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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).

La Mama: Part II: The Day All Hell Broke Loose

After twice snoozing my alarm I finally pulled myself from sleep a few hours post my Mom’s departure.

Her leaving had me feeling a little lonely but the hustle of the day before me (and a pooch at my feet) gave me the gusto to get going.

I jumped into the shower (ahhhhhh, showers) and as I did, I noticed my throat was a little raw. Hotels will do that to me occasionally, all the recycled air puts my throat in a tizzy and so I wrote it off. Despite a sinking sickness suspicion, there was too much to do to cry over a little tickle.

And what was there to do?

Well, since our arrival the night before had been about 3 hours later than planned (surprised? No, me neither) the list I had hoped to split into two days would have to be jam-packed into one (plus, driving home).

It read like so:

 

Drop the truck at the mechanic

Do laundry

Go to BB&B for soda stream CO2 replacements (one for us and two for other families. The bubbles of The Valley were on our shoulders)

Recycling

Take Cinda to the vet

Speed through Costco

Quick trip to Home Depot

A drop-by fly-in at Natural Pantry (a local health food store)

Drop-off my girlfriend’s truck

Leave Anchorage

Drive for 45 minutes

Shop at Fred Meyer

Get fuel at Fred Meyer

Drive the remaining 7 hours home.

Done!

 

Easy peasy. All in a day’s work, right?

And so it started.

By 7:45am Lou and I were fed (or at least she was) and headed for the mechanic. The truck’s transmission issue was becoming less of a suggested “Look at Me” and more like an “I’ll Leave You Stranded if You Don’t Take a Look at Me”. I had to bring Lou with me because the hotel wouldn’t allow her to stay in the room alone and so started our day of Anchorage Taxi try-outs.

We dropped off the truck for their earliest appointment with the (discussed) idea being that they would assess the situation and have me back on the road in an hour or so to do our chores. Lou and I bid a short farewell to the Blue Beast and called a taxi.

Taxi #1.

He took us back to the hotel where I knew I should do anything other than this but I couldn’t help myself.

I had to take a bath.

It was the most glorious jacuzzi tub I’d ever seen. There wasn’t a chance in the world that I was going to pass up that kind of opportunity.

 

 

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30 minutes later, I was out and prune-y and ready for…

a nap.

The sore throat I’d awoken to wasn’t quite quelled by the soothing warm vapors of the bath. Instead, it was feeling worse.

I was feeling worse.

I felt exhausted and so I allotted myself a 15 minute nap. I was sure I’d feel better after.

Right?

Post-nap it was time to plan. My girlfriend called me from her hotel around the corner and we agreed to pack up and leave together to take Cinda to the vet. Since it was already 10am and the mechanic hadn’t called, we figured we’d use her truck for transport until our truck was ready or until her appointment to have her truck fixed at noon.

Two trucks, two shops, two girls with lots of baggage and a dog needing to do copious amounts of chores and get home the same day.

What could go wrong?

It all started with the recycling.

On the way to the vet, we decided to quickly stop by the mechanic to get all of the recycling out of our truck (and to give them a gentle nudge to help the process along). In the process of prepping for Anchorage at home, I’d forgotten to pack extra clothes (and a toothbrush or toothpaste and jammies and countless other things. It seems I always think of Anchorage as right next door, instead of the 16 hour round trip that it is, complete with an overnight) and so donning my dirty clothes from the day before, I worried little about soiling them further from transporting from my truck to hers the now dripping from rain recycling. We headed to the recycling center and there we found the omen of our day.

30 minutes after we had arrived, as I emptied the final bag of our combined recycling effort I noticed unbroken glass. Beautiful glass. It was a vase, completely intact, without flaw that someone had just put to rest. I pulled it from the pile and showed it to my girlfriend.

“Look what I found!”

“What? Really?! Heck yes!”

 

 

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Like finding a gem (among gems) in the forest…

 

 

Riding high off the vase find (a vase is a luxury and a delicate find that I don’t often allow on trips home) we were certain the day was off to a good start. We headed to the Vet where she dropped us off and then left to fill the Town bubbles. We were multi-tasking our way to success!

In perfect synchronicity, she returned just as we were finishing up paying. And, to make things better we were leaving with good news: Miss Lou was down to 77lbs. and in good health. That’s over 20lbs. lighter than when I met her three Summers ago. I was stoked.

With no call from our mechanic still and the 12 noon appointment right around the corner, we decided it was best to just drop her truck at the shop and head for laundry.

Taxi #2.

When we arrived we started to get our things in order and as my girlfriend started to move things in the backseat, I heard it.

Crash. Boom. Shatter.

The brand new (to us) vase tumbled out of the truck and splintered into all of its pieces onto the pavement below.

And that was our omen, our indicator of the Day When All Hell Broke Lose’s beginning.

But we didn’t see it that way.

We laughed ourselves silly. The vase had survived the rough and tumble of Recycle Land only to shatter after an hour in our care.

Once we composed ourselves, we loaded all of our laundry, ourselves and Cinda into the taxi and headed for the laundromat, which just so happened to be next door to amazing Thai food. Perfect! We waltzed in to the greeting of the owner who cooed over Lou and led us to the back where we could tie her up. However, her leash was just short enough that it created a standing only situation. This would not do. With a couple of hand gestures and shoulder shrugs we negotiated with the owner to bring her in/walked her in and hoped to not get kicked out.

It was laundry time.

8 machines full and $60 in quarters and we were off! I went to order us Thai food while my girlfriend flipped the loads. You know you’re good friends when you do one another’s laundry.

Half-way through our meal in a sunny spot on the grass behind the laundromat, the vase omen started taking effect when the mechanic called.

Bad news.

“You should probably come in and we can talk.”

Well that’s never a good thing to hear from any sort of doctor, car or otherwise.

I asked for further information and he rattled a list of issues with prices to boot that left my Thai spiced mouth hanging wide open.

And so the obvious question came up: “Can we drive it home tonight?”

They paused.

I gulped.

“I wouldn’t.”

Fantastic!

 

 

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But we had just gotten our permanent registration! Which, of course, is non-transferable.

 

 

 

 

I asked them what would make the drive less of a hazard and they said an oil change (since apparently there was a leak and all of the oil had drained) with a possible patch was the best they could do in the time they had (it was already after 3pm) and they didn’t even know if they’d have time for that. They’d let me know. With heaps of laundry folding ahead of us, I told them I’d be over ASAP and we’d decide from there.

I tried to stay calm and seek out the most positive outlook I could find. Maybe it would be fine and we would be on our way by 5, 6pm at the latest.

Right?

Yet, despite my intentional optimism, we both knew it was time to start making other plans. The truck my girlfriend had dropped off needed repair but was due to be done by close of business. I sheepishly asked if we could drive her truck home instead, a new potential plan that was not the plan at all.

You see, she had driven in with her husband a few days before to drop him off, leave the truck for him for when he returned 10 days later and she would come home with me.

If we took the truck and ours wasn’t ready for him when he returned he would be stranded.

Not exactly ideal.

Still, it was starting to look like our only option if we wanted to get home since we both had to work the next day (I had agreed in the midst of our vase excitement to cover someone’s shift, despite how much I was looking forward to getting home and finally resting for a day).

We finished up laundry and waved goodbye as we packed the fresh clothes into the next taxi.

Taxi #3

As we drove away I noticed the sign on the door: “No dogs allowed”.

Whoops!

We headed to the mechanic from where I called The Chief and put him on speaker phone so he could hear firsthand the bind we were in (and so I wouldn’t have to try to explain all the issues rattled off to me). He was at work, operating heavy machinery and had to strain to hear the details of our diesel’s ailments. It wasn’t looking good. Finally, we came to an agreement: they would let us store our truck there until they were able to look at it again in three weeks. Three weeks?! Then they would test the engine (at a cost of $400 big ones) to see if rebuilding the transmission was even worth it.

Oh joy!

I checked in with my girlfriend whom was patiently waiting outside amongst our laundry and the pooch. She had talked to her mechanic and he was certain he could get us on the road that night. The husband we would have to figure out later.

I went back in and confirmed the expensive game plan and went to empty out the truck. Before I could even get there, one of the mechanics started to drive it away, I ran up to him and he paused long enough for me to explain, at which point he asked if the truck was mine or mine and my husbands.

Smooth, very smooth.

Here I was, emptying my truck, unsure of when I would see her again and under what conditions and this guy was checking my marital status? The omen continued.

Finally, all gathered, I brought my belongings over to my girlfriend where we were waiting for yet another taxi.

Taxi #4.

And then…we started laughing. Looking at our current predicament, we couldn’t help it.

