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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Sunday
Sep212008

The chicken crossed the road, but the rooster got shot

 

Not long after I lit out on my walk the other day, I happened upon this chicken. It crossed the road in front of me.

Two or three summers back, at the house from which this chicken so confidently began its stroll across the road, a rooster came to live. Shortly thereafter, life became hell. You know how roosters like to crow when daylight breaks the night? This is Alaska, and in the summer the night never does get dark. That rooster would crow all night long and would wake me up every damn time.

Fortunately, I spent most of the summer traveling out into what we call "The Bush" because that is where most of my work as a photographer takes place. Margie, however, stayed home and whenever I would return, I would find her living in a state of exhausted exasperation. 

Still, I had to return every now and then and one night I found myself lying in bed, listening to that rooster. It was somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 AM. Then the rooster made a loud "cock-a-doodle do!" followed by a sudden gunshot. It sounded like a .22. Nobody ever heard another crow from that rooster after that.

Silence ruled the rest of the night. I suspect that it was the owner - but the owner has never proven amenable to conversation, so I fear to ask. I think, though, that if a neighbor had shot the rooster, there would have been a ruckus, as I doubt the owner would have remained calmly inside his home.

I think the owner might have been desperate for sleep; I think too that he might have wanted to announce to the neighborhood that he was taking care of this problem and that is why he used a gun and not a hatchet. 

He could even have wrung its neck, but he shot it. At least, that's what I surmise.

Summer's definitely over. More on this in the next post. Too lazy to post today's "new mountain snows" images right now.

Friday
Sep192008

To my surprise, I drive by a group of Obama enthusiasts in the midst of Wasilla

As Margie drove us through Wasilla towards home today after a trip to Anchorage, ahead of us I saw a substantial group of people waving political signs. I figured that it was undoubtedly Sarah Palin supporters, Wasillans who want to see their former Mayor in the White House. So I got my point and shoot ready, rolled down the window and prepared to snap a couple of frames as Margie drove by.

But they were not Palin supporters! They were Obama supporters! A long line of them.

Keep in mind that Margie did not slow down nor stop as she drove by, and I was shooting with a point and shoot camera that takes a good two seconds after one shot is taken before it can do another - when I am lucky it is that fast. Then you will get the idea that the line really was long - a long line, for Barack Obama, right here, in Wasilla, Alaska!

This guy was taking pictures of the Obama supporters. I have no idea who he is or what he might have been shooting for, but here a couple of observations: he appears to be shooting a Mamiya 7, a very serious and expensive medium format camera from the days of film, a camera unlikely to be wielded by anyone other than a very serious photographer.

Look how he is dressed - he is all bundled up in a way that no one else is. It looks like he thinks it is cold outside. This makes me think he comes from Outside, that he is a photographer from the Lower 48. Wasilla has been crawling with them, lately, and with reporters and videographers.

Of course, I could be wrong. He might live down the street from me and I don't even know it. 

I think this guy was at the end of the line. Now, don't you Palin people get upset with me and start calling me names. If it had been you holding signs as we drove by, I would have done the exact same thing as I did with these folks, this evening. I would have taken pictures of you and I would have posted them right here, right now, in this blog. And in my comments, I would have been very polite.

But tonight, it was the Obama folks turn.

Actually, I must correct myself - Margie turned right, here, at the light, so she did slow down to make this turn. Still, the line was long - 70 people long, I am now told in comments.

Thursday
Sep182008

Critters in the Wasilla Wal-Mart parking lot



I took Margie to work and saw that kittens were being given away in the parking lot. "I must go back to photograph those kittens," I told her as I dropped her off at the door. So I started back toward the kittens, but then saw puppies being given away out of the back of a pickup truck. 

I stopped to photograph the puppies, but I had barely begun when I looked back toward the kittens were. I saw a lady approaching the vehicle that held them. I feared that I if I lingered any longer with the puppies, the kittens might all be given away and be gone by the time I finished. So I left the puppies and headed for the kittens.

When I reached the vehicle where the kittens were being given away, I found a red-headed lady cuddling a kitten.

This is the girl, who, along with her mother, was giving away the kittens. She called this one "Little Fuzzy." I got the impression that she loved Little Fuzzy and that if life were as perfect as she wished it were, she would have kept Little Fuzzy.

If I understood correctly, they had started out with three kittens. One had already been adopted and taken away and the remaining two had been claimed - sort of.

The hand of the woman who had "sort of" claimed the two kittens reaches in to give the other, "Chimichanga," a stroke.

 

  

This is Rhonda Weinrick, the woman who had come to take the kittens. I say she had "sort of" claimed them, because she was not going to bring them home to live with her, but rather she was going to take them to a shelter that she is affiliated with, Mat Valley Kitten Rescue Group.

