life

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Wormhole

Saturn Returns and the Built-In Breaks: Part I

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

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Succulent

 

 

Thankfully, we were introduced.

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

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

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

Or so I was told.

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

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

Apparently, it heard me.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10:30 Saturn Kuskulana

A river divides, a barrier collides.

 

 

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

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

I left my ex.

I left my home.

I parted ways with my clients and…

I bought my ticket to Alaska.

 

Saturn had certainly returned.

 

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

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

Nice to meet you.

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Julia Page

New times. No makeup.

 

 

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

I re-met me.

And then I met someone else.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns First Picture

Our first picture. Lou is on my lap.

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Self-portrait

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Kiss the Officiant

 

 

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

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

Until, without notice, Saturn didn’t Return.

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

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

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

Whoops.

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

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

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

Leaving me, for the first time,

in the woods.

 

Alone.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis 10/30 Saturn Returns Wormhole

 

 

To be continued…

 

 

 

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

A Very Bear-y Summer

It was a very bear-y summer.

Supposedly.

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

But me?

No bears.

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

“Please let me see something…safely.”

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

Where were all these bears everyone was talking about?

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

See a bear.

Every day my girlfriend’s wish was the same:

“I want to see a bear.”

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

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

And then, we went for a hike.

Not just any hike.

The day before, we had gone for a hike.

 

 

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

First steps on The Glacier

 

 

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

 

 

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

Tiny Yellie.

 

 

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

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

they flew.

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

 

 

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

Not a bad parking place.

 

 

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

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

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

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

Laid back.

 

 

And then it set in.

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

Easy-peasy.

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

Right?

Wrong.

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

 

 

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

Fun-House Baby

 

 

An hour up and we had finally made it.

The mine.

And soon, the top.

 

 

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

Ominous, eh?

 

 

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

And we did.

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

Two mountain goats I ran into.

 

 

It was snack time (obviously).

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

What time was it anyway?

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

Just then, I got a text:

“Holy shit saw bear”

The sheer lack of punctuation made my stomach turn.

I tried to call.

 

No answer.

 

I texted back:

“Where? How close?”

 

No answer.

 

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

I was an idiot.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Incoming! Rain time.

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

Gulp.

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

Welcome to the neighborhood, bears.

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

Until it wasn’t.

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

I was face to face with a bear.

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

“Let’s get out of here!”

And so we did.

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

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

and it’s been a very bear-y season.

 

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

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

 

 

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

And the sun sets on another Summer.

 

Love to them.

Love to you.

Love to Lou.

 

 

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

Waiting for me. Leading the way.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Kennicott River

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Back in California,

on Saturday nights

at closing time

this song would play at my favorite bar with my favorite people.

Easy. 

Like Sunday Morning.

 

If you haven’t heard it, please provide yourself the satisfaction of this simple song (preferably on a Saturday) to lull you into Sunday, or at least into a Sunday kind of mood on any given day.

Lull me it did, right into my bed and right on into Sunday. I’d awake to a quiet house and fill up the first hours reading in bed while sipping tea until eventually I’d shower and head out to do something fun and then I’d return home and settle in for another week.

Easy Like Sunday Morning.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Kennicott River

Sunday Strolls

 

 

But it wasn’t always like this for me.

Growing up, Sundays had always been a source of stress since, as an unpaid but professional procrastinator, my life had been chock full of last-minute school projects and panic. My parents, on the other hand, were always working outdoors on their own projects. Projects I desperately wanted to be a part of, but because I’d spent the weekend in soccer tournaments or at friend’s houses, suddenly there was no time for me to participate. Both of my parents would spend hours in the garden or building, better-ing their properties while I would have somehow again forced myself inside. They’d come inside at the end of the day with dirty faces and dirty hands, exhausted but satisfied from a day’s hard work out in the wild blue yonder. And there I’d be churning in my own panic, exhausted only from my mind’s tricks.

And so, as I grew up and found that this panic was no longer (and never was) serving me I started to rearrange my week to make Sundays fun-days instead of coiled serpents of stress. I’d work a little harder in the week to finish early so that I could awake to a calm instead of a panic come that Sunday morning. And before I knew it, Sundays took on a sort of holiness to me, they became my church and I started to guard them. A few months before I left California I made a promise to myself to protect this newfound calm and I swore off working on that holy (for me) day.

3,000 miles to Alaska later and that promise still stands true.

Sundays are free.

 

 

Benath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Heart Rock

Fancy that. Two heart rocks at once.

