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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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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.

Getting into the Spring of Things

Oh my oh my is it getting Spring-y over here.

Not Spring-y in the commercial sense we all have grown up being told is Spring. There are no daffodils out, or lambs being born or lustrous bright green grasses to gallop through.  No, that’s not quite an Alaskan Spring.

Here, it’s more subtle. Your nose recognizes the smell of dirt for the first time in months. Your eyes see colors they’d once held dear and almost forgotten. The landscape shifts hourly before your eyes. The trees start to send out little buds, hopeful and expectant. And the birds come out to sing just a bit louder their songs of Spring.

And, despite their beauty, all of these little joys can easily be overpowered by a rough break-up. No, not the kind where someone ends with “I hope we can still be friends” (ugh, isn’t that the worst?). No, the Breakup of the rivers and the official end of Winter.

 

 

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Last year, Breakup was rough. It was the “I hope we can still be friends” of Breakups that went back and forth, split up, back together, on again off again turmoil one expects in the relationships of our early 20’s. I thought this stage was over. The rivers became impassable and the roads turned to slush as Spring followed the April Showers part of the old phrase but lacked the May Flowers (at least in the beginning) to follow. It was dreary and rainy and cold enough to freeze the puddles every night. Those little ice mounds were my nemeses and I have a scar on my buns to prove it. After falling multiple times on the walk home from Town one night last year, I felt a draft. I returned home to find that I had been sharing my rear view with all unsuspecting onlookers (thankfully they were few and friends at that since the Town hadn’t filled with people yet, plus it was dark) as a huge rip had been torn in my pants (and carved into my bum) from slipping and falling on the rugged ice. It bumped and bruised and teased me after. Last year, I was not a fan of Breakup.

And so, coming back from California this year, I was nervous to once again experience a slip-sliding-bruised-backsiding Breakup. I prepared for the worst.

But thankfully, was surprised by the best.

 

 

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Look familiar?

 

 

I arrived to see what had been a snow-laden Winter wonderland when I left turned into a patchy, muddy but Spring. It was worlds away from the snow haven I had left where travel by snowmachine was the name of the game. Suddenly, one could barely play hopscotch from snow patch to snow patch. The little mounds of snow would melt further every day as our sunny Spring sent rays down to bring on the exposure of the earth beneath. Puddles would change daily as once rain boot required routes would suddenly be slipper accessible in a short 24 hours. The earth was soaking it in.

 

 

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Hello new nature. Nice to see you.

 

 

And so, as the earth has started preparations for Summer, so have we. The skis are put away along with the Winter boots and jackets and the in betweeners have entered. Rain boots and rain gear have replaced bibs and snowboots. Triple layered walks have been replaced by tank tops and hiking boots. And despite my love of Winter, this year I’m finding it easier to let go.

 

 

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Sunday Strolls

 

 

Don’t get me wrong, I deeply miss our silent haven where even the loudest sounds are muffled by the snow on the trees, where I can walk for hours without seeing a face, where The Chief and I spend the day inside next to the fire. But, those days are gone, until Winter comes again.

And before we know it, she’ll be here.

But first, Summer.

As I was returning from California this year, I asked a girlfriend how Town was.

“I can feel the stampede” she replied with trepidation in her voice.

Last year, I felt that too. Spring was simply the waiting game for the hundreds of Summer friends to join us and just like waiting for your friends to arrive at your birthday party, there is always an apprehension. How will it be? How will it go? Last year, I was still holding onto Winter as I asked these questions and so, since I was neither here nor there, the limbo I found myself in was disconcerting. I wasn’t ready for Summer. I was mourning my loss of Winter and disliking Spring. I was living in a world two seasons past.

And so, this year I am trying to be exactly where I am and remember that old Alaskan saying: If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes. It applies to everything here. Each moment is different. Everyday someone new comes in or out and again, our little microcosm is changed, ever so slightly. The introduction of something new, the exit of something old. We are like a “Kitchen Sink” stew here where you put a little bit of everything all at once into a meal. A little of this, a little of that and the outcome is never the same. Everyday the end result is changed. In the Winter, the ingredients are fewer and so each addition is noticeable and each subtraction is as well. In the Summer, there are a plethora of options and the stew becomes nuanced in ways we have forgotten over the snowy months. Both are good, both are unique and each are shared with all who contribute. The dinner table gets longer and longer.

We are going to need a lot more bowls.

 

Happy Spring to you, should it find you in a field of flowers or in a puddle-ridden grey land or like here, somewhere in between. Anywhere you are, I bet it’s changing right as you read this, even ever so slightly. May this time of rebirth bring to you renewed energies and an excitement for the future, stampedes or not I hope it’s delicious.

 

 

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Work Smarter, Not Harder: A Story of the Sage Advice We Never Took

You know when you have an idea?

A house idea, in particular.

I’ve had them before.

They go something like this:

(Me, To The Chief): “We should move the fridge to the oven side of the kitchen, bust out the entire prep area, build a new (lower for Shorty-Mc-Shorterson Me) counter in its place and then build a shelving unit where the fridge used to be.”

(The Chief, to Me): “I like it! How do you suggest we go about doing that?”

(Me, To The Chief): silence.

A thinking silence.

…and then the cacophony of ideas begins. I start with something pretty over the top that I’ve pulled out of thin air since all I had dreamed up was the idea, not the plan. The Chief  always assumes that I have some awesome building idea in store to follow my awesome my finished product idea but since my background in construction consists mainly of Lego structures built under the watchful eye of my 5 year-old nephew, I rarely have a plan. And so, I make one up on the fly. My suggestion is then typically followed by a furrowed brow and confusion as my furry man tries to make construction sense of my artsy approach. Eventually, our two worlds collide: he comes in with the reason and I come back at him with new ideas and exactly zero know-how and after the ping-pong game ends with handshake and a tie, a plan is founded.

The execution of that plan is a whole other charade.

You see, planning construction in the woods is pretty much the fastest way to guarantee something to go awry. There are so many details, so much prep and so many factors that manufacture an umpteenth amount of opportunities for something to slip through the cracks…and slip through it does.

