Month: May 2016

There’s a Fire in them Fields

When I first told my California girlfriends back home that I was dating the Fire Chief of the Volunteer Fire Department here there were two and only two responses:

  1. “Oh my god, how old is he?” Yea, I guess when I hear Fire Chief I think of an older man with a huge mustache. He can only check one of those boxes. And…
  2. “Of course you are. Of course.”

Geez. I hadn’t thought of it as obvious until each and every one of them said that. I sensed a pattern…

I’ve always been interested in a more rugged lifestyle and hey, I’ve always worn cowboy boots year round, so I guess it does make sense that I would be attracted to a rugged place and a rugged cowboy-esque (think classic Marlboro, not rhinestone) man to go with it. The Fire Chief part was just a little title icing on top of the obvious cupcake, I guess.

Growing up and honestly pretty much until now, the only interactions I’d had with fire departments had been dichotomous and rarely fire related. I’d admired fire fighters as a kid and keep that wonderment and respect with me still to this day. I’d had child like interactions with fire personnel that I wasn’t acquainted with, like being sprayed off by fire hoses at the end of a 10k Mud Run I completed a few years ago.

On the opposite side of things, I also used to hang out with friends in high school who were part of the Volunteer Fire Department in the area with whom I would get into more trouble than public service. Sneaking into the Fire House to have a party (with the radios blaring in case of emergency and the guys on duty staying sober, don’t worry) was a common weeknight activity. But neither of the two interactions really had much to do with fire other than hoping that during the party that we would all get to slide down the ladder.

Firefighting to me was a very distant reality. One which I admired but did not see myself participating in. Looking back I’m not sure if it’s because I felt I had come upon the game too late ((most of my friends had been in the VFD (Volunteer Fire Department) for years already)) or if it was too much of a boy’s club to break into, or if, as a shorty I was too physically intimidated. I do know that it intrigued me, but I never pursued it.

So, upon moving here and finding my (apparently obvious) partner in crime who just so happened to be Fire Chief of the VFD in town, I again felt fire pique my interest but again shied away. The Chief holds meetings for the VFD on Wednesdays and I would conveniently always be working or busy.

That was last year.

However, come the middle of Winter last year with all the grant proposals and planning for the year ahead taking place in the middle of our small cabin, I started to get interested and invested and started thinking towards this year. I still felt intimidated. I still felt it was a bit of a boy’s club. But after talking about it we realized that in the event of a fire, considering how much we like to be together, we likely would be together. If The Chief was called to a fire I could either arrive with him, untrained and unable to do much to help, or I could come to trainings, learn the equipment and become a member of the VFD.

Me?

It didn’t seem quite real, or feasible for that matter. I tried different angles to see if The Chief really was serious about needing me there. I tried to get out of it, but at the same time somewhat hoped he would push me towards it.

In true Chief fashion, he did.

“There’s no reason why you can’t do anything at the VFD that I can do and there’s no reason for you not to know how to help when we live in such a vulnerable area to fire. You’ve got this.”

Well, shoot. There’s no arguing that. We do live in a vulnerable area. We are in rural Alaska. The road to the town is 60 miles of pothole ridden gravel and dirt. Outside help would be a long time coming. We should know what we are doing. We are the initial attack force.

 

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Changing out the Smokey Sign to High Fire Danger. Only you.

 

So, I resolved to go to meetings and try my best.

 

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Not a bad place to train, I guess.

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Piss packs and water reserves and mountains, oh my!

And it’s a good thing I did.

Three days after our second meeting in which we practiced running the different pumps on the different trucks and in which I tried, with fail, to memorize the order of operations to get water flowing, there was a fire.

Sure enough, The Chief was right. The first fire of the area and we were together, only now unlike last year, I could help.

A neighbor had come by to report smoke down the road from our house. Erratic winds had caused it to flow in his direction but not ours (we live on opposite sides of the fire and the winds had sent it his way. He also had to pass the area to get home whereas our turnoff is before the site). Smoke? The Chief had been alerted about a controlled burn in the area but had been assured the night before that it had been tucked in for the night and was completely out.

Or so they thought.

But they were wrong.

By the time The Chief and I got to the burn site there was not only smoke but open flames. Fire is tricky like that. She can seem like she’s gone and then, with just the right fuel from a windy day, she can pick right up as if resurrected from the dead.

 

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A panoramic view of the burn site.

 

The winds were just so that day and the temperatures (for Alaska) were cooking that the situation could have spelled disaster. Surrounded by dead Spruce trees and fields of dried grass, we arrived to the open flames and immediately got to business. We live a mere 5 minutes down the road. That fire could have beaten us home if it caught the right wind, and then beaten our home to a pulp. The Department isn’t equipped for structural firefighting and so we would have tried to contain the fire but likely wouldn’t have been able to save our home. We would have had to watch it burn while we tried to contain it so we didn’t also have to watch our friends’ houses burn as well.

The firestarter (or rather the person who ordered another to oversee the fire) was called and told of what was happening and that we required immediate help. He may have thought that the fire was out but unfortunately he was wrong. Further, a fire should never have taken place the day before in the conditions we were experiencing and it should have been overseen by a larger group with better water back-up had things gone wrong. He sent a crew to help us to handle the situation.

Our neighbor had to drive the fire truck to the site while we watched the fire. We had left the truck in town, stationed to be near the more populated areas where fire seemed more likely. Of course, it was the day that we should have brought it home. When you live in a town where it takes twenty minutes minimum to get from our house to town in a loaded fire truck and there are only three functioning trucks in the area, it seems right that it should be centrally located and easily accessible by qualified members of the VFD if need be. But now, we were on our side of the bridge and the river without an immediate truck response.

When resources are limited, it’s hard to know how to best play them but from now on that truck will be with us every second, ready to respond and the two others will live on the opposite side of the river, poised for attack.

 

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I seriously can’t imagine a better color scheme. I love that truck.

 

So, with the fire truck arrived and a hand crew to boot, we started at it. Having just gone through my first round of training, I figured I should defer to our neighbor and to The Chief to operate the pumps.

Wrong.

“It’ll be good training. Fire her up.”

Gulp.

O.k.

Thankfully, they were there to answer any questions which arose and I was able to get water flowing within minutes. Then, of course, I immediately walked away from the pump to ask The Chief a question while our neighbor headed out with the hose.

 

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Easy-peezy, right?

 

Big mistake.

The pump runs at whichever pressure you set it at. That being said, if you walk away from the pump and the pump runs out of water and you’re still trying to run the pump, well, it will run. It will run itself right into the ground and blow up.

When you have three fire trucks total for a great expanse of land it’s best to keep all three functional. It would have taken almost an hour to get a different truck over to us had I broken the pump and it takes hours to get to town and weeks to replace the pump. Overall, it’s just best not to break it in the first place.

The neighbor quickly reminded me of all of this with just one quick point and shout.

“You walked away!”

I ran back to the pump.

“This is your station. You watch your water levels. You watch your guys. You watch your pump” said The Chief.

 

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A few hand signal snafus (we didn’t really cover those yet) and a lot of digging and water later and the fire was contained and put out. I brought the throttle down slowly and then killed the engine. All was quiet again as everyone seemed to stop and look at what had become of the fire and to what could have been.

 

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Having been surrounded in refuse smoke, we all stunk to high heaven but even smelling like a dump couldn’t break my spirit. I had helped. I had run the pump. It hadn’t been perfect, but I had learned and most importantly, I had gone to training even though I had been intimidated. I kept imagining myself just standing there, feeling helpless as The Chief did all the work and I was so glad that a different reality had been the case instead. While I ran the pump and our neighbor ran the hose, The Chief could call and report the fire, take wind speed measurements, check conditions and oversee the effort. I would have missed out on helping because I was intimidated and afraid to fail. What a waste that would have been and in a different situation, what a danger that could have been. An ego at bay (momentarily) helped keep a fire away.

Within the hour The Chief had been called onto patrolling duty by the Department of Forestry. 12 hour days of driving the area back and forth and up and around to monitor campfires from visiting campers and to be on the lookout for developing weather systems, smoke and the like. To me, living in or near a city, I never even knew to contemplate just how much attention goes into hyper rural fire prevention. A lightning strike could be the beginning of a fire. A cigarette butt or an unattended campfire, or sparks from metal contact or any number of things could start small and turn into something very dangerous. In a city, response is easier to mobilize (though the fire is no less dangerous). Out here, we are on our own for precious hours. And so, he is on watch for anything and everything that could lead to fire.

