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Boots, Bikes, and Bombers presents an intimate oral history of Ginny Hill Wood, a pioneering Alaska conservationist and outdoorswoman. Born in Washington in 1917, Wood served as a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot in World War II, and flew a military surplus airplane to Alaska in 1946. Settling in Fairbanks, she went on to co-found Camp Denali, Alaska’s first wilderness ecotourism lodge; helped start the Alaska Conservation Society, the state’s first environmental organization; and applied her love of the outdoors ...
Boots, Bikes, and Bombers presents an intimate oral history of Ginny Hill Wood, a pioneering Alaska conservationist and outdoorswoman. Born in Washington in 1917, Wood served as a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot in World War II, and flew a military surplus airplane to Alaska in 1946. Settling in Fairbanks, she went on to co-found Camp Denali, Alaska’s first wilderness ecotourism lodge; helped start the Alaska Conservation Society, the state’s first environmental organization; and applied her love of the outdoors to her work as a backcountry guide and an advocate for trail construction and preservation.
An innovative and collaborative life history, Boots, Bikes, and Bombers, incorporates the story of friendship between the author and subject. The resulting book is a valuable contribution to the history of Alaska as well as a testament to the joys of living a life full of passion and adventure.
I was the right age, at the right time, in the right place," replies Virginia Hill Wood, known to her friends as Ginny, when asked about events that have shaped her life. Ginny is self-effacing and shuns suggestions that she has led a remarkable life or is a role model for others. She is quick to say that there were plenty of other people doing exactly the same things. With such humility, you would think Ginny shy. Far from it. She is an animated storyteller, captivating her audience with tales of a time and way of life that have long since disappeared. Her blue eyes brighten, she smiles, and her speech revs with feverish excitement when a visitor stops by her small log house in the hills above Fairbanks, Alaska.
At five feet, four inches tall and skinny as a tent pole, Ginny appears frail. She moves more slowly than she used to, but despite appearances is determined to remain as independent as possible. She dresses in a classic casual style that looks like she walked right out of an L. L. Bean catalog—jeans and a fleece jacket for home, brown corduroys with brown-toned windowpane plaid shirt and Fair Isle sweater when dressing up for an event. She ties back her thin gray hair into a small ponytail with bobby pins on the sides to keep flyaway ends out of her face. She flits about in a constant whir like a bee jumping from flower to flower to gather pollen. She talks fast, like a squirrel chattering from the treetop at an intruder.
Like Ginny, her house has a rustic, simple quality. The main room has a maple syrup–like glow produced by the dim lamplight reflecting off the log walls. Handmade wooden chairs, stools, table, and bench are scattered through the room. There is no big-screen TV, no computer, no overstuffed leather couches, no plush carpet, no coffeemaker, no bread machine, no food processor. The only hint of modernity is a small thirteen-inch television and stereo system hidden away in the corner. The TV is rarely turned on—only to watch PBS. A woodstove sits at the back of the room encircled by boxes of kindling, burnable paper, and a stack of wood waiting to be made into a warm fire. Old photos, environmental posters, scenic paintings, and knickknacks from a world of travels cover the walls. Almost every flat surface—the butcher-block square in the middle of the kitchen, the eating table, and the window seat—is covered with piles of paper, papers in boxes, and newspaper clippings in triangular magazine boxes like those found on a library shelf. A forbidding turn-of-the-century castiron wood-burning cookstove stands as a sentry in the corner of the kitchen, partially blocking the entrance to the hallway that leads to the rest of the house.
Sitting in this house rich with Fairbanks history, it is easy to fall back in time and in step with Ginny and her stories. You can see the people sitting here forty years ago scheming conservation strategy. You can imagine Ginny tapping away at a manual typewriter, writing newsletter editorials or magazine articles. You can hear the friends laughing together at potlucks. You feel a living connection to the past.
Ginny's Gab Group
The winter of 2005–2006 was an anomaly. At age eighty-eight, Ginny had injured her back the previous summer and was forced to take things slower. She was not driving, she was not skiing, and she was staying home more. This confinement meant she had time to record some of her memories and stories.
In March 2006, I and three of Ginny's friends (Susan Grace, Roger Kaye, and Pam Miller) began weekly evening visits to record her stories. "Ginny's Gab Group," she called it. The idea started when Roger mentioned to me in passing one day that someone should write down Ginny's stories. Roger has known Ginny since 1974, when he came to work for her at Camp Denali, and he interviewed her extensively for his own book about the history of the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "Me, me, it should be me," I called out, waving my hand in the air like a schoolkid wanting to be called on by the teacher. I only knew Ginny in passing. She was a familiar figure in town, with a reputation as a strong, outspoken woman who had led an interesting life and played an important role in Alaska's history. I had conducted oral history interviews with her in 2000 and 2002 for a project I was doing about pioneering women through my job as a research associate with the Oral History Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and I felt drawn to her by common interests. And after living in Alaska for close to twenty years and having worked as both an environmentalist and an oral historian, I was confident that I knew enough to understand the context of what Ginny would talk about. When I met with Ginny's friends, they agreed an oral history project should be done and that I should be involved.
