photography

The Art of Relaxation

Well, it turns out I was right, I’m terrible at relaxation. Well, terrible at relaxation with one, rather large, caveat: I’m terrible at relaxation as I thought it was meant to be. You know, lazing about, not a care in the world about what day or time it is. Napping at will. Leisurely meals throughout the day with cocktails poolside.

Yea…that’s not me.

Now, while some aspects of the aforementioned relaxation style aren’t even available to me (hint: the nearest pool is 8 hours away. The nearest poolside cocktails?! Who even knows), even if they were, that’s the type of relaxing I can do for a day or two. Any more spells A-N-X-I-E-T-Y. But that’s vacation, right? No rules, no worries, no restraints! A smorgasbord of decadence and overindulgence.

Again, not for me.

A surfing vacation, however? Count me in.


I’ve tried it before only to come to the conclusion that I’m terrible at relaxing. The reality? I’m terrible at relaxing as I think others do (and as I “should”). The reality? I had to find my own swing of things. One of the best parts of my vacation? Learning this about myself (and even, eventually, finding this swing) and were it not for cues from you, amazing readers, I don’t know that I would have.

Relaxation to me has often been this sort of unattainable nirvana. I’d see other people doing it or hear their different ways and think “I’m doing this all wrong!”. I’d go back to the relaxation drawing board, setting different relaxation parameters for myself (sounds relaxing, right?). Now, if you’re thinking, “Julia! You were doing it wrong!”, I’d wholeheartedly agree. Not because I wasn’t doing one person’s form of relaxation or another correctly but because I wasn’t relaxing in the way that worked for me. I was doing it wrong because (spoiler alert!) it turns out the art of relaxation lies within each of us.

Looking back, my girlfriends and I like to laugh at our 5th grade selves who all wore the exact same jeans, socks and shoes to school (I love how socks were included in this list of lemming-like fashion).

L.E.I. Jeans, Costco socks, Nike or Adidas shoes or sandals. So original!

Similarity meant safety. We fit in with one another. As I’ve grown, however, I’ve become my own self, as have they. I have no idea what socks they are wearing today but I’m certain they are perfectly perfect for them.

Almost the same lineup, 20 years later

Still, my relaxing self hadn’t quite caught up. I live off-grid in Alaska, a life more wild and more independent than I’d ever dreamed, and still I was looking around for someone, anyone to tell me how to relax. Thankfully, you, the readers, came to the rescue with your tales of relaxation.

So, I started copying all the forms of relaxation mentioned above, right?!

Not this time!

Finally, it sunk in: the art of relaxation is uniquely your own.

Nailing it.


So I tried my hand where I felt most drawn. Mostly, for me, it meant being out in nature and watching the comings and goings of the day. I took morning walks to greet the rising sun and bundled as could be, laid down in the snow to watch it rise. I took moonlit strolls, watching that glowing orb come up over the mountains. I skied long stretches and even hooked up the little Leto beast for skijoring.

Fast as the wind

Sometimes being outside just meant chores but with all the time in the world to do them, it was more pleasure than pain. I chopped wood outside till my fingers froze and smiled with delight at the stockpile I’d provided us. I got back in tune with the chores The Chief had so kindly taken over when I was at work and it made me feel reconnected to our life.

I won’t lie, some days I felt the panic of inactivity or lack of production come over me. I had nowhere to be, no time to keep. What would I do next?! And then, if I got quiet, my heart (or sometimes my stomach) would tell me where to go next. I’d pick up a book or unearth a craft, find a snack, tidy a corner of the house or meet a girlfriend for an epically long impromptu ski. Time marched on, as it does, some planned, some filled with random tasks.One day I talked for almost two hours on the phone with a girlfriend, the entirety of which I spent scrubbing our tea kettle back to life. Some days went so fast, I could barely recount the day before it fell dark.

Sunsets for days

Some days lingered ever so slightly as the light started to come back. Once, I spent the entire day in jammies watching TV and once we took an epic nap after both falling asleep reading. And speaking of sleeping, I actually let myself sleep in for the first time in Winter since my first Winter in 2015.

As I write this, my vacation comes to a close. The morning greeted us with a twenty below “hello” and a long list of to-dos for an impromptu trip to Town for The Chief. A flurry of activity will fill our day as we cross off the list and work our way through the cold. In some ways, it’s the perfect ending, revving up to help me ease back into the world of virtual places to be and people to see. Moving forward, the clock will decide my comings and goings again and my phone, mostly shut off during my time away, will become more of a presence. Routine will return and appointments will be kept and in some ways, that’s relaxing too.

Plus, I am extremely grateful to be employed, especially over this last year, but we all need breaks, even from the best of jobs.

Plus, I’ll still have sunset snow naps


So, the art of relaxation? Turns out, it’s yours to decipher, yours to learn. For me, to feel relaxed, I need a combo of time alone, time outside and time getting things done. Even if I found myself poolside with cocktails, I’d still want to wake up in the morning to journal and do yoga. I’d still want a semblance of routine and continuity. A little bit of planning mixed with a little bit of spontaneity. To me, that’s relaxation. Finding a feeling of calm in one’s soul, whatever that looks like. Perhaps it’s not yet my forte but thanks to you, I’m learning my way.

May you find yours.

With love,

from Alaska

Sunrise snow bed

P.S. Anyone else finding their way towards their own version of relaxation? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.



Life Off-Grid: Getting Stuck

The day started off like any other unassuming Sunday: sipping tea in bed while journaling away through the dark morning dawn. A breakfast brunch as the day finally broke through the darkness and then…plans. What would the day hold? While there were chores like hauling water and running the generator, it was Sunday. The day of rest, right?

The Chief had, unfortunately, forgotten his phone at the Lake where we put in our first trail to our property(!) the day before.

Alaska
It doesn’t do justice to the ditch or the incline but you get the gist. Booyah!

So…his day’s agenda was set. Mine, on the other hand? Free as a slightly chore-laden bird. Still, I knew what was coming next.

“You should take The Beast out for a couple laps when I go out to the Lake. Pack down this new snow, you know?”

I knew.

The night before had laid down a beautiful layer of fat, fluffy flakes. Six inches of snow graced our valley. Suddenly, all of the well-trodden trails we’d grown accustomed to in the last month were covered. Every trek a tromp through calf-deep goodness. The trail to the generator, the outhouse, the sheds, all now a bit of a slog, overnight. Not only were our personal trails changed but all of the exterior trails were too. Without a quick pat down by the snowmachine it would be post-holing for Leto and I on our afternoon walk. The best plan, the pre-emptive plan, would be to take a few laps, prepping the trail for the oncoming week so it could setup. The best plan, however, was normally The Chief’s job.

In secret, I’d always wanted to be the one who laid first tracks upon the trails here and often I would but solely with my skis. Not once had I been first to set tracks with my machine. Even if our household was first out, we’d be riding in tandem and I always found myself riding in second place. Scratch that: I always positioned myself in second place and with Leto aiming to lead the way, I’d find myself a solid third.

Off-grid Alaska
Riding third-y

While it would be easy to blame The Chief for taking on these duties so as not to have to look at myself and by providing excuses like “He’s typically free when it snows and I’m typically working” or “He enjoys it more”, I finally let my guard down and came face to face with with the truth: I’m scared to get stuck.

The truth is, yes, sometimes The Chief is home and I’m working when the trails need to be put in. Sometimes not. And yes, The Chief does enjoy it but what’s also true: I love it too. There’s nothing like breaking first trail (even if it’s merely 6 inches atop an old trail), or so I’ve been told. Growing up, I used to love to drive my Grandpa’s riding lawnmower, back and forth in the summer heat, until the lawn was perfectly flat and uniform. Setting trail is the winter version of this (also somehow sweaty). So why all the hubbub?

Getting stuck.

I’ve done it before. Stuck, stranded, using every bit of I Don’t Want to Have to Call My (at the time) Boyfriend Strength up. Sweating. Panicking. Losing then regaining my senses.

Alaska snowmachine
Lassoed to a tree. Woman-powered reverse only.


Getting stuck. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
At least the view that day made it worth it.


