This is me and my best friend Ellen doing what many Anchorage teen hippies did back in the mid-1970’s – hitch-hike to Homer, AK.
The small, coastal fishing and tourism town, 221 miles south of Anchorage, on the Kenai Peninsula had at that time become something of a Mecca for nature-seeking young people. Homer, with its picturesque setting along the northern shores of Kachemak Bay, was one of the rural places in Alaska that seemed a desirable place to buy some land and build a cabin.
That was the Dream, folks.
Residents of Homer couldn’t have been too thrilled to see a bunch of long-haired types showing up during the summers, many to work in area fish processing plants; others to squat with their own pup tents or handmade shelters on the famed Homer Spit, a 4 ½ mike spit of land that juts into Kachemak Bay.
The whole ‘back-to-nature’ thing began in earnest with the first-ever Earth Day, held in April, 1970. Then, I was a Tween. By the time I entered middle school, or Junior High, I had folders decorated with colorful nature scenes – fields of wild flowers or of North Face, the actual mountain in Yosemite National Park. The folders were created by the Sierra Club.
Even though it would be another three years – and not until I entered high school in 10th grade – before the transformation from a somewhat shy, awkward pre-teen to full-on fashionable Hippie. I entered middle school, like all girls my age, wearing whatever Twiggy wore, The indeed twiggy-like fashion model with doe-like eyes and trademark pixie haircut. She, like a lot of pop culture then was part of the British Invasion in music, fashion and cosmetics. I favored baby doll dresses and platform shoes. I may have worn wore Cover Girl Blue eye shadow and Love’s cologne but I had a crush on British singer/songwriter, Donavan. But by Ninth grade, I was someone who wore handmade denim overall skirts - hand embroidered with beads and embroidery thread - with expensive Raichle hiking boots and no make-up at all.
I still remember how betrayed I felt by the Media and whoever it was who told me to stop with normal grooming routines. Yet rock stars we all worshiped were all dating and marrying fashion models. It would be a few more years still after the photo above was taken before I would grow weary of heavy, ill-fitting clothes and hair that badly needed cutting.
But there was Ellen and I with my faithful rescued Border Collie, Yukon, standing under the sign (I can’t recall if we were heading there or heading back home) taking photos. Nowadays, we’d be pasting these images on our social media pages.
I still remember the less-than friendly looks we got from the townspeople on that trip to Homer, especially when we’d naively ask about land or cabins for sale, or possibly seeking property to ‘homestead’ (a State-run program that allowed residents to acquire wild parcels of land back then).
I doubt we had much money. Inquiring about land? We were 16.
I know what you are thinking: Who hitch-hikes with a dog? I guess we felt safe with Yukon.
On my back, I’m wearing my green Kelty backpack I had bought, along with my own red North Face pup tent and a blue, down North Face sleeping bag. I was an astute student of what one had to possess to be truly ‘back-to-nature.’ I spent hundreds of dollars on all three items in order to fit in with the group of friends I had begun hanging out with. I felt welcome and a part of something among my new friends, many of whom lived with their families in handsome, but modest homes along the so-called “Hillside” of Anchorage, the flanks of the Chugach Mountain range that borders Anchorage to the east.
I initially fell in with this group of kids, who all attended Service High School, a large, new campus tucked right up against towering mountain peaks. I had met most of them the night they showed up at my house on 12th Avenue when I threw what became known as the “Woodstock” party.
The winter after my father’s kidnapping and murder, I somehow managed to live at our house without adult supervision. FOR MONTHS. Yet, I still went to school, riding the bus to East High, where I had entered high school that Fall of 1973. I wanted to go to school. I wanted to be a normal teen. I had a stepmom, a woman my dad had married just a month before he was abducted. But she was only a teen herself (though she looked much older, it seemed. My dad, who had turned 40 that spring, routinely dated cocktail waitresses and topless dancers in their 20’s).
I barely knew his new wife and hated her. After my father disappeared that August, I refused to have anything to do with her. She and my dad had been mostly staying at one of the massage parlors my dad had begun running. I had lived at our official residence.
