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Surf Thirty (One)

As a California grown lady of the sun, I’ve spent my whole life around surfing. I grew up at the beach, I spent my summers by any body of water I could find and I loved a good beach blonde suntan combo. I had all the components of surfing: I lived near a beach, there were surf shops galore with boards and wetsuits for rent (and sweatshirts I desperately wanted but would allow myself, lest I be discovered a poser) and I knew of people who were surfers. Yet what I lacked was the confidence to try.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Surf Thirty (One) Surf's up Beetle Bug.jpg

Surf’s up, buttercup. Hangin’ ten, beetle style.

 

 

The times I came closest to learning, I realized that the people wanting to “take me out” actually had more interest in taking me out for a date than really teaching me to surf and so, frustrated, I had bailed (surfer lingo, brah).

A few bails in, I stopped trying. Certainly, without question, I could have gone on my own or grabbed a girlfriend to go with but in my awkward earlier years I was less Grab The Bull By The Horns and more Oh Shoot, I Just Watched That Bull Go By.

And so it went.

Suddenly, I was 31, still wanting to learn to surf and realizing that the only thing about surfing that I’d learned was that saying you want to surf and actually surfing are a world apart.

Enter: Ecuador, or as I’ve started to call it: Alascuador.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Surf Thirty (One) Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea. Could this be heaven?

 

 

This place, I swear is a cousin to our State of Brr. Everything from the reservation at first interaction to the utter triumph one feels getting a pint of ice cream home (one of our friends paid a taxi driver 50% extra just to get him home as fast as possible with a quart of ice cream he was bringing home for a celebration) to the timing (Alaska time, Ecuador time, Hawaiian time, same, same), to the dogs running about being a celebrated part of the town, to the what to do with toilet paper has made this southern spot seem like a flip side family member to the Alaskan way.

Which makes it no surprise that upon landing here, Ecuador has kindly kicked my behind. Just like in Alaska, if you’re not on the right path, Ecuador seems to either firmly correct your trajectory or high-five congratulate you for your ability to go with the flow. From our first escapades in getting to know one another in travel (firm corrections) to gliding through bus connections with uncanny luck (high-five congratulations) to finding our home for these last few weeks and me struggling to learn to relax (firm corrections as far as the eye can see) this place has been full of the ups and downs that I cherish about Alaska. The things that make life in Alaska feel, well, alive.

All the while, firm corrections and congratulations popping about, in the back of my head an anxiety started to rise. Was I going to continue to talk about surfing or actually learn? We had come to Ecuador to learn to surf and it was day 10 with no waves in sight. Don’t get me wrong, there were waves all about but we certainly weren’t on them. It had been years since I’d been fully immersed in an ocean, something I didn’t realize until we got here and the last beach I had been on had been unfriendly, to say the least.

Yet, when we arrived, I figured I’d jump on in like I had for years as a kid and start off right away with some epic bodysurfing.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Surf Thirty (One) Canoa Ecuador Sunset

Canoa sunset.

 

 

Wrong.

It turns out I wasn’t as comfortable in the waves as I had planned. While The Chief seemed to glide out past the break into calm waters, I was left in a whitewash whirlwind. I had forgotten all the tricks my Mom had taught me.

 

Diving under waves

Timing

Decision-making

Confidence.

 

I realized it would be a few days until I was comfortable alone in the water, much less to attach something to me and bring it into the water.

Enter: the boogie board, the perfect transition between body surfing and surfing.

We broke it within 20 minutes.

Still, getting tumbled about in waves far bigger than me was good for my morale.

Until it wore off. Finally, on day ten, panicked that we would never learn to surf (I love to pop in nevers, even when I have control of them) we went to Town to find June and his week-long surfboard rentals. Four hours later, after waiting for 2 hours for the shop owner to return, we had our boards. It was late in the day and we were set to be picked up for our traveling trivia team (apparently, The Chief and I make a sought-after trivia duo) and so, we said “goodnight” to the boards which had taken so long just to find and hours to rent and waited until tomorrow. Mañana, mañana.

