Once in a Lifetime

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).

Christmas at the Lake

 

Christmas at The Lake.

 

It just sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?

 

Weeks before we arrived in Alaska, The Chief received a text message containing those four magical words: “Christmas at The Lake” and there it was, our Christmas plans were settled.

And by our Christmas plans I mean the whole town’s Christmas plans. Holidays and events around here aren’t invite only. As long as you know how to get there or can follow someone who does, you’re invited. There’s no hush-hush hullabaloo and I love that.

Two Summers ago (my first) on our drive in, the stranger who picked me up in Anchorage (and now is a dear girlfriend) told me she was getting married that Summer. We talked about the details and her dress that she was making from scratch(!) and the invitations she had made by hand and despite all these little clues, I still didn’t quite understand how it was all going to come together. How would they feed their guests without catering? Where would they rent the chairs and tables from? Who was invited?

Well, it turns out that the answer to all of those questions and what all those little hints were pointing to was: everyone.

Everyone would come together to make it happen and everyone was invited.

I was blown away by the inclusiveness of it all. Never before had I been around such an open wedding. It seemed foreign to me, but in the best of ways but still I just didn’t get it.

That was before I knew the town.

A month or so later when the wedding took place it all made sense. The balance of independence and inclusiveness truly showed me what this place is all about. Without that balance, the town wouldn’t be the same. People carpooled to the 15 or so mile away Lake and from there, the next step was getting across. Some brought their own boats and paddled across, the bride and groom’s families paddled and motored people across in boats and canoes and eventually, everyone arrived. Anyone who wanted to make it was there and it was a heartwarming sight to behold. Friends and family on the shore made a half circle around the dock where the ceremony took place while boating friends and family completed the other half of the circle in the water.

 

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Ah, and guess who the officiant was? Well, besides the dogs, of course (beer in hand to make it official).

 

It was absolutely stunning.

 

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The bride and groom on their paddle across The Lake on their way to the party…eventually.

 

After the ceremony (once we remembered to pick up the bride and groom whom we had accidentally stranded without a car on the other shore while we all took a joyride around The Lake…whoops!) the party moved to town and everyone, from babies to grandparents, came together to make a night that wouldn’t soon be forgotten, filled with live music and even a roasting pig. Throughout the day I was constantly impressed by the couple’s relaxed demeanor and how everything just seemed to come together. Sure, it’s still Alaska and certain things went wrong (see: leaving them stranded for an hour missing their own party among other things) but this was to be expected. It was so mellow, so focused on what really mattered.

It was the first time I truly understood this place. Everyone was invited. It took me a while to realize how strange this felt to me, how unfamiliar and also how absolutely right it fit. This was how I wanted to live.

Since then, a more communal life has grown less foreign to me and for that I am grateful. Dont’ get me wrong, I still like to be alone but it’s changed my perspective in ways I didn’t realize I needed. It’s brought me into contact with people I might not otherwise meet and the unspoken ease of it all from years and years of practice makes me smile.

From poker nights at people’s houses to holidays at the community building (actually, originally someone’s house which was donated to the community. He was a man who loved to bring people together, and so now, even in his absence, he still does) everyone somehow effortlessly comes together to create something amazing. Someone cuts firewood and heats the building before everyone arrives, someone brings something to roast, someone else bakes a pie, others bring appetizers and still others bring salads, a bachelor surprises everyone with a culinary masterpiece and others stay to do dishes or come by to clean up the next day and handle the recycling and trash.

Everyone plays a part.

And so, when we got that dreamy text this Winter, my heart warmed. Not only did I fall head over heels for The Lake upon my first visit (which was also my first night here) but I loved having a date already set when we would get together in the way that makes me most proud to live here: as a big, crazy, generation-spanning, resourceful, creative and cozy family.

Christmas Day.

We awoke together to a very white Christmas and cozied up by the fire. In place of gifts we exchanged “I love you’s” since while in Anchorage we had decided that our supplies would be our gifts to one another.

Soon, it was time to head to The Lake. For weeks since we had gotten the invitation we had been checking the weather. The temperatures had been in the high 30’s below zero (that sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it?) Needless to say, it had been cold and having just arrived, we weren’t prepared to let our house freeze again just by simply leaving it for a few hours. Everyone watched their thermometers for the days approaching Christmas and as luck would have it, the weather “warmed” up. It was still below zero but if we could get the fire going hot enough before we left, we might just return to a house heated above freezing (when temperatures get that cold we even have to wake in the middle of the night to feed the fire, so leaving the house for hours on end is a sure ticket to a cold return). The “bones” of the house were still cold despite our constant fire for the last two days but we decided it would be o.k. and hoped that we were right. Now that we had handled that, it was time to figure out transport. By 10am the phone was ringing and ride orchestrations were in full-effect. How would everyone get there? Were we riding the 15 miles via snowmachine (brrrr) or should we take the pups? We decided to take the truck so we could bring a friend if she needed a ride and so the pups could come along. The Lake is doggy heaven. Frozen salmon stuck under the ice? Yes please. Once everyone had figured out with one another how to get there it was time to actually start the process.

We’ll leave in about an hour.

Did I just hear laughter?

Maybe.

By the time two hours had passed, we were finally ready. We were out of Alaska shape and pushing the boundaries of Alaska time (kind of like Hawaii time but more often due to last-minute chores that take longer than planned or quick little accidents that have to be cleaned up rather than the much more preferable laid back Island Time option). I’d forgotten how long it takes just to leave the house (and I’d completely underestimated how long it takes me to put together a peach crisp. 5 minutes, right? Wrong, dear. Wrong). Just getting dressed had been a solid 20 minute endeavor:

  1. Ok, we are going to The Lake. That means standing on ice (The Lake) most of the night so start with some solid layers: silk base layer pants (unfortunately, they’re not nearly as 80’s as they sound).
  2. However, we are also going to be inside the house where the oven and the fire will be going, so I’ll need to be able to strip down to potentially 70 degree weather clothing.
  3. Hmmm…

Finally I settled the conundrum in a series of switchouts and do-overs. Light socks paired with heavy-duty boots, jeans over the silk base and a cozy short-sleeved sweater all accompanied by a puffy jacket and insulated bibs, covered by another puffy jacket, a homemade earwarming headband and two pairs of gloves.

Finally, I was set.

The Chief and I went outside to fuel up the truck and quickly realized that the fuel had been blocked in by a trailer a friend had unknowingly placed in front of our incognito fueling station. Luckily, we still had two fuel barrels in the truck and so we transferred the pump to one of those barrels which, of course, didn’t thread up quite right. Nonetheless, we made it work and another 30 minutes flown by, we were now fueled up.

Whoops!

The truck still had items in it from our arrival: glass bottles and other breakables sat unprotected in the big side boxes of the truck. We had essentially been using it as storage for the moment until everything could find its rightful place within the house and our outdoor storage. Last year, we brought everything in at once and it was anxiety inducing, to say the least. But, now our sneaky plan had been foiled. Foiled!

We unpacked the rest of the truck.

Another 30 minutes gone.

By this time, the sun was starting to threaten to set and we wanted at least a little time out on The Lake in the sunshine.

I wouldn’t say that happened, but we were happy nonetheless.

 

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We finally arrived (after having to track down the wandering pups, they just love to play hard to get) around 3pm, just as the sun was giving her lasting final farewell. Along the drive we watched her magical descent and looked out in awe at the place we call home.

We arrived to a ready chauffeur (my girlfriend had just gotten her snowmachine working and drove over from the other side of The Lake to pick us up). She and I rode together, giggling the whole time as the uncovered peach crisp gathered bits of fresh snow as they were flung back onto me on our drive. She went back and gathered The Chief.

We had made it. Hugs and “Merry Christmas” cheers abounded.

We arrived to a big group of friends all standing around the bonfire they’d built on The Lake (a bonfire on ice? This still seems impossible to me).

Watch it in HD here

 

 

 

We had shown up just in time for sunset kickball and no sooner had everyone had a chance to kick than the sun finally bid her last adieu and we called it quits for the day.

 

 

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The perfect chill down.

 

But that didn’t cease the fun.

Up next?

