If you’ll recall, the border that day was Turtle (of Turtle and the Hare fame) slow. We were one of two cars, the other of which the guard had sent off for a full inspection. We waited as their rig was given the once, twice, thrive over, anticipating our own packed to the brim paddywagon being unpacked item by item.
As the inspected car apparently passed with flying colors, it was now our turn. We pulled up to the window, rolling down ours, pulling our masks over our big smiles, doing our best to look the part of the precise people you want patronizing your Province (a mouthful of P’s!). It’s hard to look friendly when half of your face is covered but I told my smile wrinkles to put on a show. Now, I don’t know about you but when I get pulled over, I become a Chatty Kathy and so does my partner in crime. We did our best to simply stick to the facts and, as one of our friends suggested, “overwhelm with paperwork”. We had papers for the dog (who was looking all things upstanding citizen with his freshly bathed and brushed self), papers for my name change, papers for The Chief’s brief brush with the law, paper for our marriage, papers for our rental down south, papers for our COVID tests…we had what felt like a small tree’s worth of paper with us and we sent it his way. Nailed it, right?! He shooed the papers away. He wanted to talk. Cool, cool, cool…
If you love utter chaos, down-to-the-minute deadlines, and high-stakes, the start to our travels down south was right up your alley. While some form of chaos is inevitable in travel it seems, the past few years, we’ve really dialed in our departures to lessen the stress of leaving. Yet, as fate would have it, this time our well-oiled machine seized.
How? A lot of distraction and a little technology.
You see, if and when you ever change your name, you’ll learn that it is, dare I say, a royal pain in the rear. I dove into the post-marital surname switch to the best that our 16-hour roundtrip from town locale would allow but in the end, I had failed to change my passport in time for our departure from AK to CA. Worried I wouldn’t get through, we phoned the Canadian Border Patrol and inquired: just how big of a deal was it that my passport didn’t match my new last name? Turns out…not that big of a deal. Phew! The other small hiccup that stole our attention was a brief moment The Chief had spent with a small-town cop who had big-time problems with him. We had worried for years if Canada would let him through and our inquiries had been far less fruitful than my passport woes. Indeed they had been inconclusive.
The third distraction was the need for a negative COVID test within 72-hours of reaching the border. Sounds easy, right? Well, not exactly. You see, Alaska was (and still is) deeply struggling to meet the sudden surge of COVID in a resource-tapped state and there simply weren’t enough tests to go around. I had called everywhere from the nearest clinic to the border (one that would still be a few hours detour) to clinics in Anchorage. No one had the PCR tests required. One clinic had another accepted test but they had been receiving the results in random increments of time. Some people got their results within a day, some within 4 days. We needed them within 72-hours of hitting the border.
I kept trying, to no avail until on one of our umpteen trips to Anchorage, I saw a place offering the testing.
Even though it was a 16-hour detour AND we couldn’t make an appointment (we could only do walk-in which, when you live 8 hours away is a really funny/frustrating idea) it was the best option. We resigned ourselves to adding another 600 miles to our trip.
So, with the aforementioned distractions semi-settled, we looked to our departure date with anticipation and excitement. The Chief hurriedly got the addition in tip-top shape and I spent every weekend working on getting the house ready for us to leave. Three Anchorage trips within the month prior to leaving meant we’d done all of our building supply shopping, dropped off all of our plant babies with their sitters (dear friends of ours who took ALL of our plants for the winter), and seen our doctors and dentists. Things were settled and relatively calm for the miles we’d been clocking and the long weeks we’d been working. There was a calm to the storm.
Until there wasn’t.
So now we know the distraction. Here’s where the little bit of technology comes in: 6 days before we were meant to depart, my phone announced a reminder to me. Now, I don’t know about you but I typically respond to reminders with something to the effect of “Whatever that is, I’ll do it later” (productivity in action!) but for some reason, that day I looked at it immediately and what did I see? Our future plans dissolving. “CC Passport Expires” was all it read. I clicked into it. Surely this must be a reminder for 6 months before the expiration date. Why would I set a reminder for one week before it expired?! Unexplainably, I did. I dug into our family filing cabinet and pounced upon the passport in question. Surely, the reminder had to be wrong.
