2017

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - The dip

The California Contrast

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

 

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

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

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

Chopping wood.

Pumping gas.

Hauling water.

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

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

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

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

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

The contrast was always one I appreciated, until recently.

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

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

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

I never expected it.

The contrast.

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

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - First Snowfall

The Ramp of Doom Returns…Happy Falling!

 

 

Fire and Ice.

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - Panorama

 

 

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

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - First Snowfall Walk

And a Fly-By Neighbor Pup

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.

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

Stay safe all.

 

California, I’m coming home.

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - Morning Glory

The morning glory blooms in the face of Winter.

 

 

NOTE:

Dear reader,

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

Anything and everything helps. Thank you.

https://www.redwoodcu.org/northbayfirerelief

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - RCU Donate

 

 

 

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

The Little Letting-Gos

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

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Golden Hour

 

 

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

 

The quiet.

 

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

Well, it has settled.

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

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

 

 

 

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Fall fades.

 

 

 

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

The slow transition.

I outwitted the last slow change.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Super fuzz face

 

 

 

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

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

It, of course, didn’t happen.

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

 

 

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Fall time foliage

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Solo shadow.

 

 

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

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

Little letting-gos.

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

Little letting-gos.

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

Cinda Jones kennel.

Today was the day to give it up.

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

The little letting-gos.

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

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

I highly recommend it.

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

 

 

 

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

Sourdough Sunset

 

 

 

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

And for the first time, it’s O.K.

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

 

 

 

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

Cozy comfy

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

‘Tis the season.

 

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

 

 

 

The Breakdown: A Winter Edition

With an arsenal of two snow machines and household of two people, our Winter transportation situation was looking pretty darn good. We were sitting pretty on two machines that while imperfect, were perfectly fine.

We came home, anxious to ditch four wheels for two skis and ditch them we did, promptly upon our return to Alaska.

That was, until we fell of our high ponies and onto our feet.

And even though I knew not to be surprised, I still was. Actually stunned is more appropriate. Surprised, no. You see, living here, we are used to the breakdown. This place can be hard. Hard on clothes, hard on the body and hard on vehicles. And so, when things fail (which they surely might) you aren’t surprised. You are, however, encouraged by necessity to find the next best option.

This past Summer, both of our trucks failed. Oh joy. Thankfully, we could get pretty much get by without them. They were a help, a treat and apparently too good to be true. Before their demise I often chose to walk instead of drive anyways, but the lack of a choice made me suddenly wish I had one. I took to walking or riding little Bluebell or…riding our new to us four-wheeler (!) while The Chief patrolled with the fire truck. We were both covered, until we weren’t. Without a truck of our own, we were at the mercy of the elements and in a place like Alaska where the weather changes faster than you can say “Look at that thunderhead coming in…” I can’t count how many times I was caught in a downpour.

Oh well.

Time to walk or ride or drive the 4-wheeler a little faster. Shelter awaits at home.

 

And so, it was quite the relief this Winter to come home to a snowglobe like magical land where the roads were covered in 16 inches of snowpack over which it was preferable to travel by snow machine.

And we had two.

Two people.

Two machines.

 

 

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Extra extravagant mail day taking two machines just for the hell of it.

 

 

Too good to be true.

 

The first month was flawless. While both machines had some steering issues (the Polaris I mainly ride takes all the muscle I have to turn and braking? Well, that’s more of a suggestion than a reality. The Tundra The Chief mainly drives has more play in the steering than a Kindergarten class at recess but still, she drove just fine as long as she had a vigilant rider ready to dig her out) we were feeling beyond lucky. The Chief fired up the machines first thing the morning after we arrived. They started right up and he looked like a kid with a Christmas Day toy driving circles around the property making trails for us so we wouldn’t have to trudge through the hip-deep snow to get everywhere.

That was then.

And, in fact, that is now as well, sort of.

But the in between? Well, that’s where the story and the game of Musical Machines, for which we didn’t sign up, begins.

 

It was a sunny day in February amongst a string of solid grey weeks. Those days call to the Locals as if they were summoned with a bullhorn. Get up! Get out! And so, before we had even gotten through our first sip of coffee for the day, the phone started ringing.

River Trip.

Within minutes of the first call, the yard started filling up with willing participants. A few machines were stopping for mail or whatnot on the way over on the other side of The River and so we waited and caffeinated up and packed snacks for a day out on the ice. The plan was to head down The River trail to The Confluence and then head upriver to the wide open wilds of the even Bigger River nearby. It was a scouting mission. No one had gone up yet (that we knew of). Talk turned to years past, predictions and approaches and the excitement and anticipation grew.

The Tundra had been having trouble the week before, stuttering ceaselessly and so badly that The Chief would have to stop every minute or so to turn off the machine and restart it, making his 30 minute drive home from work closer to an hour in the sweet sub-zero temperatures of February in Alaska (I made a lot of stew and other warm hearty meals that week to try to take the chill off of him when he walked through the door). However, after many a discussion and just as much input from others, The Chief thought he had it narrowed down to bad gas. I swear, I heard the term “bad gas” more times in that one week than I have in my entire life. The Chief didn’t mean an odorous situation, he meant water in the gas due to temperature fluctuations but I giggled every time nonetheless. Our friends who filled our yard had brought a gas treatment (ha!) with them to rectify the problem and so, after gassing up and adding treatment the machine started up just fine.

Problem solved.

We were stoked to have the machine back to normal. The problem had been going on for a week already and the frustration was mounting, especially since The Chief had just made his final payment on it. The machine was ours and…suddenly, it didn’t work.

But all of that was behind us now.

The day was calling and soon, everyone was there. The final layer process started. Gloves started going on, face masks and hats and hoods were arranged and lastly, goggles and ear protection. Everyone was suited up and ready to go. The Chief went to start our machine and I jumped on. Amongst the roar of the 7 or so other machines around us, I couldn’t tell what was wrong but I knew it was something as I saw The Chief’s face change from excitement to a furrowed brow. I took off my ear protection to a very particular sound:

Silence.

Our machine was the only one not rumbling.

Oh.

No.

The ready riders were looking around, giving thumbs up or head pats to signal readiness, but slowly word got around via signals. We were grounded.

It wouldn’t start.

Out of nowhere.

Ten minutes earlier, it was fine. Now, nothing.

And so, ten heads came together to try to figure out the latest problem with our problem child machine. Tools came out and cowlings came off. Battery tests were done, inspections completed. Hoping that the battery was simply low due to the constant stopping and starting it had taken to run the machine the week prior and thus, in its weakened state couldn’t power the starter, we got out the gas. We filled the generator and proceeded to lose layers as the cold machine would refuse to start. The Chief pulled and pulled again and again. We traded. I shed layers and took a few turns. Tired out, we traded again. He finally got it started. It died. He started it again. One minute of running. It died again. The next fifteen minutes continued in this fashion until finally, she was purring away. Hot and tired, we then hooked her up to our charger, hoping a simple bit of battery juice would have us up and running in no time. The River Trip was still a reality.

We rotated with the sun, trying to stay in her rays as she moved across the sky, each step bringing us closer to no trip than the last despite how much we wanted to go.

In an hour, the battery read charged but still, nothing.

Words like “the starter” began to get thrown around.

Ruh roh (obviously said in a Scooby Doo voice).

Just hearing that word made dollar signs appear in my eyes. We opted to hope that the battery was in fact reading ready when in fact it was not. We decided to leave the charge on.

 

The sun was starting her final descent and the fervor of the day was dying down but instead of lose the day completely, we decided to all pile onto the working machines that we did have and head down to The River to catch the view and have a snack. Adventure time would come again but for now, it was time to warm up in the sunshine. Despite our attempts to follow the sun, she was an elusive lady, weaving in and out of our grove of Spruce. We were chilled and antsy and so, we headed out for a little bit of adventure in the little bit of day left.

It was gorgeous and the sheer excitement one feels when riding in a group en masse down to The River makes even a short ride feel like an epic adventure.

A few hours later, dark was upon us and as we settled into the cabin, an exhausting list of potential problems for the machine ran through our heads but the word “starter” circled most prominently. We crossed our fingers and cozied up for the night.

The machine, it turns out, cozied up for the month. After further tests and dollar signs that seemed to be multiplying we finally weeded out the problem. It was the starter. We hoped. We waited for the part, praying it would be the one to solve the problem. But, in the mean time, reminded ourselves that we were lucky: we had the Polaris.

