In moving to Alaska and Cordova in the late 70’s, I had the good fortune to find a cabin for $50 a month; it had no electricity or running water, but it had a magnificent view looking for twenty miles up Prince William Sound.
It was outside of town, in a place the locals called “Hippie Cove” — there was an old school bus, a couple of shacks, the cabin I lived in, and a cave where Gene Roselline lived.
I sometimes gave him a ride — he smelled deeply of wood smoke and earth, and his face and arms were totally blackened by soot. He was trying to live as someone would live 10,000 years before, and refused to use the modern tools of civilization.
Once he was moving a huge driftwood log up the beach for firewood — when he briefly left the scene, some of the residents decided to help him, and used chains and a truck to get the log to where he lived. He pushed it back down to where it had been, and then inched it back to his dwelling. No help allowed.
Gene — who we also called “Earth” — would occasionally work on a commerical fishing boat to get some income; he was extremely strong and hard working, but he would sleep on the front of the boat both because he didn’t want to sleep in side and of the strong smell that he carried with him.
In Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, Krakauer said he was called “The Mayor of Hippie Cove”, a term for him I had not heard. This is how Krakauer tells the story:
He was the eldest stepson of Victor Rosellini, a wealthy Seattle restaurateur, and cousin of Albert Rosellini, the immensely popular governor of Washington State from 1957 to 1965. As a young man Gene had been a good athlete and a brilliant student. He read obsessively, practiced yoga, became expert at the martial arts. He sustained a perfect 4.0 grade-point average through high school and college. At the University of Washington and later at Seattle University, he immersed himself in anthropology, history, philosophy, and linguistics, accumulating hundreds of credit hours without collecting a degree. He saw no reason to. The pursuit of knowledge, he maintained, was a worthy objective in its own right and needed no external validation.
By and by Rosellini left academia, departed Seattle, and drifted north up the coastthrough British Columbia and the Alaska panhandle. In 1977, he landed in Cordova. There, in the forest at the edge of town, he decided to devote his life to an ambitious anthropological experiment.
“I was interested in knowing if it was possible to be independent of modern technology,” he told an Anchorage Daily News reporter, Debra McKinney, a decade after arriving in Cordova. He wondered whether humans could live as our forebears had when mammoths and saber-toothed tigers roamed the land or whether our species had moved too far from its roots to survive without gunpowder, steel, and other artifacts of civilization. With the obsessive attention to detail that characterized his brand of dogged genius, Rosellini purged his life of all but the most primitive tools, which he fashioned from native materials with his own hands.
He became convinced that humans had devolved into progressively inferior beings,” McKinney explains, “and it was his goal to return to a natural state. He was forever experimenting with different eras Roman times, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age. By the end his lifestyle had elements of the Neolithic.”
He dined on roots, berries, and seaweed, hunted game with spears and snares, dressed in rags, endured the bitter winters. He seemed to relish the hardship. His home above Hippie Cove was a windowless hovel, which he built without benefit of saw or ax: “He’d spend days,” says McKinney, “grinding his way through a log with a sharp stone.”
As if merely subsisting according to his self-imposed rules weren’t strenuous enough, Rosellini also exercised compulsively whenever he wasn’t occupied with foraging. He filled his days with calisthenics, weight lifting, and running, often with a load of rocks on his back. During one apparently typical summer he reported covering an average of eighteen miles daily.
Rosellini’s “experiment” stretched on for more than a decade, but eventually he felt the question that inspired it had been answered. In a letter to a friend he wrote:
“began my adult life with the hypothesis that it would be possible to become a Stone Age native. For over 30 years, I programmed and conditioned myself to this end. In the last 10 of it, I would say I realistically experienced the physical, mental, and emotional reality of the Stone Age. But to borrow a Buddhist phrase, eventually came a setting face-to-face with pure reality. I learned that it is not possible for human beings as we know them to live off the land.'”
After giving up on his quest to live without technology, Rosellini stabbed himself with a knife in his heart, in the cave that he had lived in for more than ten years.