A blog by Bill Hess

Running Dog Publications

P.O. Box 872383 Wasilla, Alaska 99687


All photos and text © Bill Hess, unless otherwise noted 
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Wasilla is the place where I have lived for the past 29 years - sort of. The house in which my wife and I raised our family sits here, but I have made my rather odd career as a different sort of photojournalist by continually wandering off to other places to photograph people and gather information, which I have then put together in various publications that have served the Alaska Native Eskimo, Indian and Aleut communities.

Although I did not have a great of free time to devote to this rather strange community, named after a Tanaina Athabascan Indian chief who knew Wasilla in the way that I so impossibly long to, I have still documented it regularly over the past quarter-century plus. In the early days, my Wasilla photographs focused mostly upon my children and the events they participated in - baseball, football, figure skating, hockey, frog catching, fire cracker detonation, Fourth of July parade - that sort of thing. 

In 2002, I purchased my first digital camera and then, whenever I was home, I began to photograph Wasilla upon a daily basis, but not in a conventional way. These were grab shots - whatever caught my eye as I took my many long walks or drove through the town, shooting through the car window at people and scenes that appeared and disappeared before I could even focus and compose in the traditional photographic way.

Thus, the Wasilla portion of this blog will be devoted both to the images that I take as I wander about and those that I have taken in the past. Despite the odd, random, nature of the images, I believe they communicate something powerful about this town that I have never seen expressed anywhere else. 

Wasilla is a sprawling community that has been slapped down hodge-podge upon what was so recently wilderness of the most exquisite beauty. In its design, it is deliberately anti-zoned, anti-planned. In the building of Wasilla, the desire to make a buck has trumped aesthetics and all other considerations. This town, built in the midst of exquisite beauty, has largely become an unsightly, unattractive, mess of urban sprawl. Largely because of this, it often seems to me that Wasilla is a community with no sense of community, a town devoid of town soul.

Yet - Wasilla is my home and if I am lucky it will be until I grow old and die. Despite its horrific failings, it is still made of the stuff of any small city: people; moms and dads, grammas and grampas, teens, children, churches, bars, professionals, laborers, soldiers, missionaries, artists, athletes, geniuses, do-gooders, hoodlums, the wealthy, the homeless, the rational and logical, the slightly insane and the wholly insane - and, yes, as is now obvious to the whole world, politicians, too.

So perhaps, if one were to search hard enough, it might just be possible to find a sense of community here, and a town soul. So, using my skills as a photojournalist and a writer, I hope to do just that. If this place has a sense of community, I will find it. If there is a town soul to Wasilla, I will document it. I won't compete with the newspapers. Hell no! But as time and income allow, it will be fun to wander into the places where the folks described above gather, and then put what I find on this blog.


by 300...

Anywhere within a 300 mile radius of Wasilla. This encompasses perhaps the most wild, dramatic, gorgeous, beautiful section of land and sea to be found in any comparable space anywhere on Earth. I can never explore it all, but I will do the best that I can, and will here share what I find and experience with you.  

and then some...

Anywhere else in the world that I happen to get to, such as Point Lay, Alaska; Missoula, Montana; Serenki, Chukotka, Russia; or Bangalore, India. Perhaps even Lagos, Nigeria. I have both a desire and scheme to get me there. It is a long shot. We shall see if I succeed.

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Bike ride, part 2: I happen upon a bare-breasted young woman and then pedal to a place of prayer, where I find myself kneeling among the dead

After I left Patti behind to battle her cancer, I continued on, not knowing which direction I would take at any intersection that lay  ahead. When I reached the first, Seldon and Wards, I went straight through, towards Church.

And when I reached Church Road, I turned toward the nearest mountains, the Talkeetna's, even though I knew I would not be able to get up into them.

This has always been my tendency - to turn away from the greater concentrations of people, toward the lesser, or best yet, towards none at all.

When I reached the bottom of the hill that descends to the Little Susitna and came to the bridge that crosses it, my eyes went straight to the aqua green raft and the young man preparing it for launch. As you can see, he, like his three friends behind him, was shirtless.

I stopped on the bridge and then began to compose my photo, keeping my concentration on the raft and the young man with it. For the sake of composition, I noted the positions of the three who were behind him, but did not study them as I studied him. Two were working to ready gear for transport to the raft while the other lay chest-up on an ice-cooler soaking up sunrays.

"Where you headed?" I shouted to the young man at the raft, "all the way to the mouth?"

He looked up, startled, and then answered, "No, we're going to a place near Houston."