 

 

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Completely invoking India Arie…

 

 

We looked like (laundry) Bag Ladies with a cooler and a pup to boot. I was sitting on the Igloo eating the rest of my Thai food when the taxi showed up, just as the crew was leaving for the day.

“Are you guys moving in?”

We laughed harder.

In we went to the taxi, cooler and all to the next location: the other mechanic to pick up my girlfriend’s truck.

It was just about finished when my girlfriend realized that the other reason they were leaving the truck in town was so that it could get new tires. They were bad. Really bad. The mechanic decided he couldn’t let us leave without a spare and so he rifled one up for us.

 

 

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The Chief checking in. “How are you two?” Well honey, we are sitting in the middle of the road on top of laundry, scarcely avoiding cars, acquiring many strange looks and I feel like I am about to be sick. But Cinda is healthy so…all good.

 

 

Finally, an hour later, we were ready.

Time for grocery shopping.

It was already 6pm. Costco closed at 7pm and we still had Natural Pantry. The hustle was on. Screw Home Depot.

It was Go Time.

We flew through Natural Pantry where I grabbed all the cold remedies I could find. It was coming on strong. My eyes started turning red and the cold sweats began. This was not good.

We flew to Costco and realized that with 30 minutes to close the trip was pointless. In a last-minute Should We Take This Exit, Naw, Screw It movie-like moment we left town. We needed to get on the road and it was worth saving time to spend a little more money at Freddy’s.

And so, off we went.

By the time we made it to Freddy’s 45 minutes later the cold hadn’t just set in, it had moved in and I wasn’t so sure that it was a cold anymore.

It felt like last year’s tonsil attack.

Please, no.

We spent 30 minutes deciding what to do. It was 8pm and we had 7-8 hours of driving ahead of us. Best case scenario, we would get in at 3am and as we had pointed out to one another, we weren’t 20 years old anymore.

It was time to give in to The Day. We bowed our heads. We were beat.

We admitted defeat after an epic going back and forth game of ping-pong.

Should we try to push through?

Should we just stay in the town we were in and drive 7-8 hours tomorrow?

Should we try to go halfway?

Finally, I found a hotel two hours away that would take us and the pooch. It was a start on the drive at least and a move towards home that was feasible. We decided to go for it.

And then it was time for grocery shopping.

 

 

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This pretty much sums up our whole day. 

 

 

A fever had set in and suddenly the list I had kept so clear in my mind turned into a jumbled mess. I did my best to push through but the fog I was in was evident.

“You don’t look so good” my friend told me.

I didn’t feel so good.

An hour of delirious shopping later (did I need bread or bananas? I don’t know) and we were off. Thankfully, my girlfriend was up for the drive and after feeding trooper Lou a parking lot dinner (thank goodness I had packed extra food. Premonition?) and repacking the truck with our new booty, we were off.

Within an hour I started to realize just how in trouble I was. Despite the blasting heat my girlfriend was kind enough to endure on my behalf, my body started shaking so badly and my teeth chattering so hard from fever that I thought I was going to break a tooth.

Finally, we arrived at our mark for the night. The very sweet innkeeper gave me an extra comforter and I pulled it together enough to get into the shower. Tears rolled down my face as my achy body refused to warm until my skin was bright red from the scalding water 20 minutes later.

I fell into bed as my girlfriend suggested she try to make me an appointment for a doctor the next day.

Thank goodness for girlfriends.

I fell asleep immediately and then…

Awoke to the sudden need to vomit at 5am.

I am not a puker.

I crawled back into bed, my head pounding and my throat screaming until we had to leave at 8am to get to the appointment she had made for me at 9am.

Thank goodness for doctors and hooray for medicine!

They took one look at me and started ordering antibiotics. After a tonsil exam the doctor concluded that in fact it was strep throat I was under siege from, not tonsilitis, but he recommended that I have them taken out nonetheless as they looked like they had more battle wounds than a seasoned samurai, after which he told me that I was too old to have them out though, because it was going to hurt like the bajeezus.

Great.

Thanks, doc.

By the time I got out of there, one round of antibiotics and fifty cents poorer (thank you, Medicaid!) it was already 11am. I had slept in between the doctors comings and goings and hadn’t realized how late it was. My girlfriend still had to get to work.

Like a trooper, she drove the whole way home as I went in and out of sleep from pain and fever.

When we finally arrived she helped me unload my bounty and another hour later, after I had settled the house and cuddled the Lou, thanking her for her companionship and patience along the way, it was off to bed with me.

I settled in for two days of Rip Van Winkle like sleep for hours on end, only to wake and read for 30 minutes and then fall asleep again for another few hours.

After months of go-go-go my steam was gone-gone-gone.

 

 

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I felt like this emo Dryas Drummondi

 

 

And so, for the first time since the Summer began The Chief and I had (sickness imposed) time off together.

We spent two whole days inside listening to the rain, reading and napping. The weather cooperated with our efforts and remained cold and wet enough for two fires (and funky enough that sunshine guilt didn’t spoil our sleepy parade).

And so, despite a missing truck and a throat of fire and a propensity for sleep like I’d never had before, I felt more at peace than I’d felt in months, than I’d felt in seasons, than I’d felt since Winter.

It’s a Crazy Fun-Filled No Sleep Till Brooklyn kind of pace out here in the Summer and to have that moment of respite was a welcome relief, despite the no good, very bad, awful (but still giggle filled) days that we had to endure to get to it. At some points I felt like we’d never make it home…

But we did.

Home, sweet home. I wouldn’t trade you for a jacuzzi tub any day.

Stay healthy out there, and beware the omens for the days when all hell breaks loose or at least try to laugh yourself through them.

 

 

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Here’s hoping…and wishing.

 

 

La Mama: Part 1

One week was not enough.

It was plenty long to learn that next time we will need longer and to learn what to do differently next time. They never say “first time’s the charm!”, right?

For one, I’ll have to learn how to transition between Mom Is Coming and Mom Is Here (a.k.a CHILL-OUT). I was in such a hurry, such a manic mayhem whirlwind of preparations and planning that by the time she actually got here it took me days to pull myself out of my head and onto the ground where she stood right next to me.

It seems akin to the wedding warning: plan too much and you’ll plan yourself right out of enjoying your day.

 

It didn’t help that the week I was supposed to have off got confused with the week I was supposed to have on and my online work needed me to go “full-bore”. We found a good middle ground but the hustle-paced, blinders on to the finish line of a real Break and Mom-Time Goal was quickly re-directed to a working vacation.

So needless to say, my head wasn’t quite in the right place, or even any one place at all really.

 

 

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Driving into town…straight into the storm

 

 

My Mom, on the other hand, was in full-blown I’m In Alaska On Vacation Mode and I strove to live vicariously through her.

Mama pulled into town a little over a week ago with energy that even I rarely feel and at 40 years my senior, she moved through the evening with grace and enthusiasm despite the two days of straight travel.

She glided through endless introductions and laughed along with me at the insanity and mayhem we entered into.

 

 

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Can you identify this beauty? 

 

 

From the very beginning it was a push, and roll right along with it she did. From a day of travel, straight into an 8-hour drive (after 4 hours of grocery and odds and ends shopping) she kept pace. For someone with even a slight fear of heights, the drive from Anchorage starts quickly with endlessly gorgeous but still heart squeezing drops.

But still she did fine.

We went up and down and around and over, all through the mountains and cliffs and straightaways and still, she smiled. We went straight from 6 hours on the road with views that would normally make her knees go weak to the next challenge: the bridge.

It’s funny the things you forget, the things that on your first trip in took your breath away, gave you pause, made you question: “where in the hell am I going?” The things that now are just part of the drive.

Despite her fear of heights, I was hell-bent on getting her out on that bridge. I knew the feeling of pride it gave me when I chucked my first rock over (since I too suffer from the fear o’ heights affliction) and wanted the same for her.

We drove across the over 100-year-old bridge and she looked at me…

“We aren’t getting out, are we?”

I smiled and she knew she would at least have to get out of the car but she was certain she wouldn’t go farther.

But she did.

Step by step I got her out to the middle of the bridge where I chucked our rocks off, listening for their plunge all those many, many feet below.

 

 

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Just a wee drop…

 

 

Her first tradition.

The week was full of tradition and customs and how-to’s…mainly how-to’s.

 

 

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How to ride a 4-wheeler…in the rain…

 

 

It’s funny how life out here becomes second-hat and suddenly, explaining it to someone else reminds you of all that goes into simply leaving the house. What to bring? What to wear to keep warm? I don’t need my wallet but I do need a rain jacket? But it’s not raining…

Well, no, not yet.

Together we marveled at this place I’ve grown accustomed to and it renewed my awe for it, at least in the spaces I’d grown used to it. The little quirks of daily life found themselves unearthed by a new face in awe of it all.

