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Saturn Returns and the Built-In Breaks: Part II

Shall we continue?

 

The Chief was leaving and I was about to be alone in the woods. He and a couple of friends were building another friend’s house 3 hours away. Not exactly a commuting situation and so, away he would stay for…

well, we weren’t sure how long.

If you’ve ever been around construction, you know that it can take longer or shorter than expected at any given time, and so, being the super laid back person that I am, I tried to plan out how long exactly he would be gone.

Which, of course, we didn’t know.

Which drove me crazy.

Finally, after a few days of uncertainty, one thing was certainly clear: The Chief was leaving. Today. It was a cold morning, the sky felt pregnant with snow. We shivered as we unloaded our truck, re-loaded the work trucks and said “goodbye” and “see you soon”. No “See you Saturday”, or Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday or… Just “soon”.

And so it was. All that hustle, all that bustle, all the wrangling of gloves and boots and tools and last-minute wonderings, all that shuffle and then…

the calm.

I returned home to a silent house.

Alone in the woods.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Saturn Returns and the Bulit-In Breaks the woods

 

 

A few years ago, this sentence would have struck fear in my heart but this time, it felt like exactly what I needed.

Time alone has done a full-circle flip through my life a few times over.

Growing up, adults always noticed how I seemingly loved to fly solo. My grandma Gam would comment how she’d “never seen a child play alone for so long”. I’d entertain myself for hours on end, doing what I’m not entirely sure, but seemingly enjoying my solitude. I wasn’t an only child but my brother is eight years my senior which proved to be almost a lifetime in kid years and so our interactions were mainly wrestling (read: injury) based. I adored him but understandably, he wasn’t exactly dying to hang out and so I played alone. To increase the alone time, we’d always lived somewhat in the “boonies” (which, now, by comparison, seem like metropoles). Neighbor kids were far and few between and often an age gap lay between us as well that couldn’t be bridged by sheer proximity alone. And so, again I mostly kept to myself and for the most part, I liked it.

To add even further to alone time factors, I grew up in one town and went to school in another town over an hour away.  So, until 3rd grade I didn’t really engage in the whole after-school playdates brigade, nor did I have many close friends who close by, but my troll dolls were all the posse I needed.

Public school in 3rd grade in my hometown, a mere 30-minute walk from my house, brought on an onslaught of interactions and by 5th grade I actually had some consistent friends again who even, catch this, lived nearby. Suddenly, it was all about talking on the phone and “hanging out” and being alone wasn’t as normal as it had once been. If my phone wasn’t ringing at night and notes weren’t being passed my way through sneaky hands in class, I felt lonely until being alone was no longer a thing I was known for but a thing I chased away. Whether the interactions were vapid or meaningful, I didn’t much care. Either way, I was filling the space.

However, in my twenties (sound familiar?) I found comfort in circling back to my alone time roots. It took me a while to sort out being lonely from being alone but once I had divided the two, I fell back in love with the solo sessions of my youth. Yet, I also found myself in a relationship where trust was about as present as a watermelon in Winter and despite my new love of alone, I didn’t take the time for fear of what would happen when I wasn’t there. In an effort to control what I couldn’t trust, I spent the time I should have afforded for me, to recharge and reconnect, being available for someone else so they wouldn’t go elsewhere, which, of course, they did anyway.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Saturn Returns and the Bulit-In Breaks the path

Choose your own road.

 

 

So, as Saturn struck and I found myself newly single, I promised I would be different. I’d spend the time learning me and creating new habits to bring into my next relationship, which likely wouldn’t be for a long time.

Right?

As we know from last week, Saturn picked me up in a flurry and “returned” me to Alaska and to the furry man we all know as The Chief.

The thing about relationships in Alaska, or at least out in the Bush is that you will likely come together at light speed. The time you have to set patterns for what is to come happens in the snap of a shutter. Dating? What’s that? We met, made eyes and moved in within a week. Thankfully, I felt like I had circled heartily around this old pattern of dropping it all and neglecting myself in the months I had been single, I had been practicing listening to what I needed and I had established a baseline.

And thankfully, Alaska helped fortify that baseline in a strange dichotomy of keeping us closer than I’ve ever been in proximity and also forcing us apart.

Alaska creates the built-in breaks.

From the first day we were together, we already had a built-in break come the end of Summer (I had to go back to California and The Chief couldn’t yet leave). Sure I was worried to part, but it also felt natural and honest. We were solid already, we could handle it.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Saturn Returns and the Bulit-In Breaks heart rock

A fated find.

 

 

Plus, almost every Alaskan couple I know spends at least one month apart per year. This for me has never been the norm in a couple but it was a welcome surprise.

The built-in breaks.

Over the last almost three years, we’ve had many of these built-in breaks. I went to visit my Grandma last Summer and to meet my first friend niece this Spring for 5 weeks. Our time apart has built up on average to about two months every year, so why did The Chief leaving this time feel so big?

Well, for the first time, since the first time I set foot in those woods, I was about to spend more time alone, without a partner, than I had for the last decade, anywhere. For the first time, I wasn’t the one leaving, I was staying, in our tiny cabin in the woods in the middle of nowhere, alone. Not only was I testing my love for being alone by being in a place where I could go days without seeing anyone, I also was in charge.

Gulp.

And then, it snowed.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Saturn Returns and the Bulit-In Breaks Diesel snow

Sleepy snow Bird

 

 

In the hustle, bustle, shuffle of getting ready for The Chief to leave, we had neglected a few things on the property. The snow took care of that and by “took care of” I mean the snow broke and buried everything. Goodbye mosquito tent.

First day, off to a good start!

I was feeling really rundown from all of our runaround and so, since the weather forecast called for rain to melt away the 6 inches from the night before, I let the snow sit.

Good plan?

Well, if trusting the weather (wo)man in Alaska is part of your good plan, you might want to rethink your trajectory.

The six inches of snow melted slightly and then promptly hardened. Still, I thought, maybe predictions for tomorrow would be right.

Wrong.

More snow.

More destruction.

More work for me.

Whoops!

By the time I finally gave into the tug of war between the weather and the weatherman, things were firmly frozen into the ground. I spent the better part of an afternoon chipping the now ruined mosquito tent out of the ice grave it lay in.

But, one good thing came in terms of work in this world of snow (I mean, in addition to the beautiful snowglobe I found myself in): sleds.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Saturn Returns and the Bulit-In Breaks the work

 

 

If anything makes hauling piles of roofing tin from one side of the property to the other easy, it’s hauling it by machine. In the week prior, since we don’t have a trailer, I had hauled all of it by hand. Carrying sheets more than twice my height in length over and over and over again had wiped me out and seeing them frozen into the ground had visions of shovels and grunting going through my head. Until I remembered the sled. I attached it to the 4-wheeler and hauled the day (and debris) away.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Saturn Returns and the Bulit-In Breaks 4-wheeler

Perfect little parking spot.

 

 

Snow, how I love thee.

So, the first snafus of staying alone had been relatively easily rectified and the test of being alone, really alone, had felt like no test at all. I’d even had invitations to meet up, poker nights to attend and when I really checked in, I realized that really, truly, I wanted to be home, alone.