I was sick of mañana.

Today was the day.

Unfortunately, Ecuador didn’t agree (or in actuality, she did agree, but she was testing my will. Do you really want to learn or do you want to talk about learning? Sound familiar, Alaska? Alascuador). A storm set-up, the sky was pregnant with rain and right as we went in for my first set ever, the waters came down upon us. The sea responded. The waves were all over the place, coming in diagonally, double crashing and the current was so strong that within minutes we were out of sight of our hotel. Gone were the parallel sets of beautifully set-up, semi-consistent waves of the morning only an hour prior. If I hadn’t been in a bathing suit in warm water, I would have sworn I was back in Alaska. The timing was just too much. The Chief and I looked at one another and burst out laughing. Decades of build-up and we couldn’t have picked a worse time.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Surf Thirty (One) Canoa Ecuador Stormcloud

Ominous, eh?

 

 

It was perfect.

By the time we were out of the water, my hips and knees looked like I had dyed them blue. Bruises welled up before my eyes and I plopped down in the sand, exhausted.

I’d been in for 20 minutes.

And…I’d gotten up. Sure, we may have just been chasing whitewash but after 20 years of hoping, wanting, giving up and hoping again, I had gotten up on a surfboard and rode that whitewash all the way to shore.

A few hours later, still storming but not as bad, we went in again. A couple we met from Canada was sharing the boards with us and had impeccable timing so the next time they went, we went after.

Still, it was storming.

Still, there we were, up again, riding the whitewash.

I feel like my body had been planning and scheming and approximating just how it would do this task for me for years, I just hadn’t unleashed it.

I looked at The Chief and we were both beaming, smiles from ear to ear.

Those three seconds of the joy of floating above the water were worth the ten minutes of push and pull to get to them. I couldn’t believe how it felt. Better than I had imagined. Maybe like flying.

Needless to say, I was hooked.

That night I went to bed, completely physically exhausted for the first time in a long time. In Alaska, I often fall into bed, absolutely fatigued from the day’s duties. That day, the duties were purely pleasure-based but they were as challenging as any other chore I’ve performed.

Finally, finally, I had tried. The years of wanting washed over me. How simply such a buildup could just go away. How unnecessary the buildup to begin with.

Lesson learned?

I hope so.

One week later, I’ve caught even more than the whitewash. I’ve caught my first real wave, from crest to finish, I’ve even turned (a little). I’ve fallen more times than I can count, my body is more bruised than unbruised, I’ve caught a fin twice in the thigh, I’ve been hit in the back, had the board land on my head, done a somersault into the ocean floor and broken a fin and I can’t think of anything right now I’d rather be doing.

It may have taken me until 31 to try, but now that I have, I’m a sucker for it.

It’s time to start checking off the list of the long overdue wants and wishes.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Surf Thirty (One) Surf's up The Chief

A log, a love, two boards, two books. Bueno.

 

 

 

Thank you, Alaska for starting the teaching. For forcing me to test myself and trust myself. Thank you Ecuador for testing that teaching by forcing me to get out in a bathing suit day after day even on the days I’d feel more comfortable in, say, a parka. Thank you for pushing me to make new friends, get out of my comfort zones, to get a little scared but to try anyway and in the end to get to the base of it: to enjoy oneself. I’m listening. I’m trying.

Thank you. You are beautiful.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Surf Thirty (One) Bananas in Ecuador

Bananas, y’all.

The Tour Guide Beneath the Borealis 1/29/18 Canoa Brewery/

The Tour Guide

We’ve been through two Winters in a cabin consisting of less than 400 square feet.

We’ve driven countless hours just to grocery shop.

We’ve moved umpteen times in California.

We’ve worked in the heat amongst the bugs together.

We’ve lost together.

We’ve survived without the modern niceties I once thought necessities.