The sound of our voices also startled the sunbather, who sat up on the ice chest, then got up and started walking about. It was then that I noticed she was a woman, a rather finely sculpted one at that. 

And if I were to include the picture that I took just before this one, when she was still lying on the ice chest, her breasts bare and aimed at the sky, you would wonder how I could not have noticed earlier.

But I am not going to show you that one. 

She then walked over toward the boat. If she felt at all self-concious, she did not show it. I decided to end my interview and move on.

"I hope you enjoy your trip!" I shouted. "Have fun!"

"Thanks!" the guy attending to the raft shouted back. "We will!"

This afternoon, I took Melanie and Charlie out for coffee and afterward drove this very route and told them of the incident.

"That's so Wasilla!" Charlie said.

I pedaled away from the rafters, wondering why I have reached upper middle age so fast, why my body is aging and headed altogether too swiftly in the direction of old age, even as my mind, ambition and desire remain basically the same as when I was in my 20's.

In fact, I often believe that I am still in my 20's. Sometimes, I'm convinced that I always will be, no matter how many years I live.

Many times, especially on my late afternoon coffee breaks, I have passed by Grotto Iona, the Place of Prayer.

I have always been curious about the place, but have always kept going. Now I looked closely at the cross that marks the grotto and then read the smaller sign that hangs from it.

"Welcome," it said.

So I pedaled my bike into the driveway, laid it down upon the ground and entered this place of prayer.

Grotto Iona is not only a place of prayer, but a tiny graveyard, with but a handful of occupants. It is a quiet place and even though I do not share the faith of those who so lovingly built it and continue to care for it, I felt an atmosphere of peace here. It felt like a special place, a sacred place.

I am certain that people kneel before this shrine and pray, but I don't believe that way, so I didn't, but I did feel a strong sense of respect. I sensed the pain that people have brought here, including the worst kind of pain that humans can feel, the kind of sorrow that none of us who live long enough can avoid. 

People have brought that pain here in the hope that they might exchange it for comfort. I suspect that sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they did not. Sometimes they succeeded for awhile, but then later it all came back. In time, it would have retreated into that place in the human heart where pain no longer brings tears or robs one of laughter, hope, and happiness, yet once put always resides.

Just outside the fence that surrounds the shrine, I found a tiny grave, with no inscription written upon any of the rocks that circle it.

Upon the mound contained inside that circle I saw this toy truck, which by vintage speaks of a sorrow that happened decades ago, yet the fact that it still stands upright, rusted though it be, states that this sorrow still lingers in at least one living, beating, human heart.

And now it resides in my heart as well.




I walked over to the big cross and found that it stood above the grave of a woman, eight years younger then me. She died on April 6, 2004.










A tiny angel with butterfly wings: placed in sadness, so sad to look upon - so utterly still, so quiet.

Within the fence that embraces the shrine there is a grave and it holds two people - Paul George Mahoney and his wife Iona Mae, who was three years younger then he but preceded him in death by just under six.

Perhaps that is why, atop the slab on this memorial a poem is inscribed, which you can read at the bottom of this post.

I read the poem first and then I looked at the picture of the Mahoney's, their hair and his beard white. I looked at my reflection, my hair still brown but my beard turning ever more white, and then decided that I wanted to photograph myself with them. 

So I positioned myself just as you see here and placed the camera at a low angle so that it could see their portrait even as it captured me in self-portrait. As I did, I was surprised to notice that I was on my knees, in a place of prayer. 

I was raised religious, but now consider myself to be agnostic. Agnostic is not the same as atheist. To me, agnostic means that you look around at both the wonders and brutalities of this world and the universe that it travels in and you marvel. You wonder how such a magnificent place could be created except by God, even as you wonder how God could be so cruel as to have laid so brutish a system of survival upon it.

It means that you look at all the religions and you do not know quite what to make of them. In the case of Christianity, from which I come, you see, at one and the same time, preachers of high position and stature stand at the pulpit and preach hatred toward those who are different than they say all should be, yet you see other preachers of the very same faith call for love and tolerance towards all their fellow humans, whatever their belief, race, gender or sexuality.

You see the cruel people, see the sincere and kind, all espousing the same faith, and then you learn these people exist in the spectrum of faith - Christianity... Hindu... Muslim... the Apache beliefs that nurtured your wife's forebearers, the Navajo beliefs of your daughter-in-law...

