DIY

Hiking in Alaska

DIY Cabins: Life, Alaska Style

I love the allure of DIY, don’t you? Do It Yourself. Hell yea! I’m going to…probably.

In my life in California, my DIY consisted sometimes of actually DIYing and most often of scrolling through countless projects on Pinterest until I felt like I had actually accomplished something. Similar to scrolling through to select an exercise video and then feeling so accomplished having just looked at others exercising that you head to the kitchen for a snack. What a workout! DIY was something novel to me. Something I would (occasionally) choose to do. I’d research my project of choice, head to the craft or hardware store, and come evening, I’d have something somewhat resembling the project I’d endeavored to complete.

Fast forward to Alaska and DIY has taken on a whole new meaning. I realized the shift immediately from the moment I wanted to camp out at a friend’s house and spent the day pick-axing through rocks to make a level area.

Alaska
Pick happy

Nothing here is hand-delivered unless it’s delivered by your hands. For this little lady, who was used to small-scale projects being completed in one day, I didn’t quite understand bigger projects or why they took so damn long.

Proximity to supplies
Timing
Weather
Money
Supplies
Time
Resources
Did I say the weather?

All of this and more impact our lives out here far more than I ever could realize immediately. I looked at projects to be done, planned with The Chief and couldn’t understand why we were still in the gathering of materials stage months later. Still, even as I came to understand that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, that things would simply take more time, I didn’t want to click my heels to leave. So, I started with what we had and settled into where I was.

Hiking in Alaska
Deep down the wormhole…

Wedding in Alaska
…with this guy.


I liked the hard life, I knew that for sure, but damned if it didn’t drive me crazy sometimes. Slow and steady is less my speed. I prefer one and done and move onto the next.

So, when we started our living room project LAST fall…

Building in Alaska
Phase I: Painted + New Flooring

Building in Alaska
Phase II: Ceiling Trim

I was impatient for it to be done. But guess what? It finally (almost) is!

Building in Alaska
Phase III: Sealed Cracks, Touched Up Paint, Baseboards and Trim

Building in Alaska
Finally.

Building in Alaska



Yes, we need to clean up the battery box and yes we need to re-hang our art and yes, we need to build the shelves we’ve been talking about for a year but I’d be a liar if I said I couldn’t see the finish line for the first time ever. It’s there.

The truth is, as I sat back and admired our hard work, I realized that this wasn’t just the end of a 6-month long project, it was the end of a 6-year project. We had started our living room project 6 years ago when I first arrived. We started here, with dueling couches, an OSB (read: similar to plywood) floor covered in a rug permanently covered in dog hair. Here, with single-pane windows that sometimes opened, a cloth ceiling, and more guns than I’d ever seen in my life (but at least now we were off the floor). We started here, with a place we both felt immediately at home in, with a person we both felt we’d found our soul in, with a ready canvas and slowly, the picture began to come to life.

Building in Alaska
Dueling

Building in Alaska
…Couches

Since then, we’ve made constant upgrades, changes, arrangements, and re-arrangements, trying to finally settle into our space.

Like this Christmas edition:

Building in Alaska

and this Summer edition:

Building in Alaska

and this Fall corner:

Building in Alaska

and this Winter coziness:

Building in Alaska

From here:

Building in Alaska

To here:

Building in Alaska


And you know what? We are finally there. Well, near there, but let’s call it good. The end is truly in sight.

Sure, there’s much more to do the moment you step out of the living room but for the first time ever, two-thirds of our house is complete. Our bedroom feels like a little sanctuary and our living room finally feels complete and it brings me a deep sense of satisfaction. Yes, it took forever. Yes, it meant individual trips over months on end to finally get all of the materials here. Yes, it meant working in the cold, working on the weekends and countless hours checking the fire in the shop to make sure the temp hadn’t dropped and our stain wouldn’t freeze on the boards. Yes, it meant arguments and resolutions and the constant moving of things in and out, back and forth, up and down the Ramp of Doom in the slick Spring days and cold Winter nights.

Yes, it was a long endeavor but despite all of it, looking at the boards, each of which I bought, hauled, cut, stained, and installed with my husband brings me an immense sense of joy.

Building in Alaska
Look at those beauties!


This morning as I sit in our cozy home, there’s a deep feeling of contentment. Not from DIYing but from DITing. Doing It Together. I didn’t always feel motivated to do the work, sometimes The Chief didn’t either, yet together, we made it happen. I think more than anything, what I wanted most in life (even more than nailing a Pinterest-worthy creation) was a partner to do things with. I certainly didn’t anticipate finding this partnership in the Alaskan wilderness, off-the-grid and far away from everything I’d ever known but I am so glad to have stumbled upon it.

It’s not always easy, but it’s exactly what I needed.

With love,

from Alaska

Backcountry Alaska


P.S. What are you DIY/DIT-ing these days? How are your projects slowed or sped up based on your lifestyle?

Building Off Grid in Alaska: The Driveway Edition

Last fall, when I went to Town, The Chief painted our living room. Prior to leaving, I boxed up as much as I could to help him prep but on the day of, there were inevitably things to move and if you’ve ever moved things in a rush, you know what happened.

“Babe, have you seen my notebook?” I asked a week or so after I had returned and the dust had settled.
“The black one?”
“Yep.”
“The one you draw in every day?”
“Yep.”
“The one that’s always sitting right here?” Director’s Note: The Chief points to the side table in The Chester Family living room. All eyes are drawn to the location, hope and anticipation on their faces.
“Yep!”
“No, I haven’t seen that.”

Velvet pillow
Bare walls. The book always sat just to the right…


The hunt began. I can’t tell you how many times I looked for that damn book but my art stopped then and there until I found it. “Start in a new book!” you might be thinking to yourself and I agree, but my doggedly insistent side disagreed. That book or bust. I looked in every nook and cranny our house has and at 200 odd square feet (maybe), there aren’t that many places it could be. Still, I could not find it.

Until this weekend when I looked up and there it was.

Remodel
Ding ding ding!


Truth be told, I am certain to the center of my being that I scoured over that bookshelf time and time again but somehow, my Elf on the Shelf of a book found its way back and there she was. It felt a little witchy, like the time I had a dream in college that my rings were gone. I’d gotten them from a man in Berkeley who, upon meeting me, somehow knew I was wearing men’s socks even though my socks (indeed, men’s socks) were completely covered. He told me the rings were powerful. After the dream, I woke up and they were indeed gone. I tore my apartment apart. I’d been wearing them when I went to bed. No luck. The following weekend, I went to my boyfriend’s house. Freshly out of the shower, I lotioned up but the product was almost gone. I put my finger into the bottle to search for every last bit and what came out? My rings. Spooky.

So, spells, witchery or the truth that I am a terrible looker of things aside, the book was back. Oh, the simple joy of finding something once lost. I sat down with my old friend and stumbled upon an entry from exactly one year ago to the day:

“We went to Long Lake to look at property and we fell in love. The Chief looked at me as we approached the Lake and said ‘You just feel better out here, don’t you?’ I do. Once we’d snowshoed our way to the top of our favorite lot, a Bald Eagle flew overhead. The Chief took my hands in his and said ‘This is it.’ It was. It is.”

Love in Alaska
First picture on the property


Six weeks after that entry, after endless phone calls, emails, forms and signatures, hiccups and happenstance and help from our family, we closed on our property. Over 20 acres of raw land in the Alaskan wilderness were ours. We couldn’t believe it. After growing up in California where a small house on a tiny plot could cost upwards of $500k, my dreams of owning a house felt more like pipe dreams. Yet, it had happened. We were landowners, The Chief and I.

Lantern
One year ago, making a wish…
Make a wish
Send it off…see what happens

The daydreaming began. The first goal? Access. Oh, you thought the property came with a road on it? One can dream, but this dream of a deal didn’t include any of the niceties I’d always assumed property would (when I let myself have those wild pipe dreams). As the snow melted and the summer came full force, we started making trails. Machetes come in super handy for such tasks and whack away we did. By the fall, we’d had our first fire, a true Alaskan milestone.

Mccarthy, AK

We celebrated! We were getting closer to our goal. Still, after all that work, there was no way even a 4-wheeler was getting up there, much less our behemoth of a truck. So, we continued to work and this winter, we got our first vehicle up: the snowmachine. After building a ramp, cutting brush, stomping trail and crossing our fingers, The Chief made it up onto the land. As the winter wore on, The Chief would steal away in between work days to work on the property and finally, he got the trail all the way up to the ridge. Success! Access granted.


Still, true access, at this rate, would be years and years off and if we wanted to build a road, due to permafrost, it would have to be in winter and if we didn’t do it this winter that meant another year of hacking and sawing our way, little by little. Which is fine (and definitely the norm) but if we could, we wanted to speed things up. Thankfully (thanks, Pops!) my Pops was able to expand on his loan and thus, we were able to expand on our loan and so, we planned the fast track: a driveway. Like all things in Alaska, a decision didn’t necessarily mean action. We made the necessary calls, The Chief walked the land with the builders and then, we set a date.

