roadglaciers

Driving Lessons: Shifting in the Snow

I love driving, I always have. Since I was little I remember not being able to wait for the day that I would get behind my own set of wheels and race off into freedom.

Yet my love of driving exists despite my initiation, which went a little like this:

“Dad, I really want to learn to drive the truck” (the truck was a Toyota pre-little me, a.k.a probably from the 70’s. She took cooing and caressing everyday in order to start but it only made us love her more).

“O.K. Let’s start” he said as he backed into the lower driveway.

His house had a demonic driveway. There were ditches on both sides (one with a creek) and chunky gravel that left tires spinning and hearts racing. People would come over and once they had made it up the steep gravel slip slide hill of an entrance, they would ask my Dad (or me, eventually) to back their cars out when they left. Some of my friends’ parents who were savvy to the struggle would just drop them off at the bottom of the hill and make them hike the treacherous drive.

It was the kind of hill that you have to lean forward to walk up.

Not the best way to start a play-date but hey, that’s what plates of placating cookies are for.

There were two buildings on the property: the Music Studio (that when approaching the house turned off the driveway mid-hill into a parking spot) and the House (that sat at the top of the driveway).

So, needless to say, when I asked my Dad to teach me to drive that day, I was thinking we would start somewhere a little flatter.

Nope.

I was wrong.

He parked in the lower driveway and we switched seats. I would drive the car up to the house.

Looking back as an adult, this scenario is laughable at best and an ego crusher at worst but as a kid I just figured it was feasible. If he said I could do it I should be able to. Right?

A little background:

  1. I was maybe 8 years old at the time. Even with the bench seat pulled all the way forward my little legs strained to bring my feet to the pedals (I was nicknamed Thumbelina because I was so short while my Dad’s knees were basically up to his ears as he tried to fit back into the truck).
  2. I had never driven anything other than sitting on laps and steering.
  3. The old truck was a stick-shift.
  4. We were parked in the driveway, requiring us to go uphill at a 90 degree turn in order to make it up to the House.

It was starting to feel like I had bit off more than I could chew but what did I know? I just figured that’s how one learned. Right?

Well, I sure did learn something: the clutch is a tricky thing and the gas makes you go. Oh, and seatbelts. Seatbelts are a pretty good idea.

I put the car into gear and as I took my foot off the brake we started sliding backwards towards the Studio (the driveway too was on an incline). Geez! That was an unexpected complicating treat.

“What are you doing?! You’re gonna have to give it more gas than that, kiddo, otherwise we’ll crash into the Studio”.

I started realizing that indeed, this feat was going to be harder than anticipated. My Dad’s Studio was his world and the thought of crashing into the glass doors and crushing the instruments and equipment sprang a leak of fear into my heart. I was not going to hit it. I was determined.

And so I prepared again, feeling gung-ho about heading forward this time and well, I really found the gas pedal and head forward we did.

Straight into the creek.

The car engaged and before I could turn the wheel and we shot straight forward, nose diving into the creek that bordered the opposite side of the driveway (seriously, could this thing be any more treacherous? Ditches and creekbeds and gravel, oh my!)

A tow truck later and the car was finally out of the creek and back where it had started in the lower driveway. My Dad showed me how “easy” it was as he drove to the top of the driveway. I had failed and my love of driving was lost. I spent the rest of the day with a tummyache while my Mom spent the rest of the day Mama-Bearing my Dad (thanks, Ma!).

Looking back, he probably could have started me under better conditions. I spent the next few years terrified of driving. My Mom once even tried to get me to just sit and keep my foot on the brake of one car while she moved another where I would then gas it up the easy driveway. No one else was around to help her but I couldn’t. I ended up in a panic. No way. No wheels, thank you.

But, eventually, age and necessity caught up and my fear of driving was slowly replaced by my need for freedom.

Growing up in the boonies (or what I thought was the boonies back then) I was limited to where my feet and my parents could or would take me. My nearest friend’s house at my Mom’s was miles away (after you got up our mile long straight up and down driveway) through backroads with no shoulder and blind curves a plenty. My nearest friend’s house at my Dad’s was so far that the one time I attempted to walk to it my dog Dixie (a puppy at the time) gave up walking and made me carry her the remaining few miles. So, as I started approaching driving age, I got more and more restless to be self-sufficient.

The clear solution? Steal my parents’ cars of course.

My favorite to steal was my Dad’s girlfriend’s car. One, because it was a zippy automatic (I had yet to have a second stick shift lesson and all of my Dad’s cars were manuals) and two because well, we didn’t really get along so the guilt I felt was minimal at best. I know, I know, I am a terrible person…or just a bored and opportunistic country kid (you choose).

However, one day my friends and I wanted to leave and the only car available was my Dad’s stick shift. I took my girlfriend’s word for it that she was an expert stick driver and off we went.

Down the driveway (thankfully the car was already facing downhill),

down the street and…

straight into a mailbox.

After paying for that (both fiscally and in endless variations of the phrase “I’m sorry” for months) I took a little break from my auto theft days and distracted myself with saving for my own car for when I turned 16. Since I wasn’t about to ask for another manual lesson from my Dad (he was still pretty mad about the whole mailbox incident) I ended up buying an automatic and other than a few stints in friends’ stick shifts, it’s been automatics all the way.

Every time I drove a stick shift I loved it. It felt like I was really driving. I desperately wanted one but never had the guts to just buy one and learn how to drive it as I went (what a test drive that would have been).

And so, I stuck to automatics, kicking myself every time a situation arose where someone needed me to drive a manual and I couldn’t help.

Until now.

With the seasons changing here…

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A week ago there wasn’t an exposed rock in sight and the ice sheets were snow machine highways.

I consulted my What I Want to Learn Before the End of this Winter List and saw a lot of unchecked boxes (how did I not become fluent in three languages, become a guitar virtuoso and write a manifesto?) but the one unchecked box that stuck out the most was driving a stick shift. Lucky for me, The Chief has an old SUV that just got up and running again last Fall.

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Don’t be jealous of her lovely lady lumps n’ bumps.

It was time.

