My Hometown Wrecked My Life
One summer in Alaska changed everything.
McCarthy, Alaska wrecked my life. I had a map and a compass heading, that felt sure and steady. I put roots down in a sweet mountain valley in Southern Oregon with lush, organic farms and down-to-earth people choosing to live close to the land. Folks here raise kids, food, herbs, and the vibration of this planet.
Williams, Oregon is the good guy. The one you know you should date because he’s good for you - kind, gentle, wise, responsible. Safe. McCarthy, Alaska is the bad boy. The one you burn for in the middle of the night - risky, spontaneous, erratic, beautiful. Dangerous.
I tour as a singer-songwriter in small circuits like the southwest and west coast. After a few weeks on the road, I drive a two-lane highway through big open meadows and fields dotted with grapevines, cattle, and cannabis. I roll the window down so the sweet perfume bombards my brain, releasing something like dopamine. Home - in the arms of Williams.
My friend Melissa calls. She’s a fantastic singer-songwriter in Alaska. I’m invited to go north and tour with her for the summer. Since I was a kid, I dreamed of going to Alaska, but it would mean canceling festivals and shows. It's just one summer. Why not? What could go wrong?
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“What? The roof?” I yank a wadded-up summer dress out of my backpack, shake it, and pull it over my head. Melissa raises her eyebrows, “Welcome to McCarthy.” We rolled into this town an hour ago, frazzled and late for our gig. But that’s normal here. Getting to this place at all takes devotion. After driving 4 hours east from Anchorage, a bridge takes you across the mighty Copper River where the asphalt dumps you onto dirt with a sign saying, “End of maintained road, travel at your own risk.” Then you drive another 60 miles of rough gravel and park at a footbridge spanning the Kennicott River. Then you walk nearly a mile to town unless you brought a bike.
Our hotel looks like a wild west brothel… because it was a brothel in this remote Alaskan town in the early 1900s. I glance out the window to The Golden Saloon across a dirt path called Main Street where Melissa and I are scheduled to play a night of music for the town “block party.” Dirt Main Street was already filling up with extremely fit, incredibly good-looking people from 20 to 60 years old, wearing Chacos or hiking boots, with scruffy hair, dirty feet, well-worn clothes, and great big smiles. These people are the antithesis of hipsters. These are the people Outside Magazine write about and National Geographic hire.
Melissa and I climb a ladder, heave our guitars on top of the Saloon, and stand in front of microphones powered by a noisy town generator. We sing our hearts out, bouncing to the groove on a rickety roof, as the midnight sun dips below the massive mountain northwest of the valley. I’ve never seen a crowd dance harder or have more fun.
McCarthy wrecked my life. No gig, for the rest of my days, will ever compare to that one.
After the show, I look like I have measles from the mosquito bites on exposed skin my summer dress left for dead. Melissa wore a similar dress, but she’s fine. Not a single welt on her anywhere. Do Alaskan’s have some innate immunity to those little bastards? The drunks, helping us wrap cords and pack up gear after the show, chuckle and let me in on the secret: The greenhorn didn’t wear any DEET. Bug dope. Damn.
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Two days after that gig, Melissa’s friend Katy arrives in McCarthy to go backpacking with us. Another one of Melissa’s friends, a local mountain guide, offers to join us on our backcountry adventure and show us around. Katy and I are standing behind her car sorting food and consolidating gear for the trip when Melissa comes whizzing into the parking lot on a bike and skids to a stop, kicking gravel on Ziplocks full of Cliff Bars. She sets the bike down and pulls a PBR out of the daypack she tugged off her back.
“Bad news girls,” Her finger yanks a tab, cracking the can open. She swigs some down while Katy and I wait for the word, holding granola and ramen packs in our hands, “I’m bleeding.”
She takes another swig. I stand there confused. She just rode up like a bat out of hell on a bicycle and looks perfectly uninjured, chillin' drinking a beer.
Katy got it, “Oh no Mel, that sucks.”
