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Joni & Julia: California Part II

California.

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

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

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

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

The real cry came later.

We left late morning on the 30th of October.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

I broke.

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

 

 

 

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

Like a sea flower: sassy, gorgeous and salty.

 

 

 

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

[Insert scary music]

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

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

The next day was our Travel Day: California.

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

All the way to California.

 

 

 

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

The BunBuns.

 

 

 

 

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

I almost lost my lunch.

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

California.

You’ve changed, girl.

 

 

 

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

The new norm. New cars, new vineyards.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

In self, in state, in life…

Change is inevitable.

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

I adore you, California, new clothes and all.

Cheers, to change.

Cheers, to California,

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Joni & Julia Part II Cinda Lou

Sunshine on my shoulder.

 

 

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

Joni & Julia: California

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

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

 

 

 

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

La Joni

 

 

 

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

I was completely overwhelmed.

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

by teenagers.

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

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

I hated it.

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

Almost home.

Almost home.

Almost home.

California, I’m coming home.

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

Joni Mitchell marked a time where this all started.

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

“California, I’m coming home.”

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

The years until Alaska.

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

California I’m coming home.

And then, we arrived.

 

 

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

Da beach.

 

To be continued…

 

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Saturn Returns and the Built-In Breaks: Part II

Shall we continue?

 

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

well, we weren’t sure how long.

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

Which, of course, we didn’t know.

Which drove me crazy.

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

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

the calm.

I returned home to a silent house.

Alone in the woods.

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Choose your own road.

 

 

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

Right?

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

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

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

Alaska creates the built-in breaks.

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

 

 

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

A fated find.

 

 

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

The built-in breaks.

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

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

Gulp.

And then, it snowed.

 

 

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

Sleepy snow Bird

 

 

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

First day, off to a good start!

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

Good plan?

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

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

Wrong.

More snow.

More destruction.

More work for me.

Whoops!

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

Perfect little parking spot.

 

 

Snow, how I love thee.

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

 

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

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

Nothing.

I waited.

Nothing.

What the…?

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

Nope.

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

Knock, knock!

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

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

Until, one last pull and…

purr.

Success!

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

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

Dishes or Shower.

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

I had to laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

and…

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

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

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

 

 

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

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Wormhole

Saturn Returns and the Built-In Breaks: Part I

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

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Succulent

 

 

Thankfully, we were introduced.

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

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

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

Or so I was told.

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

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

Apparently, it heard me.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10:30 Saturn Kuskulana

A river divides, a barrier collides.

 

 

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

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

I left my ex.

I left my home.

I parted ways with my clients and…

I bought my ticket to Alaska.

 

Saturn had certainly returned.

 

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

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

Nice to meet you.

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Julia Page

New times. No makeup.

 

 

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

I re-met me.

And then I met someone else.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns First Picture

Our first picture. Lou is on my lap.

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Self-portrait

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Kiss the Officiant

 

 

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

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

Until, without notice, Saturn didn’t Return.

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

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

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

Whoops.

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

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

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

Leaving me, for the first time,

in the woods.

 

Alone.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Wormhole

 

 

To be continued…

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - The dip

The California Contrast

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

 

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

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

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

Chopping wood.

Pumping gas.

Hauling water.

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

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

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

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

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

The contrast was always one I appreciated, until recently.

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

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

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

I never expected it.

The contrast.

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

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - First Snowfall

The Ramp of Doom Returns…Happy Falling!

 

 

Fire and Ice.

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - Panorama

 

 

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

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - First Snowfall Walk

And a Fly-By Neighbor Pup

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.

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

Stay safe all.

 

California, I’m coming home.

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - Morning Glory

The morning glory blooms in the face of Winter.

 

 

NOTE:

Dear reader,

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

Anything and everything helps. Thank you.

https://www.redwoodcu.org/northbayfirerelief

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - RCU Donate

 

 

 

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

The Little Letting-Gos

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

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - Little Letting Gos - Golden Hour

 

 

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

 

The quiet.

 

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

Well, it has settled.

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

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

 

 

 

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

Fall fades.

 

 

 

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

The slow transition.

I outwitted the last slow change.

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

Super fuzz face

 

 

 

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

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

It, of course, didn’t happen.

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

 

 

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

Fall time foliage

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Solo shadow.

 

 

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

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

Little letting-gos.

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

Little letting-gos.

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

Cinda Jones kennel.

Today was the day to give it up.