Why, jumping the fire via snowboard towed by a snowmachine, of course.

One friend locked into his board while another readied his snowmachine for towing. We cleared a path and gathered the dogs and before I knew it, there they came, headlight seeking out a way through the darkness as the machine loudly announced their arrival and then…

up and over he went.

 

 

 

The first time was a breeze, the second time despite our many efforts, one of the dogs jumped in the way at the last minute. Thankfully, the dog was dodged due to some quick reflexes a la the driver Mr. K and the jumper, Mr. M still made it, despite having to let go too early.

Bonfires, kickball, fire-jumping?

This night had already exceeded my expectations.

 

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And then, it was dinner time.

Our hosts had made some amazing roasts and delicious goodies and somehow, amazingly, everyone else had brought complementary dishes and even… (drumroll please) a salad. That’s a big deal for out in the woods.

We ate, drank and were merry and as the night progressed I smiled more and more at its beauty. We all live in these woods for different reasons but I’d venture to guarantee that for everyone it’s for a piece of solitude. You won’t meet someone out here who doesn’t like to be alone. But despite all of our independence we like to be together and the we who comes together is any and every combination you can imagine. Next year’s Christmas gang might hold completely different faces. People who were here this year might be away and those who were away this year might return. It’s a constantly changing composition, this family of ours, but throughout the ebbs and flows there we still are. Through this shared experience of living in the woods, all of our differences or rough edges are rounded away.

We are in this here crazy choice of a sometimes very difficult but always rewarding life together and for that I can’t thank our lucky stars enough.

 

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Happy belated Holidays to you and yours.

With love,

From Alaska.

 

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Goodnight, bonfire.

 

 

The Long Way Home (Part I: The Mushy, Squishy, Tom & Norah Version)

Years ago, maybe 15 or so, a girlfriend and I went to a party out in the “middle of nowhere” (I have to use quotes for that one these days considering my current physical location in life). We were having a blast, way out in the hills of California only 45 minutes from our hometown yet still in a place we both had never been when suddenly…the parental units arrived.

Whoops!

Apparently our friend wasn’t supposed to be having a party.

Who knew?

I’d say likely us, we likely were the Who who knew.

The party dispersed in a flash as teenagers fled from all possible exits.

In all the rush, we had simply driven away, without getting our bearings and within no time we came to the realization that we were L-O-S-T lost. We were struck with panic. Technology wasn’t quite what it was today and let’s just say our pagers weren’t helping us any, though I swear we stared at them looking for answers. And so, without a map and with two poor senses of directions equaling one mediocre sense of direction, we just kept driving.

Retrace our steps?

Why, what a brilliant idea!

We opted not to and by opted not to I mean we didn’t even think of it, but if we had we would have been chasing ghosts. Retracing our steps in fields upon fields of high grasses cut through by miles and miles of look-alike dirt roads? Naw, no thanks.

And so, lest we confuse ourselves further we figured onward, onward ho!

In the stress of it all, we decided it was best to play Norah Jones (don’t judge me, she’s awesome and at the time she was the obvious and only choice in crises like these) to calm our nerves as we hazily sought our way back to home like naked mole-rats through an underground maze.

And it worked.

Through the confusion we were calmed by the tunes and comforted by the presence of one another. I remember thinking that even if we were lost forever, at least we had each other. And it turns out that we had just enough faith and fancy footwork to navigate our (probably obvious) route. We had made it safely home, even if it did take us cycling twice through the album.

 

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As I sat down to write about our journey this December to our Home in the woods, this memory with my girlfriend suddenly came flooding over me and with it came the song on the album which struck me most that day: “The Long Way Home”. The song is a Tom Waits cover which Norah Jones performed on the album we twice listened to that day. The memory of that day and that song and our parallel journey this year compared to last all came tumbling down on me and as I put on the song while I wrote I was suddenly choked up.

That day with my girlfriend felt like the longest Long Way Home and so the song’s presence struck me, reverberated in my ears and made me laugh at our predicament. I read little more into it then than the title (I didn’t know any of the other words) and saw it as a sort of mocking, literal and perfunctory representation of our day. We were taking a dang Long Way Home but I’d always known we would make it some hour or another. We were still in the same County for goodness sake, but still I had been shaken.The presence of the music accompanied by the presence of my girlfriend, however, shook that shake right back and restored my faith that we would make it back, eventually.

Finally, that day, landmarks I’d seen all my life started appearing, landmarks I’d known as a passenger growing up in the cars of parents and family. Yet suddenly we were the drivers, brand spankin’ new at that, and it was up to us to decipher their code. And we did. Every few miles, a specific corner or noticeable rock outcropping or old barn would signal us to turn or stay from somewhere deep in our memories and those memories guided us. We were two newbies, finding our way into the beginning of adulthood.

 

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And all along, home was nearby.

And for most of my life, it always has been.

Until last year. The year of Leap First And Look Later And Fingers Crossed It All Turns Out.

Last year I decided to move to Alaska after a Summer visit gone vibrant and well past its 17 day intended expiration date.

Life had other plans.

And so, last year, I left the land I knew. The place where after years of practice and memories like the one with my girlfriend that I could now navigate on my own while blindfolded and still find the quickest route through back alleys and hidden throughways.

Suddenly, all that familiarity was in my rearview mirror when last year we left my town and started our route to The Great Big North.

 

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It was a truer than true, longer than long, Long Way Home.

The song’s literal meaning prodded at me again.

I actually had no idea how long it would be but it exceeded even my most exorbitant of expectations. Last year, coming into the woods at the beginning of December, I was walking into the unknown and though I held steady, I was shaken at the core. I had driven the route into the woods only twice before: on my first trip in where I was 1.) a passenger and 2.) had the attention span of a hummingbird and another time solo where I was more focused on getting the turns right than remembering landmarks. The land was unfamiliar, the stops along the way new and intimidating. The sheer vastness of the state tumbled down upon me all at once and though I was excited, I have also never been so terrified.

What if we came to find we just didn’t like one another? How would I leave?

What was it like to live in the snow? Would I get frostbite?

And seriously, what in the hell was I doing?

The year of The Leap was certainly the year of questions like that: what in the hell was I doing?

It turns out what the hell I was doing was heading in exactly the right direction which although I felt in my heart, I had to explain to my head occasionally.

 

We leapt into the unknown and took the longest ride home I’ve ever experienced in my life. 10 hours plus (and that’s only once we’d actually arrived in Alaska, the journey had started five days before) in what seemed like a snowglobe come to life filled with treacherous roads and sheets of ice fog and all without even so much as a radio to make a peep over the booming winds rattling the truck and the screaming worries bouncing around my rational mind. I didn’t know the route, I didn’t know the mountains, I couldn’t tell you how far we were or how long we had to go. I had no landmarks. I had little history. I was merely a passenger.

Yet with or without landmarks and with the smidgen of history I had eked out the Summer before, I knew I was heading home.

And I was right.

 

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But I was still, just a passenger, still alone even in our togetherness because of all that was unfamiliar to me. We both were still doing it alone despite being in it together. Little did I know, the song had taken on new meaning.

The Song, to me as I’ve listened to it over the past 15 years, is about a man in the world clinging to his independence. Despite his love waiting for him, he always takes The Long Way Home and the journey to find their way is all up to him. He is alone, despite her presence. Yet in the end he asks her to come with him. His need to be alone is melted by his need for her. They both leave what they know and alone in the unknown they take The Long Way Home together.

Last year, The Chief and I were at the beginning of this song, we were both the individuals navigating our way through our own fears and doubts and The Chief had to find our literal Long Way Home for us as I was completely and utterly lost in the now snowy landscape I had barely remembered when it was completely bare the Summer before. I can see the leap we both took into the unknown now from the outside in all of its shimmering shining “are you freaking crazy?” glory. I can see how wild the leap must have seemed and I’m so glad we decided to do it anyway.

