Gold Rush Alaska

Begich Towers (BTI), Whittier, Alaska, 2012. Photo by Reed Young.

When I went to Alaska this past December, it wasn’t the cold that surprised me, but the light. The sun still rises in southern Alaska during winter, but it lies low in the sky, making long shadows, and the short days are bookended by stretches of cerulean twilight. It’s a dream for filmmakers and photographers: the golden hour lasts most of the day.

I was in Alaska to visit Whittier, a small town on the western side of the Prince William Sound, with my friend Reed, a photographer who shoots portrait series of communities all over the world. It was our third trip together. Earlier that year we’d photographed people in an El Paso neighborhood, and in 2010, we traveled to a fishing town in Alabama that had been affected by the BP oil spill. It’s not the type of work I usually do, but Reed needs someone to write profiles of his subjects and I need an excuse to get out of New York. He also needs someone to hold the lights.

Reed is not a documentary photographer: his shots are posed, lit, edited. I think he makes his subjects look good—luminous, and a little bit proud. When people are on the fence about getting their picture taken, Reed shows them samples of his work, and they tend to agree to a portrait. Sometimes he tells people that they are “pieces of a puzzle”— a benign thing for a photographer to say, maybe, but I always cringe when he says it. We shoot and interview so many people during our two-week trips that it’s hard for me to know how we’ll possibly combine all those stories into a cohesive whole.

Whittier, however, seemed like it would be easy. We weren’t headed to a sprawling city. The town was not wracked with any controversy that we knew of. Reed had been in touch with the mayor, who said we’d be welcome there. We didn’t even need to search too hard for an angle, because the town was a story unto itself: since 1960, almost everyone in Whittier has lived in the same building—a former army barracks called Begich Towers, built for military families during the cold war. We wanted to learn what life was like inside the building, and to find out what sort of person would live there. We planned to photograph and interview at least fifteen residents in two weeks.

For Alaska, where many villages are only accessible by plane or boat, Whittier is relatively easy to get to. We drove some sixty miles down the Seward Highway from Anchorage, snaking along an inlet that during low tide looks like a pitted moonscape. The trees that lined the road were white with sparkling frost; fog hangs low there and freezes on their branches. The view is spectacular but the highway is deadly. They don’t salt the roads in Alaska—in most parts of the state it’s simply too cold: the salt refreezes and creates “chemical ice” that bonds even more tightly to the asphalt. Instead they use sand and gravel for traction. In wintertime, the Seward Highway is often a continuous sheet of black ice. Many people only brave it during daylight hours, but this can be logistically difficult when the sun rises at 10 and sets at 3:30.

Getting to Whittier by land means passing through a two-and-a-half-mile, one-lane railroad tunnel that cuts through a mountain. Fifteen years ago, if you wanted to leave Whittier, you had to pay $75 to load your vehicle onto a train. In 2000 the tunnel was retrofitted to accommodate cars, so you can now pay $12 to drive slowly on top of the tracks. During winter months, auto traffic is allowed through twice an hour, at fifteen-minute intervals—one window for inbound traffic, another for outbound. But when the temperature drops below freezing, that window narrows to five minutes so that the internal temperature of the tunnel can be kept warm enough. When we pulled up we had just missed the window for Whittier-bound traffic, and our temperature gauge read -13. We waited at the staging area beneath a string of bleak, snow-covered stoplights, while a crew of burly ravens—the pigeons of Alaska—loitered nearby, puffing up their hackles.

Whittier is a product of World War II, when Alaska’s proximity to the Pacific Theater made it an object of interest to both the Americans and the Japanese. In June 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army launched an aircraft carrier attack on Alaska’s Dutch Harbor, a port town in the Aleutians—the string of islands that run southwest from the tip of Alaska. A few days later Japanese forces invaded two of the westernmost Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska, occupying both until the summer of 1943. (Today, Kiska is one of the most intact WWII battlegrounds in the world, but so much unexploded ammunition is still buried there that visits are strongly discouraged.) Soon afterward, the US Army completed a tunnel, a railroad terminus, and a port in present-day Whittier, using the area as its main supply link for the war effort in Alaska. The location was chosen not only for its access to Prince William Sound, but also because the constant bad weather made it difficult for bombers to find.