A few minor bumps in the road arose:

  1. I had never driven in the snow. Not in an automatic. Not ever. Now I was going to learn a stick shift in Spring snow (read: ever changing conditions, enormous puddles, sheets of ice, ruts and slush…oh joy!)
  2. I could barely reach the clutch again (seriously?!)
  3. The car is lovingly called “The Jack in the Box” because it’s shocks are so shot that when you hit even the tiniest of bumps it rocks back and forth and up and down for what feels like eternity, just in time to hit another bump and start the rock and roll all over again. Basically, it’s like driving a boat through big seas. But hey, I’ve got fishermen in my family. I can brave the seas.
  4. The ignition. The ignition is an exposed bundle of wires attached to where the key normally goes. In order to start the Jack in the Box one must first acquire a flathead screwdriver. Upon acquistion one must find the “sweet spot” in order to be able to start the car. Nervous? Flustered? Good luck starting this beast. She requires a gentle touch and a lot of patience (hmmm, this is sounding familiar).

Yet despite these minor issues, I was ready to roll. I’ll have to learn to drive in real snow (driving last month in Anchorage there was hardly any snow. They had to bring in snow on the train for the Iditarod start so, needless to say, it was minimal) someday and if I want a vehicle to drive here it’s going to be this one so why not throw it all together at once? This seems to be a common theme here: try the hardest way first. And you know what? I prefer it that way.

Jump on in, the water is intense but after this you’ll be able to swim in anything.

Learning Day: The Chief popped Jack into 4-wheel drive, backed out of the parking spot, and brought us to the main road. The road may have been covered in snow and rutted to pieces but at least it was flat(ish), wide and a long straightaway (Dad, if you’re giving any driving lessons these days, take note). We switched seats. The Chief gave me the rundown (oh, that probably would have been helpful back in the day too). I started the car with the screwdriver on my first try and…we were off. Just like that.

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Snowy? Check. Gorgeous? Check.

 

And then we saw an approaching 4-wheeler and all of the lesson went out the window as I panicked and stalled. The 4-wheeler carried a neighbor who wished The Chief “luck and safety in his teachings”.

Minor embarrassment aside, the rest of the lesson got us all the way to the footbridge (our final destination) from which we could walk into Town. I did it!

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The Footbridge into Town

Sidenote: there is a vehicle bridge that takes you into Town but at the end of Winter money is scarce and an investment like a bridge key for a couple hundred dollars sounds a lot worse than just parking at the Footbridge and walking into Town (that’s what feet are for anyways, if they’re able).

After that, I figured we would practice when we had time. I wasn’t completely comfortable, surely not ready to be on my own but I felt confident and proud.

Surprise!

It started to rain. The already melting snow turned to slush and just as my work week started the snow machine trails turned to mushy rock-laden crash traps. I drove anyways. It wasn’t that bad, right? After narrowly avoiding one rock, only to catch the tip of the ski on another and driving over dirt on some parts of the road to Town, The Chief and I decided it was best to stop using the machines before we ended up breaking something (on them or on us).

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Since the rains this is the best this road has looked. Ruts and all.

No problem, right?

Oh, except for that minor issue of getting to and from work twice a day (split-shifts). Well, one option was that I could become a half-marathon runner and clock 14 miles per day going back and forth. Or, I could test just how solid I was in the statement that I wasn’t ready to drive by myself yet.

I’m down with exercise but 14 is about 10 miles too many to walk, run or ski in any given work day. And so, I set out on my own.

The first morning driving on my own the temperature had dropped below freezing the night before and the windshield was a thick layer of ice. There’s nothing like rushing to obtain the calm, cool, collected demeanor necessary to start the Jack. After running back and forth to the house for credit cards and hot water to scrape and melt the windshield there was finally a shred of visibility large enough to gain exit (I had forgotten about the back window but there wasn’t enough time. Besides, that’s what mirrors are for, right?). I tried to start the car. I failed. Deep breaths, Julia-San. A few hurried belly breaths and a few attempts later and the car finally started. I had to give it extra oomph to back the Jack out of the frozen puddle it was parked in and then panicked as I flew backwards towards the 90 degree turn I needed to complete in reverse in order to right myself towards the driveway exit. I slammed on the brakes.

I forgot the clutch.

Stalling is humbling. It teaches you to pay better attention, slow down, take a moment.

I wasn’t in the mood for a lesson.

Three more stalls later and I was high-fiving myself for having avoided the trees and other vehicles around me. I was finally facing the right way. I made it out to the road only to see that indeed, conditions had changed overnight (as they always do, yet still I am always surprised). It was no longer the puffy little snow drive I had been hoping for. Nope, the road had become a skating rink.

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As I slid towards my destination I saw the next changed condition: snow melt and rain had caused huge puddles to form and the freeze the night before had caused sheets of ice to form on top.

Oh joy!

I geared up and headed through, finding out (as I hit one) that large rocks were also in this mixed bag of road dangers. The Jack bounced and bounded through the puddles rocking me to the next challenge: a small river had formed. I waded through slowly, too slowly, so that I almost stalled again but I figured four times of stalling was the charm, I didn’t need more, and so I was able to gas it through.

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This was made by…

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this. Which was made by melting snow. A week ago all of this was fluffy white snow machining paradise.

A few fishtails later and having avoided crashing or falling off steep banks I made it to the footbridge. I had gone outside to start the car at 7:15. I had driven 3 miles and it was now 7:42 am and I had to be at work in 18 minutes which was about a mile away still, over the footbridge and through the woods, which in slushy snow is slow going. But I couldn’t help pause for a celebration dance. I was on top of the world. I had made it! I hadn’t planned on driving solo for months but in true Alaska style, she had other plans for me. I stopped to celebrate my first voyage.

 

 

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Celebration dance not pictured. Celebration face, pictured.

and hurriedly slipped and slid my way to work to play dish pit stained glass:

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Just like with the snow machine, practice makes perfect and although the split shift can be tough, it’s been great for practice. Four trips per day for my shifts last week has made me confident, but anytime that starts to turn into cocky, Alaska will send a little fishtail action my way or an unseen rock to send me bouncing. Just like every lesson here, it comes with the requirement of respect and the check of ego. If you get too big for your britches the stitches will rip.

And so, britches intact (though with some patches) I try to remember that each day is different. Some days I’ll wake up to blue skies and a defrosted windshield, others I’ll wake up to rain and still others to a frozen Jack in the Box. That’s the deal.

