18.95True Stories

By Bill Sherwonit, Andromeda Romano-Lax, and Ellen Bielawski
March 2003
ISBN 978-18852-119-65 320 pages

Alaska Contemporary adventurers, seekers, and lifelong Alaskans take you into the “Last Frontier” for wild and poignant adventures. Walk among bears, witness the Inupiat taking of a bowhead whale, and spend time “weathered-in” on the Bering Sea coast. Follow the seasons of commercial fisherfolk in the world’s most dangerous seas, sail the Inside Passage, or flight-see with bush pilots famed for high-stakes navigation around Denali, North America’s highest mountain.

With six college friends, I first arrived in Alaska in June 1963, having driven a VW bus up the Alcan (not yet the Alaska Highway) in order to assault the then-unclimbed north face of Mt. McKinley (not yet Denali). As we started hiking at midnight across the tundra toward the Peters Glacier, I was one scared twenty-year-old. At the moment, there were many other places I would rather have been than Alaska. The gigantic, avalanche-swept mountain wall we had chosen to attack, I felt in my gut, would prove too much for the modest talents of our gang, trained as we were on the diminutive crags and gullies of New England.

Thirty-five days later, as we staggered out of the wilderness, having not only climbed the Wickersham Wall but traversed over both summits of McKinley, I was hooked. Hooked on Alaska—though to be honest, it was Alaska’s mountains that had set the lure. For the next twelve years, I returned every summer, seeking out virgin faces and peaks all over the state. The sheer plenitude of untrodden glaciers and ridges in Alaska dazzled me; I felt like a classical scholar who had stumbled upon a cache of unknown scrolls. In 1967, we even got to name a whole range—the Revelation Mountains—that had never been explored.

During those thirteen years, Alaska was by far the most real place on earth for me. During the “off-season,” as I trudged through college, grad school, and a teaching career, I longed for the Alaskan ranges as a troubadour poet pined for his unattainable mistress. Yet never for a moment did I consider moving to the 49th state, as several of my alpinist cronies did. On the way in and out of the mountains, what I saw of Alaskan culture dismayed rather than enthralled me. A get-rich-quick opportunism seemed to dominate the sprawling burgs of Anchorage and Fairbanks. The bush was steeped in a frontier ethic, the resourceful pluck of the homesteader leavened by his provincialism. There was no ignoring the xenophobia that ran deep through Alaska’s boom-or-bust mentality, and the squalor and alcoholism that pervaded many an Inuit or Indian village that I visited seemed heartbreaking.

In my ex cathedra take on Alaska I was, of course, acting like the Eastern snob I was sometimes accused of being. There was, I had to admit, as much provincialism and squalor in Boston or New York as there was in Alaska.

Still, it was the Alaskan wilderness that spoke to me. Like most mountain climbers, the more passionate I was about new routes on unnamed peaks, the less curious I was about the cultural matrix that embraced that wilderness. It was only as my career as a climber started to taper off that I began to probe deeper into Alaska’s unique and puzzling history and culture.

As the twenty-six narratives assembled in this beguiling collection testify, I was hardly alone in my response to Alaska. Again and again in these tales, it is the power and peril of the wilderness that the authors celebrate. The rare exceptions—Ellen Bielawski’s “Camping at Wal*Mart” or Mike Grudowski’s mordant portrait of Whittier—only reinforce the centrality of wilderness in Alaskan life, by evoking parodic inversions of the myth of the limitless outback. This emphasis is not surprising. Alaska does indeed teem with some of the most magnificent and daunting back country on earth, on the edges of which a mere 627,000 inhabitants (55 percent of them nestled in Anchorage and Fairbanks) cling to their livelihoods. As a result, the literature of Alaska, unlike that of, say, Tuscany or Virginia, focuses almost obsessively on man’s (and woman’s) encounter with nature.

Thirty years ago, Margaret Atwood, in a polemic called Survival, argued that Canadian literature would never come of age until it got over its preoccupation with adventurers battling the wilderness. As a feminist, Atwood saw this fixation as a predominantly male hang-up. At its core, “survival” was reduced for Canadian writers to a morally simplistic, anti-intellectual machismo.

