CUTLINE: PAUL A. SOUDERS: TOM BODETT'S RADIO SHOW OF MUSIC AND STORYTELLING HELPED PUT HOMER ON THE MAP.
CUTLINE: KEN GRAHAM: FISHERMAN BACK UP HOMER'S CLAIM TO BE ``THE HALIBUT CAPITAL OF THE WORLD.''
HOMER, Alaska - Places at the end of the road are not like towns along the way. You focus on what's there at hand, not what's ahead on down the road.
Homer tucked at the end of the North American road system, is such a place, a sort of Key West in a parka. It's about ``as far as you can go without a passport,'' in the words of author Tom Bodett, who makes his home there.
Just as Alaska is America's great escape to wildness, the safety valve on the national pressure cooker, so Homer is where you escape urban Alaska, a refuge within a refuge. It lies at the terminus of Highway 1, 225 miles south of Anchorage, the state's biggest city with a population of about 250,000. From Anchorage, it's a five-hour drive to Homer on the Sterling Highway. There is no other road.
The highway edges around Turnagain Arm, then plumbs the heart of the Kenai Mountains, climbing two passes before it exits into rolling open country stippled with black spruce. Long views extend across Cook Inlet to the west. Just before Homer, you can pull over on the crest of a high bluff. No matter how many times you have come this way, it is almost impossible not to stop.
Walking to the lip of the bluff, reaches of land and water stretch in every direction. The smells of fireweed and willow drift up on the wind. Five snowy volcanoes ride high above the slate and silver waves of Cook Inlet, all members in good standing of the Pacific Rim of Fire.
To the east is the curving backbone of the Kenai Peninsula, culminating in a slew of hatchet peaks, ridges and luminous blue glaciers grinding down from basins of snow. Looking south where the Gulf of Alaska invades the inlet sit the headlands, islands and snowy crests that form the intricate coastline of Kachemak Bay.
In the middle of this vast expanse, nearly overwhelmed by water, is the precarious Homer Spit. Site of the original settlement, the Spit is an improbable punctuation of rock and sand flung 4 1/2 miles out into the sea, like a long geological cowlick. The road swings through the main part of town - on a bench of land hugging the northern side of the bay - then runs the length of the Spit, halting at the very tip in front of a hotel aptly named Land's End.
That's it. The end of the road.
Looking over Homer from the bluff, you get the cosmic view. Up close, you still get the cosmic view. That's Homer in a nutshell, a place populated by homesteaders, cannery workers, fishermen, fundamentalists, hippies, painters, poets, ranchers, kayakers, spiritualists and philosophers on the left and right.
Homer is the northernmost outpost of that mythic country called Ecotopia, the imaginary land of environmental consciousness. Outside magazine included Homer in a list of the nation's hippest ZIP codes. Windham Hill records are big sellers. The local bulletin boards advertise classes in jitterbugging, quilting and rebirthing. There's a natural foods store (now imperiled by a 24-hour supermarket) and the Sourdough Express Bakery, with some of the best blueberry muffins this side of Alpha Centauri.
Dance classes and poetry readings take place at the Art Barn. Numerous galleries show the work of local painters. Homer has a theater company and an improvisation troupe. A campaign to declare the town a nuclear-free zone has been launched. The best-read letters in the weekly Homer News are written by one enlightened correspondent who starts off, ``Dear Editor and Beautiful Citizens in this Cosmic Hamlet by the Sea . . .''
Homer has undergone some big changes in the past decade. The population has doubled, to about 4,000. Homer serves as the commercial center for the lower Kenai Peninsula.
McDonald's has arrived, and not just with a franchise: Last January the company shot a goofy commercial in town, which aired during the Super Bowl. Pioneer Avenue, the main street, has sidewalks now. There still are no traffic lights, though, and the whole place is still so small that one rotting whale washed up on the stony shore of Bishop's Beach could wipe out the tourist season.
On a gloomy day, an outsider might find a drive through town depressing. The setting is priceless, but the jewel, if not outright paste, is hardly precious. Homer's architecture, for instance, is a procession of shed-like buildings. When it rains, as it often does for days on end in the fall, there is little to contemplate besides suicide.
But part of life in Alaska is learning to attend the beauty and ignore the blemishes. Good weather does wonders for Homer's karma. And anyway, the real Homer isn't found in the structures along Pioneer Avenue. It's in the invisible web of friendships, in the firmly woven sense of community. In the winter, which can stretch into April, everyone is in the same boat. If you drive into a ditch, chances are someone will help you out. Even in the short summer when the town is flooded with tourists - cruise ships sometimes unload them by the hundreds - it's hard not to greet people on the street.
Tourism has become big business and has made Homer a little self-conscious, like a pretty girl suddenly aware of her charm. The Spit remains the principal attraction. Though in places it is barely wide enough for the two-lane highway, hundreds of motor homes stream onto it in the summer. Cannery workers and tourists set up tents on its wind-whipped beaches.
It was on the Spit that Homer was
established by the eponymous Homer Pennock, a Midwesterner who landed with a party of some 50 miners in the schooner Excelsior in 1898. Coal was mined in and around the Kachemak Bay area, but Pennock's crew had gold fever. The gold didn't materialize, but the settlement was established.