In the summer, Whittier’s population swells as thousands of pleasure boaters, fishermen, cannery workers, and tourists are drawn back to the harbor. Wildlife abounds: mountain goats graze on the green slopes across the water, black bears rifle through city dumpsters, humpbacks and orcas breach along the shore. But in the wintertime, when the weather turns nasty, industry dies down. Whittier sits on the state’s only deepwater harbor that doesn’t freeze during winter, but sea air isn’t much of a comfort when the wind blows hard enough to shatter windshields—if you’re not careful, it will rip your car doors right off. Sustained winds of fifty or sixty miles per hour are so common here that they don’t even merit weather warnings. (One night at the Anchor Inn—the only bar and restaurant in Whittier open year-round—a bartender nodded toward the snow whipping sideways past the window and said, “Down in the Lower 48, this would have a name.”) Signs around town read: BE CAREFUL! ALWAYS WEAR YOUR ICE CLEATS! Come October, the “snowbirds”—people who head south for the winter—take flight, and the population dwindles to about 170 people.

Even if there were demand for it, Whittier would have a hard time expanding, bounded as it is by water and mountains. The city is comprised mainly of low-lying industrial buildings, and from the harbor it slopes upward and inward toward Begich Towers, or BTI, the fourteen-story high-rise that sits atop a small hill.
 Following the war, the military decided to make Whittier a permanent base. In the early 1950s, the Army began construction on what would become the largest and second largest buildings in Alaska: the Buckner Building, a sprawling compound for enlisted men, and the Hodge Building, a high-rise for military families. The Buckner Building was promoted as the “City Under One Roof.” It contained, among other things, a bowling alley, a movie theater, a shooting range, a barbershop, a darkroom, and a six-cell jail. Built in seven sections to prevent it from cracking apart in the event of an earthquake, its insides were labyrinthine. Though both residential buildings were occupied briefly, the Buckner Building was abandoned in 1960 when the Army pulled out of Whittier due to a decline in military cargo. The remaining residents moved into the Hodge Building.

Throughout the 1960s, Whittier’s population hovered between forty and seventy people. During the 1964 earthquake that destroyed Anchorage, thirteen of Whittier’s residents were killed, swept out to sea by a forty-foot tsunami. The port, however, sustained less damage than the ports of other nearby cities, so for the next few years, Whittier’s port facility became the busiest in the state. Whittier incorporated in 1969, and in 1973 the remaining residents bought the city from the Army, turning the Hodge Building into a condo association and renaming it Begich Towers, Inc. Most people now refer to the Towers as BTI. Behind BTI is Whittier School, and behind that, a mountain. The tower has been painted in a weakly cheerful combination of cream, peach, and blue, but when it was built in 1956 its concrete was left unadorned. Today, nearly 90 percent of Whittier’s residents call it home.

Too full of asbestos and lead to demolish safely, the decaying Buckner Building still lies empty on the hillside, tucked into the trees like some sort of Soviet Overlook Hotel. The building has long been a teenage hangout; its interior walls are covered in graffiti, and hundreds of flattened beer cans are suspended in the thick layer of ice that coats its floors.

The first time we stepped inside BTI, we found a gray-haired man in slippers and pajamas scanning the bulletin boards that line the entrance. “You’ll get a ticket if you park your car near the doorway like that,” he snapped, then shuffled into an elevator. Most of Whittier’s citizens are outgoing and friendly, but BTI has a few shut-ins, residents who never leave the building. They never need to: the first floor houses a post office, police station, grocery store, and Laundromat. (It used to house a combination video store/tanning salon, but then Netflix came along, and a resident moved the tanning bed into his apartment.) On the third floor you’ll find a health clinic, and in the basement there’s a church.

As comfortable as it is, BTI can’t shake its past as an Army barracks. The hallways, with their fluorescent lighting and painted cinderblock walls, reminded me of an old public high school, and the condo we stayed in still had its military-issue metal cabinets, pale yellow 1950s electric stove, salmon-colored tile, and rattling wood-frame windows. Like the Buckner Building, BTI was built to be earthquake-resistant, made of three separate concrete sections connected by metal plates: if you run into the hall during a big tremor, you can see the sections swaying in opposite directions. It’s also basically fireproof. On our second day in town we were downstairs at the Kozy Korner grocery store when an alarm went off—an excruciating blare that wouldn’t stop, like the horn that New York ambulance drivers lean on when people won’t get out of their way. The man we’d been talking to put his fingers in his ears and screamed over the noise: “It’s just the old military fire alarm system. Goes off around once a month. I’m sure the fire department is coming to turn it off.” He tried to keep up a conversation, but Reed and I couldn’t concentrate, so we escaped to the one set of functioning elevators. An older man wearing a track jacket got on with us. We explained that we were new to town, and asked what he did during these alarms. He shrugged. “It’s quietest inside the condos, so your best bet is to just go to your room and shut the door. It’s a concrete building; nothing’s going to burn down.” When he got off the elevator, we noticed that the back of his jacket read: WHITTIER VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT.