The reality? Getting stuck actually is a truly important lesson out here. You wouldn’t drive a car without knowing how to operate it and getting stuck is just a part of operating a snowmachine. Still, there’s one issue: I’m a perfectionist. Perfectionist. The title seems harmless enough, unassuming, almost…dare I say, cute? In reality, it’s anything but. Being a perfectionist, for me, means doing things right the first time or…doing nothing at all. You’ll notice by my lovely array of dust-laden instruments in our cabin that I fall prey most often to the latter (doing nothing at all), than the often impossible former (doing it right the first time). Did even young Mozart have to plunk about on his piano for a bit prior to conducting his masterpieces? Me thinks not.

Truly, deep down, me knows so. I know there’s plenty of plunking about we don’t see behind the Insta-worthy lives we show. So, as The Chief gently challenged me to dust off my piano, per se, I met his gaze and said “OK, but I’m a little scared I’ll get stuck.”

McCarthy, AK
Stuck like a spruce in an ice bog



“You might! That’s all part of it.”

Ugh, sage advisor that he is, I wasn’t having it. Again, I’ve gotten stuck but only twice have I been completely alone and they were relatively easy fixes (thanks to the I Don’t Want to Have to Call My Boyfriend adrenaline). The other times, when I’ve gotten really stuck (I mean REALLY stuck), I’ve luckily been in the company of friends. What if I got REALLY stuck?!

Kennicott, Alaska
This photo does zero justice. Taken 10 minutes in, post packing down waist-high snow on a steep incline.

The Chief would be 45 minutes away. What if I needed him? Our neighbors were all gone. The closest call for help would be a long way away. I’d be a burden. Perhaps that’s the greatest fear: not just doing it imperfectly, but having an audience.

So, dear audience, here’s my confession: get stuck I did. I got stuck “damn good”, as my Mother would say.
See?

Polaris Snowmachine
Whoopsie daisies!


After two hours of miles-long loops around the local trails, racing back and forth and off into sub-trails, I arrived back at home sweet home. In my laps, I’d veered off into our yard and flattened out our home trails quite well but I thought to myself: “Why don’t I do one more lap to the fire pit?” I’d had a little trouble paving my way through the terrain with a turning radius that just wouldn’t take hold and I wanted a third run at it. It had been the only part of the last few hours that had given me pause, wondering if this would be the place I’d get stuck. Still, I had made my way through it twice already and today was about facing fears! Another voice sheepishly tapped me on the shoulder: “Excuse me, umm, I think maybe you’re pretty tired? Maybe, umm, maybe you should call it quits?” Even Leto, The Meandering Malamute, had thrown in the towel a few laps before. It would be totally honorable to do the same.

I didn’t.

Instead, I went full-bore. I was going to make the turnaround in one fell swoop instead of employing my wussy reverse again! Straight ahead or nothing!

I drew the nothing card.

In the last moment of the turn (which I was, in fact, totally nailing), my track caught on a previously unseen mini-boulder and…over she went!

Polaris trail
Look at my belly!


I heaved and ho-ed like no other. Just when I would get some momentum, my feet would slip out from under me, towards the machine. While I wanted it upright, I didn’t want it upright on top of me. I slid the back end away from the rock as best I could but the going was tough. I flattened the snow all around the machine in the direction I wanted to move it but still, I’d only get it an inch or less at a time. Until I purchased my latest machine, I’d always had lighter ones, ones I could lift. This one, weighing in at over 500 pounds, I couldn’t (which plays a great deal into a fear of getting stuck). No matter of momentum was proving to help. I was…

Stuck.

So, I did what I aimed not to: I called my husband. Somehow, despite being in the middle of chainsawing his way through our new property, he felt the phone buzz. He answered. The spotty service only swelled my frustration.

“I got stuck!” I finally yelled, angelically, of course.
What I wanted him to say in return was: “Don’t worry! The machine will be totally fine on its side for the next hour until I can get home.”
What he said instead was: “Well, no, babe, the machine shouldn’t just sit like that. You need to figure it out.”
“This is all your fault” my less than adorable side thought (thankfully not aloud).
“Maybe look up come alongs on YouTube? Or create a pulley system?”

I thought back to my 7th grade science classes. Pulley systems…yep, I had definitely been class clowning my way through that lesson. Nice work, Jules! But, he did have a point. I had the internet and a ton of tools (I didn’t know how to use) at my disposal. Perhaps I could cook up my own rescue. I said a grumpy “Thank you. Be safe.” and got off the phone. Time to brainstorm. To the back of the truck, Batman!

Ford F-350
It was full of supplies. Thankfully not this full though!


The thing about “packed down” snow (aka the snow I had been riding back and forth across for the past few hours) is that it needs to set up, meaning it needs time to settle and ideally, cold temperatures to turn it into a little mini-highway. This snow had not done that in the last 30 minutes of my trying to right the wronged machine. The audacity! So, back and forth I trekked, slipping calf-deep to the icy surface below, shedding layers as I went. Gloves on. Gloves off. Fingers frozen to metal. Gloves on. Repeat. After an embarassing and inaccurate first attempt (“I’ll use a tie down!” aka a ratchet strap) I finally agreed with myself to consult the YouTube oracle. “How to use a come along” I queried. The first video I saw had snow on the ground and a big truck. It looked like home so I clicked on it. Actually, the first video I saw said “Finger Pincher”. Rude. So I clicked on the aforementioned second one. The gist was the same: Do NOT use this if you don’t understand it. You will snap your fingers off. Fear mongers!

So, I watched the video over and over until I knew the subject back and forth, right?

Nah. I skimmed through it and looked for the main cues (i.e. which side is “Up” and which end gets attached where). A few more trip-laden tromps back and forth to the truck and I had everything I needed. I thought. And…it turns out I was right.

How to use a come along
Nailed it.

After some fenagling the pieces over the most secure junctions and a wish of good luck for my fearful fingers, I started cranking back and forth, back and forth until…I saw movement. The snowmachine was finally coming upright.

Ratchet strap
Come along, little doggie

I gave a few more cranks and gently tipped it the rest of the way down to the snowy surface.

“Hell yes!” I shrieked to myself. “I did it!”. I was in shock. I’d done something that gave me paused (riding alone in fresh powder), met my fear (getting stuck) and found my way out (upright).

Now, trust me, I know that to an experienced rider, this whole conundrum likely seems trivial. Well, trivial at best, perhaps closer to pathetic. To which I would say, “I get it.” Yet, I would also venture a guess that there might be things that make a brap bro pause that might be easy peasy to others. I can write an essay in my sleep but driving a stick shift makes me feel as if I should have a Caution, Teen Driver sticker on my bumper. Maybe you’re amazing with a chainsaw but can’t imagine a moment onstage. Perhaps you can draw life-like portraits but tremble at the thought of swimming in the ocean. Who knows? The point is, hopefully, small or large, insignificant or essential, we find a way to stride past our fears and get to the joy of just trying…and maybe getting stuck.

So, get stuck I did and unstuck to boot and now, my machine, was upright again.

Polaris
Homeways is rightways now.

Sweating and thoroughly exhausted, I put my coat and gloves back on, fingers crossed, in anticipation of a ride. She started right up, purring away loudly. “Yes!” I yelled again. I took her for a final lap through the local trails and she hummed away, happy to be back on track. I thanked my lucky stars.

By the time I returned home, it was almost 5. The Chief arrived soonafter, whooping and hollering for me as well. “This is what I mean! It really is good for us to get stuck, even if it is scary! I’m so proud of you, baby.” He then proceeded to tell me about a time he too had gotten stuck in our own backyard, years ago, during his first winter. He heaved and ho-ed and stomped down the snow around him for hours, all the while watching the lights go out at the friend’s house he had been on his way to visit (there weren’t cell phones here back then. Kind of amazing, right?!). Finally, hours later, sweating and exhausted, he had made it the couple hundred feet home.

Kennicotto River, McCarthy, AK
Plus, it had been a gorgeous day.

So, a restful Sunday, it was not, yet, it was exactly what I needed and I’m grateful for it.

In the end, getting stuck was the best part of my day. OK, getting unstuck was the best part of my day but it wouldn’t have come without first getting…stuck. I think in this time of online perfection, it’s important to show the less elegant, less photo-worthy moments. Maybe, just maybe, it will help us all see that perfection is limiting, at best, and that we all struggle and thrive in different ways. Moving here has forced me to face my fears, fears I didn’t even know I had, head on and while, in the sweating, exhausted moments of meeting them, it’s not always fun, in the aftermath, I’m always grateful. And so, I share those moments with you. The nitty, gritty, not always so pretty version of life (off-grid or otherwise) that force us to face ourselves, head on. It’s not always the shiny parts that need the most light.

