Author: Julia Page

I'm Julia. In 2015 I went on what I thought would be a quick trip to Alaska to "get out of dodge". Little did I know, Alaska had other plans for me. 17 days turned into the summer and I ended up falling in love (both with the place and with my person, a.k.a "The Chief"). Now, I live in a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. I've gotten way more out of dodge than I had ever dreamed. Join me in this out of the blue experience for all the laughs, bumps, bruises and lessons Alaska surprises me with along the way.

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - The dip

The California Contrast

Living here, I’m used to being on the opposite end of the spectrum from my old haunts and old ways in California.

 

Running hot water used to feel normal, now it feels like liquid gold.

When taking a walk I used to watch out for other humans, now I keep a watch for bears and I’m surprised if I run into another living soul.

Some days, the entirety of my waking hours are taken up by chores that in my old life never even existed.

Chopping wood.

Pumping gas.

Hauling water.

Just keeping a fire going when it’s 30 below can be a full-time job, akin to, I assume,  midnight feedings (and 2am and 5am and…).

It’s a place where for days I forget how different my old life and my new life are, for weeks I forget that it used to be strange to me to haul every bit of water I use by hand. Strange to even know how much water this aquababy has used. And then, when the last bucket runs dry and it’s 8pm and I’m tired and hungry and the last thing I want to do is to suit up to spend 30 minutes walking 40lb. buckets up and down our Ramp of Doom until we are re-supplied, then, I remember.

When it’s 40 degrees here at night in the Summer and 80 at night in California, I remember.

When it’s slush is the Spring without a flower to be found and lush as can be in California, I remember.

I remember my old life and I feel grateful for the contrast because the difference is what makes me grateful.

The contrast was always one I appreciated, until recently.

This last week, the town in which I was born went up in flames. In this frantic Fall of natural disasters, it seemed that there couldn’t possibly be more devastation to come. But, come it did.

Fire after fire tore through even the most industrial of locations and raged in wind-driven fervor through the counties where I spent my first 28 years. My Mom was close to being evacuated and had to sleep in shifts (alternating with her neighbors) in order to make sure she would hear the notice to get out. People I know and love had to run for their lives. People I love lost everything.

And here I sit, in a place where fire is constantly on my mind, a place where I’ve joined the fire department to ensure I know how to help. A place where we all worry about fire, we all watch for smoke and suddenly, it has struck in the place I least expected it and I am nowhere near it to help.

I never expected it.

The contrast.

And so it continued. In the week of the worst fires my area in California has ever seen, in a week where I could barely breathe because of the panic I felt, the first snow of the season fell.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - First Snowfall

The Ramp of Doom Returns…Happy Falling!

 

 

Fire and Ice.

As I walk outside I breathe the fresh air of an area relatively untouched.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - Panorama

 

 

As my friends and family in California go outside, they don masks to protect their sweet lungs from the deep, heavy smoke.

As I look out my window I see a flurry of fat snowflakes.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - First Snowfall Walk

And a Fly-By Neighbor Pup

 

 

As they look out the window they see the falling of ash.

As I build a fire to stay warm, they fight one to stay alive.

 

The contrast has never felt stronger or stranger and being so far away has never made me feel so out of control. But, with two tickets already purchased months ago, I wait.

 

 

 

 

In two weeks, we leave for California. The tidying here has already begun (and failed some too, foiled by the 6 inches of snowfall) and the three-day process of leaving will be here before we know it. And although it will be heartbreaking to witness such devastation, I am eager to get to my first home and become part of the amazing relief efforts that started on the dawn of day 1.

The firefighters and emergency response have been tirelessly working around the clock, taking mere cat-naps to make it through and the outpouring of love and help offered up by the community has been amazing. People have collected blankets, food, found others housing, taken in families, rescued animals, distributed face masks, offered pampering in a time of panic via massage and haircuts and counseling. While it’s been absolutely awful to read story after story of loss, it’s been uplifting to see the love that spills over this pain. I’ve seen countless pictures of a poster that’s been put up all over the county that reads:

The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.

It will be good to be a part of that love.

Stay safe all.

 

California, I’m coming home.

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - Morning Glory

The morning glory blooms in the face of Winter.

 

 

NOTE:

Dear reader,

If you would like to help relief efforts in California the Redwood Credit Union is a wonderful local branch collecting funds for neighboring counties in the Bay Area. I’ve been told it’s the best place to donate to and 100% of the funds go to relief efforts.

Anything and everything helps. Thank you.

https://www.redwoodcu.org/northbayfirerelief

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - RCU Donate

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Smile Baby.jpg

The Little Letting-Gos

If there’s anything Alaska has tried and tried to teach me time and time again, it’s been the slow transition.

These past few weeks of Fall have been glorious (a word that often seems a bit over-enthusiastic but suddenly seems a Goldilocks “just right” to describe the colors we’ve seen).

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Golden Hour

 

 

Truly beautiful. The Summer seemed to slink away overnight and suddenly we awoke to a world changed. Everything. The leaves did their dance through the wee hours into new colors and the air suddenly broke into crisp and away we went from a smooth Summer and into the quiet…

 

The quiet.

 

The quiet that descends upon this Valley is one I’ve never truly experienced in the Fall. Every year before I’ve either left before it came or left just as it was settling.

Well, it has settled.

It’s a Winter kind of quiet that wraps its arms around you and tells you to dive in. It’s the kind of quiet to feel alone to, like a sad song you need to hear to feel what you need to feel.

But it’s not Winter yet. And suddenly, the Fall is no longer the Fall but the Shoulder Season into Winter because just as quickly as Fall settled in, it faded and so now we welcome the Shoulder Season of the in-betweens and the lesson it carries.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - The Change.jpg

Fall fades.

 

 

 

The lesson that Alaska keeps hammering, time and time again.

The slow transition.

I outwitted the last slow change.

 

 

 

 

I had my last ski in March, left for California and returned in April to mush (and very little of it).

 

 

 

 

No skiing. Awkward walking. But the bulk of the slow transition has passed before I had come home and we were at the tail end of the Spring Shoulder Season just as the long Spring was just about to jump into Summer.

This time, for this Fall Shoulder Season, I decided to let it come. Let it wash over me. Historically, Fall was always an awkward time for me. I think I noticed the quieting of that which surrounded me and tried my darndest to avoid it. But there’s no escaping it. Even in a bustling city, you can hear it. You can feel it. The slow down. And it sank into my bones and made me ache for the rattling of Summer to take me away from having to dive deeper.

This Fall, I wasn’t running. I was driving. We were supposed to drive South. We were going to watch the colors change on the trees and then change back again as we drove from Fall here back into Summer down South. The “we” was Cinda and I. We had been planning it for almost a year, since before we had even gotten our first truck, round 1. I’ve always been a huge fan of road trips, especially of the solo variety. There’s no way to return unchanged. I was nervous, of course. I’d never taken the route and certainly not solo, but I didn’t feel solo. I had my girl.

We would talk about it and plan about it when we were out for walks. I would envision us with our windows down, Lou’s ears blowing in the wind with that specific smile she had for when things were just so easy, so good.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Smile Baby.jpg

Super fuzz face

 

 

 

We would camp together and I’d finally get to cuddle with her (she wasn’t a huge cuddler but she would tolerate a bit) in a tent of our own like her and her Dad had done on the property when they first settled in, a decade before, to our home. It would be our first solo road trip together.

My Mom used to tell me about a road trip she took with one of my childhood dogs, I believe out to see my Grandmother in St. Louis, then all returning together to California. I pictured Lou and I in the same light and it felt like a sort of changing of the guards, a tradition passed on from my Mom and her first baby to me and mine. It felt important.

It, of course, didn’t happen.

We returned home to the end of Summer without our first baby in the Time of Plans.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - The Change Fall Foliage.jpg

Fall time foliage

 

 

“What are your plans for Winter?” which, of course, means, where are you going in the Fall and Winter and Spring until we see one another back here at Adult Summer Camp.

My plans had been set in stone and then, suddenly, there was nothing.

It took me weeks to speak what I already knew: I didn’t want to leave and at the same time, there was no place I wanted to be farther from. Cinda was everywhere, in everything. She was the bush at the Swimming Hole she loved to tackle after swimming. She was the road into Town that we would walk every Friday night to go see her Dad play Softball. She was in the flowers I had planted that were now shifting to seed, the fireweed sending its last showers of pink upon us. She was everywhere in a landscape that had shifted so much in the torturous week we had been gone. It had been full-fledged Summer when we left and now, it was ending. Everything was different and everything was the same except that she was nowhere to be found and yet everywhere all at once. I couldn’t stand to leave her and I couldn’t stand to be here without her.

And so, against my tradition of running, I decided to stay. I decided to stay in the pain of being here without her and of being here with her, in everything I do. I decided to sit through the long transition and let it wash over me.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Fall y'all

Solo shadow.

 

 

Her death has been full of slow transitions, full of little letting-gos.