 

The first week flew by. I had been working online from home and had gotten behind so, I spent most of my days tidying up outside and typing away inside until finally, it was the day before The Chief was to arrive home. I decided to haul water that night so I could do dishes and shower and have the place all tidy and ready to go in order for his arrival the next day.

Out I went to the well, bundled against the cold and started it up.

Nothing.

I waited.

Nothing.

What the…?

I looked down at the feet after feet of hose at my feet from which water wasn’t spewing as it should be and put two and two together: water in a hoseline + freezing temperatures = frozen hoseline = no water.

One might think I would have learned this lesson last year when we returned to the Summer set-up frozen solid but alas, no. I had run the pump, turned it off, and promptly let it freeze.

And so we (I had to check with our other well owner to make sure I was taking the right route) disconnected the Summer set-up and brought in the smaller hose that would be our Winter set-up, to thaw.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Saturn Returns and the Bulit-In Breaks the well

 

 

The next day, ice chunks finally defrosted, I prepared to get water, but on my way to set it up, I brought the already warmed generator outside with me. I always try to multi-task when heading outside and that day was no different. I placed the genie on its stand and the six water buckets from my other hand on the ground while I quickly got the generator started.

Nope.

Ten minutes later I was worried I had flooded the engine. I then spent the next ten minute trying to remember where the spark plug was in order to see if it was wet, indicating that the engine indeed was flooded. No such luck, well, no such wrench, at least not that I could find, anyways. After looking up seemingly endless and unhelpful YouTube videos, I finally gave in and asked for help.

Knock, knock!

Over to the neighbor’s house, I went, for the second day in a row with a problem.

Two hours, disassembly, correct socket wrench, spark plug checked and changed, gas drained, new gas added, oil added, fuel treatment added, ether sprayed, spark arrester removed, ether again sprayed, reassembly and we had troubleshot everything we could think of. It wouldn’t start.

Until, one last pull and…

purr.

Success!

The neighbor and I cheered and then he returned to his project I had stolen him from for the last two hours and I returned to mine: water. I attached the Winter set-up and…tadaa! Water, sweet water, was flowing freely. I took two trips inside to fill the shower and under the sink and the water on the stove and then three more trips to haul all six buckets inside. Finally, I was done. The generator was fixed, the yard was tidied and no more snow accidents would occur and the house was full of water so dishes could be done and showers could be had and…

it was already six o’clock. The day had disappeared like the Winter sun and The Chief was due home within the hour. The choice presented itself:

Dishes or Shower.

I think we all know the route I chose. And just then, as I started the hour-long process that is bringing in the shower curtain and the frozen tote I shower into to defrost and pulling up the stairs and setting everything up, just then, the generator stopped.

I had to laugh.

You see, there’s always something in the woods. Something always breaks, something always stops working right when you need it most and my ten days alone was no different.

And so, I did what I could: nothing. We had exhausted all options. It was a project for another day. I got in the shower and let that hot water laugh me through it.

The Chief came home just as I was finishing and amidst our happiness to see one another the dishes and the generator weren’t such a big deal after all.

I had survived, in the woods, mostly alone for the first time ever and a few things were made very clear:

I realized that yes, I truly do love time alone, with all of my heart.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Saturn Returns and the Bulit-In Breaks the alone work

 

 

I also realized that my system when The Chief is home is not all that different from when he is not here, which means that I am in fact living up to my wish for myself: to do what I need to do for me, whether I’m in a relationship or not.

and…

I realized how grateful I am for the built-in breaks Alaska forces upon us. Of course, I love being around The Chief, Alaska sussed that one out already by putting us through our first Winter together in a tiny cabin with trials and tribulations aplenty but I appreciate the forced time apart. It makes it so you get time alone before you need time alone and so instead, you just miss one another. I adore being with him and I appreciate that we are able to separate and then come together again, even happier to see one another than usual.

This time alone journey I think has finally come full-circle once again and perhaps has found its resting place in the security of a peaceful relationship, with me and with us.

Thank you, Alaska, for forcing change on me even when I am hesitant to move, in shaking me up in conjunction with Saturn to toss me about and land me right where I need to be: in a place that challenges me and changes us and forces me out of my comfort zone time and time again. But please, don’t make the built-in breaks too long, O.K?

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Saturn Returns and the Bulit-In Breaks the fireweed

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

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Back in California,

on Saturday nights

at closing time

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

Easy. 

Like Sunday Morning.

 

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

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

Easy Like Sunday Morning.

 

 

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

Sunday Strolls

 

 

But it wasn’t always like this for me.

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

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

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

Sundays are free.

 

 

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

Fancy that. Two heart rocks at once.

 

 

 

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

But something’s been added.

Dirty faces, dirty hands.

 

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

Home.

 

 

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

Home Sweet Home.

 

 

And I feel beyond lucky.

Dirty faces, dirty hands.

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

Projects.

Welcome, to the full-circle experience.

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

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

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

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

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

The Woodshed Addition.

 

 

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

Sweet Lou.

 

 

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

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

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

Cute, huh?

I think we even believed it.

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

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

Rewarding, though?

Certainly, my dear.

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

One more to go, plus roofing.

 

 

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

 

 

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

Very cute. Again.

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

finished.

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

 

 

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

Up on the Roof.

 

 

Our list.

Our spot.

Our home.

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

Or rather, someone.

 

Thank you, Alaska for helping me find him.

 

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

I just had to show the Chainsaw Glitter

 

 

 

The First Hard Frost

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

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

a bit of a procrastination

with a dash of self-doubt

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall

 

 

 

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

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

“25! I had 29. Wow.”

Fall is coming.

 

 

First Hard Frost Sunset

 

 

 

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

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

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

Before and after.

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

Perhaps,

perhaps,

perhaps.

 

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

Pancakes, people. Pancakes.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Nasturtium Down

 

 

 

The plants and flowers I grew had two purposes:

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

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

But when Cinda died, they served another purpose.

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

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

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

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall My Love My Lou

 

 

 

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

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

It’s hard to take one’s own advice.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall Backyard Cranberries

 

 

 

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

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

Onward, towards Fall.

Onward towards Winter.

But right now, onward towards berries.

 

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

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

 

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

Please, do tell…

 

First Hard Frost Fall Highbush Cranberries

 

 

 

 

 

Your Shoes are Too Small (and Other Lessons in “Adulting”)

Up until I was 25 I always bought my shoes one size too small.

Minimum.

After years of competitive dancing and sports I was convinced I wore a size 7.

I’m an 8.5.

Minimum.

Perhaps the vanity factor played into my delusion, but overall, it was delusion. Growing up competing in Irish dancing (go ahead, insert Michael Flatley joke) from Kindergarten on I was beyond adept at squeezing myself into too tiny shoes. I was under the impression from fellow dancers and teachers alike that smaller shoes meant better control and in a competition that relies on precision and perfection any trick to help was welcome. So, I wore the smallest shoes I could fit into. And it worked. This little leprechaun of a lady bounced high and moved quickly because of those tiny shoes.

Or maybe I just powered through despite them.

Either way, I applied this tiny shoe logic to all the other shoes in my life. Soccer shoes? I can run faster. Volleyball? I’m better on my toes. Everyday shoes? They fit just fine (perhaps this was where the vanity factor coupled with the delusion).

