Carolyn Holbert (Ph.D., English, U of New Mexico) is a Professor of English at the University of Alaska Anchorage/Matanuska Susitna College in Palmer, Alaska. A "cheechako," or newcomer, to the state, she is still getting to know it and has begun to write about the place, its people, and her experiences there.
I know that many writers have used the title "True West," most notably, perhaps, Sam Shepherd in his play and Richard Rodriguez in an essay, but I feel I have finally ended up in America's true west in a most unexpected place, Alaska.
I used to live in what I had always thought of as "The West" in New Mexico.
New Mexico was and is a state of mixed messages, from the greatest nuclear discoveries of the twentieth century to lifestyles straight out of the nineteenth century; it seemed to epitomize to me what the West was. The working cowboys in small-town bars, the love affair with guns and booze, the arid landscape, all of these screamed "West" at me. But in retrospect, I think I was blinded by the visuals; I bought into the image rather than the concept. I have since come to accept the notion that the West is not so much a place as it is an attitude.
From the United States policy of Manifest Destiny to John Soule's famous quote, "Go west, young man," the West has been many places. What connects them all is the attitude of the people inhabiting those places, an attitude of independence, of rebellion, of foresight, of disquiet with the status quo, of the need to see and feel and do things yet undone. The west of popular media makes heroes of independent and rebellious men and women with the foresight to move on to new places, who fight and win against the odds. At the beginning of this new century, Alaska still fits that definition from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
This said, I will lay aside literary pretense and say that I knew that I was in the true American West, the ultimate frontier, when I started going to garage sales in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley of south-central Alaska. Here, among the detritus of human lives, is where the West is found. It's for sale, for barter, and for trade. One rarely has to search for it, only to have the ability to see it.
I began the yard/garage sale circuit because I moved to Alaska with no furniture. I took with me the "stuff" of my life, the pictures and dishes and linens, two shipping containers of it, but I decided my furniture was too old to pay the exorbitant cost of shipping it to the last frontier. And everyone had told me, friends and new co-workers alike, that in the fall in Alaska, there were always those who decided they couldn't stand one more Alaskan winter and who sold out and moved south. I could get whatever I needed, they said, just by scouting the weekend sale signs. So this is what I did. Unfortunately, I have yet to find a single piece of furniture I wanted, but I did discover something more important.
At almost every sale, a plethora of drinking paraphernalia could be found: steins, mugs, pitchers, complete brewing sets, stemware, and decanters. These various implements to facilitate the drinking of alcohol only served to reinforce what my drive into Alaska had already told me. Alaskans love their booze. Some small towns along the Alaska Highway had only multiple bars and a gas station. Nothing else. After miles and miles of nothingness, we would come to a large building, which almost always would be a bar. The ultimate lonely building was sometimes both a bar and gas station with no-name gas pumps out front, the ultimate Alaskan fuel stop. Those western heroes from the novels and movies also spent a lot of time in the bars, so I knew I was now in the West. Since most of these buildings were log or faded clapboard with lots of horsepower lined up out front, they could have been a post-modern western movie set.
The yard sales, however, also introduced me to another aspect of the western mentality: the love affair with weapons. Garage sales here were not female affairs; the men of the house were active participants. They sometimes managed their own tables of tools or drinking steins or guns. Many sales had guns, a fact I more or less ignored since I wasn't in the gun market. But one Saturday I saw something I couldn't ignore.
I usually began my Saturday shopping early, around 8:00 o'clock. I never checked the newspaper and planned out a route; instead, I would follow the signs. Sometimes they took me so far off the highway I was afraid I would never find my way out again. These houses were isolated, frequently log, sometimes clearly showing each addition as the house grew from one-room cabin to multi-roomed and multi-storied dwelling, sometimes still unfinished after decades of use. Other times, the signs and party balloons led me to homes in typical subdivisions. In a house that wasn't exactly either of these—well off the highway in the woods but a typical suburban style home—I met the West.
This was a large sale, so large that a tent had been set up to cover the merchandise and to enable to sale to go on in spite of the ever-present fall rain. A little bit of everything was for sale here: furniture, musical instruments, hundreds of restaurant supply-size coffee containers, plumbing supplies, household goods, and guns. As usual, I glanced over rather than looked at the guns. But while checking out something on a nearby table, a conversation between another potential customer and the man of the house got my attention. A man and a woman had come into the tent. From their conversation, it became apparent that it was a wife shopping with her husband's brother for her husband's birthday present. This woman immediately went straight for the gun table. I looked up, ears at attention, as she said, "Do these ammo clips fit an M1 Carbine?" An M1 Carbine, I thought, they actually own one of those? I looked over at the cartridges, about ten of them, and at the surprisingly slim but deadly looking gun lying there. A machine-gun.