And another date.

And another date.

And another.

Time and time again I forget: Mother Nature makes no promises. The first few setbacks were due to weather as the builder had a cutoff of 0 degrees (mainly for his machines. I’m sure he would have been out there at -20 if it wouldn’t have affected the equipment). Then, the equipment had a hiccup, needed a trip to town for the doc and then an inspection. Finally, months after our first call, all lights were green.

And then the weather took a turn again. -20 to -30 for a week straight. Hello late winter wonders!

Finally, the cold spell broke and it began. Breaking ground.

Building Alaska
Holy guacamole


For the first few days, The Chief was at the property to help and trouble shoot but a few days in, they were cruising and he could leave to come grab me in Anchorage. On our way home we got the call: “You can drive up your road tonight, if you want.”

Yes, please.

The moonlit drive became that much more magical, the snow all lit up and sparkling mimicked our excitement. As we pulled up, we let out hoots and hollers. I couldn’t believe it. It was a real driveway. We ran to the top and hugged and kissed. It was in.

Building in Alaska
Moonlit love


The next day, after a few finishing touches, the road was completely done and despite feeling absolutely terrible from his second shot, The Chief rallied. “We have to go see it in the daylight.” Snow was forecast for the next day and we’d already gotten a foot or more in the past week. After that, we probably wouldn’t be able to drive it for the rest of the Winter. So, off we went.

It was glorious.



This weekend, we headed out again, this time to put in a snowshoe trail up to the second ridge from the top of the driveway, the place we think we will eventually build. Why didn’t we get the road all the way up to it? Right now, even though we are in a long-term relationship, we are still getting to know the land. We want to spend time there, feel the breeze, watch the earth as it shifts in seasons to be sure before we build. We assumed we’d never make it up the driveway with the fresh snow we’d gotten on it but I knew once I saw that look in The Chief’s eyes that we were going to try. Some expert driving and a few attempts and there we were again, up on top, greeted by this:

Winter in Alaska


Leto was certain this being was an intruder, one not to trust. He growled his face off until we finally got him out of the truck at which point he promptly peed on the welcome guest (thanks, Long Lakers! We love you!).

After a few hours of snowshoeing, we were both beat and ready to call it a day and what did we do? We drove off of our property. Drove! We are both still getting used to that reality, still in shock that this is truly starting to happen. Long Lake.

Alaska


So, what’s next?

Phase I: Find a property and go through the rigamarole of buying it: DONE
Phase II: Gain Access: DONE
Phase III: Build

Building will be a ways off at this point so our Phase IIIa will be to buy an Airstream and setup shop on the land. It’s always easier to work on a property you don’t have to commute to and this way, we can truly watch the land go through the seasons. So, we are in the market, looking for new digs for our new drive.

What a difference a year makes.

Cheers to you and yours and to new ventures, big and small.

With love,

from Alaska

Alaskan Malamute
And lit up Leto


P.S. Have you started a new project lately? What’s next on your list?
P.P.S. If you haven’t already, make sure to subscribe to the blog (at the top of the page) and if you have friends you think would enjoy it, please do share it!
P.P.P.S Thanks to the wonderful welcome bonfire, friends! On Sunday the skies were bright blue and we decided we needed one more trip up this weekend. I cut down my first tree on the property and we were greeted by all of our friends, our first visitors on the land. It felt amazing.

The mountains finally came out.
Whoever gets there first gets the first baby kisses!
Long Lake love

The Art of Relaxation

Well, it turns out I was right, I’m terrible at relaxation. Well, terrible at relaxation with one, rather large, caveat: I’m terrible at relaxation as I thought it was meant to be. You know, lazing about, not a care in the world about what day or time it is. Napping at will. Leisurely meals throughout the day with cocktails poolside.

Yea…that’s not me.

Now, while some aspects of the aforementioned relaxation style aren’t even available to me (hint: the nearest pool is 8 hours away. The nearest poolside cocktails?! Who even knows), even if they were, that’s the type of relaxing I can do for a day or two. Any more spells A-N-X-I-E-T-Y. But that’s vacation, right? No rules, no worries, no restraints! A smorgasbord of decadence and overindulgence.

Again, not for me.

A surfing vacation, however? Count me in.


I’ve tried it before only to come to the conclusion that I’m terrible at relaxing. The reality? I’m terrible at relaxing as I think others do (and as I “should”). The reality? I had to find my own swing of things. One of the best parts of my vacation? Learning this about myself (and even, eventually, finding this swing) and were it not for cues from you, amazing readers, I don’t know that I would have.

Relaxation to me has often been this sort of unattainable nirvana. I’d see other people doing it or hear their different ways and think “I’m doing this all wrong!”. I’d go back to the relaxation drawing board, setting different relaxation parameters for myself (sounds relaxing, right?). Now, if you’re thinking, “Julia! You were doing it wrong!”, I’d wholeheartedly agree. Not because I wasn’t doing one person’s form of relaxation or another correctly but because I wasn’t relaxing in the way that worked for me. I was doing it wrong because (spoiler alert!) it turns out the art of relaxation lies within each of us.

Looking back, my girlfriends and I like to laugh at our 5th grade selves who all wore the exact same jeans, socks and shoes to school (I love how socks were included in this list of lemming-like fashion).

L.E.I. Jeans, Costco socks, Nike or Adidas shoes or sandals. So original!

Similarity meant safety. We fit in with one another. As I’ve grown, however, I’ve become my own self, as have they. I have no idea what socks they are wearing today but I’m certain they are perfectly perfect for them.

Almost the same lineup, 20 years later

Still, my relaxing self hadn’t quite caught up. I live off-grid in Alaska, a life more wild and more independent than I’d ever dreamed, and still I was looking around for someone, anyone to tell me how to relax. Thankfully, you, the readers, came to the rescue with your tales of relaxation.

So, I started copying all the forms of relaxation mentioned above, right?!

Not this time!

Finally, it sunk in: the art of relaxation is uniquely your own.

Nailing it.


So I tried my hand where I felt most drawn. Mostly, for me, it meant being out in nature and watching the comings and goings of the day. I took morning walks to greet the rising sun and bundled as could be, laid down in the snow to watch it rise. I took moonlit strolls, watching that glowing orb come up over the mountains. I skied long stretches and even hooked up the little Leto beast for skijoring.

Fast as the wind

Sometimes being outside just meant chores but with all the time in the world to do them, it was more pleasure than pain. I chopped wood outside till my fingers froze and smiled with delight at the stockpile I’d provided us. I got back in tune with the chores The Chief had so kindly taken over when I was at work and it made me feel reconnected to our life.

I won’t lie, some days I felt the panic of inactivity or lack of production come over me. I had nowhere to be, no time to keep. What would I do next?! And then, if I got quiet, my heart (or sometimes my stomach) would tell me where to go next. I’d pick up a book or unearth a craft, find a snack, tidy a corner of the house or meet a girlfriend for an epically long impromptu ski. Time marched on, as it does, some planned, some filled with random tasks.One day I talked for almost two hours on the phone with a girlfriend, the entirety of which I spent scrubbing our tea kettle back to life. Some days went so fast, I could barely recount the day before it fell dark.

Sunsets for days

Some days lingered ever so slightly as the light started to come back. Once, I spent the entire day in jammies watching TV and once we took an epic nap after both falling asleep reading. And speaking of sleeping, I actually let myself sleep in for the first time in Winter since my first Winter in 2015.

As I write this, my vacation comes to a close. The morning greeted us with a twenty below “hello” and a long list of to-dos for an impromptu trip to Town for The Chief. A flurry of activity will fill our day as we cross off the list and work our way through the cold. In some ways, it’s the perfect ending, revving up to help me ease back into the world of virtual places to be and people to see. Moving forward, the clock will decide my comings and goings again and my phone, mostly shut off during my time away, will become more of a presence. Routine will return and appointments will be kept and in some ways, that’s relaxing too.

Plus, I am extremely grateful to be employed, especially over this last year, but we all need breaks, even from the best of jobs.

Plus, I’ll still have sunset snow naps


So, the art of relaxation? Turns out, it’s yours to decipher, yours to learn. For me, to feel relaxed, I need a combo of time alone, time outside and time getting things done. Even if I found myself poolside with cocktails, I’d still want to wake up in the morning to journal and do yoga. I’d still want a semblance of routine and continuity. A little bit of planning mixed with a little bit of spontaneity. To me, that’s relaxation. Finding a feeling of calm in one’s soul, whatever that looks like. Perhaps it’s not yet my forte but thanks to you, I’m learning my way.

May you find yours.