 

 

 

Free to fill or free to fade away into a sleepy pancake haze.

But something’s been added.

Dirty faces, dirty hands.

 

As an adult, I’ve never lived in a place that was truly mine. In the crazed real-estate market that is Sonoma County (my home in California), my only option was to rent and even that wasn’t really all that sustainable. But now I’ve landed.

Home.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9/18/17 Heart Rock.jpg

Home Sweet Home.

 

 

And I feel beyond lucky.

Dirty faces, dirty hands.

Because now, Sundays are for pancakes and PJs and…projects.

Projects.

Welcome, to the full-circle experience.

I finally get to be the dirty face sitting down to dinner with an equally dirty face staring back at me, working on our home.

We don’t have to ask if we can cut down a tree or build a structure or paint a wall and it feels free in a way I’ve never known.

Now, don’t get me wrong, when things start a-breakin’ it’s awfully nice to be able to hand it over to someone else (and give them the bill) but everything has its trade-offs and the hurdles here are worth it to me.

I think it took moving to a place that I could truly call Our Own to make me, force me, pull me into Home. It took finding myself in the middle of a bachelor pad, with a kind-eyed love who said “I’m open. Let’s make it ours” to make me feel like I truly could settle in.

And so, this Sunday we finished one project of many and many more to come:

The Woodshed Addition.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Lou Woodshed

Sweet Lou.

 

 

The Chief had begun the addition last weekend (after making me a hearty breakfast of killer ‘cakes) while I was writing and by the time I had finished, the sides were up and the structure was coming about beautifully.

This weekend we powered ourselves with steak and eggs (The Chief’s equivalent to my pancakes) and went outside to finish. It wouldn’t take long.

All we had to do was put up some walls and “slap” on the roof.

Cute, huh?

I think we even believed it.

The thing is, all of the materials we needed for the shed weren’t simply in some woodshed package waiting for us at the store. They were, however, all around us, in the trees we’d have to cut down, in the old pieces of wood that had been waiting for projects and in roofing metal given to The Chief that we had been saving since early last Winter. All we had to do was collect the supplies, bring them over to the site, “slap them up” and ta-da! Donesky!

It turns out that finding and hauling lumber three times my height isn’t exactly the most lightweight of scavenger hunts.

Rewarding, though?

Certainly, my dear.

And so it went, hauling sets of four 15’ logs together, walking the uneven drive to the new shed location, lifting the slabs into place and securing them (I only drove the screw gun into my fingernail once!) into place. A few hours later and all the wood had been harvested, the necessary trees had been felled to add the last layers of support and the first wall had gone up.

One more to go, plus roofing.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Woodshed Addition

 

 

Now that we had all the materials, it would be super quick, maybe 30 minutes.

Very cute. Again.

A few hours after that, darkness threatening to descend upon us (she’s so sneaky these days) and there we were:

finished.

The Chief was donning some serious wood glitter and I had more shavings down my train-driver overalls than I was comfortable with, but there we were, 1.5 days and one more project crossed off our list for our spot.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9/18/17 My Moon, My Man

Up on the Roof.

 

 

Our list.

Our spot.

Our home.

I’m so glad I started my Sunday tradition now years ago, to protect and reinvent this special day and to open myself up to the easy that is a Sunday morning but most of all, I’m so grateful to have found someone to share it with. Someone to have goals to accomplish with. Someone to open my eyes to the possibilities of my abilities. Someone who even though he spends the rest of the week at a job on a roof still wants to come home to work on ours. Because even in the space I made for an easy Sunday, there was something missing.

Or rather, someone.

 

Thank you, Alaska for helping me find him.

 

Beneath the Borealis Easy Like Sunday Morning 9:18:17 Man Glitter

I just had to show the Chainsaw Glitter

 

 

 

DOGTOWN, U.S.A Part II: Full Circle

I felt Death knocking.

I felt Death knocking and I bolted the door against her advances. I covered the cracks in the door frame, piled the furniture high and steadied myself against her pounding.

And all the while holding vigilant against her overtures, I scolded myself for my loss of optimism. I deemed myself cynical and paranoid and told myself to ignore my gut.

I felt Death knocking.

I hoped I was wrong.

And then she came in.

She pushed away our barricades as if they were nothing and in one fell swoop confirmed my worst fears in a swell of sadness that swept me away.

 

I lost my best friend.

 

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On Wednesday after the worst week of all three of our lives, we made the hardest decision we have yet to make together:

We bid farewell to our Cinda.

