ALCOHOL WAS A FACTOR: Newspapering in Rural Alaska

Leaving Haines, For Good.

I’m leaving Haines, Alaska; this outpost on the edge of everything — a town that has vexed, fascinated and at times maddened me.

Finally, I’m leaving, perhaps even fleeing, this place I have come to love for its rugged ethereal surroundings, but often loathed for the pretensions and, in a few cases, mean-spiritedness, of its people.

Haines has trolled me, befriended me and gotten me bloody drunk on the nearly 10%-alcohol witch’s brew at the local microbrewery-sweet-home.

The town has made me work longer and harder than I have in years, made me want to crawl over three miles of frozen broken-glass just to get the fuck out of town.

So now I’m going. And no one will be sad.

But maybe I’m going too soon.

Maybe there is a silver lining here among the snow and ice and arrogance.

Thirty years ago, when Haines first started pitching itself as a tourist destination, a consultant advised the civic fathers that they drop the name Haines, named after an early missionary, because it sounded too much like Hanes the underwear maker.

If not Haines, Alaska, I have some suggestions: Hassle, Alaska; Hector, Alaska or Harass, Alaska.

I do admit this: I came to Haines in the dead of winter, when the skittish sun hovers just over the horizon, each day casting only six hours of gray weakling light.

November, after all, is far from summer, when the place basks in 18 hours of daylight, time to take advantage of everything the wild-and-woolly 49th State has to offer. That’s when people are too busy to snipe, too tired to hate, putting on their best faces for the tourists.

No, in winter, Haines stays mostly dark. And wet, rainy and cold.

People get depressed. They turn on each other, like bears rustled out of their den in January.

Tom Morphet, the owner of the local newspaper, told me that when he first arrived in Haines an old-timer told him cabin fever was nothing, that in Haines you even got “Shack Nasty.”

In Haines, people wave to one another from their cars, but refuse to talk in person.

Sure the scenery is spectacular, but after awhile those mountains are like Picassos that have hung too long in the same spot. You no longer see them because in Haines, you’re too busy concentrating on the personal chemical reactions gone wrong in the petrie-dish town down below.

“We’re cannibals,” said one resident as we walked up a street that had turned into an icy, slushy mess by a pouring rain.

“There aren’t enough people here. So we prey on ourselves.”

That was the sunny chamber version of life here. It had to be much darker than that.

The long-timer said it was.

She said people often have little nice to say until a person dies. Then they’re given a glowing and folksy sendoff in an obituary in the ChilKat Valley News, written by Heather Lende, an author who has made Haines famous for its glow and folksiness.

Another resident told me she knew lots of smart women here; she just wished some of them were a little nicer.

And here’s the thing: Some 71% of Haines residents weren’t even born in Alaska. Lots of people here are newcomers of a sort; people who often make it hard on the most recent arrival.

Tom says people are no weirder, or meaner, here than elsewhere; there’s just so few of them in this little fishbowl of a town, you get to know their foibles personally.
You get a front seat to all the weirdness and meanness.

That said, this town has made me do things I have never done before.
Because here’s how it works in Haines:

You meet people you don’t like and who don’t like you. Maybe you’ve written a questionable story about them. Maybe they don’t like the newspaper owner you work for. Maybe they just don’t like outsiders.

Maybe it’s all of the above.
So, once you’ve established you don’t like them and that they don’t like you, you run into them — constantly; everywhere.

You see them at the IGA checkout; at the Mountain Market coffee line; at the library; at the microbrewery.

And here is what you do here in tiny Haines to handle such encounters: You pretend you don’t see these people. And they pretend they don’t see you.

You keep your head down. You master the art of social avoidance. You both fear and regret trips to the grocery store.

Haines has also taught me some things — for one, that I am not small town material. I like my anonymity.

I don’t like people knowing my business. The rule is that folks here don’t really care what you do; as long as they know what you’re doing.

I have met people here who will stay with me.

There’s Joe Parnell, the infamous Feltist, a misunderstood artist, musician, athlete and funny-farm escapee who dresses up in a bear costume, refers to himself as a bear in a man costume, says funny things and makes art out of felt; because he always obeys the voices in his head.

Joe likes to do stuff — kid’s stuff. Stuff you do when you live on Child Time.

Joe sent me a text the other day.

“If I am to be remembered for a sentence, let it be this one, ‘We should encourage encouragement and put down put-downs.’”

He texted moments later. “Or this one, ‘It’s better to get an A and have a bad attitude than get an F and feel good about yourself.’”

There’s newspaper owner Tom Morphet, who knows how to make enemies and keep friends. Tom has labored here for 30 years, often with only grief as his paycheck, to make sure Haines has a community voice.

There’s Jane Pasco, Tom’s Australian-born wife, who rescued me from a dungeon basement apartment, offering me a room in her newly-bought house with the view of the Coast Range and the deepest fjord in North America.

She also introduced me to Willow the black cat, who became my reluctant friend.

There’s Leigh Horner, who chases gossip like an investigative reporter. And Fred Shields, an artist and prankster whose professorial brilliance is mixed with boyish wonder; a man infatuated by maps, who can cite little details about each of the places you lived.

