Spies and reporters know the value of blending in. You want to be the gray man, and observe as much as you can without attracting attention to yourself.
That wasn't going to happen in Iliamna.
I flew in to the small village in southwestern Alaska to write a story on a controversial plan to build a copper and gold mine there. If approved, an open pit-mine would be dug into pristine Alaskan wilderness.
When I called ahead to set up interviews, half the people I reached seemed to be related to the other half. A couple of them offered to rent me their personal cars. I ended up accepting an offer from Tim, the guy who answered the phone at the village offices. (Tim, it turns out, is the brother of the tribal council president, the true power in town.) He had the car waiting for me at the airstrip when I arrived.
"Key's in the ignition," he said, walking away.
"Don't you want my signature on something? Take down my name?"
He laughed. "Where you gonna go?"
He had a point. They have a couple dozen miles of road connecting Iliamna to two neighboring villages, and after that, tundra. The three-year-old Subaru he rented me (his wife's) had 2,500 miles on it.
In Iliamna, nearly everything man-made has been flown in. Dixie cups, frozen pizzas, cement, Subarus. It all comes in on planes. Gas, not surprisingly, is running $5.40 a gallon. It's cheaper to hunt your food than to buy it.
So I went about my business, driving up and down the same three miles of blacktop between interviews. I kept passing the same half-dozen cars. Some of the drivers squinted at me, probably wondering who was driving Tim's wife's car. But they unfailingly raised a hand in greeting, every time. That is, the natives did; the outsiders working for the mining company didn't bother. The tribal president later told me that that's a crucial difference between locals and outsiders. So I developed my own version of the wave: three fingers up, pinky resting on the steering wheel. Casual, but not indifferent.
I stayed in a hunting lodge on the shore of Lake Iliamna, and got my meals at the General Store — the only store. Frozen pizzas, airlifted from Ohio. And it dawned on me that I was part of the local economy. I was certainly not the first reporter from the lower 48 spending money here on a car, lodging and frozen foods. The company developing the Pebble Mine could almost claim me as "related" economic development.
But just as I was beginning to feel a little bit used, a guy named Vince drove up to my lodge. We'd crossed paths on the road a few times, stopping to chat. Now he was delivering a big freezer bag full of home-made salmon jerky.
"It's great with hot sauce," he said, and wished me a good trip home.
The next morning, I dropped the Subaru off at Tim's house. I had to remind him how much I owed him, and he didn't mind that I was short of cash.
I handed him the keys, and asked if he'd drive me over to the airfield.
"Oh, you can just drive it over yourself," he said. "Just leave the keys in the ignition; I'll get it later."