For the first few weeks I found her Cinda fuzz everywhere, she was notorious for it. Our friend used to joke that we could come over as long as I told Cinda not to shed. We would all laugh aloud as she said it. “Lou-Lou, don’t you shed now, O.K?” I had taken to one fuzz in particular and used it as a bookmark and then put it into a locket a dear friend sent me. And then suddenly, there were no more. No more fuzzes. Suddenly, I was cleaning dog hair from visits from our neighbor dogs, but not from mine.

Little letting-gos.

Last week I finally felt ready to contact a girlfriend whose dog I thought of immediately to give Cinda’s dog food to when she passed. That was two months ago. Being the super-savvy dog mom that I am, I had found a way to get her food out here for free and delivered monthly and since I like to be ultra-prepared, I had two months of dog food in the arsenal, ready for my Lou. We returned to the 55-gallon drum full of food and two months later I was finally ready to empty it. I brought a sample of it to a girlfriend’s birthday where I knew my fellow dog mom friend would be so she could see if her little lady liked it. All the dogs followed me around all night like some Pied Piper and it felt good to feel important to a dog (or 10) even if it was just because of food. Thankfully, that popularity held true for her dog as well and the food was a hit, and just like that, it was time to give it up.

Little letting-gos.

Today, I woke up ready to jump on the train of this day and ride it to the last stop. I had and have a lot of work to do but right as The Chief was leaving this morning, my phone was telling me to check it. On it was a reminder: CJ kennel.

Cinda Jones kennel.

Today was the day to give it up.

A friend had posted on the Mail Shack bulletin board that he and his fur baby were looking for a kennel for travel. It was posted right when we got back without Cinda and The Chief called to let him know he could have ours. Two months ago. Today was the day. I went to load her kennel into our truck for The Chief to drop-off when I realized that the hardware was not with it. Savvy dog mom that I am, I had put it away separately in my suitcase. I crawled under our bed and moved the various totes out of the way and pulled the suitcase out and as I opened it, I broke down. There was my baby’s travel kit. Her no-spill water bowl and her collar that she only ever wore if we were traveling and even little poop bags for the trip out of the wilds and then, the hardware. I ended up giving him everything except the collar (obviously), packing it away with love for the new generation and love for ours we had lost. The Chief and I held one another as tears rolled down our faces. He had just been telling me earlier in the morning of a dream he had about her, alive again and well and here we were, sending off her things. Time to let go.

The little letting-gos.

The little letting-gos in the grand scheme of the large letting-go.

It’s been two months since we lost our little Lou, our Tiny T, Cinda Muffinberry, Fire Marshall Jones and it has been the most poignant lesson from Alaska yet, the slowest slow transition, in the Fall of all times. This year, I welcomed the Fall, I welcomed the quiet and the time to truly take that slow transition and to feel pain. Losing Cinda has made me realize that my whole life, I’ve run from pain. I’ve seen its glimmer and have shielded myself and so, it grew. It compounded and bubbled up and started to ooze out of cracks I hadn’t reinforced until suddenly, it burst. Submitting to the pain of Cinda has opened the floodgates to truly feel pain.

I highly recommend it.

It’s awful, it’s the depths you didn’t know but it’s finally moving through you and what better time to let go than the Fall?

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Sourdough Sunset.jpg

Sourdough Sunset

 

 

 

The glorious colors of Fall have faded and it would be now, in the past, that the sinking feeling would come in but there’s no need, it’s already been here. The leaves have turned to brown and fallen. The landscape is full of browns and greens again, making color a treat for the eyes instead of a constant. The rain lets up for a day of bluebird skies, only to fade away into a dreary pitter-patter pattern on the roof.

And for the first time, it’s O.K.

These little letting-gos haven’t made me feel farther from her, on the contrary, they’ve made her feel closer. The constant torture of remembering feeling the life leave her as her head grew heavier on my knee that day has stopped being as frequent and instead I tend to remember more her goofy smile when she was sleeping on the couch or her prancing dance she’d do when we got home at night (if she wasn’t already with us).

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Couch Smile.jpg

Cozy comfy

 

 

 

And I remember her lessons. She not only taught me how to move about the woods, how to find my bearings and my way home she taught me to trust. Cinda is the first being I’ve ever truly, wholeheartedly trusted and it was amazing to know how that felt. And more than that, she taught me to trust myself again. She gave me her utter faith and she made me feel like a good mom and then she taught me to feel the pain.

I could have asked for nothing more, except for more time but I guess that’s just another little letting-go in a land of slow transitions. I think I’m learning, Alaska.

Love to you, my Lou. Thank you for taking me through the seasons of myself and finding the quiet within. It’s not as scary as I thought.

Happy Fall to you, whatever it may look like. Here’s to the little letting-gos and to the big.

 

‘Tis the season.

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Golden Hour 2.jpg

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset McCarthy Alaska

A Very Bear-y Summer

It was a very bear-y summer.

Supposedly.

All around me, I heard tell of bears galore. Bears in the road, bears in the yard, bears blocking the trails.

But me?

No bears.

Perhaps because of the prayer. You see, I do a little silent prayer as I walk about these woods:

“Please let me see something…safely.”

And so, perhaps my timing was off or perhaps the prayer was working because I hadn’t had hardly any run-ins, safe or otherwise.

Where were all these bears everyone was talking about?

Our two friends, a brother and sister duo by way of CA, came to visit late July. They came bearing a full Costco/Freddy haul I was almost embarrassed to ask for and they shopped for our entire Summer re-supply like pros. They navigated the unfamiliar Alaskan terrain in a swift 1-2 punch and made it out with barely a layer of dirt. They were stocked and stoked and ready to…

See a bear.

Every day my girlfriend’s wish was the same:

“I want to see a bear.”

“Safely.” I would add, either under my breath or aloud in a sort of micro-managing OCD attempt to put a little gold safety light around her. It’s a funny sort of strange to live in a place where an invitation to visit comes with a quick and dirty death by bear or moose disclaimer. You know, just FYI.

But she was hell-bent and so I wished we may and wished we might see a bear tonight, or today or anytime before their week-long woodsy retreat, well, retreated, melting back into the California sunshine.

And then, we went for a hike.

Not just any hike.

The day before, we had gone for a hike.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09/25/17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier

First steps on The Glacier

 

 

We had hiked out to the glacier and stood amongst that frozen fantasy in awe and then hiked home.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier Danielle

Tiny Yellie.

 

 

The next day, we ramped it up a notch. Without ever having ridden a 4-wheeler, we made our friends brave driving up to our next hike: the mine.

Driving a 4-wheeler, not such a big deal. Driving a 4-wheeler for the first time up a muddy, rutted, sometimes split in half with deep ditches running through the already narrow road up a couple thousand feet of rocky terrain? Well, that’s quite another thing. So, in typical Alaskan fashion, we geared them up and pushed them out of the nest and…

they flew.

Up, up and up for an hour until we finally reached our destination point: the beginning of our hike.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09- 25-17 A Very Bear- Y Summer 4-Wheeling Bonanza Mine

Not a bad parking place.

 

 

Apparently, I had forgotten to mention that a hike would follow the harried path we had already tread but, again, they jumped right in.

Up, up, up we climbed. It’s the kind of hiking where you (unless you happen to be far more fit than us) take about 30 steps and then take a break. 30, break. 30, break. Repeat, repeat.

An hour in and we’d identified endless plants and flowers, already found copper rocks, found fresh water and snacked and rested on a mossy knoll.

Beneath the Borealis 09:25:17 A Very Bear-Y Summer McCarthy Alaska

Laid back.

 

 

And then it set in.

A pain my girlfriend had been experiencing on our hike the day before suddenly turned into a searing pain. Going up was not an option, but going down? That felt pretty good. And so, she decided to head back down. We would finish the hike up and circle back to pick her up on the way down.

Easy-peasy.

We were pretty close to the top at that point, it would be a quick turn-around and then we’d come to her rescue and swoop her up in our 4-wheeler chariots.

Right?

Wrong.

Apparently, laws of physics and all, going up is a lot slower than going down, especially when the grade is such that in going up you feel like one with the ground because of the angle. It looks like you’re in a fun-house mirror.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanza Mine Kennicott Alaska

Fun-House Baby

 

 

An hour up and we had finally made it.

The mine.

And soon, the top.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanza Peak

Ominous, eh?

 

 

I’d been to this mine the year before but I had been terrified to reach the top. My knees got wobbly just looking at it but this year, it was my goal. I was to see the other side.

And we did.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier 2

The same family of white ice we had been on the day before.

 

 

It was an amazing view of the glacier I’d never seen though the wobble in my knees returned and I had to immediately sit down once we’d gotten up. The Chief bounced around like the gazelle that he is while I tried to take it in, turning tummy and all.

Soon, we decided to putter around the mine and made the journey down from our perch.

Inquiries and a few sketchy maneuvers later and we had seen all that we had come to see.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanaza Mine

Two mountain goats I ran into.

 

 

It was snack time (obviously).

And then, the clouds started to roll in and it was time to leave.

What time was it anyway?

