Two Washington Post reporters head to Alaska to find romance
By Tara Bahrampour and Annie Gowen,
The fishermen descend almost before we even make it through the door of the rattletrap bar. They beg us for a game of pool, conversation, anything. The bearded guys hunched over their beers rivet their eyes on us. There’s a guitarist at the open mike who, as soon as he spots Annie, stops strumming and says, “I’m dedicating this song to you.”
A fisherman with scraggly hair plants himself in front of me and launches into his life story. Once he shot a man. He’s about to leave on a fishing boat that will be away from port for three months. The string of whale teeth around his neck is from a whale that was hunted and killed by his late wife.
“I haven’t been with a woman since she died,” he says.
“How long ago was that?” I ask.
His eyes well up, and his voice trembles as he leans in. “Six years, six months and 11 days.”
Time for us to get out of here.
Annie and Tara
We had traveled 4,500 miles from Washington, D.C., to wind up here, in Homer, Alaska, a fishing village whose nickname is “The End of the Road.” We were on some kind of quest, but for what exactly? At the moment we were talking to Whale Tooth Guy, it wasn’t exactly clear.
Earlier that month, we — two harried Washington Post reporters — had been sitting in the newsroom cafeteria with a colleague, lamenting the state of our love lives. One of us was recovering from an on-again, off-again relationship that had finally finished its death spiral; the other was nursing a broken heart and in the meantime had taken up with a thrice-divorced playboy nicknamed Gator.
Winter had found us single again, and we were feeling as if we had lost our mojo. Never mind that we each had our own issues: too much wanderlust, a habit of falling in love with the wrong men. We launched into a debate familiar to single women over 22 in the greater Washington area: Is it us? Or is it D.C.?
We live in a metropolitan area that has one of the largest percentages of single women in the United States. Add to that the idea that many guys here are more interested in power than in romance, and you have a potent recipe for single-gal gloom.
Our married colleague Freddy, who was noshing on a container of leftovers, piped up.
“Why don’t you two go to Alaska? Plenty of guys there.”
We looked at each other. Go to Alaska?
The more we thought about it, the more it began to make sense. Alaska has the highest man-to-woman ratio of any of the 50 states. We were used to blue-suited guys who hunched over their phones and dragged around briefcases stuffed with legal documents — or the nuclear codes. What — and whom! — would we find in Alaska?
A few weeks later, we arrived in Anchorage. At dawn, we were awakened in our airport hotel by the howls of sled dogs in a nearby kennel. It was a lonely, mournful sound, but it felt like the perfect welcome.
A single sheet of paper from the U.S. Census Bureau titled “Population by Sex and Selected Age Groups for the United States, Regions, States, and Puerto Rico: 2010” contains a telling statistic: For every 100 women in Alaska, there are 108.5 men. For every 100 women in the District, there are 89.5 men, fewer than in any of the 50 states. (True, the District is a city and not a state, but come on.)
No wonder Bloomberg put out a story last year headlined “Women’s dating odds slim in D.C.”
“If you’re out at a bar and a party, it seems like it’s two-thirds women to one-third men,” says Katie Gill, who spent two years blogging about dating life in the nation’s capital. “People are always asking me: Where do you go to meet men?”
To me, the ratio of single men to women in Washington is a bummer. I often end up at parties with large crowds of single women, married couples and gay men. One recent night at Lincoln, the supposedly hip new restaurant near our office, the bar was crammed with chicks from end to end. My friend — who was wearing a cast on her leg — and I got in a catfight with a group of women over seats at a communal table. This wouldn’t have happened had the bar had a few chivalrous males.
In other places I’ve lived, relationships seemed to take root organically: in neighborhood cafes, at pickup soccer, at the beach. I could walk into a party, whether I knew the people or not, and make connections on an intimate, open level. Here, meeting people can feel more like a business deal. People seem to come to Washington to build résumés, not to find love.
Annie and Tara
Apparently it has been this way forever: In a 1992 story for Washingtonian magazine headlined “Sex and the Terminally Single Washington Woman,” the subhead said it all: “He Phones the Office During Dinner. . . . He’ll Tell You Everything About the Toxic-Waste Bill. . . . He Likes to Get It Over With in Time for Meet the Press.”