 

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Our First Christmas

 

This year, the leap was a little smaller as we moved through the rest of the song. Yes, it was a new Winter, new ever lower temperatures awaited us and our neighborhood was deserted where last year it was “bustling”. But it wasn’t so completely and overwhelmingly unknown anymore. I knew how to avoid frostbite and live in the snow and I knew that we did like each other and that we did want to be together and we had made it through the crazy leaps and into one another’s arms. Sure, there were unknowns and uncertainties up ahead but something had shifted, we had made it through our first winter and now we were undeniably in it together; we were navigating our road home together.

As we glided this year over frozen highways I found my points of reference garnered from trips throughout the past year. I was still a newbie, like I had been while driving with my girlfriend those 15 years ago, but just like then, I was learning. I knew which place to stop for food and when (before it was too late and we were engulfed in mountains for the rest of the 7 hours), which mountains meant we were closer and which glaciers were my favorite, which were the best rest spots and which post office to mail our Christmas Cards from and together we navigated our way with equal input despite still differing knowledge (and priorities: I’m pretty much on Make Sure We Eat Before Hangry Sets In patrol).

No longer were we two people in a big ol’ truck in the middle of nowhere hoping individually for the best. Now we were a team. No longer were we navigating on our own, alone. We were on the same page. No longer was I following The Chief, both of us with our fingers crossed. Instead, this year we finished the song as we navigated The Long Way Home together, hand in hand, with our pup nestled between us.

And we made it.

Home.

 

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“Well you know I love you baby

More than the whole wide world

You are my woman

I know you are my pearl

Let’s go out past the party lights

Where we can finally be alone

Come with me, together, we can take the long way home”

                                                                              -The Wonderful Mr. Waits

 

Oh, but it wasn’t all whistling Tom Waits in the wind and high-fiving each time I recognized a glacier and skipping and snow angels and mountains of pancakes.

No siree bob.

But you knew that already, didn’t you?

No, this is Alaska, where nothing comes easy except change and not always the change you want and where you have to work the whole way just to make your way home. And all the love in the world doesn’t mean the journey will be easy but it does make it so much easier.

And so, with that, I tell you our Nitty Gritty, Non-Norah and Tom version of our journey to The Great North, our Long Way Home…

 

Next week.

With love, from Alaska.

 

 

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With the Band

All my life I’ve wanted to be part of a band.

I grew up with a father who was in a handful of groups with little local claims to fame, claims which as a child I build up to Zeppellin-esque proportions in my head (perhaps with a little help from my pops). And so, thanks to him I grew up around music. I basically was birthed into his bands. All the “Old Fogies” as he called them would come over on weeknights and we would jam until the wee hours when it was imminent I go to bed for at least a few winks before school. Because of them I learned the classics and because of my dad I learned the fundamentals: rounds, harmonies, timing. He would test me over and over again on harmonies for his songs until I got them just right. And then, we would do them a few more times for good measure.

There was a recording studio in my house where I would watch my Dad splice tape to create tracks and eventually albums (old school, pre-digital). I grew up with musical instruments galore and albums upon albums of the greats. There was a wealth of information and opportunity in front of me but I never took it. I was the singer and I sang the songs they told me to sing. I didn’t branch out. I didn’t pick up the guitar and try it, someone else who was better could do that and my Dad was very particular about his things.  I wasn’t allowed to even be in the studio alone until I was almost an adult. I didn’t look at my Dad’s albums and explore. Someone else knew the music better and could pick songs I “would like” and I “might break” the record and so it was best to keep it in the sleeve, even as I got older.

Looking back with adult understanding I get it. My Dad was cautious of his things and would rather streamline the effort than stop to teach me how. The band only had one day per week to play. They were all once working musicians and they didn’t want to wait around for a little lady to plunk her way through a song. They wanted to play. They deemed me to have the best voice out of the lot and they wanted me to sing and they wanted me to sing what they wanted to play and so we did. I was only 6 or so when these jam session invitations came about and I wasn’t about to rock the boat. Singing made me feel weightless and forget about whatever my little self was worry-warting about. We played with mics and amps even when we practiced and it all felt so official that little me felt small in comparison. As I got older I would give up requests and sometimes suggestions for how to start or end a song but for the most part, I knew their music and they didn’t know mine and so we played theirs how they wanted it played.

And in so many ways, I’m grateful for that. I had a schooling in their form of give and take of playing in a group, in the ways of music and communication on stage.

However, I didn’t find my autonomy. I went along with the flow, feeling joyous to be playing music, yet unfulfilled by my lack of participation and choice. I felt pressure to like songs my dad would write and play for me, even if I didn’t like them. I lost a bit of myself in my efforts to please.

As I grew older I continued that fashion, choosing songs for performances that I could tell my music teachers wanted me to sing but that I didn’t really resonate with. I got very good at pleasing others with my voice but also very good at dissociating from my wants. I was letting myself be shaped solely by others instead of shaping myself.

At 17 I was given my first guitar by my family. It was beautiful. I picked it up to play and immediately my dad and brother alerted me that it was upside down.

The guitar was right-handed.

I am left-handed.

It’s not that they weren’t thoughtful or that they didn’t know my handedness, they did and it was a very thoughtful gift. The thing was, I hadn’t played enough in my life to know that, in fact I played the guitar left-handed. My dad was a lefty and he played right-handed and so, it was assumed that I did too. I flipped the guitar and gave it a shot as a righty and went with the flow.

I still can’t play the guitar.

And so, throughout my life I’ve gone along with the musical flow. I’ve done recordings on everything from meditation to rap albums. I’ve performed with cover bands and “Old Fogies” and rappers alike and while I’ve loved it all simply because I was able to get out there and sing, I felt disconnected and at times a bit embarrassed by the repertoire.

And then, something shifted as I inadvertently moved three thousand miles away from home.

I arrived in Alaska and within 4 days I was invited to play with the local band. It didn’t hurt that my girlfriend dated the lead singer and so as we were all having dinner one night and the guitar came out and my voice came with it, I was invited to play with them. Just like that.

They told me to pick songs I liked.

I stalled.

This was out of habit for me. I was used to just going along with the flow.

Fine.

They gave me the set list and told me to choose the songs I’d like to play.

No, you can just pick the ones you need help with.

Geez, lady!

We played together a handful of times and finally, at the end of the year, right before I left for California, I played my first show with them at the local watering hole.

I was walking on air.

My girlfriend’s dog, upon hearing me start to sing, pushed his way into the bar and curled up at my feet on stage. I love that dog. He was my comfort in my discomfort on that stage. I felt strong and happy afterwards, like a weight had been lifted and a change was coming. But I wasn’t totally there. After that the band told me to think of songs for next Summer and they would learn anything I wanted to play. That’s a pretty awesome offer coming from a band that I just walked into.

So did I?

No.

I arrived at the beginning of Summer with no more of a set list than I left with last Summer (which were all songs they had known from before). There was something in me resisting. I worried that it would seem like disinterest to them. It wasn’t. I’m not even entirely sure what it was. The breaking of old bad habits or the shedding of a new vulnerable skin. Either way, I clung to it with a love hate grip.

It took me half the Summer to start making suggestions but I finally did. They jumped on them. It took me half the Summer to say that I didn’t want to sing certain songs and to ask if I could have others. Something shifted and suddenly, I wasn’t just reacting anymore.

It’s been a back and forth. Sometimes I still revert back to my reactionary self but I’m on the other side now and there’s no going fully back to singing show tunes for smiles unless ya know, that’s what’s on my menu suddenly (though I doubt it).

This past weekend we played a show for the Festivus at the restaurant I work for. Basically, it’s an ending of the season party, a sort of “thank you” to locals for their business and a chance to all be together before people start the slow procession out of town for the year. Last year I watched the band played and wished so badly that someday I could be on stage with them too (they had invited me to play with them that night but I had deemed myself unprepared).

 

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On our way to the Festivus

 

I had been able to practice once with them since our last show early this Summer. Recipe for disaster? One might think but it went really well. They had been practicing together and sounded amazing. I had chosen songs I love and I gave them my all, even cracking my voice a few times from belting them out but I didn’t care. I was finally starting to let go. I even took the mic off the stand (this sounds trivial but stage presence is a major issue for me. I feel awkward. But I did my best to push through it, to talk to the crowd, to dance and move and truly try not to think so much).

There’s still a lot of progress to be made but the hardest part has come:

I have a band.

