2016

Christmas at the Lake

 

Christmas at The Lake.

 

It just sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was before I knew the town.

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

 

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

 

It was absolutely stunning.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Everyone plays a part.

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

Christmas Day.

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

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

We’ll leave in about an hour.

Did I just hear laughter?

Maybe.

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

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

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

Finally, I was set.

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

Whoops!

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

We unpacked the rest of the truck.

Another 30 minutes gone.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Watch it in HD here

 

 

 

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

 

 

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The perfect chill down.

 

But that didn’t cease the fun.

Up next?

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

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

up and over he went.

 

 

 

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

Bonfires, kickball, fire-jumping?

This night had already exceeded my expectations.

 

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And then, it was dinner time.

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

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

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

 

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Happy belated Holidays to you and yours.

With love,

From Alaska.

 

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Goodnight, bonfire.

 

 

The Long Way Home: The Nitty Gritty, Three Weeks in the Making Version

Despite our stay lasting a mere two months, packing up from our stint in California was quite the feat.

We had moved upwards of 10 times while in the good ‘ol CA, from house sitting to housesitting to our RV in one place, then moving it to another place, then to out of our RV due to a major mold takeover (and my health gone with it), to housesitting, to staying with parents, to visiting parents, to visiting friends, to housesitting to staying in our friends’ awesome Airstream to parents once again. We were packing fiends. Packing, unpacking, repeat and repeat and repeat. In and out of place after place. The funniest part of it all was that most of our time in California we were living with less amenities than we have in the woods. Especially in the RV we didn’t have hot water or a stove or showers or toilets or even phone service. All this way from the woods and we were taking steps backwards? We had to laugh at the irony.

Two weeks before we left CA we took one last spin in the RV, caravan style and headed down South to The Chief’s parents’ house.

 

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Cinda Jones and the birthday plant I stole from my mama, riding shotgun. Thanks, DCG!

 

After three days out in the beautiful foothills it was time to batten down the hatches and bid adieu to both family and our trusty (musty) RV home.

 

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Perhaps the Summer will bake out the mold? Mmmm, tasty.

 

Upon our return up North, we reached my parents’ house. It would be our last move and last place to call Home for our last week in CA before starting our journey to our Home Home in Alaska.

That last week was a constant manipulation of time and energy. Tidying up little loose ends took, as usual, longer than planned and so instead of spending quality time with my Mama, we spent most of the time maniacally running around amidst the holiday shoppers, checking things off lists upon lists. We organized the storage unit (and one day I trapped myself in a corner by accidentally encircling myself by ominous mountains of boxes…whoops!). We packed and re-packed again and again (I was determined to be under the bag weight limit this year) and tried to decipher what should come.

You see, when we left Alaska this Fall, it was still Summer in California and so we had packed for three seasons in California: Summer (hot, hot, hot), Fall (crisp but often still hot) and Winter (damp “get in your bones” rainy time). Now, we really only needed Winter apparel, and Winter in Alaska apparel at that, none of which we had in California (it was all waiting for us in our truck in AK). But what was to be done with all the other seasonal clothing? To take or leave? I found myself asking “Do I wear tank tops in the Winter?” Of course not, but in reality? I actually do. Our house ends up getting to 70-80 degrees on the daily due to my fire feeding habits. And so, the field of what to bring grew larger as my bags seemingly shrunk before my eyes (they do that, right?) Plus, come Summer in Alaska I would need all my California Summer & Fall & Winter clothes (since the weather ranges in a day what California ranges in months) but between key storage finds (real cloth napkins?!) We were getting fancy in the woods this Winter) and things (read:books) we had acquired over the two months of our stay plus the three seasons worth of clothes we had already brought, my suitcases were bulging.

Finally, the bags zipped for the last time as the week came to a speedy end. I visited the Ocean and hiked the hills one last time and said “goodbye” to a land and people whom I love, for now.

It was time to go.

After some serious packing, stacking and securing maneuvers we five (Cinda, my parents, The Chief and myself) plus four suitcases, two carry-ons and an XL dog crate were off to our night flight from San Francisco.

We made it with time to spare and spent a foggy-eyed few minutes hugging and kissing our way to goodbye. I feel lucky to say that no matter how old I am, I always miss my Mama. We hollered teary “Love you”‘s as they drove away and the now three of us navigated our way inside with our luggage brigade precariously placed all atop one cart.

Cinda was immediately on alert.

She

Is

Not

A

Fan.

She knew the inevitable squish into the kennel was coming and I could feel her anxiety surge as we entered the bustling SFO.

Since we had so much time before our flight and since our last-minute zippering up of bags had taken the whole day which meant Cinda Lou hadn’t gotten a walk, we decided I should walk her around and find the elusive “Pet Relief” area. I had looked it up on the website on our way down and could not, for the life of me, figure out where it was. We approached the Information Booth and the man said he “could try to explain it” but that it was “best to just walk diagonally across the entire terminal to the next Information Booth and ask there”. From there we would be closer.

Hmm.