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

The little letting-gos.

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

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

I highly recommend it.

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

 

 

 

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

Sourdough Sunset

 

 

 

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

And for the first time, it’s O.K.

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

 

 

 

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

Cozy comfy

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

‘Tis the season.

 

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

 

 

 

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

A Very Bear-y Summer

It was a very bear-y summer.

Supposedly.

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

But me?

No bears.

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

“Please let me see something…safely.”

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

Where were all these bears everyone was talking about?

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

See a bear.

Every day my girlfriend’s wish was the same:

“I want to see a bear.”

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

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

And then, we went for a hike.

Not just any hike.

The day before, we had gone for a hike.

 

 

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

First steps on The Glacier

 

 

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

 

 

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

Tiny Yellie.

 

 

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

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

they flew.

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

 

 

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

Not a bad parking place.

 

 

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

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

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

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

Laid back.

 

 

And then it set in.

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

Easy-peasy.

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

Right?

Wrong.

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

 

 

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

Fun-House Baby

 

 

An hour up and we had finally made it.

The mine.

And soon, the top.

 

 

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

Ominous, eh?

 

 

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

And we did.

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

Two mountain goats I ran into.

 

 

It was snack time (obviously).

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

What time was it anyway?

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

Just then, I got a text:

“Holy shit saw bear”

The sheer lack of punctuation made my stomach turn.

I tried to call.

 

No answer.

 

I texted back:

“Where? How close?”

 

No answer.

 

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

I was an idiot.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Incoming! Rain time.

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Gulp.

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

Welcome to the neighborhood, bears.

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

Until it wasn’t.

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

I was face to face with a bear.

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

“Let’s get out of here!”

And so we did.

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

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

and it’s been a very bear-y season.

 

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

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

 

 

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

And the sun sets on another Summer.

 

Love to them.

Love to you.

Love to Lou.

 

 

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

Waiting for me. Leading the way.

 

 

The First Hard Frost

I anticipated the first hard frost here like an innocent youngster anticipates a chance meeting with their first crush, not really knowing the depths of what it meant or what it would bring. I was simply excited. I thought it would mean that Winter actually was on her way instead of just threatening to be, that our town would quiet down and the berries would sweeten up and off I could go to harvest them, a small feat which I’ve always turned into something larger and one which I’ve always set myself up to fail at.

You see, one of my own little personal Julia recipes calls for:

a bit of a procrastination

with a dash of self-doubt

mixed with a large serving of an uncanny expectation to do things right the first time.

(There are many more uplifting recipes, of course, but I might as well be honest about the collection).

 

This here concoction has set me up for failure more times than I can count but it has also done something worse: it has set me up to do nothing at all.

And so, this year I promised it would be different. I watched the weather and waited and when the first hard frost hit, I promised that out I would go to reap the benefits of the fruit sweetened overnight by the harsh conditions. Harvest and enjoy instead of again missing them. But like a first crush, I didn’t think about what else the first hard frost would bring. I was just excited.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall

 

 

 

And then I awoke, to the first hard frost. We’d had a frost a couple of weeks before and the buzz over thermometer temperatures had spun through town.

“I had 25 when I woke up this morning.”

“25! I had 29. Wow.”

Fall is coming.

 

 

First Hard Frost Sunset

 

 

 

And then she did. She blew right into the valley, down the 60 miles of dirt road and into our backyard (and presumably into many of back and front and side to side yards of others). And I awoke and immediately realized the fault in my young crush desires.

Because the first hard frost meant something I didn’t anticipate:

While the berries may have sweetened, most of my plants, the plants I had grown for months, some from seeds started in April, were now dead.

Before and after.

 

 

 

 

 

The plants that I have spent more time than ever before loving and trimming and thanking as I picked them and placed them about the house or into our food. The flowers that have brought me such joy when I return home to their shiny faces.

 

 

 

 

 

The plants that I have too slowly been harvesting because although I was anticipating her arrival, I hadn’t hurried enough for Fall’s approach or realized the (now obvious) tenacity with which she would arrive. It was a juxtaposition of wills and wishes that ended in an equation I didn’t quite add up.

