A friend sent me an email the other day. “How is Alaska?” she asked. “Like, how is it really?”

During a vacation—when you’re gone only a few days or a week—it’s easy to establish a whimsical romance with the place you’re visiting; to build it up in your mind until there isn’t one bad thing you can remember. Months later, you find yourself describing the trip to friends and family with nostalgia.

Travel nursing has given us the rare opportunity to witness Fairbanks at her best…and then wake up beside her the following morning, when she’s rocking yucky morning breath and bed head. I’m guessing that if we weren’t living here now—if years down the road, we visited Alaska as tourists—it would’ve been a weeklong trip and probably have involved a cruise ship, so we could see as much of the state as possible. Our memories would be the whimsical, romantic sort.

Our time here is most definitely not of the romantic variety. We chose one of the tougher states. If we were in Arizona or Kentucky, it still wouldn’t be easy living without car, friends, or family. But Fairbanks, Alaska, presents a unique set of challenges that I imagine most of the other fifty states do not.

Drew, Lukas, and I have now been here almost two months. I keep thinking of my friend’s question: “How is it really?” If I’m being brutally honest…it’s hard. This life—the one with a single car, no job, no family, no close friends—isn’t easy. Locals have promised that summer more than makes up for the winter, but as our small family grows and I look forward to two babies tumbling around this fall, I can’t imagine bundling, carrying, and strapping more than one kiddo into the car multiple times a day while it’s this cold. Daylight is peeking through my blinds by 7AM these days, but when we first arrived and the penetrating dark gloom pressed up against the glass doors until almost ten in the morning, it was hard. Hard to make myself believe it was actually morning. The landscape is stunning, but it also reminds me (on a daily basis) that I can’t simply pull on sneakers and take Lukas out for a walk whenever I want.

If you don’t count family and friends, it’s this that I miss the most: long walks. That was our thing back home. If I couldn’t get to the gym, I’d lace up my Nikes, call a friend, and push the stroller for miles. Fresh air and exercise was practically guaranteed. Here, it’s a complicated dance with the thermometer. If it’s below zero, Lukas and I stay inside. Zero to twenty means a quick walk to the coffee shop, where we warm up for a few minutes before walking home. When it hits twenty or thirty degrees, it’s time to leave the hat and gloves at home—a heat wave has rolled in and we can zip out for a long walk.

There’s a lot to get used to in Fairbanks. But there are perks. I’ve never seen so much snow in my life. It covers everything in a pure, crusty white, from chain link fences and mailboxes to the distant mountains. On days it snows, the sky turns a thick, ashy gray and I imagine I’m living inside a snow globe. Every morning, the sun paints the morning sky in the most splendid shades of roses and lavenders. We finally saw the northern lights a few weeks ago. It was strange and wonderful, just as I’d imagined. And I’ve gotten the hang of driving here. What terrified me at first is now (relatively) old hat.

And then there are those times when I think, “Never in Durham” with a wry grin on my face. Like the day I rolled down my window in the coffee shop drive-thru…and it wouldn’t go back up. Or that time when it snowed 18 inches in two days. Or when my nose hairs froze (epic).

So the answer to my friend is this: it’s not always easy. Sometimes it’s extremely hard, other times it’s awesome. Travel nursing is our way of life until July and I’m trying to soak it in so that I have lots of amazing memories to take home in my pockets.