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Lessons Learned…and then Forgotten: Cauliflower Strikes Again

Oops, Britney Spears, I did it again.

Why in the world I tried after my last debacle, I’m not sure.

Did I think my skin had changed? Or perhaps that it was merely a fluke?

Well, it seems that yes, I did think those things. I must have.

Because…

 

I gave myself cauliflower armpits again.

 

Again!

Oops…

You see, since that post last year, things have changed a bit. That little hair removal flub had me off waxing for a while. I quit cold turkey (after only two forays into the wily world of waxing). My home salon was put on pause, eyebrows aside and I went back to my boy blade and shaving. But then, Winter got the better of me. I was intrigued again and I started the process. I grew out my little hairs and rrrrrrriiiiiiiip! Out they came.

And off I was in a new romance with muslin cloth strips and allergen-free water-soluble wax. As I’ve said, taking a shower here is no easy task and so unless you want to stand naked and shave every morning in a birdbath (in the shape of a tote), you’re not going to have much consistency and you know what I’ve come to realize?

I want consistency.

I love soft legs.

I’ve battled back and forth with why “Am I not enough of a feminist to wear my leg hair with pride?” until I realized that that little quandry was ridiculous. I think I’m plenty full of feminism and I’ve rocked a serious sweater on my gams if that’s something that you think proves it (it’s not) but in all honesty, I just don’t like it as much.

In a relationship with a furry man like I am, I’ll always be the smoother of the two of us but I realized that I don’t just want the smoother title. Besides, being smoother than him is like saying I’m an excellent runner simply because I’m faster than a turtle.

 

 

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Bigfoot!? Oh, no just a hairy Chief man.

 

 

There’s no comparison.

Nope, I didn’t want to just be smoother. I wanted my uber soft legs back. And so, my waxing romance has been going strong, you may or may not be happy to know. I’ve even gotten to the point where I can hold a conversation while doing it. Painful? Mmmm, a little but it doesn’t really bother me. It’s so satisfying.

My goodness I’m starting to sound a bit obsessed, eh? Well, don’t worry, a mishap was bound to happen, right?

It did.

A little bit of laziness came in. The thing is, the waxing that worked for me and my super sensitive skin takes a while. It has to heat up in water in a pot on the stove until it’s just the right consistency (the I Won’t Give You Third Degree Burn Consistency, preferably) and then, typically about half-way through I have to heat it up again, sometimes twice. It’s messy and although it’s water soluble, that doesn’t mean that it’s a breeze to get off the floor or out of my clothing or my non-waxing hair. And then, since it’s reusable (the strips are at least, it’s not magical self-regenerating wax, not yet at least) there’s the whole process of cleaning the strips.

The whole shebang last for hours and in the woods, where everything takes three times as long as it should anyways, the romance I’d had was starting to putter out.

With Summer’s arrival seemingly overnight and a month since my last appointment at Spa de Juju it was time.

Time for the perfect storm apparently.

You see, my girlfriend asked to borrow my wax since she was out and since I still was rocking the leg sweaters with no free day ahead of me to book an appointment with myself I figured I’d just go ahead and give her mine and order more. Some day I’d have time and then, it was back to the old Bic for a while until the manic time warp of Summer was over.

 

 

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and the first bloom of River Beauty tells me that will be a while…

 

 

But then, I got leg envy. I brought the wax to Town for her but we never connected and everytime I looked at it and then looked down at my leggies I wanted to act. But the wax was for her, I couldn’t take it back and so I tried the next “best” thing.

I used the fast and easy, ready made Cauliflower Armpit Inducing Strips from last year (that should have already been at my other girlfriend’s house since I had said that I’d give them to her last year, tucked away safe from my tempted self). I did one strip on my leg and waited a day and it was fine.

And so, I went for it.

I had the waxing bug where you just get ready to get it over with, like waiting to jump out of a tree on a rope swing. You just have to go for it. I was going for it, full backflip into the water and all.

And…it was amazing! I took a break from work and it was done in 30 minutes, no heating or reheating or sticky drops all over the floor and when I was done, it all went bye-bye into the trash.

I was feeling very proud and very metropolitan (and slightly guilty of being wasteful).

Until this morning.

You see, the mosquitos are out in full force. They are fast and ruthless and can keep up with me even at a fast clip. They don’t mess around. And so when I awoke this morning to an itchy armpit I knew immediately who the culprit was: dang mosquitos!

I heard them buzzing about and whipped out a few karate chop moves (even though they are jerks, I still feel badly plotting murder but it had to be done). Once I’d secured the area I went back to itching. This was a bad one. It felt like my entire armpit was on fire and it hurt more than most bites do and boy was it swelling.

Oh well, back to bed.

It turns out…I was wrong.

It wasn’t a mosquito, it was me.

That whole backflip into the water thing?

Belly flop.

 

 

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Yup. Still allergic. Still sensitive. Still the same old me, just none the wiser.

Even as I was going through the “easy” waxing and giggling to myself at how easy it was, I had a sinking feeling as I saw the bumps start to rise. But then, they vanished and off I went on a long (probably agitating) walk to Town followed by a game of Softball.

Whoops!

It seems a lesson learned by me is also a lesson quickly forgotten, as if time is some sort of magician who distorts reality.

And so now, I’m stuck with another round of Cauliflower Armpits. At first I thought it was just the one but no, no, no. How could it be?

 

 

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That look says it all

 

 

Perhaps, in my fourth year, I’ll learn. I wont’ commit the foibles of my freshman, sophomore and junior Summers. I’ll be a senior, big man on campus and perhaps, when I high-five people they won’t have to stare into the abyss that is a Cauliflower Armpit.

Perhaps.

We played a show on Saturday and despite the threat of rain and the chill that came with it, I was onstage with little more than a tank top because of the pain my pits were giving me. So I tried to give them air (and tried not to frighten the crowd with my angy armpits).

I think, now that I look back that a little part of me dismissed the irritation last year as being caused by shaving afterwards (I wasn’t very good at the whole waxing thing back then and had given up after a small effort) and another little mischevious part of me planned to see if that was true.

Well, wasn’t that a fun little game to play with myself.

I sure am glad we picked up our plant babies.

Aloe, to the rescue.

Sort of. Really, relief I think is spelled T-I-M-E and as I realize how impatient I am with it, I hope, hope, hope that I will finally learn this lesson, two sets of painful armpits later.

Fingers crossed.

Be safe out there, kiddos and try to remember the lessons you’ve learned, but especially those you’ve forgotten.

Happy home-spa-ing to you!

Ouch.

 

 

 

 

Dogtown, U.S.A

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

she was a dog.

 

 

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Io in the background at the beach in California

 

 

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

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

I had landed in doggie heaven.

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

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

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

Each and every one of them.

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

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

 

 

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C’mon. Let us in.

 

 

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

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

 

 

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And they always get the best seat.

 

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

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

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

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

And then something was.

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

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

 

 

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Outnumbered again.

 

 

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

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

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

She’s family.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

Or had it?

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

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

It was exactly like my Brother had said.

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

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

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

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

More mayhem?

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

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

“Let’s go for it.”

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

And then our alarm went off at 6am.

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

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

“Baby, are you O.K?”

I’m amazing. I feel so amazing.

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

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

I was unbelievably high.

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

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

Huh?

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

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

Now, babe. They used it now.

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

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

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

Costco? High? I thought I might faint.

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

It didn’t.

At first.

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

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

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

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

We weren’t in the gambling mood.

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

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

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

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

My little Road Warrior.

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

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

Road Warriors.

 

 

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

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

Whoops!

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

That’s right.

A plow truck.

Our plow truck?

That remained to be seen.

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

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

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

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

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

The roar of the excavator.

Yup, that’s right.

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

We fell into bed, exhausted and happy yet again.

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

we had 30 people at our house.

My wheels got to turning.

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The Breakdown: A Winter Edition

With an arsenal of two snow machines and household of two people, our Winter transportation situation was looking pretty darn good. We were sitting pretty on two machines that while imperfect, were perfectly fine.

We came home, anxious to ditch four wheels for two skis and ditch them we did, promptly upon our return to Alaska.

That was, until we fell of our high ponies and onto our feet.

And even though I knew not to be surprised, I still was. Actually stunned is more appropriate. Surprised, no. You see, living here, we are used to the breakdown. This place can be hard. Hard on clothes, hard on the body and hard on vehicles. And so, when things fail (which they surely might) you aren’t surprised. You are, however, encouraged by necessity to find the next best option.

This past Summer, both of our trucks failed. Oh joy. Thankfully, we could get pretty much get by without them. They were a help, a treat and apparently too good to be true. Before their demise I often chose to walk instead of drive anyways, but the lack of a choice made me suddenly wish I had one. I took to walking or riding little Bluebell or…riding our new to us four-wheeler (!) while The Chief patrolled with the fire truck. We were both covered, until we weren’t. Without a truck of our own, we were at the mercy of the elements and in a place like Alaska where the weather changes faster than you can say “Look at that thunderhead coming in…” I can’t count how many times I was caught in a downpour.