And it helped me to reconnect with that initial awe.

I think that’s one of the best parts about a visitor out here: you see it all again through fresh eyes.

Of course, those eyes happened to fall upon the busiest weekend the town will see this Summer other than the 4th of July (hold onto your hats y’all, she’s coming) and the Packrafting Festival later this month. From Solstice on, every night was a rager and yes, we do live in Adult SummerCamp 2017 but we don’t always participate. Most nights we return to the solace of our little cabin in the woods to recharge for the next day.

But when your Mom comes in on Open Mic night and jumps right in?

You go for it.

Our first night there and my Mom was outpacing me – she was adorable and hanging damn tough if I do say so myself.

We retired around 2:00am and even though she thought she was reeling me in, well, she was wrong. I probably wouldn’t have even made it to Town, much less the bar after a trip in from Anchorage. Little miss early to bed had surprised even herself, and me.

She had warned me: “Julia, just remember that I go to bed around 8 or 9pm every night.”

Mmmmhmmmm.

Alaska: it’ll disrupt even the most well-worn paths.

The rest of the weekend followed suit with music every night and not the normal music we see here. It was rougher, rock-er, stuff you don’t see all the time. It was a Not To Miss weekend but it was mayhem. I was already tired on Thursday and here she was thinking she was slowing me down.

Nope.

By Sunday we had bowed out of late-night festivities and spent the day hiking. She saw what it meant to make plans and watch them change as our Late Start Plan got later and later and we found ourselves finally making it up the hill to our hiking location by 4pm and off for our hike by 5pm…just in time for the rain.

She took it all in stride.

 

 

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Glacier ice.

 

 

The next day was our last before we again braved the uproar of Anchorage and we decided to spend it at The Lake. Of course, I still had to work and of course it ended up taking longer than I had hoped but by mid-afternoon, we were doing it:

I was relaxing with my Mom.

And then Chore Reality set in.

We were leaving for Anchorage in the morning.

For the first time since she had been there, I actually let my Mom jump in and I put her to work (her request, I am not that much of a tyrannical daughter, thank you very much).

To Do:

  1. Find Cinda’s “City Clothes” (a.k.a. collar and leash)
  2. Divide the recycling into: tin cans, aluminum cans, bottles (without tops), plastic 1’s, plastic 2’s
  3. Collect trash and organize into bags
  4. Pack for Anchorage
  5. Haul water
  6. Take out slop bucket
  7. Take out compost
  8. Use anything up that The Chief wouldn’t eat that would go bad in the day and a half that I was gone (see: salad, not always but this time I had a funny feeling that mac n’ cheese was the only offering of Chef Bachelor)
  9. Book a hotel
  10. Clean out the truck and put Cinda’s bed into it
  11. Check fuel levels (since we weren’t able to pump from our diesel barrel due to a locked pump with no clue of a key

And so we started in. It was a long list but with so many of them short To Dos, we would be back to relaxing and then on to making a quick dinner to take to The Lake in no time.

Right?

Wrong.

A few hours later, grubby as all get out from sorting through recycling dating back to April amongst the mosquitos and other delights and we had 30 minutes before we needed to start making dinner so that we could leave for The Lake right when The Chief got home.

30 minutes where I could cross a few more things off the list. I was in Go-Mode, a mode that had apparently been locked into overdrive for the past two months.

My Mom looked at me and said: “Sit down. All day, all you’ve said you wanted to do was read. Read, daughter.”

And so I did.

And then I fell asleep.

About 10 minutes before The Chief got home I put dinner prep into full-speed and an hour or so later (behind schedule of course) we left for The Lake.

It was a beautiful evening filled with lakeside gardens and a sunset to make you stop in your tracks, filled with good friends and food and a Cinda vs. Mao the Cat interaction that still leaves me giggling.

Finally, it was midnight and a big day lay before us: Anchortown Trip.

We drove home, stopping for an amazing sunset and then I walked my Mom to her Girlshack 30 paces down the way and said “goodnight”. We made a plan to rendezvous at 9am and leave by 10am.

 

 

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Oh plans. So cute, aren’t we?

By 10am I had crossed almost all the pre-leaving projects off my list and I was doubled over almost retching from pain after jumping off the back of the truck straight down onto the tow hitch.

Covered head-to-toe in grease and gas and garbage yumminess from loading the truck, I finally got back to somewhat normal and faced the next task: tie-downs.

You know how everyone has their expertise and as a couple you develop habits as to who does what and when in order to maintain the forward momentum of the well-oiled machine that is your coupledom?

Me too.

And, in our well-oiled machine, The Chief does the driving when it comes to tie-downs. I always mean to step in to get better at them (because as a lefty watching a righty do them, I always end up somewhat backwards) but then something else screams for attention and in the mayhem or leaving for Town or leaving for Home, I always get stolen away or play helper.

But not this time. My Mom looked at me as if to say “It’s all you, kiddo”.

Shit.

It’s not that they are hard but they certainly are infuriating to pull apart and without patience, well, they just don’t work.

A few tries later and a few missed communications in my role as leader in the straps and we finally had secured the load. There was trash on there that I’d wanted out for the three Summers I’ve been here and now, it was all packed up and ready to go and fingers crossed it didn’t blow away.

The trip out was uneventful in the best of ways.

We made it back to The Bridge and my arms didn’t suffer nearly as tight of an anaconda grip from my Mama as the first time we crossed.

The mountains were high and so were our spirits, even with the ever-increasing complaints of the truck. She was shifting like a drunk, clanging into gear with a thud and then slowing back into it. It had my brow knitting a sweater but we were on our way to the doctor, both for the Lou and the truck. It would be fine.

By 9pm we arrived. 3 hours later than planned after a serious stop at the halfway mark to register the truck (whoops!) and make two trips to the auto parts store to borrow their tools to get the old license plate off (it was a sort of do-it-yourselfer type job with roofing screws because why not? I guess…)

We arrived and headed up to the room in the elevator that Cinda was pretty sure was possessed. She panted and circled me until we reached our floor and walked into…

The most amazing hotel room I’ve ever stayed in.

In the notes for special requests I mentioned that it was my Mom’s first time in Alaska and that if they had a room with a view that would be awesome.

And awesome was an understatement.

The view, maybe not but the view in the room was on point.

All I need to say was: there was a jacuzzi tub inside the room.

I think that explains it.

But, tuckered out after a day of checking the load vigilance and worrying after the truck and getting out to stretch Lou’s bones and stopping for gas and emptying garbage and this and that and the other…we were ready for bed.

Plus, my Mom had to wake up at 4am to see if she could get on an earlier flight since when she had called to check-in they told her she would likely miss her connection (why is that flight an option then, I ask?).

At 5:45am I awoke to her telling me “goodbye and see you soon.” and as I heard the door close behind me I realized that it was over.

The trip I had been planning for and building for and cleaning for and prepping for was over. I whispered “I love you Lou-Lou” over to Lou, probably more to comfort myself than her and then convinced myself to go back to bed. I had tossed and turned all night and had barely slept. The truck had an appointment at 8am so by my calculations I had a couple of hours to rest.

And rest I did.

And then I woke up to The Day When All Hell Broke Loose…

 

Next week.

 

Stay tuned.

 

 

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Everybody’s Working for the Weekend

Hey, Loverboy…

Oh, my…remember that song? There’s something so jovial, so absolutely jubilant about it.

Everybody’s Working for It.

Monday doldrums head to Tuesday which flows into hump day: Wednesday.

The song grows louder.

You can almost feel the freedom of Friday.

Almost.

Thursday hits and you’re basically there (I’ve been told that colleges everywhere have now deemed Thursday the new Friday, after all).

And then, the blessed day comes: Friday.

Or FriYay as my Norwegian girlfriend always texts me.

“Happy FriYay!”

You did it, you worked and now you get your reward: the weekend.

We’re all working for it, right?

 

 

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Working our way through the weeklong Wormhole

 

 

As a workaholic currently in some state of recovery, trying to find that balance between laziness and a complete abandonment of sanity with 60 plus hour work weeks, this song makes me smile. It’s the finish line, the stop at the end of a work week sentence. Period. Pause.

Over the years, I’ve lived many incarnations of the work week. From the age of 14 on, I was working nearly full-time every afternoon after school (often missing class to leave early) and on Saturdays at one of the local gyms (my best girlfriend worked at the other one and we spent most of our time on the phone with one another).

This started my work habits and it’s been gung-ho ever since. From corporate 9-5’s to restaurant late-nights to owning a personal training business and working ungodly hours around the clock, work has always been a sort of comfort for me, a distraction and a safety net.

