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Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - The dip

The California Contrast

Living here, I’m used to being on the opposite end of the spectrum from my old haunts and old ways in California.

 

Running hot water used to feel normal, now it feels like liquid gold.

When taking a walk I used to watch out for other humans, now I keep a watch for bears and I’m surprised if I run into another living soul.

Some days, the entirety of my waking hours are taken up by chores that in my old life never even existed.

Chopping wood.

Pumping gas.

Hauling water.

Just keeping a fire going when it’s 30 below can be a full-time job, akin to, I assume,  midnight feedings (and 2am and 5am and…).

It’s a place where for days I forget how different my old life and my new life are, for weeks I forget that it used to be strange to me to haul every bit of water I use by hand. Strange to even know how much water this aquababy has used. And then, when the last bucket runs dry and it’s 8pm and I’m tired and hungry and the last thing I want to do is to suit up to spend 30 minutes walking 40lb. buckets up and down our Ramp of Doom until we are re-supplied, then, I remember.

When it’s 40 degrees here at night in the Summer and 80 at night in California, I remember.

When it’s slush is the Spring without a flower to be found and lush as can be in California, I remember.

I remember my old life and I feel grateful for the contrast because the difference is what makes me grateful.

The contrast was always one I appreciated, until recently.

This last week, the town in which I was born went up in flames. In this frantic Fall of natural disasters, it seemed that there couldn’t possibly be more devastation to come. But, come it did.

Fire after fire tore through even the most industrial of locations and raged in wind-driven fervor through the counties where I spent my first 28 years. My Mom was close to being evacuated and had to sleep in shifts (alternating with her neighbors) in order to make sure she would hear the notice to get out. People I know and love had to run for their lives. People I love lost everything.

And here I sit, in a place where fire is constantly on my mind, a place where I’ve joined the fire department to ensure I know how to help. A place where we all worry about fire, we all watch for smoke and suddenly, it has struck in the place I least expected it and I am nowhere near it to help.

I never expected it.

The contrast.

And so it continued. In the week of the worst fires my area in California has ever seen, in a week where I could barely breathe because of the panic I felt, the first snow of the season fell.

 

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - First Snowfall

The Ramp of Doom Returns…Happy Falling!

 

 

Fire and Ice.

As I walk outside I breathe the fresh air of an area relatively untouched.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - Panorama

 

 

As my friends and family in California go outside, they don masks to protect their sweet lungs from the deep, heavy smoke.

As I look out my window I see a flurry of fat snowflakes.

 

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - First Snowfall Walk

And a Fly-By Neighbor Pup

 

 

As they look out the window they see the falling of ash.

As I build a fire to stay warm, they fight one to stay alive.

 

The contrast has never felt stronger or stranger and being so far away has never made me feel so out of control. But, with two tickets already purchased months ago, I wait.

 

 

 

 

In two weeks, we leave for California. The tidying here has already begun (and failed some too, foiled by the 6 inches of snowfall) and the three-day process of leaving will be here before we know it. And although it will be heartbreaking to witness such devastation, I am eager to get to my first home and become part of the amazing relief efforts that started on the dawn of day 1.

The firefighters and emergency response have been tirelessly working around the clock, taking mere cat-naps to make it through and the outpouring of love and help offered up by the community has been amazing. People have collected blankets, food, found others housing, taken in families, rescued animals, distributed face masks, offered pampering in a time of panic via massage and haircuts and counseling. While it’s been absolutely awful to read story after story of loss, it’s been uplifting to see the love that spills over this pain. I’ve seen countless pictures of a poster that’s been put up all over the county that reads:

The love in the air is thicker than the smoke.

It will be good to be a part of that love.

Stay safe all.

 

California, I’m coming home.

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - Morning Glory

The morning glory blooms in the face of Winter.

 

 

NOTE:

Dear reader,

If you would like to help relief efforts in California the Redwood Credit Union is a wonderful local branch collecting funds for neighboring counties in the Bay Area. I’ve been told it’s the best place to donate to and 100% of the funds go to relief efforts.

Anything and everything helps. Thank you.

https://www.redwoodcu.org/northbayfirerelief

 

Beneath the Borealis - The California Contrast - RCU Donate

 

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Molly Dog

Venn and his Diagram

Compare and contrast.

You, Me and Us.

Remember the Venn Diagram days in class?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go where you ask?

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

Ice climbing!

 

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Ice Climbing

Just a casual ice climb…

 

 

 

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

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

Take, for example, the dishes.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Molly Dog

Like this.

 

 

 

Most of the time.

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

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

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

 

 

Venn and His Diagram River X Marks the Spot

X Marks the Self Spot.

 

 

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

And I try them on.

 

Everyone seems to be an excellent something or other…

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

Am I too lazy?

Too uncoordinated?

 

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

And I did.

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

 

 

Venn and His Diagram View from the Top Kennicott Alaska

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

 

 

I almost barfed.

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

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

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

Lesson learned.

Or at least lesson learning.

 

At times

We all feel less than

We all compare

We all contrast

We all judge the outcomes

and

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Fall Foliage

Fall Foliage Bids Adios to Summer

 

 

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

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

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

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

And that, my friends, makes sense.

 

Be nice to you this week.

Whoever you are.

At each moment you are.

Be kind to you.

