2017

Joni & Julia: California Part II

California.

It took me about a week before I felt that I could breathe again.

The journey from Alaska was a three-day affair, and by that I mean a week-long affair, and by that I mean a month-long affair, filled with cabin prep, shut-down, packing and prioritizing, tidying and un-tidying and then re-tidying again. As someone who needs my space to be relatively uncluttered, the leaving game is basically a vomit inducing tug-of-war with my ability to handle chaos (P.S. it doesn’t always go well. P.P.S. I definitely ran inside after we were all loaded into the truck and gave the floor a quick mop down).

However, this year went better than last. This year, we had our systems figured out. I wasn’t relying on The Chief for my every move, I had My Own agenda, he had His and we had Ours. It was great. I only cried once…maybe twice.

The stress of it all, the magnitude of a simple mistake like leaving a water line slightly filled and coming home to a frozen lake was swimming through my ears after my foray into freezing lines the week before. The sheer potential for a mistake in a three-day all-day hustle hung around me and so, the occasional stress cry was necessary.

The real cry came later.

We left late morning on the 30th of October.

For the first time, The Chief and I left together with snow on the ground and rain in the sky.

For the first time, we left together in a vehicle with a heater.

For the first time, we left together in our own vehicle.

And, for the first time, we left together without our girl.

 

The body remembers what the heart tries to forget and as we rounded the corner that meant we were heading away from home, I turned to see my Lou in the backseat as I had on countless trips before.

Where she was to be sitting lay a mountain of cold weather survival gear but it couldn’t have felt emptier.

I broke.

For the millionth time, I broke and The Chief held my hand as I sobbed my way through our first turn towards California, for the first time, without Lou.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia Part II Beach California Coast succulent

Like a sea flower: sassy, gorgeous and salty.

 

 

 

Eight hours and a plant baby drop-off and a lovely visit with our dear friends and we were in Anchorage.

[Insert scary music]

We arrived just in time to grab some food and hit the hay.

The next day was packed to the brim with appointments. Two dentist appointments plus four doctor appointments between the two of us. When you’re in Town, you make the most of it and we crammed every ounce of health we could into that endless day. Yet, end it did, in the company of good friends on a not so spooky Halloween.

The next day was our Travel Day: California.

I felt like we’d already been traveling for days on end (we had), but those had been the easy ones. A slow move into society via miles of highway through beautiful mountains. But the airport? Be Still My Heart and not in a romantic way, but in the Stop Beating Out Of My Chest, Chill, Be Still My Heart way. The bright lights and the constant movement and the utter pace of it all wrapped up into a sterile environment left us both a bit dumbstruck but, we made it through.

All the way to California.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia Part II Beach California Coast Bunny

The BunBuns.

 

 

 

 

We arrived in the evening to two tricksters, my Mom and my Girlfriend (both of whom visited this Summer) who scared the living daylights out of us by jumping up from behind a wall to greet us.

I almost lost my lunch.

After we caught our breath and were able to hug them without passing out, we headed downstairs.

Again, my body triumphed and tricked my heart into hoping. I instinctively headed over to the Oversized Baggage Area to collect our girl. Habit trumped heart and again the pain came over me and my eyes welled up with tears. Yet here were these two people I love, here to greet me, here to welcome me Home. I felt ungrateful and so stuck in my inability to meet their enthusiasm but I couldn’t help it. I felt stunned and stunted.

 

 

Re-Immersion is always hard but it took on a new shine this year as my comfort, my steady, my love was no longer with me. I didn’t realize how much I relied on her to make this process easier, to make this culture shock carry a bit less voltage.

But there we were and there she wasn’t and so we set off to bear the brunt of the change on our own, together.

 

 

If you’ve ever come back from abroad to the U.S., especially from a less developed nation, you’ve likely experienced culture shock. Coming back from Italy one of the first of many shocks came in customs. In Italy, every direction in the airport was written in countless languages and although customs agents were still serious, they were kind and conversational. Yet upon arriving in the U.S. I immediately felt as if I had done something wrong. Agents were looking me up and down, scrutinizing my passport, asking me questions…and I was a citizen. I couldn’t imagine the stress of being a non-citizen (until I picked up my Norwegian girlfriend from the airport and had to wait 3 hours for her to make it through customs. A two-week holiday in the U.S. by a thirty-something cherub-faced Norwegian? Verrrrrrrrrrrry suspicious (apparently)). To add to the discomfort was a feeling of unwelcome. The signs were posted solely in English (this may have changed). English is well-known, but to have a single language at an International Airport? Sounds like xenophobic notes playing on your xylophone, sweet S.F.