Together we held her as she took her last breaths and together we wrapped her body in a blanket. Together we secured her onto the backboard her Dad had made for her. Together we said our goodbyes to those whom had kindly housed us in Town in our worst time.

Together the three of us went home.

It felt like a cruel joke.

The last time we had gone to Town, I had brought Cinda with me because I was concerned about her health. She and my Mom and I had piled into the truck that too was having issues. The ride there was quiet as a feeling of panic spread over me. I was paranoid about her health. Our town had already lost two dogs this Summer, I couldn’t handle her being next. And so I said a prayer over and over in my mind:

“If something has to fail, make it be the truck. Anything but my girl.”

And my prayers were answered.

Two days later Cinda and I had made it home with the help of a girlfriend and her trusty steed. Our truck hadn’t made it back but Lou? She was fine. The picture of health. It had been superstition after all. I had been paranoid and I had been wrong. I shook off the feeling of Death. We were together and she was healthy.

And that was all that mattered.

 

 

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Cinda Bones scaling the glacial walls like it’s nothing. 

 

 

There would be more trucks.

 

And then there was a new truck and The Chief went into Town to get it.

A few hours later Lou and I followed, catching a ride with a friend when I realized that her condition was worsening.

The whole way I again prayed to anyone and anything that would listen. I told myself Death was just taunting us, knocking louder now but that she could be quelled like the last time. She would stop. Cinda was at the top of her game. Svelte and happy and healthy. The Vet had told me so only weeks before.

Still I prayed over and over along the drive and in the week that followed. I offered up my own health, our home, money. Anything. Everything. “Please, take what you want. Anything but my baby. Please let her make it through.”

 

 

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One week later, The Chief and I drove home together hand in hand in a new truck with our baby’s body in the bed.

We returned home to an oppressive feeling of emptiness and to the most painful full circle experience I’ve ever had.

When we walked in the door we were greeted by a dinner left for us by our neighbors and to a beautiful note of condolence. Those were the same kindnesses and love we had bestowed upon them only a few months before when they had to make the transition of walking through their doorway for the first time without their baby.

Full circle.

Life is cruel and beautiful all in one.

In the morning we awoke for the first time in our house without our baby.

 

You never realize the quiet until it comes.

It’s deafening.

 

We spent the day digging her grave. The spot where she and her Dad had slept together in a tent the first Summer they had lived on the property was where we laid her to rest. As we walked the property earlier that morning to find where she would rest, the spot had called us in and put its arms around us the way only the Earth can.

We dug until we were up to our shoulders in an earthen grave, until we had to help one another out, until we were sure she would be safe from the wilds of the woods.

All the while, her Brother watched over us. He had come over from next door and had greeted us with his head down and without so much as the twitch of his tail. He was solemn and stoic as he let us bury our faces in his fur. We sobbed into him. He slept beside the ever-growing hole that would be her grave and as I dug my heart was broken again and again as I would look up and catch a glimpse of his tail and think that it was hers.

But it wasn’t.

And then as we left to prepare her body, her Brother left too.

We cleaned her and dried her and cried into her fur and then wrapped her again in one of her Dad’s blankets from their early days. Slowly we lowered her into the grave and said our final goodbyes. In the hours that followed we filled her grave with dirt and covered the top in moss and rocks and flowers.

Our baby.

 

 

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Our first Christmas.

 

 

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Our last family ski

 

 

Cinda was our first baby.

And she was my very best friend.

She was the reason I made it through my first Winter when The Chief worked all the dark day long and I was left in an unfamiliar place all alone. In the cold and the vast darkness she was my light and I was no longer alone. I talked to her more than anyone else. She waited patiently as I learned to ski and made me feel safe in the big white world I had found myself in.

 

 

 

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Keeping me company while I organized totes.

 

She showed me around and taught me to navigate the place I called home. At every turn she would wait for me to make sure I wouldn’t miss it.

 

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This way, Mommy.

 

 

She was my best friend and I lost her.

I lost her and still, she is everywhere.

I hear her though she’s not there. I smell the way her paws smelled in fleeting moments and it taunts me. I find her fur at every turn. I see her footprints in the soft landings of the river’s shore.

I still look for her in her bed under the house every time I walk up the stairs and I wait for her to peek up at me over the table in our living room. My heart breaks in expectant surprise when I turn around in the kitchen and she isn’t there to sample what I’m making. I feel as if I’m just waiting to turn the corner and see her again, as though I’ve simply lost her and not that she’s lost her life.

 

 

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Sneaky, peaky T.

