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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During my time of hiatus, I took a short walk with Garrison Keillor, we got stopped by baby feet

No, the snow did not suddenly melt, nor did the sun burst up high, bright and warm into the sky. I have gone back to August 28, a date near the end of the six or seven week hiatus I took during the summer. On that day, Garrison Keillor performed at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer. My daughter Melanie, who is always thinking about her parents, bought tickets and treated us to the performance.

I did not come to photograph the performance. I just came to watch and to share the company of my daughter and wife. Of course, I brought a couple of cameras with me, because I always carry a camera or two.

In what at first seemed to be an unfortunate turn of events, Melanie and I got separated from Margie and the crowd pushed us up almost right to the corner that was highest and farthest from the stage.

Margie did find Charlie's mom, Cyndy, and so she had company even though she was not with us.

As for Garrison Keillor, he was was very, very, far away.

Still, I did bring a 100 - 400 zoom with me. By extending it to the 400 mm setting and then cropping a bit, I was able to get a few shots that showed that Garrison Keillor was actually in front of my camera, but there was no intimacy in the shots. They were distant point shots and nothing more.

I was not concerned, because, as noted, I had come just to watch, and a snap or two that proved that we had been there was good enough.

To the surprise of us all, at a certain point, Keillor left the stage and walked right into the middle of the front portion of the crowd. So he came a little closer than I had expected him to. Still, a fence separated those among whom he walked - those who had actual seats upon which to sit - from the rest of us, who had either to stand or sit upon the ground.

So I knew he would never go beyond that fence and make it to where we stood.

But Keillor did walk beyond the edge of the fence, then turned onto the path that skirted the common section. Melanie and I stood right at the edge of that path. Suddenly, the bard whose stories I have been listening to for 30 years and whose books I have read was walking straight towards us.

In fact, if I didn't move, Garrison Keillor would have no choice but to walk right over the top of me. So I scurried a person or two into the crowd and shot this frame as I fled.

I always knew Keillor was a man who wears elegant shoes.

And then he was right beside me. Back in the early 1980's, when I first heard him on the radio, I developed a mental picture of Garrison Keillor. I pictured him as tall, husky, robust, with a thick, black beard and black hair topped by a brown cowboy hat. I pictured him in Levi's and red plaid shirts.

I got his height right, and the color red, too, just misplaced a bit.

These days, I will often miss a show or two or three, but back then the only way I would miss A Prarie Home Companion was if I were somewhere out in Alaska beyond radio range. Whenver he came on, if I was not driving the car, I would lie upon the bed or couch, close my eyes so that there would be no visuals to compete with the images his words drew in my brain - images of Lefty the Cowboy, getting outflanked and dumped by a buxomy blond, Guy Noir, the private eye, who, for a time got killed on just about every show, but always managed to kill the bad guy who killed him.

Now, they both get to live.

There were the amazing sound effects of the recently deceased Tom Keith and Fred Newman, who came to Alaska with him; there was soul-soothing ketchup, be-bop-a-roo-bop rhubard pie, powder milk bisquits, children who were all above average, preachers, Norwegian bachelor farmers, Lutherans, Catholics and other brethern and sistren that he had grown up with, reworked into new characters and given a life they never expected to have.

I identified with Keillor's stories, because he could have just as easily been talking about the folks in the different Mormon congregations that I grew up in as my restless dad moved us to various places in the west, away from but anchored by my birth state of Utah.

There was always sexual innuendo in Keillor's stories, but as he aged, the innuendo gradually became blatant and the hypocrisy of some of his never-the-less always lovable characters obvious. His stories grew more and more risque, as if he were finally throwing off the shackles that had bound him while growing up. Having grown up Mormon, I could understand this, too.

And here, live at the Alaska State Fair doing a three-hour show that would not be broadcast on the radio, Keillor totally let loose and put in a performance that, linguistically, was downright ribald.

At one point, when he was still onstage and Melanie was standing right behind me, he told the young adults to take a look at that old, bent, gray-haired man standing in front of them, that breaking down old man who was their father.