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Without the snow melting and re-freezing, I never would have gotten to see this little ice gem. Everyday adds to the next.

Either way, I’ll still finally be driving (and stalling) a stick shift, a lesson that started 21 years ago. And no matter the weather, I still get to be driving here, in the middle of a national forest (**Correction: National Park & Preserve) with my trusty screwdriver and my Lou at my side (who I swear rolls her eyes when I stall but makes me feel safer nonetheless).

Cheers, to the closing of the chapter “Stick Shift Up a Creek” and to the start of “Julia and the Jack in the Box”.

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Even through a shattered windshield, it’s a view to remember.

The Three Amigos Leave Anchorage (The Final Installment)

Monday morning: surgery time.

Surgery is amazing. They put you under, do their thing (or thang, if you prefer), wake you up and send you away. Maybe call you again or see you again for a check-up and boom! You’re better.

That’s the ideal. And don’t get me wrong, the surgery went great and I am so grateful that we have made scientific advancements enough for it to have been an option for us…but I really don’t like surgery.

Watching your person go under and then just waiting, not knowing what is happening to them, is something I’ve done twice before (with my Mama) and something I hope not to do again. It’s a powerless feeling. I don’t know these people. They don’t know that they are operating not on a person but on my world.

Are your scalpels sharpened? Did you have just enough coffee this morning? Did you wash your hands correctly? Remember to remove all your tools from his sinuses? What if he wakes up in the middle of it? Is he warm enough?

This is my person.

I know nothing about what it is to be a doctor, but I do know that human error, no matter the field, exists. That thought plagued me for the next few hours.

This little worry-wort had planned to wait in the lobby and pace like a caged big cat for the next few hours until the nurses promised they would call me about anything and everything and basically shoved me out the door.

Fine.

So I headed outside only to remember that leaving held with it a whole other slew of worries.

You see, we never planned on The Chief becoming incapacitated and me having to drive.

“Drive?” You ask.

“What’s wrong with driving? You’re an excellent driver!”

Why thank you (and I couldn’t agree more). The thing is (again) I’m from California. I’ve been to The Snow (as in Lake Tahoe) but I’ve never driven in it. Anytime I’ve ever had the option to drive it I’ve always been with more seasoned snow-drivers and so they’ve taken the wheel. In retrospect, I wish I would have been more adamant about learning then because now I was faced with the icy streets of Anchorage.

But hey, The Chief gave me some pointers and we have 4-wheel drive and the streets aren’t that bad. Basically it’s like having training wheels for snow driving, double training wheels even.

I’ve got this.

Oh yea, I forgot to add that the vehicle I’m driving is (to put it correctly) a big ‘ol truck. I have to jump a little to get in and, to make me feel really grown up and in control, I have to take all the books we just bought and put them under my buns and all the jackets in the truck and  put them behind my back in order to see over the steering wheel and reach the pedals.

Yup. I’m an adult. With a booster seat.

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Ok, I’ve still got this under control.

Now, let’s get real. First thing is first: pancakes. I love pancakes more than anyone I’ve ever met (and if I ever meet someone who loves them as much as me or more I can’t wait, because we are going to be best friends) and in times like these, the only thing that is going to make me feel better are:

a. a call to my Mama

b. pancakes. a full stack.

Lucky for me, The Chief had suggested Middle Way Cafe as a place to get soup for him for post-op and from the moment I walked in, my little hippie tummy knew we would be in good hands.

A stack of multi-grain blueberry pancakes, soup to go and a call to the Mom later and I was almost able to forget to worry. Almost.

I went to the pharmacy to get the rest of The Chief’s meds. They didn’t have them. I started off for another just as the hospital called.

He’s ready.

I rushed to the second pharmacy and grabbed the remaining supplies and raced back.

They had told me before the surgery that I would be able to see him immediately in recovery. I got there only to be told I’d have to wait a bit. Good thing I rushed.

Resume prior plan of big cat pacing. Panther pacing, that rings right.

But again, my mind was taken away as I opened an email with a link to my hometown newspaper. I clicked and my jaw dropped as I saw my girlfriend’s house (a place she was gracious enough to share with me when my ex and I broke up and I had nowhere to move) bisected by a redwood tree (it turns out there was actually more than one).

It made me want to gather all of my people under one roof. Could everyone I love just be safe and sound, please? I tried to reach her but couldn’t and so I called a friend of ours to see what had happened and what I could do but in the middle of our call the front desk lady came to me – I was finally allowed to see The Chief.

My love was groggy and a bit bloodied but doing amazingly well. I received a myriad of instructions, do’s and don’ts and definitely don’ts and before I knew it we were out the door and headed back to the homestead (our hotel).

There’s nothing quite like being able to take care of someone when they need you. Making soup from scratch. Warms cloths on their forehead. Getting their cozy jammies ready, tucking them into fresh sheets and putting on a movie.

Being in a hotel room was not like that.

I heated the restaurant made soup in the microwave, fluffed the foreign to us pillows and tucked in my babe without cozies. Nothing was on TV (is there ever anything on?). I took a a trip for supplies and dinner…

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Taking in the sights of a supplies walk. Melting ice sculptures from a competition downtown.

After which I was able to upgrade us a little bit with the help of an HDMI cable and new pajamas, though we couldn’t get the HDMI working until  11pm, and with me running back and forth between the laundry every thirty minutes and Iditarod partiers hooping and  hollering, it wasn’t exactly what the doctor ordered. But, trooper that he is, The Chief rolled with it well.

With massive amounts of laundry done the only things left to do were collect the remainder of The Chief’s meds (a misprinted prescription sent us into an insurance whirlwind but with a lot of help it all worked out) and grocery shop.

No biggie, right?

{Begin ominous soundtrack}

Our third amigo came with me to Costco so I wouldn’t have to pack and unpack alone, but in Costco it’s every man for his own shopping list (and since we hadn’t been to Town since December our list was as long as I am tall). There are two sides to Costco: booze and food. In your planning, you decide which is first depending on how you are packing your rig (which after two days of driving, I was feeling much more confident in…but still short). Booze first? In our case, yes. We would fill up the many side compartments of the truck and leave the bed for food.

Well, about $500 later we went back out to the truck and started loading the first round. Thirty minutes later we were back at the Costco doors.