Two days later of patrolling later, there was a fundraiser for the VFD.

 

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The event of a couple days past was abuzz in the community and so was the reality of the importance of the VFD. I watched as The Chief spoke to our community of the rising numbers of fire, the elevated danger of fire with our high temperatures and erratic winds and the dwindling water levels.

 

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The historic Rec Hall

 

Throughout the night, the mountains of delicious potluck foods (seriously, this place can throw a potluck) and the music and dancing, I kept looking at The Chief with a new respect and a special sort of awe. I knew what he did was of great importance but I guess I hadn’t understood just how much was riding on his back. When he said the ‘fire was out’, the fire was out but what if it had sparked up again? It would have been on him. Placing the trucks and training his team and keeping the equipment functioning and funded. In the end, it all rests on his shoulders.

I’ve always appreciated being in a role of leadership. I can jump into a situation and see what needs to get done and help to delegate so that it does. But I’ve never been in the constant state of responsibility The Chief is in. I know that I could do it though I can’t say whether I’d volunteer for it, but someone has to.

Seeing The Chief in front of the attendees in this light, seeing him speaking to them, asking for their help since fire is such a community effort, seeing him in this situation of responsibility did make it obvious. I further understood what my girlfriends’ saw (or heard from me by phone) immediately. I love seeing this serious side, this side that makes me and others feel safe. This side that knows what the relative humidity levels are every morning and watches the sky like a hawk scans the ground. I love seeing him in Chief Mode and well, it’s Summer now. ‘Tis the fire season. I also love how Chief Mode affects me. I take myself more seriously now. When he asks me what the water level is off-hand, I answer confidently. At trainings (instead of being the goof-off I usually was in class) I listen because I know it could come into play and now, I’ve seen it come into play and seen the potential mistakes in play. There’s nothing like a sense of urgency or emergency to challenge oneself and I hope each time to better and better be able to respond. I also hope we never have to respond again but I’ll train every week nonetheless.

Engage Chief Mode.

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…and co-pilot Lou

The Annual Summertime Shower Day Kickoff

In the woods, a working shower is king. It’s like having a four burner stove and an oven. People stop and congratulate you when they hear of your good fortune. No longer will your woodsy world contain the bucket shower or the river dash.

When I first arrived, I took my good fortune for granted. I figured everyone had a shower, running water, a laundry machine. My reality check came quickly in the form of a new friend whom upon my entering the bar (freshly showered, hair washed and all) remarked that “Someone near me has taken a shower and smells wonderful”. Sniffing about he came to me and buried his face in my hair and called others to do the same. “You smell like flowers”.

This town really knows how to roll out the welcome mat. I was in.

Still, it didn’t totally sink in just how exciting  and rare having a real shower was until I saw another new friend running off to take a cleansing dip in the glacial waters of the swimming hole. That must be brisk, to say the best. People trade for showers here: veggies from my garden for a shower and laundry one day. A shower for an hour of tree work. The barter system is alive and well and often water based because really, is there much better after a long dusty day than a shower? I’d be hard pressed to answer “yes”.

“You look radiant! Did you shower today?”

“A few days ago, yes. Thank you”.

This is such a common exchange that not until writing about it did I realize that it ever seemed foreign to me. Year round it is difficult to shower here, even if you have a shower on site. It’s not that people are disinterested, it’s that it’s difficult and time-consuming and so the compliments aren’t just to say “Wow, you smell delicious” but rather a sort of unsaid “Congratulations for making it through the whole process”. A congratulatory compliment for showering? My gosh, my old showering self (at least once daily, or twice if it was a big gym day, which seems so foreign now) would have been to the moon with congratulations.

In Winter, congratulations are even more enthusiastic because it is that much harder to get everything done. It simply is difficult. Correction: in the Summer, it can be difficult (time-consuming to fill up, get systems running, etc.), in the Winter it is basically entering into a long-term relationship with each shower.

A shower this Winter? Well sure, I’d love one! I don’t have anything planned for the next 24 hours so I should be able to get one in. Ideally I’ll be able to as long as all the systems are in place and functioning and all the chores it takes to have a shower don’t take longer than a day.

Let’s see…

 

1st: Start a fire to warm the house (if you haven’t enough wood then start first by gearing up and chopping wood for a while. If you haven’t the logs to chop well, then you are out for a day of logging dead trees. Your shower will have to wait and your planning ahead will have to get in the game).

2nd: Bring the generator inside to warm up.

3rd: Find other chores to fill the next few hours until the generator is cozy and ready to purr, such as pumping gas to later fill the generator with. Afterwards, change your clothes once you come back inside because you’ve inevitably spilled copious amounts of gasoline on them while pumping fuel in your overzealous fashion.

4th: Gear up, buttercup. Gloves and snow pants and parkas, oh my! All to walk 20 feet outside. Bring the generator and watch your step as you carefully navigate the Ramp of Doom. Do Not Fall.

5th: Pull and pull and pull until the pullcord starts the generator. Plug in the well and start filling buckets. Take the buckets (now two at a time since you’ve gotten stronger since you first started this game) 40 lbs. each, one per hand and navigate once again the epic Ramp of Doom no-handed. Ideally some of the gravel your girlfriend spread the other night for fear of face planting on the icy surface still remains and you can find a little grip. Or you can just hightail it and hope for the best. Note: swinging the buckets forward at the last gap between the steps greatly reduces one’s chances of falling.

6th: Fill the reservoir for the shower. It’s around 15 gallons so that means repeating steps 5 & 6 a few times because after three buckets to fill the reservoir and 2 to fill the reservoir under the sink for our “running” water faucet and 1 more to fill the water on the stove and the tea kettle and the water pitcher and your water bottle you still need to fill up the 5 gallon buckets each once more in order to have reserve water for drinking inside.

7th: So, now, nose and eyelashes frozen,  you are all watered up. The house is like a fishbowl. You’re swimming in it. In fact, you look like you actually have been swimming in it because you are soaked. Time for another outfit change. Your fire has dwindled a bit so give her a little extra gusto and start getting the house cooking for your shower time. The water in the shower reservoir needs to warm up a bit too because pumping from the well is nearly frozen water which means, at best, a pretty cold shower even with the water heater working. It’s now around 4pm so you will prep dinner while you wait for the heat to nip at the chill.

8th: It’s 6pm and The Chief comes home. You’ve prepped dinner, chopped wood, done dishes, hauled water, pumped gas, taken a morning walk so as to get at least a little Vitamin D and you are pooped. By the time you’ve finished dinner (and dessert, duh) you’re finally ready to take that shower but boy does it take some serious inspiration. Sleep is calling. It’s been dark since 4pm and your internal clock is ready to snooze. But a few listenings to “Eye of the Tiger”-esque songs and you are ready! You can do this!

You go upstairs and don your robe, get your towel, grab anything and everything you will need for during and post shower and bring down the water catch 10 gallon bucket in which you stand in during your shower to collect water. You then find your stool made from old timber (yea, you’re short) and lift the stairs to their resting place above the middle of the kitchen. You aim not to fall as you secure them into place and weeble wobble on your stool. You then close the pantry door you and The Chief fashioned to protect the goods under the stairs during showers. You hook the shower curtain up around the appropriate nails on the back of the stairs and tuck it into your bucket. Just then you realize that you forgot your washcloth upstairs. It’s too late for that fallen soldier, you decide, because otherwise you’d have to tempt fate again on your wobbly stool, undo all of the hooks, move the shower catch, undo the stairs and then redo it all over again upon retrieving your washcloth. You’ll make do without it, eh?

 

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Water catch, propane and…showertime!

 

9th: It’s time. Alert the chorus, or at least iTunes. It’s shower time people. You hook up the shower to the battery in the living room, check that the hose in the reservoir is submerged, turn on the water heater, turn on the shower head and pray to hear a flow. You do, the heater kicks on, the water goes from freezing to scalding hot and finally evens itself out. This is it, your time to shine. You tag in like the finisher of a relay. Let’s do this.

 

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Not much elbow room but it’s cozy and it works.

 

10th: Just as you’ve suds-ed up your locks and are ready to turn the shower head back on (we do military style showers. Get wet. Turn off shower. Suds up. Turn on shower to rinse. Turn off shower. Repeat repeat with shampoo and conditioner. Water only flows when necessary. Now you know why I love a hotel shower. On demand water? Count me in). You turn it on, avoid both the freezing and the scalding shifts and settle in to de-suds when you hear it.