 

 

She visits us in our dreams and in the memories of our Friend Family who have been there every step of the way to kneel at her grave and cry, to wrap us in their arms, to feed us and to tell stories that make us able to laugh again.

It’s a constant up and down whirlybird of a rollercoaster on a ride I never wanted to go on that I never paid admittance for. It feels as if we are here by accident, by a terrible joke.

But we aren’t.

This is our new life. Just us and the quiet.

 

Despite the despair and the pain that feel infinite it was worth it. I wouldn’t take back getting to love her in order to avoid this but I would do anything for more time together.

I love you, Cinda, dog of unflinching personality and infinite nicknames and lessons and love. There will never be another like you. Thank you for letting me be your Mom, for as one of your Grandmas said with a laugh: you didn’t have to let me be your Mom but you did.

Thank you. We will see you on the other side.

We miss you. So much.

 

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The Pack Test

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

Well, sort of.

Two weeks ago I became a real Wildland Emergency Firefighter.

Well, sort of.

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

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

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

Because we will be the first boots on the ground.

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

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

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

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

But attend a meeting?

No, gracias.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

Dang, very true and fair enough.

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

Until two events happened:

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

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

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

Right?

Apparently not.

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

Me?

A Red Card?

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

Me?

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

It goes like this:

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

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

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

Quite the pickle, eh?

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

Willing?

Yes.

Able?

…Gulp.

 

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

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

Though not at first.

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

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

“Yep!”

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

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

“Oh!”

“Oh?”

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

It weighed maybe 20 pounds.

And it took me over an hour to get there.

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

…Gulp.

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

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

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

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

Mine is spot on!

Whoops.

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

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

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

Every second counted.

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

Thanks, honey.

Nevertheless, we powered on.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

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

You can do this.

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

Keep the pace.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

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

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

The time was ticking away.

30 minutes.

35 minutes.

40 minutes.

41 minutes.

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

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

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

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

42 minutes.

43 minutes.

2 minutes left.

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

We made it.

43 minutes and 20 seconds.

A record?

I think not.

A pass?

Why yes, yes I think so!

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

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

Right?

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

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

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

The soreness.

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

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

Wrong.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

It should definitely be labeled “Arduous”.

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

I had passed.

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

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

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

I responded in truth: Well, sort of.

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

I guess we will have to see.

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

And then, well, who knows?

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

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

La Mama: Part 1

One week was not enough.

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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Driving into town…straight into the storm

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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Can you identify this beauty? 

 

 

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

But still she did fine.

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

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

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

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

“We aren’t getting out, are we?”

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

But she did.

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

 

 

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Just a wee drop…

 

 

Her first tradition.

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

 

 

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How to ride a 4-wheeler…in the rain…

 

 

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

Well, no, not yet.

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

And it helped me to reconnect with that initial awe.

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

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

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

You go for it.

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

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

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

Mmmmhmmmm.

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

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

Nope.

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

She took it all in stride.

 

 

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Glacier ice.

 

 

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

I was relaxing with my Mom.

And then Chore Reality set in.

We were leaving for Anchorage in the morning.

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

To Do:

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

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

Right?

Wrong.

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

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

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

And so I did.

And then I fell asleep.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Oh plans. So cute, aren’t we?

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

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

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

Me too.

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

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

Shit.

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

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

The trip out was uneventful in the best of ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And awesome was an understatement.

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

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

I think that explains it.

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

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

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

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

And rest I did.

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

 

Next week.

 

Stay tuned.

 

 

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My Mama is Coming to Town

This here Summer will be my 3rd in our little hamlet in Alaska. As my 3rd time around the never-setting sun I’m realizing the obvious: no Summer is the same. Every year, the faces change just as fast as the scenery. You expect to see the familiarity of last year, and just like that…it’s started anew. The glacier changes, the wormholes collapse or are created, the trees leaf out and a whole new slew of faces come into your world, a world that in turn becomes theirs as well.

 

 

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This must be the place.

 

 

And this year, a new face will be joining them: my Mama’s.

From the time I flew the coop out into the big unknown at 17, I’ve lived all over the place. Yet, in every place, my Mom had either moved me in or immediately come to visit. New apartment in Berkeley? She’d help me give the place a good scrub a dub dub. Living in Italy? Well, she’ll just have to come by for Thanksgiving.

There’s never been a time in my life where my Mom hasn’t seen where I live for longer than a month.

And now it’s verging on a 3rd year.

But fret not because…

My Mama’s coming to Town.