Cinda and I headed out and 5 minutes later arrived to a new man with a new map with the same puzzled look on his face.

“I think, if you head down these escalators and then make a few weird turns you’ll eventually see the paw prints” he said after making us wait another five minutes while helping others with what he called “easier” questions.

What were we getting ourselves into? Some kind of underground pet society? Would we face an initiation? At this point, we were going either way.

Finally we spotted the paw prints which led us out and around and under and finally to the mysterious Pet Relief Area.

 

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And she was relieved.

 

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Panic no more Jones, we found it.

 

 

You know when you have to use the bathroom, but only a little yet as you head towards it and realize it’s occupied you suddenly have to use the bathroom a lot a lot a lot? The look in Cinda’s eyes as we went further and further into the depths of SFO with no end in sight told the same story.

But we had made it in time. All was good. We sang “follow the white puppy prints” (sung to the tune of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”, of course) all the way to the pen.

At this point we had been gone almost 40 minutes so after a few chases around the pen and ear scratches, it was time to go. We raced back just in time to get in the suddenly multiplying line.

Then we saw it: Delayed.

Our layover in Seattle was 41 minutes, a flight we had chosen and raved about because of the shorter overall time Cinda would be cooped up in her cage. We were such good parents.

Right?

By the time we reached the kiosk there had been another delay. At this point we would have 10 minutes to reach our connecting flight.

“What were you even thinking booking a flight with such a short connection time?” the woman at the desk asked us.

I guess being morons, apparently. Good Parent Award out the window. We weren’t going to make our connection, she assured us.

Great!

But, there was some good news, she promised. She could (hopefully) put us on the next flight out of Seattle. With the delay as it stood we should be just fine and the overall time wouldn’t be extended. We just had to “make sure we caught that flight since it was the last one of the night” she warned us.

Just then, we saw another alert: another delay to our already twice delayed plane. My heart sunk. We’d already been on our way for weeks now, ever since we dropped off the RV and now, so close to the finish line and we might not even make it today?

Stay calm.

We put our bags on the scales and…I hadn’t made it. I was four pounds over the limit. But, just then, our luck puffed up again as the bag handler, a buff man no taller than me who could probably lift three of me, looked at me, looked at the scale, looked at the lady booking our flights, smiled and nodded.

No charge.

Booyah!

Things were looking up.

For Cinda, however, they were looking grim.

We headed over to the Oversize Baggage area with the Muscle Man himself and proceeded to, as gently as possible, shove little Lou into her cage. There was no bribing her in there or coaxing her to comply, it was sheer (gentle) force. Thank goodness we had Mr. Muscles there for backup. In the shuffle of getting in the kennel, Miss Lou knocked over her water from her “no-spill” water bowl but it was too late, apparently. The zip ties were already on the cage and Muscles was already carting her away.

“She’s like our child!” we called after him like the animal loving, over-protective lunatic parents we are as we stood there watching her roll away. There’s a panic that sets in when flying your furry loved one in the cargo of the plane, and as we realized we no longer had control over the situation we turned in for a hug.

Hugs help.

And so, dogchild-less, it was time for security. Easy-peasy. Just remove all of your humanity, put it into these tiny boxes and try not to forget anything as you rush through like a herd of cattle.

The plane was boarding by the time we made it through but we’d had nothing to eat so The Chief stopped quickly to grab us dinner. In the midst of paying he realized his ID was gone.

The food was ready, the plane on second boarding and there I stood waiting anxiously as The Chief ran all the way back to Security.

It had to be there. If not, we weren’t getting on in Seattle. A second possible derailment of our journey loomed overhead but minutes later, I saw The Chief smiling and running back to me.

Phew!

We got on the plane at Last Call and they were all buckled up and ready to go. Except when we got to our row our seats were taken by a family. They said they could move if we really wanted them to but the stewards and stewardesses were hurrying so we just plopped down in their seats (I still never quite understood why they had done the switcheroo in the first place since they knew they weren’t in their seats but hey, it matters none, I guess). Everything was a Go except for one small detail: our Lou.

When you have a dog in Cargo the airline is required to provide proof that the dog is on board via a ticket stub attached to her kennel by her parents. No ticket no go.

No ticket.

“Ready for takeoff” we heard over the loudspeakers.

Before I could even ring the stewardess button The Chief was on it. They assured us that she was on board.

No, that’s not going to work for us.

Minutes later another stewardess flashed what could have been just a blank piece of paper at us from the front of the plane and mouthed (I think) “I got it” and immediately again “Ready for takeoff” came on over the loudspeakers.

Nope. Not good enough.

I ran to the front of the plane, chased after by another stewardess who seemed to appear out of nowhere who hissed at me “Do not run!” in the quietest yell one can muster. I didn’t care. We needed that ticket.

I finished my jog and saw that the paper she held was indeed our ticket (thank goodness) and walked back, a bit embarrassed but glad to know our pooch was in tow, with the angry stewardess following closely behind. Geez.

We taxied to the runway and with that…

we waited.

The plane was delayed. Again.

