As a child, in my mind, everybody I knew in Tok had always called it home. I knew I had moved there when I was six, but every single person I met after my move to the Great State was of course logically a person who had been in Tok, well, forever. Now, as an adult, of course I know that’s not true! I suppose there are a few Tokites who may have been born out of circumstance in Tok and still live there. But, I would feel safe to say, that many are transplants. Most by choice, a few not so much.
A few months back I was doing a book signing in Tacoma, Washington and I connected with some former Tok neighbors who now live on the west side of the state. Brian Bell, his wife Amanda, and their two girls along with Brian’s mom Vicki (who currently resides in Mississippi), met me for lunch before my book event. As we waited…and waited…and waited for our food, we grabbed the opportunity to catch up, laugh, and remember some of our very good times in Alaska. While chatting a long about this and that, I offhandedly asked Mrs. Bell when they had moved to Alaska. Munching on my fries that had finally arrived, she said, “Oh, about three to four years before your family.” I stopped munching and looked at her. “Really?” I asked. “I thought you had been in Tok forever! I often wondered though about your strong Mississippi accent.” Mrs. Bell laughed and I dove back into my fries. She then piped up that it was all Tom’s idea (her husband) to go to Alaska. He had come home one day from his administrative job at the school district and announced, “I quit my job and I’m moving to Alaska.” That made me stop eating my fries and I laughed out loud. “What!” I exclaimed. I just couldn’t imagine Mr. Bell doing that. She explained that Mr. Bell was not happy with his new school administrative job in Mississippi. “I didn’t know that he was unhappy or that he wanted to go to Alaska.” Looking straight at Vicki, I imagined her as she took one look at Mr. Bell with her eyebrows raised, and in her sweet, genteel, southern voice said, “Well, if you are going to Alaska, I am going to Alaska.”
Both of them being educators quickly came to the conclusion that it would be a good educational experience for the older boys (Tab and Steven). They were old enough to travel, but Brian, who was four, was not a good traveler at all. In fact, he was terrible, so they decided to leave Brian with the grandparents. Mr. Bell bought a shell of a camper, which wasn’t expensive, and he built benches for mattresses for the family to sleep on and to store supplies under for their journey north.
The camper the Bell family drove up to Alaska in from Mississippi.
Preparations were made and their first order of business was to drop Brian off by Winona, Mississippi with the grandparents. Saying goodbye, they left Brian and went to a store called “Fred’s” (like a dollar store). They were looking for sweatshirts for the boys because nobody had any long sleeved shirts being that they were from Mississippi. Mrs. Bell picked up a size 4 sweatshirt and softly said, “I will never forget the feeling I had as I stared at that piece of clothing.” With tears in her eyes, she looked at Mr. Bell and said, “Let’s go get him.” Back to Winona they went and got Brian for the trip north. He surprised them all, for the first time in his life, by being a great traveler.
Looking at Mrs. Bell after hearing this bit of the story, my heart beat a little deeper. Here, across from me, was such a dear friend, a very important person in my life and the life of my family. After all of these years, I was really getting to know her, and her family. Pausing for a moment, I felt the roots of friendship deepen. This was good. This was very good. Without missing a beat, she dove in to her story again. “Niki. To get to Alaska we had to sell all of our cows on our farm. That gave us about $2,000 for our trip.” “Do you still own the farm today?” I asked. “Yes, we do.” She said.
The moment to embark had come upon them. The cows were sold, the truck was packed, and with Brian now firmly in the camper with his mom, dad, and two brothers, the summer of 1978 was off to a most distinctive start. The plan was to go to Alaska for a six week camping trip and explore the state. With their Coleman stove and a few pots and pans, they set their sights north and departed.
For those of you who had the pleasure of knowing Tom Bell, you would know that he absolutely loved snakes. Traveling through Arizona on their way to Alaska with the boys riding in the back of the camper (this was before the days of seatbelts), Mr. Bell caught himself a rattlesnake that he was so proud of. Deftly wielding his snake stick, he snatched it up, grabbed the snake by the neck, and shoved him in a pillowcase. Having no way to transport his beloved snake, Tom built a cage with his own two hands and put the snake in the back of the camper with the boys. Looking at him incredulously she emphatically said, “We are not putting that snake back there with the boys!” Tom reasoned with Vicki and finally convinced her that if he stuck the cage WAY back in the very back where the boys couldn’t get it, or rather where the snake couldn’t get the boys, it would be okay. Mrs. Bell finally relented. Unfortunately, for the poor snake, when the Bells stopped at a campground for the evening, it was dead. It was so hot driving through Arizona it died because of the metal floor. Mr. Bell was devastated, and the people at the campground just stared at him as he pulled the snake out of the back of the camper and sadly disposed of his beloved pet.
Finally, after weeks on the road they arrived in Alaska. Crossing the border and traveling another 90 miles, they stopped at the Visitor Center in Tok, also known as “Main Street Alaska”. Cindy Bergstrom (who still lives in Tok today), was working at the information desk. Mr. Bell shared with her that they were traveling around Alaska and that he was a teacher. Cindy informed Tom that there was a job opening at Tok School and Mrs. Bell could see that the news was not unwelcome to him. “That spurred Tom’s interest.”
