Month: January 2016

And You May Ask Yourself Well, How Did I Get Here? PART I

If you’ve never heard the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime please, please go listen to it. Like, now. Here

O.k, now that we have that out of the way…

 

For me this song has always been a sort of January 1st reflection.

A “Hey girl, how’s it going over there? You good?”

A chance to check-in.

To re-work the play book, if needed.

Because sometimes you wake up and ask yourself:

Well, how did I get here?

One morning last May I awoke to that question and to the realization that this was not my life. Suddenly it didn’t fit. I loved it in so many ways and at the same time, it no longer worked. All of the things that had been holding me into my patterns were suddenly gone. I had sold my business, quit my job that I needed to make ends meet while the business grew, and had realized that my 7 year relationship was over. I was suddenly on my own without a place or a person to check in with.

The first question was: where will you stay? And the first answer in my head was a girlfriend’s house (if she would have me) that I adored and had spent time with and wanted to know better but had never experienced something like a 7-year breakup with. I called anyways and she took me under her wing (Thank you, DCG.). It was the first of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

The next question was: what next? And it lead to the second best choice I’ve ever made: Alaska.

Alaska?

“What the hell is in Alaska?” Was a pretty common question put to me (and one I put to myself).

I didn’t know, I just knew I had to go. The more I thought about it, the less sense it made but I knew it was right.

Another girlfriend (again, another friend that I really admired and wanted to know better but had never spent all that much time with alone) owned a guiding business in a small “town” in Alaska and had put out open invitations for friends to visit. I’d always wanted to but I’m not sure I ever truly believed I would make it. I grew up watching my brother leave every summer to fish the season in Alaska and always felt like it was some boy’s club I was denied access to. Now I had to go. Luckily, her invite was still good.

A request to visit for 17 days is a big thing to ask of even your closest friend she didn’t even bat an eye and told me “Just book it!” (thank you sweet BB). So I did. I had no idea how I would get from Anchorage to where she lived but in true Alaska style she told me not to worry, it always works out.

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My last view of California

 

And it did.

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My first view of Alaska

When I arrived, one of my girlfriend’s friends was in Anchorage on her way home (to where my friend lived). Together we did my first Town Run (see my earlier post about the dreaded Town Run here). The idea of meeting and heading into a twelve hour day with a total stranger is enough to give me a serious pitter patter of anxiety but it was so easy with her. The luck of the Irish, perhaps? Or maybe Alaska is just stocked with as many great people as they are fish. She showed me the town ropes and soon we were off. The more she told me about her home the more I wanted to love it. But I was scared I wouldn’t.

I remember thinking to myself that maybe I could live there. But then immediately shooting down the idea.

Uh huh, live in Alaska.

No electricity.

No running water.

Bears.

Naw dawg, but thanks.

About eleven hours into our day we finally got to the turn off for the road home. It would be about an hour trip to her house or a two plus return time to take me all the way to my friend’s house and…we couldn’t get through to her (phones can be funny out here). She graciously offered to let me stay with her.

She lived on a lake with her fiancee and two pups. We swatted an onslaught of mosquitoes as we opened the truck doors to the still light sky at 10 at night and ran to get our stuff packed into the boat and over to the house. A few trips later all the perishables and necessities were tucked away, nothing got wet and the drive was over (for now). Time to break into the Costco bounty and toast to a run well done. (Thank you J+K).

The next day, thanks again to my hosts, I made it to my final location. My girlfriend wouldn’t be home for a few hours but she gave me a few basic guidelines:

The fridge is to the right of the stairs (to put away perishables).

If you want to cook anything make sure the propane is connected and on (Umm…I’ve only seen this done while at a BBQ and I was paying more attention to my cookout compadres than any connection lessons. But hey, Lefty Loosey, Righty Tighty, right?)

The outhouse is for numero dos only – number one is for the great outdoors (umm, outhouse? I did not plan on that. Thinking back now, it seems pretty obvious)

and

Watch out for bears

…so I hurriedly unloaded our mountain of supplies into the house.

I admit this with embarrassment, but in the vein of honesty, I was like a groundhog in that house. I would pop my head out the door, look both ways and run outside for supplies, then run back in. I was genuinely afraid of bears. It seemed like they were likely everywhere and I was pretty certain one would sneak up on me mid pee and at the very least I’d fall off the mountain, very most I’d be bear dinner. I’ve never peed so fast. Every time I went (ran) inside I locked the door behind me. Boom! Bear-proof, right?