Does the same stricture hold for Alaska? I think this anthology of some of the freshest writing in recent years makes a strong case to the contrary. The classic Alaskan narratives of the first half of the twentieth century—works such as Belmore Browne’s The Conquest of Mount McKinley, Charles Brower’s Fifty Years Below Zero, and Robert Marshall’s Arctic Wilderness—wove lyrical and heroic fantasias around the monotonic theme of an explorer or pioneer confronting the wilderness. In the present collection, in contrast, there are twenty-six different voices ranging, with a thoroughly postmodern sense of irony, across a dozen themes more ambiguous than survival or wilderness.

And yet, in Traveler’s Tales Alaska there lingers (as I would guess is true for very few other places in the world) a fundamental choose-up-sides distinction between writers who live in the state and those who hail from Outside (the metaphoric tag could not be more apt). At its most tendentious, the attitude of Alaskans toward writers (and travelers) from the Lower 48 is that they can’t possibly get it right. The countervailing prejudice (exemplified in Joe McGinnis’s brilliantly unfair Going to Extremes) is that Alaskans, being country bumpkins, are best explicated by a visitor from the heartland of American sophistication (read the East Coast)—just as three generations of Victorian colonialists thought they had better takes on Borneo or Sudan or India than anybody who had the misfortune to be born and raised in those benighted purlieus.

Nowhere is this us-them dichotomy more vivid than in the reception of the bestseller Into the Wild. The Alaskan response to Jon Krakauer’s evocation of Chris McCandless’s demise, as he tried to live solo off the land north of Denali, was more negative than the book garnered anywhere else in the world. The knee-jerk Alaskan fix on McCandless/Krakauer could be paraphrased as, “One more clueless, screwed-up hippie buys the farm ’cause he doesn’t know what he’s doing up here. Why romanticize and glorify the poor sucker?”

Yet McCandless’s saga proved to have a universal resonance. In this volume, Sherry Simpson’s complex meditation, “I Want to Ride on the Bus Chris Died In,” captures the full spectrum of reactions to McCandless’s unwittingly symbolic quest and fate, and thus punctures the ultimately foolish us-versus-them split between writers and witnesses who live in Alaska and those who visit from Outside.

In this context, the editors have performed a salutary service by saving for last Nancy Lord’s wonderfully wistful essay, “In the Giant’s Hand.” Lord, who moved to Alaska in the wake of a profound wilderness experience in the Brooks Range at the age of nineteen, and who has lived there ever since, manages to look back on the naive idealist she once was from the vantage point of three decades of living in and writing about the 49th state. In a mere eight pages, Lord dismantles the us-them dichotomy (for she is both in one person), finding her own truths in the universal human dramas of desire and aging and coming to terms with one’s own mortality. Here is the kind of writing that, we can only hope, Alaska will provoke from her celebrants as the twenty-first century unveils new ways of comprehending the Great Land.
David Roberts is a mountaineer and adventurer who has climbed the 20,000-foot Quenehar in Argentina to discover the remains of Inca sacrificial victims, made the first descent of the Tekeze in Ethiopia, and been stranded in China during the Tiananmen Square massacre. He has journeyed from academia where he was an associate professor of literature, to Alaska and the Yukon where he led thirteen climbing expeditions (including more than six first ascents), to the literary world where he has written or edited sixteen books and won numerous awards, including the Prix Méditerrané, the Prix du Salon de Livre de Passy, the Prix d’Autrans, and the American Alpine Club Literary Award. He has also written forNational Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Travel and Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, and more.