We’ve dealt with the panic of leaving the woods and greeting society again.

We’ve been through days that won’t quit and stresses that seem to multiply without end.

 

And through it all, we always ended up closer.

 

Yet, needless to say, it was time for a vacation.

 

Our first vacation.

 

 

The Tour Guide Beneath the Borealis 1/29/18 Japantown CA Sushi Cat

My ultimate last supper before the flight. Japantown, SF.

 

 

The Chief and I had both traveled a good amount, a good amount of time ago. Suddenly it had been a decade-plus since we’d really traveled. We set off to right this wrong choosing Ecuador out of a Google search for “best place to learn to surf in Central or South America”. Before we knew it, we had tickets and our first two weeks mapped out. The rest of the time, we’d figure out later. We spent our last few days in California in a whirlwind of last-minute store stops and packing pick-ups. We worried about what to bring and how much and the what-ifs abounded but the thought to worry about us never crossed my mind.

 

 

The Tour Guide Beneath the Borealis 1/29/18 Quito Pack Light

Backpack brigade.

 

 

 

We’d been through far harder ordeals than a beachside vacation, right?

Well…

It turns out that travel can be stressful. Who knew?! I for one did, yet in my decade of time away from it, I’d forgotten the overwhelm of plopping down into a place where everything is unknown and chose instead to focus on the idea of us, perfectly tanned, strolling down a beach at sunset.

 

 

The Tour Guide Beneath the Borealis 1/29/18 Quito Pack Light

6 am in Miami. 12-hour layover beach bum style. Sunrise vs. Sunset. Sunburnt vs. Suntanned. First time The Chief’s toes tickled the Atlantic.

 

 

Not quite, at least not at first.

 

At first, it was the overwhelm.

 

A week later, we realized why.

 

In our time together, one of us has always been the tour guide. When I arrived in an unknown land in Alaska, I had the best tour guide anyone could ask for. The Chief knew the land and the people and all of the systems. If I needed to know how to do something, he knew the right answer and could teach me and coach me. I was confident in an unfamiliar place because he was so adept at surviving in it. And then, when the tables turned and we headed to CA, I became the tour guide. I showed him the best beaches and taco trucks and navigated the five lanes of traffic while he watched me in awe of me in my element. And now, we’ve created a life in both of these places together, they have become our places. We are both comfortable in different ways, adept at different things and so we organize our life accordingly. We divvy up the labor based on what each person is adept at.

 

For example:

 

Driving in San Francisco: Julia

Driving in scary (to me) snow conditions: The Chief

Making a healthy dinner from a barren pantry: Julia

Making the best macaroni and cheese you’ve ever had: The Chief

 

The list goes on and on.

Walking on the beach the other night, a week after arriving, we realized we’d entered a situation we couldn’t divvy up because we didn’t know up from down and neither of us was a clear choice. The playing field was level but we were both third string players sitting on the bench.

And so, our first few days were a little tense.

 

 

The Tour Guide Beneath the Borealis 1/29/18 Quito Airport Ecuador

So tense that I didn’t even enjoy this here playground in the middle of the Quito airport. I mean, really? 24-hours of travel and landing at midnight shouldn’t get in the way of that. Amazing.

 

 

In all the excitement of saying “Yes” and packing and planning, I’d never assumed we be anything other than in-sync and getting along perfectly. I thought instead of my go-to image: tanned to perfection, hand in hand, sunset. When we landed at 11 pm after 24 hours of travel with a mere intersection for the address of our accommodations, no building name, nothing, that vision started to fade. We were in a busy city, loud and noisy and diesel filled at 9,000+ feet and I was still recovering from a nasty cough. Our Spanish was rusty, to say the least, and the unfamiliar felt more ominous than exciting. Neither one of us was a pro and the awkward You Lead, No I Lead, No Lou Lead back and forth was a dance filled with stepped on toes rather than a graceful flow. We were out of sync.

