GOING TO EXTREMES by Joe McGinniss

Recently I was in a bookstore in Anchorage, Alaska and came across a book by Joe McGinniss entitled, GOING TO EXTREMES. Having read his THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968 about the attempt to repackage Richard Nixon for the 1968 presidential campaign, and CRUEL DOUBT which centers on a society murder in a small North Carolina town in 1988, I was intrigued.  After reading the introduction to the new edition written in 2010, as the original was published in 1981, I learned that McGinniss had thanked Sarah Palin for the inspiration to revisit Alaska after the 2008 Republican Convention and how the state had impacted him in the mid-1970s.  The book itself is part memoir, geographical guide, and history of the 49th state that was admitted to the United States sixteen years before what McGinniss describes in his own thought provoking and humorous style as the transformation of Alaska due to the domination of “big oil.”

A few weeks ago while standing below a section of the Alaska pipeline outside Fairbanks I learned that 85% of the state’s revenue is a result of oil and that each Alaskan resident receives a check for $2-3,000 a year as a tax rebate depending on the whims of politicians and oil production.  The money pays college tuition and numerous other costs for Alaska’s citizens and one cannot imagine where Alaska would be today without the money stream from “big oil.” McGinniss’ main motivation in visiting Alaska in 1975 was to experience the awesome beauty of its primal wilderness and mountains, for what he feared might be the last days of the last frontier America would ever have.

(Denali, over 20,000 feet above sea level, the highest peak in North America)

McGinniss would spend a year traveling and living among the native Eskimos and local citizens trying to get to the core of what it meant to be an Alaskan native, and those characters who settled in Alaska by choice for many diverse and unusual reasons.  The book describes a state that in many parts seems to be a world where things remain just as they had been forty or four hundred years before.  However, with the political and economic pressures fostered by the Alaskan pipeline they were about to change radically as I witnessed on my recent visit a few weeks ago.

The reader accompanies the author as he crosses the state from an amazing trek through the Brooks Range as he describes the Oolah Pass, part of the Continental Divide not between east and west, but the Arctic Divide.  Below this point water flowed south, emptying into the Pacific Ocean.  Beyond the Pass it drained into the Arctic Ocean!  We meet many fascinating characters who lived in the wilderness, towns, villages, and cities, from the state capitol in Juneau which cannot be reached by road, to Barrow which lies 330 miles above the Arctic Circle in the north, Seward in the south, and Denali* in the center.  Alaska’s topography make it a necessity for people to have pilot’s license if they are to survive the state’s rugged terrain, and in fact one out of every six residents do.  The need for air transport also serves as a time machine as you fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks to the north and on to coastal areas that seem fifty years behind.

(Oolah Pass, the Arctic Divide)

McGinniss spends a great deal of time exploring the impact of western technology and the coming of the white culture.  It has had a particularly devastating effect on younger Eskimos who were not set in the ways of the older generation.  What emerges is that Eskimo culture is being destroyed as they confront the Americanization of Alaska brought on by the wealth produced by the oil pipeline.  They are migrating to cities in great number seeking welfare aid, taking jobs on the pipeline earning money that they have no clue on how to deal with, or trying to survive in their villages.

In his trek throughout state, McGinniss meets a cavalcade of individuals unique in character and possess outlandish life stories that seem to culminate in Alaska.  World War II veterans abound, Grateful “Deadheads,” policemen from Denver, former businessmen and educators, writers, bureaucrats, and many who are recently divorced and trying to put their lives back together.  Others are seeking freedom, adventure, or just to get rich quick from the oil boom.  We meet people who arrive from Seattle on a barge in what appears to be a “hippie coup” of a small village as they take over the radio station, newspaper, and school library.  The descriptions and stories abound like Duncan Pyle, a former bestselling Canadian author who for a time was the Chairman of the Language Department at the Inupiat University of the Arctic, a university housed in a shack.  As Olive Cook who grew up in Bethel which is located at the confluence of the Bering Sea and the Yukon River who left for a job in Washington, D.C., but she could never reconcile her Eskimo culture and white technological society.  We also meet Eddie the Basque, a pipefitter from Idaho who hoped to make enough money from the pipeline to retire, however, by the time he arrived the pipeline was almost completed.

(The Alaska Oil Pipeline outside Fairbanks)

It seems that everyone that the author meets left the lower forty eight states for Alaska without any knowledge of what they were getting themselves into.  A case in point is Tom and Marie Brennan who left newspaper jobs in Worcester, MA and set out in their International Harvester Travel All pulling a houseboat on wheels.  After traveling 5000 miles they eventually reached Anchorage were they got jobs on the Anchorage Times and witness the spectacular growth of Alaska’s largest city, and Tom, who escaped Massachusetts, would soon become the Public relations Head for Atlantic Richfield and the oil pipeline!

McGinniss’ description of Fairbanks is as if it did not exist on earth, “but on a distant planet; a planet that was much farther from the sun.”  In fact, many of the author’s descriptions have that out of the earth’s universe feel to it as Alaska is not like any other area in our union, particularly the winters.  Many stark descriptions of the landscape are offered, but despite these comments, the sheer beauty of Alaska’s bareness comes through, from the Kahiltna Glacier 7200 feet above sea level which is the staging area for hikers to climb Denali or the Yukon River that flows from the Bering Sea all the way across Alaska into Canada.

GOING TO EXTREMES is a unique look at our 49th state, a view that is hard to accept for many natives because of the way their lives have changed.  However, for the Alaska novice like myself in conjunction with my recent visit it was eye opening what the oil boom has done to the state and its people.  Whether you are a conservationist, an individual who believes in the development of Alaska’s natural resources, or someone who wishes that the government would just leave Alaskans alone there is something worthwhile to be taken from McGinniss’ narrative.

*The name of the highest mountain in North America became a subject of dispute in 1975, when the Alaska Legislature asked the U.S. federal government to officially change its name from Mount McKinley to Denali. The mountain had been unofficially named Mount McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector, and officially by the United States government in 1917 to commemorate William McKinley, who was president of the United States from 1897 until his assassination in 1901. (Wikipedia)

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