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The Bumper Stickers of Sitka , a Photo Essay

August 18, 2012

Somewhere in the lower forty-eight is a sociologist in agony. The man has realized that the bumper stickers decorating a town’s automobiles speak volumes about its inhabitants, and this spark has risen in him like an intellectual fury from which will burst, he is sure, a social classification system of such genius that his doctoral thesis alone will win the Nobel Prize.

But he finds there’s a hitch.

Cars migrate unpredictably. A Chrysler Town and Country first owned by a soccer mom in Palo Alto may, years later, reside in the garage of a retired, bachelor jeweler in Des Moines, its left bumper still declaring “My Honor Student Invented the Internet.”  Or a Ford Ranger emblazoned with “W, Still the President!” by a title holder once living in Lubbock could end up in the hands of a young grade school teacher in East LA.

What was a window into the psyche of a people can shift with the passage of pink slips into a non sequitur.

But I have discovered a solution that should revive the hopes of our sociologist.

He should visit Sitka.  An island community of 8,000 people with a mere 20 miles of paved road, Sitka is isolated from the great auto-migration routes of the continental US by long stretches of frigid water and snowy mountain passes.

Cars that come here live and die here.

If fact, I can go one better. On my hikes to and from town over the last weeks, I have snapped photographs of what I take to be Sitka’s most cherished beliefs, as evidenced by the messages citizens adhered to their vehicles. How this fascination began I’m not entirely sure, but it’s become a bit of an obsession, one that has raised the eyebrows of passers-by and even initiated an embarrassing conversation with a patrol car.

But my persistence has paid richly.  Below is displayed Sitka’s soul, a soul that regards the eating of *farmed* fish as somewhere between a capital crime and a taboo, that glorifies the troller and looks down on the charter man; a soul that struggles to take Sarah Palin seriously, is mixed on Obama, but despises Republican Senator (from Ketchican) Lisa Murkowsky.

Sitkans are not, however, homogenous: differing views of some fierceness are held by citizens who, penned-in by the mountains and unable to avoid their neighbors, must cohabitate.  This point was brought home as I passed a Mercedes wagon whose back glass bore the message “Powered by Veggie Oil–no war required” and whose hatch was crammed with plastic jugs of same. The owner was talking amiably with the owner of a nearby Dodge Ram truck whose bumper declared, “Cut, Kill, Dig, Drill.”

The photos also suggest that Sitkans love an obscure political joke. For example “The Haidas are Coming!” (Haida people are the natives of *Canadian* Queen Charlotte Sound) as a play on “The Russians are Coming!”  Or “Save the Teredos”.  Here in southeast Alaska, once endangered species have regained strength–in the case of the Bald Eagle to the point of nuisance, and in that of the Otter to environmental hazard. According to one local, the now many and ravenous Otters have wiped out the Abalone fishery, and are hard on the heals of the Sea Cucumber; both are economically important species.  “They eat everything down to the seaweed and then move on,” said the man. So a bumper sticker proclaiming the salvation of the Teredo–a ubiquitous marine worm that devours the hulls of wooden boats–in a town whose fishing fleet is almost entirely made of wood rings with special irony.

Which is to say that Sitkans are passionate, subtlety intelligent folks. Of course, they’re not above enjoying proctological humor…


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