Dead Cars

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
In Southwest Alaska, two big rivers flow across the subarctic tundra emptying into the Bering Sea. Together, the rivers create the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, an area the size of the state of Illinois. Scattered along the rivers and coast are 56 Alaska native tribes and communities of mostly a few hundred people.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
The tundra river delta is a wetland with ponds scattered in every direction and streams and tributaries braiding and weaving between them.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Anna Rose MacArthur who lives in the Y-K Delta.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
From an airplane, it’s hard to tell if there’s more water or land below. It’s really beautiful.

Roman Mars:
The hub of this region is the city of Bethel population 6,500. The town is the economic and bureaucratic center of the Delta. It’s the place people fly into for medical care, shopping and work, and the reason they fly is because the entire region is off the road system.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
That means that while there are roads within communities, there are no roads connecting towns like Bethel to the outside. The land is too boggy to support them. The interstates and highways that link most towns and cities in North America don’t exist here. The only way in or out of any of the communities in the region, including Bethel, is by plane or boat. In winter, you can also snowmobile or drive a truck along the frozen river, which we call the ice highway.

Roman Mars:
That presents some interesting challenges when it comes to waste, because pretty much everything that gets imported into Bethel ultimately stays in Bethel. It comes in by cargo plane or barge, and even when something stops working, it’s often too expensive and too inconvenient to get it out again.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
In other places in the United States, trash is thrown away, but in a town scratched from the tundra, unconnected by roads, there is no “away”, there is only “here”. So, junk slowly accumulates. People’s yards fill with wooden pallets, fishing buoys, oil drums and tarps with mysterious stuff underneath. It’s a common sight throughout rural Alaska and there’s no social stigma attached. No neighborhood committee policing acceptable lawn decor.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“Okay, this is rolling. Oh, it is. Okay.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Other people might not see all this junk as a problem, but then there’s Diane McEachern. She’s my roommate. She’s lived in Bethel for more than 20 years and she’s a very self-motivated person. Prone to eccentric obsessions and quests.

Diane McEachern:
“Now, okay. Should I put her in the house because she might do some dog barking?”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“Yeah, that’d be good.”

Diane McEachern:
“Let me do that.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Diane has biked 2,000 miles solo across the United States, twice. She’s been arrested for political activism and has been known to stick anti-war fliers between cans of soup in cereal boxes at the grocery store. She also curates a photo collection of Bethel’s overflowing dumpsters that she finds amusing.

Diane McEachern:
“We have to decide the first place.”

Roman Mars:
About a year ago, her eccentric obsession fixated on something that many people don’t notice for the same reason that fish don’t notice water. Diane became obsessed with the most visible manifestation of the town’s junk problem, the dead cars.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
If you care to notice, you see them everywhere. Broken down, abandoned, left to rust and rot out in the elements.

Diane McEachern:
The kinds of areas that dead cars get located, homes, random parking lots, totally off beat locations, places of business.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Dead cars lined the sides of the roads. They fill people’s yards and sit scattered throughout public parking lots. Diane has decided she wants to count them all. So, she’s divided Bethel into sections. Over the course of a year, she’s methodically checked every street, parking lot and yard. And I’ve been tagging along.

Diane McEachern:
“Let the clicking begin.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
She bought one of those handheld clickers, a little silver one, like the kind used to count the number of people attending events or to count anything really.

Diane McEachern:
“So, there’s the SUV, an SUV next to it. Ford, Ford, Ford. Okay. We’re up to 67 and we have not hit a neighborhood yet. So…”

Roman Mars:
Diane sees the dead cars as a symptom of something bigger. About 100 vehicles were taken to the Bethel landfill last year. Meanwhile, about 300 vehicles were barged into town.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
All these cars are coming in, but they’re not going out and they’re piling up around us.