After my father disappeared (it took police months to find his body) my stepmom put some roommates in the house to help pay the bills. One was a couple who were a pimp and his girlfriend/prostitute. They were both hardcore heroin addicts.
I, on the other hand, attracted a group of young people – homeless teens – some who stayed at the house for a time turning the place into our own version of Neverland.
Do you see why being a Hippie Wanna-Be had such appeal to me? What I knew at the time at home was anything but desirable to an otherwise regular teen girl.
It’s another story how I got through that first winter without adult supervision and when that ended. But it didn’t end before I managed to rent a copy of the film ‘Woodstock’ and rent a film projector and with a sheet strung up in my living room, played the movie to a house full of teens who had come from all over town.
By the spring of 1974, I was fully into the whole hippie thing, as least in style, if not substance. You wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between me and my new group of friends with our matching boots, and skirts, or jeans, or down coats, or flannel shirts. And of course the name-brand pricey gear we all just had to have.
Think of that Kelty backpack, which I still have, as the IPhone of the 1970’s.
I got the nearly $1000 I needed to buy my camping gear by holding a garage sale that spring, several months after learning that my father, who disappeared in late August, had indeed been murdered. His body was eventually recovered in an old mining area, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. His killers had been rounded up and were sitting in jail awaiting trial the day I put out everything I could drag outside the house to sell. Mostly junk, really, some dishes, old tires, fishing waders and such.
A friend of my dad’s named Ed who ran a pawn shop, drove up, looked over everything and handed me hundreds of dollars in cash to buy it all. Ed was a big guy with a big heart. I had always been fond of him never more than at that moment. I knew he didn’t want the junk. He was just trying to help me out.
He was the last person to see my dad alive. My dad had invited him to go get a drink but Ed, who had a family, declined. Word was he always thought he could have stopped my father’s death if he had taken my dad up on that drink. I don’t think so.
So Ed loaded everything up into his station wagon and drove off. Soon, I got my outdoor gear that I used for many outdoor adventures during the remainder of my teen years.
Despite the decades that have passed and all the moves between several states and cities, I still have that Kelty backpack.
That’s me, age 16, sitting on a bench at Anchorage International Airport, late summer 1974. I was waiting to board a red-eye flight to Seattle. I was finally going to look for America.
Through much of my childhood, everything I thought I knew about the rest of the country, including Hawaii, came from television shows and movies. Alaska felt so remote that we had several ways to refer to the contiguous states – ‘The Lower 48,’ ‘Outside’ and ‘Down South.’ For me, America seemed a mythical land of endless summer, glamorous cities and countless landmarks. The first time I took a cross-country trip west to east, across the center, I kept asking my traveling companions and driver, ‘Is this the Great Plains? This?’
A Canadian friend once described a similar feeling toward the United States as ‘living in the attic of a house having a party.’
And boy did I want to attend that party. Another friend from Rhode Island thought it interesting how me and my pack of friends, who he deemed ‘Little Pioneer Women’ because we wore long cotton skirts and hiking boots, a fashion for awhile, laughed at how we all ran around talking about ‘the STATES’ (yet another phrase used to describe the rest of the country). We were going to ‘the States.’
Whether it was the emerald green forests of Puget Sound, or the cliffs of Northern California coastline, or the cable cars of San Francisco, or the Empire State Building, I knew of it all and wanted to see it all. On that first trip, I only had planned to fly to Seattle, then with my companion, hitch-hike to San Jose, where my friend’s mother and brother, a junior high boyfriend, then lived. After that, I was going to take Greyhound buses all the way to Phoenix, my final destination.
I chose Phoenix because the winter before I met a college-age friend of a friend who was from there. He was passing through Anchorage on his return home after working a lengthy stint at a cannery in Southwest Alaska. Flush with cash, one day he sat me down to tell me he wanted to help me leave Alaska, since that was all I talked about, and gave me $100 to donate to the Kim Discovers America fund.
I am still friends with him and his family to this day.
That night, in typical teen fashion, a dozen or more friends came to the airport to see me and my friend off. Ironically, as much as I wanted to travel Outside, I felt bonded to a large group of friends. Most of also viewed the Lower 48 somewhat cynically the older we got, figuring it was all overcrowded and ruined, until Alaska where we barely had one ‘freeway’ in Anchorage.
