Alaska’s State Balladeer announced last week he’s been diagnosed with end-stage cancer.
James Varsos, best known to Alaska and the world as Hobo Jim, said his cancer is untreatable and that doctors told him he has three to six months to live.
The Soldotna singer is currently down in Tennessee with his wife, Cyndi. On Friday, he said he was doing alright.
“I’m in a bit of pain, but outside of that, I have a good attitude,” he said.
Varsos was raised in Wisconsin. Before he came to Alaska, Varsos said he was known to rove, hitchhiking all across the U.S., riding freight trains and singing folk songs — earning him the name Hobo Jim.
When he came to Homer in 1972, he put down roots.
“I knew when I crossed the Baycrest Trail that Alaska was home,” he said.
Varsos later moved to Soldotna. He’s always loved to fish the Kenai and at one time was getting sponsorships by local companies to take their boats out on the river.
“I’m addicted to fishing,” he said. “As soon as I get out of this pain, that’s the first thing I’m going to do, is go fishing for the rest of my life.”
For 25 years, Varsos sung out of BJ’s Lounge in Soldotna, until the bar closed. More recently, he was playing weekly shows at AJ’s OldTown Steakhouse in Homer.
He’s built up a strong fan following on the peninsula and around the state, always performing with his guitar and iconic cowboy hat.
Many of Varsos’s songs are love letters to Alaska, from from “I Am Alaska” to the famous “Iditarod Trail Song.” In 1994, the Alaska State Legislature named him “Alaska’s Balladeer.”
Varsos performed at the Alaska State Fair last month, which is where he first noticed the pain from the cancer. He was later hospitalized in Tennessee, where he and Cyndi have a second home.
They took that home during Alaska’s oil crash, Varsos said, when many Alaska bars closed and there weren’t as many opportunities to perform live. Varsos took a job writing commercial country music, where he said he wrote five to six songs a week.
Next month is the anniversary of when he and Cyndi first met.
“We got married in May, but we met on Halloween weekend 42 years ago,” Varsos said.
Their only son died this spring. Even though this last year has been marked by tragedy, Varsos said in a Facebook post this weekend he’s had a blessed life.
“I’d love to tell people, especially people of the Kenai Peninsula and of Soldotna: I love each and every one of you,” he said Friday. “And I appreciate that this is the 49th year of playing the 49th state. If it was going to happen, it couldn’t have come better. And I really appreciate each and every one of you. Thanks for all the love.”
There are over 2,000 comments from friends and fans on Varsos’s post, wishing him well and reminiscing about his talent and friendship.
Some of the messages come from Germany, where he has a fan club of several hundred listeners. He said they’re fascinated by his tales of Alaska. He performs there every year.
Several friends also started a GoFundMe to help Varsos and his wife. As of Friday, Almost 200 donors had raised over $35,000.
Charlie Weimer, of Soldotna, helped organize that fundraiser. He met Varsos 37 years ago, at a performance in Soldotna.
“If I have learned anything from Hobo, other than what it means to have a true friend, it is to live everyday to its fullest,” Weimer said. “Hobo has always done that.”
Varsos said he’s been reading the messages people have been posting.
“And it’s been overwhelming,” he said. “It’s been so warm and so touching. And to everybody out there that’s sent me a message, I try to read them all. There’s no way I could answer them all. But they really lift my heart, very, very much.”
While he said he’s not sure what these next months will look like, he said he hopes to come back to Alaska — and, of course, do some fishing.