A blog by Bill Hess

Running Dog Publications

P.O. Box 872383 Wasilla, Alaska 99687


All photos and text © Bill Hess, unless otherwise noted 
All support is appreciated
Bill Hess's other sites

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.

Blog archive
Blog arhive - page view
« My lens smudged and dirty, I walk into Central Park, where I am greeted by a smiling dog | Main | After a long, uncomfortable flight with another delay, I am back in Wasilla, with my wife and cats »

I find a pretzel in Times Square, plus a naked cowboy; These days, invited or not, Sarah Palin travels with Alaskans everywhere we go

I would not want to give the impression that I am a person who travels often to New York City, but I have been there a number of times and on my very first trip in the early 1980's, I established a ritual: to buy a pretzel from a Times Square street vendor and wash it down with a Pepsi.

Prior to that first trip nearly 30 years ago, I had always thought of pretzels as small, hard-baked, crunchy things packaged with dozens or even scores of others in plastic bags. I did like them, and found them to be particularly good as car food.

Then I made my first trip to New York and, for $35 a night, found myself in the Edison Hotel, immdiately off Times Square. After I checked in, I set out to explore and soon saw my first real pretzel, being sold by a street vendor. I bought it. It was a giant thing, maybe twice the size of the one you see here, twisted and coarse on the outside. The crust was not so smooth as this one, but was broken by little cracks and seared with scorch marks from the coals over which it had been roasted. The salt looked the same.

The pretzel had the aroma of fresh bread and salt and when I bit into it, I was amazed. It was fresh, thick and chewey, rich with the flavor of whatever wood had been used to roast it. It was one of the best things that I had ever tasted. I devoured it, along with the Pepsi, and then ordered another one.

Every day for the rest of that trip, which was maybe three days long, I bought at least one pretzel and a Pepsi to wash it down.

As for Times Square, I found it to be a strange mix of high and low culture, plus everything in between, all twisted together. Broadway theatres and porn shops, with naked inflatable dolls, whose use I did not even want to contemplate, hung suspended in large display windows. Men in tuxedos and women in fancy gowns walked the streets, brushing against prostitutes, pimps, beggars and hawkers. Many tourists walked about, gawking, as multitudes of vendors tried to sell them everything from magazines to sketches of themselves.

The air smelled delicious and there was an abundance of food to be had, both on the streets and in the abundant restaurants. There were hot dogs and sausages on a bun, grilled meat and vegetables on a stick. Whole chickens cast in red light turned on grills in window displays. The aroma of Asian food, French cuisine, beer joints and pizza, whole and by the slice, wafted out of doorway upon doorway.

All the food that I tried, and I tried as much as I could possibly afford, both from street and restaurant, was among the best that I had ever tried.

On that first evening, as I walked down the street, I saw a woman walking the other way, looking right at me. As anyone from my part of the world would likely do, I responded with a polite nod and a "hi."

Big mistake. I never did that again.

Day or night, crowds of people swarmed through the streets as the famous, corner, Coca-Cola lighted marquee played above. For a seeker of open space, untrammaled country and solitude, it was an amazing thing to see for the first time. As short as my tolerance for big crowds is, I yet found it exhilarating and exciting.

After that, whenever I would return, wherever I would be staying, I made it a point to go to Times Square to eat a pretzel and drink a Pepsi.

"Be sure to try a pretzel," I would tell New York-bound acquaintances. "They are special - the best in the world."

Back home, I kept trying to replicate the experience. Whenever I would find a pretzel shop in an Anchorage mall, I would buy one. Many were good - but they were not New York pretzels. I discovered frozen Super Pretzels in the grocery store. I would bake and microwave them at home and share them with the kids, even as I boasted about the far superior New York pretzels.

In later years, Melanie got to New York. Having heard about the legendary New York pretzel for all of her life, she bought one.

"Dad," she complained back to me, "there is nothing special about this pretzel. It is just like a Super Pretzel that we could buy at Carr's."

She was right. The old New York pretzels are gone. In my more recent trips, I have searched the streets of Manhattan uptown, midtown, downtown and lower. Nowhere can I find a New York pretzel. Only imitation pretzels, like any Super Pretzel that I could buy in any decent grocery store in any city or town in America.

Times Square is different, too. Redone in high-tech electronics; selling high fashion, glitz, glamour, Mickey Mouse, sporting memorabilia and romantic fantasy.

I suppose that it is a safer place than the old Times Square and that maybe it is good to be able to walk down the street without having to fend off pimps and prostitutes, but, as furiously busy as it remains, there is something bland and artificial about it.

Still, when in New York, I have a ritual that I must now follow. I go to Times Square. I buy my pretzel and my Pepsi and then I eat and drink and I still enjoy - just like I would if I were eating a Super Pretzel at home. As I eat, I try to remember how the real New York pretzels tasted. I long to have one.

This is the pretzel I bought at Times Square this trip, and that's Times Square right behind it.

In the new Times Square, crowds of people still flow. Many gawk and marvel.