Turnover can be high among newcomers here. Though there are plenty of summertime jobs, there is no year-round industry in Whittier besides the port—and the Alaska Railroad workers mostly commute in from Anchorage. All but one of the police officers lives out of town. Even the mayor lives in Anchorage. But people eke out a living somehow. The harbor and the tower and the city itself are in need of constant maintenance. Seasonal work is plentiful enough that residents work two jobs in the summertime to soften the lean months.

Most of the residents here are transplants from the Lower 48, though the past year has seen an influx of immigrants from American Samoa, the Philippines, and Guam. They come here the same way people come to Alaska in general: they hitch a ride on a whim, they come for seasonal work, they get word from a family member that money is good here and they fly or drive up. Then they stay, perhaps because they are stuck, but usually because they fall in love with the landscape, the freedom, the ruggedness of Alaskan living. Whittier is still an anomaly, though. Residents of the BTI—and Whittier Manor, the only other residential building in Whittier—lack something that other Alaskans hold dear: privacy.

In some ways Whittier is a small town wearing big-city clothes. You’ll find nosy neighbors in any small town, but in the high-rise you can hear your next-door neighbors’ conversations through the walls, and most people have a view. Everyone on the harbor-facing side of BTI keeps binoculars on their windowsills; when he first moved to Whittier, one man was warned to think twice before taking a piss outside. A lot of residents walk around the BTI in their house slippers. We befriended a schoolteacher who told us that after she moved into BTI it took her a long time before she felt comfortable going to a friend’s apartment wearing pajamas or even holding a glass of wine. “I mean, I’m the teacher,” she said. “But then I realized that the barriers were just going to be different here.” When her students have problems with homework, they just knock on her apartment door.

After the alarm was finally shut off, we called up the mayor, who gave us a tour of the city in his truck. He drove us to the edge of town, where a new road was being built. A handful of Whittier’s citizens and council members would like to see a resort area built further out on the peninsula, hoping that it will bring in more tourist traffic. He then took us through the rail yards, back toward Whittier School—which is connected to BTI by an underground tunnel—and dropped us at our condo. “Well, I’m glad you guys arrived this week,” he said, “Because it’s going to be crazy next week when those people from the Discovery Channel and the History Channel get here.”

Sometime in the fall the mayor had told Reed that a couple of television production companies were interested in filming reality shows in Whittier. One company, Discovery Studios, had even started sending out contracts to “characters” that producers were interested in. Reed had planned to visit Whittier in 2013, but when he learned that residents might be signing binding contracts this year he changed his plans and bought tickets for December 2012. We thought we had beaten everyone else to the punch—we hadn’t even thought of the possibility that the TV crews could show up while we were there. But the mayor had been fielding calls from everyone who was interested in documenting Whittier, and now it seemed that, by trying to get to there before the other New York media people did, we’d all accidentally scheduled our trips for the same time. It was just a minor annoyance for Reed and me, but the TV crews were being forced into a sort of showdown. The mayor told us that the city would be holding a special council meeting so that both production companies could pitch their show ideas to the people of Whittier. We were invited to come and watch. “A reality show could be good for bringing attention to our little town,” he said, “but it does worry me, too. I don’t want to be some Alaskan Honey Boo-Boo.”

Over the past few years, the number of reality television shows set in Alaska has skyrocketed. In 2012, more than a dozen aired on major cable networks. Most of the programming is of the “man versus nature” variety: shows like Deadliest Catch, Gold Rush Alaska, and even Ice Road Truckers tend to focus on the strange and dangerous professions of the Last Frontier. But forays into human drama have been made. This past fall the Military Wives series held a casting call in Anchorage, and in 2011, TLC aired the short-lived Big Hair Alaska, a show about Wasilla’s Beehive Beauty Shop, where Sarah Palin used to get her hair done. The film and television industry in Alaska has grown so rapidly that in 2010 the Anchorage Daily News started a blog called “Hollywood Alaska,” which reports on the latest industry news and routinely asks whether the state is getting enough return on this media gold rush.

