Jewel Shares ‘Nostalgic Memories’ of Home Sweet Homer
In this sixth in her series of exclusive blogs for The Boot, Jewel goes back to her roots. The singer/songwriter gives fans an intimate look at what it was like growing up in Homer, Alaska, even introducing us to some of the town's most notorious residents. She also shares a sweet song her dad wrote for her, along with gorgeous pictures from her personal photo album. Read below, in Jewel's own words.
Everyone thinks their hometown is special. And I know that with time, nostalgic memories can surface, tugging at one's heartstrings, casting a gauzy halo when thinking back to childhood haunts.
I know that with time, the unpleasant attributes of can fade; giving way to only the rosy feeling of long ago, further aided by the fact that with distance, the heart can overlook any dark spots that once marred the imagination. With time we grow more forgiving of flaws, that is for sure.
But in the case of my hometown, I assure you, it really is the best hometown a girl could have hoped to have.
Homer, Alaska. It is called "the end of the road" because it is literally the farthest west you can drive into the state. Beyond the town is Alaskan Bush – mountains, marshes and valleys only accessible by horseback, float plane, or foot.
Homer was settled in the 40s, before it was a state, by families like the Jones, Byers, Rainwaters, the Willards, and my family, too - the Kilchers. Land was given by the government to anyone who would settle that wild country, and a few hardy souls with iron determination sought to impose their will upon the land, and wrestle from it a living. Not gold. Not oil. Just the right to work hard, and LIVE. Yes, the reward was the peace that came from knowing you had all you needed, because you and the land worked in unison. Lives were carved from those glacial valleys, and a community was formed in this isolated corner of the world.
A uniquely independent type of person thrived up there. The woman hunted, and fell trees and shod horses, right along with the men.
Coal was being harvested from the bluffs along the bay, and world class fishing took place in the icy waters right at the foothills of all the cleared meadows.
My family were Swiss immigrants, and my grandmother's accent got lots of comments at the small country store in town.
My mother's family were also early pioneers. Her father, Jasper Jewel Carroll (yup, I was named after him), followed his brother from where they lived in the deep south to the Last Frontier. He was the 13th child of a coal-mining family, and he and his wife, Arva, settled in a small log cabin. My mother was born in a dirt-floored log cabin.
Life in Alaska still has the hardy feel of a pioneer state. The women are beautiful and strong, and- well,- rare! It is well known that there are four men to every woman, and yet despite this, no woman I have ever known there has waited on a man to get a thing done.
Marian Beck started her own business - a restaurant called The Saltry - in the remote Halibut Cove which was only accessible by boat or float plane. She built the building on stilts that perched above the salty sea cliffs herself, brought horses over on a barge, and carved trails for her to ride on along the rocky terrain. She is a sea captain, a farrier, and in her free time, she is a great artist and tends to her art gallery which features other local artists.
My aunt Mariis, who was the first and only woman to head the local Cattlemen's Association, runs her own ranch and guest house/youth hostel operation. I grew up helping her clean the Bed and Breakfast cabins, and also helped her give dude rides to tourists. I would saddle all the horses and we would take our guests to the head of Kachemak Bay, where we would stay in an old cabin, cook for the tourists and answer questions peculiar to city folk, like "don't you get bored out here with nothing to do?" Bored? Nothing to do? There was always something to do! Tend to the cattle or horses, tend to our garden, make jam, milk cows, fix fences before the next snow fall... and with our free time, there were thousands of acres to play in - mountains and rivers to explore horseback.
I'd often spend my days on my horse Clearwater (named after the pristine Clearwater Slough in the wild country beyond the Sheep River, at the base of the Harding Glacial Ice Field), exploring for days on end. I would pack a bed roll and some food and camp beneath the trees or in dilapidated homestead sights, abandoned years ago by hopeful pioneers who finally threw their hands up, saying the land could have it back.
I always had a bell tied to my horse's bridal, to let bear and moose know I was coming up the trail and giving them the chance to avoid me - which they usually did, given any choice.
I got to go home recently, and it was so nice to get to be with my entire family on the homestead. They had a potluck dinner for me. It was so nice to see everyone again, and it was wonderful to feel their support and love - nothing like visiting home.
Eating al fresco
In Alaska there are a lot of Russian settlers who escaped Russia to pursue religious freedom. They speak Russian as their first language, practice a strict Russian orthodox faith, settling in small, remote villages in the mountains. They dress in traditional clothes and live a simple life of fishing and living off the land. One of these villages, Selo, is near our cabin at the head of the bay and while we are friends with the Martushev family, for the most part they all tend to keep to themselves.
Me, Ty and the Martushev boys. From left to right: Akaky, Ty, me, Zahary and Filip
The Martushev family is a little unique. They obey all the traditional rules of their faith, but they are also interested in cowboy culture.
They run about 20 head of horses loose on the open range, and Filip and his brothers wear cowboy hats with traditional shirts with the hand-embroidered high collars and belts tied at the waist. Over this they would wear a vest, and handmade chaps tanned themselves.