Oh well.

Time to walk or ride or drive the 4-wheeler a little faster. Shelter awaits at home.

 

And so, it was quite the relief this Winter to come home to a snowglobe like magical land where the roads were covered in 16 inches of snowpack over which it was preferable to travel by snow machine.

And we had two.

Two people.

Two machines.

 

 

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Extra extravagant mail day taking two machines just for the hell of it.

 

 

Too good to be true.

 

The first month was flawless. While both machines had some steering issues (the Polaris I mainly ride takes all the muscle I have to turn and braking? Well, that’s more of a suggestion than a reality. The Tundra The Chief mainly drives has more play in the steering than a Kindergarten class at recess but still, she drove just fine as long as she had a vigilant rider ready to dig her out) we were feeling beyond lucky. The Chief fired up the machines first thing the morning after we arrived. They started right up and he looked like a kid with a Christmas Day toy driving circles around the property making trails for us so we wouldn’t have to trudge through the hip-deep snow to get everywhere.

That was then.

And, in fact, that is now as well, sort of.

But the in between? Well, that’s where the story and the game of Musical Machines, for which we didn’t sign up, begins.

 

It was a sunny day in February amongst a string of solid grey weeks. Those days call to the Locals as if they were summoned with a bullhorn. Get up! Get out! And so, before we had even gotten through our first sip of coffee for the day, the phone started ringing.

River Trip.

Within minutes of the first call, the yard started filling up with willing participants. A few machines were stopping for mail or whatnot on the way over on the other side of The River and so we waited and caffeinated up and packed snacks for a day out on the ice. The plan was to head down The River trail to The Confluence and then head upriver to the wide open wilds of the even Bigger River nearby. It was a scouting mission. No one had gone up yet (that we knew of). Talk turned to years past, predictions and approaches and the excitement and anticipation grew.

The Tundra had been having trouble the week before, stuttering ceaselessly and so badly that The Chief would have to stop every minute or so to turn off the machine and restart it, making his 30 minute drive home from work closer to an hour in the sweet sub-zero temperatures of February in Alaska (I made a lot of stew and other warm hearty meals that week to try to take the chill off of him when he walked through the door). However, after many a discussion and just as much input from others, The Chief thought he had it narrowed down to bad gas. I swear, I heard the term “bad gas” more times in that one week than I have in my entire life. The Chief didn’t mean an odorous situation, he meant water in the gas due to temperature fluctuations but I giggled every time nonetheless. Our friends who filled our yard had brought a gas treatment (ha!) with them to rectify the problem and so, after gassing up and adding treatment the machine started up just fine.

Problem solved.

We were stoked to have the machine back to normal. The problem had been going on for a week already and the frustration was mounting, especially since The Chief had just made his final payment on it. The machine was ours and…suddenly, it didn’t work.

But all of that was behind us now.

The day was calling and soon, everyone was there. The final layer process started. Gloves started going on, face masks and hats and hoods were arranged and lastly, goggles and ear protection. Everyone was suited up and ready to go. The Chief went to start our machine and I jumped on. Amongst the roar of the 7 or so other machines around us, I couldn’t tell what was wrong but I knew it was something as I saw The Chief’s face change from excitement to a furrowed brow. I took off my ear protection to a very particular sound:

Silence.

Our machine was the only one not rumbling.

Oh.

No.

The ready riders were looking around, giving thumbs up or head pats to signal readiness, but slowly word got around via signals. We were grounded.

It wouldn’t start.

Out of nowhere.

Ten minutes earlier, it was fine. Now, nothing.

And so, ten heads came together to try to figure out the latest problem with our problem child machine. Tools came out and cowlings came off. Battery tests were done, inspections completed. Hoping that the battery was simply low due to the constant stopping and starting it had taken to run the machine the week prior and thus, in its weakened state couldn’t power the starter, we got out the gas. We filled the generator and proceeded to lose layers as the cold machine would refuse to start. The Chief pulled and pulled again and again. We traded. I shed layers and took a few turns. Tired out, we traded again. He finally got it started. It died. He started it again. One minute of running. It died again. The next fifteen minutes continued in this fashion until finally, she was purring away. Hot and tired, we then hooked her up to our charger, hoping a simple bit of battery juice would have us up and running in no time. The River Trip was still a reality.

We rotated with the sun, trying to stay in her rays as she moved across the sky, each step bringing us closer to no trip than the last despite how much we wanted to go.

In an hour, the battery read charged but still, nothing.

Words like “the starter” began to get thrown around.

Ruh roh (obviously said in a Scooby Doo voice).

Just hearing that word made dollar signs appear in my eyes. We opted to hope that the battery was in fact reading ready when in fact it was not. We decided to leave the charge on.

 

The sun was starting her final descent and the fervor of the day was dying down but instead of lose the day completely, we decided to all pile onto the working machines that we did have and head down to The River to catch the view and have a snack. Adventure time would come again but for now, it was time to warm up in the sunshine. Despite our attempts to follow the sun, she was an elusive lady, weaving in and out of our grove of Spruce. We were chilled and antsy and so, we headed out for a little bit of adventure in the little bit of day left.

It was gorgeous and the sheer excitement one feels when riding in a group en masse down to The River makes even a short ride feel like an epic adventure.

A few hours later, dark was upon us and as we settled into the cabin, an exhausting list of potential problems for the machine ran through our heads but the word “starter” circled most prominently. We crossed our fingers and cozied up for the night.

The machine, it turns out, cozied up for the month. After further tests and dollar signs that seemed to be multiplying we finally weeded out the problem. It was the starter. We hoped. We waited for the part, praying it would be the one to solve the problem. But, in the mean time, reminded ourselves that we were lucky: we had the Polaris.

The trusty old steed had gotten The Chief through many a Winter and had been the first machine I had ever ridden or drove. We both had a soft spot for her and her very 90’s pink and blue bedazzling. Riding around together we felt nostalgic and grateful to still be up a machine while also down one. Things could be worse.

What did you say?

Things could be worse?

Well, yes, they certainly could!

A few days after the Tundra gave out I was at our neighbors’ house. They were just getting in for the season and we had spent the few days prior breaking trails around their house, first by snowshoe (sidenote: I thought that snowshoeing was some sort of leisurely stroll through the woods. Something people in Norway do with sweet pink cheeks and holiday-ish sweaters to boot. I assumed it was followed by a picnic. Wrong. Very wrong. Within minutes I was shedding layers and still sweating. My whole face was red instead of the adorable blush I had pictured. Leisure? No. Lots of work? Yes. Still fun? Yes.) then by our trusty machine over and over again until they were packed down. The Chief and I had ridden the Polaris over to greet them and grab our goodies. The Chief left to help the guy neighbor and another friend get settled in the driveway while I talked with the lady neighbor, one of my best friends. An hour went by before we realized that, well, an hour had suddenly gone by. The boys still weren’t home. Where were they?

A few minutes later they pulled into the drive. I heard what I thought were the two machines and I saw the right amount of faces to go along with those machine and so I thought nothing of it. That is, until I saw The Chief’s face (it’s pretty telling).

“I swear, I wasn’t doing anything too ridiculous.” (a clear sign, later to be proven by confession, that he in fact had been doing something a little ridiculous, thought not too ridiculous)

“What happened?”

The boys then relayed their tale.

The machine had broken down. Our trusty steed, grounded. The track had essentially been stripped. She couldn’t even get home. She was stranded on the road, he hadn’t even made it all the way to the neighbor’s house. It was dark and cold and our friends had been traveling for months. A rescue mission was in order but not tonight. It would have to wait for the sun to rise.

And rise she did.

We awoke the next day to the realization (which perhaps should have sunk in on our walk home) that we were now completely without any machine and all the while quickly approaching the best month for snow machining: March.

Aside from adventure, our machines are highly utilitarian. Hauling firewood? Machine, please. Hauling goods to and from mail? Machine, please. Going anywhere not nearby or that will carry over into the evening.? Machine, please.

 

 

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Tire delivery! My first time hauling a load behind me.

 

 

Oh, and then there was the slight issue of caretaking.

Yup. As perfect Alaskan timing would have it, we were at the very beginning of a two-week house/pet caretaking stint. The house was a little over a mile away and by snow machine the whole process of turning on lights for the ducks and chickens, collecting eggs, filling their water bowls, cuddling the pup, scooping poop and shoveling fresh snow, feeding him breakfast or dinner and watering him as well, turned into a 40 minute escapade if I was rushing. Without a vehicle, this twice daily early morning and late evening set of tasks was about to be daunting.

