Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Localesby Jake Halpern
Funny, moving, and utterly unique, Braving Home introduces us to five unforgettable modern American pioneers. When Jake Halpern was a cub reporter, he became obsessed with stories about "some outlandish and often hellish place inhabited by a handful of stalwarts who refused to leave." His fellow reporters joked with him and nicknamed him the Bad Homes
Funny, moving, and utterly unique, Braving Home introduces us to five unforgettable modern American pioneers. When Jake Halpern was a cub reporter, he became obsessed with stories about "some outlandish and often hellish place inhabited by a handful of stalwarts who refused to leave." His fellow reporters joked with him and nicknamed him the Bad Homes Correspondent. But the more he learned about these people, the more he was drawn to them.
Determined to understand their fierce devotion to home, Halpern set off on a journey to five of the most punishing towns in America. Braving Home is his irresistible portrait of these hometowns and his friendships with their most loyal residents. In North Carolina, he meets a retired mill worker who single-handedly manned his hometown in the wake of a devastating flood. In Alaska, Halpern works for a spunky woman who runs a video store/tanning salon and delivers newspapers to an "indoor town" – a lone snowbound high-rise at the foot of a glacier. At the base of a Hawaiian volcano, he stays with a hermit whose house, formally an inn, was surrounded by molten lava. In Malibu, nestled among the glitterati, a longtime "hillbilly" teaches him the traditions of firefighting. Finally, on a barrier island off the coast of Louisiana, a legendary storm rider tells of surviving hurricanes – even if it means tying one's hair to a tree.
Throughout his journey, Halpern explores the value of rootedness in an age when American society is more mobile than ever. Along the way, he discovers why no amount of floods, lava, wind, fire, or hurricanes can tug these unforgettable people from their roots.
"A fascinatingly quirky lot, Halpern's subjets are fiercely loyal, unfazed by danger, yet palpably fearful of the world beyond." Boston Herald
"[Halpern's] breezy but educated and literary style combines with an unmistakebale goodness...wins over his readers in the opening pages." Buffalo News
"A memorable commentary on the bizarre, extreme, and otherwise outre places which people actually choose to roost."
"Individually these are compelling, well-told tales of people living, literally, on the edge." Entertainment Weekly
"Halpern mines these situations for more than just quirk, turning them into impressive meditations on the power of place." Outside
"Halpern's flair for description enables readers to easily visualize...This is perceptive writing that illuminates the human condition." Publishers Weekly
"Halpern is 'impressed by their fierce pioneer spirit, clearly atavistic, but proudly unyielding.' You will be, too." Kirkus Reviews
"The book is like a stay-at-home adventure, with all the excitement but none of the hardship." Booklist, ALA
"...wonderfully readable profiles. [Halpern's] off-the-beaten-path stories will keep readers turning the pages of this unusual book." Bookpage
"An entertaining and lovingly rendered protrait of stalwart, somewhat eccentric characters who know...the true worth of their real homes..." Body&Soul
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- (w) x (h) x 0.50(d)
Read an Excerpt
Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales
By Jake Halpern
Houghton MifflinCopyright © 2015 Jake Halpern
All rights reserved.
Introduction The Bad Homes Correspondent
Every journalist has a niche—it’s inevitable—and I was just a few days into my career when I stumbled upon mine. It started as a running joke at the office: I was the magazine’s Bad Homes Correspondent. The production department quipped about changing my title on the masthead. I laughed it off, but some of the older writers definitely thought there was something wrong with me. “Did you grow up in some sort of dysfunctional household?” a senior editor asked. No, I told him. “Well, there’s got to be something in your past that makes you interested in these stories—you ought to think about it.” The magazine I worked for was the New Republic, and my coworkers were a mix of policy wonks, art critics, and political junkies. I was none of these, and instead of trying to pass as one, I set out to write a different kind of story; yet every time I did, it ended up being about some outlandish and often hellish place inhabited by a handful of stalwarts who refused to leave. Iron-willed, unfearing, and utterly immovable, these characters captured my imagination. They were the nation’s toughest home- keepers, and I was their aspiring chronicler. It was an odd niche of journalism, if you could even call it that, but it grew on me quickly.
