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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Tales of Community (Jake Halpern)

Air Date: Week of December 19, 2003

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Whittier, Alaska isn’t a town for the feint of heart. Situated on the brink of the Alaskan coastline, the entire town consists of a 14-story high-rise. The only way into the town is a two-and-a-half mile tunnel through the mountains. Jake Halpern traveled to this remote outpost to visit with some of the residents there. He shares a story from his travelogue, Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side In, and Other Extreme Locales.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. This week we’re celebrating the holiday season with stories of community, with writers Judy Blunt, Lyall Watson, and Jake Halpern. Jake, the community you’re about to tell us about is not your average Main Street central sort of town. How did you first hear of Whittier, Alaska, anyway?

Jake Halpern

HALPERN: You know, I was working at a magazine, and somebody had told me that they’d heard a story about a town in Alaska that was in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, and the whole town existed in one building. And the building got cut off from the world by avalanches and annual 20 feet of snow. And it sounded implausible. It sounded like a science fiction set. And my curiosity was piqued.

CURWOOD: So, off you went. And I gather one of the people that you meet in your story about this town is a woman named Babs Reynolds. And she’s one of the few who, I guess, have stuck it out in this remote outpost for many years. And Jake, for this segment of the show we’ve asked her to listen in to your story from her home in Whittier. Babs, are you on the line?

REYNOLDS: Yes, I am.

CURWOOD: Welcome.

REYNOLDS: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

CURWOOD: Alright Jake, now the storytelling circle here is yours. Can you read your story for us now?

HAPLERN: Sure. As I read back Babs’ lines, I hope I do your voice justice, Babs. Alright we’ll start here. Reportedly, somewhere in the remote coves of Prince William Sound, there was a fourteen-story high-rise nestled among the glaciers. This single, snowbound building was the city of Whittier, Alaska.

[MUSIC: The Ventures “The Fourth Dimension” THE VENTURES IN SPACE (EMI Records – 1992)]

HALPERN: Perhaps what intrigued me most, however, was Whittier’s lone entranceway – a two-and-a-half-mile-long railroad tunnel that burrowed beneath a surrounding wall of mountains and brought a train into town several times a week. Recently, the state of Alaska had modified the tunnel to install an accompanying road for cars and buses. People in Whittier were miffed. From what I read in the Anchorage Daily News, most residents treasured their fortified isolation. They didn’t want the road, and a few, including an outspoken diehard named Babs Reynolds, promised to fight it to the bitter end.

Whittier owed its existence to the United States Military which initially conceived it as a fortified seaport. Anchorage traditionally relied on port towns like Seward for its shipping. Yet, as World War II began, the military insisted on a closer and more secure port for its operations. In August of 1941, engineers began drilling a two mile hole through the mountains to a narrow shelf of rock on the other side which they called Whittier. The name came from the Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, whose poems often described the rugged beauty of the seasons, including the awesome power of winter.

In 1956, the military completed a fourteen-story high-rise that qualified as the tallest building in Alaska. The Pentagon hoped Whittier would be, not just a secure port but also, a lookout onto the Soviet Union, which sat a few hundred miles to the west. Yet, just a few short years later, the entire project was abandoned. Ultimately, Whittier was left to the handful of civilians who called it as home.

According to the 2000 census, precisely 182 people now lived in the city and I wanted to know more about them. Naturally, I was curious about Whittier’s avalanches and its harsh wintry environs but this was just part of it. Whittier promised to offer something new – not just a story of man verses the great outdoors, but also of man verses the great indoors.

[MUSIC: Pan American “Starts Friday” PAN AMERICAN (Kranky – 1998)]

HALPERN: After flying to Anchorage, I hired a reluctant taxi driver who navigated me across a series of snow-covered mountains and through the two and a half mile long tunnel that led to the giant tower that was Whittier, where I planned to spend the next two weeks.

The first-floor hallway is the center of daily life in Whittier, the equivalent of Main Street in a normal town. Along this vast, windowless stretch I found a series of rooms containing the post office, the laundromat, the general store, the weather station, city hall, police headquarters, and a shop called Cabin Fever. At both ends of the building there were elevators leading to the residential floors above. By the time I arrived, the first-floor hallway had shut down for the night and there was hardly a person in sight.

