Intruding Upon A Silence…

I’m truly struggling with ambivalence regarding writing this piece for reasons which will soon become clear; I just do not want to appear elitist or condescending but by the same token I, along with many of my neighbors and fellow ‘Talkeetna-ites’, are not pleased of late.  Perhaps most irritating to me is the wonderfully immense Alaskan silence is now being broken on a routine basis by the sounds of human beings…in this case the tourists!  The final straw in breaking my ambivalence regarding writing on this subject came just 18 minutes earlier when the peaceful silence of the pre-08:00 Saturday morning was shattered by a distant siren.  It occurred to me that I have only heard sirens three times since I moved up here almost ten months back; the previous two times were late last summer and then once in late November for a local dwelling fire.  But this has not been the only assault upon my precious Alaskan silence; across the last three weeks there has been a gradually increasing influx of vehicular traffic into Talkeetna.  The road now regularly sees lines of RVs, campers, travel trailers and those lousy, noisy motorcycles!  It’s hard to even drive in town because there are people walking everywhere; last night I had to wait the passage of a throng of tourists just to make the left turn from the Spur onto Second Street to get to KTNA for my newscast.  The bad thing is the locals tell me ‘tourist season’ normally doesn’t begin until this (Memorial Day) weekend; in addition they’ve told me this is far more people than is normal for May visits.  I’m wondering just what it will be like come July..?

With all this said I must confess that I am only too well aware that from 1996 through 2005 I was one of these tourists.  And, yes, I did ride a motorcycle in the lower 48 although mine was a vintage BMW K 75 and was very quiet.  In addition when I visited Alaska I was always respectful of the rules and signage and especially of private property.  Sadly I’ve already heard reports of RVs ripping down ‘No Overnight Parking’ signs and setting up.  A small unopened camping area south of town had its barrier illegally removed and now there’s a myriad of RVs and trailers occupying the site; when the owners do finally return they are in for a surprise!  I will no longer walk the dogs even close to the Spur because its gone from seeing one vehicle every hour or so to seeing tens of vehicles every few minutes.  In short so much of what I loved about this area in terms of the silence, the slow pace and the lack of human density have all disappeared in the dust clouds behind trailers and RVs and the crowds of people milling about the town.

My sense of fairness will not allow me to just rag against the tourists; I know this is Talkeetna’s life blood and without the tourist dollars each year this magical little town wouldn’t be half of what it is but I already long for the quiet and slow pace that exists from middle September through early May.  But this is also my first experience with living in a location that draws a large tourist crowd and thus far I’m finding little I like about this facet of Talkeetna life!  Its been a while since I really struggled with the duality of ambivalence but I’m now getting a chance to once again experience the instability of these feelings as I try to find common ground.  To be honest I can largely ignore the influx by remaining in this immediate area and trying to stay away from the town; there’s no reason for any tourists to be on East Barge Drive unless they’re lost.  But I cannot escape the noise that they bring with them and this is unsettling.  In addition my routine runs into Palmer and Anchorage on behalf of the Pantry are now greatly complicated by the plethora of trailers, campers, RVs and rubber- necking tourists now crowding the Parks Highway.  It’s easy to develop a definite dislike for these intruders until I remember that I was one of ‘those’ folks just a few years back.  And so once again the ambivalence manifests its unsettling presence in my existence.

In the grand scheme this influx of ‘the great unwashed masses’ lasts only three months and a couple of weeks (mid-May though August); after that time life will return to the ‘norm’ that I so enjoy.  All these people pump significant dollars into the Alaskan economy in general and into Talkeetna in particular so their presence has to at the very least be tolerated.  I am now coming to really understand that observation I heard not long after I moved up here; that Alaskans would have open season on tourists were it not for their dollars.  I’m sure most tourists would view this as a bit of rural Alaskan humor but the truth is it’s an accurate appraisal.  However, I’m just going to have to learn to be more ‘Alaskan’ in this regard and just deal with the issues brought about by tourism.  Come September it will be interesting to see whether the tourists have displaced the mosquitoes with respect to being the biggest pain in the ass during Alaskan summers.  Right now the jury is out and given what I’ve seen to date I sure wouldn’t be willing to make a call!