The reminder was right. All along we’d been so worried about MY passport that we’d forgotten to check on The Chief’s passport. We called the Border again (whose number we’d basically committed to memory at that point) and got one of the most frustrating responses ever: maybe. Maybe? This was the answer to “Can my husband make it across the border?” Maybe. The only illumination they provided to those five letters of frustration was this: It depends who is working. They may decide you have enough time to cross into the US before your passport expires or they may not. Either way, the sooner you get here, the better. This news came at 12 noon. By 12:05 we faced the grim reality: we’d be leaving the next day, 5 days earlier than planned.
This news also came mid-workday for me and so, despite having a mountain to climb, I had to continue on with day, feet planted firmly at the base of the mountain until nightfall (the perfect time to start a climb). I can’t speak for everyone but I can speak for both of us and our days of pulling all-nighters are solidly in our past. Staying up all night, working all day the next day, and then hitting the road sounded terrible. So, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. There’s nothing quite like a deadline to light a fire under you, eh? There’s also nothing quite like saying “Well, I did the best I could”. Case and point: garden shutdown:
In addition to packing our life away for the next however many months, there was also the issue of the added day of going to the clinic in Anchorage that suddenly posed an even bigger issue than simply having to drive 16 hours for a test. Now it added to the gamble of our crossing. I called every single clinic again in the hopes of a mini-miracle and…we were able to get an appointment with the nearest clinic to the border AND they guaranteed results in 15-minutes! After which we could make the drive to the border, where we’d learn if our next step of the path would unfold in our favor.
Somehow, come 7 pm, we were in a place where we felt good enough to break for dinner at a friend’s house so we could say goodbye to everyone that night instead of the Adieu BBQ we’d planned (and shopped) for that coming weekend. We went home at a reasonable hour, did nothing further, and hit the hay with relative calm. The weeks of mayhem and planning prior had set us up surprisingly well. Still, when you’re leaving for months on end there are endless things to remember and as we hadn’t left for that long in the last few years, we were a little rusty. “Can this freeze?” I’d ask, holding up balsamic vinegar. “No! It’ll explode!” “Oh, yeah…”
The next day, we were up with the stars still out. The hustle was on. I still had to work but thankfully was able to swing a half-day. I stopped work at noon and got to packing. By 5 pm that evening, the car was packed, the house was stocked and secured, and somehow, 5 days earlier than planned, we were about to hit the road. We hadn’t even so much as bickered in the stress of it all. We were damn cool cucumbers considering we didn’t know if we’d even make it across the border. The stress of it hung in the air above us. What would we do if we didn’t make it across? I’d make the journey solo. I hadn’t been feeling so hot as we’d approached the journey and the idea of a 3,000-mile trip solo (plus the added 16-hour round trip to and from Anchorage to drop off The Chief) was less than appetizing. Still, somehow we were cool, man.
5 pm isn’t what I would call my ideal start to a 3,000 + mile journey but…start it we did. Night quickly fell, as did a snow flurry. We ate dinner from a gas station and plodded on into…construction? By 10 pm I was calling our hotel to let them know that we’d be later than expected. “That’s OK honey, I’ll stay up for you. You just drive safely” said the sweet front desk agent. By midnight, we rolled into the lodge, exhausted. “Let me show you to your room, get in your car, and follow me. People always get lost.” Off we went following our guardian angel for the night and into bed, we fell. Our books laughed at us as we pretended to read a few sentences before falling fast asleep.
The next morning I was up early to get as much work done as I could before we hit the road. For a brief moment in time, I had found that I could suddenly work and read from the car without getting carsick. Apparently, that spell had worn off. Barf city, here we come! I shivered as I took Leto for a quick prance about the neighborhood. It was 15 degrees, icy and biting. By 9 am we were packed up and off to the clinic for our tests. When we arrived, they mentioned that we would be paying the fee, despite having insurance, since they were billing it differently as it was for travel. Mmmmmmsccuse me? $240 and 30-minutes later, we were off, COVID free, thankfully. So far, we’d made it through all of the hurdles we’d faced. We’d packed our house in 24 hours We’d gotten the dog his health certificate We’d filed the paperwork We’d registered with Canada We’d come back negative And now? The moment of truth.
A few miles before the border, dressed in our finest warm weather gear, showered and shorn, we stopped on the side of the road to let the Leto out and shake our worries off.
