Mimsy: This is a recording of an interview with Alli Harvey, who graduated in 2004, and we reproduced the actual recording here. She lives in Alaska, and comes to Massachusetts to visit her family here. At the time of this conversation, July 2, 2019, Alli worked for Sierra Club; this changed in Fall 2019, when she left their employ.
What do you do in Alaska?
Alli: I am the only Alaska-based employee of Sierra Club, which is a national environmental organization. I lead a team of about 20 people across the country fighting to protect the Arctic. I also just recently started an art business.
I live in Palmer, which is about an hour north of Anchorage. It’s beautiful. It’s an agricultural community, the bread-basket of Alaska. They grow cold weather crops, like potatoes, broccoli, beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, and kale. We’re surrounded by mountains. The valley where I live is very flat, but then these mountains rise like 6,000 feet in every direction. Downtown Palmer was originally a colony community; there was a program to bring farmers up from Minnesota. They were given some land in exchange for homesteading. So the downtown still has this cute colony feel to it – like the train station, and the water tower that says “Palmer” which everybody considers the icon of the community, framed by beautiful snow-capped mountains. So it’s very pretty, and basically what you think of when you think of Alaska.
Right downtown there’s an old building, formerly a department store. The top levels are offices and studios, and the bottom has a coffee shop. My friend has a business repairing Macs up on the top floor, and he decided that at some point in the future he wants to take over that whole top floor. So he began renting the office spaces next to his, with the best view in the valley. In the middle of the summer, the parade goes right through downtown, and that’s the view. He was looking for subtenants,. and I jumped on the chance to lease it from him at the same time as I started my art business, not really having much revenue yet, paying for it mostly out of my own pocket. So right now I’m calling it an expensive hobby. I split the rent; it is partially Sierra Club and then half my art business. I call it my office-studio.
Mimsy: Where was your office before?
Alli: Out of my home. I worked remotely, and we also had office space in Anchorage. But since I’m an hour north, there was no point to me commuting all the way to Anchorage to work remotely with people across the country. I used another job opportunity as a leverage point to say: hey, how about you guys split rent with me in this office-studio that I want to open? And they said yes. So it’s a win-win where I get to work from this really beautiful place, and I get to have my studio.
Mimsy: Do you paint there also?
Alli: I do. It’s gorgeous. I get this total panoramic view, watch the sun rise and set, and I see the clouds and the weather moving across the valley. I watch people. I have people dropping in and visiting me throughout the day. My husband works on the same floor, my friend Michael is right next door, and I’ve gotten to design the space itself to make it pretty. The floor is slate gray, I’ve got a nice couch in the corner, and then all of my paintings are up on one big wall, kind of staggered across it. I sit there and I put on podcasts and I paint. I think that’s where I find the time, because I’ve made it into a place where I want to spend time. So even after a full day of working for Sierra Club, I’m still motivated to stay there later and I switch gears by putting on a podcast and setting up my painting stuff and just continuing to paint. That said, this whole scenario is not sustainable. The whole point to me continuing to work for the Club and having the studio is that I’m trying to fund myself to take the next step. I won’t leap into just doing full time painting and art, but I’d like that to be a third of my income.
Mimsy: I met you a long time ago, when you were 14, What were you like then?
Alli: Hanna described me as “old”. When I first walked down to school, she said she saw me and I looked old. I was getting over being chronically asthmatic as a young person. I was chubby – because I was still on a lot of prednisone. I had all the residuals of not being comfortable in my own body. My whole identity was around being absent and being sick. But when I got here to school, my asthma went away overnight. I didn’t know how, but I knew that this was the only way, that this was an opportunity for me to finally figure out who I was, aside from being absent and aside from being sick, because I didn’t have asthma anymore and I had to figure that out.
Mimsy: But you would never have known that beforehand.
Alli: That’s true. That’s why my parents chose it. They were actually okay with it because of the open campus policy. They assumed that my asthma would take a longer time to go away, and I’d need to have the open campus policy to go to doctor’s appointments. But then I got here and my asthma did disappear overnight – overnight. I needed a rescue inhaler and that’s it. It’s the same way to this day.
