Anchorage seemed frighteningly anonymous after Brooks Camp. I took to spending most of my time in Cyrano's bookstore/cafe/arthouse-cinema/alternative-theater. One nice thing about a city of this size is that all the intellectuals congregate in one place. Spending three days at Cyrano's, one would be likely to encounter 90% of Anchorage's literary-minded population.
Anxious to avoid imposing on any of my local friends, and struggling under a load of errands, I decided to stay in the shabby Anchorage youth hostel. A bunch of guys gathered to watch me sort 17 rolls of Katmai pictures, and their praise swelled my already-inflated-beyond-the-manufacturer's-rated-pressure head.
I had to wait until past 2 for my favorite interaction, though. A 24ish Chicagoan was haranguing me from beneath his baseball cap.
"You have to make these pictures available to children. You should put together a book about bears," he insisted.
"Hey, I get enough rejection from women; I don't need any more from editors," I pleaded.
Mercifully ending this exhortation to commercial endeavor, a black guy came in looking very confused and wandered from room to room. My book agent said, "May I help you?" a few too many times to what turned out to be a harmless fellow from Niger studying business at Colorado State University.
"It is a shame that people in Chicago have so many problems with blacks that it creates such prejudice," he opined later when we were alone, then became entranced and glued to the light table by a slide of Emma.
"Did she become your girlfriend?"
He knew I'd only been there a few days so he must have had a high opinion of my marketability or an unrealistic optimism about American girls.
Anchorage may be a tougher place for nonconformists than the rest of Alaska. I'd met more lesbians in a few weeks in Alaska small towns than in over a decade hanging around Cambridge, home of Our Bodies, Ourselves. They either said they were attracted by the tolerant spirit here or complained that they'd been repelled by the men. Yet in Anchorage I quickly encountered a 22-year-old who'd been pushed out of her job here as a legal secretary after three days. Rumors of her lesbian tendencies surfaced, based on her lack of make-up and choice of "severe" navy and white rather than pastel colors.
"I'm physically attracted to both men and women, but time and time again I've put my faith in men and they turned out to be jerks."
Relations between the sexes in Alaska are rather unusual even when boys like girls and vice versa. Alaska should be a paradise for women since the jobs here attract men disproportionately. Sheer numbers aren't always enough to satisfy, though. Women are fond of noting that "The odds are good, but the goods are odd." Men here are allegedly crude, demanding, macho, unreliable, drunk, and irascible.
The "unfair sex" has a slightly different view of matters. I was cautioned several times against striking up anything serious with the more rugged Alaska women.
"If they've been living by themselves in a cabin for 10 years, they aren't going to be able to adapt to you," noted a burly hunting guide.
A woman who had indeed spent a lot of time on her own in remote cabins echoed this sentiment. "I'm used to being alone, and I've become capable of handling everything life dishes out by myself. If I get too close to a man, I am afraid that when he is gone I will have forgotten how to survive on my own."
A Prudhoe Bay worker warned me against "Sloper Girls," whose boyfriend(s) work on the North Slope one week on and one week off.
"They are not exactly whores, but one guy will pay their rent, another their entertainment, and so on. I'm from the Midwest, and one thing that surprised me here was the high level of acceptance of women with multiple boyfriends. Guys will say, `I know she isn't faithful, but we're here together now and that's all that matters.'"
The drive toward Kenai out of Anchorage has got to be one of the world's loveliest and certainly the nicest I've found within one hour of a city. One drives along one shore of Cook Inlet, which is a little slice of ocean that has worked its way in between two 5000' mountain ranges. The mountains are covered with stripes of snow and glaciers. For the first half-hour of my drive there was a cloud overhead but sunshine on distant mountains ahead; it was like driving toward Valhalla.
After 45 minutes, I'd reached the sunshine and Portage Glacier. This glacier empties into a beautiful mountain-ringed lake, but thousands of years of global warming have caused it to recede to the point that one can't see it from the road anymore. I arrived just in time to catch the 6:00 PM cruise, and I rushed to get on. The folks operating the boat saw me parking and hollered up to ask if I wanted on. They held the boat and let me on for free, rather than reopen their register to collect $20. We were immediately sailing past intricately sculpted icebergs calved off the miles-long and 700'-thick glacier. Under a blue sky our guide told us how lucky we were with the weather, which is famously rainy in this part of the Kenai. Alaska had been having its sunniest summer in memory, and people everywhere reminded me how lucky I was to be here now.
