Would You Be, Could You Be, Won't You Be, (And Why in the Hell Does Anyone Want to Be) My Neighbor?
What happens when cabin fever sets in and the whole town lives in your cabin? Welcome to Whittier, Alaska, where there are no roads out of town and all 300 Whittiots ù Hey, turn down that stereo! ù call one building home.
By Mike Grudowski
There's a painting hanging in the hallway of the school in Whittier, Alaska ù a framed, folk-art, children's-book vision of the town as seen in winter from Passage Canal, the finger of Prince William Sound on which Whittier sits, 57 miles southeast of Anchorage. The picture gets it right, give or take. White mountains loom over town, adorned with curlicued waterfalls (accurate, though not in winter). Wetsuited divers clutch red king crabs. Apple-cheeked children ride sleds or beam out the windows of a chugging train. Snowflakes hover among the evergreens (dead-on accurate: there's as much as 20 feet of snow each winter). And right at the center, something leaps out garishly from the storybook tableau: a huge, somber, jaundiced-beige high-rise, with row after row of square brown windows. A mistake, you might think; somehow the sketches for Wow! It's Winter! got shuffled in with My Book of Housing Projects.
But that towering hulk actually does exist in the town. In a sense, it is the town. Almost every one of Whittier's year-round residents ù about 300 officially, though skeptics say that's inflating it ù calls one of its 14 floors home. Main Street? That would be the elevator. Town square? Try the lobby.
There's a virtual city ensconced among the polished tiles, institutional-yellow concrete walls, and uniform brown doors. The 13th and 14th floors house (in part) June's Vacation Condo Suites, a bed-and-breakfast. The Whittier Baptist Church parsonage is on seven, the medical clinic on three. The second floor features the garbage room and the public library, the latter padlocked until further notice for lack of volunteers. A basement tunnel leads to the school, which has a basketball court with green-painted lanes ù home of the Whittier Eagles ù and a high-ceilinged, concrete-walled playground, where the younger of the 38 students play on the slide and swing set year-round without fear of getting swallowed by a snowdrift.
The first floor includes the Country Store (a miniature grocery), city offices, a U.S. Post Office, and Cabin Fever Cures, a small enterprise run by a woman named Esperanza. From six to nine there most evenings, townsfolk ù Whittiots, some call themselves ù can browse the shelves of rental videos or simmer in a tanning booth in the closet-size room adjoining. Also on the first floor is a tiny laundromat, where cabin fever finds a less congenial outlet. A stenciled sign outlines the laundry rules, including this one, hinting that in such close quarters even Our Town neighborliness has its bounds: clothes that are left in machines after the cycle has been completed by 30 minutes may be dumped on the floor by the person waiting.
Why, someone might reasonably ask, does almost all of Whittier live under the same roof? They have little choice. When the U.S. Army bulldozed Whittier into existence during World War II, spacious housing didn't top its wish list. It chose this one-square-mile delta of glacial silt because of its advantageous quirks. Passage Canal never freezes, making it the closest fail-safe port to Anchorage. The junction of the Chugach and Kenai ranges traps clouds, making perpetually overcast Whittier a tricky target for bombers. Soon troops and supplies were shuttling through town en route to the Aleutian Islands, host to the war's only combat on U.S. soil. The Army also blasted out two train tunnels ù the longer almost three miles ù to this day the only land route in and out of Whittier. And after the war, the military put up two hulking concrete monoliths that remain the signature of Whittier: the Buckner Building, a seven-story dormitory that broods, gray and ominous, at the edge of town, abandoned since the Army bailed out in the sixties; and the 14-story warren that most of Whittier calls home, Begich Towers Incorporated, better known as BTI.
BTI is a somewhat cozy place, but even if it weren't, people would think twice before venturing outdoors. The climate makes Whittier a forbidding place to winter, even by Alaskan standards. Anchorage boat owners who dock in Whittier's harbor usually hire locals to shovel off their craft after blizzards. One owner's boat was neglected this winter. It sank.