This is not every woman’s fantasy.
So where were the manly men? The ones with the facial hair, the calloused hands? Where was the man who could kill dinner and cook it over a fire from the wood he’d chopped — then have his woman for dessert?
According to some women who have lived in both places, Alaska men have different priorities than Washington men.
“They’re more genuine, earnest, real, down-to-earth,” says Libby Casey, a Washington journalist in her 30s who spent 10 years in Fairbanks. “In Alaska, men value women differently: If you can wield a chain saw, if you can buck wood, if you can catch a fish. A guy’s not going to date you because you look cute; a guy’s going to date you because you have skills.”
And all the waxing, styling and primping Washington women do? Not necessary in the 49th state.
“I won hairy-leg contests in Alaska, and guys thought it was awesome,” Casey says.
On our very first morning in Alaska, our plans go awry.
We had decided to head straight to Kodiak Island, which has almost 50 percent more single men than it does women. We had gotten a tip by e-mail from a friend-of-a-friend who works at the local radio station there: “Here in Kodiak, the mythical 10-to-1 ratio seems to be truest. . . . Any single woman is still treasured and pursued and can still incite a bar fight if she wanted.”
But at the airport, we learn that Kodiak is fogged out. There is another flight, however, to a place called Homer. Without much thought, we hop aboard.
We land in a tiny town on the shore of a slate-gray bay surrounded by snow-covered glaciers and mountains, with volcanoes towering in the distance. A woman in the one-room airport recommends a local B&B, and we take a cab over icy roads to Two Sisters, a yellow Victorian house at the water’s edge.
We should have been alarmed by the scent of fresh-baked focaccia and the fact that the proprietress assumed we wanted a room together. But it doesn’t hit us until we are happily ensconced in the downstairs cafe with chai lattes and homemade Danish pastries that the people sitting around us are all . . . women.
In fact, several are clearly couples, and they are a decade or two older than we are.
We’ve come halfway across the world to study men, and we are surrounded by gray-haired women talking about Barnes & Noble and the symphony. It turns out Homer is a mini arts colony with a thriving gay community and boasts an almost even man-woman ratio.
We wonder if we should have been more hard-core and gone to the North Slope, a bleak tundra where we’ve heard oil companies have erected trailer towns for their male workers.
But things begin looking up later in the day when we end up at the Down East Saloon, where there’s a statue of a naked lady in the corner and antlers on the wall.
We chat with the bartender and mingle with the locals, including a 92-year-old man who invites us back to drink champagne in his room at a senior citizens’ facility.
When we tell a table of women that we’re here to compare the Alaska male with the D.C. version, they howl with laughter, amazed that we’d even consider trading.
“Do the men in Washington have jobs?” asks Nancy Deaver, 44, a restaurateur. “Do they have vehicles? Do they even have teeth?”
A DJ sets up for karaoke, and the fishermen roll in. The singing begins, and after a while a strange pair takes the stage for an Elton John song. One of the singers has his ski parka zipped over his face, Eskimo-style, and locals tell us that’s Atz Lee Kilcher, brother of the famous folk singer Jewel, who grew up nearby. He and a friend harmonize in a smooth falsetto and perform a lewd pantomime about the “tiny dancer in my hand.”
Afterward, Kilcher glumly tells us his sister never comes to visit, even though his own star is ascendant. His family and its “off the grid” lifestyle are being featured in a reality show on the Discovery Channel.
(Almost everybody we meet in Alaska seems to be connected to a reality show, we soon learn. We meet a woodcarver filmed for Kilcher’s show, and one of us later watches Bristol Palin pet reindeer for the Lifetime cameras. In one remote roadside bar, we meet a guy from Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch,” who wears a gold crab pendant as big as a golf ball around his neck and whose smile reveals disturbingly white TV teeth. “Are you single?” he asks, when his girlfriend is out of earshot. “When do you get off work?”)
At the Down East, everyone knows everyone. Daniel “Georgy” Gallagher, 25, a carpenter with blond dreadlocks and an easy smile, quickly befriends us. A former roadie for a Grateful Dead tribute band, he recently came up from San Diego with $6,000 in gold mining equipment. He describes a complicated plan for the spring: He’ll hike the avalanche chutes (paths cleared of trees by snow) with a metal detector and plunge into icy waters in an arctic dry suit to hunt for gold.