Shopping for food for the next few months alone is a mental exercise in restraint, splurging and balancing. You see, you always return home wishing you would have bought that thing you debated on (yes, you really do want those olives). But the thing is, when your person is with you, you have a little sounding board, your decisions come easier and (at least at the time) feel valid. Alone, it’s a whole different ballgame. But this time I decided to go in armored up with the intention of leaving with truly everything we needed, even if I was going to have a minor heart episode at check out. I took off my jacket to prepare for the warm indoors and set it in reaching distance for when I got to the dairy aisle. I was ready.

About an hour and 20,000 decisions later (how much do I need this to be organic? $5 extra much? Do we have mayo?  I swear we did…Toilet paper! Almost forgot) we were in line (I had two shopping carts). For some reason, all the people in the store with 5 items or less started lining up behind me. I was in a daze and didn’t realize they were there  until the checker started calling them all ahead of me.

Ten minutes later, it was finally my turn.

Check out time.

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Baskets and baskets and baskets…

The bagger/boxer cracker her knuckles, took a deep breath and jumped right in. We had a game plan. Perishables together, non-perishables together. Box ’em up, box ’em out. Another ten minutes and ten banana boxes full and we were out of there. People were staring.
“Having a party this weekend, little lady?!”

You better believe it. At this point I’m feeling so close to being home that every moment is a celebration.

Thirty minutes later and the game of packing Tetris complete we finally leave Costco $1100 poorer but smiling all the way.

We return to The Chief and it starts…that sinking feeling you get when you feel a little sickness coming on.

Stage 1: Denial

Stage 2: Raid the medicine cabinet (or in our case, take your multivitamin and a dropper full of GSE and hope for the best).

Stage 3: Cross those fingers and toes

We all awoke in the morning beyond ready to leave but there was still the packing off all the supplies back into the truck which always takes longer than planned. Parked right next to a No Parking sign we played packing Tetris again (high scorers!) and finally, we were off.

The last stops between us and home:

Fred Meyer in Palmer (Safeway, essentially): For any last perishables that Costco didn’t have…maybe even some fresh herbs?

and

Fred Meyer Gas: To fuel up our barrels from home

Once you leave Palmer, you are basically home. You still have 6-8 hours before you actually arrive, but it’s the last taste of a city you’ll have for months and boy does that feel good.

I shopped again, we Tetris-ed again, loaded ourselves in again and we were off. Homeward bound (oh, I love that movie!).

Despite Doctors orders, The Chief drove the entire way home. Once you’re on a roll on the road it’s hard to stop. Our Third Amigo plagued with the Anchorage Ick too (and worse than me) got sicker and sicker as the drive wore on. I was still in the denial/taking supplements (of which I had loaded up in Palmer) stages but feeling worse as every mile flew past. Two more stops for fuel and last bits at the country store and we finally took our turn off down our 60-mile driveway home.

Finally home (again, against Doctor’s orders) The Chief, our Third Amigo and I unloaded box after box after box into our little house. As I leaned behind the seat to grab perishables, my headlamp fell onto my nose right as I hit my head into the window and cracked my nose.

“Ouch! I just cracked my nose…”

I realized that I was saying this to someone who had just had surgery two days before (like I’ve said before, I’m not the pain threshold bad-ass in this family).

We divided up items for our Third Amigo to haul home across the river and bid one another adieu for the night.

Inside, the house was mayhem. Feeling the sickness creeping further and further into reality I was ready to call it a night and start again in the morning but The Chief (thanks a lot prescribed steroids) was ready to organize! So we did and I’m glad because even organized, we had basically brought half of Anchorage back with us. The house was packed to the gills with goodies. I was so excited that I could barely sleep because I couldn’t decide what it was I would eat first in the morning.

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Oh, the bounty. The ebb and flow of eating begins…

Tucked into cozy fresh sheets, with jammies and homemade (Meyer!) lemon tea we settled in for the night. The trip was finally over. We were home.

I could finally take real care of The Chief. He could finally rest. I would cut the wood and make the meals and pamper the patient back into health. Finally he could start the post-surgery process right.

Right?

Ha! Wrong. I woke up feeling terrible the next day. He chopped the wood. He made the fire. He fed me and cared for me and pumped me up to be able to head to work (it was too late to call in sick and after being gone for so much longer than planned, I really needed the money).

You’d think by now I would finally realize that to make a plan out here is to shoot yourself in the foot but no, not yet. I planned and it failed but lucky for me I have a partner in crime.

Throughout this week he’s been told to rest, he’s checked in on me, made me tea and food and tickled my back. After everyone telling me how lucky The Chief was to have me, it turns out I was the lucky one…but I already knew that. We both are lucky.

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And so, despite playing my nurse, The Chief is healing up well. And in spite of staying longer than planned and spending more than hoped we are happy. Happy to be home and happy to have found home in one another.

Hey, there’s nothing like a town trip to bring you closer.

And there’s nothing like coming home to rainbow fireplaces and our favorite pup.

Home sweet home.

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The Three Amigos Hit Anchorage (and Anchorage Hits Back)

When you live in “The Bush”, as we do, there is a cyclical rhythm to your wants and a constant balancing between your wants and your needs. Ice cream may sound delicious but not at the price of an 8 hour drive into town. Ta-Da! Balanced.

When you are fresh off the highway from a Town Run you are so happy to be home that no convenience of modern life could sway you to return. But the erosion of that stance sneakily begins the moment you return. For me, the rhythm of wants and the balance between want and need concerns items and actions that are threefold.

List of Things I Lust for While Living in the woods:

#1: FOOD

Freshly returned from town you are flush. You have fresh fruits and vegetables (although only heartier fruits and vegetables since a sweet peach will likely perish on the trip in, while fruit like apples and veggies like carrots and broccoli are sturdy road dogs) all of your pantry staples are stocked and you even have the special extras like good chocolate and maybe a bottle of nice wine (if you didn’t get too overwhelmed and just say “screw it” when you looked at your non-necessities list, yea we organize them that way). Heck, you might even have fresh herbs (I think I just heard a chorus of angels sing “Hallelujah!”).

At first you eat vegetables at every meal. Then the cooler that serves as our refrigerator starts getting a little sparse. You can see the bottom. So you slow it down. You opt for two pieces of lettuce on a sandwich instead of four, you chop the vegetables finer so you use less and feel like you have more and you might even break into the frozen stock in order to slow the depletion of fresh.