 

Please, please let us make the last Seattle plane to Alaska.

Please.

 

Thankfully, we did.

 

Of course, we landed on the complete opposite side of the airport from our gate at the not so small SeaTac, but two tram stops and a run later and we panted our way onto the already boarded plane.

The flight was packed and…

when we had been re-routed by the agent at SFO we were no longer sitting next to one another. This was the last leg of the night flight. The “I’m so glad I’m sitting next to my significant other right now since I’m drooling on the person next to me and the person next to me is thankfully him.”

Don’t pretend you don’t drool too. You do, right?

No, we were rows away from one another for the sleepiest, longest leg of the journey. Good luck unknowing stranger next to me.

Again we went through the rigmarole of getting our tags for Lou. They assured us she was down below but couldn’t produce the tag. I thought The Chief was going to turn into a taller version of Mr. Muscles as he flexed his Daddy Love in the face of their oppositions.

“Sir, it’s fine, she’s almost definitely on board.”

Almost + Definitely =nope, not going to work.

Despite all eyes of the plane (again) on us we stood strong until they finally found the tag.

GEEEEEEEZ!

I had a quick flashback in that moment to a time when my Grandfather was thrown off a plane not so long ago for being obstinate (I guess it runs in the family) and crossed my fingers we would all three make the flight home.

Home. It seemed so unattainable.

As we prepared to take off yet again I texted our friend who had offered to pick us up at the airport in Anchorage, even though our original flight had us landing at 2am and told him not to worry, that we would get a cab to their house.

He, being the trooper that he is, wouldn’t hear of it and so, hours later we three and our six bags greeted a welcome familiar face.

And Lou greeted the snow.

 

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Pup Snow Angels

 

 

I felt like I could breathe again.

Sure, we still had days to go before we would actually be home but finally, finally, we had made it onto Alaskan soil. It had felt like an impossibility.

We settled in for the night at our sweet friend’s house and succeeded in only waking up 1/3 of the sleeping inhabitants.

Success!?

The next day The Chief had a sinus check-up which he thankfully passed with flying colors after which we took a cab to the garage where the fire truck was being serviced.

With a set of wheels again we were all set to finally get to shopping but by then it was already 6pm. The sun had set hours before and there was no sense in starting our food shopping since we obviously wouldn’t be able to get it done in time to leave the next morning. We shopped, unsuccessfully, until everything closed, for new Winter boots for me (since my feet had apparently decided to grow since last year) and then gave in for the day. And so, we settled in for the night, planning to do all of our errands, to buy all of our supplies for the next three months, tomorrow.

After a night of reunions with our hosting friends the next day didn’t exactly get off to an early start, but start it did.

But not before a little walk to the park.

 

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Snow. I never thought I’d miss snow.

 

 

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This was just too much for me not to record. Back to Alaska but not quite back to the wild.

 

Let the shopping begin.

Oh wait, first let me forget my wallet at home so that we have to carve out 45 minutes of our day driving back and forth and then…

Let the shopping begin.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Vegas but if you have, and if you’ve gone in without a budget in mind, you can relate. Before half the day had gone by I was sickened by spending money. It was overwhelming. It always is.

But, we rallied together, trading off having little melt downs and saying words of encouragement to one another to get through the day. It’s funny the phases you hit.

  1. Excitement and Optimism (read: caffeine): “We are doing great!” and “It probably won’t even take the whole day!” and “I made detailed lists for each store” are phrases often naively expressed.
  2. The First Big Expenditure: “Dang, that was more than I thought it would be” is often uttered, accompanied by a lowering of enthusiasm. But still, you must push on.
  3. Fatigue: “Do we really need this?” is uttered while staring zombie-like at toilet paper and other necessities. Yes. Yes, you need that. Buckle up, buttercup, the day isn’t even halfway over.
  4. Minor Meltdown: Realize you haven’t eaten. Eat.
  5. The Fuck-Its: Sorry for the swear but it’s the best way to describe it. “We missed the milk, should I go back and get it?” someone asks while already in line. “Fuck it” the other replies. Or, “Should I get lemons? Will we have enough warm space?” followed up by a “Fuck it” said to yourself as you grab not one, but two bags. Fuck it.
  6. The Check-Out: “Oh man, you guys must be hungry!” says the checker as everyone in line behind you wishes they’d picked a better line. We organize our carts (yes, carts plural) according to freezable and non-freezable items so they can be boxed up as such. So needless to say, checking out takes a loooooooong time.
  7. The panic: We service the fire truck when we go to Town and it has a beyond tiny area to house all of our non-perishables which must all fit behind bench seat (it’s not an extended cab and there is no backseat so basically it’s a six-inch wide stacking situation. How are we going to fit everything? But, at this point it’s not a how as in, can we fit everything? The deal is done, it’s about how to fit everything. Let the Tetris games begin.
  8. The Return Home or to the Hotel and The Unpack: Just when you are beyond tired from an entire day of navigating through frozen streets and angry drivers and you finally arrive home and want nothing more than to zonk out, that’s when the next rounds of Tetris begin. Bringing round after round of all of the non-perishables inside (and subsequently taking over our friends’ house), covering all freezables that will be left, unsecured, in the truck over night and crossing your fingers they’ll be there when you wake up.
  9. You Think You’re Done but You’re Not: You’re inside, warm, maybe even eating something delicious but your mind is elsewhere. You’re planning tomorrow full of unrealistic timings and to-dos: wake up at 6am, re-pack everything (plus luggage and a dog crate and two humans and a dog) in ten minutes, shop before heading to the Department of Human Services (I had gotten lost in the system and since they wouldn’t answer their phone, the only solution was a visit and the only chance I had to visit was on our leaving day) and get out of town by 10 am at the latest. Cute, very cute.

