The story of Gene Rosellini, the “Mayor of Hippie Cove”

 

cordova-hartney bay

Hartney Bay, Cordova

 

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.

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14 Responses to The story of Gene Rosellini, the “Mayor of Hippie Cove”

  1. I believe Mr. Roselini was a great man. He was brilliant for that matter. I wish to know more information on him if you know anything more. thank you.

  2. I was born and raised in Cordova, and as a child I would often ride my bike some odd miles to town and occasionally run in to mountain man Gene. On the occasions that I recall, he had his backpack full of stones. A large backpack. We would have conversations occasionally and the substance of them is lost to me, but my impression of him now is that he was a friendly, intense man that had a strong personality. I often wished I could have spoken with him more before he died. I would also like to say that local rumors state that he did not have a knife in his front, but in his back, and Cordova Police are inept enough to rule anything shy of eye-witnessed murder a suicide.

  3. My name is David. I worked long seasonal months in Cordova in the mid to late eighties. I wld drive a work truck sometimes every day in the week past hippie cove and on to the Chugach cannery. This dirt road was where Gene was seen most. My first ever look at him, he was carying two logs which were bound together. These logs were at least 8″ to 10″ round and at least 10 feet long. Carrying them at the back of his neck on his shoulders. I drove past him in awe and drove to the cannery. I left the cannery about 10-15 minutes later, drove maybe 1 mile back from where I last seen him and easily noticed that he only made about 50 feet of distance. Bye the way! This story was not a rare moment that I witnessed. This man did this kind of stuff constantly. Anyone who lives or lived in Cordova during these times knows this about him very well. One last thing! There were many people who wld laugh and make fun of him for being so so different. I remember it well. One man said to my face”he’s a useless member of society. Doesn’t pay taxes doesn’t do anything good for anyone not even himself” the last summer for me was 1989. When I left Cordova for the very last time Gene Rosellini had picked up every single piece of garbage, every broken wine or beet bottle. Gene made a unique forehead harness that wld help him carry those very large round plastic garbage cans, full to the brim he walked one load at a time to various dumpsters around Cordova. He turned a cute cove that has been collecting garbage for I’m sure decades! Into a clean safe place for people to live cheaply. I have no idea what it looks like today?

  4. My name is Bill. The tails of Gene Roselline are very intriguing. Having read the book “Into the Wild” it left me with questions concerning Gene’s past. I was not able to find anything that details his life before Alaska.

    Back during the summer of 1972 I worked as a mechanic for North Pacific Processors in Cordova, AK. One day I stepped out on the dock and found a long haired hippie had totally torn apart a centrifuge used to extract oil from fish heads, etc. The parts were neatly laid out on paper. I immediately notified Chris Johnson the head of maintenance who quickly went to see what was going on. Chris proceeded to inform the employee that he should have let someone with a little better than average intelligence work on the centrifuge. Later on we discovered that he had a Doctorate and was related to the Governor of Washington. It was that summer when hippies began to occupy Hippie Cove. I recall that he was also referred to as the King of Hippie Cove.

    I don’t know if this hippie was actually Gene though it sure strikes a strong comparison. He was a very quiet person. Perhaps he came to Cordova that summer to work and maybe this is why he later relocated to Cordova.

  5. I knew Gene, we used to call him Mountainman or Smokeman Gene. I would run across him on trails or while out hunting somewhere. He was always very pleasant and nice to me. Sometimes I would see him at the Bidarki working out lifting weights and doing Martial arts. He had a very primitive workout routine, something a Roman soldier would do maybe. An amazing person that brought his own flavor to Cordova when I was growing up. RIP Gene

    Oh, I forgot to say that there are still parts of an old cabin of his in the woods. Not many people know where it is or that it was his cabin, but I had seen him hauling and working on it when I was a kid. Just and fyi

  6. I grew up in Cordova and Gene was part of the community. You would always see him walking with his backpack. He was kind and enjoyed a stimulating conversation. He was a voracious reader and read everything. I was greatly sadden to hear of his death.

  7. I first Gene where I work , he would come to the Outboard shop and buy a gallon of stove oil.

    I asked him what kind of oil stove he had ,his reply it was a oil lamp . He said he used the lamp
    to read way into the night as late as 8:30 sometimes . I remember one night at the post office I was getting home late from work and Gene was there so we struck a conversation ,and it went on for like 45 minutes.
    He went on telling me he was having knee problems ,and that it would save him a lot of time if there was a road out of Cordova to Valdez. He had been walking all the way around the coast line to Simpson bay
    and climb over the mountians to Valdez.