But then, the cold snap of weather you’re experiencing (20 below) breaks and it starts to heat up (30 above). The cooler starts to warm even though you place it in front of the door by the draft to cool it via the winter air. The water bottles you put outside at night to freeze to keep the refrigerator cold don’t freeze as quickly and suddenly…

The produce starts to turn.

Now it’s go time. You question yourself. Why did you wait so long to eat it? Why did you pace yourself? Now you’re in a race against spoil. So you get to preserving and eating and sharing. We all know the feeling out here of bringing a salad to a potluck and watching time stop. Tummies stand still. Could it be? Greens? (Cue those angels).

Eventually the produce party ends. You eat your last apple, you commence the carrot countdown and the idea of salad is something you only dream of in potluck fantasies. The only fresh thing left is growing in your living room, but hey, in the middle of nowhere every little bit counts.

 

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My babies…

 

At this point you are at the mercy of your friends. Thankfully, they are merciful. But when someone is coming in from town, fresh items are the hardest to ask for. It’s not a simple 24-pack of beer that can be thrown in the bed of the truck. You question how necessary items are. You estimate: Do they have room in the cooler or the cab? Left out, the produce will freeze. It’s equivalent to asking someone to go to a specific store for a specific bottle of wine that needs to stay at a certain temperature during transport (after they’ve already performed the task 100 times for themselves). But that’s what friends are for and so for a few weeks you are supplied with just enough eggs and carrots to feel like you’re warding off the scurvy until the next time when you are the friend going to town.

#2: SHOWERS

For the first ten days when we returned in December our shower was not functioning. We had purchased an oven in town and it had taken over the original shower area and so we had to move everything around to find its new place beneath the stairs.

Real talk: The shower had been an item of high anticipation for me. For months I tried to comprehend via diagrams and explanations from The Chief how this whole indoor shower minus indoor plumbing was going to work. I wouldn’t say it was an issue of comprehension but more of denial. As much as I love food, I love showers, and that’s a lot. Due to the drought in California I had significantly reduced my water use but I still would shower near daily and fully enjoy my short time with my sudsy self. In the summer in Alaska we had an outdoor shower that could get a little chilly or buggy but was pretty amazing nonetheless. We used it almost daily. But when I asked The Chief how often people shower in the woods in the winter and he replied “Oh, every ten days or so” I nearly fell off my high horse and bumped my shampooed head on the way down. What?!

Extreme cold I’ve never experienced? Bring it on.

Removing myself from family and friends? Ok, I’ll miss them but at least I can still call them and connect.

Being in a town in the middle of nowhere cut off from civilization? I’m game.

But a shower in a bucket every 10 days or so? No thank you.

*It should be noted that having a shower in your house in the woods is not a given. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had gotten extremely lucky by having any sort of running water at all (and hot water at that).

Eventually with some quick construction a la The Chief the shower found it’s home beneath the stairs and as long as I refilled the tote reservoir I could shower every day if I liked. But it turns out that every day is simply not feasible here, at least not for me. You just don’t have the time. The house needs to be warm enough so that you aren’t freezing in your little tote tub. The water has to be filled (and that can take a whole day, remember?) Plus, do you really have the time to let your hair dry? Go outside and it turns into icicles (you’re quickest route to a haircut if you’re too handsy). It’s a process I couldn’t have totally understood until I went through it but now it makes a lot more sense.

And so we resort to daily cat baths and to showers as often as we can. This voice of shower apathy doesn’t sound like me, yet it is because by the end of a long work day the idea of getting water, heating the house, setting up the shower, blocking off the upstairs for anyone else (goodness forbid if you forget something you need for your shower up there), showering, disconnecting and draining the shower and air drying wet hair can sound like a whole other work day and you decide you’re just not that dirty.

And for months that is fine. But eventually the idea of a real shower starts creeping in. You start daydreaming about suds-ing up with the water still running. Luxury at its prime. And so, as your food starts to dwindle, you start to plan for that shower…maybe even a bubble bath.

#3: EATING OUT

The last thing I lust for in the woods is the joy of going out to eat. It’s the thing I miss the least but it’s still in the top three because although it’s an entirely unnecessary luxury, it’s a luxury just the same. You see, when you live in The Bush you make everything you eat. Except for the occasional potluck or dinner invite your three meals a day (who am I kidding, we rarely fit in three but at least two, with snacks is feasible) are yours to create along with the dishes that come with them. In some ways it’s one of my favorite things about living out here. I know my food. I know what it contains (for the most part) and I know how it was prepared.

But there are times when no one wants to cook and the idea of recreating the pasta wheel just isn’t the experiment you are up for. Carrots in pasta? Should be good, right? (Ok, it was, but that’s not the point). Sometimes you just want to sit back and enjoy a meal without having to cook it or clean it. Sometimes you want to order a drink at a bar that has ice in it instead of snow (and is at a bar instead of your living room).

And so between the food and the showers and eating out, the town lust starts to creep in.

In reality, if you stop to think about it, you don’t really want to go. It’s just lust, nothing real. To leave you’d have to leave the house to freeze (meaning take out everything that can’t freeze and drain all water), you’ll have to find hotels that take dogs or ask your neighbor (her uncle) to watch your pup (meaning you also have to be away from her) and then, you have to scrounge up the money for the trip to resupply.

 

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No, I think I’d rather stay with this little lady.

 

When you stack all these needs against the wants of fresh produce, showers and eating out they pale in comparison and so you wait again for the next friend to come in and put off town for another stretch…

Until you no longer can.

You see, sometimes, town has a plan for you.

In our case, this plan was enacted via a sinus infection. The Chief has had a sinus infection since the second week we came home. Tough as he is, it’s been tougher to get him to a doctor. And so, after one round of antibiotics with little results we finally (meaning The Chief finally had time off from work and I finally could convince him to leave) decided it was time to put our heads down and head into town.

A Town Run (cue the ominous music).

But this time was different.

We were actually getting a little bit excited instead of totally weary of the idea of the big city. We would see the doctor, go to the dentist, shop and leave. Bing bam boom! Take care of things, get in some good shower time, eat out and leave. Our friend even decided to come along and it ended up we would be there the week of the Iditarod start (though we would leave on the day of the ceremonial start). Still, a quick Wednesday to Saturday trip was exactly what we needed. Three amigos on an adventure.