I spent the cruise on the open top deck chatting with Mike, one of the members. He is 46 years old and looks just like Harrison Ford. He'd spent some years at U.C. Davis studying ecology, but left to play basketball in a minor league in France, leaving his wife behind in Davis to work. Absence did not make her heart grow fonder, and she abandoned him spiritually as he had her geographically. Mike stopped in Anchorage en route to playing more basketball in Australia. He met the woman of his dreams there and stayed to raise two children in Girdwood, population 1600.
"I worked for awhile as a paramedic in Anchorage. Someone with a year's training can earn $100,000/year with a bit of overtime. But I didn't like the pace of the city and the hours so I moved my family back to Girdwood."
Despite his multiple careers, countries, and companions, Mike looked less worn out than most of my friends in their early 30s.
A large black family had been on the boat, and we ran into each other back at the visitors' center. One woman was moving from New Jersey to Hyannis, Cape Cod.
Isn't that where old Republicans go to die? What's it like to be black in a WASP enclave?
"No problem at all. I've been going there since I was 5. People accept us even though we're black and Jehovah's Witnesses. Say, you're Jewish aren't you? Are Jews still waiting for the Messiah?"
I told her the old joke about the unemployed guy who sees the "Messiah Watcher Needed" sign outside a synagogue.
"We need someone who knows all the signs laid out in the Bible for the appearance of the Messiah," says the rabbi. After the rabbi quizzes the applicant for awhile, he says, "You are a real scholar; the job is yours."
"But what about the salary?"
"I can't feed my wife and four kids on that!"
"Well, I admit the salary isn't so good," says the rabbi, "but you can't
beat the job security."
Monday, July 19
Tom Bodett fans will recognize Homer, Alaska, as "The End of the Road," and it is a dramatic end at that. The road, which had been heavily populated with motor homes, ends in the world's longest natural gravel spit, extending 4.5 miles out into the Cook Inlet.
I stopped at the airport control tower, and Stan and John told me about their life flying in Alaska. Stan was a cargo pilot out of Bethel, a small Eskimo fishing village, for six years.
"In some ways they are more civilized than we are," noted Stan. "For one thing, they don't look down on prostitution. It's a damp town. You can have alcohol, but you can't sell it. My daughter went to junior high school there, and her Eskimo classmates were happy to trade a night in bed for a six-pack."
Aside from well-priced prostitution, living in the bush involves occasional moose charges.
"They all called off their charge after I fired a shot in the air. I don't hunt. I learned in the Marines that killing isn't a sport."
Stan was happy to be out of the flying business and working for the F.A.A.
"East Coast lawyers and insurance companies have ruined aviation. A lot of manufacturers have stopped making light aircraft because insurance is too expensive. You can't get a lift in a commercial cargo flight anymore because if you aren't paying for a ticket, the insurance won't cover you. Commercial insurance costs a fortune, and you can go to jail now if you only have personal insurance and split the gas with a friend."
Failure to reserve in advance prevented me from cruising over to the mountains on the other side of the inlet, so I bummed around the docks looking at halibut. As far as I could tell, recreational halibut fishing consists of getting up early, shelling out $150, and sitting on a boat doing nothing for the whole day. At the end of each cruise, the 10 biggest fish are hung on a pole, usually ranging from about 200 lb. down to 40 lb. The proud fishermen, a couple of whom will have caught fish that weigh more than themselves, line up behind the fish for photographs. Homer is the halibut fishing capital of the world: a record-breaking 400 lb. halibut was caught near here.
Commercial halibut fishing is permitted only one day a year, and the take
is prodigious. I was later to encounter a woman who fed her family for
a whole year on "road-kill halibut." Just after the commercial day, she
came upon a truck whose doors had sprung open to litter the highway with
hundreds of ice-packed halibut. She and her family helped the driver
reload his cargo, and he gave them eight fish to take home.