And so our Town Run went something like that. We forgot things, were gawked at in Costco, had minor meltdowns and build-ups, spent more money in a day than feels civil and returned exhausted and on high alert. But, we did it.

 

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Carts 1&2 out of 3

 

 

The next morning we were off!

Sort of.

We did wake at 6am, according to plan (high-five, self!) but re-packing a truck in the freezing dark of the morning takes more than 10 minutes. You know that, I knew that but did I budget the time for it? Naw.

Finally, after nearly suffocating the entire household with the fumes from the backed-up-as-close-to-the-house-as-possible-to-prevent-theft truck we were on our way. Sure, it was already 8:45am and we certainly weren’t going to fit in shopping before the DHS but, oh well. We were moving, nonetheless. We waved goodbye to our now polluted-by-our-fumes-friends and off we went.

 

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You’re not mad at us, are you TheRon?

 

The mechanic had mentioned that the heater wasn’t working but we already knew that. I mean, it worked, a little, or at least enough last year in the Winter to get us home. Plus, as he mentioned, it’s mainly a Summer vehicle.

Yea?

It turns out it had worsened since we had last experienced it and temperatures were much lower than they had been last year (in the 20’s) and so we shivered our way to the government building.

“I’ll be back in just a bit, babe!” I said as I jumped out of the truck, paperwork in hand. I was in the first phase of errands again, excited and optimistic.

An hour plus later, paperwork still in hand with no telling how much longer it would be, I moved out of Stage One all the way to the Fuck It Stage. It didn’t matter if I had healthcare, right? I’m sure I would eventually get hold of someone on the phone eventually if I called enough from home. I was wasting daylight, we should just leave.

A text from The Chief (he was out running odds and ends errands) was perfectly timed, telling me to take all the time I needed and he would be handling things until I was done.

Yea, I love him.

Finally, my name was called. After 45 minutes and jumping through plenty of bureaucratic loops, I walked out triumphant.

Now, we were on the road!

We decided to drive out of Town to the next town (and last stop for a mainstream (think, has anything and will actually be open) grocery store) so we could feel like we were at least making progress.

As we were just about to hit the freeway we noticed a car had run up over a snow bank. In California, I can honestly (though still with shame) say that I’ve seen people on the side of the road with a stopped car and not stopped. They just seemed to have it handled already and it’s not that I don’t care, it’s just not as much the culture. Alaska brings out the best in me in that way because here people truly need to help one another, and so they do. By the time we had pulled over (we had simultaneously said “We should stop”. Jinx!) two other groups of people had stopped to help too. Three different groups of people came together and the car was out in a jiffy. The wife was so grateful that she hugged us as she said “Thank you”.

 

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I love Alaska.

An hour later we arrived at our destination town. All we had to do was grab a short list of groceries, fill up two 55-gallon drums with gasoline, fill up the truck’s two tanks and we were done and on our way for real (clearly, we were back in good ‘ol Stage One)!

Halfway through the produce section, we knew behind the seat wasn’t going to cut it and so, loving a girl who loves vegetables, The Chief came up with a plan. We would unpack the truck to get to our clothing, buy a tote in the store, line it with the clothes, fill up a water bottle with hot water to fight off the ever-dropping temperatures outside, fill the next layer of the tote with perishables, followed by another layer of clothing. He’s a smarty.

By the time we were finished shopping Cinda needed to get out and stretch her bones and so I walked the pooch while The Chief played a whole new level of Tetris. I returned to fetch the water bottle and headed inside to see if the coffee shop would fill it. 10 minutes later I returned.

“Did you get my text?”

Sure didn’t.

We had forgotten ratchet straps inside and so, The Chief and I traded and he went in this time to collect the last of the forgottens and to use the restroom.

I distracted myself from how late we were by plucking Cinda’s undercoat out and making it into a toupee.

 

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She was not amused, but she let me do it anyways.

 

By the time he came back I now had to use the restroom.

One more trip inside.

Now that the whole family had used the facilities, the truck was once again reconfigured and my veggies were on board, all we had left was to pump gas and we were done.

Oh and try to fix the heater.

The Chief fashioned a block against cold air going into the radiator via cardboard and we hoped for the best. That first hour’s drive had been a very cold one. The heater blew only cold air, so cold that we couldn’t tell if it was actually any warmer than the air outside. Well, fingers crossed for the magic of cardboard.