But the weekend? Be yours on a Sunday/Monday or Tuesday and Thursday, or the original Saturday/Sunday, well that is for you to keep.

Right?

That’s what the song is all about.

You work for the weekend.

 

 

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Weekend Wormhole Warriors…You Made It.

 

 

Well, apparently we misinterpreted it out here.

For one, out here in Adult Summer Camp 2017, everyone has a different schedule. There’s no 9-5 normality here and if you have consecutive days off you’re praising some higher power (thank you, thank you!). Everyone is all over the place.

And that’s how it was for me too, until this year.

This year, suddenly, I find myself in a 9-5 type situation (although it goes from 7-3:30). I was so proud of myself for asking for the morning shift, to give myself some consistency even if it might mean less in the bank. Our goal was to eat at home more often (because when you work a 10-6 shift at a restaurant and your honey gets off at 6 and you don’t feel like cooking and wowee! there you are at a restaurant, you often cave, or at least we do) and my personal goal was to work a little bit less out in the world and focus on building my at-home career.

Gasp!

It freaked me out but I wanted to try it. I wanted to create space in my life for other endeavors, namely writing. And I wanted to start shifting my life to a more consistent pace instead of the fervor of Summer followed by the stasis of Winter.

That was cute, wasn’t it? That whole pesky planning thing again.

And so, just as The Restaurant was starting up and me with it…

I got a job offer.

The company I had worked for this Winter from home had a new project, a big one and they wanted to start when?

Now.

Of course.

I told them I’d already committed most-time but since I had cut back on hours I could commit some-time. It was moving towards what I eventually want to do, work online for a living and write. This is the shift, right?

It felt like the right step. I tried to pace it out and then, of course…

I was in over my head.

I’d work 7-3:30, leave the restaurant, fly home and then work until The Chief got home around 7:30 or 8, forgetting all about the dinners we had planned. After a week or two, I started getting better at the feminine forte of multitasking and some nights we were even eating before 10pm (a serious success in our new situation).

It’s funny how 10pm is a success in Summer and an abomination in Winter. Second dinner at 10pm maybe, but not 1st.

But then, small successes aside, things started going by the wayside. The house started to clutter and the laundry piled up and suddenly, I was doing it all over again. Overworking.

Despite my best intentions, there I was in the work spiral I had tried so hard to avoid.

But never fear, the weekend was here and I had three days off from The Restaurant (pretty much unheard of and something I am so grateful for).

Which really meant 2 off, since I was working all day Friday online.

Which really meant 1 because I couldn’t get all of my Friday work done in one day.

Which really meant about 1/2 day because of catching up on sleep (that Summer light sure does make you forget to go to bed, which is rough when waking at 6am).

And then, there was the house to care for.

Since the Mama is coming, we’ve kicked into high gear for Mom-Provements. Not that she would request them of us but because finally we have a catalyst and a time frame to make things happen. Of course it comes at the busiest and buggiest time of year but hey, what’s to be done? We needed it. The Ramp of Doom and my Mama cannot meet.

 

 

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It may look innocent without a slick icy covering but I almost face planted off it the other morning…beware.

 

 

It’s funny out here, trying to find the time for home projects. In the Winter, it’s hard because of the cold, in the Spring it’s hard because of the rain, in the Summer it’s hard because of the bugs and the busy pace and in the Fall it’s perfect…

and then we leave.

And so, we have to fit it in where it fits in. In the nooks and crannies of time we carve out in between the other work and fun of the rest of the week.

Oh yea, did I not mention the fun? Yes, this is not to sound as if all we ever do is work. We have fire meetings on Wednesdays and Open Mic on Thursdays, we play softball on Fridays after work and The Band has been playing a lot of gigs on the weekends. We are chock full of fun and chalk full of work and so, the weekend we once worked for looks a little different.

And soon enough, the daytime all the time will start to turn towards night. Tuesday marks the day we head back towards Winter. But it will be a while coming and thank goodness because busy or not, there is a lot of Summertime weather specific work to do.

Saturday, we spent our day off building. We renegotiated our shower house situation, turning it from more of a stall into a house. I was the Cut Lady and The Chief the Securer and thanks to a little help from our neighbors, we were able to scrap enough materials together to finish it. Well, almost.

By 9pm we were both pooped and still had to haul water, make dinner, take showers, take the dogs we were dog sitting for a walk and find a little time to relax together.

We got all of the list done and substituted relaxing together for me falling asleep on The Chief as he read.

But hey, we were clean, we had water, we had a new almost finished Mom-Proved shower.

We had done it. Almost. The rest was for Sunday.

 

Before and…Almost After:

 

 

 

 

We had worked all week for the weekend and then worked straight through it.

It’s been a good challenge for me to accept this pace I tried so hard to avoid because the thing is the Summer is just plain old crazy. There’s no way to avoid it but certainly ways to better flow with it. Multitask like a maniac, let the sun fuel you and remember:

Soon enough we will be sitting by a crackling fire deciding whether to ski or read. Oh, the ebb and flow. Wild rapids to idyllic ponds. It’s ever-changing and always a surprise.

And there I go planning again. Perhaps the Winter will bring even more work than this last one, perhaps not. Maybe I’ll finally master (see: start) knitting. Maybe I’ll work 9-5’s all season.

Maybe.

Maybe.

Maybes.

And so, happy weekend to you whether it starts on Monday or Friday or somewhere in-between, whether you’re working it or not. It’s there somewhere. Find that little bit of respite, even if that means more “work”.

Happy Full-Swing Summertime.

 

 

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And now for that pesky Ramp of Doom…

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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Getting into the Spring of Things

Oh my oh my is it getting Spring-y over here.

Not Spring-y in the commercial sense we all have grown up being told is Spring. There are no daffodils out, or lambs being born or lustrous bright green grasses to gallop through.  No, that’s not quite an Alaskan Spring.

Here, it’s more subtle. Your nose recognizes the smell of dirt for the first time in months. Your eyes see colors they’d once held dear and almost forgotten. The landscape shifts hourly before your eyes. The trees start to send out little buds, hopeful and expectant. And the birds come out to sing just a bit louder their songs of Spring.

And, despite their beauty, all of these little joys can easily be overpowered by a rough break-up. No, not the kind where someone ends with “I hope we can still be friends” (ugh, isn’t that the worst?). No, the Breakup of the rivers and the official end of Winter.

 

 

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Last year, Breakup was rough. It was the “I hope we can still be friends” of Breakups that went back and forth, split up, back together, on again off again turmoil one expects in the relationships of our early 20’s. I thought this stage was over. The rivers became impassable and the roads turned to slush as Spring followed the April Showers part of the old phrase but lacked the May Flowers (at least in the beginning) to follow. It was dreary and rainy and cold enough to freeze the puddles every night. Those little ice mounds were my nemeses and I have a scar on my buns to prove it. After falling multiple times on the walk home from Town one night last year, I felt a draft. I returned home to find that I had been sharing my rear view with all unsuspecting onlookers (thankfully they were few and friends at that since the Town hadn’t filled with people yet, plus it was dark) as a huge rip had been torn in my pants (and carved into my bum) from slipping and falling on the rugged ice. It bumped and bruised and teased me after. Last year, I was not a fan of Breakup.

And so, coming back from California this year, I was nervous to once again experience a slip-sliding-bruised-backsiding Breakup. I prepared for the worst.

But thankfully, was surprised by the best.

 

 

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Look familiar?

 

 

I arrived to see what had been a snow-laden Winter wonderland when I left turned into a patchy, muddy but Spring. It was worlds away from the snow haven I had left where travel by snowmachine was the name of the game. Suddenly, one could barely play hopscotch from snow patch to snow patch. The little mounds of snow would melt further every day as our sunny Spring sent rays down to bring on the exposure of the earth beneath. Puddles would change daily as once rain boot required routes would suddenly be slipper accessible in a short 24 hours. The earth was soaking it in.

 

 

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Hello new nature. Nice to see you.

 

 

And so, as the earth has started preparations for Summer, so have we. The skis are put away along with the Winter boots and jackets and the in betweeners have entered. Rain boots and rain gear have replaced bibs and snowboots. Triple layered walks have been replaced by tank tops and hiking boots. And despite my love of Winter, this year I’m finding it easier to let go.

 

 

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Sunday Strolls

 

 

Don’t get me wrong, I deeply miss our silent haven where even the loudest sounds are muffled by the snow on the trees, where I can walk for hours without seeing a face, where The Chief and I spend the day inside next to the fire. But, those days are gone, until Winter comes again.

And before we know it, she’ll be here.

But first, Summer.

As I was returning from California this year, I asked a girlfriend how Town was.

“I can feel the stampede” she replied with trepidation in her voice.