Tuesday, July 20
Groggy but alive, I hopped onto the Danaina for the 7:00 AM trip over to Seldovia under a thick overcast. We saw a lot of comical puffins in the water, but the tide was too low to get up close to their nests in the rocks of Gull Island. Our guide pointed out dozens of species of birds, but didn't explain anything about them that would make them interesting to a novice. Huddled inside against the cold, I sat down next to Stephanie, who described herself as the "shikse trophy wife" of a 56-year-old Jewish financial executive. She claimed to have a daughter starting at B.U. in the fall, but it was hard to believe from looking at her wrinkle-free face.
"East Coast women, especially Jewish ones, don't appreciate a man's true qualities. I grew up in Ohio, and you must move to the Midwest after you graduate."
Stephanie was traveling with Arlene, her husband's sister and the sardonic wife of a Scarsdale literary agent. We had a cozy breakfast together at 9:30 at the Kachemak Kafe in Seldovia. At the next table, three retired fishermen schmoozed over coffee and pancakes.
Walter had come up here in 1960, and his stiff swollen fingers betrayed several decades working lines. He went away every winter to escape the darkness of Seldovia, population 250. After his first winter here he got married in the spring.
How come he didn't wear a wedding ring?
"Wedding ring?" Walter chuckled. "Everyone here knows who is married and who isn't."
I told Walter that I liked living in a city because it was possible to date a woman, have her conclude that you are a total fool, and date another woman the next week without her being aware of the first woman's low opinion of you.
"True enough, but I don't like starting from Square One with people. If you are a gentle, kind, helpful person, you become known for that in a small town. You don't ever have to `go in cold' with anyone. I'm not fond of the city. Anchorage isn't even part of Alaska anymore. People there don't know how to survive."
Local girls told me that the ride to Jakalof Bay would be a "nice, basically flat, short ride with views of the Inlet and mountains." I parked my cameras with the harbormaster and set forth on what turned out to be a 24-mile round-trip on a dirt road with 1700' of climbing. The first few miles offered views only of trees overhanging the occasional ratshack house. Seldovia is allegedly quaint, but what were probably shabby historical buildings were wiped out by the `64 earthquake. Householders have apparently all availed themselves of the local Instant Okie franchise; boats, trucks, cars, and campers in various stages of rusting decay stood in every front yard.
After six miles, the houses thinned out, and I was rewarded with views over the Inlet and harbors. Much of the roadside forest appeared to have been cut 20 years ago, but patches were carpeted by ferns and crowded with old trees. Jakalof Bay consists of a gravel parking lot, a rotting wooden boat hauled up on the beach, and a dock with a few open clam boats tied up. I walked out onto the dock to talk with Sadie Sin, a Great Lakes Indian who moved up here 30 years ago to fish and dig clams.
Sadie claimed to be "an antisocial, ornery, bad-tempered son-of-a-bitch," but he seemed happy to entertain me and two couples from Wasilla (north of Anchorage) who'd come in on their recreational fishing boats. Sadie washed and sorted clams and spoke about his life here as a wild bachelor. He liked to dress up as a woman and sweep the two paved streets of Seldovia free of gravel. Sadie is a musician and is halfway through making a few music videos with his 16 mm movie camera.
Isn't it lonely being the only transvestite music video director in Seldovia?
"I'm alone wherever I go."
My ride back was uneventful except for occasional encounters with Sadie in his ancient Chevrolet Suburban. He pointed out houses that he'd helped build and talked about the folks who owned them. When I got back into town, I stopped for a Coke at the Linwood Bar, whose walls were decorated with numerous photos of Sadie in drag. I took the 4:30 cruise back to Homer on the Endeavor, a boat with the best naturalist in town. He was particularly expansive on the "woman's libber bird," which lays eggs and then abandons them to their father for nurturing.
Playful sea otters gathered in groups of 20 or more to watch us pass, including a mother clutching a baby to her breast. Their dark eyes held more meaning for me than all the birds put together, and I recalled a Wall Street Journal article about the Audubon Society. They hired a management consultant who reported that the public saw the Society as having a "narrow bird-oriented focus."
Back in Homer, I was waxing rhapsodic over a Skor bar when I ran into Susan, a freckled 26-year-old Washington Stater.
"I do whatever is right for today without worry about tomorrow because tomorrow might never come. If tomorrow it ends, at least I won't have wasted today... Say, you seem interesting. Let's spend more time together."
