Hey U2 fans out there! Did you know there are real places reminiscent of the late 80s song, “Where the Streets Have No Name???”
When Justin & I moved to Healy within Denali Borough in 2019, we didn’t give much thought to the fact that there were no house numbers and street names around the community. We acquired a post office box for our mail and became accustomed to repeating, “no, we really don’t have a physical address.” And when a PO Box was not accepted on applications and accounts, we resorted to using our lot number, or improvising with a fictional physical address. We accustomed to the norm of following very detailed driving directions that included counting spruce trees, watching where the power line ends, and looking for a geometric arrangement of boxes, tarps, buckets, tires and dismantled snow machines (not kidding) to find someone’s house. With locals, our standby identifier was: “we live in Dora Powell’s cabin with the 3 stars,” prompting responses, “Oh, I know where that is!” (For the record, Dora had our cabin built in 2004, and owned it until around 2015).
But as is the case with many things, Alaska is making strides to catch up with the rest of the country. Denali Borough has now been officially mapped with house numbers and street names. The main purpose was for improving emergency services. I just want you to imagine for a second calling 911 and giving turn-by-turn directions.
With 393 roads in Denali Borough—most of which were previously unnamed—it was a multistep process through the borough staff and planning commission (after a public vote) and several years in the making. The borough released the initial list of assigned street names in March 2022, then there was a public comment period to contest the names and suggest new ones. For example, the borough proposed “Monkshood Ave” for one of our friend’s streets near us, but she pitched “Forget Me Not Ave” as the alternative. Both are flowers, in case you are wondering. There were a few rules: no duplicates to minimize confusion and expedite emergency response, no names that were hard to pronounce, no names with directional connotation, no numbers (i.e., Second Ave) or letters, and they couldn’t be longer than 17 characters. I also learned that there’s a reason something is called a drive versus an avenue and so on. I was just happy that no one tried changing Hilltop Road, where our cabin is. It’s one of the rare state-maintained roads that has always had that name.
By May 2023, 95% of the proposed names were adopted. A few weeks later, most street signs were installed and every property owner could pick up address numbers (not mandatory, but recommended). Instead of using “Main Street” or “Park Avenue” (two of the more popular road names in America), most of the street names denote culture, geography, flowers, mountains and landmarks. Tundra Lane, Leaf Road, Equinox Loop and Wildlife Road come to mind. The yurt ended up on Dora Vista Court since it has a view of Dora Mountain. No argument from us … I couldn’t have come up with a better name. Some street names have a humorous story or are just named after the property owner. Some property owners have used their creative power to the extreme, like combining the names of people in the family to create a word. With a variety of cheeky street names around the community, it’s easy to double take when driving around!
I can see why some people thought of road naming as obtrusive after all these years. “Signed roads mean people live here, and we moved here to fly under the radar!” Nevertheless, democracy has spoken and there’s no reversing the choice. I doubt we’ll ever get door-to-door mail service and hopefully Google maps improves its accuracy, but I like that Alaska lives in the past, present and future at the same time. And, I do appreciate not having to rely on geographical landmarks to find our way around.