Greetings from Chicken Alaska, population: 7
NO, THIS is not about a delicious, mouth-watering, delectable, haute cuisine variation of poultry. Rather, it is about the quirky town of Chicken in the US state of Alaska.
Situated way out in the vast wilderness, Chicken had a population of seven in the last census. Even so, it is a town sharply divided into Upper Chicken and Lower Chicken, with bitter rivalry between the factions.
It was not always so. In the heydays of the late 1890s, gold was king. As the Johnny Horton song goes, "North to Alaska, they're goin' north, the rush is on."
Thousands of miners and probably even more hangers-on endured the harsh trek to the goldfields.
A town rapidly developed. Resources were scarce, particularly food.
The inhabitants relied heavily on a bird called a ptarmigan, a medium-sized game bird. Ptarmigans abounded in prodigious numbers and provided food, bedding and even leather for the locals. The people were so indebted to the bird that when it came time to choose a name for the town, it was decided to call it Ptarmigan. Trouble was nobody knew how to spell this word.
The solution was simple - call the place Chicken, everyone knew how to spell that. And so the name stuck.
Inevitably, the gold dwindled and so did the population. Now only a handful remain, eking out an existence chiefly based on tourism. In summer there can be as many as 30 in the settlement.
It is one of the few remaining gold rush towns in Alaska. Perhaps its best-known inhabitant was a teacher called Anne Hobbs whose story of bravery and endurance was told in the book Tisha, set in the 1920s.
A few years ago we visited Chicken on a coach tour. The gravel road was called the Taylor Highway - "due to be sealed the year pigs fly"!
In Upper Chicken there were three buildings including a saloon. Its walls and ceiling were covered with dirty baseball caps, its floor filthy, its proprietor looked like he had just came from wrestling with a bear. The ambience did not encourage us to linger.
A short distance away, in Lower Chicken, there was a general store-cum-gift shop.
The female owner came out and started abusing our tour guide for stopping at Upper Chicken first. The tirade continued for some time.
Worried for the safety of our guide, several of us hastily grabbed some postcards and proffered money for them.
This appeared to placate her and things calmed down.
A nearby road sign stated: "25 lovely people plus one old grump." Apparently we had met the grump.
It was a unique experience and we all learned something, including our guide who learned to always go to Lower Chicken first.