My Mom, my ultimate dance supporter, would question my sizing, wondering why my toes were going numb and why I constantly had Charlie Horses waking me up in a panic in the night. Nonetheless, I would constantly reassure her not to worry. It couldn’t be the shoes.

She grew hip to my unintentional lies and one day I came home to a gift.

It was a journal and the cover, painted in water-color and written in caligraphy, said:

“Life is too short to wear small shoes.”

It credited a Chinese proverb that I’ve never been able to unearth but it struck me. And from then on…

Nothing changed. I still bought my shoes too small, until eventually, at 25 for some reason (probably due to the continued encouragement from running shoe stores who wanted me to buy a size bigger than my shoe size) I gave in and bought the right size, finally.

My Mom noticed this shift and said: “You’re making changes, my dear. You’re heading towards adulthood.”

A small move like this may not seem like much and in the grand scheme of things, maybe it isn’t but between the two of us, we knew the meaning of this shift went deeper and the wheels were starting to turn.

It started there and it’s been a back and forth trail ever since.

I’m trying to be an adult, or at least my version of one.

I’m not sure if it’s the act of trying that makes one an adult or the end result. Perhaps one day I’ll end up at a door at the end of an alley off my normal trajectory which will open to me, unveiling an inside filled with all the adults in my life blowing noisemakers and throwing confetti, all standing under a big sign that says:

You made it. Welcome to adulthood.

 

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Something like this would be awesome.

 

Perhaps. And if so, I hope to find that party. But I think the key lies in the first part: trying.

 

One month or so ago I threw my neck out something fierce and was laid out for over a week.

In the woods.

A place where almost everything I need requires my body to be functioning.

Water: Need my body.

Hauling and chopping wood: Yup, need it still.

Making a fire: Yessirree Bob.

It all requires physicality or help.

Thankfully, I still had the latter.

The Chief stepped in and took over all household operations. Simply sitting still left me in searing pain as my neck threatened to shift further out-of-place. Even boiling water for tea was a feat for me. He chopped and hauled the wood and made the fires and hauled the water and babied me back to health. It was 10 days before I was fully back in action. I was losing my mind while simultaneously patting myself on the back (gently).

I’ve had back and neck problems for as long as I can remember. The WWF was beyond popular when we were growing up and my Brother practiced the awesome moves on me, much to my neck’s chagrin. By the time I was 7 I was in a neck brace and seeing a chiropractor weekly. Add to that falling off my horse more times than I can count and concussing my little head more times than I’d like to admit via falls and car accidents. The last one was a real doozy and left me with an instability that I’ve yet to be able to pinpoint and that sends me into spasms and “outs” as often as the mail plane flies in. Yet, over the years I’ve done little to fix this foible of mine. I’ve minimized it, forgetting how much it interrupts my life until it would happen again.

But that won’t fly anymore. Not out here. Enter: Adulting, Step 1 (I’m still on Step 1): Take Care of Yourself

Gosh, this may sound easy to some but, as I’m still stuck on it, you can tell it’s hard for me.

Taking the 10 days to rehab was the first time I’ve ever let myself heal from an injury completely. Asking for help was harder than getting out of bed (and that was near impossible) but somehow the words came out of my mouth. I even followed that trajectory and set up an appointment with the local body worker who also happens to my one of my best girlfriends. In the past, I would have pushed out of the injury and ran like hell from it, pretending nothing had transpired. But this time, I was hellbent on breaking that pattern. Upkeep, dear reader. Upkeep.

And so, we scheduled a session. I drove gingerly over on the snow machine and 5 hours later (after a 3.5 hour session just centered on my neck and then a bit of girl time) The Chief arrived to take me home. Asking for him to pick me up? Hated it. My girlfriend said I had to but worst of all my girlfriend also said that I was not to do any sort of lifting, driving, skiing etc. for at least 48 hours in order for her work to set in (she realigns muscles, that’s the best way to describe it). A year ago, I wouldn’t have heeded her advice, despite the investment of the session. Things needing to be done would have taken precedence over things needing to heal (me). But this time, I did it, with the essential help of The Chief. We both had to remember not to let me do things and it made me feel vulnerable in a way I’ll have to further explore but…we did it.

And then, she was leaving and so was I.

I had started this train of health and despite my prior track record, I was ready to keep it going. I had been doing my prescribed exercises every day (I think that deserves all the gold stars) and truly listening to my body. Instead of skiing when I didn’t feel up to it, I would go for a walk or just stretch that day. I was taking her advice but…she was leaving and so was I.

It would be at least two months before I could see her for another session and although I was making progress in keeping my muscles in their newly defined places, they were starting to slip, starting to spasm and starting to hurt. I had started a new exercise routine, reminiscent of my past regimes that I hadn’t been able to do in years. The idea of having to pause my progress to recover again from bodywork left my forward craving mind in a tumble. In the past, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I would have avoided the two-day (and potentially more) “setback” of the bodywork and just let the months pass, at which point, upon her return I would probably have avoided scheduling again, until the next big episode.

But I’m in the end stage of Step 1, people. Things are changing.

And so I made that appointment.

The thing was, last time it took us a week to retrieve the snow machine we had left over there when I had driven myself and The Chief had picked me up. It had snowed and rained and driving in those conditions would have created a rutted, hardened mess for everyone when it froze up. Plus The Chief had been working all day in 20 below and by sunset neither of us felt like gearing up, yet again, to brave the plummeting temperatures.

So, the best solution?

Walk or ski and The Chief would retrieve me.

I opted for a walk that day, in the hopes of catching up with a girlfriend by phone on the way there.

As fate would have it, she was just arriving at work. Our conversation was short and sweet and that was probably a good thing because before long I was huffing and puffing my way there.

 

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I quickly realized that the 90 minutes I had allotted myself to get to her house would be cutting it close.

I stepped it up a notch.

My backpack was loaded down with warm gear for the ride home on the snow machine with The Chief and after the workout I had already done that morning, I was beginning to second guess if I would make it on time. My legs felt like Jell-O.

 

 

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4.5 miles and exactly 90 minutes later, I arrived at her doorstep, sweating and…

spasm-ing.

It turns out that a 90 minute power walk through snow with a loaded pack wasn’t exactly what the doctor ordered.

Thankfully, I had arrived at my back doctor and extra thankfully, she is my girlfriend because immediately upon entering her cabin I stripped down. I was a sweaty mess. I lay my clothes out to dry. Finally, I recovered and made myself presentable (and touchable) again (see, this is where running water comes in really handy. But, for the time being, baby wipes will have to recover us from a workout) for the work ahead.

It was time to get on the table.

Two-and-a-half hours later I opened my eyes to darkened skies and lamplight (she’s so good). It had been painful in the best of ways and I could feel my body realigning. Thankfully, she could see and feel my progress and was able to work deeper since the bigger muscles had finally stopped having to be so protective.

An hour later, The Chief came to get me and we said our “goodbyes” for the next two months. I missed her already.

The Chief slowly drove us home, checking to make sure the bumps weren’t too bumpy or the wind too whipping.