 

Some plants survived and I immediately made a mental checklist of all of the preserving that I needed to do. Preservation? Canning? This, like berry picking and processing, is a major mental block of mine. My girlfriend had visited from California and the one thing she wanted to do in Alaska? Teach me to make fermented foods. I couldn’t bring myself to do it consistently on my own and so, we whipped up an entire batch, 12 quarts of beautiful sauerkraut adorned even with local juniper berries we’d harvested on a hike. It was glorious. And then, as fate would have it, The Chief and I promptly left in a state of emergency with Cinda and returned a week later without her to a house full of spoiled kraut. My first endeavor.

So yes, I have a bit of a block about it.

But this was the year to change that and now, it is time to get a move on. Perhaps this is where the procrastination part of my recipe, paired with a serious deadline from nature will come into play and our shelves will be lined with krauts and kimchi and pickles to boot from cucumbers and cabbages and berries harvested.

Perhaps,

perhaps,

perhaps.

 

I tried to revive the plants that didn’t survive the night but their shriveled leaves and broken cells were far past repair. I tidied them as best I could and then went to chop some wood to try to overcome the persistent cold that had settled into the house with the frost. I returned inside to see The Chief making pancakes.

Pancakes, people. Pancakes.

In case you don’t know, Pancake is my middle name (well, second middle name: Julia Elizabeth Pancake Page) and the last few months have been utterly devoid of the fluffy fantasy that is eating pancakes.

And so, one would think I would be overjoyed, for the only thing better than eating pancakes is eating pancakes you didn’t have to make yourself.

But instead of the elation that follows the presentation of a present as perfect as pancakes made by the man you love just for you, what followed were tears.

Big rolling alligator tears, slip-sliding down my cheeks and chin and down onto my robe (it was Sunday afterall) that soon slipped and slid down onto The Chief’s robe as he held me in our kitchen, pancakes pancake-ing in the cast iron next to us.

I had spent the morning in and out of sleep, waking to my worst memories of Cinda, of the moments when she was in so much pain that the only words that describe the sound she would make is a bone-chilling scream. I was preyed upon by the memories of the hope we had repeatedly being crushed by the weight of obscenely unlucky circumstance. I was paralyzed remembering watching her try to walk and not be able to, trying to move and howling in agony. It haunts me though I try to shove it away. And so I had tried to shove it away this morning, the morning of my highly anticipated first frost, but when I walked outside and saw all of the beauty of my favorite distractions gone, I lost all ability to shove the haunting away.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Nasturtium Down

 

 

 

The plants and flowers I grew had two purposes:

One: Joy. They made me happy. They greeted me as Cinda would have when I came home and made coming home to The Quiet a little easier.

Two: Food. They provided sustenance and flair to our kitchen. Fresh food that we didn’t have to buy. Fresh food I could be proud of.

But when Cinda died, they served another purpose.

Three: Ritual. Every day or so, I would walk to Cinda’s grave to add to and take away from the bouquet of home-grown flowers that I’ve kept for her since the day we put her in the ground. As I walked out into the frosted landscape to see them all shriveled and dead it hit me: we are moving into the next season without her. She truly is gone.

Recently someone asked me how it is that I decide upon what to write about each week. I told her my favorite image of myself writing: an idea comes when it decides it’s ready and then I circle around the idea like a dog trying to get comfortable enough to lay down. I circle it and circle it until it feels just right and then…I sit down and write it just like a dog finally settles in and stays put for hours, so do I. But recently, the only thing I’ve been able to circle around is Cinda and for the first time ever, I’ve not allowed myself to write about what it is that comes up for me. I’ve censored myself. And so last week, with the censorship in progress for fear of becoming a broken record even I don’t want to hear, I instead wrote nothing.

The thing is, writing is how I move through and eventually forward. I tried to censor my feelings during the first hard frost morning and out they came anyway and so, if I want to continue writing, there she will be, as she always was. I can’t censor her out.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall My Love My Lou

 

 

 

And today, I miss her, more than usual and it won’t let me go. It’s what’s on my mind, it’s what I’m circling around. It’s the idea that won’t let up until I release it.

And trust me, I know I have it good. I know that, in fact, I have it great. I have a beautiful house in the middle of the woods in which I awake daily to a wonderful, handsome man who loves me deeply. We have loving friends and family and all that we need. I know we have it great. But just like I told my girlfriend who is going through her own feelings of loss now, it doesn’t matter what you have, you can still be sad.

It’s hard to take one’s own advice.

A death or a loss doesn’t just occur and end in that same instant. It is the shape that keeps shifting and just when you feel a grip, it slithers through.