Cheers to you in your triumphs and in your moments of defeat. May they both bring you closer to who you want to be.

With love,

from Alaska

Julia Chester
Grocery getter.


P.S. Can you relate? What are your hangups others might find easy?

Let’s Hear it for the Girl

Well, I think we all know what the soundtrack for this blog (replacing “boy” with “girl” though, obviously)…

This past week, I’ve had the honor of helping one of my best friends move. Now, while the shuffling of boxes, the loading of a U-Haul and the inevitable pot of gold in the form of pizza and beer at the end of the helping a friend move rainbow are familiar to us all, this move was different.

Why?

Because, this friend was moving for a different reason than I’ve ever been a part of before: she was moving to give birth.

Women of Alaska
Playing Packing Tetris on one of our many runs to Anchorage together


“Moving to give birth?!” You might be thinking? To which I’d reply one word: Alaska.

Of course Alaska has a special birth plan!

You see, out where we live, the nearest medical care is hours away. There’s a very small clinic around 2 hours away, a hospital 4 hours and the big city with its plethora of options 8 hours away. So, lest a woman choose to have a home birth 8 hours away from substantial care (which HAS happened in our Town and a serious hats off to those tiger mamas), Town is the option and thus, so is a move. Most women who move tend to travel to Town about a month before their due date, as their appointments at that time have become weekly and a 16-hour round-trip every few days on an endlessly bumpy road is, understandably, less than ideal.

Malamute and German Shorthair Pointer
These road dogs know. Our two pooches, Ruger and Leto


So, this mama has been a busy birdie, nesting in two places simultaneously and this week, we flew the coop at home and roosted up in the big city. You might be wondering, “OK, sure, a move, but why a move with you, Julia?” to which I would answer: Good question. My girlfriend and her husband are building. Their little cabin has bloomed into a beautiful big house and her husband is staying behind (only for a week, don’t worry) to button it up in preparation for baby. So, that’s why (lucky) me!

Building in Alaska
New additions aplenty!


Now, while moving at nearly 37 (out of 40) weeks, from a construction zone, no less, is no small feat, I have to say, this mama has made it look easy. As someone who nests even without a bun in the oven, moving to me seems overwhelming at best, especially when carrying a tiny human, but she has moved through this time with true grace. The landing pad, her new nest, is also, thankfully, as ideal as it gets. A house on a hill overlooking Turnagain Arm in the bottom floor (an apartment of sorts) all to itself, underneath her “Alaska Parents”. If a move had to happen, this was as ideal a place as could be and so, we set out to move this mama.

Zoom baby shower
Last home hurrah! The baby shower.


The drive out was beautiful and we were lucky enough to see the Chitina Buffalo as we reached the end of our 60-mile dirt “driveway”.

Buffalo Alaska
My heart is not a bitter buffalo

My girlfriend, at nearly 37 weeks made the entire drive herself because I, super helpful mover that I am, am not comfortable enough carrying such a precious package with my slightly dusty stick-shift skills (I know, I know, I’m working on it. She’s giving me lessons!). So, that badassery, obviously, called for ice cream. When we were an hour outside of Anchorage and seeing the first real signs of “civilization”, we stopped at the Queen and got some dairy-filled goodness to fuel us through the last hour. We were there: the land of food!

Malamute puppy
Yay! Little Leto and Auntie K


For a hearty eater like myself and a quite pregnant lovely lady like my friend (who, in her non-pregnant life is also a huge fan of food) we had arrived in heaven. Fresh fruit, fun snacks, buying just one of something instead of twenty to haul and store for Winter made each purchase feel so fun and curated. We stocked up and arrived to her new nest an hour later and there we’ve cozied down since. The weekend has consisted of eating, talking about eating, doing a few baby things, eating, a hike, and planning to eat again.

Nesting
Oh yeah, and laundry, lots of laundry!


All eating jokes aside, it truly has been an honor to be here in this time. To wash and fold and sort the tiny little clothes that will keep this baby cozy and warm. To prep the house to make it feel like home. To write endless To-Do lists (and even check off a few items). To talk about what lies ahead and mentally prepare. It’s a beautiful time of anticipation and wonder and I feel so lucky to get to be a part of it.

Alaska


It’s an odd life, this Alaskan life, full of surprises and Alaskan-isms I never would have dreamed up, but it’s beautiful. To get to share this time, an intimate bond between girlfriends, is something rare to experience in our often isolated world. It feels a little ancient, tied into our past when women were a band unto themselves, a community to guide and support one another through all that life offers.

No Country for Old Men
No Country for Old Men. Best tshirt ever

I love it and feel grateful to have been afforded entry into this special time and for all the joyful times to follow.

Babies in Alaska
Babies galore!

So, let’s hear it for the girl! And by the girl, I mean this full-grown woman I am lucky enough to call a friend. You’ve helped me countless time in life and I am so grateful to know you. Now let’s meet this little lady!

Women of Alaska
Halloween pictures with puppies are hectic


With love,

from Alaska

Friends in Alaska
Grrr! Family photo
Beneath the Borealis Potlucky 3-4-19 Alaskan sunset

Potlucky

Last night, in the early evening just as the dinner rumblings began and reminded me we had nothing thawed and nothing planned, the phone chirped an invitation:

West Side dinner party?

There’s few things more magical to me in the Winter than an offering of food cooked communally. Sometimes I forget that for months on end, every meal we eat, every ounce of sustenance we obtain would be purely from our own hands were it not for our friend family. Every dish dirtied and recipe rendered would be by our own doing. The Chief and I break it up so that at times just one of us makes dinner and the other gets to dine without any output. But the restaurant effect doesn’t last long after one peek around the half wall from the living room to the kitchen at the greedily multiplying pile of dishes.

So, when the offer comes, you can’t help but get giddy.

 

Beneath the Borealis Potlucky 3-4-19 Giddy Goldenrod

Giddy as Goldenrod

 

 

For me, our neighborhood feels like an embrace and on this particular night, I longed to be held.

With one question, “What to bring?” the planning began. I found my best produce. My most alert lettuce and least wrinkled peppers sat welcomingly in the baking pan I was using to transport them. In went my tip top tomatoes and a some limes that only had one or less brown spots. Only the best for my neighborhood loves.

Off we went, tromping the 3-minute walk through the crystal clear starlit night. The constellations were out at play and Orion and the dog we are dogsitting put on a show for us to guide the way. We arrived to what I can only describe as dinner heaven.

Potlucky.

 

Beneath the Borealis Potlucky 3-4-19 Alaskan Husky

I felt this happy, to be exact.

 

 

The spread took the entire counter. Taco night. There was brown rice steaming away in the pressure cooker, beans bubbling their earthy goodness into the air and halibut, shrimp and pork all ready to be cooked. I made a design of my freshies and my girlfriends and I grated a mountain of cheese (which we simultaneously began depleting via quick “tastes”. We take quality control pretty seriously).

Dinner was served.

At home that night, minus the invite, we probably would have made something far less regal with far fewer options. Perhaps a chicken veggie stir-fry with meat pulled from a chicken we’d roasted the night before or a pasta something or other. And don’t get me wrong, it would have been great but this was another level altogether. Like going to a restaurant in the middle of the woods. It was as if our reservation day had finally come up. What a feast.

Satiated we sat together, shooting the breeze. My mind had been a flurry of thought that day and it felt good to let it fade into the conversational calm.

After a few deep full belly breaths, the thing that takes me longest to motivate for at home was a breeze. The Chief and I tapped in halfway through and before long, 4 pairs of hands had done away with the mess. Normally, at most restaurants, at least with wallet intact, you don’t end up doing your dishes, and in truth, it was a rarity. Dishes aren’t always something we let others do around here. There’s a know how that’s different for each kitchen here, a different system and perhaps a sense of pride in being able to do them on our own. Yet the intimacy of dishes done together warmed my heart that night.

The embrace tightened.

Eventually, I made my way home but not without a hug and an “I love you” with each goodbye. What a beautiful rarity to find in the middle of nowhere.

To find a family of friends willing to let me in. A hodge podge mix of lovelies for whom I’ll always go to bat and always pick the best produce to share with.

Potlucky.