Last year, our shelving project took days longer than we had planned. Materials had to be unearthed, defrosted, shaped into usable materials via Alaska Mills, and brought inside to defrost again, along with all of the tools and batteries the job would require. And that was just set up.

 

 

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Baby, it’s cold outside. Mill quickly.

 

 

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No wedges around? Use what you have.

 

 

So, needless to say, big projects are an invitation for setbacks and calamities to ensue.

Therefore, when we chose our most recently completed house project, we chose something approachable, without too many moving parts. We set ourselves up for success.

 

That was over one year ago.

 

Success!?

 

The Project:

Home Improvement Project #3,321: A Newly Envisioned Spice Rack

In a little cabin in the woods, the use of vertical space is key. We had jumped right in to our vertical availability last year by moving our bulk food storage from totes to hanging from the kitchen beams via their lids.

 

 

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Rear view views of the ceiling.

 

 

Once we saw the success of that project (which took little more than an hour and a few major kidney bean/polenta/split pea spills) we figured we’d do the same with the spices. They’d be beautiful to look at, just like the bulk foods and it would clear off an entire shelf.

An entire shelf.

That’s prime cabin real-estate.

We loved the idea. We were sold. And so we ordered tiny quilted mason jars and burly magnets. The only thing left to find was a sheet of metal on which the jars would stick via magnet.

We figured in a valley this large, there had to be some sort of metal hanging around that we could use. We would cut it into some sort of awesome shape (I had a diamond in mind), affix it above the stove and after glueing the magnets to the lids of the jars…shazaam! Up they would go.

So easy.

So wrong.

It turns out that metal sheeting? Not so easy to find. The roofing metal we had on the property was corrugated and after pounding it to a “flat surface” and the magnets still not holding (aka it never got flat) we decided to look elsewhere.

Thankfully, The Chief was working construction at The Restaurant and it turned out that they had excess metal! And, it was a big sheet that we could cut into a perfect diamond. Yahoo! We brought it home and threw the magnet at it.

Nope.

Turns out, us dummies didn’t realize that the metal was, in fact, stainless steel, to which a magnet will not be attracted. But it’s so shiny…

So that didn’t work.

Never fear! I was headed to Town, the land of plenty! I pictured myself frolicking through aisles of already shaped metal sheeting, joyously overwhelmed by my options.

 

 

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I thought I’d be looking this happy the whole time. Whoops. Objects in the mirror could not be happier than they appear…until the Vet.

 

 

That did not happen.

Problem #1: I had gone to Little Town, not Big Town, and Little Town (4 hours away vs. 8 for Big Town) had little options and by little I mean none. The guys at the hardware store looked at me like I was crazy (maybe it was my I Just Came Out of the Woods appearance) and assured me that I wasn’t going to find anything like that unless I went all the way. Big Town.

Nope.

You would have thought I was searching out the last unicorn or something (if you see her, please let me know). Alas, I went home empty-handed and by empty handed I mean packed to the gills but still without the metal sheeting.

At this point, it had been over two months since the project had first been birthed from my brain and I was starting to regret uttering the words “Spice Jars”. The project lay pathetically unfinished, perpetually on the To-Do list of our lives. It sat in the back of our brains so much so that it must have been suffocating our common sense because it never occurred to us to just give up the metal idea and go with the flow.

We had forgotten the first rule of projects in Alaska: just ride with it and use what you have.

8 months later, we returned to Alaska and to our common sense.

Duh.

Glue the darn things!

One month after this genius revelation, we had decided on where we would glue the darn things. We were over our over the stove idea. That was so one year ago. Finally, we decided that they would go on the underside of the shelving we built last year to the left of the stove. Perfect Shorty Me height, nicely vibrant and visible and should we choose to move them, the unfinished wood of the shelves wouldn’t show the shift.

We got to work. Spacing the jars, working on function (his priority) vs. aesthetics (my priority) and finding a happy medium. It was all set to go when…

No glue.

How in the heck do we not have any Gorilla Glue in this entire (that makes it sound large, doesn’t it?) cabin?

We went outside to the shed to inspect. We couldn’t be without it, could we?

In fact, we could.

Thankfully, a friend was coming back in a few days later. She would grab the glue.

A week later, the weather permitted us to mosey and we were finally able to get to her and the glue that had returned three days prior.

We hauled our treasure back home like creepy Goloms with a ring. So precious.

But by the time we had gotten home the tug of hunger had surpassed our need to nest and by the time we had cooked and eaten dinner, we weren’t about to start this project. Not now. We needed fresh eyes on this simple project turned paramount.

Beside, I hadn’t even transferred the spices yet.

That’s right, let the ridiculous approach continue.

I’m not a One Step at a Time, Walk Before You Run type of girl and there was no way I was trudging halfway into this project by transferring all the spices before they were ready to land. In retrospect, this pigheadedness seems utterly silly but hey, oink oink.

Finally, one day the next week, I started. It was a sunny day that was a hint of the impending Spring. Time to get moving. I laid out before me the plethora of spices that had lived on the shelves. Years of bachelor life and lady-love entering were apparent as I looked at the array. Taco seasoning and onion flakes and the like were in the big jars followed by new installments of cumin and turmeric and other pint-sized parts that may rarely be used but make me smile, nonetheless.

 

 

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I took the 24 jars and matched them with the spices, separating mainly cooking spices from mainly baking spices.

We had exactly 24.

No, of course we didn’t. Some were retired. Old oregano that smells like soap? No thanks. Compost city.

Slowly, I transferred each one into the jar and the remainder into ziplocs and the ziplocs into a cardboard box, labeling everything along the way. A few podcasts later and I was done. An entire shelf had been transferred into 24 little jars and one tiny box. Our recycling was full of plastic and glass spice containers and me? Well, I was covered head to toe in a slight dusting from a rainbow of spices.

 

 

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A jumble of spices ready to hang.

 

 

The Chief, noticing my task when I started, started a task of his own: magnet glueing. By the time I had finished, he had secured three magnets.