 

 

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As I’m sure you’ve noticed, this place isn’t just some sort of pop on in location. No, the journey North requires some preparation and logistics and in the heat and hectic mess of Summer planning this hasn’t been my a strong suit and so, we sat down this Winter to plan away. And now, my Mama doesn’t have to live my life through pictures and stories. She can experience it on her own.

My Mama arrives in less than 3 weeks. Since I’ve never had a visitor out here, I didn’t know what goes along with the anticipation of a guest’s arrival but now I feel it. Every walk I take, or adventure I have, I am thinking of her.

Will she be comfortable?

Will this incline be O.K?

Will these flowers still be blooming?

Will she see a bear?

Will she think an outdoor shower is awesome or atrocious?

Will the Weather Gods smile upon us?

Will she love this place like I do?

 

 

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All of these questions swim around me constantly as I wonder what I’ve forgotten to wonder about and worry that there’s a detail I’ve left out. But the last question wrestles with my mind the most. It’s a question I’d never asked myself before.

Before it didn’t matter if she liked where I lived because I only stayed for a year or two in the far away places and the closer by places were automatically approved due to distance alone. But this place? Well it’s not exactly a hop, skip and a jump away now is it and it’s clearly not a life that everyone leads.

And so in all honesty, I was nervous that she might not like it.

This place is not for everyone and I’m fine with that (except for when it comes to my Mom). It’s why the local businesses over-hire and why we aren’t surprised when we hear of someone leaving in the night without even a note to explain why. We know why. It’s a hard life but the hard is what makes it good (“A League of their Own” reference, anyone?). Well, it’s what makes it good to me at least.

But the hard is also what makes it messy. The hard is what causes a pile of Freely Acquired Just In Case tires to sit on our property, out of use for years until the day comes when someone needs them for a garden project. The hard is what makes it so that our house doesn’t have siding but does keep us cozy and warm. The hard is what makes each challenge more challenging and thus, each success that much more rewarding.

But it isn’t always pretty.

As a tidy-upper, not quite clean-freak but definitely clean and orderly appreciating lady, the disarray of life in the woods can be overwhelming at times. I can’t tell you how many times The Chief and I have walked outside to do some tidying up and have both let out simultaneous sighs at the plethora of projects to be done.

And when I was just visiting, before living here, I didn’t totally get why all of those projects weren’t already done.

Now, I do.

But still sometimes, my tidying tendencies get the best of me. I want to just tie everything up in a pretty bow and you know where I get that from?

My Mama.

And now she’s coming to visit. To see the sometimes un-tidy life we live in the woods. The life that’s not for everyone. The life that some take one look at and run in the other direction. The life that I almost didn’t live because I too was tempted to run at first.

 

 

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It’s a big place, constantly changing, constantly surprising

 

 

Perhaps her experience will be that of love at first sight. Perhaps just the opposite. Either way, it’s her experience to have and no degree of my wanting her to love it here can effect that.

And that scared the hell out of me.

At first.

And so I called her and told her my worries. I want my Mom to love where I live, not simply because of a tendency to seek for her approval but also because I want her to want to come visit me. I want her to want to visit this place and me. It makes the very long journey fly by if the end location is somewhere you actually love to be. And to all these fears she, in her perfect Mama rationale stated this:

“I’ll love it because you are there.”

If that’s not the most quintessential Mommy-Mom-Sentence I’ve ever heard then I don’t know what is. And you know what? It worked perfectly (I’m a sucker for Mommy-Mom-Sentences).

And so, since then (and especially since she bought her ticket) I’ve stopped the worry. Sure, I’m doing a faster shuffle these days trying to tidy, trying to make sure things are in order and that the hard life is as easy as it can be but I also know that she’ll love it purely because of the fact that we will be together. And so will I. Yes, there will be bug bites and slop buckets and outhouse and all the other discomforts that go along with a non-modern life but they will pale in comparison to the awesomeness that is my Mom being in our home.

Finally, I’ll be able to truly share my life with her, instead of bits and snippets and stories and my interpretations. She’ll have her own take on it all, she’ll know my friends, my work, my walks I take every time I call her and she’ll see our life as it is here, instead of our patched together life in California where we move every week and live out of suitcases.

It’s been a bizarre thing to have her not know who or where I am talking about and I can’t wait to bridge the gap.

She’ll finally know our life.

She’ll finally know and I can’t wait.

 

 

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That’s my Mama!

Dogtown, U.S.A

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

she was a dog.

 

 

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Io in the background at the beach in California

 

 

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

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

I had landed in doggie heaven.

