As we passed our nine year mark for living in Homer recently, it made me ponder what it takes for someone to live here happily. My husband has been hiring teachers from the Lower 48, and while some people are determined to live in Alaska, there are plenty that are ambivalent, with good reason. It is no small enterprise to move here, particularly if you have a family and plan to set up a household. Often it is one person's dream to live here, and the other doesn't want to live so far away from family. Each community in Alaska has its own unique challenges when moving in, so I speak here only of the Homer area--my slice of life.
How to get here? Barge your things up, hire a moving company to move your things, sell everything and start fresh here, or drive a U-Haul up yourself? The logistics of coordinating a move are no small feat. Often one person drives the stuff up while the others fly. Often someone comes first and gets things set up and then the rest of the family comes later.
Finding an acceptable place to live becomes a challenge as well. As we discovered when we were looking at buying or renting 9 years ago, houses do not necessarily have plumbing, running water, electricity or even a road or driveway to them. People live in dry shacks (no water), in metal barge crates, in tents, in yurts and more. Housesitting gigs are cushy and coveted, but only work for part of the year, usually the winter. We've been trying to help one new teacher and his family of 5 with 2 dogs find housing for 2 months. Their hope is to find something for less than $1700/month. I gasped when I heard that--who can afford that much? But then, if you want to live here, you make houseing a priority and other things get paid for if possible, and one patches together multiple jobs and summer jobs (for teachers) and PFD's and whatever possible. We paid $1000/month for a 3-bedroom home 25 miles out East End Road and we thought that was a lot of money 9 years ago!
Housing aside, I hear electric rates are some of the highest in the country in Homer. And if you live on 'the bench' or in one of the areas that does not have good quality well water, you have a cistern and pay 6 1/2 cents per gallon to have city water delivered. Groceries are more expensive here too compared to in the cities (Soldotna, Anchorage...). Overall the cost of living in Homer can be challenging, so one needs to be quite motivated to live here to be willing to pay the premium of the incredible natural beauty we are surround by.
Travel costs get factored in as well. Soldotna is 1 1/2 hours away. Anchorage is 4 1/2 hours up the road. If you buy a new car and it needs work done by a dealer, even if the repair is free, the cost of gas, food and lodging (or a plane ticket home while the work is done if it will take awhile) must be figured in. We did a trip to Anchorage last week just to shop, as choices are limited in Homer if you can find what you want. Some things just cannot be bought here. One must not mind long road trips if one lives in Homer and opts to go up the road for supplies.
While the wildlife (bear, moose) is a highlight of living or visiting Alaska, I know people who have lived here all their lives who refuse to go out in the woods in the summer because they are petrified of meeting a bear. My kids love to go running, but running by oneself on the trails around Homer is not always prudent as brown bears have been sighted on virtually all the trails at one point or another in recent years, as well as their tracks and scat. So the wildlife does add an element of edginess to those who love the outdoors. Moose have been known to attack people as well. In fact, one of my friends was interviewed by a TV station in Anchorage, describing the time she was hiking in the city of Anchorage and a moose attacked her.
So why do people live in Homer? For us, it has gotten under our skin, or maybe the air we breathe has made it part of us. While we don't fish, and that is a major attraction for many folks, it is neat to be part of the fishing culture. We were in Gwin's Roadhouse in Cooper Landing last week and the waitress was from New York City. She gushed about how people are more real here, more in touch with what is important. One of my students from the college is in Chicago for the summer doing an externship and she lamented to me recently how people there talk incessently about money and status and how she is dreadfully tired of it. When we go to the Lower 48 we notice how "things-oriented" people are. It's not like they aren't here, but there are many people in Homer who value beauty, art, knowledge and friendship.
We attended the First Friday Art Opening last night, a monthly event in which 5 local galleries showcase an artists works, provide hor d'oeuvres, give artist talks and generally offer locals a chance to mix and mingle. Of course there were visitors there, but even though it was July 1, there was a high percentage of Homerites attending, chatting, and enjoying an evening on the town. In Homer there is a sense of identity and pride that many cities lack. It is a "place"--not just "Anywhere, U.S.A.". They have lobbied to keep out "big box" stores, so most of the places one shops at in Homer are small, locally-owned stores. We know the owners.
My husband, as principal at Homer High School, often waxes eloquent about how special this place is, with high test scores (top 3 in the state, in the top 1500 high schools in the country) and an active student body that achieves awesome things, year after year. But he admits he can only take limited credit. Kids like that aren't just a product of the school, they are a product of their families. They are a product of their community. They are a product of the entire system, and there are many things going right in this system.
While we had an awesome, active life in the country in Michigan before we moved here, our kids are upset that they were born there rather than in Alaska. They don't like being 'transplants': they want to be "real Alaskans." Their pride in living here runs deeps, and to say that living here has changed them, in very good ways, would be an understatement. Their love for this state probably runs deeper than my own, and their agony at seeing glaciers melting, sea otters dying and spruce trees browning and dropping needles is worse than my own sadness at these things. My daughter wants to study Environmental Engineering in college, in part, because of the passion to save the natural world that was ignited here.
Why pay the price to live in Homer? It is an amazing place. There's no other way to say it.