Rhonda wants all kittens to wind up in good homes where they will get their shots, will be spayed and neutered, and will be made into house cats, never allowed to roam outside. That is the rules all would-be kitten owners must agree to before they can adopt from the shelter. Rhonda told me that they are very picky about who they allow to adopt a kitten. They must get  the shots before the kitten even leaves, and must convince the shelter that they will follow through with the rest.

A kitten can be adopted right in the Wal-Mart parking lot and still wind up in a good home, but it might not. That is a chance Rhonda would rather not take.

As Rhonda transferred the kittens to her car, I hurried back to the puppies. I spotted a parking space and this scene at about the same time. I hurried and shot the picture through the car window before turning into the space. I knew it would be blurry, but the moment would be gone by the time I could park.

Truth is, the moment immediately before this one was better yet, but when you have to shoot a point and shoot, as I still do, you miss many moments, because sometimes you push the shutter button and nothing happens for a couple of seconds. Other times, you push the shutter and it shoots, just like that.

Most vexing!

As I parked the car and headed for the puppies, I saw them being admired by the same red-headed woman who I had first spotted with Little Fuzzy.

I had hoped that she would snuggle one close, and that I could photograph it framed in her dangling curls, but she did not snuggle the puppy. She just looked, smiled, and moved on.

This boy is a member of the family giving away the pups. He has been eating a red popsicle. He and the pup look good together.

An older couple stops to admire the pups. The boy tells the man that he should take this one home. The man says the pup is a good one, but he can't adopt it.

The older couple moves on as a young woman cradles another pup. She likes it.

 

 

The woman hands the pup to young girl. She likes it, too. She wants to adopt it. The debate about whether or not she can will still be going on when I leave.

Rhonda shows up. It seems the shelter takes puppies, too.

As children adore puppies, Rhonda explains the mission of the shelter.

 

I drive from Wal-Mart to Machaus, a Macintosh computer store, to check on a hard drive that I ordered. It has not come in yet. As I return to the car, I see this dog, waiting on a truck bed.


I head for home. Soon, I come across this cat, lying dead on the shoulder of the road. I feel that I should pick it up, take it home, and lay it in that place in the meadow behind our home where I have lain other cats that I have found dead in the road. But what if it's people are looking for it? If I take it now, they might forever wonder what happened to it.

I know how bad this can be. But I don't want it to rot away there, either - which I have seen just about happen with other cats that I have gathered. So I decide to give the cat's family some time - until I return to pick Margie up from work.

Four hours later, I come back. The dead cat is gone. I hope its people found it.

I drive to Wal-Mart and park by the curb to wait for Margie. This couple comes by, headed into the store. 

In her most recent column, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd came to this very parking lot, as part of her attempt to gain a better understanding of just who Sarah Palin is. This is what she observed: "I wandered through the Wal-Mart, which seemed almost as large as Wasilla, a town that is a soulless strip mall without sidewalks set beside a soulful mountain and lake."

I wondered about that statement, and what Maureen Dowd actually saw of my town. I assume that this, Pioneer Peak, is the soulful mountain to which she referred. I can't be certain, though. Wasilla is surrounded by mountains. Look any direction, and you will see them.

"A lake?" Wal-Mart seems almost as big as Wasilla?

Wasilla is enormous, it covers a huge area and it would take some doing to count up all the lakes in the community known as Wasilla. 

To an extent, I will agree with "the souless strip mall" - that strip being one part of Wasilla, but not the whole by any means. And look a little closer, Dear Maureen, and even within that soulless strip mall, you will find soul.

Hey! My second son says he went to Mocha Moose for a coffee and in the drive-through found himself in line behind five reporters from the New York Times. Even though it was a drive-through, they were on foot. He says they were a bit annoying, that there was condescending talk about Alaska, and that one in particular could not wait to leave this place.

Hopefully, Maureen, that one was not you. Whoever it was, that person did not know really see the place in which he stood. That person had no comprehension at all of where she stood.

None, whatsoever. And yes, I read the New York Times every day. I look forward to your columns. You are very bright, clever and witty, and often I find you right on. But not always.

Friday
Sep122008

September 10 and 11, 2001/ September 11, 2008 (injured series, part 2)

  

This morning, September 11, 2008, I took a long walk through my part of Wasilla and as I did, I thought about September 11, 2001, and September 10, the day that preceded it. September 10 had dawned sunny with a bit of frost on the ground, but the frost quickly melted and then the day turned warm. The sky was that deep blue that it gets around here in the fall. The trees were yellow or turning yellow, and new snow graced the tops of even some moderate mountains, which stood out sharp and beautiful in the still, cloudless, air. 