We meandered about town, then settled down at the Salty Dawg bar. Our picnic table contained Keith Iverson, self-published author of a well-written autobiography, Alaskan Viking. He describes his travails in making a life just across the inlet in tiny Sadie Bay. My experience with the Katmai bears was put into perspective by his gripping account of a few minutes in the woods with a black bear.
Keith was treading silently over a moss-carpeted trail when he surprised a napping 300 lb. black bear. The bear tried to run away but in its confusion ran directly into Keith. Physical contact made the bear think that Keith was attacking him and he bit him in the shoulder, then they tumbled down a slope tied to each other.
"I managed to poke the bear in the eye as we got towards the bottom and he ran away."
Any permanent injuries?
"I'd rather face a charging bear than start a conversation with a strange woman."
Keith wasn't carrying a gun and might not have had time to use it if he had been. When he first came here he carried a 44 Magnum pistol at all times until an old-timer advised him to file off the front sight.
"Why?" asked Keith.
"So it won't hurt so much when the bear shoves it up your ass."
Alaskans have lots of pithy bear folk wisdom:
"How do you tell the difference between a grizzly and a black bear? ... When you climb a tree, if the bear follows you, it is a black bear; if the bear knocks the tree over, it is a grizzly."An alternative answer is "The grizzly bear jingles when he walks," referring to the tendency of tourists to wear little bells on their backpacks that allegedly warn bears of their approach.
It had been more than a week since I was charged, but I couldn't get two images out of my mind: (1) the bear rising up from nowhere and appearing 30 yards ahead of me on the trail; (2) the grip of his ancient eyes looking down on me from where I left the trail (researchers are now questioning the belief that bears have poor vision, claiming that their visual acuity is about as good as ours).
Susan encountered a stranger, Cid (short for Cindy in an almost California way), a trim 33-year-old elementary schoolteacher about to start teaching in a tiny Eskimo village north of Nome. Cid and Susan joked about the virtues of casual sex: "No, you can't have my phone number." They liked sex but were tired of the mechanics of dating, marriage, divorce, etc.
"The first sexual encounter between two people is always the most exciting," Cid opined. "You never know what to expect. Marriage isn't about sex, it is about boredom."
"I never saw the downside of sex or romance until my dog died," I noted. "I'd had an exaggerated sense of the immutability of my self. I thought that if I were dropped down in a different culture or among different people that I would be essentially the same person. Because I never got depressed or even really unhappy, I thought that I was fundamentally different from all of my friends who were subject to occasional periods of despair. After George died, though, I became just like them; the tribulations of life could cut deep for the first time in many years."
Susan found it a little comical that a man could love a dog so much, but Cid said that every experience was useful. I asked her how the death of a beloved companion could possibly contain anything good. She responded with the wisest and most comforting thing anyone had said to me on the subject for two years.
"George's death enabled you to empathize with your friends in a way that you couldn't before."
I bedded down on the Spit on my sleeping pad, not bothering to pitch the tent because of Homer's reputation for clear skies. It was so dark that one could barely see the nearby mountains, and it finally hit me how far south I'd come from Fairbanks. Cheerful dropouts surrounded me. They'd lived on the Spit for months in tent/tarp palaces, in open defiance of Homer's new $3/night camping fee.
Wednesday, July 21
I limped over to the Latitude 59 espresso cafe to write my diary, but found it impossible to catch up with the past few days. New people kept sitting down next to me and telling interesting stories.
Glynn had a build reflecting years of physical labor and long white hair reflecting 54 years of thought. He spoke in the gentle tones of his native Mississippi.
"I wanted to reach the truth so I started my own private investigation. It took me a long time, but it finally came to me that everything is in a divine order. Everybody looks for this in God, but they have to look within themselves. They burned Martin Luther after seven years in jail, but the truth of the matter is that for every head there is a different reality.
"I divorced a really beautiful wife in Christmas of `84 after relocating her and our daughter to Prescott, Arizona. I wanted to be totally unattached and not having anything tugging at me. I wanted to be alone and forgotten."
Didn't he feel guilty for leaving his family?
"Don't carry about regret. You can't be free packing all that weight. Chop your toe off and it will hurt like hell, but it will heal. Christianity has ruined our life with lies about how we are born in sin and God will kill you if you don't do right. It is a shame to destroy all those clean fresh minds. Most people never recover from that. All the pain and suffering."