Mimsy: Who found the school first in your family?
Alli: A good friend of mine in Holliston was kind of a rebel. She had an interview here and I think even did a visiting week, and ultimately decided not to come. She told me about it. Then what happened was that my parents pushed my school, Holliston High School, to do a series of air quality tests. We told them we wanted dust mites, mold, everything but asbestos – they’d already had a negative test for asbestos. We knew that. And around the same time that I had a really bad asthma attack, the test results came back, and it was negative; they’d tested only for asbestos and nothing else. And they said to us, “We know that this is a sick building. You’re not the only student to complain. We’re tearing it down next year. Here is Allison’s “graduation money”, the taxpayer money that would have paid for her graduating year. Take this money and go somewhere else.”
Mimsy: That must have been a lot of money.
Alli: Three grand a year. It matched the SVS tuition at that time. We happened to know of the existence of the school because of my friend, and I think my parents were just desperate to have me anywhere. I liked the idea of this school. It’s a miracle to me, honestly, that my parents okayed me going here. My mom was on board, but my dad was very much not.
Mimsy: Your dad was not – until when?
Alli: It took “the proof’s in the pudding” with my dad. He was relieved once I got into college. He was relieved step-by-step as he saw that I was doing art, that I had friends, that I was happier and that I was having these new experiences. But I think for him, in his very kind of “Type-A-risk-averse, follow the path that’s laid out for you” way, when he saw that I was able to get into a college, he was relieved.
Mimsy: Did he think you were not quite bright?
Alli: I think he’s just a worrywart. I don’t think he understands a path different from the kind of prescribed path that he took. He worried about me failing. I don’t take it personally.
Mimsy: One can fail at anything. One can go to graduate school and not have any clue what to do next.
Alli: That’s what I convinced him of. He used to drop me off here and we would sit in the parking lot waiting for school to open, and he would badger me about doing things that were not “learning” – like knitting, or hanging out in the sewing room, or making daisy chains, or whatever else it was that I was doing. He thought I needed to study for my SATs. As a 14 year old, how was I going to get the math skills I needed to get to college? I would cry and say: I don’t know how to say this to you, but this is the most important thing I can be doing with my time. I really stuck by that. And to his credit, he didn’t pull me. He might have. He did not.
Mimsy: So it wasn’t that your parents had money and decided to send you here. It was that they had help from this terribly ill public school.
Alli: Exactly. By the time I got here, I realized that this was the most important place that I can be spending my time. I couldn’t articulate it – it’s so hard when you’re 14 knowing that you have a lot to figure out, and not knowing exactly what you’re going to figure out or even how, but defending that to your parents. Without having it come from a place of “I just want to sit around and do nothing,” because that was not it. I felt compelled to choose something. I saw all of these people here who are so at home with themselves – the staff, and all of the other students. I saw that students could make eye contact with each other and with adults, and that they were funny, and that they had hobbies and that they did things outside of school, and that they related to each other. I knew that I had to figure out how to be a part of that and how to have that sense of internal direction from within me. This was the place that I was going to figure that out. That was me lobbying for the time that I needed to just think about how to do that work. I defended that to my dad, crying up at the parking lot, day in and day out.
Mimsy: It’s hard to understand how you knew that was your work. It’s the work of every kid who’s here. Most of them do it really well, but it’s hard to articulate. However, I think it’s easier to articulate when you come here as a teenager than when you come here when you’re little. You sort of drift through your education when you’re little. When you come as a teenager, you know what happened to you.
Alli: I had some unlearning to do too, because I remember I didn’t do anything actually for that first full year. I mean, I didn’t do anything on paper. I sat around and I listened and I did make my daisy chains and I kind of halfheartedly learned how to knit and I wandered around. After that first year, I realized the only person who was deciding to not do anything was me. It took me a year to realize there was nobody here to rebel against. If I did nothing, nobody would care except me.
Mimsy: How did you make friends here?
