Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Somewhere New: Homer, Alaska


    "I saw you walking around town earlier today," he said. His jaw was tense. He seemed worried I might get up and leave or possibly just ignore his soft spoken attempt at conversation. 
His eyes were soft too. Blue like the reflection of the mountains in the bay, both ringed in a cloud of fine lines, like so many ski lines puckering his skin. Spend enough time outside here and even a young man will earn these. Middle aged women in their recycled air offices who come home to lotion and lather against such lines are a world away here. John could not be called a young man anymore, though he was far from old. 
He sat half leaned, half perched on the table across from me in front of the Coal Town Coffee & Tea. Beatriz, his brindled pointy eared companion sat staring off down the Spit. 
"Yeah I've been all over," I said. "I walked out here even. It's a much longer walk than it looks."
"Yeah," he sighed, looking out over the water, " 4 and half miles to the end, longest spit in the world."
Over our heads a bald eagle was chasing a squawking gull. "You here for the summer?" he asked. That question has already become a familiar opener in the two days I had been in Alaska. 
"Just here for the week," I replied sheepishly, bracing for the reaction I had already come to expect; wide eyes and a breathless and sometimes critical "oh wow."
John just smiled. "Homer's a good place to stay for the week."
"No I mean I'm in Alaska for the week and I'm only in Homer for a day and a half really.'
Then came the reaction. "Well then you better get a beer at the Salty Dawg while you're here. It's kinda what people do who come to Homer. Honestly I think they sell more t-shirts than beers these days."
He sipped at his coffee and I sipped appreciatively at my chai.
He looked pointedly down at my camera slung across my body. "What do you do?"
"Not photography, thought that's what I went to school for." We started talking about jobs, the menial, the tedious, the exciting and the stressful.
"Lotsa jobs up here on boats. Go out for 4, 5 months, come home for a few months. Some of the hardest work you'll do though. And there's some bad bosses out there, some real jerks." As he talked my mind struggled to pull up an image of life on a fishing boat but all I could conjure was a far too romanticized version of what it might be like. Sunsets were prominent and the smell was decidedly salty, not fishy. 
His skin didn't look wind whipped and tanned though, so it has obviously been a season or two since his last boat tour. 
"I'm making a film actually," he offered. 
"Can I take a picture of you?" I asked, pulling off my lens cap and readying my camera. 
"I can't say I like being photographed much but yeah I guess you can take one."
"We're photographers, we'll always be more comfortable on the viewfinder side." I snapped the picture. He had sucked in his lip self-consciously and tensed the muscles around his eyes.
"Yeah you might wana just delete that one," he chuckled. 
But I didn't. It expressed his personality so well that it would have seemed cheap to take a more staged portrait. 
"Well listen, I have to go see this lady over here about something but if you watch my dog we could go see the Salty Dawg and then I'll give you a ride off the Spit.
Beatriz and I sat together as he hurried across the road. She stared after him. I reached out to comfort her but she refused to break her vigil even for a quick peek at me so I went back to sipping my chai. 
A little ways further down the Spit an old wooden lighthouse with the words Salty Dawg Saloon sat in front of the backdrop of the stunning mountains that drew me down the Spit in the first place. 
Inside the bar was cozy in the same way a musty old boat cabin might be. It was familiar feeling and cluttered with dollar bills tacked to every scrap of wall and ceiling.
The bartender waved John down and they fell into small town local talk. We got beer and sat at one of the long communal tables and fell to talking about travel and places to live and how to make a living without selling your soul.
"Oh hey John," came a floaty voice behind me. "I'm finally going to take that charter down there like you suggested."
Her hair was sunny blonde and the thinning skin on her cheeks was pulled unnaturally taut. I forgot her name as soon as she said it just as she seemed to forget my presence as soon as she had taken note of it. "That old fart Pavlov is going to ruin my trip though, can you believe it!" she slurred in reference to the volcano that was erupting a little ways down the chain in the Ring of Fire.
John gave her a veiled smile and shot me an apologetic look to which I shrugged good-naturedly. Eventually she moved off to talk to another friend down the bar and I smiled and remarked that Homer had some local color. He seemed afraid to laugh and this but smiled and nodded with embarrassment. 
"The bar culture here is intense," he explained. "You would think in such a small town that there wouldn't be much of a night life but there's almost too much of it here."
As we got to the end of our beers he seemed to pluck up a little courage and suggested  we share a photograph since we had been talking so much about the things we like to shoot. I pulled out my camera and shuffled back a day to a typical shot of a dish I might photograph in a restaurant. The natural light poured into the shot and the food popped against the red wall. He pulled out his phone and offered a picture of a native woman sitting on her couch with a rifle across her lap. 
"She lives in the town where we're filming. I hate asking people if I can take their picture but we were already filming so it seemed like most people there expected it before I had to ask."
The woman looked directly into the camera, expressionless aside from the way her hand wrapped around the barrel of her gun. He told me that she lives in a town where a mine is set to be started and the film was about the locals response to the possibility that their mountains could be ravaged. 
We rejoined Beatriz outside. Another dog was tied up next to her but she sat with her back to her would-be companion, ignoring the dog like she had me, and instead stared towards the kitchen. 
"Her past owner was quite the regular here," he explained. "She's used to getting hot dogs out the window from the cooks."
As we drove off the Spit the wind picked up and I asked how he dealt with the weather in Alaska. "I like it actually," he said, surprising me. "The crazy wind and the rain and the snow. I don't know why really but I like it. How do you like the Midnight Sun?" he asked gesturing towards the bright orb still floating high above the water. 
I hadn't thought to check a clock in hours. My eyes flashed to the dash. 8:30 pm and bright as mid-day. "Well no wonder I'm so hungry!"
He left my by my car with a business card that he sheepishly produced from his wallet. "It's kinda corny to give this to someone but whatever. If you ever come back to Homer you've got a friend you can look up now." He drove off leaving me at the edge of the beach. As quickly as we had met he left and again I was alone with the mountains.
A little girl was playing nearby while her mom watched from the car. As I picked my way out onto the beach to take a picture the girl ran towards me and yelled, "be careful, be careful! If you go too far the eagles will pick you up and drop you in the ocean."
Not for the first or last time I wondered "How did I get to this crazy, magical place."

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