Diane McEachern:
“We’re not going to get away with this forever. I mean there’s a price to be paid for this kind of materialism of which I am part of. So, I’m not like saying I’m exempt because I’m not. I give it a lot of thought though. How can we organize ourselves to handle this differently is sort of a burning question for me. Now that red truck doesn’t look right, does it? Click.” (Clicking sound)

Anna Rose MacArthur:
I love living in Bethel. I love its small city intimacy. I love that I can walk in any direction and in a couple miles pitch a tent in the tundra wilderness. I love that a two minute stop is considered a traffic jam. I love fishing for salmon in the summer, picking wild berries in the fall and cheering for sled dog races in the winter, but this town, it isn’t for everyone. Just go to the airport and you’ll see.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“Okay. So, here we are. We’re at the lot across from the main terminal…”

Roman Mars:
The Bethel airport is where the town’s dead car problem is most apparent. It’s like a graveyard of rusting vehicles. There are rumors the cars were left by people who just drove to the airport, got on a plane and never looked back.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
It’s so bad, you can almost never find a parking space.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“This one is dead and double parked. That’s like a middle finger to the town. It’s like, I’m going to leave this car here and I’m going to double park. ”

Diane McEachern:
“I’m going to take up two spaces while I do it and look at the body. That body is (clicking sound) excellent.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
The Alaska Department of Transportation oversees the Bethel Airport. Between keeping snow off the runways and filling potholes, removing abandoned cars hasn’t been their priority, which means the cars keep accumulating and now they’re a major headache.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“Okay. First of all, with the airport here in Bethel, have you been out to Bethel and seen the layout?”

Shannon McCarthy:
“You know, it’s been a long time, but yes, I have been out there.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Shannon McCarthy is the spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Transportation.

Shannon McCarthy:
If it becomes obvious to us that a car has been abandoned and oftentimes you’ll see like lots of snow on it or lots of dust on it, that kind of thing, they are required to post it for removal for 30 days, and then once the 30 days has passed, we actually have to bring them to our shop and we have to prepare them for disposal.

Roman Mars:
That means draining the fluids, removing the battery and taking the vehicle to the dump. That’s the proper way to dispose of a car in Bethel. It costs the state $50 for each car they have to deal with because the owners are nowhere to be found.

Shannon McCarthy:
We do try to make contact, but oftentimes if someone is disposing of a vehicle clandestinely if you will, they oftentimes don’t leave good contact information or the contact information no longer is valid. So unfortunately, we’re not able to recoup those costs very frequently.

Diane McEachern:
“Oh my. Just so you know, we’re up to 188 cars.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“What?!”

Diane McEachern:
“We haven’t even really scratched the surface of Bethel.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“Let’s go over the signs again like the telltale signs that distinguish the car.”

Diane McEachern:
“There’s grass growing up around the tires and the grass is tall enough that it took awhile for the grass to begin growing. Of course, the real obvious pancake tires. Tires that are completely off the rim, the windows are all broken out and then maybe I know that that car has never moved for a year.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“Or it’s sunken into the dirt.”

Diane McEachern:
“Oh yeah, it started to sink into earth itself. That’s the sad thing. Oh, look at that beautiful Chevy (clicking sound), that beautiful color.”

Roman Mars:
Not all dead cars in Bethel are abandoned and left for someone else to deal with like the ones at the airport. Some are carefully curated, meant to be used for a greater purpose in the future.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Like the cars beside Aggie Gregory’s house.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“Okay. So, will you tell me the story about these cars in the yard?”

Agnes Gregory:
“There’s three that are just sitting on our property and a couple of them are the same. So, we use one for parts for the other one.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Dead cars are a common feature in yards here because cannibalizing parts to fix other vehicles happens all the time.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“So, wait. Is that the one that you’re supposed to fix up, the silver one?”

Agnes Gregory:
“We’re supposed to, but I don’t know if that’s going to ever happen.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“If you don’t get it fixed up, how long do you think it’s going to sit there?”

Agnes Gregory:
“That’s a good question.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Aggie says that they eventually want to get rid of the cars, so they have room to park their old boat, because they plan to get a new boat and strip the old one for parts. They have two snowmobiles for the same reason.