With love,

from Alaska

Sunrise snow bed

P.S. Anyone else finding their way towards their own version of relaxation? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.



Life Off-Grid: Getting Stuck

The day started off like any other unassuming Sunday: sipping tea in bed while journaling away through the dark morning dawn. A breakfast brunch as the day finally broke through the darkness and then…plans. What would the day hold? While there were chores like hauling water and running the generator, it was Sunday. The day of rest, right?

The Chief had, unfortunately, forgotten his phone at the Lake where we put in our first trail to our property(!) the day before.

Alaska
It doesn’t do justice to the ditch or the incline but you get the gist. Booyah!

So…his day’s agenda was set. Mine, on the other hand? Free as a slightly chore-laden bird. Still, I knew what was coming next.

“You should take The Beast out for a couple laps when I go out to the Lake. Pack down this new snow, you know?”

I knew.

The night before had laid down a beautiful layer of fat, fluffy flakes. Six inches of snow graced our valley. Suddenly, all of the well-trodden trails we’d grown accustomed to in the last month were covered. Every trek a tromp through calf-deep goodness. The trail to the generator, the outhouse, the sheds, all now a bit of a slog, overnight. Not only were our personal trails changed but all of the exterior trails were too. Without a quick pat down by the snowmachine it would be post-holing for Leto and I on our afternoon walk. The best plan, the pre-emptive plan, would be to take a few laps, prepping the trail for the oncoming week so it could setup. The best plan, however, was normally The Chief’s job.

In secret, I’d always wanted to be the one who laid first tracks upon the trails here and often I would but solely with my skis. Not once had I been first to set tracks with my machine. Even if our household was first out, we’d be riding in tandem and I always found myself riding in second place. Scratch that: I always positioned myself in second place and with Leto aiming to lead the way, I’d find myself a solid third.

Off-grid Alaska
Riding third-y

While it would be easy to blame The Chief for taking on these duties so as not to have to look at myself and by providing excuses like “He’s typically free when it snows and I’m typically working” or “He enjoys it more”, I finally let my guard down and came face to face with with the truth: I’m scared to get stuck.

The truth is, yes, sometimes The Chief is home and I’m working when the trails need to be put in. Sometimes not. And yes, The Chief does enjoy it but what’s also true: I love it too. There’s nothing like breaking first trail (even if it’s merely 6 inches atop an old trail), or so I’ve been told. Growing up, I used to love to drive my Grandpa’s riding lawnmower, back and forth in the summer heat, until the lawn was perfectly flat and uniform. Setting trail is the winter version of this (also somehow sweaty). So why all the hubbub?

Getting stuck.

I’ve done it before. Stuck, stranded, using every bit of I Don’t Want to Have to Call My (at the time) Boyfriend Strength up. Sweating. Panicking. Losing then regaining my senses.

Alaska snowmachine
Lassoed to a tree. Woman-powered reverse only.


Getting stuck. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
At least the view that day made it worth it.


The reality? Getting stuck actually is a truly important lesson out here. You wouldn’t drive a car without knowing how to operate it and getting stuck is just a part of operating a snowmachine. Still, there’s one issue: I’m a perfectionist. Perfectionist. The title seems harmless enough, unassuming, almost…dare I say, cute? In reality, it’s anything but. Being a perfectionist, for me, means doing things right the first time or…doing nothing at all. You’ll notice by my lovely array of dust-laden instruments in our cabin that I fall prey most often to the latter (doing nothing at all), than the often impossible former (doing it right the first time). Did even young Mozart have to plunk about on his piano for a bit prior to conducting his masterpieces? Me thinks not.

Truly, deep down, me knows so. I know there’s plenty of plunking about we don’t see behind the Insta-worthy lives we show. So, as The Chief gently challenged me to dust off my piano, per se, I met his gaze and said “OK, but I’m a little scared I’ll get stuck.”

McCarthy, AK
Stuck like a spruce in an ice bog



“You might! That’s all part of it.”

Ugh, sage advisor that he is, I wasn’t having it. Again, I’ve gotten stuck but only twice have I been completely alone and they were relatively easy fixes (thanks to the I Don’t Want to Have to Call My Boyfriend adrenaline). The other times, when I’ve gotten really stuck (I mean REALLY stuck), I’ve luckily been in the company of friends. What if I got REALLY stuck?!

Kennicott, Alaska
This photo does zero justice. Taken 10 minutes in, post packing down waist-high snow on a steep incline.

The Chief would be 45 minutes away. What if I needed him? Our neighbors were all gone. The closest call for help would be a long way away. I’d be a burden. Perhaps that’s the greatest fear: not just doing it imperfectly, but having an audience.

So, dear audience, here’s my confession: get stuck I did. I got stuck “damn good”, as my Mother would say.
See?

Polaris Snowmachine
Whoopsie daisies!


After two hours of miles-long loops around the local trails, racing back and forth and off into sub-trails, I arrived back at home sweet home. In my laps, I’d veered off into our yard and flattened out our home trails quite well but I thought to myself: “Why don’t I do one more lap to the fire pit?” I’d had a little trouble paving my way through the terrain with a turning radius that just wouldn’t take hold and I wanted a third run at it. It had been the only part of the last few hours that had given me pause, wondering if this would be the place I’d get stuck. Still, I had made my way through it twice already and today was about facing fears! Another voice sheepishly tapped me on the shoulder: “Excuse me, umm, I think maybe you’re pretty tired? Maybe, umm, maybe you should call it quits?” Even Leto, The Meandering Malamute, had thrown in the towel a few laps before. It would be totally honorable to do the same.

I didn’t.

Instead, I went full-bore. I was going to make the turnaround in one fell swoop instead of employing my wussy reverse again! Straight ahead or nothing!

I drew the nothing card.

In the last moment of the turn (which I was, in fact, totally nailing), my track caught on a previously unseen mini-boulder and…over she went!

Polaris trail
Look at my belly!


I heaved and ho-ed like no other. Just when I would get some momentum, my feet would slip out from under me, towards the machine. While I wanted it upright, I didn’t want it upright on top of me. I slid the back end away from the rock as best I could but the going was tough. I flattened the snow all around the machine in the direction I wanted to move it but still, I’d only get it an inch or less at a time. Until I purchased my latest machine, I’d always had lighter ones, ones I could lift. This one, weighing in at over 500 pounds, I couldn’t (which plays a great deal into a fear of getting stuck). No matter of momentum was proving to help. I was…

Stuck.

So, I did what I aimed not to: I called my husband. Somehow, despite being in the middle of chainsawing his way through our new property, he felt the phone buzz. He answered. The spotty service only swelled my frustration.

“I got stuck!” I finally yelled, angelically, of course.
What I wanted him to say in return was: “Don’t worry! The machine will be totally fine on its side for the next hour until I can get home.”
What he said instead was: “Well, no, babe, the machine shouldn’t just sit like that. You need to figure it out.”
“This is all your fault” my less than adorable side thought (thankfully not aloud).
“Maybe look up come alongs on YouTube? Or create a pulley system?”

I thought back to my 7th grade science classes. Pulley systems…yep, I had definitely been class clowning my way through that lesson. Nice work, Jules! But, he did have a point. I had the internet and a ton of tools (I didn’t know how to use) at my disposal. Perhaps I could cook up my own rescue. I said a grumpy “Thank you. Be safe.” and got off the phone. Time to brainstorm. To the back of the truck, Batman!

Ford F-350
It was full of supplies. Thankfully not this full though!


The thing about “packed down” snow (aka the snow I had been riding back and forth across for the past few hours) is that it needs to set up, meaning it needs time to settle and ideally, cold temperatures to turn it into a little mini-highway. This snow had not done that in the last 30 minutes of my trying to right the wronged machine. The audacity! So, back and forth I trekked, slipping calf-deep to the icy surface below, shedding layers as I went. Gloves on. Gloves off. Fingers frozen to metal. Gloves on. Repeat. After an embarassing and inaccurate first attempt (“I’ll use a tie down!” aka a ratchet strap) I finally agreed with myself to consult the YouTube oracle. “How to use a come along” I queried. The first video I saw had snow on the ground and a big truck. It looked like home so I clicked on it. Actually, the first video I saw said “Finger Pincher”. Rude. So I clicked on the aforementioned second one. The gist was the same: Do NOT use this if you don’t understand it. You will snap your fingers off. Fear mongers!

So, I watched the video over and over until I knew the subject back and forth, right?

Nah. I skimmed through it and looked for the main cues (i.e. which side is “Up” and which end gets attached where). A few more trip-laden tromps back and forth to the truck and I had everything I needed. I thought. And…it turns out I was right.

How to use a come along
Nailed it.

After some fenagling the pieces over the most secure junctions and a wish of good luck for my fearful fingers, I started cranking back and forth, back and forth until…I saw movement. The snowmachine was finally coming upright.

