Offer an Article
by Ellen Frankenstein (August 1997)

"Shoulda worn my rain pants," I think, chilled by my wet jeans, as I empty a couple of bags of whole wheat flour and brown rice from my pack. It's not far to the health food store. Not far to anything here in fact.

On the Rock
There are 15 miles of paved roads, one stop light, and no shopping malls in Sitka, a town on the west side of Baranof island in the panhandle of Southeast Alaska. Sitka is is home to 8500 people, who fish, log, teach, work for the government, run shops, and otherwise take care of everyone else who lives here, as well as those who come to "the rock" on a cruise ship or small plane to see the sights and catch fish. The town is accessible only by boat or plane.

Looking out the window, over Sitka Sound, I see gray murk. On a clearer day I'd see a dormant volcano called Mount Edgecumbe. Closer by, on land, there is an eagle or two on a tree, and a raven picking at a chunk of food by a puddle. And of course the red flag and arches of McDonalds, and the busses for the tourists and schoolkids, parked across the street, in front of the only funeral home in town.

It rains so much, rubber boots here are called "Sitka sneakers." Mold and rust are rampant, but the mountains, where they haven't been clear-cut, are thick with cedar, hemlock, and spruce. Out on the water, it is common to see humpback whales, sea lions, and otters. Some days being here is like living in a postcard.

My two-wheeler is a used 18-speed Welfa, a brand that probably no one has ever heard of except the company that manufactured it. The bike came from a store in Beverly Hills. On one of my visits to LA, after running some heavy errands in a rental car, I bought a used bike. After all, when you're visiting in LA, what are you going to do? You don't want to impose on folks in that car-dependent sprawl to drive you around, and you can't get where you need to in a reasonable time on public transportation. When it was time to leave, I put the bike on top of a friend's VW bus to Seattle and barged it from there to Sikta, to let it have a chance to rust.

Rockin' and Rollin'

I lived in LA a while too, on and off for 8 or 9 years. I went there to study filmmaking, and thought I could avoid owning a car. After some weeks I broke down and bought a mustard-colored Toyota, came home, and cried. My roommate at the time, born and raised in Southern California, could not figure out why I was so sad. I had never yet spent so much on one thing ($1800 -$2000 if I can remember right), and I felt so empty. Then I suggested we car pool to the university, and she responded with a look that suggested I should seek psychiatric help. I never brought it up again. I guess I threatened her autonomy.

So I started to commute. I joined the army on the freeways, one hand gripping the steering wheel, the other holding a cup of coffee or jabbing the scan button on the car radio. I spent hours enclosed in my box on wheels, learned the freeways well, and took part in one of the favorite topics of conversation in LA: shortcuts. Towards the end of my "time" in the city of angels I started biking around more and more. I felt a rush riding to a movie theater or a photo supply shop on my bike, going down back streets I'd never noticed when I drove, catching bits of conversation as I passed, noticing gardens and architecture. Making the journey part of the destination.

Life was better. Living in LA was more palatable. Still, an opportunity came up to take a multi-month contract in Alaska, using drug and alcohol prevention funding to create a community video program (our motto: "A healthy community looks at itself"), and I decided to do it. I packed up and drove a family-hand-me-down station wagon 23 hours to catch the ferry outside of Seattle, and drove off the ferry a few days later, to experiment in lifestyles. I moved onto a docked sailboat, for $50 month, with no running water and little heat. My office was at most two miles away.

Rock Solid
The contract ended several years ago. I'm still here. One of my current projects is producing two bike safety videos for kids. The goal is to give the topic an Alaskan touch. Meanwhile, I'm discovering how few people actually wear helmets, and I flinch every time I see a kid dart across the street without looking. An archivist at the University of Fairbanks says she has a photograph from the turn of the century of a man standing by his bike, with a bear next to him. Maybe I'll put it in the video.

The station wagon sits parked a lot,even though my partner and I share it. We use it to move fishing, carpentry, and video gear, and on really bad days when we just don't feel like facing the elements on a bike, we drive. It often needs bailing, like a boat, and green things grow on the carpet on warmer days. It was once "borrowed" by some kids, called "joy riding" on the island, where stealing a car requires putting it on a ferry or barge. They high-centered it and added a crack to the windshield that grows sporadically. I know people in LA who feel embarrassed by the look of their car, but for the most part, it doesn't matter here.

I don't miss the time I spent in cars. I'll admit, sometimes I have a nostalgic moment about the thinking and daydreaming I got done on long drives, anonymous in my metal box as I am not here. But that's it.

For now, I work out of home and hop on my bike to go to the post office, the public library, meetings, or the copy shop, or to get to a trail head. I pass other bikers too. What's left of the mom-and-pop fishing fleet gets around town on bikes. Other locals commute to their stores and jobs as well, prepared for darker days and weather with fenders, reflectors, lights, rubber boots, and rain gear.

On the 4th of July, after watching a parade, my partner and I hopped on our bikes (I had borrowed a 21 speed Univega, something of a sports car compared to the sad-looking Welfa), and we cycled 6 or 7 miles down the road. There, we took a break to skinny dip in the ocean (something that we don't do often here, but it was over 70 degrees and wasn't raining), picked a couple of quarts of blueberries and salmonberries, and cycled back to a potluck with our contribution. The combination of the crowd of people in town for the festivities, and the solitude of our swim and berry-picking, connected by our bike ride, seems pretty ideal to me.

There's always room for improvement, though. There are not enough bike paths, not enough bike racks by stores and public places, and bike lanes tend to end suddenly. Occasionally drivers pass and gun the gas to let you know you've slowed them down (where were they going?), dogs lurch out of the back of a pick-up truck and bark violently as they go by, and in winter time the snow fills the side of the road and there isn't much room to ride.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Also, there is a contradiction here. We live simply, and put a couple hundred miles on the car a year max--but to leave this island and see friends, family, work on projects, I hop on planes, and burn up all my good biking karma in an 800 mile run to Seattle. Though we consume local resources and live off the land as much as possible, gathering berries, fishing for salmon, halibut, and rockfish, and hunting deer, some of the food we eat comes in by barge and plane, traveling hundreds and thousands of miles, so that we can eat apples from New Zealand and organic foods from Oregon, Washington, and California. Choices. Tradeoffs. How do you balance them? I don't know, but I gotta go change my jeans, they're still soggy.

Ellen Frankenstein