alaska

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia - November 13th 2017 Northern California Beach

Joni & Julia: California

For the past month, Joni Mitchell’s “California” has been going through my head. If you’ve never had the pleasure of the fluting vocals of Miss Mitchell, please do, as the Millennials say “Treat yo-self.” Who am I kidding, I say that too. It’s fun, no? Totes.

Anyways, pop culture colloquialisms aside, Miss Mitchell had been dancing in my ears for days on end. I’m the type of person who constantly has a song going through my head (I used to even be superstitious during my soccer games that if a sad song came into my head, we were going to lose, which of course, as the odds would have it, proved true) so there have been many other companions to “California” but she has, overall, been the main show.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni and Julia - November 13th 2017 Joni Mitchell

La Joni

 

 

 

The song holds a sweetness to me as I first discovered it on my own (I’m sure I grew up hearing it but never purposefully interacted with it solo) during my first year of college. I was 17 years old, living in Washington, D.C. Back then, Sebastopol, the little town I grew up in, was still holding on to its hippie roots. Tie-dye and incense were the accessories of my youth and I had just started to dig into who I was to become as an adult (tie-dye not so much, incense yes) when this country girl landed herself smack dab in the middle of a metropolis. Not just any capital, it was the Nation’s Capital: D.C.

I was completely overwhelmed.

Upon meeting my “floor” and cohort in college I was introduced to the business handshake…

by teenagers.

These kids were ready to succeed. They had a drive I’d never seen and a lingo I didn’t speak and an overall sense of entitlement I had only caught glimpses of at my Grandparents’ Country Club, a place where I would say I was about as comfortable as a lobster at a hot spring. It just didn’t fit.

So, I did what every teenager does at one point or another and I split in two, trying on a new side of me: the professional. I put on the business suits and I shook the hands of my friends instead of hugging them as I’d grown up doing. I updated my resume and printed it on a hard fancy stock. I spoke the vernacular, I did the dance.

I hated it.

D.C. in and of itself is amazing. Free museums? Yes, please. Cherry blossom wonderland? Sign me up.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia - November 13th 2017 Cherry Blossoms

 

 

The constant hustle and bustle of grey, black, and khaki? The colorless wheel of all day business? The inevitable “Who do you work for/who do you know” self-elevation quandries. Thank you and no, thank you.

I spent most of my time amongst art and artifacts realizing all the while that this, indeed was not the place for me. Upon discovering Joni’s “California”, I felt more and more sure that I had been given a peek into a different world, one which I appreciated and admired in many ways but about which I could wholeheartedly say was not for me.

Joni sang me through the months in an almost mantra-like fashion.

Almost home.

Almost home.

Almost home.

California, I’m coming home.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia - November 13th 2017 Northern California

 

 

And come home I did where my lurking decision on whether or not to return to D.C. became wildly clear. I was not going back. I had left to try something on and found out from the first leg in that it was not my size. I very much believe in leaving what doesn’t suit you to allow the space for the person it does fit to find it. Don’t take it simply because it’s there. Leave it for someone else to wear.

I settled into my home again at a new college with a little better idea of who I was and was not and continued to find me, often by finding what didn’t fit first.

Joni Mitchell marked a time where this all started.

The next time Joni became a focal point and “California” started again to be the title track playing through my head was three years later. I had recently turned 20 years old and I had been living in Italy for the previous nine months in an unplanned journey away from heartbreak right into the loving arms of Italy (this was pre-Eat Pray Love but I’m O.K. with Elizabeth Gilbert and I sharing a shockingly similar narrative and love of eating). I fell absolutely head over insanely fashionable heels for the place and I found new sides of myself, this time by finding what I loved. Good food, walking, history, art, a slower pace and a deeper purpose.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia - November 13th 2017 Capri

 

 

I thought I would never leave and part of me never did but slowly, as my European classmates left to go back to their respective countries and the weather started to cool, the song turned up and all I could hear was her singing:

“Oh, it gets so lonely when you’re walking and the streets are full of strangers.”

I was lonely. The beautiful Italian families surrounding me made me miss the sense of home I had felt in Italy only a few short weeks before and so, I followed the whispering welcomes of California.

“California, I’m coming home.”

I arrived, and that time, unlike the relief I had felt upon my recovery from D.C. something felt different. California suddenly didn’t fit quite as well as it had before. It wasn’t a non-fit like the squeeze of trying to wear post-break-up jeans two years into a cozy loving new relationship, but something wasn’t quite right. My favorite old pair of blue jeans had started to wear thin but still, my love for California and all that it held kept me close for the years to come.

The years until Alaska.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia - November 13th 2017 Alaska

 

 

Just the opposite of Italy (in so very many ways), I landed in Alaska and did not feel like I’d arrived at a forever home. I was scared, truly and uncomfortable to say the least but I felt a stirring in me I hadn’t felt since landing in the land of pasta. Something again had shifted.

Almost three years in, I’m in love with Alaska not just because of her beauty but because she is both comfort and discomfort all in one. She is constantly pushing me to find new parts of myself I would have rather left undiscovered, dust them off and love them into a new shine. She’s challenging and I’m challenged into becoming a better me just by being in her presence and also constantly reminded that I’m not “there” yet. But I am there, in Alaska, most of the year in the almost three years which have suddenly flown by.

Yet this time, it’s not only me who has changed, it’s California as well. Since my journeys away often ended before a year had passed, I’ve never returned to her being as different as I felt after my time away. Yet now, as I am more able to let go of her as my main home, and as the years continue to pass, I see the change.

And so I ask: “Will you take me as I am? Strung out on another man (Alaska, don’t worry Chief)?”

I will do my best to accept you as you are.

California I’m coming home.

And then, we arrived.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia - November 13th 2017 Northern California Beach

Da beach.

 

To be continued…

 

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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 - 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 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset McCarthy Alaska

A Very Bear-y Summer

It was a very bear-y summer.

Supposedly.

All around me, I heard tell of bears galore. Bears in the road, bears in the yard, bears blocking the trails.

But me?

No bears.

Perhaps because of the prayer. You see, I do a little silent prayer as I walk about these woods:

“Please let me see something…safely.”

And so, perhaps my timing was off or perhaps the prayer was working because I hadn’t had hardly any run-ins, safe or otherwise.

Where were all these bears everyone was talking about?

Our two friends, a brother and sister duo by way of CA, came to visit late July. They came bearing a full Costco/Freddy haul I was almost embarrassed to ask for and they shopped for our entire Summer re-supply like pros. They navigated the unfamiliar Alaskan terrain in a swift 1-2 punch and made it out with barely a layer of dirt. They were stocked and stoked and ready to…

See a bear.