Image

This image of ‘downtown’ Talkeetna was taken last September when the number of tourists had already decreased and we actually had precipitation!

14 thoughts on “Intruding Upon A Silence…

  1. Cathy Crowder

    The peaceful environment of the sierra foothills have similarly been entrenched with weekend tourists and campers. The road is full of flat landers and their land yachts heading up to camp. I try to avoid having to go to town during the weekends, but sometimes you just can’t avoid it.

    • Hey Cathy – GREAT to hear from ya! Yes, I’ve really ‘gone Native’ across the past ten months and I now realized I’d already started taking the wonderful Alaskan silence for granted until all the tourists began to accumulate. I remember flying for Clorox, dropping into large cities and driving through their construction and traffic like it was just another day. Whew, amazing what ten months can do!! I now find more than four cars in a string on the Spur ‘heavy traffic’ and my patience with waiting to make simple turns in town is down to about five seconds. Without question the large RVs and travel trailers are the worst as they are often rented in Anchorage and therefore driven by novices. Add to this fact that the immediate area offers some truly spectacular views of The Alaska Range and is full of large mammals and you have a recipe for really dangerous driving. Just yesterday my neighbor Sandy told me about almost rear-ending a camper which stopped cold on the Spur (55 mph speed limit) to view a couple of moose just coming out of the woods on the west side of the road. I can appreciate being mesmerized by the wildlife but this doesn’t trump safe driving…or at least it shouldn’t do so but this is not the case. Guess its back to truly defensive driving until September!!

  2. I think you are right about your ambivalence. This is a slippery slope. Too easily do we put labels on others: Tourists, foreigners, intruders. We are all visitors on this planet, I think. There was a time, when nobody owned the land…

    Does it really all come down to money? If you bring the money, then you are welcome, or actually, then you are tolerated. I think this is a typical first world view. What happened to hospitality? I have met more people in poor third world countries that were opening their homes and willing to share their last shirt than in rich developed countries.

    • Some good thoughts! Yes, not all that long ago land ownership wasn’t something commonly practiced except by ‘nobility’ and that was more to control the troglodytes. I think in this country land ownership really took off as the overall population ballooned; after a while it almost became a defensive move to insure there was some undeveloped land. Up here there are a couple of long time families – as in many, many generations of local living – who own hundreds of acres around my place. They purchased it over time for the express purpose of keeping it pristine and undeveloped. This was a large factor in my purchasing my small (3 acres) property as I knew there would be no close by development.

      Actually rural Alaskans are among the friendliest and most hospitable people I’ve met; I recognized this from my first visit back in ’96 and I’ve always enjoyed their open, honest and down to earth natures coupled with their love to talk and share their love of this majestic land. The native Alaskans are the epitome of hospitality and sharing! My relatively easy transition to living comfortably in rural south central Alaska centers upon the willingness of so many of the locals to share their experiences with, and offer suggestions to, me. I was wise enough to know that when I first moved up here I needed to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open; in addition its best not to continually compare things to the lower 48. Most locals moved to Alaska to escape life in the lower 48 and hence they really don’t care how things are done down there. Sadly many long timers have had to deal with the perception by people from the lower 48 that Alaska is ‘wide open’ and one can go anywhere and park and camp regardless of location. This really annoys the locals as most of them moved up here to get away from crowds and crowded conditions. An off-shoot of this is most locals are very possessive of their property and will not tolerate anyone just wandering through. When I first moved up I made the mistake of walking my dogs along a road I thought was public; after my third trip I was met by a local who was not happy with my presence. I was very upset with myself I hadn’t checked the borough maps to insure this road (it had a borough signpost with a name..!) was indeed public; I apologized profusely and told the gentleman I would never knowing trespass on someone’s property and I certainly would never again walk this road. We actually ended up talking for a half hour and I discovered he was from Michigan as well; in the end he told me if I wanted to walk ‘Lewis & Clark Drive’ that was okay. I told him I might once in a great while but I would not abuse his kindness. From time to time I see Frank in town and will talk with him. I’ve received similar ‘clearances’ from some of the other folks in this area regarding walking their property but I hardly ever do so just because I do not want to overdo my welcome. Everyone has been very friendly and willing to cut the ‘newbie’ slack but part of this is because I’m willing to live by their rules and truly do respect their property.