We hustled back down the mountain to our rain gear and fired up the machines, picking up a wet walker along the way, keeping an eye out for Sis.

Just then, I got a text:

“Holy shit saw bear”

The sheer lack of punctuation made my stomach turn.

I tried to call.

 

No answer.

 

I texted back:

“Where? How close?”

 

No answer.

 

The invitation disclaimer rang through my head. I kicked myself for not having gone with her for fear the boys would turn back too and miss the mine. I thought it would be a good esteem builder, a mini vision quest of sorts.

I was an idiot.

Now, my friend was out there, by herself in this very bear-y Summer that she had suddenly tapped into.

We put the hiking into high-gear and made it to the 4-wheelers in time to put rain gear over our already wet clothes.

Finally she got back to me. She was O.K.

We hustled down the mountain, picking up a very wet walker along the way and finally made it back to her.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Valley Virga

Incoming! Rain time.

 

 

She had beat us to town, a fact that seems obvious now (again with the physics and all) and had made her way to some well-deserved wine at the local lodge.

Finally, we were able to get eyes on her and know she was O.K. She described her encounter with the bear in the bushes, gorging on berries and how she had done the very right thing of making herself known as she skeedadled around it. All four back together again, we saddled up for a rainy ride to the restaurant and then home. We were pooped. An unexpected double-day unexpected hiking, rain and heights with a very bear-y topping had worn us out.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09/25/17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Valley

 

 

A Summer without bears for me and suddenly, my guest of all people had a solo run-in. I was both proud of her and mortified of my lack of hospitality all at once. While I was conquering (read toying with) my fear of heights, she was face-to-face with a berry-lovin’ bear.

And it wouldn’t be the last time. It turns out she had opened up the waterway. Finally, the very bear-y Summer came our way. In fact, all the wildlife did. The next few days were chock full of the wilds. Swans and moose appeared as if they had finally gotten their invitation to the party, bear poop appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

They had arrived and the next bear we saw was right in our “backyard”.

“Jules, that’s awful close to your house, isn’t it?”

It was. It was on the River Trail that Lou and I walked on the daily. But hey, we live in bear country, that’s the deal, right?

Gulp.

We watched it devour a bush of Soapberries in minutes, thrashing the poor thing about with its powerful swings. It unearthed small boulders in the blink of an eye looking for goodies and we all just sat there watching. Cinda, looked on from the back window of the truck unconcerned. This was no bear run-in, this was a day at the zoo and she was content with our safety enough to let us explore without so much as a yip.

Welcome to the neighborhood, bears.

And so, the very bear-y Summer made its way to our neck of the woods. A few days later, our friends left and soon after I followed with Cinda and the loss of our Lou began the journey we are still on.

But the bears stayed and now, home without my girl, I was on my own.

A couple of weeks after she had passed, I was forcing myself to take a walk. Walks these days without Lou have taken on a sort of double-edged sword because walks are one of the few things that can lift a hard mood or ease a sadness but when I’m walking, I miss her the most. Our walks were a comfort only she could provide and her presence is irreplaceable. But still, I went. This particular day was extra bear-y, I could just feel their presence but I was crying so hard that I set it out of my mind. On my way down to The River, I stopped in to borrow Cinda’s brother, which made me howl even louder, missing those two peas in their odd pod together. There’s nothing quite like walking while crying to make you feel reduced down to your inner toddler and that was where I needed to be.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Cinda + Diesel

Bat dogs, back in the day. Pups in the snow.

 

 

Until it wasn’t.

Because suddenly, as I rounded the corner to drop down onto the River Trail…

I was face to face with a bear.

The same bear, most likely, that we had seen unearthing small boulders with the swing of a paw. The same bear that decimated the bushes in one fell swoop. And there I was, less than 12 feet away without my sense of security, false or otherwise. Her Brother had gone on ahead but as I whistled back he came, charging around the bushes, catching sight of the bear and quickly leading the way home. Although I’m not fluent in his language as I was hers, it was easy to decipher:

“Let’s get out of here!”

And so we did.

Tears were replaced by adrenaline and my pumping heart got me home in a jiffy. Her Brother followed me home to drop me off and then went to his own abode to tell his Dad the day’s tale.

And often since then, her Brother or the rest of the neighborhood dogs will watch over us. They patrol our yard, chasing moose or bear through the night. For we live in the woods, amongst the wilds…

and it’s been a very bear-y season.

 

Thank you to our friends for coming to share this amazing place with us, disclaimer in full-effect and all. I can’t explain how much it means to us that you made the journey, jumped right in and swam.

Cheers to the end of a very bear-y season, and to facing your fears, even when you don’t mean to. And cheers to our safety nets that at some point set us free to see if we fly without them.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset McCarthy Alaska

And the sun sets on another Summer.

 

Love to them.

Love to you.

Love to Lou.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset Skip to My Sunset Lou

Waiting for me. Leading the way.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Kennicott River

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Back in California,

on Saturday nights

at closing time

this song would play at my favorite bar with my favorite people.

Easy. 

Like Sunday Morning.

 

If you haven’t heard it, please provide yourself the satisfaction of this simple song (preferably on a Saturday) to lull you into Sunday, or at least into a Sunday kind of mood on any given day.

Lull me it did, right into my bed and right on into Sunday. I’d awake to a quiet house and fill up the first hours reading in bed while sipping tea until eventually I’d shower and head out to do something fun and then I’d return home and settle in for another week.

Easy Like Sunday Morning.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Kennicott River

Sunday Strolls

 

 

But it wasn’t always like this for me.

Growing up, Sundays had always been a source of stress since, as an unpaid but professional procrastinator, my life had been chock full of last-minute school projects and panic. My parents, on the other hand, were always working outdoors on their own projects. Projects I desperately wanted to be a part of, but because I’d spent the weekend in soccer tournaments or at friend’s houses, suddenly there was no time for me to participate. Both of my parents would spend hours in the garden or building, better-ing their properties while I would have somehow again forced myself inside. They’d come inside at the end of the day with dirty faces and dirty hands, exhausted but satisfied from a day’s hard work out in the wild blue yonder. And there I’d be churning in my own panic, exhausted only from my mind’s tricks.

And so, as I grew up and found that this panic was no longer (and never was) serving me I started to rearrange my week to make Sundays fun-days instead of coiled serpents of stress. I’d work a little harder in the week to finish early so that I could awake to a calm instead of a panic come that Sunday morning. And before I knew it, Sundays took on a sort of holiness to me, they became my church and I started to guard them. A few months before I left California I made a promise to myself to protect this newfound calm and I swore off working on that holy (for me) day.

3,000 miles to Alaska later and that promise still stands true.

Sundays are free.

 

 

Benath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Heart Rock

Fancy that. Two heart rocks at once.

 

 

 

Free to fill or free to fade away into a sleepy pancake haze.

But something’s been added.

Dirty faces, dirty hands.

 

As an adult, I’ve never lived in a place that was truly mine. In the crazed real-estate market that is Sonoma County (my home in California), my only option was to rent and even that wasn’t really all that sustainable. But now I’ve landed.

Home.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9/18/17 Heart Rock.jpg

Home Sweet Home.

 

 

And I feel beyond lucky.

Dirty faces, dirty hands.

Because now, Sundays are for pancakes and PJs and…projects.

Projects.

Welcome, to the full-circle experience.

I finally get to be the dirty face sitting down to dinner with an equally dirty face staring back at me, working on our home.

We don’t have to ask if we can cut down a tree or build a structure or paint a wall and it feels free in a way I’ve never known.

Now, don’t get me wrong, when things start a-breakin’ it’s awfully nice to be able to hand it over to someone else (and give them the bill) but everything has its trade-offs and the hurdles here are worth it to me.

I think it took moving to a place that I could truly call Our Own to make me, force me, pull me into Home. It took finding myself in the middle of a bachelor pad, with a kind-eyed love who said “I’m open. Let’s make it ours” to make me feel like I truly could settle in.

And so, this Sunday we finished one project of many and many more to come:

The Woodshed Addition.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Lou Woodshed

Sweet Lou.

 

 

The Chief had begun the addition last weekend (after making me a hearty breakfast of killer ‘cakes) while I was writing and by the time I had finished, the sides were up and the structure was coming about beautifully.

This weekend we powered ourselves with steak and eggs (The Chief’s equivalent to my pancakes) and went outside to finish. It wouldn’t take long.

All we had to do was put up some walls and “slap” on the roof.

Cute, huh?

I think we even believed it.

The thing is, all of the materials we needed for the shed weren’t simply in some woodshed package waiting for us at the store. They were, however, all around us, in the trees we’d have to cut down, in the old pieces of wood that had been waiting for projects and in roofing metal given to The Chief that we had been saving since early last Winter. All we had to do was collect the supplies, bring them over to the site, “slap them up” and ta-da! Donesky!

It turns out that finding and hauling lumber three times my height isn’t exactly the most lightweight of scavenger hunts.

Rewarding, though?

Certainly, my dear.