The entire time you are showering, inside, outside, at a friend’s house, wherever, you are listening. Listening to the pump, listening for correct suction. Listening and waiting for any sound to tell you that something is “off”. Showers are a sort of hyper vigilant auditory escapade. And now, you’ve heard it. A sound to tell you that something is wrong. The water isn’t pulling correctly. Suddenly, it stops. Oh joy. You aim to clear the shampoo in your eyes enough to get out of the shower into a thankfully warm (this time) house to inspect what is happening and unplug the pump before you blow it up (no need to do that more than once in a lifetime, right J?).

11th: You realize that the pesky hose that you so dotingly checked on not 5 minutes before has wound itself into a whirlwind and is now gallantly facing upwards like a gymnast flipping their head back after sticking a landing. You are no longer taking in water. Funny thing about a shower, it requires water. You do your best to submerge it again, even placing a rock from your collection on top of it and eyes burning, head back into your bucket, once again avoiding the cold and the hot in order to take in the joy of the just right.

12th: A few more On and Offs later and you are finally done. You dry off in front of the stove to keep the chill away (the shower rests in between the woodstove and the door and at 20 below, even our big door can’t keep out a draft that would kill a plant placed in front of it in hours. It’s cold.

13th: Post The Chief’s shower, both dry-ish and tired galore it’s time to disassemble the shower until the next one. You get your stool, unhook the curtain and go to start the slow move of the shower catch towards the sink only to realize that a small portion of the curtain was out of the bucket and the floor is sopping wet. Thank goodness it’s currently unfinished. Everything is wet but nothing is ruined and hey, character is added. You clean it up and then together, you lift the bucket over the sink and do a slow pour of human soup into the sink so as not to overwhelm the French Drain. You place the bucket near the fire (though not too close) to dry, unhook the shower from the batteries and are ready to put down the stairs and call it a night when you realize that the shower curtain is still wet and shouldn’t be put away as such and so you leave up the stairs and stare at the dishes that call to you (though not enticingly enough) while you wait for a slightly drier curtain to allow passage up to the sleepy upstairs where your bed rests.

14th: Everything is put away and passage upstairs is granted.

Shower Day complete.

You’re safe upstairs in bed with your wet hair until, of course, nature calls for the last time today and you hurriedly dress and find your boots and socks, run outside and scurry back in afterwards just as quickly. There’s nothing like a crisp night and chilled hair to knock you out of sleep but still the goings on of your day bring you back to slumber. You’re worn out. It was a Shower Day.

 

With Summer here (at least it is on most days, except on the ones where it is freezing at night and dumps rain all day) we were beyond excited to get to shower once again outside. The water drains, there’s no bucket to haul around, the shower is roomier and it is outside so the view is beautiful and the reservoir outside is 55 gallons. It might as well be a hotel shower.

I put up the stairs for the last shower related time until Winter and took out the screws for the door shielding our pantry from shower splatter.

 

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Putting it up originally in December after almost of month of bucket baths. We were stoked.

 

We took down the shower curtain and set it to dry in the sun to be put away later. The shower buckets were both scrubbed and then filled with Winter clothes to bid adieu to until it’s time again to bundle ourselves.

 

And then, we took the shower unit outside. The Chief screwed it into place, we connected the hoses, filled the 55 gallon drum, checked that it was working and then just as it was set-up, had to run off to something or another before we could try it.

No worries, there’s always tomorrow.

Wrong.

Tomorrow followed that night in which the temperatures dropped to below freezing. No big deal, right?

Wrong again.

You see, when we tested the shower that meant that water ran through all of the lines. Lines that when left full on a night below freezing will burst.

Who woulda thunk it? We hadn’t had a freezing night in well over a week.

I did not get the memo.

The next morning (totally unaware) I was pumped, I didn’t even need an “Eye of the Tiger”-esque song. I put on my magenta robe and hightailed it to the shower house. Today was the first of many Summertime Shower Days, the Annual Start. I was walking on air.

And then the winds changed and suddenly I was back to walking in the mud puddles beneath my feet because when I turned on the shower, water started bursting out of the water heater.

That doesn’t seem quite right.

The Chief came and verified that indeed, we were screwed.

I, having very much looked forward to Annual Summertime Shower Day Kickoff, was not giving up. The shower, on the other hand, was. Thankfully, our neighbors’ lines hadn’t burst and they graciously allowed me to come over. When you’re set for a shower, you’re getting a shower. I would have visited every house in the ‘hood until someone let me in, thankfully this robed lady didn’t have to go far. Thank goodness for great neighbors.

That day we ordered a replacement.

I went to Mail Days (Mondays and Thursdays, delivered by plane) stalking the package for the week, knowing full and well that it was unlikely to even arrive within the week.

 

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But it’s not a bad place to wait. Check out that runway.

 

It did! It came on a Thursday (a friend called to tell us we had a large package and see if we needed them to bring it home for us if we were on foot or if we had a car that day to carry it ourselves) and we raced from work to pick it up and then raced home to set it up. After days of painting I was so excited to get in. Just as we finished assembling the last bits we got a call that dinner was waiting on us at a friends’ house. We had been so lost in the set-up that we hadn’t realized that it was almost 10pm.

The shower would have to wait for another day.

Finally Annual Summertime Shower Day Kickoff came. Covered in a week’s worth of paint and dust (the roads here are dirt and thus dust is the coating on everything. My hair spends the Summer feeling like crunchy cereal, except for on…Shower Day!) we were both excited to kick off the Summer Shower Season.

We robed up, toweled up, got our shower supplies and headed out. It was beautiful outside with the Summer light still bright at 10pm by the time we got in. Finally, the first shower of the season. Outside, no buckets, no spilling in the house, no freezing temperatures to crisp up our hair as we went back in. It was perfect.

 

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So, when I went for my second shower of the season some days later I figured it would come about without a hiccup.

Wrong again (third time’s the charm, right?).

It was cold that night but I was a dusty mess and needed to recharge in a warm shower before hitting the sack. I went outside, gassed up the generator, started it, hooked up the batteries for the shower to the generator, hooked up the shower to the batteries, turned on the propane, turned on the shower and the water heater and boom! A beautiful shower…

for about 30 seconds.

Then, the sounds we all listen for and fear started up. Chugging and glugging and…then, nothing. No water.

It turns out that the hose wasn’t topsy-turvy, nor was the pump malfunctioning much. Nope, the problem really was no water. I had forgotten to refill the barrel. So, I got my boots on and shivered in my robe to go off and run the other generator to run the hose to the 55 gallon drum to fill it with water. About ten minutes later the drum was full and everything was working.

 

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I had solicited The Chief’s help on this one and he warned that the water would likely be pretty cold since it had just come out of the barely above freezing well. Oh, a cold shower in the cold outside. This was just what I had ordered.

Well, lucky for me, the order got changed in the kitchen and the water came out hot enough to barely notice the cold temperatures outside.

Until it stopped again.

I knocked on the house to summon The Chief (again).

“What was the sound it was making?” See, I told you we all listen for sounds around here. I told him that the pump was making a fizzing almost bubbling sucking noise.

Time to unhook everything. I’m still learning to troubleshoot this puppy.

“You probably should get back in your robe, babe. This could take a while” he said, looking at me shivering.

There is nothing more dissatisfying after a semi-cold shower than putting on a semi-wet robe. Actually, standing in the cold, shivering and naked with wet hair is worse. Wet robe it is.

After finding a plugged up part of the line and having two false starts the shower was again up and running in ten minutes.

About an hour after robe-ing up and heading outside (and after maybe 15 minutes of actual showering time, which is luxurious, don’t get me wrong) I was done. The Chief took his run at it and came out successful with little to no interruptions (I guess I had worked out all of the kinks, the benefits of being a second showerer in the Summer versus standing in someone else’s water in the Winter if you don’t dump it first).

A year ago, I was taking showers and baths where the hardest thing that might happen was that the water heater would go out and have to be re-lit, which at the time felt like a serious setback. Now, taking a shower here feels like back in California. I essentially just get in and turn it on. Sure, there may be malfunctions but we have a well, we have a 55 gallon drum. Many people haul their water from up to 30 minutes away, some even walk the 30 minutes with 40 lb. buckets in backpacks. That seems near impossible to me. Then again, my showering situation would have seemed near impossible to me a year ago. I guess it’s all in the perspective. And in the necessity.