      Sadly it really does come down to money; without the annual infusion of tourist dollars I doubt Talkeetna would be more than a few buildings. Because of the tourist’s dollars the town has a water and sewage system, a small radio station, good schools and a summer population of maybe 800 although I’d wager this drops to 400 by the December through March period. On busy summer days the tourists can outnumber the locals by three or four to one. Many businesses operate year ’round on the income they generate just from May through September. So, yes, for Talkeetna it really is largely about the annual tourist dollars. I enjoy these benefits and hence although I do not operate any business I still need to be aware of the value of the local tourism. And that, of course, generates the previously mentioned ambivalence. I’m slowly learning to take these kinds of situations in stride; kinda like taking the good with the not so good. I think I’ll eventually get there; it was just a shock to hear all the sudden noise and then deal with the early influx of tourists. Alaskans are nothing if not flexible and I’ll get there..!

  3. Tourists such silly creatures…

    • Or at least they can be, eh..?? I’ll never forget riding the shuttle bus in Denali National Park & Preserve and seeing this guy setting up his camera while he’s encouraging a young boy – I assumed it was his son – to move closer to a grizzly that was maybe 200 yards distant!! The bus driver went apoplectic, stopped the bus, jumped out and read this bozo the riot act. It remains a mystery to many of us how apparently sane people can suddenly become so ‘silly’ regarding the dangers of wildlife and that’s exacerbated an order of magnitude when dealing with large wildlife like bears, moose and caribou. Of course not all tourists are so ‘silly’ and many are just here to see Alaska and remain respectful of private property and play by the rules. Without question the state needs their dollars as if memory serves tourism is the number two source of state income after fishing. I suppose in a perfect world we’d be able to hold a lottery regarding tourism to try and control the number and timing of the onslaught but this will never happen. I just have to continue to remind myself that just a few years back I was one of said tourists and my beloved Talkeetna would be so much less than it is today without the influx of tourist based monies. And, too, if I avoid going into town as much as possible I can largely escape a lot of the tourist based impact. Its surprising to realize that during the summer on any given day Talkeetna’s summer population of around 800 will be outnumbered by the tourists on the order of three or four to one. Just gotta learn to get ‘okay’ with this situation like I’m trying to do regarding the mosquitoes and the smoke from the wildfires in the Kenai Peninsula…

      • I grew up in Saratoga Springs, NY which is a HUGE Summer Tourism Spot. As a child, I remember sitting on the streets watching all the fancy cars in the summer and listing to the strange accents of the tourist. When I was a teenager my passion was to ride bicycles. In July and August Broadway downtown would be packed with tourists and I would ride my bike zipping in between cars on the street with the goal of making those silly tourist nervous.

        • Happy Memorial Day and ‘*THANK YOU!*’ for your service and sacrifice!! I, too, was an avid bicyclist in my youth through my 30’s; I mowed lawns one entire summer just to purchase my first ten speed – a clunky old Schwinn Varsity. While I’ve seen my share of tourism in my home town of Dearborn (MI) – Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum drew hundreds of thousands of people every year and the many Ford Motor Company exhibitions also brought in folks – since moving on to college and then employment I largely stayed clear of the phenomena. I’d have to say this is my first experience with living in a small town that both survives and thrives because of tourism. Its just something I’m going to have to learn to handle.

          I remember riding my very costly road bike in the western suburbs of Chicago in my late twenties; bicycling was just beginning to really catch on and I was riding a custom built road bike that cost me $1200 which was an almost unheard of sum for a bicycle at that time. I actually rode right in traffic and in looking back I wonder how I survived because I was riding wearing just my skin suit, a pair of gloves and sunglasses. I actually had a cop pull me over just outside Elgin (IL) on an early Sunday morning for running a stop sign! Understand it was around 07:00 and there was no traffic. I was in a rural area riding into the Fox River Valley and came to ‘T’ intersection with a stop for me. Way on up the road I saw a single vehicle heading towards me but I easily beat that vehicle into the intersection and was actually beginning to accelerate away when I heard a siren. Not sure what the cop’s issue was; maybe he hated bicyclists or maybe he was just having a bad day. He chewed me out something royal and threatened me with a ticket. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if he’d given me a ticket for failing to stop at a stop sign and I took it to court. Would a judge have upheld a bicyclist getting a ticket for ignoring a stop sign on a rural road virtually devoid of traffic? Would a ‘moving violation’ on a bicycle have translated to points on my driver’s license? Thankfully I never found out..!