Eventually, I wandered into Cabin Fever which occupied a very cramped, one-bedroom apartment at the far end of the hallway, and functioned as the town’s video store and tanning salon. It was here that I met Babs Reynolds. Babs was sitting in a walk-in closet outfitted with a small desk and a wrap-around bookcase with several hundred movies, including a great many horror and action flicks. She was of medium height and buxom, a hearty woman in her early sixties, whose face was daubed with make-up and whose skin was deeply bronzed from the generous use of liquid tanner. Her clothes were all denim. Between her breasts rested a lone ornament: a small leather holster for her lighter, which hung as a necklace on a piece of rawhide. We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, during which time she used her necklace to light a long, brown, menthol cigarette that resembled a small cigar.

“So what do you think of Whittier?” she asked me finally in a deep, throaty drawl.

“When I first came through that tunnel I was a little spooked out,” I admitted.

“Yeah, well who wouldn’t be?” said Babs with a laugh. She reached into the desk drawer, pulled out a deck of cards, and began dealing herself a round of solitaire, which she played effortlessly, as if for the ten-thousandth time. “When I first got here I couldn’t believe it either,” she said without looking up.

“Did you think of turning around?” I asked.

“Not for a moment,” replied Babs. “I had an ex-husband on the other side who was trying to kill me.” Neither of us spoke for a moment. Babs glanced up at a small TV that was hanging from the ceiling, and as she did this, I noticed several scars on her chin. Before she came to Whittier her ex-husband used to beat her. On one occasion he broke her jaw, and the scars marked the places where a doctor had drilled several magnesium bolts into her mandible and connected them to a fiberglass brace.

Upon arriving in Whittier in the summer of 1978, Babs showed a picture of her third husband to the train crew and explained that he was out to kill her. “Back then, the train was the only way into Whittier, and the train crew controlled who got in and who got out,” said Babs. “So I told them my situation, and they told me not to worry.” In the coming years the crew made good on its promise, never letting Babs’ husband aboard an incoming train.

I chatted with Babs until closing time and as she locked up Cabin Fever for the night, I asked if I could help out with her newspaper route the following day. “Sure, that’d be nice,” said Babs. “Be downstairs at nine o’clock tomorrow and we’ll head over to the tunnel to pick up the papers. And if you’re lucky, I’ll make you breakfast afterwards.”

From Cabin Fever I headed upstairs to the local B&B where I’d made reservations--quite unnecessarily, as it turns out, for I was the only guest. I rode the elevator to the ninth floor where I met Kathy Elliot, a timid, white-haired woman who helped run the B&B.

“How’s the weather outside?” she asked. “Cold,” I told her. “I’m sure it is,” said Kathy, who went on to explain that she hadn’t left the high-rise in weeks. “I like going outside but it drains you,” said Kathy. “When you come back indoors to a manmade situation you have to acclimate. I guess it’s something like what the astronauts go through.”

“So you just stay inside for weeks at a time?” I asked.

“I’ve stayed inside for months at a time,” explained Kathy. “In the wintertime I hibernate like an old bear.”

[MUSIC: Pan American “Starts Friday” PAN AMERICAN (Kranky – 1998)]

HALPERN: I took my key and proceeded to the fourteenth floor where the B&B was located. The elevator doors opened onto one of the building’s many long, linoleum corridors. The inside of the high-rise has a hybrid of several institutional styles of architecture – part 1950’s college dormitory, part aging mental institution, and part nuclear fallout shelter – the effect was immediately confining and at times creepy. The tower has two major joints or gaps that allow the structure to flex properly in the event of an earthquake. The practical effect, however, was that of a massive wind vent, causing the entire building to creak and groan through the night. “Sometimes,” one resident told me, “in the middle of the night, you’ll sit right up in bed and ask yourself: What do I hear? And the answer is: nothing. The wind has finally stopped, and the silence is enough to wake you.”

After a restless first night of sleep, I met Babs at 9 a.m. the following morning to help out with the newspapers. She drove her weather-beaten pickup truck out towards the tunnel, and together we struggled to see through the steadily falling snow.

“How’s this road working out?” I asked finally.

“Well, it’s here, so we use it,” said Babs. “But right until that first car came through, I had to believe it wasn’t going to open.

Babs dug into the depths of her winter coat, pulled out her necklace-lighter, and lit another of her menthols.

“You got to understand, I came here over twenty years ago running for my life. Coming here I found safety and some of the most beautiful country you’ll ever see. And I wasn’t the only one. A lot of people came here running from something.”

This is something I would hear again and again in Whittier. People came through the tunnel on the run from a whole gamut of troubles: ex-husbands, ex-wives, parents, jobs, warrants, child-support, God, or just perhaps themselves. Alaska was as far away as they could go and still speak English, and Whittier was a good safe leap beyond that.

