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Waqaa from Woolnough

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Unique is a way of life

I’ve said it before, and I should probably say it in every column: Bethel is unique. Unique is one of those great words that can hide a multitude of sins (excuse me, I meant meanings). In that sense, it’s almost as good as the word, interesting. Both are noncommittal and open to interpretation. Unique, as it applies to Bethel, includes strange, weird, odd, eccentric, perplexing, quaint, unexpected and curious—and much more!

Other than the perceptions of someone (me!) who is from down below or the lower 48 or outside or the real world, what’s the proof of Bethel being unique? Where’s the evidence? Don’t worry. There’s plenty!

For example, there’s no house-to-house trash pick up. There are no county dump sites. Instead, every few blocks (by the way, there are few blocks in Bethel) or every few hundred yards (yards as in three feet—there aren’t many grass-covered yards, either) there is a dumpster. Most have been brightly painted and include a saying, slogan or message. These include warnings about smoking, drugs, diabetes and domestic violence. One of the most popular souvenir items unique to Bethel is a T-shirt with pictures of about a dozen dumpsters. The caption for this item of sartorial splendor is (drum roll, please) “The Dumpsters of Bethel.”

If that’s not enough to convince you, may I call your attention to Just Desserts—a highly entertaining evening of music and dessert (duh!) provided by local groups to benefit arts in the schools. Where else but in Bethel does the local Catholic priest play the fiddle with two youth volunteers leading a sing along of Daisy, Daisy (Give me your answer do!/I'm half crazy/All for the love of you!). Or how about a gospel rock song by a Pearl Harbor survivor and his family? Not enough? They segued into a country-western tune by Hank Williams, Jr.—in Yup’ik! If you can accept the surrealism of those performances, you are indeed ready for Bethel!

One more example should suffice to demonstrate why Bethel is special. Special is another one of those words that can have so many different meanings. Imagine a town of 6,000 with a total of 16 miles of roads from April to November. Remember, these roads don’t go anywhere—just around town.  When we say you can’t get there from here, we mean it. Yet, for most of the winter and spring, Bethel has 150 miles of roads. Imagine, road mileage increasing by nearly one thousand percent just because it cools off a little.  Well, maybe it cools off a lot.  When the river freezes solid, the AK DOT (don’t get me started on abbreviations in Bethel) declares the ice road open.  Once more, it’s not that unusual to have an ice road in bush Alaska. What’s special (or is that unique?) about the Bethel ice road is that it leads to villages that become a poem (or lyrics to a song—once again, check out Michael Faubion’s Paris on the Kuskowim—available on the internet): Napaskiak, Akiak, Aniak; Tununak and Tuntuliak; Mekoryuk and Kwethluk; but don’t forget Eek! Yes, those are all villages on the Kuskokwim River. Now go back and say the names out loud. That’s true tundra rhythm.

What does all this mean?  Well, it certainly isn’t something as profound as the meaning of life. It does mean, however, that you don’t get to Bethel by accident—you have to want to come here! It is, after all, a unique place to be.

Allrakukegcikina (Happy New Year)


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AC Woolnough

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