A year ago, this all would have seemed so foreign. A year ago it did seem so foreign. I basked in my showers not realizing how lucky I was. Now I see it. My perspective has shifted and I hope I never forget how amazing it is to have what we have.

Upon entering someone’s home here, it’s really common to check out their “systems”. How does their water situation work? Is it a dry cabin? Where do they haul water from? A well? How far down did they have to drill? What is their battery or solar situation like? Do they have a slop bucket or a drain? Everywhere we go everyone looks for tips and tricks of the trade. The other night we dropped off friends and admired their new shower system and French Drain in the kitchen. When we got home The Chief said “I hope I never forget how amazing it is to have our own running water in our house”. Luckily for him, he won’t have to. I’ll never forget how scary taking a slop bucket down the Ramp of Doom was in Summer and how happy I was that he installed a French Drain last Fall so that I didn’t have to tempt my fate on the Ramp of Doom with a slop bucket in Winter.

Our simple life may change. We may move on from a two burner so high up on the counter that I had to stand on my tippy toes to be able to cook to a full four burner with an oven.

 

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Our old two burner, recently sent off to a new home at a friend’s house.

 

We may move from bucket showers to pump showers, heck someday we might even have a root cellar but I don’t plan on forgetting where we started: with coolers and specific placement of items at varying distances from a Winter entrance to keep them the right amount of cool. I won’t forget that we are lucky. Lucky to live the simple life that isn’t so simple at first and at second, is more than I could have hoped for.

And, I’m sure if we do forget this simple fact, Alaska will have a swift kick in the rear for us both as a reminder.

 

Scaling the Scaffolding: a Tale of Two Wobbly Knees

 

Next month marks a year since my life did a complete 180. I went from running water and local organic grocery stores to a “slop bucket” (a collection of water from the sink in the place of a draining sink, since there’s often little to no indoor plumbing here) and massive town runs. I went from everything I’ve ever known and every habit I’d created to a complete new way. But some things remain the same, no matter how far we travel, no matter how far we’ve come. Some things remain.

When I first arrived last June one of my first outings was to go ice climbing. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d ever even heard of ice climbing. It sounded way out of my element and way out of my comfort zone.

The girlfriend I was staying with when I first got here (when I first thought I’d only be here for 17 days and then off to who knows where) runs a guiding service in the area. She had to work that day but knew some of the guides were going ice climbing.

“You should go along” she encouraged. I was newly adjusting to my surroundings. Getting used to peeing outside, still afraid of bears around every corner, still getting used to the light at night and the ever-changing weather throughout the day. Rainstorms followed by blazing sun to suddenly overcast and frigid. My backpack was essentially my mobile closet with everything from a toothbrush to bug spray to a fresh pair of socks. Thinking ahead was key. It was all new.

So when I heard about the ice climbing expedition, I was uncertain. I didn’t know the guides, didn’t know the gear and I didn’t totally understand the endeavor which in the end was good because it allowed me not to think far enough to realize that I would be climbing up into the air when I have a fear of heights.

 

I have a fear of heights.

It was something that I had all but forgotten about myself until I got here. Occasionally, back in California, there would be a beautiful sunset which we would climb up on the roof of my house and watch. I would gingerly climb the ladder, slowly placing each footstep, holding on for dear life as I scaled the 6 feet that would take me up to the roof that looked down at least 30 feet to the ground below. I would feel my stomach drop, my knees start to go wobbly and my feet begin to numb before I’d even ascended halfway. Up on the top, I’d find my nook and cranny myself into it until I had to move again in order to come down (a time which I hoped would come as soon as possible, but you know, the sun is on her own schedule. Are we there yet?). The thing was, those times were rare. I rarely scared myself, rarely had to step out of comfort, and so, until those moments, far and few between, I started to forget my fear of heights. How convenient.

But here I was, slowly realizing that the sport ice climbing contains the word ‘climbing’ which meant I was going up. Gulp. There was really no turning back. Looking back as we hiked I could barely see the town and had little to no faith of my ability to navigate the rocky terrain back to the home I had just arrived at a day or so before. And so I set out to conquer my fears, while simultaneously pretending they didn’t exist.

We hiked out to the glacier (a glacier!) over rickety bridges protecting us from the freezing water of the rushing creeks below and up and down slippery rock which was a far enough distance that by the time we got there everyone was ready for a snack. It was miles and clothing changes away, we were suddenly on exposed ice. Just the hike alone was more than I had done in recent months due to a recurring neck injury and carrying a big pack wasn’t a daily endeavor, to say the least. I worried as I realized that I already felt tired. Nevermind, snack time. With backpacks full of boots and harnesses and snacks galore, we all sat down to eat and evaluate the situation. Where would we drill into? Which were the hardest and easiest routes to climb? Clearly, I had a lot of input into these questions.

I was totally and completely over my head, but they were patient and taught me what to do. And then, just like that, the line was open. One guide offered me the option of more explanation or to just go. I chose the latter. I could feel the nervousness building and needed to beat it out of the gate. And so, with a relative hang of the idea (use these picks and your boots to climb up this enormous ice wall, get to the top and bouce-glide down) I clipped in and…

I got to the top. My knees were shaking, I couldn’t find my toe holds (it didn’t even compute one bit how a 1/4″ of metal was supposed to hold me into this ice face) and my forearms were screaming from clawing my way up with the axe but I kept going and I made it.

At the bottom, I looked up and realized I had scaled a height probably 5 times bigger than that 6 foot ladder. I was on Cloud 9. I patted myself on the back (after I’d dropped the ice pick) and hugged my girlfriend’s pup whom had followed me out for the day and had supervised my every move.

 

Version 2

Buddha, if I fall, will you catch me?

 

Fear of heights be gone. Onto the next challenge. Right?

Back in California this past Fall my Mom and I celebrated our birthdays (we are a week apart. Two Scorpios. You can guess how my teenage years went. Sorry for being a terror, Ma). For mine, we took a walk. For hers, she chose a craggy cliff side stroll. There were ravines and hills to climb up along rocky cliffs. It wasn’t exactly a walk in the park (although it was gorgeous) and for the first time in a long time, I saw her fear of heights in action.

 

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Growing up, I remember us both having fear. Now, a seasoned ice climber with one day of climbing behind me, I was coaxing her past the hairy junctions, holding her hand and congratulating her on the other side. She did it. She too conquered the fear.

 

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We were free. Right?

As you might have guessed, nope. Wrong.

This is how I found out: in this Shoulder Season of Spring before Summer, work is very much of the pick-up variety until everyone’s full-time jobs start. I was lucky enough to pick-up work from a local restaurant that my neighbor and friends are starting. The task? Painting.

 

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Little T punching the clock

 

The first day we arrived (The Chief, Cinda and I. The Chief had done construction for them throughout the Winter. Days below ten degrees finally became their cut-off point (meaning work would be called off) but this was only after working multiple days in below zero temps, even 20 below one day. I barely left the house on those days. They worked outside. Total badass status/crazy, if you ask me)) our neighbor was giving us the gist of the painting process:

“There will be some real basic on the ground stuff, some 6 foot ladder stuff and then the real Daredevil parts up high”.

Ha! He’s cute. Daredevil? Look past me my friend, I thought to myself.

And then I heard myself. That standard. Height = No Can Do, in my book. But wait, I thought we had gotten past this, right?

I pushed it out of my mind as I watched The Chief scale the first wall. I had work to do on the ground, only so many people (ideally one) can be on a ladder at once and I was needed on the ground below him.

We are three weeks out of The Chief’s surgery. Ideally, he lifts nothing and does not exert himself. Since the day after his surgery he has had to break the rules in order for our house to keep running, but we’ve tried to keep it mellow-ish, despite his distaste for not doing the heavy lifting.

In comes Summer.

The day we started was the day Summer arrived and with it temperatures of 80 degrees plus.

Up on a ladder, up on a porch, all day on the sunny side of the building with his neck crooked upwards is not the ideal healing and resting situation. And so, I thought to myself as I felt my feet go numb just looking at him way up in the air, if there’s more ladder work, I will try to help take some of the brunt so it’s not just him and his sinuses up there.

 

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Well, it turns out that I had to make good on that offer because there was a whole building to paint. A huge building.

Day two, still hotter than any of us expected and…it’s time for more ladder work.

