This week your assignment is to discuss a few (3 or 4) of the contemporary writers we’ve looked at since the midterm and discuss ways in which what they write reflects a more modern version of Alaska and the Yukon.
The first writer I’d like to look at is Ronald Johnson. He writes a chapter in his book OUT OF THE NORTH (1991) titled The Scene and the People about the city life in Anchorage; the union life and city life of what, I’d place, as being in the fifties. This story is contrasted to our previous readings in that there’s really nothing about nature in this excerpt – it’s based entirely in Anchorage, beginning on C street. He is drinking hard liquor on the street in the dark with unknown people. How unsterile of him! This story is a throw-back to the more casual attitude leading into the sixties and seventies, when no one had ever heard of hand sanitizer and people hadn’t learned to put a “bubble” of spotlessness around themselves (at least in the crowd he was hanging out with). The author explores the dirty underground life of pimping, busting folks out of jail, and drinking beers in bars to gather information, in relation to the working union people of the day. He gives an insight into what it was like, doing favors for friends based on rumors, rough men who hit women and got away with it. This Alaska is more modern in that it’s “civilized.”
The second writer I’d like to discuss is Karen Randlev, who lived in Alaska for only a short time during the height of the pipeline. She wrote a poem named Progress included in the anthology A NEW GEOGRAPHY OF POETS (1992). The poem begins like this: “I first went to Fairbanks in ’76,/ it was the height of the ppipeline,/ but it didn’t hit me until this cute guy/ offered me some Juicy Fruit in the Coop Drugstore/ on Two Street. Those were the days./ I’d never seen a summer so long…” This poem touched me because it is about a Fairbanks sense of time and space that I remember from my youth; although I didn’t arrive till 1989, the character and culture of pipeline-day Fairbanks lingers on well after the pipeline days. She continues on about her view of Fairbanks a few years later: “Two Street was trying for respectable,/ and every corner had a shopping mall/ selling pistachio nuts and gourmet-delites…” which she must have written about by 1992. She infers that “progress”, in other words modernization and commercialization, has banished the old feeling from the pipeline days.
Well, I’m here to tell you that if she thinks that feel is gone from Fairbanks, then she’s not looking in the right places. My first experience in Fairbanks in 1989 was at a little gas station at the bottom of the university hill on Geist, across from the Post Office, at what is now, I believe, a Holiday gas station. I pulled up in a ’66 Chevelle that was on its way to the Demolition Derby before my friend rescued it for $65. Fresh off the Alaska Highway, I saw a sign there that said: “TOAST AND EGGS – $2.” That, to me, seemed to be a good deal, so I went into the restaurant, and thus began an adventure reminiscent of the beautiful “Fairbanks feel” that Randlev describes in the early stages of her poem. I met crazy people in that restaurant that tried to heat up their trucks in winter with bacon grease instead of a weed burner. I met people there who let me build a cabin on their land and live there for “free”, although I’d have to vacate the place after two years so it could be rented out. I spent my first winter in Goldstream Valley and my summers after that out by Miller Hill, enjoying the beautiful little community spread over the hillside and across the tracks. I still have life-long friends sparkling all around the hills of Fairbanks. No, Ms. Randlev, “progress” has not ruined Fairbanks. It’s only pushed it out to the fringes and into the privacy of long-time circles of friends.
The last author I will take a look at is Susan Zwinger, who writes a chapter named “The Man All Covered With Mouths” from STALKING THE ICE DRAGON: AN ALASKAN JOURNEY. It begins with a story about Coldfoot, Alaska. She published this book in 1991, and I was in the area in 1990-1991 winter, so she must have been there right before me. In those days I would leave Fairbanks to go up to Hilltop Truck Stop, wait for a likely trucker, and hitch my way up to Wiseman, which is where I actually lived, not in Coldfoot. Coldfoot was just the last stop on the way to warm up, getting a nice cup of coffee (usually in the middle of the cold night) before mushing the last twelve miles home to Wiseman. The last part of our trapline came down the very Slate Creek she describes in her story. She talks much about the pipeline, how Coldfoot was established, about the people working on the pipeline. She camped at Atigun Pass, which is almost as far north as I’ve ever been. I did have the good luck of flying over Chandalar Shelf with one of the locals, looking at what he said was “the first time caribou had been there in those numbers since they built the pipeline.” Thousands and thousands of caribou were up there that day.
The pipeline corridor is such a curious blend of wilderness and modernization. In this story, she is told about the dangers of going up the haul road by herself, but she is not prevented from doing so. There is a gatekeeper who checks to make sure she can change a tire, survive to negative thirty degrees, and that she has water. No one says anything about needing money. Zwinger goes on to describe the wildlife of the upper reaches in vivid detail, reminding us that modern Alaska is in so many ways much like the old Alaska gone by.