I walked around the chain-link fence of Pump Station 12 of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, apprehensive about the human encounter to come.
It was time to send a weekly column. I needed a Wi-Fi signal or a cellular bar or two. I had walked more than a week through air devoid of communications waves.
With Cora on a leash and me having not spoken to anyone all day, I reached the gate of the pump station. No one was there. No guard at the shack behind the fence. The green buildings, which looked like an occupation base on Mars in their best days, bled with rusty stains. The place had a post-apocalyptic feel.
There was a phone inside a box near the fence. I picked it up. Before it rang twice, a security guard named Jeff answered.
Jeff was sitting at a desk in Anchorage. He did not laugh when I asked about Wi-Fi, but he might have smiled.
“You’re in the Big Lonely,” he said. “There’s not much around Pump 12.”
The decommissioned pump station was quiet, its turbine engines no longer needed to push a smaller volume of crude oil down to the Valdez terminal. There were two heavy-equipment operators inside the compound moving snow with loaders, but there seemed to be no one in the buildings.
The stunning mountain-and-waterfall country between Valdez and Glennallen was a lively place 20 years ago. The last time I walked this path, I met people and stopped to chat every day. This time, there have been days I have not talked with anyone but Cora.
Is that a product of timing, with me starting my hike before summer visitors arrive? Or have people moved out?
Since 1997, Alaska’s population has increased, from about 613,000 then to 737,000 today. But most of those people have moved into Alaska’s cities. In the Valdez-Cordova Census Area through which I walked, there were less people in 2013 than in 2000, according to researchers with the state of Alaska.
“It’s the bleeding of the Bush,” said my friend Doug Vollman, whom I sought out near Copper Center. Vollman and his daughter Taylor hosted me and Cora for an enjoyable day and night on his farm. It’s a hay-scented place of open fields and darting swallows, with a resident great gray owl.
Vollman, with whom I golfed on his homemade muskeg course 20 years ago, thinks the lack of jobs in the area have led to people moving out. His wife Marnie is in Jackson, Mississippi, for a two-month training program with her employer, the Bureau of Land Management. He grows vegetables for area farmer’s markets and drives a travel van from Glennallen to McCarthy.
From Vollman’s house, I hiked one day to the aspen hilltop home of Mike and Lanette Phillips. The Phillips, whom I also met 20 years ago and wrote about in my book “Walking my Dog, Jane,” said a good barometer of population change was the health of local schools.
Lanette, who worked in the homeschool program with Copper River School District for 18 years, used her fingers to count area schools that had closed in the last two decades due to enrollment dropping to fewer than 25 students: Chistochina, Copper Center, Gakona, Paxson and the Lottie Sparks School in Nelchina. Only schools in Glennallen and Slana remain open.
So maybe the quietness of this stretch is the real deal. In a world of 7.5 billion people, expected to increase to more than 11 billion by the end of the century, a place going the other way seems significant.
But my solitary stretch seems to have ended, with visits to friends met by chance 20 years ago and a few spontaneous meetings. Thanks to LJ and Logan for the coffee at 46-Mile, bear hunters Josh and Fred for another mug at a highway crossing, my friend Elizabeth Schafer for feeding me lunch on her way to McCarthy from Anchorage. And whomever left me the bag of snacks near the Tonsina River.
And, of course, Doug and Taylor Vollman, along with Mike and Lanette Phillips.
These guys haven’t seen me in 20 years, but they pulled me in like a lost brother. They have fed me, let me shower and wash clothes. With a few phone calls, Mike even enabled my crossing of the Tazlina River, finding a loaner packraft on deadline (thanks to John Rigo).
Staying with these friends the past few days, I’ve appreciated what they like about the Big Lonely: It’s full of good neighbors you don’t see all the time, but always show up when you need them.