The owner came over, and with a drawl befitting any good westerner, said, "No, lady, these here clips fit this here AK47." And he lifted up the gun in question so she could get a good view. "Wow," she said in tones of awe, "how much is it?" For a mere $600 it could be hers, extra ammo clips included. I admit I was stunned. Lying openly on a folding card table was a weapon capable of wiping out an entire village, especially if you took all those extra clips along. "Why you selling it?" was her next question, and the answer was as important for what it didn't say as it was for what it did. The man gave a smile, a rather chilling one to me since it imparted some code of secrecy in it, and said, "Oh, I don't need this here gun anymore." There was an oh-so-slight emphasis on the word "need," and I had the distinct impression that he didn't need the AK47 because he had gotten something even bigger and meaner. What that could be I don't know, but I felt then and feel sure now that he owned it.
Here was the West. A man who believed in his right to be able to mow down vast numbers of people even if he never did it. A man who was openly selling a gun I assumed to be illegal (secondary market sales of machine guns are not, apparently, illegal). A man who had no fear of theft of such a weapon and could casually place it on a table at a yard sale. A man who wanted to make a little profit, since friends told me later if I wanted one, I could get one for as little as $350 most anywhere in Alaska. I started looking around the tent a bit more carefully and began to notice the pithy sayings on the wooden plaques for sale were either saccharine-sweet or anti-government. Hers and his, I assumed. Free speech as decorative object abounded. A true individual lived here, one who told another customer that he had moved up here in the fifties because he couldn't stand all that regulation in The Lower Forty-Eight. "Getting almost that bad here now," he said. "Stupid politicians ruining it for us. I'm thinking about selling out and moving to the woods." These same sentiments, it seems to me, were behind much of the westward migration of our country. In the West, a man could be a man, could be whatever he wanted to be. When the West became mainstream America, Alaska became the West. Here, on the frontier, in log cabins with no electricity and no running water or in million dollar mansions, people can be whatever they want to be.
A student at the college where I teach shows this western frontier is not the domain only of the male. She is in her fifties and, having tired of the rat race in a town of 1200, is moving back out into the bush. She has one room, no electricity, an outhouse, and carries water in from a creek about a half-mile away. She doesn't foresee a time when she will have electricity, since paying for the lines would be far beyond her means, but a generator sometime is a possibility. "But," she said to me, "I can do whatever I want out there." What does she want to do, I wondered, that she couldn't do here? The "town" she left is a rural community, not much of a town at all, one where the individual is celebrated and business growth is seen as a curse. I cannot imagine any legal activity that she could not do there. I must admit, I thought her rather odd; nevertheless, she is the stuff of which the West is made. She embodies the rebellious spirit, the adventurer, and the "I'll take care of me and mine and don't try to tell me what to do" attitude of the westward pioneer.
In my six months here, I have met many other western individuals. There are the men who fly planes, for example. I drive by several small, gravel runways every day, so planes must use traditional landing gear sometimes, but more often than not, the wheels have been replaced. When I look up in the sky, I rarely see wheels on the planes. In the summer, there are huge floats, sometimes looming larger than the tiny plane itself. The pilots set down the floatplanes on the thousands of lakes and rivers in Alaska. In the winter, the same planes are transformed into ski planes, with large skis attached as landing gear. This enables them to land on frozen rivers, lakes, sea ice, and even runways carved out of the snow. Some extremely northern communities on tiny islands only get mail once the ice is frozen over the Bering Sea. This winter, it got colder quicker than usual, so they got their mail a full month earlier than expected. Just like the arrival of the Pony Express, this was an important story, one grabbing the lead on the evening television news program. Alaska has more licensed pilots per capita, both male and female, than any other state in the union, but for some reason, all the bush pilots I have seen, met, or heard about are male. And they all have beards—it seems to be some sort of Alaskan commandment: "If thou art male, thou shalt have hair upon thy face." These pilots do much needed work, such as delivering mail and supplies into isolated communities in the interior or transporting people to and from medical care. During the Iditarod, they ferry tourists to checkpoints, ferry supplies in and out, and ferry dropped dogs out to safety. During the summer, these pilots devote most of their time to herding tourists about. Flightseeing is a popular and lucrative activity. Fly over a glacier, get a birds-eye view of a mountaintop, check out an impenetrable forest, all of these things are summer work for many pilots. They wrangle humans instead of cattle, serving much the same function as the old cowboys.