With love,

from Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis Potlucky 3-4-19 Historic Alaska

Sunset preparations

 

 

Dedication

This morning, I awoke with an urge to make something. I started with kombucha (with a scoby from a girlfriend) and made my way to an apple crisp (with a can donated long ago) and hardboiled eggs (brought in by a friend) all before The Chief came down from the loft. Midway through my burst, realizing I’d need to thaw more butter for my next round of food goals, I stopped and felt the embrace again, but this one was older. This one was familiar in a way that made me feel childlike and my eyes welled with tears. This one was my godmother, telling me to feed the ones I love, even from her recent and devastatingly unexpected move to the other side of the living. She was my first introduction to friend family, to pulling together every last person you know who needs a warm plate of food and a kind word around one table. To always being able to squeeze in one more. She rooted me on with unfailing love, she had adoration for me even when I felt I least deserved it. She blessed my gifts and made less scary my shortcomings. She adored me when I didn’t adore myself. She’s the reason I went to Italy and changed my life after my heart was broken, the reason I know what a wishbone is and save them every roasted chicken and the reason I’ve ever even thought to whisper myself an artist.

She was a beautiful soul, artistic as can be with a masterful way of pulling all of the pieces together and last night, on the night of her funeral, I needed to feel those come together more than I knew.

Thank you, Auntie El for your presence, your reminders and for your love. You were and are a driving force in my life and I thank you for visiting through busied baking hands today. I miss you dearly, think of you daily and love you always.

 

Beneath the Borealis Potlucky 3-4-19 Alaskan sunset

Sunset date with a girlfriend, tea toasting to you.

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Donkey Mexico Jalisco

How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico*

How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico*

*If your idea of “perfect” is getting completely sick, fighting with your fiancé (and still having a good time)

A real vacation report

Every vacation report is a “real report”, however, in our world of perfectly posed playbacks of everything from our day-to-day Starbucks pics to our dripping with decadence vacays, I think it’s important to display the not so pretty and the nitty-gritty, the sand in your trunks, sunburn kind of report, along with the good.

A little context:

The last few months in California have been less filled with hiking and friends and sunshine-filled days of relaxation and more crammed with 10-hour stress-filled workdays. Which, honestly, I thought was fine. I could handle this.

And I did, for a while.

Enter: Vacation.

We flew to Mexico right after Thanksgiving (which we had spent in St. Louis seeing a little of my family and a lot of our hotel room as I had gotten sick and ended up working 12 hour days in bed). Flying on or near the holidays, we quickly realized, is never ideal. People travel no matter the state they are in and so, as we flew to Mexico, we found ourselves amongst a cacophony of coughing and sneezing and the like. Still, having just gotten over the flu myself, I figured I was immune to whatever bug was bugging about.

Wrong.

I also assumed that all of the stress of the past few months would instantly melt away the second we walked onto that airplane heading to the land of Mexico.

Wrong again.

We flew into Puerto Vallarta, a spot where I’d only ever visited long enough to drink far too much tequila and leave. I figured it was more of a stopover town but had heard great things so we decided to stay for two nights before heading off and I’m so glad we did.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico - Puerto Vallarta

The view of our room from the pool.

 

Our hotel was nestled in the Romantic District, a cobblestoned beauty that gracefully balanced old and new. The city was booming with the start of tourist season (December is the official start of “open season”) but there wasn’t the crazed clamor you can expect in other cities. People were kind and open and helpful beyond belief. Our taxi driver dropped us off and left us both with a hug and a “welcome to Mexico!” adieu.

I adore Mexico.

That’s the pretty picture.

The not so pretty?

On my first week off (as in, “Honey, I swear, I’m totally turning my computer off and not answering work calls”, off) in two years, I was…

Working.

I spent the entire flight over typing in a manic panic amidst the sneezing chorus. I worked at full-tilt from takeoff straight until my battery died (the plane didn’t have outlets). Thankfully, The Chief slept most of the flight (we had awoken at 3 am after a quick 3-hour snooze) so I didn’t have a witness to my panic or a scornful eye to give me the “I thought we were on vacation” look I knew I fully deserved.

That came later.

After our taxi sweetly dropped us off, we were ready to get into vacation mode!

…I just needed to do a little more work.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico - Hotel Puerto Vallarta Romantic District

Not a bad place to work, if you have too.

 

 

Enter: the scornful eye.

A few hours later, we finally made it out of the hotel and down to the beach. Immediately, I was taken over by the colors. I absolutely love the use of color in Mexico. Lime green? Bring it on! Fuschia? Yes, please. All together with every other color palette, you can imagine? ¿Por Qué No?

Still, the colors couldn’t quite lull me out of responsibility into vacation mode. My mind was still with work and The Chief could feel it. So, as you probably could guess, the night didn’t exactly go as swimmingly as it might have had I actually been present. We ended the evening in a tiff over the very important (to me) specification of adding “County” after “Sonoma” in a sentence (I am from Sonoma County, Sonoma is a town in the County. I am not from Sonoma).

We followed this up with a second tiff the next night regarding Tom Petty (Tom, I had your back, but it might not have been worth it and in reality, The Chief was on your team).

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Graffiti, Mexico

Perhaps, it’s time to listen. Not talk. Two ears, one mouth, they always say…

 

 

Things were off to a great start!

Not quite able to shake the very important arguments of nights past, we grumbled our way through the cobbled streets, The Chief lugging our communal suitcase through the not so suitcase friendly alleys and hailed a boat to the remote town of Yelapa to spend a little more time together in close quarters. That always helps, right?

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Yelapa Casita

Bay to the right, iguana to the left

 

By dinner time, we both were through with our tiffs and I was finally relaxing into vacation mode. We were in a jungle paradise, sitting outside in short sleeves in the balmy eve amidst a candle’s glow at an outdoor restaurant. I had even bid an actual “Adios” to my work (even after repeated attempts to convince The Chief that this week “off” might be a great week to actually catch up at work. Thankfully, he nixed that genius plan). We held hands and wondered how Sonoma and Tom Petty had ever found their way between us and vowed to do better as the stress slipped off and we slipped into vacation mode.

Things were looking up.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Tropical Flowers

Jungle blooms about our casita

 

 

Right?

On our walk back from dinner, The Chief mentioned he felt a little funny.

By the next morning, he was wearing a shirt, sweatshirt, pants and socks, all under a load of blankets and still, was shivering.

It was 85 degrees in our little casita.

Then, it started storming.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Yelapa Storms

Big warning clouds…

 

 

I headed out to find sickness supplies and made it all the way out of the jungle and to the store before I realized I had forgotten my money. I trudged back, only about 50% certain of my path through the mossy backyards of jungle abodes, collected the coinage and headed back out.

By the time The Chief felt better a few days later, down I went. Our roles of patient and caretaker did a quick 180 as I burrowed down into layers and blankets and The Chief, still quite ill but in better shape than I, busied himself making me tea and warming me up.

Like I said, things were looking up!

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico - Graffiti in Yelapa

Public art makes me happy.

 

 

And, in all honesty, they were. We were back to giggling together, back to feeling lighter, despite feeling absolutely awful. And hey, we still were in Mexico, in the jungle with iguanas as neighbors and a view of the ocean. Things could be worse.

We spent our last day in Yelapa on the beach (you walk through the hand laid paths of cobblestone and then cross the river to the beachside, hoping for low tide) sipping fresh juices and hoping to soon be sipping margaritas. We were on the mend.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Yelapa beachview

The view of the beach from the trail above

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Yelapa River to Ocean

Wading the river to get to the beach

 

The next morning, The Chief did not look mended. We contacted a local doctor who said that she and most others would be off that day due to the Presidential Election (whoops! Clueless, much?). Thankfully, the woman whose AirBnB we were renting in our next locale of Punta de Mita suggested we visit a pharmacy with a doctor on hand (how convenient is that?!). We found just that and 50 pesos later (about $2.50) we had paid for our visit and found that The Chief had a throat infection. I decided not to get looked at because I was feeling better. The local lady of pharmacy (not a pharmacist but very helpful nevertheless) in Yelapa had given me a tablet of who knows what and I was feeling good.

After the doctor, we were ready to get on our way to Punta de Mita. We unintentionally put on our We Don’t Know How to Get Where The Heck We Are Going faces and within moments, a woman was explaining the bus we actually wanted to take and setting us up with someone who would watch for the bus and explain to the driver our trajectory.

Again, Mexico, you amaze me. Thank you for your kindness.