Alli: At first I glommed onto existing groups. I was kind of a butterfly. I was a spectator at first. I just observed different groups. So I sat in the corner of a room with role-playing people and then I kind of glommed onto them as they invited me into their stuff. Then I sat in the pantry with “the three stooges”. Then I sat in the Green Lounge with those folks. I was in all of these different little groups, just observing and figuring it out. I made a series of friends in each of those groups and some of those friendships endured, and some of them didn’t. Looking back on it, it was literally us each growing in different directions. Sometimes I had to leave a friendship where it was unequal in some way, where I had started out as an observer but then needed to grow into more of my own, and the friendship wouldn’t give me the space to do that.
Looking back on it, this was where my friendships were started with a basis in shared activity. That’s how Max and I taught ourselves how to cook. He was working in a restaurant and we decided to work with Mark on learning some of his cooking skills from his restaurant days. We made stuffed mushrooms and sold them in the kitchen. We started cooking in bulk. We would be at Stop and Shop and we were these 15 year old kids stocking up on portabella mushroom caps and Ritz crackers and butter! I refined that with Tyler, when we would have elaborate dinner parties. I remember using 40 cloves of garlic for a chicken recipe from Cooks Illustrated. It was fun. We’d have all our friends over, eat all the food and do it again.
Mimsy: That’s expensive. Did you earn money?
Alli: I got a job as soon as I could. I wanted that responsibility. I didn’t want my parents having any strings attached to where I was going. So it was really important to me to have an income so I could pay for my own gas and my own car. I started working, and I am very happy about that.
Mimsy: Where did you work first?
Alli: I worked at CVS Pharmacy. I had a hard lesson about asking for time off well enough in advance when I forgot to give them notice about Nickerson. I think I got fired from that job.
Mimsy: So here you are having a lot of friends, doing a lot of different things. How did you put yourself together?
Alli: I was coming to the very serious realization that nobody else is in charge of my time but me; that the way that I choose to spend my time and with whom is the biggest decision I can make for myself, that nobody else can tell me what to do, and that skill was going to serve me for the rest of my life. So I needed to take the time that I had here to figure out at least the core of that. I should try things and then take that data about what was working and what wasn’t working for me, and get the chance to apply that to the rest of my life. And that that is something that most people don’t get to do ever.
I’ve often thought about this: how did I get from being this kind of “old” asthmatic person to being me now? There was a gap between where I was coming from and what was possible – coming here and seeing the opportunity expressed by so many different people, not for me being like them, but for me being me, and the really dizzyingly scary latitude to figure out what exactly that was for me. It was a combination of getting to be a tourist with all these different people, and choosing different activities to glom onto or to initiate, so that I was able to start to accumulate a sense of the way I liked being in the world: this is what works for me, these are ways I don’t like being in the world, and these are hard decisions I’m going to have to make about what to do or what people to spend time with. Overarching here are the expectations that are constantly being vetted and discussed and evaluated throughout our community about how to live in a broader context, while I’m figuring that stuff out for myself. It’s hard.
Mimsy: You mean in the outside community?
Alli: No, in this community. Like with the JC and with School Meeting: here are norms, here is how it is okay to be while you’re doing all this important work and here’s how it’s not okay to be. These were learning tools, living learning tools, because they were constantly being rehashed and discussed and applied.
That was also a moral compass for me. I think there’s a moral backbone to exploring some of those questions – like, does this behavior fall in the realm of what’s acceptable here or not? At the heart of it, you’re actually talking about what’s okay and what’s not, and what’s right and what’s not. Those conversations gave me a sense of an ethos that I hadn’t necessarily been exposed to, not in my nuclear family anyway. I didn’t get to have those kinds of conversations there.
Mimsy: I think most people don’t. So how did you ever figure out that you were intelligent?
Alli: I figured out I was intelligent by way of my feeling of fulfillment and happiness and getting to do my own thing while letting other people do theirs. The intelligence thing for me has always been about that. I’ve seen people who are much smarter than I am, way more brilliant, crazy genius, and I see that often translate into misery because they’re all too hyper-aware of all of the different ways their lives could go, and all the different decision points, and what is happening in the world. I think there’s an art to balancing the awareness of those different paths and your own ability to exist in the world. That work of figuring out your own existence is plenty. I think I’m smart in that I’m a little bit ignorant, willfully ignorant, about all of those other things out there.