“It’s always been a dream of mine,” he says. When we giggle, he adds defensively, “I’m serious.”
Georgy is wearing a wolf-fang necklace and has a red scab on his face where he burned off what he thought was a cancerous mole using some kind of acid. His Alaska hands, with blackened palms and dirt under the fingernails, are nothing like the soft, scrubbed Washington hands we’re used to.
“I used to make a lot of money, but now I’m making none at all,” he says. Until he strikes it rich, he’s working for a yurtmaker and socking his money away for the dream of many Alaskans: a yurt of his own.
As I watch the singers, Georgy is smiling at me over his pint of ale. I smile back. He comes over to where I’m standing, and we flip through the extensive list of karaoke songs: “Country Girl,” “Friend of the Devil,” “Desperado.”
Then he curves his arm around my hips and pulls me close. It’s spontaneous and natural, and Washington feels like a distant planet.
“I want to hear you sing,” he says, which is good, because I was already thinking about which song to choose.
Annie and Tara
Over the years, the image of the state as a place crawling with lovelorn bachelors has been burnished everywhere from AlaskaMen magazine to Oprah Winfrey, who caused a near riot at a Chicago airport when she imported a plane full of Alaska bachelors for her show.
Back in 1997, an Anchorage matchmaker named Patti Lafond Miller sponsored a tour for single women from the Lower 48. She called it “Alaska Man Hunt.”
Lafond, 53, recalls taking 18 women to Talkeetna — a way station for climbers en route to Mount McKinley — and drawing the men out of their caves by tacking up a sign at the liquor store: “Free Beer on the Beach.” By 4 in the morning, the crowd was so hungry that one of the men hauled a frozen bear out of an icebox to barbecue on Main Street.
The lovelorn tours often produced quick hookups but not lasting love, Lafond says, adding that when it comes to Alaska men, “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” This was a mantra we’d hear repeatedly throughout the trip. Lafond now does traditional matchmaking, which has become easier in cities such as Anchorage, where the man-to-woman ratio has evened out as more women migrate to take jobs for environmental groups or oil and gas companies.
But in a state that’s more than twice the size of Texas, there are still places where men far outnumber the women, and we couldn’t come all the way out here without hitting one of them. We split up to cover more ground.
The fog has cleared over Kodiak Island, and as the tiny propeller plane bucks and jerks through a wind tunnel, I distract myself by looking at the spectacular scenery. Blue-green water laps at rock formations jutting out of the sea. The shoreline snakes around white-blanketed mountains dotted with spruce trees.
Here, according to Census figures, there are 143 single men ages 25 to 59 to every 100 single women; on this plane, 14 of the 16 passengers are men.
Even on a sunny day on Kodiak, the wind whips fallen snow into “ground blizzards” that sting the face and cloud the vision. The tiny city of Kodiak, population 6,000 in winter, includes a blue-domed Russian Old Believers church and a half-dozen bars huddled together in the center of town like a beating heart.
It is a Saturday afternoon, but perhaps because it is 7 degrees out, the streets are abandoned. Kodiak makes Homer, with its used bookstore, vibrant live music scene and broomball league, look like Greenwich Village. I pull on my boots and hit the bars.
Right away, I meet a man.
Phil Costantini is 38, a tall fisherman with dark, curly hair. A Philadelphia native who attended Quaker schools, he ended up in Alaska seven years ago for a fishing job. The money’s good, but his dating history has been dismal.
“Honestly, this is probably the hardest place I’ve ever been at to find a girl to hang out with,” he says. “It’s not even worth your trouble. For every two women, there’s, like, seven men. So anybody with power gets whatever they want.”
“Why?” I ask. “You’re employed, you’re good-looking.”
“Well, that’s not good enough. Maybe I’m not rich enough. Or tough enough. Maybe I don’t have black tape and scars” — black electrical tape being what macho guys here use instead of Band-Aids.