Every day my girlfriend’s wish was the same:

“I want to see a bear.”

“Safely.” I would add, either under my breath or aloud in a sort of micro-managing OCD attempt to put a little gold safety light around her. It’s a funny sort of strange to live in a place where an invitation to visit comes with a quick and dirty death by bear or moose disclaimer. You know, just FYI.

But she was hell-bent and so I wished we may and wished we might see a bear tonight, or today or anytime before their week-long woodsy retreat, well, retreated, melting back into the California sunshine.

And then, we went for a hike.

Not just any hike.

The day before, we had gone for a hike.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09/25/17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier

First steps on The Glacier

 

 

We had hiked out to the glacier and stood amongst that frozen fantasy in awe and then hiked home.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier Danielle

Tiny Yellie.

 

 

The next day, we ramped it up a notch. Without ever having ridden a 4-wheeler, we made our friends brave driving up to our next hike: the mine.

Driving a 4-wheeler, not such a big deal. Driving a 4-wheeler for the first time up a muddy, rutted, sometimes split in half with deep ditches running through the already narrow road up a couple thousand feet of rocky terrain? Well, that’s quite another thing. So, in typical Alaskan fashion, we geared them up and pushed them out of the nest and…

they flew.

Up, up and up for an hour until we finally reached our destination point: the beginning of our hike.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09- 25-17 A Very Bear- Y Summer 4-Wheeling Bonanza Mine

Not a bad parking place.

 

 

Apparently, I had forgotten to mention that a hike would follow the harried path we had already tread but, again, they jumped right in.

Up, up, up we climbed. It’s the kind of hiking where you (unless you happen to be far more fit than us) take about 30 steps and then take a break. 30, break. 30, break. Repeat, repeat.

An hour in and we’d identified endless plants and flowers, already found copper rocks, found fresh water and snacked and rested on a mossy knoll.

Beneath the Borealis 09:25:17 A Very Bear-Y Summer McCarthy Alaska

Laid back.

 

 

And then it set in.

A pain my girlfriend had been experiencing on our hike the day before suddenly turned into a searing pain. Going up was not an option, but going down? That felt pretty good. And so, she decided to head back down. We would finish the hike up and circle back to pick her up on the way down.

Easy-peasy.

We were pretty close to the top at that point, it would be a quick turn-around and then we’d come to her rescue and swoop her up in our 4-wheeler chariots.

Right?

Wrong.

Apparently, laws of physics and all, going up is a lot slower than going down, especially when the grade is such that in going up you feel like one with the ground because of the angle. It looks like you’re in a fun-house mirror.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanza Mine Kennicott Alaska

Fun-House Baby

 

 

An hour up and we had finally made it.

The mine.

And soon, the top.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanza Peak

Ominous, eh?

 

 

I’d been to this mine the year before but I had been terrified to reach the top. My knees got wobbly just looking at it but this year, it was my goal. I was to see the other side.

And we did.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Glacier 2

The same family of white ice we had been on the day before.

 

 

It was an amazing view of the glacier I’d never seen though the wobble in my knees returned and I had to immediately sit down once we’d gotten up. The Chief bounced around like the gazelle that he is while I tried to take it in, turning tummy and all.

Soon, we decided to putter around the mine and made the journey down from our perch.

Inquiries and a few sketchy maneuvers later and we had seen all that we had come to see.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Bonanaza Mine

Two mountain goats I ran into.

 

 

It was snack time (obviously).

And then, the clouds started to roll in and it was time to leave.

What time was it anyway?

We hustled back down the mountain to our rain gear and fired up the machines, picking up a wet walker along the way, keeping an eye out for Sis.

Just then, I got a text:

“Holy shit saw bear”

The sheer lack of punctuation made my stomach turn.

I tried to call.

 

No answer.

 

I texted back:

“Where? How close?”

 

No answer.

 

The invitation disclaimer rang through my head. I kicked myself for not having gone with her for fear the boys would turn back too and miss the mine. I thought it would be a good esteem builder, a mini vision quest of sorts.

I was an idiot.

Now, my friend was out there, by herself in this very bear-y Summer that she had suddenly tapped into.

We put the hiking into high-gear and made it to the 4-wheelers in time to put rain gear over our already wet clothes.

Finally she got back to me. She was O.K.

We hustled down the mountain, picking up a very wet walker along the way and finally made it back to her.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Valley Virga

Incoming! Rain time.

 

 

She had beat us to town, a fact that seems obvious now (again with the physics and all) and had made her way to some well-deserved wine at the local lodge.

Finally, we were able to get eyes on her and know she was O.K. She described her encounter with the bear in the bushes, gorging on berries and how she had done the very right thing of making herself known as she skeedadled around it. All four back together again, we saddled up for a rainy ride to the restaurant and then home. We were pooped. An unexpected double-day unexpected hiking, rain and heights with a very bear-y topping had worn us out.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09/25/17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Kennicott Valley

 

 

A Summer without bears for me and suddenly, my guest of all people had a solo run-in. I was both proud of her and mortified of my lack of hospitality all at once. While I was conquering (read toying with) my fear of heights, she was face-to-face with a berry-lovin’ bear.

And it wouldn’t be the last time. It turns out she had opened up the waterway. Finally, the very bear-y Summer came our way. In fact, all the wildlife did. The next few days were chock full of the wilds. Swans and moose appeared as if they had finally gotten their invitation to the party, bear poop appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

They had arrived and the next bear we saw was right in our “backyard”.

“Jules, that’s awful close to your house, isn’t it?”

It was. It was on the River Trail that Lou and I walked on the daily. But hey, we live in bear country, that’s the deal, right?

Gulp.

We watched it devour a bush of Soapberries in minutes, thrashing the poor thing about with its powerful swings. It unearthed small boulders in the blink of an eye looking for goodies and we all just sat there watching. Cinda, looked on from the back window of the truck unconcerned. This was no bear run-in, this was a day at the zoo and she was content with our safety enough to let us explore without so much as a yip.

Welcome to the neighborhood, bears.

And so, the very bear-y Summer made its way to our neck of the woods. A few days later, our friends left and soon after I followed with Cinda and the loss of our Lou began the journey we are still on.

But the bears stayed and now, home without my girl, I was on my own.

A couple of weeks after she had passed, I was forcing myself to take a walk. Walks these days without Lou have taken on a sort of double-edged sword because walks are one of the few things that can lift a hard mood or ease a sadness but when I’m walking, I miss her the most. Our walks were a comfort only she could provide and her presence is irreplaceable. But still, I went. This particular day was extra bear-y, I could just feel their presence but I was crying so hard that I set it out of my mind. On my way down to The River, I stopped in to borrow Cinda’s brother, which made me howl even louder, missing those two peas in their odd pod together. There’s nothing quite like walking while crying to make you feel reduced down to your inner toddler and that was where I needed to be.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Cinda + Diesel

Bat dogs, back in the day. Pups in the snow.

