Zoe Mendelson is traveling the world, talking to friends and strangers about the messy, wonderful business of love. This series tracks her journey, highlighting the best of her encounters.
Talkeetna is a five-square-block town on the southeast corner of Denali National Park in Alaska. The year-round population is about 876. The duly-elected mayor of the town is a cat named “The Mayor” who lives in Nagle’s General Store. The quaint, historic town has a reputation for its liveliness. Its local bar, the Fairview Inn, is known throughout Alaska as a good time. For such a small town, it is a surprisingly raucous destination where the young and old drink and dance together. While in town, I saw a heavily bearded 71-year-old man really get down to the Fugees.
The townspeople hold an annual Talkeetna Bachelor Auction and Ball wherein single men in the town are auctioned off to female bidders. They owe these ladies one photo, one drink, and one dance. The opening ceremony to the Ball is the Wilderness Woman Contest in which, among other tasks, women must fetch water from a creek, prepare a sandwich, and open a beer for a lounging bachelor. In round three, the finalists “must fill a sled with split wood, then tow it by snow machine and feed the wood into a bonfire, around which bachelors tell lousy stories.”
As the Talkeetna Bachelor Society website explains, “‘What does an Alaskan man want? — A woman and a truck, that both work.’ In the spirit of this humor, the Talkeetna Bachelor Society birthed the Wilderness Woman Contest.” But the joke is apparently not a joke.
“Small towns are great. They really are,” explained Shanny, a 51-year-old blond woman at the bar in the back of Nagley’s. “Talkeetna is one of the best. It’s a wonderful place to raise a family and kids and stuff. But the only problem is 90 percent of the men here are looking for a woman who has a job, a pick up, and a place to live because they don’t want to work. There’s nothing wrong with stay at home dads but these guys make an art of it.” The bartender chimed in: “The odds are good but the goods are odd! That’s all I’m gonna say. It’s called ‘Get a job!’”
Shanny, our expert, continued: “And since I’ve been here, they have the Talkeetna Bachelor’s Ball and women come from all over the country, but these guys are looking for a one night stand! They only commit to a woman if she has enough money to support him.” I asked her why she thought the town attracted men like that.
“Alaska takes a man that has a whole lot of guts and determination,” she explained. “But a lot of guys come here and they don’t have the determination. They just look at the guys around here and they go, ‘Oh my god these other guys they have a woman supporting them.’ And ‘I get to go out to the bar every night, I get to go play poker with the guys, I get to do whatever I want and if she doesn’t like it I’ll slap her around a little bit.’”
“Is there a lot of that here?” I asked.
“Yes there is. And that’s why in the Bachelor’s Ball the proceeds go to the abused women’s shelter.” Shanny instructed me and my friends to hold ourselves in high regard, and to never settle for losers.
“I’m 51 years old, never been married,” Shanny says. “I moved up here when I was 26 with a boyfriend from San Diego. And you know what? He had a degree; he was a smart guy, but he came here and all he wanted to do was drink, and he wanted me to work and pay the bills and the bar tab. And you know what the guys did with their money when they did work? They bought guns and snow machines. Their money was for fun, and my money was to support them. And screw that! That’s not going to fly with me.”
Across the bar sat Bush Man Greg and Rich – the president of the Talkeenta Historical Society who had fetched the record-breaking bid last year at the ball. I asked them: “Shanny said that all the men in Talkeetna just want a woman that has a job and a house and a pick up and is going to support them. Is that true?”
“Pretty much,” said Rich, seen here on the left. “That would be correct,” agreed Bush Man Greg. They laughed, though not uncomfortably.
Then I asked them how the Talkeetna Bachelor’s Ball started.
Rich explained: “It started 33 years ago. A bunch of guys were sitting around in the Fareview complaining about the lack of women in Talkeetna and they said, ‘Well, hey, why don’t we have an auction?’ It was small potatoes in the beginning but of course it grew over the years. A bachelor used to go for $50, $75. A $100 bachelor was a hot guy. But we introduced credit cards and um… the money jumped up. This past year we set a new record: $23,300 in the auction.”
I asked them if they knew of any bachelors that had married the women that had bought them at auction. “Oh yes, yeah I believe so,” said Bush Man Greg. Rich thought the number was three. I asked Greg why he was called Bush Man Greg. He’s a bush plane pilot, flying to remote, underdeveloped areas – more remote than Talkeetna. It gives him the swagger seen here, at an auction in 2009.
Four younger men stood and drank beer at the other end of the bar. Given the chance to defend the men of Talkeetna, none seemed all too keen to talk, but outside of the bar one tapped me on the shoulder. Mike, pictured at the top of the page and not a demanding guy in the least, said there were two types of men in Talkeetna. One type — his type — were the independent, outdoorsy, survivalist kind of freedom-enthusiasts. The others were the seasonal workers, oil workers, fishermen, etc, and they were the type Shanny had described. As far as Mike was concerned, they weren’t the real Talkeetna men.
The next morning a much younger blond woman working at the town’s only coffee shop picked up just about where Shanny had left off. Emily had grown up in Talkeetna, daughter of a fur trapper and a dog musher.
“Wait through their first two or three years ‘til they get a job, a place to live, a car of their own,” she giggled. “You know? That’s the vetting process around here. If they’ve haven’t hooked up with a woman within the first few years they will forever be single here. You know what I mean?” I asked why.
“Because they’re obviously kind of leeches and losers. If they’re going to run through women here, the women get to know that. Establish yourself. Get a job. Stand on your own. Don’t look for a woman that already lives here. She doesn’t want you,” Emily giggled again. “So, there’s a lot of single men around here.”
I asked if this wasn’t advantageous for the women. “People always ask, ‘So why don’t you ever date anyone around here?’” She laughed, as if thy answer is so obvious. “Never date anyone in your own village. That’s the first rule.”
“So where do you go to meet guys then?” I asked.
“Well we have a lot of people that come to visit that don’t live here, so that’s cool. Sometimes you meet someone like that and keep in contact. But it’s a general rule I think: if they live here, you already know too much. They already know too much. Small towns are funny that way.”