Alaska Interview: Tom Bodett

BODETT TOMTom Bodett made his national broadcasting debut in 1984 on NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. Since then, he has authored seven books, and has been heard on Saturday Night Live, National Geographic Explorer and on several Ken Burns documentaries. He lived in Homer, Alaska, for 23 years, and now resides in Dummerston, Vt. Tom has been the brand spokesman for Motel 6 for over 25 years and is now a regular panelist on NPR's satirical weekend news quiz, Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me.
—As told to Dave Costello

What first brought you to Alaska, Tom?

I headed to Oregon from a failed student career at Michigan State to do my Jack Kerouac and London, Woody Guthrie thing. This was the mid-Seventies. Being a knucklehead was a lifestyle choice. Oregon was great fun: worked in the woods. Learned how to drink. Not unrelated to that, I was electrocuted to within an inch of my life on a high powerline outside of Medford, OR. It took me about a year to get over it, then it was like, "What else can you show me?" I made a sign that said "Alaska" on it and stood on the entrance ramp to Interstate 5 at Ashland.

What was it like living in a small town like Homer, and what made you stay for 23 years?

Like most people who came to Alaska during those boom years from 75-85, I never remember deciding to stay. I just kept not leaving. I grew up in a small town in Michigan—Sturgis—and they are about the same story wherever you go. Everybody knows everyone's business, or thinks they do. Neighbors look out for neighbors. The roads are generally terrible. It wasn't that big of a leap to settle into small town Alaska. As Alaskans know, if you live in a town with more than 200 people in it, you are not in the bush. Homer, at 5,000 or so souls is practically a metropolis. Having bear and moose in the yard and eagles on the roof was peculiar at times, but you get used to that.

How did you get into the publishing business, and how did you end up on the radio?

The radio came first. I was building houses in Homer and doing a little weekly commentary on KBBI, the local public radio station. The pieces found their way up through the NPR network to All Things Considered, NPR's national evening news program out of Washington, DC, and that got the phone ringing. My first book was published a year later and I started doing the Motel 6 commercials a year after that. It's been 30 years and I still don't trust my luck. The tools are still out in the shop.

Tell us about one of the best things you experienced living in Alaska—what was one of the strangest?

There were so many wonderful and strange moments. One I think of often was a night in 1982—I was driving alone after dark on the Glen Highway from Glenallen to Palmer. It was mid-October, cold, and I was the only thing on the road until I came around a bend and saw nothing but a wall of caribou. I was able to stop, and the herd kept going in front of the truck and behind the truck as if I wasn't even there. Thousands of them—hooves rumbling the ground, their breath fogging my windows. I sat there watching them go by for almost half an hour, then they were gone into the night. I would say that experience qualifies as both "best" and "strangest".

How would you explain your relationship with the state of Alaska now?

I lived in Alaska longer than I've lived anywhere, including Michigan. I love our lives here in Vermont, but you never stop being an Alaskan once you've started. Like Neil Young says of his native Ontario in the song "Helpless"—All of my changes were there. I was raised in Michigan, but I grew up in Alaska. It will always be the place I'm from. We get back every couple of years for visits. I love showing the place to my two younger sons, now 8 and 10. I hope they'll spend some time there on their own one day.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Alaska magazine.

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