Alaska hippies saga makes for a heady trip

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2003

Even if you aren't old enough to remember the swinging Sixties, the notoriety of a generation that tuned in, turned on and dropped out persists. The hippie scene was most associated with California but, for some intent on shedding square society and getting back to the land, the Great Land offered the ultimate trip.

Noted novelist and story writer T. Coraghessan Boyle takes on the hippie scene with his new novel, "Drop City." Set in 1970, it chronicles the odysseys of residents of the title commune.

When the real world complicates their pursuit of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, the hippies abandon their dilapidated farm in the Northern California hills, pack into a recycled school bus and head for a new life in the Alaska Bush. The move is a whim of Norm Sender, the commune's real-life landlord, big-winded pep talker and reluctant guru.

"Yes. That was what he'd said: Alaska," Boyle writes. " (T)he name of that alien, icebound afterthought of a place that had no deeper association for anyone in the room than 'Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,' and the Yukon wasn't even in Alaska, was it? No matter."

The destination is a cabin Norm's uncle abandoned in the boreal forest up a minor tributary of the Yukon, 12 miles from the fictional hamlet of Boynton.

Sender, who spent part of his youth there, sells the move by assuring his "brothers and sisters" that law enforcement fades beyond the road system, salmon glut the rivers and marijuana grows to the size of sequoias under the midnight sun.

The plot follows two threads tracing the hippies and the trappers on Boynton's fringes. The groups converge in the neighborhood of the old Sender cabin. As the hippies' summer of love deteriorates into the winter of their discontent, circumstances force them to trade their fantasies for harsher realities.

"They were here in this country and they were going to stick it out, no question about it, and it was beautiful here, paradise almost, but it was a whole lot dicier than any of them could have dreamed in their infancy back in California when there was nothing more to fret over than is there gas in the car and do they have cassava and artichokes down at the supermarket yet? They'd been lulled by the sun, by the breath of the river and the scent of the trees and the syrupy warm days that went on forever," Boyle writes. "But now there was an edge. Now they knew."

The author, known for a string of literary successes and awards, masters all the angles in this novel.

His prose conjures up the altered senses of the era, popping up candy-colored images of getting high and turning sinister when the crashes follow. He does all this with a dead-on eye for detail and an arch sense of satire.

With a passel of hippies and a town full of Bush weirdoes to orchestrate, a lesser writer could get lost. But Boyle lets his characters grow and blossom so naturally that they become real and memorable. Subtly, he compares the two groups. At first they seem diametrically opposite, but he reveals how they share a muddled search for authenticity, aversion to mainstream society and a penchant for chemical attitude readjustment, whether by redneck whiskey or hippie hash.

His plot delivers as well, unfolding with both surprises and a sense of inevitability. He delivers dark and light, suspense and comedy, creepy villains and decent folks. Beneath the entertainment, he offers even more: a tough but generous look at idealism. "Drop City" examines maturity, friendship, the quest for utopia and the line between freedom and anarchy.

For the two main characters, "hippie chick" Star and Alaska trapper Cecil "Sess" Harder, the novel traces their parallel discoveries of what (and whom) they want from life and of how to face down the demons that haunt them.

Boyle, who lives in California, must have done some serious research and traveling to nail the Alaska scene so well. He describes the ambiance before pipeline dollars, pavement and tourism brought in swarms of cheechakos. His description of backwoods courtship, in an era when sourdough bachelors for miles around scrutinized any eligible woman, is classic.

The Alaska atlas points to Circle as the model for Boynton.

"The trees were staked to their shadows," he says describing it, "the guest cottages that hadn't housed a guest in 10 years sank quietly into the muskeg, birds flitted over the decaying snowmachines scattered across the yard. There was the rattle of the generator, and beneath it, the whine of the mosquitoes. "

"Drop City" is a racy, rollicking novel by a fine writer that offers Alaskans the bonus of a sense of recognition. You won't have to inhale to enjoy Boyle's head trip.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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