The trusty old steed had gotten The Chief through many a Winter and had been the first machine I had ever ridden or drove. We both had a soft spot for her and her very 90’s pink and blue bedazzling. Riding around together we felt nostalgic and grateful to still be up a machine while also down one. Things could be worse.

What did you say?

Things could be worse?

Well, yes, they certainly could!

A few days after the Tundra gave out I was at our neighbors’ house. They were just getting in for the season and we had spent the few days prior breaking trails around their house, first by snowshoe (sidenote: I thought that snowshoeing was some sort of leisurely stroll through the woods. Something people in Norway do with sweet pink cheeks and holiday-ish sweaters to boot. I assumed it was followed by a picnic. Wrong. Very wrong. Within minutes I was shedding layers and still sweating. My whole face was red instead of the adorable blush I had pictured. Leisure? No. Lots of work? Yes. Still fun? Yes.) then by our trusty machine over and over again until they were packed down. The Chief and I had ridden the Polaris over to greet them and grab our goodies. The Chief left to help the guy neighbor and another friend get settled in the driveway while I talked with the lady neighbor, one of my best friends. An hour went by before we realized that, well, an hour had suddenly gone by. The boys still weren’t home. Where were they?

A few minutes later they pulled into the drive. I heard what I thought were the two machines and I saw the right amount of faces to go along with those machine and so I thought nothing of it. That is, until I saw The Chief’s face (it’s pretty telling).

“I swear, I wasn’t doing anything too ridiculous.” (a clear sign, later to be proven by confession, that he in fact had been doing something a little ridiculous, thought not too ridiculous)

“What happened?”

The boys then relayed their tale.

The machine had broken down. Our trusty steed, grounded. The track had essentially been stripped. She couldn’t even get home. She was stranded on the road, he hadn’t even made it all the way to the neighbor’s house. It was dark and cold and our friends had been traveling for months. A rescue mission was in order but not tonight. It would have to wait for the sun to rise.

And rise she did.

We awoke the next day to the realization (which perhaps should have sunk in on our walk home) that we were now completely without any machine and all the while quickly approaching the best month for snow machining: March.

Aside from adventure, our machines are highly utilitarian. Hauling firewood? Machine, please. Hauling goods to and from mail? Machine, please. Going anywhere not nearby or that will carry over into the evening.? Machine, please.

 

 

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Tire delivery! My first time hauling a load behind me.

 

 

Oh, and then there was the slight issue of caretaking.

Yup. As perfect Alaskan timing would have it, we were at the very beginning of a two-week house/pet caretaking stint. The house was a little over a mile away and by snow machine the whole process of turning on lights for the ducks and chickens, collecting eggs, filling their water bowls, cuddling the pup, scooping poop and shoveling fresh snow, feeding him breakfast or dinner and watering him as well, turned into a 40 minute escapade if I was rushing. Without a vehicle, this twice daily early morning and late evening set of tasks was about to be daunting.

I set off on skis that morning, our second day of caretaking. An hour and a half later I returned. It was 20 below that morning. Before I was even awake I was out an into the elements. Thankfully(?) the cold slapped me awake. My eyelashes were clumped into icicles and my hands were so cold that I had broken an egg because I couldn’t feel how tightly I was gripping it. Thankfully, it was so cold that the yolk froze almost immediately and I could break the little yolk-cicles off of my gloves in clumps. What an adventure. And in about 12 hours, we were set to do it all over again. Double days. I felt like I was back in high school soccer hell week.

 

 

 

 

The Chief phoned another neighbor, not yet in Alaska for the season and asked if pretty, please with sugar on top could we use his snow machine until we could get one of ours working? Thankfully, he gave us the green light.

Borrowing things in the lower 48 is one thing. Sure, I’m still careful, but there’s a less ominous feeling around it. Borrowing things out here is completely different. You break it, you buy it still may hold true but when things are hard to come by, waiting for a replacement is less than ideal. With the mechanical luck we were having, I started to feel a bit like we were snow machine cursed and the idea of borrowing our friend’s only machine when he was coming home in just a few short weeks terrified me.

What to do…?

We used the machine delicately and brainstormed for a solution that involved us only and didn’t risk anyone else’s property. In the middle of our mental thunderclouds we remembered: a couple of friends had found an abandoned snow machine a month or so back. They had eventually found its previous owner who wanted nothing to do with it and so, a running snow machine was suddenly in the valley, a sort of traveling workhorse with no home that might fit perfectly in our suddenly abandoned stables.

A few days and some figuring of whom it was we actually needed to contact about the machine, a handshake and an exchange later and we had a running snow machine again! The Chief spent the next few days fixing the beauty up and before long, she was as good as new.

Suddenly, a weight was lifted. We high-fived one another, giddy with disbelief at our seemingly intertwined mix of good and bad fortune.

We had a working snow machine.

The Winter again opened up in front of us. There were rivers to cross, trees to haul and trails to put in. And suddenly, we could go.

 

 

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Testing out the new digs. She’s got what it takes.

 

 

Finally, one day, the part for the Tundra was due on the mail plane. The Chief and a neighbor had gone to mail and, surprise, surprise! It had shown up. I was at the neighbor’s home, visiting with my girlfriend when I heard the good news. I headed home to see how it was going.

We had been invited to a dinner party across the river that night but since I was still nursing a neck injury we had planned on staying home.

Yet, in the excitement of the part arriving and the potential for yet another working machine, I got riled up. “If we can get it working, we will go” I thought to myself as I walked home and…

She fired right up.

The whole debacle took little more than ten minutes and that was mainly to get through the packaging. Within the hour, we were suited up and off to dinner on our newly working machine. The ride home became a bit more treacherous as we tried to navigate the windblown path. Our tracks were almost gone and the night was dark and the trail rutted. The starter had fixed the mechanical mishap but the steering was still off and the ruts tipped us over.

 

 

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Imagine this crunchy top layer from rain then freeze but all covered up with new windblown snow…and pitch black. Surprises everywhere!

 

Thankfully, we made it home all in one piece but something was off.

But the machine was sputtering again.

All that work, a month of trial and error and hundreds of dollars and hair-pulling hours out in below zero temperatures and the initial problem was back.

The next day, The Chief went to inspect it further.

Same thing. Still sputtering.

And so, we were back down to one machine of our own and one to borrow.

Up one, down one. Up two, down to nothing. Two steps forward, one mile back.

It felt like an awkward dance of two stepping that neither of us had signed up for. When people would come by, they would count the machines to see if we were home. 4 was the new magic number. Our front yard was quickly starting to look like a junkyard with the old Polaris towed home, the new Polaris parked proudly, the Tundra in a constant state of undress and the Bravo ready to save us. Our little arsenal was a rag-tag team but hey, it was a team nonetheless.

In all honesty, sure it’s frustrating, but going into the Winter equipped to the nines with a snow machine for each person? What were we thinking? Of course something had to go wrong, we just weren’t prepared for everything to go wrong. Nonetheless, the lesson still rings clear.

Each day the machine starts up, I feel a little sense of relief, but I also know that if it doesn’t, we will be O.K. In the midst of everything, when we were down to zero machines and our neighbor with whom The Chief often goes logging had zero working machines as well, we still were O.K. Another neighbor had offered his machine but not before we had already started planning our neighborhood log hauling party. We would divide into two teams: one team to clear brush and carry back lengths of trees to the houses, the other team would take down the trees. We would Hi-Ho Hi-Ho ourselves in Seven Dwarf fashion back to two full wood sheds together.

Thankfully, the next day the neighbor’s machine magically started working again and he spent the day with The Chief hauling firewood back and forth for our wood shed. Sure, he could have done one tree for him and one for us but instead, he focused on setting us up because he was now the one with the machine.

It’s things like this that make me feel like I truly landed in the right place. There’s no question. Everyone helps. There’s no need for tit for tat tab keeping, heck, there’s rarely even a need to ask. Everyone jumps in. We are family.

Thank goodness for a valley that provides random snow machines and those ready to rescue them, to the kindness of friends and the necessity of neighbor-family. And thank goodness for a place like Alaska that puts it all in perspective. I’m trying not to take it for granted.

Thank you for Winter transport and for the trials. They’ve put it in perspective.

That being said, perspective intact, can we please, please can we have a Summer vehicle this year?

Pretty please? Sugar on top.