Agnes Gregory:
“Some parts are… It’s harder to get I guess, and it cost money to ship. So, why not keep them and use them?”

Roman Mars:
Rural Alaska is famous for its scrappy resourcefulness. You can’t live in a place that’s so remote where things take so long to get and costs so much money without creativity. People tend to hold onto their stuff for a long time. Even broken stuff.

David Fitka:
“Very little gets thrown away. Usually if it’s good enough, we’ll reuse.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
David Fitka is helping to repair a truck that belongs to Aggie and her husband. David is from Marshall, a small village north of Bethel on the Yukon River.

David Fitka:
“It’s a mechanical world out here. A lot of snow machines, four wheelers. We kind of grew up around it. Most of the guys become naturals at it. Just start taking things apart and then they have to go back together. Yeah.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
David has just finished changing the ball joints on his friend’s ’02 Dodge Dakota truck. They’re the pivots between the wheels and the suspension. Usually these joints would last about 10 years, but in Bethel, it’s more like two. That’s because the roads here are notoriously bad. Sometimes it seems like there’s more pothole than road.

Roman Mars:
Warming winters have made them even worse. Instead of the temperature dropping and staying below freezing, it goes up and down. As the ice melts, water gets into all the nooks and crannies of the road. When it refreezes, it expands making the cracks bigger and bigger.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
The infrastructure of the outside, it arrived through colonization and it doesn’t work so well here. Over time, the ground has frozen and thawed so many times that the pavement has created these giant heaves. It’s like a roller coaster ride, fun on a bike but hard on a car.

Diane McEachern:
(Click, click, click) “It’s a nice sound effect to have a few quiet clicks because by now the audience knows what it’s all about. Let me ask this girl.”

Diane McEachern:
“Hey, does that green car work?”

Girl:
“Huh?”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“Does that green car work?”

Girl:
“I don’t know.”

Diane McEachern:
“I don’t think so.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“They’re all shaking their heads.”

Diane McEachern:
“I don’t think so. Look at the growth. Look at the growth under there. (click) So, I’m at 869.”

Roman Mars:
Before cars die and end up abandoned on the side of the road or in someone’s yard, they typically cycle through a few owners, deteriorating as they pass from one person to the next.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
A friend of mine once bought a jeep for $500 that couldn’t reverse. We call cars like these Bethel beaters. I personally have decided to forego a beater in favor of biking and taking taxis because this land of the abandoned vehicles also has a thriving cab industry.

Roman Mars:
Cabs are a critical shared resource. They’re heavily relied upon by the constant influx of travelers from nearby villages. Once people arrive by plane or boat for their shopping appointments and business, they need a way to get around. So, you see cabs everywhere. In fact, Manhattan isn’t the cab capital of the U.S. Bethel is, per capita anyway.

Naim Shabani:
“So yes, per capita Bethel has the most cabs in the United States, but there’s 59.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“59 cabs total in Bethel. That means there’s one cab for every 110 people. Naim Shabani is the co-owner of Bethel’s largest cab company, Kusko Cab.”

Naim Shabani:
“We average a call every 45 seconds.”

Roman Mars:
The busiest times are mornings when people are getting to work, kids are getting to school and people are going to the airport. Then later in the day when people get off work and finally at night between bingo ending and the grocery stores closing.

Naim Shabani:
“On average, a cab in Bethel does 200 miles a day. 200 miles a day or about 6,000 miles a month. That is the average odometer reading at the end of a shift for a cab in Bethel.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
All that driving on only 36 miles of road. Naim says it’s fun. Most rides are shared and there are a lot of regular customers that many drivers have been driving for years.

Naim Shabani:
“You get to catch up with them and their life and vice versa. So, the day does go by rather quickly. It’s kind of like being in an elevator for 12 hours.”

Roman Mars:
Even people who live in the Y-K Delta and have their own vehicles regularly use cabs like when the roads are icy and vehicle owners don’t want to risk their cars sliding into a ditch. Why take the chance with your own vehicle when you can just take one of Naim’s taxis?

