When I booked the trip at the end of 2015 I didn’t yet know I would be starting the This is America Too project, but when you find a flight to Alaska for $350 you take it and the timing was perfect. In the months leading up to my visit I began to research which small town I would explore. Originally I thought I might be able to knockout two locations and had considered Homer, Tok, North Pole, and Kodiak to name a few. As the date drew closer, and I considered my time in Lone Pine, I realized I needed more than three days for my visit. Only one town could properly be done due to my lack of time and Seward seemed like the best choice. This would also allow me to spend some time fulfilling a dream of just bumming around Alaska with my tent and a rental car.
When I landed in Alaska it was the start of Memorial Day weekend. I knew that I would be staying in Anchorage a few days and I had a car reserved for Monday, but beyond that I had no firm plans. I toyed with the idea of heading straight to Seward but the weather was looking dismal and in the end I opted to visit Denali National Park first. This meant leaving myself a tight five day window to go into Seward, ingratiate myself with the community, and get people to share their stories. The travel before Seward helped me acclimate to living out of a tent and as it turned out, I would have missed two of my contacts in Seward had I headed straight there upon my arrival. Although I didn’t know it yet, timing was, once again, on my side.
The day I left for Seward I woke up in the small town of Girdwood just under forty miles southeast of Anchorage. I packed up my tent, grabbed a coffee and muffin from a bakery on the edge of town, and got on the AK-1 south. The highway that takes you from Anchorage to Seward is named Seward Highway and has been designated a National Forest Scenic Byway by the U.S. National Forest Service. It is comprised of the AK-1 that runs ninety miles from Anchorage to Tern Lake and AK-9 running another thirty-five miles south to Seward. The first eighteen mile stretch of the highway leading north from Seward was completed in 1923, yet the full link with Anchorage was not finished until 1951. This drive to Seward, along with all of the driving I did in Alaska, gave me a better sense of the state’s vast wilderness. I knew I was seeing a tiny fraction of this frontier state. I felt there must be some part of the seemingly endless mountain ranges where humans had not tread. Coming from the population-dense San Francisco, it was a comforting thought that empty, unexplored beauty could still be attained.
As I entered town I noticed an increase in human presence: an airport to my left, the visitor center and a Safeway on the right, the busy harbor. I thought this place seems much larger than what I had imagined, a world apart from Lone Pine whose population on paper was only about 800 fewer. I continued down 3rd Ave, (what the highway becomes for its last mile-and-a-half) trying to size up the town. Once I hit the end of the line, I turned back and went to search out the camping site I would be calling home during my stay.
One of the aspects I found most appealing about Alaska was the way the camping culture was embraced. Every town I stayed at had a campground located in or very near it. Seward’s camping and RV sites lined the waterfront and the one I chose was a stone’s throw away from the bay. I paid at the fancy electronic self-pay station and set up my campsite. As I finished, I stood thinking how extraordinary it was that each morning I would wake to the stunning Mt. Alice directly across the bay.
Once I was situated I headed off to find lunch. Seward’s busiest stretch runs about a block-and-a-half along the south-end of 4th Ave. Here there are a number of eateries, bars, and other locations that cater to the tourists arriving by ship, train, or car. As I walked along the street I peered into a few restaurants, checked some menus, but ultimately it was the 70s style sign outside Thorn’s Showcase Lounge that finalized where I would be eating my first meal in town. I was not disappointed as I walked in. The inside matched the façade with a golden and maroon vinyl interior that sparkled under the lighting, and the shelves throughout the restaurant were encased in glass, lighted, and lined with hundreds of collector Jim Beam bottles. I sat at the bar where I was greeted and told I should try the bucket of Halibut butts, lightly battered deep-fried chunks of Halibut that were the house specialty. I decided on the chicken strips and an Alaskan Amber but told the bartender I would be back for the butts. As I sat waiting on my food I overheard the barkeep telling other patrons that the owner had the largest collection of Jim Beam bottles in the world and housed many more in the basement. Supposedly there were over 2,000 in the house and they came in all shapes and sizes. Both the atmosphere and the food left an impression and I found myself back there several times during my stay. I eventually got the bucket of butts. The tender chunks of whitefish had the perfect amount of batter, were not greasy, and once dipped in the cocktail sauce that accompanied them, the flavors danced on my tongue.
