May 18th began with a bike ride. After I passed through Valley of the Moon Park I entered a terrain of thick wilderness marked with small footpaths leading deeper into the forest. In the dense woods you sense the presence of communities and occasionally see tents. The fantasy is to imagine a band of outsiders relishing in the off-the-gridness of inhabiting these places. The reality is different. From what I have been told by residents and local officials the inhabitants are viewed as bands of outsiders, but they are not relishing in anti-establishment ideals. Instead this woodland community is divided between ‘constant inebriants’ and ‘loners,’ with more folks falling into the prior category.
Let’s first discuss the smaller group; the ‘loners.’ These residents live without permanent addresses within small wooded areas near the trail. They are often, as we would expect, alone and happy about it. Rumors have me thinking that some are disenfranchised veterans, left without resources and structure upon their return from combat. But rumors are what they are and who is actually to say. What we do know is that this portion of the community is less of a caustic problem, and represent more of an aesthetic discomfort for the adjacent landowners.
The larger group has shown more of its face to our crew. Most in quiet passings along the trail, once in a more violent and disruptive verbal exchange. Given that that occurrence has not been the norm, I won’t directly speak to it. The quiet passings however, have been just that. A head nod, a hello, a smile have marked these interactions. While I have been cycling or walking by in my green vest, they have been carrying some amount of alcohol, and present themselves in a state of slight drunkenness. In these interactions I have not felt nervous, nor have they appeared to take interest in me or my activities. We made our salutations and moved on in much the same way I passed other users of the trail.
Happily I have heard supportive conversations about these communities. Not supportive like they want them around, that sadly may be asking too much. But supportive in that this is seen as a topic that needs addressing. Many of the Anchorage residents I have spoken to have discussed these communities with concern but also caring. They have shown empathy is what I’m getting at. Which is not something that can be said about many other places where these communities exist.
In a dialog about the trail’s planning history we drifted onto this topic. We spoke about the need for amenities like public bathrooms and potentially showers, community run camps allowing for self-direction, job-trainings, and the like. I heard people speak with kindness on the ailments and addictions of these community members. Is this just a bleeding heart situation? Is this the public face of the conversation when the voting booth yields different perspectives?
The truth, though, is that I have had so little interaction with these communities to adequately speak in full. Instead, here, I just want to relay what I saw and what I was told. I only wish I could say I knew more.
Also on May 18th, some teenagers assaulted a cyclist. The incident has led our vested crew to use caution on the trail. It will probably lead to more anxiety around the tent communities on the trail. It was not one of them, but it was near to their homebase.