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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A sad, illustrated, tale of school bus deprivation

Astute readers will have undoubtedly taken note of the fact that school buses make regular appearances in this blog. I like to photograph school buses. If I am out and about, be it on foot, bike, or car, and I see a school bus, it is almost a guaranteed fact that I will shoot a frame or two of it.

"But wait!" the astute reader prostests. "Why are you telling us this? There is no school bus in this picture! Just a streetlight and some forlorn, bare trees, waiting for the month of May so that they can sprout leaves again. Without a school bus in the picture, this whole conversation is absolute nonsense!"

Astute reader! Please calm down! Look... it's not my fault there was no school bus here. If there had been, I would surely have photographed it, but there wasn't. I couldn't. So don't get all upset with me!

Ha! Proves my point! Having once again just got up once it was too late to see daylight, at 4:00 PM I went out for my afternoon coffee break and I bought a bagel with cream cheese to go with it. And just a little further along I came to another street light and there, beneath it, was a boxy, clunky, yellow and black school bus and - as you can surely see - I did indeed take a photo of it. In fact, I took a couple of photos of it.

Now you see my entire photographic output of the day - a streetlamp with no school bus beneath it, and another with a school bus, seen in two views.

So I wonder why I like to photograph school buses so much?

Sure - their big, clunky, boxy, yellow and black design would appeal to any serious photographer, but I think maybe there is more to it. I think perhaps it has to do with the fact that as a child and youth, I led a school-bus deprived life.

It's true. I did. I recall when I was three and four, and we lived at place called Pend Air Heights, right by the Pendleton, Oregon, airport, just up the hill beyond the town.

On school days, I would see the big, yellow and black buses come up the hill and stop right by our house. My three older brothers would get on. I wanted to, too, but nobody would let me.

It was just awful. Sometimes, I felt so bad I cried out in desperation and pain.

"Don't worry, Billy," my mother would soothe. "It won't be long until you are old enough to go to school and then you will get to ride the school bus, too!"

Indeed, while five seemed like forever away, very soon I did turn five. I got to enroll in kindergarten!

And then what happened? 

My dad moved us to a house right in Pendleton, two blocks away from Lincoln elementary. No school bus was going to pick me up to take me two blocks. I had to walk.

Nor could I eat cafeteria food, like my cool friends who rode the bus did. I had to walk back to my house for a home cooked meal.

My teacher was mean, too!

I felt damn deprived and picked on all around.

Then, just before my ninth birthday and the fourth grade, Dad told us we were moving to Missoula, Montana. I did not wish to go - except when I would think about school buses. In Missoula, maybe I could ride the school bus.

We moved into a house less than one block away from Willard Elementary, where, just about every day, RD Brandt catch me and pound me - until one day I pounded him. Then he didn't bully me any more.

Just before I turned 13, Dad told us we were going to move to Eureka, California. I did not want to leave Montana - I had become quite fond of the place - but, on the other hand, maybe in Eureka I would get to ride a school bus.

We moved into house just over two blocks from the junior high school. An easy walk.

I discovered, though, that it was not all bad. I did not much care for school, but I did like to write and whenever I would write a story, essay, book report or whatever, my English teacher and all the students would insist that I read it to the entire class.

I did. And then, to my amazement, because I was very shy when it came to the opposite sex, there would be girls who would want to walk home with me. They liked my stories. They wanted to talk about my stories. They treated me like I was Faulkner or something. So we would walk together. It was nice. I liked it.

There were a few times I got to ride the bus, because I was on the football team and there were a couple of schools we played that took hours to reach. Those bus trips were great. We players would gamble with nickles and dimes and we would swear, and somehow I, who lived in a Mormon home where cards were forbidden as a tool of the devil and so I knew little about poker or any other card games, would always come out ahead.

I won more than I lost. We would sing, "100 bottles of beer on the wall!"

Me, a Mormon boy, singing 100 bottles of beer on the wall.

Next, we moved to Sacramento, Calfornia and, yes, once again, it was into a house within easy walking distance from school. No bus for me.

So that explains it, I guess. That's why so many school buses wind up pictured in this blog.


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Reader Comments (6)

LOL Bill, as a kid I rode the bus up to 2 hours a day. the only good thing about it for me was thats where I did my homework. looking at, or riding on one(I went on a field trip last week on one) gives me a mild case of anxiety.. Its funny how something like a school bus gives such different reactions in people..

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersallah

I, too, am another schoolbus wanna-be rider. the first day my son rode the schoolbus i got tears in my eyes b/c he was boarding the bus. (my daughter had taken a van previously - no tears for that). no sun until the afternoon! i have a tiny window in my bedroom i keep uncurtained so i can watch for the first light in the morning. i think it comes about 5:30 am, here in the philly suburbs. thanks for not letting me take the sun for granted!