Ratchet strap
Come along, little doggie

I gave a few more cranks and gently tipped it the rest of the way down to the snowy surface.

“Hell yes!” I shrieked to myself. “I did it!”. I was in shock. I’d done something that gave me paused (riding alone in fresh powder), met my fear (getting stuck) and found my way out (upright).

Now, trust me, I know that to an experienced rider, this whole conundrum likely seems trivial. Well, trivial at best, perhaps closer to pathetic. To which I would say, “I get it.” Yet, I would also venture a guess that there might be things that make a brap bro pause that might be easy peasy to others. I can write an essay in my sleep but driving a stick shift makes me feel as if I should have a Caution, Teen Driver sticker on my bumper. Maybe you’re amazing with a chainsaw but can’t imagine a moment onstage. Perhaps you can draw life-like portraits but tremble at the thought of swimming in the ocean. Who knows? The point is, hopefully, small or large, insignificant or essential, we find a way to stride past our fears and get to the joy of just trying…and maybe getting stuck.

So, get stuck I did and unstuck to boot and now, my machine, was upright again.

Polaris
Homeways is rightways now.

Sweating and thoroughly exhausted, I put my coat and gloves back on, fingers crossed, in anticipation of a ride. She started right up, purring away loudly. “Yes!” I yelled again. I took her for a final lap through the local trails and she hummed away, happy to be back on track. I thanked my lucky stars.

By the time I returned home, it was almost 5. The Chief arrived soonafter, whooping and hollering for me as well. “This is what I mean! It really is good for us to get stuck, even if it is scary! I’m so proud of you, baby.” He then proceeded to tell me about a time he too had gotten stuck in our own backyard, years ago, during his first winter. He heaved and ho-ed and stomped down the snow around him for hours, all the while watching the lights go out at the friend’s house he had been on his way to visit (there weren’t cell phones here back then. Kind of amazing, right?!). Finally, hours later, sweating and exhausted, he had made it the couple hundred feet home.

Kennicotto River, McCarthy, AK
Plus, it had been a gorgeous day.

So, a restful Sunday, it was not, yet, it was exactly what I needed and I’m grateful for it.

In the end, getting stuck was the best part of my day. OK, getting unstuck was the best part of my day but it wouldn’t have come without first getting…stuck. I think in this time of online perfection, it’s important to show the less elegant, less photo-worthy moments. Maybe, just maybe, it will help us all see that perfection is limiting, at best, and that we all struggle and thrive in different ways. Moving here has forced me to face my fears, fears I didn’t even know I had, head on and while, in the sweating, exhausted moments of meeting them, it’s not always fun, in the aftermath, I’m always grateful. And so, I share those moments with you. The nitty, gritty, not always so pretty version of life (off-grid or otherwise) that force us to face ourselves, head on. It’s not always the shiny parts that need the most light.

Cheers to you in your triumphs and in your moments of defeat. May they both bring you closer to who you want to be.

With love,

from Alaska

Julia Chester
Grocery getter.


P.S. Can you relate? What are your hangups others might find easy?

Projects

Projects.
This word strikes both glee and fear into me simultaneously. Glee for the change, the new, the progress. Fear for the time, the mess and the inevitable “oh shit” moments. This year, we’ve been in project go-mode. Having stayed home for the entire year for the first time ever, we truly had a moment to see what needed doing and oh boy, it’s a lot. Like any good project, each one began with hope and progressed like an unending nesting doll. Projects within projects (within projects, within projects) have an uncanny way of popping up.

Vine ripened tomatoes
When I planted these from seed, I forgot to think of the cages I’d need to build and the vine ripening that would take place long after the first frost, inside our house


Still, cross them off the list we did. There was trim to cut and paint and a ceiling to stain, tongue and groove to mill and paint for interior siding, a trillion tiny projects and umpteen garden projects and somehow we had the lumber for them all, lucky us.

DIY trim
Trimmed windows. Is there anything better?


The funny thing about living 8 hours from the nearest lumber yard (well, 4 if you want to pay double but that’s not often a ride I aim admittance to) is that when you buy lumber, you often buy a little extra. Mistakes happen and a buffer is key. The other “funny” thing about living so far out is said lumber must find somewhere to stay dry and cozy until it proves time for its project to commence. So, with a little extra and a lot to store, we set aside our lumber to side our house.

One year ago.

Last Summer we had hoped to have it up and done before the wedding. Did that happen? It sure didn’t.

Wedding in Alaska
Proof. Wedding day. Naked house. Oh well!


With The Chief working 12-14 hour days for 42 days with one day off and me working full-time while planning a wedding and tagging in as his co-pilot firefighter a few times a week, we didn’t exactly have a lot of milling hours in us.

Wildland firefighters of Alaska
Most of our quality family time was spent bobbing about in a huge fire truck, patrolling the area on my days off


Two years ago this Fall, I wrote about our naked house and how, despite loving what it holds inside, I am embarrassed for its lackluster outside. Now, one year after buying the lumber to do it and umpteen Winter, Spring and Summer projects that required completion in between, siding our house had still found itself on the projects back burner (or on an understandable but equally frustrating seasonal delay). Our house still remains naked. So, we set to clothe it.

The siding project (in our heads) went something like this:

1. Order and pick up lumber – Done! We’d done this last Summer. Ahead of the game already!
2. Grab the boards
3. Mill the boards
4. Sand the boards
5. Stain the boards
6. Put the boards up
Done!

Had I looked at that list when we hatched this siding plan, I might have let The Chief twist my arm to pre-built siding just to take a few of those steps out because…in addition to the above steps, our process, thus far, just to get to the third step (Mill the boards) has been:

1. Move an old couch that somehow got place in the way of the boards (Day O)
2. Organize the work tent so there is room to work in it (Day 1)
3. Uncover the boards (start of Day 2)

Lumber storage solutions
Foolproof storage, for sure

4. Set up sawhorses for the boards to stage them for milling
5. Discover that after a long Winter’s rest, some boards (which are 12 feet long) have gained a little weight (water weight, that is) and are wet
6. Set up another set of sawhorses for wet vs. dry boards
7. Sort the boards into wet and dry and move them into corresponding sawhorse piles
8. Set up another set of sawhorses for milled lumber
9. Get two generators from their two different sides of the property
10. Get the gas can and filter
11. Fill them with gas
12. Bring out the saw
13. Level the saw
14. Set up the guides on the saw to create the tongue and groove
15. Get another set of sawhorses to help hold the boards as they are milled
16. Try the first board
17. Realize that the sawhorse system isn’t working
18. Try another board
Success.
19. Mill each board through twice (to get both sides)
20. Get through 14 boards before it starts to get dark
21. Set up two more sets of sawhorses inside the work tent
22. Start a fire in the work tent to dry all boards, milled and wet
23. Move milled and wet lumber inside the tent, stacking and stickering (essentially placing another piece of wood perpendicular to each row so as to create airflow) them to cure (dry) overnight
24. Move both generators back to their respective places on the property
25. Move saw back inside
26. Re-cover remaining lumber
27. Count remaining lumber while covering
Realize that it will take you another day to finish all the milling
Go inside (it’s now 7 pm)
Haul water
Run the generator
Shower
Run the air hose through the shower to make sure it doesn’t freeze and break in the sub-30 nights
28. Check on fire in the work tent (it’s now 9 pm)
Make dinner
Do dishes
29. Check on fire in the work again (it’s now 10:30 pm)
End of Day 2

DIY Hand-milled lumber
Goodnight, lumber


So, yes, it ended up being a little longer of a process than my 6 step process had anticipated and while I didn’t count the steps like hauling water or running the generator for the house, it’s all a part of the process too. It’s all part of why things take as long as they do, because there’s always another Russian Doll popping up.

In between finishing up and counting our progress on Day 2 towards the overall product, we also realized (or rather, re-realized) another “funny” thing about living in the woods? When you buy a little extra for your project, sometimes you forget just how much extra. Saturday, we found out. Through the variety of necessary projects we’d completed in the last three seasons, we’d managed to go burn through everything “extra” and straight on into our required materials. In fact, we have less than half of what we need.

Oh joy!

I vaguely remember The Chief and I discussing this while shivering in 20 below zero weather. “We can just replace it when we are ready!” I can hear us saying. A statement we promptly forgot while we finished the ensuing projects: the trim, the tongue and groove interior siding, the planters, etc.

DIY Planter Box
#worthit


Still, whether starting with everything or just a less than half our necessary materials, start we did and while it took far longer than either of us had anticipated (surprised?) we came out ahead because we came out at all.

Sunday, we found our groove.

See, it takes no time at all!

We were outside bright and early in the below 40 degree weather and had milled and re-stacked half of the remaining pile by 10:30 am. The work tent was warm and after a brief intermission for a volunteer day at the VFD, The Chief returned and we finished the non-wet pile. 63 boards, all 12 feet, a total of 126 passes through the mill, all finally finished.