A few hours later, we made it to Punta de Mita, a town known for the dichotomy of mega-ritzy hotels and great surf (and thus, non-ritzy surfing culture). Our Airbnb host, who had been checking on us and The Chief’s status all day was there to retrieve us when we were given incorrect directions and collected us and our luggage on her scooter.

Despite it being the last weekend night before I was about to start working again (I only was able to take off one of our two weeks there from work) we both were too tired to do anything other than walk down to the beach for a waterfront sunset and tuck in for the night.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Punta de Mita Sunset

Shapes and colors.

 

 

We needed to rest up so we could do what we came here for: Surfing.

Rest up we did. Surf, we didn’t.

When the pills the Yelapan grandma had given me wore off, I too started getting worse and despite a round of antibiotics, The Chief was not improving. He was white as a sheet and I sounded like someone shaking a bag of popcorn and a dog barking combined when I coughed (which was constant). The Chief’s earache kept getting worse. Finally, we both went to the doctor and were granted the reality that we both had throat infections and The Chief had an ear infection as the cherry on top of our sick sundaes.

Still, we were having fun.

Still, we thought we might surf.

We rented boards and carried them all the way to the beach. I’m pretty sure that 6-minute walk qualifies as one of my life triumphs thus far. We arrived and I felt like someone had punched me in the chest. I was exhausted. By the time I paddled out, I knew catching a wave was not in the picture and so, I laid on my board and watched the sunset while getting to chat with our Airbnb host who had paddled out to meet us. The Chief did catch some waves. Someone had to represent for the family. After it was dark, we slowly paddled our way in, letting the waves guide us home. We walked the boards home and delivered them back promptly the next day. Surfing would have to wait for next year.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico - Punta de Mita Casita

The hammock view from our Punta de Mita casita.

 

 

Without surfing to occupy our time, I woke early and worked before The Chief was up, sitting on the rooftop to watch the sun come up and then, by midday, we were free for adventuring.

Which, despite still feeling terrible, we did.

We met a long-lost friend of mine in La Cruz, a town South of Punta de Mita and met his potential new roommate (a HUGE iguana that decided to plant itself on his fence).

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Bougainvillea

My favorite.

 

 

The next day, we rented a scooter and scooted our way North to the town of Sayulita (also a surf town) to stroll around for the day. I adore Sayulita, even if it is a tiny Sonoma County in Mexico. It had everything you could want: easy waves, smoothies, music, chocolate covered bananas (not my thing, but apparently, I’m in the minority so I put it here for you all to be enticed by) and I’m sure all of the things that top your list.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Sayulita Mexico

Beach, please.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Sayulita Church

Oh yes, and gorgeous churches, always on the list.

 

On our last day, we snorkeled around the Islas Marietas and even snorkeled into the “Hidden Beach” (which at super high tide, you have to hold your breath and swim through the cave to the beach, we thankfully only had to bob our way through). We saw lots of boobies (Blue Footed ones, you perv) and the bluest of blue waters.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Islas Marietas

Too busy looking at other tourists to smile for our camera

 

On our last night, we bussed about and found ourselves in Bucerias, a town south of Punta de Mita (closer to Puerto Vallarta). We arrived just as the outdoor market was shutting down (apparently an amazing time if you’re a bargain hunter. I’m more of a pushover payer) and I found the perfect wedding cake topper for The Chief and I. We dined on the beach and bussed our way back home and I barely got carsick.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Bucerias

Ponies on the beach, lovers in the water

 

That night, we went to a beach bar with our friends we’d made in Punta de Mita and sat in lounge chairs with our toes in the sand around a bonfire. It was a beautiful goodbye for now, and fully assured us that we were coming back to “do it right”.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Mala Suerte Punta de Mita_1024

Mala Suerte…we know all about that one

 

 

The next morning, we said our goodbyes and off we bussed back to Puerto Vallarta and back to the States.

So, that’s how you do it, folks! 13 days in Mexico filled with so much guacamole I probably shouldn’t be able to zip my pants, very little margaritas, two very petty (pun intended) quarrels and a sickness to bring it all to the front: what’s important?

Working too much, so much so that when you have time off, you can’t actually be off and when you are, you end up sick?

Not important.

Experiencing new things together, meeting new people, speaking new languages?

Important.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico Yelapa Storms

De colores

 

Although those two weeks didn’t exactly go as planned, I’d give the itinerary to anyone because it did help me filter through whatever I’d been operating on as fact and focus on the reality of what really matters to me:

Watching the sun rise and set on the same day.

Cuddling with The Chief.

Being outside.

Singing.

Stepping outside my comfort zone.

Working, but not killing myself to do it.

Holding The Chief’s hand.

Feeling the warmth of the sun.

Trying new things together.

Eating good food.

Being in love.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico This is the Light

The Love Light.

 

And so, folks, that’s how to plan the perfect Mexico vacation, as long as your idea of “perfect” means getting completely and utterly ill, fighting with the person you love most and still, through it all, having a good time.

Here’s to the honest report. May mine help you to feel less alone in yours, or at least provide you a good laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. May you share your stories with those who need to hear them most.

Here’s to things not going as planned but helping you instead get back to basics.

Here’s to you and yours, may it not get petty.

 

Beneath the Borealis How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Mexico RideOn Scooter Rentals Punta de Mita Mexico

Super Scooters!

 

//How have your vacations gone? Feel free to share your stories, as planned or otherwise in the comments below//

Finally, thank you to Mexico, as a whole for being such a beautiful, open, kind place to us. You and your people are truly special. We are honored to spend time on your soils and plan to be back very soon.

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California making jam

The Good (in the Bad and the Ugly)

How are you?

If your current state is anything like most of the people I know, your honest answer is probably something along the lines of “good, mixed with some bad and some ugly”.

I hope this isn’t true for you, but for me, it seems every person I know has been touched by the tougher realities of life as of late. From health to happiness, a lot of basic standards of living for those I love have been put to the test lately and it seems we have found ourselves in a sort of communal hardship.

The fires that broke out early last week in both Northern and Southern California have truly brought that hardship to the forefront. Our skies have been smokey enough to obscure the sun. We’ve been relegated to the indoors, to our own locales, to hunker down and hermit our ways through this. And in those times, when the sky shines its ominous, apocalyptic orange light, it’s easy to feel alone.

But we aren’t.

In all this bad and ugly, we can still find the good.

Today, I found myself wanting just that: good. Just wanting a moment of reprieve. I found myself hoping to write to you about something uplifting, to take a break from the heartache and feelings of doom around us.

I tried.

I took myself on a walk, despite the smoky skies to get myself into my writing rhythm. Since the beginning of this blog, each post has been born while walking. Like a dog circling to find the perfect spot to lay down, I too circle around the ideas circling me and this little dance always sorts itself in my strides. Once I return home, the ideas have settled and I too can settle into my perfect spot.

So, today, I took myself on a walk to sort out what I should say. However, unlike my normal walks, I spent the time trying to dream up other things to write about instead of acknowledging what was actually happening. I tried to block out what was there, ready to be said. I wanted to write something happy but my mind had already made her mind up.

And so, we made a compromise: yes, we could acknowledge the bad and the ugly and we also would lump on a little good.

Because the good is always there.

So, since I think we’ve sufficiently acknowledged the bad and the ugly, here’s a little good. Even they are a little silly, a little surface, here are some things, happenings, and reminders that have brought me joy this week. I hope they bring some to you too. Here we go, happiness train, okay? All aboard!

This look on our friend’s dog Atari’s face as he finally gets to get into The Chief’s lap:

 

 

 

 

Feeling absolutely loved by a kiddo you’ve known their whole life when she makes your coming to her house a calendar event (in hot pink, no less):

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Friends

 

 

Seeing a little hint of blue for the first time in days:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Fires

 

Spending a night with life-long girlfriends that ranged from feeling very satisfyingly adult (we had an olive tray, you guys) to very satisfyingly juvenile (pop music sing along), to very happy and very sad. We ran the gamut and it was beyond healing to be around you loves (fun times/sad times not pictured as we were too busy eating olives, crying, laughing and singing. Oh how I love women).