Glynn had traveled all over America and never ran short of feminine company. He spoke well of his Jewish girlfriend from Miami Beach.
"Jewish women treat a Jewish guy awful, but they treat a goy like a prince. Still, I had to leave her. I just recently left a really beautiful woman, a warm body, and a beautiful apartment in Billings, Montana. I'd stayed with her two years, but I had to come here."
How old was she?
"She was 55. I usually date women my own age. I'd go after a 22-year-old if she had the kind of mind I could live with, but for the sake of a body, no way Jose. I'm past that."
Where did Homer fit in his search for the truth.
"Although I had never visited Homer, I had a bizarre dream about four years ago about moving here. I rode my motorcycle down a road downhill. Farther and farther everything was incredibly green, a lot of grass and a lot of water. People lived on stilt houses out on the water, but I could ride my motorcycle out on the dock and had a wonderful reception from people. I flew out of town and everything on earth and sky was either blue or gray. I'd been contemplating coming up here four years ago and made a decision in the driveway: Belize or Alaska. It was around September 1st so I towed a boat through Mexico City and down to Belize and camped out for five months. I took my Honda in my camper also and would ride it out to a point and see the mountains in three countries at once."
Glynn had only been in Homer a few weeks and was settling in repairing boats and doing other kinds of odd jobs.
"I keep noticing strange things about Homer that came to me in that dream long ago. I see birds play games and people laid back and doing their things. People are a little bit mellowed out; maybe it is the long dark winter."
Glynn's friend Dennis, a heavyset guide, sat down with his 6-year-old daughter, Winafred, to whom I was magnetically drawn.
"I can tell that you want to share your life with a child. Take some advice: Find yourself a nice woman with two children. Move in for the winter. Re-evaluate your goals in the spring."
Glynn had some final thoughts before getting up to go to work.
"A lot of people in this country emanating love and peace toward Russia changed those people. We can definitely as humans influence what goes on on this planet more than we think. We already do with ignorance."
I talked a little bit more with Dennis, who is such a fundamentalist Christian that he doesn't go to any church.
"Two Christian girls came to stay with our family, and they were horrified to discover some marijuana. I laid out on a table a pen, a knife, a revolver, and a joint. `Which one is sin?' I asked. They immediately pointed to the joint. `I can write false witness against my brother with the pen, stab him in the back with the knife, or kill my brother with the gun, but you think the joint is sin.' The girls nodded yes."
I was reminded that the Kenai Peninsula was the only part of Alaska that voted to keep dope legal.
The local museum had an illuminating exhibit on the consequences of the Exxon Valdez's grounding. The slick came within a few miles of Homer. Exxon forked over more than $900 million in penalties plus spent $2 billion on cleanup, yet virtually nothing was accomplished. A lot of the cleanup lasted only a day or two as new oil washed over the same beaches. Ecologists eventually decided that many of the cleanup efforts in fact did more damage than just leaving the contaminated beaches alone. There were a lot of sanctimonious quotations from environmentalists about how evil Exxon was, but it seemed pretty clear that accidents are bound to happen if we don't resolve to make do with the oil we produce domestically. In other words, the enemy is really us, the car drivers, electricity users, and home heaters of America.
Clouds covered the sky just in time for my second cruise to Gull Island. I'd chosen to go at high tide because we would be able to get right up within a few feet of birds by the thousands. The gray day was unfavorable for photography, but puffins and some penguinlike birds grabbed our attention. Seagulls here aren't quite as ugly as ours in Boston, but they aren't much better than flying rats either. Baby animals are always adorable, though, and we cooed over mother seagulls sheltering their tiny young.
Two Alaskan retired schoolteachers compared notes with me about our trips to Israel.
"We just loved everything about Israel!" they enthused.
"That's because you aren't Jewish so for you it was like a zoo," I noted. "If polar bears want to live like polar bears, what do you care since they aren't part of your family? For me Israel is horrifying because it isn't the kind of place American Jews would build but rather has an Arab mentality. Europeans or Americans with a little money cooperate to pave the common street and line it with flowers. Middle Easterners use their first bit of money to build a high wall around their property so they won't have to look at the ugly street. They line the inside of the wall with flowers and hurl their garbage over the wall into the street."
