I was in Valdez, Alaska, to report a story this past March when something odd kept happening.
Every time I learned of another potential source, the person telling me I should talk to such-and-such a person didn’t offer a cell phone number or an e-mail address or, in most cases, a home phone number. They just told me where the person lived or worked.
Dave the city councilman? “He’s at the fishery, just past the duck flats. Purple building.”
Ryan the cable guy? “He lives out at 19 Mile. Base of the pass. On your right.”
Chet the helicopter pilot? “Take a left near the hospital. Big wooden house. He’ll be there.”
And my favorite: Karen the city councilwoman? “She owns the Landing Lights bar at the airport.”
Sure enough, when I got to the Landing Lights, Karen was not only there to greet me but she had already poured me a frosty pint within 40 seconds of my walking in. We talked for a good two hours, far better than any phone interview I did during my weeklong visit, and much more satisfying, in the way only free microbrewed beer satisfies.
When I sat down to write the story in May — a piece on two locals trying to save the town in light of waning oil revenue — I couldn’t stop thinking about what the casual reporting atmosphere said about the place, and about the people who live there.
I felt welcome in Valdez. Not because everyone I spoke with was ridiculously happy to see me — it’s a mountain town, not a women’s prison — but because the raw culture of the place seemingly includes a clause that encourages strangers to drop by your home or business unannounced, as if you’re the mailman on Christmas Eve.
Not long after I returned home, I dropped by a friend’s house at 3:30 in the afternoon. It was sunny and warm and hopeful, in the sense that spring had arrived and the days were phasing out the evenings. I knocked on John’s door, as I often do. No answer. I called out his name. Nothing. Hmmm. Knowing that sometimes he can be out of earshot when his bathroom door is closed, I let myself in.
Now, it’s important to note John and I are good friends. We see each other a few times a week, on average, and are respectful of each other’s space. While renting a cabin five years ago, I once mistakenly entered a stranger’s home at 3 a.m. after sleepwalking through the forest. That is no way to drop by. This, however, was perfectly standard; John keeps all sorts of friends on a pop-in basis.
Alas, this day, he happened to be napping. And grumpier than a grizzly whose shoulder I just shot. He let me have it — a merciless guilt trip for waking him up. I haven’t dropped by since.
But I still drop by other people’s homes all the time. I honestly believe it’s the purest form of human interaction, especially in a mountain town.
You can meet someone for happy hour, but are you really as interested in what they’re saying as you are in what that freshly showered filly is sipping at the bar?
You can agree to make turns with someone, but doesn’t it always become a situation wherein one of you repeatedly waits at the bottom for the other skier before jostling for space in line among tourists — or, if said turns are to be carved off piste, wherein both parties are breathing too heavily to converse on the ascent?
That is a great way to bond, but no way to interact socially.
Dropping by is not an unconscious act, as it was before the telephone. It takes effort. I have friends whom I’ll call or, worse, e-mail, from two blocks away. Luckily, I always feel foolish and end up riding my bike over to their place instead, often with two cans of beer in my pocket.
You can’t take this approach with just anyone, however. Some people are so used to the invisible brick wall afforded by modern technology that they are genuinely taken aback, and sometimes even insulted, when another homo sapiens penetrates their social force field. “What are you doing here?” their expression wonders as they slowly open the door. I try not to associate with too many of them, but it’s tough because they’re everywhere.
Sometimes, when dropping by a couple’s home, you have to remember that they could be engaging carnally. In such cases, I try and limit my knocks to two and my doorbell rings to one. You are there to talk on their sunny deck about nothing in particular, not stalk them.
The best drop-bys generally involve people who appreciate your effort, are not intimidated by the fact that you believe you are allowed to visit without warning, and actually enjoy the spontaneity you’ve added to their predictable daily existence.
These people are usually not ones to grow weed in their cellar or have sex while chained to the chandelier. But they like a good conversation.
Breckenridge, Colo.-based freelance writer Devon O’Neil covers skiing for ESPN.com. His last story for the Gazette was “Why Our Gear Represents Our Personality,” which appeared in #171.