I set off on skis that morning, our second day of caretaking. An hour and a half later I returned. It was 20 below that morning. Before I was even awake I was out an into the elements. Thankfully(?) the cold slapped me awake. My eyelashes were clumped into icicles and my hands were so cold that I had broken an egg because I couldn’t feel how tightly I was gripping it. Thankfully, it was so cold that the yolk froze almost immediately and I could break the little yolk-cicles off of my gloves in clumps. What an adventure. And in about 12 hours, we were set to do it all over again. Double days. I felt like I was back in high school soccer hell week.

 

 

 

 

The Chief phoned another neighbor, not yet in Alaska for the season and asked if pretty, please with sugar on top could we use his snow machine until we could get one of ours working? Thankfully, he gave us the green light.

Borrowing things in the lower 48 is one thing. Sure, I’m still careful, but there’s a less ominous feeling around it. Borrowing things out here is completely different. You break it, you buy it still may hold true but when things are hard to come by, waiting for a replacement is less than ideal. With the mechanical luck we were having, I started to feel a bit like we were snow machine cursed and the idea of borrowing our friend’s only machine when he was coming home in just a few short weeks terrified me.

What to do…?

We used the machine delicately and brainstormed for a solution that involved us only and didn’t risk anyone else’s property. In the middle of our mental thunderclouds we remembered: a couple of friends had found an abandoned snow machine a month or so back. They had eventually found its previous owner who wanted nothing to do with it and so, a running snow machine was suddenly in the valley, a sort of traveling workhorse with no home that might fit perfectly in our suddenly abandoned stables.

A few days and some figuring of whom it was we actually needed to contact about the machine, a handshake and an exchange later and we had a running snow machine again! The Chief spent the next few days fixing the beauty up and before long, she was as good as new.

Suddenly, a weight was lifted. We high-fived one another, giddy with disbelief at our seemingly intertwined mix of good and bad fortune.

We had a working snow machine.

The Winter again opened up in front of us. There were rivers to cross, trees to haul and trails to put in. And suddenly, we could go.

 

 

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Testing out the new digs. She’s got what it takes.

 

 

Finally, one day, the part for the Tundra was due on the mail plane. The Chief and a neighbor had gone to mail and, surprise, surprise! It had shown up. I was at the neighbor’s home, visiting with my girlfriend when I heard the good news. I headed home to see how it was going.

We had been invited to a dinner party across the river that night but since I was still nursing a neck injury we had planned on staying home.

Yet, in the excitement of the part arriving and the potential for yet another working machine, I got riled up. “If we can get it working, we will go” I thought to myself as I walked home and…

She fired right up.

The whole debacle took little more than ten minutes and that was mainly to get through the packaging. Within the hour, we were suited up and off to dinner on our newly working machine. The ride home became a bit more treacherous as we tried to navigate the windblown path. Our tracks were almost gone and the night was dark and the trail rutted. The starter had fixed the mechanical mishap but the steering was still off and the ruts tipped us over.

 

 

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Imagine this crunchy top layer from rain then freeze but all covered up with new windblown snow…and pitch black. Surprises everywhere!

 

Thankfully, we made it home all in one piece but something was off.

But the machine was sputtering again.

All that work, a month of trial and error and hundreds of dollars and hair-pulling hours out in below zero temperatures and the initial problem was back.

The next day, The Chief went to inspect it further.

Same thing. Still sputtering.

And so, we were back down to one machine of our own and one to borrow.

Up one, down one. Up two, down to nothing. Two steps forward, one mile back.

It felt like an awkward dance of two stepping that neither of us had signed up for. When people would come by, they would count the machines to see if we were home. 4 was the new magic number. Our front yard was quickly starting to look like a junkyard with the old Polaris towed home, the new Polaris parked proudly, the Tundra in a constant state of undress and the Bravo ready to save us. Our little arsenal was a rag-tag team but hey, it was a team nonetheless.

In all honesty, sure it’s frustrating, but going into the Winter equipped to the nines with a snow machine for each person? What were we thinking? Of course something had to go wrong, we just weren’t prepared for everything to go wrong. Nonetheless, the lesson still rings clear.

Each day the machine starts up, I feel a little sense of relief, but I also know that if it doesn’t, we will be O.K. In the midst of everything, when we were down to zero machines and our neighbor with whom The Chief often goes logging had zero working machines as well, we still were O.K. Another neighbor had offered his machine but not before we had already started planning our neighborhood log hauling party. We would divide into two teams: one team to clear brush and carry back lengths of trees to the houses, the other team would take down the trees. We would Hi-Ho Hi-Ho ourselves in Seven Dwarf fashion back to two full wood sheds together.

Thankfully, the next day the neighbor’s machine magically started working again and he spent the day with The Chief hauling firewood back and forth for our wood shed. Sure, he could have done one tree for him and one for us but instead, he focused on setting us up because he was now the one with the machine.

It’s things like this that make me feel like I truly landed in the right place. There’s no question. Everyone helps. There’s no need for tit for tat tab keeping, heck, there’s rarely even a need to ask. Everyone jumps in. We are family.

Thank goodness for a valley that provides random snow machines and those ready to rescue them, to the kindness of friends and the necessity of neighbor-family. And thank goodness for a place like Alaska that puts it all in perspective. I’m trying not to take it for granted.

Thank you for Winter transport and for the trials. They’ve put it in perspective.

That being said, perspective intact, can we please, please can we have a Summer vehicle this year?

Pretty please? Sugar on top.

Only time (and some serious mechanical fenagling) will tell. Until then, fingers crossed and snow machines savored.

 

 

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// If you don’t already, make sure to follow Beneath the Borealis on instagram. Username: beneaththeborealis

…And make sure to sign up for posts sent straight to your inbox by entering your email at the top of the page. No spam, just posts.

Cheers!

BTB //

 

 

 

The Mail Plane

I love getting mail.

Don’t you?

Real mail.

Not bills.

Not solicitations.

Not catalogs that look like they’ve logged an entire forest for each shipment.

Real mail. Something you see and it immediately draws you elsewhere, to the place and the person whence it came.

Certainly, in our digital age where I can find out what a friend had for breakfast and what her day looks like without even talking to her, the handwritten letter has become outpaced.

Yet there isn’t a single person with whom I’ve exchanged addresses that upon the end of our transaction doesn’t immediately say (insert slight squealing inflection) “Oh, I love receiving mail!”.

And, to add a cherry (Amarena, please) to that sundae let’s talk about the best kind of mail there is (besides, perhaps, a love letter): care packages.

The first time I ever went away to Summer Camp my Mom brought up the now never-ending wormhole of the world of Care Packages (she had no idea what she was getting herself into).

What is this I hear? Special packages? Just for me? It’s not my birthday or Christmas or any other present day. So what is this magical package you speak of and how do I get my hands on one?

My mind did a backflip as I tried to steady myself long enough to answer emphatically that yes, of course I wanted a care package. Care packages would be best, if you get my drift.

I had never heard of such a thing.

But sure enough it was real and apparently a secret everyone else had heard as well. I arrived at camp and not a day later kids were receiving care packages. One day? This seemed excessive. Most of us lived a mere 15 minute drive away from the camp. Big whoop. Get a hold of yourselves. One day. Sheesh!

Yet by day 7, when I received my care package, my tune had changed. I nearly ripped the wrapping open with my teeth I was so excited to see what was inside. And within the box there was (cue the angels singing in the background)…

A Mama Note (always read the note first. Always).

Trinkets that I can’t exactly remember but for which I am grateful, nonetheless.

and…

Brownies!!!

???

Wait, did my Mom just send me brownies? My Mom? The Mom of mine whom offers me dessert in the form of grapes or strawberries (both of which I would accept quite gratefully at the moment), if I am lucky? Sure there was the occasional ice cream treat or dessert birthday or random bag of Milano cookies that I didn’t love but would eat nonetheless. Yet for the most part, we rarely had sweets in the house. Friends would always mention it when they came over. Where are your sweets?

Heck if I know but…we aren’t at home anymore and some sweets just showed up…in my care package.

To my 9-year old self this wasn’t just about the chocolatey goodness, it was about the freedom for my sugar craving self to ration these brownies however I liked. And how did that go? Well straight to Stomach Ache City, of course.

Despite my tumbling tummy, since then, the idea of a care package was the ultimate in extended stays away from home. My Mom once sent me a cake in Washington, D.C. where I was going to school, for my 18th birthday. It was an Almond Torte, the official cake of our birthdays ((we are one week (and I guess also some years) apart and so our birthdays were often a communal celebration)). She shipped it 3,000 miles so that I would have a little piece of home with me.

That’s really what it is…it’s a piece from somewhere else. A piece of you that you send to someone else or perhaps a pieces of them they didn’t know they were missing.

And out here, scarcity makes those pieces even more special.

You see, out here our mail comes in via plane. There’s no mail man or mail woman roaming the backwoods in search of our mailbox because we don’t have one. The mail goes to the nearest Post Office about 4 hours away where we all “have” P.O. Boxes. This creates quite the fuss. Even the Post Office will tell you that our address doesn’t exist. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to coax people into just sending something anyway. I know the address doesn’t come up as real. It’s not. There are no P.O. Boxes in the Post Office for us. Instead, there is our Mail Shack, 4 hours away with our boxes inside.

