In the photo above I am laughing, surrounded by my fellow Pages to the Alaska State House of Representatives.
We are sitting at the Clerk of the House’s desk, adjacent to the right of where the Speaker of the House sits, at the head of one half of Alaska’s State Legislature, the House being the ‘lower half,’ a 40-member body of elected representatives from across the state (the State Senate has 20 members).
Us Pages were a part of Alaska’s 10th Legislative session since Alaska officially became a state in 1959. Our tenure occurred during one of Alaska’s most history-making periods of time.
Among many pieces of ground-breaking laws, the 10th Legislature created the Alaska Permanent Fund- a giant savings account intended to save some of Alaska’s new-found wealth for future generations. It’s from the dividends of this fund that the state pays its relatively small population - every man, woman and child - money each year (the idea behind such a revolutionary idea being then residents will watch over and want to protect the fund from being raised by shortsighted lawmakers).
That year marked the beginning of operations of the then, just completed trans-Alaska pipeline. The 800-mile pipe stretched across Alaska from the very top of the state all the way to port and waiting oil tankers in Valdez, AK.
The pipeline took 80,000 workers and three years to construct in order to send oil from Prudhoe Bay - the largest oil field in North America- to markets on the West Coast. This occurring nationally as the United States was seeking to end its dependence on foreign oil to fuel its energy needs.
Beginning that legislative session, of which us Pages were witness to, billions of dollars would begin flowing into Alaska’s state coffers, forever changing the 49th state in ways for better and some Alaskans might argue, for worse.
The idea of having Pages was to allow young people the opportunity to witness laws being made first hand.
How I became a Page and began what were essentially the college years of my life are the subject of an early chapter in my new book, ‘A Normal Life.’
I chose the excerpt below because in October, I will be returning to my beloved Juneau for a book tour.
I haven’t been back in 20 years, which I can not believe. I always wanted to live at least part time in Juneau- where many of the friends I made all those years ago remain. Then, we were young, idealistic and energetically-filled with new ideas about how we wanted to live our lives and we wanted to change the world. And in many ways we did.
I keep in touch with many of my old Juneau friends, including some of my fellow Pages pictured above.
Welcome to the beginning of the chapter four titled: “Living Back to Nature Can be Hazardous to Your Health”
To this day, I have dreams about being in Juneau. And nightmares. Few towns or cities exist in such a spectacular setting. Juneau lies between mountain peaks of the Alaska Coast Range to the east and a handful of channels, bays, and inlets to the west. From Downtown Juneau, one has to walk only a few streets to find the side of a mountain or a wilderness trail along the beach.
Alaska is a land of extremes, and this is certainly true for Juneau. On a sunny day, there is no place more beautiful on earth; during a winter storm, there are few places more miserable. Southeast Alaska is so different in climate and popular culture from the rest of the state
that my moving there was in many ways like moving to Arizona.
I found myself in a place radically different from any I had known before.
In Arizona and again in Juneau, I fell in love with the place and people. I found a niche and discovered more about myself—even if I had to do it the hard way.
A historic gold mining town with an ancient and rich Native history, the city is located in Alaska’s Inside Passage, the lengthy archipelago of islands and waterways along the northern Pacific Coast adjacent to Canada. It’s where you or someone you know has been on an Alaska cruise.
Alaska is now one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world, but when I moved there, the cruise industry was virtually nonexistent. The town was a mix of isolationism and worldliness, and residents tended to identify more with Seattle and the Pacific Northwest than with Anchorage.
In fact, many Juneau residents then and now despise Anchorage. Hate it. It’s a feeling not uncommon all across the state toward Alaska’s largest city, ostensibly the biggest recipient of state financial resources and attention. With Juneau, it gets personal. The day I arrived, even my cab driver ranted about hating Anchorage.
When I asked if he’d ever been there, he replied, “The airport.” His response was so common that I began telling people I was from Eagle River, a suburb just north of Anchorage. “Ah, Eagle River,” someone might say. “That sounds nice.”
Juneau-ites hate Anchorage because for years legislators from the northern parts of Alaska have tried in vain to move the state capital to the Anchorage area, or at least somewhere on the state’s limited highway system. That’s where most of the state’s population lives, more than half in Anchorage alone.
This is because no highway or even rail service connects Juneau to the rest of the state. None. Zero. The only way to get to Juneau is by air or sea—when everything isn’t
shut down due to a severe storm. Juneau is also in what is known as a temperate rain forest, with as many as 220 days of rain per year and over 50 inches of rainfall. Most residents wear rubber boots all the time, favoring the brown, steel-toed boots popular with fishermen and those who work outdoors. It rains so much in Juneau that I was taken aback the first time I
saw a fur coat there. The young woman wearing a vintage mink had of-- course — just arrived in town that day. Rain gear is de rigueur in Southeast Alaska. I was elated when Gore-Tex was invented. When I think of my time in Juneau, the weather comes first to mind because I was so often in it. Initially, I had no car, and there was no mass transit where I needed to go, so I ended up walking—a lot.