DIY Alaska


So, what remains?
8 boards to mill once they are dry.
A Town trip to grab 80 more boards.
Milling said boards (160 more passes through the mill) and then, just those few simple steps:

Sand the boards
Stain the boards
Put the boards up
Done!

I’m sure it will go just as easily as the first 63 boards went and by that I mean, not easily at all but deeply, deeply satisfying to see to completion. Perhaps our weather gambles will pay off and we will be able to stain in the late Fall sunshine or perhaps (fingers and toes crossed, no!), we will have to finish the project next year when we can again paint outside (you know, toxic fumes inside a tent heated by a flaming stove, not a great idea). Only time (on the weekends) will tell. Here’s hoping!

Dryas Drumondii
Wishing on an Einstein


To you and your projects, I wish you good luck! May your process be speedy, your materials be plenty and your clothes smell of sawdust and congratulate you of progress.

With love,

from Alaska and some very tired arms

Fall in Alaska
Fall in Alaska




The Weather Gambler

I’ve never been much of a gambler. Despite going to Las Vegas a handful of times, the most I’ve ever lost was $100 and it was $100 a friend had given me to encourage me to “Get on out there!”. Get on out there I did for about 1 solid hour of Juju gambling time and then…meh. It’s just not me.

Recently, we had the chance to gamble twice. You see, the weather a month ago had been absolutely gorgeous. Bluebird skies. Not a cloud in sight. Warm, sunny days.

Summer in Alaska

So, aiming to finally get “out” before the Fall closed in, we had scheduled a backcountry trip (where you fly in an airplane into even more remote Alaska). We met to match schedules with the flight company, deciding each to take one day off from work, and lo and behold, we found the perfect weekend. It was settled.

Then, The Chief’s boss switched around his work schedule. Suddenly, if we took the trip he would have missed one normal day of work AND one day of overtime instead of just one regular day. Being that his work season is coming to a close, the squirreling of dollars has begun and we couldn’t really swing it. Plus, one of the people who had given us the trip was visiting said weekend and we would have missed getting in some quality time with her.

Best friends
Ain’t she cute? Wine bottle birthday cake.


So, novice gamblers that we are, we risked it: Gamble #1: Rescheduling. We scheduled for the last weekend the flight company was open: last weekend. Labor Day Weekend, which also happened to be our one-year anniversary. The visiting girlfriend who had given us the flight and had worked at the flight company had worried that it might be too cold or that we would get stuck in the backcountry. “Go! Dont’ worry, we will see one another soon! I don’t want you to get stuck or not go!” she cautioned.

Stuck?

Yup.

Mid-Summer, it’s actually pretty fun to fly out to places that have difficult landing strips or are prone to weather delays and experience the maybe we will, maybe we won’t adventure of getting stuck in the backcountry. I mean, who doesn’t want more time in the mountains, right? As the Fall closes in, the chances of weather delays and rough landings increases and…this was the last weekend the flight service was operating. So, if they couldn’t pick us up, we’d have to Winter over in the mountains.

Just kidding! But…it would delay their closing if their ability to pick us up was delayed.

Still, the weather had been beautiful and if it were anything near how the weather had been last year at our wedding, we would be totally fine. So, we scheduled it. Labor Day weekend, goodbye! To the backcountry we go!

Fall in Alaska
Blue skied beauty

Right?

Enter: Gamble #2: Rescheduling…Again

As we cruised through the following weekend, post reschedule, the weekend we would have been in the backcountry originally, the weather showed up in style. It was GORGEOUS. T-shirt weather mixed with the leaves turning made for an epic precursor to Fall. Everyone reveled in the good luck we were having. What weather!

The Monday after that weekend everything changed.

Fall in Alaska
Cold and dreary but…beautiful

We awoke to Fall. The sky was overcast and cold, and the temperature was in the 20’s. As Leto and I took our morning constitutional, we looked into the mountains.

McCarthy, Alaska
Weeks later, still snow

Snow.

A lot of snow.

Oh.

The gloomy week continued and as the trip grew nearer, we had a gamble to make: we could go into the backcountry and risk getting stuck or we could cancel our trip until next year.

Cancelling Pros:
1. Next year, we could go earlier in the summer with (potentially) warmer weather
2. We could harvest our garden which, given the current weather conditions, was unlikely to last through the weekend and greet us upon our return
3. We wouldn’t risk missing extra work (more than we could really budget for)
4. We essentially live in the backcountry, so even without a plane, we could get out into the wilderness on our own. This, however, is more likely in Winter though, which means temperatures far colder than Fall weather. But…I’d done it before!

Cancelling Cons:
1. Not being in the backcountry
2. Waiting an entire year to get into a plane and go in the backcountry
3. Feeling like we “never do anything”
4. Staying home and not getting that backcountry release one can only feel when phones are off and all is quiet

Come Wednesday of the week we were finally set to depart, the forecast gave us nothing. It was dark and cold and the predictions were about 50/50 cold with sun to colder with snow. After a dinner sit down we decided to call it: The backcountry would have to wait until next year. Having worked on our garden since March, and trying to stay true to our aim to live better off the land, we would have been devastated to come home to a spoiled crop. And, although there’s nothing quite like the backcountry, we did have one trick up our sleeve:

Long Lake

You see, this Spring we did something crazy. We bought 21 acres of raw land, 3 seasons sight unseen.

Long Lake, Alaska
Thanks for leading the way!

What does that mean? The Chief and I trudged about the property for a month in the heart of Winter. Snowshoeing in hip deep snow to create trails to discover the property lines of the different lots and choose which would be ours.

Alaskan couple
The day we found our lots

We ended up with two and come this Spring, we saw them for the first time in Spring. Come this Summer, we saw them for the first time in Summer. Come this past weekend, we finally saw our property in Fall. Finally, all four seasons, sight quite seen.

The property sits across The Road from Long Lake, a place that has always held a special place in my heart since I arrived. It was, in fact, the first place I ever stayed in our area and it had me from my first mosquito fleeing boat ride across it. I never dreamed we’d actually be able to live there but The Chief and I had always hoped, deep down, that someday it might work out and then…it did.

Alaskan Malamute puppy
Leto, hanging off the cliff-edge at the back of the property. Chitina River below


So, no, we didn’t go into the backcountry last weekend. On Wednesday we decided to cancel and guess what?! Come Thursday morning, the sun was shining bright as ever, the birds were singing and though crisp, the day was “warm”. The night and day shift in weather continued into the weekend and trust me, I doubted my gambling abilities, even going so far as to try to ruin the first few hours of our first day off together by drowning in self-doubt. Still, every time I looked up to the mountains, with its steady accumulation of snow, and down to our garden that lasted just until Saturday morning, when we harvested the last bits, I knew we had made the right choice.

Gardening in Alaska
Rainbow carrots!

To gather some of the backcountry vibe we were so desperately in need of, we turned off our phones for the weekend for the first time in months (hence the lack of photos). We spent the weekend pickling the vegetables from our garden. Carrots and zucchini and cucumbers found their way into jars and basil was hung to dry and set aside with carrot tops for pesto. The tomato plants with their fruit still green, were cut down and brought into the house to ripen on the vine and the last wild Alaskan medicinal herbs that grace our property found their way into tinctures and oils and onto drying racks.

Calendula oil
Calendula oil

It was a tidying up, a recommitment to our base values.

Pickling
Pickles, baby!

Then, it was adventure time. First, a hike out to The Toe of the glacier and then, a night at the property.

Toe of the Glacier, Alaska
Leto at The Toe a few weeks before, chasing a duck in the glacial lake

Being on the property felt magical. The Chief cut down the first trees ever, we started working on our trail and we had our first fire. We spent the night under the stars (it’s Fall, y’all and stars are back!), listening to howling coyotes and hooting owls. By dawn, it had started to rain and we threw on the tent fly, scooped up our Leto and cuddled into our family nest, cozy, safe and sound.

The next day, our one year wedding anniversary, we packed up and headed homeward. We spent the day unpacking and tidying, reading and napping. Then, as the night closed in, we 4-wheelered down to our somehow still standing wedding arch and toasted to a wonderful year together.

Wedding arch
The arch. Thank you, again MT

Our first year of marriage. As we had done during our wedding ceremony, we made vows to one another and promises born from the lessons we’d learned in the year past. Then, as we had done after our wedding ceremony, we walked down to the river, found a rock along the way and hollered our wishes as we threw the rocks in to the icy waters below.

As I tossed in my rock, I looked up to the snow-covered mountains and felt that, for once in my life, I’d made the right gamble. The biggest gamble of them all. I’d unknowingly gambled on Alaska and in it, I found the love I had never dared to dream of. Just like the weather, there have been moments to test me, to make me question myself but always I come back to here, back to you. With all of my heart, thank you to Alaska and to The Chief for gambling on me and helping me to see I’m right where I need to be.