 

 

The Tour Guide Beneath the Borealis 1/29/18 Quito Highrise

Unlike this kitty, he’s totally in the zone.

 

 

One week later, pieces of my vision of us started to come together. Walking home from a beachfront dinner, hand in hand, mainly burnt but slightly tanned, just after sunset, we laughed as we realized how a new situation had so thrown us for a loop. The “us” who’s consistently been in uncomfortable situations, the “us” that has typically handled them well, the “us” who had traveled, but as it turned out not really traveled together, the “us” who were handed a swift dose of reality. We’ve always been the other person’s tour guide in the unfamiliar, an expert local to share the inside scoop with the one we love. Before an overwhelming unknown to us both was infrequent and in a familiar landscape, it was an opportunity to explore but these opportunities were less often and the valued outside input of a trusted confidant was almost always available. Alone together in another country, our comfort was taken away. For two accustomed to discomfort, it sure made us wiggle.

Thank goodness.

 

 

The Tour Guide Beneath the Borealis 1/29/18 Canoa Ecuador

A little pink, a little tan, a lot of love.

 

 

We can look back and laugh at the tension produced, the opposite ways we travel, the new circumstances of traveling with a love, not alone and the togetherness we’ve again found. I think now, we’ve hit our strolling stride. It may have taken some trip-ups to find it but find it we did.

Cheers to the new, to the levels of uncomfortable we don’t know until they find us and to working through it as best we can to find the joy in the unknown. Cheers to learning your partner and yourself and to sharing the not so perfect but perfectly human moments together.

Cheers, to travel.

Until next week…

 

The Tour Guide Beneath the Borealis 1/29/18 Canoa Brewery/

My favorite.

 

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Alaskan sunset

Trifecta

You know when you spend an hour looking at a fitness magazine or watching potential YouTube videos to try and by the end of half an hour or so, you already feel kind of accomplished?

Heck with the workout, did you see all that page turning, clicking action I just did?!

Wowee.

Same thing with cooking or shopping or planning. You’ve basically already done it all just by browsing or thinking about it, right? I mean, basically.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Lupine

 

 

It’s a fun little kickflip the mind does into a brand new stroke: been there, done that, may or may not have bought the t-shirt, made the cake or practiced the yoga.

Living in Alaska can kind of feel like that sometimes.

Drunk by Association.

I went to school for my freshman year of college on the East Coast. I was 17 and living away from home in the dorms. The dorms were not a place for drinking, it was forbidden. So, of course, we found sneaky ways to bring in way too much, way too cheap alcohol and imbibe specialty concoctions like Jungle Juice (exotic? I think not) and 7Up shots. Classy, classy drinking. Not always and not everyone but that wasn’t the point because whether everyone was drinking or just a few people were, the floor itself knew the deal and so, we nicknamed it Drunk by Association. If anyone got in trouble, everyone got in trouble and so by sheer association with the floor, you were drunk, by association.

Now, the Drunk of Alaska is a much healthier association (that’s a bizarre statement). The situation is exactly the opposite, while the basis remains exactly the same (keeping in line with the statement strangeness): you feel you are participating just by proximity, yet the difference is that whether or not you are participating is essential.

Every day in the wilds of Alaska, someone is doing something awesome. You hear about it, you think about it and then, just by being in the same proximity, it feels approachable, normal and just like that workout, almost as if you too have done it.

Being surrounded by such utter badassery, however, does not a badass make. Staring at a recipe does not a cake bake. You get my gist.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 birthday cake

Who stole a slice?

 

 

And so, sometimes, the Summer starts flying by and you chase the tail of its kite, giggling all the while, not noticing the cooling of the evenings and the dropping of the sun and suddenly, the kite flies just out of your reach.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Alaskan sunset

 

 

My first Summer, that kite had no chance of getting away. I went ice caving and ice climbing and packrafting and hiking and flying and camping in the backcountry. Yet, by my second Summer, I was no longer in live/vacation mode, I was fully living in Alaska and I let the kite slip through my hands. Don’t get me wrong, I still adventured far more consistently than I ever had before in my life but I didn’t make it out to the glacier until late Summer and I let work take a front seat instead of fun (I mean, they could at least buckle in together, right?) I rectified this just as I saw the kite slipping away and righted myself to orient towards adventure but the bulk of the Summer had gone.

