Writing Outside the Lines
Patt Garrett usually knows a good story when she sees it, though it took her a while to realize she was living one. It also took her a very long time — not till the last year or so, she said — to recognize an important force behind her story’s plot twists. “A lot of what I’ve done was driven by mental illness,” she said. “I didn’t know that jumping off the cliff was a manic episode of bipolar disorder — I just jumped off the cliff into water.” As she’s labored over a book-length writing project — part historic documentation, part memoir — she’s come to realize that bipolar disorder “was what drove me for so many years. I’ve only been successfully medicated and treated for 20 years,” she said.
At 74, Garrett is full of spark and grit. Raised mainly in Wallace, Idaho, she dropped out of high school due to pregnancy at 16. “I was always an outlaw — a deviant from Burke Canyon. I never colored in the lines,” she said. She and her boyfriend moved to Alaska, eloping en route in Taos, New Mexico. That marriage (and its eventual end) was the first of four.
Garrett arrived in Anchorage just in time to experience the Good Friday Earthquake in 1964, a dramatic welcome that set a certain tone. She first found work as a Military Auxiliary Radio System split key operator on Government Hill, patching morale calls through for soldiers in Vietnam. The war was in full swing. Garrett listened in, monitoring call clarity but also keeping an ear open for classified information. She listened as husbands called home and learned their wives were out with other men. She heard awkward conversations as lives were disrupted. “The Air Force gave us valium to handle the stress. It was ‘mother’s little yellow helper’ then. Everyone could get valium, and they recommended it to us.”
Another pregnancy prevented her from keeping on at the switchboard, but in time, she found work cooking at Sparrevohn Air Force Station and Tatalina Air Force Station — remote, continental defense radar stations designed to provide early warnings of Russian attacks. She worked as an exotic dancer in pre-pipeline Spenard, too, and as a bull cook in placer gold mining camps. She also spent seven years at Valdez Terminal Camp. It was rough and wild, yet an incredible time, she said. “Women had a chance to get into the labor unions for the first time.”
She was 40 and tending bar in Wasilla before she got her GED and finished college. After graduate school and licensure, she began her 30-year career in social work. She worked at Anchorage’s old Sixth Avenue Jail, Alaska Psychiatric Institute, and around the prison system. She worked for the Army around domestic violence issues and at the Anchorage Pioneer Home and the Alaska Native Medical Center. She spent seven years in the Arctic.
For much of her life, Garrett’s writing mostly consisted of long letters to friends and family and evaluative notes for her clients. Though she published a few pieces along the way, it took her a long time to begin identifying as a creative writer. In 2001, she started going to weeklong workshops at the Wrangell Mountains Center in McCarthy, working with writers like Franks Soos, Kathleen Dean Moore, Seth Kantner, Tom Kizzia, and others. The history and feel of the McCarthy-Kennecott mining area bore a great deal of similarity to the history around her hometown in Idaho. She started writing pieces of her own story about growing up in mining country, working at remote Alaska gold mines, and doing social work in the Arctic.
Her fascination with McCarthy grew, and she eventually began volunteering with the McCarthy-Kennicott Historical Museum. She bought an old historic cabin and slowly restored it while serving as a curator and docent, focusing on incorporating women’s stories into the area’s copper and gold mining history. One historical woman called Kate Kennedy particularly captivated Garrett’s imagination. Kennedy’s story counterpoints Garrett’s own history and provides a kind of lens useful for focusing meaning — and even “validation,” she said — on her own colorful life. “I do feel a passion for my life talking about her life.”
Since her Rasmuson Foundation award, Garrett has installed a modest solar power system at her off-grid cabin, equipping her to begin typing up years’ worth of handwritten stories. She also traveled to Cordova and Valdez to conduct research on Kennedy’s life. Hard luck has kept her on her toes, adding to a litany of obstacles dating back to a lead-contaminated childhood near mines that she blames for her learning disabilities.
“My grandson died. My mom died. My dog died. My dad fell. My eyes failed. And I was acutely depressed — clinically depressed. And Trump was elected. I think there’s almost a funny story or limerick or something there. That year it was just one disaster after another. I backed into my cabin and knocked the camper off my truck. And so, when I was in Cordova I was sleeping in it and came back with pneumonia.” Heavy rains and flooding in McCarthy also led her to forego a research trip to Nome.
Garrett persisted, though, traveling to Fairbanks for the Alaska Miners Association convention. She got Kennedy listed in the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame. “The miners and the old history farts in Fairbanks gave me a standing ovation and said, ‘Come back again.’ ”
One of these days she’ll be back up there telling her own stories as well as Kennedy’s. As she’s gradually developed an expertise on aspects of McCarthy’s history, she’s come to more fully appreciate her own experience. Her friends and community, especially those she connected with through McCarthy, have encouraged her to keep writing. She’s made good progress on form and structure questions as she works to weave together her own life story and Kennedy’s into a book manuscript. “This awesome cast of artists and writers and creative people gave me permission to be not crazy, but to create,” she said. “It’s a real thin line.”