 

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Weather permitting, mail comes in twice a week.

Twice.

Weather permitting.

In the Winter, those three words mean quite a lot.

This last week we were pummeled by rain and the planes couldn’t fly. Last month snowstorms made flying impossible as well. Now before you judge away, know that these aren’t newbie pilots; these pilots will fly when I will barely even step outside. Yet sometimes even they meet their weather match and find themselves grounded by intuition or regulations or both. And so, we wait. For each day following a non-delivery, they attempt to come in. Sometimes the next day’s skies are Bluebird (I love this expression and I’d never heard it until here. Bright blue skies as far as the eye can see), sometimes they follow suit with the day before. Either way they keep trying until eventually, the next mail day comes.

 

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A panoramic which flips the buildings but still, the airstrip is the big gap in the middle.

And when it does, it’s quite the site to be seen. Sure, The Chief has seen it a million times and so has everyone else and I’m the only one sitting out there, mouth gaping wide in amazement at how this tiny little plane can land in the middle of nowhere in the middle of winter in the middle of a snowfield. I look like the newbie and that’s O.K. because I don’t know if it will ever cease to amaze me.

 

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The runway. Not exactly flat, eh?

 

Down the plane touches and the group of mail-goers gather around the little plane, shouting greetings to the Pilot. Mail Day is quite the social event around here. If you need a familiar face, or just a face other than your own (I’m always surprised by how many people I still don’t know at Mail), Mail is the place to go. Twice a week (ideally) there you are, amongst what feels like a bustling town (let’s use bustling lightly, shall we). The most people I’ve ever seen at mail was the coldest day we’ve had here: 10 people at 30 plus below zero. That was a crowd! Mail was sorted in no time.

Sorted?

Yep.

Remember how there’s no one roaming the woods to deliver the mail? Well there certainly isn’t someone to sort it either

 

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Ooooo! We got one!

 

And so, after the mail is hauled off the plane and everyone grabs a pile to sort and plays bundled up bumper cars with one another as they try to get the mail to its rightful destination and people admire the different packages coming in and call out “Which box is Garrity?” and someone (or a few someones) answer(s) “#62B” and the piles get smaller and the boxes get fuller…well then, mail is done.

Someone watches everyone shuffle out and calls last call for the heater before they switch it off and shut the door. There’s no lock, no key. It’s the people’s place. Soon, everyone starts to pack up their packages and mail into whatever receptacle they carry them home in. Some people haul their treasures behind them as they ski all the way home (I’m always impressed by one woman in particular, she lives out past our house and does the long slog back and forth). Some ride bikes. Some walk. Some drive snow machines with boxes and sleds for goodies and still others drive from farther out. And just like that, it’s over

 

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The mountains behind Mail

 

It’s like a big birthday party, everyone is there and then…no cake. Party’s over.

Or is it?

Because despite the dwindling crowd, you still get to go home with your bounty. Our bounty usually includes bills, Costco magazines and lots of mail for the Fire Department.

Yippee!

But sometimes, that yippee drops its sarcastic undertones (those weren’t serving it anyways, right?) and becomes its true yelping self.

Real mail!

Now, on occasion, the package is from none other than yours truly. Oh, you shouldn’t have! With the advent of Amazon, ordering a self-addressed care package is a little easier but there are still so many things that won’t even ship to Alaska and still fewer that will ship to our little P.O. box so the world-wide web of wonder really can still be quite limited. And besides, since we find ourselves in the middle of Winter on a middle of Winter budget, ordering treats just doesn’t really happen very often.

Which makes real mail that much more special.

Chocolate?! Homemade cookies?! Special doggie treats for Lou-Lou?! A card just to say “hello”?!

This is what mail magic is made of. The scarcity of the woods makes even the littlest thing unbelievably special. When I think of the journey a simple note had to make to get to us, I’m humbled. It brings those whom I love closer. They enter my home with their letters even if their feet have never set foot on Alaskan tundra. They make our home truly ours as their drawings are hung to see and their chocolate is consumed slowly – savoring each piece (this is a big change for me). It keeps my far away family close and keeps traditions going.

 

Back in California, my Mom and I do the local paper’s crossword together every morning.

Actually, let me rephrase that:

Every morning, my Mom makes a copy of the crossword for me. Then does the crossword herself, waiting for me to wake up and follow suit. It’s a tradition that I love, that we started a long time ago but only recently perfected before my first Winter in Alaska.

Now, since she can’t leave a copy for me on the dining room table, she sends me installations. Sometimes I get behind and then do a week’s worth in one sitting and sometimes I do them every morning. I have a backlog for long flights and lazy days but I keep doing the new ones when I get them because each time I open one, I feel the time she put into it. I can see her going to the copier and folding the paper just so. I can see her driving to the Post Office and talking about her daughter in Alaska to whom she has to get a special package. I love these thoughts and images and the memories they bring up with them.

When I first decided to come to Alaska, I didn’t realize just how far out I was going. I never even thought about the mail situation because despite never seeing a mailbox, it didn’t occur to me that mail flew in. Plus, I wasn’t staying, right?

It’s almost two years later and it seems that, in fact, I am staying. I’m staying in a place at the end of 60 miles of dirt road which is now 60 miles of ice (thanks, rainstorm). I live in a place where there’s no running water or guaranteed electricity, where washing my clothes takes two days and where we send in blank checks or clearly too much money to the Postmaster because there’s no Post Office to tell us how much a package will cost to send (the Postmaster then fills out the check or sends us our change in the form of stamps). I live in this place and it still tickles me to realize that this very non-normal place has become my new norm.

 

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It’s a place that has brought me back to simple pleasures and childhood excitements. When I look at the clouds, I see animals and faces again instead of simply puffs of white. I enjoy the special treat of a chocolate bar and… I write and receive letters (and some super stellar care packages) again. People always say this place is like adult summer camp and it’s times like this when I couldn’t agree more.

So if you’re so inclined, I encourage you to send someone a letter or a package. It doesn’t have to be much. A little goes a long way. I can guarantee they won’t be disappointed and I bet you’ll feel pretty darn good about it too.

May your mail be speedy and full of real mail.

With love,

 

From Alaska.

 

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P.S. Thank you to those steady soldiers who show up to Mail every Mail Day and sort for the town. I appreciate you.

 

 

 

A Little (Mozzarella) Cheesy, But A Lotta True

You know when a friend is coming home from a long stint away and you go over to their house to make sure it’s warm for them before they return?

Nope, me neither. Not before now, at least.

Before moving to the snowy cold of The North I’d certainly helped with the houses of friends but that normally meant giving it a good scrub down, putting a few extras in the fridge and bringing in the mail. And that was if I was house sitting for them. I’d always leave a note and if I had time I’d put some flowers from their garden into a vase. It made me feel good to welcome someone home to a cozy house with a few extra creature comforts to come back to but in sunny California, heat was typically the last perk on my mind.

But not here. Here, flowers would be the magic trick to trump all magic tricks (one time a bouquet of a dozen pink roses flew in on the mail plane and I swear, every person there just stopped, jaws open, staring at the 12 little miracles. Thankfully, someone snapped us all out of it in time to get the roses into a warm car before they starting to freeze). In California, flowers were the icing on the unexpected cake. But here, I didn’t even know the recipe. How does one welcome a friend home in the middle of Winter in the middle of nowhere Alaska?

If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, chances are you’ve encountered the Walk-In, a large refrigerator big enough to house you and a gaggle of friends for a cocktail party. In the middle of service, especially during a crazed rush, it was the perfect place to cool down for a minute, gather some thoughts (and some celery or whatnot for the chefs) and head back into the mayhem feeling a bit more refreshed. Too long and it would get chilly. A few minutes was plenty.

If you’ve ever lived in Alaska, chances are you know exactly the feeling I’m talking about, even if you’ve never worked in a restaurant because I’d bet that you have walked into a frozen house at some point. You know the cold that doesn’t seem that bad at first and then…it starts biting into you, nibble by nibble until your fingers feel hot because they are instead so cold? A frozen house is like a Walk In but of the freezer variety instead of a refrigerator.

You see, when we leave our houses (those of us who leave, that is) the houses, like the whole rest of the landscape around them, freeze.

Completely.

They become little iceboxes of a life preserved, like a house coated in amber but instead, everything is ice. Upon returning from your travels or visits, this little frozen life is awaiting you and it takes hours and hours to defrost. Hours during which you wait in full-winter gear from Parka to 50 below boots and busy yourself moving things inside from your vehicle outside in an attempt to stay warm.

That is, unless you have a good friend and good timing and oh buddy, are you glad when you have both.

We were lucky enough to have both on our way in this year and our chilly selves (from our non-functioning car heater) were beyond grateful to walk into a house that was warmer than the great frosty outdoors.