After lunch I strolled around town and took photos before stepping into Seward Ale House for a pint. The bar itself was visually plain but spacious and well lit. It struck me as a down-to-earth sports bar with plenty of T.V.s, pool, and darts, but I’m not sure it would have become the bar I most frequented if it had not been for the Welshman named Jon Rees that I met on that first day there. I sat just a couple of seats down from him when I entered. While sipping my first beer I turned to ask him a question, and two hours later I had made a new friend. Over the next three days, until he left for Anchorage and eventually back home, we met up, always at the same place and always for hours of engaging conversation. A favorite topic was his love for Swansea City football club he followed, his passion for the team made me want to be a fan. One of the favorite consequences of my travels over the years are the friendships I have made, and I look forward to maintaining one with Jon. I await the day I get to catch a Swansea football match with him in Wales.
On day two I woke and freshened myself up at the sinks located near my campsite. I stopped into the Sea Bean Café, another location I frequented during my stay. There I grabbed coffee and breakfast before connecting to the internet and checking my email. Success! I received a reply from Colleen at the Seward Historical Society to a message I had sent a couple of weeks earlier asking for help with meeting someone willing to share their story. She apologized for the delayed response and sent me two names and numbers of people that might be interested in meeting me. Instantly everything seemed brighter, the hardest part of my stay in Seward just got a bit easier. I left the café and gave one of the contacts, Margaret, a call. She agreed to meet but wanted to work out a time and place with Willard the other name Coleen had sent. Feeling hopeful I jumped into the car and drove north to visit Exit Glacier.
Just outside of Seward is the Kenai Fjords National Park that was officially established in 1980. The park covers a little over 1,000 square miles and is home to the Harding Ice Field, the source of an estimated thirty-eight glaciers. The only one accessible by car is Exit Glacier twelve miles outside of Seward. As I got closer to the glacier’s trailhead I began to notice posts with dates on them. Later I learned that each represented where the glacier had been at on the given date. The hike up to the glacier was easy and rewarding but as I continued to pass markers signifying the glacier’s retreat I couldn’t help but feel sorrow. It was recorded that from just 2013 to 2014 the glacier shrunk by 187 feet and nothing shoves the reality of climate change in your face more than hiking along a path that was covered by a mighty field of ice only decades ago.
When I returned to town I dropped my car at the campsite and set off for the Ale House to meet with Jon. He came there with two new friends, Amy and Jeff a couple from Minnesota. We had a lively conversation over some drinks and I learned a lot about the art of mushroom hunting. I wouldn’t have pegged Jeff as a mushroom hunting type but he knew his stuff. When he told me how much he got for a pound of dried morels I wanted to start myself. Eventually we all ended up at Thorn’s for dinner and as we were leaving Jon struck up a conversation with a trio, Susan, Sharon, and another John. They invited us to join them at Yukon Bar across the street but the others were ready to retire for the night. I saw it as a chance to spend time with locals so I said goodnight to Jeff, Jon, and Amy and joined my new friends.
Yukon Bar was busy, lively, and dimly lit with orange lifesavers and hundreds of dollar bills hanging from the ceiling. We sat at a communal table next to another group and I told them about the project and what I was doing there. John, a fellow Midwesterner who owns a charter fishing company in Seward, told me he would be interested in sharing his story and agreed to meet on one of the following days. I began to chat to the other group at the table and met Suzi, a photographer who had lived in Seward for fifteen years but moved to Alaska when she was five and had grown up in mostly indigenous villages. She also agreed to share her story. I eventually joined Suzi and her friends as we ventured to The Pit, a bar on the outskirt of town that is able to stay open till five in the morning. We didn’t stay to close the place but as I was dropped off at my tent, for the first time since I’d arrived in Alaska, I saw the sunrise, amazingly only four hours after it had set.
Day three was productive but calm. I woke a bit later than usual, showered for the first time in a few days (pure bliss), grabbed breakfast at the Sea Bean Café, and then spent a couple of hours at the laundry mat. With all my errands completed I went to visit the small but informative Seward Community Library and Museum. The displays in the museum helped me get a better understanding of Seward’s most important historical aspects. For example the museum carried artifacts representing the Iditarod Trail that first ran from Seward to Nome and became heavily utilized when gold was discovered in Nome in 1910. Another important display brought light to the devastating impact of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, a 9.3 quake that lasted 4.5 minutes and toppled Seward along with many of the communities from Kodiak to Valdez. Throughout the day I was also able to secure a date to meet Willard and Margaret, John, and Suzi. That evening I returned to Seward Ale House to meet with Jon where I spoke with another local named Buck who also agreed to sit down with me and talk. After a few pints Jon and I dined once more at Thorn’s and I called it night. As I walked back to my tent the rain started coming down and that night was the wettest and coldest of the trip, yet the fact that I had four interviews with five locals lined up kept me content as I spent most of the night balled up in the fetal position to conserve warmth. My romantic notions of tent life were being challenged by the cold.