 

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Uno. Dos. Tres. Vamanos!

 

Spirits were high and pockets were full (with enough cash at least to last the few days). We all kept remarking that we surprised by feeling excited to go to town. Fur Rondy was happening (a pre-Iditarod event) so we all brought any fur we owned (thanks to Miss K-Po I had an Arctic Fox stole to parade around in) and prepared for a few days of fun and function mixed into one.

 

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Sidenote: Yes, California, I hear you gasping. Fur?! The thing is, fur here is like an insulated rain jacket from REI in the lower 48. It’s what you wear because it’s the best way to handle the elements. Fur is what has been used since people first inhabited this place and it beats anything synthetic. No, I haven’t suddenly become PETA’s worst nightmare, I’m not sporting a mink bikini and chasing down polar bears but my ideas about fur have shifted as I’ve seen people’s need for and appreciation of it throughout this winter.

Ok, back to town. We prepared for fun.

 

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Even the six foot ceilings in the hotel couldn’t keep us down

 

And it was fun. We went out to eat and out to drink, watched toilets flush and showers stream, saw friends from home and made new friends. We were even surprised with the gift of a sunset helicopter ride over the city and the water from our third Amigo (muchas gracias, senor!)

 

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Bouncy equals blurry.

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The view from the bird.

 

Two days into our trip and one dentist appointment down, we had one doctors appointment to go and a half day left to shop. Then we were home free. We made our way to the hospital. The appointment was at 9:30 so we had waited to eat. It wouldn’t take long. A new round of stronger antibiotics and we would be on our way to breakfast, right?

Wrong.

You see, when you live in the woods your pain tolerance seems to start to skew. The Chief had been dealing with this infection for almost three months with no more than Advil to calm the pain. He didn’t even complain, he would just close his eyes and take a deep breath as the swelling and pain would visibly go up and down (Disclaimer: I may live in the woods but my pain perception is straight on and my need for a kissed boo-boo is intact. I’m not that tough yet). The doctor couldn’t believe he had been able to last this long with this bad of an infection. She sent us for a CT Scan and before we knew it…

“Can you stay until Monday?” (It was Friday, we were set to leave in the morning, post-shopping).

“Not really. Why?”

“We’re going to need you to stay until Monday. You need surgery. There’s no way we can safely send you back to The Bush with just antibiotics. The bones in your face could break from the pressure of the infection at any moment. You are literally a ticking time bomb. We are surprised you’ve made it this long without incident.”

Oh joy.

So much for in and out with antibiotics.

That morning, on our way to the hospital while planning just what and where exactly I would eat that day I had thought to myself:

“Thank you world for letting us get through this trip without bumps.”

A lot of times, people end up in Anchorage much longer than planned. A car breaks down or needs more work than planned or some other surprise arises and suddenly a three day trip turns into two weeks. I was so thankful that hadn’t happened.

I guess I thanked too soon.

The requested stay until Monday turned into Wednesday (and a quick appointment turned into leaving at 3pm, starving). They couldn’t just operate and let him leave. Potential adverse effects of the surgery would show up within 24-72 hours so they begged us to stay the week and do a post-op appointment before we left.

The week?!

We had budgeted to be here for four days. Our friend had budgeted to be here for four days. It’s not like he could just rent a car and drive home. There aren’t any rental returns anywhere nearby nor is there public transportation to our home. No one we knew was headed back into town. I was supposed to go back to work (I got a job – cue the celebratory trumpets – which I was now missing – cue the sad trombone). Our whole world was turned upside down within minutes. Things were going a little off course. But what did I expect? This is Alaska after all, the Laugh at You State when you try to make plans.

Besides, The Plan doesn’t really matter. Not when a doctor tells you your boyfriend’s face is an infection’s playground ready to blow. And so we buckled down and settled in for the stay. We compromised to leave Wednesday to give us enough time (hopefully) to notice any adverse effects from the surgery and to let The Chief recover enough to make the long trip back home (the pressure changes throughout the drive certainly pose a bit of a treat for him and the thought of driving in snow for the first time in my life on an Alaskan highway was a sweet surprise for me).

Bright Side Benefits:

Because of the extended stay we did get to see the Iditarod ceremonial start. I love puppies as much as I love pancakes (puppies, food and showers and I’m pretty much set for life, oh and The Chief too, please).

 

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A little something for Norway

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Booties for the babes

 

…and we did get to see the Running of the Reindeer (think Running of the Bulls in snow… with reindeer).

 

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We did get to keep flushing toilets and taking showers and ordering in.

We did get to go to a carnival too (though The Chief couldn’t ride anything for fear of face break).

 

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Never did I think I’d attend a carnival (rides and all) in the snow. Brrr metal seats.

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Right outside the hotel

 

The thing is though, the sparkle of town wears off in a few days, sometimes faster, no matter how many puppy pancakes you get (and especially when your face becomes a medical anomaly). Anchorage Angst is the expedited way to explain what starts to happen the longer you are here.

Here’s the long version (and it isn’t a slam against Anchorage at all, it’s just the juxtaposition of living in the woods and getting stuck in the big city versus choosing to be there. Perceptions start to shift):

Having money and spending it is so foreign (the only time we have a transaction at home is for poker night or to pay a friend back from brought in groceries) that at first it almost feels like playing Grocery as a kid. Heck, I even almost forgot to pay for something and just walked out because it felt so unreal. But once you realize that it is real and your funds are dwindling it loses it’s glitz pretty fast.

Money Angst.

The shower you so adored just starts to feel excessive. I don’t need to use all that water. I don’t need to leave the water running as I suds up, buttercup.

Excess Angst.

Dining out starts to feel like a chore (and a strain on your pocketbook). Eating out can end up being a great meal or terrible but either way it’s a. a strain on your funds and b. probably not all that healthy. Your tummy starts a rebellion. You grocery shop to try and offset the cost but you can only eat yogurt and apples for so long before you go insane. You miss your own kitchen and knowing your food.

Tummy Angst.

And all the while, as the Angst is building, we are prepping for surgery (an extra side dish of nerves). Surgery after which The Chief isn’t allowed to do anything to exert himself for 6 weeks.