Three.

The process was slow to say the least. First the measuring and spacing, then the magnets. The magnets wouldn’t hold unless held in place for upwards of ten minutes. After the first few holdings, The Chief devised a system involving wedging a knife sharpener with a shim under it in between the two shelves and the magnet, then letting it dry for 10-20 minutes and switching the whole apparatus to the next magnet.

Over the next few days, every time we thought of it, The Chief would start another magnet, each time putting one more jar into place. And before we knew it, there she was: our new spice “rack”, a vertical space success that only took one year to create.

 

 

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Eggman Honey!

 

 

And we love it. It looks like a constantly changing mood ring, colors shift and move, levels change and meals are made depending on what catches our eyes.

 

 

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Ducks in a row.

 

 

Cheers to brainstorming impossible ideas and completing them and cheers to the easy ideas that take record amounts of time to complete. Here’s to working smarter, not harder and also to ignoring that sage advice completely for over a year. Ignore or not, we ended up where we are and that’s pretty darn good…and I didn’t even have to go to Big Town.

No Girls Allowed

Remember the Berenstain Bears book No Girls Allowed (I can’t believe I’m referencing the Berenstain Bears yet again but apparently they made up more of my childhood than I realized and hey, those little fur balls had some serious life lessons to share)? Well, if not, you can probably guess the premise (Sister-centered exclusion at the Boys Only clubhouse, eventually deemed unkind and later open to all) and if you’ve ever been the younger sibling, boy or girl, you know the exclusion I’m talking about.

No Girls Allowed.

No Boys Allowed.

As a girl, I could relate to Sister Bear’s surprise at not being permitted access to the life and times of her older brother. My Brother is 8 years my senior and during the very distinctively different ages of 8 and 16 we might as well have been living on different planets. I, however, was none the wiser and was pretty sure (read: certain) that any and every place he went or thing he did was open to me as well. Obviously. He, on the other hand was certain of the exact opposite.

I trailed on his heels but at a point even simply standing out in the yard with his friends became a Boys Only Meeting.

What the heck?

Crafty little sister that I was (read: annoying) I found ways around this exclusion. Push me out? I push right back in. I’d create snack platters or squeeze up some lemonade and bring it out to them. In my Betty Crocker disguise I granted myself access to their world and before long they would fall into their Boys Only Meeting ways. I would try to lay low, tidying up glasses and busying myself with nothing in particular in order to hang with them just a little bit longer until, unbeknownst to me, my disguise would fall off as I would try to join the conversation which resulted in my brother carrying me off like a sack of potatoes.

Dang!

Busted again…until next snack time.

 

 

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No longer the littlest Toad in the family…

 

 

From the time I was little I’ve always hung with the boys, even if, like in the previous situation, they didn’t know we were hanging out. We were. When they did know we were hanging out, I appreciated their perspective and the different way they went through the world. It’s quite a trip to walk in different shoes or at least to watch how someone else does it.

However, there always seemed to be a sort of breaking point or threshold to my inclusion in their world. At some point the No Girls Allowed sign would arise. and in truth I’m fine with that. Sure, the little sister in me would love to go Betty Crocker incognito and infiltrate the Boys Only Meeting like back in the good ol’ days but I can also appreciate the candor which one can only employ in the company of like-minded peers and sometimes, that is essential.

And so, upon inadvertently moving to Alaska, I assumed there would be a lot of No Girls Allowed signs “posted” in this heavily male environment.

Wrong.

I figured the male heavy population would mean multitudes of Male Only Meetings with me stuck alone in a cabin in the woods or searching out girls to hang with.

Wrong.

Since I’ve been here, the inclusive approach of this place has shocked me and has made me recalibrate my thinking. In California, Guys Poker Night was a common occurence and something I wouldn’t even have Betty Crocker-ed my way into. It felt like a fiercely protected ritual. Sure, I could have asked to join and perhaps I would have been granted access but I feel I would have been seen as an infiltrator and that my presence would have been a slap in the face affront to their ritual. And to me, that was always just the way it was.

Our first Winter here, that all came to a halt.

“The guys are calling Poker Night, babe. You in? ”

Guys + Poker + Me…somehow this equation must be off, dear.

He assured me that Poker was for everyone.

I assured him that I hadn’t played Poker since I was a kid at The Cabin in Missouri with a pretzel stick in one hand (a.k.a cigar) and a homemade milkshake in the other. Back then I’d had beginner’s luck but suddenly I wasn’t so sure.

“I can just watch. I don’t want to hold up the game.”

Naw.

The Chief’s encouragement was catching and I jumped into the first game (accompanied by one or two other ladies), equipped with a Chief-made cheat sheet on a paper plate outlining (in order) all of the ways to win.

There was no mention by the boys of the girls infiltrating their night because the night was all of ours. It was Poker Night, plain and simple and it made me realize how easy that really can be. Now again, don’t get me wrong I am a major proponent of some Ovaries Only time or any other (non-racist/sexist/overall just being a jerkface) grouping, gendered or not, but it’s also a beautiful thing to see the lines blur and the barriers become unimportant.

Perhaps it’s the lifestyle which prompts this Everyone is Allowed mentality. Everyone is needed and everyone has something to offer. Travel is time-consuming and sometimes difficult and social events (at least in the dead of Winter) don’t happen every day. So when something does happen, everyone comes. And we check in. Sometimes, when I know I’ll be the only girl, I see if maybe The Chief would like some dudes-only time and I spring for hosting the ladies but mostly we are all together out of ease or comfort or the feeling of family it brings.

The other day, four of our guy friends were taking a trip up a local frozen creek to the base of a glacier (yes, trust me, that statement may roll of my tongue (or flow from my fingers here) but it still shocks me every time)). Previously, a trail had been put in for the first 3 miles or so. The round trip would be 40-50 miles total. Almost all of it would be breaking trail. It would be rough (to me) riding via snow machine and would require me to employ some moves I had yet to even try, much less master. I felt under-prepared and in over my head and so…

I went anyways.