Then, in rather graphic detail, which I would be happy to repeat but I know if I do, I will get scolded by my daughters who would laugh if Conan O'Brien uttered words of the same nature, he described that old man as a young man and went into some detail about the blast and how he made the young person's mother pregnant.

It might be hard for the young people to think of their dad like that, Keillor lectured, but they should be grateful to him for it, or else they wouldn't be here.

With Melanie standing just behind me, I felt a little self-conscious - but it also put my mind back to the night she was conceived. Theorectically, it could have been any of a few different nights in the right time period, but I know it was that night. I knew it at the moment - and what a special night it was. And what a wonderful gift came to us as a result.

And there she is, just to the left of Garrison Keillor - the very pretty, black-haired lady, holding a blue jacket, laughing at whatever it was that Keillor was saying at that moment, ribald or not.

Cats. Keillor doesn't talk about them near as much now as he used to, but in the earlier days, hardly a show went by without a cat being inserted into a story.

He even made up a song about Alaska cats.

As it happened, in the early 1990's, a cat moved in with us and then over the next few years I created a number of cat books. Since Garrison Keillor loved cats and I loved listening to Garrison Keillor, I knew that if I sent those cat books to Keillor he would love them so much that he would call up the right publisher and just like that, my cat books would be published.

He would have me on his show and we would talk knowingly and humorously about cats, my books would sell by the millions and thus my cats would fund my work for the rest of my life.

But Garrison Keillor never wrote back.

Years later, a package came in the mail, along with a letter from a Keillor staffer who said she had found my cat books in a box sitting in a back room somewhere. She did not even tell me if Mr. Keillor had ever even laid eyes upon them.

I decided that he must not have. If Garrison Keillor had looked at my cat books, then surely he would have loved them; surely he would have passed them on to the right publisher and we would be old buddies now - thanks to all those times I had appeared on his show to talk about cats. My work would now be financed for the remainder of my life. I could travel the Arctic at will in my restored airplane and I could have a second plane that was faster and could go farther without a refill. Whenver I felt I needed a break, I could fly off to India or Brazil or Tahiti or wherever I wanted and when Margie wanted, she could come, too.

I still have faith in my cat buddies. Right now, it looks we are plunging toward disaster, but I continue to believe that sooner or later, the cats will come to our rescue and everything will be okay.

The stroll was fairly short and soon Keillor walked back to the stage and resumed his performance. I was pleased to have had such an experience. I had not expected to get close to him at all. I knew it would never happen again...

...but it did; real quick. Keillor returned to his crowd walk and this time he brought the beautiful Heather Masse with him. They sang as they walked.

A little bit ahead of them, some baby feet protruded into the air. I knew that Keillor would pause when he reached the baby feet, because no one who had a heart could pass by without wanting to stop and give those baby feet a squeeze. Most people couldn't get away with making a baby feet stop and squeeze - but Keillor could.

So, staying low to the ground, I skedalled over to those feet and positioned myself. Sure enough, when Keillor reached them, he stopped and reached out to give those baby feet a squeeze.

Keillor squeezed the baby feet, first together and then just the left.

And then, accompanied by Heather Masse as well as some in the crowd, he sang to the baby: "Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can't help falling in love with you..."

It kind of looks like Keillor is a holy man, giving the baby a blessing. Or perhaps, he positioned his hand there to feel the spiritual essence of the baby. A logical person might surmise that Keillor is just using his hand to shade the baby from the sun that was beating down upon it when Keillor first spotted it, but, look - Keillor's hand is in the shade of his own body, as is the baby.

I prefer to think that Keillor cupped his hand over the baby because he wanted to feel its spiritual essence. It was a spiritual moment; it truly was. You can hear that spirit in the song.

Up until this moment, I had mostly been keeping crouched pretty low to the ground so as not obstruck anyone's view, but even though I did not come here to take pictures, I'm still a photographer and when I see a picture developing in front of me (as I do in every waking moment) I want to get it.

I needed a higher angle, so I could include the baby's face in the photo. I popped up and got it and as I did, someone shot a little video of the moment and later put it on YouTube. Here it is. You can hear a few measures of the song and then decide for youself about whether or not it was a spiritual song.