I tried and tried to find the refrigerator. No luck. How hard could a fridge be to find?

Finally somewhat settled physically I looked out upon the glaciers and mountains in front of me. It was a dark and overcast summer day and I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. I felt helpless. This place was too big, too far and too isolated. I was trying to get over a breakup by way of distance and distraction – this just made me feel inward and alone.

So, like a grown up…I called my mom.

And then I cried.

And then when I was done she said:

“Give it a few days and see how it feels and then if you don’t like it, heck, I’ll come get you.”

This made it seem even more hopeless.

  1. Because at nearly 30 my Mom was offering to rescue me and
  2. Because Mom, I love you but there’s literally no way you could have found me out there. I was 60 miles down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t even have figured how to get back to the lake much less Anchorage.

So I buckled up for the 17 days.

And with that, I resolved to do my best but…

It was clear I had made a big mistake.

The first night with my girlfriend we went into “town” (where on the way in I did see a bear. Groundhogs unite!) where one of the guides whom I had met earlier in the day came up to me and said “You’re gonna stay. I can feel it” and I just laughed. Why? How? I am counting down the days, fella.

But he was right.

Something had been planted. Something started creeping in and as I acclimated, I realized that my wish to turn and run was out of fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of isolation and the choice was simple: jump or stand still – letting the days go by.

I jumped in as head first as I could. It probably looked more like a belly flop but it felt swan dive-ish.

Two days and a serious 180 later I felt totally disconnected from the frets of my first day. I was exactly where I needed to be.

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My first girlfriend was the best landing pad I can think of because she helped me to leave the place I called home and into a new safe haven. My second girlfriend was the best launching pad because she forced me from the nest. (She also eventually came home to show me where the “refrigerator” was – a lined hole in the ground – to the right of the stairs – that had a system of baskets inside. Genius! I certainly wasn’t looking for a hole with bear-proofing rocks on top. Alaskan lessons learned: 1. Learn to think outside of the (ice)box and 2. Refrigeration is an art form and iced drinks are a treat in summer in Alaska. More on that in a later post).

While pushing me from the nest and climbing down into a cave in the glacier, water rushing and the opening getting smaller and smaller I shouted to her:

“I’m actually a bit claustrophobic!” Meaning: let’s turn this party around, eh?

She replied:

“Me too!” and kept going. And I needed that.

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We should climb into that hole in the ice. Obviously.

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A time when you actually do want to go towards the light.

And that’s how I got here. By taking a leap of faith, second guessing it too many times to count and still moving forward with my gut leading the way.

That’s why (the hell) Alaska.

But I’m still here after the 17 days have long passed.

Why?

Stay tuned.

Love,

From Alaska.

 

 

A Typical Day: A Panty Party

I’ve often been asked what a typical day is like out here.

What do you do all day?

In preparing to move here, I tried to remind myself that no matter how much you plan, Alaska often decides for you and having never spent a winter in Alaska, I was going in totally blind.

But that didn’t stop me completely. I planned. I planned on reading a lot, on learning to knit and to get better at sewing, to Billy Madison myself (start over and learn it all again), to create a daily exercise regime, to make art and do all the home projects we weren’t able to complete in the fall.

…and then I got here.

And now I get it.

The first week I was here, I wanted to do it all but the thing is, everything else needed to get done. And that’s a typical day. The overarching theme of a day is to decide:

  1. What needs to get done and
  2. What is actually feasible

I first started Today lists like this:

  1. Wake up early and go for a walk, then 30 minutes of yoga
  2. Make breakfast
  3. Read
  4. Laundry
  5. Call mom
  6. Have lunch
  7. Write a letter
  8. Chop wood
  9. Call bank
  10. Call car insurance
  11. Make dinner, heck, even make cookies

And this is all fine and dandy when you have power and life isn’t contingent upon weather but this is the actual day that follows a list like the above:

  1. Wake up at…the time your body is ready. My first week I set a daily alarm for 8am and I could not wake up to it. I was beyond tired. Unless The Chief is headed to work (which is atypical for winter but luckily present this winter and so we do have alarm days) we don’t set an alarm. This gave and still does give me a bit of a panic…and that is why I’m here, to learn to listen to my body to take the hours it needs. It feels overindulgent for a busybody worker bee like myself and that’s when I know I need the lesson even more.
  2. Get up and bundle up to go pee. Oh yes, nothing like a brisk 20 below zero and a chilly behind to wake you right up. This is the time of day you wish you were a boy (unless you already are…congratulations). Ah, and brace yourself for what we call The Ramp of Doom. No sleepy eyed wanderings down this bad boy. Hidden frozen patches will have you on your behind in no time.