We made each interview a social affair. We gathered at Ginny's house, with the friends bringing dinner and taking care of cleanup so as not to burden Ginny as hostess. We sat at her long wooden table in front of the windows looking out on her yard of birch and spruce trees towards a view of the Alaska Range. We happily chatted about our lives and current political and environmental issues as we ate. After dinner, we relocated to the group of chairs in front of the woodstove for video recording. Ginny's friends did the interviews, since they knew her better than I and already had questions they wanted to ask or specific stories they wanted to hear. I, the outsider and the professional, operated the video camera and chimed in with questions or to help move the conversation along. Ginny sat in her rocking chair with the old, worn, and faded beaver pelt hanging over the back. It was an intimate, cozy, and informal setting.
After three recording sessions at her house, Ginny complained of the pressure of having to "clean up" for us. She used her table to sort piles of junk mail, articles she clipped from the newspaper, and bills she had to pay. Having to move her piles upset her system and routine. Also, having guests, especially ones who were videotaping, made her self-conscious about the cleanliness of her home. So, we took turns hosting the weekly gatherings at one of our homes. Since Ginny did not drive, one of us would pick her up and take her home again while another played host. We continued the potluck format and emphasized to Ginny that all she needed to bring was herself and her memories. Summer is a hectic time for Alaskans, who try to make the most of the short season of warmth and sunshine. Our group was no exception, so we took a hiatus. And anyway, Ginny was too busy with gardening to make time for recording.
Despite Ginny's grumblings about time, she enjoyed our evening gatherings. As a social person, she enjoyed the company, especially that winter when her activities and outdoor travels were limited and she felt cooped up and perhaps a bit lonely. And as a storyteller she relished having an audience.
As Ginny tells a story, she starts and stops regularly, interrupting herself with a digression of extra background, context, or detail that she deems relevant to understanding the topic and essential to the point of her story. Once Ginny gets started on a subject, it is difficult to insert a comment or question of your own. Nowadays, her stories sometimes follow a circuitous and redundant route as she works to mine her memory for forgotten details. But if you are patient, or can help push her along, she eventually winds her way through to the end.
Ginny speaks in half sentences and assumes you are keeping up and have the background to understand what she is talking about. "I don't want to start with Adam and Eve," Ginny complained once about being interviewed by people who had not researched their subject well enough. In this project, since it was friends interviewing Ginny, she did not have to explain every detail and was free to speak in her normal uninhibited flow. And with my background in history and anthropology and our common interests in conservation and a love of the outdoors, she began to trust that I, too, knew what she was talking about.
The Art of Storytelling
Ginny Wood frames her life in terms of moments and memories that are retold in fragments of stories, not as reflections about personal motivations or philosophical meanings. As she said, "I see my life as a story, with the people in it like characters in a book." Storytellers like Ginny create their storied world using the tools of fiction. They employ dramatic style, build suspense, pick and choose details, mix time frames, and insert characters as they are relevant. As a raconteur, the flow of the story and what it represents takes precedence for Ginny over the accuracy of the details. For instance, her standard story about me is: "She is from the archives. She came out to interview me once and I was mean. Now she's one of my best friends." My memory is that Ginny put me off because she was busy with gardening but that I was not offended. For an oral historian, persistence and patience are essential tools of the trade. Finally in winter, when life slowed down, Ginny agreed to be interviewed. No matter how many times I offer my interpretation of these events, and that I did not feel she was mean, it falls on deaf ears. As a typically welcoming and friendly person, putting me off made Ginny feel mean. Her created memory based on these emotions is what has become true for her. Her version shows her emotional shift from seeing me as an intruder to accepting me as a friend, which is more important to her than are "the facts."
Ginny reshapes the past based on the present. This is what David William Cohen has called "the production of history." Our tellings of the past are not stagnant single repetitions of fact but are stories based upon a continual re-layering of meaning as we are influenced by audience, setting, current events, or interests. Because of these varying influences, we all tell stories in different ways, even if about shared experiences.
Our telling about the past is also influenced by memory. Some people remember facts, figures, and details from long ago with accuracy. Some of us cannot remember the name of someone we just met. The retelling of memory is a personalized art form. As fiction writer Isabel Allende says:
Memory is fiction. We select the brightest and the darkest, ignoring what we are ashamed of, and so embroider the broad tapestry of our lives ... In the end, the only thing we have in abundance is the memory we have woven. Each of us chooses the tone for telling his or her own story.
Cohen also reminds us that memory is as much about forgetting as it is about remembering. Making these decisions about which facts to leave out and which to put in means there is a difference between "history as lived" and "history as recorded."
Ginny has told her stories so many times that they have become her reality, whether that is how things really happened or not. Her stories are her memories now, her connections to the past. She connects to these memories through a set repertoire of stories that are triggered by certain topics. These standardized tellings are similar to what William Schneider calls "signature stories":
These are accounts that play a primary role in the teller's life and are retold often to interpret and emphasize important themes. The hallmark of signature stories is that the narrator retells them often and relates them to core values in his/her life.
