“Sorry we’re late,” he said as they pulled the truck up beside me. I’d only been standing outside the dinky airport for five minutes, but it had been long enough to take in the tremendously foreign scenery. The long, flat tundra of Nome seemed to stretch out in every direction. It was quite a contrast to the mountainous, tree covered terrain I’d grown accustomed to in Anchorage and Southeast Alaska. I was in a different world.
I threw my school backpack into the car and told him it wasn’t a problem. I was just glad they recognized me, and I them. I’d only met Mike Lewis and his wife, Gale once a year and a half prior.
“That’s all you brought?” Gale asked, sounding incredulous. I too was impressed. It was probably the least I’d ever packed for a three-day excursion. From the unexpected chill in the air, however, I was beginning to believe I hadn’t packed enough.
Mike announced that the two of them were at my disposal, and were delighted to give me the grand tour of the Seward Peninsula. The peninsula covered 29,400 sq mi but only has three roads out, each of which goes approximately 80 mi before they dead end. I worried three days might be too long.
Day 1: Sociology
Chukotka-Alaska Inc. is 200 sq ft of shelves stacked high with everything from Native trinkets made in China to mukluks and parkas made in nearby villages.
“Are ya lookin’ for something in particular?” the gift shop proprietor Victor Goldsberry asked. “I’ve got these new books over here.” He rolled a wrinkled grey finger over one of the many stacks of books. “Or these new key chains.”
I come from a tourist town, and had no interest in frivolous gewgaws and overpriced knickknacks. I felt obligated to purchase something, however, and feigned interest in a dusty, out of print book about a woman adventurer who had lived in the Nome area 100 years ago.
After an hour-long discussion with Goldsberry about the history of Nome and the 70 years he’d given to it, I bought the book.
Once we left Chukotka, my hosts took me to every other shop along West Front Street. It took all of an hour.
Mike and Gale were both born and raised in Nome. During high school, Mike’s parents moved to the Lower 48, but five years later he returned, looking for the girl he’d loved from across the school hallways. They have been married ever since, and unlike the landscape of their city, their relationship has seen plenty of highs and lows.
My tour guides took me to all corners of their town. I was amazed at how 3,500 people could live in a place so small, so remote, so reminiscent of every great horror movie: the empty airstrip that is only visited three times a day by a plane bound for Kotzebue and Anchorage; the flat, seemingly lifeless tundra that sucks up every ounce of sound; the old abandoned dredges, scattered across the landscape – towers of metal and might – haunted by lives compromised 40 to 100 years ago; the monolithic towers atop Anvil Mountain looking down upon Nome with their microwave antennas that used to spread and receive communications 30 years ago.
Nome is a ghost town full of living people. It is the Hollywood setting to stories of vampires, ghouls, aliens and cabin-fevered lunatics. Yet there is something earnestly romantic about it.
That first day, after we drove around Nome’s businesses and eateries, we picked up their two young boys, and together drove to Pilgrim Hot Springs. The gravel highway offered pristine views of tundra – an ancient land once covered in volcanoes and glaciers.
Alongside the road were small cottages or shacks, sporadically placed. They were abandoned for the season; summer homes mostly used by the residents of Nome. They are reminiscent of datchas, the country cabins used in Russia as getaways from the hectic Soviet-style housing – a place to grow vegetables and spend time with family.
We drove approximately 50 mi to Pilgrim, the site of an old abandoned town and similarly abandoned hot springs. At one time, this place was a small community comprised of a barn, a church, a schoolhouse and a smattering of pioneer homes. The hot springs had been piped into big barrels, large enough for four or five adults to sit in. With time forgot, however, the barrels are now filled with green moss and the water is black. The vile smell of sulfur fills the air and black sand rises to the surface of the ponds – hardly inviting.
That evening, my friends were exhausted from the long hours spent in the car, and I was suffering from hours of karate chopping with the two boys in the backseat. We dropped the kids off at their grandparents’ and forced ourselves to find the energy to go out on the town.
The first bar, Board of Trade, was small and dark, just as a frontier bar should be.
Kelly, a 50-something blond bulging out of her bustier, was a bartender by night, and one of Nome’s top real estate agents by day. Despite the hellions that had converged upon the bar, she managed to eek out a friendly introduction to me, and line up shot after shot in front of where I sat.
The Coasties were in town, which gave me great insight to the social culture of Nome. The Coast Guard frequently stops there. Some years ago, however, the town banned them from coming ashore when they docked. It seems they had a bad habit of stealing the wives for a night, getting them pregnant and leaving the next day. The ban had recently been raised, but attitudes towards the Coasties had not changed.
Kelly picked up the microphone and announced with fervor: “Hey, guess what I heard? The Coast Guard is in town!”
There was a light muffled, “Hurrah!”
An hour later, more Coasties arrived, and again Kelly grabbed the microphone. “Hey, I heard the Coast Guard’s in town!” This time there was less revelry in her voice, but the cheer had gotten substantially louder, as there were more Coasties in the bar and the liquor consumption had increased.
Another hour later, Kelly grabbed the microphone again. “Hey you guys, I heard the Coasties are here.” Her voice was void of any humor. The cheers and whistles, however, left my ears ringing. The bar was filled with handsome young Coasties and surly locals. Within seconds, fists were made and mayhem was unleashed. That was about the time we paid our tab and made our way to Breakers, a bar just down the block.
It was a different scene there. Natives and non-Natives mingled in a large bar saturated with disco music. There were no Coasties; it was a safer place to soak up the nightlife. By then, however, we were completely tuckered. We stuck around for one more drink and then made our way home.
This is the first of three installments. Look for “Nome: Day 2: Culture” in next week’s issue.