Thirty minutes later when we arrived home I was like a horse to stable. Straight to bed. I was exhausted.

The next day I woke up and did a body scan: how was I feeling? (Super Adulting!)

Pretty darn good!

Immediately my thoughts went to: well, I could probably chop some wood then, since we are out (not so Adulting).

Down girl.

Instead of breaking my promise to lay low right off the bat I asked The Chief to chop us wood.

Ugh.

I did it anyways.

My body was still exhausted from the work and from the day’s events prior to the work but the only part of me that was truly sore? My back from my walk. I had pushed too hard and I knew it as I was going but…I did it anyways. She would have gladly picked me up on her snow machine but no, I had been stubborn.

I lay low that first day, taking a walk and stretching only for exercise. When we were invited to dinner and everyone was riding snow machines I swallowed my pride and asked if we could drive.

But come Day 2, the restlessness had set in.

Another dinner invite and this one we couldn’t drive to, at least not in a car (unless we wanted to buy two bridge keys and not eat for the rest of the month). It was a snow machine only trip. I wavered back and forth. I felt good but didn’t want to push it. At the same time, the trip was beautiful. It took us downriver to the confluence and up the meeting river into a wide open space I’d never dreamed I would adventure to. But still, I was cautious. The second wind event of the week before had completely windblown the trail (which I now understand to mean that it had compacted it) and with our snow machine’s wonky skis, it would be a tough drive.

I decided to go.

 

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The middle of the river.

 

 

I know, I know but these aren’t trips we take everyday. I couldn’t help myself and I wanted to feel normal instead of delicate.

 

 

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We agreed to take it slow and we did but going there is much easier than coming home.

 

 

 

 

 

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Bundled to the brim

 

In the dark of night, the journey became a bit more treacherous. The bumps became less avoidable and the skis dipped in less mercifully, pulling us over. We made it home all in one piece but the hour plus ride had taken its toll. I went up to bed bumped up and grumpy.

The next morning I awoke to what I knew I would find: ouch. I was in pain, again. Yet, instead of beating myself up, I broke out the med kit. Arnica oil and stretching and rest to the rescue.

I guess it’s fair to say that I’m still learning. This adulting thing seems to go up and down, to and fro and often somewhere in-between. But I am trying and I finally have a sense of what it feels like.

A few days later and I was back at my new routine, shaking the house with jumping jacks and other plyometric plays but never without checking in during the routine and following it with some serious stretching afterwards.

When I first realized I was starting to grasp Step 1 of Adulting I figured it was solely age, and to some capacity I’m sure it is but I also think it’s this place. I’ve always been motivated by a deadline and this place serves it up full force. By living where I rely on myself, I have to actually become reliable to myself. And I’ve had to learn to rely on others. Pushing forward, even if “I can do it” doesn’t always mean I should. Being “out” for a week because of doing something avoidable that ended in injury? Not so impressive and arguably selfish. Still, my ego gets the best of me some days and I add that extra stack of wood to an already full armload or ski that extra unnecessary hour or carry two buckets when my body really only wants one. And some days I listen.

It’s a give and a take kind of thing but I’m starting to learn this step nonetheless. And hey, at least now my shoes fit (well, most of them at least).

One step at a time, in mostly well-fitting attire.

Life is too short for small shoes.

 

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…and too short to forget to take snow naps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

A Wind Event

Of all the elements, I have to say that the wind is my least favorite, especially to be exposed to. Indoors, watching the wind blow through the trees, listening to the creaks and bends of trees in a storm, that’s one thing.  It feels chaotic but inside I’m relatively protected. But being outside in the middle of a windstorm? No, thank you.

Wind has always made me feel hectic and off kilter, as if my body and mind can’t quite seem to make the handshake on how to interact. I feel discombobulated, irritated and overall just “a little off”.

The winds started a week from last Saturday. It was “Prom” in town, a yearly event with a theme and a King and a Queen and a whole mess of mainly locals boisterously celebrating the nearing close of the Summer. As we walked into the mayhem the wind picked up. It was a warm wind, a “Witches Wind” and it laid way for a strange feel to the night.

In the morning the winds hadn’t ceased but their warmth had retreated and their ferocity increased. The day was blustery and ominous.

The next day they were at their peak. From inside our cabin I could hear trees being pushed past their creaking point. They were being overpowered by the wind. Almost every time I walked outside I would hear a tree fall, crashing through its comrades and eventually down to the ground.

That day I was working a 3pm-close shift at the restaurant. I walked there in record slowness as I stayed bent forward at a 45 degree angle in order to not be blown backwards. As I rounded the first corner out of our driveway a cracking sound began and within seconds a huge aspen tree fell right in front of me. They were dropping like flies. Everywhere I looked bundles of trees had fallen together, tripping over one another like a bumbling group of drunks. The forest was tumbling over. I continued on into the normally protected woods but the wind still found her way in, whipping through the usually quiet spaces. I had to climb over fallen trees and jagged stumps that had fallen in the path just to make my way.

 

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The stump itself stretched feet above me. Land of the Tall Trees.

 

I stumbled upon a pile of very fresh bear excrement and looked around me. The wind was so strong and the noises it produced from blowing brush and breaking trees were so loud that even if the bear had been feet away, neither one of us would have been able to hear the other and there’s nothing quite like spooking a bear. It felt truly eerie and truly out of my hands. Cinda and I hurried along to the opening at the river trail, glad to be out of the thick woods but unfortunately back into the brunt of the wind. We steadied ourselves and trudged forward.

Over an hour later I finally made it to work (a little late). The last few minutes of the walk were the dustiest and a miniature tornado spiraled into me, leaving my freshly showered self filthy and my mouth full of dirt. At work I walked into an obvious mood. The wind wasn’t pleasing anyone. After weeks and weeks of rain people had been overjoyed by the few days of sunshine we had been experiencing. But now, the blue skies weren’t so welcoming when your face got a wind rash after being out in the elements for an hour or so. And, as the days of wind continued more and more damage was done.

Two friends sidled up to the bar and told me of their wind carnage. One friend’s entire living situation had been ruined. He had spent the Summer already chasing off bears each morning, clearing trails and setting up his wall tent to live in until he could put up a more permanent structure. It hadn’t been easy living but he was making it work the best he could. When the winds came on they picked up his entire structure and threw everything about. It looked like a tornado had come through. It was time to build (and time to move out until he could build). Another friend had a huge tree fall and crush his Summer storage tent. A few feet one way or the other and it would have taken out his shower or his permanent shed. Two other friends completely lost their sheds. Another friend’s trailer had a tree woven in between it and three other trees but hadn’t been damaged. Another friend’s driveway looked like a game of pick-up-stix. Trees were strewn about and entangled so completely that it took hours and hours to clear. If there had been an emergency, he would have been completely stranded.

Flights were grounded, planes were stuck, people were stranded, missing their trips home, mail couldn’t come in or go out. It was chaos.

Yet instead of panic, the community came together and got to work. Vans were put together to get people to where the planes would have taken them (unless they were going to the backcountry or trying to come in from the backcountry. If that was the case they unfortunately remained grounded or stranded). The Chief had thought to put a chainsaw in our truck and was prepared to clear his way to work. Groups of residents went out to the main road and cut trees for the entire day to clear the road so people would have a way in or out.