Introduction — David Roberts

Part One: Essence of Alaska

Sixty-Five — Jeff Fair

Surrounded by Bears — Ed Readicker-Henderson

The Flyboys of Talkeetna — Jon Krakauer

Kayaking Through a Timeless Realm of Rain, Bugs, and B.O. — Barbara Brown

Eating Edward Curtis at the Ugruk Café — Daniel Henry

The Only Place Like This — Kathleen Dean Moore

From Scratch — Susan Beeman

Part Two: Some Things to Do

The Great White Philharmonic — Tim Cahill

Woe is Me — Ian Frazier

Camping at Wal*Mart — Ellen Bielawski

Taking on the Kenai — Tom Dunkel

Hell Can’t Be Worse Than This Trail — Steve Howe

Downtown Duel — Nancy Deschu

Point Retreat — Ernestine Hayes

Part Three :Going Your Own Way

The Blood of Fine and Wild Animals — Pam Houston

On the Pack Ice — Heather Villars

In God’s Back Yard — Niles Elliot Goldstein

Seeking Paradise — Andromeda Romano-Lax

The Last Road North — Philip Caputo

Everything’s Oishi — Mike Steere

Shot Tower — David Roberts

Part Four: In the Shadows

Hairy Man Lives — Bill Sherwonit

Would You Be, Could You Be, Won’t You Be

(and Why in the Hell Does Anyone Want to Be) My Neighbor — Mike Grudowski

Leaving Land Behind — Toby Sullivan

I Want to Ride on the Bus Chris Died In — Sherry Simpson

Part Five: The Last Word

In the Giant’s Hand — Nancy Lord

Index of Contributors

Recommended Reading


Camping at Wal*Mart

By Ellen Bielawski
At the proverbial end of the road, there’s…a parking lot.

Anchorage, August, Friday afternoon. Choices abound: the family cabin, backpacking in the Chugach, kayaking ocean or whitewater. Both new and familiar wild places are in easy reach of my home. I choose Wal*Mart.

All summer the question has gnawed at me: why would anyone travel thousands of miles to Alaska, then camp at a big box store? We locals wonder aloud at the herd of RVs resting on the midtown pavement. Our fear and loathing of the wheeled vehicle set is such that we do not ask.

But I am a lapsed anthropologist. I have no excuse for avoiding the culturally insular. Indeed, dangerous as the expedition might be, I have a professional responsibility to explore the big box lot. After all, Wal*Mart is, well, there.

So I borrow a pickup truck with camper on the back, a cheap passport to the unnerving but intellectually enticing RV club. Friends are incredulous. “You’re spending a summer weekend at Wal*Mart?” Some express pity. My mother, who came to Alaska alone in 1946, fears for me. “Will you be all right?” she quavers as she leaves for our cabin.

Despite the risk, I am as determined to conquer the pavement as I was to winter camp with Athabascan hunters last year. I climb up behind the high steering wheel, drive down the Seward Highway to Wal*Mart South (Anchorage is blessed with two Wal*Marts, one in midtown and this one, just off the highway to the Kenai Peninsula) and enter a strange new world.

Where to park? I cruise the lot a few times, finally picking a spot between a gargantuan RV and an SUV with a tiny trailer. It’s a weak, compromise choice, but I have to get my feet on the blacktop somehow. I park with the back of the camper facing south towards Turnagain Arm (not that I can see it past Stephan’s Tool Rentals). I set out the camper steps, then sit down with my door open, my notebook on my knees. Social scientists call this research method “participant-observation.” I call it “hanging out.” All I have to do is watch, then do—whatever the locals do.

Not very much, for a while. The owner of the rig next to mine fills a burrito with beans he’s warmed over a propane stove on the tailgate of his SUV. He watched me make camp—along with my stairs, I put a bucket out below my camper drain spout—then leaned across the yellow line on the pavement. “I’m Rich.” Now he gestures toward a truck and trailer with Michigan plates. “I know them from somewhere,” he chews. Burrito in hand, he strolls over to speak with the disembarking couple. Calls to me, “It was Glennallen, a month ago, we camped at the same place.”

Her name is Rose; his is Woody. His pate is as shiny as the buttons she’s sewn all over her jean jacket. They move coolers from the truck to the trailer.

“Woody’s a fisherman,” Rose says, as if resuming a conversation we’ve been having throughout the nomadic season. “Fishing” explains the coolers, and the debate Rich and Woody are now engaged in, each jabbing at an Alaska road map. Picking spots to fish. Rose and Woody are spending the summer in Alaska, fishing; they’ll winter on Texas’s Gulf Coast, fishing. They travel year round, relying on Wal*Mart lots across the nation—campgrounds for retirees without a lot of income. “Where else can you afford to buy anything in Alaska?” she asks.

I head across the pavement to check out the perks of no-fee camping. A Wal*Mart greeter welcomes me pleasantly as I enter the store. The lights are very bright. The store is open from six in the morning to eleven P.M. The phones work. The bathroom is large and conveniently located. I can purchase innumerable Alaska souvenirs—mugs and caps bearing blurry salmon, eight stars of gold on everything from headbands to socks—at reasonable prices. Nearby fitness clubs offer showers. What’s not to like?