It all began my first week at the magazine when a friend from college sent me an e-mail message with a rather cryptic lead: “Looking for a story? How about an old coal-mining town in PA where the whole place is cooking like a giant BBQ?” Initially, I thought it was a joke, but after doing some research, I discovered that this bizarre little town did exist. Its name was Centralia, and its coal mines had been on fire for almost forty years. Sinkholes had swallowed back yards, clouds of carbon monoxide had enveloped homes, and a network of smoldering coal veins continued to warm the earth like revved-up heating tubes in a giant electric blanket. Eventually, Centralia was evacuated and the government claimed ownership of the town, but a handful of residents defied their eviction notices, and the town’s aging mayor, Lamar Mervine, vowed there would be “another Waco” before he’d relocate.
The following Thursday, while the rest of the magazine’s staff mused over D.C. politics at our weekly editorial meeting, I pitched my very first story, a dispatch about a burning town that nobody wanted to leave. An awkward moment of silence came over the room. Finally, an editor spoke up: “Sounds interesting!” The following weekend I was in Centralia, chatting with Lamar Mervine himself. “I have no reason to relocate at all—I like it here,” he told me from the comfort of a living room that wasn’t legally his, while sitting in a well-worn recliner, gazing out the window at a mist of white smoke. Lamar’s wife, Lana, nodded her head in agreement. “Besides,” she added, “where would we possibly move to?” Sitting with Lamar and Lana, sipping tea from a cup resting in a chipped saucer, admiring a collection of cheerful knick-knacks and dog-eared Centralia scrapbooks, I felt oddly at home. Something about the Mervines seemed familiar, even endearing. Lamar bore a vague resemblance to my own grandfather, with his stubbly chin, thick glasses, callused workingman’s hands, and that same slightly melancholy, unfocused gaze of a workaholic ill at ease with the prospect of rest. Lamar had labored most of his life in the coal mines beneath Centralia, paying off his mortgage in seven-hour shifts of unremitting darkness, and even now, without a deed or any legal claim to show for what he had earned, Lamar remained proud. His house was more than an asset or a piece of real estate, more than mere clapboard and cinderblock—it was an extension of his own life.
Later that day, as I said goodbye to the Mervines and headed back toward Washington, D.C., I tried to stay focused on the story at hand. But as I cruised south along the Appalachians and down past Gettysburg, through a forlorn landscape of zinc mines, landfills, and falling-rock zones, I couldn’t help but wonder: How many other Americans held fast to this ironclad sense of home? Who else was making this stand, doggedly refusing to leave the grueling environs in which they lived?
In the weeks after my Centralia article saw print, I began to look for leads on similar stories. This process involved a lot of digging, but I didn’t mind, because digging was essentially my job. My chief responsibility at the magazine was researching and fact-checking. I spent hours, days, and weeks looking for correct spellings and exact dates. Being a quick fact- checker was always a point of pride among the office grunts like myself, and though it was an obscure and largely useless skill, I found it quite helpful in tracking down information on outlandish towns lllllike Centralia. On my lunch breaks and in between assignments I searched for clues, and gradually I found them—reports of holdouts like Lamar living on lava fields, windswept sandbars, and desolate arctic glaciers.
I spent Sunday afternoons combing the Web, using a smattering of search terms like “squatter,” “won’t leave home,” and “people call him crazy.” I became friendly with the press office at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and I pumped them for ideas. It turned into something of a hobby. Some people collected stamps, others pressed leaves, I scavenged for strange and daring homes.
These holdouts formed a curious cast of characters—fiercely loyal, seemingly unfazed by danger—the sort of diehard Americans you’d see on the six o’clock news and promptly dismiss as nuts. Even when given an out, they refused to take it. Neither buyouts, nor threats of eviction, nor astronomical insurance rates, nor any amount of reasoning could uproot them. What was their motivation? Was it stubbornness? Was it fatalism? Or had they actually found some strange hidden paradise that the rest of us could not see? Despite the overwhelming drawbacks, home still held some transcendent value for these people, and I couldn’t help but feel moved by their will to hold fast. I was impressed by their fierce pioneer spirit, clearly atavistic, yet proudly unyielding. They struck me as throwbacks to another era, when traveling of any kind was burdensome or downright dangerous and a person’s world was often no more than a few miles in any direction. Home was not just a place but a way of life, a work in progress, something you built and rebuilt over the course of a lifetime, until at last, like the old-timers who went by geographic names—Francis of Middlebury or Jeremiah of Ipswich— home was simply who you were.