Alaska is still full of frontier justice. For example, when the Russian community's bulls kept breaking through our fence and breeding our cows, my aunt and two of my uncles were finally fed up. They grabbed their rifles and headed out by foot across the meadow, crossed the creek, slipped under the broken fence and onto the Russian village grounds. I was 12 and tagged along, keeping up as best I could. The men and my aunt were wearing dusters that touched the ground, and they all carried their rifles by their side as they walked. The village was tidy and pristine. Neat yards, with Jersey milk cows staked out and grazing here and there. Tidy gardens and small homes made of unfinished plywood, with white lace curtains hung in every window of every home.
The time for talking was over, and this time my dad intended to get the fence issue resolved. As we strode down the hard-packed dirt street up to the official's house, I remember feeling like I was in a Western - dust kicked up with every step. Women and children peeked from windows to see the cowboys walking in a row, guns glinting in the sun for all to see. Several men came out of the house, and it was negotiated how the fence would get fixed, and the Russian bulls kept in another field.
But there are more extreme examples.
A man named Grimshaw had a stallion that kept breaking on to a neighbor's place. The neighbor would fix the fence each time and return the horse. Well, the stud broke in another time, and this time the neighbor kept him, saying he had earned the horse in what it cost to mend that fence so often. Grimshaw took his gun over there to get the horse back, and a shoot out commenced. Grimshaw was killed. The neighbor kept the stallion. End of story. Frontier justice.
(Hear the song and see the video my dad wrote documenting this bit of history below.)
But as Western and rugged as my state is, my hometown is equal parts artistic. To entertain themselves through long, dark, winter days, as in many rural communities, folks learned to pick guitars and sing, and paint and sculpt even.
We were half redneck, half creative arts. For instance, in 4th grade science class we dissected a road kill baby moose, and in the next class we were taught to wood carve by local artist Leo Vait. We were a community that looked after each other, and shared potluck meals on Sunday nights.
And one of the reasons my hometown has touched my heart, is because of a very special thing they did for me that changed my life.
As I mentioned earlier in blogs, I moved out at age 15. I had a cabin down the dirt road I was raised on - maybe a mile from where my dad lived and a mile and a half from the family ranch.
(To hear a song my dad wrote for me during that time called 'Sweet 16 Lullaby,' click below.)
I was working several jobs. I'd ride my horse 12 miles to town, stake him out in my Aunt Sunrise's meadow and hitchhike the rest of the way into to town. I gave dude rides to tourists for a cowboy named Mark Murette on the Homer Spit - a skinny piece of land that makes Homer a tourist attraction - as it's one of the longest in the world.
It was during this time a dance teacher came to Homer to teach a jazz dance class. I asked him if I cleaned his studio, would he let me take his class in exchange. He obliged.
It turns out he worked at a fine arts school called Interlochen Center For The Arts in Michigan, and after seeing me sing with my dad one night, he recommended I apply to the school. I was awarded a partial scholarship. Key word was partial. It was expensive! I think I still lacked $11,000! It was pointless for me to even try.
But my aunts Sharon and Charlotte, and my half brother's mom, Linda, all encouraged me to try to find a way to raise the money. We decided I would do my first solo show ever. I had only sung as back up with my dad to that point, and did not play an instrument. I didn't write or play guitar. I asked a local friend to play piano for me, and the Homer High School donated their auditorium to me for a fundraising concert. The date was set, and my aunts helped me do everything needed. Charlotte was a graphic artist and made posters for me, Sharon and Linda helped me solicit local businesses to donate items I could auction off at the concert intermission. We were given everything from meals to gas to chainsaws to farrier services to auto repair to handmade art to free dental work- all to auction off. The whole town pitched in to donate items. Then the entire town came to my little show and listened while I fumbled through my first time being alone on stage. I remember doing some Cole Porter tunes, and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and maybe a song I had written - I can't quite recall. Then we took an intermission, and that town bought all the items I had to auction off - for more than they could have paid for it in the store. It's not a rich town by any means, just a great American town that came together for one of its daughters.
Together, we raised all the money by the end of the summer, and I was able to go to that fine arts school - all because my town cared.
I know my story isn't unique. I have heard so many similar stories that take place around the country. A man develops cancer, so his small town rallies to pay for his chemotherapy. A woman's husband is paralyzed, so her small town rallies to raise money for his medical bills.
This country is filled with good people who show a heroic nature when the chips are down.
I got to return home last August and sing in that same high school auditorium and do another fundraiser - but this time to help fund other young aspiring artists so they can achieve their dreams, a scholarship fund run by the Bunnell Street Arts Foundation.
I want to thank my hometown of Homer, and all its inhabitants. I wish I could be there for every potluck, full of homemade goodies like wild blueberry muffins and fresh salmon.
I am touched by those who have been every day angels for me in my own life, and applaud those I hear about in the news, who show what I think is best about America. As my new hometown of Stephenville, TX says "we do for each other when something needs done."