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRuth Deming

Living in a tiny lumber town all my life, every school was within walking distance, so I too, never got to ride a bus. I solved that later on & became a School Bus Driver. I started out driving a bus just like the big one shown here. It was a 76 passenger Gillig. I LOVED that bus. I loved driving it and I loved the kids.

People would usually ask me two questions: " Isn't it awfully boring having to drive the same route every day?" and "How do you control the kids", as if they were wild, untamed little beasts.

The answer to the first question was: "Heck no." Every day was an adventure, I never knew what the kids would say or do next. They were hilarious. On one of my routes, there was a little red haired, freckle faced boy (1st grade). Just before we took off every day, he'd stand up & yell "Heyyyy Bus Driver. What's 2 + 2 (or some other equation). I'd answer some silly thing like 9 thousand 84. He'd say "Riiiiiiiiight" giggling away & would sit down & we'd proceed. I always intended to write a book titled "Heyyyyy Bus Driver," but alas, thinking I would never forget all the funny things that happened, I didn't write any of them down. What a loss. The kids always thought that because I had my back turned to them, I couldn't hear what they were discussing in the seat behind me. Got to overhear things so funny I'd come home with practically bloody cheeks (inside mouth) from biting down to keep from laughing.

The answer to the second was simple. I respected them & they, in turn, respected me. The rules were carefully explained. I did tell them that sometimes, I "might" be in a bad mood if they were misbehaving & would go off like a stick of dynamite. Said "that if I did, it wouldn't be a pretty picture." I only had to warn them a couple of times in those years that I was getting irritated with them. Their eyes got wide & the phrase "stick of dynamite" went around the bus like wildfire (in hushed tones) & they quieted right down. Loved those kids! It also gave me a new appreciation for and understanding of my own two boys.

I drove for 7 years, then we moved so I went into my next career working for the US Forest Service.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKatzKids

That hit my memory button! I lived right across from the school, same house, my whole school life! If it was icy, I could slide home on my butt! My father drove a school bus, but I had to walk! It was the sports bus or band bus before I got to ride on one. Some of my friends lived in the country and was always so excited to be invited to sleep over and ride the bus!

I think "Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall" is THE National school bus song! If the girl's basketball team won their game, we would sing "Tea For Two" as it was the coaches' favorite song! They rolled up the streets and turned out the lights around 10 PM in our little town, but if we won the game, down went the windows when we drove through main street and we sang out school song all the way to the school house! It was very cold with the windows down.

Iowa in the winter is very much like Alaska in the winter (subzero), but our sun went down about 4:30 in the afternoon and came up around 7 AM. But it was very cold and it snowed a lot. Many days it was too cold or snowy to go school. I was one of the first to know when we didn't have school! Remember, my dad was a school bus driver! They called him first. He would be happy too. It's no easy driving a school bus on roads with snow, ice and wind. I was always happy I never went in a ditch in a school bus. Some even called us sissies because we had never spent hours in the ditch in a cold school bus!

The first bus my dad drove wasn't big and yellow, by today's standard. It was a wooden box with the door and steps in the back. It had a wood stove in the middle with benches on each side. It looked like a grain wagon with a roof and windows on the side. It was wooden.

Kids had big rocks they would put on the back of the stove when they went to bed to get warm. As they went out the door, they grabbed their rock and put it under their coat. There were old horsehide blankets in the bus. You would cover up and put your rock under the blanket to keep warm. Dad would start the stove and put the rocks around it before he picked up the kids. When they got on the bus, they would grab their rock and sit close together with their rocks and blankets for the ride home. It was dark and colder on the ride home.

Some families had an old "Out house" by the lane for the kids to wait for the bus early in the morning. No heat, but kept the wind off of them. I was glad I never had to wait for the bus in an out house. It was nice to live across from the school in the winter time.

The new, big yellow school buses had a small heater in them. Dad still wore his long johns and heavy boots to keep his feet warm! We've come along way, baby! They even have padded seats now!

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Gunka

There is something so forlorn about that first picture, as if everything in Nature is holding its breath, waiting for.... a school bus. Why, there's even a light on, waiting for that bus that may never come.

What a great picture.

December 9, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteravsutton

I rode a school bus, Bill. For all of my school years, and it was a long trip, nearly 45 minutes on the bus. The only cure for your fixation w/ school buses is to ride on for 45 minutes five days a week, You must be the first stop so that you are up way before school begins. You must board the bus tired, stare out the window as the bus stops time and time again, and you are more and more crowded, and the noise is louder and louder. Throw in a bully or two. And an angry bus driver who has come straight from night shift at the local steel mill to drive school bus. Do that for about 10 years. Yep. That will fix you. School buses will no longer be such a fixation.

December 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdebby

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