Last year, I felt that too. Spring was simply the waiting game for the hundreds of Summer friends to join us and just like waiting for your friends to arrive at your birthday party, there is always an apprehension. How will it be? How will it go? Last year, I was still holding onto Winter as I asked these questions and so, since I was neither here nor there, the limbo I found myself in was disconcerting. I wasn’t ready for Summer. I was mourning my loss of Winter and disliking Spring. I was living in a world two seasons past.

And so, this year I am trying to be exactly where I am and remember that old Alaskan saying: If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes. It applies to everything here. Each moment is different. Everyday someone new comes in or out and again, our little microcosm is changed, ever so slightly. The introduction of something new, the exit of something old. We are like a “Kitchen Sink” stew here where you put a little bit of everything all at once into a meal. A little of this, a little of that and the outcome is never the same. Everyday the end result is changed. In the Winter, the ingredients are fewer and so each addition is noticeable and each subtraction is as well. In the Summer, there are a plethora of options and the stew becomes nuanced in ways we have forgotten over the snowy months. Both are good, both are unique and each are shared with all who contribute. The dinner table gets longer and longer.

We are going to need a lot more bowls.

 

Happy Spring to you, should it find you in a field of flowers or in a puddle-ridden grey land or like here, somewhere in between. Anywhere you are, I bet it’s changing right as you read this, even ever so slightly. May this time of rebirth bring to you renewed energies and an excitement for the future, stampedes or not I hope it’s delicious.

 

 

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An Alaskan Transaction (The Most Alaskan Thing I’ve Ever Seen…So Far)

“Sis, all you need is something simple. A dependable old truck. Say, a Ford F-250, diesel, low mileage, late 90’s. Something like that.”

My brother said this to me as we sat on the couch in the living room of his cozy seaside home. He made it all seem so easy. You know, will it/wish it/do a dance for it and it will come. Well, we had been doing just that for a newer truck, or so we thought and nothing had come our way. We had our perfect truck in our heads: diesel, manual, low mileage, minor to zero mechanical issues and we willed it, wished it and danced for it daily via constant searches and credit applications and still…

Nothing.

Apparently the diesel + manual combo equaled something out of a fairy tale – think pink unicorns that smell like bubble gum and pass gas in the form of sparkles. Amazing. It just wasn’t happening.

After two months of looking, we were both starting to feel the time crunch. Summer was breathing down our backs, the time where the pulse of town feels like a constant rave compared to the calm of Winter and the idea of finding time to leave and buy a vehicle is laughable (but having the capability to leave in case of necessity via the possession of a vehicle is highly valuable). And so, we started to resign to the reality that this purchase might have to wait for the Fall. It’s a strange thing being out here without an exit. Sure, we always can get out, but this ability relies either on the kindness of friends and the borrowing of vehicles of hitching a ride (and despite the magic way this place makes these opportunities happen, it would be nice to be able to offer instead of always receive) or on our pocketbooks (to fly out is no cheap option). The feeling of freedom this place brings is always slightly hampered by the reality that we are without our own way to leave. We aren’t totally free.

And so all of this was circling my brain as we talked and then…my Brother said his magical words.

The next morning, I awoke at my his house, we readied my Nephew for school and we were off. My Nephew and I were picking out what music to listen to on the way to school (Lego Batman? Guns n’ Roses? Beastie Boys? This kid cracks me up) when a text came through from one of our friends in Alaska: “Check out this truck I found on a local Facebook group. I think it’s a good buy.”

I had asked for help in our search from a few savvy friends both in California and Alaska and suddenly it had paid off.

Or had it?

I clicked on the link and there it was in front of me:

A late 90’s Ford F-250 diesel truck with low miles.

It was exactly like my Brother had said.

I contacted The Chief. He was in. He contacted the seller. We hadn’t heard back but already I was contacting a friend who just happened to be in the area where the truck was for sale (4-5 hours from all of our homes) to see if he could test drive it for us.

The next day he went to check it out and as I made my way to the airport with my Mom, The Chief phoned to tell me the good news.

Oh, did I not mention that all of this was done with a 3,000 mile distance between us? I had been in California, St. Louis and Portland visiting family, friends and a new baby, all the while trying to purchase a truck either in California 3,000 miles from The Chief that he would have to sign off on sight unseen or he was going to purchase one 8 hours from him in Town, 3,000 miles away from me that I would have to sign off on sight unseen. It was mayhem.

Or so we thought. Now we were both going to buy a truck, sight unseen.

More mayhem?

“I think it’s a great deal, babe. I think we should do it.”

Our neighbor had given the truck his approval and it felt like things were selling fast, plus we hadn’t found any other leads. We needed to make our move. We talked about finances and sussed out the details and decided to move forward with a cash purchase (like my Brother suggested) instead of the loan option for a newer truck that we had been planning all along all while I bumped down the country roads, in and out of service, to the airport, trying to hear this important conversation. Finally, we arrived, parked and I could gather my bearings enough to say:

“Let’s go for it.”

The Chief phoned the seller and told him that we would be there to get it…in four days.

You see, this truck wasn’t 5 hours from our house in the right direction. I mean, of course not, right? It was in the opposite direction that The Chief would take to come collect me and so, we asked him to hold it. And, like a true Alaskan, he held fast to his word. No money, no contract, just a verbal agreement.

I arrived in Anchorage that night at 11:30pm at which point (after many “Oh my gosh I missed you”‘s) we went back to our hotel. Home sweet home for the night. Right?

Wrong.

Unfortunately, the party next to us was just that: a party. Though they were a party of two and an unhappy party at that, they made the noise of a party of twenty. The front desk tried to intervene and the yelling would simmer down for a few minutes, just enough time for us to almost fall asleep and then…bam! Something would slam or an angry word would be yelled and up we would be. This depressing charade went on like this until 3 or 4am when we finally drifted off.

And then our alarm went off at 6am.

3 hours of sleep and we were off. Town Day (can you hear Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana playing? I can).

It started off with a 7:30 doctors appointment for me. Oh joy! It had taken me an entire month and hours upon hours of faxes and phone calls to get this appointment (changing healthcare when one moves states is no pancake picnic, I’ll tell you that) and no 3 hours of sleep would make me miss it but oh Lordy, was I tired and not in the mood for someone to be poking and prodding me. The Chief waited expectantly during the very unpleasant 2 hour procedure after which I had the roughest blood draw of my life. My vein became the size of a pencil and my gauze was soaked. It was lovely. I came out looking quite the sight apparently as The Chief received me into his arms and asked:

“Baby, are you O.K?”

I’m amazing. I feel so amazing.

I was nauseous and grey faced but it was nothing that pancakes couldn’t take the edge off of. And so, at The Chief’s suggestion, we headed to fluffy hotcake heaven. I was so nauseous I could barely eat, but I muscled through. Pancake champion.

Next up? The dentist! Could this day get any better? Round two of pancakes might be in order. Oh, and…I had a small cavity. They suggested that they just fill it then and there and so I settled in for a longer stay than hoped for. Then the Laughing Gas started. I hadn’t had Laughing Gas since I was a child and within minutes I felt too high to even speak. They would ask me questions or prompt me to do things with my mouth and I would just smile and they would have to move my mouth for me. I was totally incapacitated. Each instrument’s particular sound took on the shape of a personality that I could envision and a cartoon of the tools working away on my pearly whites played on my own personal viewing screen of my mind. Needless to say…

I was unbelievably high.

I floated out of the office (thank goodness I had done the paperwork ahead of time) and waited outside in the sunshine for The Chief. He too had a doctor’s appointment but it turns out we were left in quite different states from our quite different appointments.

He picked me up and immediately started talking finances. My head started vibrating. I blurted out: “Babe, I’m so high.”

Huh?

He looked utterly perplexed. It being 4/20 that day he thought I was just being funny, until he looked at me. So high.

“Laughing Gas? Since when do they use Laughing Gas?”

Now, babe. They used it now.

Still, I tried to soldier on and talk money. We were trying to figure out the best way to take out monies from different accounts to make our truck transaction make the most sense.

However, nothing made sense to me. I started doing calculations that sent me off to space.

There is nothing worse than feeling incapacitated on a Town Day because there’s nothing to be done other than buck up and keep going. We still had to go to the pharmacy, do our non-perishable shopping and then do our Costco run.

Costco? High? I thought I might faint.

And so, I started chugging water and opening and closing my eyes. That would work.

It didn’t.

At first.

Thankfully, a few hours later and the more minor stops completed without too many incidents and the Laughing Gas wasn’t so funny anymore. As we walked into Costco I felt a slightly tighter grip on reality. A few hours after that and we had finished our errands and were heading to our friends’ house (the ones whom had found the truck) to catch up and unload our perishables for the night before returning to the hotel.

