Tom Kehrberg ducked into a stylish hair salon on Fifth Avenue on a breezy winter morning in early December. His hair often got tangled and matted in the year and a half he spent homeless in the Anchorage woods until two weeks prior. But Kehrberg was making changes.

"Can I get a haircut and a beard trim?" he asked at the reception desk. "I'm getting married."

It was one of several errands he and his wife-to-be, Barb Towarak, ran that day. Just two days before their ceremony, they stood in line at the courthouse to ordain Tom's mother. Barb then shopped for clothes. The couple kissed on the street corner before briefly parting company.

The week marked a new beginning for them, and not just in the usual life-commitment way. For Tom, 36, it was a pivot toward society — with its norms and bills and responsibilities — and a goodbye to the homeless lifestyle he's known since the summer of 2014, living in the woods east of Midtown.

 Tom Kehrberg gets his beard trimmed and his hair cut by Bunn Yeesaeng on Tuesday, December 8, 2015. Tom Kehrberg, who had been living homeless in Anchorage since mid-2014, said he's decided to make some changes to his lifestyle since falling in love and planning to marry Barb Towarak. “I got a long way to go. I got to climb that ladder again, right?” he said. “I know. I’m aware of it.”
Tom Kehrberg gets his beard trimmed and his hair cut by Bunn Yeesaeng on Tuesday, December 8, 2015. Tom Kehrberg, who had been living homeless in Anchorage since mid-2014, said he's decided to make some changes to his lifestyle since falling in love and planning to marry Barb Towarak. “I got a long way to go. I got to climb that ladder again, right?” he said. “I know. I’m aware of it.”

Tom said he came to Anchorage from Wisconsin two years ago to live freely and peacefully, answering to no one. "I wasn't planning on falling in love with anybody either," he said. "That wasn't part of the plan."

But after he and Barb crossed paths, plans changed.

"I tried pushing her away in the beginning, but she wouldn't go anywhere. And I couldn't quit thinking about her," Tom said.

 Barb Towarak shops for a kuspuk to be married in on Tuesday, December 8, 2015, two days before her wedding.
Barb Towarak shops for a kuspuk to be married in on Tuesday, December 8, 2015, two days before her wedding.

Downtown that day, Barb, 28, wanted to buy a white kuspuk to be wed in. She asked several puzzled clerks at downtown stores, some who seemed never to have heard the term for the traditional Alaska Native garment, also known by the Inupiaq term atikluk in Unalakleet, where she was raised.

Tom, turned off by the price of a haircut at the first salon, found what he was looking for at a modest barber shop a few blocks away. He had a few inches taken off his shoulder-length hair and the edge of his beard shaved to a sharp line as he got ready to stand before members of both families. He already felt their eyes on him. He knew he has some things to prove.

"I got a long way to go. I got to climb that ladder again, right?" he said. "I know. I'm aware of it."

Meeting on the street

Tom first met Barb in April. He had just returned to Anchorage after a frustrating trip looking for work near Kenai.

After taking a meal at a church that feeds homeless people, he went to Campbell Creek Park nearby to meet with friends. The park was a popular hangout, particularly in the summer, a place several homeless people gathered to down high-alcohol beer and cheap liquor. Before changes there this year, the park attracted frequent visits from police and the Anchorage Safety Patrol, which takes drunken people to the city's sleep-off facility for their protection.

Tom said he was perfectly able to work, but he had struggled to find a good paying job and had grown accustomed to his homeless lifestyle in Anchorage. He was a Campbell Creek Park regular.

Barb Towarak, left, hang outs in Cambell Creek Park with Tom Kehrberg, right, and others on November 20, 2015. At the time, Kehrberg and Towarak were living at a camp in the woods of the Campbell Tract. “She was like ‘I like you. I’m going to stay with you,’” Kehrberg said. “I don’t know, that was the weird part. That’s what got me. She wasn’t ashamed to be with me out there... She stayed.”
Barb Towarak, left, hang outs in Cambell Creek Park with Tom Kehrberg, right, and others on November 20, 2015. At the time, Kehrberg and Towarak were living at a camp in the woods of the Campbell Tract. “She was like ‘I like you. I’m going to stay with you,’” Kehrberg said. “I don’t know, that was the weird part. That’s what got me. She wasn’t ashamed to be with me out there... She stayed.”

Blocks away, Barb had been decorating a condo that her father had recently purchased. Needing a break, she took a walk through the park and struck up conversation with the gathered crew, quickly connecting with Tom.

"I've never met anybody like him before," she said. "It was kind of nice to get to know him. It still is."

They got together frequently at Campbell Creek Park. She'd even visit him at his camp farther east down the trail and deeper into the woods of Campbell Tract.

"It just kind of grew from there," he said.

As the pair grew closer, Barb said she was undeterred by how he lived.

"I was thinking about it, but honestly, you can't control who you fall in love with," she said. "If you truly love someone, why not try and pursue something more?"