And so today, I allowed myself to write about her because I want to move through remembering the pain and to remembering my baby, as she was, fuzzy eared and smiling, watching over me, ready to set me straight, ready to love me in even my worst moments. She was my starting point, my anchor and she’s gone.

And so, I will take a walk without her as I have done more times than I ever hope for in this past month and despite my personal procrastination recipe, I will go out and pick berries. I will harvest the fruits of my anticipation. The fruits that were only brought on by conditions too harsh for delicate life. The harshness that makes them sweet.

I hope that in turn, that this harshness too makes me sweeter.

 

 

 

First Hard Frost Fall Backyard Cranberries

 

 

 

Thank you to the seasons for your abrupt displays, for your jarring leaps into the next step, whatever that may be. Alaska, you shake me, you tumble and break me but thank you for extending a hand to help me back up again.

Goodbye Summer, The Summer of the Dogs, you were a tenacious beat I couldn’t always dance to.

Onward, towards Fall.

Onward towards Winter.

But right now, onward towards berries.

 

**Update: I did, in fact, harvest berries and I did, in fact, take a very much-needed walk. But I didn’t walk alone. Our neighbors’ dog Benny joined along and even warned me off of a seemingly impending bear encounter and by the end of our walk, we had two more pups in tow and a hat full of berries to share (processing to come. Probably).

Thank you to the dogs and people of our town. Your company means more to me than you can know.

 

So…what are your favorite canning, preserving, pickling, etc. recipes?

Please, do tell…

 

First Hard Frost Fall Highbush Cranberries

 

 

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - On the Kindness of Strangers View of the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Kennicott, Reflections

On the Kindness of Strangers

About one month ago, I opened my computer to find an email I would never have expected.

Before I knew it, the writing had me in tears.

The email was from a man in Texas who was hoping to fulfill his Mother’s last wish: to send a care package to a family in The Bush. After having stumbled upon my writing in his search, he had deemed us that deserving family.

The combination of loss and generosity moved me. I read the email aloud to The Chief, choking through the kind words.

We responded with our condolences and that of course, we would love a care package (please check my pulse if I ever turn one down), and sent him our address.

And then, it was out in the world. Whether or not the package ever arrived didn’t really matter, it was the thought that meant so much.

 

Or so I thought.

 

Until two weeks ago when we returned home without our Cinda for the first time, ever. The house felt lonely and solemn and I couldn’t decide whether waking up or going to sleep was worse because both served as brutal ambassadors to the change we had never wanted. But then, amongst the melancholy, the house filled with love, as well.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis On the Kindness of Strangers Kennicott River, McCarthy Alaska

The splits. One side is silent, the other raging.

 

 

 

The first night after we returned we were surrounded in it. One of our dear friends asked if he could come by and so started the flow of healing. Soon after he arrived, another friend, having heard what had happened showed up out of nowhere. We hadn’t seen him since last year. A little later another sweet friend came over with ice cream and dinner in tow and later another wonderful friend came by. They fed us and held us as we cried. They told stories of our babe that made us laugh, breaking if only for a minute the unending downward spiral in our minds of the traumatic week behind us.

And then, the first friend reminded us that he had brought our mail. Amongst the bills and advertisements sat a huge package with a return address we didn’t recognize.

Until we did.

It was the care package.

I couldn’t believe the happy happenstance. In the time we needed care most, here we were surrounded by our loved ones but also by the kindness of strangers.

Every time I pass by the box it makes me smile. It’s filled to the brim with all different sorts of goodies, packed in a seriously impressive tetris that I am never able to reproduce every time I disturb it. We have barely been able to make a dent yet.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis On the Kindness of Strangers Care Package, Cereal Boxes

 

 

In an effort to continue the cycle of kindness, we’ve promised to share the booty, especially with one of our favorite bachelors who is more likely to buy a round for us at the bar than food for himself. Now we just have to get him to accept it and make the journey to drop it off…

 

Thank you world for your strange serendipity, for your reminder of the shine in this world even when it feels dark. Thank you for the love of friends and family and the power of a hug and thank you, thank you for the kindness of strangers.

And specifically, thank you to C&C of TX, you truly were a ray of light on a dark time.

Here’s to the kindness of strangers, and to them no longer being strangers in our lives. Let the goodness continue.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - On the Kindness of Strangers  View of the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Kennicott, Reflections

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

thumb_IMG_7040_1024

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.

 

 

 

thumb_IMG_1229_1024

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.

 

 

 

thumb_IMG_1213_1024

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).