On the way back, I called the hotel to ask if our lovely neighbors of last night would again be our neighbors tonight.

Legally, they couldn’t tell me but after battling through the day I’d been through, this was just a verbal roadblock. I could handle this.

And I did. Unfortunately, what I unearthed was that we had two choices: risk it and hope that our neighbors had a change of pace (and heart) from the night before or move rooms.

We weren’t in the gambling mood.

By the time we arrived it was 11pm. We gathered our belongings in the old room and hiked to the new room, unpacked and plopped down on the bed, exhausted.

But it was all O.K. because…tomorrow, we would be home.

A few stops for perishables and filling up on gas (thankfully just our fuel tanks instead of our fuel barrels. The Chief had already filled the over 2,000 lbs. of gas the day before I flew in and saved us almost an hour, like a champ) and the like and we were off. The drive was beautiful and the heater even seemed to be producing a semblance of heat. After meeting two sets of friends to drop off their fuel barrels and say “hellos”, we were finally home. We spent the mandatory hour unloading and then tucked our sleepy selves into bed.

The next day, The Chief had to drive out again to almost the end of The Road (60 miles of dirt and rock which we had just come in).

My little Road Warrior.

He had to complete testing for the Fire Department which meant class time and the Pack test which meant completing a 3 mile hike with 45 lbs. of weight strapped to him in under 45 minutes. Yikes. I, on the other hand got to the task of unloading the house (meaning handling organizing all of the unloaded goods from the night before). It was daunting. Things needed to go into the freezer or find a cool spot, herbs needed to go into water, lettuce wrapped, etc. And, since the seasons had changed since last I’d been home, it was a whole different ball game. No more putting things outside in totes to stay frozen, no more Super Cold Corner and Mildly Cold Corner to store veggies. Oh no. Game change. Spring time. Thankfully, friends stopped by all day and broke the task up into much more pleasant bites. Teeny tiny ones to be exact so that when a group of friends called to say that we were all going shooting, I had to hurriedly stuff the last bits away and leave some for another day…it was time to slay some clay pigeons. And by slay I mean not hit a single one, but still have fun.

The next morning we were up early and off! On The Road again. Today we were getting our truck.

Road Warriors.

 

 

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The 4-5 hour drive took us 5 hours and just as we hit the edge of town, looking for the address, we decided to call and check in.

They were all the way at the other end, at the start of town.

Whoops!

We turned around and headed back out, passing the places for errands we would later run. Even though we would have to come back that way after the transaction, we wanted to get the truck first before doing any shopping. We looked for the Yard Sale signs and pulled up in front of their house. They were in the process of trying to buy a house and so were selling off that which they didn’t need. Including the plow truck.

That’s right.

A plow truck.

Our plow truck?

That remained to be seen.

The Ford F-250 my brother had envisioned hadn’t had a snow plow attached to it, but this one did and as we bottomed out simply pulling back into the driveway after our test drive, I started to get more and more nervous about driving another 5 hours back home with only 6 inches of clearance between the plow and the ground. The Road is beyond bumpy with huge frost heaves. I made the I’m Not So Sure This Is Such A Good Idea face and The Chief made the What Other Options Do We Have Face and thankfully, the seller hopped on in between with an idea. What if we could detach the plow and put it in the back of the truck?

Well, yes, that would be amazing. However, the reality was that I hadn’t seen giants roaming the streets lately and the hundreds and hundreds of pounds of metal weren’t going to lift all on their own and with a pregnant woman, a man who just had hernia surgery, The Chief and myself, the odds of getting that thing in the back of the truck were about as good as getting the abominable snow man in the back of the truck (not to say pregnant ladies aren’t strong, they’re stronger than I know, but lifting impossible weights was not advised in this prenatal plan). And so, after a moment of brainstorming and a few calls, I was set to witness the most Alaskan thing I’d ever seen.

So, we put it into action and set to finalizing finances and transfers of title, all the while waiting for the final transaction: the moving of the plow. The Chief and the seller practiced unhooking the plow and set up for the action.

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Soon it was already 4pm and we still had to pick up groceries for people in town, fuel up and stop at our friends’ house on The Road to pick up our plant babies we dropped off in December (we are very neglectful plant parents, apparently). I was starting to feel like we would never get home when suddenly, I heard it.

The roar of the excavator.

Yup, that’s right.

The seller had called a fellow townsman to see if we could buy his time on his excavator to lift the plow into the back of the truck. You know, just a casual stop by with an excavator.

Who just owns an excavator? Alaskans, that’s who.

He came rolling up the street and stopped, looked at the truck, looked at the plow, said “Hello” and told us to rig up the chains.

 

 

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We chained up the plow and looped it over the teeth of the excavator which promptly lifted the plow off the ground.

 

 

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The men steadied the sides of the plow (as I envisioned it smashing through the truck’s back windows) and slowly guided it into place. 10 minutes and some balancing acts later, the plow was successfully placed into the back of the truck. We cheered and thanked him and asked what we could pay and he replied:

“Nothing, it’s your lucky day. I needed to get it out for work anyways.”

Nothing.

A man, who didn’t seem to be in construction per se, owned an excavator, had just driven said heavy piece of equipment 40 minutes to their house, loaded our plow and driven away and he wanted nothing? It was the most Alaskan thing I’d ever seen and it just kept going.

The sellers then brewed us coffee in our to go mugs to make sure were O.K. to drive the long trip home. So kind. So Alaskan. We all said thank you and goodbye and off we went to run the final errands before we were off on the long way home.

I was starving but the salad I had packed myself was impossible to eat when I had to steer through the mountainous drive and so I sang to Cinda instead as she looked on out the window at Dad up ahead.

At the halfway point we switched vehicles. It was my turn with Big Blue. She puff purred in her diesel fashion, lulling me onto the road. From the outside, the truck didn’t seem so huge but with the seat pulled all the way forward I still felt like a munchkin. We stopped for popsicles and gas and finally, to see our dear friends and our plant babies. After keeping them (the friends, not the plants) up way past their bed time while catching up (a conversation filled with some very important and wonderful life advice) we headed home with tired eyes. We still had a way to go.

Finally, a pee break later and we pulled into the driveway. Our driveway, with our brand new (to us) truck. It felt amazing.

We fell into bed, exhausted and happy yet again.

The day after the next was The Chief’s birthday party and boy was it. Everyone who’d endured The Winter felt the surge of Summer coming as the party grew to 30 or more, more than twice the amount we’d ever had at any Winter gathering. The mosquitoes were out and a fire was blazing and…

we had 30 people at our house.

My wheels got to turning.

That had to be enough to lift the plow. I talked to The Chief who gave me a Your Brilliant look and he yelled to the crowd: “I need hands!” In true Alaskan fashion, the hands appeared and followed him to the truck. I went to help and quickly realized that we would need even more help. I went back to the fire and yelled: “More hands!” and the rest of the party rallied to our cries. Soon enough there were 10 plus people in the back of the truck.

 

 

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The Chief yelled out a plan (as he had already set up an unloading zone) and everyone groaned under the weight. Within a few shorts moves, the plow was unloaded. We had thought that we would have to do the excavator move in reverse and spend some serious money doing so, but with the help of our friends, there we were, all trucked up and ready to go.

 

 

 

 

 

But there was nowhere to go, not that night. Instead, we toasted the man I love with good food, good drink, good friends and German chocolate cake.

In a day’s time, my Brother’s suggestion became possible.

In a week’s time, my Brother’s plot came to fruition.

And within that week I saw the most Alaskan things I’ve ever seen and it just kept coming. It was a wonderful welcome home to the place I love. Sure, the seasons have drastically changed, snow has been beat out by sun and the ground has surfaced. The population has started its surge and will only go up and the bugs are out. Things have changed but the song remains the same. The heart remains the same.

The loading and unloading of that plow wasn’t just about end results, it was about this place. Here, or four hours away, up in the North or down in the South. There’s so much about Alaska that brings us together and gives us the opportunity to help one another. We have to. Or I guess we don’t, but the beauty is that people choose to help. It’s the Alaskan way and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

So, jump on in the truck if you need a ride because finally, we can offer.

 

 

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//A big thank you to my Grandmother for her help in procuring this truck. She’s spreading the original Alaskan spirit (Grandma goodness) all the way down in Missouri. We couldn’t have done it without you and we are forever grateful.//

Work Smarter, Not Harder: A Story of the Sage Advice We Never Took

You know when you have an idea?

A house idea, in particular.

I’ve had them before.

They go something like this:

(Me, To The Chief): “We should move the fridge to the oven side of the kitchen, bust out the entire prep area, build a new (lower for Shorty-Mc-Shorterson Me) counter in its place and then build a shelving unit where the fridge used to be.”

