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Making the world happier, small-town Alaska style

Heather Lende
It's easy to make your own community friendlier: Say hello. Smile. Wave. Even to people who don’t like you -- or that you don’t know. Do it enough, you may change their minds -- and your own. Heather Lende photo

HAINES -- The Chilkat Center was full a few summers ago for Pete Lapham’s funeral. So many of us felt like we knew him well because the DOT foreman waved, smiled or nodded it seemed at everyone he passed on his daily rounds of our roads and highways -- the walkers, cyclists, and all the drivers from Lutak and Mud Bay to the border. In every season, in weather fair and foul, Pete waved, and we waved back. With spring sort of in the air, I’m out on my bike more and I miss Pete’s friendly gestures.

One the most disconcerting things about walking on New York City sidewalks is how rarely people make eye contact, let alone smile. Even in the Seattle airport, when you are practically hugging your fellow passengers on the train between terminals you don’t often get so much as a “Hi.”

There are people who read my stories about Haines and wish they lived in a place like this -- not the Alaska when it snows in April part, the nice small-town part.

I tell them it is easy to make their own neighborhood or community more friendly. Say hello. Smile. Wave. Even to people who don’t like you -- or that you don’t know. If you do it enough, you may change their minds -- and your own.

The other morning my husband and I were winding down from a long, cold, windy bike ride out the road, just as school was beginning. We slowed in time to meet the Davis Family, teacher Matt, mom Holly and their four little children all marching their daily mile or more to school in the same miserable cold. They smiled and waved at us as if we were in a parade. I waved back laughing. I couldn’t help it. A block later, a little boy cutting across from Deishu Drive startled me with a loud “Good morning!” The only proper response was to holler back, “You too!”  

How easy is it to make each other happy?

I can’t remember all the citations for good work Pete Lapham received over the years or even how long he volunteered in the fire department. But I won’t forget the way he greeted friends and strangers alike from behind the wheel of a state snowplow. Here’s a small thing to consider:  A smile and a wave are both immediately gratifying and profoundly enduring -- and they are both something anyone can do, anytime, anyplace.

Haines writer Heather Lende is the author of "If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska." She's finishing her third book of essays, “Finding the Good.” This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.