In that year, I had not expected to feel real warmth again until spring, but the afternoon turned hot - maybe into the 60's. So I invited Margie to join me in the car and we drove up into the glacier-carved, Matanuska Valley, to the place pictured above. We got out of the car. The air smelled terrible, of fish rot and decay, for the rivulet-braided banks of the Matanuska River were littered with spawned out, dead salmon.

Despite the odor, I was, as I always am when I am out an about in my home of Alaska, awestruck. Thrilled to be here. What a privilege!

A soon to be spawned out salmon propels past those who are already dead on a beautiful September 10. 

 

Spawned out salmon reaches a dead end.

As is always the case when I am in the midst of Alaska, I felt this deep, unattainable, longing to be in Alaska, to be part of Alaska. I feel this longing the strongest when I am right here, in the midst.

So today, as I walked, I thought about what I had saw and experienced on September 10, 2001, and how September 11 had dawned equally beautiful, but I experienced a rude awakening that day. It happened at 6:45 AM, right after I got out of bed and let Jim, the black cat, out of our bedroom into the hall. 

As I closed the door and started back to the bed, I heard footsteps in the hall, followed by a loud, "Mom!"

It was our oldest son, Jacob, who in the spring had graduated from Arizona State University. I opened the door again, irritated that he was speaking so loudly. "She's in bed, sleeping!" I whispered loudly, for I did not want him to wake her.

Jacob ignored me, and came right into the bedroom. "Mom!" he exclaimed. Margie sat straight up in bed. "They bombed the World Trade Center!"

I will say no more about that day, the days that followed, the weeks, the months, the years. You already know about it.

So this morning, as I walked through a cool, very light, on and off again sprinkle, I kept my eyes to the road, and thought about these things. Then, as I climbed a curving rise on Gail Street I lifted my eyes and saw this house, flying this flag.

I kept walking. Soon I saw this postman, delivering mail.

A bit beyond a postman, I saw this flag, one of two adorning either side of a driveway.

And just a few houses beyond, I spotted this dog, looking at me from this window.

I reached Lucille Street, and turned to walk down the bike trail. I did not see anyone on bikes, but I did see this young man riding his skateboard.

 

Come lunchtime, Margie and I could not stay in the house so we went and ate hamburgers at Carl's Jr. On the way home, she drove slowly past the main Wasilla fire station. Flags, representing all those killed in the attacks of 9/11, had been posted in the yard. 

 

In the late evening hours, I took a break from some work I was doing in my office and I stepped into the house. This is what I saw.

 

Sunday
Sep072008

Shooting with just my left hand: the injured series, part 1: a sampling of images from the past week

For the moment, this blog is more of a goal than a reality. The idea has been in my head for months now. It has nothing to do with Sarah Palin, other than that her town and mine are the same. As time allows, I will refine this first section and then begin to add on.

My youngest son, Rex, made this sailboat over the summer. He lives with his wife in Anchorage now, but when he was little, this place, Memory Lake, is where he learned to fish. Back in those days, we used a canoe. The boat is not ready to sail, yet, but he brought it home to Wasilla to do a float test.

Rex and Stephanie, his wife, float in the boat. As to the title above, "Shooting with just my left hand..." on June 12, I took a bad fall, shattered my right shoulder and then it had to be replaced. Afterward, my children gave me a tiny point and shoot camera, a Canon Powershot G9, to replace my big, heavy, professional Canons. It is a tiny camera that I can carry in my shirt pocket and manipulate with just my left hand...

...although I have not been able to do my work as a professional photographer this entire summer, I have shot the world around me, every day, shooting this little camera with just my left hand. After Rex's float test, I shot the little pool of water in the boat. Rex still had some work to do.

For the "injured series," my plan is to work backwards, until I reach June 12. Even as I do so, I will include new material as well. Here is Rex after his float test, holding his rudder. He was pleased with the result.

Memory Lake. Not so long ago, this is how all of Wasilla, a small town that covers an enormous area, used to be. Not any more.

Even though I have no statistics to back me up, I confidently state that Wasilla has more of these coffee kiosks per capita than does any other place in the world. This is Amy, at Little Miller's. They make great soft ice cream cones, as well.

Wasilla had no more beautiful lake than Wasilla Lake itself, but one day a big box store called Fred Meyer's decided the lake shore would be a great place to buid a big box and the city council and the mayor all thought it would be great to collect the taxes that box would bring into city coffers, so down went the trees and up went Fred Meyer's. It came with a huge parking lot that drains into the lake.

Several other stores popped up on the lot, like Carl's Jr., KFC, and Pet Zoo. When Fred first opened, I refused to shop there. But now I do. On the very day that I took this picture of Carl's Jr. I bought an "Original Six-dollar Burger" there. It was really good. I buy lots of stuff for my cats and fish at Pet Zoo. 