I have always wanted a band and finally I have one. We have one. And hey, all I had to do was completely drop my entire life in California and move to the wilds of Alaska. I couldn’t have thought that one up in my wildest dreams and if I had I would probably have been too scared to chase it.

Thank you Alaska, you sneaky thing, for pulling me in and breaking me down so that I could build back up again. Thank you for my friends who make me feel loved and confident even when I’m nervous and for my band mates for all of their support and excitement. And thank you for a man who encourages me and pushes me when I need it every step of the way. A man whom, when I look out to him from the stage, has his eyes closed and his head back and a smile on his face reaching ear to ear as he listens to me sing.

I am eternally grateful.

 

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I love these ladies.

Summer Speed & The Solstice Countdown

Solstice has always been a celebration of light for me, a nod to the sun in thanks for her light and energy and a sort of kick off to the festivities of Summer.

Let the fun begin.

Every year it’s been that same feeling of joy for the sun.

 

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Until this year.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a lizard for the sun. I find the place with the most Vitamin D per square inch everyday and put myself right in its light, moving with the sun as it draws across the sky.

But this year, Solstice was different. For one, I was still sick with Tonsillitis (last year I was also afflicted with a malady. Perhaps Solstice is my body’s annual fall apart moment) but being sick didn’t mean I wasn’t happy for the day, it just made me realize that I was happy for a different reason than I ever had been before.

The Winter Solstice this past Winter was a true celebration. We had made it through the darkest hours and from there it could only get lighter. But with the light come the crowds and with the crowds our small town of maybe 20 turns into a bustling tourist town with hundreds of people all wanting their piece, all here for a short time, all needing to get it all in. How we live becomes a sort of experience for others to snap shots of and report home about. Our life becomes this commercialized package for others to buy and record. We’ve had people step in front of the fire truck as we were driving in order to snap a shot of us. Friends have had lost tourists wander into their tucked away cabins. There’s a sense of shattered privacy and protection.

If that’s how you want to look at it or that’s what you want to focus on.

It can also be a great chance to meet new people from all over the world as long as you open yourself up to it.

Either way, either approach, it’s a world changed and light years away from the solitude and silence of Winter and a shift that everyday I have to prepare myself to see the best in.

So in celebration of the light returning this Winter, there was also an apprehension built-in. Thank goodness for the light, the energy, the plants and animals coming out to play and also, a sort of buckling up for the wild ride of the Summer approaching.

Summer Solstice to me has always been a celebration of light but I realized this year that I had been looking at it backwards, or ignoring what I knew: the Summer Solstice means that every day forward, the light is decreasing. It’s a departure from light.

 

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The sun barely sets, she just makes shadows.

 

Winter will soon be here.

The Chief and I were celebrating the Summer Solstice at The Restaurant and among the crowds of people I felt a sudden sense of overwhelm come over us both. But I paused as I realized that our friend was packing her bags in the Southern Hemisphere and I looked to The Chief, smiled and said:

“Winter is on her way. We are heading back to the dark.”

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him beam like he did that night.

I love Winter. But come last Fall as we bid adieu for 5 weeks, it was in the back of both of our minds that perhaps I wouldn’t like Winter, perhaps I would utterly despise it and then where would we go from there? So when I looked to him that night, a year later and truly happy to feel the approaching shift towards Winter, I swear I saw his heart do a happy dance.

We had so many uncertainties going into the dark together, so many unknowns. I literally walked into it blind with no idea of what I was getting myself into.

But I did not walk in alone.

And so we came out on the other side excited for another turn in the dark. Another Winter together in the woods, this time a little less blind. There will be snow machine trips to take, lessons to learn, time to just breathe, away from the hustle of Summer and away from the Springtime Shoulder Season of her approach. You see, the Summer here is completely opposite from any Summer I’ve spent anywhere else.

Before now, Summer to me meant cookouts and beach days, lazy hours by the pool, popsicles and ice cream, road trips, gardening and an overall sense of play and relaxation. I’ve always worked a lot as well, but there was a milder sense of urgency to earn in the Summer versus the Winter (work time).

Not here.

Summer means Go Time.

Summer is the time to hustle. To work as much as possible to make your money for the Winter months ahead. This week I worked over 50 hours, driving or biking or walking 30-60 minutes each way. It feels as if I haven’t been home in over a week because the only time I am home is to sleep off the day and prepare for another.

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not all work and no play. The Summer here is also filled to the brim with things to do. Mondays are Movie Night, Wednesdays are Fire Night, Thursdays are Open Mic Night, Fridays are for Softball, Saturdays there is usually a band playing somewhere and Sundays are for Roast Chicken and Tunes. There’s also Yoga Classes and Craft Nights and Farmer’s Market and Rock Building Party and Events which I’ve never been able to attend. Every day can be filled to the brim with work and play and every night filled with a few hours of sleep to refuel for the next. Even if I don’t go out I still never get home before 11pm. Thankfully, the sun seems to make solar-powered people out of us all because despite little sleep and lots of work, we all seem to power through with energy not felt the other 9 months of the year.

And so it makes sense to miss Winter in ways, to miss the quiet and the calm before the party/work storm.

But for now, it is Summer. I haven’t seen a sky full of stars in quite some time because the sun graces us for what feels like the whole day and I can walk without a headlamp at any hour and place my feet with certainty. Instead of miss the stars I try to remember that it will be Winter before I know it and I’ll miss the gifts the light brings like…

Just Being Outside. No agenda. No rush. No need to do calisthenics to keep warm. Lazily walking the property to see how the sun has changed the earth’s face instead of hustling to beat the cold back inside.

 

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Color. The Winter is beautiful in its pristine white but a pop of color brightens the soul. I swear it took a month for my eyes to adjust to seeing all the different colors again instead of simply shades of white and grey.

Ice Cream. ‘Nuff said. There’s a store and everyday they have ice cream. Every day. Luckily for the integrity of the seams in my pants, I typically get off of work long after the ice cream store is closed but just knowing that it’s there makes my little heart sing.

Playing Outside & Exploring. Being able to just throw on a pair of running shoes and take off into the wild. Hiking on the glacier or along the river and hearing the rush and the movement of water broke the sense of stasis that a valley blanketed in snow created. Having the outside be accessible again without having to pack as if going out to war is so amazing and living in a place that is an outsider’s dreamland doesn’t hurt either. Sure, we may not have as much time as I’d like to go out and enjoy it but at least it’s there for the times when we can sneak away to it.

 

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Hiking on the West Side of The Glacier towards The Archway – an enormous arch of ice that leads deeper into The Glacier

 

Bare Skin. In the Winter I would walk twice daily to see the Sunrise and the Sunset. Every time I went out I would expose as much skin as I could to soak up the sun but often that only meant that I could sneak out my face or my hands and only for a few moments. Bare arms and legs in the hot sunshine makes my day everyday.

Friends. It’s impossible to walk through town without a familiar face and a hug. In the Winter we had to seek out company other than one another and 20 below zero temperatures didn’t make engagements any easier. To be able to just see sweet faces about our world (some that we only get to see for a few days a year) without planning and packing all day for it is a treat I try not to take for granted.

Gardens. In the Winter, the only living things in the house were the vegetables I was trying to grow from scraps (try it. It’s awesome. Even in the dead of Winter in Alaska I had green onions, celery and romaine lettuce growing). I missed seeing blossoms and blooms. The smiling faces of my pansies at the bottom of our stairs makes me smile/giggle every time I pass them. Almost every morning I forgo breakfast or a shower or reading with tea because I get caught up in the garden watering and checking on our plant babies. It’s magic to get to be surrounded by life ever-changing.

 

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I know, I know, it’s too early for a cauliflower to come out and this one may not taste great but this is the cutest dang thing I’ve ever seen and that’s redemption enough. It’s about an inch across. Adorable.

 

A Good Old Fashioned Party. Sometimes, you really just need to let your hair down. With The Restaurant and the local watering hole open every day now there’s always a chance to play. Sure, the bar can get panic attack packed but sometimes the feel is just right, the local to tourist ratio is in the local court and we are all in the mood for a rowdy night. The Winter doesn’t exactly lend itself to dancing to live music or staying up late with 30 friends. Sure, we get together (and often it’s around a big fire, which is pretty awesome) but there’s something about a big group of friends feeling good all at the same time, friends who haven’t seen one another due to busy schedules and sometimes all of the parts of the equation just add up to a night to remember.