“Babe, I’ll just do the ladder work today” I said, as simply as I might offer to divvy up the chores. You do the dishes while I haul water. I’ll pump gas while you water the plants. Simple. A trade-off. There’s work for all and it simply needs to be claimed.

I immediately regretted my decision.

Three of us (meaning The Chief and our neighbor with me bouncing around trying to find a place to be of use) moved a 24 plus foot extension ladder from one side of the building to the one in question. We propped it up and adjusted it in the rocky ground it stood upon. We were painting the second level of the building which had a hip roof (just what it sounds like, a roof below the “real” roof. If the roof of the building is the shoulders, the hip roof is, well, the hips) for the ladder to rest upon. Originally, we had discussed rigging up a harness situation in which one person would lean out of the windows of the second story and paint while tied in. As soon as we moved the ladder into place and The Chief all but ran up to the top without so much as a wobble and called it good, I realized that the harness idea was, to be punny, out the window.

Grrrrrrrrreat!

Just then, a few other friends showed up. Everyone stopped working to greet them and congregated around the ladder.

My ladder. The ladder I was going to have to climb up. That was as far as I had gotten. I knew I had to climb up it. It didn’t even occur to me that simply climbing up it might not be as easy as The Chief had shown it to be. He “No-Handsed” it.

Growing up watching my favorites in the Olympics like Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan it had never occurred to me that what they were doing was all that hard. I mean, it’s teachable, right? Needless to say, the first time I went ice skating and nearly broke my rear trying to do a jump (because that is what everyone is able to do their first time on the ice) I had the hard realization that simply because something looks easy doesn’t mean that it is and if it’s difficult and someone makes it look easy, well then it might be even more difficult than anticipated. Add fear to that equation and well, you’ve got my second day of painting.

I could feel the fear mounting (where was this even coming from? I had conquered this, right?) as we stood talking, I knew that my knees and feet wouldn’t respond much longer if I just kept looking at the feat ahead of me instead of starting it. So, with everyone there, I grabbed my paint bucket and brush and started climbing. The Chief had scampered up without holding on, I got one rung up before I quickly realized that he must be part Ninja, part Panther, as I fell forward and clung to the rungs for dear life. I started up the ladder, paint brush and bucket in one hand, the other free, both sweaty. Thankfully, the crowd on the ground took this as a cue that the break was over and started to disperse, a bit. This was not a moment for spectators, I looked like a newborn fawn taking its first steps. I was awkward.

A good three minutes later I was up the ladder (something that had taken The Chief all of about 7 seconds to complete, dang Kristi Yamaguchi look-alike).

Now what?

When in doubt, sit down.

I balanced one foot at the top rung and the other one rung below it and huddled to get my bearings. Bearings: well, I’m up really high. I have now become one-handed because I have nowhere to place my paint and essentially I am no handed because I need to use the other to paint.

Typically, I have pretty excellent balance, but try to balance a bucket full of fear and you get a spinning coin about to fall. Heads or tails? I decided that one, I was not going to fall and two, that I was going to at least get a few slats painted before I called it quits.

It turns out that even at full extension, my dual rung stance didn’t get me high enough to paint the highest slats. I would need The Chief’s help after all. So much for being his savior. This, I immediately saw as my out. I mean, does it really make sense to trade-off and on so that I can paint 2/3 of the top portion only to have to run and get The Chief for every last 1/3 before we (they) move the ladder again? Not at all.

This gave me the push I needed to finish my first section. My thighs were shaky from my balancing straddle (and from fear) and my positioning was awkward but I was able to power through and slowly make my way to the ground. Ah, sweet Earth. I’m never leaving you again.

Fear of heights realized, not welcomed, but acknowledged.

I rounded the corner to find The Chief.

“Hey babe, you ready to switch?”

Mmmhmmm.

I stalled telling him that we were switching for good. I went over to the wall he was working on (from the ground) and picked up his brush to work while he finished the last third on my area.

My area.

I had taken it on and yes, I was scared but there was something holding me back from completely abandoning the endeavor. Could I just give in so quickly? My thighs felt rested. He finished and came back over to get help moving the ladder. We summoned our neighbor for help as well.

“Babe, does this look good? Can you reach both sides from this?” He asked as they tried to place the ladder to my liking.

I couldn’t answer because if I did I would have said “Put it where you like, dear. You’re the one who will be doing the painting here” but I hadn’t fully committed to quitting the project just yet, so he got a silent reply. He thought I didn’t understand the question and so a few reconstructions of the quandary later I was finally able to answer.

“Looks good”.

As soon as our neighbor left I was able to explain my tongue tied-ness.

“I’m scared. It’s really high. It’s like…it’s really high”.

“Oh, ok. Do you want me to do it?”

I did, of course I did.

But I am stubborn and made myself try again.

We finished another section. I was starting to get my sea legs about me. I was feeling more confident. I still moved like an awkward crab but I felt a bit more at ease.

For the next ladder move the cat who had gotten my tongue had left to find someone elses. My tongue was working and I directed them where to place it.

No sooner had a climbed up (this time with no hands until at least the fourth rung. Progress.) and gotten situated did I start to feel just the slightest shift.

I froze.

Was the ladder moving? No, it couldn’t be, I said to myself as I realized that this last move I hadn’t checked the footing holds in their rocky setting.

It turns out, it could be.

Just as soon as I had started planning my escape route the ladder started moving again, a good consistent very slow slide off the roof. There was no time for planning, I was falling. Simultaneously, another stopper by stopped on by. I didn’t know him. I pointed at him. “You, come here. Now. This ladder is sliding”.

He ran over and didn’t move until I was safely on the ground.

“Your footing is uneven in this rock”.

Yes, thank you.

I hightailed it to The Chief and told the story of my near doom.

Clearly seeing I was shaken, he offered again to take over.

And so I let him…

for about five minutes.

I had walked over to his previous station and spent four minutes staring at the wall before I ran back over to the hip roof happenings.

“I want to do it”.

Patiently, he climbed back down. He checked to make sure I was actually comfortable with it and that I wasn’t purely fueled by pride (ugh, he knows me too well) and then confident in my responses he gave me some pointers. I watched him run up the ladder and show me footing options and window grips to be able to hang from the window to gain reach and stability.

Perfect. Thank you. Now go away so I can look awkward as I try to replicate what you just did.

I did not replicate it. It did not look the same, I’ll tell you that right now.

But, I did get back up there and together, switching on and off we nearly finished the whole side of the building that day.

The next day I was gung-ho to start and finish the last section. My thighs were sore from bracing myself and my feet hurt from trying to grab onto any sort of traction I could find (where’s the super power of Gecko hands and feet when you need them, right B?). I was done. The last of the “Daredevil Work” would be completed and I could go back to the safety of the ground feeling like I had made headway with my fear of heights.

 

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One last section to freedom

 

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Heading down for the last time

 

Well, Alaska (and years of planning and building blueprints) decided differently. You see, the building, no surprise here, is a box and thus, has four sides, all of them two stories tall. The “Daredevil Work” was only halfway through.

Oh joy.

Scaffolding.

I feel like my only interaction with scaffolding is the famous photo of men on a lunch break in New York in 1932. You know the one.

 

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This isn’t even scaffolding but it’s my idea of what being on scaffolding is like (if you are as brazenly comfortable as these gents are on it).

And so, lunch pail (actually, paint pail) in hand I ascended, climbing the big ladder again as it wobbled the scaffolding. I reached the top and immediately sat down (it really is the move, I’m telling you) to asses my surroundings. The Chief came up to show me how to move myself and the scaffolding up.

It’s going higher?

The best part about adjusting scaffolding is that, if you’re alone, it has to be done unevenly. You adjust one side two to three moves up by sticking your foot in a metal apparatus and (in my case) putting all your weight on it to get it to move down which raises that side up. Then, you walk uphill on the wobbly boards to the other side and do the same thing. Back and forth feeling like you’re surfing, raising up a bit more each time until you’re where you need to be. You also do all of this while trying not to spill your paint bucket everywhere or fall off.

Three separate sets of adjustments and hours later and my section was done. By the end of it I was feeling more confident again. The Chief reminded me that it takes practice, that he’d been doing this for years and to have patience. Patience, schmatience, he’s part Ninja. But he’s also a correct Ninja because by the end of the day as the winds picked up and I gained a partner in crime as we moved the scaffolding to the next section and we bounced one another around with our each and every move I found myself swaying with the boards instead of resisting them (while resisting my urge to sit down) and finding new ways to reach a little farther or lean a little more. Efficiency up, fear down. But not completely gone.