And so, when the call comes, you return the favor. It may not be returned directly to those who first helped you but it is returned to the great cycle of favors that revolves and evolves around here. A little cosmic karma, if you will.

Well, that call came twofold and right, as fate would have it, in the middle of weeks of 30 to 35 below zero temperatures.

 

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I hadn’t even made it past our driveway and already, everything went white.

 

My girlfriend who had been out-of-town for work (much to my chagrin) called the whole week prior, and together we watched as her departure date approached and the temps dropped and dropped and dropped. In the middle of the cold spell we’d had a “warm” snap and she’d just missed the window. In an effort to get her home as soon as possible (ex-squeeze me but I live in the woods where boys abound and women are hard to find. I need all the ladies I can get) I told her that no matter the temps, I’d be there to heat her house if it meant she’d come home sooner.

My offer helped soften the blow of driving in 30 below temps and the day finally arrived when she was (thankfully) headed home. The Chief and I had planned ahead and brought the generator inside the night before. We awoke to the thermometer reading 33 below zero and so we immediately headed outside to warm the snowmachine by powering a heater with the generator. It would need an hour minimum (if we were being nice to it) to warm before we could leave.

Two hours later, last stops stopped and all loose ends tidied up, my girlfriend gave us the green light. She was headed our way and with a four plus hour drive ahead of her it was time for us to drive her way and warm the house. Thankfully, she lived in a valley on the other side of The River and her temperatures often read warmer than ours. Maybe we’d even hit the 20 belows.

Just as we were starting to suit up to depart, my phone rang. We’d been expecting another friend to be coming into the area soon but hadn’t heard from him about his exact dates. People had been driving through his property to break trail (another thing I never even fathomed before living here: duh, of course. When you arrive home after being absent for months, no one has been on your property. There isn’t a trail in sight. Every time you want to walk or drive somewhere you end up hip-deep in snow. So when someone offers to buzz by your place and put in a few trails so you can wade in more freely, you say “yes, thank you”) for a few weeks so we knew he was close but we still didn’t know when he’d arrive.

Well, as circumstance would have it, he was calling from about 250 miles away. He was heading home.

Tomorrow.

Hmm…my little wheels got to turning. Today would be a full-day of heating, which was great. It felt important and honest and good. Two days of heating houses on the other side of the river? Still important and honest and good, but not as good, right? Let’s multi-task this house heating. And so, without thinking I blurted: “Wanna come in tonight?”

Being the badass that he is, he took little more than a look at his old plan and said: “Yes. Of course. I mean we’ve driven this far, what’s a bit of a haul for the last leg?”

Perfect.

And so, with that, The Chief and Julia’s Heating Service was started. Business was booming.

Just kidding.

Both of our friends’ excitement and gratitude had me fired up. It feels so good to do something for someone else and any time you can make life a little easier for your fellow woods dweller out here, you do it.

And so, we were on our way.

We finished suiting up as we talked out our game plan.

Her house first, then his house, then back and forth for the rest of the day until they arrived. Pack a lot of food for a potentially really long day (even if they were leaving, things happen and fingers crossed everything went smoothly but with one of their cars already acting squirrely, anything could happen). Layers upon layers upon layers and extra clothes for a ski.

Yea, we planned on a ski. Pretty cute, huh?

 

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My skis, your skis and a groomer for making trails. We were outfitted, finally.

 

We got to the first house and the thermometer  inside was so cold that all it said was LO. In computer talk I’m pretty sure that means “Geeeeez! What, are you trying to kill me??”

 

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At least it was only -23 outside though! We set to making a fire. Almost. There was wood a plenty and burnables nearby but since my girlfriend had left at the start of the cold-snap she hadn’t been able to clean out the stove before leaving (it had been too cold to let a fire die, even for a few hours and embers take forever to cool). The stove had ash to be removed first (The Chief is a meticulous fire maker, me on the other hand? I’m more of a cowgirl, fly by the seat of your pants type approach) and so we set to find a receptacle. 20 minutes later, cleaned and ready, The Chief had the stove blazing. We dusted ourselves off and…we were off!

At the next house, we broke trail in from the back entrance, paralleling the air field along the way. We arrived again to a ready bin full of wood and burnables (it’s always smart to leave a good set-up if someone is coming to build a fire. You wouldn’t want them to mistakenly burn say, your tax returns. These two were seasoned pros) and The Chief set to work. Since this friend had left in the Fall, the stove was all ready to go and pretty soon the tanker of a stove was chugging along.

It’s a funny thing going into someone’s house in the dead of Winter, especially when it hasn’t been opened back up since the season before. It’s just been sitting and freezing. Everything has a sheen of ice crystals and immediately, you’re scanning for accidents: was there water in any glass that perhaps exploded? Is everything which can’t heat quickly (think kerosene lamp) far enough away from the fire so it won’t break from the temperature shift? And then you start admiring their shut-down techniques. Boards on the windows or coverings over the bed or how their woodpile is organized. One can’t help but pick up tips along the way.

With both houses chugging along, the most important part now was to keep them going. Oh and to not burn their houses down. Yes, this seems like an obvious one and an easy one but out here fire is both something we absolutely need and something we undoubtedly must have respect for. A stove that gets too hot can set fire to itself and with that, the cabin. Plus, every stove is different. Sure, the overarching idea of “shutting it down” (dampening the fire once it’s gotten going to make it burn hot and steady) is the same but every stove has its own little tricks and quirks and when you’re trying to get from frozen to comfortable in hours, you don’t have the luxury of courting time with each stove.

Heat needs to happen now and so you make sure to watch the stove for as long as possible before heading off to the next house.

And so we did, all day long. Back and forth and forth and back we went. Vigilant to lock all the hatches and triple check the stove doors. A few hours in, both stoves cranking away and the temperatures of the houses slowly thawing, we thought about water. Water is essential to every life and out here, it’s especially hard to come by. Both of the friends get water from the same nearby creek and so once we found their water buckets, we headed down to the creek to fill them.

 

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Fill ‘er up, buttercup.

 

Water in your house here is like flowers in your house in the lower 48, except functional. Having water to get you through the night and the following day, to make your long list of chores just a little bit shorter is huge and since none of us have running water, I could appreciate how much this little act would ease their transitions home.

 

 

 

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All buckled up and ready to go

 

Finally, a few trips more and the first bird to return to the coop called. We met my girlfriend at the airstrip with her sled and after shrieky, bouncy, elated “Hellos”, we started unloading her truck. Three sled loads later, each time with us packed like three little ducks riding in a row on the snowmachine, and her truck was unloaded. One last trip to park the truck (since no vehicle can make it down her driveway with any hope of making it back up again) and back to her house and she had finally “arrived” an hour after she had first pulled up. Home again.

She was over the moon to walk into a warm house that even had, wait for it, water! 5 gallons of My Day Just Got Easier. We celebrated and caught up while The Chief made one last trip to our other friend’s house. They had called to say they were at the last stretch of The Road, they’d be home in an hour. 30 minutes later, The Chief returned we all three celebrated. What a day! We’d been back and forth so many times it would make my head spin to recount it, wearing our heaviest gear to stave off the cold of the day’s 20 to 30 plus below weather. We’d successfully heated and watered two houses (and I had successfully realigned my back after falling straight onto my knee with a huge armload of wood. Oh joy. I swear I heard every vertebrae snap, crackle and pop. Owwwwwww) and our friends were home. So despite any bumps and bruises the reunion trumped all.

Every time someone comes home, our little family here is shifted and changed. A new infusion, new life to our day-to-day and it changes everyone, even if just a little bit.

An hour later, I got a text from our other friend saying that they’d stopped on The Road to visit with one of our friends farther out. It’s a funny thing, the coming and going along the 60 miles of road. There rarely is a time when we haven’t stopped, at least for a bit, to see a good friend we don’t normally see. When it takes 30 minutes just to go 3 miles across the river for a visit, it’s even more unlikely to travel 20 miles for one and so, on the way in or out when you can, you stop to see those you won’t see until the rivers break and the fireweed returns and we all convene back in Town. With that being said, we knew he would no longer be home within the hour and so The Chief headed out again to stoke the fire one last time.

He returned to my girlfriend’s house where we had already broken into her stash. This is the best conundrum of every return: what to eat first? It’s always random and never what you’d think and this time was no different: mozzarella cheese.

When you live in the middle of nowhere and new infusions of food are far and few between, it’s funny the things that sound mouth-wateringly delightful and that night, we all agreed on the cheese. Before long, half the block was gone (along with a solid dent in some tortilla chips and warming whiskey) and it was clear that our other friends would be out past our bedtime. After spending a day almost completely outside (since their houses didn’t start to warm up until early evening and even at that, they were still only 50 degrees, though still a complete respite from the biting cold outside) our bodies were ready to rest.

 

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A little cloud of exhale while eating a snack

 

And so, we headed home and what did we return to?

