Waqaa from Woolnough
Alaska's best-kept secret
Bethel is Alaska’s best kept secret. So says a bumper sticker available at the Sourdough Gift Shop. For good reason it’s the best kept secret. It’s to keep people from laughing themselves (or is it crying themselves?) into a stupor.
Perhaps the best way to understand my new home is to play the game “You know you’ve been in Bethel too long when: (fill in the blank).” After seven weeks, here’s mine:
Gas, milk and juice prices no longer shock you.
The yellow submarine looks like a normal building.
The day being an hour shorter than the same day last week doesn’t seem strange.
You quit wondering why there are so many old red Subaru wagons on the roads.
You stop asking why there are no clean cars.
You see a picture of a house in the lower 48 and wonder why it’s not on stilts.
You forget what a bar or a real estate agent look like.
You know all the words to Paris on the Kuskokwim and think the radio tower really does look like that Eiffel thing in Paris.
Walking on the tundra no longer feels like walking on a water bed.
You don’t worry that the water/sewer truck might mix up the hoses
It takes money to live in Bethel. A nice (small) one-bedroom apartment goes for up to $1,500/month. OJ is $7.89/gal and gas is $2.75.
Of course, we have the only hospital in 120,000 square miles (1½ times larger than Idaho). So what if the architect made it tubular and painted it mustard yellow?
Elephants have a secret graveyard in Africa; old red Subarus come to Bethel to die. Of course, they’re all dirty—with water delivery at $60/month and the omnipresent silt (we’re on a delta—washed down remnants of the mountains 50 miles to the east)—the only wash a car ever gets is when it rains. With the silt and the cold comes permafrost which equates to houses on stilts to avoid being torn apart by the freeze/thaw cycle.
Bethel once took a vote to eliminate bars or real estate offices on every corner. They got rid of both! Instead, they nurtured a local musician who recorded songs about Bethel. He obviously was not funded by a grant from the local chamber of commerce. His CD (available on the Internet) is both funny and a good mix of folk, blues and ballads—check it out on the web!
Imagine a green, wet sponge the size of Montana. Now, walk across it. Does the ground sort of squoosh under your feet? Are there pools of water every few hundred feet? Is there a lot of moss? Are there blueberries and low-bush cranberries growing? Are there bear and ‘bou around? You’ve found the tundra in August!
Half of town gets water piped in from a Kafkaesque arrangement of above-ground insulated pipes. The unlucky half get water trucked in once or twice a week. At the same time (with the same truck?) our septic tank is pumped. Because of the stories I heard my first few weeks in Bethel, I actually checked to see that the fittings are different and the pipes are different diameters. I now breathe easier and have quit worrying about hose mix-ups. Besides, I’m too busy worrying about the price of milk ($6.79/gal).
So why do people live here? It’s a challenge to the human spirit and people come to rely on and appreciate one another. That is more than enough.