 

 

Until it wasn’t.

Because suddenly, as I rounded the corner to drop down onto the River Trail…

I was face to face with a bear.

The same bear, most likely, that we had seen unearthing small boulders with the swing of a paw. The same bear that decimated the bushes in one fell swoop. And there I was, less than 12 feet away without my sense of security, false or otherwise. Her Brother had gone on ahead but as I whistled back he came, charging around the bushes, catching sight of the bear and quickly leading the way home. Although I’m not fluent in his language as I was hers, it was easy to decipher:

“Let’s get out of here!”

And so we did.

Tears were replaced by adrenaline and my pumping heart got me home in a jiffy. Her Brother followed me home to drop me off and then went to his own abode to tell his Dad the day’s tale.

And often since then, her Brother or the rest of the neighborhood dogs will watch over us. They patrol our yard, chasing moose or bear through the night. For we live in the woods, amongst the wilds…

and it’s been a very bear-y season.

 

Thank you to our friends for coming to share this amazing place with us, disclaimer in full-effect and all. I can’t explain how much it means to us that you made the journey, jumped right in and swam.

Cheers to the end of a very bear-y season, and to facing your fears, even when you don’t mean to. And cheers to our safety nets that at some point set us free to see if we fly without them.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset McCarthy Alaska

And the sun sets on another Summer.

 

Love to them.

Love to you.

Love to Lou.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 09-25-17 A Very Bear-Y Summer Sunset Skip to My Sunset Lou

Waiting for me. Leading the way.

 

 

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

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Back in California,

on Saturday nights

at closing time

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

Easy. 

Like Sunday Morning.

 

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

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

Easy Like Sunday Morning.

 

 

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

Sunday Strolls

 

 

But it wasn’t always like this for me.

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

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

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

Sundays are free.

 

 

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

Fancy that. Two heart rocks at once.

 

 

 

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

But something’s been added.

Dirty faces, dirty hands.

 

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

Home.

 

 

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

Home Sweet Home.

 

 

And I feel beyond lucky.

Dirty faces, dirty hands.

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

Projects.

Welcome, to the full-circle experience.

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

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

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

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

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

The Woodshed Addition.

 

 

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

Sweet Lou.

 

 

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

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

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

Cute, huh?

I think we even believed it.

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

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

Rewarding, though?

Certainly, my dear.

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

One more to go, plus roofing.

 

 

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

 

 

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

Very cute. Again.

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

finished.

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

 

 

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

Up on the Roof.

 

 

Our list.

Our spot.

Our home.

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

Or rather, someone.

 

Thank you, Alaska for helping me find him.

 

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

I just had to show the Chainsaw Glitter

 

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Molly Dog

Venn and his Diagram

Compare and contrast.

You, Me and Us.

Remember the Venn Diagram days in class?

Two circles making three shapes to find out just what exactly makes You, You and Me, Me and all the in between which is Us.

This place puts Venn Diagrams into personal play more than anywhere I’ve ever lived in my life.

As much as I’d love to say that I spend time neither comparing nor contrasting (and certainly not with any self-judgment, right?) I can’t. I’d love to say it, I’d love to shout it from the mountaintops I don’t ascend like others here do (there I go) but I can’t. It would be a lie and you and I? Well, we don’t play that game with one another.

So, yes, I compare and contrast and in between the circles of all those C’s I can get well, a little lost.

Mid-Summer, I’m found. I’m in the middle of the play, mid-character. I’ve committed to my role in the production we’ve all silently agreed to put on and I’m playing it wholeheartedly, naturally without self-doubt, without rehearsal. There’s no time for renegotiation, it’s a full-bore, heave-ho expedition. But come The Shoulders, come the in-between seasons that shift everything, the diagram again comes into play. Again, the options start presenting themselves and they are as open as they are endless and in that simple set of shapes again, I can get lost.

The year’s last Shoulder (Shoulder Season) was Spring, which marked the influx of people both seasonal and year-round/year-round-ish. The Shoulders are what gets me. It’s the outlier, the time of change and suddenly in barges the Venn Diagram in it’s absolutely annoyingly punctual annual fashion. In came all of these people, fresh-faced and bushy-tailed, ready to go.

Go where you ask?

People here will randomly jump off a mountain to go paragliding, they will ride raging rapids to meet me at band practice or casually asks if anyone wants to go ice climbing.

Ice climbing!

 

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Ice Climbing

Just a casual ice climb…

 

 

 

People here simply have a different level of normal and so, when the influx happens and my quiet Winter cabin life is no more and the rivers open up and the ground thaws and the stampede begins, everything changes and it brews in me a questioning and a comparison game that is about as fun as Russian Roulette.

You see, there are a million ways to live out here. You can have three months to kill in a seasonal job or be going on 3 years without leaving the home that you built from scratch. You can live near Town or out in “the boonies”. And that’s all just perfunctory housing plans. Once you’re here, every facet of life is full of options. There are endless ways to do each thing differently.

Take, for example, the dishes.

Despite how rude it sounds not to offer, there seems to be a sort of unspoken understanding regarding offering to do the dishes at someone’s house (though, after-dinner clean-up help is certainly appreciated). It’s not because we are a brash bunch of backwoods bumpkins with manners the likes of cavemen, it’s that we all have our own separate systems.

You do the two bath water basins. I do the one. You have a French Drain, I have a slop bucket. You have your system, I have mine and instead of spending the time teaching one another, we typically just do them on our own. And don’t get me wrong, we exchange ideas, we explain our reasoning, we learn from one another, we brainstorm. But we don’t typically let you do our dishes.

Now, the dishes don’t make me question myself like some other things, but you see now how down to the most minute detail our lives vary in intricacies I’ve previously not experienced elsewhere.

In California, most people had dishwashers or washed by hand but hot water was on demand and plumbing was an obvious “yes”. You’d have to ask where things went and where their compost was (because, of course, there was one), but for the most part, helping was straight forward, as was the functioning of the systems.

And so, on the most basic levels up to the most extreme, this place makes you think and re-think how you do things. Which, to me, is a beautiful thing.

 

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Molly Dog

Like this.

 

 

 

Most of the time.

Until that beautiful thing grabs your arm and runs away with you in the deep dark Woods of Self-Doubt.

I already live in the woods which at times can be scary, but the Woods of Self-Doubt? Friends, they should have a warning sign.