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

 

 

Venn and His Diagram Bridge Rain

 

Feel the Burn

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

 

The Burnout.

 

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

People are tired.

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

You see, I’m an introvert.

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

Sounds like an oxymoron, eh?

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

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

Go out every night of the week?

Sure!

 

Have my phone on all day?

Love to!

 

Hang out with a new group of people?

Bring it on!

 

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

Just not all the time.

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

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

do it all over again.

 

 

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Open, close. Open, close. Repeat.

 

 

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

It’s full-on.

And it’s wonderful.

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

Welcome to the woods.

And you thought it’d be quieter.

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

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

Lordy did that feel good.

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

How had I not utilized this power before?

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

 

 

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I’ve never regretted choosing a walk.

 

 

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

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

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

What do you want to eat?

Pancakes! (That was an easy one).

Pilates or a walk down by the river?

Walk!

Shorts or leggings for the walk?

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

Go to Town or not?

No town!

 

Hold the phone…no Town?

That’s right, inner intuition. No Town.

Now, to follow through.

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

suddenly it feels glorious.

 

 

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

I’m taking care of me.

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

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

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

 

 

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

A little.

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

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

 

The Pack Test

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

Well, sort of.

Two weeks ago I became a real Wildland Emergency Firefighter.

Well, sort of.

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

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

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

Because we will be the first boots on the ground.

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

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

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

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

But attend a meeting?

No, gracias.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

Dang, very true and fair enough.

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

Until two events happened:

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

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

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

Right?

Apparently not.

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

Me?

A Red Card?

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

Me?

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

It goes like this:

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

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

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

AND…

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

Quite the pickle, eh?

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

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

Willing?

Yes.

Able?

…Gulp.

 

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

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

Though not at first.

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

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

“Yep!”

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

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

“Oh!”

“Oh?”

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

It weighed maybe 20 pounds.

And it took me over an hour to get there.

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

…Gulp.

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

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

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

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

Mine is spot on!

Whoops.

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

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

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

Every second counted.

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

Thanks, honey.

Nevertheless, we powered on.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

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

You can do this.

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

Keep the pace.

In, 2, 3, 4 Out 2, 3, 4…

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

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

The time was ticking away.

30 minutes.

35 minutes.

40 minutes.

41 minutes.

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

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

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

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

42 minutes.

43 minutes.

2 minutes left.

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

We made it.

43 minutes and 20 seconds.

A record?

I think not.

A pass?

Why yes, yes I think so!

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

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

Right?

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

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

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

The soreness.

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

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

Wrong.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

It should definitely be labeled “Arduous”.

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

I had passed.

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

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

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

I responded in truth: Well, sort of.

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

I guess we will have to see.

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

And then, well, who knows?

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

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

Lessons Learned…and then Forgotten: Cauliflower Strikes Again

Oops, Britney Spears, I did it again.

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

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

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

Because…

 

I gave myself cauliflower armpits again.

 

Again!

Oops…

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

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

I want consistency.

I love soft legs.

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

There’s no comparison.

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

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

It did.

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

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

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

Time for the perfect storm apparently.

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

And so, I went for it.

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

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

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

Until this morning.

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

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

Oh well, back to bed.

It turns out…I was wrong.

It wasn’t a mosquito, it was me.

That whole backflip into the water thing?

Belly flop.

 

 

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

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

Whoops!

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

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

 

 

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That look says it all

 

 

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

Perhaps.

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

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

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

I sure am glad we picked up our plant babies.

Aloe, to the rescue.

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

Fingers crossed.

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

Happy home-spa-ing to you!

Ouch.

 

 

 

 

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!

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.

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

Or had it?

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

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

It was exactly like my Brother had said.

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

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

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

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

More mayhem?

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

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

“Let’s go for it.”

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

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

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

Wrong.

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

And then our alarm went off at 6am.

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

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

“Baby, are you O.K?”

I’m amazing. I feel so amazing.

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

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

I was unbelievably high.

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

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

Huh?

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

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

Now, babe. They used it now.

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

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

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

Costco? High? I thought I might faint.

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

It didn’t.

At first.

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

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

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

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

We weren’t in the gambling mood.

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

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

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

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

My little Road Warrior.

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

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

Road Warriors.

 

 

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

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

Whoops!

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

That’s right.

A plow truck.

Our plow truck?

That remained to be seen.

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

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

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

We waited.

And waited.

And waited.

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

The roar of the excavator.

Yup, that’s right.

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

We fell into bed, exhausted and happy yet again.

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

we had 30 people at our house.

My wheels got to turning.

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

The Breakdown: A Winter Edition

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well.

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

 

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

And we had two.

Two people.

Two machines.

 

 

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

 

 

Too good to be true.

 

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

That was then.

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

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

 

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

River Trip.

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

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

Problem solved.

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

But all of that was behind us now.

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

Silence.

Our machine was the only one not rumbling.

Oh.

No.

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

It wouldn’t start.

Out of nowhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

What did you say?

Things could be worse?

Well, yes, they certainly could!

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

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

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

“What happened?”

The boys then relayed their tale.

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

And rise she did.

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

What to do…?

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

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

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

We had a working snow machine.

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

She fired right up.

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

 

 

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

 

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

But the machine was sputtering again.

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

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

Same thing. Still sputtering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty please? Sugar on top.

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

 

 

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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.