In California there are road crews. Trees fall down, power lines go down. Tree companies come to clear the trees, PG&E comes to restore power. It’s not always fast and it’s not always easy, we too have been stranded at our house due to downed trees, but it was always a waiting game. We didn’t have a chainsaw and even if we did I wouldn’t have been confident enough to take down a redwood (and rightly so). The problem is yours but it’s the responsibility of someone else. Here, the responsibility is all of ours. See a tree? Have a chainsaw? Take it down and out of the road. Not “your” road? It’s all of our road. If you’re on it, it’s your responsibility, just as much as anyone else.

People spent all day clearing roads that they themselves rarely use because that’s how it goes out here and I love it for that.

After work The Chief came into town to visit me at The Restaurant. He left around 9:30pm, mentioning that he and our neighbor would be clearing their way home. I had walked the road only a few hours prior and they had driven it an hour before. It wasn’t too bad both of us thought and so we planned to see one another in an hour after I finished up work and headed home to meet him.

It was the shift that wouldn’t end and so despite “closing” at 10pm we finally got ourselves closed up by midnight. I bundled up and went out to the car with a flashlight to light my way, trying to see in the dark despite the wind whipping dirt into my eyes. I jumped into our truck, closed the door and took a deep breath, happy to be out of the mayhem. And then I went to start the truck.

And then I went to start the truck again.

The truck wouldn’t start.

Everyone was gone. Town was deserted and here I was. Stuck in a windstorm in the dark.

I called The Chief.

No answer.

I called our neighbor he had said he was going to clear with.

Answer.

“Hey lady, we are still out here clearing, what’s up?”

It was almost three hours after they had left and they were still clearing the road just to be able to get home.

He handed me over to The Chief who hadn’t heard his phone in all the noise of the saws. I had originally called to see if he could come get me but now that he was still working I had already decided on a second potential. One of the chefs at the restaurant was my neighbor, maybe he could jump me if I got a hold of him quickly. I explained my idea to The Chief and got off the phone in time to call the chef’s girlfriend for his number (thankfully she responded) and get him before he crossed the bridge. Catching someone before they pull up, park, get out, unlock the bridge, drive through, park, get out, lock the bridge, drive away, turn around and do it all over again just so they can come get you at midnight thirty is ideal. I caught him right as he was unlocking it. He came back to get me but we both ended up being jumper cable-less and so I caught a ride home.

As we approached the bridge I looked to the right towards the ice fall and told him to stop.

The Northern Lights were out.

They were bundled up behind a cloud, creating a glow that lit up its dark edges. Then they would dance from behind it in streaks of green light that disappeared just as quickly as they came.

We sat parked on that bridge for a good while, admiring nature and science and the majesty of the place we call home. In the middle of all the mayhem and destruction the last few days had brought, this moment of respite and silence was beyond welcome. The winds had even stopped for those moments we watched from the bridge which is almost always windy. But not that moment in that night. For a few minutes it was peaceful again.

We rode the rest of the way home, noticing all of the fallen trees and uprooted soil. The soil in Alaska is shallow and so root systems are already challenged by the terrain. Add to that a month of rain followed by a few days of sunshine and then whipping winds and you have yourself the perfect combination for a forest dropping like dominoes. As we drove closer to our common driveway I saw all the work they had done. Trees upon trees upon trees cut down and cleared from the road. It would be an enormous clean up.

 

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Piles and piles high up from the ground

 

We parked at the turnaround in my driveway when we looked ahead to my neighbor’s road and saw that it was completely blocked by a huge Spruce tree. It was a task for tomorrow, he said. We said goodnight just as The Chief rolled in. He too was done for the day, I was done for the day, we all were. It was time to hunker down and listen to the wind and the falling trees and pray that none fell upon our little cabin in the woods.

We went inside and built a fire to take off the chill of the no longer warm winds and put on music to unwind and distract from the tumultuous outside. We traded stories we had heard throughout the day and sat in a sort of stunned stupor of what had transpired from the powerful element. And then, we cozied up and dozed off.

 

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Io came to inspect with me the next day. This is the road after the boys cleaned made it passable.

 

Never before have I felt so at the mercy of the Earth and never before have I felt so close to it. In California, if a storm was raging I could simply drive home on paved roads and head inside. If there were trees in the roadway and a road crew was taking care of them I would grumble as I rerouted myself home. I would walk in the door and flip on the heat and the lights and none of it would really be my issue to handle.

Here it is all of our issue to handle. The next morning, wind still whipping, we drove into town with our neighbor to jump our truck. On the way in we answered calls from fellow neighbors with him, looking at what it would take to repair ripped off shingles and tin roofs and checking in on an out-of-towner’s home. I love that sense of community and the common sense of responsibility. Our neighbor’s wellbeing is our own. We all need one another out here and we all have different strengths to share.

The beauty within the destruction we all saw was the continual coming together that this community shares. We are here for one another. Passing someone on the road? You always stop to see if they need a ride. Have a lot of greens in your garden? You see if anyone wants some. In cities we can find community but the sense of need for one another is different. If I need something I can go to the store. Out here, if you need something you call your neighbors. You put the word out and people come around full-bore. It’s a beautiful and continual circle of giving and receiving and despite the unfortunate conditions which can create need, like a massive windstorm, what one receives is often an improvement. A tent destroyed turns into a structure made from a friend’s old shed. A road blocked with trees turns into a night of bonding for two friends. A dead battery leads to a shared ride and a friend to watch the Northern Lights with. Out here we are not alone, we are a community and I’m so proud to be finding my place within it.

Thank you, Alaska.

 

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Cinda Lou enjoying a finally cleared road filled with Fall colors.

 

 

Here Comes the Sun

Hindsight is supposed to be 20/20 but having astigmatism, I can’t say I truly know what that looks like. I can say, however, that I get the gist; knowing what is now would help us to navigate what was then.

This past week at the Restaurant a group of 30-somethings came in from the backcountry (I had never known what this term meant prior to living in Alaska so if you’re scratching your head right now, fear not, you are not alone. To go into the backcountry essentially means to go into the wilderness. Silly me, I thought we already were there. Out here it often means hopping on a bush plane and hoping for solid weather to enable your pilot to land. If you’re getting picked up a few days, etc. later, you then hope for good weather as well so that you can make it home. Otherwise you walk or you wait. Hope aside, you always pack extra food, just in case the plane can’t make it in to retrieve you due to bad weather). They were tired and hungry and ready for a pint to wash down the backcountry.

Sounds good to me.

IDs please?

I had just clocked in for my 2-10pm shift.

Alaska is beyond strict with drinking laws and being out in the woods is no different. I carded the group and only 2 out of the 6 had their IDs on them.

“We are all in our 30s, it’s fine” they reassured me.

I know. I believe you. I still can’t serve you. I’m sorry.

Being in this position isn’t always fun but people typically shrug it off as “rules are rules” and deal with it.

Instead, the two who had their IDs ordered beers which I poured for them. They then promptly ignored the beer and waited for the rest of their group whom had headed to the foot bridge 0.7 miles away to retrieve their IDs. They sat at the bar and stared at me. I mentioned again that it wasn’t anything personal but that the laws were strict in Alaska.