Weather isn't the only plague. Most residents make their living off tourists ù sea kayakers, fishers, glacier gawkers ù who scatter, along with their money, after summer. Construction crews working on tunnel improvements disrupt the winter train schedule, so you can leave town only a few days a week, if that. And Whittier's southern flank of mountains makes it impossible from late November on to see the sun from town; not until February 4 (or the next clear day) does it reappear. Together, these combine into a powerful recipe for funk, or worse. "If you're not stable to begin with," says Jan Latta, the school's office manager, "things here might push you over the edge."
If you watch daylight slowly fade into Whittier from the 14th floor of BTI, the place looks like a toy-train village might if they made toy-train sets to resemble Soviet fishing towns circa 1950. On the sound side of the tracks, a few blocks away, boats sit silently in their slips. On the near side, ten-foot snow piles divide a dozen or so bland, low-slung buildings. "In some ways the winters are more beautiful than the summers," someone remarked to me. "The snow covers a lot of ugliness ù rusted hulks and things."
Sometime between nine and ten o'clock, though, the dark surface of the sound and the all-encircling peaks come into focus, and then you better grasp what draws people here. Bald eagles slice through town like sparrows. Otters and sea lions bob around the harbor. Last summer a black bear infiltrated the school. A few years ago, a family of moose migrated in through the tunnel. And Prince William Sound and its 2,000 miles of coastline ù endless bays and bights and spectacular beaches ù all of that is Whittier's front yard.
"You go out on these coves ù maybe three miles out there," says Kirk Loeffler, a 35-year-old former software analyst who moved to Whittier four years ago with his wife, "and you'd swear no one had ever been there before. This place in the summer is the most beautiful place you can imagine." Loeffler told me of a time shortly after he moved to Whittier when a storm churned up six-foot seas. "Maureen and I are staring out at this chaos, and all of a sudden a killer whale came in. He was so close you could've thrown a stone and hit him."
For some, alas, such beauty is scant compensation for the hardships of the town or the oddities of its housing situation. A few winters ago, Whittier had no local police, so state troopers rotated in. One day when the skies cleared, Babs Reynolds, a longtime Whittiot who owns a dockside hamburger stand, spotted a trooper brushing snow off his car outside BTI during the brief sunny interlude.
"Boy," she shouted to him, "it doesn't get any better than this, huh?"
"Lady, you been here too frickin' long," came the reply. "It gets a lot better than this."
Each day of my weeklong reconnaissance visit to Whittier, I awoke to the piercing beep of heavy snow-moving machinery backing up in the dark down below. From my 14th-floor bed-and-breakfast aerie, I took a gander at the town through the binoculars thoughtfully included in the living room. Occasionally I'd greet the day by playing one of the eight-track tapes also provided: Bobby Goldsboro, Donny Osmond, Helen Reddy's "Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady." I'd venture into the bathroom, startled awake by the military-issue pink tiles. ("I've talked to a few guys who tried to rip 'em out," a BTI resident later told me, "and they said, 'Wow. The Army did a hell of a job puttin' 'em in.'") My daily shower commenced only after the bathtub faucet first spat out a few ounces of Coke-colored liquid, which I assumed ù hoped ù was some residual Cold War rust in the pipes.
The hallways of BTI can resemble someone's parody of a suburban subdivision. BTI rules state that you can't paint your door, so individuality arrives in more subtle form: a lingering wreath, an anchor door-knocker, a Scotch-taped notice of an exterminator's upcoming rounds. Neighbors gossip on the elevator while taking their dogs down for a stroll. Here in this town there are no lawns, of course, unless you count the artificial turf in the 60-yard tunnel to the school. Here keeping up with the Joneses means acquiring the latest coveralls from Carhartt, or some really nice calf-length rubber boots. And here, winter's eventual demise is joyously heralded by the arrival of seasonal Mexican and Filipino fish-processors to their rental rooms in BTI: Whittier's answer to the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. "Everybody's happy to see them," says Dodi Protzman, who with her husband has lived in Whittier off and on since 1947. "It's like you know spring is finally here."