Leaving Tok to travel around the state, Mr. Bell kept calling the superintendent everywhere they stopped regarding the Tok job, but the superintendent was always out on his fishing boat. During their travels, Mr. Bell visited different schools inquiring about work, but he never lost sight of the Tok job. After about two weeks of travel, the Bell family stopped back through Tok. They had exhausted their Alaska trip plans and were on their way out of town headed to the Canadian border and ready to go back home to Mississippi.
During their trip around the state it had been decided that Tom was going to go back to Mississippi and get his master’s degree. The kids would start school two weeks late due to their Alaskan adventure and just count it as a great, educational experience. Mr. Bell decided to stop at the school office one last time. Tok School would be starting in two days, and when Mr. Bell showed up, they ran and got the principle, Gary Hebert, who interviewed Tom for a job as the new math and science teacher. Parked in their camper outside of the school with all of the boys in the back, Mrs. Bell in the truck cab, and Mr. Bell and Gary Hebert in the front seat, Mr. Hebert asked, “How would you like to live in Alaska?”
Bursting in to tears, Vicki just sat there. She was ready to go home. Hadn’t it been decided that Tom was going back to school down south? They had just bought their dream home in Mississippi. Gary looked at Tom and Vicki and said, “Go have lunch and talk about it.” Well, they went to lunch and Tom said, “How about we look at it as an extended vacation. IF you don’t like it, and IF you aren’t happy here after a year, we’ll move back to Mississippi. We will keep our house and rent it out.” After he said that, Vicki agreed, even though she DID NOT want to stay in Tok. It didn’t even look like a town! Mrs. Bell and Brian flew back to Mississippi for two weeks to pack up the house while Tab and Steven went to school and Tom started his new job. Mrs. Bell flew thirteen boxes full of household items up to Alaska, stored all of their furniture in two rooms of their Mississippi dream house, and rented it out for a year, just like Mr. Bell suggested. Before Vicki flew south to gather supplies for their “extended vacation”, they set up camp in Tok. Parking the camper at the Golden Bear campground they settled down to live until they could find more suitable housing, which turned out to be an Airstream trailer with a lean-to attached at the Golden Bear. When the weather got too cold, they moved in to a motel room, and shortly after they happened upon a house that became available for move-in six weeks later. By March, Mrs. Bell loved Alaska. She loved the people of Tok and wanted to stay as much as Tom did. The following summer, the Bells put their Mississippi dream house on the market and settled down in Tok. They lived in two log homes before they built their own house (with some help) on five acres a mile or two outside of town raising their kids the Alaska way.
Brian Bell helping build their Tok log cabin.
Steven sifting sand in what would be the basement of the cabin for mortar.
The Bell family moved out of Alaska the summer of 1992. There oldest son Tab was getting married and Brian, the one they almost left behind, was headed to the states to attend Ole Miss. Mr. Bell’s mother was still living at the time and her health had deteriorated and Tom was ready for a change. They had been away for 14 years, it was time to go back and spend time with Tom’s mother. Even though Tom loved Alaska, he was ready to go. However, this time it was Vicki who wasn’t, a flip-flop from her initial reaction to living in Tok in 1978.
Both Tom and Vicki Bell agreed that the best thing they ever did for their family was move to Tok, Alaska. When asked why, Vicki quickly responded, “It was because of the people.” She has been back in Mississippi longer than she was in Tok, but has not made the connections like she had while living in Alaska.
Mr. Tom Bell passed away July 2012 and is greatly missed by many. Wanting to write a book about living in Alaska, he began his account before he died. I hope to share some of his thoughts and musings here for you to enjoy. I can personally attest to Mr. Bell’s ability to tell a really, really good story. Us kids knew how to get him to spin a new tale or simply beg for a repeat of one previously told.
The Bell family in front of their home. From left to right: Tab, Vicki, Tom, Brian (in front of Vicki) and Steven.
So many people and so many stories about living and loving Alaska. Each one unique and each one important and life defining for each person. For the Bell family, throwing caution to the wind, quitting all they knew, and heading for the unknown landed them with a people and in a place that changed the course of their lives forever. As Tom quipped to Vicki about traveling to Alaska during the summer of 1978, “How else would I get to Alaska without quitting my job? It takes too long!”. He had a point there for sure. Living in Alaska takes sacrifice, and more often than not, a giant leap of faith.
Reasons vary from person to person as to why they sell all and make their way to the Land of the Midnight Sun. For some it is to seek a life of adventure, to make a fresh or brand new start, or to simply get away for whatever reasons one might have. Then there are those that have stood still, pointed their eyes north, breathed in deep, and dreamed. They’ve dreamed of being a part of a land, a time, and a place and people like no other. A land untamed, untouched, and unspoiled. A time to stretch, to grow, and to really live and simply be. A place surrounded by people who all have their getting to Alaska story, that may even be an echo or a shadow of your own. Mr. Bell made a decision to go. Mrs. Bell simply said, “Where you go, I will go”.
Here’s to going and not looking back . . . . Here’s to Growing up Alaska.