Wedding in Alaska
Still my favorite photo ever


With love,

from Alaska

Fall in McCarthy, AK



P.S. What has been your favorite gamble?

Lavaterra flowers

How Does Your Garden Grow?

I’ll admit it, I’m hell-bent on patterns.

“Patterns?” You ask? Yes, dear friend. Patterns. And no, not the plaid and houndstooth of the world. No, no, no. Patterns! You know, the type of patterns that aren’t actually patterns at all but rather one time happenings we aim to replicate into eternity!

Mustard greens
Hello, mustard leaf hearts.

Those “patterns”

For example, The Chief and I have a really nice evening. We happen to have meatloaf for dinner. It happens to be Monday and suddenly…poof! Meatloaf Mondays are born. That kind of “this was good, may it always be so” type of pattern. I’m always trying to sell The Chief unsolicited tickets to my patterned events: Sunday Strolls. Take Out Tuesdays. Sweep Up Saturdays. Chop Wood Wednesdays. It seems I’m a huge fan of “always” and a downright devotee to alliteration.

Meatloaf Mondays
A tradition begins…2018

And perhaps that’s OK, no? A little bit of organization never hurt anyone, right Marie Kondo?

Marie Kondo organizing
Organizing a tiny house is best down out of doors but…Winter was coming.

But…

In my search for continuity, I seem to “find” patterns everywhere, even where they don’t exist.

So last year, when I had a downright banner year in the garden, I assumed (read: decided) that was how the garden would go from there on out. Perfectly.

All the warning signs that I was experiencing pattern blindness were there. Some of the best gardeners I know had quite difficult years last year due to pests or pole vaulting moose or the reason scariest of them all: the unknown. Eek! Still, despite seeing the ebb and the flow in even the best gardeners, this emerging seedling of a green thumb looked at my beautiful brassica bounty and assumed it would always be so.

Giant cabbages Alaska
Cabbage bounty, 2019


Clearly, I’m not winning any Best at Living in the Here and Now awards.

As the season came to an end and I did my best to put up what I’d grown and as the snow came, I tucked in the garden until next year.

This year.

The year that should have been just as good as last year. No, better!

Right?

Right?!

Gardening in Alaska 2019
August 21st, 2019. Jungle greens.



I get attached to “patterns” even when they’ve yet to begin, even when their outcome is unlikely.

Yet sometimes patterns pan out, like seeing the same first flower every year, year after year, once the snow starts to melt:

Anenome flower, Alaska
2019
Anenome bloom, spring in Alaska
2020. Same nail polish too, since 2008. Creature of habit, much?


I “see” a pattern and decide it’s a downright guarantee and while that’s totes adorbs and all, it turns out that even though I can apply mandatory patterns regarding food consumption or chores to myself, applying those patterns to others doesn’t go so hot. Especially when that other is Mother Earth. Mama don’t play that game.

Or does she?

If you’re still wondering, I have photographic proof that she, in fact, does not.

Gardening in Alaska 2020
August 21st, 2020


My cabbages that grew big as beach balls last year seemed not to have gotten their return tickets to 2020. This year’s cabbages have made no suggestion that they might decide to head up, lounging instead as small to medium leaves acting as shields for more delicate crops in our rainy year. In fact, the largest cabbage I have in my garden to date is one I threw in the compost last year that somehow overwintered and came back to life as a triplet. I kid you not.

Cabbage triplets
Hello Alaska State Fair! Sign this big beauty up for the competition!

Cabbage gardening Alaska
…just kidding! Perspective is everything, eh?

So, I stand corrected: one cabbage got a return ticket this year and petite as she is, she’s putting all her leggy, leafy brethren to shame.

Huge cabbages, Alaska
2020. A lot more cabbage, but one less ring.

So, clearly, this year, the year to beat the banner year has been a bit of a dud in some ways. Certainly, it started out with a thud. I started my seeds early, earlier than I ever had in order to get a jump on things. The world was (is?) falling apart (yet never fear, here are some tips to wait out the apocalypse) as we know it and food shortages seemed to loom in our future. Being a “mere” 8 hours from the nearest large grocery store, I hopped to it. I would provide for our family for the summer and the following months to come.

My seeds had another idea. Since people were running about all Henny Penny and seeds were bought up faster than you can say “The sky is falling!”, I recycled them from the year before. Normally, a girlfriend and I share an annual seed order because we are thrifty like that but this year, the seed stores were low and shipping times were prohibitive so we opted to simply reuse last year’s pups. Big mistake?

Maybe.

Gardening starts
1 for 6 in the first row, 2 for 3 in the second, 0 for 3 in the third. Not the best stats.


Or maybe the problem was that the soil was bunk or the trays had a funk or maybe 2020 got wind of our plans and decided to throw her doomsday fancy footwork into the show. Either way, germination wasn’t exactly my strong suit this year. I may not be a pro but I’ve been consistently able to get the finicky Delphinium to germinate so to not be able to pop up a nasturtium, welcome some kale or greet a snap pea? That was weird.

My girlfriend experienced similarly lackluster results with flowers and veggies that were equally old hat to her. A few weeks later, I went for another round, and luckily some of those who hadn’t thrived earlier popped into play. I had the basics and the garden would go on.

The spring sunshine, however, would not. We’ve had the rainiest, coldest summer I’ve ever known anywhere. Like Hawaii, we’ve had afternoon showers almost daily. Unlike Hawaii, we didn’t experience much in terms of t-shirt weather until July, and now, come August, we are back to winter layers that never even had the chance to get put into storage. So, needless to say, the slow start of the seedlings never found a helping hand in the weather and certain things show it.

Failed gardening starts
Cauliflower without a crown.


While others thrive.

Lavaterra
The first bloom of the year: Lavaterra from seed.


Though I may not be rich in sauerkraut from cabbages this winter, we will certainly have squash goodness galore. While my arugula itch never got scratched this summer, beautiful heads of red, butter and romaine lettuce led the charge into the salad bowl. Despite not a single snap pea coming to fruition, the climbing fence The Chief fashioned for me holds a plethora of sweet peas whose scent transports me every time I breathe it in. And further developments like the new stacking boxes he fashioned promise potatoes aplenty.

Pea and bean trellis
Sweet pea and snake bean city
Sweet peas
The sweetness
Potato boxes
Stackin’ taters 3 feet high now

And while doubles were the wildest combo I’d ever seen my zucchini flowers produce, I was lucky enough to see triplets this year!

Conjoined triplet zucchini flowers
We got trips!

So, how does my garden grow?
Differently.
Beautifully.
In a way all its own.

Greenhouse Alaska
Welcome to the jungle. We’ve got squash and games.


Patterns, while consistent and trustworthy, leave little room for the here and now. I’m certainly not keen to give up some of them (Meatloaf Mondays forever. If you haven’t had meatloaf since the 80’s, I implore you to give it a revamp and another try. Thank me later) but I think, I hope I can make a little more room for the abstract to come and share its wisdom as well. Despite learning the lesson that everything changes (even your face time and time again (though hopefully not ever again in that manner ever), it’s still a hard one for me to accept. Yet, when I take a step back to truly see what change reveals, it turns out the picture is uniquely beautiful, every time.

Livingstone Daisy
Daisy Livingstone, I presume? How cool are those leaves?!

It may not have been a replication of last year but this year’s garden was drop-dead gorgeous and super productive in so many other ways. The sun didn’t shine into the 80’s every day like it did last year but perhaps we were better off without the wildness a relentless midnight glow can bring. I didn’t buy a single flower this year, as I always have in the past and hoped my few starts would brighten up the place. It’s been the best flower year yet.

Nemesia
Nemesia from seed. Happiness embodied.

The garden didn’t produce in the same way as last year but it did in so many other ways and because the garden took longer to take off, I’ve found myself foraging more in the bounty that surrounds us. Picking fireweed blossoms and wild raspberries, mint, chamomile, yarrow, and more in our yard. Discovering the joy of Orange Delicious mushrooms, thanks to the teachings of a friend.

Orange delicious polenta bake
Zucchini & Orange Delicious baked polenta

Moving away from the old made room for discovering the new, perfectly imperfect as it is.

A year’s passed and life has sure has changed. Last year I was up to my eyeballs in cabbage and greens. This year I find myself a zucchini queen. Last year I was prepping for a wedding, this year, an anniversary. Imagine that. Change. Despite the feelings of safety a pattern might elicit, trying to force it to stay finds us ripping at the seams. So, I’ll let go…

a little.

With love,

from Alaska

Calendula Alaska
Even though only one Calendula seed came to be, she certainly made up for the others that didn’t! Wild child in orange.


P.S. How does your garden grow?

