n January of 1989, the temperature got down to sixty degrees below zero in Fairbanks, Alaska, and stayed there for three weeks. Furnaces burned through heating oil at a serious rate, and parking lots slowly filled with cars that wouldn't start anymore, even with the engine block heaters that everyone up there has. Every year in the dead of winter, usually the Japanese imports were the last cars left on the road, but in 1989, even some of the Toyotas had given up.
In that kind of weather, automatic doors would freeze open or closed, so they'd have to be disabled. The people working the drive-thru window at McDonald's wore their parkas while they stood at their posts, because it was impossible to stay warm with the cold air blasting in with every transaction. And there were lots of them: in the winter of '89; almost no one actually got out of their cars and walked anywhere if they didn't have to, including me and my friend Lori, whose Datsun 200sx held up nicely during that particularly long cold snap.
Lori and I were in high school, and we thought that it would be hilariously funny to go through the drive-thru at McDonald's and order ice cream. We got a lot of mileage out of it: our satisfied giggling when the person taking the order paused and said, "You want what?" and then the spectacle we made of ourselves back at school after racing through the ice fog (when water particles in the air literally freeze solid, thick as any fog that rolls off the ocean). We danced around amidst the cacophony of slamming lockers and yelled conversations, waving the tall soft-serve cones over our heads, the hallways glowing orange in the early-afternoon setting sun, so close to the Arctic Circle.
Besides that visit for ice cream, I didn't otherwise go to McDonald's. Its parking lot was where kids met up on weekend nights to figure out where the party was ("party" meaning, usually, a pallet fire, a keg of the cheapest beer possible, and Def Leppard blasting from a boom box). The restaurant was, to me, tainted by its association with people who didn't have anywhere else to go. At 18 years old I was tired of the scene, eager to get out and away from what I saw as small town small-mindedness. I was ready for more.
But it hadn't always been that way with McDonald's and me. Until I was six, my family lived in a rural part of the state, in the remote Alaska Native village of Fort Yukon, about 140 air miles from the nearest McDonald's, down in Fairbanks. Fort Yukon is a predominantly Gwich'in Athabascan community of about 600 people. My family is white — my parents were there as missionaries, my father a bush pilot and the priest-in-charge at the log church down by the river.
I'd stare as Ronald McDonald handed out balloons. Even though our TV set was black and white, I could tell there were brilliant colors
We didn't have running water in Fort Yukon, but we had a TV, and during the time we lived up there, The Wizard of Oz was broadcast once a year. My parents would let me stay up and watch it, tucking me into a sleeping bag on the couch. I was transfixed by the movie, by this little girl'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, and to me, Oz perfectly illustrated the world beyond our tiny town, what it was, what it meant. It made perfect sense to me that Dorothy and her companions would get shined and made pretty in the Emerald City; after all, that was what people did in the real world. Not like in Fort Yukon, where we went to the bathroom in a pail or an outhouse, where the snow never melted by the door in winter.
Besides The Wizard of Oz, the other thing that taught me about the real world outside Fort Yukon was McDonald's. I would nearly press my nose to the screen whenever a McDonald's commercial came on. I'd stare as Ronald McDonald — in his yellow jumpsuit with the strangely wide hips — honked the horn as he rode his bicycle, handed out balloons to children, saved the fries the Fry Guys stole, or sang a song about feeding the wastebaskets because "they're hungry, too!" Even though our TV set was black and white, I could tell there were brilliant colors.
I would scan the commercials 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, cups that came with lids and straws. Straws! People in the real world ate food in brightly colored packages and lived in houses with sidewalks 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.
We went into Fairbanks a few times each year; whenever we flew in a visit to McDonald's was almost guaranteed. Everyone from the villages went to McDonald's if they could: eating there meant participating in a world we, kids from "the bush" (a general way of referring to rural Alaska), didn't feel like we had access to, but could only admire from afar. Going into Fairbanks and eating at McDonald's conferred status.
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 television
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. I would always ask my dad to "start" my shake for me, because the first pull up through the straw was hard, and I was impatient.