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    There’s even a gap between the landing and the ramp for added fun

  3. Make a fire (unless you had to chilly pee in the middle of the night and also stoked the fire – two gold stars for that one, but who needs stickers when you’re warm in bed?) thumb_DSC_0207_1024
  4. Make coffee and assess the day. Laundry? Booyah! It’s beyond overdue (it’s amazing the things you suddenly decipher as “clean” when all your laundry is by hand). But, a slight kink in the plan…you’re out of water. These bad boys (two 5 gallon buckets) are how we store water in the house. thumb_DSC_0231_1024But again, they are nearly empty.
  5. O.K, so get the genie (generator), hook it to the well and fire that baby up! Wait. It’s 20 below. The generator is outside, frozen. Well, good thing you made that roaring fire earlier this morning (FYI, time to add another log). Suit up (Snow pants, boots, snow jacket, long undies, hat and gloves). Go outside. Grab the genie. Place it by the fire for a few hours.
  6. At this point, nearing 11am, you realize that there are only a few more hours of good daylight and that your woodpile is getting low. So, you chop wood, stack wood, bring wood inside to keep the fire raging to warm up the water that (thankfully) still remains in the large pot on the stove (this is where the laundry magic will be happening).
  7. O.K, now it’s noon. Time for that walk. You have to chase the sun here and get out while it’s out or before you know it, the day clouds over and your direct line to vitamin D is done. So, out you go. Suit up again, find the pup and head to the river and hey, two birds one stone, call your mama. During the call, your phone will die from cold but at least you’ll hear her voice and at least you’ll be here: thumb_IMG_4603_1024
  8. You return to a warm-ish generator and to a starving tummy (you also need to do an outfit change because walking through snow is apparently more of a workout than you thought, Sweaty Betty). Anyone who knows me knows that eating is one of my top priorities in life but somehow, it’s 2pm and no stomachs have been filled. Rectify this with a quick fried egg and…you’re off to fill the water!
  9. Not so fast. The generator is warm enough but it’s out of gas. Suit back up. Walk the genie down the ROD (Ramp of Doom). Go to the barrel. Pump gas. Take the gas to the genie and fill it. Overfill it (my new perfume these days). Alright! Fire up that genie (eventually) and you’re off! thumb_DSC_0216_1024
  10. Run inside, grab the buckets, connect the well, fill the buckets. Run the buckets one by one up the ROD (I’m not quite strong enough for the double duty yet). Fill up the tub under the sink (to which is connected a pump that gives us a running sink, as long as it’ full). This takes both buckets. Run back outside. Fill up the buckets. Repeat until everything is full. The kettle. The shower bucket. Water bottles and water on the stove (try not to spill and nearly put out the fireplace like last time) . Run outside, turn off the well. Plug the house into the genie. You’ve got power, heat and water. Booyah!
  11. Change again (getting water got you watered). It’s 4pm. While you wait for the added water to heat on the stove you start on dinner.
  12. It’s 5pm and the water is warm enough. You wash socks and skivvies and hang them to dry when there’s a whistle outside and a friend pops in…to a panty party:thumb_DSC_0515_1024So much for that second load and hello to a welcome break. Dinner, dishes and adieus later and it’s time to go fetch more firewood to stoke the fire for the night…or maybe until that gold star midnight pee run. And hey, maybe you can get a few pages into your book before you settle in for an eight hour nap.
  13. Nighty-night. Don’t let the chore-bugs bite. thumb_DSC_0367_1024

 

I never would have thought my days would be decided by weather and water but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It cracks me up, keeps me on my toes and humbles me.

Thank you Alaska.

 

Swallow Your Pride (A Lesson from the Sorest Hands I’ve Ever Had)

Swallow your pride. Better yet, be rid of it.

Pride has no place here. There simply isn’t room for it. When things need to get done, you either do or don’t know how to do it and depending on how fast it needs to get done you’ll either learn now or get out of the way.

Easier said than done.

Personally, I hate not knowing how to do things, especially when I’m the only one who doesn’t know and especially when it involves my survival (I’m guessing that’s a universal dislike).

We arrived at night and by the morning I realized that there were more things than I could have imagined that

1. Everyone knew how to do

2. I didn’t

and

3. They all involved my being able to survive out here.

Surprise!