Keep Out, Lest You Lose Your Way Back To Yourself.

 

 

Venn and His Diagram River X Marks the Spot

X Marks the Self Spot.

 

 

So when the stampede begins and ends, I can accidentally grant myself access to those woods and lose my way. My quiet Winter self with routines and habits surrounded by maybe 20 others is suddenly shifted, jolted and before I have time to create new routines, in comes this influx of 200 new neighbors with their own agendas and new perspectives.

And I try them on.

 

Everyone seems to be an excellent something or other…

Why am I not a pro-rafter/ice climber/mountaineer/quilter/gardener/guitarist (does it not rub off after cavorting with these individuals for the last few years?)

Am I too lazy?

Too uncoordinated?

 

So, this year, when the influx flexed my brain and I started to feel a little wiggly, I tried to take it to the positive and to use that energy to do the things that can so easily slip away if not harnessed in the wild winds of the Summer’s passing. I decided to make a point to get out, to avoid the feelings of last year and to see what I wanted to see.

And I did.

I went out to the glacier more times in the first month than I had all Summer the year before. I went ice climbing, packrafting and flying all in one day (a story still left to tell). The Chief and I made it to two out of the four mines here and I sat atop a ridge I’ve looked at for years, knowing for the first time what I’d wondered for so long: how it felt to get to the top.

 

 

Venn and His Diagram View from the Top Kennicott Alaska

A view of the glacier I’d never known before. Don’t look down.

 

 

I almost barfed.

Needless to say, I’m still no mountaineer. But I love going for an adventure. I love the perspective and the challenge it brings. But I also truly love having a day in with The Chief, reading, and writing and eating good food. I love to spend time just sitting outside, watching the birds and talking to butterflies (boy, do they have a lot to say). I’m not an all the time extreme person. I’m a Julia Elizabeth Pancake Page. But sometimes I have to be pushed to extremes to get something through my head. Perhaps that’s part of the reason for the world sending me out here to a place where everyone is so different and yet seems to be very certain of exactly who they are is to realize who I am and then…be just fine with that.

And perhaps too, to realize that even those who seem certain, who can perform feats I didn’t even know were feats to perform, who seem to know exactly what is what and when, feel the Venn Diagramming on them as well.

Some of the most outstanding people I’ve known throughout all of my life have expressed just that to me. And maybe I just needed to head to the woods where there is rarely an escape from oneself to learn that truth.

Lesson learned.

Or at least lesson learning.

 

At times

We all feel less than

We all compare

We all contrast

We all judge the outcomes

and

We will always be surprised by the secret struggles of others and the lies they tell themselves.

 

And not the sweet little lies Ms. Nicks was talking about either.

 

As the Fall ushers us into Winter and things are slowing down around here the Shoulder starts again to try to take hold.

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Fall Foliage

Fall Foliage Bids Adios to Summer

 

 

Plans are being formed. People are leaving to guide other rivers and patrol ski slopes and go back to school and travel the world and work in mines deep below the earth. People are setting out to let the wind carry them where it may. People are heading back to the daily grind. People are doing a range of things, yet again, like the last Shoulder, I’m trying to use this time to catalyze inspiration (travel bug, anyone? Yep, me).

Comparison, I’m realizing, verges more on the ridiculous than on the reality end of the spectrum. Even if our outer actions are the same, our inner worlds vary so much and are, from moment to moment, constantly evolving that it’s impossible to compare.

And so, despite the ease and simplicity of two circles and shared traits, I thought I’d point out to Mr. Venn that I think that when applied to life, his representation of shared similarities lacks the fluidity with which we move through this world.

And then, I did a little research and realized that despite my learning about Mr. Venn and his diagrams in Language Arts, they were actually formulated for mathematics.

And that, my friends, makes sense.

 

Be nice to you this week.

Whoever you are.

At each moment you are.

Be kind to you.

Because I’d be willing to wager you’re pretty awesome.

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Bridge Rain

 

DOGTOWN, U.S.A Part II: Full Circle

I felt Death knocking.

I felt Death knocking and I bolted the door against her advances. I covered the cracks in the door frame, piled the furniture high and steadied myself against her pounding.

And all the while holding vigilant against her overtures, I scolded myself for my loss of optimism. I deemed myself cynical and paranoid and told myself to ignore my gut.

I felt Death knocking.

I hoped I was wrong.

And then she came in.

She pushed away our barricades as if they were nothing and in one fell swoop confirmed my worst fears in a swell of sadness that swept me away.

 

I lost my best friend.

 

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On Wednesday after the worst week of all three of our lives, we made the hardest decision we have yet to make together:

We bid farewell to our Cinda.

Together we held her as she took her last breaths and together we wrapped her body in a blanket. Together we secured her onto the backboard her Dad had made for her. Together we said our goodbyes to those whom had kindly housed us in Town in our worst time.

Together the three of us went home.

It felt like a cruel joke.

The last time we had gone to Town, I had brought Cinda with me because I was concerned about her health. She and my Mom and I had piled into the truck that too was having issues. The ride there was quiet as a feeling of panic spread over me. I was paranoid about her health. Our town had already lost two dogs this Summer, I couldn’t handle her being next. And so I said a prayer over and over in my mind:

“If something has to fail, make it be the truck. Anything but my girl.”

And my prayers were answered.

Two days later Cinda and I had made it home with the help of a girlfriend and her trusty steed. Our truck hadn’t made it back but Lou? She was fine. The picture of health. It had been superstition after all. I had been paranoid and I had been wrong. I shook off the feeling of Death. We were together and she was healthy.

And that was all that mattered.

 

 

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Cinda Bones scaling the glacial walls like it’s nothing. 

 

 

There would be more trucks.

 

And then there was a new truck and The Chief went into Town to get it.

A few hours later Lou and I followed, catching a ride with a friend when I realized that her condition was worsening.

The whole way I again prayed to anyone and anything that would listen. I told myself Death was just taunting us, knocking louder now but that she could be quelled like the last time. She would stop. Cinda was at the top of her game. Svelte and happy and healthy. The Vet had told me so only weeks before.

Still I prayed over and over along the drive and in the week that followed. I offered up my own health, our home, money. Anything. Everything. “Please, take what you want. Anything but my baby. Please let her make it through.”

 

 

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One week later, The Chief and I drove home together hand in hand in a new truck with our baby’s body in the bed.

We returned home to an oppressive feeling of emptiness and to the most painful full circle experience I’ve ever had.

When we walked in the door we were greeted by a dinner left for us by our neighbors and to a beautiful note of condolence. Those were the same kindnesses and love we had bestowed upon them only a few months before when they had to make the transition of walking through their doorway for the first time without their baby.

