originally published July 17, 2014
If I was asked, “Where in the world would you least like to live?”, I might reply with an active war zone, or one of those places along the infamous Axis of Evil (Iran, North Korea, and Foxboro, Massachusetts). But let’s narrow it down – where in the United States of America would I least like to hang my frayed douchey hipster fedora?
The crumbling ruins of Detroit? Nah, I’m one of those insipidly optimistic types who believes that Motor City will crawl from the wreckage and rise like a Phoenix (note – not like Phoenix, which has never had to demonstrate such resilience). Somewhere in the remote backwoods of the deep south? While my pinko-commie-homo-lovin’-Jesusless ways would make it uncomfortable, I’m such a fan of warm weather and delicious barbecue that I could still make that work.
But what about Diomede, Alaska? You will never find a more wretched hive of cold and tedium. Located so close to Russian turf even I’d be willing to make the walk (were the terrain not so watery), this is a village that by all logic shouldn’t exist. And while I’d never plant my permanent return address upon its infertile soil, the place still fascinates me.
On the left is Big Diomede, an island that was not included in the 1867 sale of Alaska from Russia to the United States. On the right, only 2.4 miles across the frigid Bering Sea, is Little Diomede. This miniscule slab of rock appears to have been specifically designed to deter humans from bothering it, surrounded on all sides by steep, unmanageable cliffs. All sides except for the one corner that houses the incomprehensible village of Diomede, population: about 110.
There is almost no vegetation on the island. No wild animals to trap and devour, and even the fishing (which can only occur in the summer) doesn’t provide much panache to the local cuisine. When Scottish-American naturalist John Muir visited the island in 1881, he found a village jam-packed with Inuit carvers looking to trade everything they had for some exotic Western conveniences. Perhaps they should have traded for passage off that desolate rock.
Why am I being so hard on poor little Diomede? Look at this place:
Summer – what little there is of summer – consists of cloudy skies and a perpetual frump of burlap fog overhead. You can count on 60-80mph winds swatting you from the north, as though the planet herself is urging you onward and southward. Blizzards and -40 temperatures are commonplace in the winter, and the joyous crackle of spring won’t be heard until the rest of the hemisphere has already stocked up on summer sun screen and mosquito repellant.
Oh, and no mosquitos in Diomede. So there’s a small plus.
A helicopter makes a weekly trip from Nome, which nudges the eastern side of the Bering Strait, bringing mail, supplies and looks of bewildered pity during the summer. In the winter, a ski-plane can usually land on the ice, though the jagged rocks, choppy waters and random chunks of floating ice make boating and seaplanes both unreasonable travel options. But despite its horrendous climate, Diomede’s geography has given it quite the backstory.
The residents on Big Diomede and Little Diomede were extremely friendly and in many cases related to one another. For a good chunk of the year, the sea is sufficiently frozen between the two islands to allow for safe transport, and people visited one another regularly. Then the Cold War happened, and the Soviet Union swooped over to Big Diomede, evacuating its residents to the mainland and slapping a big ol’ military base onto its turf.
When Little Diomedeans wandered too close to the Soviet island, they would be captured and detained, interrogated for weeks at a stretch. For the next 45 years, visitation between the two islands was forbidden. When relatives would dare to make the trip it would have to be under the cover of the cream-soup fog within the lengthy northern night-time. It was a long-standing culture, divided by the politics of the moment.
In 1994, residents geared up with gifts and well-rehearsed dances in anticipation of being reunited with their lost relatives from Big Diomede. The turn-out was virtually nil, however – most of those who were separated from their families by the prevailing conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. never saw their loved ones again. Seriously – these people had one thing to look forward to, and it never happened. And you think Detroit is depressing?
It took until the mid-30s for the first wooden building to pop up on the island. The shiny new church stood in contrast to the stone-and-animal-skin huts that had speckled the frigid rock. Electricity didn’t show up until the 70’s, and running water is still only available in the school and at the “Washateria”, a communal laundry/shower facility. Fresh drinking water is hauled in from a mountain spring and stored in a 434,000-gallon vat for the winter. Usually this runs dry by March, and locals have to use snow for their beverages.
So who would visit this remote village?
Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens dropped by in 2002 – the only time an American elected official has ever set foot in Diomede. His comment: “I did not realize you were this remote.” Welcome to the real Alaskan frontier, Ted. Where whale blubber and walrus meat are always on the menu, and time travel is genuinely possible, in that you’re only 0.6 miles from the International Date Line, which can instantly propel you 23 hours into the future.
There are businesses in Diomede now, including a small store that gets its stock from the Walmart in Nome. Walrus hunting and its subsequent ivory carvings are the highlight of the local economy though, and the IRS has even permitted the Inuit people of Diomede (which is pretty much everyone) to pay their taxes in ivory, making them the only Americans who can pay Uncle Sam in something other than currency.
So there you have it. Sure, there’s a satellite dish and you can play around on your computer to pass the time (though I wouldn’t count on a solid internet connection), but at what cost? You’ll have to dispose of your own bodily waste, and with the sea around you frozen for most of the year, that’s your stinky burden to bear. Oh, and no alcohol is permitted on the island either, so you can’t even count on that joyous mental escape.
Nope, give me Detroit or Spittoon-Juice, Mississippi any day over the gelid icebox of Diomede. These residents are beyond tough, beyond plucky… they’re downright crazy.