And so it went, hauling sets of four 15’ logs together, walking the uneven drive to the new shed location, lifting the slabs into place and securing them (I only drove the screw gun into my fingernail once!) into place. A few hours later and all the wood had been harvested, the necessary trees had been felled to add the last layers of support and the first wall had gone up.

One more to go, plus roofing.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Woodshed Addition

 

 

Now that we had all the materials, it would be super quick, maybe 30 minutes.

Very cute. Again.

A few hours after that, darkness threatening to descend upon us (she’s so sneaky these days) and there we were:

finished.

The Chief was donning some serious wood glitter and I had more shavings down my train-driver overalls than I was comfortable with, but there we were, 1.5 days and one more project crossed off our list for our spot.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9/18/17 My Moon, My Man

Up on the Roof.

 

 

Our list.

Our spot.

Our home.

I’m so glad I started my Sunday tradition now years ago, to protect and reinvent this special day and to open myself up to the easy that is a Sunday morning but most of all, I’m so grateful to have found someone to share it with. Someone to have goals to accomplish with. Someone to open my eyes to the possibilities of my abilities. Someone who even though he spends the rest of the week at a job on a roof still wants to come home to work on ours. Because even in the space I made for an easy Sunday, there was something missing.

Or rather, someone.

 

Thank you, Alaska for helping me find him.

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Man Glitter

I just had to show the Chainsaw Glitter

 

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Molly Dog

Venn and his Diagram

Compare and contrast.

You, Me and Us.

Remember the Venn Diagram days in class?

Two circles making three shapes to find out just what exactly makes You, You and Me, Me and all the in between which is Us.

This place puts Venn Diagrams into personal play more than anywhere I’ve ever lived in my life.

As much as I’d love to say that I spend time neither comparing nor contrasting (and certainly not with any self-judgment, right?) I can’t. I’d love to say it, I’d love to shout it from the mountaintops I don’t ascend like others here do (there I go) but I can’t. It would be a lie and you and I? Well, we don’t play that game with one another.

So, yes, I compare and contrast and in between the circles of all those C’s I can get well, a little lost.

Mid-Summer, I’m found. I’m in the middle of the play, mid-character. I’ve committed to my role in the production we’ve all silently agreed to put on and I’m playing it wholeheartedly, naturally without self-doubt, without rehearsal. There’s no time for renegotiation, it’s a full-bore, heave-ho expedition. But come The Shoulders, come the in-between seasons that shift everything, the diagram again comes into play. Again, the options start presenting themselves and they are as open as they are endless and in that simple set of shapes again, I can get lost.

The year’s last Shoulder (Shoulder Season) was Spring, which marked the influx of people both seasonal and year-round/year-round-ish. The Shoulders are what gets me. It’s the outlier, the time of change and suddenly in barges the Venn Diagram in it’s absolutely annoyingly punctual annual fashion. In came all of these people, fresh-faced and bushy-tailed, ready to go.

Go where you ask?

People here will randomly jump off a mountain to go paragliding, they will ride raging rapids to meet me at band practice or casually asks if anyone wants to go ice climbing.

Ice climbing!

 

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Ice Climbing

Just a casual ice climb…

 

 

 

People here simply have a different level of normal and so, when the influx happens and my quiet Winter cabin life is no more and the rivers open up and the ground thaws and the stampede begins, everything changes and it brews in me a questioning and a comparison game that is about as fun as Russian Roulette.

You see, there are a million ways to live out here. You can have three months to kill in a seasonal job or be going on 3 years without leaving the home that you built from scratch. You can live near Town or out in “the boonies”. And that’s all just perfunctory housing plans. Once you’re here, every facet of life is full of options. There are endless ways to do each thing differently.

Take, for example, the dishes.

Despite how rude it sounds not to offer, there seems to be a sort of unspoken understanding regarding offering to do the dishes at someone’s house (though, after-dinner clean-up help is certainly appreciated). It’s not because we are a brash bunch of backwoods bumpkins with manners the likes of cavemen, it’s that we all have our own separate systems.

You do the two bath water basins. I do the one. You have a French Drain, I have a slop bucket. You have your system, I have mine and instead of spending the time teaching one another, we typically just do them on our own. And don’t get me wrong, we exchange ideas, we explain our reasoning, we learn from one another, we brainstorm. But we don’t typically let you do our dishes.

Now, the dishes don’t make me question myself like some other things, but you see now how down to the most minute detail our lives vary in intricacies I’ve previously not experienced elsewhere.

In California, most people had dishwashers or washed by hand but hot water was on demand and plumbing was an obvious “yes”. You’d have to ask where things went and where their compost was (because, of course, there was one), but for the most part, helping was straight forward, as was the functioning of the systems.

And so, on the most basic levels up to the most extreme, this place makes you think and re-think how you do things. Which, to me, is a beautiful thing.

 

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Molly Dog

Like this.

 

 

 

Most of the time.

Until that beautiful thing grabs your arm and runs away with you in the deep dark Woods of Self-Doubt.

I already live in the woods which at times can be scary, but the Woods of Self-Doubt? Friends, they should have a warning sign.

Keep Out, Lest You Lose Your Way Back To Yourself.

 

 

Venn and His Diagram River X Marks the Spot

X Marks the Self Spot.

 

 

So when the stampede begins and ends, I can accidentally grant myself access to those woods and lose my way. My quiet Winter self with routines and habits surrounded by maybe 20 others is suddenly shifted, jolted and before I have time to create new routines, in comes this influx of 200 new neighbors with their own agendas and new perspectives.

And I try them on.

 

Everyone seems to be an excellent something or other…

Why am I not a pro-rafter/ice climber/mountaineer/quilter/gardener/guitarist (does it not rub off after cavorting with these individuals for the last few years?)

Am I too lazy?

Too uncoordinated?

 

So, this year, when the influx flexed my brain and I started to feel a little wiggly, I tried to take it to the positive and to use that energy to do the things that can so easily slip away if not harnessed in the wild winds of the Summer’s passing. I decided to make a point to get out, to avoid the feelings of last year and to see what I wanted to see.

And I did.

I went out to the glacier more times in the first month than I had all Summer the year before. I went ice climbing, packrafting and flying all in one day (a story still left to tell). The Chief and I made it to two out of the four mines here and I sat atop a ridge I’ve looked at for years, knowing for the first time what I’d wondered for so long: how it felt to get to the top.

 

 

Venn and His Diagram View from the Top Kennicott Alaska

A view of the glacier I’d never known before. Don’t look down.

 

 

I almost barfed.

Needless to say, I’m still no mountaineer. But I love going for an adventure. I love the perspective and the challenge it brings. But I also truly love having a day in with The Chief, reading, and writing and eating good food. I love to spend time just sitting outside, watching the birds and talking to butterflies (boy, do they have a lot to say). I’m not an all the time extreme person. I’m a Julia Elizabeth Pancake Page. But sometimes I have to be pushed to extremes to get something through my head. Perhaps that’s part of the reason for the world sending me out here to a place where everyone is so different and yet seems to be very certain of exactly who they are is to realize who I am and then…be just fine with that.

And perhaps too, to realize that even those who seem certain, who can perform feats I didn’t even know were feats to perform, who seem to know exactly what is what and when, feel the Venn Diagramming on them as well.

Some of the most outstanding people I’ve known throughout all of my life have expressed just that to me. And maybe I just needed to head to the woods where there is rarely an escape from oneself to learn that truth.

Lesson learned.

Or at least lesson learning.

 

At times

We all feel less than

We all compare

We all contrast

We all judge the outcomes

and

We will always be surprised by the secret struggles of others and the lies they tell themselves.

 

And not the sweet little lies Ms. Nicks was talking about either.

 

As the Fall ushers us into Winter and things are slowing down around here the Shoulder starts again to try to take hold.

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Fall Foliage

Fall Foliage Bids Adios to Summer

 

 

Plans are being formed. People are leaving to guide other rivers and patrol ski slopes and go back to school and travel the world and work in mines deep below the earth. People are setting out to let the wind carry them where it may. People are heading back to the daily grind. People are doing a range of things, yet again, like the last Shoulder, I’m trying to use this time to catalyze inspiration (travel bug, anyone? Yep, me).

Comparison, I’m realizing, verges more on the ridiculous than on the reality end of the spectrum. Even if our outer actions are the same, our inner worlds vary so much and are, from moment to moment, constantly evolving that it’s impossible to compare.

And so, despite the ease and simplicity of two circles and shared traits, I thought I’d point out to Mr. Venn that I think that when applied to life, his representation of shared similarities lacks the fluidity with which we move through this world.

And then, I did a little research and realized that despite my learning about Mr. Venn and his diagrams in Language Arts, they were actually formulated for mathematics.

And that, my friends, makes sense.

 

Be nice to you this week.

Whoever you are.

At each moment you are.

Be kind to you.

Because I’d be willing to wager you’re pretty awesome.