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

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

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

Each and every one of them.

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

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

 

 

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C’mon. Let us in.

 

 

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

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

 

 

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And they always get the best seat.

 

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

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

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

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

And then something was.

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

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

 

 

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Outnumbered again.

 

 

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

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

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

She’s family.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A New Start(s)

Aside from one unyielding patch of ice (which funny enough is home to our Swimming Hole…brr), Spring has sprung.

And it’s sprung right into Summer.

Break-up seems like an event with no end, it feels like the ground won’t be able to lap up the rest of the standing water and just when it seems like it might, it rains. But puddles aside, all other signs are pointing right past Spring and into Summer.

I saw my first flower a week ago, a delicate little white beauty with a purple underneath called an Anenome.

Three days ago I found again the patch of wild orchids I happened upon last year with their first blooms.

The Dryas from last year is out and uncovered and being adorable as always, making shadows with their Einstein-esque hair.

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And my seeds have turned into seedlings. There’s not much better than seeing baby plants grow up.

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Tis the season for new growth and so, this past week, we planted the garden. We turned the dirt and amended the soil and placed hopeful seeds into the ground and once we’ve hardened off the starts they too will go in.

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The drudgery of Break-Up (and in all honesty, it was pretty mild compared to last year) has been replaced by the optimism of Spring and it feels really good. Despite the joy of seeing friends from my first Summer last year, my clinging to Winter made it hard to enjoy. This year, I feel able to dive in and its as if one big family has come home.

And so, I’m taking a note from all the new life I’ve seen and trying to emulate its rejuvenation and with Summer staring me in the face with her crazy long days and lack of sleep and constant go-go-go I’m at least feeling a little more prepared. That’s all we can hope for, right?

Progress and new starts.

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Happy Summer.

Opposites Keep Attracting as Bluebell Rides Again

As Winter waves her final goodbyes and the last bits of snow melt away, the Fall Tuck-In has slowly become accessible again. Last Fall, the Tuck-In took days and days and hours on end of work. We packed away clothing we wouldn’t need until Summer, we stacked lumber in order to protect it from the onslaught of approaching elements and we tidied away the bits and pieces, saying goodbye until the snow melted away and freed them again.

In that tidying, Bluebell (my scootercycle) too was packed away. She was placed under the gigantic tarp we tucked over the huge pile of lumber we had stacked and the barrels we had moved into a fueling station to avoid “Bad Gas” ((a frustrating situation (and giggle inducing) sure to create problems which arises when water gets into the fuel barrels. To avoid Bad Gas we took the necessary precautions and covered the barrels with the tarp…and took some Tums)) so she would be protected for the Winter. We loaded down the tarp with logs, hoping it would hold the snow load and everything would come out unscathed.

Over those Fall Tuck-In days, with a common goal in mind (button down the house and prepare for our return), we watched one another prioritize. For me, tidying up was on my brain so that when we came home with a mess of supplies the house would already be in order and all of our Winter necessities would be ready for us. For The Chief, fixing things and finishing projects so that we wouldn’t come home to extra work was the most important. Our goals were the same, but the projects differed.

Opposites attract.

Months later, we came home to Winter and forgot all about what we had or hadn’t tidied or fixed or what still needed attention.

We arrived to a snow laden land, free of obstructions or eyesores. Everything looked the same in a blanket of white leaving us free to forget the many random parts which we see daily in our non-frozen life, like the Frankenstein-esque snow machines hoping for the parts to make them live again or the spare tires and piles of wood.

In the Winter, the beauty of the snow covers all messes.

But it’s not Winter anymore.

The snow has gone and the puddles have almost dried and the last bits of ice in the cold corners of the property are melted enough to be chipped away. The slow, tedious process of watching the forgotten bits come back in to view during the melt is over. Everything is unearthed. The things we forgot to move can now be simply picked up instead of chipped out (and often broken in the process) and the bits of bear poop trash frozen in (from a late Fall after we left hungry bear burglar) can now be thrown away instead of looked at through the ice like some stinky fossil. These little bits would stare at me every day, like a framed To-Do List you can’t act upon, until finally the day came that I could start checking off boxes. And it has come.

The earth is uncovering herself and we are following in her tracks, tidying up what we missed (or what creatures left behind) and starting again on projects just like in the Fall but now, in reverse. Now, we are putting away Winter gear and pulling out our Summer digs. The snow machines have been laid to Summer rest atop pallets and the ground is ready to be turned awake for planting instead of tucked in for sleep.