I left Homer late and drove north while the mountains across the inlet
were garbed in mist and crowned by a golden-red sunset. I pitched the
tent by a quiet lake.
Thursday, July 22
Back in 1984, someone decided Alaska needed yet another park that can be reached only by boat or helicopter and created Kenai Fjords National Park. I finished the three-hour drive to Seward by 10:15 am and found that both 11:30 boats were fully booked. However, at the last minute, a single place opened up on the best boat in town, which is fast, new, and stabilized.
We took off with terrific speed over the flat water at 11:30, but stopped soon enough to watch a cute otter and then roared out again into the open. Clouds still covered the dock, but warm sunshine bathed us 10 minutes out of port. Seward is home to a fair amount of heavy industry, all of it visible from the water. A Japanese coal freighter took on Healy coal (mined near Denali) from a large conveyor system. A mountain of sawdust proclaimed a sawmill that processes timber from all over Alaska, lately mostly trees killed by a beetle, and sends its output to Japan. As we passed a new concrete structure, our captain said "That is Alaska's maximum security prison, which holds 400 innocent men."
Homer was full of people spending two months living on the beach trying to see three tiny towns and one inlet; this Seward tourist cruise was full of people spending two weeks living on a bus trying to see all of Alaska. Continuing the "Jews who wouldn't give each other the time of day in Manhattan but who are delighted to find one another in the wilderness" theme of this narrative, Jody, a 30-year-old Atlantan, singled me out and noted that we were probably the only Jews on the boat. She and her husband, Eric, a solid-looking accountant, were here for just nine days escaping their two children. They were enjoying Alaska, but Jody couldn't shake her disappointment at the thrown-together appearance of all the towns.
"I thought it would be like Jackson, Wyoming, with rustic Western architecture."
I loaned Jody some New Zealand mittens against the cold breeze, and she invited me to come to Atlanta to meet Eric's 28-year-old sister. This was probably the 15th time since leaving Boston that someone had tried to set me up with a Jewish girl.
After a turkey sandwich lunch of which United Airlines might have been
proud, we chased two killer whales that rolled halfway out of the
water 100 yards from the boat. They were impressive to see in the wild,
but one never got a really good look at their faces or feeling for their
Crepuscular light in an infinite variety of colors and intensities spread itself over the mountains as I drove back to Anchorage. Finished photographing the spectacle, I stopped in Girdwood, 35 miles south of Anchorage. Hauling out Samantha to jog her memory for some phone numbers attracted the local Macintosh aficionados. Charles, a good-looking compact ironworker with blond hair and mustache, stopped to give me a few Microsoft Word tips and reveal his personal philosophy.
"The most important obligation a person has is to exceed his parents' level of knowledge."
Charles works half the year connecting steel beams and spends the other half in various university programs.
"When I was 18 years old in 1976 I was making $13.56/hour and people said, `How can you make so much without a college degree; how is that fair?' Well, everything I've built will be here in 200 years. How many people with college degrees can say that society will still be benefiting from their work that far in the future?"
Charles has a B.A. in history and is worried about the state of our economy.
"Look at the ratio of operative to overhead sectors in the economy. In the history of the U.S., the highest ratio was 62% operative during 1942-44 and it is only 11-14% now. This way of looking at things goes back to Alexander Hamiliton."
Charles doesn't worry too much about his own job because ironworkers tend to be employed building public works during dark economic times. In any case, his needs are modest, and he only works half the year, spending the other half educating himself.
"There should be a law against working in excess of six months a year. Why do people do it? They're wasting their lives."
Charles led me to an isolated creekside campsite where I pitched my tent around midnight.
Friday, July 23
Being back in a city is a good recipe for frustration. I expect to be able to get things done and am angry with myself when I can't. The US Post Office's "2 days, $2.90" promise turned out to be a joke; I would have to wait two more weeks to see the physical mail that Bruce forwarded from my house. A critical replacement part for my medium-format camera failed to arrive from New York, thus leaving me with a $20,000 50 lb. deadweight. The guy who was going to take me flying had a conflicting business appointment. America OnLine had gotten its act together for awhile and then failed catastrophically. I felt my July 26 ferry reservation (from Skagway, 14 hours of driving away) pressing me. I wanted to scream.