Point being, if you’ve been there, you know. You emerge from a new point of view into the old and suddenly, you look at everything with new, slightly shifted eyes. You see things you didn’t notice before, you re-evaluate how you lived your life prior to your travels. It changes you. And, in your absence, if you return to the same place you’ve left, it too has changed by the passing of time.

Joni Mitchell has always sung me back to a California where I feel like the changed one and certainly, I am. This year, I felt it most. Leaving Alaska and arriving in California felt like walking through customs again. Me, I’m further and further accustomed to my life in the woods and less and less inclined to be in cities (though more and more grateful for their amenities). And, for now, I’m not the happy-go-lucky person I was before Cinda. I’m a little quieter, a little more reserved, less the life of the party, and though it won’t be forever, it is for now.

Yet, despite all of my differences, I’m not the only one who’s changed. For the first time, I’ve been away long enough, often enough to get outside my bubble and see.

California.

You’ve changed, girl.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia Part II Beach California Coast The Problem

The new norm. New cars, new vineyards.

 

 

 

(I can’t account for the whole state, so when I say California, know that I mean Sonoma County.)

I think the reason Alaska fits me so well is because of Sonoma County, the Original Sonoma County. I was raised in the outdoors, taught to nurture nature, encouraged to explore, and things were quiet. I would go whole weekends lost in a land of solo play amongst the redwoods and rhododendrons or the tall wheat colored snake-tail grasses of my birth home. It was simple.

Slowly but surely, things got busier. Wine came in and took out the orchards of apples that made up my youth and soon, I grew accustomed to that shift. It was normal to no longer see singular farmers drive their tractors up and down the street but instead to see crews of workers change a landscape in days. With the changing land, came a new breed of people, wine people, but still the shift was slow and steady and the bones of our community felt the same.

Yet, it wasn’t. This place hasn’t been the same since the first apple tree went down. My ideas of it remained the same, my values garnered from it grew stronger but it continued to change as I continued to hold onto the past.

Maybe because this year has been a year of letting go, I was finally able to see it.

The quiet hippie town I’ve loved is a bustling bourgeoise town. There are still enough remnants of the old to feel utterly familiar but everything has changed. And, since I haven’t been here through the change, I haven’t changed with it.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia Part II Beach California Coast Wine Preston Winery

Don’t get me wrong, this girl loves her wine. Jug Sundays at Preston with DCG.

 

 

 

The library where I used to spend hours on end getting lost in books, talking to librarians for recommendations and discovering worlds I’d never dreamed of is still there but everything is automated. You check yourself out. There’s no one looking at your selections, asking if you’ve read this or that book by so and so.

The once industrial part of town is now a bustling uppity center for delicious eats and fancy finds filled to the brim with people I don’t recognize.

The traffic, once non-existent (I once saw a tractor and a horse driving/walking down Main Street) is fully present and the impatience with which people drive is both catching and depressing.

It’s not just me. It’s not just the Alaska factor. Friends around me I’ve grown up with are noticing it too, even those who live here and change with it. It’s different.

Yet, still, it is home. It was the first home I’ve known and now, it is the first home I visit when I have the chance. Our relationship now feels like the first meeting of two old lovers. You see the change, you see the new and different and perhaps, maybe it’s all for the better, but all that you have in common now, is the past. What there is to talk about is the past and it makes you feel perhaps grateful for the time you spent together, a bit melancholy for what once was and realize that you no longer fit the way you once did.