Other rugged individuals have made self-subsistence an art form. Hunting, fishing, berrying, canning, freezing, and drying are all important. Reindeer sausage is a local staple, and many a family has an extra freezer on the front porch to hold all the meat and sausage prepared from various types of game. Occasionally, the lead news story of the day will be about a bear attack on the porch freezer. Grizzlies have a superb sense of smell and can locate a good meal even when it is frozen and incased in metal. Besides the various wild meats, there are more than a dozen types of edible berries here, and many people hold on to the location of their "best spot" with the type of secrecy valued by CIA operatives. And fishing is not a sport but a lifestyle. (The sport fishermen all seem to be Outsiders.) Salmon is not a delicacy but a staple, one that many people complain about having to eat again. I still find it a delicacy, especially since I have to buy mine, so I don't complain. Smoked, dried, cured, and frozen: all are valued in the rush to catch and store fish for winter. There's even a dish some of my Yup'ik students have offered to prepare for me called "Eskimo Ice Cream" that has Crisco, sugar, berries (fresh or dried), and a paste of white fish as its primary ingredients. In the depths of winter in sub-zero temperatures, I have no doubt this dish would supply much needed fat, protein, and vitamins, but it is most definitely an acquired taste. Few local families, regardless of profession or ethnicity, attempt an Alaskan winter without supplies of game and fish. I have already been told that I won't be a real Alaskan until I start killing, catching, and storing my own wild foods.
I think maybe I'll start with berries, but that might necessitate going to one of those yard sales for a gun, a big gun. The famous Alaskan brown bear, the grizzly, loves those berries, too, and berrying means going protected.
Other local individualists try a little farming, and not the kind the government had in mind when it moved two hundred-plus farming families from the upper mid-west into the Matanuska Valley in the 1930s. These new growers specialize in Matanuska Thunder (sometimes a well-known expletive is added to the name), an apparently especially potent variety of marijuana. Unbeknownst to me, this Alaskan product is well known even outside Alaska. When I notified one of my employers of my resignation from my adjunct position, one of the very sedate and rule-conscious deans of the college called me up to ask where I was going. When I answered, the first comment was, "Oh, you're going to where they grow the giant pot." Like the giant cabbages on display at the state fair and the giant blooms of popular flowers that thrive in the nearly constant summer sunlight, this crop apparently grows bigger and stronger here, too. Multiple conversations, both direct and overheard, have let me know that this is a popular personal and cash crop. Like the owner of the AK47, these growers think the government has no right to tell them what they can and cannot do on their own property, and sometimes on property not their own; my landlord tells me that he regularly checks the crawl spaces beneath his buildings for illegal crops. In some respects, these westerners are little different from the bootleggers that flourished in western novels, in the movies, and in real places all over the West.
The "you can't tell me what to do with my own property" mentality had a severe setback this past summer. The local borough passed a property clean-up law. Too many people were losing property value and the borough its tax money as a result of "trashy" properties. People whose property was littered with rusting hulks of non-running automobiles, with stacks of rotting lumber, and piles of various types of debris were screaming mad at this threat to their freedom, but this time the individualists did not prevail. Clean it up or get fined became the rule of the Valley. The first person so cited under the new law was an elderly woman, and the entire community, including dozens of clean-up law proponents, headed out to her property one weekend to clean it up for her. They left with three boxcar-sized receptacles full of junk, and they left behind a pleased and grateful landowner who now had no fine to pay.
This is just another aspect of the West: the helpfulness of its good citizens. In novels, movies, and television shows, the west was always inhabited by good decent people who were willing to help their neighbors and even strangers passing through. Many a bad guy was reformed by the good hearts of such people. The same is true in Alaska where friendliness is legendary. The stories of drivers that stop and offer assistance free of charge to stranded motorists, things such as tire repairs and gasoline, abound. In rural areas, door locks are rarely used, if they exist at all. "If I locked my door," one woman said to me, "how would my neighbors get in to take care of the animals if I didn't make it home for some reason?" She went on to explain that in such a dangerous environment, people look out for each other, and someone would notice if she was gone an unusually long time. Gone too long, and they would not only take care of the animals but would also begin a search for her. What amounts to nosiness in suburban neighborhoods becomes human decency out here. "And," she said, "what if someone got stranded on the road and I wasn't at home? How would they get into my house for shelter?" This was an alien notion, that one would want strangers making use of one's home while the owner was away. Another friend tells me of getting stranded on the Alaska Highway. After being stranded for several hours, a small plane flew overhead. Then it came back by at a much lower altitude. Finally, the plane landed on the road and taxied up to him; the pilot offered him a ride and flew him into town. No charge. Good, decent, helpful people packing AK47's live here, it seems.
True West has not been drowned under a flood of movie-star adobes and weekend cowboy rancheros; it has only moved north and west to Alaska, America's last frontier.