Now gas and gone!

150 gallons of gas (two 55-gallon barrels and two 20-gallon tanks on the truck) takes so much more time than I ever allow for.

Two hours from when we had arrived in the last town for a “quick stop for last-minute essentials” we were on our way.

 

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So much trust in four simple straps.

 

 

Except, wait.

It was Winter now and lunchtime and once we left this town it would be 5 hours before anything we saw another store or anything edible. All of the very few stops the Summer months have to offer are closed in the Winter. So, despite being beyond ready to leave, we had to stop once more for food.

Ok, now, now we are on our way.

And finally, we were.

 

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About an hour into the drive, we decided that the cardboard was in fact taking the edge off but that we were still slowly turning into human ice sculptures. I wiggled my toes incessantly in my boots to try to heat them but they were numb within minutes from the cold. I get cold. The Chief on the other hand rarely succumbs to that human reality. Yet, as I looked over at him as we scaled the roads through the mountains and the cold air blew, I could see he felt it too.

I remembered Grandma Jane had given me hand warmers last year that I had stashed in my suitcase again this year, just in case, for this exact kind of occasion.

But in which exact suitcase and where exactly they were, I hadn’t the faintest clue.

We decided to try a search anyways and pulled over. The winds were whipping and instantly my hands were frozen. Again, we had to re-tetris the load so that I could access my bags in the hopes that I had placed them in an outside zipper. I wedged my hand in between the freezing metal of the truck and the zipper of my bag.

No luck.

I tried each zipper on both bags but I couldn’t reach the far recesses of one and by then we were both frozen to the core.

We decided to give in to our frosty ride and just grin and bare it. I was about to jump off the truck when I realized my pink robe was accessible. I grabbed it and an accessible sweater, jumped out of the bed, spent a few minutes standing directly in front of the exhaust to take off the chill and jumped into what now felt like a warm truck by comparison to outside.

The Chief looked at the robe and giggled at me.

An hour later, after I had found yet another layer stashed away in the cab of the truck to cover myself, I pushed him to take the robe. I could tell he was freezing.

He looked glorious.

Hours later we made it to the last town before the turn-off. We gassed up, bought hand warmers and hot drinks at the small market, took Lou on a little jaunt where she made snow angel upon snow angel and then packed back into the truck.

No more stops.

Next stop: Home.

It was so close I could feel it.

All the stress, all the travel, all the uncertainty and endlessness of it all suddenly wrapped up into a paper ball which I sunk into an imaginary trash can. I could relax.

We were almost home.

By “almost home” I mean we still had four plus hours left but it didn’t matter. We were over the halfway mark.

Two hours later, we turned onto The Road, our 60 mile driveway, crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. Road glaciers beware, we were determined to make it home.

 

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We stopped to celebrate the start of the road and stepped out to the fresh prints of a lynx.

 

The Road was in surprisingly good condition and after only a few hairy moments of sliding downhill while pointed uphill driving over road glaciers, we approached the turn for our house. Five minutes and a seriously bumpy 4-wheeling time down the driveway and we had made it.

We were finally home.

We hooted and hollered and hugged and kissed our way into the house.

We were welcomed not only via signage but also by a house well above the freezing temperatures outside (45 degrees inside!). Our lovely neighbors had spent the day building and then checking and adding to a fire in our wood stove. Had they not, that cold ride home would have paled in comparison to the cold night ahead of us. We felt so lucky. (Thank you S&A!)

 

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It said “Welcome”, I swear. Excited photography blooper.

 

 

We spent the rest of the night carrying in necessities and exclaiming how we still couldn’t believe we had made it and how, at the same time, it felt like we had never left.

Finally, exhausted from months of packing and unpacking and being in a state of constant vigilance not to forget anything or leave anything behind, I settled in for the night. The Chief was still on a high from making it home and needed to wind down with some tunes, but me? I was toast.

As the first one into bed, I became the official Bed Defroster. It was still hard as a rock. The surfaces of the room were shiny with ice crystals and the windows had frost coming through every nook and cranny it could find.

 

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I suited up for my defrosting mission: long johns followed by fleece pants, wool socks, sweatshirt, hat and as many blankets as I could find. I jumped onto the bed (it’s quite high and I’m well, not) and landed with a resounding “thud”, reminding me again of my defrosting mission. I crawled under the covers and did a little dance to get a semblance of heat going. And I did. And thankfully once I get going I am a little heater. And so, by the time The Chief crawled in a few hours later we had an almost cozy place to rest our heads.

And rest we did.

Until the chores called and all the packing up of the cabin we’d done in the Fall needed to be un-done.

But that was for the morning. Our three-week journey home had ended.

 

We were home.

 

Sweet dreams.

 

With love,

from Alaska.

 

 

Leaving: Part I

During my 20th year around the sun I moved upwards of 20 times.