Full circle.

Life is cruel and beautiful all in one.

In the morning we awoke for the first time in our house without our baby.

 

You never realize the quiet until it comes.

It’s deafening.

 

We spent the day digging her grave. The spot where she and her Dad had slept together in a tent the first Summer they had lived on the property was where we laid her to rest. As we walked the property earlier that morning to find where she would rest, the spot had called us in and put its arms around us the way only the Earth can.

We dug until we were up to our shoulders in an earthen grave, until we had to help one another out, until we were sure she would be safe from the wilds of the woods.

All the while, her Brother watched over us. He had come over from next door and had greeted us with his head down and without so much as the twitch of his tail. He was solemn and stoic as he let us bury our faces in his fur. We sobbed into him. He slept beside the ever-growing hole that would be her grave and as I dug my heart was broken again and again as I would look up and catch a glimpse of his tail and think that it was hers.

But it wasn’t.

And then as we left to prepare her body, her Brother left too.

We cleaned her and dried her and cried into her fur and then wrapped her again in one of her Dad’s blankets from their early days. Slowly we lowered her into the grave and said our final goodbyes. In the hours that followed we filled her grave with dirt and covered the top in moss and rocks and flowers.

Our baby.

 

 

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Our first Christmas.

 

 

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Our last family ski

 

 

Cinda was our first baby.

And she was my very best friend.

She was the reason I made it through my first Winter when The Chief worked all the dark day long and I was left in an unfamiliar place all alone. In the cold and the vast darkness she was my light and I was no longer alone. I talked to her more than anyone else. She waited patiently as I learned to ski and made me feel safe in the big white world I had found myself in.

 

 

 

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Keeping me company while I organized totes.

 

She showed me around and taught me to navigate the place I called home. At every turn she would wait for me to make sure I wouldn’t miss it.

 

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This way, Mommy.

 

 

She was my best friend and I lost her.

I lost her and still, she is everywhere.

I hear her though she’s not there. I smell the way her paws smelled in fleeting moments and it taunts me. I find her fur at every turn. I see her footprints in the soft landings of the river’s shore.

I still look for her in her bed under the house every time I walk up the stairs and I wait for her to peek up at me over the table in our living room. My heart breaks in expectant surprise when I turn around in the kitchen and she isn’t there to sample what I’m making. I feel as if I’m just waiting to turn the corner and see her again, as though I’ve simply lost her and not that she’s lost her life.

 

 

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Sneaky, peaky T.

 

 

She visits us in our dreams and in the memories of our Friend Family who have been there every step of the way to kneel at her grave and cry, to wrap us in their arms, to feed us and to tell stories that make us able to laugh again.

It’s a constant up and down whirlybird of a rollercoaster on a ride I never wanted to go on that I never paid admittance for. It feels as if we are here by accident, by a terrible joke.

But we aren’t.

This is our new life. Just us and the quiet.

 

Despite the despair and the pain that feel infinite it was worth it. I wouldn’t take back getting to love her in order to avoid this but I would do anything for more time together.

I love you, Cinda, dog of unflinching personality and infinite nicknames and lessons and love. There will never be another like you. Thank you for letting me be your Mom, for as one of your Grandmas said with a laugh: you didn’t have to let me be your Mom but you did.

Thank you. We will see you on the other side.

We miss you. So much.

 

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The Pack Test

“So, I’m talking to a real firefighter?”

Well, sort of.

Two weeks ago I became a real Wildland Emergency Firefighter.

Well, sort of.

You see, the positive things about living off the grid, out of a city without a municipal handshake of sorts are plentiful. You can build how you build, live how you live and matters are most often handled within the community.

The negative things about living off the grid don’t necessarily have to be negatives at all but they do have to be dealt with.

For example: We live in rural Alaska. Prior to moving here, I didn’t realize how great of a threat fire is to this land (though it seems a bit obvious now) and how different fighting fire in Alaska is to fighting fire down South. And so the questions arise: In this massive area that we call home, full of ready and willing fuels, how shall we deal with fire?

Because we will be the first boots on the ground.

Without a local fire department just naturally occurring as easily as a local library or hospital seemed to (which I know is untrue, a lot of work goes into that infrastructure but it does often go unseen) when I lived on the grid it comes down to organizing together to create a first line of knowledge and defense.

This is how I became part of the Volunteer Fire Department.

Not in 100 years (because really, a million? I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t think of it in that long) would I have thought I would be a firefighter. Though I grew up running with some of the local Volunteer Firefighters and hanging out in the firehouse and learning a few tricks of the trade, for the most part, my understanding of firefighting boiled down to the level of dalmatians and fire poles (neither of which we have here. Dang!).

But when I moved here accidentally and fell in love with the Fire Chief of the town, I inadvertently became a part of the VFD (Volunteer Fire Department). I helped to organize fundraisers and sold swag at events, I spread the word about fire meetings every Wednesday and helped The Chief wherever else I could.

But attend a meeting?

No, gracias.

The thing was, when I arrived, the meetings sounded more like a boys club than a training session. And that’s not necessarily because that’s what in fact they were. I conjured up an idea before laying foot on the VFD soil and decided in that conjuring that I was plenty happy to support from the sidelines. Yay Chief!

However, last Spring The Chief suggested I join the team.

“Of all the people in The Valley, you’re the most likely to be in the truck with me when I have to respond to a fire. It would make sense if you knew how to help.”

 

 

 

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Well, me and Cinda would be the most likely riders in the truck. Time for training, Jones!

 

 

Dang, very true and fair enough.

And so I joined my first meeting and spent the Summer learning about hose lays and how to draft water to fill the tanks and how to get water onto a fire. But it all felt very far away and somewhat unreal.

Until two events happened:

The first (read about it here) was when a controlled burn was started right down the road from us, yet was left unattended and we awoke to worried phone calls that were in fact very valid. A few hours later we had the fire out and all was well but the very real potential of our valley going up in smoke because of a small fire turning big hit home that day.

The second (read about it here) was when a burn started about 17 miles away and seemed to grow and grow over night from consistent winds. Just as the fire truly started to get people shaking in their XtraTuffs, the Department of Forestry sent in water planes and then as if the planes had simultaneously been putting out fire and doing a rain dance, the rains came and they didn’t stop for a month. However, had they not come and the winds not stopped blowing, the fire jumping the river to our little hamlet was a very real possibility.

Both of these events made me glad I had learned what I had learned per The Chief’s suggestion but that was as far as that would go.

Right?

Apparently not.

This year there was a new infusion of suggestion. Why not get your Red Card?

Me?

A Red Card?