After I finished my pretzel, I came upon a famous man, who claimed to be naked and a cowboy. All kinds of girls and women were stuffing dollar bills - no less than three at a time, for that seems to be his minimum - into a slot in his guitar and then posing for both front and back shots as their girlfriends, boy friends, husbands and countless strangers took their pictures.

As it turns out, he is not really naked, but wears some little white shorts. I kind of doubt that he is a cowboy, either. Has he ever lassoed a calf? Castrated a steer, waded through wet, green, dung or sat in a saddle, all day long, pushing cattle through the brush as mosquitoes fed on him? If he did, would not the saddle horn have castrated him?

I don't know. Perhaps he was once a real cowboy who caught a glimpse of the city and could not be drawn back to the ranch. I could google his history and maybe find out, but I am too lazy. Plus, I am not certain that I would believe what I read - not even on Wiki, because anyone can be a historian on Wiki.

The Naked Cowboy definitely has a lucrative gig, though. An unending flow of women constantly stuffs dollars into his guitar. It appeared to me that he works very hard, but reaps substantial financial reward. I am certain, too, that when the need rises, the Naked Cowboy never lacks for a woman.

I wonder what kind of sunscreen he uses?

A woman places her hand on the Naked Cowboy's butt as her husband or maybe boyfriend snaps a picture.

A little girl drapes her arm across the Naked Cowboy's butt and places her hand atop his hip as a man who might or might not be her father documents the moment.

Naked Cowboy and fan.

Directly across the street from the Naked Cowboy, I came upon what appeared to be a father and daughter, taking a rest beneath a giant, full-motion, billboard.

Not far away, I found a lady police officer with her horse. "I'll bet lot of people photograph you," I stated as I photographed her. She rolled her eyes, sighed and groaned, "Yes, you wouldn't believe it. I get so tired of it."

Perhaps readers have noticed that there is a dull, grimy, hazy, even blurry, cast - most pronounced right in the middle of the frame, over all these pictures. That is because the lens to my pocket camera is dirty. A drop of water or some other fluid had struck it right in the middle and dried there and a thin coating of grit and grime had spread all the way across the glass.

One bad feature of this pocket camera is that the lens is not much more than a quarter inch across, so a drop or smear on its surface that would not noticeably affect the quality of an image shot through a lens with more surface area will truly mar a picture taken with a soiled pocket camera.

I had brought a small bottle of lens cleaning fluid and a new cleaning cloth with me, but the cloth had disappeared. I decided to drop into a Times Square camera store and buy another.

I stepped in and was met by this guy. He did not want to sell me a cloth, but rather a whole lens cleaning kit, complete with cloth, brush, air-puffer and fluid. But that kit cost at least four times as much as did just a cleaning cloth. I did not want to pay the money, nor did I want to have to carry all that stuff around with me.

It was the kit or nothing, the camera merchant said. I could buy the kit, clean my lens and get clear pictures, or I could go around with a dirty lens and get mucky pictures. I would not find a kitless lens cloth anywhere - certainly not on Times Square. All of Manhattan's big camera stores are owned by Jewish families and were closed for Passover, so I could not go to one of those and buy one, either.

I told him that I did not need all that and was not going to buy it. I added that if he were to sell cloths, he would still increase his business because people like me who will not buy a kit would still purchase something from him.

"I can't make any money off you!" he snickered derisively. "I make my money off of suckers. Suckers who will buy the whole kit. I can see you're not a sucker. I make my money by selling to suckers." As he taunted me, his side kick, the one whose arm extends from the blue-striped shirt sleeve, chortled mockingly. I was reminded of Ralphie confronting the school-yard bully and his toadie in A Christmas Story.

I decided that I had to put the man and this story in this blog, so I pulled my camera out of my pocket, changed the settings from outdoors to indoors, then lifted it and shot this picture. This angered the man.

"I'll slap you!" he threatened. "Get out of my store!"

So I decided that on this day, I would just shoot with a dirty lens. When the angle of light was against me, I would settle for the impressionistic effect.

Shortly after I stepped out of the store, this car stopped at a red light and this young woman asked me if I could tell them how to find a certain place. "I can't," I said, "I'm not from here. I'm from Alaska."

"Alaska?" she said. "Where Sarah Palin is from?"

"Believe it or not, I'm from Wasilla."

Everyone in the car was very amused by that fact.

The hard truth these days is that if you live in Alaska - especially Wasilla, Alaska - and you go traveling Outside, Sarah Palin travels with you, everywhere you go.

Sometimes, you can be having a good conversation with a couple of people, then they learn that you are from Wasilla, they look at each other strangely, find a way to quickly end the conversation and walk away.

Sometimes, they smile big and tell you that they love Sarah Palin and how lucky you are to live in the same town with this magnificent and brave woman.

Funny, the assumptions people make, just because you live in a certain place at a certain, very odd, time in history.

There are those who do not assume, but they tend to grill you with questions when you might rather talk about something else.