I lived with the parents of my friends, I house-sat, I lived with my Brother, I lived with friends. My life was one big traveling suitcase made up of bags and backpacks and boxes filled with essentials and odds and ends. Chances were, if you thought of it, it was in my car. I packed and unpacked and repacked so many times that you would think I would have developed some systems but alas, the mind of my 20-year-old self didn’t prioritize order. I was a bag lady but with paper bags with constantly ripping handles and fall out bottoms. Needless to say, it was a bit of a mess.

And so, once I finally moved into my own house 5 years later I was beyond ready to trade in my bags for drawers and settle. I’ve felt the same nesting sense ever since. I love being home and since moving to Alaska (at the start of which I thought was just a blip on my radar on my new traveling trajectory) I’ve loved making our house in Alaska our home.

But, the seasons have changed and Fall is upon us. For us, Fall means heading South to California. And so, two weeks ago, the process of leaving began.

No big deal, right? Like I said, I’m pretty used to packing up and heading out and now, as more of an adult, I’m much more organized. I can Tetris a trunk like a pro and pack clothes for a month into every nook and crannie of a weekender bag.

But, I’ve never had to leave like this.

Growing up we had a family cabin in the Ozarks in Missouri. Every year we would go down in the Summer for a week. We would arrive in the early afternoon and the opening of the cabin would begin. Hours later and a whirlwind of opening shutters and turning on waterlines and changing sheets and the cabin would be open and off we would go, ready in time for Cocktail Hour by 5pm. A week later we would do it all in reverse: canoes put in the river shed, floors swept, bedding stripped, water off, shutters closed and all in time to make it back to St. Louis in time for…you guessed it: Cocktail Hour.

Between my bag lady days and my cabin plays, one might think shutting down our cabin would be nothing more than a blip on the radar but arriving to and leaving from our house in the woods is not quite the same.

Or at least I assumed it wouldn’t be.

You see, I’ve only arrived, never left.

I’ve opened but never closed.

It’s a whole different world, a world in reverse.

Last year when The Chief was shutting down the cabin to come meet me in Portland I got little snippets from him regarding the happenings of shutting the place down.

In my excitement to see him I realize that I glossed over words like: “non-freezables” and statements like “I don’t want it frozen into the ground” (last Winter I tried to “pick-up” a tote which had frozen into the ground a bit. I pulled and swiftly broke the tote in two: half still in the ground and half in my hand and overall totally unusable) and in my rush to see him I didn’t really understand the massive task that stood between us. Come Winter, I realized a bit of what he was talking about, but again, I saw it in the opening of the cabin mode.

Now it was time for the reverse. The shutdown.

The last week before we left our house I didn’t have to work. The restaurant had shut down for the season (another totally strange thing to me. The only time I’ve ever shut a business down was when it closed its doors for good, not just until the following May. Closing down for the Winter and shutting down forever are only a few hauling loads away from one another. It’s quite the ordeal and in a few months, the reverse will happen again). I felt so lucky to finally have some time off in the beautiful place I call home. There were adventures to be discovered and in the first few days I had off I found them.

 

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Icebergs bigger than two of me tall. Please don’t suddenly shift.

 

 

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The 8 hour lake loop

 

And then…the panic set in.

I stood outside on my third day off and, as if I had seen it for the first time, I was stunned by the amount of work I had to do. The last few days the projects had been far from my mind but suddenly it was Go Time.

Living in the woods, I have come to understand the difficulty of the acquisition of things. I looked around our yard and saw years of acquisitions: lumber which will hopefully become a part of a building project in the future, snow machines since retired which we use for parts if one of ours (or our friend’s machine breaks), and random tools and tie downs and who knows what galore. In the woods, it’s very hard to throw things away for reasons which are twofold:

One: you may one day find a use for it and on that day, if you’ve hauled it out of The Valley to the dump, you are going to kick yourself

and Two: if you do decide to trash it, it is very difficult to throw things away. When you’re heading to Town and have multiple 55 gallon barrels for gas and suitcases for months of travel and recycling and trash from months of discard there isn’t a lot of room for the things you want off of your property and special trips into town to take away items are once in a blue moon. It’s just rare to have the room and so…things pile up.

I spent my first day (blue and white striped Traindriver overalls in action. I meant business) amongst the mayhem: lumber. There were lumber piles everywhere. Some were covered, some weren’t, some were still good, some were bad but all were both visible and taking up room and if I didn’t act now, they would be frozen in by the time we returned and unable to move until Spring.

I’ve never lived to quite an extreme like that, where the urgency a season imposes is both physical and mental and affects not just you but your things. Sure, I’ve cleaned gutters but here, you’d have to remove gutters (we don’t have any, so no worry there). It’s a whole new level. You have to think ahead. What will I need and if I need something, how can I make sure it doesn’t freeze into the ground? It’s a whole new fishbowl for me.

And so, (after three hours spent separating our recycling – we are working on a new system but for now, it all goes in one bag and then someone gets awarded the sloppy mess of sorting it. I won! Remember last Trash Day?) I spent the day unearthing old piles of lumber, separating the good from the bad and carrying it to more discreet lumber stashes on the property which I made with pallets I slowly hauled over to each site (who knew those things were so heavy?!). What I thought would take a few hours took me an entire day. I was dirty from head to toe and my arms were so tired I’d thought they might fall off.