It turns out that a year ago being strapped into a harness that was attached to a rope that was bolted into ice (does that seem secure to you? Me neither but they are the professionals and it was amazing) that was held on the other end by an extremely confident crew is a little different from climbing up a ladder solo and balancing while painting on its upper rungs. I had not conquered my fear but I had faced it again, this time more seriously and man, was it determined to stay put but it wasn’t going to.

Without the stretch out of the norm how are we to remember our fears? Even more, how are we to challenge them? And how are we to start the journey past them? I had been living in the safety of a world I constructed where I knew what would come next and how to avoid it if it scared me. Here, there’s still the option to say “no” but the situations come upon me faster than I know how to plan for and thank goodness for that.

My scheduling of my safety bubble has been interrupted and fear has been a frequent visitor but even though uninvited, fear is a welcome surprise to remind me of the things we carry with us no matter where we go. Before I came here, I put a reminder in my phone to do something every day that scares me or simply puts me out of my comfort zone, be it trying a new class or getting lost and finding my way back. I had to search out those things. Now, they come to me. Oh, joy. But really, it is a joy.

I have a fear of heights and I now remember that but I will keep challenging it until it turns into “I have a slight fear”. Perhaps it will never turn into “I had a fear” but I’m sure there will be enough situations here to make it come to be if it is at all possible.

Until then, I’ll keep the reminder of my Mom conquering her fears, step by step, one foot in front of the other and of my Ninja boyfriend, making the hard look so easy that I (somewhat) fearlessly attempt it.

 

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Falling in Love Naked with Cauliflower Armpits

From the time I started wearing makeup (an issue of high contention and many winy, though I thought well thought out, arguments between my mother and I) I never stopped.

I never wore all that much makeup, the whole eyeshadow thing was (and is) lost on me and I liked (and like) to see the tone of my skin, not a mirage of powders but despite it’s typically minimal presence, I still wore it everyday.

Going to the gym? Mascara and blush.

The beach? The same.

Going out? A cat eye and maybe some red lips was my staple.

And why not? Since the beginning of people, we have sought to adorn ourselves through piercings and tattoos, jewelry and clothing and hairstyles and of course makeup. And truly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I have a strong affinity for shiny things and gold is my favorite color.

Needless to say, I love adornment.

But sometimes it goes too far. Sometimes, the adornment becomes the identity instead of an accessory. At some point, the thing I had fought to have control over doing had control over me.

I used to watch my makeup free friends in awe, wishing that I too could go without but feeling too insecure to do so. They looked so beautiful, so natural. I longed for that freedom but felt that

I was different

I was required to wear makeup

I just didn’t look quite right without it.

From pool parties to long weekends with friends, there I was, with mascara at a minimum, wishing it were otherwise but feeling as if it just could not be so. If a friend stopped by and I was just out of the shower I would panic and try to “do something” to rectify the situation before they saw me.

I remember the first time a friend’s mom described me as “smart” first instead of a physical descriptor and I realized that this was how I wanted to be seen and interpreted. I wanted my insides to matter the most but I didn’t know how to shift focus. I felt trapped.

But then, I turned my whole world upside down. I left my home, moved in with a wonderful girlfriend and started planning for Alaska.

She questioned: “So, are you going to wear makeup in Alaska?” She being one of those beautiful friends that was almost always sans makeup.

It had been on my mind. It was almost as if she had heard me thinking it. What am I going to do? No one wears makeup there it seems. And who really cares if I stick out but I already felt like the inexperienced city girl (despite coming from the country) with “high maintenance” written across my forehead and “priss” written on my back. When I asked if I should bring a hair dryer or if my girlfriend in Alaska had one she giggled and replied “Julia, if I plugged a hair dryer in at my house my whole inverter would probably blow up”.

Oh.

I didn’t totally get what an inverter was but I did get that I was entering a totally new ballgame.

Back to nature.

And I was excited.

I wanted so badly to be free of feeling required to look a certain way but the voices of insecurity whispered “You’re not like the others. You don’t get to. You’re not enough”.

Pretty damn rude, if you ask me.

I responded to my girlfriend’s quandry: “I don’t want to wear makeup, but I’m feeling nervous”.

“Well, why don’t you start here and then you’ll be used to it once you arrive in Alaska? Plus, your skin could probably use a break, ya know? You could just spend the whole Summer letting it breath and rejuvenate itself”. It sounded like heaven. Except…

Umm, start at home, where I know everyone? No thanks. People will be shocked at how different I look.

Feeling my utter resistance to her idea told me that I needed to do it. I was afraid. So I forced myself.

Thank goodness.

It turns out that people weren’t shocked. People didn’t gawk or ask if I was sick (my personal favorite of the comments I’d gotten once from a previous stint not wearing makeup for one day at the office. It was going to be a week. I quickly reconsidered). In fact, I actually felt that I got more compliments with a naked face than with an adorned one but that is not what matters.

What truly matters was how I felt. I felt free. In the following weeks, I would curl my eyelashes or add a little blush for fun (and I still sometimes do, it seems that my cheeks, no matter if I’ve run a 10k or snowmachined up a mountain, do not blush, no way, no how and I really like a rosy cheek, so there you have it) but it wasn’t part of my duties for the day. It didn’t feel like a habit or requirement in order to be able to step outside.

Makeup felt, once again, like adornment. The freedom to add or subtract but in the end to be happy with the canvas I started with.

I took this new freedom with me to Alaska.

When I met someone, it felt like they were truly meeting me, not a constructed image of me.

Then I met The Chief. The night I really fell for The Chief (who am I kidding, I was hooked from “Hello”) was the first day I went Packrafting. We had all gotten drenched down to our undies, I had dirt all over my face and half dry-half wet braided/tangled locks for hair.

I mean, I’d certainly looked better before.

It didn’t matter.

To him I was me, the only me he’d ever known. He didn’t know the makeuped me of the past, just the dirty faced lady high on her first rafting adventure in front of him and he liked her. The feeling was mutual.

And so we fell in love naked faced. Stripped down to who we were and who we are. It’s a totally different experience than I’ve ever had before. I think every makeup wearer (who has grown uncomfortable with going naked) knows the stress of meeting someone while all gussied up only to wait anxiously for the first time they will see you without makeup. What a terrible reality to feel less than without adornment, but I used to feel that way.

There’s an Amy Schumer video that I think perfectly sums up the predicament, and in perfect Amy fashion she pokes fun at how ridiculous we can be as a society. I’m not saying that makeup is bad, just that if it makes you feel bad about yourself, then maybe it’s time to renegotiate your relationship terms. I certainly needed to.

Now, in the last year I can count on my hands the times I’ve worn mascara or lipstick. It’s a world away from where I used to be. Now, I look forward to fancier occasions (which might just mean randomly being in a bar on a Tuesday in Anchorage) where I wear makeup. It feels new and exciting, like a real event. But, by the next morning I’m ready to go back to bare and The Chief is always ready for me to get back to the real me. What a different place.

But, don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean that I don’t get a little bored sometimes. Living in the woods means there’s rarely a lipstick occasion (though, by all means, I could just go ahead and make it a Lipstick Saturday anytime) and so sometimes I try little beauty methods on my own. Julia’s Salon opens for business (Appointment Only and you might want to Yelp some other options. She’s new).

I go through phases of light and dark with my eyebrows, dying them dark and then letting them lighten. I’ve even done the same with my eyelashes. It’s fun to see how the face changes just from a little shift and it keeps me entertained trying out new techniques. It’s also interesting to see myself get attached to one way or the other and feel less than when things are different. Insecurity trying still to creep in. What a creep.

Starting at the top going down: Light Bright; An homage to Charlie Chaplin (dyeing the brows); Lash Tint Imprint; Darker for Now

 

 

So, with all these DIY beauty attempts I thought I’d try a new one. I thought to myself, hey, everyone out here seems to wax their legs and armpits. Maybe I’ll try that! Julia’s Salon opens again!

Good idea?

It seemed it (in retrospect, no). Our shower was on the fritz and shaving takes up extra water in my little birdbath bathing sessions so I thought, hey, why not? Plus, I’d done it before with a girlfriend this Winter so I was sure I could figure it out on my own. What could go wrong?

Well, it turns out that I’m allergic to the particular wax I used.

