Not that many places are unforgettable but I think Nome is. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll ever be back. What I’ve collected up this week by way of stones and stories will have to do. I’ve thought about that the whole time, telling myself to make every minute count.
It’s Friday so here’s my round-up from this unusual week:
A town’s ugliness can be beautiful. Nome is worn and full of rust. The weather knocks the paint off everything; snow and ice wear down doorways and windows. Everything has seen better days, if only a few of them before winter made new things old. Abandoned vehicles and boats are littered about; the reason given is that there is no way to dispose of them and that is true. Everything here has to be flown or shipped in or out. No road goes to Nome from anywhere else.
There is a group of five Native people who stand at the entrance to our hotel night and day. They drink and they live outside. Sometimes they come inside the hotel to use the bathroom and then they go outside again and take up their posts by the door but they never do anything except say hello. Meanwhile, every person we talk to laments the terrible alcoholism present in Nome. Yesterday, a local leader told me that one out of four kids has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. My mouth hung open for a full minute. What happens now, I asked. No answer.
Richard Beneville is the mayor of Nome. He is a 73-year old former stage actor from New York who moved to Alaska to dry out. He is also gay. He told us his life story in a meeting with our small group – how his acting career hit the skids because of his drinking and how his family engineered an intervention that sent him to Anchorage. From there, he took a job running a department store in Barrow. He told us he got off the plane in Barrow, not realizing that he was going to the edge of the Arctic Ocean, dressed in a trench coat that was flapping in the wind and a gray fedora. Later, he moved to Nome. He has a speaking voice that can reach the cheap seats and he breaks into song every third paragraph.
Great contentment can come from just surrendering to one’s circumstances. Take this hotel, for instance. It would have one star. I think you get one star for being open, so it would have that star. But it wouldn’t have any of the other stars. Except as we’ve learned the ways of the hotel, we’ve improved our existence. Learning about clean towel night was a breakthrough.
So was figuring out if we gave the desk clerk $5, he would get us two ice cold Diet Cokes and two clean glasses crammed with ice. And never having to worry about maid service messing with our stuff since there isn’t any maid service. It’s just us. We are the maids. Or not.
The sky is the same everywhere but it looks bigger here, especially if there are little roads to travel to look for musk ox.
Time spent with Native people has been golden. Our meetings have been arranged and so they are intentional. These are not brief exchanges on a street corner; our interactions with Native people have been sit-down affairs, serious but full of humor and goodwill. We have been good listeners but not afraid to ask questions. The Native people we have spent time with – Anna, Lisa, Colleen, and Sarah – talked about their lives in ways important to them. Today, Sarah, an elder in Teller, showed us her stamp collection from when she was in 9th grade. Earlier, she showed us a manuscript of stories her blind brother had dictated to her 19 years before. We listened to what they wanted to tell us and let ourselves sink into being with them.
At Sarah’s today, we ate salmon spread on crackers and looked out her window to the village and further out to the inlet of the Bering Sea. Sarah didn’t want us to take pictures of her so I have a photo of Sarah’s window to offer. This is the part of her world she let us see.