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Bridge Rain

 

The First Hard Frost

I anticipated the first hard frost here like an innocent youngster anticipates a chance meeting with their first crush, not really knowing the depths of what it meant or what it would bring. I was simply excited. I thought it would mean that Winter actually was on her way instead of just threatening to be, that our town would quiet down and the berries would sweeten up and off I could go to harvest them, a small feat which I’ve always turned into something larger and one which I’ve always set myself up to fail at.

You see, one of my own little personal Julia recipes calls for:

a bit of a procrastination

with a dash of self-doubt

mixed with a large serving of an uncanny expectation to do things right the first time.

(There are many more uplifting recipes, of course, but I might as well be honest about the collection).

 

This here concoction has set me up for failure more times than I can count but it has also done something worse: it has set me up to do nothing at all.

And so, this year I promised it would be different. I watched the weather and waited and when the first hard frost hit, I promised that out I would go to reap the benefits of the fruit sweetened overnight by the harsh conditions. Harvest and enjoy instead of again missing them. But like a first crush, I didn’t think about what else the first hard frost would bring. I was just excited.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall

 

 

 

And then I awoke, to the first hard frost. We’d had a frost a couple of weeks before and the buzz over thermometer temperatures had spun through town.

“I had 25 when I woke up this morning.”

“25! I had 29. Wow.”

Fall is coming.

 

 

First Hard Frost Sunset

 

 

 

And then she did. She blew right into the valley, down the 60 miles of dirt road and into our backyard (and presumably into many of back and front and side to side yards of others). And I awoke and immediately realized the fault in my young crush desires.

Because the first hard frost meant something I didn’t anticipate:

While the berries may have sweetened, most of my plants, the plants I had grown for months, some from seeds started in April, were now dead.

Before and after.

 

 

 

 

 

The plants that I have spent more time than ever before loving and trimming and thanking as I picked them and placed them about the house or into our food. The flowers that have brought me such joy when I return home to their shiny faces.

 

 

 

 

 

The plants that I have too slowly been harvesting because although I was anticipating her arrival, I hadn’t hurried enough for Fall’s approach or realized the (now obvious) tenacity with which she would arrive. It was a juxtaposition of wills and wishes that ended in an equation I didn’t quite add up.

 

Some plants survived and I immediately made a mental checklist of all of the preserving that I needed to do. Preservation? Canning? This, like berry picking and processing, is a major mental block of mine. My girlfriend had visited from California and the one thing she wanted to do in Alaska? Teach me to make fermented foods. I couldn’t bring myself to do it consistently on my own and so, we whipped up an entire batch, 12 quarts of beautiful sauerkraut adorned even with local juniper berries we’d harvested on a hike. It was glorious. And then, as fate would have it, The Chief and I promptly left in a state of emergency with Cinda and returned a week later without her to a house full of spoiled kraut. My first endeavor.

So yes, I have a bit of a block about it.

But this was the year to change that and now, it is time to get a move on. Perhaps this is where the procrastination part of my recipe, paired with a serious deadline from nature will come into play and our shelves will be lined with krauts and kimchi and pickles to boot from cucumbers and cabbages and berries harvested.

Perhaps,

perhaps,

perhaps.

 

I tried to revive the plants that didn’t survive the night but their shriveled leaves and broken cells were far past repair. I tidied them as best I could and then went to chop some wood to try to overcome the persistent cold that had settled into the house with the frost. I returned inside to see The Chief making pancakes.

Pancakes, people. Pancakes.

In case you don’t know, Pancake is my middle name (well, second middle name: Julia Elizabeth Pancake Page) and the last few months have been utterly devoid of the fluffy fantasy that is eating pancakes.

And so, one would think I would be overjoyed, for the only thing better than eating pancakes is eating pancakes you didn’t have to make yourself.

But instead of the elation that follows the presentation of a present as perfect as pancakes made by the man you love just for you, what followed were tears.

Big rolling alligator tears, slip-sliding down my cheeks and chin and down onto my robe (it was Sunday afterall) that soon slipped and slid down onto The Chief’s robe as he held me in our kitchen, pancakes pancake-ing in the cast iron next to us.

I had spent the morning in and out of sleep, waking to my worst memories of Cinda, of the moments when she was in so much pain that the only words that describe the sound she would make is a bone-chilling scream. I was preyed upon by the memories of the hope we had repeatedly being crushed by the weight of obscenely unlucky circumstance. I was paralyzed remembering watching her try to walk and not be able to, trying to move and howling in agony. It haunts me though I try to shove it away. And so I had tried to shove it away this morning, the morning of my highly anticipated first frost, but when I walked outside and saw all of the beauty of my favorite distractions gone, I lost all ability to shove the haunting away.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Nasturtium Down

 

 

 

The plants and flowers I grew had two purposes:

One: Joy. They made me happy. They greeted me as Cinda would have when I came home and made coming home to The Quiet a little easier.

Two: Food. They provided sustenance and flair to our kitchen. Fresh food that we didn’t have to buy. Fresh food I could be proud of.

But when Cinda died, they served another purpose.

Three: Ritual. Every day or so, I would walk to Cinda’s grave to add to and take away from the bouquet of home-grown flowers that I’ve kept for her since the day we put her in the ground. As I walked out into the frosted landscape to see them all shriveled and dead it hit me: we are moving into the next season without her. She truly is gone.

Recently someone asked me how it is that I decide upon what to write about each week. I told her my favorite image of myself writing: an idea comes when it decides it’s ready and then I circle around the idea like a dog trying to get comfortable enough to lay down. I circle it and circle it until it feels just right and then…I sit down and write it just like a dog finally settles in and stays put for hours, so do I. But recently, the only thing I’ve been able to circle around is Cinda and for the first time ever, I’ve not allowed myself to write about what it is that comes up for me. I’ve censored myself. And so last week, with the censorship in progress for fear of becoming a broken record even I don’t want to hear, I instead wrote nothing.

The thing is, writing is how I move through and eventually forward. I tried to censor my feelings during the first hard frost morning and out they came anyway and so, if I want to continue writing, there she will be, as she always was. I can’t censor her out.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall My Love My Lou

 

 

 

And today, I miss her, more than usual and it won’t let me go. It’s what’s on my mind, it’s what I’m circling around. It’s the idea that won’t let up until I release it.

And trust me, I know I have it good. I know that, in fact, I have it great. I have a beautiful house in the middle of the woods in which I awake daily to a wonderful, handsome man who loves me deeply. We have loving friends and family and all that we need. I know we have it great. But just like I told my girlfriend who is going through her own feelings of loss now, it doesn’t matter what you have, you can still be sad.

It’s hard to take one’s own advice.

A death or a loss doesn’t just occur and end in that same instant. It is the shape that keeps shifting and just when you feel a grip, it slithers through.

And so today, I allowed myself to write about her because I want to move through remembering the pain and to remembering my baby, as she was, fuzzy eared and smiling, watching over me, ready to set me straight, ready to love me in even my worst moments. She was my starting point, my anchor and she’s gone.

And so, I will take a walk without her as I have done more times than I ever hope for in this past month and despite my personal procrastination recipe, I will go out and pick berries. I will harvest the fruits of my anticipation. The fruits that were only brought on by conditions too harsh for delicate life. The harshness that makes them sweet.

I hope that in turn, that this harshness too makes me sweeter.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall Backyard Cranberries

 

 

 

Thank you to the seasons for your abrupt displays, for your jarring leaps into the next step, whatever that may be. Alaska, you shake me, you tumble and break me but thank you for extending a hand to help me back up again.

Goodbye Summer, The Summer of the Dogs, you were a tenacious beat I couldn’t always dance to.

Onward, towards Fall.

Onward towards Winter.

But right now, onward towards berries.

 

**Update: I did, in fact, harvest berries and I did, in fact, take a very much-needed walk. But I didn’t walk alone. Our neighbors’ dog Benny joined along and even warned me off of a seemingly impending bear encounter and by the end of our walk, we had two more pups in tow and a hat full of berries to share (processing to come. Probably).

Thank you to the dogs and people of our town. Your company means more to me than you can know.

 

So…what are your favorite canning, preserving, pickling, etc. recipes?

Please, do tell…

 

First Hard Frost Fall Highbush Cranberries

 

 

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - On the Kindness of Strangers View of the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Kennicott, Reflections

On the Kindness of Strangers

About one month ago, I opened my computer to find an email I would never have expected.

Before I knew it, the writing had me in tears.

The email was from a man in Texas who was hoping to fulfill his Mother’s last wish: to send a care package to a family in The Bush. After having stumbled upon my writing in his search, he had deemed us that deserving family.

The combination of loss and generosity moved me. I read the email aloud to The Chief, choking through the kind words.

We responded with our condolences and that of course, we would love a care package (please check my pulse if I ever turn one down), and sent him our address.

And then, it was out in the world. Whether or not the package ever arrived didn’t really matter, it was the thought that meant so much.

 

Or so I thought.

 

Until two weeks ago when we returned home without our Cinda for the first time, ever. The house felt lonely and solemn and I couldn’t decide whether waking up or going to sleep was worse because both served as brutal ambassadors to the change we had never wanted. But then, amongst the melancholy, the house filled with love, as well.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis On the Kindness of Strangers Kennicott River, McCarthy Alaska

The splits. One side is silent, the other raging.