Babs popped open the driver’s side door and stepped out into a powdery patch of knee-deep snow. “I’m going check and see if the tunnel crew already dropped off the papers,” she told me. I followed her through the snow to a partially submerged phone booth. I helped her pry open the door, and inside we found several dozen copies of Anchorage Daily News. We carried the newspapers back to Babs’ truck. By now the wind was really howling, and both of us hurried into the front seat. “The way I see it, this road was done to us – not for us,” concluded Babs. “They brought us the world. Hell, we could have had the world if we wanted it, but we didn’t, that’s why we all ended up here.”

[MUSIC: Tillman and Ambient Groove Artists “Blue September” LINGO (Swiss Radio International – 1997)]

HALPERN: Two others reasons for Babs not to go anywhere were her younger sisters, Brenda and Carolyn, both of whom had followed her to Whittier. Carolyn Raye Casebeer, the middle sister, was a lifelong wanderer who rarely stayed anywhere for more than a year at a time. She had moved to Whittier five different times, and was currently living in an apartment on the tenth floor of the high-rise, which was furnished with a few Spartan items, including a wooden box with an open plane ticket in it. Brenda Tolman, the youngest sister, arrived in 1982 and had been in Whittier ever since. Brenda was a professional artist. She had a studio on the first floor of the high-rise, but she lived next door to Babs in Whittier Manor – a small snow-entrenched bungalow next to the tower.

Despite the fact that Brenda and Babs lived next door to one another and relied on each other to do everything from running the weather station to lassoing runaway reindeer, Babs told me they once went for two years without talking. “We used to pass in the hallway or ride the same elevator without even looking up,” she explained. “It was like we didn’t exist for each other.” In addition to being somewhat standoffish, the two were highly competitive, not just for my attention, but for the attention of the entire town, it seemed. Carolyn, the middle sister, explained this best.

“My sisters are like celebrities around here,” she told me when I visited her eleventh floor apartment. “I mean sometimes, you’d think they’d stopped world hunger or something,” she added with a laugh. “How much longer are you going to be in Whittier?” I asked her.

“I have absolutely no idea,” she told me. “Everything here is so simple and secure. When I’ve left in the past, I’ve thought, what have I done? Suddenly I had to start carrying a wallet again. I had to worry about rent, utilities, jobs, everything. For me, that’s the real world. I need that. But what do I know? Maybe this is really paradise and I am just too much of damn fool to see it.”

[MUSIC: Isotope 217 “La Jetee” UNSTABLE MOLECULE (Thrill Jockey – 1997)]

HALPERN: On the morning of my departure Babs offered to drive me to the airport. Around 10 a.m. we set out in her pickup truck, driving south along the snow-covered bends of Portage Valley, through a forest of trees whose branches were hung with long, delicate icicles that fell and shattered like champagne glasses whenever the wind blew. We took the Seward Highway into Anchorage, and just to kill a bit of time, drove down Fourth Avenue past the honky-tonks where Babs once tended bar. “Not much left here,” she muttered as we sped down Fourth Avenue so quickly it was impossible for me to see much of anything. About half an hour later we pulled into the airport. “I’m not big on goodbyes,” said Babs, “but you know where to find me if you ever want to come back.” Babs slammed on the breaks, stopping just long enough for me to plant both feet on the curb, and then she was gone.

[MUSIC: Isotope 217 “La Jetee” UNSTABLE MOLECULE (Thrill Jockey – 1997)]

CURWOOD: That’s a great story, Jake, thanks so much. And we do have Babs Reynolds here on the line with us right now. Babs, what did you think of Whittier when you first came through that tunnel?

REYNOLDS: The first time I came through the tunnel, I was running for my life. And when you find something secure, everything looks better.

CURWOOD: Okay.

REYNOLDS: And you have to put everything into a positive mode. And it was absolutely beautiful here, and I was free to go out and walk around on the streets, or do anything I wanted to. And so, my first thought coming into town was, wow, this has got to be the greatest place in the world.

CURWOOD: Well, what kind of person comes to Whittier and stays, Babs?

REYNOLDS: Well, I don’t know if they’re really stupid, or they’ve just got a lot of guts and they want to do something really different. [LAUGHTER] You know? Or if they’re forced into it. I was pretty much forced into it and made the best of a bad situation.