I grew up in Buffalo, New York, which is best known as a place that people like to leave. This never-ending exodus has created a bleak landscape of deserted factories, boarded-up houses, and crumbling train stations. As kids, my brother and I would drive along the windswept shores of Lake Erie and sneak into abandoned buildings where green moss carpeted floors, rainwater cascaded down stairways, and busted typewriters rusted firm against dank walls. On one of our later expeditions, when I was already in college, we were caught by an ancient, toothless security guard who then handed us over to the police.
“You graduated from high school?” the police officer asked me as I sat in the back of his squad car.
“Yes,” I told him.
“You in college?” “Yes,” I said again.
“Where?” “Yale.” “Quit fucking around!” he barked.
Eventually I produced my Yale ID, and this really threw him for a laugh. “What are you doing back in Buffalo?” he asked sympathetically, as if my life were clearly drifting toward ruin. “And why the hell are you over here?” “I kind of like it here,” I told him.
And I wasn’t the only one. The area was still inhabited by a handful of old-timers—retired factory workers and profitless shopkeepers who refused to leave. They were the ultimate Buffalonians, remnants of the city’s golden era, now holding on for dear life. Their homes existed outside the realm of city hall: effectively condemned, unpoliced and unplowed (which in snow-packed Buffalo is the kiss of death). My brother was so taken with them that he took a number of photographs and covered the walls of his Boston apartment with portraits of their tough, shadowy faces. And on quiet weekends, when I sometimes visited, these faces would stare me down, reminding me once and forever: We never left.
I come from a family with a long tradition of leaving places. My great-grandmother emigrated to America, returned home to Hungary, then emigrated to America once again. My grandfather was so desperate to get out of New York that in 1934 he took a job chipping paint on a giant freighter bound for California via the Panama Canal. My mother is an itinerant lawyer who practically lives out of a jet and is rarely in the same city for more than two days in a row. I’m no better. In the last several years I’ve lived in New Haven, Boston, Washington, D.C., Israel, India, and the Czech Republic.
In many ways being rootless has become trendy. It’s considered a privilege to go away to college, or better yet study abroad. Jobs that involve travel are viewed as glamorous. Ditching an office for a laptop has become the benchmark of freedom. Mobility has become an integral part of modern life, and, while not everyone is a jetsetter, the concept of a permanent home seems to be quickly vanishing. Nowadays, Americans are relocating at a staggering rate, even if it is just across town or into a neighboring county. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American will move twelve times in his or her lifetime, about once every six or seven years. Forty-three million people moved in 1999 alone.
Perhaps none of this should be so surprising. Historically, we are a nation of people on the move: immigrants arriving by boat, settlers heading out west, freed slaves moving north, laid-off steelworkers going south, disenchanted lawyers relocating to the Silicon Valley, and displaced natives sandwiched everywhere in between. We pride ourselves as a “land of opportunity,” but no one likes to acknowledge the tacit implication that we are a nation of opportunists, largely willing to pull up stakes when it is advantageous to do so. How many of us would actually stick around if things got bad? In truth, how many of us would turn down a better job, or a bigger house, or a government buyout that spared us the ravages of nature? Unless, of course, home itself offers something inherently redeeming in its permanence— something that for me has never been more than a dull phantom-limb ache, but for others holds some deep-rooted primal magic that not even the fiercest earthly torments can break.
As I continued working at the New Republic, word spread of my unusual journalistic niche, and soon friends and family were sending me leads on other “problem” towns from around the country. I researched many of these leads, and a few of them even developed into stories, but most of them I simply took home and filed away with my growing collection. Gradually, I filled a massive three-ring binder with hundreds of pages of research, overflowing with frayed maps and anecdotal histories. It was more than just a backlog of story ideas—it was an atlas of broken places, an inventory of the nation’s most punishing landscapes.