Larger-than-life characters lurk here.

Haines is a big dysfunctional family of rambunctious siblings. Sure, you can pull your sister’s hair and knock your brother’s teeth out, because you’re all of the same tribe. But goddammit; don’t let some stranger say something bad about your kin, because the folks here just won’t stand for that.

Over the weeks, I quoted many people here who don’t like my boss. Some were on the town council. One assembly colleague of Tom’s pretty much nailed the social dynamic here.

“Tom made me cry a week ago,” she said, her face reddening, “but today he sent me a text wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving.”

There’s the mayor who almost wept in public over a motion Tom made to fire the new town manager. She doesn’t even read Tom’s paper, she says, because Tom has been mean to her.

There’s the new police chief whose department, Tom says, should be cut in half. He recently challenged the headhunter who recruited him: “What the hell have you gotten me into?”

Ahhhhhh, Haines.

As my days wore down, I ran into these folks, and said my goodbyes. I told most of them that they were good people and that I was glad to have known them.

I ran into Mayor Jan Hill one day at the local Mountain Market.

“How’s the world according to Tom Morphet?” she asked.

“It’s a planet with lots of spin,” I said.

I have a soft spot for Jan. When I wrote about a local abuse center, she confided that, before she became mayor, she’d been physically abused for years by a man in town.

I think that was a brave thing, especially in this town.

She told me that she almost called me back after our interview and asked me not to use such personal information: She didn’t know me and didn’t trust the paper.

But in the end she let it slide and was glad she did. She said I’d done a good job — a fair job.

I told them that I worked for Tom Morphet but I was not Tom Morphet, that I had my own brand of journalistic credibility. I tried to judge people on my own well-honed reporter’s instincts and didn’t want to fall into the morass of Haines local politics.

I still believe Jan Hill is one classy woman.

So, yes, there are things I will miss about this town — even in winter.

I’ll miss putting out the paper with Jane — waiting for the prop plane or the ferry to arrive from Juneau, so we can race like Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory — affixing the labels, making stacks, running to the post office and various retail outlets.

We never know when the weather will break and the plane can land so the whole drill can start again. I told Jane I came to Haines not so much to write stories but to deliver newspapers.

And I was only half kidding.

I’ll miss walking in the falling snow, past a murder of two-dozen crows — Heckle and Jeckle and the entire black-winged clan — who were so busy gossiping and arguing that they paid me no mind.

I’ll miss the late-and-early sun that cast the distant mountain ranges in a vivid glow that’s known as alpine light. And I’ll miss my morning walks to work in the dark, (at 8 a.m.!) just after a big snowfall, when the big plows move down the road, pushing several feet of new precipitation, looking like prehistoric things; their mammoth tires chained, their horns singing a beep-beep-beep as they back up on unpeopled streets, warning no one but me.

I’ll miss seeing the colorful totem poles around town, the towers of Tlingit art that remind us this land once belonged to a people who understand its extremes, whose gentle spirit has attuned itself to changeling weather that few newcomers can fathom.

I will not miss paying $18 for a small bag of oranges. I will not miss walking on ice like Charlie Chaplin, once in borrowed rubber boots quickly that gave me blisters.

And I will not miss writing for a hyper-critical readership who holds grudges.

But here is what I will miss most, and I will miss it a lot:

I will miss walking around town after dark, when I have Haines to myself; the weather cold, my breath labored, the mountains and canal lurking in the blackness beyond

I’ve taken several such walks.

On Thanksgiving night, after attending a dinner outside town, I walked three miles under skies that celebrated the stars. As I trudged along, I talked with my father, who had died exactly two years before to the day, in Ketchikan, with me there in his hospital room, hearing his shortened breaths until I didn’t hear them anymore.

I felt close to my Dad that night.

And I remember walking home from Fort Seward, past the twinkling harbor lights, drunk on beer and wine and feeling very alive. I didn’t walk so much as zigzag.

I called my wife on my iPhone.

I told her that every time Haines took something from me, it gave me something back.

But now I’m leaving.

Joe Parnell, the Feltist, will leave soon to winter in the Lower 48 — with his Roller blades and bear costume in tow. He’s going to try out Moab, Utah and I hope he likes it there.

I plan to visit.

Tom is trying to sell the paper that has been his mistress and his dominatrix and his rebellious teenager for 30 years. I hope he finds a sunny beach with a 100-year reading list.

And I hope Jane gets to see the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley before her wanderlust takes her back home, to Australia.

Goodbye Haines, Alaska.

I hate you and I love you; all at once, in the very same breath.

But just this morning, I sat next to the wood stove, listening to the morning talk-and-music show on local KHNS public radio. In a folksy voice, a volunteer fireman was talking about the do’s and don’ts of safe snowmobiling here.

“Now, you can’t go out there and act like a maniac,” he said.

In this true American outpost, that goes its own way, fights its own battles, cares for its own wounded, I felt an entire planet away from the maniac down in Washington.

And that’s a good thing.

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