Don’t get me wrong, that lover was gorgeous. It’s absolutely lovely here. The leaves are turning and the Winter light is shining so that everything at least feels quieter. There are Christmas Fairs popping up with wonderful local artisans and holiday concerts with local talent. There are small businesses (even apple businesses!) and tie-dye and hippies. There is so much of what I grew up on, I am just no longer a constant part of it and it doesn’t always fit. I am holding on to a past that has passed.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia Part II Beach California Coast Wohler Bridge

 

 

In an unplanned year of letting go, I find myself again being faced with a reality I hadn’t expected. Yet, to see the truth is to truly live. And so, since the first time Joni sang me home to the present, I see the truth. We both, California and I, have been changing all along, becoming who we are.

As the first line state in a speech I wrote and read at our 8th-grade graduation read: “Change is inevitable.”

If only I had listened, it might not have made re-immersion so hard.

For the first week, I could barely breathe. The fast-paced life, the constant sounds, the hustle, and bustle all shook me but what I really think jarred me were the changes on all fronts. We were without our girl, without our comfort and the wool was suddenly pulled from my eyes. The realization came and swept me up: change happens, with or without your acknowledgment.

In self, in state, in life…

Change is inevitable.

Welcome home to us, to a home I’ve always loved and to a place I didn’t realize I was trying so hard to hold on to. As Joni said: “My heart cried out for you” and it always will. You have a piece of me and as I change, you too change.

I adore you, California, new clothes and all.

Cheers, to change.

Cheers, to California,

Cheers, to our Lou. Always and forever, you will be our first.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia Part II Cinda Lou

Sunshine on my shoulder.

 

 

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Saturn Returns and the Built-In Breaks: Part II

Shall we continue?

 

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

well, we weren’t sure how long.

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

Which, of course, we didn’t know.

Which drove me crazy.

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

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

the calm.

I returned home to a silent house.

Alone in the woods.

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Choose your own road.

 

 

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

Right?

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

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

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

Alaska creates the built-in breaks.

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

 

 

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

A fated find.

 

 

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

The built-in breaks.

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

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

Gulp.

And then, it snowed.

 

 

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

Sleepy snow Bird

 

 

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

First day, off to a good start!

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

Good plan?

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

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

Wrong.

More snow.

More destruction.

More work for me.

Whoops!

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

Perfect little parking spot.

 

 

Snow, how I love thee.

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

 

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

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

Nothing.

I waited.

Nothing.

What the…?

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

Nope.

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

Knock, knock!

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

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

Until, one last pull and…

purr.

Success!

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

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

Dishes or Shower.

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

I had to laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

and…

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

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

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

 

 

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

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Wormhole

Saturn Returns and the Built-In Breaks: Part I

Alaska has a way of empowering those who need it most.

When I (accidentally) moved here, I was freshly free from a 7 year me. Seven and one half, to be precise. It was a relationship me. A relationship I’d spent my entire 20’s in and out of and now, here I was, permanently out of it and suddenly in bush Alaska. I knew a whopping total of three people in a state twice the size of Texas, two of whom I had just met. But in a town of a few hundred, that wasn’t a bad start. Yet the person I so desperately needed to meet was me, again.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Succulent

 

 

Thankfully, we were introduced.

If you know of Saturn Returns, you know of the gasp-inducing, eye-opening excitement he creates when mentioned. If you don’t, you should be intrigued (and find out about yours in a quick and dirty and slightly surface version here and wherever else your search leads you). Trust me.

Growing up in sweet Sonoma County, I was well-versed in what to outsiders may have seemed like hippie language but to me was simply the vernacular of my people. Upon first meeting someone, it was not uncommon to ask them their sign after asking their name and that was just the beginning. Off we might go on a get-to-know you astrological escapade. I wasn’t extremely well-versed in the intricacies and I may not have been as “far-out” as some, but I dabbled. And so, in the year prior to dropping everything and accidentally moving to Alaska, I had heard a lot about my entrance into my Saturn Returns.

Saturn Returns is like a beast that lifts you up by the feet and turns you upside down, shaking you until the last piece of lint falls out of your jeans pocket and your mind is sufficiently swirled so that you can’t decipher up from down or peanut from potato. Everything is seen with new eyes.

Or so I was told.

In all honesty, I was both excited for my Saturn Returns and fearful that it wouldn’t happen.

I was never, however, fearful of what it would bring if it did indeed arrive in the life-altering legendary way I’d heard of. I egged it on, asking for direction, praying for change.