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Pt. Reyes National Seashore

 

Coming up with the best band name ever, and then having it immediately embodied in whiteboard drawing form by our young eavesdroppers:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Fart Cactus

 

Remembering full blue skies and full, deep breaths:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California

 

Cactus ears from your sister-in-law. ‘Nuff said:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Cactus

 

Nature, in all her glory:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Olive Ranch

 

These ridiculous and adorable slippers my brother gave me:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Kitty Slippers

 

Learning to make jam for the first time:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California making jam

 

Laughing at the awkwardness of this toilet brand name (First Impression):

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Toilet

 

Laughing too hard to be able to take the photo:

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Alaskan Women color

 

Those kind eyes.

Beneath the Borealis The Good in the Bad and the Ugly Northern California Hiking

 

 

I had to acknowledge the hard, the bad, the ugly today because it’s what’s real for me and so many others right now and I’ve always tried to be real with you. As for you, I hope you are in the good but if not, I hope this brought a little sparkle to your day. Let’s try to spread it around. There is always good to be found.

 

Wishing safety and so much love to you and yours,

 

From Alaska by way of California.

P.S. Want to help? California and Californians would so appreciate your support. Please donate if you can. There are so many wonderful organizations out there but one quick way is to text “Red Cross” to the number 9099. When you agree to the transaction, your phone company will add $10.00 extra dollars to your phone bill this month. It’s easy (it took me a total of 10 seconds) and every donation, no matter the amount is important. Thank you.

P.P.S. Thank you, a million times over for those with boots on the ground. Firefighters, volunteers, citizens. You all are amazing and we so appreciate you.

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Fennel Herb Salt Gardening in Alaska

Under Pressure

I hate to say it, but I often perform best under pressure.

//Obviously, we all are going to need to listen to Queen’s “Under Pressure” now. Come on, you know you want to.//

Throughout the past ten years or so, I’ve been able to start to curb the maddened procrastinator’s panic and channel it a fraction more usefully by ever so slightly planning ahead. Yet still, that edging towards a deadline, that building of pressure seems to always produce something a little more magical than that which is created without the deafening drumbeats of time.

Or maybe, that’s just the procrastinator’s validation because, really, there’s no true way to test it.

All that I do know for sure is that sometimes I need a little fire beneath my feet in order to jump in.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Ozarks MO

Jump on in, the water is fine. There may be a Water Moccasin or two but…

 

 

Alaska, in and of herself, is a fire underfoot. She pushes you to do things now because later will often look very different. And so, to her, I am grateful for the small procrastinations she’s helped me to shift. To do the little things immediately, before you can’t. The generator is warm? Run it now before it cools down outside and you find yourself having to build a fire to bring it to temperature, all while your computer battery is now suddenly dead and you find yourself suddenly approaching a deadline. Do it. Now.

The other way, perhaps a bit sneakier, that Alaska has set a fire beneath my feet is in the way of a simpler life. I wanted a simpler life. I read about it. I dreamed about it. But my life was so plentiful that I didn’t have scarcity to be my guide.

Never fear, Alaska is here.

I needed the scarcity of Alaska to really learn to take inventory and advantage of what I have. To use everything to the very last drop and savor it, knowing that it may be months before I can replace it. To get inventive in stretching meals when unexpected guests come over without simply going to the store to pick up more. And don’t get me wrong, there are times when I wish we could do just that, but I also love the communal effort that ensues when you’re short just one egg for a recipe and suddenly, the neighborhood search is on.

Scarcity has forced me to repurpose and reinvent that which is no longer available and to use all of that which is abundant.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Conjoined Summer Squash Gardening in Alaska

Conjoined Summer Squash was all this baby wanted to produce. Twinsies for days.

 

So, when our garden had gifted us it’s very last labors of love and was ready to be put to sleep, I turned my attention to our final product: herb salt.

After a girlfriend gave me a heaping jar of this salty goodness, I could not get enough. It’s a finishing salt (something I didn’t even know existed until another girlfriend introduced me to Maldon salt. Try it, thank her later) that goes on, well, everything and I absolutely adore it.

And so, since that first gift, I’ve been taking anything and everything from our garden I can to make herb salt.

Fennel salt?

Sure!

Chive salt?

Bring it on.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Fennel Herb Salt Gardening in Alaska

Hello, gorgeous.

 

 

My usual suspects, sage and rosemary were only flying at half-mast this year (the rosemary was a no go) and so, the old steadfast oregano came in for the win.

I spent the better part of an afternoon in my gardening overalls, watching the sun make it’s journey as I sliced and diced and salted to my heart’s content. I layered pink and white sea salt and labeled away and as the sun started to make her descent and the chill came on.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Herb Salt Gardening in Alaska

 

 

I packed up, using my garden bounty baskets I’d collected the herbs in (which feels very fancy and fun. Funny how one small wicker basket can bring you such delight) and was almost inside when…

I spilled the salt.

Of the dozen or so salts, my favorite, the one I had written birthday wishes upon for my girlfriend crashed to the ground, breaking the delicately crafted layers of pink and white and green into a swirled mess on the ground at my feet.

So is life.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Fennel Seeds Gardening in Alaska

Herb castings.

 

 

Thankfully, there were others remaining that I could also dedicate to her and thankfully, a little bit of that good old-fashioned Alaskan fire underfoot had made me take the day to turn our garden’s goodness into something that would last all year.

I needed that fire.

Thank you, Alaska for always providing a little incentive (sometimes a lot) and for always giving a last-minute reminder to not take it too seriously, spilled salt and all.

With love, and a little bit of get ‘er done pressure,

From Alaska.

 

P.S. Want the recipe? It goes a little like this:

Dried or fresh herbs (they say to refrigerate the fresh herbs but I’m not so worried about it – up to you). Mix and match to your heart’s content. My favorite combination has been sage and rosemary. What’s yours?

Your favorite salt or salts. I adore me some pink Himalayan salt if for nothing but the color alone. Everything is good. It’s salt, what could be bad?

Mix or layer to your preferred ratios.

Enjoy!

//I know this recipe is more of a suggestion than hard numbers. If you like those, I totally get it, I’m exactly the same. Dashes of this and pinches of that used to stress me out. But, consider this a little fire under your feet, a little stretch to try out winging it. I know you’ll do great!//

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Under Pressure 10-15-18 Lavaterra Gardening in Alaska

The loverly Lavaterra, greeting the day.

 

 

 

I Am an Artist

I am an artist.

I can’t tell you how many other artists just cringed at reading that.

Not because they deem it false or have questions as to my membership in the club. In fact, not because of anything to do with me at all. It is, in my experience, because they are wrestling with their own membership in this club or remembering the first time they announced their arrival.

This may not be true for every artist. I dare not declare it universal, lest the unicorn artists who knew they were just that from birth come and correct my wrong statement. I will say, after spending a weekend with artists that it seemed a nearly universally hard statement to conjure up for the first time for everyone. Some, even those on panels, were still choking on it.

Yet, I’ve said it.

You see, last weekend I attended the Alaska State Council on the Arts biennial conference in Fairbanks.

 

Beneath the Borealis I Am an Artist Fairbanks AK.jpg

Rainbow hills. Rainbow leaves.

 

I first heard about the conference a few months ago when a friend, who’s helped me more in writing this year than I can explain, mentioned that it was coming up. I looked at her and said something along the lines of “Oh, that will be fun!” She looked at me as if to say “Yeah…that’s why I’m telling you about it.”

A few minutes of her explaining it later and I still didn’t get it.

Finally, she put it in terms I could hear:

“Julia, it’s an artist’s conference. You’re an artist. You should sign-up.”

Oh!

Oh?

Oh…

I’m an artist?

 

Beneath the Borealis I Am an Artist Fairbanks AK hunting.jpg

Artists: Enter Here.

 

When I first started this blog, it unleashed in me the well-kept secret from myself that I, in fact, do want to be an artist. Yet I wasn’t ready to call myself one. As a youngster, I knew I was an artist, as kids simply know themselves without ego or fear. I was a singer and a writer and I knew it down to the depths of my little lady being that an artist was what I wanted to be.

How?

Because I felt alive.

Alive when I sang.

Alive when I wrote.

Yet, as I grew and grades and prestige and stability became a focus, I let that knowledge go and I covered it up with the “shoulds” of existence which placed more emphasis on succeeding than feeling alive.

And soon, I felt deadened.

Moving here allowed me to step outside of myself. It allowed me to bring with me not only that which was useful from my old life but to re-invite those aspects of myself I had lost. It felt like I was traveling. I was free to be whomever I deemed myself to be. And without thought, I suddenly found myself in a band, singing again. I had invited art back in and it had entered my life with a warmth I hadn’t felt in decades.