I’m working on hard stuff – that I consider to be hard stuff – that causes other people to spiral, and I often think to myself that I do this work because I think it’s really important. There’s an asterisk there. At the heart of it, I chose to do this work because from my perspective it is my way of living an ethical life and a meaningful life. I’ve tried to be part of solutions to bigger problems. I’m okay with not ever having the solution, but I think it’s important for me to try. For other people that would not be enough. I see it routinely; they spend their entire lives just diving into this kind of work and diving into a feeling of despair. If you can rock that and be fulfilled, great. But if it’s killing you inside, then maybe reevaluate the fact that you only have one life and you should be looking at how to fulfill that one life while meeting these kinds of greater goals. I’m doing what I consider to be heavy work, but I’m doing it in such a way that I’m okay at the end of the day with not having the solution, but at hopefully being a part of a bigger process to get to a solution.
Mimsy: Where did you go to college?
Alli: The New School in New York City, Eugene Lang.
Mimsy: Did you go to graduate school also?
Alli: No. I hated college.
Mimsy: Did you learn anything besides hating college? It’s a lot of years to hate it. But you got to live in New York.
Alli: I learned how to live in New York. I learned how to work a system to my advantage. I spent my last semester of college in Alaska because I didn’t want to be at college anymore. I managed to talk the chair of my program into letting me fill the rest of my time at the New School by taking on an internship in Alaska. And he said, “As long as you write the occasional newsletter, I’ll give you credit for it.” So I learned how to work a system to my advantage.
Seriously, during the first semester of college – I don’t know when the last time I’d written a paper was – I went through a whole big thing to write my first paper for a philosophy class. I took my paper to the writing center just to talk through the expectation for how I’m supposed to write a paper for a college-level class. I put so much time and effort into that paper and at the end of it I got a B minus because it was single spaced and the margins were too wide, or something like that. From then on, honestly, I put a lot less effort into each paper unless I was really sincerely interested in the subject. I did enough and listened to the professor enough to get the guidance for what I was supposed to do. I got a super high GPA. But that was after the first semester, which took a ton of work. That’s why I didn’t like college. For the next three years of being there, it felt like a hamster wheel. I was really confused about the fact that I was paying – which I wasn’t, since I got scholarships – but I was paying for the privilege of having this experience, and I wanted my work to matter beyond someone grading my paper and to have a real life application. So I was very quickly over college after that first semester.
Mimsy: Well, you’re a writer, so it’s not a simple thing to give up writing as something that you put your life into and your heart into and just do it for the nice little A.
Alli: I know, and I don’t usually look for shortcuts. I usually do the thing all the way through. It’s my nature. But I did that with college. I did that starting with the SATs. I thought, oh, there are tricks to this; I don’t have to go all out to do this thing that’s a bar to get me to where I want to be next. I’ll figure it out.
Mimsy: What were the tricks you figured out?
Alli: For the SATs? You could spot a bunk question; some of the really tough questions were really meant as time sinks. So you needed to be able to kind of spot those, and just think about the fact that you don’t need a perfect score. I put a ton of work into more prepping for the thing that I was already good at, which was getting to know what the language part of it would be. A lot of it was just tricking the game of the SATs, being able to spot some of those questions, going through a bunch of them at once to just get as far as I could, instead of getting stuck on one and staying there for a lot of time. It was as much a time management thing as anything else. I think my scores were fine. I got into college!
Mimsy: So you got into college, but it wasn’t a total waste, because it got you more sophisticated about how to work the world and how to find out what you want to do in the world.
Alli: And I got to live in New York City for a bit. That was a big thing. I also got to form relationships with people that were outside of Sudbury Valley. So all of a sudden I have this basis and friendship with folks that expanded my world.
Mimsy: At Sudbury Valley, we’re almost all outliers of one kind or another. Were these friends outliers too?
Alli: All of them. I’ve really only made friends with people who were really curious about their space in the world and how to maximize their experience in the world, and have a sense of humor about the whole thing.
Mimsy: How did you find people like that?