We were in the middle of such a tidying/projects day when we pulled up the tarp to uncover the gas barrels and saw an old friend: Bluebell. In our previous days of tidying/projects she had beckoned from under the tarp but the ground had still been too frozen. Now, the season was ready for her, but would she be ready for it? There are no guarantees. Sitting in the cold for months on end is asking a lot of anything, especially a machine we just got running.

Bluebell.

 

 

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Bluebell on her first day with us. Will there ever be a cuter picture? Me thinks not.

 

In case you missed her origin story little Bell came to us in a full circle story a little over a year ago.  The Chief had given her away to a mechanically inclined friend who was able to bring her back to life. He then sold her to his brother. His brother was about to bring her to Town to sell her when he ran into The Chief who immediately purchased the cycle (for the second time) and drove up to my work to present it to me. Full circle fantasy come to life.

And so we uncovered her, feeling hopeful. The little miss had cozied in for the Winter. She’s no Snow Bunny (I’d tumble twice as much if I rode around on her skinny tires), she’s my Summer Honey and bringing her out made me smile.

Until we tried to start her.

Sitting for so long can be hard on the little blue beast but despite the uh-oh in my eyes, The Chief, familiar with rough starts and not expecting instant gratification like me, had faith. We started the process of elimination:

Fuel tank on? Check.

Dial set to Run? Check.

3.5 cranks of the foot start? Check.

Key turned on? Check.

All the checks were marked but still, time after time she wouldn’t budge. Not even a purr.

We checked the gas and oil. Low. Low. Fill, fill. Try again.

And again.

And again.

Still no luck.

Not even the whimper of a start.

The Chief gave a few more tries and handed her to me.

I did the four-point inspection and…

Nothing.

I was about to suggest we give her a moments rest and head back to our massive clean-up project we had become distracted from with her when a little voice told me to try again.

“One more!”

And just like that, she fired up.

“Take her for a spin, baby!”

I let out a squeal and headed down our muddy drive, aiming for high, dry ground to avoid tipping over or slipping within the first minutes of our joy ride. The neighbor’s dog joined in with me and I hooted and hollered as he barked. We circled back and The Chief asked how she felt and thus, without meaning to, I unraveled the litany of fixes to fix.

“She’s great! The brakes still aren’t working but that’s O.K.”

Last year I had driven her from June to September and every ride had gotten a little hairier than the next. By the end of the Summer, stopping was more of a suggestion than a real occurrence. I’d make sure I was wearing sturdy shoes every time we went out and I’d put my feet down well before a stop but when an unsuspecting roadblock jumped in our way it was skid city. Thankfully, yelling “I don’t have any brakes!” communicated promptly enough to people the urgency with which they needed to move but still, I didn’t feel great about being such a bull in a china shop. Yet, in the hustle and bustle of Summer, we accepted the non-brakes as they were and hoped they could be fixed at a slower time of year.

Enter: Spring.

 

 

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Half clouds, half sun with a chance of snow but only in the mountains. Dirt roads for days.

 

 

“The brakes are still loose, huh?” The Chief replied. I thought he had all but written them off but before I knew it, there he was, wiggling wires and jiggling handles and soon, I was off on another test ride.

“How was that?”

“Great!”

The brake worked. The brakes didn’t. Personally, I was satisfied with the one but The Chief sniffed me out.

“What?”

“It’s great, the front brake doesn’t work but that’s fine.”

This is my tendency. Once something goes from bad to better and I am ready to throw in the towel. It’s good enough. Plus, we had other projects at hand.

“Let me see what I can do.”

This is his tendency. Why leave it just at O.K. when Better or Best could be options?

Opposites attract.

He fiddled some more while I held the bike and craned my neck to see where this fix was taking place and soon, it was time for another test drive.

“I got them as tight as I could, I think they might be as good as they’re going to get.”

Compared to last year, I was already at a 100% improvement, I was stoked but seeing how happy even more improvement was making The Chief made me smile.

I came back from yet another test drive with good news: we were done, she was 150%  better already than last year. I was stoked. And ready to move back to our project.

“Hey babe, how are the mirrors?” The Chief asked as I dismounted.

“The mirrors?”

“Yea, do they need an adjustment?”

This was getting too adorable. I swear next up he was going to apply tassles for me too (to which I would gladly say “heck yes!”)

“The mirrors have never worked. One just spins in circles as I drive and the other is stuck. No biggie.”

Not for long.

His interest was again piqued by a challenge.

And then…out came the blowtorch.