Eating Out. I love cooking, but when you cook every meal you eat every single day of the week for months on end (minus the dinner party or potluck here and there) you are chomping at the bit to eat something you haven’t made on dishes you won’t have to clean. It’s pure luxury.

Overall Ease. When people ask me what we did all Winter they always seem to surmise that basically we were just surviving and in the most basic sense, it’s true. In the Summer we may be trying to keep our heads afloat (and on) throughout the never-ending Go Time but everything from driving to getting water to staying warm and fed are so much easier.

Plant Medicine. Last year I came down with my apparently Annual Solstice Malady and I was able to go into the woods with a girlfriend and harvest plants to help to ease the pain. I took medication afterwards (after someone in town thankfully had what I needed, otherwise I would have had to wait for a week for the mail plane to bring it in) but the initial care from the horsetail we harvested was a lifesaver. This land here is filled with remedies for everything from cramps to cuts and all one has to do is walk outside. It’s pretty amazing too the differences in flora between the two towns here: ours on the woodsier side and the higher elevation historic town. If there’s something I can’t find here I can almost always find it there. Nature is an amazing gift giver.

 

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From this…

 

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To this…to chapstick.

 

And the list goes on. Every day I add to it. Painted Toenails, Flip Flops, Not Freezing Every Time I Have To Go Outside To Pee. It really just keeps going and going. The point is not that I am trying to love Summer, it’s that I am recreating what Summer means to me and what Winter means to me. This place has completely turned my 29 years of understanding the “seasons” on its head and its something I have to remind myself of constantly. I like the challenge to see my world suddenly in reverse. Sure it can cause a bit of vertigo sometimes but life is made to stretch us and Alaska, you seem to think I’m a yogi. Maybe someday.

Until then, I’ll keep aiming to stretch with differences and appreciate whatever light there is in the sky, be it shining over snow or creating a double rainbow.

 

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It’s all pretty amazing.

Thank you Alaska.

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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A Bowl Full Of Scaries

I swear, I do not just spend my time in the woods in a perpetual state of fear (even if the last post and this one suggest otherwise).

I’m not carefully looking around every corner, wondering what scary beast is lurking and hungry nor am I constantly running away yipping with my tail between my legs.

But from bears (both imagined and real) to bonfires, this place is alive with excitement and danger, both in a constant battle to win over the other.

Everything here is so tough and at the same time so delicate. The snow is packed until you hit a soft spot and fall in up to your thighs. The fire is roaring until you get distracted for a moment and it suddenly goes out. Your snowmachine is running great until you hit a hidden rock and now you’re stuck without transport. You go to pump water and the generator is on the fritz so it’s back to melting snow. You’re confidently chopping wood until the axe swings through and you hit your boot and luckily your boots are thick and you aren’t hurt.

Because if you are, you aren’t in a good way when you’re way out here. And so the balance continues. Do what you need to do and do what you want to do but aim to do it well and without incident.

So, when some friends were getting together to go for a snowmachine ride up to The Bowl I was both excited and scared. First option: call my neighbor/old boss/best girlfriend who’s a guyfriend and poke around to see if I can ride with him (meaning on his machine because I’m nervous to drive on my own and The Chief is at work).

Plan failed. He sniffed me out in seconds.

You’re coming. And you’re driving. Or, you know, you can sit at home and sit out this beautiful day.

Ugh.

You know a friend is your friend when they force you to do things you’re scared of like:

The Bowl. Driving solo. Getting stuck. Flipping the machine. Losing the machine down the hill. Falling off the cliffs. Did I mention I have a fear of heights? I try to just pretend I don’t and sometimes it works (typically when I’m on flat ground).

There were so many options for things to go wrong and all of them were running through my head.

The Bowl is at the end of a narrow and winding trail of about 3,000 vertical feet up into the mountains. One side of the trail is a sheer drop-off and parts of the trail are so narrow that in order to keep on it one has to stand up and use all your body weight to lean and tilt the machine to the opposite side to avoid falling down the hillside. The best case scenario if you did is that you would ditch your machine in time and be able to stop yourself from careening to the bottom and that your machine would get hung up in a tree (and therefore would be save-able and salvageable) instead of breaking into a million little pieces on it’s descent into town.

The first time I had gone to The Bowl we went with a different group of friends. I rode with The Chief. Without much more to hold onto than a narrow strap with too much slack my legs were squeezed as tightly as possible to hold me on and to keep me in sync with The Chief’s moves. He leans left, I lean left. He leans right, I lean right. Forward, back, making yourself a team, a unit (which is really hard to do when you can’t see through the person you’re riding behind and thus can’t anticipate a bump or tun. All you have to go off of is a response to and an anticipation of their movements).

Everyone got stuck in the deep snow in the final ascents.

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Good call on bringing the shovel.

Machines would sink and we would dig them out and pull and push until they were free, just in time for another to sink. But, these guys are excellent drivers, throwing legs and shifting hips over the machine and making maneuvers I never even thought of. We made it to the top and it was a perfect day filled with shared snacks and sips and just a bit of a view.

 

So, now I’m doing that? Ok, I mean I am a pro. I’ve just taken my first few solo trips in the last week or so and I’ve probably driven the machine about 6 times total, so yeah! Let’s throw this thing into full gear and jump from the bunny slopes to the black diamond.

A few exciting facts about the machine:

The footrests are iced over on this particular morning (and there’s no time to heat it off), making my footing about as stable as slippers on an ice rink

The “brakes” are a bit of a work in progress. The brake handle is a replacement that doesn’t quite match and therefore is loose and falls forward, out of your reach. So when you go to brake, well sometimes you miss it. Best to keep it pulled in at all times even if it cramps your hand.

You don’t have reverse, so think fast before you put yourself in a corner.

Steering the machine is more of a workout than a day at the gym. But, the turning radius is pretty amazing.

 

A few realities about what it means to go for a snow machine ride:

It’s not just a joy ride. How will the house be when you return? Will the weather turn and the house freeze? The only way to help stave that off is to a. stay home (which my neighbor has conveniently shamed me out of doing) or b. make an amazing fire and get the house cooking so…

As you’re dressing for the cold, you are going to make the house a temperature that would beg for clothing optional (think 10 degrees outside and 95 inside).

You start upstairs in the bedroom loft: underwear first. Then socks. Last time you wore thick socks with your boots (that you bought on your first major gear acquisition in Anchorage in this post and that you thought you bought too big before you knew the meaning of buying boots too big) your feet were cold. Like icecubes. So, ok, let’s do the liners and thin socks move.

Ok, we have underwear and socks on. The next moves are to cover the body and the options are too many to count. Think about it, it’s 10 degrees outside (this is HOT), but where are you going? The Bowl is higher in elevation so there may be in inversion, it could be 30 degrees above up there. So, let’s start with a light layer, a wicker of sweat, then let’s add a little warmth with a light sweatshirt, then a fleece jacket followed by a skiing jacket to hang out in if it’s warm, followed by a parka for riding and for if the temperature starts to drop.

Now, for the fabulous bottom half. Let’s start with long underwear then add some warmth with a pair of fleece pajama pants.

Add to the masterpiece a pair of bibs (not the kind you throw-up on as an infant, the kind that I know as waterproof overalls but everyone calls bibs). Note: You are now starting to sweat, fiercely.

Then, add a log to the fire because it has finally kicked up and you need to add as much to it as possible before you leave for who knows how long.

Back to the outfit: You’re almost there. Add a balaclava (if you’re an outdoorsy person this is apparently a word as simple as “candy”, I had no idea what it was. It is essentially a jack of all trades for neck and head warmth). Then, pick your gloves, pick your poison. Too light of gloves, you’re cold. Too big of gloves and you sweat and lose your dexterity. So compromise with mid-weight gloves, hope for warmth in The Bowl and shoot for having room to pack mittens to go over said mid-weight gloves. Grab a hat and your ski goggles or sunglasses and your ear protectors, a scarf to bring with and…shoot!