You hear the hymns, the gospel songs, the music of faith as it is performed only for commercial purposes and as it comes from the heart to bestow comfort upon those who mourn. You hear this spirit of comfort against hardship sung by your Mormon blood relatives, your born again and Protestant Christian friends on the Arctic Slope and throughout Native Alaska and, yes, you hear it in the songs of your new Hindu relatives in India.

You see that the true believers among them all are equally sincere, their faith rises just as strong within their divergent beliefs.

And so you conclude that, despite your upbringing, your own experience as a missionary, the preaching that you once did, the prayers you have pled, the days of fasting you have endured, the sweats you have sat through, the peyote administered in the midst of physical ordeal, the testimonies that you have heard and delivered - it is beyond your ability to know. It is all a mystery. 

And then you see the reflection of yourself kneeling, an agnostic among the Catholic dead, in a place of prayer, and although you did not kneel to pray, you feel that it would be wrong for you to rise to your feet without doing so.

So you pray, not quite certain who you are praying to; you pray for Patti, whom you have just spoken to and who battles cancer for her very life... for your wife, that she might heal quickly and not fall again, for your children and their spouses, your grandson and the one that is coming, that they might be kept safe and live long and healthy; for the family of Senator Ted Kennedy who is being buried in the dark even as you kneel in the sun and for this nation that so struggles against itself... for all those Iñupiat friends and adopted family who have experienced and are experiencing so much loss; your friends of all ethnic backgrounds in all parts of Alaska, the USA, Canada, Greenland... for those in India who became your family only recently but are dear to you... in Africa...

Then I got up and walked away and saw this toy shovel, just inside the entrance to the grotto. I stepped through the gate, pulled my bike upright from the ground, straddled the seat and pedaled away.

And I gave myself an assignment - to find out who Paul Mahoney was, and Iona Mae, for whom the grotto is named. I can't do it right away. I don't have the time. But maybe later, in winter, when the projects that I now work on are done, when the night is long, when it is the time to learn of stories and to tell stories.





Blest with the Grace of a Saint

by Paul Mahoney

Many nights of bliss

many children to kiss

and still it comes to this.

That heaven I've missed

Nod with lady up there,

Eyes dimmed and stare

Frame needing repair

and soul wrought with care.

Ahah! Finally comes pay

The great Milky Way

that looms ever so bright

In the darkness of night

Each star but a step

Leading on to the next

Like hopscotch I'll go

be it quickly or slow.

So I'm circling around

And studying the ground

Where first star step be found.

And me thinks "it's the mound"

of a newly filled grave

so the one who lies there

May be off up the stair

Toward more heavenly air.




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Reader Comments (18)

I've lived in Wasilla for 35 years and I love reading your blog. I share your feelings of how things have changed with the fancy subdivisions and newcomers everywhere. I also tend to travel the least traveled roads here and your philosophy on religion is insightful. I have heard it said that each of the world's religions hold a small piece to the puzzle but none have even a close understanding of the big picture.

And Paul and Iona Mahoney are the patriarch/matriarch of the Mahoney family of Schrock Road in Wasilla. http://mahoneyville.com/ They were very infamous here back in the 1970s but you don't hear much about them anymore. I was raised Catholic and the Mahoneys were part of our congregation at Sacred Heart in Wasilla- I loved it when the whole clan would show up dressed to the nines in their motorcycle leathers and hippie clothes led by Paul and Iona.

August 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteran old time wasillian

Thank you for this post today. You have stated exactly how I am feeling about religion right now. I think your praying even when you are agnostic was a very respectful and loving thing to do.

My opinion those are the prayers that are heard.

August 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLynn D

I so often find peace when I come to your blog. I think it's because you keep things simple and honest. Thank you for this post.

August 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCindy G

I wandered over here from Bush Babe's, figuring that you were going to be a rabid Republican, all hale Sarah Palin, etc.

Your blog reads like windchimes sound. I like that very much. Thank you.

Oh, and my best wishes to your wife as she heals.

August 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdebby

Thanks for the very heartfelt post....I've driven by that place so many times but never stopped. There is something to be said for riding your bike down our backroads; you tend to stop and notice much more than when carbound traveling at 35 mph.

You certainly are putting some miles on that bike! Good for you.

As always, I love your photos and you inspire me to always have camera in hand to capture life's moments.

August 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAlicia Greene

Old time Wasillan: Glad you are with me - and thanks for the info! I must learn their stories!

Lynn - thank you.

Cindy - I appreciate the words.

Debby - Glad you stopped by and that you now know that we in Wasilla are of many minds.