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Of course, that means Naim’s taxis take a beating. He says they last on average three years.

Naim Shabani:
“I like to think of some vehicles in Bethel as like burner cell phones where you buy it until the minutes run out and then you toss it out and go get another one.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Diane has owned three cars in Bethel. One day when we were out counting, we found her first one.

Diane McEachern:
“Oh, oh, oh my gosh.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“Oh, Diane.”

Diane McEachern:
“Oh my gosh. That was my first Bethel car. That was my first car in Bethel. It’s got the ‘Occupy the Tundra’ sticker. Oh my gosh.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Occupy the Tundra was a movement of one started by Diane.

Diane McEachern:
“That was my first vehicle and look what’s become of it.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“Describe what you’re seeing.”

Diane McEachern:
“Well, I mean the tires shot, one of the windows busted out. The rear blinker thing is completely dangling. Oh my goodness gracious. (click) Click.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Bethel’s disposable economy or cars get used and then dumped by the side of the road, it’s relatively new. The Bethel area was one of the final places colonized in the U.S. territory. It didn’t have the natural resources like large gold deposits, oils or sea otters to lure settlers.

Roman Mars:
This late colonization is one of the reasons why the Yup’ik culture remains so strong. It’s why Yup’ik is one of the few indigenous languages in the U.S. spoken as a first language. It’s why Yup’ik people still hunt, fish and gather on their ancestral lands.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Yup’ik elders in their 70s and 80s have lived through a rapid cultural transformation. They were born into what was still a largely nomadic hunter gatherer society and now they carry smartphones. They went from feeding dog teams to gassing up snowmobiles, from living in sod houses to heating framed with diesel fuel. A transformation that took hundreds of years in the lower 48 occurred within these elders lifetimes. One of these elders is Esther Green. Esther, will you introduce yourself?

Esther Green:
“Uh-hmm” (affirmative). [speaks in Yup’ik]

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“Esther, what year were you born? How old are you?”

Esther Green:
“1938. 81.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
Esther Green has seen a lot of change in her 81 years. She started life in a nearby village and moved to Bethel as a young girl. She watched Bethel grow from hundreds of people to thousands of people and she’s seen all the vehicles that have come with them. We drove down to a beach in Bethel.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
‘It’s a low tide.’

Esther Green:
‘Yeah.’

Anna Rose MacArthur:
‘It’s really low.’

Anna Rose MacArthur:
There used to be a seawall here, made entirely of dead cars. Just dumped there to stop erosion. Did it look like just a pile of dead cars stacked on top of each other?

Esther Green:
“Yes. Uh-hmm.” (Affirmative)

Anna Rose MacArthur:
The dead car seawall stopped the erosion, but the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation deemed it an environmental danger in 1981 for leaking battery acid and gasoline into the river, and the cars were removed a few years later. This beach was one of the few safe places to park a boat during that time.

Esther Green:
“Because, there’s no rotten rusty gas tanks everywhere mixed with old cars.”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
In the Yup’ik tradition, everything that isn’t created by humans has a yuk. Yuk translates to a person, plants, animals, water, rocks, and so on. All have yuks. It’s a spirit, an animation, an awareness.

Esther Green:
[speaks in Yup’ik] “Everything around us has ears and they could see and they can feel just like us human beings.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
When we throw vehicles across the landscape, leaving them to rot, Esther says it causes a disruption.

Diane McEachern:
“Got this one here. (click… click, click).

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“This is a problem I don’t think that is just Alaska. This is more of a microcosm of the world. We produce, we produce and we consume, and then what happens to it? It stays here. It stays on the planet.”

Diane McEachern:
“I think that’s a good point because I think it’s related to capitalism and materialism, and you’re right, this isn’t particularly unique to Bethel. It’s just we have a unique context, so it kind of…”

Anna Rose MacArthur:
“It’s all visible.”