The neighborhood even has its own scenic fish pond, also indoors, of course. This you can find in the first-floor offices of Brenda Tolman. A self-described "snot" who vaguely resembles the actress Colleen Dewhurst, Brenda makes handcrafted curios for her waterfront gift shop; records the hourly mayhem for the National Weather Service; hand-letters boats; serves as Whittier's only notary public; and collects animals, including two reindeer in a pen across the street. "Brenda is Whittier," one resident told me. On summer evenings, when she closes her store and the last load of visitors leaves town, Brenda leashes the two reindeer for a notorious nightly parade from their shopside photo-op quarters back home. "I wave to the tourists as the train pulls out and say, 'Thanks for leaving your money here with us,'" she explains in a raspy voice. "And the reindeer look up and smile." She cocks her head and grins demurely to demonstrate. Inside the room she's converted to a weather station, a loud gurgling reveals what was once a common built-in bathtub. It is now the wintering grounds for more than a hundred of Brenda's goldfish and koi, complete with gravel, plastic plants, a bubbling aerator, and a vestigial faucet. Across the hall, she shows me a second tub of fish, and the white ferret inherited from a woman extradited to Utah, and the Cujo-looking rottweiler with a cataract in one eye whom she adopted after his previous owner found the dog chewing his slippers and worked him over with a crowbar. Cabin fever? What cabin fever?
Just down from Brenda's is the Country Store, as good a place as any to monitor Whittier's collective pulse. Its proprietor, Dodi, is an affable, grandmotherly woman. "The only trouble we have in this town is when people get drunk down at the bar and raise hell," Dodi says. "But we don't have trouble in this building. You might not like your neighbor making noise, but I think they get along amazingly well." Whittiots wander in and out of Dodi's tiny store in a steady flow, ostensibly for cottage cheese or smokes or a couple tangerines, but also for gossip and sympathy. "You know, Dodi, I really don't care anymore," a barefoot woman in sweatpants tells her after rehashing some family problems.
A burly bearded man pads in in his socks. "I haven't seen you in a long time," Dodi chirps to him. "What have you been up to?"
"Nothin'," the man answers. "Sleepin'."
"Most people who live here a long time," Dodi tells me after he leaves, "end up getting cremated and their ashes scattered in the bay. Let's see, Cowboy's out there, and the Joiners, and Art Eastman ù he was a conductor on the railroad."
Dodi darts behind the counter to fetch something. She reaches back on a shelf behind the prepaid phone cards and pulls out a square gold container the size of a cracker tin. This, she informs me, once held the condensed remains of Robert Wardlow, alias Cowboy, dead since 1997.
Dodi removes the lid, peers into the box, joggles it slightly, and frowns. She looks up at me: "There's still a few ashes in there, it looks like."
"There's a lot of people that lose it," Jerry Noran announces to me one evening across a table at the Anchor Inn, Whittier's sole restaurant/bar open all winter. "I lost it."
On October 9, Jerry, a slightly pudgy 36-year-old harbor technician with mousy brown hair, made Whittier history by barreling through the train tunnel in his '99 Chevy Tahoe. Even the Anchorage paper picked up the story. "I made front-page Metro," Jerry says with a hint of pride.
The episode began when the erratic train schedule didn't mesh with the office hours of Jerry's doctor, causing him to run out of antidepressants for several days. "A lot of people here are on 'em," Jerry says. Desperate, he resorted to a few cocktails, thereby unleashing the proverbial hounds.
