Bush pilot’s haircut

I’ve been traveling in Alaska for nearly two weeks and have another week of travel ahead, in California, before I return home. Long overdue for a haircut, I noticed a tiny shop beside the TSA entrance here at Anchorage airport: the Bush Pilots Barbershop. Two older men were seated inside, shooting the breeze, while Fox News blared loudly on the overhead television. Decades of memorabilia were pinned to the walls – photos of a younger barber holding a massive fish (95 pounds), well-fingered maps of Alaska, postcards from bush pilots, stuff animal heads, antlers, and more. What the heck. I’ll go all-in for the Alaska experience. I stepped inside, waited for a break in the conversation, and asked for a haircut.

As I settled in I noted to Vern, the barber, that it appeared he’d been operating here for a long time. “Twenty-four years, yessir,” in a heavy drawl I can only imagine is the result of almost nine decades of life in Alaska, earlier as a bush pilot and now as a barber. I showed him photos from my hometown barber – snapped after a 2019 haircut in hopes I could use it to instruct German-speaking barbers in Zürich while living there. After a glance, he said “oh yeah, that’s how I cut them all.” No special requests here, it appears. You ask for a haircut, you get your hair cut.

He fired up his tired old electric clippers and started to work away. He was chatting about fishing, float planes, moose hunting, black bear populations (“once I shot four in the same day – bunch of nuisance bears they were!”). He often paused to think – the clippers set aside on a shelf, still whirring away – as he tried to remember the name of a place or person from long ago.

Twice other people came by – one, a fellow bush pilot and clearly an old friend – stopped by to “make a deposit in the bank of Vern,” holding up his Swiss Army Knife.  Vern opened a drawer in a beat-up cabinet on one side, and the pilot dropped his knife into the drawer. After chatting about the prospects for a coming moose hunt – clippers whirring away on the table, and me wondering whether I’d ever finish my haircut – the pilot headed into the TSA security line, promising to pick up his knife when he returned in a week. A friendly service that clearly was used often – on the other hand, Vern admitted he had a drawer with 20 or more knives, still waiting for their owner to return.

A few times Vern brought up politics. “We had a crazy election last week. They surprised us with a new voting scheme” (ranked-choice voting) “and it is terrible. Terrible!” I noted the Sarah Palin poster on the wall and decided to change the subject away from politics.

Anyway, he finished. I looked in the mirror and told him it was much improved (from my shaggy long hair). Not sure I can say it was a good haircut, but it was a great experience!

An improvement. I think.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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