The next day The Chief finally had the day off too and we spent it again moving things: an old snow machine had to be moved onto a pallet but it didn’t drive and so after many heaves and hos and brainstorming problem solving and ratchet strap configurations, we got it onto the pallet and stabilized it via a nearby tree. It’s the (seemingly) little things like that which take forever. Half the day gone just securing and moving things on the property and it was looking much better. I’d been wanting to get my hands on this project for a whole year now and it was finally happening.

Just then, we started talking about what to do with out food when we thought to call a friend who runs a freezer all Winter. We thought we’d check to see if we could put our food in it until we returned (at which point our “freezer” would simply be totes left outside, since it’s so cold they stay frozen). Our actual freezer is great but without having the generator run every few days it will melt. If we were leaving in December it wouldn’t be an option but until it gets cold enough outside to keep it frozen via nature we had to figure something else out. Our friend kindly obliged and the rush was on: we had to get the items to him that day because he was leaving. He also said he could store our non-freezables.

Holy moly! This was a gift from the Gods.

Stop the projects and change gears: food time.

We went inside and in the scurry I immediately lost all of my prior understanding of what happens when things freeze.

“Can canned peaches freeze?”

“Yes. Well, sort of.”

 

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Sort of sorting, sort of losing my mind

 

Huh? Apparently they might get a little mushy and the can might get distorted. Pickles? They might get mushy too but the vinegar content makes the freeze lighter than just straight water. No water could be left in anything in our house or it would break its container.

In our house.

Our house which is going to freeze.

Everything inside it is going to freeze.

Our house is going to be an unattended igloo.

This just doesn’t seem real to me.

And so I spent the next hour confused and confusing, wondering if we could leave dish soap and forgetting that I knew we could. We were rushing to get everything together but still needing to prioritize. We hadn’t planned on doing the food clean-up until the last day and so the sudden rush and flurry brought the stress levels out in the open.

We took everything out of our freezer and I snapped a picture so as to remember when we were shopping this December what we actually will need. The Chief started bagging it all up when it dawned on me: we still needed to eat. We were days away from leaving and here we were throwing all of our food in one (inaccessible) basket.

 

 

 

Duh. We knew that. But these are the things we forget when we rush.

And so I separated a few things, trying not to take out too much lest we waste it but not wanting to take out too little and end up eating trail mix for dinner. That’s the thing as you start to shut the house down: ideally you run out of everything on your very last day. In reality: you run out of things in an awkward kerplunk as the last bit of sugar falls out of the bag and you only have half of what the recipe calls for – hey, you wanted it light anyways, right?

Coffee was the first thing we noticeably ran out of. No biggie, we switched to tea. Then we ran out of milk (both our almond milk and our regular milk). No biggie. We had canned milk that…we had packed up already to give to our friend who was keeping our food. Who knew where it was in the boxes. Ugh.

And so, you go without or get creative but mainly, you just start getting excited for Town where you can go and get whatever you need pretty much whenever you need it (or simply want it).

The Land of Plenty looks pretty good when you’re coming from scarcity.

We finished packing up the foods for the house and The Chief made the limping journey in our not so working truck to pick up our last delivery of mail and drop off the goods. When he returned a few hours later (like I said, everything takes so much longer than you think it will out here) I had picked up more of the yard and moved more lumber. We were beat but so happy to have the food taken care of. We had been scheming the past week over whether we could create enough charge on our batteries to leave it plugged in and running off of them until the snow came but the idea of leaving the batteries unattended and working made both of our stomachs churn. We had thought of other people’s houses we might be able to stash it at or people who might enjoy the goods but nothing was easier and fit better than simply packing it all away in one spot. What a relief (thank you, thank you!).

Next up the following day was the inside shakedown and the outside burn. I took the inside and The Chief took the outside. I detailed every inch of the oven and cleaned the house from head to toe (almost, the living room eluded me) and went through our clothes to find donations and to pack (which sounds easy but since California is basically still in Summer mode, we have to pack for Summer and Fall and Winter in California). The Chief burned the wood we couldn’t use and the burnables that we don’t throw in the trash in order to keep the trash from filling quickly (i.e. tissue paper, unneeded mail, etc.). I swear I could see his smile all the way from the house while he lit the bonfire all the way over in the garden area. There was no worry of fire in the wet wet wet woods and so we were able to burn everything. It was a great feeling to clean up so nicely.

We were on a roll but the days were flying by. Suddenly, it was our last day. The heat was on and tensions were high. We’d never done this together and learning what was a priority for each of us versus a non-priority was a good lesson in compromise both with the other and with the self.

Finally, it was the night before we left. There were just a few things left to do: pick up the fire truck which needed to get worked on in Town, pick up Bluebell and ride her home and load the truck with the last few items we needed to pick up in the valley, unload them and then load the truck so it was ready in the morning. Just a few small things like that.