A Red Card is an actual red card, hence its nickname which is actually called an Incident Qualification Card. It signifies that its holder is has been trained and tested both physically and mentally and has passed said tests to qualify as a Wildland Firefighter.

Me?

The Chief, again coming in with the air of reason, suggested I consider it because of our unique situation. Since the VFD is in fact a VFD with huge emphasis on the V (Volunteer) it can be difficult to incentivize people to acquire the certifications needed to keep the VFD earning funds. Our community has to be able to earn a living and counting on Fire as employment is a gamble.

It goes like this:

The fire truck is hired by the DOF (Department of Forestry) to run patrols.

The truck makes money on these patrols and thus, this is how the VFD makes money.

Other than fundraisers, this is the VFD’s only income.

AND…

The VFD truck is only hired up if there is High fire danger.

AND…

The truck can only be driven by someone with the correct qualifications .

AND…

The Chief is the only person in The Valley as of now who has the qualifications and is available.

AND…

It can only be driven if he has a Red Card-ed person in the truck with him.

AND…

No one in The Valley with a Red Card would be available this Summer leaving the truck unable to make money, the VFD unable to make money and The Chief unable to patrol.

Quite the pickle, eh?

Thankfully (although not for the funds of the VFD which are used to procure firefighting necessities like trucks and hoses and pumps and gear) it has been a mild weathered year with rains throughout most of June and July.

 

 

 

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The upside of a rainy Summer? Double rainbows, of course. Oh, Alaska, you are a beauty.

 

 

 

Yet after only one day of sun, the roads dry out and the threat of fire starts to return.

So, it was suggested that current members of the VFD, if willing and able, get our Red Cards.

Willing?

Yes.

Able?

…Gulp.

 

The classroom portion gave me pause because of the time commitment (40 hours of schooling plus testing to pass) but I knew that if I could find a way to carve out time for play then I certainly could find a way to carve out 40 nooks and crannies of hours for the good of the community.

No, the classes gave me pause for time but what scared me was the physical testing.

Though not at first.

In fact, I hadn’t even worried about it until two nights before while working at The Restaurant.

“So, you’re taking the Pack Test tomorrow?”

“Yep!”

“What’s the Pack Test set-up again?” (the physical test)

“Oh I think 3 miles in 45 minutes with a 45lb. pack.”

“Oh!”

“Oh?”

And then I started putting it into perspective. I had walked to work earlier that day and I had left a few minutes later than planned so I had been hustling. Lou was with me and was, as usual, leading the pack but I was at a close clip behind her. The only things slowing me down were the terrain (bumpy, rocky, driius filled) and my super-heavy backpack.

It weighed maybe 20 pounds.

And it took me over an hour to get there.

 

 

 

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Stopping to take pictures of cloud formations like this beauty may have slowed me down a bit, but not by much.

 

 

Uh oh. This was not adding up. 2+2 was not equaling 4.

The walk the next day was shorter but only by half a mile and the pack was over two times as heavy and the walk to work that day had been my first exercise since strep throat had taken me down the week before.

…Gulp.

So, the night before the test I stayed home (strapped to my couch by copious amounts of online work to do that kept me in) despite a wedding party and a band playing that night, made a good meal and went to bed…a little worried.

The next morning I woke up early, ready to get my head in the game. The Pack Test would be first at 9am followed by a Field Day of learning and testing our skills. The Chief left an hour before me to meet up with our friend W who was leading the Field Day and to set up the course we would test on. I met The Chief there an hour later with little butterflies fluttering about in my tummy.

I realized it had been years since I’d put my body through any sort of testing, a revelation that seems strange to me as someone who’s been a personal trainer. But time flies. It’s funny the stories we tell ourselves like “I often run races.” which was once true but not true anymore. And so I tried to channel those days. I even put on my old personal training/10k run watch to be able to check my time against the mile markers.

As soon as we had all filled out our paperwork, it was time to fit our vests. I weighed myself, put on the vest and weighed myself again. Somehow, over night I had forgotten the whole 45 pound aspect and had rounded it up to 50.

Mine is spot on!

Whoops.

The Chief tried to help fit the vest to my body but they were all made for someone much bigger and it wiggled as I walked, back and forth, back and forth like a porcupine’s gait.

We all lined up. We’d have 22 minutes and 30 seconds to make it to the half-way mark (if we were going to cut it that close) but my goal was to make it there with time to spare.

The walk was on flat-ish ground void of vegetation but marred by potholes and rocks and heavy (for us) morning traffic which we tried to avoid as much as possible while keeping as straight a line as we could.

Every second counted.

Cinda and two other VFD pooches (still no dalmatians) lead the charge. As we started the slow incline to the historic town and started making sense of the distance, we all realized that the half-way mark would be at the end of a steep (but short) uphill. The course was supposed to be flat.

Thanks, honey.

Nevertheless, we powered on.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

I fell into a rhythm of breath I could rely on and talked to my legs.

You can do this.

At the high-five half-way point we started our decline. We were at 21 minutes and 30 seconds. Just one minute ahead of half-time. If we wanted to make it we could not slow down at all.

Keep the pace.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

And then, at a certain point, I lost it that rhythm. I looked down at my legs with encouragement but also in bewilderment: can’t you go any faster? I felt like a cartoon version of myself with little flippers for legs. I was pushing but they just didn’t want to go any faster and the test declares that running is an automatic fail. The point is to see if you can haul yourself at a quick extended clip out of harm’s way.

I looked ahead of me wishing for long legs. Most of the time I enjoy being pint-sized but sometimes, it really slows me down.

The time was ticking away.

30 minutes.

35 minutes.

40 minutes.

41 minutes.

At 41 minutes I could clearly see our end goal. The Chief and our instructor were standing, ready and waiting to congratulate us.

I again looked down at my flippers which now felt as if they were flipping through mud.

Come on guys! We can do this. We are so close.

You know how when you’re waiting for it to be an appropriate hour to eat ice cream and the minutes just seem to melt by in glue-like fashion? It takes forever. Well, this was the opposite. The seconds were flashing, every time I looked at my watch, one I had looked at for years to encourage myself, to push myself and countless others to go just that much farther out of our comfort zones, it seemed to be betraying me, speeding up time.

42 minutes.

43 minutes.

2 minutes left.

I put my head down and leaned into the weight vest with the last bits of push that I had to make my leggies go faster and…

We made it.

43 minutes and 20 seconds.

A record?

I think not.

A pass?

Why yes, yes I think so!

The Chief and W congratulated all of us as everyone came in under the 45 minute cut-off and The Chief quickly removed the now very wet from sweating vest from my back. I felt like I could fly without it.

