Somewhere between Anchorage and Kenai there’s a sign pointing off to the right if you’re driving north that simply says “Hope”. Most people would turn this into a tawdry metaphor or something but I refuse to. The sign isn’t always there, and I think that’s because the locals (all 88 of them) cut it down occasionally in an attempt to hide paradise from tourists. I can only hope that I’m not doing them a disservice by typing this.
Anyway, Hope Alaska is the best place on earth. I feel so strongly about this sentiment that I honestly label it as an objective one. The road to Hope twists and turns along the coast as if it’s following music. The trees hide the sun at times and frame it at others which dapples the faded dotted line with a light that would be more at home in a fairytale. If the road to Oz was punctuated by potholes and paved with shitty asphalt instead of yellow brick, this would be that road.
There are three restaurants and two bars, one of which serves beer in Mason jars a stone’s throw from the ocean, and all the locals walk around with bemused looks on their faces and flannel on their chests. Once you make it perfectly clear that you’re an Alaskan instead of a Californian looking for a vacation property, they take you in to the fold like flour into dough. On the other hand, it’s easy to catch them giving the stink eye to outsiders and grumbling (most probably about that “damn sign”).
My favorite camping spot is somewhere along six-mile creek, which is a raging river by lower forty-eight standards. The seclusion is absolute; you can shoot across the water at the mountain side and cause mini-avalanches if you come during the right season. Later in the fall the red and dying salmon cover the river bottom like a pall. The thought that palm trees are necessary for paradise is a fallacy.
It’s been years since I was last lucky enough to visit Hope, but the last time I was there, I ate at Tito’s Diner and asked my waitress two questions after tipping her. As it turns out, yes, a guy named “Tito” really owned the place, and there was only one place in Hope to buy beer. The gas station/liquor store didn’t look like either when I found it. The lone pump was fed by an above ground tank and it had those old-school dials on it. Anything digital would be out of place. The “liquor store” was a little log cabin with a sign on the door that read “go knock on the blue trailer door if you want beer”. I did, so I found it and knocked. The woman that answered was at least ninety and barefoot. And I don’t mean that she simply wasn’t wearing shoes, but rather that “barefoot” is an adjective that probably describes her more times than not. I’m usually impatient, but her age had a calming quality to it. I suppose it’s the same way I would feel standing in the shade of a large oak tree that had seen the many follies of our kind. Anyway, I followed her and her alder staff to the log cabin and waited while she pulled a key from the front pocket of her faded nightgown. And I’m not taking any artistic license in my descriptions nor am I trying to make you think she was a wizard in disguise or something. She really was barefoot and old as hell in a night gown with a bad-ass walking staff.
We went inside, and as I was perusing her oddly eclectic assortment of beer, I looked over at her and said “I love Hope”. I don’t know why I said it, but I regretted it as soon as I did. She looked at me with a smile that was both understanding and somewhat condescending and said “so do I”. Her words were slow and full of portent and she spoke like a… well like a wizard in disguise. I felt like a dumbass. This woman truly loved Hope while my feelings towards the place were nothing more than infatuation in comparison. Hell, she was probably one of the people that named the city; maybe she named it after her cat or something. I grabbed some Guinness and put it on the counter and started looking around in embarrassment. One of the Miller mirrors on the wall actually had Ty Cobb on it and I remember thinking that the last thing that brought change to the room was the advent of refrigeration. I gave her thirty bucks even though my beer was only $9.50, told her to keep the change, and made a hasty retreat to cover my faux pas.
I thought about how weird it was to tip her, and how awesome it would be to own that mirror as I sat by six-mile later than night on a stump of drift wood. The beer was stale but as cold as the river could make it and I had my nickel plated shotgun on my knees. My wife was there and so was my daughter who was so young at the time that she still thinks I’m at least partially making up how perfect Hope is. Of my good nights, that was one of the greatest.
That was years ago, and now I’m legally considered to be a New Mexican rather than an Alaskan (even though I lie about it when talking to strangers). The ironic thing is that the next time I go back to Hope, I’ll be looking for a vacation property, and when the locals give me that look, I totally plan on telling them that I saw the sign, and couldn’t resist a visit to Hope.
That was written months ago and I recently went back to Hope to see if it was as awesome as I remember. I sat down at the local bar for a drink in a mason jar and asked the local bar tender how the old lady from the liquor store was; I knew the news would be dire by his expression. The old lady/wizard had been deemed incapable of living on her own and her family recently moved her out of Hope to an assisted living home in Florida against her will. Her twenty-something douche of a grandson was now running Hope’s only liquor store.
I drove back the way I remembered to see how bad it had become, and as soon as I opened the door, I wanted to projectile vomit all over the place like that chick form the exorcist. All the antique mirrors had been replaced by shitty posters and the cash register was now a modern version sitting next to a Mac Book. The aforementioned grandson turned out to be the urban hip-hop type with a chin only beard and tribal tattoos. Holy fuck I was pissed.
I desperately searched for the Hope I missed later that night and found it exactly how I had left it next to my old camp site. The trees were enshrouded by a mist that refused to let up and the rain that came down never managed to quite get me wet. I took slow breaths and smiled because it takes more than a douche with poorly chosen tattoos to ruin Hope Alaska.