Back outside, late afternoon sun filters through the remains of rain clouds. On the unshaded asphalt , it’s t-shirt weather. The view of the Chugach Mountains is superb. I realize I’ve never seen it from Wal*Mart before. I think fleetingly of friends and family up in those alpine expanses, with their heavy packs and their wind-blown tents. Been there, done that, got cold and wet. Time for supper in the level, propane-heated, bug-free comfort of my borrowed home.

As I warm soup on the camper stove, I can’t help but see directly into the long rig from Iowa parked next door. Its owners have just returned in a small SUV. Now he plays cards while his wife prepares supper.

On the lot, there’s traffic. A Mobile Auto Services truck cruises, offering assistance to newcomers, checking on previous clients. A truck with “The Tree Man” lettered on the side pulls in and parks. No trees for him to doctor here. Turns out, he’s from Outside, living on the lot while he sells his services in suburban Anchorage. He’s home for the night. An elderly couple returns to their camper van from the Dimond Center Mall. He pushes her wheelchair slowly, steadily in the dying sunlight. When they reach their rig, he unlocks the side door and gently assists her inside. Then he folds the wheelchair and parks it. Tough to do in the back country.

Another couple, denizens of a 5th-wheel-style trailer leveled next to Rich’s SUV, has family members in Anchorage whom they are visiting. Ed and Ruth were campground hosts at Cooper Landing, one of the busiest fishing spots on the Kenai Peninsula, all summer. “You know, there’re lots of single women traveling on the road, just having a good time,” Ed tells me. “Mostly the people in Alaska are really good: it’s really safe. But I’ve thought of getting a shotgun anyway, without ammunition. People tend to get scared off if they hear you cocking a shotgun inside your rig.”

I didn’t bring mine, but I feel comfortable as night falls, even though I’ve never spent a night alone in a city parking lot before. Bears and blizzards are more my style. So far, my fellow campers display a detached sense of community—keeping an eye out for each other, discreetly. A TV screen flickers in one rig, its antenna raised like whale flukes, tiny in proportion to the RV’s behemoth body. I take a late night stroll around the lot, alone. Rich has departed for the evening in his vehicle, leaving his small trailer behind. So has another lone man, from Arizona. Have they gone dancing? Is that why they park here in Anchorage, for the nightlife a city offers, a respite from their travels in wilder Alaska? “No hookups” takes on new meaning for me.
The sound of a generator wakes me Sunday morning, carried on a wind that rocks my camper gently. I need the bathroom, and the morning paper, another perk of pavement camping. Returning from Wal*Mart, I bend to pet a dog that nuzzles my knees, but her owner calls her back. He is Dick Francis. He’s talking with two other men, beneath a caribou rack tied on his Montana camper-van. “We were just saying that women don’t like to hunt and fish,” he says. “Do you?”

“Of course.”

Three pairs of eyebrows rise simultaneously. In their collective experience, there are not enough women who enjoy the outdoors. “You see those rigs coming up here,” Dick says. “He’s driving and looking really happy; she’s sittin’ with her arms crossed and frowning.” Dick is in Alaska this summer to hunt, fish, and work the busy construction season. Keith Campbell came north with Dick, and the dog, Lady. He’s sailed the Inside Passage twice on small boats. This year he wants to see Alaska’s mainland.

Tom Kelly, the third man, is having his great Alaska adventure. Introducing themselves to me, Dick and Keith also shake hands with Tom. “You haven’t met?” I ask.

“Nah, we been talkin’ for three days but we haven’t met,” Tom laughs.

An hour and three rain squalls later we’re still chatting on the pavement outside Dick’s rig. Dick’s smile disappears into his tanned, seamed face when he laughs. Today is his last free day before a two-month job at Fort Richardson in Anchorage’s east side. Keith’s thick gray curls escape from under a blue corduroy Alaska cap. When I mention my mother, he asks, “Does she dance? I’m looking for a dancing partner while I’m here.”

Most of Tom’s forty years have been bound by what he calls a Midwestern mentality. “Same job, same people, same house. People expect you to be you. Change is not what’s expected.” But when his son said, “Dad, I don’t think you are ever going to go up there,” Tom quit his job and drove to Alaska. A month ago, he stalked bull caribou north of the Brooks Range and killed one with his bow. He kept the backstrap and rack, donating the rest of the meat to the Fairbanks food bank. He shows me a picture of himself with a fish hook through his chin and blood matting his new beard, grinning an impossibly wide grin, the happiest of men. “I kept right on fishing,” he laughs. Then moans, “I gotta get out of this parking lot. It’s driving me crazy!”