Before I realized it, my heart rate was back to normal and I felt great. For an “Arduous” test it hadn’t been all that bad.

Right?

The rest of the day was for the Field Day. We learned everything from how to deploy a Fire Shelter (which is far less sturdy than it sounds, think more like a big baked potato wrapped in foil versus a building) to how to effectively use a Pulaski to deter the spread of fire under and above ground. We worked on different hose lay formations and safety procedures and about those who had perished because they had missed even just one of those checklists or procedures. As the day went along, it felt less like learning about something and more about becoming part of it. This elusive idea of becoming a Wildland Firefighter was becoming more real as each hour went by. We were about to get our Red Cards (pending my completion of online work still). We helped one another remember our training and worked together to divvy out tasks and melded into a team in a way prior training hadn’t forced us to. Even though the day and the test weren’t as long or as grueling as say Boot Camp, that same sense of belonging and camaraderie that comes from completing something together as a team came through.

By the end of the day, The Chief was beaming. He finally would have help if and when he needed it. The VFD would make money and he wouldn’t be the sole person responsible to make that happen. I could see a weight lifted off of his shoulders and I felt happy to be a small part of that.

That night we went home to recoup and I felt it…

The soreness.

It started creeping in like the cold comes through the cracks in the door at 30 below.

I wasn’t even going to be sore though, remember?

Wrong.

 

 

 

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I felt like this dandelion. I’m pretty sure I looked like it too.

 

 

 

It should definitely be labeled “Arduous”.

3 days later I was still compromised while walking upstairs. Perhaps the walk hadn’t winded me but carrying a pack only 15 pounds shy of half of my weight (thanks to the extra 5 pounds I had forgotten about) had certainly put my muscles to the test and still…

I had passed.

I could rest easy. It was over (minus some remaining coursework) and a renewed sense of possibility lay before me, one that I never had considered in my life: I could now go out on a fire.

Hearing about The Chief’s days on the fireline had always seemed so far removed. Walking for miles and miles with a 50 pound pack of gear and a 40 pound jug of water, sleeping in the open and eating meals out of a pouch? Taxing your body so that he would come back two belt loops slimmer and 5 pounds heavier? It sounded super-human and in truth it still does. But now, I was qualified to offer myself up to that type of work.

And so, when my girlfriend called and asked “So I’m talking to a firefighter?”

I responded in truth: Well, sort of.

There’s a part of me that’s always lurked beneath the non-competitive exterior that is competitive beyond all belief with myself. Could I do it? Could I hack it?

I guess we will have to see.

Until then, I’ll work on the knowledge, work on the practical and maybe take a few more hikes with that 5 pound heavier than it should be 50 pound pack.

And then, well, who knows?

And maybe by next year that extra 5 pounds will only feel like an extra 2.

Here’s hoping (and huffing and puffing to the finish line again).

My Mama is Coming to Town

This here Summer will be my 3rd in our little hamlet in Alaska. As my 3rd time around the never-setting sun I’m realizing the obvious: no Summer is the same. Every year, the faces change just as fast as the scenery. You expect to see the familiarity of last year, and just like that…it’s started anew. The glacier changes, the wormholes collapse or are created, the trees leaf out and a whole new slew of faces come into your world, a world that in turn becomes theirs as well.

 

 

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This must be the place.

 

 

And this year, a new face will be joining them: my Mama’s.

From the time I flew the coop out into the big unknown at 17, I’ve lived all over the place. Yet, in every place, my Mom had either moved me in or immediately come to visit. New apartment in Berkeley? She’d help me give the place a good scrub a dub dub. Living in Italy? Well, she’ll just have to come by for Thanksgiving.

There’s never been a time in my life where my Mom hasn’t seen where I live for longer than a month.

And now it’s verging on a 3rd year.

But fret not because…

My Mama’s coming to Town.

 

 

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As I’m sure you’ve noticed, this place isn’t just some sort of pop on in location. No, the journey North requires some preparation and logistics and in the heat and hectic mess of Summer planning this hasn’t been my a strong suit and so, we sat down this Winter to plan away. And now, my Mama doesn’t have to live my life through pictures and stories. She can experience it on her own.

My Mama arrives in less than 3 weeks. Since I’ve never had a visitor out here, I didn’t know what goes along with the anticipation of a guest’s arrival but now I feel it. Every walk I take, or adventure I have, I am thinking of her.

Will she be comfortable?

Will this incline be O.K?

Will these flowers still be blooming?

Will she see a bear?

Will she think an outdoor shower is awesome or atrocious?

Will the Weather Gods smile upon us?

Will she love this place like I do?

 

 

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All of these questions swim around me constantly as I wonder what I’ve forgotten to wonder about and worry that there’s a detail I’ve left out. But the last question wrestles with my mind the most. It’s a question I’d never asked myself before.

Before it didn’t matter if she liked where I lived because I only stayed for a year or two in the far away places and the closer by places were automatically approved due to distance alone. But this place? Well it’s not exactly a hop, skip and a jump away now is it and it’s clearly not a life that everyone leads.

And so in all honesty, I was nervous that she might not like it.

This place is not for everyone and I’m fine with that (except for when it comes to my Mom). It’s why the local businesses over-hire and why we aren’t surprised when we hear of someone leaving in the night without even a note to explain why. We know why. It’s a hard life but the hard is what makes it good (“A League of their Own” reference, anyone?). Well, it’s what makes it good to me at least.

But the hard is also what makes it messy. The hard is what causes a pile of Freely Acquired Just In Case tires to sit on our property, out of use for years until the day comes when someone needs them for a garden project. The hard is what makes it so that our house doesn’t have siding but does keep us cozy and warm. The hard is what makes each challenge more challenging and thus, each success that much more rewarding.

But it isn’t always pretty.

As a tidy-upper, not quite clean-freak but definitely clean and orderly appreciating lady, the disarray of life in the woods can be overwhelming at times. I can’t tell you how many times The Chief and I have walked outside to do some tidying up and have both let out simultaneous sighs at the plethora of projects to be done.

And when I was just visiting, before living here, I didn’t totally get why all of those projects weren’t already done.

Now, I do.

But still sometimes, my tidying tendencies get the best of me. I want to just tie everything up in a pretty bow and you know where I get that from?

My Mama.

And now she’s coming to visit. To see the sometimes un-tidy life we live in the woods. The life that’s not for everyone. The life that some take one look at and run in the other direction. The life that I almost didn’t live because I too was tempted to run at first.

 

 

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It’s a big place, constantly changing, constantly surprising

 

 

Perhaps her experience will be that of love at first sight. Perhaps just the opposite. Either way, it’s her experience to have and no degree of my wanting her to love it here can effect that.