 

 

 

The first night after we returned we were surrounded in it. One of our dear friends asked if he could come by and so started the flow of healing. Soon after he arrived, another friend, having heard what had happened showed up out of nowhere. We hadn’t seen him since last year. A little later another sweet friend came over with ice cream and dinner in tow and later another wonderful friend came by. They fed us and held us as we cried. They told stories of our babe that made us laugh, breaking if only for a minute the unending downward spiral in our minds of the traumatic week behind us.

And then, the first friend reminded us that he had brought our mail. Amongst the bills and advertisements sat a huge package with a return address we didn’t recognize.

Until we did.

It was the care package.

I couldn’t believe the happy happenstance. In the time we needed care most, here we were surrounded by our loved ones but also by the kindness of strangers.

Every time I pass by the box it makes me smile. It’s filled to the brim with all different sorts of goodies, packed in a seriously impressive tetris that I am never able to reproduce every time I disturb it. We have barely been able to make a dent yet.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis On the Kindness of Strangers Care Package, Cereal Boxes

 

 

In an effort to continue the cycle of kindness, we’ve promised to share the booty, especially with one of our favorite bachelors who is more likely to buy a round for us at the bar than food for himself. Now we just have to get him to accept it and make the journey to drop it off…

 

Thank you world for your strange serendipity, for your reminder of the shine in this world even when it feels dark. Thank you for the love of friends and family and the power of a hug and thank you, thank you for the kindness of strangers.

And specifically, thank you to C&C of TX, you truly were a ray of light on a dark time.

Here’s to the kindness of strangers, and to them no longer being strangers in our lives. Let the goodness continue.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - On the Kindness of Strangers  View of the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Kennicott, Reflections

 

 

 

DOGTOWN, U.S.A Part II: Full Circle

I felt Death knocking.

I felt Death knocking and I bolted the door against her advances. I covered the cracks in the door frame, piled the furniture high and steadied myself against her pounding.

And all the while holding vigilant against her overtures, I scolded myself for my loss of optimism. I deemed myself cynical and paranoid and told myself to ignore my gut.

I felt Death knocking.

I hoped I was wrong.

And then she came in.

She pushed away our barricades as if they were nothing and in one fell swoop confirmed my worst fears in a swell of sadness that swept me away.

 

I lost my best friend.

 

thumb_IMG_7132_1024

 

 

On Wednesday after the worst week of all three of our lives, we made the hardest decision we have yet to make together:

We bid farewell to our Cinda.

Together we held her as she took her last breaths and together we wrapped her body in a blanket. Together we secured her onto the backboard her Dad had made for her. Together we said our goodbyes to those whom had kindly housed us in Town in our worst time.

Together the three of us went home.

It felt like a cruel joke.

The last time we had gone to Town, I had brought Cinda with me because I was concerned about her health. She and my Mom and I had piled into the truck that too was having issues. The ride there was quiet as a feeling of panic spread over me. I was paranoid about her health. Our town had already lost two dogs this Summer, I couldn’t handle her being next. And so I said a prayer over and over in my mind:

“If something has to fail, make it be the truck. Anything but my girl.”

And my prayers were answered.

Two days later Cinda and I had made it home with the help of a girlfriend and her trusty steed. Our truck hadn’t made it back but Lou? She was fine. The picture of health. It had been superstition after all. I had been paranoid and I had been wrong. I shook off the feeling of Death. We were together and she was healthy.

And that was all that mattered.

 

 

thumb_IMG_0700_1024

Cinda Bones scaling the glacial walls like it’s nothing. 

 

 

There would be more trucks.

 

And then there was a new truck and The Chief went into Town to get it.

A few hours later Lou and I followed, catching a ride with a friend when I realized that her condition was worsening.

The whole way I again prayed to anyone and anything that would listen. I told myself Death was just taunting us, knocking louder now but that she could be quelled like the last time. She would stop. Cinda was at the top of her game. Svelte and happy and healthy. The Vet had told me so only weeks before.

Still I prayed over and over along the drive and in the week that followed. I offered up my own health, our home, money. Anything. Everything. “Please, take what you want. Anything but my baby. Please let her make it through.”

 

 

thumb_IMG_8335_1024

 

 

One week later, The Chief and I drove home together hand in hand in a new truck with our baby’s body in the bed.

We returned home to an oppressive feeling of emptiness and to the most painful full circle experience I’ve ever had.

When we walked in the door we were greeted by a dinner left for us by our neighbors and to a beautiful note of condolence. Those were the same kindnesses and love we had bestowed upon them only a few months before when they had to make the transition of walking through their doorway for the first time without their baby.

Full circle.

Life is cruel and beautiful all in one.

In the morning we awoke for the first time in our house without our baby.

 

You never realize the quiet until it comes.

It’s deafening.

 

We spent the day digging her grave. The spot where she and her Dad had slept together in a tent the first Summer they had lived on the property was where we laid her to rest. As we walked the property earlier that morning to find where she would rest, the spot had called us in and put its arms around us the way only the Earth can.

We dug until we were up to our shoulders in an earthen grave, until we had to help one another out, until we were sure she would be safe from the wilds of the woods.

All the while, her Brother watched over us. He had come over from next door and had greeted us with his head down and without so much as the twitch of his tail. He was solemn and stoic as he let us bury our faces in his fur. We sobbed into him. He slept beside the ever-growing hole that would be her grave and as I dug my heart was broken again and again as I would look up and catch a glimpse of his tail and think that it was hers.

But it wasn’t.

And then as we left to prepare her body, her Brother left too.

We cleaned her and dried her and cried into her fur and then wrapped her again in one of her Dad’s blankets from their early days. Slowly we lowered her into the grave and said our final goodbyes. In the hours that followed we filled her grave with dirt and covered the top in moss and rocks and flowers.

Our baby.

 

 

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Our first Christmas.

 

 

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Our last family ski

 

 

Cinda was our first baby.

And she was my very best friend.

She was the reason I made it through my first Winter when The Chief worked all the dark day long and I was left in an unfamiliar place all alone. In the cold and the vast darkness she was my light and I was no longer alone. I talked to her more than anyone else. She waited patiently as I learned to ski and made me feel safe in the big white world I had found myself in.

 

 

 

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Keeping me company while I organized totes.

 

She showed me around and taught me to navigate the place I called home. At every turn she would wait for me to make sure I wouldn’t miss it.

 

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This way, Mommy.

 

 

She was my best friend and I lost her.

I lost her and still, she is everywhere.

I hear her though she’s not there. I smell the way her paws smelled in fleeting moments and it taunts me. I find her fur at every turn. I see her footprints in the soft landings of the river’s shore.

I still look for her in her bed under the house every time I walk up the stairs and I wait for her to peek up at me over the table in our living room. My heart breaks in expectant surprise when I turn around in the kitchen and she isn’t there to sample what I’m making. I feel as if I’m just waiting to turn the corner and see her again, as though I’ve simply lost her and not that she’s lost her life.

 

 

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Sneaky, peaky T.

 

 

She visits us in our dreams and in the memories of our Friend Family who have been there every step of the way to kneel at her grave and cry, to wrap us in their arms, to feed us and to tell stories that make us able to laugh again.

It’s a constant up and down whirlybird of a rollercoaster on a ride I never wanted to go on that I never paid admittance for. It feels as if we are here by accident, by a terrible joke.

But we aren’t.

This is our new life. Just us and the quiet.

 

Despite the despair and the pain that feel infinite it was worth it. I wouldn’t take back getting to love her in order to avoid this but I would do anything for more time together.

I love you, Cinda, dog of unflinching personality and infinite nicknames and lessons and love. There will never be another like you. Thank you for letting me be your Mom, for as one of your Grandmas said with a laugh: you didn’t have to let me be your Mom but you did.

Thank you. We will see you on the other side.

We miss you. So much.

 

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Feel the Burn

As an ex-Personal Trainer, the phrase “Feel the Burn” has never been unfamiliar. And in our most recent election I certainly felt the Bern. However, in today’s episode of Life in the Woods we are talking about a different burn.

 

The Burnout.

 

Around these parts, The Burnout Burn is in full-effect as we bid adieu to the fresh-faced fountain of Summer’s youth.

People are tired.

People forget and put on their grumpy pants in the morning.

It’s mid-Summer and the constant beat of the midnight sun drum is becoming less of a motivator and more of a task master.

The crowds that were surprising in June and early July are now commonplace and our little home is full-up, full-on, full-time.

The questions have changed from “how was your Winter?” to “what will you do in the Fall?” and in that delicate dialectic seasonal switch it’s obvious that the Solstice has passed as the sun finds her daily retreat a bit sooner everyday.

 

 

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We are these versions of buildings instead of shiny and new but hey, we have character.