(The Chief, to Me): “I like it! How do you suggest we go about doing that?”

(Me, To The Chief): silence.

A thinking silence.

…and then the cacophony of ideas begins. I start with something pretty over the top that I’ve pulled out of thin air since all I had dreamed up was the idea, not the plan. The Chief  always assumes that I have some awesome building idea in store to follow my awesome my finished product idea but since my background in construction consists mainly of Lego structures built under the watchful eye of my 5 year-old nephew, I rarely have a plan. And so, I make one up on the fly. My suggestion is then typically followed by a furrowed brow and confusion as my furry man tries to make construction sense of my artsy approach. Eventually, our two worlds collide: he comes in with the reason and I come back at him with new ideas and exactly zero know-how and after the ping-pong game ends with handshake and a tie, a plan is founded.

The execution of that plan is a whole other charade.

You see, planning construction in the woods is pretty much the fastest way to guarantee something to go awry. There are so many details, so much prep and so many factors that manufacture an umpteenth amount of opportunities for something to slip through the cracks…and slip through it does.

Last year, our shelving project took days longer than we had planned. Materials had to be unearthed, defrosted, shaped into usable materials via Alaska Mills, and brought inside to defrost again, along with all of the tools and batteries the job would require. And that was just set up.

 

 

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Baby, it’s cold outside. Mill quickly.

 

 

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No wedges around? Use what you have.

 

 

So, needless to say, big projects are an invitation for setbacks and calamities to ensue.

Therefore, when we chose our most recently completed house project, we chose something approachable, without too many moving parts. We set ourselves up for success.

 

That was over one year ago.

 

Success!?

 

The Project:

Home Improvement Project #3,321: A Newly Envisioned Spice Rack

In a little cabin in the woods, the use of vertical space is key. We had jumped right in to our vertical availability last year by moving our bulk food storage from totes to hanging from the kitchen beams via their lids.

 

 

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Rear view views of the ceiling.

 

 

Once we saw the success of that project (which took little more than an hour and a few major kidney bean/polenta/split pea spills) we figured we’d do the same with the spices. They’d be beautiful to look at, just like the bulk foods and it would clear off an entire shelf.

An entire shelf.

That’s prime cabin real-estate.

We loved the idea. We were sold. And so we ordered tiny quilted mason jars and burly magnets. The only thing left to find was a sheet of metal on which the jars would stick via magnet.

We figured in a valley this large, there had to be some sort of metal hanging around that we could use. We would cut it into some sort of awesome shape (I had a diamond in mind), affix it above the stove and after glueing the magnets to the lids of the jars…shazaam! Up they would go.

So easy.

So wrong.

It turns out that metal sheeting? Not so easy to find. The roofing metal we had on the property was corrugated and after pounding it to a “flat surface” and the magnets still not holding (aka it never got flat) we decided to look elsewhere.

Thankfully, The Chief was working construction at The Restaurant and it turned out that they had excess metal! And, it was a big sheet that we could cut into a perfect diamond. Yahoo! We brought it home and threw the magnet at it.

Nope.

Turns out, us dummies didn’t realize that the metal was, in fact, stainless steel, to which a magnet will not be attracted. But it’s so shiny…

So that didn’t work.

Never fear! I was headed to Town, the land of plenty! I pictured myself frolicking through aisles of already shaped metal sheeting, joyously overwhelmed by my options.

 

 

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I thought I’d be looking this happy the whole time. Whoops. Objects in the mirror could not be happier than they appear…until the Vet.

 

 

That did not happen.

Problem #1: I had gone to Little Town, not Big Town, and Little Town (4 hours away vs. 8 for Big Town) had little options and by little I mean none. The guys at the hardware store looked at me like I was crazy (maybe it was my I Just Came Out of the Woods appearance) and assured me that I wasn’t going to find anything like that unless I went all the way. Big Town.

Nope.

You would have thought I was searching out the last unicorn or something (if you see her, please let me know). Alas, I went home empty-handed and by empty handed I mean packed to the gills but still without the metal sheeting.

At this point, it had been over two months since the project had first been birthed from my brain and I was starting to regret uttering the words “Spice Jars”. The project lay pathetically unfinished, perpetually on the To-Do list of our lives. It sat in the back of our brains so much so that it must have been suffocating our common sense because it never occurred to us to just give up the metal idea and go with the flow.

We had forgotten the first rule of projects in Alaska: just ride with it and use what you have.

8 months later, we returned to Alaska and to our common sense.

Duh.

Glue the darn things!

One month after this genius revelation, we had decided on where we would glue the darn things. We were over our over the stove idea. That was so one year ago. Finally, we decided that they would go on the underside of the shelving we built last year to the left of the stove. Perfect Shorty Me height, nicely vibrant and visible and should we choose to move them, the unfinished wood of the shelves wouldn’t show the shift.

We got to work. Spacing the jars, working on function (his priority) vs. aesthetics (my priority) and finding a happy medium. It was all set to go when…

No glue.

How in the heck do we not have any Gorilla Glue in this entire (that makes it sound large, doesn’t it?) cabin?

We went outside to the shed to inspect. We couldn’t be without it, could we?

In fact, we could.

Thankfully, a friend was coming back in a few days later. She would grab the glue.

A week later, the weather permitted us to mosey and we were finally able to get to her and the glue that had returned three days prior.

We hauled our treasure back home like creepy Goloms with a ring. So precious.

But by the time we had gotten home the tug of hunger had surpassed our need to nest and by the time we had cooked and eaten dinner, we weren’t about to start this project. Not now. We needed fresh eyes on this simple project turned paramount.

Beside, I hadn’t even transferred the spices yet.

That’s right, let the ridiculous approach continue.

I’m not a One Step at a Time, Walk Before You Run type of girl and there was no way I was trudging halfway into this project by transferring all the spices before they were ready to land. In retrospect, this pigheadedness seems utterly silly but hey, oink oink.

Finally, one day the next week, I started. It was a sunny day that was a hint of the impending Spring. Time to get moving. I laid out before me the plethora of spices that had lived on the shelves. Years of bachelor life and lady-love entering were apparent as I looked at the array. Taco seasoning and onion flakes and the like were in the big jars followed by new installments of cumin and turmeric and other pint-sized parts that may rarely be used but make me smile, nonetheless.

 

 

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I took the 24 jars and matched them with the spices, separating mainly cooking spices from mainly baking spices.

We had exactly 24.

No, of course we didn’t. Some were retired. Old oregano that smells like soap? No thanks. Compost city.

Slowly, I transferred each one into the jar and the remainder into ziplocs and the ziplocs into a cardboard box, labeling everything along the way. A few podcasts later and I was done. An entire shelf had been transferred into 24 little jars and one tiny box. Our recycling was full of plastic and glass spice containers and me? Well, I was covered head to toe in a slight dusting from a rainbow of spices.

 

 

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A jumble of spices ready to hang.

 

 

The Chief, noticing my task when I started, started a task of his own: magnet glueing. By the time I had finished, he had secured three magnets.

Three.

The process was slow to say the least. First the measuring and spacing, then the magnets. The magnets wouldn’t hold unless held in place for upwards of ten minutes. After the first few holdings, The Chief devised a system involving wedging a knife sharpener with a shim under it in between the two shelves and the magnet, then letting it dry for 10-20 minutes and switching the whole apparatus to the next magnet.

Over the next few days, every time we thought of it, The Chief would start another magnet, each time putting one more jar into place. And before we knew it, there she was: our new spice “rack”, a vertical space success that only took one year to create.

 

 

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Eggman Honey!

 

 

And we love it. It looks like a constantly changing mood ring, colors shift and move, levels change and meals are made depending on what catches our eyes.

 

 

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Ducks in a row.

 

 

Cheers to brainstorming impossible ideas and completing them and cheers to the easy ideas that take record amounts of time to complete. Here’s to working smarter, not harder and also to ignoring that sage advice completely for over a year. Ignore or not, we ended up where we are and that’s pretty darn good…and I didn’t even have to go to Big Town.

No Girls Allowed

Remember the Berenstain Bears book No Girls Allowed (I can’t believe I’m referencing the Berenstain Bears yet again but apparently they made up more of my childhood than I realized and hey, those little fur balls had some serious life lessons to share)? Well, if not, you can probably guess the premise (Sister-centered exclusion at the Boys Only clubhouse, eventually deemed unkind and later open to all) and if you’ve ever been the younger sibling, boy or girl, you know the exclusion I’m talking about.

No Girls Allowed.

No Boys Allowed.