The Lower 48’s obsession with the Last Frontier isn’t the only cause of the boom. In 2009, the Alaskan government began offering subsidies that allowed producers to recoup up to 44 percent of their spending in the state. The subsidy program—one of the most generous in the country—has been controversial. Before 2009, shooting an entire feature film or TV series in Alaska tended to be prohibitively expensive. (Northern Exposure, the famous 1990s show about a Jewish doctor from New York who moves to a small town in Alaska, was shot entirely in Washington State.) More filming means more out-of-state film crews spending money on food and lodging, and could potentially be a boon for tourism, but the latest reports from the Alaska Film Office show that only around 15 percent of the total wages paid by these tax-subsidized productions have gone to Alaskans over the past three years. On the 2010 season of Deadliest Catch, Alaskan workers earned less than $20,000, while out-of-state workers took home more than $1.3 million. And although an Alaskan setting is central to the plotline of most of the films and shows that are shot here, some production companies have come under fire for abusing the subsidy. Baby Geniuses 3, a movie about crime-fighting babies and toddlers, paid less than 6 percent of all wages to in-state employees, and its plot brought little attention to “Alaskan issues.”

Even when money or recognition does reach Alaskans, its effects are uncertain. Audiences typically tune in to Alaska-based reality TV for “real men in danger,” not upwardly mobile characters. “Suddenly there’s a lot of money floating around Tanana,” a woman told us of the village where Yukon Men is filmed, “but no one can go out and buy a new Carhartt jacket, because on the show they’re supposed to look like they’re just barely hanging on.” The Discovery Channel synopsis claims that Tanana is “part of an unknown America where men hunt and trap to survive, subsisting like modern day cavemen.” One of the stars complained that after he brought home a deer he’d slaughtered, producers asked him to empty his fridge and freezer, so that when he filled them with meat it would look like he’d had nothing to eat before.

At first I was surprised that people in Whittier were so nonchalant about being documented—media-savvy, even. When we told one man with a Santa Claus beard that we’d like to take his portrait, he suggested he get a haircut first, but then his friend jumped in. “No, they want that swag. They want to see a guy who can hold a job with a beard like that. It’s so Alaska.” As long as the town of Whittier has existed, outsiders have been fascinated by the way its citizens live, but with the current glut of reality television in the state, it seemed that everyone we met knew someone who’d recently been on-camera. The mayor had a friend on the taxidermy show Mounted in Alaska. A local had worked as a deckhand on a boat that was chartered for The Last Frontier, and when she tuned in, excited to see her boat on TV, she was surprised to find that she herself was on the show. The day after the episode aired, someone belatedly called to ask for permission to use her likeness.

Our first week in town, we hurried to finish as many portraits as possible before the production companies showed up. We weren’t exactly in competition with the TV crews, but we did worry that people would tire of interviews and cameras. “Are you the TV people?” they asked. So many residents were relieved when we said no that we began to introduce ourselves by saying, “Hi, we’re from New York, and we’re not with a reality show.” Most of the town, it seemed, was murmuring about TV. Some feared they’d be made to look stupid. Others worried that onscreen drama would cause rifts in the community. Most thought the town was too boring for anyone to actually go through with a show. “People get scared about who will be picked to be on the show,” said the city manager, “because they all think their neighbors are idiots.”

One morning we came downstairs to find casting call notices on the bulletin boards in BTI’s lobby. “Today I saw a spiky-haired woman in a miniskirt,” said the cashier at the Kozy Korner. “So I figured she must be from New York.” We overheard the desk clerks at Whittier School double-daring each other to go to the auditions that were being held that night. “Come on,” said one, “I want that TV money!”

On the day of the council meeting, big lazy snowflakes fell on Whittier, blanketing the town. Reed and I walked down to the Public Works building where council members and about thirty citizens had gathered. Cameras were rolling. A couple of men in skinny jeans and brand-new Sorrel snow boots were fiddling with a DVD setup. Each production company would be given a chance to pitch its show: producers were to talk about the benefits of signing with their company and what would happen if the show got picked up by a network. People in town had been referring to the crews as simply “the Discovery Channel” and “the History Channel,” but these labels were a bit misleading: one group was from Discovery Studios, the in-house production company for all Discovery-owned networks. The other group, though contracted by the History Channel, was from a small New York production company.