Other rig owners have “For Sale” signs posted. One battered truck and one classic black sedan look abandoned to the side of the RV parking area. “Is there zoning here?” I ask.

“Nah,” the men say, “but if you got a bucket outside…”

I do, of course. Is that why my Iowa neighbors, who can see the gray water draining into the bucket from my sink, are so aloof? To each his own, I think. My camper drips, but their rig generator woke me up this morning.

I trek back to Wal*Mart for some research in the “Books” aisle. A new question has emerged. I pull out a copy of Catch and Release: The Guide to Finding an Alaska Man. Sure enough, it omits all mention of hanging out in Wal*Mart parking lots. I make a note to send an addition to the editors.

As the rainy day passes noon, I wrap up my expedition with one last stroll around my village. Ed and Ruth are gone for the day, their trailer locked. Bill and Terri plan to camp here all week, until their daughter flies in to meet them. Woody and Rose take off for Talkeetna, “unless the weather stays this bad. If it does, we’ll camp at the Wal*Mart in Wasilla.” The Chugach have disappeared under low clouds flowing like thick cream.

Dick and Keith invite me for a last cup of coffee, this time out of the rain, at the McDonald’s inside Wal*Mart. Tom ambles by, observing that I’m in danger of becoming a “lot rat.”

“Better than being a house rat,” I respond.

After coffee, I take up my sink-drain bucket and lock the camper door. My restless spirit is primed after this weekend among road wayfarers. Now that the Alaska Highway is paved, I could just keep going, onto the next Wal*Mart and the next.… I jump into the truck cab, slide Dire Straits into the cassette player, sing “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug” and head off down the road.
Ellen Bielawski is a co-editor of Travelers’ Tales Alaska. She never camps at Wal*Mart unless looking for a story.

Born in Bridgeport, Conn., Anchorage nature and travel writer Bill Sherwonit first visited Alaska in 1974 while employed as a geologist. After switching from geology to journalism during the late 1970s, he returned to Alaska in 1982 as a sports writer for The Anchorage Times. Sherwonit worked at the newspaper ten years, the last seven as its outdoors writer/editor.

Now a full-time freelancer, he’s contributed stories and photos to a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, journals, anthologies, and guidebooks. He’s the author of several books on Alaska: To the Top of Denali: Climbing Adventures on North America’s Highest Peak; Iditarod: The Great Race to Nome; Alaska’s Accessible Wilderness: A Traveler’s Guide to Alaska’s State Parks; Alaska Ascents, Alaska’s Bears, Denali: A Literary Anthology,and Denali: The Complete Guide. Bill also teaches classes in wilderness writing and travel/adventure writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Sherwonit lives in the foothills of the Chugach Mountains with wife Dulcy Boehle. There he writes about the wildness to be found in Alaska’s urban center, as well as in the state’s backcountry wilderness.

Andromeda Romano-Lax drove to Alaska from her native Chicagoland in December 1994 with her husband, Brian, baby son, Aryeh, and dog. During the month-long trip, their car broke down seven times, they maxed out every credit card they owned, and they spent Christmas Eve with nothing to eat but frozen jalapeño peppers. They’ve been too afraid and too broke to risk driving the Alcan Highway again, and so Anchorage has remained their home. By air, they also travel to Mexico, where Romano-Lax and family (including a second child, daughter Tziporah) have paddled and sailed the Sea of Cortez, and Puerto Rico, where she studied the cello as research for a forthcoming novel. Romano-Lax is the author of five books, including four guidebooks to Alaska and Mexico, and a travel narrative,Searching for Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez: A Makeshift Expedition Along Baja’s Desert Coast.She teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage and in children’s workshop settings.

Ellen Bielawski was born in Alaska and still prefers northern life to any other, although she has worked as an archaeologist in West Africa and trekked in Tibet. Her two sons have accompanied her from Ghana to Grise Fiord. They refuse to drive the Alaska Highway with her yet one more time. Her editing credits include scientific papers as well as essays. She is the author of Rogue Diamonds, an account of diamond miners and aboriginal people on Canada’s Barren Lands, and The Peoples’ Prehistory of Alaska, as well as numerous magazine articles.