That first Winter, writing invited herself in. She opened the door, kicked off the snow and asked not why she’d been sequestered for so long but if I was, in fact, ready to begin.

I was.

I am.

I am an artist.

It may not be easy to say, but once you do, it’s like walking through the closet door into Narnia. The world feels a little more magical. It’s exciting and important and alive.

You don’t have to be a full-time artist to be called an artist. You don’t have to be in a gallery or be published or be the director of a Broadway hit. Art can lie in the simple act of taking the time to study a flower that strikes you, in letting your mind play. It can be as small as decorating a salad you make or as big as a complex canvas painting you’ve spent hours on end creating. It can be the notes you scribbled on a piece of paper towel 30 years ago that become your book 30 years later. It can be a photo that inspired reflection.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis I Am an Artist Fairbanks AK downtown.jpg

Urban mirrors.

 

There are no entry fees, merely the self-realization that you cannot be anything else.

Do what makes you feel alive.

With love,

from Alaska.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Kennicott River

Swimming

In Alaska, I’ve had to learn a new language. It’s one I didn’t know I didn’t speak and certainly didn’t know existed until I stumbled into it. The focus of my learning has been less on dialect or accent and more on meaning. Take, for example, the word “hike”. To me, coming from California, I considered myself a pretty good hiker. I’d go off on my own for a few hours, traversing the mountain lion, rattlesnake filled fields and feeling very brave along the way. That was a hike. In Alaska, or at least in my neck of the woods, a hike may mean something very different. My first “hike” in Alaska turned into an 8-hour day, for which I was neither in shape nor mentally prepared. I came back feeling like I had gone through a battle. I had gone through an Alaskan “hike”.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Kennicott glacier Alaska

A “hike”. Ice climbing was just a quick add-on.

 

 

Another example is the word “cold”. California cold is anything colder than 50 degrees. Freezing is just insane. “Cold” in Alaska? Let’s just say, during my first winter, when I first experienced a week-long stretch of the negatives (25 degrees below zero, to be precise) that was considered “warm”. When I used the word “cold” to describe how I felt (like someone was sandwiching my fingers and toes and nose between ice cubes) people would downright laugh.

Laugh!

At 25 below zero.

So, needless to say, there’s a lot of play in what means what and to whom and Alaskans just have a different threshold of what’s normal to me.

“Hike”: Anywhere from 4-10 hours

“Cold”: 60 below zero

“Hot”: Anything above 70 degrees

And so, I’ve learned this language as I go along, oftentimes by finding myself in the midst of a situation I thoroughly thought I understood only to realize I was sorely mistaken and highly under-packed in snacks. So, to avoid said misunderstandings, I try to avoid assumptions and never leave the house without at least three other layers, a change of socks, a rain jacket and snacks enough for a half-day endeavor. Therefore, even if I don’t fluently speak the language, at least I might have the tools to survive whatever I’ve gotten myself into.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Hiking Alaska

Another “hike” before I got the terminology down. It was 6 hours long and included a barefoot river crossing and ice climbing through caves.

 

 

The most common area of the Alaskan language that I still find myself tripping over is scale. “Hills” here are what I would consider “mountains” and “creeks” are often what I would deem “river” material. Just the other day, scale popped up again when my girlfriend asked me if I wanted to take a stroll.

Stroll (my definition): a lackadaisical walk, perhaps with ice cream in hand – no, scratch that, definitely with ice cream in hand, in footwear ranging from flip-flops to none at all across even terrain, preferably covered in soft grass, or sand.

Stroll (her definition): a 4-6 hour hike (hiking shoes most definitely required) through a forest, followed by scaling a rocky hillside to a bolder-laden steep peak surrounding a glacial lake far below and eventually ending at another lake requiring sidehilling (read: trying to emulate mountain goats, or in my case, falling with style – or not) and then doing it all in reverse. Call me crazy but this, I would call an “adventure”.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Trundling Alaska.jpg

This is where she wanted to go. My first time to The Toe, with the boys who became brothers.

 

 

So, yeah…a clarification of terms and scale is helpful.

But it’s not always the obvious trip-ups like scale either, sometimes the Alaskan language is a little sneakier.

The other day, when I decided to sign-up for the 3rd annual Women’s Packrafting Clinic, I felt very secure in my decision because I knew what I was going into. There were no unknown Alaskan terms and the conditions of the day were understood. We’d practice some skills, self-rescue techniques and then have an awesome ride down the “creek”, which I knew to be more of what I would consider a “river”. The “creek” was raging from our hot days we’ve finally been having (hallelujah! Welcome, Summer weather. We missed you) but I knew that already. The day would be long but beautiful and I had just enough snacks. No surprises here.

However, I felt a little tingle as my spidey sense alerted me to something that suddenly felt closer to me than I was comfortable with: swimming.

“Swimming” was a verb I felt competent I knew the definition of until moving here. When I first heard it used, no one was smiling, but there I was with a big grin. Swimming! Fun! No, no, silly.  “Swimming” to me conjures up images of pool floaties or Ethel Merman-esque swimming caps. It has a lightness to it, an easy, breezy, “these are the days of our lives” feel to it.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Poolside Santa Cruz

Like this. Poolside cocktails with my favorite cookie.

 

 

That definition also exists here but there’s a second “swimming”, the “swimming” I heard where I was smiling solo, a “swimming” which would perhaps be more aptly named “falling out of a boat into a freezing river”. It doesn’t have quite the same ring though, does it? And so, “swimming”, I came to find out, means two things here: fun swimming (smiles included), and potentially scary swimming (less smiley). I opted to stay on the smiley side.

I’ve been packrafting (an awesome sport, check out Alpacka Raft for a look into the wonderful world of bringing your boat wherever you go) a couple of times each Summer here since my first three years ago and it’s a sport with an instantly addictive quality. The Women’s Packrafting Clinic is one of the highlights of the year and since I missed it last year, I was stoked to join in. 35-ish women teaching and learning from one another, packing up boats and hiking a few miles upriver and then boating down? Amazing.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Packrafting

First clinic.

 

 

Still though, that spidey sense was kicking. Swimming. I’d never “swum” before and for some reason, it felt like it was knocking on my door. During the freestyle practice time in the local swimming (fun swimming) hole, I did something I normally don’t and I practiced falling out of the boat and self-rescuing. I practiced three times and on the third flip, something tweaked in my neck, sending it immediately into spasm. Oh joy!

A few ibuprofen, some lunch and an hour or so later, the spasming had lessened and I figured my spidey sense would too but there it was. “Careful, Miss Pancakes!” it warned, “You’re going to swim”.

Always listen to your spidey sense.

Perhaps I swam because of that voice in my head. Perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps, it was simply time. Three years without a spill was starting to get to me. I kept wondering when it would be my time to “swim” and how would it go? The anxiety of its looming inevitability had crept up and so, by my own doing or by pure chance, inevitability finally showed her face.

One moment I was up, the next I was caught on a rock and the next? I was coming up for air, facing the wrong way, flipped to the wrong side, heading face first into Class III rapids.

I was swimming.

Thankfully, instinct and training kicked in and I flipped onto my back and turned myself around, feet first as I rode the next set of rapids while trying desperately to grab my boat. I had managed to hold onto my paddle and used it to the best of my ability to steady myself as I aimed to keep my head above water. It wasn’t going well. Each time the water would go over my head, I’d come up just in time to hit the peak of the next wave and take on more water. I started to panic. I wasn’t getting enough air. I couldn’t see. I was hitting my feet and seat on rocks as I sped through the mid 30’s-degree water. Then, I heard the voices of the women that day.

“If you find yourself swimming, stay calm. Keep your feet up, hold onto your paddle and don’t worry about your boat, worry about your life.”

In that moment, I realized that my attempts to catch the boat were going to be fruitless. As I gave up on rescuing the boat and focused on rescuing myself, I slammed into a rock, coming to a stop as I watched the boat speed away. Slowly, I assessed my surroundings. I was sandwiched between the rock that had caught me and the current that was pushing me into it. Thankfully, it wasn’t so strong that I couldn’t move and so, ever so carefully, I steadied myself to find my way to shore. Foot entrapment was also something we had gone over that morning and as I felt the shifting rocks below me, I again heard the women’s words:

“Slow and steady. People have drowned in even the shallowest water from getting themselves trapped in a mad dash for the shore. Slow down.”