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 television. 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 flowing steadily by. But if I could fit in at McDonald's, I could fit into the bigger world, I thought. It took leaving 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. It is a classic archetype, exemplified by Dorothy, only realizing what you have in your own backyard when you are faced with losing it.
The year before that cold winter of 1989, I went on a school trip to Juneau, the state capitol. Teenagers from all over the state were there, for a program called Alaska Close-Up that brings students for — you guessed it — a close-up look at government. I had come in with kids from other schools in Fairbanks; there were Inupiaq kids from Point Hope, up on the Arctic Coast, kids from Tlingit villages in the Southeast, kids from the Aleutians. We all flew in: none of these places are accessible by road, not even Juneau, which then had a population of less than 30,000.
I was lying in bed in the youth hostel there one night, on a bottom bunk in a room full of bunk beds, when I heard paper rustling across the way. I looked over to see a girl from Sand Point, out on the Aleutian chain, lying on her side, unwrapping a McDonald's hamburger and eating it while she flipped through the pages of a teen magazine.
People from Juneau would go home with ten or more Big Macs in their suitcase, to hand out to friends and family as trophies
I knew she wasn't hungry: they'd been feeding us well on this trip, pasta and chicken and bread and salad, dessert every night. 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. For a long time, there were only three places in Alaska where you could: Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau. Juneau was new to the list: I remembered a time when people from Juneau, visiting us in Fairbanks, would go home with ten or more Big Macs in their suitcase, to hand out to friends and family as trophies. Status.
That's why this girl was eating McDonald's at nine o'clock at night, after a big dinner, at the end of a day of plenty of food. I understood. 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, in just walking through the swinging doors, tilting my head up to see the menu overhead, eyes wide at the way the various paper-wrapped sandwiches slid down their metal chutes from behind the wall that separated the counter from the kitchen, the anticipation of that fake strawberry flavor making my cheeks ache with pleasure and yearning.
After we moved to Fairbanks, even though McDonald's was right there, we didn't go much anymore. I don't remember minding. McDonald's, I soon learned, was convenient for people in Fairbanks more than it was special, and we couldn't afford not to plan ahead. People ate there if they couldn't go to nicer restaurants. My old way of seeing things was inverted: not eating at McDonald's conferred more status than eating there did. I focused instead on the thrill of getting to eat things like yogurt, drinking fresh milk instead of powdered, getting to go to Alaskaland, a playground and tourist trap, which was now just a bike ride away.
Despite the newfound pleasures of Fairbanks, it didn't take long for homesickness to set in. I now missed Fort Yukon as much as I used to want to go to McDonald's; that is to say, powerfully. I missed the woodsmoky way Fort Yukon smells, the way the light slants hard right up on the Arctic Circle, the way everyone knows everyone else. I missed the coziness of the mission house, the nooks I curled up in to read, the way all my friends were within walking distance, the way people just came in and sat at our table to eat if they were hungry. I missed the village grandmas, who loved all children as if they were their own.
I couldn't go home, no matter how much I wanted to. Home was somewhere in the air between Fort Yukon and Fairbanks
I also missed the way McDonald's used to make me feel, how excited I used to get at just the idea, just the thought of going there. It was gone, but nothing had really replaced it. I lived in Oz now, in the world McDonald's had symbolized for a kid from the bush, and now that it was no longer special, its magic had faded. We lived in a house with a lawn, and a sidewalk. We got all our food from a grocery 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 home, back to Sand Point, a village not too different from Fort Yukon, a tiny dot where her family was, where her people were, where life made sense, even if it wasn't glamorous. 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 a Native village. I had grown up formed by its values, its sense of community, and then I left. I didn't have family there, only memories.
I don't live in Alaska anymore. 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 anywhere without running water, without electricity. We drive everywhere, and we drive a lot. Alaska, to them, is Oz: a bit of a dream, far away, the place their mom is from. They have a sense of only one world, not two. But 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.
Elisabeth Fairfield Stokes teaches writing at Colby College. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Time, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.
Editor: Helen Rosner
Photo illustration: Helen Rosner; photo: Nick Mealey