Not again.

This last Summer, I vowed to myself to chase that kite with all my might. I told myself I would at least complete the trifecta: packrafting, ice climbing and a fly out.

 

Be careful what you wish for…especially in Alaska.

 

“Hey Jules, I was wondering if you would want to be in a video we are shooting?”

“It’s for the guide service. You could do packrafting or ice climbing…”

“I’m in.”

There it was, an underhand pitch of an opportunity to get out on the ice or into the water. I wasn’t working and if for some reason I was, I would get it off. I was going. As the date approached, the agenda started to change and shift and morph as it does and soon, the day came and…I was packing a little heavier than planned.

The day started early, I think an 8am curtain call or so in the hill town 45 minutes away. My girlfriend and I “carpooled”, meaning that she and I met half-way before the bridge and then she hopped on my trusty steed of a 4-wheeler and we whizzed up 1,000 feet of dirt road to the guide service of our dear friends and our shooting destination.

We were fitted for crampons for walking on the glacier and grabbed our ice climbing boots and harnesses and helmets and such and after a few test shots, packs packed down with gear, we were off. An hour or so later, we made it to the glacier.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Kennicott, Alaska Root Glacier 2

 

 

The guides skillfully built out a climbing set-up as we snacked and chatted. How one drills into ice and it is somehow secure is beyond me, but that’s what trust is made of, people (it still freaks me out though).

It was climbing time.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Kennicott, Alaska Root Glacier

 

 

It dawned on me, right as I was about to take my turn that I was about to be in a promotional video for my friends and I had ice climbed all of once ever in my life. Well, at least we wouldn’t be acting. The teaching moments were plenty as I hopped across the ice bridge at the base of the waterfall I would be climbing.

Epic?

Yes, I dare say so.

A few ascents by The Talent (that’s us) and we were off to the next adventure.

Next?

That’s right!

Alaska had heard my cry loud and clear.

We were off to go packrafting.

Just then, the skies grew a little darker, threatening rain right after which we heard the offer:

“Do you two want to be the plane Talent?”

Ex-squeeze me?

Before we knew it, my girlfriend and I were headed to the airport and after another snack break we were up, up, up and away and…

about ready to lose that snack.

The pilot was no newbie to the big blue yonder and he had us dipping and diving and turning on dimes enough times to buy an ice cream cone so the videographer could get just the right shots. Yet despite the green of my face, my heart fluttered. Being up in a plane is one of the best ways to fully grasp the grandiosity of where we are so lucky to call home base. Seeing it from the air gives you a whole new perspective.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Kennicott Glacier Root Glacier Alaska

The glaciers. We had just climbed the one on the right.

 

 

We even happened to head up the same route the boys and I had taken the Winter before via snowmachine and seeing it in the Summer gave me a whole new appreciation for where we had gone, a place we could only see by plane in the Summer months or snowmachine in the Winter.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 McCarthy Creek

Looking down at the “creek”.

 

 

We landed an hour later, tummies turned but satiated by the absolute wonder that is our backyard and then, it was time for a break.

Just kidding!

Onward!

Now it was time for packrafting.

The plan: paddle around the glacial lake, play amongst the icebergs, call it a day.

Outcome: Wind.

Just as we had forecast, the skies further darkened and the winds picked up (this happens almost every afternoon). Yet paddling against the wind, though tiring, was how we were keeping warm and so it was a strange symbiosis. We wandered through icebergs, our friend/guide jumped off of one and then we had all of our shots. Call it a wrap?

Wrong.

