Whither Whittier?

Jul 21, 2010 by

“Oh, you went through Whittier?” the lady from Nome asked.  “You know what they say about it here: ‘Nothing could be shittier than to find yourself in Whittier.'”  She didn’t say the s-word, as we were around our kids, but the message was there.

I then told her about the kid I’d seen on the flight to Juneau, the one wearing a hooded sweatshirt with “POW” on the front and “Prisoner of Whittier” on the back.  She had a good laugh at that before telling me of her experiences in teaching workshops with teachers from Whittier’s only school.  “I could never live there,” she said as she mulled over the living conditions of the town’s 300-plus residents.  “I just couldn’t live like that.”

Dan had a good laugh himself when I told her what she said.  “And this is coming from somebody living in NOME.  That ought to tell us something.”

Whittier proved to be a bleak cipher of a town when we got off the Alaska Marine Highway ferry there to catch a van ride through the 2-plus mile tunnel that connects it by car and train to the rest of Alaska’s land routes.  All those sunny pictures of it on its website were not in evidence as the van’s driver took us on a short tour of the place: the mini-triangle that held the town’s attempts at a tourist area, all of the shops closed at that early hour; the boats parked every place they possibly could be on land without blocking the trainyards that kept Whittier on the map (since the yards were going to be expanded by 25%, it left the townspeople with no marina for the time being – hence the boats all over); Whittier’s motel and museum; the abandoned building once touted as the largest in the state that is now no better that a stalactited husk for hibernating bears; the Begich Tower that houses all the town’s residents; the K-12 school building directly behind that is connected to the tower by a tunnel; the fancy hotel built for tourists that was foreclosed on twice…and then the tunnel itself, which has only been open to vehicular traffic since 2000, and, even then, those times for cars and trucks to pass through must be scheduled, as trains use it, too, and it is only one lane.  If we’d missed our window of opportunity to get through the tunnel and on to Anchorage in the morning, we’d have had to wait around in town for the rest of the day for our next opportunity – in some of the grossest weather we’d seen.  It is apparently not unusual for the weather to be crappy on the Whittier end of the tunnel, yet nice and sunny on the other side of the mountains.

I was fascinated with the place.  And my fascination was fed when I found this book at the Anchorage train station.

Whittier was an army base with “a city under one roof” in the Buckner Building, decommissioned in 1960 and left for further abandonment when the massive earthquake of 1964 hit south central Alaska, damaging the huge structure and killing 13 of the town’s 70 residents (its population at the time).  Aside from being a nifty place to have a railyard (kinda, sorta…the weather doesn’t seem to help), who in hell would want to live in Whittier?  It’s a question that even has documentary filmmakers trying to get the answer.  More to the point…why do I care?

I care because too many are just as quick to turn up their noses when I tell them I live in New Orleans.  They cannot fathom loving a place so much that even contemplating a time when one would have to leave it permanently can be fraught with torment.  They don’t get why anybody would want to put up with the things that we put up with to live in a place that has so many strikes against it: corruption, a lack of good schools, potholes out the wazoo, not enough white collar jobs, hot-as-hell weather, stinging bugs and caterpillars.  Hell, I don’t get why Whittier’s folks would want to stay in a place where you have to force yourself to get outside every so often, as it’s too damn easy to live your life completely indoors there  – the tales of soldiers who went into the Buckner and didn’t come out ’til the end of their tours of duty a few years later are legendary. The possibility of that happening with Begich Tower residents is still high.

But hey, to paraphrase Voltaire (or not), I may not agree with the place where you live, but I’ll defend to the death your right to live there.  No matter how bleak it may be.

Rock on, prisoners of Whittier.


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