When I arrived, the city had a lively arts and theater scene, a few good restaurants, and lots of bars to cater to the town’s population of blue-collar workers, fishermen, and government bureaucrats. From a distance, the downtown, with its handful of multi-storied concrete and glass office buildings, seems to have the skyline of a large city. Most residents, though, live about ten miles “out the road,” accessible via the town’s only highway.
The Mendenhall Valley is named for the Mendenhall Glacier, a popular attraction and hiking
area for locals and tourists alike. Suburban neighborhoods are located along a wide swath of flat terrain created as the glacier retreated to its current location. The rest of the road services the airport, a shopping mall, and a number of beachfront neighborhoods before coming to an abrupt end about forty miles north of Downtown Juneau.
You’d be surprised how far forty miles can feel when you’ve got nowhere else to drive.
If my late teens were all about playing in nature, then moving to Juneau put those ideals to the test. For much of the four years I lived off and on there, I did so without running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing.
But my move to Juneau happened to place me in the center of a whirlwind of political and social change that would impact the entire state of Alaska for decades to come.
The first order of business when I arrived was to find a place to live. When the Alaska Legislature starts in January, hundreds of people swoop into Juneau, including elected officials and their staffs. Along with this influx come dozens of recent college graduates, lobbyists, and former political volunteers hoping to get jobs.
The annual flood of new people strains Juneau’s chronic housing shortage, causing government workers to bunk in apartments and houses like frat brothers. They might seek housing anywhere from cabins to cheap hotels to fishing boats docked in the downtown boat
In the 1970s, jobseekers longed for the short- or long-term posts with a state employment system known as “the gravy train.” This came from the state’s then-generous benefits and high pay, attributed to the difficulty in attracting employees when most chose the high-paying jobs linked with construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
When I first arrived, I stayed with friends in an apartment in the town of Douglas, on Douglas Island across Gastineau Channel from Juneau. Then I learned of a small cabin in the woods I could have if I fixed it up.
The cabin was a small A-frame originally built to be a sauna. It was about the size of your average walk-in closet, with a loft just big enough to sleep in. It came with no windows, no heat source, no running water. So I did what people who live like the Amish (but are not Amish)
do: I organized a work party. About a dozen friends and I descended
on my new abode and had ourselves the modern-day equivalent of an
Luckily, some of those who showed up were carpenters. We stapled heavy sheets of clear plastic over the window openings, installed a tin wood-burning stove, built a ladder to the loft, and made the place livable. Sort of. It was cute. The only downside was I had to live there alone and had to travel a narrow, slippery-when-wet boardwalk through dense scrub brush and evergreens from the road to the front door. At night, it was pitch dark. Without streetlights or nearby houses, I had to guide myself using a flashlight. Every time I went home, I feared running into a moose or, worse, a bear. Or any number of other creatures and ghosts and everything my nineteen-year-old mind could conjure. I often ended up bunking on other people’s couches.
Once the Legislature went into session in early January, I participated in what was then the tradition of lining up along the second-floor hallway connecting the chambers of the State House at one end and the State Senate at the other. Longtime legislative members and staff recall the spectacle of people lining the halls and passing out their resumes. I’ve always loved a party, so I did what I always do in such settings: I walked and talked and met a lot of people
and made a lot of friends. I had no idea what I was up against, but I quickly figured out I
needed to look more professional in order to compete with all those. I went out and bought a new pair of dress shoes.
This was a big deal, as I didn’t have much money. I spent some of my last funds on those darn shoes, which I proudly showed off to all my new friends. They were all outraged when I got the news: all the legislative pages had been already hired. I was not one of them. Then I learned that those hired to be pages had never even appeared in the halls. They were the relatives of political party volunteers, party regulars, and the like, all college age, all great kids, all deserving, no doubt, and all decided upon weeks or months before.
I hadn’t had a chance. Fortunately, I had friends. Many of those I met in the hall that
first week of the legislative session got jobs with various representatives and committees. At some point that week, I also made friends with the representatives from Fairbanks. It was that group that sent a sternly worded letter to the House Rules chairman demanding I get hired. He
also got an earful from others I had befriended. I was standing in the hall when the slightly embattled-looking chairman came out of his office and, with a slight grin, handed me a document declaring I was hired.
Normally, there are six House pages. I became the seventh.