Food.

You haven’t eaten today and there’s no telling when your next meal will be so, time to pack some snacks with a punch. Oh, and let’s boil some water and make a mug of tea in case it gets super cold up there and you need a quick way to warmth.

Ok. I think you might be ready.

Go outside. Fire up the machine (this takes about 6 pulls, full choke, half choke, run and a lot of gentle gas gives. It’s up and ready finally) and…it’s out of gas.

Ok, you are almost ready.

Drive to the gas drum, unscrew the pressure release, unhook the pull and start filling.

Tank is full. Check the oil. Oil is low. Find the oil. Add the oil. Wait for the oil to go into the machine (it’s cold, it takes a while) add more oil.

 

Ok, now we are ready.

 

Just on the ride to town to the base of the mountain I felt out of my league. My neighbors and I took the river trail that I’m used to riding but at a much faster clip and once we got the road it was full throttle.

But that just means it’s time to step it up a bit. This is how you learn.

When we got to town, everyone was snowboarding the hills and drinking beers. I’m embarrassed to say it but I thought the plans had changed and this was our landing pad for the day.

Phew! A sigh of relief. I could try The Bowl another day.

Not so fast.

It turns out we were waiting for someone to return…and then we were going to The Bowl.

Great! (This is a sarcastic “Great!” in case you couldn’t tell)

Time to do the self-pump-up dance again.

And we were off. I asked my best guyfriend to ride behind me in case I got stuck and eeked out a little “I’m kinda scared” as we took off.

Around the bends, the tipsy curves and up the climbing hills we went. Thankfully those machines are loud because I was yelling “You got this!” interchangeably with “Ohhhhhh shittt!” to myself around every hairy corner. And I did. Even the extra sharp one right before the final ascents. We got past the treacherous spot from my previous trip and we were on the home stretch, the final ascent and…

I didn’t make it.

At the last big hill I gunned it and…almost made it.
Halfway up the hill the machine topped out, no more pull, and the speed I had wasn’t enough. I sank and started rolling backwards. I squeezed the brakes as hard as I could but still the angle was in cahoots with gravity and I kept falling backwards down the hill.

Nothing feels as good as not only foiling your plan to make it up the hill as to ruin the momentum of all of your friends behind you (4 machines of them), but hey, at least I caught my machine before it ran down the hill into any of them (always look on the brightside, right?).

And so, as quickly as I had almost given myself bruises from self pats on the back for making it to the summit, I was stuck in hip-deep snow at a 45 degree angle on a mountain thousands of feet above the town.

Thankfully, when you decide to go on a group trip you are also agreeing to help your comrades and before I knew what had happened I had help. We started digging snow from underneath the track and the skis (for those of you who don’t know (and I certainly didn’t prior to riding one) snowmachines have a track beneath them in the middle, like a tank but narrower, accompanied by skis on the sides of the track that ideally guide the machine)). Once we realized that there was no way the machine was making it up we started trying to just lift it. 400+ pounds isn’t all that much for two people to lift but when on either step you both are standing or falling into hip-deep snow it can start to look like an Oompa Loompa up and down dance and it gets a little tricky. Eventually we got it pointed rightways or right enough to move (which still meant almost perpendicular to the 45 degree incline) and I asked my friend to steer it down to the next landing pad.

Well, I didn’t make it but it was close. So I walked up the rest of the mountain. Good thing I dressed for cold, I thought as I walked slower and slower up the steep incline. Ten minutes and about four stops to peel off layers later I got to the top, sweating. I realized I was a bit screwed with all of these layers now being sweaty but I was happy to make the view.

We played around for a bit and watched friends ski down the icy slope above us for an hour or so until it was time to rally down. Walking downhill to the machine I started sending good ju-ju waves down to the brakes.

It’s you and me guys, let’s do this together.

And we did. Slowly but surely. At times I would be full press on the brakes and we would still be Slip Sliding Away (I sang that song all the way down to distract from the fact that I was sliding down a mountain and that my forearms were so tired I felt I might have to let go at any moment) , but hey it’s that balance again between excitement and danger so let the battle begin.

Safely at the bottom my neighbor and I decided to visit the boys at their work site (I needed someone to hug). I got that hug and rejuvenation enough to make plans to head to my neighbor’s for cocktails (and high-fives, even if she didn’t know that was on the menu). I just had to go home first – remember the fire? It had been hours and the temperature had started to drop, plus I needed to check on the dog since she had refused to leave the house and for a while there she (a Husky mix) had basically been in a sauna house.

At the break in our paths on the river trail (my exit home and her continuance on the trail) we waved and I geared up for the big jump off the river trail and…

I didn’t make it.

What I had worried about all day had finally happened: I crashed.

I had landed the jump. I just happened to land it right into a tree.

Booyah! At least I saved it for the only moment I wasn’t surrounded by people, right? Except wait…now I needed help (and just where the hell had my sunglasses and ear protectors gone to? I guess they flew off in the crash). This thing is heavy.

I started heaving and hoing but I couldn’t get the machine to move. I used a lifeline and phoned a friend. No answer. Everyone was on machines and couldn’t hear their phones.

What next?

I was NOT about to make the:

Sorry Honey I Roped Your Machine Around a Tree and Now I Need You To Leave Work Early To Come Bail Me Out

phone call.

No way. Whatever stubbornness I had to summon in order to make the decision not to call him was enough to power me to get the machine out by myself. I pulled and dug and pulled the skis and rocked it and finally I was free to be on my way. On the way home I ran into our nearest neighbors and immediately told them about my mishap (there’s something about Alaska for me, or maybe it’s just growing up, but whenever I do something embarrassing I feel like I have to immediately tell someone). They looked over the machine and assured me all the smoke coming from it was from the snow I had gathered in crashing and that overall it looked fine.

By the time I got to the house, made it warm, fed the dog and finally got all my layers off and hung to dry The Chief had made it home.

I told him what I had done and waited for the ball to drop.

No ball, just a jaw accompanied by an amused smile and an “Are you ok, babe?”

Phew!

Finally cozy and out of wet layers and safe from the elements I wasn’t risking going anywhere else. I told the neighbor I was in for the night and cozied up, recouping for the next adventure, the next balance between excitement and danger and I thanked my lucky Big Dipper for keeping the tilt to the excitement side today.

You see, I’m no daredevil but I don’t think I’m any sort of pussycat either but out here, the bar is raised. I’ve never lived where I have no idea what a day will look like, where you might wake up feeling vulnerable and still go out on a trip that feels beyond your ability, where our day (and dress) is so dependent on weather and where I know a day spent half in fear will also likely be spent half in sheer excitement (at least hopefully). And I’ve never had so many opportunities to be scared and push through.

So thank you friends for the push (and for the digging).

Goldilocks and The One Bear (and Quite a Bit of Profanity)

When I returned to Alaska this winter I received a lot of advice:

 

Buy your boots a size too big

Fur, leather and feathers for warmth

Black ice is a bad plan

Food that’s gone “bad” just needs a little TLC

Your definition of dirty clothes is about to change

 

But one friend’s advice stuck out in particular:

 

Every day, take an hour for yourself outside.

 

He didn’t say it flippantly. He stopped, looked me in the eyes and made sure I was listening.

Now, coming from California and more specifically Northern California, it is common for someone to prescribe to you the act of self-care.

Make sure you take time for you

Do what feeds your soul

Eat what fuels you

Treat yourself kindly

And yes, these are all great things to do. But, being a bit of a rebel against what is good for me has made this hard in the past and with these prescriptions there’s no immediacy, no sense of urgency.

Enter: Alaska and her precious few available hours of daylight.

I’ve always done my best work on a deadline and every day here is like a sunshine deadline. I often wake to darkness, get up, either The Chief or I make a fire, feed the dog and put on water for caffeinated beverages and just as that coffee readies, the sun begins to stretch her arms for her daily journey. It gives you a sense of accomplishment to beat the sun out of bed (even if you did only wake at 8am).  But when you live in Alaska you can wake up at 8am, do a few morning chores and still get down to the river in time to watch her rise.

