By Karla Fetrow
Where the road ends and life begins – Talkeetna bumper sticker
The building squats in the center of town, advertising itself as the Fairview Hotel and Tavern. There is an air about it, as though it plots and waits, an entity desirous of notoriety. Deep in October, late in the evening, no tourists jam the streets or crowd onto the balconies, but the town is still most definitely alive. Several of the almost equally ancient establishments twinkle with lights, and from the Fairview itself, tumbles erratic music and bursts of laughter. At the entrance is a parking meter, the only one in town. It leans to the side and is forever frozen at two hours parking.
In a rotting barrel is a small tree, leaning in the opposite direction. While we watch, a dog wanders up, lifts his leg and waters it. A second, than a third dog investigate, and improve on the high water mark. “Do they really think that tree will live?” We wonder out loud.
“Probably not,” said one of the locals who was passing by. “Every morning, the bucket is turned over, dirt is scattered everywhere. Whoever sees it first, cleans it all up, fills the bucket with dirt and puts the tree back in place. We don’t worry about it. It’s up to the tree whether it wants to survive or not.”
On one of the windows is plastered a big sign, “no dogs allowed. No, not even your dog. Except Sylvia.” Apparently, Sylvia is a very heroic and famous dog whose reputation is not to be taken lightly. Having no dogs with us to leave shivering out in the van, we entered unashamedly for a taste of Talkeetna local life.
In the summer, hundreds of tourists pack into Talkeetna. It is the end of the road for mountain climbers hoping to scale the big one, which locals call Denali (Athabascan for the tall one) and the rest of the world knows as Mckinley. From there, it’s air service to the base, or a very long walk on a trail. It’s also the end of the road for prospectors. A charter flight sign reminds miners that they can walk for a week or fly for an hour to get to their claims.
In the summer, Talkeetna is the host of Alaska’s largest bluegrass festival. Held the first week of August, it draws in International visitors and musicians as well as the locals from around the state. Twice a year, it holds the Wilderness Woman’s competition, once in the month of July, but with the big events happening throughout the month of December.
Auctioning Bachelors for Charity
What is a wilderness woman required to do in order to win the contest? The qualifying event is the ability to carry two ten gallon buckets of water one hundred yards without spilling it. The race must take place in bunny boots and full winter gear. In the second round, the woman must open a beer and make a sandwich for the bachelor, than run into the carefully staged woods where she shoots a latex ptarmigan, saws a piece off a small birch round, snags a salmon and dodges an animated, even if it is artificial, moose. In round three, she must fill a snow machine sled with split wood than drive it back to a bonfire where the bachelors are sitting around exchanging the worst of their bad stories. All three events are timed. After penalties, if any, the fastest woman wins.
Although the contest is all in fun, there are some pretty big prizes for those stalwart women. Contest winners have won everything from gold nuggets to free flights to Hawaii and London. Second place winners have received hand crafted fur hats, bear claw necklaces, free meals, lodging and activities provided by Talkeetna businesses.
The evening attraction is the bachelor auction. The charity based wilderness woman’s competition is held to support the Sunshine community, located near the junction between the Parks Highway and the Talkeetna Spur Road. Sunshine maintains a low cost grocery store, that helps save the residents the necessity of driving fifty miles or more for their shopping needs, a medical clinic and a woman’s recourse center. While the aspiration to maintain these facilities is noble, the locals say that the intent of the wilderness woman’s competition was to attract more women. While it’s difficult to measure just how many women would have been attracted by the competition alone, there is no question that the bachelor auction draws in huge numbers.
The prospective bidders are very well treated. Those who land by plane are greeted at the airport with flowers. They are escorted to their hotels where they are accommodated as guests of honor. They cater diligently to the ladies, trying to impress them with their skills, their charms and their abilities. Only women twenty-one years or older and members of the Bachelor Society are allowed to attend the auction. Winning bidders are entitled to a photo, a drink and a dance with their bachelor — anything else is strictly up to the parties involved. After the auction, during the Wilderness Ball, the winning wilderness woman is crowned.
Each year, a male order catalog is circulated among the prospective clientele. It lists Talkeetna’s top thirty most eligible bachelors, along with a photograph and the answers to a few simple questions about their personal lives. Most of the answers reflect the first thing you learn when you enter the town; you’ve gotta have a sense of humor or you’ve lost the entire experience.
When one person was asked where he was from, he answered, “the Republic of Anchorage, aspiring to be a hillbilly now.”
A local bachelor answered simply as to where he had lived before, “in my mother”.