The representative from Discovery Studios gave her presentation first, leading off with a short reel of her company’s reality shows. The video cut frantically between clips, from a hoarding show (“We have to clean this place up, starting now!”) to a cop show (“The southern Texas border has become a war zone”) to a diving show (“They want me to swim with sharks—what the hell was I thinking?”). The producer then explained that she had come to get a “sampling of flavors” in Whittier so she could make a “sizzle reel” to pitch to networks. She kept referring to the people in town as “characters.”

The next representative called his Manhattan-based production company a “mom-and-pop shop,” and explained that his show was trying to explore how real people lived in America. He argued that the History Channel was the right choice for Whittier because the network had an interest in “independent entrepreneurial-type people” and “unconventional lifestyles.”

Both teams dispelled the rumors—widely circulating at the time—that if they requested it in their contracts, Whittier’s “characters” could pre-screen episodes to make sure anything they objected to wouldn’t air. (This option, the producers explained, is typically only given to military and law-enforcement agencies so that they can screen for classified information.) The floor was then opened up to questions from the audience.

The mayor said he was concerned that not enough went on in Whittier for a reality show to be sustained. “With Gold Rush Alaska,” said the mayor, “some of them tune in to see the characters, and some of them tune in to see if they strike gold. And the same thing with Pawn Stars. People tune in to see the pawn stars, and they also tune in to see what they’re pawning and what they’re selling. We don’t have gold to find or Rolex watches that’s being pawned to us. All we have is characters out here.” Without an industry to follow, and with the main interest in Whittier being its unique housing situation, residents worried that producers would try to stir up interpersonal drama in the BTI. People voiced their fears of being made to look stupid.

Not at all, said one producer. “You’re Alaska,” she stressed. “If anything we’d be bragging about your extreme lifestyles.” Someone asked if there was a difference between the concepts of the two teams’ shows, and both said their theme would be “the story of a small town,” an answer that did little to lessen residents’ concerns about how they might be portrayed.

“Well, they’re obviously going to show some of the bad side of Whittier,” said a bottle-blonde resident in a leopard-print coat. “That’s what’s going to make a show. But they’re not going to make an intelligent person look stupid. And they’re not going to make a negative, stupid person look good.”

A woman in the back of the room spoke up. “This is the first time in a long time that our kids are getting confidence to go out on their own and to seek out new things to do, and I really don’t want to see that damaged. Our EMS department is getting awards; a lot of people are getting awards. We’ve worked too hard for that to just go down the drain because somebody wants to be on TV.” Schoolteachers expressed fears about how a reality show might affect their students. A relative newcomer to Whittier talked about how proud she was to call the town home, and began to cry. I kept my eye on the cameras, wondering if the producers were telling the truth when they said that this footage was not for broadcast.

Though the meeting offered a forum for residents to raise questions and voice concerns, there was nothing, actually, to vote on. City councils can’t determine whether or not a company should be allowed to film in their town. The Discovery producer explained that both companies could potentially go forward with their shows if they wanted to, though she suggested that the people of Whittier choose one company so the town would not be divided. Attendees suggested that everyone meet sometime at the Anchor Inn—not as a city council or a school board or a condo association, but as a community—so that if they went forward with a show, they went forward together.

The mayor, despite his reservations, was excited about the prospect of a reality show. “I just got back from the East Coast,” he said. “One of my favorite things I did while I was in Boston was go to Cheers. I had my picture taken in Norm’s seat at the bar, and I can see people wanting to come to Whittier and see where people sit at the bar or see where the city has their city council meetings. I could see some positive in this.” The Discovery producer reminded everyone that having a whole TV crew in town, in need of room and board, would boost the wintertime economy. “If you have a favorite seat at the Anchor Inn,” joked the History Channel producer, “you better write your name on it now.”

“But they’re going to become townspeople,” protested the producer from Discovery. “They’re going to become one of you. These are going to be your friends.”

A production assistant was in her workout clothes, doing laps in the BTI hallway, when Reed and I were setting up one of our last shots of the trip. She had her headphones in, so we didn’t bother to say hi. Soon afterward, the rest of her crew walked by and stopped to chat. “So, I hear you guys are from The New Yorker,” said the executive producer—it seemed that our story had passed through the rumor mill too—”What are your names? Maybe I’ve seen your work.” It’s always embarrassing the way media people talk to you when they hear that you are one of them. The local photographer wants you to look over his shoulder while he shows you his website and complains about his small-town neighbors. The film crew from New York invites you to the party they’re having at a “rockin’ space” in Bushwick. Their shop talk has a competitive edge, and shouldn’t be mistaken for friendliness: “By the way, are there any cool people in town you think that we should talk to?”