    Gene was always polite but quiet and Im sure if you ever needed a hand he would of been right there to help.

    That night in the Post Office was the last time I seen Gene we shook hands and parted ways . and then a week or so later I heard that he was found dead, was a shock to me . I drive by Hippy Cove often and my thoughts turn to Gene.

    As I leave Cordova moving south I will always remember the people of cordova that added color to this small fishing town thats full of special people .

  8. I lived at the Cove for a number of years and was told by someone who claimed to be close to Gene that his eyesight had started to fade. I’ve also heard numerous people say that he was murdered, but I don’t know.

  9. I met Mountainman Gene in the early 80’s when I was driving cab for The Club Taxi. Which I did for about three years. I lived at the opposite end of The Cove from Gene, down by the sauna, in my little camp trailor. Altho’ I didn’t see him all that much back then, as I worked six or seven days a week from 6:00am to 6:00pm driving Taxi. However, Occasionally when I got off my shift I’d see Gene having a cup of what looked like black coffee, maybe it was tea? at the Club Bar. I always tried to sit with him & we had quite a few profound, interesting conversations. I always asked him if I could buy him a beer, most of the time he’d say no, but there was one time when we were in a deep conversation, & he did let me buy him a Rainier. I don’t know if he really drank much of it, I think he was just trying to be kind by saying yes. I was usually drinking, so I don’t remember all that much about our diverse subjects/conversations we had. I’ve always regretted not paying more attention, as Gene was always very polite, kind, soft-spoken, & highly intelligent & was so smart! We also took a Marine Biology class together at The PWSCC when I was going to college to get my AA degree. I remember how quiet he was in class; our Teacher was Ken Adams & it was one of my favorite classes. I later found out that Gene had a PHD in Anthropology, or that was the rumor anyway. He seemed to enjoy the class, altho’ some of my fellow students complained about Gene’s strong order so, Ken asked him to shower before class, which he did. We only had one class a week & it was a three hour class w/ a lab, so maybe they had a point……… I felt bad for Gene, however, he handled it with grace & Digniy. Gene has such strength, integrity, & wisdom. There were times when it seemed he knew as much as Ken did on some subjects. He sure knew A LOT about the flora,fauna, & all the creatures of the Sea & Land!! One of my fondest memories of Gene was one time when I was on a ‘Charter’ out to 27 mile with one of my best friends, Stella. We were on our way back to town & we saw someone walking way up ahead of us on the side of the road about 18 or 20 mile maybe?, so we slowed way down so as not to dust him out, & as got we got closer we saw it was Gene, &! he was not really walking, but sort of walk-running, with this giant frame pack on his back!! We slowly pulled along side him & asked did he want a free ride back to town? He was quite cordial, he stopped & talked with us for a few minutes, & explained that he was doing a Zen Walking Meditation, & He did not need a ride. We asked if he’d like some cold creek water as we spoke for a few minutes, & he drank some & I asked him what was in his pack & he said was packing about 80 lbs of Granite rocks from the rock quarry back to his Cabin! Stella & I were TOTALLY blown away by this!!! I asked him if we could take the pack back to town for him, & we could leave it by the trail to his cabin; but he said no, & smiled, & said it was a part of his Zen Meditation!! The next time I saw him at The Club we had a wonderful, informative conversation about various Zen Meditations & how the Walking Mediation, with the 80 lbs of rocks, which he did frequently, helped him stay grounded & in a centered state of mind, & also kept him physically & mentally strong. Mountainman Gene was unique unto himself. One of the times we were at The Club, he was telling me that he was trying to make clay pots for himself out of the mud on the flats by drying them & then firing them in his camp fire. I don’t remember if he was ever successful at his experiment or not. Yes, that mountainman Gene was & always will hold a warm place in my heart!! Gene & Wild Bill were two of my favorite Iconic Cordovans!!! I still think of him periodically & was so, so sad when he died. Man the rumors were sure flying around town after his death!! People speculating that he was murdered, that it wasn’t a suicide. That he was in ill health& on & on. We’ll never know what was in his mind at the end of his life…….. I guess we’ll just have to add it to the many tales of the unknowable, inscrutable, Walking Zen Master, known as Mountain Man Gene Rosellini. He’s still a Legend around town & I for one still miss him. May you Rest in Peace my friend!!