It was now or never. Would they let us in? The Chief now had two strikes against him. It wasn’t looking good but we’d come this far. We had to try.
As we approached the border, my heart rate quickened. The border was slow that day, only one car lay ahead of us, which could either mean a guard who was grateful for light-duty or one who was bored and wanted to make their day more interesting by interrogating crossers (certainly, there was a multitude of options in-between but my black and white brain warned otherwise). The car in front of us was waved to the side for a full inspection. Gulp. I feared we’d reached the Day of the Bored Guard and as the Border had told us in our many, many calls “It’s all up to the guard who is working that day”.
So it was.
How did it go?
Tune in next time to find out.
See you in two weeks.
P.S. A huge thank you to you, sweet reader for coming along on this journey. If you love reading BTB please make sure to sign up at the top right of this page (see the picture below for details). You’ll never receive spam and your email will never be shared but you will always know when the latest entry drops and soon…that will be the only way to find out. More info to come but if you haven’t signed up yet, do so now (please). And…if you have, please feel free to share with friends.
What?! Wait, did you say leave? Mmmhhhhhhhhhhmmmmmm.
Leave. For the last couple of years, due to that which shall not be named (*cough* COVID), we haven’t really left. Yes, we popped out to Hawaii when things felt safe to do so and I popped out to California when it felt a little less safe but my mental health required me to do so but overall, we’ve been home since 2018. 2018! Ack! In 2017, after three years of moving back and forth between Alaska and California, trying to make things work in both places simultaneously, a dear friend told me “Babe, I think you need to stay home for a year.” Just hearing her say that, I felt a wave of relief. We’d been scurrying about for so long that I still had an unpacked bag of bathing suits and shorts packed at our cabin from our trip to Ecuador. And so it was decided, we’d stay put for a while. In 2019, we unpacked years of travel and shuffling, shutting down the house in a panic and opening it just the same. We organized, we nested, we married and we stayed put. It was glorious.
Little did we know that Voldemort was on his way and we all know what happened in 2020. So now, almost three years after our last extended stay away from our beautiful life that sometimes feels a little too hard, we are about to Step 4: Leave.
Where to? The open road. We’ll be California-bound come next week just The Chief, Leto and I. We’ll have to pare down and pack tight and I can’t wait.
In this last week, The Chief will be busy putting the final touches on the addition before we leave, prepping for our awesome friends to come in and drywall and paint the space. It’s really coming along.
I will be working from home while tidying up all the loose ends. From securing rapid tests to be able to cross the border to making sure all of our non-freezable foods and goods are safely stored, the fridge is empty and the freezer is full, it’s going to be a busy week for us all. Leto will be on snow patrol.
So, how do you live in the wilderness forever? For me, you mix it up. Step 5 will obviously be Return but for a while at least, we are going to snag a little bucket hauling, generator running, fire building, 8-hour town trip breathing room. These last few years have been beautiful but no matter how much I love any place, I’ll always need a little space from it. Buh-bye location claustrophobia. Hello, open road!
That being said, BTB will be taking a few weeks off, to return in November to recount our tales to you, dear reader. Until then, I’ll be sending you love from the road and updates on Facebook and Instagram so make sure to stay tuned.
P.S. Aside from following on social media, the best way to support BTB is to subscribe (upper right-hand corner of this page) and share it with a friend. Please take a moment to sign up and share. I appreciate you!
P.P.S Sadly, Leto did not get the chance to practice his penmanship on any Vaccination Thank Yous BUT the offer still holds true. If you read last week’s post and feel inspired to get vaccinated, Leto will send you a personalized Thank You card. And…if you’re in it for the swag, stay tuned. Coming soon!
Last weekend, we went on a family hike, Leto, The Chief and I. It went a little something like this:
While the fall colors were in full effect, there was still a feel like summer was looking over our shoulder, guiding us gently into the next season. The (sometimes) sunny days didn’t feel so far away. The next morning, I headed to Anchorage and when I returned, a mere two days later, summer’s gaze was no more. Instead, winter beckoned us in. The mountains, bare when I left, were now covered in a determined Termination Dust (what Alaskans have dubbed the first snowfall signaling the end of summer).
These wintry days of freezing mornings and oh so sultry highs of 50 degree afternoons have had me looking foward towards winter. This past winter was epic. It snowed more than any year I’ve ever experienced, more than a lot of people had seen in decades.