On day four I woke to sunshine and the start of a gorgeous day. I went through the then established routine of stopping at the campground sinks and then heading to the Sea Bean for breakfast. I called Buck because he mentioned he might want to chat that morning but we decided on the following day. I was meeting with Suzi in the early afternoon but had a bit of time to kill so I drove north to explore. A few miles out of town I saw a sign for Lost Lake trail head and decided I would stop for a short but peaceful and visually stunning hike. After my need for nature was fulfilled I headed back to town to meet Suzi. Our meeting lasted an hour or so, and after she invited me to visit her at the American Legion later in the day. We parted ways and I headed back to Seaward Ale House for one last pint with Jon.
We were the only patrons in the place that afternoon and we chatted with the bartender Erin who was a third generation Seward native who returned after attending the International Academy of Technology and Design in Seattle. She is a young talented artist who creates everything from jewelry to clothes and postcards using recycled material. She filled us in on all types of random information about the town, the most interesting being how many of the seasonal workers in Seward and throughout the state are there on J-1 Visas. The Visas allow college students from around the globe to work in the U.S. for short periods and their presence was distinguishable nearly everywhere I visited. Erin explained that a crackdown on the Visa took place in 2012 and the state’s industries, especially the fish processing plants, were heavily effected. Listening to her story really helped me understand how even Alaska, the last American frontier, was so globally connected and dependent. After our conversation I dropped Jon at the train station and eventually made my way to the America Legion. There I had a couple of beers with Suzi and mix of friendly veterans before retiring early to get rested for the following day’s interviews.
I woke on day five to what would be a day of mostly downpour. I went through the morning routine, a visit to the campground showers and the café for breakfast. The first meeting of the day was Margaret and Willard, the two I was put into contact with from the Historical Society. I first met Margaret at a busy restaurant on the south end of town and we chatted while waiting for Willard. When he arrived I sat and explained exactly what I was hoping to gain from our meeting. The two agreed to share their stories and we all felt it was best to go somewhere quieter. They suggested the museum since it was closed that day and Willard had access. Once there we sat and talked for about an hour. Both had lived in Seward for over seventy years, Margaret was born there in 1933 and Willard arrived in 1943. I sat fascinated as they recounted living through WWII, the Cold War, and the 1963 Good Friday earthquake. As Willard described watching from higher ground while his city burned on that day in 1963, I imagined the images he was conjuring in his head at that moment were still as clear as when it happened over five decades ago. When we finished I thanked them both for their time and packed up. I left feeling accomplished and hoping to hear more stories like theirs as I continued with this project.
The next meeting I had that day was with Buck, an electrician that moved to Alaska from South Carolina in the late 80s. We met at the Seward staple Ray’s Waterfront near the harbor. Our meeting was the opposite of what I had just experienced as Buck was a little less willing to share details of his experiences in Alaska. I think it was more of my lack of interviewing skills and preparedness that hindered the discussion and I realized after leaving our short meeting together that it was a great lesson on how I needed to work on my approach as I moved forward. After I left Buck I returned to Seward Ale House for a last pint and to say goodbye to Erin. I told her about the meeting with Buck and she was surprised because he was normally so chatty. It confirmed my conclusion that I probably could have gotten a better interview if I was more experienced. Before I left the Ale House for my last time Erin gave me a great postcard she had made and we said our goodbyes.
My last meeting of the day was with John, the fellow Midwesterner who owned a fishing charter business in town. We agreed to meet at the American Legion since it was quiet and John was a vet and member. When I got there I ran into Buck again and he bought me a beer as I waited for John to arrive. The meeting went well and John happily shared his story. He also filled me in on the politics of the fishing business and what he saw as a system corrupted by the big commercial fishing companies. He explained how laws were stricter for smaller charter companies like his own and could often result in these businesses easily losing their licenses for minor infractions. On the other side he explained, the big corporations could often get away with murder and the law would turn a blind eye. As I listened to his story it seemed so familiar, big corporations using lobbying money to manipulate elected officials and get their way while the struggling small business is forced to jump through hoops to survive. I didn’t expect the fishing business to be any different but hearing it firsthand brought it closer to home for me. I didn’t stay at the Legion long and retired early that night to get rested for my morning drive back to Anchorage.
The next morning I woke early and began to pack up my home. After filling up with gas in town I headed north for Anchorage. It was sad to leave. I felt I built a bond with Seward in just the five days I was there. I had a bit of a routine, the town became familiar, and I made some friends. I feel grateful that this first real test of project went a smoothly as it did. I also realize I must be realistic, not every town I visit will be a Seward. As I now sit and think about the differences between Lone Pine and Seward, what made each special, the landscapes that surrounded them, their stories, I feel a sense of excitement for what this country has in store for me. It looks like the next stop will be Tonopah Nevada.