 

 

 

But despite The Burnout, despite the fledgling energy levels and the growing inability to answer without offense when a tourist looks me up and down and says: “Well you certainly don’t live here in the Winter.” (thank you for that very unexpected approximation and judgement. Cheers to you too) I feel it’s been a Burn I can learn from.

You see, I’m an introvert.

I think the true term for my specific brand of Me-ness is called an Extroverted Introvert.

Sounds like an oxymoron, eh?

But it’s a label I’ve found that’s actually helped me to make sense of, well, me (you can read a pretty spot-on account of it here).

Make sense of yes, but in the past I still tried to push through the introversion into the extroversion. It made social situations easier, it made it seem like I was always “up” and it meant I felt less guilty less often because I didn’t indulge the introverted side. I just pushed, pushed, pushed it down.

Go out every night of the week?

Sure!

 

Have my phone on all day?

Love to!

 

Hang out with a new group of people?

Bring it on!

 

And the thing is, I like to go out, I like to be in contact and I love meeting new people.

Just not all the time.

And so, after years of submerging my introverted side in an ocean of guilt, letting her up only for necessary air and the plunging her back down again, I finally realized it wasn’t working.

The Burnout would show up in all it’s many faces in years before and I would fall apart. I’d be overworked and under-slept and over-socialized and I would just deteriorate, only to put the pieces back together again and into overdrive and…

do it all over again.

 

 

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Open, close. Open, close. Repeat.

 

 

But here, The Burn is different. (I know, I know. Alaska’s always different in my eyes but it’s true! At least for me.) This place is a boiled down version, a high-concentrate of The Burn because everyone is trying to cram everything they can into every hour of every day. There’s a celebration or a training or a party or a natural event that brings people together every night of the week. It’s not the normal 9-5 thank god it’s Fri-Yay, Margarita Monday just to get through the week type of life here.

It’s full-on.

And it’s wonderful.

But if you are susceptible to The Burn (and I have yet to find anyone immune, though there certainly live within this haven some masterful socializers whom seemingly re-charge through social interaction. Super-humans? Or just masters of disguising their need for solitude?) and I certainly am, it’s going to come on full-bore here.

Welcome to the woods.

And you thought it’d be quieter.

So, this year when I started feeling The Burn I decided to try a different route, the road certainly less (if perhaps maybe never) traveled by me, myself and I:

I let myself recharge. I looked my introverted side of myself in the eyes and I gave her a hug, and a night at home.

Lordy did that feel good.

Before I knew it, I was saying “No” to things.

How had I not utilized this power before?

And don’t get me wrong, as the kids say these days, I often have a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out. Please don’t anyone remind me that I just used FOMO in a piece of writing) but it only lasts as long as it takes The Chief to go down the driveway and head into the social circus that I am then left with this ultimate sense of relief and knowing. Knowing that I did the right thing for me.

 

 

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I’ve never regretted choosing a walk.

 

 

It doesn’t mean that I don’t adore being with my friends or making new ones. It doesn’t meant that I don’t like people or that my extroversion is a farce. When I feel “On” it’s a magical sensation, one to cherish and enjoy and let out into the world. But when I’m depleted, I don’t want to bring that out. Not being out in the world doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be social. It means that I can’t. If I’m truly listening, I realize that sometimes I just can’t. Not if I want to avoid The Burn and the inevitable dropping of all of the pieces. Not if I want to take care of myself.

It’s a truly powerful thing (albeit seemingly elementary and one which perhaps most have already grasped before their third decade around the sun, but not me) to listen to oneself. It’s taken me years just to even lend an ear, much less listen, much less act upon what I knew needed to be done. In fact, it’s taken years just to figure out what I actually need.

I had to practice. I had to trick myself into not judging the answer that was hidden behind bravado by asking myself rapid fire questions:

What do you want to eat?

Pancakes! (That was an easy one).

Pilates or a walk down by the river?

Walk!

Shorts or leggings for the walk?

Shorts! (Gotta give these albino white leggies at least a few rays of sunshine per year).

Go to Town or not?

No town!

 

Hold the phone…no Town?

That’s right, inner intuition. No Town.

Now, to follow through.

Often a 20 minute cuddle session with Lou (by which I mean me giving her pets and her ignoring me for 15 of the 20 minutes) eases the anxiety inducing decision and before I know it, the window to leave has left the building. I’m full-fledged in my decision to stay home and…

suddenly it feels glorious.

 

 

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Sometimes The Chief and I both make the decision together which always eases the FOMO (there it is again!) but it’s the times when I’m the lone soldier, bowing out of the Army of Fun when I feel the proudest of my choice.

I’m taking care of me.

And truly, if I don’t, who else will? No one can tell you who you are. We have to listen as we tell ourselves.

Tricking myself for years into being out when I needed to be in wreaked havoc on the trust I had with myself but slowly and surely, it’s coming back. I guess I just needed the intensity of the Summer drumroll here to push me into it. I needed that hyper-extroversion to show me the truth of my introversion and to appreciate it.

I’ve read two books this Summer (more than I’ve read in my first two Summers combined), I’ve spent time alone in our garden, I’ve harvested herbs and taken walks with my Lou and I’ve spent time with me, allowing myself to be just that: me.

 

 

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Sure, there’s still a lot to learn about how to avoid The Burn and the inevitable singe will happen. It’s mid-July in a full-up tourist town, but in taking the time to restore, The Burn gets a little cooler.

A little.

Cheers to oxymoron personalities and the seemingly opposing sides of their needs.

And cheers to you and your needs. Take a listen, they just might surprise you.

 

The Pack Test

“So, I’m talking to a real firefighter?”

Well, sort of.

Two weeks ago I became a real Wildland Emergency Firefighter.

Well, sort of.

You see, the positive things about living off the grid, out of a city without a municipal handshake of sorts are plentiful. You can build how you build, live how you live and matters are most often handled within the community.

The negative things about living off the grid don’t necessarily have to be negatives at all but they do have to be dealt with.

For example: We live in rural Alaska. Prior to moving here, I didn’t realize how great of a threat fire is to this land (though it seems a bit obvious now) and how different fighting fire in Alaska is to fighting fire down South. And so the questions arise: In this massive area that we call home, full of ready and willing fuels, how shall we deal with fire?

Because we will be the first boots on the ground.

Without a local fire department just naturally occurring as easily as a local library or hospital seemed to (which I know is untrue, a lot of work goes into that infrastructure but it does often go unseen) when I lived on the grid it comes down to organizing together to create a first line of knowledge and defense.

This is how I became part of the Volunteer Fire Department.

Not in 100 years (because really, a million? I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t think of it in that long) would I have thought I would be a firefighter. Though I grew up running with some of the local Volunteer Firefighters and hanging out in the firehouse and learning a few tricks of the trade, for the most part, my understanding of firefighting boiled down to the level of dalmatians and fire poles (neither of which we have here. Dang!).

But when I moved here accidentally and fell in love with the Fire Chief of the town, I inadvertently became a part of the VFD (Volunteer Fire Department). I helped to organize fundraisers and sold swag at events, I spread the word about fire meetings every Wednesday and helped The Chief wherever else I could.

But attend a meeting?

No, gracias.

The thing was, when I arrived, the meetings sounded more like a boys club than a training session. And that’s not necessarily because that’s what in fact they were. I conjured up an idea before laying foot on the VFD soil and decided in that conjuring that I was plenty happy to support from the sidelines. Yay Chief!

However, last Spring The Chief suggested I join the team.

“Of all the people in The Valley, you’re the most likely to be in the truck with me when I have to respond to a fire. It would make sense if you knew how to help.”

 

 

 

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Well, me and Cinda would be the most likely riders in the truck. Time for training, Jones!

 

 

Dang, very true and fair enough.

And so I joined my first meeting and spent the Summer learning about hose lays and how to draft water to fill the tanks and how to get water onto a fire. But it all felt very far away and somewhat unreal.

Until two events happened:

The first (read about it here) was when a controlled burn was started right down the road from us, yet was left unattended and we awoke to worried phone calls that were in fact very valid. A few hours later we had the fire out and all was well but the very real potential of our valley going up in smoke because of a small fire turning big hit home that day.

The second (read about it here) was when a burn started about 17 miles away and seemed to grow and grow over night from consistent winds. Just as the fire truly started to get people shaking in their XtraTuffs, the Department of Forestry sent in water planes and then as if the planes had simultaneously been putting out fire and doing a rain dance, the rains came and they didn’t stop for a month. However, had they not come and the winds not stopped blowing, the fire jumping the river to our little hamlet was a very real possibility.

Both of these events made me glad I had learned what I had learned per The Chief’s suggestion but that was as far as that would go.

Right?

Apparently not.

This year there was a new infusion of suggestion. Why not get your Red Card?

Me?

A Red Card?

A Red Card is an actual red card, hence its nickname which is actually called an Incident Qualification Card. It signifies that its holder is has been trained and tested both physically and mentally and has passed said tests to qualify as a Wildland Firefighter.

Me?