Well, a warm house.

The house wasn’t warm because we had built a fire that would outlast the day. Even the most amazing fire wouldn’t have been able to hold tight through 8 hours of cold knocking on the door. No, we returned to a warm house because while we were away, our neighbors had been coming by every few hours to throw a log on (or two, and to pet or let in or out our Miss Cinda Lou).

The karma loop continues.

It wasn’t just us that day that heated those houses. It was all of us. Our neighbors and us and every neighbor before them that checked on their house while they were away for the day. When life breaks down to food, shelter and warmth it becoming obvious what is important. Sure, our friends could have returned to cold houses, people have done it forever and still do it all the time. Or we could have spent the day away and returned to a 30 degree house. It’s happened, it happens. But none of us did. We all kept warm because of one another and not to be too (mozzarella) cheesy, but that’s the kind of thing that is the answer to the question I so often get: “Why in the world would you want to live all the way out there?”

Why? Because in a place where you have to be able to rely upon yourself, it’s that much better when you get a little help from your friends.

Cheers to flowers and fires for friends. Sure, we can all do it on our own but what’s the point? Be a friend in need of a warm house or a warm hug, this is what we are here for.

With love,

 

From Alaska.

The Long Way Home (Part I: The Mushy, Squishy, Tom & Norah Version)

Years ago, maybe 15 or so, a girlfriend and I went to a party out in the “middle of nowhere” (I have to use quotes for that one these days considering my current physical location in life). We were having a blast, way out in the hills of California only 45 minutes from our hometown yet still in a place we both had never been when suddenly…the parental units arrived.

Whoops!

Apparently our friend wasn’t supposed to be having a party.

Who knew?

I’d say likely us, we likely were the Who who knew.

The party dispersed in a flash as teenagers fled from all possible exits.

In all the rush, we had simply driven away, without getting our bearings and within no time we came to the realization that we were L-O-S-T lost. We were struck with panic. Technology wasn’t quite what it was today and let’s just say our pagers weren’t helping us any, though I swear we stared at them looking for answers. And so, without a map and with two poor senses of directions equaling one mediocre sense of direction, we just kept driving.

Retrace our steps?

Why, what a brilliant idea!

We opted not to and by opted not to I mean we didn’t even think of it, but if we had we would have been chasing ghosts. Retracing our steps in fields upon fields of high grasses cut through by miles and miles of look-alike dirt roads? Naw, no thanks.

And so, lest we confuse ourselves further we figured onward, onward ho!

In the stress of it all, we decided it was best to play Norah Jones (don’t judge me, she’s awesome and at the time she was the obvious and only choice in crises like these) to calm our nerves as we hazily sought our way back to home like naked mole-rats through an underground maze.

And it worked.

Through the confusion we were calmed by the tunes and comforted by the presence of one another. I remember thinking that even if we were lost forever, at least we had each other. And it turns out that we had just enough faith and fancy footwork to navigate our (probably obvious) route. We had made it safely home, even if it did take us cycling twice through the album.

 

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As I sat down to write about our journey this December to our Home in the woods, this memory with my girlfriend suddenly came flooding over me and with it came the song on the album which struck me most that day: “The Long Way Home”. The song is a Tom Waits cover which Norah Jones performed on the album we twice listened to that day. The memory of that day and that song and our parallel journey this year compared to last all came tumbling down on me and as I put on the song while I wrote I was suddenly choked up.

That day with my girlfriend felt like the longest Long Way Home and so the song’s presence struck me, reverberated in my ears and made me laugh at our predicament. I read little more into it then than the title (I didn’t know any of the other words) and saw it as a sort of mocking, literal and perfunctory representation of our day. We were taking a dang Long Way Home but I’d always known we would make it some hour or another. We were still in the same County for goodness sake, but still I had been shaken.The presence of the music accompanied by the presence of my girlfriend, however, shook that shake right back and restored my faith that we would make it back, eventually.

Finally, that day, landmarks I’d seen all my life started appearing, landmarks I’d known as a passenger growing up in the cars of parents and family. Yet suddenly we were the drivers, brand spankin’ new at that, and it was up to us to decipher their code. And we did. Every few miles, a specific corner or noticeable rock outcropping or old barn would signal us to turn or stay from somewhere deep in our memories and those memories guided us. We were two newbies, finding our way into the beginning of adulthood.

 

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And all along, home was nearby.

And for most of my life, it always has been.

Until last year. The year of Leap First And Look Later And Fingers Crossed It All Turns Out.

Last year I decided to move to Alaska after a Summer visit gone vibrant and well past its 17 day intended expiration date.

Life had other plans.

And so, last year, I left the land I knew. The place where after years of practice and memories like the one with my girlfriend that I could now navigate on my own while blindfolded and still find the quickest route through back alleys and hidden throughways.

Suddenly, all that familiarity was in my rearview mirror when last year we left my town and started our route to The Great Big North.

 

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It was a truer than true, longer than long, Long Way Home.

The song’s literal meaning prodded at me again.

I actually had no idea how long it would be but it exceeded even my most exorbitant of expectations. Last year, coming into the woods at the beginning of December, I was walking into the unknown and though I held steady, I was shaken at the core. I had driven the route into the woods only twice before: on my first trip in where I was 1.) a passenger and 2.) had the attention span of a hummingbird and another time solo where I was more focused on getting the turns right than remembering landmarks. The land was unfamiliar, the stops along the way new and intimidating. The sheer vastness of the state tumbled down upon me all at once and though I was excited, I have also never been so terrified.

What if we came to find we just didn’t like one another? How would I leave?

What was it like to live in the snow? Would I get frostbite?

And seriously, what in the hell was I doing?

The year of The Leap was certainly the year of questions like that: what in the hell was I doing?

It turns out what the hell I was doing was heading in exactly the right direction which although I felt in my heart, I had to explain to my head occasionally.

 

We leapt into the unknown and took the longest ride home I’ve ever experienced in my life. 10 hours plus (and that’s only once we’d actually arrived in Alaska, the journey had started five days before) in what seemed like a snowglobe come to life filled with treacherous roads and sheets of ice fog and all without even so much as a radio to make a peep over the booming winds rattling the truck and the screaming worries bouncing around my rational mind. I didn’t know the route, I didn’t know the mountains, I couldn’t tell you how far we were or how long we had to go. I had no landmarks. I had little history. I was merely a passenger.

Yet with or without landmarks and with the smidgen of history I had eked out the Summer before, I knew I was heading home.

And I was right.

 

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But I was still, just a passenger, still alone even in our togetherness because of all that was unfamiliar to me. We both were still doing it alone despite being in it together. Little did I know, the song had taken on new meaning.

The Song, to me as I’ve listened to it over the past 15 years, is about a man in the world clinging to his independence. Despite his love waiting for him, he always takes The Long Way Home and the journey to find their way is all up to him. He is alone, despite her presence. Yet in the end he asks her to come with him. His need to be alone is melted by his need for her. They both leave what they know and alone in the unknown they take The Long Way Home together.

Last year, The Chief and I were at the beginning of this song, we were both the individuals navigating our way through our own fears and doubts and The Chief had to find our literal Long Way Home for us as I was completely and utterly lost in the now snowy landscape I had barely remembered when it was completely bare the Summer before. I can see the leap we both took into the unknown now from the outside in all of its shimmering shining “are you freaking crazy?” glory. I can see how wild the leap must have seemed and I’m so glad we decided to do it anyway.

 

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Our First Christmas

 

This year, the leap was a little smaller as we moved through the rest of the song. Yes, it was a new Winter, new ever lower temperatures awaited us and our neighborhood was deserted where last year it was “bustling”. But it wasn’t so completely and overwhelmingly unknown anymore. I knew how to avoid frostbite and live in the snow and I knew that we did like each other and that we did want to be together and we had made it through the crazy leaps and into one another’s arms. Sure, there were unknowns and uncertainties up ahead but something had shifted, we had made it through our first winter and now we were undeniably in it together; we were navigating our road home together.

As we glided this year over frozen highways I found my points of reference garnered from trips throughout the past year. I was still a newbie, like I had been while driving with my girlfriend those 15 years ago, but just like then, I was learning. I knew which place to stop for food and when (before it was too late and we were engulfed in mountains for the rest of the 7 hours), which mountains meant we were closer and which glaciers were my favorite, which were the best rest spots and which post office to mail our Christmas Cards from and together we navigated our way with equal input despite still differing knowledge (and priorities: I’m pretty much on Make Sure We Eat Before Hangry Sets In patrol).

No longer were we two people in a big ol’ truck in the middle of nowhere hoping individually for the best. Now we were a team. No longer were we navigating on our own, alone. We were on the same page. No longer was I following The Chief, both of us with our fingers crossed. Instead, this year we finished the song as we navigated The Long Way Home together, hand in hand, with our pup nestled between us.

And we made it.

Home.