That’s one option that could go wrong.

Another is that my reaction could cause my armpits to swell and bubble up like the cauliflowered ear of a boxer.

Sounds glorious, eh?

So far, three days in, my armpits (could we perhaps come up with a more glamorous name? Even Armcaves or Armjunction feels better. Pit? Not shiny) are just as angry as Day One. They’ve carved three tally marks on the wall like prisoners and are threatening to fill the whole wall with tallies if I ever go near that wax again. Sheeesh! I was just trying to do as the locals do.

Thankfully, a few weeks ago, a friend up the road gave us two aloe plants which The Chief remembered as we looked around the med kit for relief. He broke the plant and applied it to the angry armcaves. One could almost hear them sizzling as the cooling liquid touched their hot surface.

Grossed out enough?

Yea, me too.

I can tell you that never has a beauty regime felt less important. In an effort to try something new I put myself out of commission, or at least made things much more painful to do. From hauling water to my new attempts at running, to folding laundry and carrying things into the loft my days have been filled with yips and squeals at the parting of the cracking skin while my nights have been interrupted with itching bumps that awaken me from sleep.

All this for a little hair removal? Geez, I’ll keep it. Or actually, I’ll just do what I’ve always done because now I’ve found out what works for me: shaving please (preferably with a man’s razor. What, do they think that women can’t handle a sleek six blades? They are way better, ladies, trust me. Or actually, just do whatever is working for you). I’d much prefer to spend a few more minutes in my birdbath than an afternoon (or at this point probably about a week) in sticky pain.

Even when one is loved barefaced naked, it’s fun to switch things up, to try a new beauty regime. And even while loved barefaced naked by another (and by myself as well) I still sometimes feel the whispers of insecurity telling me that I need more than what I woke up with.

But in times of cauliflower armcaves, that all feels a bit trite. Not being able to run around the wilderness because I wanted silky armcaves?  I’d rather have unruly armcaves than be debilitated by changing them. I’d rather have a dirty face because of an adventure than a made up one any day. I’d rather be with a man who fell for me naked and I’d rather fall for myself naked because there is so much that is so much more important than how we look. To you, it may seem obvious, maybe something you’ve never even questioned. But after years of protecting myself against ridicule from the outside sometimes I need a reminder that the self is not just what is seen and hopefully it is so much more.

Thankfully, the reminders here are plentiful and the “so much more” is something I will always find more ways to work on out here. The vastness of this place calls attention to what really matters and to how much I have to learn.

From the big to the small.

 

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From harvesting wild plants to make medicines to creating cleaning substitutes when I’ve run out of store bought ones to attempting canning solo for the first time (and stopping pre-seal), this place is afire with learning and perspective and reminders:

A bonfire with friends where everyone is lit by the glow of the flames means no one can tell (or cares) if you’ve dyed your eyebrows but they can tell if you’re happy.

 

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A walk by the riverside where treasures of copper and walking sticks and skulls present themselves to you speaks to the magic I’d miss if focusing elsewhere.

 

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Seeing my first sprouts grow that I was so sure I would mess up.

 

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The reminders are everywhere.

 

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These are the joys that take me out of myself, out of what I used to think important and sometimes still get lost in and transport me towards the person I want to become.

Cheers to the journey.  Dolled up or stripped down it’s all still happening. Let’s try not miss it on account of CauliCaves*.

*No, that’s not the medical term but damned if it’s not the perfect descriptor.

 

 

 

An Independence Pendulum and a Lady Lynx Meet in the Woods…

My state of independence is a pendulum, often landing in the farthest reaches of either extreme.

I’m trying to quiet the extremes and focus on circling the middle, the compromise in between. Which is why I know that when my gut tells me to do something but my pendulum of independence is starting to sway towards staying in the safe zone that it’s time to push myself.

To others, it may sound trite, even a bit pathetic. I’m o.k. with that. There are things for all of us that come easily that for others are mountains they continuously attempt to climb. Independence is my mountain and extremes are my unexpected avalanches in the mountains. I’ve done a lot of independent things in my life, but I’ve also forgotten myself too, forgotten to trust my gut or to get out of comfort for the sake of expansion or been overly independent just to prove I can despite the damage it may cause. Independence is my mountain.

So, when we came back from Anchorage last time, having not had time for much supply gathering at all (supplies which will ideally last us for the Summer, not just a month or two since both of us will hopefully be working so much that a run to Anchorage will be unlikely, if not impossible and we will have to rely upon the garden, the expensive Summer store and the kindness of others coming in for re-supplies) and planned that on our return trip for The Chief’s post-operation check up we would do all of our errands in one day since we no longer had to come in a day early to drop off the truck for service. Well, I started thinking. One day for everything?

The independence pendulum awoke.

When we were first arriving, about to touch down in Anchorage for the first time together in December we were fleshing out our town plans. The Chief was trying to explain how to strategize, how we had to watch the weather if we bought anything that couldn’t freeze. How we would have to pack and re-pack the truck over and over again and how we would store vegetables versus frozens, etc. etc. It was a lot to take in. “It’s hard to explain, people always have a hard time understanding it”.  I was offended. People? Maybe. Me? Not a chance.

Wrong (though still offended).

I still kept trying to buy perishables, still forgot we would have to unload our haul into the hotel before ending our day lest the weather shift to below freezing. I didn’t quite get it yet, didn’t have my rhythm. I needed The Chief and it bothered me. I wanted to do it all on my own.

Wrong again.

What I really wanted was to feel that I could do it all on my own. A town run with the man of your dreams is way better than going it completely solo, duh. Even if you do both get grumpy at times.

However, there is an independence pendulum compromise: time alone in town. A town run with your partner tends to involve mutual errands. Time alone means time for personal errands. It feels extravagant.

When we got home, well, I got to thinking that we were cutting our town time awfully close. We would leave on a Thursday (get in Thursday night), have a doctor’s appointment and errands all day Friday and leave for home early Saturday. Essentially, we would have one day in town. One day to get all of our supplies and materials for the Summer.

Add to that my wish to pick up some Summer clothing.

You see, my plan when we left in December was to return to California at some point in the Spring in order to cuddle my Mama, hug my friends, greet the Ocean and collect my Summer clothes.

That did not happen. Tickets to California were consistently over $600 and with additional travel costs it just didn’t pan out financially.

So, I was in the woods, with Winter clothes to get me through the Summer. It was less than ideal.

I started scheming. A plan started forming in my heard. We had a car to drive and plenty of friends headed out the same day we had planned to leave. But what if I just left a day earlier? I could get to Anchorage and do all the personal shopping I would have race through if we only had one day. I could wander through a clothing store without a strict agenda, browse if you will. I could stop at a spice shop or purchase some yarn. Pure luxury! Time wouldn’t be of the essence every second of the day and maybe I could even get a few things for the house that we never have the time to collect when we are pressed for time and sanity in town.

I talked to a girlfriend about my blossoming idea. “Oh yea, I love solo town time. You should totally do it”.

The opposite side of independence pendulum kicked in. What about The Chief? He had just had surgery. He needed me, right?

I brought it up to him. “Go for it, babe. That’s probably a really smart idea”.

I was a little miffed. Huh, I guess he doesn’t realize how much he needs me. I mean, what if he has to pump water? He’s not supposed to lift anything. I should probably stay.

I rolled around with the idea but felt that it had come from my gut and therefore, it was a challenge to myself to get out of my comfort zone. I was trying to suppress it but it’s voice just got louder and louder. The Chief would be fine and the fact that I was reticent to take the trip at all meant all the more to me that I indeed needed to do it, not just for necessity, I could find clothes or make something, but to challenge my independence.

I’d made the trip in the Summer completely solo, Costco and all. I even had to finagle ratchet straps to fit a vehicle that didn’t take the straps and tetris-ed the hell out of the car so that it was loaded to the brim. Of course I could go solo, it was simply that I had become accustomed to going with The Chief. To our rhythm, to our process. And honestly, to being more of a passenger and less of a driver. At least in winter. As the Spring sprung and The Chief’s sinuses were constantly being bombarded with surgeries and appointments, I became more of a driver, both literally and figuratively. We figured out our plans together, debated on the best routes and errands line-ups and packing methods. I was involved. This was just another step.

So I did it. I left a day early and thank goodness I did. One, because I got to leisurely peruse a few stores and then together we were able to collect all the Summer supplies and two because on the way out I got to see her.

The Lynx.