Being the only girl and highly inexperienced in the presence of 5 highly capable (read: freaking badass) riders I was worried I would constantly be holding them up. The Chief, reading my mind as he does, assured me that if the going got too rough or I felt uncomfortable that we would simply turn around.

What a concept.

My stubborn self hadn’t even considered an exit strategy other than simply not showing up and I had already told myself I was going (though until the moment I got my booty on that machine I still wasn’t entirely convinced).

And I was.

And so, potential exit intact, we headed out. Within the first mile up the creek (creek to me typically looks more like a babbling brook. This was more like what one might call a river at points a.k.a it was bigger than a creek might suggest) we approached a failing ice bridge. Being the 6th in line, the bridge was beaten down by the time of my approach. The Chief, our friend The Musher and I turned off our machines to investigate. I could hear water swirling and gurgling beneath us, ready to envelop our machines should we lean too far in the wrong direction (which to avoid meant standing completely on one side of the machine while leaning one’s full body weight uphill and still managing to steer, all while the machine and gravity conspire to send one downhill).

The Chief drove across while I waited, engine off, no longer able to drown out the water below which seemed to be getting louder with each heartbeat which too seemed to be getting louder.

His passing created a slurry of fresh powder into the moving water below. The ice bridge grew less like a bridge and more and more like an impassable hole each second.

I started up my machine and began to eye my route when I looked up to see he was giving me the “Stop” symbol (one clenching fist held at eye level). He walked over to me and we seamlessly traded locations, he on the machine, me trotting across the bridge on foot. He had read my mind. Within seconds he had easily ridden my machine across. No amount of ego could have made me ask for anything less. I was grateful and I didn’t care that I was the weakest link because no one made me feel like one. We were all across and I felt safe.

 

 

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The day continued on like that, moments of triumph followed by moments of sheer terror and utter elation. For a lady with a fear of heights like myself the day was full of challenges as we ascended up hillsides with sheer cliffs and rode along angled ice bridges. I sang to myself so loudly that I could barely hear my machine beneath me running at full throttle. It was also so unbelievably fun that the fear often lost out to the sheer grandeur of the surrounding mountains and the ever-changing “creek”.

 

 

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Uphill view. The edge of the snowbank on the right is well, the edge. Eek!

 

 

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Downhill view. Eek x2!

 

Throughout the journey The Chief consistently checked in with the triple pat on the head to ask if I was O.K. I’d signal back with a triple pat to ensure him that yes, yes I was O.K. He rode within one snowmachine of me the entire day and if he wasn’t directly in front of me, I felt safe from the constant check-ins from him and the other boys. It’s like an ever-shifting buddy system. You always know who the person is behind you and you consistently check-in to make sure that well…they’re still there. Ideally they are, at times they aren’t. Thankfully for us that day the hang-ups were normally quick fixes (quick for them at least, digging out a snowmachine in waist deep snow isn’t exactly a walk in the park. Neither is cutting down a tree to allow us passage).

 

 

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Look, Ma! No hands!

 

 

By the end of the day my arms were beyond sore and my wrists were ready to give out. I was so tired that I had to keep reminding myself to uphold my vigilance and ride with all of my faculties.

By the time we got to The Musher’s house the moon was up.

 

 

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Hello, little love.

 

 

We stopped in to warm up as the temperature outside rapidly started to drop. We had been gone the entire day.

Inside, The Musher made us all hot drinks and we dug into the snacks that had survived the trip. It turns out that I wasn’t the only one with sore arms (even though I was sure that I would be, certain I was a wimp for feeling worked over by the day). We were all beat and already making plans to spend the following day recovering. Certainly I hadn’t done nearly as much work as them (breaking trail and cutting down trees that had been blocking our path forced them to use far more energy than myself) but dead tired as I was, I had survived the day. We hadn’t turned back. I hadn’t felt like a hindrance or an intruder.

But I did feel like a sister to all of them and not even the annoying, 8 year-old kind and as we sat there snacking and recalling the tales of the day they all gave me a little applause for making it through the day.

I hadn’t felt like the only girl in a Boys Only meeting, I was on a family adventure.

 

 

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And for that, I love this place and the people she holds. In a highly gendered world, it’s nice to feel a blur start to occur. I’m grateful that my new norm is no longer one of dichotomous exclusivity but one where everyone is welcome…with the occasional (and essential) Girls Days.

Cheers to taking down the signs and creating new ones:

People Allowed (Nice Ones). Come On In.

 

 

 

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Your Shoes are Too Small (and Other Lessons in “Adulting”)

Up until I was 25 I always bought my shoes one size too small.

Minimum.

After years of competitive dancing and sports I was convinced I wore a size 7.

I’m an 8.5.

Minimum.

Perhaps the vanity factor played into my delusion, but overall, it was delusion. Growing up competing in Irish dancing (go ahead, insert Michael Flatley joke) from Kindergarten on I was beyond adept at squeezing myself into too tiny shoes. I was under the impression from fellow dancers and teachers alike that smaller shoes meant better control and in a competition that relies on precision and perfection any trick to help was welcome. So, I wore the smallest shoes I could fit into. And it worked. This little leprechaun of a lady bounced high and moved quickly because of those tiny shoes.

Or maybe I just powered through despite them.

Either way, I applied this tiny shoe logic to all the other shoes in my life. Soccer shoes? I can run faster. Volleyball? I’m better on my toes. Everyday shoes? They fit just fine (perhaps this was where the vanity factor coupled with the delusion).

My Mom, my ultimate dance supporter, would question my sizing, wondering why my toes were going numb and why I constantly had Charlie Horses waking me up in a panic in the night. Nonetheless, I would constantly reassure her not to worry. It couldn’t be the shoes.

She grew hip to my unintentional lies and one day I came home to a gift.

It was a journal and the cover, painted in water-color and written in caligraphy, said:

“Life is too short to wear small shoes.”

It credited a Chinese proverb that I’ve never been able to unearth but it struck me. And from then on…

Nothing changed. I still bought my shoes too small, until eventually, at 25 for some reason (probably due to the continued encouragement from running shoe stores who wanted me to buy a size bigger than my shoe size) I gave in and bought the right size, finally.