I look back and forth between the two, waiting for an explanation. Katy takes pity on my confusion, “Out there, they say it’s not a good idea for women to camp in tents if you’re on your period.”
I could have just let it fall there and kept my mouth shut, but no… I had to press on. “Why? I don’t get it.”
Katy looks at me for a moment, then says one word: Bears.
Melissa smirks, “And the bad news is… Kevin got a paid guiding job and can’t go with us.”
She throws back the rest of her PBR, then smashes the can on the gravel under her hiking boot. “I’m not going with you. Well… and neither is Kevin. If you go, you two are on your own. Might want to think about that.”
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Goddamn you McCarthy, this is your fault. My hands clench into fists, turning my knuckles white. Something close to terror courses through my body. The bush plane flies up Chitistone Canyon built of vertical rock walls thousands of feet high above the braided river valley below.
The pilot circles a large outcropping on top of the cliffs, shaped like a big bowl carpeted with green tundra splayed out beneath a massive castle tower peak. He banks the plane to the left and my stomach heaves queasy. I thought he was showing us around, maybe messing a little with the greenhorns, until I found the courage to look out the side window now in view of the ground. A stick was poking up out of the dirt at the end of two long ruts. Pink survey ribbon, about two feet long, flapped in the breeze.
My heart nearly stops when I realize the pink ribbon is showing him wind speed and direction. The ruts… he’s aiming for them. With vertical cliffs on three sides, there’s no room for mistakes. Even a greenhorn can see that. I want to cry. I squeeze my eyes shut. He lines up with the ruts and I can feel the plane descend. My hands instinctively wrap around a metal handle - the only thing solid I can find.
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I thought the plane ride would be the most dangerous part of the trip, but that was before a massive Silvertip Grizzly Bear, hunting sheep near our camp, charges our tent. We can't hike out. The only way to leave this place is by plane, or the trail the bear commandeered. He's not leaving. We have to move the tent and hunker down.
We stash our food in bear-proof canisters in the low valley of the bowl, far away from the two-person orange Marmot we moved to high ground after the assault. It’s day three of having to risk walking down the hill from the landing strip, triggering the bear with our movement, who then promptly makes his presence known. We learned from the Dall Sheep he tried to kill a few days ago - always leave a spotter.
Katy scans 360 degrees on watch, while I open a canister. I grab whatever food is in a Ziplock. We eat like horses from a feedbag, afraid to get the scent of food on our skin or hands. Plus, we only have a few minutes to chew and stuff our cheeks with cheese and trail mix before we’re forced to screw the lid shut. Before he gets too close.
Katy takes a turn and gets short-changed. He’s moving down from the knoll - his watchtower. We move oh so slowly, walking backward, eyes fixed on six hundred pounds of muscle, bone, and fur. This time, he goes back to his nap. We find a Taiga bog and wash our hands and face in gross black muddy goop. Our theory - get rid of the food scent on our bodies before we sleep in the tent. The tent I bust out of in my socks, in the dark, holding a knife and a can of bear spray because the bastard huffed outside the nylon wall… again.
Defying all odds, the plane comes. We’re weathered-in with heavy fog, rain, and wind. The pilot says he woke up that morning with a dream, or a feeling - he wasn’t sure which - that he needed to come get us, NOW. He called dispatch and woke them up to tell them he was flying. I’m in the same seat, the same Cessna 185 that dropped us off on that mountain four days ago, but I’m not the same person.
I land in the arms of McCarthy.
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It’s been ten years since that crazy summer. I was born a migratory bird but never knew it until I found my northern home. Once that magnetic pull has you, it’s nearly impossible to fight or ignore. It was easier when I was blissfully unaware of a power like that.
My cats start acting weird and stick to me like glue every June 1st. I try to pack up quietly, leave them and Williams before daylight, and go north. The road ends three-thousand miles later in that desolate beautiful valley below a melting glacier with snow and ice-covered peaks in every direction. It’s an environment that not even the indigenous people lived in year-round. If we didn’t have gasoline, trucks to haul food from grocery stores supplied by incoming ferries, or tools like chainsaws to put up firewood - this place might kill you quick.
