With the dog days of August running out and the smoke of our cremated forests turning Seattle’s skies a sickly orange, I decided to head to Haines, Alaska for a week. I flew north on the fourteenth and stayed until the twenty-second. It was one of my better visits.
Haines is my old home town. I was raised in Ohio, but I feel that I was born in Alaska. It’s a place I once thought I’d never leave. Even when I did depart, with no goal other than extended travel, I fully expected to return eventually and resume my life here. That was in the winter of ’85-’86, when I was still a young fool (I’m an older one now). I believed then that dreams were realities to be pursued, and so I went and did that. It seems to have worked. I ended up in Seattle (not according to plan, mind you) and now have spent more than half my life married to the beautiful Eve and building a family in the city. But I never fully left Alaska, or maybe it’s never fully left me. I’m now in the habit of returning at least once every year or two, after realizing that it’s a part of me I never want to lose.
This trip was different from my prior visits in the past decade or two. This is no doubt because I’m different from who I’ve been in the past year or twenty-seven. I am no longer a corporate denizen, a product of Microsoft. I no longer believe that I’m somehow different from - and, for too long, that I was somehow superior to - old friends and new acquaintances. I’m neither, in any way that matters. I’m just a guy, trying to pick his way through life. And now that I am not burdened by an identity defined by a company or a future mapped by career ladders, I can more freely explore who the hell I might actually be.
Here are few observations and insights from this brief stay:
Haines is getting better
By this, I mean specifically that Haines as a municipality – a place of human habitation – appears to be in better shape than it’s been in a good twenty years.
It has often saddened me to see the town fall into decay since I moved away. Businesses dwindled, buildings slumped, people left. The word “malaise” became increasingly apt to describe the place, notwithstanding the joy of many of my friends.
In the two years since my last visit, though, there’s been a turnaround. Buildings have been rebuilt and repainted. Main Street is almost full. The Fireweed Restaurant has expanded. New people are arriving. Houses are both more occupied and more expensive. Even the old fort buildings seem to be standing up a little straighter.
I’m not sure of the reasons for all this. For one thing, there’s a new guy in town. Calls himself a chiropractor, and he’s bought most of the buildings on Main Street – even the hopelessly empty ones – and he’s putting businesses into a lot of them. In fact, he seems to be buying pretty much every interesting property that comes onto the market. Nobody quite knows why he’s doing it, or where his money’s coming from. He’s coy in explaining himself, saying just that he likes it here. So there’s an undercurrent of illogic and suspicion around it all. But at the same time, nobody’s complaining that Main Street no longer looks like the set of a David Lynch film.
The other undeniable factor is government spending. The Haines Highway is being rebuilt in a project that will run eight years and generate one hundred million dollars – a mountain of money that probably eclipses what the rest of the local economy might produce otherwise in that time. The road work follows major improvements to the harbor and the airport. Jobs are now so plentiful (and profitable: a kid holding a sign on the highway is making thirty-five dollars an hour) that longtime local businesses – like Mountain Market and Lutak Lumber – sufferer chronic worker shortages, even for good opportunities.
For a place full of government-hating, Trump-lovin’ “rugged individualists,” the people here sure do seem addicted to government money. Funny, that.
Of course, there’s always a shadow side; most of the work is in preparation of bigger, more massive resource extraction. The road likely presages a series of huge mining projects up the Chilkat Valley and Canada, none of which exactly engenders confidence around the preservation of the area’s pristine wilderness and the last of the huge salmon runs in this part of the world. I’m sure the local Republicans will find a way to blame Obama when it all goes bad.
Regardless, it’s nice to see prosperity in any form visit this little corner of reality. I like to see my friends doing well.
Haines is beyond beautiful
I’ve been around a whole lot of the world. And in the end, I still believe that this part of Alaska – which was the first truly new place I experienced as a very young man – is the loveliest, most astonishing, enduringly mind-blowing, fully and incomprehensibly beautiful spot on the earth.
Photographs don’t do it justice. Inadequate as they are, however, they are better than words. So I’ll let them to the talking.
What I learned
Other stuff I learned this visit:
- Some of the best people are in Southeast Alaska
In the past, I often took a kind of neurotic comfort in wanting to believe that everything better happens in the big cities. But it aint necessarily so. Haines has no shortage of degenerate fools, just like anyplace. They only seem to stand out more here. But Haines also has lots of people doing great things at all levels – many of them not readily visible. There are builders, artists, entrepreneurs, athletes, mountaineers, volunteers, humble saints, and larger-than-life personalities of all stripes. The incidence of talent is out of proportion to the size of the place.