Snow is normally a welcome gift but it snowed so much that looking back in my journal, I found this gem of an entry:
“Monday, March 29th, 2021 5:55 am Still fucking snowing!”
So, yeah, needless to say, it was epic but not always favorably so. This past winter was also memorable because it was the first time in a year that I had felt total hope we’d found our way out of (or at least a way to barely skirt around) this whole pandemic mess.
Because in mid-March, a local clinic (and by local, I mean a clinic 4 hours away) drove all the way out our unmaintained, Do Not Drive Without Survival Gear road to our little hamlet and provided second shots and first and only shots of the vaccine for Covid-19 to anyone who wanted them. Did every single resident come? No, but did the majority of the town? You betcha. Mind you, getting to the vaccine wasn’t an easy task. This wasn’t a “drive in your warm car to the local CVS” vaccine type o’ day. Just as the vaccine team had to work to get to us, our entire town had to work to get to them.
My vaccine day? It started with preparations.
I would be alone afterwards if The Chief was unable to make it back from his snowmachine trip and I was determined to be self-sufficient. I spent the morning chopping firewood, cleaning the house, charging the batteries, pumping gas, warming the generator, cooking food for the next few days and gassing up the snowmachines.
I was prepared. The day was a gorgeous but COLD March but boy oh boy was I dressed for it.
From Mukluks to triple and quadruple layers top to bottom, I was prepared. Finally, after the house was warm and my life was ready for me to fall apart if need be, Leto and I started our journey towards vaccination day. We drove the 3.5 miles to Town, me on the snowmachine, Leto setting the slow pace ahead.
I flirted with snowbanks but didn’t make any move too fancy for fear of getting my machine stuck and missing my date. 30 minutes later, we arrived at my girlfriend’s house where our pod was waiting.
Were we all a little nervous? Yep! Had we all done copious research and, more importantly, spoken to doctors galore? Yep! We were ready.
We gathered our belongings and walked down to the Town gathering spot: Tony Zak’s (a house donated to the community for gatherings). We blasted “Break my Stride” to pump us up. Go ahead, give it a listen, you know you want to…
Just then, we got a phone call. “Are y’all on your way? We just opened the first vial and it needs to be administered in the next 30 minutes.” We’d had an appointment time scheduled for an hour later but thankfully, we were running early. We picked it up to double time and soon, we arrived. One by one we were welcomed in, administered the shot and waited our 15 minutes for any adverse effects. The feeling afterwards?
All the buildup, all the research, all the wondering and then…done. In two weeks time, life as we had known it would finally, finally return. We hooted and hollered and danced about and then, we all went home to prepare to nurse ourselves back to health if need be.
Need freaking be.
I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t fun. I was coooooolllllllddddd and achy. My teeth hurt. I felt like total crapola. Our pod gave one another text updates as the night wore on (the night which, thankfully, The Chief had returned on). I seemed to have it the worst of the bunch but, overall, after a night of No Thanks, I Don’t Want to Experience That Again, it was over. The next day I rested, ate nurturing foods and ticked one more day off of the 14 until the vaccine was in full-effect. The day after? I was back to skiing, back to life as normal.
Unfortunately, life as normal hasn’t fully returned, has it? The word Delta took on a new meaning and as we look towards winter again, which seems to be coming as soon as tomorrow here in Alaska, it feels as if we’ve gone backwards a bit. But…what can we do?
We can get vaccinated.
Listen, I’m not vaccine-happy and I’m not suggesting you have to be either. Getting this vaccine doesn’t mean you’re pro-every single vaccine forever from here on out. Personally, if I can heal any ailment with plants first, I will. I harvest local medicine and keep it for our family. I believe in the power of the mind to heal ourselves too and the power of a healthy immune system. But…I also deeply believe in science and y’all, one thing I know is this thing is not going away any time soon unless we come together to fight it via the vaccine. If you think you’re healthy and are not worried you’ll contract it (which, I’m sorry to tell you, my friends who work in ERs have seen plenty of healthy, young people die within days) OK. But, instead maybe think of the people who aren’t so certain they’d make it, like the woman I saw in Home Depot the other day with a sign on her orange employee vest that read “Please stay back if you are unvaccinated. I have a deeply compromised immune system and I will not live through Covid.” At the end of the day, do you want to be the reason for someone’s end of days? Of course not, and thankfully, it’s an easy fix.
