet, like the salmon he fished for as a kid, he returns every summer, to work with his family and reconnect with the place that he thinks of as his home: Sitka, Alaska.
For Dylan, there's a simple answer to why he keeps coming back, an answer that looms in the back of the minds of many Alaskans who grew up on boats and trails: geography. "It's a lot more important to me than to people from other places," he says. "The places I lived after Alaska - everything was really small, safe, controlled. Here, the community is so small relative to the mountains and oceans and everything around it. Your idea of place becomes dominated by habitat and ecosystems rather than by man made structures, like it would be anywhere else."
But he also acknowledges that Alaska is far from perfect. His experiences all over the state exposed to him to realities that many Alaskans prefer to avoid, deferring to the beautiful landscape to represent the state instead. But for Dylan, it's important to think about Alaska from a macroscopic perspective. "We're a kind of screwed up state on that level," he says, "Here, where we have basically an insignificant amount of people and a vast amount of natural resources - if we had a more intelligent way of investing our resources Alaska could be so far ahead of the rest of the country, and yet we're a little behind. We have some really frightening statistics." Domestic violence, alcohol and drug problems, depression, suicide rates...these are problems that many young Alaskans hear about or experience every day, but as Dylan puts it, "It's such a big place and there are so few of us that it's easy to ignore these problems that are staring us in the face."
And yet, he keeps coming back to Alaska. "Having that sense of truly caring about a place not just intellectually" - he stops himself, to clarify. "I might identify with America on an intellectual sense, but I don't identify with it in a personal sense. It's just a concept, it's too big, it's just words. When I think about being from Alaska, I have feelings, memories - those statistics I mention earlier make me feel sad and angry in a way that is not entirely rational."
But they're also not something that scares him. On the contrary: "The fact that we have so many problems is more of an impetus to want to come back," he says. "It's the only place I have a personal connection to, that I really care about in that sense. I don't think you ever care about a place like you care about the place you grew up."So does he have Alaska in his permanent plans? When I ask, he ducks his head and gives us an answer that resonates all too well. "I used to say absolutely not," he tells me, "and every year I lean more towards probably. It's a pretty hard place to leave."