The week before, The Chief and I had seen a Lynx, just the tail end of her, fuzzy paws jumping through the brush.

 

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She looked like this…minus most of the snow

 

As I departed a week later, listening to an audiobook and finding my own road trip rhythm again, I suddenly thought of The Lynx. I was almost exactly half-way down the 60 mile pothole riddled dirt road and suddenly, the thought of her hit me like a slap in the face.

I unintentionally slowed down and as I did, there she was.

 

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She jumped into the woods on the driver’s side. I scanned her entrance point to see if I could catch a glimpse as she ran away but I didn’t have to watch her tail end this time. This time she stopped and turned towards me. We watched one another for five minutes. Her silent, me awkwardly complimenting her enormous fuzzy feet and pointed ears. I felt like a bumbling suitor asking out my first date. “Wanna, er, umm, maybe wanna go, umm, like, see like a movie, or no? Or yea?”

 

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Seriously, look at the head to foot comparison. Those things are adorably massive.

 

She gave me one last look and then as soon as our gaze was broken, she became invisible. Completely dissolved into the woods. I felt like I had been in a time warp or an alternate universe, she’d opened a little wormhole and invited me in and clumsily I had accepted, commenting on the drapes or the furniture as we went along.

I continued on my journey, feeling a bit in an honored haze.

 

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Mountains and glaciers and raindrops, oh my!

 

Hours later, when I finally reached (almost) Anchorage and had stopped for my first non-Chief stop (a craft store! Be still my heart) I called a girlfriend I had been missing and we finally got to connect. I told her of Lady Lynx and she immediately looked up the significance of the animal (I love her. Not in a million years would I have remembered to do that. Thank goodness for West County).

The Lynx tells us to listen to our hearts and to trust our instincts. Seeing one is a reminder that we are always expanding, even if it sometimes feels foreign or scary.

Boom!

O.k. okay, I can hear a few grumblings. What’s that woo-woo mumbo jumbo I hear? And I get it, but for one, I grew up in a town where hearing someone comment on another’s aura was commonplace and two, I think there’s always room to look past the obvious and search for a deeper meaning, even if in a sense, it’s self-created. Read a horoscope and have a revelation or perhaps just look at the day a little differently? Good. Nothing is harmed in seeing significance where another might just see a big ‘ol cat and you know what? Neither is correct, neither is wrong. But to me, the magic was just what I needed. She helped me to see the big sky instead of the little road.

 

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The symbolism of the Lynx followed me throughout my town time, all the way to leaving. You see, the night before, we had thought it a great idea to stay up late, eat at a late night diner and head out for a huge trip home the next day. Genius, right? We went to bed with grumbling tummies, cuddled up to try to take away the other’s aches.

It didn’t work.

We both awoke with food poisoning-esque symptoms (fun, huh?). It was a toss-up. Who wants to drive the first stretch? The first stretch means town traffic, errands and winding mountain passes. The second means two stops, the later stretch of a long day and…The Road.

Oh, did I mention that we were also hauling the largest load I’d ever taken? First, the truck itself is an F-350 which I barely fit in followed by two barrels of gasoline (110 gallons plus the two tanks on the truck), about 2,000 feet of fire hose donated to The Chief for the Fire Department and all of our shopping loads plus a friend’s shopping load, a generator and all of our bags. Needless to say, thank goodness the ratchet straps fit on this load. We were packed to the brim. Sideview mirrors only.

I crossed my fingers to get the first half while I simultaneously crossed them for the second since at the moment I felt about ready to vomit at the drop of a hat and I don’t ever vomit, unless I have food poisoning.

The Chief took the first leg of the trip to the Fire Department and we decided we would choose halfs there. We stopped and ogled their shiny new equipment. I turned down coffee and donuts which is a testament to the food poisoning because I’ve never willingly turned down a donut. It was rough. Finally we departed and met up with our girlfriend whom was joining us for the ride. We each did our last perishables run at Fred Meyer, switching out who was watching the truck (while trying not to get blown away by the wind) with who was grocery shopping. We filled our gas drums for what seemed like eternity in the whipping winds that made the mountains hard to see and that almost flung The Chief off the top of the truck as he pumped the gas.

A dramatic start but it was smooth sailing after that.

There’s a time in an 8 hour journey when you switch drivers and then a time right after that (if you haven’t switched) that you decide to just do the whole route solo. We were nearing that crossroads, I could feel it. I was still nauseous and starting to feel the weight of my eyelids when The Chief asked if I was ready to drive. I felt nervous, so I knew it was time.

“Yep!” I answered, trying to convince myself through a peppy response that this was gonna be fun!

Switch we did and after I had created a booster seat out of a loaf of french bread and some Fred Meyer bags we were off. It wasn’t so bad. It was still hard to simultaneously reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel (I’m not sure why I thought I might have grown since last week but I did) but the load wasn’t all that noticeable. It felt good to drive such a burly haul of our supplies in for the Summer and the bringing in of a friend made it feel even more like a journey home. I even sent my older brother a picture. Look at me! (I’ll probably never stop wanting to hear “Wow, good job Sis!” What can I say? I’m a little sis).

Then, we stopped for gas right outside of the rock parting that begins The Road.

“Is there anything I should know about driving this size load on The Road?” I asked The Chief, half hoping he would offer to drive it and half hoping I would have the strength to say no.

He did and so did I. And so, he gave me some pointers:

Slow down way before you need to (oh, great, so hopefully something doesn’t jump out in front of us)

and

Avoid the potholes.

I thought he was going to laugh after the latter comment (the potholes are essentially unavoidable) but he was trying to drive home the importance of keeping a vigilant eye for the big potholes, the ones that could pop a tire (or worse). The gravity of the load weighed on me a bit, which again meant I was doing something I was scared of. Hopefully I would grow from it.

I jumped in the truck and ate poor excuses for the earlier dismissed donuts for sugar courage (we had stopped for coffee again after I had spilled most of my cup on myself after taking the wheel. Nothing quite like that to inspire confidence. The store didn’t have coffee and so, in true Alaska fashion, they brewed me a whole pot). In the cab, munching away, I looked to my girlfriend whom after days in the Lower 48 and waiting for rides in Alaska was probably über ready to get home. “I’m new to driving such a big load, but I’ll go as fast as I can”. Before I could finish my sentence she looked at me calmly and said “You drive exactly how you will feel comfortable. Nothing more”. Yea, I knew I liked her.

The Road took over 3 hours. The potholes were plentiful as were the hidden bumps in the road. I hit a few and missed a few and got away with a truck and load intact. We stopped twice and turned around once to have a beer and catch up with friends we passed on The Road. A few miles from our turn off we dropped off our girlfriend. As we started undoing the load to get to her stuff she came tearing around the corner backwards on a 4-wheeler. Totally badass. She thanked us and shooed us off, she could secure her load herself she said and off we went the last few miles to home.

Down the driveway as we started hitting mud and muck again I worried that we needed the 4-wheel drive. But no sooner than I thought that, I felt the tires hit the tracks of trucks before us and as if drawn in through magnets we shimmied our way through the narrow drive all the way home.

“You got us all the way home in this big ‘ol truck. Nice work, babe” The Chief congratulated me.

I was proud. Proud that I had challenged myself, proud that I had gotten us home and proud to be with someone who pushes me towards my challenges and supports me through them instead of sheltering me from them or taking them on for me.

My challenges may not be yours. They may seem petty or downright ridiculous. Hey, maybe yours would to me too but that would be both of us missing the point. We should serve as a Lynx instead, reminding one another of the strength we all have within to meet our challenges, big and small, head on. We should be my girlfriends, encouraging one another to go for it and at our own pace.

Living out here has put me in a place where I can choose to challenge myself and to boost my independence or to lean on The Chief and sit back while he drives. We all can do it everywhere but I think I personally needed this place, a place where new challenges are so plentiful and so unique on the daily that not taking them would be a life un-lived and a place un-participated in. I would be missing the point but I neede a dramatic place to help me see that.

And so I try to meet my challenges head on. I try to say “yes” to a driving lesson, even if I’m not totally up for it or “yes” to snowmachining across a frozen river because challenges don’t typically come when we are wearing our battle gear, they come when we are in pajamas with tangled hair and sleepy eyes. But sometimes, that’s battle gear enough.

Cheers to the pendulum of independence, to the scary, to the self-expansion and to the challenges.

May we meet them head on…ideally, with helmets.

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