Alicia - If you drive by and see my red Ford Escape or me on my blue bike, honk and wave!

September 1, 2009 | Registered CommenterWasilla, Alaska, by 300

When I first opened this post, I thought it would be about the Spirit Houses in the Valley. The first time I came upon them, I said "What are these, guinea pig houses?" I was thinking about things like this-


Which just goes to show that sometimes religious assed-ness is not always intentional.

September 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbets

I know this place well. My son married into the family.
I travel every year for a visit, a make sure a trip to the Grotto
is amongst the first things I do. The area is rich in family history.
I love Alaska, and this very special famly. A visit to the Grotto
gives you time to reflect and heal at the same time.

September 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJo-Ann H.

I know this place well. My son married into the family.
I travel every year for a visit, a make sure a trip to the Grotto
is amongst the first things I do. The area is rich in family history.
I love Alaska, and this very special famly. A visit to the Grotto
gives you time to reflect and heal at the same time.

September 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJo-Ann H.

I was born and raised at the homestead this is a very nice article on the grotto that is my mother and father and there is a lot of history . thanks for stopping at the grotto to see what it is all about.

September 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commentervirginia mahoney-laJambe

Bill, I saw the picture from the Grotto on your post from the last day or two, and thought I'd check to see if there was more.

This post is just beautiful. I think you sense the "mind of God" in a way that we can only when we admit we can't. And the pictures and the stories you connect to them are very moving.

As I read this blog, I become more and more determined to make that trip to Alaska. Sooner, not later. Thank you.

November 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCynthiaC54

You have a good sence for the interesting, as the Mahoneys are one of the more interesting and missunderstood old valley families. Its amusing to me, everyone who claims to know our family wants to put them in a box they dont fit in. If you want to take the full tour some time drop me a line. Matt

February 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatt mahoney

Paul mahoney was my grandfather and one of the most amazing people that have walked the earth. My grandfather built this grotto as a place were people can go and have quiet time if not to pray. One of my favorite memeories of the grotto ( I have quite a few as i was brought up there) was I rode my horse down the road and to the grotto so she could eat up some of the clover and i could just have a moment to myself. I sat on the bench (the one with the poem) and was staring off thinking of grandpa when i looked down and realized that there was not one,two, or even three but what seems like a whole patch of four-leaf clovers. I guess when you bury a irish man he pushes up clovers not daisys. I love you grandpa your memory will live on in the hearts of those who love you

September 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEmily H

Grotto Iona. Iona was a friend and cousin through marriage. I think the last time I saw here she was about 12 years old. She was always a beautiful girl and so vibrant. I loved your post and pictures showing the shrine.

November 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElaine Lunn Thomas

About ten years ago I spent a couple of glorious days in Mahoneyville. I had become good friends with Paul in Dawson City where he once lived. I was on tour with a band from Whitehorse and we were travelling from Homer to the Talkeetna Bluegrass Festival. We had some frozen halibut with us, and I called Paul to see if we could leave it in his freezer. When we arrived at Mahoneyville Paul immediately cleaned and mopped the "party room" We got our instruments and started to play - his daughter Polly ran in from the kitchen where she was cooking venison steaks over the wood cookstove. She lifted up her apron and step danced around the room. Paul stood up and sang "There's a Goldmine in the Sky".....I looked over at one of his older sons, a tough cowboy, and big tears were rolling down his cheeks. We had a wonderful time and left the next day to play the festival. I never saw Paul again, but savour the memory of the many hours I spent visiting with him. Next time I am in that part of Alaska I will stop by the grotto to pay my respects.

December 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Tinkham

I'm a good friend of the mahoney family, i've been a part of theirs for 5 years. Paul and Iona are the mother and father of 12 children most of which still live in wasilla today. The grotto was built there as a place for anyone who needed some time to think or pray. The family also spends every fathers day there at the grotto, with their dad Paul. If you continue down the road from the grotto there are two fields on each side, all the land here and up the mountain a ways is part of the mahoney homestead. Though much of it has been sold the land is still extremely vast and if you follow the trails up the mountain you'll be surprised what you'll find. The mahoney family is a very close knit, catholic family and they welcome everyone with kind hearts.

April 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

my grandfather was an amazing man. i never had the opportunity to meet my grandma but i know that she too was an amazing person... it is so great that you wrote about the grotto... i hope you get all of the information that you are looking for about them

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmber Mahoney

the small grave is my nephews... he was born premature

January 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmber Mahoney

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