It’s not just talent and achievement, though. The things I have come to most value in friends, the more baseline stuff like heart, wit, and integrity, I find here in abundance. I don’t know a more soulful person than Tony. Or a more trustworthy person than Chip. A more natural artist than Melina. Harder workers than Mary Jean and Mike. A guy who makes me laugh more than Mike Sica.
I once knew a woman at Microsoft – someone I counted as a friend in my early days – who, it seemed, sold her soul to become a corporate vice president. She makes a zillion dollars now, but she would not make eye contact with me when I last ran into her. She has a sister who moved to Haines nearly thirty years ago and has since lived the typical Haines life: captaining a boat and serving stints at the local radio station and tourism bureau while refurbishing an old bed and breakfast. Kind, humble, and authentic, she is (in my view) worth five times her chilly sister.
So yeah, there’s goodness here, both large and small. The delta between conventional excellence in Southeast Alaska and in places like Seattle or San Francisco does exist (simply on the basis of numbers), but it’s not anywhere near as great as the numbers might suggest. The Lende family alone might be worthy of a novel, but they’re so nice that it’d never be a bestseller.
- Writing is hard
Speaking of bestsellers, I spent many hours this time with Heather Lende, whose books on small-town living – specifically, what she learned in writing more than five hundred obituaries for the Chilkat Valley News – have earned her multiple appearances on the New York Times list. The one big reason I came alone on this trip was to allow myself time to write my own book, on business storytelling. (The Lendes let me stay in the cool little apartment above their garage.) I seem to kind of suck at generating the momentum required to write a book, or at least I have so far. And so I welcomed the chance to spend some up-close time with a real writer.
Here’s what I discovered: A writer writes. She just writes. All the time. Whether she feels like it or not. Whether there’s a project or not. That’s what Heather does. With zero fanfare, she sits down writes at least three or four hours every day. And she’s done this for a couple of decades. No wonder she’s a best-seller. She might tell you that she’s no great artist – that her prose is neither Nabokov nor Norah Ephron – but that would be irrelevant. She’s become herself in words, and – not least because she’s interesting – that’s quite good enough. Screw art. Give me authenticity any day. Heather and her husband and their lovely kids and families are the real deal. I’m damn lucky to know them.
- Life is short
I took immense pleasure in hiking my old bones up to the top of Mt. Riley and on and around the trails and hillsides of Haines and Skagway. At one point, I wanted to go up to Upper Dewey Lake near Skagway just to photograph myself standing on a big, square rock. I ditched Skagway when my old friend Mike flew out of town without so much as a howdoyado (owing to a comic miscommunication). And while I skipped out on that opportunity, I arrived instead at a more valuable insight: We’re going to be gone very, very soon.
That big rock I mentioned is one that sits about twenty-five hundred feet up the mountainside, at the base of Pyramid Peak. I have a picture of me standing shirtless upon it, at the fearless age of twenty-one, on a warm day in August, just before my senior year of college. I took another picture some twenty years later, when I hiked up again the year that my boys were three years old. I thought this week that it would be interesting to photograph myself there one more time, another twenty years on. But it didn’t matter. My maudlin impulses are just so trivial in light of the reality of that rock.
That rock has not changed at all in these past four decades. Compared to the life of that mountain, four decades of my existence comprise less than four blinks of my own eye. That rock was there, probably almost exactly as it sits today, in the eons before Christ. It will no doubt be there long after we idiot humans have destroyed ourselves and the planet is overrun with glowing, six-foot cockroaches. And it will remain there after they’re gone too.
Hiking the Battery Point Trail, it occurred to me that we, as creatures, might just be living in a time splice – that our perception of existence could in fact just be attenuated to a very minute, very molecular pace, in which time has slowed down so much as to be almost completely still. That rock on the mountain will become sand, one day, as sure as the sun sets. The fertile soil of the vast San Fernando Valley once filled the now-empty abyss of the Grand Canyon. This world is in a process of violent explosion – vast destruction and recomposition taking place on a spinning planet that’s rocketing faster than the speed of light beyond the bounds of the galaxy. And yet, deceptively, it feels silent and still when we stop to meditate.
We exist here in the tiniest of heartbeats, the earth’s grand metamorphosis frozen in our eyes and our bodies and souls. We are stardust. We are golden. I’ll have another glass of wine, please.
- Global warming is real. For the first time that anyone can remember, the mountains of Southeast Alaska are completely naked of any and all snow. Only glacial ice remains; it is melting very, very quickly and will be mostly gone in a generation or two. Thanks, Obama.
- Salmon is nature’s perfect food. I ate it almost every day I was here. It is with guilt that I express how much I would welcome a cheeseburger right about now.
- Skagway, Alaska is a sad little prostitute of a town, existing only to make money for mercenary bastards. So. Pretty much the same as it was founded to be.
- I will be back. With any luck.