Only time (and some serious mechanical fenagling) will tell. Until then, fingers crossed and snow machines savored.

 

 

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BTB //

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mirror Mirror

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

A few weeks ago I saw what I looked like in a full-length mirror. It was the first time I’d seen myself in almost two months.

Up until last year, a stint that long away from a mirror would have been laughable, if not impossible.

Sure, I’ve been without mirrors while traveling but inevitably a mirror would appear. For as long as I can remember my lapses between glimpses weren’t far off or few between.

All my life, I grew up with a plethora of mirrors. Big mirrors, small mirrors, full-length, magnified, you name it. In those mirrors I wasted a lot of time. I don’t want to paint the picture that I was some self-obsessed little lady smiling at my reflection. It was quite the contrary. I’d look into the mirror with scrutiny, wishing for change. I’d condemn myself for flaws and nitpick every inch. I’d change outfits twice just to go to the gym and I’d run through my whole closet for a mundane Monday at school, leaving myself with an overwhelming pile of clothing to put away and an uneven sense of self and a poor representation of what I actually thought was important.

I remember my Grandma Gam gently mentioning to me that I spent quite a bit of time in the bathroom getting ready. Sure, I was 13 (a little preening she could expect and would tolerate) but what was it, she wondered, that was so important to get ready for? Her beauty routine was simple and concise and freed her for other more important endeavors like reading and learning, helping others and exploring nature (to name a few). I on the other hand would miss whole family meals because of my mirror time and, in turn, would lose out on those important moments together. I scolded myself for these misses. Yet I felt trapped. Trapped by expectation and beholden to an image while simultaneously feeling disdainful of both of these things. The constant tug-of-war between caring and not caring exhausted me. My values didn’t line up with my actions and the dissonance made me miserable.

The younger years can be trying for any tyke and thankfully, age took hold and the battle lessened. I started to love myself in whatever outer packaging I came in. I moved into a career that forced me to be body positive and kind to myself since I was supposed to be a model to my students to do the same. I faked it until I made it. Yet still, even with a better outlook I highly doubt that without having mirrors removed from my life by chance, that they ever would have removed by choice.

Upon inadvertently moving to the woods I realized that The Town and the homes within it had a serious lack of mirrors. The sinks in the bathroom at The Bar weren’t even adorned with mirrors and none of the houses I visited had much more than a simple small mirror for the whole house.

 

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My first glimpse at my new perspective.

 

At first, I was taken aback. At second, I was relieved. I would get dressed in a jiffy and check to make sure I didn’t have anything too offensive to look at (food in the teeth, etc.) and then I was out the door. Sometimes in Town I would see my reflection in a shop window and at times I had to giggle at my reflection – hmmm I didn’t realize those pants looked like that. I look like MC Hammer. Oh well, Hammer Time! Plus, the reflection was never the crisp image a mirror provides, just a vague Van Gogh style painting of me which allowed me to fill in the blanks with what actually matters. Do I look like a kind person today? Am I bringing joy to those I encounter? Am I open and noticing the beauty that surrounds me? Am I allowing the sheer enormity of this place put things in perspective?

 

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What is really important and what do I want to spend time on?

Without being able to see outward I was forced to focus inwards, towards what I felt and how I made others feel. The focus wasn’t on me, but on how I walked through this world and the current I created for others. I felt so relieved, like my blinders had come off and I had finally joined in.

These days, my mirrors consist of one mirror, the same tiny old driver’s side mirror salvaged from a truck that sits in our kitchen on the windowsill above our sink. I’ve lived here for almost two years and we’ve changed so many things in the house together, but that I don’t ever plan to change.

Just like in the Summer, the only full-length glimpses I catch of myself are window reflections which come after sunset as the dark of night plays with the inside light. The image is distorted and fuzzy leaving me to rely on how I feel and how I make others feel instead of how I look.

 

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There’s also a lot of perspective from shadows…like don’t take it too seriously. Since when did my legs get so long and my head get so small?

 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve shared with you my propensity for an eyelash curler and blush even out here and I’ll take any excuse to dress up and when we are in California it happens even more. Tuesday? Oh, you mean Dress Up Tuesday. But now, it’s because I enjoy it, not because I feel required to do it or because I want to get away from just plain old me. It’s a change of pace, a costume for a day, a character but not a mask I’m afraid will come off and reveal the me underneath.

The other day we went to a dinner party at a friend’s house and on the way over, I realized that I hadn’t looked in our little mirror even once. In the (now becoming more distant) past, I would have spent an hour curling my hair or donning makeup, all in front of the mirror. That sheer break from tradition made me smile as we snowmachined across the river and through the woods to open arms and not a care as to how we looked, just that we were there.

Thank goodness for shifts in perspective and for places that force us into that shift. Thank you for chances to be completely stripped of all you’ve thought you needed to shield yourself in, in order to discover the soft underbelly that lies beneath.

 

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And thank you for Grandmas who give us little reminders of who we really are, and what really matters, even if it takes almost two decades to hear her.

Roger that, Grandma. Loud and clear.

 

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Right here, cake is important little one. Your hair looks fine.

 

 

The Mail Plane

I love getting mail.

Don’t you?

Real mail.

Not bills.

Not solicitations.

Not catalogs that look like they’ve logged an entire forest for each shipment.

Real mail. Something you see and it immediately draws you elsewhere, to the place and the person whence it came.

Certainly, in our digital age where I can find out what a friend had for breakfast and what her day looks like without even talking to her, the handwritten letter has become outpaced.

Yet there isn’t a single person with whom I’ve exchanged addresses that upon the end of our transaction doesn’t immediately say (insert slight squealing inflection) “Oh, I love receiving mail!”.

And, to add a cherry (Amarena, please) to that sundae let’s talk about the best kind of mail there is (besides, perhaps, a love letter): care packages.

The first time I ever went away to Summer Camp my Mom brought up the now never-ending wormhole of the world of Care Packages (she had no idea what she was getting herself into).

What is this I hear? Special packages? Just for me? It’s not my birthday or Christmas or any other present day. So what is this magical package you speak of and how do I get my hands on one?

My mind did a backflip as I tried to steady myself long enough to answer emphatically that yes, of course I wanted a care package. Care packages would be best, if you get my drift.

I had never heard of such a thing.

But sure enough it was real and apparently a secret everyone else had heard as well. I arrived at camp and not a day later kids were receiving care packages. One day? This seemed excessive. Most of us lived a mere 15 minute drive away from the camp. Big whoop. Get a hold of yourselves. One day. Sheesh!

Yet by day 7, when I received my care package, my tune had changed. I nearly ripped the wrapping open with my teeth I was so excited to see what was inside. And within the box there was (cue the angels singing in the background)…

A Mama Note (always read the note first. Always).

Trinkets that I can’t exactly remember but for which I am grateful, nonetheless.

and…

Brownies!!!

???

Wait, did my Mom just send me brownies? My Mom? The Mom of mine whom offers me dessert in the form of grapes or strawberries (both of which I would accept quite gratefully at the moment), if I am lucky? Sure there was the occasional ice cream treat or dessert birthday or random bag of Milano cookies that I didn’t love but would eat nonetheless. Yet for the most part, we rarely had sweets in the house. Friends would always mention it when they came over. Where are your sweets?

Heck if I know but…we aren’t at home anymore and some sweets just showed up…in my care package.

To my 9-year old self this wasn’t just about the chocolatey goodness, it was about the freedom for my sugar craving self to ration these brownies however I liked. And how did that go? Well straight to Stomach Ache City, of course.

Despite my tumbling tummy, since then, the idea of a care package was the ultimate in extended stays away from home. My Mom once sent me a cake in Washington, D.C. where I was going to school, for my 18th birthday. It was an Almond Torte, the official cake of our birthdays ((we are one week (and I guess also some years) apart and so our birthdays were often a communal celebration)). She shipped it 3,000 miles so that I would have a little piece of home with me.

That’s really what it is…it’s a piece from somewhere else. A piece of you that you send to someone else or perhaps a pieces of them they didn’t know they were missing.

And out here, scarcity makes those pieces even more special.

You see, out here our mail comes in via plane. There’s no mail man or mail woman roaming the backwoods in search of our mailbox because we don’t have one. The mail goes to the nearest Post Office about 4 hours away where we all “have” P.O. Boxes. This creates quite the fuss. Even the Post Office will tell you that our address doesn’t exist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to coax people into just sending something anyway. I know the address doesn’t come up as real. It’s not. There are no P.O. Boxes in the Post Office for us. Instead, there is our Mail Shack, 4 hours away with our boxes inside.

