‘Cold Mountain Path’ explores ghost town history of McCarthy

Kizzia’s book looks at McCarthy history from 1938 to the town’s revival as a tourist destination.

In Tom Kizzia’s latest book about the ghost town of McCarthy, “Cold Mountain Path” (Porphyry Press, October 2021), he quotes one of the main characters, Jim Edwards. Edwards came to McCarthy in 1953, and in his years had accumulated a respectable pile of what locals called “Kennecrap,” steel and iron salvaged from the Kennecott Mine that closed in 1938.

“I know I’m only ever going to use 10 percent of all this,” Kizzia quotes Edwards as saying. “The problem is, I don’t know what 10 percent.”

That holds true for writers, Kizzia said in a phone interview on Tuesday. Whether reporter’s notes or unused chapters of true crime books, not everything makes it to the final draft. “Cold Mountain Path” came from chapters Kizzia wrote as background for “Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier,” his 2013 book about Papa Pilgrim and his family who lived in the McCarthy area.

“I had this research I’d done that didn’t fit in the Pilgrim book,” Kizzia said. “…It was good material and people out there wanted to hear more of it. I’d put it between covers and let it stand as a little pamphlet.”

But research led to more research, and a few years and a Rasmuson Individual Artist Fellowship later, “Cold Mountain Path” emerged, a solid history of the period from the closing of the Kennecott copper mine in 1938 until the peace of the community shattered with one of Alaska’s worst serial killings. On a bitter winter day in 1983, a misfit with a Ruger Mini-14 shot and killed six residents of the McCarthy area as the small winter community of about a dozen came to meet the mail plane.

On Friday at 7 p.m., Kizzia does a reading, talk and author signing at the Pratt Museum & Park for “Cold Mountain Path.” Because of COVID-19 restrictions, attendance is limited and may already be filled. The talk also will be livestreamed via Zoom. Email Holly Atkins at hatkins@prattmuseum.org for the Zoom link. “Cold Mountain Path” had its official book launch on Wednesday with a Zoom talk sponsored by Porphyry Press.

Although “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” was Kizzia’s first book about McCarthy, the shooting in 1983 brought Kizzia to McCarthy as a journalist at the Anchorage Daily News who flew out there to report on the crime. Kizzia’s 34-year career in journalism started at the Homer News in 1975 and took him to the Anchorage Daily News — and, during the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989, back to the Homer News again — until he left journalism in 2009 as the Kenai Peninsula correspondent for the Daily News. His first book, “The Wake of the Unseen Object,” was reprinted this year, and he has published in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Time and the Washington Post.

Kizzia had written but not used a chapter on the murders for “Pilgrim’s Wilderness,” but condensed it, saying “you emerged from that chapter blinking from the sunlight, wondering what was that other book about?” The McCarthy murders prompted Kizzia to write “Cold Mountain Path.”

“There was also the feeling of the unresolved trauma having been the reporter on the murders story and not having dispelled what I went through then,” he said.

Covering the 1983 story, Kizzia met Edwards, whose wife, Maxine, had been one of the victims. Edwards gave Kizzia a note to deliver to Edwards’ son in Anchorage telling him his mother had died.

The chapters on the murders come in Part Three. Kizzia said he had thought of writing another true crime book.

“I didn’t want it to be that,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be a book about murders. I wanted it to be more a local history book.”

That’s also why he went with an Alaska small press. “Cold Mountain Path” is Porphyry Press publisher Jeremy Pataky’s first book.

Edwards forms what Kizzia calls the spine of the book. He came to McCarthy in 1953, early enough to meet and get to know the bush rats who stayed behind after the mine closed, and he lived long enough to see McCarthy become a thriving tourist destination after the murders.

“It’s really a story of rebirth as opposed to desertion,” Kizzia said. “The town had been reborn after the abandonment of Kennecott and copper, and then had to go through another rebirth after the shootings.”

That story spans an arc as grand as the landscape surrounding McCarthy, with characters equally magnificent, with names like “Blazo Billy.” Kizzia doesn’t forget the Indigenous history of the Ahtna people, the original copper miners never compensated for the mineral wealth taken by Outside interests. There’s also a snippet of Black history, including the story of a trapper, George Flowers, who couldn’t get a job as a Black man at the mine “where flyers occasionally circulated to announce Ku Klux Klan events,” Kizzia writes.

Kizzia’s book doesn’t come only from his research, but from a connection forged through his late wife, Sally Kabisch, who had a cabin near McCarthy. He’s kept the family cabin and fostered that link to the town over the years. Kizzia credits another Homerite with a McCarthy link, Jenny Carroll, with helping him in his research. Carroll did an interview with Jim Edwards as part of a master’s degree in anthropology at Stanford University. “Cold Mountain Path” includes part of Carroll’s interview.

Kizzia said he thinks that his local connection made it easier to write “Cold Mountain Path.”

“Talking to old timers out there, they felt like I was invested in the community,” he said. “I don’t know if someone from far away would have written this book and cared to write the book.”

The book closes with an epilogue, an account of a memorial in 2016 for Jim Edwards. Steve Edwards, the son to whom Kizzia gave the note of his mother’s death, shows up in that chapter.

“Cold Mountain Path” gets its title from a series of poems by Han Shan, an 8th century Chinese poet, translated by Gary Snyder, “Cold Mountain Poems.” One of the shooting victims, Amy Ashenden, had graduated from Harvard University. Her honors thesis explored Buddhist aceticism and was titled “Climbing the Cold Mountain Path.” Seeking spiritual discipline, she had come to Alaska and wound up in McCarthy.

“That’s kind of the arc of the book, deal with those Zen Buddhist concepts that Amy brought up there that the title alludes to,” Kizzia said. “How do you come to terms with all that loss, the pain and loss?”

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

Tom Kizzia poses with a stack of his book, "Cold Mountain Path," on Sept. 1, 2021. (Photo provided)
Tom Kizzia works at the Homer News in a photo taken about 1978 in Homer, Alaska.
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