My Mom noticed this shift and said: “You’re making changes, my dear. You’re heading towards adulthood.”

A small move like this may not seem like much and in the grand scheme of things, maybe it isn’t but between the two of us, we knew the meaning of this shift went deeper and the wheels were starting to turn.

It started there and it’s been a back and forth trail ever since.

I’m trying to be an adult, or at least my version of one.

I’m not sure if it’s the act of trying that makes one an adult or the end result. Perhaps one day I’ll end up at a door at the end of an alley off my normal trajectory which will open to me, unveiling an inside filled with all the adults in my life blowing noisemakers and throwing confetti, all standing under a big sign that says:

You made it. Welcome to adulthood.

 

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Something like this would be awesome.

 

Perhaps. And if so, I hope to find that party. But I think the key lies in the first part: trying.

 

One month or so ago I threw my neck out something fierce and was laid out for over a week.

In the woods.

A place where almost everything I need requires my body to be functioning.

Water: Need my body.

Hauling and chopping wood: Yup, need it still.

Making a fire: Yessirree Bob.

It all requires physicality or help.

Thankfully, I still had the latter.

The Chief stepped in and took over all household operations. Simply sitting still left me in searing pain as my neck threatened to shift further out-of-place. Even boiling water for tea was a feat for me. He chopped and hauled the wood and made the fires and hauled the water and babied me back to health. It was 10 days before I was fully back in action. I was losing my mind while simultaneously patting myself on the back (gently).

I’ve had back and neck problems for as long as I can remember. The WWF was beyond popular when we were growing up and my Brother practiced the awesome moves on me, much to my neck’s chagrin. By the time I was 7 I was in a neck brace and seeing a chiropractor weekly. Add to that falling off my horse more times than I can count and concussing my little head more times than I’d like to admit via falls and car accidents. The last one was a real doozy and left me with an instability that I’ve yet to be able to pinpoint and that sends me into spasms and “outs” as often as the mail plane flies in. Yet, over the years I’ve done little to fix this foible of mine. I’ve minimized it, forgetting how much it interrupts my life until it would happen again.

But that won’t fly anymore. Not out here. Enter: Adulting, Step 1 (I’m still on Step 1): Take Care of Yourself

Gosh, this may sound easy to some but, as I’m still stuck on it, you can tell it’s hard for me.

Taking the 10 days to rehab was the first time I’ve ever let myself heal from an injury completely. Asking for help was harder than getting out of bed (and that was near impossible) but somehow the words came out of my mouth. I even followed that trajectory and set up an appointment with the local body worker who also happens to my one of my best girlfriends. In the past, I would have pushed out of the injury and ran like hell from it, pretending nothing had transpired. But this time, I was hellbent on breaking that pattern. Upkeep, dear reader. Upkeep.

And so, we scheduled a session. I drove gingerly over on the snow machine and 5 hours later (after a 3.5 hour session just centered on my neck and then a bit of girl time) The Chief arrived to take me home. Asking for him to pick me up? Hated it. My girlfriend said I had to but worst of all my girlfriend also said that I was not to do any sort of lifting, driving, skiing etc. for at least 48 hours in order for her work to set in (she realigns muscles, that’s the best way to describe it). A year ago, I wouldn’t have heeded her advice, despite the investment of the session. Things needing to be done would have taken precedence over things needing to heal (me). But this time, I did it, with the essential help of The Chief. We both had to remember not to let me do things and it made me feel vulnerable in a way I’ll have to further explore but…we did it.

And then, she was leaving and so was I.

I had started this train of health and despite my prior track record, I was ready to keep it going. I had been doing my prescribed exercises every day (I think that deserves all the gold stars) and truly listening to my body. Instead of skiing when I didn’t feel up to it, I would go for a walk or just stretch that day. I was taking her advice but…she was leaving and so was I.

It would be at least two months before I could see her for another session and although I was making progress in keeping my muscles in their newly defined places, they were starting to slip, starting to spasm and starting to hurt. I had started a new exercise routine, reminiscent of my past regimes that I hadn’t been able to do in years. The idea of having to pause my progress to recover again from bodywork left my forward craving mind in a tumble. In the past, I wouldn’t have thought twice. I would have avoided the two-day (and potentially more) “setback” of the bodywork and just let the months pass, at which point, upon her return I would probably have avoided scheduling again, until the next big episode.

But I’m in the end stage of Step 1, people. Things are changing.

And so I made that appointment.

The thing was, last time it took us a week to retrieve the snow machine we had left over there when I had driven myself and The Chief had picked me up. It had snowed and rained and driving in those conditions would have created a rutted, hardened mess for everyone when it froze up. Plus The Chief had been working all day in 20 below and by sunset neither of us felt like gearing up, yet again, to brave the plummeting temperatures.

So, the best solution?

Walk or ski and The Chief would retrieve me.

I opted for a walk that day, in the hopes of catching up with a girlfriend by phone on the way there.

As fate would have it, she was just arriving at work. Our conversation was short and sweet and that was probably a good thing because before long I was huffing and puffing my way there.

 

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I quickly realized that the 90 minutes I had allotted myself to get to her house would be cutting it close.

I stepped it up a notch.

My backpack was loaded down with warm gear for the ride home on the snow machine with The Chief and after the workout I had already done that morning, I was beginning to second guess if I would make it on time. My legs felt like Jell-O.

 

 

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4.5 miles and exactly 90 minutes later, I arrived at her doorstep, sweating and…

spasm-ing.

It turns out that a 90 minute power walk through snow with a loaded pack wasn’t exactly what the doctor ordered.

Thankfully, I had arrived at my back doctor and extra thankfully, she is my girlfriend because immediately upon entering her cabin I stripped down. I was a sweaty mess. I lay my clothes out to dry. Finally, I recovered and made myself presentable (and touchable) again (see, this is where running water comes in really handy. But, for the time being, baby wipes will have to recover us from a workout) for the work ahead.

It was time to get on the table.

