My love affair with Alaska started out as a long-distance relationship, in of all places, a dorm room in East Lansing, Mich. It was the fall of 1992, and I was an incoming freshman at Michigan State University. I was 18 years old, and like most people that age, I knew everything, including the fact that Alaska was, ironically, too small for me, too limiting to someone ready to take on the world. After growing up in the Mat-Su Valley, I was ready for something bigger.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Like many young adults who grow up in Alaska, I had to leave to truly realize what I had in the first place. And while I cherished my time spent at MSU (there's a framed poster of Sparty hanging in my office cubicle), I knew it wasn't home - Alaska was, and always would be. That long-distance relationship continued for four years, turning into a yearly Christmas get-together coupled with a summer vacation fling each year. Each time, it became harder and harder to say good-bye, but deep down, I knew it was more "see you later" than "good-bye."

When I returned to Alaska for good in 1996, I knew I was "home" and my passion for Alaska was stronger than ever. For more than a decade, I worked as a features writer at the same hometown paper I grew up reading. It left a deep impression on me, because I got to tell the stories of people who shape the fabric of the community. They trusted me into their homes and into their lives to tell their stories, many of which I'll never forget. One of the many things that sets Alaska apart is the people - there is a special kind of spirit in the people of Alaska, and
we take great pride in wearing the "Alaskan" label. I think the pioneer spirit from years ago lives in the people of Alaska today.

Currently, I work at the Mat-Su Convention & Visitors Bureau, and I get to share the beauty of Alaska with visitors every day. In my eyes (and hopefully my boss' eyes), that initial love affair with Alaska has blossomed into a perfect marriage. There is nothing better than seeing someone's eyes absolutely light up the first time they see Denali or a warm summer day, or listen to the excitement level in their voice when they tell you about the time they saw the northern lights or caught their first salmon. Every time it happens, it's another reminder that people see Alaska as the trip of a lifetime, yet I get to live it every single day.

I never take for granted what Alaska provides, both in stunning scenery and an overall way of life. I know not too many people in this world get to spend a summer weekend rafting and camping and fishing under the watchful Midnight Sun-created shadow of Denali. I'm aware that not everybody has a morning drive to work that features views of two gorgeous mountain ranges, laced with glaciers. It isn't lost on me that teeing off at 11 p.m., under natural light, isn't "normal" to other golfers. But these are day-to-day truths here, and I value every one of them.

I owe a lot to Alaska. It has given me the greatest playground anyone could ever imagine, a great wife, a great life. I've met some of the most genuine people here, and I've had the opportunity to experience things most people only dream of doing. But as much as I love and appreciate all Alaska has done for me in the past, I'm most excited about what Alaska has planned for me in the future. I take time to soak up all of Alaska's grandeur, but I also smile because I can't wait to see what this great state has to offer around the next turn on the trail, or bend in the river.

And to me, that's the true spirit of being an Alaskan.