The winds had blown us in the direction of the Training Grounds, a quick set of rapids before you get to the bigger rapids below. If there was ever anything perfect to describe the Alaskan mentality, this is it: two practice rapids and then, boom! Jump into the game. Why not?

And so, jump or rather, paddle we did.

I hadn’t packrafted more than once in my life so, with a few quick pointers coupled with some good old-fashioned waiting on the camera time, time enough to get pretty darn chilly, added with some enthusiasm (“I saw you paddling, you’ve got great form”) I was a concoction of ready to go.

And, go we went.

I was in a seriously sweet sandwich between three guide friends and my girlfriend, following my band mate in front and off we went. Two practice rapids down and a couple big ones to go and…

we made it.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Trifecta 12-18-17 Packrafting Kennicott River

Isn’t she adorable?

 

 

I eddied out of the rushing current and watched as everyone else came in through the silty waves.

We got out (not before I tried to throw my sunglasses to a little girl standing at the water’s edge, whom I thought was an adult. Nice work, Jules. Lure the young’n into the raging river! What am I, a fast water silkie in The Secret of Roan Inish? Geez. The band mate apparently has better vision than I and put the kibosh on that one. Embarrassed? Yes.) and everyone was ready to run again but I felt solid with my day. Up a waterfall, up into the sky and down a river? Yes, thank you. My shaky muscles told me I would call it good there.

We stripped down out of our dry suits and found our third set of clothing (we’d gone from tank tops now to down jackets) and made our way to the meeting point as the film crew finished their last shots of the day.

It was time to celebrate.

And I’m pretty sure we did but I can’t remember anything other than being exhausted.

In one day, I had completed the Trifecta: all of my Summer adventure goals: ice climbing, packrafting and getting up in the air.

Apparently, Alaska had been listening.

She threw a serious curveball to the whole I Read About Exercising So I’ve Basically Run a Marathon, Drunk by Association, Scaled a Mountain Because Others Did Around Me farce. She was out for reality and the granting of three wishes in the package of one amazing day.

The place we call home has this magic to it. It’s a sort of “Be careful what you wish for” because it will come back full force (or in threes) type of land. It’s the kind of place that looks you in the eye and asks, “Are you sure?”

Yes, Alaska.

I am sure.

Cheers to doing not just viewing, to jumping into a new pool, wherever that may be.

Thank you, Alaska for the opportunities you provide and the humbling lessons that go along with them and…

Thank you KWG for such a perfect trifecta. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.

 

And now…for your viewing pleasure: The awesomeness that is our dear friends’ company KWG (Kennicott Wilderness Guides) and “The Talent”: Watch it. It’s awesome.

 

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

Venn and His Diagram Molly Dog

Venn and his Diagram

Compare and contrast.

You, Me and Us.

Remember the Venn Diagram days in class?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go where you ask?

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

Ice climbing!

 

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Ice Climbing

Just a casual ice climb…

 

 

 

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

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

Take, for example, the dishes.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Molly Dog

Like this.

 

 

 

Most of the time.

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

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

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

 

 

Venn and His Diagram River X Marks the Spot

X Marks the Self Spot.

 

 

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

And I try them on.

 

Everyone seems to be an excellent something or other…

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

Am I too lazy?

Too uncoordinated?

 

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

And I did.

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

 

 

Venn and His Diagram View from the Top Kennicott Alaska

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

 

 

I almost barfed.

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

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

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

Lesson learned.

Or at least lesson learning.

 

At times

We all feel less than

We all compare

We all contrast

We all judge the outcomes

and

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Fall Foliage

Fall Foliage Bids Adios to Summer

 

 

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

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

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

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

And that, my friends, makes sense.

 

Be nice to you this week.

Whoever you are.

At each moment you are.

Be kind to you.

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

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Bridge Rain

 

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

 

 

 

Feel the Burn

As an ex-Personal Trainer, the phrase “Feel the Burn” has never been unfamiliar. And in our most recent election I certainly felt the Bern. However, in today’s episode of Life in the Woods we are talking about a different burn.