Two-and-a-half hours later I opened my eyes to darkened skies and lamplight (she’s so good). It had been painful in the best of ways and I could feel my body realigning. Thankfully, she could see and feel my progress and was able to work deeper since the bigger muscles had finally stopped having to be so protective.

An hour later, The Chief came to get me and we said our “goodbyes” for the next two months. I missed her already.

The Chief slowly drove us home, checking to make sure the bumps weren’t too bumpy or the wind too whipping.

Thirty minutes later when we arrived home I was like a horse to stable. Straight to bed. I was exhausted.

The next day I woke up and did a body scan: how was I feeling? (Super Adulting!)

Pretty darn good!

Immediately my thoughts went to: well, I could probably chop some wood then, since we are out (not so Adulting).

Down girl.

Instead of breaking my promise to lay low right off the bat I asked The Chief to chop us wood.

Ugh.

I did it anyways.

My body was still exhausted from the work and from the day’s events prior to the work but the only part of me that was truly sore? My back from my walk. I had pushed too hard and I knew it as I was going but…I did it anyways. She would have gladly picked me up on her snow machine but no, I had been stubborn.

I lay low that first day, taking a walk and stretching only for exercise. When we were invited to dinner and everyone was riding snow machines I swallowed my pride and asked if we could drive.

But come Day 2, the restlessness had set in.

Another dinner invite and this one we couldn’t drive to, at least not in a car (unless we wanted to buy two bridge keys and not eat for the rest of the month). It was a snow machine only trip. I wavered back and forth. I felt good but didn’t want to push it. At the same time, the trip was beautiful. It took us downriver to the confluence and up the meeting river into a wide open space I’d never dreamed I would adventure to. But still, I was cautious. The second wind event of the week before had completely windblown the trail (which I now understand to mean that it had compacted it) and with our snow machine’s wonky skis, it would be a tough drive.

I decided to go.

 

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The middle of the river.

 

 

I know, I know but these aren’t trips we take everyday. I couldn’t help myself and I wanted to feel normal instead of delicate.

 

 

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We agreed to take it slow and we did but going there is much easier than coming home.

 

 

 

 

 

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Bundled to the brim

 

In the dark of night, the journey became a bit more treacherous. The bumps became less avoidable and the skis dipped in less mercifully, pulling us over. We made it home all in one piece but the hour plus ride had taken its toll. I went up to bed bumped up and grumpy.

The next morning I awoke to what I knew I would find: ouch. I was in pain, again. Yet, instead of beating myself up, I broke out the med kit. Arnica oil and stretching and rest to the rescue.

I guess it’s fair to say that I’m still learning. This adulting thing seems to go up and down, to and fro and often somewhere in-between. But I am trying and I finally have a sense of what it feels like.

A few days later and I was back at my new routine, shaking the house with jumping jacks and other plyometric plays but never without checking in during the routine and following it with some serious stretching afterwards.

When I first realized I was starting to grasp Step 1 of Adulting I figured it was solely age, and to some capacity I’m sure it is but I also think it’s this place. I’ve always been motivated by a deadline and this place serves it up full force. By living where I rely on myself, I have to actually become reliable to myself. And I’ve had to learn to rely on others. Pushing forward, even if “I can do it” doesn’t always mean I should. Being “out” for a week because of doing something avoidable that ended in injury? Not so impressive and arguably selfish. Still, my ego gets the best of me some days and I add that extra stack of wood to an already full armload or ski that extra unnecessary hour or carry two buckets when my body really only wants one. And some days I listen.

It’s a give and a take kind of thing but I’m starting to learn this step nonetheless. And hey, at least now my shoes fit (well, most of them at least).

One step at a time, in mostly well-fitting attire.

Life is too short for small shoes.

 

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…and too short to forget to take snow naps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Winter Wind Event

When I first pictured Winter in Alaska, it was during the heat of Summer and the question of whether I would stay for the Summer had shifted to whether or not I would stay for the Winter.

In Alaska (just to clarify).

I looked at my bearded boyfriend in these times and would laugh it off, hoping the questions would stop. I was terrified of Winter and despite wanting to stay, my California blood was telling me I wouldn’t make it. And I had, what I considered at the time, to be proof of my Winter inability. The Chief and I had taken a trip into the backcountry that Summer and by dusk I was already donning three layers on top, three layers on bottom, two pair of socks and sheepskin slippers.

And still I was cold.

It was the middle of Summer.

 

Winter, as I pictured it, was 20 times worse. I envisioned myself shivering in the cabin, eyelashes frozen and teeth chattering while dressed to the Winter nines a la “A Christmas Story”. I didn’t see how I could ever be warm in Winter if I was barely surviving the Summer. However, needless to say, the bearded boyfriend and I were bonded and as I’d already done a lifestyle 180 since meeting him I figured I should stop now. And so, we set off for Winter together.

It seems my notions of Winter forewent reality. In my imaginings (read: terrifying daydreams), I had altogether forgotten about our workhorse of a woodstove and thus the heated haven that our house would provide from the never-before-known-to-me-cold levels of Alaska in Winter. And so, it comes as little surprise that when asked where I live and how cold it can get here and I reply that 35 below zero is common, the first question usually asks how in the hell I ever get warm? I guess it’s not so uncommon to forget about the woodstove.

In these times I always assure people that we are cozy-toasty-wamer-than-Summer-warm in the Winter. In fact, most nights we heat ourselves out of our comfort zone and end up in our skivvies with the windows cracked to cool the house from the sweltering 90 degrees the woodstove has brought our interior temperature to. The other heat tidbit I throw out is our dry cold. “It’s a dry cold” I say. And it is. That’s why I was colder in the Summer and I’m often colder in California than I am here, even in Winter. And then, I provide the following fated little add-on: “Plus, there’s never wind.”

Ring, ring.

“Hello, Alaska speaking.”

“Did you hear that? She just guaranteed no wind here. Shall we remind her?”

“Yes. I think yes.”

