GUSTAVUS, Alaska – A note in a pottery shop in Gustavus, Alaska says a lot about the kind of town it is.
“Fill out receipt for what you want. Attach cash or check to receipt and drop in box.”
Alaska-themed pottery lines shelves on three walls of the shop, which is less a building than a glorified lean-to. There is no fourth wall. No clerk, no wall, no locks. They aren’t necessary.
A metalsmith’s shop up the road also operates on the honor system. Beautiful copper kitchenware, some of it expensive, is displayed for customers to admire and, if they choose, to purchase by leaving the money. No security needed. The shop runs on trust.
My wife and I spent a week in Gustavus this summer at the home of a longtime friend of hers, a native of Alaska who has spent most of her life there. Gustavus, population 400, is five miles from Glacier Bay National Park and a world away from the lower 48. Everybody knows everybody – literally. All 400 of them, no exceptions, wave when they pass each other in their vehicles. They stop and talk on the streets, help one another in times of need, trust one another in ways outsiders find both quaint and enviable.
Note on the post office bulletin board: “Yellow and blue stepladder stolen. Need it back as soon as possible.”
Next to it was a high school graduation announcement.
“Why would someone put a high school graduation announcement on a post office wall?” I asked.
“Because everybody in town knows her,” Aimee, my wife’s friend, replied, looking at me as if I had three heads. “They’d want to know she’s graduating.”
A stack of pamphlets on a nearby counter provided details of Gustavus’s centennial celebration. The whole town was invited to participate in activities from log rolling and gold panning to watermelon seed spitting and an “Alaska Extreme Chainsaw Toss.”
For those who needed it, transportation was available.
On a hay wagon.
Notably absent from the festivities was anything resembling law enforcement. The biggest threat in Gustavus isn’t human malfeasance. It’s moose.
“They raid people’s gardens and occasionally attack people,” Aimee said. “A pack of dogs killed a mama moose’s baby a while back. She went after every dog in town.”
We were warned to run to the nearest large tree and hide behind it in the event a moose attacked, not an uncommon occurrence there. But when several days had passed without a sighting of the moose that were said to be just about everywhere, we were disappointed at not seeing any. Then my wife’s cell phone rang.
“If you want to see a moose, get over here right now,” a neighbor we’d met the day before said. “It’s eating my only sunflower.”
Gustavus used to have a safety officer, but things didn’t work out.
“He quit after getting between a feuding husband with a shotgun and a wife with a pistol,” Aimee’s friend Vince told us. “He was unarmed and decided to seek less exciting employment elsewhere.”
Many of those who drive and wave on Gustavus’s roads don’t have driver’s licenses. Some have Alaska license plates on their vehicles, but others have plates from wherever they came from, or no plates at all.
“Why should we have them?” Vince asked. “There’s no law here.”
He was serious. The closest cops are state troopers in Juneau, 50 miles away by boat or plane. (There are no roads.) In the event of a crime serious enough to warrant the troopers’ attention, they’re likely to call the Park Service, which dispatches a ranger. The last really serious crime anyone we met could remember was a shooting a dozen years ago.
“There was a fight, and the loser shot the winner,” Aimee said. “There were no witnesses so he wasn’t charged.”
The first time we left her house, we reminded her to lock her doors.
“Why?” she asked. “Nothing ever happens here.”
“But our laptop is in plain sight on the table by your kitchen door.”
“And I’ve got money sitting in plain sight on my stairs. Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”
And it was. The only time people lock their doors in Gustavus is when they leave for days or weeks at a time. They leave their cars unlocked with the keys in the ignitions. The most common crime is gas siphoning. Between their cars, trucks, boats, heavy equipment and other vehicles, Alaskans use a lot of fuel. And gas, like most everything else in Alaska, is pricey.
Gas: $5 a gallon. A three-pound can of coffee: $16. A pint of ice cream: $7.50. A salmon dinner for four, with a bottle of wine that would cost $13 in a Boise Winco: $312.
Prices are high because of the isolation. Everything has to be shipped or flown in. But other expenses we take for granted in the lower 48 don’t exist in Gustavus. There are no property taxes, no income or state sales taxes. And Alaskans receive annual checks, between $900 and $1,500 in recent years, for their share of the state’s oil wealth.
The slogan on Alaskans’ license plates (those who have them) is “The Last Frontier.” In some ways, it’s accurate.
“I was selling Girl Scout cookies the day we became a state,” Aimee told us. “Everyone was excited, but now we have all these federal regulations. Alaskans don’t like to be told what they can do. People come here to get away from that. We didn’t realize that statehood was the beginning of the end of our way of life.”