He wrenched the spinner into place and then, with a grin asked if I was O.K. with him bending the other, since it wouldn’t budge. Again, with one mirror now in place I was already operating at 100% improvement. This was a whole new bike, I was already set, but seeing how happy it made him to go past just the Good level, I gave the O.K. Plus, who can deny that guy a little pyro time?

He put the heat on until the metal way ready to give and slowly, a new angle was formed and with that, a new point of view: a rear view.

 

 

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I took it for another test drive to the end of the driveway and then decided to let her rip down the open road.

As I approached the 90 degree turn that met up with another driveway I saw a fuzzy character heading my way. A bear? It is Spring and the big boys n’ girls are out and every night this past week, bears have been in my dreams. Was this to be my first sighting? Me and Bluebell flying towards a brown bear?

No, it was in fact my first (and by first I mean umpteenth) reminder that I need to wear my glasses. I squinted and slowed (thanks to my new brakes) long enough to realize that in fact I wasn’t tra-la-la-ing into the jaws of a grizzly but instead towards two barking dogs running at me.

Dogs out here are family. We know them by their bark alone, much less by their faces, so seeing two dogs I don’t know charging towards me at full speed gave me a little lurch in my stomach. In a (perhaps not the best) split second decision, I decided to give the pooches a run for their money (instead of loop the long way home through rocky territory) and test out not only Bluebell’s acceleration but also, put the new mirrors to work. I floored it into a 180 and headed back to the house. The dogs were still in hot pursuit which I could tell because…

The mirrors worked perfectly!

Last year I would always keep an ear out for approaching vehicles etc. and I would grab the mirror from time to time to give a check but since I spent most of my time trying to avoid big rocks while balancing, I didn’t often have time to check back.

I could see the dogs perfectly and as Bluebell sped off,  I could see that although I didn’t know them, they weren’t going to eat me if they caught up. Either way, Bluebell didn’t give them a chance. That’s my girl.

I rode in and told The Chief how great the mirrors were, how I had put them to the test and how grateful I was to him for all the fixes he had fixed.

 

 

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I think she looks good with a new angle.

 

 

We were set, Bluebell and I. We could drive again, I could stop again and I could see behind me. It was almost too much. I was ready, set and raring to go.

Or so I thought.

As I went to put her up on her stand, The Chief started to take off her homemade seat protector which I had fashioned out of a trash bag. Classy, I know but it did the job.

“Hold up, buttercup. It’s about to rain” I said to him as I looked at the ominous skies.

“One more thing.”

He went into the shed and pulled out a roll of visqueen, something I knew only as a band I used to listen to in college. He had another idea for the vapor barrier left over from building our house:

A seat cover. A seat cover which would stay put and not send me slip sliding over each bump we hit and would keep out the moisture.

I went back to our oppressive organizing project and came back an hour later to find a brand new bike. New fluids, new brakes, new mirrors and a new seat. She was better than when I had gotten her (minus the front light mishap of last Summer) and all because of a little persistence.

 

 

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Bedazzled Bluebell, Queen of the Visqueen

 

 

Just then, the sky turned even darker and the threat of rain grew nearer. We hurriedly put away the day’s projects, covering Bluebell with a much smaller tarp and putting away the boxes we’d been going through from under the house.

It’s funny to find which projects speak to us and how we attack them. For me, seeing all of the Spring melt into muck made me want to find a home for everything (and pull together a dump run for the things that no longer worked). But that can’t happen in a day (as we found out). What could happen was completing the Bluebell project and he did. Either way, together we made sure that underneath the house was tidied and almost completed (a project I’ve wanted to conquer for two years now) and now Bluebell isn’t just working, she’s fully functional.

Watching The Chief’s persistence that day impressed me. I would have stopped after she made her first trip and then put off making the other fixes until who knows when. It made me want to change my old ways of accepting just O.K. and to instead strive for Best. Opposites do attract but I think it’s because we have something to learn from those areas of opposites, if we are open to it. Sure, we may never budge on our ideas of the best meal for a first night in Town (Me: Sushi, The Chief: Pizza) but when it comes to bigger opposites, we both have found room to grow, room to improve, room to be better and for that I am very grateful.

We finished the day with a high-five and a trip to Town for a few more chores and a meal we could easily agree on at The Bar: chicken wings, a burger and a beer.

The ground is thawed, Bluebell is out, projects abound and The Bar is open.

I think it’s official: Summer is here.

 

 

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Blue skies smiling at me while riding on the back of the 4-wheeler.