Alaska has a way of taking the things you’re most afraid of (and most likely to avoid) and shoving them back at you. This quick slap in the face was repeated with every new task:

Running a generator at below zero

Pumping water (wear waterproof clothing)

Building and maintaining a good fire (our only source of heat)

Chopping wood (our only fuel for heat)

Lack of light

Driving a snow machine

Running a chainsaw

Cutting down a tree for firewood

Learning the trails (which were all suddenly brand new to me as the winter paths differed from the summer)

Driving in snow (again, I’m from California)

The battery bank (how, seriously, how does that work?)

Dressing for winter (too hot, too cold – it’s a daily Goldilocks routine)

Driving a stick-shift (in snow/ice)

Learning to ski

Not breaking things (things apparently break in the cold. I tried to lift a plastic bucket and it shattered. I know, it seems obvious now to me too)

 

The list went on and on and as it did I felt smaller and smaller. What the hell was I thinking moving out here? I was grounded 60 miles down an ice road and even if I wanted to leave, I couldn’t even do that on my own.

The learning curve was overwhelming and the lack of independence was stifling.

Not only did I not know how to do all the above things but I also had to create new systems for things I’ve always known how to do. You know, the basics…bathing, dressing, laundry, cooking, even making coffee was a whole new experience with a hand grinder. It was like being at step one. I felt totally out of my league without any of the comforts or competence I had known. And then, the sink stopped working.

Everything in my world was turned on its head and all that I had learned to do in summer was suddenly different because now, it was  winter. I couldn’t just walk outside and start the generator to pump water because the generator was frozen. I needed a fire to thaw it.

I needed to get better at building fires. I needed to get better at everything.

It didn’t take long to realize that what I really needed to do was to swallow my pride, slow down, learn, practice and accept help.

Ugh. Not my favorite medicine but I took it.

I started to check off the list of “dont’ know hows” with learning to chop wood.

When we arrived, the woodpile looked like this:

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After my first time chopping wood in 20+ years, it looked like this:

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This stack of Paul Bunyan toothpicks took me hours.

The Chief came out (after hearing me cursing a particularly knotty log) to remind me that chopping logs was a stress reliever, not a stress inducer (a.k.a, maybe you need a break, tiger). I was sweaty and out of breath, a real fine sight, but I was determined. Once it started to get dark, I came inside.

All done, babe?

Nope (grabbing my headlamp – thank you Spenard Builders Supply for the freebie!)

Finally, when I could no longer see and had become a pink-nosed popsicle I bid adieu to the pile for the night.

I was exhausted.

The next day was poker night. My forearms and shoulders were a little sore during the day but it wasn’t until I went to shuffle that…

I couldn’t.

My hands were so sore that I couldn’t even squeeze them together enough to shuffle cards. I grew up playing cards. I can shuffle in my sleep.

Not that day.

A little triumph: my little wood pile, coupled with a little reminder: you still have a long way to go.

Every time I start to get ahead of myself, Alaska throws a banana peel in the road and for that I actually feel lucky. Sometimes you fall and other times you see it and slow down.

The next time I chopped wood I did a little better:

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Yea, I took a close-up.

And the next time after that I started finding that elusive stress-reducing zen The Chief so casually mentioned. Feeling my swing improve. Seeing my target and hitting it and then…sometimes not. Getting cocky, talking back to the log, hitting it with the axe handle and feeling it jostle you from your arms to your feet. The triumphs and the reminders.

Now, a month in, I’m more comfortable with a lot of things. I’ve been in 20 below and I didn’t die (I wasn’t so sure how that would go). I can run a generator, I feel comfortable to hold down the fort when The Chief is away and I can chop up wood for a few days without disabling myself for days. And, the second I feel I have it all under control, a new challenge comes up.

Like harvesting the wood to be chopped…

 

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FYI: He’s not short. The tree is tall.

Next goal: to be the lead instead of the assistant (no offense to the assistant, I hear she’s awesome).

Such is life in the Alaskan wilderness. The work is never done and neither are the lessons. And the chores will leave you sorer than you realize.

Thank you Alaska, you sly fox, you.

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The Road to the North (The Journey into the Woods)

Coming home in California

  1. Get off plane
  2. Grab bag(s)
  3. Walk to meet ride
  4. Drive home
  5. You’re home, traffic willing, in under 2 hours. Traffic won’t-ing you stop for food. Poor thang.
  6. Enjoy.

