As I stared into the depths of my canvas tote bag one morning in Anchorage I began to suspect that there are no unlisted phone numbers in Alaska. I found rumpled cards with scribbled numbers (office and home) from tour bus drivers, river guides, shopkeepers and waitresses.
Each had said to call them "any old time," a mark of the good will that is rampant in this largest of the states with the fewest of people and the one state too big for a nickname.
"We had this questionnaire to find out what visitors like most about Alaska," a bearded businessman told me as we stood on the deck of the catamaran Klondike. It was dodging ice in Harriman fiord. We were trying not to spill our cocoa.
"To our surprise, the No. 1 attraction turned out to be the friendliness of Alaskans. That ranked higher than glaciers or the wild beauty of the place, or even hunting or fishing."
I was not surprised.
I thought of Clint Stickel, an open-faced guy with a wisp of a mustache who reminded me of Radar on "MASH." Stickel drove us from the Denali Park train station to rustic Harper Lodge above the Nenana River.
"You'll like this place," Stickel said. "Besides being pretty, it has electricity and color TV and flush toilets."
Stickel was born near here before such amenities were common. His dad was a coal miner who worked on the pipeline that brought oil from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez.
'Great Place to Grow Up'
"This was a great place to grow up," he said. "Not many guys my age can remember when electricity came to their town or when they first saw TV.
"Gee, it was 'Mod Squad,' and then Bugs Bunny. Sure, there was snow on the screen, but what else is new up here?"
Stickel took some of the lads on our tour to a river-side barbecue. The party lasted till 3 a.m. When he showed up with the bus the next day he was smiling:
"If you guys get back home and have any more questions you can call me, but if my mom answers and you call her the name you called me in that welcome song, you'll get in trouble."
Then there was Suzy Crosby, a guitarist with a rich contralto voice, who brightened our train trip aboard the Midnight Sun Express, the luxurious last two cars on Alaska Railroad's run between Anchorage and Fairbanks. She sang rhythmic songs of the rails such as "Wabash Cannonball" and "The City of New Orleans."
Crosby plays clubs in Anchorage when she's not working on the railroad. "I'm in the phone book: S. Crosby, as in Bing," she said. "Call me up next time you're here and we'll go fishin' or clammin'."
We were greeted at a Fairbanks auditorium by Carol Pickett, a dimple-cheeked athlete who has earned medals in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics.
With cheerleader form and ingenuous charm, she leaped and plunged through such twisted feats as the Alaskan High Kick and the Knuckle Hop. Afterward she came into the crowd and hugged her 3-year-old son.
"My motto in life is to take it easy and be happy," she said. The boy clapped his pudgy hands.
A Fairbanks Symbol
At breakfast in Fairbanks I ran into a lady in red named Miss Ricky. She makes Dolly Parton look like an underdeveloped nation. Miss Ricky was decked out in the low-cut velvet of a dance hall madame, a real eye-opener at 8 a.m., which was more than I could say for the coffee.
"I'm a symbol of Fairbanks," she told me, brushing back long blonde curls. "Sort of like Miss Kitty of 'Gunsmoke.' "
Miss Rickey moved north more than 20 years ago from Texas. Her children are scattered. Her real name is Rickarla, a combination of her grandparents' names: Ricknana and Carlona. They were Cherokees. I did not ask her measurements, but her plumed scarlet hat was about 3 feet wide. It would barely save her from sun.
And so it went. I talked to Jennifer Jolis, a New Yorker by birth, who runs a popular Fairbanks bistro called A Moveable Feast.
"If you make a dinner reservation by 3 p.m., we'll send a limo to your hotel to pick you up," she said.
Some of the most outgoing folks I met in Alaska were at a fallen-down bar called the Bird House, 27 miles south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway. If they weren't there when I dropped by, they certainly had been.
The Bird House
The Bird House is an old trapper's cabin with two rooms, one window and sawdust on the floor. It assumed its slope in the Good Friday earthquake of 1964. The clamor of the jukebox could cause another.
What you notice most is the flurry of paper; every surface is covered with business cards, envelopes, paychecks, dollar bills, vehicle registrations, video club memberships, calendars.
There's a 1985 birth certificate for Jesse James Lysocki, a Washington Post press card, a University of Kansas parking permit. Stapled among the mentionables are other mementos of patrons: bars, jockey shorts, socks.
Some think it's tacky to leave something behind; Alaskans claim it's friendly. I stapled my card in the shadow of the bar, overlapping the card of an executive of Princess Tours in Seattle. You want his number?