 

I have never lived in a place where I can expect such succinct and exacting karma as I experience here. It’s as if Alaska has a secretary with a notepad leaving memos for each of her inhabitants listing their foibles as they go:

“I haven’t fallen down the ramp in weeks!”

“It’s been so warm lately.”

“The ski conditions are perfect.”

 

For each time I uttered the above sentences, my statements were almost immediately met by evidence to the contrary: my next quick trip down the stairs (with perhaps a bit too much confidence) ended in a swift trip onto my backside. The warm weather would immediately be met by a cold front resulting in a shift of 65 degrees so fast that it gave us the spins. The perfect ski the night before would be a distant memory to an eerily icy endeavor the morning after.

Yet despite this reality, that what I state is so often immediately contradicted by a following shift, I still find the nerve to make such statements because, well, honestly I forget. Or perhaps I think I can get away without the Secretary reporting it.

And so, while quieting fears of cold and mentioning our lack of wind to concerned questioners, Alaska’s secretary must have taken note and filed that one away for later.

And then, later came.

One morning, I awoke to a text from my girlfriend: “I hope you all didn’t get blown away! Hang in there.”

Huh?

I looked outside.

Nothing too ominous.

I asked The Chief if he had felt anything.

Nothing strange.

And so, I went about my morning ski with my dog team of two (at the time we were watching our neighbor’s dog who is Cinda’s brother. We adore him).

Before we had even dropped down onto The River Trail I saw what all the fuss was about.

 

 

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Those aren’t clouds up there…

 

 

From our standpoint I could see the swirling winds on the peaks of the mountains surrounding us and as we dipped down onto the river trail the winds hit.

Boom!

Like a slap in the face, the winds picked up all around us. And just as fast, they died down. Then started again. It was abrupt and jarring and cold to say the least. The dogs gave me the same look I gave them: this isn’t pleasant but I think we should investigate.

And so we did.

The obvious place to go in the middle of a Winter Wind Storm? Well, the least covered place possible!

And so, we headed towards the vehicle bridge and the middle of The River.

 

 

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Blustery mountaintops. Pooh Bear beware.

 

On the ski there we were fighting the wind the whole way. The dogs had their heads down and we all buttoned up for the battle forward. Each stride took forever and I leaned into the gusts as if going uphill. Within minutes my face was utterly frozen and my ears were ringing from cold. The ski which would normally take me 30 minutes had already taken 45 and we weren’t even there yet. The dogs and I had a powwow at the last straight shot before the turn for the bridge and we all decided to trudge on to the destination (What? You don’t have these conversations?). As we continued on the winds picked up again and soon we were dodging huge chunks of snow that were being blown out of the trees down towards us.

We were under siege.

Finally, a few close calls later and we had made it to our destination.

 

 

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Don’t lean back, little lady.

 

I immediately wondered why in the world we had chosen this end.

The winds, which had picked up before, seemed to have rallied all of their wind buddies and they descended upon us in a frenzied attack. As if the other side of The River had the shelter we craved, the dogs ran ahead of me and out of sight. I followed suit but in the middle of my crossing, the winds (which had barely died down) again picked up to their raging selves. The fixtures on the bridge blew rapidly in the storm and made an eery sound. I looked down to see snow rushing about me and as I followed its trajectory downriver I suddenly felt enveloped in a sensation: The River was flowing.

And I was in the middle of it.

 

 

 

 

 

Without turning around, I skied backwards to the slight shelter of the drop down to The River and no sooner had I arrived than a gust of wind came from nowhere and knocked me face flat down in the snow. My already chapped face got an extra burn as the snow beard I now donned set the chill in.

Again I looked at The River. I knew it wasn’t actually open but as I watched the snowflakes move in perfect harmony like a school of fish the sensation came over me again.

The River looked like it was moving.

That coupled with the eery sounds paired with the whipping winds and the sudden lack of my two dog team (dogs out here give you an unjustified sense of safety) made my stomach turn. I hollered for them to come back but they wouldn’t budge. The safe haven of the other side had proven fruitless but they weren’t about to cross the completely unsheltered River again if they didn’t have to. And so, despite my tumbling tummy and the vertigo The River incited in me, I crossed.

The winds again tried to knock me down but I skied leaning upriver at a 45 degree angle and was able to combat them. Being knocked over by wind into the snow? No biggie. Being knocked over onto ice? Ouch.

I met the dogs on the other side and they were hell-bent on heading into Town but I was able to sway them otherwise. We took the bridge this time and were nearly knocked off of it by a swift gust. Heads down, now crouched below the metal rungs we made it across.

Like horses to stable, we were quick on our feet, rushing to the quiet and calm of home. The less windy side of The River on the trip over had become equally as windy as the opposite side and we seemed to constantly be dodging huge chunks of compacted snow with each step (or in my case glide). The dogs kept checking back with me to see if I was still making it through the gauntlet. My face was chapped and burning so I pulled my hair around it to create a mask. We skied the remaining miles in a canter, the dogs running ahead and me following as quickly behind as I could.

 

 

 

 

The snow-covered trees of our side of The River which had been completely unfettered by the windstorm my friend had experienced the night before, were now stark naked from the battering bursts of wind. We raced to their cover as we turned off of the River Trail and into the haven of the Forest Path.

No sooner had we gotten home did the winds follow suit. They whipped through our trees, flinging snow clods about and rustling birds out of their perches. The forest was abuzz with the redecorating Mother Nature had in store for us. The dog team of two and I scaled the icy ramp and burst through the door and into…

a warm and cozy cabin for two (well, four with the pooches). The woodstove was roaring and quickly chipped away the chill the previous two hours had set into my bones. The woodstove: the Winter protector.

It quickly occurred to me that I had been caught in a guarantee:

We never have wind.

I couldn’t help but laugh as I found myself caught in my own trap. It’s as if I had called The Secretary myself to make my proclamation: no wind here. Not ever, not never.

Whoops!

If last Summer had been any indicator of the potential for Wind, I should have known better. Yet, alas, I did not.

