McCarthy, Alaska: Last Frontier Charm (cont.)
Lest you think that McCarthy is too small for a cartographer’s precise eye, consider this: The map that I picked up upon my arrival in the Anchorage Airport includes McCarthy, along with the even-smaller Kennicott. What the map doesn’t tell you is that paving the McCarthy Road has been a source of debate for many years. One group wants to increase accessibility; another worries that the influx of visitors would forever change the region’s charm. What you also can’t tell by looking at the map is that McCarthy’s economic base comprises little more than the McCarthy Lodge and Bar, Ma Johnston’s Hotel, several bed and breakfasts, a pizza parlor, ice cream store, gift shop, and two airplane services.
I am up before six in the morning, wanting to reap the benefits of the small, communal hot water tank at Ma Johnson’s Hotel. The hotel, built in 1916, is a charming relic that reminds me of the boarding house in the popular late sixties television show “Here Come the Brides.” Unlike that show, there are no robust bachelors in jeans and flannel work shorts flirting with girls in petticoats and ringlets, only a few hardy elderly European hikers who pass me in the hall. They are about to venture off for their morning constitutional across a glacier field followed by high tea and scones at the regal Kennicott Glacier Lodge, which presides over the ghost town like a gigantic ice floe. One of the things I like about the far-humbler Ma Johnson’s is that it forces me to overcome whatever lifelong hang-ups I harbor about unlocked doors and shared bathrooms. Homespun ambiance is evident at every turn, in the ample supply of black and white photographs and patchwork quilts, mining implements and artifacts—bottles, silver lighters, a woman’s ivory handled comb. Even the quirky shower, with the hot faucet sputtering out cold water and the cold faucet sputtering out hot water, seems perfectly acceptable, nothing to complain about or report to the nonexistent front desk.
My assigned roommate—a woman from northern California—has beat me to the coffee. She is curled up in one of the four adirondack chairs that occupy the sprawling front porch. I watch her writing diligently in her journal, an attempt to catalog each prior day’s activities and stave off whatever melancholy she has acquired since learning enroute to Anchorage of her ex-boyfriend’s engagement to another woman. She has, as each day wears on, spoken less and less of him. By the end of the trip he will never once surface in a conversation. Alaska, she decided, is far too majestic to waste on a broken heart.
Perched on the porch above Main Street I mull over the day’s potential activities: glacier walk, Kennicott Mill tour, hiking, scenic flying. And then there is strolling on the Old Wagon or Silk Stocking Roads or simply walking through town taking time to visit the McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum, cemetery, and two gift shops.
A light mist is falling as I step off of Ma Johnson’s porch. Within minutes I meet a man named Duane—Uncle Buck to his nieces and nephews—who is from Atlanta, Georgia. He has large expressive eyes that are the color of Spanish moss and teeth that have seen a fair amount of chew. Duane is spending his summer on his motorcycle having been as far north as Dawson City, which he immediately recommends that I visit. He notices my camera, and offers to take my picture. Just before he snaps the shutter, he calls out in a syrupy southern drawl, “Why, this is going to make a fine picture!”
After the picture-taking episode, he and I get down to the business of exchanging life stories. I get the condensed version: old family money, a shotgun wedding to a woman from Brazil, a costly divorce, the son he rarely sees. He asks me about my own marital state and means of earning a living. Satisfied with my answers, he announces that I would enjoy living in the South and says that he doesn’t mind if a woman has a career as long as she still acts like a lady. After that curious pronouncement he departs for a tour, and I am left to ponder the immediate kinship of strangers, the ease by which we will offer up the most intimate details of our lives without reserve. I shrug off that strange encounter and start walking up and down McCarthy’s patchwork of streets. I pass birdhouses perched on tree limbs, rusted lanterns, and the dusty shop windows containing curios of bottles and mannequins in dusty dresses. When I finally pause in front of the empty mercantile to watch my image in the wavy glass, it is noon. Someone is smiling at me. I blink. It is my own reflection.
Early afternoon, I rejoin my touring companions for a guided walk through the thirteen-story Kennicott Mine, which still contains much of the original machinery, state-of-the-art for the time. Luke, our mill guide from Colorado, apologizes for what he claims are first-day jitters and then proceeds to tell us all about Kennicott from its early days as a bustling mining town to its present-day state as a decaying historical site. I keep expecting Luke to loose his balance and tumble down one of the places where the floorboards have long since fallen away, but he manages just fine, remarkably agile in hiking boots. As the light falls through the air like flourdust, I try to imagine what life must have been like for Jack Smith and Clarence Warner, the two keen-eyed prospectors, who are credited with the discovery of a large green patch on the steep hillside above Kennicott in 1900. The patch turned out to be one of the richest copper deposits ever found. During the mine’s glory days Kennicott offered everything from a general store to a baseball field and a hospital. McCarthy appealed to the rowdier clientele with its saloons and brothels.
By the time our group returns to McCarthy, it is late afternoon; and three of my fellow single female travelling buddies and I decide to stroll through the local cemetery. We are searching for the headstones that are said to contain only the first name of the deceased. Our trip begins in reverence but soon collapses into middle-aged silliness over ghost sightings and plans to abandon our respectable careers in the Lower 48 for work as madams, resurrecting McCarthy’s once-thriving brothels. Later we learn that we are in the wrong cemetery. The one that we want is up near Kennicott. Next trip.
After our visit to the cemetery, we compose ourselves in time to take a scenic flight over the Wrangell-St. Elias Park with a pilot named Don, who seems remarkably calm for a man who flies in some of the worst weather pilots must endure. Although the engine noise makes it almost impossible to converse even with headsets, I am able to hear when Don points out mining shacks the size of matchboxes perched precipitously on the side of the mountains. I hear a fragment about how the Wrangell Mountains were formed by the collision of the Pacific tectonic plate with the North American continent. I am awestruck by the sheer magnitude of mountains and the colors of light falling on ground were humans have never tread.
Our evening ends in McCarthy’s only saloon. John, a tour guide who is leading the hardy Europeans on their trip, describes his mauling by a grizzly bear earlier in the summer. He recalls the animal tearing its way into his tent and his futile attempt to grab the pepper spray. He and his hiking companion had to paddle 25 miles in their canoe before they reached a cabin and a two-way radio. He ceremoniously lifts his shirt to reveal the pink weltlike scars covering his side and back only. A hush descends upon our group. McCarthy’s magical vice-grip tightens its hold on my heart.
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