“We know. We are locals.”

Well, how nice to meet fellow countrymen. And you’re Alaskans, not locals. Otherwise I would know you and your age and we’d all be merry and gay. But I don’t know you and I can’t take the risk. Even in the woods there have been sting operations and it’s just not worth it to me. I’d rather be stared down from across the bar then paying off a fine for the next ten years.

Once the others arrived and the beer started flowing to all they warmed up a bit and I did as well though I was still a bit cautious due to their earlier grump towards me. I’m just at work, trying to enjoy my time, trying to do a good job. The service industry can be tough, so patrons, don’t make it tougher, please.

A little while into their meal (after one had almost fallen while standing up to get a second beer – his legs had turned to Jello while he sat at the table after hiking and paddling for a week in the backcountry and he didn’t realize it until he stood. Recognizing “Backcountry Legs” I hurried the beer over to him so he didn’t have to move) one of the ladies of the group came up for a second beer. I asked her about the trip and she recalled some highlights for me when suddenly, something in her shifted. She stopped talking about their trip and asked me:

“Do you get out much?”

“No, actually. I haven’t been out once this whole season. We’ve been really busy here.”

And that’s true. The restaurant has been busy, I’ve been working for friends doing website work and overall, the entire Summer has mainly boiled down to working. I started realizing this about a month ago when tables at the restaurant would ask me about my favorite spots but they ended up knowing more about the different places to go than I did.

My priorities, since I got here last year have been to work and save for the Winter. It was the Alaskan M.O. I heard uttered most often and I adopted it blindly. This year I’ve had a handful of real days off, the others I’ve spent doing pick-up web work. My true days off are often spent recovering from a busy week, trying to tidy up the house and making meals to bring with me in the coming week at work. Adventure has been lacking.

None of this was on purpose. My plan was to change my lifelong workhorse habit and work only 4 days per week between the food truck and the restaurant and then work from home 1 day per week. Then, the rest would be for play. For summitting mountains and packrafting rivers and even taking backcountry trips. But that’s not how it worked out. And so, I’ve done a little exploring and packrafting but rarely have I felt that I’m living up to the potential of being here and seeing and doing what there is to see and do.

And so, that interaction with that woman at the bar was both a reality check for me and I think for her. I can only assume her pause was in her realizing that she was on vacation and I was working. She was on vacation in the place I call home and she probably saw more of it in a week than I have seen all Summer. Maybe as grumpy as they were at me for not giving them what they wanted when they wanted it, I was also just as grumpy at them for getting to be here so untethered by responsibility. Maybe I was jealous. My reality check was that it doesn’t have to be that way.

I remarked to a friend whom is also my boss at the restaurant later that day after the backcountry-ers had left, happy and satiated, that I was tired of living through tourist experiences. I wanted to only be happy for people (and I almost always feel happy for people’s experiences, unless they are unkind for no reason) because I too was being fulfilled. I wanted to get out. She was on board. She’s the type that says she’s going to do something and then, you know, actually does it.

And so, a few days later I awoke to the following text:

“Get up bizatch. We should bike to town today.”

Direct. I like it.

The plan quickly morphed as kids were added to the picture and we decided on a hike. It was 11am and I had to work at 2pm. Thankfully, she decided that the restaurant was slow enough that we didn’t need overlapping shifts and I could come in late.

We were going up a mountain.

As we drove to the mountain town the kids started getting excited. They were noticing the changing colors of the leaves and the way the ice had melted on the glacier.

“I want to hike to those trees!” said one about a grouping off fall colored beauties way up on the mountainside.

That would be awesome.

We set out just to keep moving. Hiking with kiddos, as you may know, can be tough, a constant redirection of attention and encouragement to keep going even when it starts to get tough.

And it pretty much was tough right off the bat.

Uphill was the only way and we started hoofing it. Pretty soon we were all huffing and puffing. My girlfriend had her youngest on her back and while I wanted to try it I was nervous it would be too hard. But after going straight up for a mile plus and taking a break I asked if I could carry him.

 

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Oh man. Hiking uphill is hard. Hiking uphill with a baby? A bit harder. The good thing is the distraction and the cuddliness of it all. He would play with my hair and coo at butterflies or mushrooms we spotted. He’s pretty adorable. And, he’s obsessed with food, so, needless to say, we get along just fine.

At a second break spot we stopped for snacks when suddenly one of the kids looked up.

“Look! We are actually getting close to that patch of trees!”

 

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He was right, they were no longer just blurry images. We were getting closer.

Maybe we can make it to them. Do you kids think you can keep going?

Emphatic “yes’s” rained upon us.

Alright.

And so, after two hours of straight uphill, we decided to keep going. We were making it to those trees.

We kept hiking and took the turn off towards the old Angle Station where the ore would switch directions back in the copper mining days. All we had to do was cross the creek and we could hike up to the Station and the surrounding trees.

Did I mention its been raining for the past month? This was the first bluebird day in a month and I was so happy we were taking advantage of it and getting out. But, rain for a month will do funny things to a landscape. And so as we headed toward the creek we would have to cross to get up to the trees and we heard gushing water we figured it might be a little bigger than usual.

Wrong.

It was a lot bigger. In the Summer the Creek is often no more than a trickle (I’m told, remember, I didn’t get out much). We approached a raging body of water.

 

 

 

 

With a baby on my back, three kids by our sides, three adults and two old dogs (Cinda flew up that mountain faster than any of us. That old lady’s still got it but she looked at the crossing and promptly decided it was a bust (see above)) the math for crossing was not adding up.

My girlfriend decided to try to cross while the boys emphatically started trying to throw together a “quick bridge” out of sticks. Ingenuity at its best.

 

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As she started to cross it became clear that this was a bad idea. By the end of the crossing the raging water was at the top of her thighs and ready to push her in. As she made the crossing back I was fully prepared to explain that I was not attempting that (even though she made it fine herself) with all of these factors.

I didn’t have to.

“That thing is crazy!”

Even if we didn’t have the kids and the dogs, I would have been wary. I would have done it but I would have been scared.

 

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You’re lucky I like you Baby, because you aren’t light.

 

And so, what was there to do but to turn back?

A bit disappointed but still proud to see how far they had gotten, the kids made their retreat after deciding that in fact they probably couldn’t build us a bridge in time.

On the way down we remarked on how fast we had gotten up and how close we had come to the trees and, of course, how hungry we were.

 

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We finished our descent, taking a different path over another bulging creek (this one already had a bridge in place) and through historic sites.

 

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The old Mill Building.

 

Then we made our way back to The Restaurant for some sustenance.

I was so hungry I couldn’t even explain what I wanted and so I ended up just grabbing the food I had brought from home. Once I had eaten, I felt human again, not just some ravenous beast and I understood (though still hope I wouldn’t do the same) why some people come in so distracted and panicked with hunger that they can’t quite behave. Now, it was time to clock in and serve others whom had adventured that day as well and provide them with food to recover with.

Finally, I was a part of the adventurers. I was both. I had gotten outside and enjoyed the sun and I had worked.

