Common murres on Gull Island, in Kachemak Bay, Alaska, pictured in the Tuesday Style section, were misidentified as ducks. CAPTION: Picture, Ducks and gulls on Homer's Kachemak Bay; By Rob Stapleton, Anchorage Daily News
Part 2 of our tour of Eccentric America takes us to far-out Alaska, specifically to the town of Homer, which reposes at the terminus of the North American road system and counts among its residents Yule, Asaiah and Ruben. There also we investigate the relationship of moose meat to the diet of the Athabascan Indians; lettuce in a knapsack; and how to judge the mettle of a public speaker in a "groovy hamlet by the sea." Pocket Guide to American Eccentrics
Eccentric is as eccentric does, but not every off-center cog turns authentic loops. A true American Eccentric:
Has never appeared on "Real People," "That's Incredible" or "The Tonight Show." This eliminates Monte Rock III, Gore Vidal and persons who perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" by squeezing their palms together.
Breaks no criminal law, but is likely to run afoul of civil statutes.
Is not an artist. Lord Byron, Englishman, went around dressed like Tom Wolfe and acting like Norman Mailer, but never qualified. He was Too Good. Dr. Lemuel Hopkins of 18th-century Hartford, Conn., on the other hand, sprawled "long-legged and starry-eyed" on the floor of a host's home, reciting execrable poetry while his head rested in a log taken from the fireplace. Too bad to be considered an artist, he was a classic American eccentric.
Is tolerated by virtue of the power vested in his nonconformity, pixilation, singularity and rich individuality, and particularly by the enzymes, tiny time-release capsules, concupiscent lozenges or whatever they are that are somehow released by his presence into the drabness otherwise abounding. Yes, tolerated; even beloved. -- Christian Williams
Separating eccentrics from the rest of the residents in the state of Alaska is harder than in most states because, by and large, the entire population of Alaska is eccentric. It has almost as high a percentage of strange people as the National Press Building.
On holidays the governor spins commemorative doggerel. The only elected legislator in the Libertarian Party represents a Fairbanks constituency. There's no income tax, and the state flower is the "Arctic poppy," otherwise known as an oil drum.
Alaskans recently voted to spend $1 million to "study their relationship with the contiguous 48." Secession fever runs high in some quarters. Every four years one candidate runs for governor warning that if the environmentalists have their way "you'll be riding your bicycle to work, heating your house with solar energy and eating sprouts." Alaska attracts people who can pick up broadcasts from the Trilateral Commission in their bridgework. Improbable political coalitions form where far right meets full circle with the far left.
Alaska today is to the rest of the country what the New World was to Europe 400 years ago. Waves of political renegades, fruitcakes and religious seers are reenacting history when they set off for the north country. They say they are looking for freedom, but the real reason is that Alaska is where eccentrics go to relax.
How do we know?
That's where we went.
We went to the very end of the North American road system to a town called Homer, and got shuffled into a deck of wild cards.
Homer has a wide assortment of missions and churches, and all of them in use. (Such is not the case in nearby Seward, which had a church-building boom about 50 years ago after the city council passed a law that there could be no more bars in the town than there were churches.) Along with the mainstream Baptists and Praise the Lord-ers, Homer was a haven for a number of unusual sects. A colony of Old Believers who fled Russia and settled briefly in Mongolia and Brazil finally found refuge 10 miles from Homer, where, not suprisingly, they are very mixed up, but flourishing.
An earlier group was known as the Barefooters. Everyone thought this was because they didn't wear shoes, even in the winter, but actually it was because they couldn't find shoes they liked. They worked a homestead at the head of the bay in the early '60s, but left the area when their messiah was killed allegedly by a jealous husband who delivered a suitcase with a bomb inside. (One of the benefits of being the messiah of the Barefooters, up to a certain point, was that you could claim the right to sleep with any sect member's wife.)
They all left except one, a former Marine sergeant named Brother Asaiah, who moved into town and opened a janitorial service. Asaiah was in his mid-40s, wore his long gray hair in a braided ponytail and addressed even the mayor as Sister Hazel. He wrote many letters to the paper which began, "Dear Brothers and Sisters in this groovy hamlet by the sea . . ." Only in Homer could an ex-Barefooter with a two-foot-long ponytail and a janitorial service serve two terms on the city council. When debate got hot over zoning variances, he would calm everyone down by reflecting on the cosmic perspective. At the weekly Chamber of Commerce meetings, he asked visiting speakers questions like, "Does Brother Wally Hickel truly feel that the Wheel of Time brings all things back to the place of origin?" Nobody else in the Chamber asked questions like that, but nobody laughed at them either. The business community learned to judge the mettle of a speaker by the way he handled questions from the cosmic perspective.