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9:30 and lookin’ purdy

And then the sun clock starts ticking.

For some people, being outside is a take it or leave it toss up. A day gone by entirely inside doesn’t bother or confine them. Me, I question my entire life’s worth and meaning.

So I took my friend’s advice. Daylight hours are precious. Every day I made sure to make use of daylight and take at least an hour to walk or ski or play outside even if it was 20 below and my lashes froze.

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And it was going great, until last week.

You see, last week I saw the movie “The Revenant”. I even mentioned it in last week’s post here. If you haven’t seen it go for it, it’s great. But, there’s a bear attack scene and if you live in the woods with bears it might just give you a shiver down your spine (even if it is a CGI bear). It had me a little spooked.

So, here I am in the woods, going for my daily hour of sunshine me time when I come across some bloody tracks.

I am not a tracker. Let’s get that out in the open right away.

Sometimes I forget what my own shoe print looks like in the snow and think we’ve had visitors. I’m no expert.

But prints are magical. They allow you to build up a whole story around them. Sometimes I see Lou’s (Cinda Lou the dog) prints from a previous walk and think maybe, just maybe they are from a wolf (and then I go down to the river with my friend who actually tracks and see real wolf tracks and realize I’m way off). But the point is, tracks are like breadcrumbs to a little story that you follow and put together.

So, I started putting those breadcrumbs together and working on the five W’s

 

Whose tracks?

What caused the bleeding?

When? Even I could tell it was very fresh. Bright red and barely frozen.

Where? (Right at my feet…that one was easy)

Why?

 

Detective that I am, I started following the tracks but they quickly ventured from the road into the woods and cross country skiing through knee deep snow is no easy (or smart) task. I decided to come back later for further investigation by foot. I continued the ski, losing one of the dogs (my neighbor’s) to the lure of the tracks. Lou and I continued on.

Once we hit the river trail the tracks picked up again.

And so, the following transpired:

Genius Maneuver #1: Follow the tracks of an injured animal.

Genius Maneuver #2: Break trail in knee deep snow on cross country skis towards the drop-off to the river, right to the edge, to follow those tracks.

As I neared the slippery edge and tried not to fall downhill into the ice and water I heard something that called all my senses to attention: something big was at the edge of the treeline behind me.

Lou was behind me, between me and the forest that gave cover to whatever was making the noise and “said”:

“Oh girl, you’re in a bad situation here.”

I started positioning myself to turn around, slowly high-stepping my skis to maneuver as quietly as possible and head slowly away from the noise.

It stopped.

I stopped.

Then it started coming towards me, breaking branches with labored steps.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

SHIT.

Shit because the figure I was starting to see in the woods did not look like the animal that I was tracking (which I had figured to be a moose), this looked like a bear tracking the animal I was tracking and suddenly, I was in between a bear and it’s kill.

I have never felt my pulse so strongly (and I used to workout for a living). It felt like my neck was going to pop.

Lou looked at me and started running towards me, looking back towards the noise every few steps.

Nothing feels better than seeing your dog spooked and running towards you. Oh joy.

Oh, and then I fell.

Falling on cross country skis in knee deep snow doesn’t make anyone look graceful.

Falling on cross country skis in knee deep snow when you’re about to fall into a river and you think a bear is coming for you I looked like someone slipping on a banana peel over and over and over again.

And while the river is beautiful I’m not looking for a swim (and bears swim faster anyways).

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I like to think I’m composed in emergency situations. I always have performed well in them, been able to delegate and to act fast and get to safety or help.

But this sort of emergency was a whole new breed.

I finally got myself upright and pulled myself together with a quick pep talk (“Get it together, woman! Yes, you may have to fight a bear with two ski poles and a pocket knife. Surely, crazier things have happened. Not ideal but, this is your new reality so get moving, mama!”)  and slowly headed downriver, back the way I had come. It would be a much longer way home but whatever was following me was blocking the entrance to the trail that would have me home in minutes so the only choice I had was to backtrack.

Or was it? Suddenly I remembered: there was another way home.

The Chief.

He could grab the snow machine and come and collect us within minutes instead of the thirty it would take me to reach home and safety. Oh, sweet relief!

I pulled out my phone, pulled up his number and pushed call.

And that was the exact moment my phone died.

 

SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT.

 

Back to Plan A. I did my best not to look like a frightened animal on the run. I made long strides and tried to present myself as powerful.

More self-talk pep-talks.

You want some of this? I’ve got 130 (140? 150? I don’t know, we don’t have scales here) pounds of fightback power.

Oh, you weigh 700-1700 pounds. Ok. You win the size category.

But, I’ve got speed! Look at these bad ass skis I have attached to my feet. See ya.

Oh, you can outrun me (at 50ft./second you’re a little speedier, just a little).

Ok, so back to just trying to look like I’m not fleeing, just a passerby that doesn’t need to be eaten, despite how hungry this bear must be.

The bear kept following, his head down, headed towards us.

Lou was ahead of me but at a much closer distance than she usually keeps. She kept looking back, sensing my absolute fear, looking scared herself (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing but if you’d seen her face…).

Man, I can’t believe we are going to get eaten right now and by we I mean me because you (Lou) are faster.

This is not exactly how I saw my hour outside going.

Finally we reached the road that meets up to our driveway. Unfortunately this meant I still had twenty minutes before we were home. Also, the woods T-boned the road so that the bear had a shortcut to where I was.

We both kept looking over our shoulders. I was certain that one time I would look back and see a grizzly on our heels and then a grizzly on my back and then it would be time to fight or play dead and hopefully live to tell the story.

But that didn’t happen.

We made it home huffing and puffing and barged through the door to relay to The Chief  the terror that was our time in the sun.

The next step was obvious: go out again, this time by snow machine.

As we looked for the bear, The Chief’s face grew serious and worried. A bear out in the winter is a bad thing. A hungry bear, out in the winter when you least expect it on the trails you need to utilize to get anywhere or find trees for fire is a really bad thing.

I took him to where I first spotted the tracks (I couldn’t remember their exact location since on the way there I had been in Happy Detective Mode and on the way back I had been in Don’t Die Mode). He confirmed that they were moose tracks (not the ice cream, that would have been way better).

We continued down the river to where the tracks of the bear’s prey picked up again.

And then we heard the bear. Cracking branches and heavy footsteps.

We looked up to the treeline and the figure I had seen reappeared. This time I was closer, since we were on the trail and not at the river’s edge as I had been before.

Close enough to see that…

It was a moose.

Sidenote/personal disclaimer: I wear glasses. Addition:  I wasn’t wearing them that day.

Back to the story…

A moose.

An injured moose. We waited for the potential predator but I think we both knew that what I had seen, what I had feared, what I had been certain was going to kill me was in fact a moose and not a bear. No prey, no stalking, just me out in the woods chasing and then running from a moose.

And, that’s legitimate. You should avoid a moose.

Moose kill people.

But a moose out in winter is normal. A bear is big trouble.

We drove home, both of us happy to see a moose, not a bear, and one of us (guess who?) a little embarrassed.

You see, it turns out that moose shed their antlers in the winter (who knew?) and with its head down and labored walk it really did look like a bear. Especially if you’re looking up from the river, knee deep in snow, not wearing your glasses and have just been scared by “The Revenant”.

So now I know (too bad that little tidbit wasn’t in my Alaskan welcome package).

The thing is, little (or actually let’s call that one gargantuan) scares like that are important out here. The moment you get too self-assured or too cocky is the moment you lose touch with reality. The reality that:

You live in the wild.

You, at 140 pounds or even 240 pounds could be taken out by an animal with the simple swipe of a paw or the closing of a jaw.

You are hours away from clinics and even farther from a hospital.

And, any day could be the day that reminds you of this, if you are foolish enough to forget (and we all do).

Hopefully the little reminder is enough for you to re-calibrate your relationship to the wild, recognize the pecking order and act accordingly (even if you learned the lesson in a way that left you a tad embarrassed).

And then, the next day, it’s time to go out again. Time to greet the sun and take that time for yourself, even if your heart does a little pitter patter every time you hear branches break for a few days.