The song ended. Keillor and Masse left the baby, passed by the concession and beer tent and then moved on through the crowd. I took a few more pictures, but you get the idea.

Near the stage, the duo of Keillor and Masse brought their walking performance to a close.

By following them, I had figured out how to work myself through at least the outer edges of the crowd, so I was able to take this picture when they brought the show to a close soon after. This, and many of the other pictures, don't really work at this tiny size, but you can click on them or view the slide show to see larger versions.

Now, it was my intent to run back up, find the blessed baby and see what the family had to say about what they had just experienced.

This plan failed. The show had lasted well over three hours and so the urgent crowd moved in mass toward the "rent-a-cans." I got swept along.

By the time I escaped and pushed my way through the anxious mob, baby and parents had disappeared.

I was hungry. I rejoined Melanie, found Margie and Cyndy and then we all set out in search of food - which is found in abundance and at high prices at the Alaska State Fair.

I had been thinking that I might get a turkey leg, but changed my mind and went for a blue corn tamale.


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Reader Comments (9)

I've loved Garrison Keillor since the first time I heard him. Unfortunately I seldom lived where I could catch his show but I did have a recording (remember those?) of the Best of Garrison Keillor at one point. My ex took it & he didn't even like the man, but loved to keep things I loved from me.

My goodness, what wonderful pictures you got of the show. I'd expect nothing less. Number 5 picture where Garrison's big right hand was prominent blew me away. My much loved, big boned Swedish Grandpa had HUGE hands & I've never seen another pair of hands that could match them. Garrison comes close, although his fingers are much more slender than Grandpa's were. He played the accordion & had to play with the side of his fingers because if he had set them on the keys flat, he'd have been playing two keys at a time. Great memories, thanks for bringing them to me!

Yep, very classy shoes! :-) Such fun. I envy you.

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKatzKids

So envious you were able to see him so close. I loved your walk with him. Thanks! I catch him on my car radio driving to the store on Saturdays (in CO). The car radio is better than my house radio that only picks up the big blaring Right Wing talk station spewing hatred that I don't like. Can only get NPR radio in my car. Lake Wobegon is just like the small town I grew up in, in northern Iowa. Complete with Norwegian farmers and church suppers! A nice walk down memory lane!

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Gunka

There was a bit of a "tent revival" feel to the day also ;-)

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCyndy E

Thank you so much for this. Reminded me of a day many years ago on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capital when I was privileged to be in the audience of one of Keillor's outside programs. Good memories.

November 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGrandma Nancy

YOU SAW GARRISON KEILLOR LIVE?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

OH MY GOODNESS. I'm so jealous I cannot even put together a proper sentence.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdebby

I've never heard his music. What does he play?

Nice photographs, Uncle!

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGane

I am amazed to think how long we have been listening to PHC and how it never gets stale. Alaska looks quite tropical in those pictures. Almost bearable in fact.

November 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterconchscooter

Katzkids - I wish I could have photographed you grandpa's hands.

Mrs Gunka - There are many public radio stations that stream their broadcasts on the internet. I often listen to programs on Anchorage's KSKA when I am walking or biking or unable to turn on the radio.

Yes - That's Garrison Keillor - a mix of the sacred and bawdy, all together, all at once.

Debby - Sorry about that, but you might get your chance yet.

Gane - Garrison Keillor is kind of a folk hero in the US. About 30 years ago, he launched a program called A Prairie Home Companion on public radio and it quickly became a big success. On that program, he mostly tells stories and jokes and he always has a number of invited guests, most of them musicians from across the spectrum - bluegrass to classical.

He often will sing along with them. I have never heard him play a musical instrument, though he might well do so.

Conch - to be quite honest with you and I hate to say this because I don't want too many people to know, I think that the summers here are the nicest of any place in the country. Only problem is the mosquitoes.

December 1, 2011 | Registered CommenterWasilla, Alaska, by 300

certainly exciting you got to meet keillor! and what great shots you took. it's true that some people get 'discovered' by other artists and thus their career is made. it could have happened for you, but didn't.

December 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Deming

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