And then it started to rain.

Well, of course it did.

We picked up the truck, picked up Bluebell and I followed behind on her as we headed for the heavy stuff. It turns out her already weak brakes had gone completely out while she had been sitting and so the ride was more or less a constant gamble. Thank goodness for good boots. We headed to retrieve our 100lb. tank of propane and our little bitty backup. Then we headed to the fuel area and backed into the bay where there was no dolly to be found to move the 55 gallon drum of gasoline that we had gotten filled (note: they are much heavier when full).

 

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A Winter’s worth of propane…we hope.

 

We made our way home and I skid into the driveway. We found a pallet to store my little lady on and covered her with a tarp. The Chief came over and helped me. The way the tarp was, it would have collected snow and either torn or knocked everything over. Oh. You see, I don’t get it. But I’m learning.

Then, it was time to unload the truck. But first, we had to move our other vehicle in order to line up correctly with the drop zone. Easy, right? Except the other vehicle had mysteriously stopped running one day and so we  would have to tow it first, then push it into place. We strapped a tire to the pulling and pushing truck after towing the vehicle forward and then smashed it between the two to push it backwards.

 

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Oh, the ingenuity of living in the woods.

Finally, with big enough rocks found on the property in place in front of the wheels so it would stay, the driveway was clear and we were ready to unload the propane and fuel. The propane was “easy”. Heave, ho and off you go. It was heavy and The Chief had suffered a substantial bruising the night before in a Tiger Trap of sorts and my back was threatening to go out but, by comparison, it was light. The fuel, on the other hand…let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t alone with it. The Chief devised a sort of strong man bounce station with another tire (see why it’s hard to throw things away?) that the barrel could land on. From there we could then maneuver it into place on the pallet with the others. He got it to the edge and we both silently said a little prayer as almost $200 in fuel flew from the back of our truck onto the tire and…

 

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didn’t bust, didn’t break. It fell perfectly and we strong-armed it into place. Success!

Then, we loaded the empty barrels we would bring into Town with us to fill up in December into the truck, followed by months of recycling and last but not the least: months old stinky trash. Oh joy. Me and my overalls probably stunk to high heaven but the day was finally done (minus still making dinner, finishing packing, fussing with last odds and ends, oh and harvesting all of our herbs and sorting all of their soils and laying the herbs out to dry).

 

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Mmmm…extra frozen veggies. The last supper.

 

Finally it was time to rest.

 

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Skis safe inside and ready to ride

 

Until morning.

The morning was a whirlwind and stress levels were high. I’m the type that runs back to the house to see if the burner on the stove is still on. Leaving the house for a long day can be stressful. Leaving the house for two months? A little more. And so we spent the morning buzzing around, drinking less than delicious tea to propel us into our day and being snippy. You could feel the tension in the air, both of us trying to remember what it was we must be forgetting, doing last-minute check-ins with one another (“did you remember your passport? Wait, did I?”), taking every box out from under the bed (this is basically a days work in and of itself) to try to find my sleeping bag and still coming up empty-handed, pouring out last glasses of water, putting possible breaking glass (pickles, etc.) into the sink, draining the reservoir that the sink comes from, making sure the shower was drained and moving it inside, turning off the propane, sweeping, packing last bits and going in and out of the house so many times it would have made an onlooker dizzy.

Needless to say, it was hectic and Cinda was not into it. Dogs know and she knew we were headed out. She started to noticeably panic that we were going to leave her behind. Finally, she simply ran up to the truck and jumped in.

Well, almost. She is one heck of a hiker but her gold medal event has never been the high jump. She jumped…and then landed with a “thud” on her back. She was fine, she had merely wounded her pride. We tried to convey to her that we weren’t leaving without her.

A statement which she apparently heard and wholeheartedly took as fact.

And now I remember those famous last words: “we won’t leave without you.”

Finally the truck was packed up. Our suitcases were in, our Winter gear for the cold and extra heavy-duty gear for in case we got stranded on our way in this December, was in the truck. A dear friend had offered to let me keep my plants at her house since they stay the Winter and so all of my plant babies (it’s amazing how happy the sight of something green in the dead of Winter makes you fell) were tucked into the truck’s many compartments, ready to make the 20 mile drive over a very bumpy dirt road journey (which they would hopefully survive) to their house. We had ratchet strapped down the load and I had packed lunch.

We were ready to go.

Oops, forgot to turn off the propane.

O.K. now we were ready to go.

“Lou-lou!” We called out in unison to our pup.

No sign of her.

“Cinda bones! It’s time to go!” (she has more nicknames than Imelda Marcos had shoes)

Nothing.

Moments earlier (it had actually been an hour but it felt like minutes) she had been dying to get in the truck, so afraid to be left behind and now that she had attempted to jump in.

Now, she was nowhere to be found.

We weren’t leaving without her.

“We won’t leave without you.”

Famous last words.

 

 

…To be continued.

 

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Snow on the mountains on our last walk to The River