Getting home to Alaska:

It took us 5 days from when we left California to get home to Alaska.

From CA we drove 11 hours to Portland.

In Portland we said our last goodbyes and headed to Anchorage via PDX.

Once we hit Anchorage and picked up the dog (thank you Alaska Airlines for not losing her, that was cool) it was GO time.

Town Run time.

Slang description: [Town Run] When people mention a Town Run (a.k.a an Anchorage Run) everyone seems to take a moment of silence together for the sanity that was inevitably lost in the process. Town Runs are supply runs. To me, supplies come from hardware stores. In the woods, supplies are everything you will (or hopefully won’t i.e. first aid) need until the next time you go into town.

When’s that?

Hopefully a few months.

Gulp.

All of your food. Clothing. Hardware (see, I knew it). Crafts. Entertainment. Building materials. Propane. Gasoline. Sanity (if it’s for sale).

Everything.

Ah, and you’ll need to be able to carry it all with you in one vehicle (we had a big ‘ol truck –seemingly enough). Add another consideration: freezing. Things that can’t freeze have to all fit inside the truck (this was a heart breaker for a veggie lady like myself). Everything else in the bed of the truck will likely freeze (the weather will decide if she wants it to or not) and therefore must be able to.

 

Things like this are just not in my typical thought process. Can mayo freeze? Sure, but then it gets “all weird” when you defrost it. Ok, but produce takes anti-freeze priority so…weird it’s gonna get.

Prioritizing like a boss.

We also had to purchase ALL of my “gear” (“gear” meaning clothing but because it’s focus is function it’s called gear). Not to be confused with fashion, function rules supreme. Asking “how does it look?” will inevitably elicit the response “how does it feel?” meaning, don’t even bother to look in a mirror – you don’t have one at home anyways – this gear is your only protection from the elements so even if it’s made of more neon than the 80’s or gives you a few (20) extra lbs. in your caboose, the point again, is function.

Fine.

Bibs that were tough enough to haul trees in, boots to withstand the low below zeros, two hundred pairs of socks (or so), skis  and ski boots and goggles and layers, layers, layers.

Sidenote: women’s “gear” is majorly lacking. I even went to the kids section because they at least make that stuff that can take some rowdiness. Nothing makes you feel more like a woman than asking if there’s a Kids XL Husky (real sizing lingo) available for your nearly 30 year-old self.

I’ve never shopped so long and hard in my life (or criss-crossed a town more – our path would have looked like a word search). 12 hour days for two days. We had to shuttle supplies into our hotel at night so they wouldn’t freeze and pack and re-pack the truck over and over.

Lastly, we shopped for perishables right as we hit the road (hours later than planned due again to criss-cross applesauce) so as to increase their chances for making it home (but certainly not guarantee it) then we picked up a few last minute pretty pleases from friends in the woods and…

Finally, we were off.

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She’s a Two-Lap Dog

 

Leaving a Town Run is the best feeling. Even with an 8 hour car ride ahead of you it feels like you’re already home. If I was in California, I would be in LA or Oregon in 8 hours. In Alaska…you’re still in Alaska.

 

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Plus, when this is the road you’re driving things are pretty alright.

 

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But then, in true Alaska fashion, it couldn’t go too easily.

 

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But six eyes are better than two.

 

We left at noon and didn’t get home until midnight.

Throughout the day we received calls about the conditions of The Road (The Road is a dirt road off the highway that is our straight shot home. It is a famed road for breakdowns in every season but winter is a special time for concern). A friend was caught in a road glacier (this is a real thing) and calling for help and to warn us of conditions, others called to tell us of their recent trips and what to watch for.

It takes a village to be able to return home.

As we turned onto the road and stopped to celebrate with the required traditional road soda, a friend pulled up out of nowhere and told us about our friend’s birthday party just a few miles down the road.

This is Alaska to a T. You’ve spent days stressing, spending all of your money, trying to make it home and as you’re almost there you get a taste of why it’s all worth it. Alaskan serendipity calls again. What a welcome home.

Leaving the party we approached the aforementioned road glacier which we thankfully crossed unscathed and finally (50 miles later) we pulled all the way into the driveway 5 days after leaving California.

Time to relax.

Nope.

Now it’s time to unpack everything you’ve brought. In the snow. In the cold. At midnight.

But first, let’s light off a lantern and hoot and holler “we’re home!” into the woods because really, that’s all that matters.

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Welcome home.