 

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Weather permitting, mail comes in twice a week.

Twice.

Weather permitting.

In the Winter, those three words mean quite a lot.

This last week we were pummeled by rain and the planes couldn’t fly. Last month snowstorms made flying impossible as well. Now before you judge away, know that these aren’t newbie pilots; these pilots will fly when I will barely even step outside. Yet sometimes even they meet their weather match and find themselves grounded by intuition or regulations or both. And so, we wait. For each day following a non-delivery, they attempt to come in. Sometimes the next day’s skies are Bluebird (I love this expression and I’d never heard it until here. Bright blue skies as far as the eye can see), sometimes they follow suit with the day before. Either way they keep trying until eventually, the next mail day comes.

 

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A panoramic which flips the buildings but still, the airstrip is the big gap in the middle.

And when it does, it’s quite the site to be seen. Sure, The Chief has seen it a million times and so has everyone else and I’m the only one sitting out there, mouth gaping wide in amazement at how this tiny little plane can land in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter in the middle of a snowfield. I look like the newbie and that’s O.K. because I don’t know if it will ever cease to amaze me.

 

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The runway. Not exactly flat, eh?

 

Down the plane touches and the group of mail-goers gather around the little plane, shouting greetings to the Pilot. Mail Day is quite the social event around here. If you need a familiar face, or just a face other than your own (I’m always surprised by how many people I still don’t know at Mail), Mail is the place to go. Twice a week (ideally) there you are, amongst what feels like a bustling town (let’s use bustling lightly, shall we). The most people I’ve ever seen at mail was the coldest day we’ve had here: 10 people at 30 plus below zero. That was a crowd! Mail was sorted in no time.

Sorted?

Yep.

Remember how there’s no one roaming the woods to deliver the mail? Well there certainly isn’t someone to sort it either

 

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Ooooo! We got one!

 

And so, after the mail is hauled off the plane and everyone grabs a pile to sort and plays bundled up bumper cars with one another as they try to get the mail to its rightful destination and people admire the different packages coming in and call out “Which box is Garrity?” and someone (or a few someones) answer(s) “#62B” and the piles get smaller and the boxes get fuller…well then, mail is done.

Someone watches everyone shuffle out and calls last call for the heater before they switch it off and shut the door. There’s no lock, no key. It’s the people’s place. Soon, everyone starts to pack up their packages and mail into whatever receptacle they carry them home in. Some people haul their treasures behind them as they ski all the way home (I’m always impressed by one woman in particular, she lives out past our house and does the long slog back and forth). Some ride bikes. Some walk. Some drive snow machines with boxes and sleds for goodies and still others drive from farther out. And just like that, it’s over

 

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The mountains behind Mail

 

It’s like a big birthday party, everyone is there and then…no cake. Party’s over.

Or is it?

Because despite the dwindling crowd, you still get to go home with your bounty. Our bounty usually includes bills, Costco magazines and lots of mail for the Fire Department.

Yippee!

But sometimes, that yippee drops its sarcastic undertones (those weren’t serving it anyways, right?) and becomes its true yelping self.

Real mail!

Now, on occasion, the package is from none other than yours truly. Oh, you shouldn’t have! With the advent of Amazon, ordering a self-addressed care package is a little easier but there are still so many things that won’t even ship to Alaska and still fewer that will ship to our little P.O. box so the world-wide web of wonder really can still be quite limited. And besides, since we find ourselves in the middle of Winter on a middle of Winter budget, ordering treats just doesn’t really happen very often.

Which makes real mail that much more special.

Chocolate?! Homemade cookies?! Special doggie treats for Lou-Lou?! A card just to say “hello”?!

This is what mail magic is made of. The scarcity of the woods makes even the littlest thing unbelievably special. When I think of the journey a simple note had to make to get to us, I’m humbled. It brings those whom I love closer. They enter my home with their letters even if their feet have never set foot on Alaskan tundra. They make our home truly ours as their drawings are hung to see and their chocolate is consumed slowly – savoring each piece (this is a big change for me). It keeps my far away family close and keeps traditions going.

 

Back in California, my Mom and I do the local paper’s crossword together every morning.

Actually, let me rephrase that:

Every morning, my Mom makes a copy of the crossword for me. Then does the crossword herself, waiting for me to wake up and follow suit. It’s a tradition that I love, that we started a long time ago but only recently perfected before my first Winter in Alaska.

Now, since she can’t leave a copy for me on the dining room table, she sends me installations. Sometimes I get behind and then do a week’s worth in one sitting and sometimes I do them every morning. I have a backlog for long flights and lazy days but I keep doing the new ones when I get them because each time I open one, I feel the time she put into it. I can see her going to the copier and folding the paper just so. I can see her driving to the Post Office and talking about her daughter in Alaska to whom she has to get a special package. I love these thoughts and images and the memories they bring up with them.

When I first decided to come to Alaska, I didn’t realize just how far out I was going. I never even thought about the mail situation because despite never seeing a mailbox, it didn’t occur to me that mail flew in. Plus, I wasn’t staying, right?

It’s almost two years later and it seems that, in fact, I am staying. I’m staying in a place at the end of 60 miles of dirt road which is now 60 miles of ice (thanks, rainstorm). I live in a place where there’s no running water or guaranteed electricity, where washing my clothes takes two days and where we send in blank checks or clearly too much money to the Postmaster because there’s no Post Office to tell us how much a package will cost to send (the Postmaster then fills out the check or sends us our change in the form of stamps). I live in this place and it still tickles me to realize that this very non-normal place has become my new norm.

 

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It’s a place that has brought me back to simple pleasures and childhood excitements. When I look at the clouds, I see animals and faces again instead of simply puffs of white. I enjoy the special treat of a chocolate bar and… I write and receive letters (and some super stellar care packages) again. People always say this place is like adult summer camp and it’s times like this when I couldn’t agree more.

So if you’re so inclined, I encourage you to send someone a letter or a package. It doesn’t have to be much. A little goes a long way. I can guarantee they won’t be disappointed and I bet you’ll feel pretty darn good about it too.

May your mail be speedy and full of real mail.

With love,

 

From Alaska.

 

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P.S. Thank you to those steady soldiers who show up to Mail every Mail Day and sort for the town. I appreciate you.

 

 

 

Back to Basics (and Buckets)

One week ago I was returning home from a walk with Lou when I noticed The Chief underneath the house.

Peekaboo?

As I approached him I could tell that this trip below the deck, in particular, was an ominous one at best. I slid down the little hill like a penguin on my bum  to meet him and noticed our tea kettle sitting next to him on the frozen ground. Steam surrounded him. In his hand he was holding a pipe.

A very important pipe.

The pipe that insured that the water inside the house would go outside the house.

You see, until a week ago, we had indoor plumbing.

Well, sort of.

We lived in an only Slightly Dry cabin.

No, I’m not talking about a Slightly Dry Cabin like a meant-to-be-dry-but-there-are-ways-around-it dry county or a Dry Cabin with a slightly leaky roof or even a Dry Cabin with a damp draft dismally descending upon us.

Nope.

Slightly Dry.

Until last week.

Now, we are edging towards a Dry Cabin. Not as dry as some. Not as dry as the desert perhaps, but dryer than before, like we started. Back to basics. Back to buckets.

O.K. what in the world am I talking about? Dry, Slightly Dry? It sounds like a deodorant commercial or a martini order.

Let’s define our terms, shall we? Mind you, these definitions are my own (move over OED), and just like how every house out here is different, every person might have their own idea of what dry means. But for our house and as I see it, my definition of a Dry Cabin goes like so:

No indoor running water. No toilet, no shower, no faucet. No, no, no.

O.K. that’s direct but just too basic. Let’s dig in deeper.

Dry cabins come in all different variations and there is definitely a range of “Dry” but the overarching theme and the starting point is a lack of indoor plumbing. Because we choose to reside in the boonies, we don’t simply call up the city and turn on the waterworks. There is no city to call, no water to be tapped into. That goes for everyone out here.

Our cabin has no indoor to outdoor plumbing (now) to speak of which means that every drop of water that we use or consume we have to haul not only into the house but out of the house, in some fashion or another.

Every drop.