Alli: I think through shared eye rolls over class, or somebody would speak up in class and I would find them or I would speak up in class and they would find me. I really practiced a lot of social skills for better or for worse at college, in time management and choosing who I want to spend time with and telling off people when I needed to tell them off and having hard conversations with my professors. It was a really good social experience for me in New York City where I knew I didn’t want to live for the rest of my life.
Mimsy: At the end of college, what did you think that you would do next?
Alli: Oh my God, I felt so free. So the back story to this is that while I was at Sudbury Valley, I had started to paint, which was an outgrowth of me doing drawings when I was home in bed with my asthma – I would draw pictures of my closet. I would just sit there in my bed and look around and see what was there for me to draw, and I would draw whatever the hell was in front of me. So I had a lot of hours logged being an asthmatic, sitting in my bed drawing things like the closet. So somebody had the idea that I should try painting, and I said: I’ve never tried painting. The color thing seemed to overwhelm me. They said: give it a go. So I looked through a bunch of old yearbook photos that were the rejects – there were piles of photos that didn’t make it into the actual yearbook selection. I found a couple that seemed like they were cool, but hadn’t quite made it as photos. They weren’t that spectacular as a photo, but maybe the light was cool or the pose was cool. So with the guidance of Joanie I tried for the first time to make my first painting. I got the canvas board, and she told me the way that she does it, which is to pencil out a drawing of the thing beforehand, and then pencil it out on the canvas board. And then how to use acrylic paints. I got certified and I painstakingly used acrylic paints, which are very forgiving, because they dry and you can paint right over them. So it’s not like watercolor where if you screw it up you’re going to have to figure out how to make that color into some other color. Acrylic paint dries quickly and you just paint right over it.
I made my first painting and I liked it. It was really hard! Then I did it again, and then I started to have this body of work, and people here are super encouraging: this is good, keep going. So I kept going and kept painting and using these photos. Then I had enough stuff where Joanie said: you should have an art gallery exhibition. So I contacted Barnes and Noble in Framingham and got my stuff on the walls. Before my showing they wanted me to give them prices and I thought, I don’t want to sell my work. Joanie advised me to price it beyond what it was worth. So little 15 year old me priced my stuff at 600 bucks a pop and almost all of it sold! I became this loaded 16 year old!
So I decided to take that money and go somewhere cool. I’d always wanted to see the Northern Lights. I wondered who else could go with me? So Tyler (whose mom could fund him to do this) and I planned this big trip to Alaska. I was 16 and he was 17, which meant there was one really junky rental car establishment in Anchorage that would rent a car to him.
Mimsy: Unbelievable. How did he find it?
Alli: I don’t know. The Internet was barely a thing. I look back on it now and I do give credit to my parents. Yes, they made us fill out a really exhaustive itinerary, but we didn’t have cell phones. So we just had to give them the number of these places where we were planning on being and we had to call them periodically and give them this full itinerary of where we were going to be, so they knew. Tyler and I went to Juneau and then we went to Anchorage and then we went to Fairbanks. That was my first Alaska experience.
In the following year or so a boyfriend said: I want to go up to Alaska, you want to come? And I said okay. So that was trip number two. Again, I’m working this whole time so I’m funding myself – going as a dirt bag and just living out of a backpack. Then finally in college I had an internship opportunity up there and I didn’t want to take it because I knew that the third time I go up to Alaska I’d want to stay. So I fought it. But ultimately my professor said: listen, there’s no other candidate but you – go! I’m thinking about whether I’m going to get the okay to take the job I applied for in Alaska; did they accept me? Did I pass my interview? Then I got the email, and I could celebrate. So I went. Within a week I was calling my dad and Janet, my marvelous stepmother, saying, “Sorry, I’m moving up here. I love it.”
Mimsy: Before you came to Sudbury Valley, had you ever done camping and hiking?
Alli: A little bit. My dad took me to Mount Monadnock, and as a kid we would go up to Maine on vacation and I think we went up Cadillac Mountain. I also went on a vacation with friends of the family and they taught me how to ski. I had some good memories of smelling the blueberries in Acadia, or walking around Mount Monadnock, those kinds of things. I think my dad took us to Nickerson when we were young.