 

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“Well you know I love you baby

More than the whole wide world

You are my woman

I know you are my pearl

Let’s go out past the party lights

Where we can finally be alone

Come with me, together, we can take the long way home”

                                                                              -The Wonderful Mr. Waits

 

Oh, but it wasn’t all whistling Tom Waits in the wind and high-fiving each time I recognized a glacier and skipping and snow angels and mountains of pancakes.

No siree bob.

But you knew that already, didn’t you?

No, this is Alaska, where nothing comes easy except change and not always the change you want and where you have to work the whole way just to make your way home. And all the love in the world doesn’t mean the journey will be easy but it does make it so much easier.

And so, with that, I tell you our Nitty Gritty, Non-Norah and Tom version of our journey to The Great North, our Long Way Home…

 

Next week.

With love, from Alaska.

 

 

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The Golden State

Welcome to the Land O’ Plenty: California.

 

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It’s the land I grew up in, the place I’d called home on and off for almost 30 years and now, it’s a place I come to visit.

 

It’s strange and beautiful how that happens.

 

We’ve been lucky enough to land at an amazing house in Sonoma County (in the next town over from where I grew up) to housesit while some friends are honeymooning.

Running hot water? Electicity on demand? Land for our pup to roam? Super score.

It’s been the ideal situation and we are over the moon to finally be settled in after weeks of traveling and living out of suitcases with our furry child in tow (constantly keeping an eye on her and chasing after her as she unknowingly runs up to cars and towards heavy traffic, country dog that she is). The constant shuffling and remembering and forgetting of things and their places has come to an end. It feels good to just slow down, especially knowing that just a short month and a half from now we will be completely shifting gears as we make the journey back up and into Winter.

That being said, I will be taking a few weeks to connect with family and friends and this first place I ever knew as home; to really sink in during the time we are here and to truly be present.

I so appreciate you reading this blog and learning along with me in this journey and I look forward to reconnecting with you in a few weeks.

Make sure to subscribe to the blog (do that in the near top right hand of the webpage) so you know when things over here at Beneath the Borealis restart (in late November or Early December, pending our departure date).

Cheers to California. To kombucha on draft, yerba mate on on tap, essential oils as perfume and “hella” as a word. Cheers to experiencing both Summer and Fall weather all over again and to walking outside to pick ingredients for every meal. And cheers to soon heading back to a snowy landscape filled with trials and tribulations and a silence I can barely recall.

And cheers to you. Thank you for coming along.

I’ll see you soon.

 

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Two Alaskan pups out for a sunset strut.

The Glacier

Before arriving in Alaska I can’t say with much certainty that I knew what a glacier was. I’m only slightly sure that I was aware of their existence (but not entirely sure I didn’t just think they were large icebergs) and definitely sure that I didn’t grasp their many faces. And so, my first time on The Glacier was a complete slap in the face and every time since has been another awakening unto its own.

You see, my first time on The Glacier I went ice climbing.

Me. Ice climbing.

If you’re beginning to think I’m some sort of badass you can stop yourself right there. I can say for certain that I did not know what ice climbing was, but with my girlfriend’s encouragement (and the loan of her dog) I let her sign me up with her guides.

I’d never even been rock climbing before (a likely introduction) but there I was, gearing up with boots and crampons and an enormous backpack full of gear for a ten-hour day of hiking and climbing on our friendly neighborhood glacier, followed by crashing an ice climbing course meant solely for the guide company which I had no business attending (but was too afraid to leave on my own since it would mean traversing solo across a glacier which I had just met and then finding my way back to the trailhead and then back home. No thank you). And so I climbed, and despite the fear of heights that I thought I had, I felt safe and secure and successful, followed by completely out-of-place, cold and tired at the training but hey, at least I was in good company.

My second time on The Glacier was with the encouraging girlfriend. We explored a bit, I got my first solid lesson in using crampons and we ate curry for lunch. It was a beautiful day and again, I didn’t have to hoof it alone.

That was last year. Now, I’ve lived here for a year. I’ve been through Winter in the cold, dark north. I can handle The Glacier solo, right?

Well, sort of.

It was a beautiful sunny day at the tail end of a wind event a few weeks ago and so, despite the sun and the sights, I was still feeling a little off-kilter from the ever-present gusts of dirt in my eyes and blow-back winds pushing me about. Still, when it’s sunny and you are free, it’s time to get out. Some friends only had a few days left in Alaska and they invited me along to go out on The Glacier. I hadn’t been on it all Summer and had been scolding myself for not having done so. And so, despite the blustery day, I headed out to meet them.

The Chief and I drove across the river into town with a friend to jump our truck (which I had been stranded with the night before) and she fired up quickly. All set. And so I sent a message up the hill to let my comrades know that I was on my way. Even though it was my day off I was in a bit of a hurry to get going. This town is notoriously slow going since things always seem to go wrong or take longer than planned. It’s not uncommon to hear someone come in late for work because their batteries were about to die and they forgot to run the generator and then the generator was out of gas so they had to pump gas and then spilled it and had to change and…you get the point. Things come up. And so I was trying to stay ahead of the game. The truck was running and I was on my way. Plus, I had a massage scheduled that day (best day off ever) and I wanted to make sure I would be back in time.

I helped Cinda into the truck and off we went. We were listening to our favorite Cocteau Twins song when the truck chugged to a halt. Thinking that the battery had given out again (the battery in it is a wee bit small for the truck) I called The Chief to see if he could jump it (again) with our friend’s truck. He left work and borrowed the truck and 20 minutes later, when I should have been arriving to meet my friends, The Chief gallantly arrived. He quickly deciphered that it wasn’t the battery. Thankfully he had a can full of gas that we filled our tank with and the new infusion in what we think is simply a bad fuel mix was enough to start the babe right up. He followed me up to the Hill Town even though he really needed to be at work because, well, he’s amazing like that. We bid adieu as I successfully glided into the Hill Town.

 

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Finally, we made it. But where are they?

 

My friends were heading down from one friend’s house and after a few confusing texts and calls we found one another at the guide shack (I had forgotten that we would need crampons, remembering The Glacier as only being a sweet little thing requiring hiking boots alone. How quickly we forget). We all geared up and headed out The Glacier Trail. An hour and a few miles later we started to descend and I felt totally lost. The creek between the hillside and The Glacier had shifted enough that the “entrance” onto The Glacier, the spot where everyone would come off the hillside and find their way onto the glacier had completely changed from the two times I’d seen it the year before.

I wish I could say with certainty that if I had gone alone earlier this Summer to The Glacier that I would have figured this out and not just “cliffed out” at the old entrance but I’m not really comfortable with lying. I can hope that I would have figured it out, that my stubbornness would have helped me find the way, but as a serious creature of habit and lover of comfort I’m not totally sure that I would have pushed that hard. Maybe. I hope so. I think in reality that I hadn’t made it to The Glacier yet this year out of fear of the unknown and so a hurdle like that could have derailed me, had I made it that far.

We scaled down the hillside, the dogs far ahead of us and already begging from tourists camped at the base of The Glacier.

 

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Our view from the base. The Glacier lay ahead in all its glory.

 

We stumbled immediately upon an ice creation.

 

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Melted out ice caves

 

I ran in, excited to see it from the inside and just barely dodged falling rocks. Whoops! I forgot my glacier manners and ice cave rules. Look before you leap.

 

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Little rocks (thankfully) and water falling from to top of the ice cave

 

Manners in mind and footing in place we headed up and onto The Glacier. One member of our group lost her manners quickly. My sweet pup decided to let nature call in the number two fashion upon the pristine glacier. I picked up her little gift with a newly available Costco sized M&M bag (we had to eat the remaining M&Ms in a hurry to free up the space, which, while delicious, kind of lost their appeal due to the situation) sealed it tight and placed it into my backpack. The backpack which held my food.

We were off to a good start.

 

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Hiking up the first icy hill of The Glacier

 

And we actually were off to a great, albeit stinky, start. For the first fifteen minutes we were fine going simply with our hiking boots but once the terrain turned a bit tougher it was time for crampons.

I’m not a fan.

I know that they make it more feasible to hike up and down into places in the glacier which would otherwise remain unseen to me but they also make me feel like a toddler wearing platform shoes. It’s as if I’ve attached bricks to my feet, lost all flexibility and then, decide to attempt the scary stuff.

This was the part I had forgotten about. The scary parts. The year before when I had gone ice climbing we had hiked the mildest parts of The Glacier (the simple up and over route instead of into the depths) and put on crampons only to scale into the basin where we would set up camp to climb. I barely needed instruction because they were necessary for moments only and the fall would have been into a soft obvious location not into some wormhole into the heart of The Glacier. The second time, as I had conveniently forgotten, we had taken a more hilly route, jumped over little rivers within the glacier and climbed sheer sides. I had been afraid but I had forgotten that fear.

Key words being “had forgotten”.