 

The Burnout.

 

Around these parts, The Burnout Burn is in full-effect as we bid adieu to the fresh-faced fountain of Summer’s youth.

People are tired.

People forget and put on their grumpy pants in the morning.

It’s mid-Summer and the constant beat of the midnight sun drum is becoming less of a motivator and more of a task master.

The crowds that were surprising in June and early July are now commonplace and our little home is full-up, full-on, full-time.

The questions have changed from “how was your Winter?” to “what will you do in the Fall?” and in that delicate dialectic seasonal switch it’s obvious that the Solstice has passed as the sun finds her daily retreat a bit sooner everyday.

 

 

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We are these versions of buildings instead of shiny and new but hey, we have character.

 

 

 

But despite The Burnout, despite the fledgling energy levels and the growing inability to answer without offense when a tourist looks me up and down and says: “Well you certainly don’t live here in the Winter.” (thank you for that very unexpected approximation and judgement. Cheers to you too) I feel it’s been a Burn I can learn from.

You see, I’m an introvert.

I think the true term for my specific brand of Me-ness is called an Extroverted Introvert.

Sounds like an oxymoron, eh?

But it’s a label I’ve found that’s actually helped me to make sense of, well, me (you can read a pretty spot-on account of it here).

Make sense of yes, but in the past I still tried to push through the introversion into the extroversion. It made social situations easier, it made it seem like I was always “up” and it meant I felt less guilty less often because I didn’t indulge the introverted side. I just pushed, pushed, pushed it down.

Go out every night of the week?

Sure!

 

Have my phone on all day?

Love to!

 

Hang out with a new group of people?

Bring it on!

 

And the thing is, I like to go out, I like to be in contact and I love meeting new people.

Just not all the time.

And so, after years of submerging my introverted side in an ocean of guilt, letting her up only for necessary air and the plunging her back down again, I finally realized it wasn’t working.

The Burnout would show up in all it’s many faces in years before and I would fall apart. I’d be overworked and under-slept and over-socialized and I would just deteriorate, only to put the pieces back together again and into overdrive and…

do it all over again.

 

 

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Open, close. Open, close. Repeat.

 

 

But here, The Burn is different. (I know, I know. Alaska’s always different in my eyes but it’s true! At least for me.) This place is a boiled down version, a high-concentrate of The Burn because everyone is trying to cram everything they can into every hour of every day. There’s a celebration or a training or a party or a natural event that brings people together every night of the week. It’s not the normal 9-5 thank god it’s Fri-Yay, Margarita Monday just to get through the week type of life here.

It’s full-on.

And it’s wonderful.

But if you are susceptible to The Burn (and I have yet to find anyone immune, though there certainly live within this haven some masterful socializers whom seemingly re-charge through social interaction. Super-humans? Or just masters of disguising their need for solitude?) and I certainly am, it’s going to come on full-bore here.

Welcome to the woods.

And you thought it’d be quieter.

So, this year when I started feeling The Burn I decided to try a different route, the road certainly less (if perhaps maybe never) traveled by me, myself and I:

I let myself recharge. I looked my introverted side of myself in the eyes and I gave her a hug, and a night at home.

Lordy did that feel good.

Before I knew it, I was saying “No” to things.

How had I not utilized this power before?

And don’t get me wrong, as the kids say these days, I often have a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out. Please don’t anyone remind me that I just used FOMO in a piece of writing) but it only lasts as long as it takes The Chief to go down the driveway and head into the social circus that I am then left with this ultimate sense of relief and knowing. Knowing that I did the right thing for me.

 

 

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I’ve never regretted choosing a walk.

 

 

It doesn’t mean that I don’t adore being with my friends or making new ones. It doesn’t meant that I don’t like people or that my extroversion is a farce. When I feel “On” it’s a magical sensation, one to cherish and enjoy and let out into the world. But when I’m depleted, I don’t want to bring that out. Not being out in the world doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be social. It means that I can’t. If I’m truly listening, I realize that sometimes I just can’t. Not if I want to avoid The Burn and the inevitable dropping of all of the pieces. Not if I want to take care of myself.