I guess the only guarantee out here is that there is no guarantee. Since that day, the Winter has been, well, windy. Not every day, not every minute but I can no longer venture to guarantee that “it’s not so cold because there is never wind”. It’s just not true and it never was. I can guarantee the benefits of a good woodstove and the strange quality of cooking in one’s underwear while the temperature inside is 100 degrees different from the outside. 70 above inside. 30 below outside. It’s as bizarre as it is delightful and makes me grateful for shelter and heat with every stir of the spoon.

Despite the inhospitable outdoors, the indoors was a welcoming haven. Perhaps too welcoming. By the evening we were far from our chilly morning, but one of us got a little too warm…

 

 

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Diesel and his bum burn. Remember: don’t get too close to the woodstove.

 

 

And so we took a walk again to cool off and air out the singed fur smelling cabin we all were now choking on. The winds had died down but the snow was still swirling about, finding where it would settle next and creating a pastel sunset.

 

 

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You never know what you’re going to get but a guarantee will certainly come back to surprise you.

Cheers to you Alaska for always having the upper hand and a surprise in store. Perhaps one day I’ll remember that nothing is for certain. Until then, I’ll try to stay on my toes, leaning uphill.

Mirror Mirror

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

A few weeks ago I saw what I looked like in a full-length mirror. It was the first time I’d seen myself in almost two months.

Up until last year, a stint that long away from a mirror would have been laughable, if not impossible.

Sure, I’ve been without mirrors while traveling but inevitably a mirror would appear. For as long as I can remember my lapses between glimpses weren’t far off or few between.

All my life, I grew up with a plethora of mirrors. Big mirrors, small mirrors, full-length, magnified, you name it. In those mirrors I wasted a lot of time. I don’t want to paint the picture that I was some self-obsessed little lady smiling at my reflection. It was quite the contrary. I’d look into the mirror with scrutiny, wishing for change. I’d condemn myself for flaws and nitpick every inch. I’d change outfits twice just to go to the gym and I’d run through my whole closet for a mundane Monday at school, leaving myself with an overwhelming pile of clothing to put away and an uneven sense of self and a poor representation of what I actually thought was important.

I remember my Grandma Gam gently mentioning to me that I spent quite a bit of time in the bathroom getting ready. Sure, I was 13 (a little preening she could expect and would tolerate) but what was it, she wondered, that was so important to get ready for? Her beauty routine was simple and concise and freed her for other more important endeavors like reading and learning, helping others and exploring nature (to name a few). I on the other hand would miss whole family meals because of my mirror time and, in turn, would lose out on those important moments together. I scolded myself for these misses. Yet I felt trapped. Trapped by expectation and beholden to an image while simultaneously feeling disdainful of both of these things. The constant tug-of-war between caring and not caring exhausted me. My values didn’t line up with my actions and the dissonance made me miserable.

The younger years can be trying for any tyke and thankfully, age took hold and the battle lessened. I started to love myself in whatever outer packaging I came in. I moved into a career that forced me to be body positive and kind to myself since I was supposed to be a model to my students to do the same. I faked it until I made it. Yet still, even with a better outlook I highly doubt that without having mirrors removed from my life by chance, that they ever would have removed by choice.

Upon inadvertently moving to the woods I realized that The Town and the homes within it had a serious lack of mirrors. The sinks in the bathroom at The Bar weren’t even adorned with mirrors and none of the houses I visited had much more than a simple small mirror for the whole house.

 

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My first glimpse at my new perspective.

 

At first, I was taken aback. At second, I was relieved. I would get dressed in a jiffy and check to make sure I didn’t have anything too offensive to look at (food in the teeth, etc.) and then I was out the door. Sometimes in Town I would see my reflection in a shop window and at times I had to giggle at my reflection – hmmm I didn’t realize those pants looked like that. I look like MC Hammer. Oh well, Hammer Time! Plus, the reflection was never the crisp image a mirror provides, just a vague Van Gogh style painting of me which allowed me to fill in the blanks with what actually matters. Do I look like a kind person today? Am I bringing joy to those I encounter? Am I open and noticing the beauty that surrounds me? Am I allowing the sheer enormity of this place put things in perspective?

 

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What is really important and what do I want to spend time on?

Without being able to see outward I was forced to focus inwards, towards what I felt and how I made others feel. The focus wasn’t on me, but on how I walked through this world and the current I created for others. I felt so relieved, like my blinders had come off and I had finally joined in.

These days, my mirrors consist of one mirror, the same tiny old driver’s side mirror salvaged from a truck that sits in our kitchen on the windowsill above our sink. I’ve lived here for almost two years and we’ve changed so many things in the house together, but that I don’t ever plan to change.

Just like in the Summer, the only full-length glimpses I catch of myself are window reflections which come after sunset as the dark of night plays with the inside light. The image is distorted and fuzzy leaving me to rely on how I feel and how I make others feel instead of how I look.

 

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There’s also a lot of perspective from shadows…like don’t take it too seriously. Since when did my legs get so long and my head get so small?

 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve shared with you my propensity for an eyelash curler and blush even out here and I’ll take any excuse to dress up and when we are in California it happens even more. Tuesday? Oh, you mean Dress Up Tuesday. But now, it’s because I enjoy it, not because I feel required to do it or because I want to get away from just plain old me. It’s a change of pace, a costume for a day, a character but not a mask I’m afraid will come off and reveal the me underneath.

The other day we went to a dinner party at a friend’s house and on the way over, I realized that I hadn’t looked in our little mirror even once. In the (now becoming more distant) past, I would have spent an hour curling my hair or donning makeup, all in front of the mirror. That sheer break from tradition made me smile as we snowmachined across the river and through the woods to open arms and not a care as to how we looked, just that we were there.

Thank goodness for shifts in perspective and for places that force us into that shift. Thank you for chances to be completely stripped of all you’ve thought you needed to shield yourself in, in order to discover the soft underbelly that lies beneath.

 

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And thank you for Grandmas who give us little reminders of who we really are, and what really matters, even if it takes almost two decades to hear her.

Roger that, Grandma. Loud and clear.

 

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Right here, cake is important little one. Your hair looks fine.