Mimsy: As I remember it, once you came here, you went on everything that was difficult and everything that wasn’t, probably. You just went.
Alli: All of the people I admire the most were going on these backpacking trips and I wanted to be good at that too.
Mimsy: That took a lot of courage – not to ever worry that you might get sick or not be in good shape.
Alli: I didn’t focus on the level of shame that I would feel for how far behind I was. It was bad. We had to go to qualifying trips before the actual backpack trip. I don’t think that people were paying enough attention to how I was actually doing, or they just decided that I could push through, which I’m really grateful for. Because I was not doing well. I was really out of shape; I was never in shape. Maybe the last time I had been in shape was as a six year old. But I remember seeing the trip announcement up on the bulletin board and all of these people who I really admired – some of whom were my friends – were really gung-ho and excited about it. I thought: that’s the kind of thing I want to be capable of doing and I want to be excited about too; so I want to go, and I want to see if I can get there. But if I had actually known how excrutiatingly painful it would be for me to be so far behind and so red-faced and sweaty, it would have been hard for me to make that decision to go. But it only took one of those backpacking trips for me to be able to successfully step-by-step make it to the top of the mountain. I don’t want to describe it as a rainbow thing. If you’re the one who’s sandbagging the whole group and everybody’s having to wait for you – I don’t think they were pleased as punch about it, but at the same time they weren’t at all derisive about it and they were patient, and patience in this case didn’t look like coddling. It just looked like people would wait.
Mimsy: You weren’t being a brat.
Alli: No, because I didn’t want to call attention to myself, and how badly I was struggling. The feeling of getting to the top of my first mountain and smelling the alpine air and making dinner in the dusk and feeling the forest was so addictive. I felt so proud, so excited to be there with all these people and, in a way, among their ranks. That told me that I could do it. It was life changing. Ever since then I’ve always excelled at being a marathoner, not a sprinter. I get through hard life situations by just step by step by step consistently showing up. I’m never going to be the fastest, but I always am in it for the long haul and that has served me really well. And that’s where it started. That was so pivotal for me in everything that is in my life since then.
Mimsy: That’s a huge thing in life, to feel like that.
Alli: And the people who were there, and the care and the fun and the joy and the ways that the people bonded, and the little groups, and the conversations that you had, and just the experience of getting to be in the van and go up north to New Hampshire and have this together-time off campus. That expanded and deepened my notion of what’s possible and what it feels like to be a part of a group that’s actually taking care of each other. I loved it.
Mimsy: So here you are, you’re graduating college and saying: I’m never coming home. What did your mother think? Because it’s your mother who was supporting your coming here.
Alli: Mom’s always been supportive. She’s always been nothing but loving towards me and she’s always been supportive. Her whole thing was just like: whatever you want, whatever makes you happy, you’ve got to go do that thing. It’s a big gift that she’s given me. She has given me so much that empowered me to be me and be happy, because she’s never tried to stand in my way.
Mimsy: So here you are in Alaska, now what?
Alli: I had my job right out of college – I had an organizing job in Alaska, meaning that I was working within the community of Anchorage to advocate for infrastructure and local food and all of that. I had learned what grassroots organizing was in college and fell into my internship opportunity, which then translated into a bigger role as organizer. It was my first big-girl job that was salaried and came with health insurance and all these things, and I felt very proud of it. I
got myself a little studio apartment.
You didn’t ask about this, but the other thing that I’m thinking of, going back to the Sudbury Valley experience, is that you once said to me something that was a very hard thing to hear when I was 16 years old. You were talking about going on these trips to Germany, and that you’re on the train and that you love going on the train by yourself. And I asked: don’t you miss Mike? Don’t you miss other people? You said: no, I love getting to be alone like that. And I asked: isn’t that lonely? And you looked at me and you said: life is lonely. And it kind of tore me up, but then I started thinking about it, and I realized that what you’re telling me is that at the end of the day there is only me who I get to grapple with in the echo chamber of my own head. I can have relationships, but that part has to be solid. You can’t be them, you can only be you. That helped me let go of this notion of ever having any expectations for somebody else to solve this thing up in my head for me; that I had to solve this thing from my head, and I’d better be good at being alone on trains.