When I lived in California, the state was in a drought. We conserved water. We collected rainwater to flush the toilet and we turned the faucet off in between rinsing dishes. We were conscious but despite this consciousness towards using less I was completely unconscious of how much water I still used.

Now, I know. I can account for every bit of water I use as I can actually see the levels dropping on the water buckets we haul into our house. From brushing my teeth to putting a kettle on, never do I use water without first having to retrieve it, either from its source (our well) or from a reservoir in our house. It’s a strange thing to realize that my whole life, I’ve had water on demand and now, it demands that I come to collect it.

And so, we haul our water into our Slightly Dry cabin that has become a little dryer as of late.

So what is the range? A completely Dry Cabin has absolutely no running water. Water is hauled from a local spring or a well outside (which we are lucky enough to have on our property, saving us hours of hauling time) and stored in buckets inside (outside they would turn to popsicles, but not the delicious kind).

Completely dry cabins may not even have a sink but use wash basins instead in which dishes are done and hands are washed over. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gone to a friend’s house that has no running water and we’ve shared the duty of watering one another meaning: My hands are soapy. Would you mind pouring water from that pitcher over them so I can enjoy the luxury of rinsing both hands at once? When solo there’s also the balancing act of tipping your water jug over a basin while holding it in place with your shoulder in order to free your hands to wash both at once.

To build upon this ingenuity and make things a little easier, people come up with adaptations. The foot pump is one of my favorite. It’s a little ball on the ground (like a doctor’s squeeze ball used to inflate the arm band to take your pulse) which you step on to pump a spurt of water out of the faucet. It may sound time-consuming and it is, but it’s pure luxury when you’re used to nothing at all. The next option is a faucet and sink with a pump. The pump gets turned on when the faucet is turned on and sends water from a nearby reservoir (say, under the sink, ours is an 8 gallon Igloo cooler) up and out the faucet head. The water then goes right back down the drain into an attached pipe which drains into what is aptly named The Slop Bucket (paints a pretty picture, huh?) which is also nearby (ours is sidled up next to the cooler under the sink).

 

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Back in the day when I first moved in.

 

The Slop Bucket has to be emptied quite often in order to insure that all your lovely goodness that goes down the drain doesn’t overflow onto your floor. Mmmm toothpaste and dishwater and everything else you put down the drain surprise all over the floor? Yum. This can be tough to remember when you wake up first thing in the morning to brush your teeth. Still groggy and half asleep you slowly come to and hear the pitch of the draining water change (living out here is a lot of listening I’ve learned) and suddenly you come to and realize you’re about to have an overflow. Yippee! Oh, and even if you can congratulate yourself for not overflowing it (this morning) you still have to be careful not to overfill it because, well, you’re still going to have to carry it outside and without a lid, that can be quite the feat.

But not at our house. Nope. The days of The Slop Bucket were over because…(cue the celebratory music. “Eye of the Tiger”, anyone?)

We had a French Drain.

Adding “French” to anything really makes it sound fancy, doesn’t it? And it was.

French toast. (So much better than regular toast)

French fry. (How did I fried potato suddenly sound like its wearing a tuxedo?)

French drain. (How is it even still a drain? It sounds too fancy for the likes of that.)

So what is a French Drain? Well, our version consisted of a 55 gallon drum with the bottom cut off placed into a deep hole in the ground (no small feat. Digging in Alaska is a challenge at best), insulated, covered and connected to the house via piping that attached to the sink inside through a hole in the floor that was then sealed with lots of spray foam to keep the cold out. The water from the sink would then ideally drain into the drum and slowly seep into the ground.

The Fall before The Chief left to meet me in California he had one goal in mind: no more Slop Buckets and so the French Drain idea went into action.

Personally, I didn’t mind the Slop Bucket all that much. Sure, it was a pain. Sure, the Ramp of Doom made it a bit tricky. But hey, I was in the woods now. I could handle it. Right?

In truth, I probably didn’t realize how often the Bucket went out because in my new love haze I was slow to see all the work that surrounded me. I thought I saw it but in reality, The Chief probably chivalrously swept a lot of it away before I noticed. And so, the first time I hauled water up the Ramp of Doom in the Winter I thanked my lucky stars (and The Chief) for making his Drain goal come true. A slop bucket in the middle of winter on the snowy, slippery slope of our Ramp would have been no fun at all and given my propensity for falling down it, wearing the slop would have made it less than no fun at all (anti-fun?). And so we spent the Winter doing dishes and brushing our teeth without having to constantly check The Bucket’s level. The Drain chugged away without incident and we sat in our slightly less dry cabin looking back fondly on (yet with no intent of returning to) the time so long ago when we had to haul The Slop.

That was last Winter. It was “warm”. The coldest temperature we saw was 22 below zero, which to me seemed pretty brrr-brrr cold but alas, I was mistaken.

 

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I was pretty sure this was pretty cold but sunny at 22 below doesn’t hold a candle to grey at 35 below.

 

Enter: this year.

Just a smidge colder.

In the first stint of 35 below this Winter we realized quickly that we would have to baby The Drain a bit more. We came about this realization after awakening to a list of chores that were quickly put on the back-burner when the drain stopped draining. We listened. No movement. This is bad.

We spent the first half of a day under the house, disconnecting the pipes, bringing them in to defrost, cutting away a portion outside that would not defrost, sending boiling water down the drain via our tea kettle, reconnecting the pipes (which thankfully The Chief had made long enough to still be able to trim in this situation without losing the pipe completely) and finally, getting back to our planned chores.

Phew! That was close.

From then on, we babied the Drain. Every morning, before anything else, we boiled hot water to pour down the drain to clear any buildup from the night (we later realized that the sink was leaking, ever so slightly throughout the night, causing potential blockages so we had to unhook the connections for the pump every night and put a bowl under the faucet in case it still leaked from built up pressure). We constantly had an ear to the drain, listening for the specific sound that meant water was flowing. We watched it like new parents but on it continued.

Until that day, one week ago when I came home.

Since we had once before remedied the situation I didn’t panic upon seeing The Chief under the house. That was, until I saw the pipe on the ground and the exasperated look on his face. The blockage wasn’t in the pipe.

 

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Where the pipe came out of the house.

 

 

It was below.

 

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The pipe down into the earth and drum below. All ice.

 

To this day we still don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe the drum wasn’t far enough below the frost line and everything inside the barrel froze during one of the extended cold spells. Maybe we hadn’t been as meticulous as we thought.

Who knows?

All I know is that we are back to basics and back to buckets.

I guess the Spring will tell us all we need to know about what happened now. Until then, I’ll be working on navigating the stairs with a swishing, sloshing bucket of Slop without falling.

 

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The latest shot of the Ramp of Doom…getting doomier with every drop of rain.

 

And you know what? I’ve kind of enjoyed it. Well, now that I’ve gotten back in the game. It didn’t affect me at first since The Chief took over most of the hauling since my neck was still delicate. But since I’ve embarked upon the Slop duty, I’ve been kind of glad to get back to it. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have a bucket that actually had a lid so it didn’t threaten to paint me sloppy every time I transported it outside but we didn’t have one (the two five gallon buckets with lids are for hauling drinking water and we were not giving one of those up). And I’d love to not have to bring it outside twice a day or more on Dish Days. And I’d love it if the color of the Slop was a glittery gold instead of…ewww. And I don’t love it in the moment. But overall, I’m O.K. with it.

The French Drain was a fancy endeavor and one that made me feel very lucky. Yet going back to basics has put me back in touch again with what I’m using and where it’s going. And still, all around me, I see dryer cabins than our Slightly Dryer Now Slightly Dry Cabin. We have running water, an indoor shower (non-permanent and we bathe into a tote, no plumbing there) and an outhouse (two actually, here is the old outhouse, turned library. Seriously).

 

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Our needs are met as long as we meet the demands of our needs. Sure, there are the days when we get home from a big adventure or a dinner at a friend’s house and realize: shoot, we didn’t pump water before we went and well, it kind of stinks because…

When that happens it’s usually the perfect storm. It’s usually 30 below and the well pump won’t start and we have to warm the generator for an hour to get it going when all we really want to do is sit down and eventually after the generator warms and the pump starts and after 5 trips inside each to fill all the reservoirs (shower, under the sink, the pot on the stove and finally the buckets) and a couple spills and a couple close calls on the Ramp…we are done.