Here I am, driving to Wal-Mart, less than two miles down the highway from the new Target, which sits just across the street from Fred Meyer's. These ladies, members of a Russia based faith that I don't know much about, had daschund puppies. I wanted to stop and see the puppies, pat them on the head and take some pictures, but when I do drive-by pictures, I drive by. That is the rule. If they had had kittens, I would have stopped. Cats and kittens are the exception to the rule.

Here we are at home, watching hometown dynamo Sarah Palin on the TV. She recalled her role with the Bridge to Nowhere quite differently than I do. 

Serendipty, in the morning. This used to be my woods. Many were the hours I spent in these woods - everyday when I was home I traveled through them on foot, on skis, and mountain bike. They were my sanctuary. Now this road is here, and the subdivision they call Serendipity.


Serendipity.



Serendipity.


Serendipity. About 100 yards from here, when it was all just hills and woods, the dog Willow and I once happened upon a black bear, a big one, blocking the trail in front of us. "Willow, get behind me!" I ordered. I was worried that she might do something stupid, and get that bear mad at us, but she fell in right behind me. She stayed right on my heels as I ventured off the trail gave that bear a wide berth. It clambered up a huge, old, spruce, growling and snarling all the way.

 

That's how this place used to be. Now it's Serendipity.


This is how I used to live, until I crashed my damned airplane. I took that airplane all over mainland Alaska, and into Canada's Yukon and Northwest Territories. Sometimes, I would be gone for months. Then I would come home, fly over a high ridge of the Talkeetna Mountains, drop down into the valley, aim at the pond and march behind our house, pull the throttle all the way back to idle, dive down over that marsh until my wings came to tree top level and then I shove the throttle forward and that airplane would roar and I would  climb in a spiral over my house.

 

My kids would come bounding out the doors, front and back, bouncing up and down, waving. Then Margie would come out. They would all climb into the minivan and then start the drive to the Anderson Lake airstrip. I would fly above them, making "S" turns over the road, to ensure that we reached Anderson Lake at the same time. They loved to watch me land.

 

In all my life, nothing was ever better than this.

 

I have to stop now. When I return, I will strike this paragraph and continue on writing captions.


I love trains. When I was a kid in Montana, I used to hop on them and ride them around. I love the Alaska Railroad. I have never ridden on it, not once. Whenever I see the train, though, I take a picture of it. I was in the car, my wife driving, when I took this one.

 

In the future, I plan to ride that train - everywhere it goes. When I do, I will document the experience in this blog - if the blog succeeds.


Most of us in Wasilla are not on a water and sewer grid. We have wells, and septic tanks.


On the way to Taco Bell, where the food is exquisite - but not as good as Jalepeno's. You can eat it in the car, though. At Jalepeno's, you have to go inside and sit at a table. The tables and chairs are from Mexico and are colorful and bright. I like them. Sooner or later, they will show up in this blog

Every now and then, these brush trimmers come take down anything at the side of the road that might one day grow up to meet the electrical wires. They take down anything in their path, including Christmas trees and political signs.


There he goes.

 

See? A very short time ago, this huge patch of land was all covered in trees. Now the trees are gone. This is happening everywhere in Wasilla. I love Wasilla, but sometimes it seems that too many people here have no comprehension of the magnificent, wonderful, beautiful place where they are so fortunate to live.

Not as fortunate as we used to be, but still fortunate.

Lots of dogs in Wasilla. I meet them all the time when I am walking. Through my alter-ego, Grahamn Kracker, I am better known for photographing cats than dogs, but the truth is, I photograph more dogs than cats. That is because dogs are everywhere, always making their presence known.

It is a special thing to happen upon a cat.

I come upon dogs when I am in the car, and they are in the car next to me.

I even come upon dogs in the store. This is at Pet Zoo. The dog is welcome there, but first it must don a muzzle, not because it would bite anyone, but there are lots of interesting things in that store that a dog might like to sink its teeth into.

Flowers at the Wasilla Public Library.

Serendipity flowers.

This is my wife, Margie, and our grandson, Kalib, walking through Serendipity. When Kalib's father was a boy, I would take him walking through Serendipity. It was way different then. Sometimes, he carried a rifle and I showed him how to shoot it.

A mushroom in my front yard.

As my wife drives by the park that sits next to City Hall. 

As I wait inline at still another coffee shop. I recognize the kids behind me. I have photographed them at the Wednesday Farmer's Market. Their father migrated from Russia, then brought their mother up from somewhere in Latin America. Guatemala, I think, but I could be wrong. I will ask them next time I see them.

The father and his sons.

At the State Fair, in Palmer, Wasilla's sister city, 12 miles from our house. Labor Day was the last day. When the fair ends, we know summer is over.

Now it is fall.

 

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