When one bachelor was asked what he did for entertainment, he answered, “Talkeetna is entertainment”.
One young fellow said his most exciting adventure was, “rescuing the pope from the jaws of a harbor seal. He was so grateful.”
Robert Forgit said the most exciting thing he’d done was to become the auctioneer at the Talkeetna Bachelor Auction. “Where else,” he said, “can you find one hundred fifty women screaming for thirty bachelors? Best odds for all the men.”
The Four Legged Boozers
Humor is everywhere in Talkeetna. In front of an ice-cream display, the kind that has those deep tubs of twenty-one different flavors in the creamiest textures imaginable, a sign admonishes, “you have three minutes to make up your mind before we make it up for you. We pride ourselves in quick service.” Down the street, a collection of beer mugs dangle from the hemp rope mane of a psychedelic wooden moose. A pedestrian sign sports a crossing penguin. The hotel signs tell you if you don’t clean up after yourself, the mafia management will come after you.
At a bar, a woman laments that things just aren’t so exciting anymore. “At one time, this place really ripped,” she says. “But now, everything is just plain ordinary. It’s because of the horse.”
“What about the horse?” I encourage her, thinking I’m going to get a good story about old, bygone days.
“There used to be a horse that came in here all the time. Nearly every night, he’d come in and have some beer. One night, the horse drank a whole pitcher than pooped on the floor. It hasn’t been back since.”
“How long ago was that?” I ask, imagining at least several years.
“In August,” she answered simply. I count on my fingers. Three whole months since Talkeetna had enjoyed some entertainment. I was about to offer her condolences, when she continued. “It wouldn’t be so bad, but now we have a law against getting the moose drunk.”
I know now that I’m definitely out of my league. “There’s a law against getting moose drunk?” I ask weakly, ashamed of my lack of legal knowledge.
She nods. “The moose used to come in here sometimes to drink. We’d give them a pitcher or two of beer, but one developed a regular habit. After awhile, after drinking his beer, he’d get mean and start stomping and kicking the shit out of people. So they had to pass a law against letting the moose drink.”
The Tea Pot Scandal Revenge
If it appears Talkeetna’s reputation as outlaw territory is based solely on its outlandish humor, there is a more somber and more riveting story to tell. On the walls of the Fairview Hotel is a framed newspaper clipping with the headline, “Death Followed President’s Alaska Trip”. According to the article, President Warren G. Harding pounded the golden spike for the Alaskan railroad in Nenana, on July 15, 1923. History tells us that while in Alaska, Harding fell ill. Although the records of his stay were obscure, the locals insist that after driving the spike, he rode the train to Talkeetna, where he had a few drinks, then died in San Francisco three days later.
The official story is that Harding died of a heart attack. Elected to the Presidency in 1921, his answer to the post war slump was to eliminate wartime controls and slash taxes, establish a Federal budget system, restore the high protective tariff, and impose tight limitations upon immigration. The newspapers hailed him as a fine statesman, who carried out his campaign promise, “less government in business and more business in government.”
Unfortunately for Harding, his business associates led him down a path that soon rumbled with accusations of corruption. Called the Teapot Dome Scandal, it involved a series of private leases taken out on oil fields that had been designated as military reserves in case of emergency. The investigation continued for several years after his death, finally returning the leases to the navy, but the accused business associates were so close to his administration, it was reported he once said, “My…friends…they’re the ones that keep me walking the floors (at) nights!”
It was also said that in the summer of 1923, just weeks before his death, he asked then Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. “If you knew of a great scandal in our administration, would you for the good of the country and the party expose it publicly or would you bury it?”
The official story is that the President succumbed to the stress of the Teapot Dome Scandal, collapsing in San Francisco just days after his return from Alaska, but for years the people of Talkeetna boasted that during his stay at the Fairview Inn, they had poisoned him. Dismissing any claims that Harding died a natural death, they point to the time frame as though to emphasize “what do you think would happen to an instrument of corruption in a place where the law is in the hands of the people?”
The Flavor of Talkeetna
Talkeetna is a live-in museum. The homes and businesses rivaling for their positions as the oldest established buildings, all date back to the early nineteen twenties. Other than minor repairs and the introduction of modern day technology, they are all of their original size, with the original stair cases, doors, window frames and room partitions. The stairways are narrow and the stairs creak loudly. A claw-footed bathtub occupies the communal bathroom that serves the hotel guests. The lounge seems almost incongruous with thick, hand fashioned bar stools and tables, yet a large color television offering full cable service dominating one corner.