Julia, I’m not getting the vaccine.
OK. I hear you.
Will you, please, then do this instead? Please take it seriously. If you simply can’t stomach the vaccine, all I ask is that you take this situation, this global pandemic, as seriously as it deserves to be taken. Wash your hands, wear masks and social distance like your life depends on it, because even if you don’t think your life depends on it, someone else’s does. Please, don’t go out unnecessarily (sorry, brunch doesn’t count as a necessary outing these days #RIPchampagnesunday). I know it sucks. I don’t like any of it. I mean, I never used hand sanitizer in my life before this. I let my immune system do its thing but this? This is different. None of us are happy about any of it but…
That day in March when I felt hope? Utter joy? Elation? That can return for all of us. We can do this. Please, be a part of it.
With love and hope,
P.S. I am not above bribery, no I’m not (and neither is the state of Alaska)! For every person who is currently unvaccinated but GETS vaccinated by the time I post the next BTB blog, you will be the receiving BTB goodies when our first swag EVER comes out this winter and a personalized thank you card from Leto (his penmanship is questionable but his heart is in the right place). Send me proof of your vaccination and an address for your gifts by Monday, October 4th to win. Everyone likes winning, right?! Email me your details at: firstname.lastname@example.org
P.P.S. If this post makes you say “Ewwww, Julia! I don’t want to read this blog anymore, even though I’ve loved it up until now.” Well, then…so be it. Lots of love your way and happy trails to you (hopefully to a vaccination site 😎 Yea…I couldn’t help myself).
P.P.P.S If you’re thinking “Shit, this post was heavy!”, think again. This was way heavier and this was a ringer too. As Glennon Doyle says, we can do hard things. We can. We have. We will again. They will only make us stronger.
P.P.P.P.S Just kidding. We all know there’s no PPPPS! 😜
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After the weeks-long ramp up to The Wedding, we all took a long, deep exhale.
Then, it was back to work. The first order of business? Fall plans. The Chief and I had exactly one week before he shipped out down South to fight fire. We had an addition to build, laundry to do for him for the next month, bags to pack, and…I now had a house to shut down, and a serious road trip (unless I wanted to wait here solo until November for The Chief to arrive back home). 3,000 miles solo with a pup? No problem…right? After running through 10,000,000 scenarios for how to get everything done in time I chipped away at the logistical rat’s nest that can be trying to leave in Fall and started small. Where would my plant babies live?
Our focus shifted to the addition. With a small break in the weather, The Chief shored up the blocking and bracing and I got to painting. The next day, we installed the floor.
And then promptly covered it as the weather shifted (#classic). Throughout the day and into the night, we rushed out ever so often to poke the low spots and watch the resulting waterfalls.
In an effort to deal with the gloomy weather, I went on a wander, exploring new avenues off the beaten path of my daily rounds.
These cheery guys helped a bit. I call this one Balding Dryas.
Returning home to a whole wall built also helped.
Ending the day looking at three walls?! That required some high-fives, hoots, n’ hollers.
Despite the rain and the cold, these tough cookies persisted, and a few days later…
The roof was on! Added plus? I learned how to spell Biththene (pronounced Bitch-uh-thane).
That night, listening to the pitter-patter on the new roof, the call came. Chris would ship out…never.
In a logistical spin on things neither one of us could have predicted, suddenly, The Chief would be home sweet home with Leto and me. We both took a serious exhale. The mania of the last few weeks of prep, wonder, worry (on my part) and stress was done. Sort of, but also, all of our plans were suddenly caput. A blank slate lay before us. So, what did we do?
We did something we haven’t done in years(!?!?!). We went out to The Glacier. Leto was fully impressed and also fully pissed that we hadn’t made him privy to the fact that there has been year-round ice around him for the last two years.
The next day, by the grace of everything that is holy in this world, it was sunny. Even getting woken up at 6 am on a Sunday to a fire call (everyone is OK) couldn’t hamper the good vibes the sun was putting out. Leto and I soaked it in. I wore shorts. My husband was here to stay. All was right in our little world.