Mimsy: Tell me about the sports you started to engage in. I guess you couldn’t help it. You were already going to do everything, so you did everything.
Alli: Everything. I started in college. My college is not known for their sports. They had a reporter come in and actually cover how horrible the sports situation was. One of the funny things they said in that article, which is true, is that the only organized sports “on campus”, which it’s not, is a running group called “the smokers”. (That’s the other sport on campus: chain smoking in the court area.) So I joined that group. You got a couple of credits for this. I didn’t see myself as a runner, so I thought it would be a cool opportunity to try that on and do it in a supported environment. In that class, we would first watch a film about running or talk about something having to do with running: how to increase your pace, or how to eat properly, or whatever. Then we would go out on a run on a Friday afternoon. It was a two hour class, the first hour spent talking and learning, and then the second hour going for an actual run. We would typically go to the West Side highway. We’d run through the West Village and then run up the bike path on the West Side highway. The cool thing about the class was that you could go for as long as you wanted, but everybody was encouraged to run – whatever that meant to you. If you wanted to take the whole time, do it. But you could set your goals and work on them. So there was no pressure and it was all this social city experiment, and an experiment in me. I remember my teacher, who had no faith in me – he wasn’t interested in me, because I wasn’t a prodigy. I remember him saying that the first time that you can run for an hour continuously is a really big deal. At some point he said it offhandedly in class. So I remember the first time I ran for an hour continuously; it was actually at a gym. It just happened. It was a rainy day, and I ended up getting a free pass to a fancy gym and I was really feeling it. I just ran for an hour, listening to my tunes and feeling really excited. Then I told him, and he was really shocked and proud, and very supportive. That had a cumulative effect, both with his support, and also more importantly with my feeling of: I never thought it would be possible to run for an hour, and now I have.
Then I went for my first six mile run, and that didn’t feel possible before I did it. So the bar just kept on getting higher. I started pulling together training plans for myself based on what I learned in that class. I really liked the idea of training plans, because it was a way for me to continue to be consistently physically active. But it was also a way of literally mapping out how over time I could incrementally do things that I never thought were possible. So I got kind of addicted to those training plans. First it was a half marathon, then it was a full marathon, then it was a triathlon, then it was a half Ironman, and then it was a full Ironman. After the full Ironman a few things happened.
My stepmother, Janet, had always been a close and loving presence in my life, certainly one of the most important ones, saying, “Honey, just relax. What are you chasing? Learn how to relax.” And the day 1after the Ironman, Janet died – that very next morning.
During that time Janet was very ill and always in the ER. She had cancer, and then she had surgery, so she was always going back and forth. So I got back from that race, totally screwed up because it had been 16 hours of a workout that day. As I said, I’m slower, but I did it. I did it in an hour under the max time and my phone was just blowing up with messages about Janet being in the ER, I wasn’t able to process it; I was fried, profoundly fried. I went to bed and then woke up the next morning and had the voicemail from my dad. I was in the hotel room. I still had all the markings on my leg from the race. I called my dad back and he said well, she fucking died.
Then I talked to my sister Emily the next day. She was crying but also kind of laughing because she said, “I just keep on having Janet’s voice in my head saying ‘honey, just have a banana. You don’t have to eat a full meal, just have a banana.’” So Janet’s voice was also advising me to chill out, you cannot keep racing through this, one day at a time. I promptly got sick; within that next month I came down with pneumonia. I crashed, everything crashed. I took that next year off athletics because I didn’t want to run through my grief. I wanted to have that space to actually be depressed. It was a deliberate choice, with Janet informing it: honey, just relax. Relax, relax.
Mimsy: You must be through that year.
Alli: I’m through that year. And now, I’m not as into the training for things as I was before. I still enjoy being outside. I’ve said I’m a marathon runner and not a sprinter, but I’m actually getting to the point where I enjoy more high intensity stuff. So I’m trying to play with what that looks like, for me. I’m not as motivated by spending that much time in my head anymore, which is what it takes to train for and complete a race. But I have felt good about mountain bike riding. I love pushing myself up hills and then the thrill of getting to the top of the hill. I’m not a downhill person. I don’t like that adrenaline rush, but I do get the endorphins from the hard work of getting to the top of the hill and feeling stronger and being able to do these progressively more difficult things.