I did not make this up. After the carload of people in search of direction moved on, I kept walking and came upon this dog. It kind of looks like a pitbull.

And then I moved on toward Central Park. My stroll there will be the subject of tomorrow's post.


As a reminder that I am no longer in NYC:

Here is a picture that I took on my coffee break, while stopped at a Wasilla red light.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (16)

My NY heart is full (and yet wanting more); my eyes are teary, after reading this. I haven't been in so long. Thanks for sharing.

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdaisydem

I love the part in the camera store when he threatened to slap you! That is so funny. I am glad you got his picture. Not all Alaskan's are Suckers! Just some of us!

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCharlie

wow...i never knew pretzels used to be an art form. maybe someone at food network will read this and rediscover wood-smoked pretzels. thanks again for a peek at the world through the eyes of bill hess!

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterdahli22

Maybe the NY pretzel tasted exceptionally good because you were IN New York.

I tried to find gelato in Anchorage that was as good as the gelato I had in Italy. Can't be done. The gelato was the same but the ambience was lacking. Location is everything!

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersnowlady

Haven't been to New York in 20 years or so -- sorry to hear that the pretzels have changed, as I too remember the taste a giant New York Pretzel, much different than I had tasted anywhere else. I love the hustle and bustle of NYC, but only for short periods of time -- then love getting back to my piece of the world, which today has been invaded by Bachmann and Palin. I've stayed as far away as possible from them today.

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGrandma Nancy


Maybe this is the recipe you're looking for, although they top them off with sesame seeds.


I imagine you could get the wood-smoked flavor from the grill. Darn, now I'm hungry for pretzels!

Just wanted to say I love your writing. It kind of reminds me of Norman Rockwell, but with words.

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGermanGoodness

The camera man was going to slap you! Hilarious! Glad you got his picture anyway. You know, you should print up some business cards when you travel to far places with the blog name so people can see the pictures you took of them, like the people in the car and the police horsewoman. I think you would win tons of new fans to your wonderful blog.

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermocha

Ahhhh, NYC....some things never change. Growing up in MA my grandparents used to take my sister and I into the city quite often and I loved it at Christmas the most. There is nothing in the world quite like NYC at Christmas time!

So did you bring back that earthquake with you? Its been awfully quiet around here lately and Bill Hess comes home, and the ground moves! :)

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLisaJ

Trade the pepsi for a coke and I'm there with you. Okay, maybe some dry fish and a sailor boy cracker too. : )

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commentericvillages

Love that police horse! Boy, I'm not sure I'd want to go to NYC. Tooo many people!! But what an adventure you had!!!

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMikey

i understand your pain concerning sarah palin. i'm from Harlan, KY, or "Bloody Harlan" b/c of the coal wars and all that, and anyone who's EVER heard of harlan will make some mention of that. it's irritating..

but hey, you had a really interesting trip! i'd love to make it to NYC some time... always wanted to go...

April 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlexcade

I can't believe how rude the guy in the camera store was to you. Who does he think he is? And it looks like he's Indian, which makes the incident doubly sad and horrifying to me..

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAsh

Great post Bill!

Gotta say though, I cannot stand those camera stores - every tourist section of every town seems to have them. Full of expensive inventory that I can't imagine anyone buys. Maybe that's why the guy is such a jerk.

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle

My sister (we're from Wasilla orginally) lives in NY now and I've visited her - I LOVE NY. This was great. It's also good to have you back =)

April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTanyalaska

Sarah Palin has ruined Alaska.

April 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKary

Ash, even though you left the 12th comment, I will start with you: please do not feel bad about that guy. He may or may not have been of Indian descent, but he is most definitely an American.

Daisydem - I'm glad to have filled your NY heart.

Charlie - The only thing you are a sucker for is a cute cat.

Dahli - Yep, those pretzels were magic. You're welcome.

snowlady - I can understand your reasoning, but the location - New York City - remains the same. It is the pretzels that have changed. They were truly wonderful. I sure would like to have another one.

Grandma - Thanks. I understand.

GermanGoodness - Although I make really good peanut butter and honey sandwiches, I'm not much of a cook. Jacob loves to cook. I will see if I can get him to try out this recipe.

Mocha - You are absolutely right. For 19 months, I have been planning to make such cards. For 19 months, I haven't managed to do it.

Lisa - I heard that earthquake coming before I felt it. It sounded just like a freight train, headed straight for the house - then it went right through it. One of the shortest lasting earthquakes that I remember - yet very pronounced.

icvillages - I don't what your village is, but maybe I will stop there someday and we can share some pilot bread and dry fish. Now I want some. Mmmmmm!

Mikey - Trust me, country girl - you would enjoy going to New York City. You wouldn't want to stay forever, though.

Lexcade - I hope you make it. If I meet you someday, I will remember not to mention those...

Michelle - You are right, but I think the Times Square camera stores are the worst of all.

Tanya - And although I am sorry my time there was so short, I'm glad to be back.

Kary - No, Alaska is as great as ever. She's definitely marred the discussion about Alaska, though.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>