Saturday, April 18, 2015

Thrifty Acres: Only In Alaska

Hello! I'm not sure why, but I have a fascination with reading of people who settle in isolated areas. I don't really have a desire to do without central heat, indoor plumbing and other modern conveniences, but I like reading about those who willingly - and seemingly cheerfully - live far away from the rat race. By now, I've enjoyed learning about the lives of adventurers who experienced very different lifestyles after moving to Alaska(Four Seasons North), Maine (We Took To The Woods)or west-central British Columbia (Ruffles On My Longjohns). 

I picked up another "we got away from it all" book recently at a thrift store:

Only In Alaska, written by Tay Thomas and published in 1969. Thomas' book recounts her family's adventures after moving to Alaska in 1960 - shortly after it had become our 49th state. The impetus for the relocation was their desire to escape what had become an increasingly hectic and congested lifestyle in New Jersey.

There's a couple of big differences in this book and the three I listed above, though. For one thing, the Thomases didn't settle in an isolated area; they moved to Anchorage. Their lifestyle there didn't sound much different in many ways from that of those living in similar-sized towns in the lower 48. Indeed, the first chapter is entitled "But I Don't Live in an Igloo".
Another big difference is that Tay's husband, Lowell Jr., was an accomplished pilot and had his own plane. They also owned a sturdy vehicle. The folks in the other books had no planes of their own and were limited in other forms of transportation as well.

Consequently, much of Only In Alaska reads like a travelogue, as the Thomases and their two children journey all over the state. Flying to visit a friend's cabin on Mt. McKinley, camping trips, and excursions to remote communities were just some of the adventures Tay Thomas describes. 

Her father-in-law, Lowell Thomas Sr., was a well-known traveler, writer and broadcaster. His son Lowell Jr. seems to be much like his father: he, too, is an avid explorer, and also worked as a producer in film and television. Flying his single-engine plane was a huge passion as well. One chapter, "Lowell and His Flying Machine", details some of his many flights - whether ferrying party guests to a gathering at that Mt. McKinley cabin, landing on other mountains to climb them(a "glacier pilot", she calls him), or taking the family to native villages in the far north - there didn't seem to be any place he wouldn't fly.

Naturally sometimes a flight became more challenging due to poor weather conditions. During one flight back from a big celebration of the Episcopalian church's presence in the northern village of Point Hope, very poor visibility prevailed. The author only agreed to that return trip because a pilot she considered even more skilled than her husband suggested they could follow his plane's taillights for their navigation. That pilot happened to be an Episcopalian priest who had had to learn to fly in the late 1940's in order to visit his flock around Alaska.

Tay Thomas readily admits that she was nervous throughout most of the flight, until they reached a point where the weather cleared. She was actually no slouch herself, however - her father was an executive with Pan Am, and he counted Charles Lindbergh as a close friend. So no doubt her formative years were full of interesting experiences, which prepared her for marriage to Lowell Thomas Jr. 

She was an excellent writer as well - at the time of Only In Alaska's publication, she had written two other books and went on to write more - including one about that priestly pilot! 

As I reached the last chapter of the book, "Earthquake!", I realized I had read a portion of it before, in an old National Geographic  passed down from my late grandfather. Even as a kid of around 10 or so, I was struck by the vivid first-person account of the earthquake that hit Anchorage in March of 1964. The article had been written by Tay Thomas. 

According to her book, most of the "Earthquake" chapter had originally appeared in the July 1964 issue of National Geographic - the one I'd remembered reading as a kid. Her narrative was as riveting as I'd remembered from the magazine. The homes of the Thomases and many of their neighbors were destroyed, and two neighbor children were killed.

But this is really the only chapter in her book that describes great loss; overall this was a very entertaining read! Vivid descriptions of dramatic scenery, travel adventures via car or plane, drama, humor - this book kept my interest on every page. 

Thanks to the Internet, I can read up on authors to learn what they'd done since their book was published. As I'd already mentioned, I discovered that Tay Thomas had written more books and had been active in several organizations in Anchorage. She became the "2nd Lady" of Alaska when her husband became Lieutenant Governor in the mid 1970's. She died just last year at the age of 87. 

Lowell is still alive and is in his early 90's. Not surprisingly, after his foray into politics, he owned and operated Talkeetna Air Taxi, a bush flying service, in the 1980's. 

Remarkable people - no wonder Only In Alaska was such an enjoyable read!


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