And it could have been a lot harder.

Nowadays, when I go to Town, I have to remind myself to turn on the hot water at the sink because I’m so used to always having cold water come out. I have to remember to use the dishwasher because I’m so used to waiting for the water on the stove to heat up so I can do dishes. I have to stop and appreciate the beauty of a shower uninterrupted by scalding hot and freezing cold flashes of a sputtering water heater. And now, when I am home, I stop to appreciate what we had, what we will likely have again and what we still have.

Thank you Alaska for constantly keeping things in perspective, whether we like it or not.

Cheers to the good life, however that looks to you.

With love,

from Alaska.

 

 

A Little (Mozzarella) Cheesy, But A Lotta True

You know when a friend is coming home from a long stint away and you go over to their house to make sure it’s warm for them before they return?

Nope, me neither. Not before now, at least.

Before moving to the snowy cold of The North I’d certainly helped with the houses of friends but that normally meant giving it a good scrub down, putting a few extras in the fridge and bringing in the mail. And that was if I was house sitting for them. I’d always leave a note and if I had time I’d put some flowers from their garden into a vase. It made me feel good to welcome someone home to a cozy house with a few extra creature comforts to come back to but in sunny California, heat was typically the last perk on my mind.

But not here. Here, flowers would be the magic trick to trump all magic tricks (one time a bouquet of a dozen pink roses flew in on the mail plane and I swear, every person there just stopped, jaws open, staring at the 12 little miracles. Thankfully, someone snapped us all out of it in time to get the roses into a warm car before they starting to freeze). In California, flowers were the icing on the unexpected cake. But here, I didn’t even know the recipe. How does one welcome a friend home in the middle of Winter in the middle of nowhere Alaska?

If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, chances are you’ve encountered the Walk-In, a large refrigerator big enough to house you and a gaggle of friends for a cocktail party. In the middle of service, especially during a crazed rush, it was the perfect place to cool down for a minute, gather some thoughts (and some celery or whatnot for the chefs) and head back into the mayhem feeling a bit more refreshed. Too long and it would get chilly. A few minutes was plenty.

If you’ve ever lived in Alaska, chances are you know exactly the feeling I’m talking about, even if you’ve never worked in a restaurant because I’d bet that you have walked into a frozen house at some point. You know the cold that doesn’t seem that bad at first and then…it starts biting into you, nibble by nibble until your fingers feel hot because they are instead so cold? A frozen house is like a Walk In but of the freezer variety instead of a refrigerator.

You see, when we leave our houses (those of us who leave, that is) the houses, like the whole rest of the landscape around them, freeze.

Completely.

They become little iceboxes of a life preserved, like a house coated in amber but instead, everything is ice. Upon returning from your travels or visits, this little frozen life is awaiting you and it takes hours and hours to defrost. Hours during which you wait in full-winter gear from Parka to 50 below boots and busy yourself moving things inside from your vehicle outside in an attempt to stay warm.

That is, unless you have a good friend and good timing and oh buddy, are you glad when you have both.

We were lucky enough to have both on our way in this year and our chilly selves (from our non-functioning car heater) were beyond grateful to walk into a house that was warmer than the great frosty outdoors.

And so, when the call comes, you return the favor. It may not be returned directly to those who first helped you but it is returned to the great cycle of favors that revolves and evolves around here. A little cosmic karma, if you will.

Well, that call came twofold and right, as fate would have it, in the middle of weeks of 30 to 35 below zero temperatures.

 

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I hadn’t even made it past our driveway and already, everything went white.

 

My girlfriend who had been out-of-town for work (much to my chagrin) called the whole week prior, and together we watched as her departure date approached and the temps dropped and dropped and dropped. In the middle of the cold spell we’d had a “warm” snap and she’d just missed the window. In an effort to get her home as soon as possible (ex-squeeze me but I live in the woods where boys abound and women are hard to find. I need all the ladies I can get) I told her that no matter the temps, I’d be there to heat her house if it meant she’d come home sooner.

My offer helped soften the blow of driving in 30 below temps and the day finally arrived when she was (thankfully) headed home. The Chief and I had planned ahead and brought the generator inside the night before. We awoke to the thermometer reading 33 below zero and so we immediately headed outside to warm the snowmachine by powering a heater with the generator. It would need an hour minimum (if we were being nice to it) to warm before we could leave.

Two hours later, last stops stopped and all loose ends tidied up, my girlfriend gave us the green light. She was headed our way and with a four plus hour drive ahead of her it was time for us to drive her way and warm the house. Thankfully, she lived in a valley on the other side of The River and her temperatures often read warmer than ours. Maybe we’d even hit the 20 belows.

Just as we were starting to suit up to depart, my phone rang. We’d been expecting another friend to be coming into the area soon but hadn’t heard from him about his exact dates. People had been driving through his property to break trail (another thing I never even fathomed before living here: duh, of course. When you arrive home after being absent for months, no one has been on your property. There isn’t a trail in sight. Every time you want to walk or drive somewhere you end up hip-deep in snow. So when someone offers to buzz by your place and put in a few trails so you can wade in more freely, you say “yes, thank you”) for a few weeks so we knew he was close but we still didn’t know when he’d arrive.

Well, as circumstance would have it, he was calling from about 250 miles away. He was heading home.

Tomorrow.

Hmm…my little wheels got to turning. Today would be a full-day of heating, which was great. It felt important and honest and good. Two days of heating houses on the other side of the river? Still important and honest and good, but not as good, right? Let’s multi-task this house heating. And so, without thinking I blurted: “Wanna come in tonight?”

Being the badass that he is, he took little more than a look at his old plan and said: “Yes. Of course. I mean we’ve driven this far, what’s a bit of a haul for the last leg?”

Perfect.

And so, with that, The Chief and Julia’s Heating Service was started. Business was booming.

Just kidding.

Both of our friends’ excitement and gratitude had me fired up. It feels so good to do something for someone else and any time you can make life a little easier for your fellow woods dweller out here, you do it.

And so, we were on our way.

We finished suiting up as we talked out our game plan.

Her house first, then his house, then back and forth for the rest of the day until they arrived. Pack a lot of food for a potentially really long day (even if they were leaving, things happen and fingers crossed everything went smoothly but with one of their cars already acting squirrely, anything could happen). Layers upon layers upon layers and extra clothes for a ski.

Yea, we planned on a ski. Pretty cute, huh?

 

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My skis, your skis and a groomer for making trails. We were outfitted, finally.

 

We got to the first house and the thermometer  inside was so cold that all it said was LO. In computer talk I’m pretty sure that means “Geeeeez! What, are you trying to kill me??”

 

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At least it was only -23 outside though! We set to making a fire. Almost. There was wood a plenty and burnables nearby but since my girlfriend had left at the start of the cold-snap she hadn’t been able to clean out the stove before leaving (it had been too cold to let a fire die, even for a few hours and embers take forever to cool). The stove had ash to be removed first (The Chief is a meticulous fire maker, me on the other hand? I’m more of a cowgirl, fly by the seat of your pants type approach) and so we set to find a receptacle. 20 minutes later, cleaned and ready, The Chief had the stove blazing. We dusted ourselves off and…we were off!

At the next house, we broke trail in from the back entrance, paralleling the air field along the way. We arrived again to a ready bin full of wood and burnables (it’s always smart to leave a good set-up if someone is coming to build a fire. You wouldn’t want them to mistakenly burn say, your tax returns. These two were seasoned pros) and The Chief set to work. Since this friend had left in the Fall, the stove was all ready to go and pretty soon the tanker of a stove was chugging along.

It’s a funny thing going into someone’s house in the dead of Winter, especially when it hasn’t been opened back up since the season before. It’s just been sitting and freezing. Everything has a sheen of ice crystals and immediately, you’re scanning for accidents: was there water in any glass that perhaps exploded? Is everything which can’t heat quickly (think kerosene lamp) far enough away from the fire so it won’t break from the temperature shift? And then you start admiring their shut-down techniques. Boards on the windows or coverings over the bed or how their woodpile is organized. One can’t help but pick up tips along the way.

With both houses chugging along, the most important part now was to keep them going. Oh and to not burn their houses down. Yes, this seems like an obvious one and an easy one but out here fire is both something we absolutely need and something we undoubtedly must have respect for. A stove that gets too hot can set fire to itself and with that, the cabin. Plus, every stove is different. Sure, the overarching idea of “shutting it down” (dampening the fire once it’s gotten going to make it burn hot and steady) is the same but every stove has its own little tricks and quirks and when you’re trying to get from frozen to comfortable in hours, you don’t have the luxury of courting time with each stove.

