Lum: The power of money
When my ex-husband Burt and I set off to homestead in Alaska, we had just paid off the $1,200 for an aged, 33-foot house trailer and were $3,000 in debt for our brand-new, fully loaded (winch, four-wheel drive, trailer hitch) Dodge Power Wagon to pull it with.
In a secret box in a small cupboard above the couch in the trailer, we had $700 in $100 bills to get us through what turned out to be a 27-day trip and to sustain us while we looked for jobs in Anchorage. It seemed, to us, a small fortune, but that was 1961.
At the time of our escape, I had been working as a cost estimator for valve repairs on X-15 engines at Thiokol. I made the very tidy salary of $75 per week, and Burt — with a master’s degree and several years of experience — made $100 per week teaching high school English.
Gas was cheap, food was cheap, and we camped in the trailer the whole time and lived pretty low on the hog, but that $700 lasted the two months that it took us to get there and find work.
The Power Wagon got about seven miles per gallon pulling the trailer — at today’s prices the gasoline alone would cost around $2,000. Of course, no one today would work for $75 or $100 per week, either.
I’ve got some old Life magazines from the 1940s that advertised, “Now you can retire for life to Florida on $100 a month!” Everything is relative unless you ignore the laws of inflation.
We parked our trailer by a stream, saving every penny we could for the eventual road and land-clearing costs we’d incur to “prove up” on the 160-acre homestead we found 15 air and 95 road miles from Anchorage.
When we actually had to move onto the land for five months (Burt had already put in two during the summer vacation), we entered into a state of “optional poverty,” by which I mean that we could always give up on the land and move back to “town” (Anchorage) and jobs.
Optional or not, it certainly felt real.
We had dragged the trailer out to the homestead and had no electricity, running water or phone. A woodstove provided erratic heat; propane tanks fueled the stove. We had a brand-new baby but no crib or anyplace to put one, washed diapers and other laundry in melted snow, rolled our own cigarettes, brewed our own beer and survived on moose and bear meat, salmon from the summer’s catch and 100 pounds of potatoes sprouting in a closet. There were no facilities — we literally didn’t have a pot to piss in.
We had to drastically ration the radio because of the cost of batteries.
I still enjoy the sound of a dripping faucet.
We had thought it would take the same amount of time to do everything on our own as it would to “work for the man,” and we got a lesson on the validity of the theory of the division of labor.
I’ve never aspired to be rich, and I still live quite simply, but it is a relief to be able to pay the bills and buy beer in cans.
Poverty sucks, and there is all too much of it.
Su Lum is a longtime local who went insane and couldn’t wait to get out of there. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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