What Phil does have is an albatross tattooed around his neck, inspired by Coleridge’s poem about a sailor whose rash act brings a curse upon his ship. (Later, I text Phil to ask why he chose such a despairing metaphor as a permanent decoration; he texts back: Because I am a bad person and I deserve to be shamed. I don’t ask him to elaborate.)
His own ship — and home — is a fishing boat docked in the harbor across from the bars. It has a bunkbed area that sleeps four and a TV. He heats the galley by turning on the electric oven and leaving its door ajar.
Under the darkening winter sky, we make our way down a road covered in ice, two lone figures slipping and sliding through a grim industrial landscape of shuttered canneries. A bitter wind pierces our clothing.
We finally make it to the Old Powerhouse, a sushi bar that residents say is the town’s best restaurant. At one table, six men are dining with one woman. We are seated at a romantic table perched over the water, and we order cold sake and the chef’s chirashi special. We connect over both having lived in the East Village in the ’90s — I in a fourth-floor walk-up, he in an illegal squat down the street that was raided by police. Phil has traveled all over America — on the rails, hobo-style. One day, he hopped off a train he had stowed away on and found himself in Alexandria, Va.
“It was horrible,” he says. “Every car was a luxury sedan, and no one would pick me up. I thought I was never going to get out of there.”
It’s easier to hitch a ride in Alaska. Alaskans understand that being picked up can mean the difference between living another day or freezing to death on the side of the road.
After dinner, we catch a cab back to the bar, where we run into a friend of Phil’s. He takes one look at me — swaddled in a knit hat, a puffy parka and oversize Levi’s 501s tucked into sheepskin boots — and asks, “Will you marry me?”
The friend shows me his tattoo of a flaming cross — showing tats is apparently the Alaska equivalent of a Washington man handing a woman his business card— and repeats his proposal. (I do not accept.)
But the evening isn’t over. After I say good night to Phil, the receptionist at the Best Western tells me there’s a hot tub out behind the ice machine. Eager to warm up, I find myself in a steamy cabin tub filled with nearly naked Coast Guard members. They’re stationed on the island and look to be about 18. Thankfully, none of them offers a marriage proposal; they are too busy telling me where they hope to meet women once they get off the island. They sound like Washington women, fantasizing about places that teem with men.
California, says one. Ohio, says another.
“No, no,” another says dreamily, his muscular frame forming a dark silhouette against the gurgling water. “New Jersey. . . . That’s where the girls are.”
“Can I touch it?” I ask.
I’m in an Anchorage hotel, watching a parade of men with impressively long facial hair compete in the state’s annual beard and mustache contest. Turns out we arrived the week of a big winter festival, Fur Rendezvous, or Fur Rondy. Fur Rondy grew out of the February swap meets where trappers would sell their wares, but these days it’s mostly about drinking, outhouse races, and the Miners and Trappers Ball, at which men from across Alaska display their facial topiary.
The contest has 13 categories, including one for each beard color and one for the “Walrus,” which, the rules specify, must be a “moustache with hair below the upper lip, MAY have connecting sideburns. NO CHIN HAIR.”
The top honor is “Mr. Fur Face.”
“This is very serious stuff, you guys,” a news anchor serving as emcee tells the crowd. “The winner goes to the world competition.”
I’m tentatively running a finger through the bushy red beard of Tommy Smith, 31, a public defender who has just won the “Red Fox” category. I thought it would feel like a Brillo pad, but it is soft.
Smith says his beard — which curls away from his chin like the one sported by Yukon Cornelius, the character from the stop-motion classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — took just three months to grow.
“We’re in Alaska,” he says. “Everything’s bigger here.”
All righty, then. Moving on. . . .
Presently, I become aware that a man with broad shoulders and a doughy, friendly face is beaming at me. His name is Caleb Aldeman. He’s in his 50s and divorced, and owns a small tour company; he lives in Wasilla. When I tell him why I’m in town, he wants to know all about my life in the contiguous States, which, it soon becomes apparent, he views as an entirely separate country.
“Do you like it down there in America?” he asks.
There’s something oddly charming about Caleb, despite the fact that he explains to me in graphic detail how to butcher a moose. I let him buy me a drink, and we dance to “Soul Man” underneath a canopy of rainbow balloons.