Obviously, I’d lived in Anchorage for quite a while. I knew lots of people on that side. I had quite a social life over there. You know, having been in the bar business and stuff. And it was just totally different coming over here. It was like opening up one door after you’ve closed another one.

HALPERN: I just want to add that there are other people, obviously, besides Babs in Whittier. And the reason, I think, that I was drawn to her to write about her is because through her kind of extraordinary will power, she’s made Whittier a homey place for herself. Her apartment is incredibly welcoming. The video store and tanning salon that she’s set up is one of the few places where people interact. The same goes for the burger stand that she created. And what impressed me about Babs, was that, to my mind, in a very kind of inhospitable place, she had really worked hard to carve out a nice home for herself.

CURWOOD: Yeah, I mean, it would occur to me that this isn’t a place that would ordinarily attract a lot of gregarious people. That they go off to the end of the planet so they can be by themselves, and want to keep to themselves. In fact, I’m surprised that you got people to open up and tell you their stories.

HALPERN: Well, Babs helped me on that. She really did. I think after I befriended Babs, I think people’s suspicion of me kind of – you know, I was the guy helping Babs out with the newspapers, or whatnot. And she really kind of gave me a stepping stone into the community, which is…

REYNOLDS: Yeah, plus nobody ever stays at my house, and I let him camp here. I guess everybody figured, well, if I would let him stay in my house, he must be alright.

CURWOOD: Ooh, you got the tongues a-waggin’ there, huh?

REYNOLDS: [LAUGHTER]

CURWOOD: [LAUGHTER] Jake, I want to get our other storytellers to comment here in just a moment, but I have to say there’s one description you have of the city which really just grabbed me. And it’s this quote, that “it’s not just the story of man versus the great outdoors, but also man versus the great indoors.”

HALPERN: Yeah, that’s the thing that you’re struck by in Whittier, is that the people who make it are people that essentially don’t freak out at being inside and kind of contained. And a lot of people are not as strong as Babs. I mean, it’s kind of a well-known phenomenon of people just cracking – kind of the claustrophobia doing them in. And so the irony of this is, you know, Alaska is the last frontier, but in this town, to survive, you have to be able to make it indoors.

CURWOOD: Judy, now you grew up in a small town, in a town that’s getting smaller and smaller. What similarities do you see between rural Montana and the high-rise community of Whittier, Alaska?

BLUNT: I thought it was interesting, the similarity between when they started to put gravel on the road to my community south of Malta, Montana. And there was a lot of resistance to that because it suddenly struck everyone after they’d argued for a long time to get new roads in there so that they could get out, that those roads went two ways. And if they could get out, that meant that other people could get in. And suddenly they had to start locking their fuel pumps and worrying about kids being able to drive out of town and wreak havoc in the rural communities.

CURWOOD; And Lyall, Lyall Watson, what are your thoughts?

WATSON: I’m intrigued by Whittier, but – because I’m not afraid of being alone, I spend a lot of my time on my own – but being in a small community, in a closed, weather-bound condition, would give me cabin fever. I think that’s a great name for a bar. If I were there long enough, I’d be in a chronic state of perpetual claustrophobia. It happens to places that Kurt Vonnegut’s describes as “grand falloons” And he meant artificial associations of small numbers of people that is never going to work.

CURWOOD: So, this place strikes me as a wonderful retirement home for former submarine workers, long-term space station inhabitants, that sort of thing. What do you think, Babs?

REYNOLDS: Well, it’s bad in the wintertime, and when the people get really old, a lot of them have had to move out of here because they’re not able to get in and out of their vehicles because there’s so much ice.

CURWOOD: Uh ,oh. So, what are you going to do as retirement approaches?

REYNOLDS: I’m going to keep all my jobs on the ground floor.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHTER]

HALPERN: Babs, you should tell him what your plan is for when you go, down at the burger stand.

REYNOLDS: [LAUGHTER] Well, people keep asking me if I’m going to retire. Now I’m only 65 so, you know, I’m not looking at any kind of a break here anytime soon. But probably the best think that could happen would be if I was down cooking hamburgers in the summertime and I just fell over and died. And my sister came down and threw me on the grill and barbecued me and my ashes went out to the ocean. And that would be perfect.

CURWOOD: [LAUGHTER] Well, Jake Halpern, I want to thank you for your wonderful story. And Babs, thanks for taking this time.

REYNOLDS: Thanks for visiting with me.

CURWOOD: Still ahead, a story of a boys club in the wild. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Pan American “Tract” PAN AMERICAN (Kranky – 1998)]

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