Until I was six, my family lived just above the Arctic Circle, in the remote village of Fort Yukon, Alaska. It is a community of about 600 people, predominantly Gwich’in Athabascan. My family is white – my parents were there as missionaries, my father a bush pilot and the priest-in-charge at the log church by the river.
We didn’t have running water in Fort Yukon, but we had a TV, and The Wizard of Oz was broadcast once a year.
I was transfixed by Dorothy’s ability to travel from her dull, rural home to a shining, magical kingdom filled with wonders. I could relate to Dorothy, had even once flown over a rainbow on the way into Fairbanks, 140 km to the south. To me, Oz perfectly illustrated the world beyond our tiny town, what it was, what it meant.
The other thing that taught me about the real world outside Fort Yukon was McDonald’s. I’d nearly press my nose to the screen whenever a commercial for McDonald’s came on. Even though our TV set was black and white, I could tell there were brilliant colours. I would scan it for every tiny detail about what life was like when you lived somewhere where there was a McDonald’s: sunshine, happy music, food wrapped up like presents in special papers and boxes, houses with pavements and lawns. Nothing bad ever happened there. No-one was cold, no-one got hurt, no-one died. They had flush toilets and hot water, and they had McDonald’s, and they were happy all the time because of it.
Whenever we went into Fairbanks, a visit to McDonald’s was almost guaranteed. My standard order was a hamburger, fries and a strawberry shake. I almost never took more than a bite or two of the hamburger, and I couldn’t eat all my fries before they got cold, but I always finished my shake, which tasted the way the strawberry in one of my scratch ’n sniff books smelled.
But the truth is, the food hardly even mattered. Being at McDonald’s meant that I was in a city big enough to have one, that I was in the world I saw on TV. That world looked nothing like what I saw in Fort Yukon: log cabins with dog teams tied out front, trails through the scrubby black spruce, the big river steadily flowing by. But if I could fit in at McDonald’s, I could fit into the bigger world, I thought. It took leaving Fort Yukon for me to understand that none of this was true, that life is hard everywhere, that if you thought you weren’t happy without McDonald’s, you wouldn’t be happy with it.
After my family moved to Fairbanks, we didn’t go to McDonald’s much any more. I don’t remember minding. McDonald’s, I soon learned, was convenient for people in Fairbanks more than it was special. People ate there if they couldn’t go to nicer restaurants. I focused instead on the thrill of getting to eat things like yoghurt, drinking fresh milk instead of powdered, getting to go to Alaskaland, a playground and tourist trap.
Despite the newfound pleasures of Fairbanks, it didn’t take long for homesickness to set in. I missed the woodsmoky way Fort Yukon smells, the way the light slants hard up on the Arctic Circle, the way everyone knows everyone else. I missed the way all my friends lived within reach. I missed the village grandmas, who loved all children as if they were their own.
When I was 16, I went on a school trip to Juneau, the state capital. I was lying in a bunk bed in the youth hostel one night, when I heard paper rustling across the way. I looked over to see a girl from Sand Point, out on the Aleutian chain, unwrapping a McDonald’s hamburger and eating it.
I knew she wasn’t hungry: they’d been feeding us well on this trip. But I also understood why she was eating that hamburger, and the chicken nuggets and fries she had, too, and the shake. She couldn’t get McDonald’s where she lived.
It made me remember what it felt like to live in Fort Yukon, a time when I, too, would have found intense pleasure in just entering a McDonald’s, tilting my head up to see the menu overhead, eyes wide at the way the various sandwiches slid down their metal chutes from behind the wall that separated the counter from the kitchen.
I also missed how excited I used to get at just the thought of going to McDonald’s. It was gone, but nothing had really replaced it. I lived in Oz now, in the world McDonald’s had symbolised for a kid from the bush. We lived in a house with a lawn. We got all our food from a store. McDonald’s didn’t matter.
That’s why, surreptitiously watching that girl from Sand Point as we lay in our hostel bunk beds, I was sad. She got to have the pleasure, the fun of what McDonald’s promised. She got to go back home, back to Sand Point, a village not too different from Fort Yukon. I couldn’t go home, no matter how much I wanted to. Home was somewhere in the air between Fort Yukon and Fairbanks. I was white, but from an Alaska Native village. I had grown up formed by its values, its sense of community, and then I left.
I don’t live in Alaska any more. My kids have never eaten at a McDonald’s, and I don’t think they have anything in their lives that means, or meant, what McDonald’s once meant to me. They’ve never lived without running water, without electricity. I took them back to Fort Yukon once, when they were very small. We walked along the dusty roads, we stood by the river, I pushed them on what might have been the very same swings that held me when I was five. They loved it; they were happy there, too. And on the way back to Fairbanks, we flew over a rainbow.