Time to get back on the horse, detective and this time with a little more knowledge (winter = no antlers. Got it).

I think the first time I have to school a newbie, that will be part of my advice. That, and to take an hour outside, everyday. It’s worth it.

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Wilderness as a Backyard

 

 

 

The Quickest Way To Hear (Your) God Laugh (How Did I Get Here PART II)

I had plans.

With my newly created single life I was going places (literally). First on the list was Alaska and then, after 17 days, I’d go back to CA, regroup and head to Thailand and just keep going from there. I was free and it was time to make use of it.

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The last load to storage before departure. Pack it up, pack it in, let me begin.

Alaska because I felt as if a rope in my gut was pulling me there.

Thailand because I wanted to learn to surf, brah.

As I stocked up on items for Alaska I also acquired items for the other leg of the trip (even though I hadn’t bought a ticket or made any real plans). Sundresses and sandals would wind up in my haul of long underwear and bear spray (ya know, to avoid a “https://www.youtube.com/embed/YOlkeDrqozw“>The Revenant” situation, please).

I came home one day and my girlfriend giggled as I shuffled in two pairs of heeled sandals.

“Those will be super useful in Alaska, huh?” she wink-winked me, almost as if she knew I wouldn’t be back for them.

My intention was to be on my own merry way. Do my own thing on my own schedule. I never even began to think that those heels would gather dust in my storage unit.

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A whole life (sandals included) in one little box

 

Plan: I’d get to Alaska and out of my comfort zone and then find some killer waves, dude.

Every time I think back to that trajectory I planned for myself I think of a quote I recently learned:

“Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh” (David Milch)

And I was shouting these plans from the rooftop. I should have heard the thunderous laughing from above that must have followed my announcements but stubborn ears are deaf to opposition and I just kept on planning and meeting with friends and asking for tips on places to go post AK (thanks DW).

Once in Alaska (see last week’s post here describing the journey in) I was still convinced my future held beaches but succumbed to the reality that something was telling me to stay (shouting it actually). I was in for a quick summer stop-over, Alaska style. So I started to look into staying. First thing’s first: money. Leaving for Alaska had meant buying a lot of items I just didn’t have in my arsenal (see: bear spray, a headlamp, hiking shoes…I had thought I was way more outdoorsy than my existing equipment suggested) so I hadn’t exactly been flush to begin with and I didn’t plan on bleeding myself dry in the funds department.

And just like that a job offer came.

My girlfriend introduced me to a friend who was starting a food truck. He needed help. I needed a job.

Boom! Employment (Thank you, MacChina).

We were fast friends, I mean sheesh, I’m a girl who likes to eat and he’s a chef. What could be better? Friend match made in heaven.

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Not a bad view to whistle while you work

Ok, so money problem taken care of but now where to stay?

My girlfriend said I could build a platform on her property and camp there for the summer. I’d need to find or have lumber hauled in from Anchorage and find a tent and bear wire (WHAT?! Who even knew that existed and thank you to whomever created it). Since all of that was a lot to acquire we also decided to keep an ear out for places for rent.

And so it was settled.

Until it wasn’t.

Because this is where The Chief enters the story and my exit plans disappear without my realizing it.

I met him my first night in “town” at the local (see: only) watering hole. We had talked for 30 minutes (unbeknownst to us) before my girlfriend came to check on me. Was this furry mountain man bothering me? I hadn’t even felt the time pass. I was a goner.

But I’m a stubborn one and clung to my singledom like a kid to a cupcake. Ain’t happenin’, Captain. I’ve got plans.

And then the thunderous laughing from the sky began again. I told my boss at the food truck (one of his best friends) that it was no biggie. It was just a fling. It had to be, right? I should have felt bad lying so blatantly but I thought I was telling the truth. He would just smile and say “Ok, see you in the morning, neighbor” since when I was at The Chief’s house we lived a quick walk through the woods away from one another. He knew. Everyone knew.

People I didn’t know would come up to me in town and say how happy they were for us.

Us?

I’m in an Us?

No way Jose. Not this little Senorita. I’m a solo artist. I mean, that’s the plan.

 

But…work on the platform was at a standstill.

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The Proposed Platform Site (aka a pile of somewhat flattened rocks)

I spent the better portion of a day trying to flatten the site but I still didn’t have building supplies.

I asked my boss to order the materials.

I asked The Chief.

I asked in the way that you ask for a fruit cup in place of dessert at a restaurant.

Everyone knows what’s happening. Everyone knows the deal except for you because you’re trying to convince yourself that you want the fruit cup.

It’s smarter.

Healthier.

Right?

(Not to call living on her property a fruit cup, it would have been a big time dessert just not the one I was meant to have)

And so I eventually let go…

and ordered dessert.

 

I was basically living with The Chief (though still in denial about it, I mean just because all of my stuff is there and we were grocery shopping together doesn’t mean I live there, right?) but one Taco Tuesday night we made it official.

Living with someone you’ve just met is insane.

Living with someone who’s never lived with a girlfriend is a recipe for disaster.

Living with someone after just getting out of a 7 year relationship is a rebound.

Right?

All of these judgements circled my head but the laughter from above was finally gone. I had stopped making plans and jumped into the flow and it had carried me straight to him.

Now, don’t get me wrong, moving into a perma-bachelor den was interesting (to say the least) but it immediately felt like home.

Pretty soon the question put to me by locals switched from:

“So, are you staying the summer?”

To

“So, are you staying the winter?”

Ha! Winter! That’s cute.

Nope. No way.

 

And before I knew it I was planning for winter.

 

A friend in CA that had watched me go through the breakup said that it seemed like I had changed my plans all for some guy and he was worried I would lose my trajectory (and never get to Thailand).

Fair enough. And thank goodness for friends who shoot it straight (Thank you N).

But I hadn’t lost my trajectory. I had ended up exactly where I was supposed to be. This was scary to accept and hard to defend when oppositions from myself and others started coming in but all I could counter with was that it just felt right. I felt at peace.

I realized that Thailand had been a sort of safety net. A “planned” next move to let me feel safe in the uncertainty of Alaska and open me up to it’s possibilities. Leaving Alaska simply because that was the plan I had announced would have been the biggest mistake I’d ever made, The laughter from above would have been deafening, even to these stubborn ears.

Trying to preserve my pride just to avoid judgement that I was jumping in too fast or giving up my plans for “some guy” would have led me away from where I’m supposed to be. And there’s a difference between standing up to oppositions because you don’t want to be wrong and standing up because you know you’re right, even if all you have for proof is a feeling.

Plus, staying in AK didn’t mean I wouldn’t go elsewhere, it just meant I didn’t want to go now.

Now was for seeing if when the fireweed flowers disappeared and the rocky ground became snow and the town went from hundreds to (maybe) 30 people if this was still where I was supposed to be.

Lucky for me, it was and it is.

That doesn’t mean everything is unicorns and puppies and dessert every meal. We are real. We are human. We disagree and get fussy just like anyone else, that’s just life.

And even though at times being out here is a challenge and a constant departure from the creature comforts I wouldn’t trade a nearby grocery store or electricity for anywhere or anyone else.

But I wouldn’t complain if a chocolate shop happened to open next door.

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Summertime. Home sweet home in the woods.

 

// All credit for our coming together goes to the town as a whole, our next-door neighbors and a Subaru get away vehicle powered by Marvin Gaye. Were it not for them, we wouldn’t have been forced into seeing what was right in front of us. Thank you. //

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

A chance to check-in.

To re-work the play book, if needed.

Because sometimes you wake up and ask yourself:

Well, how did I get here?

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

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

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

Alaska?

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

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

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

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

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My last view of California

 

And it did.

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My first view of Alaska

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

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

Uh huh, live in Alaska.

No electricity.

No running water.

Bears.

Naw dawg, but thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

Watch out for bears

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

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

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

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

So, like a grown up…I called my mom.

And then I cried.

And then when I was done she said:

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

This made it seem even more hopeless.

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

So I buckled up for the 17 days.

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

It was clear I had made a big mistake.

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

But he was right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She replied:

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

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

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

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

That’s why (the hell) Alaska.

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

Why?

Stay tuned.

Love,

From Alaska.