The hindsight this Summer has given me is a perspective shift. I tried to start the Summer working less. It didn’t work out and so I succumbed to working. I would walk to work in order to get exercise, sometimes waking up at 5:45am in order to walk the 3.5 miles to work on time. I have to exercise in some capacity daily to feel good. But what I didn’t realize was that, in living here, my standards have changed. I don’t just want to walk to work, I want to go on a hike. I want to go and see the things people travel from all corners of the Earth to see here. I live here but I haven’t seen all there is to see. It will probably take years and still, it is always changing so what you’ve seen once, will be different some time later.

This Summer has been chalk-full of lessons of what it means to really live here and how to navigate being a local in a tourist town. Some days I’ve dealt with it gracefully and others I’ve had two left feet. But the lesson I keep learning again and again is adaptation. Things change constantly around here and as a creature of habit, that’s been hard for me. The thing is, when working 4 days a week went to 6 or 7 I could have built adventure into my days but honestly, I didn’t realize how badly I needed it.

Good ‘ol hindsight and her 20/20.

And so, I’ve pledged to myself to make the most of the next month before we head to California to see this place in the capacity that I can. Maybe I won’t get into the backcountry, maybe I will but I can build adventure into the pockets of time that I have. The leaves are changing and the fireweed is going to seed. Everything around me reminds me to use my time wisely.

 

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Fireweed fluff means Winter is coming.

 

Maybe next year I will actually work that 5 day work week instead of 6 or 7 and I’ll have to learn how to maximize that, but if not, I’ll take what I’ve learned this year and do my best with what I have.

Cheers to good friends who make us do what we say we will, to second day soreness that reminds us of adventures and to nature who can lift me out of envy in a single afternoon.

Thank you Alaska.

 

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The view of the mountains we climbed (directly in the middle with the shadow over it) as seen from our spot down by the River.

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.

There’s Always Something in the Woods

Last week was the first time I drove Bluebell (my mini motorcycle) all the way up the mountain to work.

I hadn’t driven her up there yet because:

a: I wasn’t totally sure she would make it. I had taken her up little hills before and she had struggled a bit, to say the least.

I had gotten stuck at the bottom of a hill in the 4th of July weekend crowd. Without anywhere to go but up and starting from a dead halt I had gunned it and had crawled up the hill so slowly that I crept up alongside two tourists and matched their pace, despite my full throttle action. I just looked over and gave them a nod. Yup, check out this hog, ladies. Pretty badass. I was going so slow that I almost fell over. I’m sure it was a scene from “Dumb and Dumber”, or the like, reincarnated. I couldn’t help but just laugh out loud since they only stared back at me, unimpressed by the sheer power they were witnessing.

Yes, that slow scale was situational but still, I worried. The way to work is 7.5 miles and the last 4 miles are a steady incline resulting in a 1,000ft. gain in elevation. I grew up basically at sea level so this gain to me seems pretty substantial. Needless to say, past embarrassments (or extremely cool events depending on how you look at it) taken into account, I was apprehensive, which was furthered by the next issue:

b: If she did make it, I had no idea how long it would take and therefore no idea when to leave for work. Things here are impossible to gauge. Less than 8 miles to work should take little to no time at all. Wrong. In a car it often takes 45 minutes. That’s almost to San Francisco departing from where I’m from in CA. Plus, even if I gave myself “plenty” of time there still was the possibility that she would break down and then I’d be stuck pushing her uphill and end up late to work.

I hate being late to work.

And so I avoided it for the first day I was scheduled to go up since getting Bluebell.

But come the second day of work and the second encouragement from The Chief that “of course she will make it up the hill” I decided to go for it.

I gave myself an hour to get there.

Or so I thought.

After packing for the day (meaning I packed a different shirt for if it got hot up at work, snacks to get through another 10-12 hour day, pants to paint in if the food truck was slow, bug spray, sunscreen, gloves and a hat and a jacket for the ride home and a change of clothes for the evening and an extra pair of socks. Seriously, you can never have too much along for the ride in Alaska. The weather changes faster than you can imagine)

I kissed The Chief goodbye and ran outside to greet Bluebell and head off for the day.

Wrong.

The little lady needed some fuel. So I ran to get the 5 gallon can of fuel.

Empty.

I rushed her over to the 55 gallon drum of gasoline in our driveway and pumped away, a bit too enthusiastically, resulting in gasoline spilling all over the both of us. Mmmm, gasoline in the morning (creepily enough, I truly love the smell but I’m sure it’s not the best aroma to serve food in). Then, on a whisper from my intuition, I checked the oil.

Good thing.

Almost gone.

I ran again to the shed where the empty gas can had been to find the oil. Empty bottles were everywhere, but a full one? That was a bit more of a search. Finally I unearthed some and ran inside to check with The Chief that I had in fact gotten the correct oil for her.

Check.

Back outside again I topped her off with oil. We were ready to ride. We just had to get her started.

Getting going is a five pronged process:

1. Turn on the fuel switch (I never even knew those existed)

2. Click the selector to RUN

3. (First find the key) Turn the key to ON

4. Wind her up with the foot crank

5. Pull the brake to start her

About ten false starts and some manipulation of the choke and she was finally off and on her way with me along for the ride.

At this point we had 45 minutes to get to work. I was calculating as I drove whether or not I would be late when suddenly a moose appeared in the middle of the road. She looked at me as I slowed down to give her space (moose are unpredictable and definitely something to stay out of the way of. A hoof to the face? No thanks) but instead of a standoff she just crossed and disappeared into the woods. Alright, 40 minutes to make it to work now. Unlike a vehicle we didn’t have to cross the bridge (meaning get out and unlock it, get back in, lock it again, check for other vehicles etc.) which takes longer. Nope, we just had to cross the foot bridge.

Did I mention it’s tourist season?

Bridge courtesy for motorized vehicles is to wait on the other side for others to cross or if you’re antsy to follow far behind (especially 4-wheelers since they can’t fit past a pedestrian). On the motorcycle I can easily pass someone but in the vein of courtesy, I kept a good distance between myself and the couple in front of me.

They slowly crossed without a care in the world, me behind them trying to keep my balance as I crept along. Finally we got across and we was able to move ahead on our merry way.

Sort of.

I should have known the holdups weren’t through with us.

Half-way up the hill I hit The Mudslide. I was at the bottom of it, heading up a short steeper hill within the 4 mile long hill and what was atop the steep little hill at the top of The Mudslide? Another dang moose.

Don’t get me wrong, I love moose, but they are a million times more unpredictable than a Whack-A-Mole and I had already ran into one that had been easy that morning. What were my chances of two? At least this one too was solo. Better than a mother and a calf.

This one was a teenager, through and through. It looked me up and down, considered moving and then considered otherwise. It paced back and forth along the road. I stayed at the bottom of the steep little hill, not wanting to have another incident like the one with the “Dumber” moment. If I matched its pace going uphill that was way closer of contact than I wanted. Ideally, I’d just zip past it, but since it was at the top of the hill and barely progressing forward, that was unlikely.

I honked my horn (it sounds almost exactly like the “meep, meep!” of the Roadrunner) and the teen just looked back at me, unimpressed. Did I just get dissed by a moose? I revved my little motor and the same look came at me again.