Six?!

Oh, perfect!

Logging doesn’t count, right? Does chopping and carrying firewood? Do hauling water and building projects count? Going to work on a construction site? Driving a snow machine?

Our life is built around exertion and I like it that way (lack of exertion also adds to the Anchorage Angst. Being gone for four days I figured I could get by without my running shoes, I could handle surviving on walking and yoga in the hotel room. A week and I’m feeling like a caged pup. Atrophy Angst). I like feeling tired from tending to our life and I know The Chief does too. But we will have to work around it. Just as we didn’t plan to still be here, I know I can’t start to plan what life will be like after the surgery. All we can do is show up and be grateful that we finally caved and came in.

And so the rhythm of wants changes her beat again. Days ago we couldn’t wait to arrive. Days later we are chomping at the bit to leave. It’s the ebb and flow. But even as we sit antsy in our hotel room watching “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” for the umpteenth time we have to remember that soon we will return home and start the rhythm all over again.

Soon we will be home with fresh vegetables, maybe even herbs, maybe even chocolate, so glad to be home and not even able to think about another town trip…

and then, before we know it, the hankering for an iced cocktail and a B movie re-run might come over us…

I can’t wait to get there.

Until then, wish us luck.

 

To be continued…

Home is Where the Hard is

My girlfriend in Norway texted me this morning. “Help” was the first text. “Help me choose a kitchen” with a link to a website was the second.

You see, she is remodeling.

And I guess we are too.

Two kitchens. Two continents. Worlds apart.

Since moving into The Chief’s house it has become our house. Our home. It felt like home the first time I arrived and has ever since. But, as I mentioned in this post, it was a bachelor pad, like a perma-bachelor pad. And so we have slowly been making it ours.

The thing is, projects in the woods can get a bit tricky. It’s not like we can hop in the car and take a quick trip to Home Depot and stop for lunch on the way home (oh to eat a meal and simply walk away from the mess, that is luxury). We can’t just pop into town.

Town is Anchorage.

Town is 8-10 hours away, depending on the weather.

It’s a three day minimum commitment. Your house will freeze along with everything in it and if you’re lucky enough to have work, you’ll have to take time off. You’ll have to brave glacier riddled roads and icy highways and you must be able to carry all the supplies on your vehicle because strangely enough, stores don’t deliver out here.

So, the best alternative is to do it yourself. Source your own materials and make it work.

The Project: kitchen shelving

The Plan: build them from scratch

The Materials List: it all started a few years back…

In essence, our kitchen project started years ago. Before we even found one another. Our neighbor cut down the trees that would then be taken to another resident’s property to be milled into the biggest size possible. The now beams were eventually brought back over to our joint property by another neighbor where they sat…and sat…

Fast forward to present day and a stretch of time off from work for The Chief due to…you guessed it…a need for more supplies. So, as the job site was restocking we made use of the time off and started a “simple” kitchen project. We figured it would take a day or two. That was cute of us.

Day one: After suiting up for the cold, The Chief headed  out to the beam site. Shovel and axe in hand he chopped and chopped through ice and feet of snow until he wrestled two free.

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Wolf patrol. So many things to pee on.

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Sniff it out, dig it out.

I suited up myself and helped him to lift the beams onto the sawhorse.

I’m a pretty strong little bundle of a 5′ 3 (and 3/4)” lady but this 12-foot hunk of future shelving was a serious workout. At least I wasn’t cold anymore.

The beams on the other hand, they were cold. Frozen to be exact and at ten degrees outside, they weren’t thawing out any time soon. This seemed like a serious threat to our shelf building escapade. Out came the hammers. We hammered away the large chunks of ice and used the other side (the Claw, I’m told) to scrape. It was slow going. We found angled metal that worked as a scraper too but still, a great deal of ice remained and there was no way we could get those beams inside the house to thaw. The Chief smiled. He had a little trick up his parka: a weed burner. It’s exactly what it sounds like (unless you’re from California, then see the following explanation): basically it’s a torch used to burn down weeds but hey, I’m all about multi-purpose tools.

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So we spent the next hour or so burning off the freeze and the rest of the afternoon logging for the next project.

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Logging means brush…which means bonfire time

The next day was colder and it was harder to motivate to head out into it. But, of course, in true Alaska fashion, once we did motivate and had just finished defrosting the second log friends from across the river announced their arrival via snow machine. Our work was done for the day.

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The next day was full of bright blue skies and recently refrozen rivers. We couldn’t just burn weeds all day, we had to greet the blue and so the project was pushed off again.

Sidenote: this whole “go with the flow” attitude isn’t natural for me. I’m learning it. It feels irresponsible because it sometimes chooses fun over work but isn’t it just as bad to choose work over play simply because you “should”? I’m still figuring that one out. Dang Puritan work ethic. But I do know that it seems criminal to live in a 13 million acre national park and not explore it when you have the perfect day to do so…so we did.

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The Chief testing the thickness of the ice off to the right

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If it can hold this little guy it can hold us, right?

Finally, on the fourth day, things started coming together. The weather had turned (this always seems to happen. Good thing we took advantage of the day before) to grey skies and snow. The Chief and I suited up and got to milling. The wood was actually in pretty good shape considering its snowy grave and we were able to get three boards milled.

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We made shelves until five o’clock when we realized we were going to be late for the dinner plans we had made at a friend’s house up the hill. Time for a pause.

Sidenote: By “We made shelves” I mean The Chief mainly measured, cut and screwed in the boards. I learned (relearned) how to calculate a hypotenuse (and just now how to spell it again), how the miller and saw worked and how to brace shelving. I was in charge of aesthetic and placement and that’s great but it’s one thing to tell someone where to place something and another to place it oneself. I wish I could say we were both out there at the same time doing the same work but the truth is, I just didn’t know enough and when you only have so many materials, it’s pretty essential not to mess up. And while there’s nothing wrong with being the one who runs to get the materials or reminds you both to eat an apple, I can’t wait for the day when I lead the work. Luckily, The Chief is happy to share the position. Outside of my mom, no one has ever had so much faith in me to be able to do anything I set my mind to. From teaching me to run a chainsaw to encouraging me to lead us home at night on snow machines, he’s the best cheerleader (and the hairiest) anyone could ask for.

