A taxicab appears from a cloud of mist. It is an old, white Chevy, so splattered with mud there is hardly any white to see. On the roof glows a green sign that reads "Kusko."
"Hello, dear," the driver says.
"I'd like to go home," says Lucy Daniel, folding herself in the back seat among her bags.
Daniel, 65, a Yupik Eskimo who grew up riding dog sleds and paddling seal-skin kayaks along the Bering coast, now takes a cab everywhere she goes:
To work or to church or, like this afternoon, to the general store to pick up supplies, and then back to her house. Or whenever she goes ice-fishing for pike at her favorite spot along the Kuskokwim River east of here. She tells the driver: "I need 45 minutes." At the appointed time, the driver returns to get Daniel and her gear and, typically, one or two pike as long as a small woman's leg. The fish go in the trunk.
It's because of residents like Daniel that this remote village in southwest Alaska has become the unlikely taxicab capital of the United States. Bethel (population 5,800), buzzes with 93 taxi drivers, or roughly one cabbie for every 62 residents. That's by far more taxi drivers per capita than anywhere else in the country, according to Alfred LaGasse, executive vice president of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Assn., the nation's largest cab organization.
Furthermore, Bethel only has about 10 miles of paved roads, which means there are about nine cabdrivers per paved mile. Dirt roads, branching off the arterials, add another 20 miles. These side streets, pockmarked by pond-sized depressions, are sometimes negotiable, sometimes not.
The taxi drivers spend most of their time on the paved roads, which form a loop connecting the most popular destinations: two general stores, the post office, the hospital and the airport.
"That's what I do: go in circles," says Bilal Selmani, the cabdriver who has picked up Daniel. Everyone calls him Lincoln. "Every hour, every day, every month. Round and round. Thirty years."
The taxis come in all makes and models, all colors and conditions, from brand new to barely legal. By the end of the day, they all end up looking uniformly Alaskan, that is, covered in a film of silt, slightly beat up but more or less functional.
Taxis rumble day and night, through fog and storm and minus-40 degree cold. In the process, cabdrivers weave themselves into the lives of residents to a degree unique in Alaska, or perhaps anywhere. The longtime drivers know everyone in town by face, first name or address. They know most everyone's stories.
They overhear arguments and love-struck whispers, they listen to confessions and tall tales and regrets. They pick up children from school. They shuttle travelers to and from the airport. They deliver everything -- moose meat, groceries, heavy-machine parts. They chauffeur all-night revelries, wedding parties and sometimes the dead.
The majority of riders are Yupik Eskimos. The taxi drivers -- most of them Albanian or Korean immigrants -- have their own tales, spanning continents and oceans but ending here, in a spot on the American frontier that most Americans have never seen or heard of.
Lincoln stops in front of a small square house in a subdivision of small square houses called Tundra Ridge. Daniel eases out, hands him seven one-dollar bills for the 5-minute drive. The flat rate is $5 per passenger in town, $7 per passenger to the outskirts.
"Bye," Daniel says. Like many who live in Bethel, she is originally from Tuntutuliak, a nearby Yupik village that survives on fishing and hunting. Daniel moved to "the city" in 1971 because, she says, "there was nothing for me in Tuntutuliak."
With her five children grown and her husband gone, Daniel spends her mornings working in a school cafeteria. She never learned to drive because, she says, "big machines scare me."
In any case, she can't afford a car, and even if she could buy a junker, she can't afford to have it transported to Bethel. It would cost $2,000 to $4,000 by barge or plane.
No roads lead to Bethel. What Daniel calls a city is a dusty, disheveled conglomeration of shacks and warehouses in the middle of nowhere -- nowhere being the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, a treeless, permanently frozen plain the size of Utah. Culturally and geologically, the delta has more in common with far-eastern Siberia than with the rest of the United States.