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P.P.S



How to Sell a Couch in Alaska

It was a summer Saturday like any other: we had things to do.

Weekends around here have been a little more chores and responsibility than chill and rejuvenate so when last Saturday rolled around, out of bed we rolled to an alarm, bright and early, though bushy-tailed we were not. Still, a bit of cheer filled our faces because the day ahead of us held a little pot of gold at the end of the responsibility rainbow: camping.

Camping in Alaska
The last real camping trip…in May.


The responsibility rainbow however, began with selling our couch. Seems easy enough, right? Ah, I thought so too. I must have forgotten we live in the woods where everything takes thrice as long and each situation is game to deal up unexpected cards to boot. Still, the plot that day was simple: as soon as we met up with the couple driving in to buy our couch, we were off to camp at The Lake.

Long Lake, Alaska
Gorgeouso!


The journey to selling the couch however, had already been an interesting one so we didn’t count our chicken plans before they’d hatched.

Who am I kidding, of course we did!

So there we were, running around as fast as kids post birthday cake, getting all of our chores done (laundry, water, dishes, etc.) when we got the call: there’d been trouble on The Road.

McCarthy Road, Alaska
First summer. First time getting stranded on The Road


Our road here is notorious for being rough on cars but this wasn’t even a problem to blame on the bumpy 60 miles of dirt madness. This time, the couple’s transmission had blown and they were only half-way down The Road.

Wait…”this time”?

You see, this here couch transaction had been in the works for over a month. Schedules hadn’t aligned and travel out here is tricky. With an 8-hour round-trip from their home to ours, the interested couple couldn’t exactly pop on over to see if they wanted it. Thankfully, through the magic of the interwebs, we were able to send pictures of the couch from every which way (posing. Posing with my arm) and they were certain it was their dream couch. Now, we just had to figure out how to get it to them.

Alaskan Malamute
Doggie dream couch


Both of them are teachers in the nearby (read: 3-4 hours away) districts and with the school season fast-approaching, we only had a few weeks to make it happen. So, three weeks ago, they had headed our way and…car trouble round one: something had malfunctioned in their vehicle, sending them back to Town. Still, all repaired up and ready to go, they had opted to give the couch a round two last weekend and…bam! Transmission.

Things weren’t looking good for this transaction.

Thankfully, Alaskan magic sent one of the wife’s prior students down The Road at just the right time and he gave them a lift to our town while we debated what to do. Their truck wasn’t going anywhere anytime fast. The reality was, they needed a ride home.

The end of the rainbow was getting farther away.

We decided we can’t just live in Alaska and not do the Alaskan thing and so we offered to drive them and our couch home. Still, first thing was first: getting the couch out of our tiny cabin.

[Sidenote: why oh why are we selling a perfectly good couch we bought less than a year ago? This pint-size princess, as my Dad used to call me, was a bit too pint-sized. My feet couldn’t reach the floor and so, despite my best attempts with a barrage of pillows arranged every which way, the couch and my back were not best friends and so, she had to go.]

Ok, back to it: getting the couch out.

Off-grid living in Alaska
Which reminded me a lot of this epic maneuver: navigating the Ramp of Doom with our new oven. Year One.


We whistled the “I need help with a household project” whistle (just kidding, we called them on telephones) and our neighborhood besties came to our aid. First, we’d have to maneuver the couch out of the house (which meant completely rearranging everything to make enough room to move). Then we’d have to load it in the truck (which meant taking apart the Ramp of Doom railing). Then we’d have to put back on the camper shell we’d taken off for fishing earlier this Summer (which meant more heavy lifting).

Just then, it started to rain.

Oh joy.

Skeptical Malamute puppy
Say what? Not impressed.


I rearranged the house while The Chief disassembled the railing on the Ramp of Doom enough that we could lower the couch from the house down into a huge plant of blooming Mugwort rather than try to pivot on the treacherous incline. The friend at the Mugwort end was apparently allergic and within minutes, his eyes were red and running. So, basically, it was going perfectly. Rain, allergies, awkward movements, breaking apart our house. A typical furniture move in AK.

Eventually, the couch was tied up snug as a bug in a rug in burrito tarps, away from the threat of rain in the bed of the truck with the camper on (thanks to The Chief’s wiggling in between the camper and the couch in order to secure it. Thanks, honey!) and good thing because we were already late to meet our road trippin buddies!

What an odd way to meet new people (“Hi! Do you have masks? Here’s one you can use!”) but lucky for us, they were awesome and lucky for me, my husband is a talker. I was pooped from an overly social week (which could mean seeing 6 people instead of my normal 3-5) and so appreciated being able to sit back and ask a few questions but mainly just listen for the 4-hour escapade. The husband in the couple was the same way. Opposites attract.

The rain gave up a little when we finally arrived at their house and unloaded the couch. Settled safely in its new home, we bid our adieus, sanitized and waved a farewell to our masks, at least for a little while. Juju needed some snacks! 4 hours without one? I was basically shriveling up.

Off-grid shopping list
The typical “Which kind of cheese do you want me to grab you?” shot for friends.


The drive gave us an excuse to grab a few fresh goodies (though I got so in Get Home Mode that I forgot to even buy a treat!) and a chance to just catch up. With The Chief’s maniacal work schedule this summer (who am I kidding, EVERY summer), we hadn’t really seen one another other than early mornings and rushed evenings aiming to make our prescribed bedtimes. We were able to finally hold the space for talks we needed and the time we needed together to simply unwind. Sure, it wasn’t camping but it was a place and a time reserved only for us and it was a treat. The day had been perfectly Alaskan: completely off-course and exactly what we needed. Exactly what we needed in order to say:

Tomorrow, we do nothing.

I can’t remember the last time we hadn’t woken to an alarm, weekend or weekday alike but last Sunday, we did. Even amidst a pandemic, we still find ourselves incredibly busy with responsibilities to the fire department and our home but that day, the only responsibility was: nothing.

Firewise, Alaska
Hauling brush in the rain? Not this Sunday!


We stayed in bed until the afternoon, drinking coffee and reading books (my absolute favorite. Nothing beats a Sunday like that).

Frida Kahlo
Our bedside companions: Frida & Sweet Pea blossoms



When we finally got up, we simply moved to our “nest” on the ground The Chief and I fashioned out of all of our camping gear.

Lovenest
Patterns, anyone?


What? Hadn’t you prepared and bought another couch for when you sold yours?

Nope.

The transaction had seemed so up in the air I hadn’t really ever known if it would actually happen. So, we sat in our little nest, cozier than we ever were on the couch with our little Leto joining the snuggle puddle, the perfect cherry on top of a do nothing Sunday.

Eventually, (aka hopefully this week while I’m in Anchorage. Eek!), we will find a new couch. Until then, it’s the nest and the reminder it provides: remember to rest.

Cheers to the unexpected. I guess its best to celebrate her, as she’ll show up to your party either way.

With love (and numb buns),

from Alaska

Alaskan Malamute and Dad
Au revoir, cuddle couch.

Fishing Confessions

Confession: I have never been fishing in Alaska.

It’s a gasp inducing revelation, I know. Catch your breath, in and out. You’re going to be OK.

I come from fishing stock, a family where Alaskan salmon was so plentiful that towards Summer’s end, it became a bit more of a job than a joy to eat. Yes, I know how that sounds but as a kiddo, I didn’t totally appreciate the pink perfection of omega-filled goodness. I just saw filets for days and days and longed for a little variation.

Then, I grew up.

(more…)
Beneath the Borealis, The Beauty Pendulum, 06-01-20, Women of Alaska

The Pendulum

“Should I bring a hairdryer, or do you have one there I could use?”

This was the first of many faux pauxs I made in preparing for my initial endeavor into the woods of Alaska. It was met with a laugh from my girlfriend and an “I’m not so sure my inverter could even handle a hairdryer.”

So, that’s a “no”?

Don’t bring one?

And you’re sure you don’t have one?

No dryer.

I had no frame of reference for how silly of a question that was at the time. Despite the fact that my hairdryer-less girlfriend had told me multiple times that her only power source was a generator, the off-grid reality just hadn’t hit me yet. It seems I simply saw the on-grid amenities my life in California afforded me coming along on my adventure into Alaska.

My hair would be dry.

Cocktails would have ice.

Showers would be long and luxurious.

Right?

Nope.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Beauty Pendulum, 06-01-20, Alaskan cocktail ice

Harvest your cocktail ice here, friends!

 

I knew some things would be different. I knew it was more laid back, more casual. I knew my girlfriend told me to only pack hiking clothes, a stark change to my normal heeled getup. I also knew, no matter how formal or informal the town was itself, I myself had the opportunity to show up as whatever me I wanted to be. I looked forward to the opportunity while simultaneously was a bit terrified to showcase my new makeup-less look.

Did I still pack makeup? Yep.