One of Homer's oldest settlers is a man named Yule. He emigrated from Switzerland in the '30s with horses, axes and sacks of flour. And a movie camera, which Yule trained his kids to operate when they were still in lederhosen. In this manner, Yule was able to film himself as he cleared his pastures and built his homestead cabin. Eventually, he spliced the whole thing together, somehow persuaded the National Endowment for the Humanities to cough up for a soundtrack and showed the film to paying audiences around the country.
The spirit of living off the land stayed with him even when he went on to represent the area in the Alaska state senate. He caused quite a stir in the capital by lingering at the buffet table during state receptions, filling the pockets of his baggy suit with rolls.
Yule's movie inspired many disciples to follow him back to Homer for life in the bush. Most didn't stay past a slice of his homestead bread, which tasted like cinderblock. (Several loaves, incidentally, were cemented into the foundation of the new library.)
But George, who came from a well-to-do Boston family, was more determined than most. George got to know Yule well enough to borrow the movie camera, which he wanted to film sheep-mating rituals in the nearby mountains. George loved nature so much that he sometimes went to sleep sheltered under large rocks.
The following winter, while minding the homestead for Yule, George invented a Subsistence Diet in which he would eat only what the Athabascan Indians ate when they lived there by the sea. That meant nothing from the grocery market or local gardens. It meant, in Januray, that George's entrees were limited to a few species of crab and whatever kernels he could find on the wild grass sticking through the snow. When he came to town he brought along a small paper bag of grass seed, in case he got hungry, or suddenly had the urge to put in a lawn somewhere.
Later, George admitted that he never would have made it through the winter if he had not discovered a freezer full of moose meat back at the homestead. Sadly, the good fortune was short-lived. When Yule returned from showing his film in Europe to find his freezer exhausted, and all the sap drained out of his birch trees in George's unsuccessful effort to launch a commercial syrup operation, George was banished from the homestead.
Last we knew he was grazing a small herd of dairy cattle on a tract of blueberry bob leased from some nuns in Seattle, who were holding the property on speculation.
Alaskans are proud of what they have. Ruben, for instance, a white-haired old duck who lived alone up on the ridge, tended his garden and regularly tramped to town for conversation, usually about his good fortune to have settled in Homer. In his orange rubber day-glow hat, and carrying a fin de siecle knapsack full of lettuce, he was a roadside institution.
It was impossible not to get into a conversation with him, no matter how actively you tried. One time we picked Ruben up, and said nothing just to test his powers of garrulousness. For a while there was a long silence. Then Ruben spotted a postcard on the dashboard that had come from a friend in Brazil. He studied it for a while, stroking his salt-and-pepper beard. "Brazil," he said confidently, like a man for whom no topic is out of reach. "I was there once. With the army. Pretty country. Not half as nice as Homer though."
Homer attracts many lettuce growers, filmmakers and other creative souls who have grown weary of the conventional thinking of the world outside. There was Marsh, for instance, who had come to Alaska from Amherst College to write a novel. Once a yar a Xerox repairman would come down from Anchorage to tinker with the copiers at City Hall and the high school. Then he strapped on snow shoes and beat a trail three miles to Marsh's house. Marsh had the biggest Xerox machine on the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula. It filled up a large part of his cabin that was in the middle of the wilderness, miles from Homer. He needed a generator to run it, which probably made it the only diesel-powered Xerox machine in the world.
Occasionally, chapters of the unpublished novel, which was more of an eclectic cultural scrapbook, would arrive at the local newspaper. It seemed to consist of pieces of other books, magazines, newspapers -- all reproduced on 8-by-11 sheets by a copier of obviously high quality.
Marsh had graduated with a lot of money that he spent on land, a house, his friends and the Xerox machine. At Marsh's cabin, there was always plenty of food and drugs, as well as a chance to copy your face. It was an idyllic place, but the money ran out, and the party moved on. The Xerox was hauled back to Anchorage. His first wife left too, wanting to live closer to town. She found new quarters, in a treehouse.
Simply going to Alaska doesn't make you an eccentric -- as long as you don't stay there too long. You can feel it happen. After a year or so, friends, neighbors, even the city fathers start to seem normal. And when you return to the Old World, nothing is so strange as to come upon a city full of people wary of the eccentricity in themselves.
So why did we leave?
We stayed as long as we dared. Don't those people realize there's an ice age on its way?