Diane McEachern:
“Yeah. Let me just catch all these dead puppies here. (click, click, click) Here we are. Tire’s flat, grass growing. I think that’s going to be my final click. (click) All right. 943, that’s the end.”

Roman Mars:
Diane says she might write a letter to the newspaper about her car count or she says she might present her findings at a community meeting or just post it on social media. Maybe it’ll spark a conversation, but really the count was just for her, a way to satisfy her curiosity about a problem that she’s observed that with no system to address it will only continue to grow.

Anna Rose MacArthur:
More vehicles will be barged into Bethel next summer. They’ll keep coming, keep dying, and keep piling up. As much as Bethel feels unique, it’s not. We all throw things away. In many cases, it ends up in a landfill, far removed from our consciousness, but the junk remains among us on the earth. It’s all piling up somewhere. In Bethel, we have no illusions about where that place is. It’s around us. We’re living in it.

Diane McEachern:
“Oh, look at that jeep. That jeep is a goner. (click) 944, the clicking goes on. (laughs) Oh no!”

Credits

Production

Reporter Anna Rose MacArthur spoke with Bethel residents: Diane McEachern, Elder Esther Green, Willie John, Agnes Gregory, Beverly Hoffman; David Fitka, Marshall resident; Naim Shabani, owner of Kusko Cab Company; Shannon McCarthy, spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Transportation. This episode was edited by Delaney Hall.

Special thanks to City Grants Manager, John Sargent; Bethel Landfill Manager, Dave Stovner; Bethel City Clerk, Lori Strickler; Bethel City Port Administrative Assistant Ed Flores; Bethel City Transportation Inspector Jesslyn McGowan; and KYUK Public Media Yup’ik Translator and Radio Director Julia Jimmie.

Comments (9)

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  1. Mahmood

    I’ve came across one of your podcasts on TuneIn radio just accidentally and I really loved the “Built On Sand” episode more than other ones. After that I cannot sleep unless I listen to one episode of 99% invisible in spite of barriers like low-speed internet. Also you won’t believe that your website is filtered in my country. Why? Who khows.
    I just wanted you to know someone really far from you follow and became a big fan of your special program. Thank you for your creative podcasts.

  2. paolo

    Problem? Solution: Set up a metal shredder near where your barges tie up. Pay folks some $$ amount for every heap they manage to drag down to the port, shred them and barge the material out and on to buyers to cover some of the cost. Keep doing it until you are satisfied.

  3. Linnea

    Funny how I don’t hear an Alaskan accent until ten minutes into the episode. Outsiders come in and tell us what to do. What else is new?

    1. Eric

      I’m sorry you felt that way. As an outsider what I heard was sympathy for the problem, an explanation of why it is not easily fixed, nobody saying what should be done, and the observation that the problem isn’t any different than the rest of America (the whole modern world really).

  4. roger

    Diane’s complaining about a town living in its own filth and trash, yet at the same time, the town is so remote they cant afford to waste things by throwing them away…

    She offers no solutions, no hope. Whats the take away?

    Also what happens to all the barges that bring in new cars leave? Do they leave empty?
    It seems like an opportunity to incentivise them to take old cars to recycle…

    1. Eric

      I had the same question about the barges. They mentioned them coming in a couple of time, I was hoping that someone would mention what was on them when they left.

  5. Linda Shay Gardner

    I was born in Bethel when my parents were Moravian Missionaries there in 1951. I returned there this past summer (2019) and would agree that this is a problem with a long history. As a matter of fact, I think I saw my dad’s 1949 pick up in a yard there. There is no place to take them to “get rid of them” or dispose of them otherwise. This is an American problem and we cannot turn our backs on the Tundra in Bethel and the people there. The people are wonderful, and if you go there, I recommend riding the one bus in town all day, you will meet so many people have have so many wonderful experiences, that you cannot forget. Linda Shay Gardner

  6. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation deemed it an environmental danger in 1981 for leaking battery acid and gasoline into the river, and the cars were removed a few years later.

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