Slowly, steadily, I made it to the shore.

Just then, the rest of the group showed up, saw my predicament and eddied out to help. After they checked in with me with the double “Are you ok” (the first happens immediately, the second comes a few minutes to make sure you’re telling the truth when you reply “yes”) we devised a plan where two of them would scout for the boat and the other would stay with me. Upon their sighting of my craft, I then hiked downriver and they all rafted down. Finally, after bushwhacking along the moose track laden shore for 10 minutes, I caught up.

There they were, my group, waiting with smiles, and my boat (which had beached itself – see, don’t worry about the boat, worry about your life) to greet and congratulate me.

“That was a long swim! Nice work!”

I love those ladies.

The rest of the ride home, I talked myself through the rapids as I always do, pumping myself up as I go and congratulating myself on doing it…

I had finally gone swimming…

and I was exhausted.

Staying afloat in those icy cold waters is no ice cream-toting stroll in the park and the fear that kicks in could tire a horse. Yet thankfully, this pony was headed back to stable.

As I came into town, sleepy and sopping wet, I made my way to our truck to change and regroup. There, under the center console was a cookie, just for me. The Chief had bought me the little treasure earlier that day and I sniffed it out like a kid finding hidden Christmas presents. It was glorious, like a hug from within.

Learning to speak Alaskan has pushed me into situations I might have otherwise wiggled out of. It has coaxed me out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. It has given new meaning to words I thought I knew and still new meaning as I learn what they mean for me. “Swimming” was a word I lived in fear of. When would I swim? How would it go? Learning the word and living the word are two different things and here, there are still so many words I only know the definition of. Yet, despite the bumps and bruises that sometimes come with learning them, I’m excited to add my own stories to my Alaskan dictionary. Cheers to learning a new language, even in the place you call home and to learning a new side of you along the way.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Packrafting Kennicott River

The fabulous K. I always feel good when she’s on the water with me. Plus, she’s got the best drysuit I’ve ever seen.

 

 

Cheers to our very varied definitions of terms and to learning to speak the language of the locals.

Cheers to swimming, in all it’s forms.

 

With love, from Alaska.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Swimming Glacial lake.jpg

I think we can all agree on “beautiful” for this one, eh?

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 04-16-18 Woodstove Tiny House

The Ebb and Flow

The Ebb and Flow

Alaskan Tiny Home Living Ups and Downs

Somedays, in the woods of Alaska, you wake up to an exact serving of fresh coffee grounds and the sweet sound of the tea kettle already boiling water. Your kitchen promises two dozen eggs at your disposal and the woodstove glows with last nights logs, now in beautiful coal form which means, lighting a fire will be a cinch and that the house is already likely above 50 degrees. Plus, a huge stack of firewood rests at your disposal next to the fireplace. You barely have to step outside for more than your morning “restroom” break (read: one must learn the art of the nature pee to live out here).

You spend your morning drinking your coffee, having scrambled eggs with veggies (you have tons at the moment) and your favorite cheese and even some orange juice on the side. You’re freshly showered and the laundry bin is empty as you spent the day yesterday doing laundry, depleting your water stores, and then hauling water to replenish them. You are stocked up in all avenues: food, warmth, clothing, hygiene, water and you even have some extras sprinkled on: orange juice, special cheese, freshly cleaned socks.

You are, as my Mama would say “In ’em”.

 

 

 

Stock-piled.

Things are looking on the bright side and lining up quite nicely.

On the other hand, some mornings, you wake up to a house at 37 degrees. You gingerly grab your robe, cursing the logs you had hoped would “catch” before you went to sleep and cursing yourself for not babying them further to ensure they would put out warmth. You go downstairs to find that there not only are no grounds, but there is no coffee, at which point, the rummaging begins to find where exactly in this tiny home of yours, you’ve hidden this gem from yourself. You further find that you are nearly out of water but luckily enough, you have just enough for coffee and so delicately fill up the tea kettle, hoping not to spill a drop. You’ll be hauling water shortly.

You go to light a fire and find that the fire did not catch well, but did leave you with a charcoal mess, by the time you organize it, you look like a chimney sweep. You resign to build another fire but there is no wood in the house at which point you decide to venture outside into what will, of course, be a brr-inducing morning and find that there is no chopped wood outside either. Being a stubborn beast, you decide to chop wood, despite the cold, with bare hands and slippers in your robe. Wild-haired, sweating with soot on your face, you return to start a fire, just as your water boils. Now it’s time to build a fire, find the coffee (and hope that you, in fact, do have extra coffee) and grind it. 15 minutes later, you’re finally getting the day started. It’s breakfast time but you realize your last egg went down the gullet yesterday and so you opt for oatmeal instead but realize you don’t even have enough water. A slightly mealy apple it is.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 04-16-18 Dogs of Alaska

You start to feel like this fine creature.

 

 

And now it’s time for water.

It’s still not even chimed 8am.

In all likelihood, your last shower was a bit too far off for comfort, your socks have been “recycled” once or twice (let’s be honest, at least twice) and your fresh food supply is starting to not even meet Alaska Good standards (a term my girlfriend created in California as a way to gauge if something was indeed too far gone to eat. Alaska Good is still edible, but it’s close. Really close. I’ve been known to grab things before people throw them in the compost, saving apples with little bruises and lettuce that has a few slimy pieces but I do cap it at Alaska Good, most of the time). You’re dirty, hungry, under-caffeinated, out of water, out of wood, warm only because of the exercise your just beginning day already required and the only extra you have sprinkled on is the plethora of chores you have to do. The only bright side is that you can see the beautiful fire you just made because in the ebb you made an amazing concoction out of orange peels that takes away the grime and leaves you with this:

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 04-16-18 Woodstove Tiny House

Hello, love.

 

 

You’re, as my Mama would say “Not in ’em”.

Some days, you’re in ’em and some days, you’re so far out of ’em you don’t remember what ’em looked like.

The ebb and flow here might as well be called the drought and the downpour because that is exactly how it goes.

Home from Town?

In ’em.

You’ve got meats and cheeses and eggs, oh my! Juices and fruits and veggies! You even have spinach.

Spinach, people. In the woods. That stuff barely keeps in the city but somehow, if you baby it every day, you can make it last a week here.

And then, a week passes and suddenly, supplies are rapidly decreasing. What felt like a boatload of supplies starts to look more like a mere bucket full and the rationing begins.

Ebb and flow.

Drought and downpour.

Yet oftentimes, just as you’re about to grab your divining rod, Alaska smiles upon you in the drought. Just as you crack your last egg, your friend’s chickens come out of Winter production and he’s selling again. Just as you face down your last bell pepper, your girlfriend picks you up one as a present one day while doing a laundry journey into Close Town.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 04-16-18 Woodstove Tiny House

Or, you remember the Shaggy Manes your girlfriend gave you a while back and you rehydrate them.

 

 

And the same rings true in reverse. Just as your neighbor runs out of salt, there you are, having bought extra with extra to spare. When all of your avocados ripen at once, you make a guacamole to share or you send one along as a gift. And then it returns, for just as you feel you can’t possibly cook another darn meal (as you cook every meal you eat, every day), someone calls to say they made extra chili if you’re hungry.

Of course, you are and you have a block of cheddar to top that chili with.

The go around come around makes the drought and downpour feel a little less torrential and a little more like an ebb and flow. It makes a life that can be hard, a little easier for even though the hard is what makes it good, sometimes you just need a little reprieve.

I’ve never lived a life where I couldn’t just pop into the store for what I’ve needed. I’ve never relied on my neighbors or felt comfortable enough doing so to call them at 9 pm and ask if they have an extra can of tomato paste. I’ve never cherished fresh as I do today or looked at a salad as if it were a goddess.

So, despite the sometimes harshness of the drought and downpour, the frustration of there not being wood, or not being water, or feeling like I may as well put in to be a member of the Garbage Pail Kids, the appreciation provided by the times where we are “In ’em” is enough. This place makes gratitude easy for the necessities are obvious and the ebb or flow of them is immediate.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 04-16-18 Ice Fall Nizina River Alaska

Plus, the scenery isn’t too bad either.

 

 

And so…

may your water buckets (or pipes) be full, may your pantries be stocked, may your baths be often (I am living vicariously through you, a bath is a gift from the Gods) and may your neighbors be kind enough to send over a little sugar once in a while.

I hope you’re in ’em.