Faked Alaska: The Northern Exposure Town

June 4, 2016 — The town hadn’t changed much since I’d last seen it in the early 1990s. The radio station was still there. The doctor’s office. The Roslyn Café, with its big camel mural. The Brick bar, with its penis-shaped sign. Cicely, Alaska, is always a comfort to visit. Even when it’s Roslyn, Washington.

Northern Exposure ran on CBS from 1990 to 1995. Its 110 episodes told the story of a young New York doctor named Joel Fleischman who was fresh out of med school and stuck in a tiny town in Alaska, indentured for the medical school loan he had borrowed from that state out of desperation. The strange thing was, the residents he met were all there of their own free will—Maurice, the wealthy ex-astronaut; Holling, the barkeep mayor; Ed, the Native American film fanatic; Adam, the gourmet chef hermit, and Maggie, the short-haired, finely featured bush pilot who timed her fame nicely with my own post-pubescence.

The exteriors and the iconic opening credits scene were filmed in the town of Roslyn, Washington, about 80 miles southeast of Seattle. My being there had nothing to do with paying off a school loan, though. A friend and I were on a road trip from Seattle to Denver by way of Glacier National Park and Yellowstone. This was our first stop after leaving Seattle an hour earlier. At the time, I hadn’t seen the show since it first aired, but it stuck so strongly with me all those years, I had to put the site on our itinerary.

We pulled into town, parked the rental, and stretched. It was more of a forward-facing gesture. The trip from Seattle hadn’t been bad, but there were 1,500 miles of emptiness and no cell coverage in our future.

The memories of the show came flooding back mid-stretch. I could almost see the giant moose loping down the street and hear the accordion and harmonica theme song. That's because not only had the town barely changed, it was also actively doing its part to keep Northern Exposure alive.

For instance, the radio station had the fictitious call letters KBHR (K-Bear) plastered on the window of the booth. On the door were the phrases, “The Voice of the Last Frontier” and “Minnifield Communications Network.” Fleischman’s office was a gift shop called Cicely’s, and his name was still on the window (the “L” in Joel squeezed in as a correction). There was even a café named Maggie’s.

They did all that, but really the only thing that they needed to do to keep the memory of the show alive in town was preserve the mural. The large camel mural advertising the Roslyn Café as “An Oasis” served as a metaphor for the show and become its most recognizable landmark. We discovered that it wasn’t the town’s only mural. They were scattered about, including a large Marlon Brando painted on the side of a building like Ed had put it there and, on another building, a miner in a tunnel that attested to the town’s coal mining history.

We decided to get some food, so we chose the Roslyn Café. Like I said, I hadn’t seen the show in decades, else we would have eaten at the Brick.

Eventually, we jumped into the car to head northeast to the upper reaches of Montana. But in my mind, we were headed southeast to Montana. After all, we were driving from Cicely, Alaska. I think that counts as being able to finally cross that state off my list.

As we put the mural in our rearview, I continued to think about the show. It’s another one of those shows that you can’t do today. I mean, 1995, the year the show ended, was the year I discovered the Internet. Today, Cicely would have been totally WiFi’d up. It wouldn’t have been strange to find a young Native American in the middle of nowhere with an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema because he would’ve had Netflix. Fleischman would have video chatted his girl every night and probably stayed with her. It wouldn’t have felt as gloriously isolated.

The show is always described as a “fish out of water” show. And it is certainly that. But that scenario wasn’t really the appeal of the show. At least not to me. The show is a fantasy fulfillment. Every cell in my body wants a simpler life, but I would never have the guts to make the sacrifices to do it. But if, like Fleischman, I was forced into that better life, it would all work out.

Forced to have a better life. That’s generally my way.

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