Did I get my hair done before going?

Yesiree!

Hmmm…

Still, in all honestly, before unexpectedly moving to the woods I thought that I was relatively low-maintenance. I actually hated blow-drying my hair but since living in Italy where one of my classmates informed me that I was called Lei Con I Capelli Sempre Tutti Bagnati (essentially, that chick who always has wet hair) I felt that I needed to try a little harder. In perennially put-together Italy, it was an indicator of poor self-care and sloppy timing (I also was often sick in my early 20’s too…coincidence?). It resonated with me.

And so, twice a week I would try to stay cool while I sweated under the obnoxious blowing heat of a hairdryer. Because I was not a fan but did it anyway (despite the fact that I rarely brushed my hair in between), because I wore some but not a ton of makeup every day, I still thought that I was low-maintenance.

Enter: Alaska.

Come as you are.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Beauty Pendulum, 06-01-20, Women of Alaska

No makeup mornings. Trying it out, with trepidation.

 

If Italy is the overbearing parent who cares just a little too much what you look like, Alaska is the fun aunt or uncle who just lets you play in the mud. So, for the most part, I’ve spent the last 5 years getting dirty instead of gussying up, wearing overalls and work clothes and jeans and sweatshirts with ponytails or braids instead of heels with fashionable versus functional fabrics with my hair in curls.

In California, despite the fact that I didn’t brush my hair much, I rarely stepped out without it at least looking “done”.

Every

Freakin’

Day.

Going to the gym?

Hair was done.

Grocery?

Done.

Lazing around the house?

Pretty much done (ish).

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Beauty Pendulum, 06-01-20, California

My daily driver.

 

So, when I moved to Alaska, where turning on a hairdryer could have blown up our inverter, my hair became a lot more un-done and I didn’t miss it one bit. Sometimes I brushed it, most days I didn’t, and away I went with 15-60 minutes more in my day than I would have had in California. Sometimes I’d twist it back into a bun to dry to give myself some beachy waves or pull it back into a ‘do of sorts but mostly, it roamed free or in a ponytail.

It took me two years and a little more familiarity with (and upgrades to) our power system to realize that, while a blowdryer was probably out of the question (and even if not, having dropped the habit, I had zero interest in picking it up again), a curling iron which drew little power could still take a few tussles with my tresses, if I wanted.

I used it once before it broke and I didn’t think about it again until this last year when I realized that since I was doing my hair for our wedding I would probably need to replace it. It took me 10 minutes and held through to the next day. I loved it. It was bouncy and celebratory. Then this Winter when we took our 6-month celebration photos in the snow, I pulled it out again. Another 10-minutes and voila! Fancy tresses.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Beauty Pendulum, 06-01-20, Alaskan Wedding

Move over, Mom.

 

It planted a seed, it seems because recently I’ve started thinking: I miss having a ‘do to do.

Throughout my 20’s I had countless variations on cuts and colors and suddenly, mid-quarantine (hmm…connection?) I started to feel like my long style-less locks were a little lackluster. Maybe I’d start dyeing my hair black again?

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Beauty Pendulum, 06-01-20, Patrick Dempsey

Black ‘do and Dempsey.

 

Hmm…that’s a commitment. Maybe brown? At a minimum I needed some layers, right?

Out came the scissors (insert extremely sinister background music).

I was tired of my nearly down to my buns one length hair. It had been with me through so much in the past few years and like The Chief (who asked me to chop off his shoulder-length locks this Winter), I felt the need for a shift.

Chop to it, little lady!

The first home haircut round went well but I ended up with a slight mullet.

So, I did what every good quarantiner did these past months and consulted YouTube (sinister music gets louder).

I settled on a couple videos on the same variation: the unicorn approach (hint: approach this mystical beast with caution. She’s not all sparkles and magic). Should I have settled on one video and one technique?

Yes!

Did I?

Nope. Two different techniques to one approach.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Beauty Pendulum, 06-01-20, Quarantine haircut

Watch the horn!

 

It seems this is how I approach most things. When searching for recipes I lookup about 5 variations and make one of my own combination depending on what we have available. This haircut would be no different. Unfortunately, I forgot that while most of my recipes come out “mmm mmm good”, everyone once in a while they’re a little more “meh”. Maybe I didn’t forget but I certainly ignored this fact.

One might say this is where the trouble started. One would be right.

You know when you go to the salon and your hair looks dope-tastic-fabuloso-put-me-in-a-magazine-straighaway right out the gate?! You and your new ‘do float out of the salon, Tresemme reps at your heels.

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Beauty Pendulum, 06-01-20, Quarantine Haircut Alaska

I thought it went well…at first.

 

Then a day or so later the glow of the salon is gone and you’re stuck with a ‘do you actually have to do yourself that looks a little less stellar and more stale? It’s like buyer’s remorse…on your head.

In combining the two unicorn styles (double unicorn?! That’s even better than a double rainbow!) something went awry.

Surprised?

The shortcut that was supposed to cut off length while simultaneously making perfect layers. I came out the rainbow’s end with some serious layers and pretty much zero relief in length (think layers like steps in a large staircase or even better, multiple bowl cuts in succession). It was glorious.

Actually, it looked pretty darn good at first, I had that salon de Julia glow going.

Then, I washed it.

Huge mistake.

The “layers” were unveiled and out came the truth: another mullet! This time, uneven to boot! Kind of like multiple mullets…

Now, I will say that when I lived in Italy nearly 15 years ago, the long mullet (which I am currently rocking) was in fashion and in fashion years, it seems about time that it would have finally made it’s way to Alaska (if we were a phone, we’d be a flip phone in terms of what gets here when) so…maybe I was just in time?

Nah.

I’ve spent the past month with a ding dong ‘do and some days it’s really bothered me. Some days I could care less. Some days, most days, it’s somewhere in between. I’ve gone through every iteration of change from how to fix it to absolutely hating it to liking it. I’ve decided on fixes (Should I just chop it all off? Should I attempt another go? Perhaps just some length this time. Maybe I should get bangs again?) and decided to wait. I’ve felt everything from remorse at my hasty chop job to total apathy about anything hair related.

I’ve gone from one extreme to the other, not only in the last month but in my lifetime. I’ve aimed to love the inside and care less about the outside and then watched myself struggle to maintain that as the outside changed. In the ups and downs and backs and forth, however, I did realize something: my self-love pendulum has finally started to swing a little more consistently closer to the middle than ever before, I just needed the extremes to find out. Before I moved here, I felt trapped by keeping up an image, I was far to one extreme. When I moved to Alaska, I felt like I shouldn’t care at all and sometimes faced ridicule if it seemed like I did (“why are you wearing lipstick?! Is that seriously mascara?!”. Yaaas boo, it is.) that made me second guess myself. The other extreme.

Spiffed up in CA, spiffed up in AK:

 

Now?

I’m somewhere in the middle, somewhere it seems a lot of us might live.

I’ve had women in Alaska ask if they could borrow my lipstick upon seeing me wearing it out one night or comment things like “I sometimes want to wear mascara too but don’t want to catch guff for it”. I hear ya, sister. I’ve also had friends in “the real world” who wished that they didn’t feel (as I did) like they had to put on a “face” every day. It’s ok to want to glam up or glam down. Your beauty throttle is up to you, boo.

I do care what I look like but I care less and I love myself more than I used to, and that’s something. I’m accepting that I do like a little spiff up now and then but I don’t weigh my worth by it anymore. I’m low maintenance to a degree, to my degree. My degree, that will pounce in a mud puddle all day long, but maybe have nail polish on while doing it. That’s me.

We can get purty, we can get dirty, we can find ourselves somewhere in between. It’s all just an outer shell to the inner you, but there’s no need to apologize if you want to revamp that shell from time to time, nor are you required to do so.

So, perhaps I’ll keep trying at the spiff up and pick up the scissors to try my hand again someday soon. Better yet, maybe I’ll finally get to see a professional (and to any stylist reading this, I offer you my sincerest apologies. To my California stylist, my hair and I miss you dearly) to help undo what I’ve done. Or…maybe I’ll just wait it out. Let the sun kiss my locks, let time grow them out, let the pendulum swing.

 

Winter pendulum, Summer pendulum.

 

 

It all depends on which wild hairs I get and which I listen to…the ones who chant “chop, chop, chop” sure have gotten louder while writing this post. The most important voice though, always, is the one that says “I love you, just as you are”. Slowly but steadily, I’m learning to listen.

With love (and currently, no makeup and a mullet),

From Alaska

 

Beneath the Borealis, The Beauty Pendulum, 06-01-20, Alaskan Malamute

Even Leto likes a new ‘do occasionally. He calls this one Grass Stripes.

 

What about you? Where does your pendulum fall? Got a quarantine cut or story to share? Share on, hair sisters and brothers, in the comments below πŸ‘‡

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