The next morning our wake-up call was equally jarring but with a happy surprise: the driveway gravel had arrived! Potholes be damned. Things were looking brighter.
Later that day, I had my last call with the group of women I’ve been meeting with for the last seven weeks. Life is better with sisterhood and accountability and this gathering served up both.
The rest of the week was spent wrapping up the addition and…prepping for the next task at hand: Town. It had been a while since we broke out our Road Warrior boots and so, in true off-grid fashion, we left at 6 am Friday morning, got to town by 2pm, got blood tests, doctor’s visits, and then…started shopping.
Our goal? 5 windows and a door, electrical and flooring. The end result?
I learned so much more about electrical than I ever wanted:
I found out that the perfect way to take a quick rest while home improvement shopping is to try on bathtubs.
Leto continued to be utterly terrified of all things Town and refused to get out of the car.
Somehow, we got 5 windows and the perfect door loaded into the truck plus electrical odds and ends (no butt slicers though, sorry) and all the flooring to finally tie the whole house together (flooring they had on hand solely because it was a return). ‘Twas a good haul and after 10 hours of shopping, we called it quits. Well, first sushi, then quits.
The next day, we left Town. On the drive we saw patches of sun and then, this perfect representation of the weather as of late: sun trying to break through the clouds, slowly being overpowered by grey all day.
Finally, we made it back home all in one piece, only to find the tent covering our tools, not so all in one piece.
The highs and lows of life off-grid never seem to end and the only constant here is change. There are grand achievements followed by grand frustrations. It can be a rollercoaster of emotions but…but…we focus on the good (most of the time). We’d made it home. We’d made it through stressful situations (read: figuring out how to wire our house, shopping when social anxiety kicked in….you name it) without getting in so much as a squabble, and Leto, though a bit traumatized, was happy to be home. We settled into a pizza and movie night, just the three of us. And while today awoke us with grey, I see a little sun peeking through because tomorrow, it’s two years since this sunny day. And instead of wishing him my love from thousands of miles away, worrying over his safety, we get to be here, together, where it all started.
Free cake, food and champagne aside, I love weddings because they make me feel. They give me “All the feels” as the kids says. They bring out the optimist in me and dang if she hasn’t been a little bit dormant lately. After an intense weekend saying goodbye to a dear friend, facing an ending, it was beautiful to find ourselves swinging full circle back into a new beginning. With the dark, comes the light and last weekend, when our dear friends tied the knot, a little extra light returned to this valley.
The wedding was a three-day-long affair and, in true Alaskan style, a total community effort. From the food being prepared by a dear friend (who also happens to be stellar chef), to the gathering of every tent, table, and chair to be found, to the harvesting of gardens far and wide, everyone had a hand in helping. And after having so many hands involved in our wedding, it felt good to get mine dirty.
Weddings around here truly are an all-hands-on-deck event and this one was no different. I love watching an idea come to life. One that’s sparked in first glances and grown in first winters together. An idea that became a reality shared and grew to live in the lives of others. An idea that turned into calls and emails and the blending of friends and family until everyone is together and the idea takes on a life of its own. From decorating the bachelorette party to building out the bride’s bouquet, every hand aimed to hold them up, every step was one we all took in tandem towards their marriage.
On the big day, a Friday the 13th proceeded by a week of rain, the sun came out. Superstitions, stand down. We spent the morning decorating, watching the clouds break and the sun peak through to light the way for a gorgeous backyard ceremony.
True to form, Alaska weather had to make a bit of an entrance. As their first dance came to a close, the sky shed its tears. Cake(!) and dancing followed the rainstorm, and the bride and groom slipped away into the night and into the close of their first day of marriage.
On day three of marriage, they parted ways. The groom and The Chief and their friends (now my friends too) of over 20 years and I all headed into the backcountry while the bride enjoyed a trip with family in their last days in Alaska.
That’s one reason I love this couple. They are always surprising me. Just when I think I know what they’ll do next, they do something I’d never considered. Don’t worry, they have honeymoons aplenty planned but for those three days, their first honeymoons were with the roots that built them and made them who they would become when they found one another.
Our party spent our days hiking between glaciers, trundling boulders, snacking on blueberries and following tracks.
We found a six-toed bear print which not a single person took a picture of so you’ll just have to believe me, grizzlies aplenty, and wolverine prints. One member of our party was even lucky enough to see the elusive beast in person.