"It was 2:30 in the morning," he says matter-of-factly, between spoonfuls of glutinous vegetable-beef soup. "I figured the tunnel crews would be done working." It's dinnertime, and the Anchor's regulars line the bar. Arcade-size video games take up one wall, a few of them functioning. Neon signs glow in the windows: "Anchor Inn," "Budweiser," "Food," the last perhaps meant ironically.
"I started out at about 20, but that was too rough," Jerry continued. "So I got her going about 65, 70. I high-centered when I was trying to go around the gondola car they backed in to block me. I whitewalled the tires, but that's the only damage I did."
Even before this incident, Jerry played a key role in Whittier's rich heritage of spontaneous buffoonery. "My second or third winter here, I drove a truck off the train," he says. "Then on a Super Bowl Sunday I got hit by the train driving a bus. I was sober then." He pauses to reflect. "Me and that train don't get along very good."
Others have chipped in to this legacy. The volunteer fire chief accidentally set the firehouse aflame. A railroad engineer backing up onto the barge dock dumped some train cars into the drink. The self-proclaimed former "town drunk" told me he would habitually stay at the Anchor until closing time, then not feel up to walking the two blocks home to BTI. So he'd sneak into the police station across the street, find the key to the jail, curl up for the night there, and quietly let himself out in the morning.
For better or worse, the isolation that has made Whittier what it is today will soon vanish forever. In May 2000, the revamped tunnel will open to automobile traffic. A thousand people have joined a waiting list for harbor slips, anticipating expansion. An Anchorage speculator bought the decrepit old Buckner Building, despite rumors of bears in the basement, and vowed to raise $25 million to resurrect it (he's said to be having difficulty).
"People buying BTI apartments now, they're investors," says Ken Miller, who runs fishing charters in town. "They're not buying one; they're buying five or six. Four years ago you could've gotten one for $8,000, $10,000, $12,000. Now they're going for 45 to 60."
One person's renaissance is another's hostile invasion, however. "There seems to be so much suspicion and animosity," says Carrie Williams, the city manager. "More than anywhere else I've ever seen."
The road's most rabid opponent is Jerry Protzman, Dodi's husband, who for decades has served as Whittier's crustier version of George Bailey. His shipping and snow-clearing firm, Dojer Ltd., is the largest employer in town, and he's known for putting borderline drunks and welfare cases (among others) to work. He's also known for shouting down adversaries at council meetings and writing frothing letters to state officials. ("The DOT is saying SCREW THE PEOPLE OF WHITTIER!!!" one of them noted recently.) "Everybody in Anchorage is gonna drive in here one time ù been there, done that," he told me in his office. "The only people I could see coming down more than that is somebody shacking up with somebody else's wife, hiding out for the weekend."
He shakes his head. "You got half the people here that are on drugs and welfare, and drunk; and then you got the people who work for a living. About half the town can think, and about half the town can't."
He shakes his head again. "Funny place."
There were dozens of other stories i heard during my stay ù the man who fired his rifle at the barge because it was making too much noise at night; the time the wind spun a Labrador retriever down an icy street like a curling stone ù and the days passed quickly. Finally, on a Friday morning in a blinding blizzard, I boarded the eight o'clock train out. At first the only sounds on board were the thrum of the locomotive, someone's cat mewling, and some muttered comment about "the damn public defender." But once the train lurched into motion, a woman with her two grandchildren in tow struck up a conversation with another passenger. A year had passed, she said, since she'd last tasted alcohol. She began to reminisce at high volume about her drinking days: about how she'd once found herself on a barstool at the Anchor Inn talking to a woman, with no idea how she'd gotten there; about the time she lit out for the tunnel on foot with a pint of brandy in hand.
I don't know how that story turned out, because right then my mind drifted off to an amazing sight I'd seen out by the harbor a day or two before. It was an otter, a land otter. He had bounded over a snowdrift and scampered west on the slushy road, agile as a greyhound.
I can only guess, but he seemed to have had his fill of Whittier: He was headed for the tunnel.
Mike Grudowski is a former senior editor of Outside.