Before. During. After.

A few hours later, too full from dinner and too excited to sleep, we started finding new homes for things and brainstorming the next steps. I love these moments together. Just the two of us, making plans, trying out ideas and laughing together if they fail, knowing full and well that we will make it work. There’s nothing like living in a little cabin to get your creative organizing skills flowing and there’s nothing better than a partner in crime to dream with.

The next day it was snowing again so we waited until it abated and then started on the corner shelves. It took up until the dinner bell at the neighbor’s house was ringing (two homemade dinners that we didn’t have to home make in one week?! Hallelujah!) to finish. Two shelving projects down and an infinite number left to complete but a serious pat on the back is in order.

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For the last two days, every time we would walk into the kitchen (which means every time you come in the house or walk from the living room. Tiny house, remember?) we would marvel at our completed project.

And then this morning I got the Norwegian text and it made me realize how different my world has become. Never in my life did I think I would help mill the tree a friend cut down and make my own shelving (shoot, I’d never even met someone who’d cut down a tree for lumber before). Never did I think I would work in the snow and the cold in the middle of winter in Alaska. Never did I think I’d meet my person in the middle of the woods. Never did I think it would happen, but I did hope for this life.

I was looking for a “hard” life, even if I didn’t know it. And it is hard, in the best ways. Things take three times longer. Each project becomes a town effort as you run out of screws or borrow tools but the “hard” is what makes it feel so good to hammer in that final nail. The “hard” shows you how hard things could actually be and how lucky we are. The “hard” is what makes it home. Our home.

 

 

The Road to the North (The Journey into the Woods)

Coming home in California

  1. Get off plane
  2. Grab bag(s)
  3. Walk to meet ride
  4. Drive home
  5. You’re home, traffic willing, in under 2 hours. Traffic won’t-ing you stop for food. Poor thang.
  6. Enjoy.

Getting home to Alaska:

It took us 5 days from when we left California to get home to Alaska.

From CA we drove 11 hours to Portland.

In Portland we said our last goodbyes and headed to Anchorage via PDX.

Once we hit Anchorage and picked up the dog (thank you Alaska Airlines for not losing her, that was cool) it was GO time.

Town Run time.

Slang description: [Town Run] When people mention a Town Run (a.k.a an Anchorage Run) everyone seems to take a moment of silence together for the sanity that was inevitably lost in the process. Town Runs are supply runs. To me, supplies come from hardware stores. In the woods, supplies are everything you will (or hopefully won’t i.e. first aid) need until the next time you go into town.

When’s that?

Hopefully a few months.

Gulp.

All of your food. Clothing. Hardware (see, I knew it). Crafts. Entertainment. Building materials. Propane. Gasoline. Sanity (if it’s for sale).

Everything.

Ah, and you’ll need to be able to carry it all with you in one vehicle (we had a big ‘ol truck –seemingly enough). Add another consideration: freezing. Things that can’t freeze have to all fit inside the truck (this was a heart breaker for a veggie lady like myself). Everything else in the bed of the truck will likely freeze (the weather will decide if she wants it to or not) and therefore must be able to.

 

Things like this are just not in my typical thought process. Can mayo freeze? Sure, but then it gets “all weird” when you defrost it. Ok, but produce takes anti-freeze priority so…weird it’s gonna get.

Prioritizing like a boss.

We also had to purchase ALL of my “gear” (“gear” meaning clothing but because it’s focus is function it’s called gear). Not to be confused with fashion, function rules supreme. Asking “how does it look?” will inevitably elicit the response “how does it feel?” meaning, don’t even bother to look in a mirror – you don’t have one at home anyways – this gear is your only protection from the elements so even if it’s made of more neon than the 80’s or gives you a few (20) extra lbs. in your caboose, the point again, is function.

Fine.

Bibs that were tough enough to haul trees in, boots to withstand the low below zeros, two hundred pairs of socks (or so), skis  and ski boots and goggles and layers, layers, layers.

Sidenote: women’s “gear” is majorly lacking. I even went to the kids section because they at least make that stuff that can take some rowdiness. Nothing makes you feel more like a woman than asking if there’s a Kids XL Husky (real sizing lingo) available for your nearly 30 year-old self.

I’ve never shopped so long and hard in my life (or criss-crossed a town more – our path would have looked like a word search). 12 hour days for two days. We had to shuttle supplies into our hotel at night so they wouldn’t freeze and pack and re-pack the truck over and over.

Lastly, we shopped for perishables right as we hit the road (hours later than planned due again to criss-cross applesauce) so as to increase their chances for making it home (but certainly not guarantee it) then we picked up a few last minute pretty pleases from friends in the woods and…

Finally, we were off.

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She’s a Two-Lap Dog

 

Leaving a Town Run is the best feeling. Even with an 8 hour car ride ahead of you it feels like you’re already home. If I was in California, I would be in LA or Oregon in 8 hours. In Alaska…you’re still in Alaska.

 

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Plus, when this is the road you’re driving things are pretty alright.

 

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But then, in true Alaska fashion, it couldn’t go too easily.

 

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But six eyes are better than two.

 

We left at noon and didn’t get home until midnight.

Throughout the day we received calls about the conditions of The Road (The Road is a dirt road off the highway that is our straight shot home. It is a famed road for breakdowns in every season but winter is a special time for concern). A friend was caught in a road glacier (this is a real thing) and calling for help and to warn us of conditions, others called to tell us of their recent trips and what to watch for.

It takes a village to be able to return home.

As we turned onto the road and stopped to celebrate with the required traditional road soda, a friend pulled up out of nowhere and told us about our friend’s birthday party just a few miles down the road.

This is Alaska to a T. You’ve spent days stressing, spending all of your money, trying to make it home and as you’re almost there you get a taste of why it’s all worth it. Alaskan serendipity calls again. What a welcome home.

Leaving the party we approached the aforementioned road glacier which we thankfully crossed unscathed and finally (50 miles later) we pulled all the way into the driveway 5 days after leaving California.

Time to relax.

Nope.

Now it’s time to unpack everything you’ve brought. In the snow. In the cold. At midnight.

But first, let’s light off a lantern and hoot and holler “we’re home!” into the woods because really, that’s all that matters.

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Welcome home.