Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Living a James Bond Movie

As promised, a blog about Whittier, Alaska. Motto: "Unique, even in Alaska!" And that's saying a lot.

The Lonely Planet book promised us that no matter where we went in the world, we'd never find another place like Whittier. I thought, yeah right. But now I'm a believer.

Whittier was built by the military in WWII as an alternate ice-free port to Seward, which was the northernmost at the time and not as defensible as the military would like. So they carved out a spot in between these huge mountains where it was cloudy most of the time so the place couldn't be spotted. PS Did you know that the Japanese actually occupied several of the Aleutian Islands during WWII and that there were huge battles there? Yeah, me neither. So this base was not some silly military paranoia.

Anyway, the flat area was practically nil, plus it was freezing-ass cold in the winter (duh) so the military built one huge building with everything in it: barracks, hospital, even a shooting gallery. For a while, it was the biggest building in Alaska. Eventually, they built another huge building as housing for spouses and families. The military peaced out in the late '60s, I think, which left the town in its current state. And what is that you ask?

Let's take a little tour of Whittier as it is now. To get to the town from the ferry building, you follow this pleasant sign:
Ah! A pedestrian tunnel! How thoughtful! How very urbane and sophisticated!

And then you enter the tunnel:

The camera makes the light seem much warmer and friendlier than it actually was. It was a cold gray tube that was impossible to see the end of, as it had a turn at the end, and that made me feel more claustrophobic and trapped than much else I've done. The first time in, it felt endless and maze-like, exactly like we were Cold War spies or refugees. But at last, the tunnel did end and we emerged into the sunlight (AKA not raining. Not raining= a beautiful day in much of Alaska).

Remember the first building the government built? So now it's abandoned and as creepy looking as you can imagine. There are stalactites on the calcium leached out of the concrete hanging visible through the empty windows and the concrete has molded and mildewed until it has turned some interesting shades. Why not get rid of this eyesore? Well, for one thing it's full of asbestos and for another, the guy who owns it lives in Anchorage and basically doesn't give a shit. So this hunk of poisonous concrete just sits there, visible from anywhere in town, and serves no purpose, except maybe as an excellent place for the poor children of Whittier to get some truly life-threatening thrills at midnight.

Because really, who wouldn't want to just hop on into a building like this:

Let's continue on our tour.

Now that the big building is out of commission, everyone lives in the OTHER building the government built, called Begich Towers. Yes, pretty much everyone in town (all 88) lives in the 14 story high rise. Oh, a high rise? Sounds very urbane and sophisticated! Well, remember that this was built by the military. In the 1960s. The outside doesn't look bad at all (lots of windows, you can see it in the background of the tunnel sign picture), but the hallways inside are exactly like living in a dorm built in the 1960s (which Peter and I did for two years each. We know.).
This could be home! On the first floor is a post office (with a very friendly post mistress), city offices, a laundry, a church. a general store, a clothing store and probably several other things. And the hallway looks exactly like this. Only the doors lead to stores and offices, not apartments. Odd, but handy for the 251 inches of snow they get, on average.

OK, all of this is slightly odd, probably quite unique, but not enough to qualify as a James Bond town. No, for that we need to head back toward the giant abandoned building. Imagine you are walking along a street (in the middle, actually; it's not that busy), with warehouse-y buildings on either side, when all of a sudden, you see this:

Men in head to toe white plastic suits, with only a hole for their face. They look a little like giant oompa-loompas (but not orange). Nuclear testing facility for an evil laser? Or fish packing plant? You decide. Ultimately, the henchmen sealed the deal for Whittier. Oh, and plus the only way to get in or out of Whittier (aside from the ferry or stowing away on a boat) is through this hole in a giant mountain:

It's only as big as a train will fit through, though they've now opened it up to car traffic. It was the longest tunnel in America until the Big Dig (finally) finished, but it still gets to be the longest highway-rail tunnel (cuz who's the competition?). When we were on the ferry, one of the guys was under the impression that since it was a "shared" tunnel, the cars drove alongside the train. Ha! Nope, cars get to wait 20 minutes or more for the train to go through one way, then for traffic to come through the other way, and THEN you can go through your way (does it look big enough to fit two lanes? Hells no.). When we were first walking toward it (our best hike began right next to the tunnel) I totally thought this was the little hut where you had to pay your toll or whatever. Check out this picture from Wikipedia and tell me it does not look like a toll hut:

Yeah, but no. That IS the tunnel. It was very exciting to go through on the train. Very dark. We talked to a guy about his new iPhone the whole time. Astonishingly, it didn't work in the tunnel under the mountain. Truly astonishingly, it DID work in Whittier. But poor Alaskans can't get iPhones because AT&T doesn't have a network up there, just partner carriers. They get mad if you use the partners every single day of the year and cancel your contract. So no iPhones for poor Alaskans, and they already suffer so much.

OK, I've blabbered on for WAY too long (kudos if you are still with us!), but I have to say they very best thing about Whittier is its stunning scenery. The hike from the tunnel led us to our own personal overlook of Portage Glacier, there were more waterfalls than I could count (literally), and the mountains rose out of the water in such a stunning way. Here is the view of Whittier from the top of our hike:

Whittier, Alaska

Thanks for reading!

Yay for honeymoons! And glaciers!

1 comment:

PapaMan said...

Geez, Shan, I only wish I'd known about Whittier much earlier. Imagine how much more interesting your college entrance essay would have read had you lived THERE in your childhood...