At the Fairview, an aging piano is parked next to the entrance to the lounge. Apparently, everyone in Talkeetna knows how to play it. As the customers pass by, they stop for a moment to play some chords. Some just tinkle a few notes out hesitantly, while others play a full scale before moving on to other pastimes.
By roaming through the town, you run across such items as giant, rusted bear traps, old dog sleds, battered snow shoes, mountain climbing gear, antique automobiles and machinery; even an iron dog; one of the first snow machines, a heavy, daunting metal monster. These tools were the necessary equipment of the miners and trappers who first settled the town, and their lives haven’t changed drastically since. The machinery has been updated, as well as the survival gear for mountain living, and more areas have been blessed with the conveniences of electricity, but they are still primarily a subsistence people, depending on the resources of the land and a bit of luck to make it from one year to the next. The tourism in the summer, their winter festivals add the bonus of a little extra cash flow to make it from one year to the next.
We drowse in our museum piece, drinking remarkable beer on tap and unabashed to compliment on its flavor. After awhile, someone breaks out the secret; Talkeetna has its own brewery. This was enough information to start a full scale investigation. Sure enough, there it was in back, with big, glistening metal canisters, filtering systems and pressure valves. Actually, there were two breweries. Apparently one was not enough to fill all the local appetites.
Our beer sniffing abilities lead us to the doorway of Denali Brewery. Partnership owner, Boe Barnett was there to greet us and take us on a tour of the establishment. A brewer for ten years, he began working for Denali in 2009. Using many of his own recipes, he began turning out beers with some very intriguing names; Mother Ale, Algave Gold, Single Engine Red, Ring of Fire… “We won the State Fair’s Competition for People’s Choice this year,” says Boe. “This means Denali gets to make the official state beer for next year’s fair.” He pauses. “The name of the beer was Purple Haze. I don’t know if it was the name or the taste that sold it.”
“It was the name,” we assure him.
He laughs with us, then says, “why don’t you try it.”
He lines up a row of short, stubby beer glasses on the counter, filling each of them to the brim. They are astonishing; an art form. Exotic bubbles sparkle just below each surface, tiny bites of sunbeam flavor. The beer ranges in color, from blond to dark amber. He doesn’t say which one is Purple Haze. “Try them,” he urges.
“All of them?” There must have been at least a half dozen glasses lined up, and we’d already done a fair share of sampling Talkeetna’s favorite diet. This was a manly job, and one for women who could do the work of men. Starting with the more interesting colors, and only a small amount of encouragement from Bo; who seemed enthusiastic about having three expert tasters; we chugged down.
Chugging Denali brew may not be the wisest thing to do. Perhaps you’re supposed to sip and savor it, the way you do wine. It could have been a trick of the eye, but it seemed despite our quick demolition, the number of full glasses did not disappear right away. Not that we complained. By the time we’d left, we’d tried light, golden beer, sweet, ruddy amber, and an ale so dark, we were seeing lucky Irish leprechauns.
Somewhere in there, we must have gotten the Purple Haze. We float back to the hotel and up the stairs, barely conscious that management has announced open mic night. Somewhere in our feeble minds was guilty acknowledgment that here were the budding talents waiting to be discovered and we were on a discovery mission, but lethargy had overcome us. It wasn’t as though we couldn’t hear the auditions. There wasn’t much muffling the sounds floating to our attic rooms beyond the ancient floor boards.
The first musicians are gentle enough. They take their time tuning their instruments, and after a few trials and errors, discovering the right pitch for their songs, but as the evening progresses, the music becomes louder, more frantic and insistent. The performers become bawdier, more free hearted. As the evening wears on, a new pattern emerges. Before each audition, there is a crash as in tables over-turning and chairs falling. The microphone screeches like a hapless victim before the first chord resonates soundly throughout the building and spills out into the street. The rule seemed to be that whoever fell out of a chair, was the next one up to the microphone.
Somewhere in the sliver of time between the last auditing musicians and the first early morning risers, a quiet breathes, disturbed only by the ghosts who also enjoyed reveling in their bygone days. The building sighs and settles as old buildings do. As though from far away, there is a memory of a piano merrily tinkling, the chunk of gold nuggets, the splash of carefree laughter, a lament for a woman and a tune. We are at the end of the road where modern statements are no different than history and life is timeless. Our ghosts are just as colorful, just ribald, just as adventurous as their current counter-parts. We don’t worry about the ghosts any more than we do the rambunctious locals. As long as we weren’t politicians involved in an oil scandal, and maintained an unbridled sense of humor, we’d be okay.