As a girl, I could relate to Sister Bear’s surprise at not being permitted access to the life and times of her older brother. My Brother is 8 years my senior and during the very distinctively different ages of 8 and 16 we might as well have been living on different planets. I, however, was none the wiser and was pretty sure (read: certain) that any and every place he went or thing he did was open to me as well. Obviously. He, on the other hand was certain of the exact opposite.

I trailed on his heels but at a point even simply standing out in the yard with his friends became a Boys Only Meeting.

What the heck?

Crafty little sister that I was (read: annoying) I found ways around this exclusion. Push me out? I push right back in. I’d create snack platters or squeeze up some lemonade and bring it out to them. In my Betty Crocker disguise I granted myself access to their world and before long they would fall into their Boys Only Meeting ways. I would try to lay low, tidying up glasses and busying myself with nothing in particular in order to hang with them just a little bit longer until, unbeknownst to me, my disguise would fall off as I would try to join the conversation which resulted in my brother carrying me off like a sack of potatoes.

Dang!

Busted again…until next snack time.

 

 

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No longer the littlest Toad in the family…

 

 

From the time I was little I’ve always hung with the boys, even if, like in the previous situation, they didn’t know we were hanging out. We were. When they did know we were hanging out, I appreciated their perspective and the different way they went through the world. It’s quite a trip to walk in different shoes or at least to watch how someone else does it.

However, there always seemed to be a sort of breaking point or threshold to my inclusion in their world. At some point the No Girls Allowed sign would arise. and in truth I’m fine with that. Sure, the little sister in me would love to go Betty Crocker incognito and infiltrate the Boys Only Meeting like back in the good ol’ days but I can also appreciate the candor which one can only employ in the company of like-minded peers and sometimes, that is essential.

And so, upon inadvertently moving to Alaska, I assumed there would be a lot of No Girls Allowed signs “posted” in this heavily male environment.

Wrong.

I figured the male heavy population would mean multitudes of Male Only Meetings with me stuck alone in a cabin in the woods or searching out girls to hang with.

Wrong.

Since I’ve been here, the inclusive approach of this place has shocked me and has made me recalibrate my thinking. In California, Guys Poker Night was a common occurence and something I wouldn’t even have Betty Crocker-ed my way into. It felt like a fiercely protected ritual. Sure, I could have asked to join and perhaps I would have been granted access but I feel I would have been seen as an infiltrator and that my presence would have been a slap in the face affront to their ritual. And to me, that was always just the way it was.

Our first Winter here, that all came to a halt.

“The guys are calling Poker Night, babe. You in? ”

Guys + Poker + Me…somehow this equation must be off, dear.

He assured me that Poker was for everyone.

I assured him that I hadn’t played Poker since I was a kid at The Cabin in Missouri with a pretzel stick in one hand (a.k.a cigar) and a homemade milkshake in the other. Back then I’d had beginner’s luck but suddenly I wasn’t so sure.

“I can just watch. I don’t want to hold up the game.”

Naw.

The Chief’s encouragement was catching and I jumped into the first game (accompanied by one or two other ladies), equipped with a Chief-made cheat sheet on a paper plate outlining (in order) all of the ways to win.

There was no mention by the boys of the girls infiltrating their night because the night was all of ours. It was Poker Night, plain and simple and it made me realize how easy that really can be. Now again, don’t get me wrong I am a major proponent of some Ovaries Only time or any other (non-racist/sexist/overall just being a jerkface) grouping, gendered or not, but it’s also a beautiful thing to see the lines blur and the barriers become unimportant.

Perhaps it’s the lifestyle which prompts this Everyone is Allowed mentality. Everyone is needed and everyone has something to offer. Travel is time-consuming and sometimes difficult and social events (at least in the dead of Winter) don’t happen every day. So when something does happen, everyone comes. And we check in. Sometimes, when I know I’ll be the only girl, I see if maybe The Chief would like some dudes-only time and I spring for hosting the ladies but mostly we are all together out of ease or comfort or the feeling of family it brings.

The other day, four of our guy friends were taking a trip up a local frozen creek to the base of a glacier (yes, trust me, that statement may roll of my tongue (or flow from my fingers here) but it still shocks me every time)). Previously, a trail had been put in for the first 3 miles or so. The round trip would be 40-50 miles total. Almost all of it would be breaking trail. It would be rough (to me) riding via snow machine and would require me to employ some moves I had yet to even try, much less master. I felt under-prepared and in over my head and so…

I went anyways.

Being the only girl and highly inexperienced in the presence of 5 highly capable (read: freaking badass) riders I was worried I would constantly be holding them up. The Chief, reading my mind as he does, assured me that if the going got too rough or I felt uncomfortable that we would simply turn around.

What a concept.

My stubborn self hadn’t even considered an exit strategy other than simply not showing up and I had already told myself I was going (though until the moment I got my booty on that machine I still wasn’t entirely convinced).

And I was.

And so, potential exit intact, we headed out. Within the first mile up the creek (creek to me typically looks more like a babbling brook. This was more like what one might call a river at points a.k.a it was bigger than a creek might suggest) we approached a failing ice bridge. Being the 6th in line, the bridge was beaten down by the time of my approach. The Chief, our friend The Musher and I turned off our machines to investigate. I could hear water swirling and gurgling beneath us, ready to envelop our machines should we lean too far in the wrong direction (which to avoid meant standing completely on one side of the machine while leaning one’s full body weight uphill and still managing to steer, all while the machine and gravity conspire to send one downhill).

The Chief drove across while I waited, engine off, no longer able to drown out the water below which seemed to be getting louder with each heartbeat which too seemed to be getting louder.

His passing created a slurry of fresh powder into the moving water below. The ice bridge grew less like a bridge and more and more like an impassable hole each second.

I started up my machine and began to eye my route when I looked up to see he was giving me the “Stop” symbol (one clenching fist held at eye level). He walked over to me and we seamlessly traded locations, he on the machine, me trotting across the bridge on foot. He had read my mind. Within seconds he had easily ridden my machine across. No amount of ego could have made me ask for anything less. I was grateful and I didn’t care that I was the weakest link because no one made me feel like one. We were all across and I felt safe.

 

 

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The day continued on like that, moments of triumph followed by moments of sheer terror and utter elation. For a lady with a fear of heights like myself the day was full of challenges as we ascended up hillsides with sheer cliffs and rode along angled ice bridges. I sang to myself so loudly that I could barely hear my machine beneath me running at full throttle. It was also so unbelievably fun that the fear often lost out to the sheer grandeur of the surrounding mountains and the ever-changing “creek”.

 

 

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Uphill view. The edge of the snowbank on the right is well, the edge. Eek!

 

 

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Downhill view. Eek x2!

 

Throughout the journey The Chief consistently checked in with the triple pat on the head to ask if I was O.K. I’d signal back with a triple pat to ensure him that yes, yes I was O.K. He rode within one snowmachine of me the entire day and if he wasn’t directly in front of me, I felt safe from the constant check-ins from him and the other boys. It’s like an ever-shifting buddy system. You always know who the person is behind you and you consistently check-in to make sure that well…they’re still there. Ideally they are, at times they aren’t. Thankfully for us that day the hang-ups were normally quick fixes (quick for them at least, digging out a snowmachine in waist deep snow isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Neither is cutting down a tree to allow us passage).

 

 

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Look, Ma! No hands!

 

 

By the end of the day my arms were beyond sore and my wrists were ready to give out. I was so tired that I had to keep reminding myself to uphold my vigilance and ride with all of my faculties.

By the time we got to The Musher’s house the moon was up.

 

 

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Hello, little love.

 

 

We stopped in to warm up as the temperature outside rapidly started to drop. We had been gone the entire day.

Inside, The Musher made us all hot drinks and we dug into the snacks that had survived the trip. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one with sore arms (even though I was sure that I would be, certain I was a wimp for feeling worked over by the day). We were all beat and already making plans to spend the following day recovering. Certainly I hadn’t done nearly as much work as them (breaking trail and cutting down trees that had been blocking our path forced them to use far more energy than myself) but dead tired as I was, I had survived the day. We hadn’t turned back. I hadn’t felt like a hindrance or an intruder.

But I did feel like a sister to all of them and not even the annoying, 8 year-old kind and as we sat there snacking and recalling the tales of the day they all gave me a little applause for making it through the day.

I hadn’t felt like the only girl in a Boys Only meeting, I was on a family adventure.

 

 

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And for that, I love this place and the people she holds. In a highly gendered world, it’s nice to feel a blur start to occur. I’m grateful that my new norm is no longer one of dichotomous exclusivity but one where everyone is welcome…with the occasional (and essential) Girls Days.

Cheers to taking down the signs and creating new ones:

People Allowed (Nice Ones). Come On In.

 

 

 

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