A blog by Bill Hess

Running Dog Publications

P.O. Box 872383 Wasilla, Alaska 99687

 

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Wasilla

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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Wednesday
Dec142011

Mocked by a raven, I walk to Abby's Home Cooking for a late breakfast and am reminded that home means not only good food, but sorrow, fear, solace and hearty laughter

Suddenly, despite the hard lesson he had learned, he was right back to his old habits. I'm not talking about the raven, I'm talking about me. Actually, I'm not talking at all, I'm writing, about me and about how Monday night I did not go to bed but worked until a bit after 3:00 AM on a package of 101 pictures that I had to transfer to a client before ending my day. 

When that was done, I made Tuesday's blog entry, dropped in on a couple of David Alan Harvey websites and then finally went to bed at 5:05 AM - right after I set my alarm for 7:30. Margie had an early morning doctor appointment in Anchorage, but she does not like to drive the highway in the dark, especially when there is ice on it.

Problem was, I dreaded both the thought of hearing my alarm go off and of sleeping through it, so, come 7:30, I had not gone to sleep at all. I let the alarm go off to wake Margie. We then decided that it made no sense for a man who had not slept for a full day to drive for safety's sake. Margie said she could do it.

So, off she went and I sank back down into bed with the cats to get some sleep.

By noon, I was wide awake, so I got up and headed out to walk to Abby's for a late breakfast.

Half-way, I saw this raven standing in the middle of the snow-covered cut bank that rises over Seldon. It had secured some kind of carrion and was hard at work making a meal of it. What a neat picture this would make - if I could just get close enough.

The raven is not afraid of me or my camera. The raven sees me and my camera often and knows that I am harmless and not nearly so smart as itself. So you would think it would be easy for me to get as close as I want. 

It would be, too, but the raven likes to play a game with me. Raven likes to let me come sneaking in, clicking, almost to where I want and then, just before I do, Raven flies.

And so Raven flew, just before I got where I could shoot a superb picture of the big, black, bird against the white cut bank, working on its carrion.

"Haw-Haw, caw-caw," Raven shouted in derision as it flew off over the trees.

But this raven was not done taunting me yet. Just before it would have disappeared, it circled back and landed in this tree.

It made that kind of guttural chortle sound that a raven does when it really wants to mock you.

This was not quite the picture I wanted. I would have to get ten feet closer to get that picture.

But Raven would not let me.

Oh, how that raven did swoop about, mocking and taunting. I knew what it was telling me: "I'm smarter than you are, you dummy human!"

It moved ahead of me and then landed atop an old, dead, tree that had lost its top. Behind that tree was a thicket of birch and cottonwood against which the form of the raven was barely discernable. I saw that if I shifted a short distance to the side, there was a gap of sort against which I could better make out the raven. So I did - and I got this shot.

But it wasn't good enough. If I could manuever into another position one to two hundred feet ahead, then the old, dead, tree would be separated from the thicket and the raven would stand out.

I was certain Raven would fly off the old, dead, tree perch just before I reached that position.

I was wrong! I reached it! What had happened? Had Raven slipped up, failed to calculate, goofed?

Then I realized Raven was just waiting for me to notice that I had not reached the best spot at all, but I needed to shift two inches to the left, three forward, two to the right and then one back and then I would be in just the right spot.

Damn, Raven! Why do you always do this to me?

In answer, Raven dove in mocking taunt.

And then, right before my eyes, the raven took on the shape of an airplane. This raven wanted to mock me, taunt me, to remind me that the physical object that I most want to have, that I once had and loved and then crashed, was beyond my grasp.

But the raven had made a mistake. I never wanted an airplane like this - I just wanted another little tail-dragger that I could put skis on this time of year, fly low and slow, and land whereever the hell I felt like landing.

"Ha, Raven!" I shouted. "I don't even want that airplane! You're not so smart, after all! I got the best of you this time!"

So Raven returned to his natural form, landed in tree just a short distance from Abby's and sat there and sulked while I entered the restaurant.

It was warm in Abby's - both in temperature and spirit. I ordered a three-egg omelette with cheese, ham, red and yellow peppers, onions, mushrooms, which Shelly soon cooked up into one of her famous "bomblettes."

It just may have been the best omelette I have ever eaten. The hash browns were slightly on the crispy side, but still better than any other Wasilla restaurant hashbrowns that I have tasted and the fresh, thick-cut, homemade, buttered wheat toast with raspberry jam - well, in all this valley, this treat is unique to Abby's.

I took my time and made it a long, leisurely, breakfast. The company was good, too. Abby and Shelly are skilled at visiting even as they work. When she named her restaurant, "Abby's Home Cooking," Abby meant it.

As I ate, two gentlemen sat on the wooden stools at the bar eating also, their backs to me.

One then got up and left, leaving the other by himself.

Abby sat down beside him. They exchanged a few sentences that I paid no attention to, and then suddenly Abby gave him a big, hard, hug. At first, I thought the man was probably one of Abby's many relatives and I shot a few frames. Then I noticed that there was something intense about this hug. 

Next I heard the sound of sobbing, both hers and his. There was deep pain in that sob. Abby leaned back, her eyes wet, and kept her hand on his back.