At the time, it was Tom who had trouble envisioning a future. On the street, relationships were tumultuous for people he knew. People came and went all the time. One person would disappear, the other left depressed and lonely. No thanks, Tom thought.

But Barb was different.

"She was like, 'I like you. I'm going to stay with you,'" he said. "That was the weird part. That's what got me. She wasn't ashamed to be with me out there... She stayed."

The couple broke up before Tom drifted to Valdez seeking work that, again, didn't pan out. When he returned to Anchorage, friends let him know that Barb spoke of him often.

"I was doing the same thing," he said of the time they were split. "I was hoping she was OK, you know? I didn't want nothing bad to happen to her."

They've been together every day since, he said. Barb stayed with Tom at his camp for nearly six months.

Into the woods

Sitting in the lobby of the Lakefront Hotel in Spenard, Tom's mother, Jan Utecht, felt like her prayers had been answered. She had arrived late the night before from Wausau, Wisconsin, to be at her son's wedding.

"This gal Barb? She's a sweetheart," she said of the woman who seemed to be motivating her son to end a homeless lifestyle that left her so worried for so long. She looked forward to meeting her family.

 Jan Utecht, far left, looks at paperwork at the Nesbett Courthouse to become the marriage commissioner for Barb Towarak, center, and Utecht's son, Tom Kehrberg on Tuesday, December 8, 2015.
Jan Utecht, far left, looks at paperwork at the Nesbett Courthouse to become the marriage commissioner for Barb Towarak, center, and Utecht's son, Tom Kehrberg on Tuesday, December 8, 2015.

The landscape was quite different in January 2015, when she last visited. Back then, she walked out to his camp in the woods and got a close look at how her only child was living. The worry she had been feeling for years was sometimes overwhelming.

"There's days I'd cry, thinking, 'What's he doing? I haven't heard from him for four of five days.' Then I really get worried," she said. "I even called up here to the police department and to both hospitals."

She had lectured him, but she had been doing that for years with no measurable effect. She accepted the situation as best she could, sending occasional care packages to a nearby address – snacks and wool socks and a little money. She provided him with a prepaid phone so he could communicate that he wasn't dead.

"I usually text every morning 'Good morning,'" Tom said. "It just lets her know I'm all right."

"Just so I know," his mom said simultaneously. "And that makes my day. I feel better knowing he's OK."

Tom said he felt comfortable in the woods, slightly removed from the city. His tent was on a bluff with a view of the Chugach Mountains and a creek in the distance. Not all bad, considering the difficulty he faced when he first got to Anchorage in 2014.

"The plan was get a job, get a place," he said. "The living was too expensive and the job didn't pay enough."

Tom came to Alaska to find a new start. Back in 1997 when he was 17, Tom was convicted on five felony charges, four for burglary and one for taking a vehicle without consent, according to a Wisconsin Court System database. Tom said he was a troubled, angry youth who made bad decisions that sent him to prison until 2004 and continue to haunt him today.

"I don't go to certain places. I can't get certain jobs. I can't do certain things. And it's a lifelong punishment," he said of his history.

He says he stayed mostly out of trouble in the years since his release, though records show he faced several misdemeanor charges in the few years prior to coming to Alaska. Leaving Wisconsin, he said, was a violation of his probation, but one he believes that state will not pursue any further. He just can't go back there, he said.

He wanted no trouble here, he said, and has mostly avoided it. One incident in Palmer earlier this year led to several misdemeanor charges for threatening behavior, charges he said he didn't deserve and insulted his resolve to live peacefully. All charges were eventually dismissed.

Otherwise, Tom appears to have put minimal strain on the system locally. He didn't stay in shelters and woke up in sleep-off only once, he said. He occasionally did "the McHungry thing," panhandling outside McDonald's.

By mid-June, Tom and Barb were inseparable. She began staying with him at his camp in the woods full-time.

It wasn't the life she was accustomed to, having never been homeless before. Barb graduated high school in Unalakleet with good grades and several athletic accomplishments. She had held up well in her teen years, despite the devastation of losing her mother to breast cancer and a brother to a four-wheeler accident in the same year. In the years since, she's held several good jobs, she said.

Though they lived in the woods in recent months, she never felt like it was more than temporary, and always felt well cared for.

"You find love in strange places and it works out sometimes," she said.

On July 23, they were at camp relaxing when Tom nonchalantly asked Barb to be his wife.

"I can't see myself with anyone else but him," she said she recalled thinking.

Violent encounter

Just before Thanksgiving, the comfort they felt in the woods of the Campbell Tract disappeared. Tom and Barb had been sharing a camp with two other men. A conversation turned to confrontation during a night of drinking. The others accused Tom of not bringing in enough food to support the camp. He felt the others were taking advantage of his generosity.

Tom said he was choked by one man and struck with machete by the other, an incident that left a deep gash on his index finger. He picked up a few belongings, left with Barb, and called the police. They arrived in force on a nearby dog sled trail.

