Land of the free, and home of the brave takes on new meaning


“The magazine I worked for was the New Republic, and my co-workers 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.”

– Braving Home by Jake Halpern

Not many of us would ever think of linking the word “home” with “bravery”, but there are times that holding on to the place that has been your home does require an incredible dose of courage.

Halpern, a Yale graduate who had done a lot of moving around, had grown up largely in Buffalo, N.Y., “which is best known as a place that people like to leave,” the author points out in his introduction.

Travels. On a college break, when he and his brother are stopped by police while sneaking into abandoned buildings to see green moss carpeting the floors of deserted factories, the officer is incredulous that either of the two boys would come back to Buffalo.

“I kind of like it here,” the Yale student answers.

So, perhaps it is that stalwart, homesteading part of his soul that prompts him to travel to God-forsaken places on the globe to ask people why they stay in the place that everyone else has left. Whatever it is, I understand it.

He travels to Princeville, N.C., a town said to be the oldest all-black town in America, situated on a dangerous floodplain, and interviews Thad Knight.

Princeville was once a safe haven for a band of freed slaves. When Hurricane Floyd enlarged the Tar River and sunk the town of Princeville under 20 feet of water in September 1999, most people left and didn’t return.

Staying put. Thad Knight returned home to find a dozen or so unearthed coffins sitting on his front lawn. He wasn’t leaving, so he had to make this ghost-town liveable again while waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to decide if millions of dollars would be spent to rebuild the town.

It didn’t matter what the ruling was. Thad Knight was staying.

Halpern’s travels included a trip to Whittier, Alaska, where avalanche warnings are posted right along with welcome signs as travelers pass through the dangerous tunnel to get to the indoor city, built inside a mountain by the U.S. military as a secured seaport.

The 182 people who dare to continue living there came for many reasons, enjoying the library, hospital, hobby stores, post office, a barbershop, a jail, the movie theater, bowling alley, even an indoor shooting range, plus a 14-story high rise, the tallest building in Alaska when it was erected in 1956.

Perhaps the most interesting was a woman who said she stays for good reason. “I had an ex-husband on the other side (of that tunnel) who was trying to kill me.”

Isolation. Many people are too nervous to travel into the two-mile long tunnel, so narrow that only one lane is passable. Strict timetables are followed for alternating traffic flow, and two massive metal doors slide shut at night, closing Whittier off from the rest of the world.

Halpern’s next stop was Hawaii, where active volcanoes had taken out entire neighborhoods, though some houses remained standing.

Lava-encircled islands held some surviving homes, with the most legendary homeowner being Jack Thompson.

He was said to ignore roadblocks and warnings to leave, to ride his motorcycle across molten lava, while fending off hoards of wild pigs, and keeping looters at bay.

More brave souls. Canyon of the Firefighting Hillbillies in Malibu, Calif., and Island of the Storm Riders in Grand Isle, La., rounded out Halpern’s chapters on his journey to meet the people who were brave enough to stay in the place that would forever be their home.

It is an interesting read in today’s world of shifting change, mobile phones and upward moves.

It speaks volumes toward an individual’s character, brave enough to stay put, no matter what.

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