As the coal industry faded, the fishing industry sprang up. The center of town was relocated on the bench lands at the base of the Spit where it was easier to get water. In the '20s and '30s, homesteaders began to trickle into the area, traveling along the stony beaches. There was no road. Eventually a dock was built, and when the locals realized they needed taxes to maintain it, they established a local government.
Today the enlarged boat harbor at the end of the spit is thronged with salmon seiners and gill-netters. Commercial salmon fishing is Homer's economic mainstay. The halibut-fishing charter industry has expanded from around 14 outfits a decade ago to more than 75 now, and Homer advertises itself as the Halibut Capital of the World.
Wandering around the boat harbor and beachcombing on the Spit are venerable pastimes. The harbor is a cheerful confabulation of vessels and gear, where the air smells of fish and brine and constantly rings with the cry of gulls.
One sunny day last August, I went for a walk at the base of the Spit. The low tide had pulled the water back. A trail of steam blew south from Mount Augustine, floating more than 50 miles away over the water. Other folks were digging clams, and two riders galloped past on horseback. Flatfish had left impressions in the dark gray sand. If you tilted your ear to the intertidal rocks, you could hear the crackle of barnacles closing.
After a day of tromping about on the Spit, I hunted up Tom Bodett. He was taping his ``End of the Road'' radio show in the Homer High School theater, a program that helped spawn his book of the same name.
The show was broadcast on more than 150 stations from September 1988 until this past February and was the biggest thing to happen to Homer since the '64 Good Friday earthquake dropped the Spit six feet. Bodett got his start writing persiflage about rural life for the local public radio station KBBI; he's better known to radio audiences around the nation as the pitchman for Motel 6.
The show's format mixed storytelling, music and some lighter-than-air conversation with a guest. Bodett sat behind a lectern. Dressed in his suspenders, he looked very much like a lawyer - like his character Quentin, in fact, whom he lampooned as Homer's ``resident yuppie investment banker looking for an alternative lifestyle.''
``He learned everything at Harvard except how to get along with real people.'' The crowd cheered.
Come summer on the Kenai Peninsula, sport fishing is next to churchgoing and beer-drinking in popularity. There are a number of streams in the area famous for salmon and steelhead along with halibut.
At the shack of one charter-fishing outfit, the window was plastered with Polaroids of people next to the giant white-bellied fish they'd caught. One weighed 372 pounds; some of the fishermen looked pretty heavy, too.
Last year's Exxon Valdez oil spill on Prince William Sound heavily oiled the beautiful fjords and cliffs of the peninsula's outer coast, and the Barren Islands at the south of Cook Inlet, home to some 650,000 birds. Oil had washed up on regional beaches and curtailed the fishing season.
For me, it was weather that curtailed a planned halibut-fishing trip. So instead, I got a ticket on the Danny J and took a trip across the bay to Halibut Cove. Despite the name, it was a booming herring industry that flourished in Halibut Cove, starting in 1911. Upward of 1,000 people were employed, but eventually the stocks were wiped out by overfishing and pollution, caused by the salteries, who cut their own throats by dumping offal in the water.
Today, Halibut Cove is not a town really but a collection of art galleries and private homes linked not by roads but by rambling boardwalks in a secluded cove of green water. You can tour the galleries, and the Saltery Restaurant is easily the best place to eat for a hundred miles.
The ride on the Danny J to Halibut Cove included a tour of the bird rookeries on Gull Island. We saw black-legged kittiwakes, sooty shearwaters, common murres, tufted puffins and red-faced cormorants. A bald eagle sat regally on a hemlock limb.
On my way out of Homer a week later, I stopped to read the bulletin board at the natural foods store. It was early, and the place was locked. A red pickup truck pulled in, and a dark-haired, grungily dressed guy in his late 20s got out.
``Is Ray around?''
I didn't know.
``I'm supposed to meet Ray here,'' he said. ``Got 50 pounds of macadamia nuts!'' He was very excited about the nuts. ``We hauled in 300 silvers yesterday! We're all set.''
He was planning to sell the nuts and smoke the fish. His last $2 had gone for gas, but soon he would
have $500 in his pocket. Some pilot friend of his crashed their plane, but a new Super-cub was on the way. Everything was shaping up beautifully.
``Can I borrow 10 cents for coffee?''
It was disappointing to be panhandled in Homer. But seeing my reaction, he said, ``I'll give you something.'' And from the cab of his truck he fetched a gigantic hunk of quartz crystals. It would go for $20 in one of Manhattan's New Age gimcrack shops.
I emptied my pockets of change, a shameful 18 cents. ``All right, coffee!'' he cried.
I was taken aback by the generosity of his gesture, his enthusiasm, his trust that everything was going to work out, crashed planes, locked doors and all. He seemed like one of those blithe spirits that are the essence of Homer. As he drove away, I was sorry I hadn't given him more money, but if there were a 10-cent cup of coffee in town, he would find it.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE: From Anchorage, Homer is 225 miles south via the Sterling Highway. There are also daily shuttle flights to Homer and bus service on the Alaska Intercity line.
INFORMATION: Homer Chamber of Commerce: 1-907-235-5300.
Chip Brown, a New York City writer, was managing editor of the Homer News in the 1970s. He has also worked for The Washington Post.