A Postcard From Bethel, Alaska

As the noisy, double-engined 727 approached the runway, I wasn't impressed. At 20,000 feet, you could see the whole town out the window. At 1000 feet, you could do the same. I right away noticed that the airport was the largest feature of Bethel, unless you counted tundra and sand quarries. The plane rolled to a stop outside the terminal, and we were ushered off through the back entrance to the plane - the front three-quarters was taken up with supplies being flown out of Anchorage. Across the tarmac into the terminal building, the wind was just strong enough to make it difficult to walk upright. Our father and step-mother were waiting in the baggage-claim area, which is really the entrance to the terminal from either the parking lot or the runway side. In about twenty minutes, the plane's luggage was pushed through a hole in one wall, and was carried down the side of the room by a partially functioning tractor belt (every now and then, it took a good kick from one of the knowledgeable locals to get it moving). Eventually, we retrieved everything, loaded up the Jeep Cherokee, and went on a tour of the town. The whole trip took less than five minutes, and that included a look at the hospital, the river front, the marina, "downtown", and the school. We didn't stop at any of these, but we weren't zipping through town, either.

The first thing to get my attention was the road. Yes, road, singular. Only one paved road in the town, seven miles long. All other roads were packed dirt and gravel, but it was the dirt roads that were smoother and easier to drive on. The harsh Bethel winters wreaked havoc on most everything man-made. Also, there wasn't a single stoplight anywhere. There was only one place that could be called an "intersection", and it was only marked with a stop sign that had a thirty percent chance of being ignored by drivers. People in Bethel don't have to worry much about the paved road this year, though - the city decided to tear it all out, and re-pave it. The tearing out happened this summer, the paving will probably have to wait until next year. Because, as my taxi driver once said, "I heard on the news that it's the first day of summer? That only means that our summer is half over."

Our house, along with about half of the houses in town, was built upon a base of sand. The only other alternative is to hire someone to embed twenty-four foot telephone poles in the ground for a foundation to keep your house from sinking into the ground in the summer. Sand was cheaper, poles were better. Sand as a whole was cheap, because Bethel resided on a river, and the part of the town that wasn't tundra was sand. Tundra itself is a very low, very thick covering of plants that can either survive the sub negative 20 degrees Celsius winters, or will grow once the ground thaws. If you walk on tundra, the ground seems to sink a few inches because the plants are so thick that it can almost support your weight. Grass is almost non-existent. One person in our subdivision was growing a lawn this summer, but I doubt it lives through the snow.

All in all, Bethel, AK, is a very small town - less than nine thousand people - in a very inhospitable area. The only way in during summer is by boat or plane. In winter, the only way in is by airplane, and even then only if the weather is good enough. Bush pilots abound, and usually fly people to the surrounding native Eskimo villages. Bush pilots will fly you anywhere in any weather, if you have enough money. My dad is there as part of the public hospital that was built less than 10 years ago. It probably is the most technologically advanced area in the entire city. He gets moved around a lot, because he works for the government, and I just found out that he is moving to Montana later this year. I will never go back there, but I don't see as how I can ever forget such a desolate area. When I got back from my first trip (summer of '89), and got back in school, I saw many of the people to whom I had sent postcards. All of my friends had something to say, but she said it best. Her first words were - "When I got your card, I had to look up Bethel on a map. It's in the middle of fuckin' nowhere!"

Tyler Jones, September 19, 1990