Nowhere In Particular

There are few times in a person's life when he or she feels completely cut off from the outside world. Bethel, Alaska, is one of the places I have visited where being totally isolated is not only an option, but a way of life. Being a small town, in the middle of nowhere, with a low-income population (in an extremely harsh environment), people can live there and completely lose touch with what is happening in the rest of America, and the world. This can be appealing to people, which is why some actually live there voluntarily, while to others it is a very frightening experience.

Bethel lies on the south-western portion of the Alaskan peninsula. It is not an easy place to get to, which is probably the main reason it is so cut-off. There are only two ways in during the five summer months, by boat or by plane. During the rest of the year, the only route open is a plane ride back to civilization. Neither option is cheap - a couple hundred dollars for either a plane or boat ticket - and if you happen to be broke, you are stuck. There aren't any trains to hop or highways to hitch a ride on, every way out costs money. It is over 400 miles from Bethel to any major road, and that is 400 miles of uninhabited forest, lakes, and a mountain range or two - much too much for the average car, even if it has four wheel drive. Once in Bethel, it is easy to become stuck there with no way out.

Geographic location is not the only reason for the feeling of isolation that hangs over the town. Bethel gets only two free television channels, transmitted via satellite from Michigan thanks to the Alaskan Satellite Project. Finding a news broadcast is next to impossible, since both channels are snips from all five networks, but without commercials - they are blanked out and covered with scenes of Alaska with the rest of the evening's programming scrolling up. There is a local news broadcast done every day - 30 minutes of local news, but only 15 minutes in English. For the adventur-ous, there is cable television, which has a monthly cost about equal to a quarter of one's monthly paycheck. Cable gives you sports news (ESPN), music news (Canada's version of MTV), arts news (A&E), and the national news from the three top networks. This is about the only way to stay informed of world, or even national, events, and is fairly popular, despite its extravagant price.

The only local newspaper comes out every Thursday, and will talk about the best fishing days, or a fire in a trash bin, or the police arresting some drunks over by the river (or IN the river, if they were really drunk). Anything that's a big local issue will be discussed, with world events completely absent (I never found a single article about the situation in Germany). Of the three radio stations originating in Bethel, only one has any type of news - the National Public Radio Broadcast every day. The only regular broadcasts are the Tundra Drums - personal messages aired over the radio from people who call in, such as "Happy Birthday, Ninchook", or "Tommy, I have your fishing net. Call Mike" - and the American Top 40 music broadcast. Other than that, it is anybody's guess as to when a particular program will be on, not that there are many other programs to hear.

When I first got there, I didn't think much about the isolation from the world because there is no lack of people in Bethel to do something with, especially when you have two brothers with you all the time. Eventually, I realized that the entire eastern half of the United States could fall into the ocean, and I would not find out until I got to Anchorage on my flight back home. Although there are people in Bethel, they are very seclusive, and only care about their family (even family in the continental states) and their town (which includes jobs and entertainment). Anybody who has lived there for much longer than a year acquires the same attitude, including my father. Some people like the idea of being completely oblivious to National and World pressures. It scares the hell out of me.

Tyler Jones, October 29, 1990