Heat needs to happen now and so you make sure to watch the stove for as long as possible before heading off to the next house.

And so we did, all day long. Back and forth and forth and back we went. Vigilant to lock all the hatches and triple check the stove doors. A few hours in, both stoves cranking away and the temperatures of the houses slowly thawing, we thought about water. Water is essential to every life and out here, it’s especially hard to come by. Both of the friends get water from the same nearby creek and so once we found their water buckets, we headed down to the creek to fill them.

 

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Fill ‘er up, buttercup.

 

Water in your house here is like flowers in your house in the lower 48, except functional. Having water to get you through the night and the following day, to make your long list of chores just a little bit shorter is huge and since none of us have running water, I could appreciate how much this little act would ease their transitions home.

 

 

 

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All buckled up and ready to go

 

Finally, a few trips more and the first bird to return to the coop called. We met my girlfriend at the airstrip with her sled and after shrieky, bouncy, elated “Hellos”, we started unloading her truck. Three sled loads later, each time with us packed like three little ducks riding in a row on the snowmachine, and her truck was unloaded. One last trip to park the truck (since no vehicle can make it down her driveway with any hope of making it back up again) and back to her house and she had finally “arrived” an hour after she had first pulled up. Home again.

She was over the moon to walk into a warm house that even had, wait for it, water! 5 gallons of My Day Just Got Easier. We celebrated and caught up while The Chief made one last trip to our other friend’s house. They had called to say they were at the last stretch of The Road, they’d be home in an hour. 30 minutes later, The Chief returned we all three celebrated. What a day! We’d been back and forth so many times it would make my head spin to recount it, wearing our heaviest gear to stave off the cold of the day’s 20 to 30 plus below weather. We’d successfully heated and watered two houses (and I had successfully realigned my back after falling straight onto my knee with a huge armload of wood. Oh joy. I swear I heard every vertebrae snap, crackle and pop. Owwwwwww) and our friends were home. So despite any bumps and bruises the reunion trumped all.

Every time someone comes home, our little family here is shifted and changed. A new infusion, new life to our day-to-day and it changes everyone, even if just a little bit.

An hour later, I got a text from our other friend saying that they’d stopped on The Road to visit with one of our friends farther out. It’s a funny thing, the coming and going along the 60 miles of road. There rarely is a time when we haven’t stopped, at least for a bit, to see a good friend we don’t normally see. When it takes 30 minutes just to go 3 miles across the river for a visit, it’s even more unlikely to travel 20 miles for one and so, on the way in or out when you can, you stop to see those you won’t see until the rivers break and the fireweed returns and we all convene back in Town. With that being said, we knew he would no longer be home within the hour and so The Chief headed out again to stoke the fire one last time.

He returned to my girlfriend’s house where we had already broken into her stash. This is the best conundrum of every return: what to eat first? It’s always random and never what you’d think and this time was no different: mozzarella cheese.

When you live in the middle of nowhere and new infusions of food are far and few between, it’s funny the things that sound mouth-wateringly delightful and that night, we all agreed on the cheese. Before long, half the block was gone (along with a solid dent in some tortilla chips and warming whiskey) and it was clear that our other friends would be out past our bedtime. After spending a day almost completely outside (since their houses didn’t start to warm up until early evening and even at that, they were still only 50 degrees, though still a complete respite from the biting cold outside) our bodies were ready to rest.

 

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A little cloud of exhale while eating a snack

 

And so, we headed home and what did we return to?

Well, a warm house.

The house wasn’t warm because we had built a fire that would outlast the day. Even the most amazing fire wouldn’t have been able to hold tight through 8 hours of cold knocking on the door. No, we returned to a warm house because while we were away, our neighbors had been coming by every few hours to throw a log on (or two, and to pet or let in or out our Miss Cinda Lou).

The karma loop continues.

It wasn’t just us that day that heated those houses. It was all of us. Our neighbors and us and every neighbor before them that checked on their house while they were away for the day. When life breaks down to food, shelter and warmth it becoming obvious what is important. Sure, our friends could have returned to cold houses, people have done it forever and still do it all the time. Or we could have spent the day away and returned to a 30 degree house. It’s happened, it happens. But none of us did. We all kept warm because of one another and not to be too (mozzarella) cheesy, but that’s the kind of thing that is the answer to the question I so often get: “Why in the world would you want to live all the way out there?”

Why? Because in a place where you have to be able to rely upon yourself, it’s that much better when you get a little help from your friends.

Cheers to flowers and fires for friends. Sure, we can all do it on our own but what’s the point? Be a friend in need of a warm house or a warm hug, this is what we are here for.

With love,

 

From Alaska.

The Peek-a-Blues

Of the many questions I’ve gotten about living in the middle of nowhere in Alaska, one of the top questions/statements is:

“How do you handle the weather? It must be so gloomy and dark. I could never live there.”

And honestly, as many times as I cheerily answered with “I’m sure it will be great!” and “Yea, but we have the Northern Lights!” and other exclamation filled rebuttals, I really had no idea what I was getting into. My true answers would have been:

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle the weather.

“I think it is.”

and

“I hope I can.”

Growing up, my Mom had these bright lights installed in her bedroom. She would climb on top of her bed, (she had one of those amazingly comfortable yet still Princess in the Pea style tall, big beds that my girlfriends and I would always sneak into and cozy up in) close her eyes and turn on the lights.

Boom!

They would blast her with light meant to emulate the rays of the sun.

In California, Winter isn’t harsh in the sense of blistering cold and snowstorms and icy sidewalks. It’s harsh though in a more subtle way. We often were stranded without power for days on end during storm season and we rarely saw the sun until the storm passed through. Sometimes it would be a month before I’d see that ‘ol vitamin D provider and simply seeing that shine would remind me how much I had missed it. And so, when the storms hit and the skies clouded up and stayed grey for weeks on end, my Mama found her relief in her sunbed of sorts.

It was her happy place.

Me on the other hand, I never did the lights. I’m one of those, yes there’s a beautiful bathtub and I’m stressed to no end and someone is offering to fill it for me and still…no. No thank you. I’ll be just fine over here, just barely bearing the weight of my little world.

Well, at least I used to be like that. Now, I’m more open to relaxation and even a little more open to help from others and to helping myself.

And so, as we approached our departure date for my first Winter in Alaska and these statements (“I could never handle the dark”) kept piling on and on until I felt I was buried in a ball pit like a kid at Chuck E Cheese and I started to panic.

What if it was the most depressing place I’d ever been? What if I never saw the sun? What if I completely abandoned a schedule and ran around like a rabid animal, unaware of the day or time or place I found myself in?

Enter: La Mama.

She had the perfect solution for my fretting self: the sunlamps.

However, despite my efforts to more readily accept help, I still couldn’t budge in this arena.

I never used the lights anyways.

“Right, because you would never accept help or lay down long enough to feel their effects.”

Nonsense. Utter hullabaloo. I could do this by myself.

And so, I refused to buy the lights myself or to let my mother buy me the lights, despite her many crafty attempts to do so.

“Oh, how weird, we just happened to stop in this store together and they carry those sunlights you were talking about, Julia!”

My Mama’s never been very swift on the lies, a trait that makes us both laugh a lot and one which most definitely trickled down to me.

But no, I couldn’t be fooled. I was heading into the dark without so much as a headlamp (thankfully, the sweet guys at SBS gifted me one). I could do this on my own.

But you see, here’s the thing about the sun in Alaska, huddle closer now: she is her own. She does what she wants and because of that, she seems like that elusive person you always see at that one bookstore that feels so mysterious and obviously way cooler than you are and that you one day ask on a date and they end up to simply be a human being, just like you.

Weird, huh?

Of course, I only know that now in retrospect. Last Winter I spent my days sun chasing and when she was nowhere to be found, I felt it (or so I thought). She would peek-out for a moment and then hide away the rest of the day and I would consider her to be elusive and take it as a personal affront and then I would feel it: The Peek-a-Blues.