In idle moments, I flipped through my binder and wondered which locations would be the most interesting, dangerous, and inconceivable to visit. I also wondered what the inhabitants of these disparate places might have in common. Was there a “type” of person who refused to leave home? The U.S. Census Bureau shed some light on this subject. In its “Geographic Mobility” report for the year 2000, the Bureau compared the group traits of movers versus nonmovers. As it turns out, the least likely types to move included the elderly, rural inhabitants, homeowners, and widows and widowers. With these demographics in mind, I was soon envisioning the painting American Gothic, with its eerie depiction of a pitchfork-toting Iowa farmer and his daughter standing in front of a desolate farmhouse.
Eventually I turned to academia for more clues. As it turns out, ever since the 1960s, environmental psychologists have been trying to explain why certain people get so attached to their surroundings. There are a number of competing theories on this issue. Perhaps the most prominent of these is that of “place identity,” originated by Harold Proshansky at the City College of New York. Proshansky claimed that physical settings, and especially homes, provide people with an identity and a defining sense of purpose. Without these places, he asserted, people may feel lost or uncertain about who they really are.
Unfortunately, Proshansky and his colleagues had little if anything to say about people who attach themselves to punishing places, or what their sense of purpose might be.
The journey chronicled in this book began as whimsy, as a pipe dream, as errant thoughts of finishing an investigation I’d barely begun. Yet it built momentum rather quickly. I made a short list of my top locations from my three-ring binder, and not long after, I bought a wall map and began tracing several possible travel routes.
Next I took out a calendar and drew up an itinerary. Most of my destinations were afflicted by seasonal disasters, and I figured if I timed it well, I could hit each place in its fiercest, most defining hour. Of course the logistics of this grand journey were still extremely fuzzy— especially my means of financing it—but slowly a plan was forming.
My most immediate problem, other than money, was time. I couldn’t cram any of these visits into a single action-packed Saturday. I had tried this with Lamar Mervine in Centralia, and I ended up with a one-page article that barely scratched the surface. I wanted to experience these places, not just report on them. What I really needed was a few months. Unfortunately, the best I could muster was my one week of paid vacation time. It didn’t allow for the sweeping epic I envisioned, but I figured it was long enough for one good visit. It would be my trial run. My seven-day stab at the big question. And if by some chance I made a breakthrough, perhaps I would find a way to continue on my journey.
The only remaining issue was where to begin. Eventually I settled on Princeville, North Carolina, a town situated on a dangerous floodplain. This was one of the places I had already written about for the magazine. Princeville was reputed to be the oldest all-black town in America, until September of 1999, when it vanished beneath a sea of floodwater that covered much of northeast North Carolina. Princeville was submerged for almost two weeks, and when the floodwaters finally receded, a national debate erupted over whether or not to rebuild this historic town. When I headed down south to cover this story for the magazine, it was a quick visit. I was in Princeville for just a few hours, and I didn’t see a soul on any of its mud-caked streets. There were no diehards, no holdouts—just a waterlogged town rotting in the late summer heat.
Rather disappointed, I returned to Washington, D.C. Yet even then, I had the nagging feeling that I had given up too easily, that in my haste I had missed something.
Copyright © 2003 by Jake Halpern.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Excerpted from Braving Home by Jake Halpern. Copyright © 2015 Jake Halpern. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Jake Halpern is the author of Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America's Favorite Addiction, and Braving Home: Dispatches from the Underwater Town, the Lava-Side Inn, and Other Extreme Locales, hailed by Bill Bryson as “a splendid and engaging account of stubbornness in Modern America." Halpern has written for the New York Times, The New Yorker, LA Weekly, and many other publications. He is also a commentator and freelance producer for NPR’s All Things Considered. He lives in Connecticut.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
Wow, this book was hard for me to put down. I love to travel, so of course this was right up my alley. I heard an interview with Jake Halpern on NPR and thought his travels to remote and unusual dwellings was worth a look. If you like to travel or just want to visit the home of someone curious and peculiar, then you just might be interested in this book. After visiting with Jack and his active volcano surroundings, I honestly wouldn't mind living away from people altogether, too. :0)