Mimsy: What has happened with your family life?
Alli: I’m married. Six years married, and with Wes for ten years. We met at the first grownup conference that I went to in Nevada, when I took that job that I told you about. I went, and like a jackass, I thought: look at all these people at this Patagonia conference thinking the place that they come from is so cool. Well, I am from Alaska. How could any place possibly be cooler? So I was a jerk. And then there was this one guy who was talking a lot about Nevada, in this way that showed he really seemed to care about the place. So I shut my mouth, because I realized that all these people were coming from places that they felt really connected to and that there were really cool things going on with these places that they were from. So I did. And this fellow kept talking and I thought at first that I wouldn’t like him because he seemed too happy. Like he’d taken the Patagonia Koolaid and I didn’t want anything to do with that. But then it turned out that he was smoking cigarettes outside and was sarcastic and snarky. Therefore, he hadn’t taken the Koolaid! We got to talking and I found out that he had a German pen pal when he had been in high school, and I spoke a little bit of Swiss German from a lonely seven months I had spent in Switzerland working in a little progressive school. I handed him a handwritten note at the end of the conference that said, “Do you want to be my pen pal in German?” And it had my address. I didn’t want to be friends with him on Facebook.
I had a boyfriend back home. Wes has a kid and lives in Nevada. I thought: it’s too bad nothing’s ever going to happen, but I want to keep in touch with this human in a more substantive way than just reducing him to an accepted friend invitation on social media. When I got home, I got on the phone with all of my friends and I said, “I have this really big connection. I don’t know what it means. I’m letting it go.”
Mimsy: Was he still married?
Alli: He was not. But I broke up with my boyfriend within a week of getting home, not because I was going to be with this guy Wes, but because I figured with somebody like that out there, I am wasting time here with him. So I broke up with him, and figured I’d never hear from Wes again.
A friend gave me good advice. I went swimming with her and I said, “This person (at home) is an architect, he is smart, he’s attractive, he’s all these things, but he’s not funny.” And she said to me as we were swimming laps, “He doesn’t make you laugh? Break up with him.” So he had all this stuff that’s great that I like, but she gave me really good advice and it takes a really good friend to give that kind of good advice. He doesn’t make you laugh? Break up with him. She was 100% right. So I broke up with him. I figured I’d never hear back from Wes. But then a month after I’d met him, I got to my little studio mailbox and was going inside and there was this letter in German, one page double-sided from Wes.
Mimsy: That’s pretty impressive – double-sided. And it only took him a month to write it.
Alli: And then over the course of the next year, the letters became progressively longer and less in German, with more stuff that came with them. So we just built this relationship over that and it took me that amount of time to get used to the idea that he had a kid who was seven or eight that year, and that if somebody was going to move to pursue the relationship, it would have to be me moving from Alaska. How could anybody ever live in some place that’s not Alaska? Going to Nevada! So I did. I moved. Well, I went and I tried it out a couple of times, and I met Risa, my now stepdaughter, who’s now 16, who remarked this year, “Now you’ve known me half of my life.” It’s totally true. The first thing that Risa said to me when I met her – we were driving away from her school – was, “Allie, see over there, that cow? One time daddy and I were driving by and we saw that cow eating and peeing at the same time.” And I thought, “Good story, we’re going to be fine here. You just said everything that I need to know about why I love you and this is going to be great,” and that story has made it into family lore. So I moved down to Reno.
A whole series of custody issues happened and ultimately Risa was moving to Kentucky. She’s no longer there; she’s now in Las Vegas with her mom and grandma and extended family. But at the time she was moving to Kentucky so her mom could go to law school. So Wes said: well, we can move to Alaska. That was seven years ago.
I hate to do this to you, but I have to go. Like right this minute! My grandma is here to visit and I have to fly back tomorrow. We could talk for a long, long time, couldn’t we?
Mimsy: I know you have to go. It has been great!
SoundCloud artwork by Victoria Charles