I am still alive. However, it seems that I accidentally conducted my own Walden-esque experiment by passing the summer in a town that didn’t believe in supporting a reliable telecommunications infrastructure. Why use the Internet when the party telephone line at the local inn works more efficiently at sharing news than email? (True story.)
Besides, the need for modern day communication winnows to nothing when you’re surrounded by beauty like this when you leave your apartment.
The more I connected with Skagway, the less pressure I felt to stay up-to-date on all things non-Alaskan. The lifestyle and attitudes of the people in town were more compelling than any I remembered in the small town America where I grew up. It’s a place of people living a different type of American Dream, the type where they have the ability to get-up and get-gone when they want, and the ability to pull together as a community at a drop of a hat.
It’s the type of town that produces a newspaper only once a week and features a column called “Heard on the Wind.” Locals mainly use it as a release valve during the summer months from living a bizarre reality version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. From May to the end of September, native Skagwegians are asked the same questions by cruise ship passengers every single day. At first the questions are charming – “What do you do in the winter?” “How in the world did you end up here?” “How much snow do you get?” “What’s an…you? Loo? You-li?”*
After a month it becomes a mental exercise to stay convivial and welcoming as well meaning, curious people ask the same questions that the similarly well-meaning, curious people asked yesterday. You need a place to share stories like this:
“Another person at the same shack later in the week asked, “How far is Russia from here?”
When told by the tour seller that it was about 2,500 miles, the visitor responded, “Then I guess we can’t see it from here.”
This drew a very grim reaction from the tour shack attendants.
The visitor, sensing the obvious, stated, ‘I didn’t want to bring up Sarah Palin, but…’
‘It’s better that you didn’t.’
Speaking of Sarah, where is she? Her reality TV show never came to Skagway-Dyea to hike the Chilkoot Trail a couple summers ago, and we felt dissed. It will soon be prime time on the trail, where the wind also blows up on occasion. Maybe we’ll find her there since election season is upon us, and there are all kinds of metaphors you can use around the themes gold rush and stampede for Facebook updates. Perfect for the twist and shout. The windy one can’t wait. In the meantime, while we wait for Sarah’s return to her original Alaska home,** you can send us wind in the usual manner. Dress it up in red, white and blue and drop it off at the News Depot, where we are always feeling independent and free.”
The town police blotter in the newspaper introduces other elements of life in Skagway too, with weekly incident reports that read with the pull of a Closeau whodunit. There are regular reports like “Police responded to a dispute among roommates. Both ladies suffered injuries during mutual combat. One agreed to spend the night elsewhere” or “A suspicious circumstance was reported in a resident’s yard. The center of a wood pile was found hollowed out. Officer was unable to tell if the center had been stolen, or if the wood had merely been piled high to build a fort. It was odd that it could have been done during the day or night without anyone seeing or hearing it. The pile is not particularly stable enough to hold a large person.”
The Skagway News is not winning any hard hitting journalism awards, but its ability to inform and teach about Skagway was enough to help this outsider feel slightly more connected to the people around her. At the very least, it has made reading the local news in the Lower 48 seem a lot more dull. It’s a good thing I have the Internet again.
* This refers to an ulu, a traditional arctic utility knife. Traditionally made from whale or walrus jaw bone and now stainless steel, it has been the everyday Arctic women’s knife because of its versatility. It’s still widely used throughout Alaska.
** One of the first towns the Palins lived in when they first moved to Alaska was Skagway. This is both a source of pride and annoyance for Skagwegians.