Several minutes later, he got up to leave. I stopped him, showed him the first picture and told him that I had been photographing Abby and her restaurant since she opened on the Fourth of July.

With red eyes, he studied the picture, smiled, then nodded his head in approval. "Yes," he said. He extended his hand. We shook. Then he turned and left the restaurant. Abby had a hard time regaining her composure. The gentleman comes in every day, she told me. Last summer, they had a big party for him - a "cancer free" party.

He had waged a big fight - surgery, chemo, radiation - and he had won. He was cancer free.

The cancer has now come back. He must begin his battle all over again.

God!

Help this man.

Please.

Abby is a most generous person - I don't want any readers to use this knowledge to go in and try to take advantage of her - but she is quick to give food away. She has given food to me - refused to let me pay a couple of times, for one excuse or another.

This man is aware of this. When he sees his own friends and co-workers trying to take advantage of Abby's generosity, he straightens them out and makes sure they pay their fair share.

Abby wanted me to hear a story from "The Valley Country Standard," a tiny, six-page, publication that I had never heard of. Abby did not want me to read it. She said it was better to hear someone read it. Shelly read it best, Abby said. So, as Abby fixed my second order toast, Shelly sat down and read the story to me:

Only in Alaska

"Hello, is this the Troopers?"

"Yes. What can I do for you?"

"I'm calling 'bout my neighbor, Virgil Smith. He's hiding marijuana inside his firewood. Don't quite know how he gets it inside them logs, but he's hidin' it there."

"Thank you very much for the call, sir."

The next day, the Troopers descend on Virgil's house. They search the shed where the firewood is kept. Using axes, they bust open every piece of wood, but find no marijuana. They sneer at Virgil and leave.

Shortly afterward, the phone rings at Virgil's house. "Hey, Virgil. This here's Floyd... Did the Trooper's come?"

"Yeah!"

"Did they chop your firewood for the winter?"

"Yep!"

"Happy birthday, buddy!"

Shelly, upon completing the reading.

Abby's Home Cooking.

What is a home, just a place to eat?

No. Home is a place where, when hardship, fear and sorrow strikes, you seek solace from those who love you and give it as well. You cry and mourn together.

Yet, always, even in sorrow, home is a place where you laugh with family and guests.

Abby's Home Cooking.

I am not certain how long I spent at Abby's, but I know that it was more than an hour. Yet, when I stepped out to begin the mile-and-a-half walk back to the house, the raven was waiting for me. Waiting in the air.

I followed that raven here, I followed that raven there and always, just when I was about to get the picture I wanted, Raven flapped its wings and took off again.

Then it stopped atop this tree, and purposely posed for me.

I liked the pose, too.

But I was worried.

What was up?

Was the raven being kind to me?

Or was Raven setting me up to gain my confidence, only to put me down harder, yet?

I walked on. The Raven did not follow. It disappeared. In fact, all the ravens that had been at work in this area of town were knocking off for the day and going back to their homes in the foothills.

Then I saw a snowmachine coming my way. At first, I thought the raven had again disguised itself and was about to play a trick on me.

No, it really was a snowmachine, driven by a man, or maybe a full-sized teenager.

The sun had set now - on the ground, anyway, and up to about 30 feet above the ground. The tree tops still reached into the sun's last shine of this day.

Then I came upon Richard, who used to work at the Post Office but is now retired and has taken up photography as a serious hobby. We had things to talk about.

Richard was heavily bundled. 

Shortly before I reached my house, I heard the sound of a propeller beating the air. I looked up and saw a Super Cub, on skis, flying low and slow, ready to land any damn place that the pilot wanted.

Not a Citabria, but my kind of plane, just the same.

Then I noticed that it was not an airplane at all. It was the raven, in disguise. It had come back to taunt and mock me after all.

That whole posing thing? A setup, just as I feared.

This was the plane Raven knew I wanted.

 

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Reader Comments (6)

Ravens talk to me when i visit my Sons grave, sometimes i wish i knew what they where telling me.

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertwain12

Sometimes, when I read your posts, I just want to drive up to Wasilla and shake you by the shoulders and say to you "Get your act together, Bill!" And then you write a post like this and I realize you already have.

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterwavelength

Bill...that bird has your number! Your story about Abby and the man made me cry. I so hope he's up to the fight again. I hope we're all up to it.

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeven Werthman

Love it! Thanks Bill!

December 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Gunka

Bless Him...

December 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuji

Twain, your comment on this one hit hard and is most poignant. Even if you do not understand what they are telling you - and they are telling you something - ravens always do -I hope the life and vitality they bring to the cemetery is of some cheer to you.

Sue - thank you. You are right in both instances. By all normal standards, my act is a mess and I do wish I could get it together. At the same time, I recognize a creative force in me that cannot work if it is bound by an act being together and I do some things - like the creation of my last few Uiñiqs, that no one who has their act together would be foolish enough to even try.

Deven - yes. I hope so, too.

Welcome, Mrs. Gunka.

Thank you, Niece.

December 15, 2011 | Registered CommenterWasilla, Alaska, by 300

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