  10. Great to come across all of these various recollections of Gene. I arrived in Cordova in 1979 and worked through the oil spill (1989) during which time I had many conversations with Gene. We also took a wild edibles course together through PWSCC (Alex Wenekins was the instructor) and Gene and I used to joke about the fact that anything was edible if you poured butter over it, then salted and peppered it as Alex instructed. We became friends, climbed some mountains (one time did Mount Eyak in a veritable rain storm… which was most of Cordova’s weather anyway). On that trip he stopped and showed me where, on a solo exploration of the peak fell many feet (like 40 or 50 as I recall), landing in a tree and toppling down into the soft moss where he lay stunned a long time. Gene said “I may well have met my death there and no one would have ever known what had happened to me…” Indeed. I once came to his cabin in Hippie Cove to visit and he had a bookshelf with a variety of texts. Dirty as he was, he’d don a pair of white woven gloves before handling books, knowing that his dirt would transfer and dirty them up. A three-stringed guitar sat in one corner. Thinking to help him out, I offered to give him my old strings when I changed them out (which I would do monthly because I played a lot more then than I do now) and he dismissed the offer with “No, I play it with only 3 strings… have invented my own chord system and don’t want to confound that with 6.” I still chuckle when I remember him saying that. He was like a smiling Neaderthal… filthy but gentle and kind. It was a few winters later that this cabin burned to the ground. The cause? He was roasting a porcupine skin over his open campfire (he did not have a fireplace/chimney … just an open campfire inside which is why he was called, by some “The Barbequed Hippie”), it caught fire and burned the place down.

    We used to park our little RV at what used to be MORPAC next to the road heading to the AK State Ferry Terminal. One time there was a knock on the door and there stood Gene, smiling through that wild nest of a beard and holding out a large package of hamburger for us to take. My wife, Cynthia, suspiciously asked “Gene…where did you get that?” He replied “My one stop and shop place: the Cordova dump!” He went on to explain that Davis Foods put out of date, but still good, meats in a box and labeled them “For Gene” Small acts of kindness meant a lot to him, though I’ve heard the stories too of the log, turning down rides, etc. He wanted to do things his own way.

    As most of you know, Gene was a media favorite… because his image (Neanderthal) didn’t jive with his intelligence. I remember one time a reporter from Anchorage was interviewing this ‘living cave man’ and asked Gene why he didn’t bathe. You have to picture this guy in raggedy shorts, two different colored crew socks pulled up his bulging calves, sawn off X-tra Tuffs on soaked feet, and spikey black hair (he ‘cut’ it himself with a burning stick…!)… and out of him comes verbiage like this “I don’t bathe because I consider it a bourgeois affectation.” Good stuff. Those reporters scribbled like mad whenever he spoke.

    I also recall a time we were swimming in the Cordova pool…suddenly my companion said “something tastes bad about this water” and what it was, was Gene had jumped in on the opposite end of the pool, his smoky-ness having flavored a few million gallons! Wow… no wonder Ken Adams (a friend) asked him to bathe.

    When Gene died I, like many others, felt a great loss. He was a friend. Enigmatic but in those eyes was a kindness I yet fondly remember. Missed but not forgotten. We love you Gene and miss you still dear friend.

    Tom & Cynthia

  11. I camped at Hippie Cove for 3 months in 1990 while working for Chugash Cannery at the end of the road. I recalled Gene and have a photo of him in his earth clothes and covered with soot as described above.
    It was quite interesting to find out in recent years of his notoriety and educated well to do past.
    The next time I find my Cordova pictures I will be sure to try and post a photo of Gene.
    Thanks for providing additional information on this extraordinary person.
    Julie J-California

  12. I was Cordova’s Alaska Marine Higheay terminal manager from 1980 to the early 1990’s. Having lived in Cordova since1962, I knew just about everyone. Gene used to stop in the ferry terminal once in a while and use the bathroom and I would try to engage him in conversation and I liked to think we considered ourselves friends. He was always very polite and well spoken, I could tell he was very intelligent and educated. We we talk about why he chose to live in that manner and some of the challenges he faced like getting enough fat in his diet and so on. He was a fascinating person and I got the impression that it was a profound life choice he had made that was very difficult to get out of after he had committed to it and I’ve often wondered why. I was deeply saddened when hearing of his death and whished I had made more of an effort to get to know him. He was quite an amazing and unique individual.

  13. I knew Gene fairly well back in the mid 70’s. We went hunting together once on Hawkins Island. We traveled by skiff, camping on the beach. One night he never came back until morning. I asked him what he had been doing. He said he walked until it was dark and then spent the night sitting under a tree. He was very easy to talk to and had a great sense of humor. I was very sad to hear of his passing.

  14. Why can i find no pictures or anything written by Gene himself? I’m very interested in learning more about his life and the lessons he recorded but can only read recent second hand accounts and can find no pictures of any kind?

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