All summer I get phone calls and texts from Williams, “Hey, how’s it going up there?” Well… on Solstice we had a party at the river and played music all night. It never got dark. Someone brought a box of wine and threw a Copper River Red on the fire.
The 4th of July Parade was insane! Elaborate floats (for McCarthy) caravanned through town - twice - because the town is so small, once wouldn’t be worth it. Six of us ladies dressed up as mosquitoes with tin foil stingers. We ran around the crowd stinging people until a firefighter chased us with a water pack squirting make-believe DEET on us, then we play-acted a dramatic death in the middle of Main Street.
The softball game Friday night made me late for a gig. It’s a major community social event. 4-wheelers loaded with locals and cases of PBR (the McCarthy beer of choice - it’s cheap!) rolled-up, and someone started a BBQ. Little kids and dogs ran around in the grass while outfielders catch in one hand without spilling their beer in the other. Tourists on Main Street sat out on the deck of the Saloon and heard distant, “Batter UP!” and “SMACK!” followed by loud cheers from the crowd whenever someone hit a home run. They wondered why downtown looked deserted, while all the locals played ball.
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One winter I left Williams for McCarthy. My friend Joe put a shout-out looking for someone to cabin sit and take care of his dog Diesel - in December. I volunteered to hold down his homestead for three weeks while he was gone. My Dad caught wind of this and at family dinner one Sunday night said, “I want to go!” I guess he was looking for an adventure. Or maybe he wanted to size up McCarthy - man to man.
We burned up Joe’s stash of firewood to ward off the minus 32 degrees Fahrenheit that set in while we were there. After dad used a rake to knock down the frozen poop tower in the outhouse, he seriously wondered about my sanity - and his. But I was oblivious. I fell in love with the light. A primordial alpenglow washes the land that time of year and I found it intoxicating, even though I nearly frostbit my fingers clicking photos that trip. McCarthy, you’re a harsh lover.
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The next summer I bought a small piece of land up the creek from town. Williams thinks I’ve completely lost my marbles. They might be right. Someday I’ll build a place. Until then, home is my friend’s little dry cabin in the middle of downtown McCarthy. A cabin I affectionately named The Dovetail, which is appropriate since my two homes now dovetail together like the hand-hewn logs of that cabin. The notch, used to lock the logs onto each other, is called a “Dovetail.” It takes a craftsman to pull it off. You can’t even see daylight between the logs - no chinking needed. I can only hope my life will someday be that seamless.
I am one of approximately two-hundred locals that call McCarthy home in the summer. There are only about forty resilient people who live in McCarthy year-round. I’m not one of them. Strangely, at the end of summer, when I can taste fall in the air and the little alpine plants start to pale, I feel the tug to pack up. I tear myself away and follow that strong magnetic current now flowing south - to Williams.
On the long drive back to my sweet southern valley, I cuss myself for letting McCarthy wreck my life. I shake my head in scorn at all the other gigs I didn’t play that summer, all the money I didn’t make, all the sleep I lost staying up under the midnight sun with those beautiful mountain freaks. I lament simpler times when I had one love, one home - not this wretched ardent affair. Thanks, McCarthy. Thanks a lot :)
On February 4th, as I was proofing and revising this story, the bush pilot who delivers mail to McCarthy lost his life when his plane crashed near the town of Chitina. 100% of the tips generated by this story will be donated to his family. Or, you can go directly to the GoFundMe website if you’d like to help his family get through the winter and this deeply challenging time.
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Michelle McAfee is an Oregon based writer, photographer, musician, and creator of SONGBONES Podcast & Magazine. She was a staff songwriter for Bluewater Music, Song-Tree Maypop, and Warner Chappell Music, and is currently composing essays, blogs and a Memoir. You can find her on Instagram @michellemcafeemuse.