Suddenly the fear came upon me like a whisper from behind as we veered away from the easy route on top of The Glacier and immediately started sidehilling down it. We stopped to put on our crampons and layers as the already present wind began to pick up and up and up. I watched Cinda’s fur blow in the breeze and then suddenly her whole body jolted back as a powerful gust of wind hit her. Everything had shifted in an instant. Suddenly, I had high heel things on my feet, extra disorienting wind and more challenging terrain.

Gulp.

Our first move in our newly acquired garb? Cross an ice bridge between two moulins (a tubular chute, hole or crevasse worn in the ice by surface water which carries water from the surface to the base far below, like a sudden sinkhole which appears with little to no warning). They were substantial holes on both sides, both tunnels leading in opposite and unclear directions into the stomach of the glacier. You fall in and…good luck. My girlfriend shouted to me through the wind:

“You might want to watch Cinda on this one. It’s a little sketchy.”

Just as I was about to grab her and find ourselves another route, she scampered across with the utmost ease and so, my excuse to find a better route now gone and my better judgement aside, I started to cross. My stomach dropped into my feet and my heart up into my neck as my body slowly and awkwardly carried me across. I did not feel centered, I did not feel competent. I felt like a wet rag trying to dance a tango. Not my most graceful of moments.

On the other side I caught my breath.

“That.

Was.

Scary.”

I told my friends and I nervously stopped to eat a snack. I felt like I was going to be sick. You see, I try and try and try again to fool myself but my body reminds me. I am afraid of heights. In my mind I see the path but my body reacts. Wanna look down into a moulin? I can’t. My feet literally won’t take me.

 

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This I can handle.

 

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Peering down into this? No thanks. These pop up out of nowhere.

 

And so, after crossing (sorry, I couldn’t take a picture but just imagine two huge tunnel slides to each side of you and a maybe two foot wide expanse to cross over them) and remembering the fear I had felt before, though not to this level (and never during ice climbing (perhaps the harness had something to do with it)), it suddenly dawned on me that I would be doing the return trip alone.

 

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Since the truck had died and our meet up had been slow, time had been moving despite our still trying to catch up with it. We had been on the glacier almost 40 minutes before we even put the crampons on and now, I had 20 minutes before I needed to head back. We had basically just gotten there, just gotten to the “good stuff” (read: scary but more beautiful and worth the challenge) and now I needed to turn around.

We traversed a few more creeks within the glacier and went up and down hills that seemed impossible to ascend or descend any other way than on hands and knees or slide down like penguins but somehow I remained upright (and awkward). Finally, tucked away from the gusts in a little alcove I announced my need to depart in order to make it back in time for my massage (a statement that sounded unbelievably swanky and out-of-place while standing in the middle of the wilderness).

 

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Beautiful Jess. Wanna come back?

 

I had already stated that, of course, they probably wouldn’t want to head back when I had to, but secretly hoped that someone might want to. At the same time, I knew the challenge would do me good and in a way hoped I would fly solo.  It was divided 50/50. Though I was scared I said my goodbyes and whistled for my Lou and turned to head back the way we had come (though already planning to avoid the Ice Bridge of Doom) when I looked back and couldn’t decipher up from down.

 

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The last views of my friends

 

Where in the world had we come from and how?

I had purposefully been paying attention (I thought) to our route but when I looked back it all looked the same and the hilly landscape seemed unrecognizable in reverse.

Oh well, they were moving one way and I had to head the other.

 

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A last goodbye from the Buddha

 

I cannot explain how grateful I was to have our Cinda Lou with me. She was like a little ice fairy, floating along the face of the glacier, jumping over moulins like a professional hurdler. She made it look easy, and so, as I have done so many times before, I channeled her confidence and picked a route forward.

 

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Lou smiling at the moulin

 

Within minutes we were nowhere we had been before and facing crossing fast flowing waters and climbing an almost 90 degree incline. I looked to the right: even worse. I looked to the left and could only assume that it turned into a sheer drop-off to the moraine (the rocky below) since all the rest to the left had been as such.

How had I gotten us here?

I had simply gone in the same-ish direction back and now, we were somewhere completely unknown, out of sight and alone.

That’s the thing about a glacial terrain, one minute you’re walking on flat ground, the next there is a sheer cliff at your feet. Another, you’re protected from the wind storm, the next you’re basically windsurfing, trying not to lose footing. Next you’re looking down a moulin into the mouth of the glacier and next you see a turquoise lake appear, calm and pristine. It’s forever changing and after two trips one year ago prior to completely different spots on the exact same glacier, I was feeling completely lost and completely out of my league.

Oh well. There was no other way but forward.

I found a narrower crossing and planted my feet in order to make the big jump to the other side of what now was become a river in The Glacier in order to climb up the face to the other side. I looked and then leapt and…

I made it. Safe and sound.

 

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The water was 3-4 ft. wide

 

And solo.

Cinda did not follow.

Suddenly, my trailblazer was stunted. She didn’t trust the jump. I walked to the narrowest point and urged her to follow suit on the other side. I cooed encouragement at her and promised I would grab her. She didn’t budge. Then she started pacing back and forth, starting twice by trying to walk the divide, the water which would have been up to her shoulders and the current which would have swept her up and sent her who knows where in the blink of an eye lapped at her paws and she quickly retreated.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

We both let out a little whimper and I allowed myself a moment of panic. And then I grabbed my breath back and called her back as she started walking towards the ledge. We are doing this. You can make it Lou.

I called her to a different narrow spot and steadied myself to grab her if she didn’t land the jump. She gave me a look of utter displeasure but also of trust (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing but I’m comfortable with it) and then, she jumped.

And she made it.

And then she was off with me scrambling behind her.

She ran towards the hill. It was so steep that she had to lean as far forward as possible while still having to sidehill up the face it. I got down low and hands and knees and crampon toed my way up. We both stopped at the top, breathing heavily and looked at one another with a sort of It Can’t Get Worse Than That, Right? type of look. I hugged and kissed her and spent a moment more just breathing while trying to plan the remainder of our route (while still avoiding the Ice Bridge of Doom). I surmised that it couldn’t be much longer (though I couldn’t see the exit) and decided to hug the Easternmost route for the remainder of the return. Thirty minutes later we were off The Glacier and back to finding the elusive trail. I had created mental markers for myself but in the end, it didn’t matter.

 

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A big rock (in front of the far away Castle Rock) was my beacon towards the trail

 

My Cinda knew the way (even though she had never taken it before that day). She led me back and up the steep hill, circling around every few steps to smile at me. I’ve never seen her do that before. One, two, three, four steps, circle, look at Mom and head forward for four more. She checks on me when we are out together but never in such a rhythm, with such consistency.

 

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Four steps forward…

 

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…one circle to look back.

 

For a dog whom isn’t always overtly forthcoming with expressions of love, this less than subtle check in warmed my heart. I felt like crying. I had truly been scared. Scared of falling, scared of picking the wrong route and sliding into a river of ice, scared of losing my dog. Seeing her look back to me I suddenly let it go. We were off the glacier and we had gotten off of it together.

 

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Crossing over a raging creek and looking back at The Glacier

 

The rest of the hour-long hike back she checked on me every few steps. She even took a shortcut (which I knew and planned on taking) and when she realized I hadn’t made it to the entrance yet, she circled back to show me how.

 

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Fall was in the air and the winds had started to die down a bit and an ecstatic calm (if that dichotomy can somehow exist) came over me as we hustled back.

 

 

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We got back just in time to grab a snack and water us both before going into a greatly appreciated massage. I was physically tired from the hike but also emotionally tired and simultaneously elated by the journey.

We had made it.

To many out here, it would be nothing to simply turn back alone. It would be nothing even to go out alone and come back alone. To find a route and follow it with confidence. To me, it was a challenge. To choose my own route, completely on my own (or at least without other humans) is a new practice. To trust and to expand past the comfort of the known into the discomfort of the unknown isn’t my first choice, but in a way, at this point in my life it’s the only one.

I may not be the first to try a new route or to scale a mountain. I am still cautious and careful and perhaps overly so, using my respect for the grandiosity and potential danger of this place at times as an excuse. But that’s O.K.

I’m learning to stretch.

I’m so grateful to live in a place and among people whom share their adventurous spirits with me. People who prance across an ice bridge like it’s nothing, who find their own way when lost in the woods, who set out to summit a mountain they’ve never been to. This place and the people within it both intimidate and inspire me in such a combination that I consistently find myself a little outside of my comfort zone but in very good company, be it scenery or people or animals or, simply my new self who’s learning, day by day to trust again in the intuition we all have within.

I hope that next year and every year from now on that I remember the fear and embrace it rather than tuck it away. I hope that I push forward with or without invitation from others to see this land. I hope that as my confidence in myself grows the fear will realize it can start to let go.

Thank you for the endless challenges and chances to expand, Alaska. You sure keep me on my toes (and, when the going gets steep, my hands and knees).

 

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