Later, we hug good night, and I head back to my hotel. At midnight, my phone rings. It’s Caleb. By way of greeting, he asks, “Are those the warmest boots you have?” and wonders if I want to go to the opening of the Iditarod dog sled race the next day.
He arrives in the morning to find me stuffed into a down coat and ski pants. “You’re bundled up like an Eskimo, I love it!” he says. He’s wearing a bolo tie made out of a walrus tooth. (What’s with all these guys wearing animal parts around their necks?)
I ask if we can stop at a Starbucks, and he frowns. “Why do you want to drink burnt coffee?”
We head north out of town, the wan morning light playing off the Chugach mountain range. It’s the last day of the trip, and I want to quietly commune with the scenery, but Caleb keeps up a running commentary about electric cars, energy conservation and mineral rights.
“As you can see, I like to talk,” he says.
We make a quick stop at his house so he can drop off milk and bread for his 17-year-old daughter, who is off at church. The house is creamy yellow and sits amid white spruce, far off the highway — close to Sarah Palin’s place. We can’t see Russia from his house, but he says he knows someone who can.
He drives me around the property, 80 acres of “pristine untracked powder snow” and points out where he’d like to build an underground house some day. It feels lonely and remote.
Charming as he is, I start wondering if I could ever fall for a guy like this. Caleb grew up in a log cabin with an ermine as a pet, and he remembers waking one morning to find a grizzly bear lying outside his picture window. He traps, fishes and hunts. When he dreams of traveling, it is to other parts of his home state.
We end up in the small town of Willow, where dog trailers are parked in a semicircle on a frozen lake, the sled dog teams readying to depart for their 1,049-mile race to Nome. While we wait for the mushers to harness their dogs, Caleb borrows a snowmobile, and we ride across the frozen, sunlit expanse of lake. He guns the engine, and snow sprays everywhere. I clutch him from behind and hang on through the exhilarating rush of snow-tinged air.
“Isn’t this better than sitting in your cubicle, banging on your computer?” Caleb asks.
When it’s time for the race, spectators line up at the starting gate to watch the first teams of dogs barking as they whoosh by. Afterward, as we’re walking back to the car, Caleb raises the possibility of an Eskimo kiss.
“Want to try it?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say, and we rub noses. His nose feels cold and slippery, and although it is the perfect way to end the day, I suddenly feel glad I’m headed home in the morning.
Annie and Tara
In four short days (and long nights), we have gotten stuck in snowdrifts, watched fishermen haul in tons of cod, tramped in dog-sled tracks, and photographed bald eagles. We’ve met a banjomaker and a snowboard guide and a smoke jumper and an oilman and two moose hunters and legions of fishermen.
In some ways, they are the same as Washington men, or men anywhere: They like their toys, they like their drink, they pursue their ambitions. And yet, there are also real differences. Many of the men we have met came to Alaska to get away from something — a string of bad marriages, a stint in jail, a drug problem — and, unlike Washington men, they are not into image control. They are upfront about their flaws and vulnerabilities — which can be both off-putting and wonderfully refreshing.
As our plane lifts us away from the landscape of snow and ice, glaciers and volcanoes, it is time to wonder what lies ahead for us back in Washington.
That night at the karaoke bar, Georgy the gold hunter told me he wanted to fall asleep with his arms around me. I didn’t take him up on that, but I was moved by his openness and the way we fell into an easy chemistry. Maybe I just needed to be reminded that there is a world outside the Beltway, where people feel okay taking chances, where they can sparkle a little for each other without worrying about getting burned or — worse — embarrassed. Alaska, for all its weirdness, felt homey and familiar to me, and I return to Washington determined to look for the people hidden between the cracks, the ones with their own odd glimmers.
Back in Washington, it’s spring and the tulips are in bloom. It’s 70 degrees, the city is at its best, and I feel bad for having had mean thoughts about it. Walking up K Street, I spot a quintessentially clean-cut guy in a blue suit, pink tie and shiny shoes, so deeply engrossed in texting that he almost walks into oncoming traffic. To my surprise, I get a little misty-eyed.
Tara Bahrampour and Annie Gowen are Washington Post staff writers. Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report. To comment on this story, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.