I must have thought I was coming back. And did eventually, over and over again through my teen years. But that night, me and my crew of hippie-like friends, took group photos and partied in the airport until time to leave.
At some point, I decided to capture the moment in my journal – which I kept through all my teen years. I must have been tired, or that frown was just your average teen look of angst. Or I was tired. I was only 16. I think about this now and I’m horrified that someone so young was out doing such things. I had no idea whether I would get along with my traveling companion (I didn’t) and the adventures that were ahead of us.
I remember many ‘firsts’ from that trip – the first time I experienced 100 degree heat at night, specifically at Midnight in Redding, California. I still recall the night I stood outside a party in San Jose, staring up at the stars, listening to ‘Free Bird’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd, feeling homesick and excited all at the same time.
I still recall the day we traveling to Santa Cruz to visit the Santa Cruz boardwalk. Later, I would eventually board a Greyhound bus for what seemed an endless trip from Northern California, down to Los Angeles, where I transferred to another bus bound for Phoenix. What amazes me is I don’t remember feeling afraid, at least not on that trip.
I still don’t know where I found the courage.
Here’s a photo from ‘A Normal Life,’ Me, as a singer/guitar player at the Alaska State Folk Festival, circa 1979. I began my college years in Juneau in the late ‘70’s- a time of vast changes in Alaska. In college, I majored in music, studying classical guitar and voice. On the side, I began singing and playing the guitar, mostly at parties or yearly at the Alaska State Folk Festival.
During my first time at the Folk Festival, I performed solo. For several years after, I performed as part of a trio/band the ‘Maintainers.’ The group was founded by me, a high school friend and a guy we knew who played electric guitar and came from a big city Outside (We liked the irony of using an electric instrument at the otherwise all-acoustic event). Back then, the Folk Festival was a huge event in small town Juneau. The Capital of Alaska, a mix of blue-collar fishermen and urban, state employees, had only about 25,000 residents. But it felt much bigger. With the trans-Alaska pipeline newly completed and oil flowing through it, the State was flush with money. Juneau was the place to be as the state of Alaska was suddenly thrust into an oil boom. Juneau is located inland as part of what’s known as ‘Southeast Alaska,’ the archipelago of largely uninhabited wilderness and a handful of fishing towns, accessible only by air or water.
Back then Juneau, with its picturesque setting amid towering mountains, was a magnet for young people looking to live ‘back to nature.’ The town was full idealistic young people - new college grads hoping to score a job with the state or the State Legislature. The other group was young people hoping to live off the land in the biggest nature state in the union!
I was there for both reasons. First, I moved to Juneau after graduating high school with hopes of getting a job as a so-called ‘Page’ in the State House of Representatives. After doing that for ended up being two legislative sessions, I enrolled at the University of Alaska, Southeast.
Among those with long roots in the Klondike-era city was a group of about a half dozen young men, new high school grads, all from Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods. This adorable group of shaggy haired boys from Ferris Bueller Land had just finished stints working as loggers and when I met them. Us nature-like girls were in heaven! One would eventually become a longtime serious relationship. With them and others - we couldn’t have had more fun- throwing potluck gatherings at newly erected cabins on undeveloped land only recently acquired. Or we spent weekends closing down the local watering holes. During this vibrant period of my life, I would eventually own my own ‘back-to-nature’ home, what we all called a ‘float house,’ a popular new kind of smaller dwelling hippies without property were building. Most were located along Douglas Island, with its historic namesake town at one end, and a mostly wild land along the ‘north’ end. That’s where me and my friends parked our float houses, or those who bought land, built cabins- all with no modern amenities such as electricity, running water or flush toilets.
We had outhouses, carried our own fresh water, paid for showers at the laundromat, and heated our homes with wood using wood stoves bought in town.
Despite our rugged lifestyle, at least for a short time, we all thought we had found Nirvana.
Kim possesses an M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University. She continues to write and teach at University of Louisiana Lafayette.