In comparison, Ginny's stories appear to be reflexive responses triggered by certain topics instead of platforms for conveying life lessons. The same story has been told so many times and for so many years that it sounds as if she is reciting a rehearsed presentation. I do not know if Ginny talked about her experiences in different ways when she was younger, or if because of failing memory she sticks vigorously to her pre-prepared and prescribed palette, but it appears that for her, the story is not the story if it is told in a different way. It has to start at a specific place and the details have to be told in a particular order. If she is interrupted, she is not dissuaded. She will stop and start over from the beginning. As her friend Bob Weeden observed, "It is like a spider who must spin anew when its web is damaged." In this way, these are her signature stories and are what she is known by.
Ginny has used her stories to create a public persona for herself. She is the pilot, the founder of Camp Denali, the wilderness adventurer, and the activist. She is not the divorcée, the mother, or the frail elder. It is difficult to break through this wall of signature stories to get at her inner feelings. In this way, Ginny protects her privacy and does not have to talk about things she is uncomfortable with. But as she herself has reflected in her own writings:
Life is more than what you do. It is what you thought, who you became, who you really are. I'm still on my quest. One conclusion I've come to is that you are many you's. The you, you think you are. What you were to all the people you have met and treasured. What you were to those who didn't like you much, to those you loved and hurt. To your progeny, to "your public." You are many you's. As Alfred Lord Tennyson says, "I am a part of all that I have met."
Alessandro Portelli and Ronald Grele, among others, consider the telling of a story to be a created negotiation between narrator and oral historian, with the constructed narrative being influenced by the experiences, ideas, and biases the researcher brings to the questioning and his or her responses to the narrator. 12 While the general subject of a conversation with Ginny was determined by the interest of the interviewers, Ginny's reliance on signature stories often guided the course of the discussion more than our questions did. In the sense of "shared authority" as defined by Michael Frisch, we allowed Ginny to focus on what she was comfortable sharing. As her friends, we did not want to ask questions that might cause her discomfort, such as the more private and emotional parts of her life like her marriage, her divorce, raising her daughter, or the deep connections of friendships. In this way, our lack of questions also helped construct the narrative.
It is interesting to note that Ginny Wood's life history does not focus on topics like motherhood, family, nurturing, or gender roles, which some might expect a woman's life history to include. There are a few possibilities as to why. First, these are not subjects central to Ginny's identity, so she would not voluntarily bring them up. As Ginny has said, "I was not a feminist. I just did what I wanted to do and I happened to be a woman. I was lucky that I never had any trouble." Second, these were not themes that those of us doing the interviews were particularly interested in or thought to ask about. Similar to oral histories that have been done with female public figures, Ginny's stories focus on her public life. This is what she is comfortable sharing with a broad audience.
Transcribing or summarizing thirty-five tapes, combining various versions of Ginny's stories, and editing for redundancy has been a long and arduous process. It has been over four years of fits and starts. I started by transcribing our 2006, 2007, and 2008 interviews, then integrated transcriptions of previous interviews Ginny had done that are housed at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Archives. Given Ginny's reliance on signature stories, it is not surprising that she told the same stories in different interviews. In order to get the best possible rendition, with the most details and the least redundancy, there are places where I combined pieces from different tellings into one presentation of the story. They are all Ginny's words, so it did not matter to me which interview they came from. Therefore, I have not indicated the precise locations of the merging. The other benefit of turning to previous interviews was that by the time Ginny's Gab Group was recording, Ginny's memory was beginning to fade. I discovered that some of the details she left out were well stated in an earlier telling of the same story.
In keeping with the notion of shared authority and what David Dunaway calls an "oral memoir," where a narrator tells his or her own story and a writer adds explanation and footnotes, you will find my words interspersed throughout Ginny's stories. A different font is used to distinguish between my writing (Garamond) and the transcription of Ginny's words (Optima). I have done this for two reasons. First, as editor, I need to create context and transition to promote understanding for the reader and foster overall narrative flow. Second, as oral historian, it is my responsibility to provide historical background and make connections between Ginny's life and broader subjects. This is what Tracy K'Meyer and Glenn Carothers call a co-created document, which "combines the narrator's version of his or her story with the results of the historian's effort to illuminate the context of the narrator's life and the connections between his or her story and broader historical themes."
Excerpted from Boots, Bikes, and Bombers Copyright © 2012 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Map of Alaska
2. Childhood: The Foundation of an Adventurous Life
3. Europe by Bicycle
4. Flying and the Women Airforce Service Pilots
5. A Lifelong Friendship: Meeting Celia Hunter
6. A Summer Under Sail
7. Alaska: The Early Years
8. Returning to Europe
9. Exploring Katmai national Park
10. Finding a Place to Call Home
11. Establishing Camp Denali: Alaska's First Wilderness Camp
12. Driving the Denali Park Road
13. Exploring Mount McKinley's Backcountry
14. Camp Denali Staff and Friends
15. Flying Search and Rescue
16. Selling Camp Denali
17. Preserving Alaska
18. Tundra Treks: Guiding Wilderness Trips
19. Breaking Trail
20. Traveling the Globe
21. The Loss of a Friend