Finally, the teen moved into the woods. I cheered and waited for a moment before gunning it up the hill.

Success!

Nope.

As I peaked on the hill there was the moose. The teen seemed to levitate off the ground as I reached the top of the hill as it hadn’t in fact gone into the woods so much as up and over the hill out of sight and into the little pond alongside the road. I swerved to miss any incoming kicks and hauled tail up the second little hill in front of me, checking my rearview mirrors as I kicked up rocks and tried to steer clear of the big ones (the dump-you-off-your-bike-ers).

Ten minutes later I had finally made it to work.

What a day!

And it had only just begun.

We were busy busy busy and the day flew by. It was Friday, which means softball games at the ball field, games which I hadn’t gotten to play in weeks due to the tonsillitis events. I was stoked to get there. Just as we closed and started to clean in order to leave we heard a clap of thunder. The air shifted and the sky went black and it started pouring harder than I have ever experienced in Alaska.

Bluebell!

She was outside with her seat completely exposed (a seat which is currently only foam as the covering seems to have disintegrated over the years). I ran and covered her.

It seems a wet bum wouldn’t be the biggest issue of the night however.

I had forgotten my rain gear.

Rule #1 in Alaska: Layers. Always pack layers. And I had, all but one: my rain jacket.

Never forget your rain jacket. In Alaska it rains almost every day (or snows in Winter). Not always hard and not always long, but almost always a bit of rain.

This was a torrential downpour and I was caught without gear.

Oh joy!

My closing duties were done and the storm hadn’t moved down the mountain yet. Softball was still happening but if I rode down I would have been in town without warm clothes (my change wasn’t enough to get me through soaking wet) and soaked to the bone. So I waited for a ride from my boss and bid Bluebell adieu.

Well, she almost made her first full trip up to work and back.

 

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At least she was left with a view

 

By the time we got down to softball the storm had reached them as well and the game was rained out.

The next morning we couldn’t get up to her before work but seeing as I didn’t have nearly as far to go to work that day (I work at two places: one is the food truck at the top of the hill, the other is a restaurant at the bottom of it) I decided to try a different mode of transportation: my bike.

Last year I had a hand me down bicycle which had tire and gear issues which we were never quite able to remedy. Riding up to the food truck town was pure torture as none of my gears worked but one and riding uphill in one gear for over an hour is something I’ll leave to the pros, thank you very much.

This year, I had borrowed a friend’s bike but it was too big for me. Every time I had to get off of it I would try to hop and propel myself forward and every time I got on I would try to get a sort of moving start and aim not to fall (which was a good aim but not always the reality).

Finally, my neighbor’s bike which had been stolen (here it’s called “borrowed” but without permission it seems a bit more of a steal) all winter reappeared. In its absence she had purchased another bike and so after having seen me and my don’t-fall-over tactics on the Too Big Bike she offered it to me.

It fit!

The gears were finicky and only sort of worked and the handlebars surprised me with a sticky residue nearly impossible to remove but it had more than one gear and it moved me where I needed to go. It was all good.

Except the seat: the seat would not stay put. I’d adjusted it and tightened it and tested it countless times. It would even sometimes stay for a whole day but then the next time I would ride it I would slowly feel myself start sinking down, down, down. And so I would ride with my knees basically in my teeth, huffing and puffing just to get it going down the dirt road.

But, I ran into a girlfriend the day after my Bluebell expedition and she somehow strong-armed the bike into staying put. The seat remained in place and I was able to bike and bike and bike.

Until the tire went flat.

Easy fix, right? I borrowed a pump.

Nope.

It had “special tires” and for the life of me I couldn’t find a “special pump”.

And so it sat with flat tires and I resorted to the next step: two feet as my mode of transportation.

I walked to work the next day and at the end of my shift, The Chief and I drove up and finally collected Bluebell.

Someone (who knows?), unaccustomed to the fuel line situation, had left the fuel on and so we worried she wouldn’t start but after a few tries start she did. I let The Chief ride her home since he hadn’t gotten any Bluebell time. Finally she was back home and my modes of transport were twofold again (legs and Bluebell).

 

 

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The next day it rained and so I chose the less painful route of walking (water pellets hurt on a motorcycle). The Chief had the day off and spent it working on his own motorcycle which finally was resurrected.

Two working machines?!

We may not have a car that works but darned if we don’t have two machines.

That day I asked my girlfriend (the strong one) if she had a bike pump I could use and it turned out she did. I brought it home and pumped those babies up the next day before work.

Three modes of transportation?! (Legs, bike, motorcycle) This was too much.

And obviously it was too much.

5 minutes into my ride I started feeling myself slowly shrink.

The damn seat again?!

There’s always something in the woods. It’s always something when you live in the woods.

The day after The Chief got his motorcycle running he rode it into town. We got a ride home and the next day when he came back to get it he couldn’t start it, not even with a little help from our friends (Joe Cocker really rocks that version).

 

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Even Cinda was up to help

 

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This is a My Damn Bike Won’t Start face in case you’ve never seen one.

 

That’s just how it goes.

There’s always something in the woods.

Be it a moose or a holdup. There’s always something. No gas. No oil. Fuel left on. Rain storms. A dog that needs to come home so you leave a bike in town. A flooded pathway. A working bike one day followed by who knows what happened the next. A low rider bike. A wet seat.

But hey, at least it keeps it interesting. Between the dust and the potholes, two wheels and four wheels alike all have trouble at some time and if you can’t just throw your hands up and laugh along with Alaska then she will be on her own just laughing at you (in a kind way but still, you won’t be in on the joke).

I remember the first time anything big went wrong with my old car in California. The seat stopped adjusting (it was automatic) and my reaction was to almost be offended. How could this just stop working? I’m driving here, people. I’m so important, right?

Alaska doesn’t care who you are she just cares how you get through it and believe me, it’s not always with grace and ease and a song in my heart. But most of the time I can just laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. So many vehicles, so little movement. When half of your day is just spent hoping to make it to and from work and the other half is spent working, there’s really no time to be stay grumpy.

The road here is always bumpy and so one can either learn to avoid the big bumps and glide with the rest or point each one out (but that sounds very tiring).

And so who knows? Maybe this week I will find a way to fix the seat. By then I’m sure Bluebell will catch a cold or my shoes will go missing or our vehicle will start working. It’s a constant game of musical vehicles but hey, none of them have electronic seats, so at least that won’t go out.

Cheers to living on the edge and in the woods. Who knows what’s next? Fingers crossed and backpack packed (this time with a rain jacket).

 

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There’s a Fire in them Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was last year.

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

Me?

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

In true Chief fashion, he did.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Not a bad place to train, I guess.

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Piss packs and water reserves and mountains, oh my!

And it’s a good thing I did.

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

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

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

Or so they thought.

But they were wrong.

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

 

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A panoramic view of the burn site.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Wrong.

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

Gulp.

O.k.

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

 

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Easy-peezy, right?

 

Big mistake.

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

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

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

“You walked away!”

I ran back to the pump.

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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The historic Rec Hall

 

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

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

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

Engage Chief Mode.

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…and co-pilot Lou