          • That is a truly odd story, what was that cop thinking. I bet he had some traumatic experience with a bike. Maybe some sort of rabid bicycle king gang ran over his pet gini-pig or something. So ever since that horrific moment he used his powers as a police officer to ruin bicyclist lives. Well that is my story and I am sticking to it……

            • Indeed, he must’ve been traumatized early in life by some two wheeled vehicle; maybe a demented delivery person hell bent on getting a package to some destination inadvertently rode over his toe or similar..?

  4. Welcome to my world of the past 17 years. Imagine a 120 mile road trip with the added influx extra cars, RV’s, motorcycles and bicycles. I was in ‘town’ Friday and it was like the day after Thanksgiving with all the people and vehicles….now you are beginning to understand my yearning for winter!

    • Hey Pete – Yes, now I’m beginning to understand the disdain most locals hold regarding the ‘typical’ tourist! With this said there are a lot of them that play by the rules, are respectful of private property and don’t view Alaska as a giant park. I suspect in truth most are pretty good folk; however, it only takes a few bad apples to spoil the barrel. My neighbor told me she darn near rear ended a camper which suddenly came to a complete stop on the Spur yesterday – which has a 55 mph speed limit – so the occupants could take pictures of two moose on the side of the road! I remember doing my share of rubber-necking as a visitor up here but I would never have just stopped in the middle of a road unless it was to avoid hitting wildlife. I also remember being fascinated with the scenery and wildlife but that never superseded good driving sense. Believe me, I long for winter as well but this yearning has as much to do with my love of cold and snow and dislike of mosquitoes as the tourists. At least if I avoid town I’m largely insulated from them with the exception of the noise they bring and there’s not much I can do about this issue. I’m trying to console myself by repeating this will only last for three and a half months and then things will be back to normal; we’ll see how this works come July!

  5. Many former non-tourist areas are being “discovered” by the masses. That isolated beach town that I loved and the remote mountain villages that gave me my outdoor fixes have now also been populated with those very people to whom I “leaked” the magic. Lesson learned.

    • Hey Tom – Yes, I’m guilty of doing similar but I, too, have learned my lesson. Alaska was never much of a tourist destination until the Parks Highway (AK 3 – runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks) was completed; I believe that was in the late 60’s or early 70’s. That opened up Denali National Park & Preserve and a lot more of the Interior to vehicular access. After the pipeline was underway in the early to middle seventies word made it back to the lower 48 how majestic and spectacular the Alaskan environment was and then the tourism really began to mushroom. I believe now its the second largest source of state income after fishing. The truth is most people who’ve migrated to Alaska came here because they shunned the crowded living in the lower 48 and they also tend to be free spirits and definitely somewhat ‘different’ in terms of their perspectives and outlooks. The wide open spaces, low population density and amazing wildlife and environment really strikes a chord with some folks; I know it took just my first backpacking trip in the fall of ’96 to convince me I wanted to live in Alaska and do so away from the larger towns. As the numbers of visitors increase many of the things we locals cherish disappear like our wonderful silence, low population density, light traffic and slow pace of living. Of course this doesn’t sit well and creates a bit of angst. However, we must all remember that without the money generated by tourism Alaska in general and Talkeetna in particular would be much less ‘civilized’ and we locals wouldn’t enjoy many of our current benefits. Believe me, this is realized by most and so at this time of year you have a local populace a bit off center because of ambivalence. I keep telling myself I was one of said tourists for ten years and this negative alteration in my lifestyle will only last for three and a half months; then all will return to the Talkeetna I’ve come to love across the last ten months. So far so good although it’ll be interesting to see how well this is working come July and August..!

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