The other men don't appear to be facing charges, he said, and that frustrates him. It also changed his perception of how safe he felt living outside, at that camp or any other. Besides, he had a partner to watch out for now.

"We both agreed. We're not going back out there," Barb said.

Tom, looking at the slow-healing gash on his hand, said there was no telling if something like that, or worse, wouldn't happen again. That moment got him thinking, he said: It was time to grow up, to better care for Barb and face the world on its terms.

"I'm going to have to start slow, I guess," he said. "I'm going to have to pay insurance. I'm going to have to pay rent, bills and whatever, and just suck it up, buttercup."

Tom expects "re-acclimating," as he calls it, will be difficult in the short term. He's nervous, but feels fortunate to have a partner to face it with. Maybe he'll start going to church, he said, and the drinking needs to slow down. It already has, he said.

Now, family members help them cover the expense of staying in a low-cost Fairview motel while they build a plan for the future.

"It's not the nicest place in the world, but it's off the street," Tom said.

"Amen," said his mother, seated nearby.

Tom said it's stressful to think about building a new life with Barb, but he's motivated not to be thought of as a failure.

"I just got a lot of small steps to take before I can really launch myself back in. But I'm going to."

Wedding day

 Barb Towarak's father, Ike Towarak, left, and Sarah Katongan, center, work on decoration for the wedding ceremony at Kincaid Park Chalet. Tom Kehrberg, in back, married Barb Towarak there on December 10, 2015.
Barb Towarak's father, Ike Towarak, left, and Sarah Katongan, center, work on decoration for the wedding ceremony at Kincaid Park Chalet. Tom Kehrberg, in back, married Barb Towarak there on December 10, 2015.

Tom arrived at the empty Kincaid Park chalet at 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon to get married. With help from his mother and Barb's father, he unloaded a few party supplies: a veggie tray, some Welch's sparkling grape juice and a sheet cake.

"I'm so nervous I could puke," Tom said.

 Barb Towarak wipes a tear while nervously waiting in her cousin Chesi Keller's car before the wedding ceremony begins at the Kincaid Chalet on Thursday, December 10, 2015.
Barb Towarak wipes a tear while nervously waiting in her cousin Chesi Keller's car before the wedding ceremony begins at the Kincaid Chalet on Thursday, December 10, 2015.

Dressed in a new white shirt and black sweater, he hung paper decorations. After stringing cardboard letters spelling the couple's names, he taped them to the wall they decided would be the front of the room.

"That's not bad," he said to no one in particular. "Small beginnings."

When guests began to arrive, very few of whom he had met before, a look of dread washed over his face. His mouth was dry, he said.

Dave Cunningham, Barb's uncle, was the first to arrive. He offered to help set up some folding chairs and wondered aloud, "How do you buy a gift for a homeless person?" Cash, he seemed to settle on.

Barb, not wanting to be seen before the ceremony, waited in her cousin's car in the mostly empty lot outside the chalet. Snowmaking equipment hissed nearby, misting the air with light frost. In the front seat, she zipped into her new white atikluk with gold trim. She wore caribou, walrus and wolverine mukluks that were her mother's and was too nervous to talk. She and her cousin hugged and cried.

Inside the doorway, Tom's mother Jan Utecht, held her script and waited for the bride's entrance. She, too, was nervous to perform her duties as the official. She said she'd rather sit and weep for a day she could never have predicted a year ago.

"I thought he was happy (and) he's going to be homeless the rest of his life," Utecht said.

Barb entered the room on the arm of her father, Ike Towarak. He walked her past the audience of 20 at the start of a ceremony that lasted about six minutes.

In the echoey room, Tom spoke of the future, using words that he lost sleep thinking about the night before.

"Barb, I vow to make you smile every morning, take care of you, and strive to make a better us," he said.

A slow start to a new year

Six weeks after their wedding, Tom and Barb were still ironing out their next moves from their motel room in Fairview. The small room was paid for through the month, but Tom planned to extend the stay through February. He said he's been looking for work, exploring opportunities in food service and dishwashing.

Just as they both expected, progress has been slow. Tom suspects his criminal history has stood in the way of getting called back for interviews.

"All they see is what happened 20 years ago," he said. "That's all they see. So, it's going to take time to earn any kind of trust back. And I guess I get that."

Both say they're avoiding drinking most days, part of their effort to become more reliable, responsible people. "We've been kind of helping each other," Barb said.

Tom said he's confident he'll avoid returning to homeless life, and looks forward to the chance to help Barb's family fish for herring out of Unalakleet. That work might be an opportunity for them to save some money.

"It's not like an exact science that we got going on. It's a slow road. And I guess we're just going to have to take it as it comes," he said.

Whatever the uncertainty, Barb said it'll be easier to face as husband and wife.

"Boyfriends and girlfriends come and go, but we're always going to be together," she said.

Contact Marc Lester at mlester@alaskadispatch.com.