It's a rare place that leaves imprints on the memory and soul, as real as any touch or photograph. These are the places people write love letters to, that families grow old together in, and where the sounds of the tide or the smell of the mountain air never fade.
Homer is one of these special places.
Last weekend I headed south in search of pecan sticky buns, music and the annual winter carnival. The drive through mountains, spruce forest and coastline was a visual appetizer for what was to come. The view of Kachemak Bay is almost indulgent in its beauty.
I'd heard that most of the town had lost power and that there were record-breaking winds that day. After a warm January, the snow was welcome. Homer blogger Teresa Sundmark (loftyminded.com) summed up the weekend perfectly in her most recent post: "Everything that Friday was -- violent, dusty, dark, edgy, uncertain -- Saturday was not. The storm had passed, the skies were clear. The voice on the radio reminded me that we're gaining five minutes of daylight a day."
I woke Saturday morning to the kind of sunshine that you can feel in your bones. The first thing I saw when I looked out my window was the ocean framing my host's chicken coop. A layer of fresh powder blanketed the landscape like a white comforter.
Walking up the ramp to Two Sisters Bakery, past the neatly stacked pile of split alder firewood outside, I was met with the seductive scent of caramel sticky buns and cheesy bread. Can anyone resist the smell of fresh bread baking? I prefer to think not.
Inside, I felt as if I'd lived in Homer for years.
There were people I'd met at a contra dance the night before, musicians I recognized from the parade earlier that morning and old friends who had just moved to town. It's a phenomenon that I've realized occurs frequently in Alaska and even more often in a town's local bakery.
I watched as co-owner Carrie Thurman stoked the flames of the wood-fired oven. Fueled by hot-burning alder, the brick walls can hold in heat for hours, baking batch after batch of bread. The resulting loaves have luxuriously airy insides with satisfyingly crisp and golden exteriors.
The oven is beautiful and one of a kind. It was designed by the late blacksmith Alan Scott, whose skill in using radiant heat led to a revival in the craft of building brick ovens across the country. Thurman brought him to Homer in 2004 to lead the construction of the oven. For Scott, building an oven was a way to bring a community together. He supervised gathering volunteers, drawing on old traditions. His legacy lives on in each loaf and perfectly chewy crust.
As Thurman loaded up the oven, she glanced out the window. Two Sisters is in view of beaches, sparkling glaciers and the snowcapped Kenai Mountains. It's downtown, a minute's walk to and from Bishop's Beach, where on that day I experienced snow, kelp, sand and ocean inside a 100-foot radius.
When Thurman first bought the land the bakery sits on in 1993, she had no idea what was in store for her. She was eight months pregnant with her first child when she opened.
"The first time I fell in love with Homer was when I saw the view from Baycrest - I had promised myself that if I ever felt that way about a place I would move there," Thurman said. Twenty years later, she is firmly rooted in the community. "I feel so lucky that this has become my home."
Bakers start the day at 2:30 a.m., mixing and kneading dough. Savory scones, muffins, berry danishes, quiche, croissants, pecan cherry granola and bagels are just some of the options offered when customers arrive groggy and famished in the morning.
Two Sisters also makes dinner, featuring Alaska seafood and local vegetables. "Between the farmers market and garden hoophouses, we are working with farmers almost every other day," Thurman said. She describes their food as "locally driven" and "handmade." If you are someone that drools over pesto-stuffed mushrooms or candy cane beets, then you are in luck. For the carnivores, there's also rib-eye steak and baby-back ribs on the menu. Two Sisters makes most everything from scratch, including their own pickles, mayonnaise and sausage.
Thurman attended an international food symposium in Copenhagen last summer. She was with hundreds of other chefs, cooks and farmers who share her appetite for positive change. She said she realized there that "we have got it going on in Homer. Alaska has been doing this (farm-to-table) thing for a long time because we had no other option."
Like most businesses in Homer, Two Sisters Bakery is very much a product of the place.
"Two Sisters wouldn't be Two Sisters anywhere else," Thurman said.
Shannon Kuhn lives in Anchorage, where she writes about food and culture.