The Chief, again coming in with the air of reason, suggested I consider it because of our unique situation. Since the VFD is in fact a VFD with huge emphasis on the V (Volunteer) it can be difficult to incentivize people to acquire the certifications needed to keep the VFD earning funds. Our community has to be able to earn a living and counting on Fire as employment is a gamble.

It goes like this:

The fire truck is hired by the DOF (Department of Forestry) to run patrols.

The truck makes money on these patrols and thus, this is how the VFD makes money.

Other than fundraisers, this is the VFD’s only income.

AND…

The VFD truck is only hired up if there is High fire danger.

AND…

The truck can only be driven by someone with the correct qualifications .

AND…

The Chief is the only person in The Valley as of now who has the qualifications and is available.

AND…

It can only be driven if he has a Red Card-ed person in the truck with him.

AND…

No one in The Valley with a Red Card would be available this Summer leaving the truck unable to make money, the VFD unable to make money and The Chief unable to patrol.

Quite the pickle, eh?

Thankfully (although not for the funds of the VFD which are used to procure firefighting necessities like trucks and hoses and pumps and gear) it has been a mild weathered year with rains throughout most of June and July.

 

 

 

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The upside of a rainy Summer? Double rainbows, of course. Oh, Alaska, you are a beauty.

 

 

 

Yet after only one day of sun, the roads dry out and the threat of fire starts to return.

So, it was suggested that current members of the VFD, if willing and able, get our Red Cards.

Willing?

Yes.

Able?

…Gulp.

 

The classroom portion gave me pause because of the time commitment (40 hours of schooling plus testing to pass) but I knew that if I could find a way to carve out time for play then I certainly could find a way to carve out 40 nooks and crannies of hours for the good of the community.

No, the classes gave me pause for time but what scared me was the physical testing.

Though not at first.

In fact, I hadn’t even worried about it until two nights before while working at The Restaurant.

“So, you’re taking the Pack Test tomorrow?”

“Yep!”

“What’s the Pack Test set-up again?” (the physical test)

“Oh I think 3 miles in 45 minutes with a 45lb. pack.”

“Oh!”

“Oh?”

And then I started putting it into perspective. I had walked to work earlier that day and I had left a few minutes later than planned so I had been hustling. Lou was with me and was, as usual, leading the pack but I was at a close clip behind her. The only things slowing me down were the terrain (bumpy, rocky, driius filled) and my super-heavy backpack.

It weighed maybe 20 pounds.

And it took me over an hour to get there.

 

 

 

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Stopping to take pictures of cloud formations like this beauty may have slowed me down a bit, but not by much.

 

 

Uh oh. This was not adding up. 2+2 was not equaling 4.

The walk the next day was shorter but only by half a mile and the pack was over two times as heavy and the walk to work that day had been my first exercise since strep throat had taken me down the week before.

…Gulp.

So, the night before the test I stayed home (strapped to my couch by copious amounts of online work to do that kept me in) despite a wedding party and a band playing that night, made a good meal and went to bed…a little worried.

The next morning I woke up early, ready to get my head in the game. The Pack Test would be first at 9am followed by a Field Day of learning and testing our skills. The Chief left an hour before me to meet up with our friend W who was leading the Field Day and to set up the course we would test on. I met The Chief there an hour later with little butterflies fluttering about in my tummy.

I realized it had been years since I’d put my body through any sort of testing, a revelation that seems strange to me as someone who’s been a personal trainer. But time flies. It’s funny the stories we tell ourselves like “I often run races.” which was once true but not true anymore. And so I tried to channel those days. I even put on my old personal training/10k run watch to be able to check my time against the mile markers.

As soon as we had all filled out our paperwork, it was time to fit our vests. I weighed myself, put on the vest and weighed myself again. Somehow, over night I had forgotten the whole 45 pound aspect and had rounded it up to 50.

Mine is spot on!

Whoops.

The Chief tried to help fit the vest to my body but they were all made for someone much bigger and it wiggled as I walked, back and forth, back and forth like a porcupine’s gait.

We all lined up. We’d have 22 minutes and 30 seconds to make it to the half-way mark (if we were going to cut it that close) but my goal was to make it there with time to spare.

The walk was on flat-ish ground void of vegetation but marred by potholes and rocks and heavy (for us) morning traffic which we tried to avoid as much as possible while keeping as straight a line as we could.

Every second counted.

Cinda and two other VFD pooches (still no dalmatians) lead the charge. As we started the slow incline to the historic town and started making sense of the distance, we all realized that the half-way mark would be at the end of a steep (but short) uphill. The course was supposed to be flat.

Thanks, honey.

Nevertheless, we powered on.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

I fell into a rhythm of breath I could rely on and talked to my legs.

You can do this.

At the high-five half-way point we started our decline. We were at 21 minutes and 30 seconds. Just one minute ahead of half-time. If we wanted to make it we could not slow down at all.

Keep the pace.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

And then, at a certain point, I lost it that rhythm. I looked down at my legs with encouragement but also in bewilderment: can’t you go any faster? I felt like a cartoon version of myself with little flippers for legs. I was pushing but they just didn’t want to go any faster and the test declares that running is an automatic fail. The point is to see if you can haul yourself at a quick extended clip out of harm’s way.

I looked ahead of me wishing for long legs. Most of the time I enjoy being pint-sized but sometimes, it really slows me down.

The time was ticking away.

30 minutes.

35 minutes.

40 minutes.

41 minutes.

At 41 minutes I could clearly see our end goal. The Chief and our instructor were standing, ready and waiting to congratulate us.

I again looked down at my flippers which now felt as if they were flipping through mud.

Come on guys! We can do this. We are so close.

You know how when you’re waiting for it to be an appropriate hour to eat ice cream and the minutes just seem to melt by in glue-like fashion? It takes forever. Well, this was the opposite. The seconds were flashing, every time I looked at my watch, one I had looked at for years to encourage myself, to push myself and countless others to go just that much farther out of our comfort zones, it seemed to be betraying me, speeding up time.

42 minutes.

43 minutes.

2 minutes left.

I put my head down and leaned into the weight vest with the last bits of push that I had to make my leggies go faster and…

We made it.

43 minutes and 20 seconds.

A record?

I think not.

A pass?

Why yes, yes I think so!

The Chief and W congratulated all of us as everyone came in under the 45 minute cut-off and The Chief quickly removed the now very wet from sweating vest from my back. I felt like I could fly without it.

Before I realized it, my heart rate was back to normal and I felt great. For an “Arduous” test it hadn’t been all that bad.

Right?

The rest of the day was for the Field Day. We learned everything from how to deploy a Fire Shelter (which is far less sturdy than it sounds, think more like a big baked potato wrapped in foil versus a building) to how to effectively use a Pulaski to deter the spread of fire under and above ground. We worked on different hose lay formations and safety procedures and about those who had perished because they had missed even just one of those checklists or procedures. As the day went along, it felt less like learning about something and more about becoming part of it. This elusive idea of becoming a Wildland Firefighter was becoming more real as each hour went by. We were about to get our Red Cards (pending my completion of online work still). We helped one another remember our training and worked together to divvy out tasks and melded into a team in a way prior training hadn’t forced us to. Even though the day and the test weren’t as long or as grueling as say Boot Camp, that same sense of belonging and camaraderie that comes from completing something together as a team came through.

By the end of the day, The Chief was beaming. He finally would have help if and when he needed it. The VFD would make money and he wouldn’t be the sole person responsible to make that happen. I could see a weight lifted off of his shoulders and I felt happy to be a small part of that.

That night we went home to recoup and I felt it…

The soreness.

It started creeping in like the cold comes through the cracks in the door at 30 below.

I wasn’t even going to be sore though, remember?

Wrong.

 

 

 

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I felt like this dandelion. I’m pretty sure I looked like it too.

 

 

 

It should definitely be labeled “Arduous”.

3 days later I was still compromised while walking upstairs. Perhaps the walk hadn’t winded me but carrying a pack only 15 pounds shy of half of my weight (thanks to the extra 5 pounds I had forgotten about) had certainly put my muscles to the test and still…

I had passed.

I could rest easy. It was over (minus some remaining coursework) and a renewed sense of possibility lay before me, one that I never had considered in my life: I could now go out on a fire.

Hearing about The Chief’s days on the fireline had always seemed so far removed. Walking for miles and miles with a 50 pound pack of gear and a 40 pound jug of water, sleeping in the open and eating meals out of a pouch? Taxing your body so that he would come back two belt loops slimmer and 5 pounds heavier? It sounded super-human and in truth it still does. But now, I was qualified to offer myself up to that type of work.

And so, when my girlfriend called and asked “So I’m talking to a firefighter?”

I responded in truth: Well, sort of.

There’s a part of me that’s always lurked beneath the non-competitive exterior that is competitive beyond all belief with myself. Could I do it? Could I hack it?

I guess we will have to see.

Until then, I’ll work on the knowledge, work on the practical and maybe take a few more hikes with that 5 pound heavier than it should be 50 pound pack.

And then, well, who knows?

And maybe by next year that extra 5 pounds will only feel like an extra 2.

Here’s hoping (and huffing and puffing to the finish line again).