Whittier, Alaska, is a town of about 200 people, almost all of whom live in a 14-story former Army barracks built in 1956. The building, called Begich Towers, holds a police station, a health clinic, a church, and a laundromat. Its hallways resemble those of a school or a detention center. One can often find residents shuffling around in slippers and pajamas. The only way to get to Whittier by land is to drive through a two-and-a-half-mile, one-lane railroad tunnel that shuts down at night.
In summer, cruise ships, charter boats, and commercial fishing vessels bring thousands of visitors to Whittier’s harbor on the west side of Prince William Sound. In winter, though, the city gets about 250 inches of snow, and 60 mph winds are not uncommon. The weather is so brutal that children commute from Begich Towers to school through a tunnel. In the months when visitors are scant and seasonal businesses are all boarded up, what asserts itself is the strange intimacy of a place where at any hour a resident can knock on the police chief’s apartment door, where students get homework help at their teacher’s kitchen table, and where the pastor conducts baptisms in an inflatable pool in the basement. —