And that scared the hell out of me.

At first.

And so I called her and told her my worries. I want my Mom to love where I live, not simply because of a tendency to seek for her approval but also because I want her to want to come visit me. I want her to want to visit this place and me. It makes the very long journey fly by if the end location is somewhere you actually love to be. And to all these fears she, in her perfect Mama rationale stated this:

“I’ll love it because you are there.”

If that’s not the most quintessential Mommy-Mom-Sentence I’ve ever heard then I don’t know what is. And you know what? It worked perfectly (I’m a sucker for Mommy-Mom-Sentences).

And so, since then (and especially since she bought her ticket) I’ve stopped the worry. Sure, I’m doing a faster shuffle these days trying to tidy, trying to make sure things are in order and that the hard life is as easy as it can be but I also know that she’ll love it purely because of the fact that we will be together. And so will I. Yes, there will be bug bites and slop buckets and outhouse and all the other discomforts that go along with a non-modern life but they will pale in comparison to the awesomeness that is my Mom being in our home.

Finally, I’ll be able to truly share my life with her, instead of bits and snippets and stories and my interpretations. She’ll have her own take on it all, she’ll know my friends, my work, my walks I take every time I call her and she’ll see our life as it is here, instead of our patched together life in California where we move every week and live out of suitcases.

It’s been a bizarre thing to have her not know who or where I am talking about and I can’t wait to bridge the gap.

She’ll finally know our life.

She’ll finally know and I can’t wait.

 

 

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That’s my Mama!

Dogtown, U.S.A

Two weeks ago our town lost a dear friend. She was spirited and kind and quirky and one hell of a runner and…

she was a dog.

 

 

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Io in the background at the beach in California

 

 

Her passing made me realize that for a year and a half I’ve written about so many reasons why I love where we live but that I’ve neglected to explain one of the biggest reasons: our dogs.

When I first thought of Alaska, I thought of glaciers and grizzlies, not dogs but I arrived to a very different reality. At the first party I went to here I was sitting on the grass and before I knew it, there was a dog on my lap, a dog on each side and endless others coming up for kisses. And those were just a small contingency of the partygoers. For the 100 some odd people there, there were probably half that amount in dogs (and if everyone at the party had lived locally, the number of dogs would have probably matched humans).

I had landed in doggie heaven.

Which to me, pretty much meant people heaven too. I couldn’t believe my luck to be surrounded by pups.

We live in a dog town, a place where people greet each dog with the same love and admiration that they give their humans (sometimes even more). Dogs out here aren’t just protection or entertainment, they are family. We trust them more than I’ve ever seen dogs trusted before. They run off leash (we didn’t even have a leash for Cinda until we first went to California) and if they leave for some reason, I trust them to come back. If I’m lost, I trust them to guide me home and if they don’t like someone, I trust their intuition (and have seen the proof in their judgements come through).

Dogs are the special ingredient, the umami of taste. Their essence is what makes this place the unusual concoction that it is. They make it our home.

Each and every one of them.

And I forget how very rare this is until I leave this place and see how free our pups here are.

Some days I’ll walk with Cinda to Town and when the time comes to turn off for my work she’ll take a different route, looking back as if to say “See you later, Ma. I’m going to the bar.” And off she’ll go for a few hours, doing her rounds, seeing her friends, checking in on her Town. She’ll hit the local grocery store where they have treats waiting, she’ll see if the local bar owner will let her in to the restaurant…

 

 

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C’mon. Let us in.

 

 

…she’ll go up to work and check on Dad and then at some point, she’ll come back down to me where she plops herself right in front of the doorway of The Restaurant acting as a sort of bouncer.

Every dog has their own routine and habits and scratch spots and we all know them because they are every bit a part of the community as we are.

 

 

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And they always get the best seat.

 

Talking on the phone the other day to a girlfriend I mentioned that we were watching a neighbor’s dog for a couple weeks.

“A couple of weeks? Geez! That’s crazy!”

And I get that it sounds that way but it never feels like we are put out because here there’s a constant symbiosis of care. If you see a thirsty pup, you water her. If you’re going on a walk and a dog dad or mom aren’t home, you bring their dog with you so they get out enough. It takes a village.

My favorite dog time is when I spend the day at home and inevitably all of the neighborhood dogs come by at some point in the day to get some love and maybe a treat or to just keep tabs on the place. They make their rounds, dropping in for a few minutes or a few hours.  And if a few days go by without seeing each of them, it feels as if something is amiss.

And then something was.

Because our town lost one of our dear dogs. She was a German Shorthaired Pointer by the name of Io. She and her parents are our family, our next door neighbors. In my few years here, her Mom and Cinda and I spent countless hours on walks together. Those walks are how we built our friendship, walking a path worn between our two properties, created by years of footsteps and paw prints back and forth, to greet one another and head deeper into the woods.

One of my fondest memories of Io was on such a walk. It was Spring, last year and though the chill of Winter had faded and the rivers had broken from a warm sun, the water was as cold as ever, just above freezing. Io was running circles around us, lapping us over and over, as per usual, but at an even faster rate. She had spotted something she liked and had taken off after it barking, running at full speed, tearing through the woods. She raced past us again as we all neared the river’s edge and before we knew it she was belly down, plopped into the freezing cold waters of the river. She looked at us smiling, cooling herself from her output and we laughed and marveled at what an amazing animal she was. Afterwards I wondered allowed what she had been after and her Mom said: “A squirrel. That was her squirrel bark”.

 

 

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Outnumbered again.

 

 

That’s how well they knew one another, just by the tone of her bark her parents could know. And Io knew them in return.

Before her Mom would have even gotten her garden tools out, Io would be digging away in the garden. If she went upstairs to get into workout clothes for a run, Io knew it before she’d even gotten up the ladder. Oh, and the ladder: Io could climb the ladder to the loft where she would sleep as the little spoon with her Mom and Dad every night.

They knew one another inside and out, backwards and forwards.

She’s family.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve never written about the dogs here, because they are so inextricably of us and in our souls that in every piece I wrote, there they were. Already.

I still feel her here. We still take our walks, the walks that built our friendship and I feel her still running circles around us. I picture her raging through the brush or peeking out from beneath a blanket on the couch. She is everywhere. But still, she is deeply missed.

There is a saying around here: “When I die, please let me come back as a dog in this town” and I have to say that if the dogs had a vote, I bet they would all wish for that too.

Here’s to our dogs, to the ones we’ve loved and the ones we’ve lost. Here’s to embarking upon the journey of having a dog, knowing full and well that it will end in pain, yet going whole-heartedly into it nonetheless because it is so worth it.

And here’s to you, sweet Io. We love you.

 

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