 

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Up for a moment, only to be engulfed by that cloud beneath minutes later

 

I did everything I was supposed to do in such conditions: I got “out”  (went for a walk or a ski or a something to be out in nature and to hopefully catch a few rays) everyday. I made sure to take my vitamins daily (a feat I’ve never been able to conquer in my life) and was even more utterly diligent with my Vitamin D (they were gummy chewables, kind of the perfect kid-like complement to my stoic attempt at adulthood). But still, at times I felt a little blue.

And so, my lifelines were my sunshine substitutes. Along with my get “out” and vitamin regiment I talked to my girlfriends and my mother almost daily. Some days I had to have a little cry (or a big one) and sometimes we only seemed to laugh. I kept busy, preserving food, revisiting old exercise routines I hadn’t had time for in years and even did my best to sit still long enough to pass it off as meditation.

 

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Yoga Jones. Put the mat down, turn away for a moment, return to dog on mat (not willing to budge).

 

I was so zen.

In reality, I was alone. A lot.

 

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Well, I did have Miss Lou. That helped a lot.

It’s not that The Chief wasn’t present in his heart, it’s that he was absent in body. He worked construction on the restaurant I came to work in during the Summer for almost the entire duration of Winter and throughout its near entirety he was very sick. In the attempt to get the restaurant open they worked almost every day. Twenty below? Bring extra coffee. We are doing this. I was both thoroughly impressed by them and thoroughly depressed by my own seemingly smaller achievements. Every morning I would kiss The Chief goodbye and as the door closed behind him, the little panic would start. The Peek-a-Blues.

What to do?

What to do?

The simple thing about Alaska, or at least living in the middle of nowhere in Alaska is that she answers this howling call tenfold with demands.

Chop some wood. Build a fire. Defrost the generator. Wash the dishes. Start dinner. Do some laundry. Organize the Bachelor Pad into Our House. Organize the recycling. Mend your clothes.

There was a never-ending laundry list (upon which laundry always had a place) of things to do and things that needed to be done but all of it seemed so small. I wanted to do more than the inside and light outside chores. I wanted to be the one who brought down a tree by myself and presented it to The Chief proudly like a cat brings its owner a mouse. I wanted to build shelves while he was away and see the surprise on his face when he came home. There was so much I didn’t know how to do and what I did know felt unimportant.

On some days, that feeling didn’t bother me, but on the third day of overcast, not snowing and not doing anything other than inciting a dismal feeling in me, on those days, it got to me.

And I would think of the lights.

Maybe I had been too stubborn. Maybe I needed them after all. And so I would call on my lights: my Mama and my girlfriends and they would somehow part the dismal sky.

This year I still can’t take a tree down by myself. I still don’t know how to build shelves. When the snowmachine has been sitting at 30 below plus temperatures for a week I still have a very hard/potentially unsuccessful time starting it. I still can’t do what The Chief can do out here but you know what? I can do more than I could last year.

No longer is chopping wood an expletive-fest for me, instead I see what The Chief was talking about when he said you get lost in the motion. Last year it was all sweat and swearing when I just couldn’t get a log to budge. Now I look at the weather and pick my logs accordingly and if I still can’t get through? I leave it for a colder day when wood snaps apart like a Kit-Kat and the axe moves through it like soft butter. No longer is driving the snowmachine as difficult. I know how to move my body to better move the machine, I’ve found my riding stance (a very strange sidesaddle-esque approach that my body somehow came up with and which fits me like a glove), even if it is a little odd and I’ve crossed the creeks I rode solely across as a passenger last year.

And you know what? I’ve been slacking. We’ve been here a month and I’ve only recently started taking a Multi-Vitamin. I consistently forget the Vitamin D and although I get outside almost every day, I’m not so stringent as I was before. I listen to my body (most of the time).

Oh, and another You Know What? It’s been a much greyer Winter this year.

And the last You Know What? It’s been blue skies and sunshine in my head. Well, more of the time at least, especially despite the dismal array of cloudy days.

 

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Looks like a black and white photo. Isn’t. Dreary skies in a beautiful land.

 

When I lived in Italy (a land that was and will always be one of my favorite places on Earth) and I ate fresh pasta and drank local wine and consumed gelato every day and still didn’t gain a pound and where I was surrounded by some of the best art the world has produced and entrenched in a language and a lifestyle that encourages a rich life and love of it…still, I felt blue.

The sun shone almost every day I was there.

And so last year, despite all the happiness of brand spankin’ new love and a new lease on life and an awaiting adventure, still I felt a little blue. And, forgetting my time in Italy, I worried it was the sun.

It’s not so much about where you are but where you’re at and it’s not just whether the sun is where you are but if sun is within to follow where you go.

Last year I was overwhelmed by the new-ness. I hardly knew anyone that was here, I knew little about the life I was embarking upon and had a stiff learning curve just to stay afloat but I looked outward for the reason why.

The sun, or lack thereof. That was it. It had to be.

It wasn’t. And it still isn’t. Don’t get me wrong. These dreary days we’ve had of late with sun-less skies of grey can be daunting or they can be an invitation: overcast might mean warmer temperatures which means more time outside before turning into a popsicle. Or, a dreary day could just be the perfect excuse you need for a movie day and some down time. Or, perhaps, it could be a day to feel a little blue, if that’s what you need to do.

I’m not saying lack of sun is a good thing. Some people are gravely affected by its shyness. I saw how happy it made my Mama to lie in that bed with the rays surrounding her and I saw later how it helped her find her inner sunshine in the days of grey. I’ve felt myself open like a bloom to the rays, not knowing I had been bundled into a bud.

But the sun isn’t the only thing to decipher how we feel.

At the time I wrote this, late last week, I had just completed a week of work that made me feel successful, I had been to a good friend’s birthday party and seen people I loved and I had also hit my head hard enough to throw my neck out (from falling down the Ramp of Doom to hitting my head to missing stairs down from our loft, I seem to be clumsy. Who knew?) I wrote from the comfy coziness of home. I was happy, in a way, to have an excuse to do nothing and sure enough, it was grey, grey, grey outside. I felt at peace as I have most of this Winter which is in stark contrast to the ups and downs of last year.

Fast forward to yesterday, a showing of sunshine we hadn’t seen in weeks and there I was, still grounded by pain. Day 3 on the couch. This day at least I could get out of bed without it taking 15 minutes of propping myself up and alligator rolling my way out so as not to use my neck. But I’ll be honest, I didn’t really feel that sunshine in my heart. And I know it’s there. I yearned for my independence that my body could no longer provide. I couldn’t haul water or chop wood or drive or ski and walking was excruciating. I was the anti-independent Level I (the Levels go up to the umpteenth but still, I’m progressing) I’ve grown accustomed to being. There were projects I wanted to do and my second attempt of an online Pilates challenge laughed in my face. I was three days from finally completing it (again, it was the second time I’m attempted it now). I needed to see a girlfriend and laugh it off or just get outside of the tiny realm of reality I had been encased in but my body couldn’t take me there. I felt desperately restless.

 

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Oh, Alaska. She must have heard me typing last week and decided to send me a lesson. And it was a good lesson. Sun or no sun, more lessons learned versus less, I am not immune to the Peak-a-Blues. I was a teary eyed mess of pent-up energy (I’m someone who needs at least an hour and preferably multiple hours outside in order to spend the rest inside). Thankfully, The Chief and I were eventually able to giggle a bit at my sobby display and extra thankfully, a friend stopped by and infused my ouch routine with something new. Still I felt the Peek-a-Blues lingering in the form of a restless Poor Me but they were softening.

They always say in Alaska “If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes” because something is always changing. Clouds come in and the sun disappears and it starts to snow and the temperature goes from 30 below to 30 above in 24 hours. It’s a whirlwind sometimes and so, one has to keep hold of their sunshine and lasso it back when it tries to go.

“I could never live there” still resonates in my head and I’m so glad I pushed through to see if I could. And I can. There are ups and downs just like anywhere. Happiness on the cloudiest of days and blues on the sunniest. The joy of slowing down and the need to speed up. A lust for life and a “blah” for life. It can happen anywhere and it happens everywhere.

I’m thinking this might just be what they call Life.

Be you here or be you there, the sunshine you seek might be within.

Clearly, I’m still learning how to harness it (and occasionally getting ahead of myself at which point Alaska sends me such sweet reminders) but I can say that every year it keeps getting better and I guess that’s all we can really hope for.

That and maybe a few of those lights wouldn’t hurt either, huh Mom?

 

With love and (sometimes) sunshine,

 

From Alaska.

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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.