It’s a truly powerful thing (albeit seemingly elementary and one which perhaps most have already grasped before their third decade around the sun, but not me) to listen to oneself. It’s taken me years just to even lend an ear, much less listen, much less act upon what I knew needed to be done. In fact, it’s taken years just to figure out what I actually need.

I had to practice. I had to trick myself into not judging the answer that was hidden behind bravado by asking myself rapid fire questions:

What do you want to eat?

Pancakes! (That was an easy one).

Pilates or a walk down by the river?

Walk!

Shorts or leggings for the walk?

Shorts! (Gotta give these albino white leggies at least a few rays of sunshine per year).

Go to Town or not?

No town!

 

Hold the phone…no Town?

That’s right, inner intuition. No Town.

Now, to follow through.

Often a 20 minute cuddle session with Lou (by which I mean me giving her pets and her ignoring me for 15 of the 20 minutes) eases the anxiety inducing decision and before I know it, the window to leave has left the building. I’m full-fledged in my decision to stay home and…

suddenly it feels glorious.

 

 

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Sometimes The Chief and I both make the decision together which always eases the FOMO (there it is again!) but it’s the times when I’m the lone soldier, bowing out of the Army of Fun when I feel the proudest of my choice.

I’m taking care of me.

And truly, if I don’t, who else will? No one can tell you who you are. We have to listen as we tell ourselves.

Tricking myself for years into being out when I needed to be in wreaked havoc on the trust I had with myself but slowly and surely, it’s coming back. I guess I just needed the intensity of the Summer drumroll here to push me into it. I needed that hyper-extroversion to show me the truth of my introversion and to appreciate it.

I’ve read two books this Summer (more than I’ve read in my first two Summers combined), I’ve spent time alone in our garden, I’ve harvested herbs and taken walks with my Lou and I’ve spent time with me, allowing myself to be just that: me.

 

 

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Sure, there’s still a lot to learn about how to avoid The Burn and the inevitable singe will happen. It’s mid-July in a full-up tourist town, but in taking the time to restore, The Burn gets a little cooler.

A little.

Cheers to oxymoron personalities and the seemingly opposing sides of their needs.

And cheers to you and your needs. Take a listen, they just might surprise you.

 

The Pack Test

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

Well, sort of.

Two weeks ago I became a real Wildland Emergency Firefighter.

Well, sort of.

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

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

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

Because we will be the first boots on the ground.

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

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

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

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

But attend a meeting?

No, gracias.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

Dang, very true and fair enough.

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

Until two events happened:

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

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

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

Right?

Apparently not.

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

Me?

A Red Card?

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

Me?

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

It goes like this:

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

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

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

Quite the pickle, eh?

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

Willing?

Yes.

Able?

…Gulp.

 

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

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

Though not at first.

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

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

“Yep!”

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

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

“Oh!”

“Oh?”

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

It weighed maybe 20 pounds.

And it took me over an hour to get there.

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

…Gulp.

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

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

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

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

Mine is spot on!

Whoops.

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

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

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

Every second counted.

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

Thanks, honey.

Nevertheless, we powered on.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

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

You can do this.

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

Keep the pace.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

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

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

The time was ticking away.

30 minutes.

35 minutes.

40 minutes.

41 minutes.

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

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

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

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

42 minutes.

43 minutes.

2 minutes left.

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

We made it.

43 minutes and 20 seconds.

A record?

I think not.

A pass?

Why yes, yes I think so!

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

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

Right?

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

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

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

The soreness.

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

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

Wrong.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

It should definitely be labeled “Arduous”.

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

I had passed.

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

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

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

I responded in truth: Well, sort of.

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

I guess we will have to see.

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

And then, well, who knows?

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

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