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Waqaa from Woolnough

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The last frontier

Bethel, Alaska—the last frontier. I’ve been dreaming about the frontier all my life. As a tyke, it was the wild, wild west. The frontier included Daniel Boone, the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers. When I got into school, the last frontier was space. Like most kids my age, I could name all of the original Mercury astronauts. I was going to be the first man on Mars. 

I now know that all of those imaginings were wrong. Bethel IS the last frontier. It fits most of the classic definitions: it IS at the far ends of the earth (in fact, the edge of the earth where things fall off can be seen from here!); it IS primitive (if one ignores the cable TV, cell phones and jet airport); there IS a feeling and spirit of excitement and discovery and a conceit that we can take on some of the harshest conditions on earth and not only survive, but thrive.

But it is hard to pretend we’re as tough as the old-timers. It’s even harder to imagine life as the elders in the villages tell about in their on-going oral traditions. Nowadays, if hunters don’t bag a moose or ‘bou, they stop at the AC store and grab a steak. This reminds me of people who fish in Lake Pend Oreille and end up buying salmon at Safeway or Yokes.

If we take a really close look at Bethel, we are forced to confront its oddities and absurdities. There are plenty! My first day here, I was picked up at the airport at about 3:45 in the afternoon after traveling for eight hours. Never was I close to being airsick. But I was almost carsick by 3:48—the roads (all 16 miles of them) in Bethel are reminiscent of an old roller coaster with unpredictable bumps, dips, drops and whoop-de-doos. Ptarmigan Road (trail?) is in amazingly good shape—there are fewer than ten potholes per square yard. Did I say ptarmigan? They are the dumbest birds ever invented. Chickens at least cross the road to get to the other side. Ptarmigans cross the road to stand there and be run over. 

And they are mostly run over by taxis! Yes, Bethel is the taxi capital of the world. There are almost 100 taxis in Bethel—one for every five persons. At this rate, New York would have over a million cabs. Why? I’m still not sure. Most seem to be parked at the AC store or the Post Office (which has over 5,000 PO boxes) or the hospital. The fare is $4.00 anywhere in town and $6.00 to the airport—no tipping required or expected. You don’t just get in a cab and go. The driver may go a mile or more out of his way to pick up another fare to ride along. The driver may, in fact, pick up three or four other fares. It can take thirty minutes to drive the two miles to your destination. 

Speaking of destinations, there are more hidden destinations than you might expect from a town of five thousand. In no particular order, the neighborhoods (or “subs” as the various subdivisions are called) include Brown’s Slough, Blueberry Sub, Louse Town, Alligator Acres, Tundra Ridge (my new home), Uivuq Sub, City Sub and Trailer Court. Tundra Ridge is a real estate agent’s dream—it sounds nice but has some of the worst mud during break-up season. Apparently most homes there are sold in winter and summer—not spring and fall (rainy season).

There’s more that’s odd about Bethel that I’ll share next time. Until then, tangerciqamci cali. (Or, as they say in the lower 48 - I'll see you again.)

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AC Woolnough

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Alaska, Bethel, pioneer

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