These interactions leave you with the same hollow sadness you feel inside an Apple store, but they also check the impulse to believe you’re the tourist who’s less touristy than other tourists. Reed and I were taking a portrait of a local artist in her studio, hanging lights from the ceiling and repositioning her woodcarvings, when one of us made some sneering comment about the TV crews. “Oh come on, it’s not all that different from what you guys are doing,” she said. “I mean, you all just come here and then go home and make some kind of story, right?”

A tide of out-of-towners has come and gone with every boom and bust in Alaska, from the Klondike Gold Rush to the Cold War military growth that tripled the state’s population. Most of the people we met in Alaska had arrived in the early 1980s, in the fat years after the completion of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which carries oil from Alaska’s North Slope down to Valdez, just across the sound from Whittier. These were the people who didn’t come for the oil but for the boom. They started restaurants and hotels and paint shops and craft shops—they stayed on and became Alaskans. But the people with their eye on Alaska now are more voyeurs than adventurers. They aren’t interested in contributing stories of their own, but rather extracting and exporting the ones here already. The great part about TV is that you can watch all the excitement from the comfort of your own home.

On our last night in town we went down to the Anchor Inn, but it was empty when we showed up, so we sat in the back with the bartender, watching the wind blow snow across the rail yard. “When I was younger,” she said, “I was real thin, and that wind hit me so hard one time I slid completely underneath my car.” Customers started trickling in, but the place was quieter than usual—we had all become glued to the huge flat screen TV, which was playing nonstop tragedy on the late-night news. A couple of guys from a TV crew came in with the bar’s owner and sat down for drinks. A few of the regulars—Russ, Rusty, and Russ (one of the Russes is Rusty’s son)—ambled in. Conversation picked up, the crowd started to buzz. But everything stopped when a woman at the bar who Reed and I had been talking to all night got a call from a friend in the BTI.

“Again?” she yelled. “Don’t worry, I’m coming. Call Officer Dave.” It was a domestic dispute in the tower. She said she’d be back as soon as she could.

“Okay,” people called out to her, “It will be okay.”

The producer from the TV crew was staring into his lap—texting rapidly beneath the bar.

“Are you trying to check out what’s going on up there?” asked Reed.

“Yeah,” said the producer, “I’m pretty sure we can get a ride-along.”

“You know,” Reed said to the producer, “I think TV people are real shitheads.”

The producer was taken aback, but didn’t say much in response. We turned back to the flat screen and ordered another drink. When we left, the crew was still there, sitting at the bar, taking up people’s favorites seats, just as they’d joked they would. The next day, we left Whittier.

Throughout the second week of our trip, we kept seeing another man, all in black, walking through town with a tripod. We’d assumed he was with the television crews, but we only ever saw him alone. One night we went to the Anchor Inn and he was sitting at the bar with a woman. We sat down next to them. It turned out that he was a photographer and she was a writer. We were all at the corner of the bar, each pair facing the other—it was like looking through some existential funhouse mirror. They told us they had met at Yaddo, and were opaque about what they were doing in Whittier.

“I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing here,” he said. “I’m mostly just taking pictures of piles of snow.”

“I don’t really leave the condo,” she said. “I just stare out the window, write a little poetry.”

After a while we sussed out that they’d come to Whittier for a romantic getaway and a few weeks of artistic inspiration. It was such a departure from the mode we’d been in. We’d been surrounded by people looking for stories, and here they were, searching for something else, something they couldn’t even name.

We explained to them that we had thought the photographer was with a reality show, but the couple had no idea what we were talking about—”I don’t even say hi to anyone,” the poet said. We told them about the crews in town, and about reality TV’s hunger for Alaska. They admitted that they could see the appeal; that they too were taken with the “realness” of Alaskan living.

“We’ve been thinking about moving here,” said the writer, “to one of the little empty cabins behind the Buckner Building.”

Later I’d keep imagining them up there in the winter to come, freezing in one of those tiny cabins—previously abandoned because they were unlivably cold. Something about it seemed so silly, so arbitrary: if these two stayed in Whittier instead of going home to make their art about it, suddenly they’d have become insiders, or “characters” just like everybody else, and our lenses would have turned on them, too.

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