Apparently, it heard me.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10:30 Saturn Kuskulana

A river divides, a barrier collides.

 

 

Looking back, what felt like a suddenly bursting balloon of change, I realized, had actually been filling for some time. I had been slowly departing from my life and my relationship. I had sold my business, quit my job and had just a handful of personal clients that were winding down in their need of me. I had gone back to school to try a new trade, creating independence and space in a too-close relationship. I was slowly finding me again.

And then, the balloon popped and slow was no longer good enough. I awoke one morning from a dream with a certainty I’d never felt. I waited a week to let that feeling pass by. It only got worse. Every day I became more and more nauseous on the fumes of my idling life. It wouldn’t let up and so, I finally listened.

I left my ex.

I left my home.

I parted ways with my clients and…

I bought my ticket to Alaska.

 

Saturn had certainly returned.

 

My world had suspended itself in mid backflip and though I didn’t know why my trajectory had me heading for Alaska, I followed the flip through and dove in.

For the first time in almost ten years, I was completely on my own. I had no responsibilities to others, no house to care for nor people to feed nor events to go to. And slowly but surely, amongst all that freedom, I started to re-introduce myself to me.

Nice to meet you.

The closest thing to my comfort zone was a cozy sweatshirt I had brought.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Julia Page

New times. No makeup.

 

 

Otherwise, everything was different. From showering (and not showering) to making food I’d hauled in from 8 hours up the road, life was a new puzzle and so, within it, I found myself piecing me back together again, recreating myself as I went.

I re-met me.

And then I met someone else.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns First Picture

Our first picture. Lou is on my lap.

 

 

The Chief and his girl (to become our girl, Cinda Lou).

And well, we all know how that went: rainbows and kittens and gumdrops (read: dark chocolate), oh my! Of course, there were some rainy days and worries and normal stuff interspersed in between but overall, it’s been pretty Sound of Music-esque

“But wait!” I panicked. I had just met the new me, she was still forming. Alaska had tugged the bravery out of me I hadn’t had to use in a while and had given it a new shine. She had empowered me to step so far outside my comfort zone as to only view it again with binoculars.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Self-portrait

 

 

 

How was I to leave all this new only to fall into Couple Me again?

I was terrified to lose my independence but at the same time, I knew I couldn’t pass this up.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to choose between the two.

It turns out, as you might already know, that it is, in fact, quite possible to grow within a relationship, even a brand new one. Blossoming as I may have been on my own, The Chief was added sunshine. He didn’t fear my empowerment, he was often a major source of it, sometimes trumping my own fears with his gusto, pushing me to try when I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to (which he thankfully decoded as meaning that I desperately wanted to try, but was scared to fail and thus, needed to be pushed just a bit harder (with love, of course)).

And so, together we embarked on a new road, while I simultaneously traversed the path of getting to know me, again.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Kiss the Officiant

 

 

Thankfully, Alaska, never one to allow the same old routine for long, kept us on our toes and kept us learning, about us as a couple and about us as our individual selves. The challenges that left me in frustrated tears, from my first adventures in splitting wood to crashing the snowmachine without a soul in sight helped me find me. She’s a tricky teacher, that one.

Alaska felt like a constant Saturn Returns, a constant flipping me upside down and shaking the last cent out of me until I was righted and ready to start again.

Until, without notice, Saturn didn’t Return.

As quickly as he had entered, he left and his blindingly bright, blaring return had ended.

It was calmer. Quieter. Life took on a normalcy.

The very not normal life of living in the woods started to feel as if I’d lived it all my life. The things that had scared me, didn’t seem so fierce. I had grown used to the set-backs common in the woods and I had even learned some of my own ways to deal with them. I felt relatively confident. I had gotten comfortable.

Whoops.

Alaska was listening and apparently, she thought I was ready for a little shake-up, shake-down.

You see, I was getting comfortable but what I didn’t tease apart from that comfort, what I hadn’t had to factor in was one of the biggest parts of my comfort here: The Chief.

And then, The Chief left, with no certainty of when exactly he would return.

Leaving me, for the first time,

in the woods.

 

Alone.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Wormhole

 

 

To be continued…

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - The Change.jpg

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.

 

 

 

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

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.