We spent the days in sun until it came time to fly back and the skies darkened with rain. Still, somehow all 8 of us, plus 3 dogs, made it out of the backcountry and back to home sweet home.
As we all return to our the day to day, the remnants of the wedding trickle on by. The cake was finally finished, shared with the town, the flowers set to vases and the bouquet hung to dry. Their arbor beckons a sweet “hello” to any passerby who glances her way and last night the bride and I shared a bottle of wedding wine while listening to the playlist her brother made for the event.
The glow of the day continues to shed its light.
Oh how I love weddings.
Cheers to you two,
Cheers to you.
P.S. I want to know…what do you want to read about? Please feel free to leave a comment below and let me know. I’d love to hear from you.
This Saturday morning, as I sat down to my ritual of tea and journaling, I was prompted with the question: What are you grateful for?
Today, I’m grateful to have a time and a place to grieve.
If you’re ready to turn the page now and head over to some kitten cuteness or lighthearted love, I get it. This post is two years in the making and still I cringe to write it because it makes it real. Know, there will be moments of levity here but grief, as we all know isn’t rainbows and kittens. Collectively, we’ve done a lot of grieving lately. The world has been a bit of a shitstorm (understatement) and if you’ve felt a bit at sea, you’re not alone. We’ve all been doggy paddling our way to shore. This weekend, I find myself finally arriving at one of many shores, one I’ve avoided: saying goodbye.
Nearly two years ago now, The Chief and I sat nestled in our cozy honeymoon cabin in Hope, Alaska. We were wrapped in a blanket of love and joy for what was to come. After a brutal few years, our wedding was like a golden ticket. We felt so held, so loved, and for the first time, truly the first time in years so…optimistic. That day, as we hiked about, we were giddy with hope. It felt as if a spell had been broken, we’d been released from our pain and engulfed in love long enough to see the other side and it was beautiful. We had returned to one another from our own solitary dens of despair. Everything was going to be OK.
As we returned to the cabin, I remembered I’d seen my phone collecting messages throughout the day and finally decided to check them. There was a picture of an altar, candles lit. I scanned down to the text and saw the words “We heard about your friend’s passing.”
No, that can’t be right. Does she mean my Godmother? My Grandmother? The Chief’s Mom? Dad? Grandma? Grandpa?
She was wrong, I was certain but I called my girlfriend just in case.
She was right.
Jason was gone.
Jason Elser was the first man I met on our first foray into this town’s “nightlife”. He rode up on his 4-wheeler, dirty from head to Chacos, wearing a (previously) white shirt. He slowed to a stop as he saw us approaching and welcomed me to town with a grin saying something along the lines of “It’s summertime, gorgeous, we’ve been waiting for you all winter long.” He was every trope, every caricature I’d heard of Alaskan men and then some. A ball of contradictions. Hard and soft, all at once. Chivalrous and unintentionally misogynistic (though willing to be corrected or at a minimum, debated). Hardworking and hard playing. A joy and a beast, all wrapped up in the best intentions. He was the first person who would show up if you needed help, sometimes even before you knew you needed it and he offered his love without expectation or need for reciprocation.
One of my favorite stories about him spans my first summer. Nearly every morning that summer, he would call The Chief to check-in, often with a moral conundrum but the best was The Squirrel. Apparently, a squirrel had taken a liking to Jason’s yard and its early morning chitter-chatter was driving him insane. Lucky for us, Jason decided to call every morning to ask the same question: Is it OK to shoot the squirrel yet? And every morning they would debate it. I loved groggily listening, in and out of sleep, to their arguments back and forth. The Cheif, at first miffed by again being awoken, would suddenly be smiling as they debated.
He was like that: at one moment a thorn in your side, the next helping you pull it out. He effortlessly created tension and somehow equally smoothed it. He was push and pull all in one, all in love. I loved those mornings, hearing him, open and childlike. I loved how much Jason wanted to hear an opinion he didn’t share. He was endlessly curious about what others thought and how they lived and why. And while I’m pretty sure at least one squirrel met its end before he called The Chief, he made a promise that not a single other would die at his hands after they first spoke. His confidence in The Chief gave me confidence in our relationship, a budding bloom Jason nurtured every time he saw us with words of enthusiasm, pure joy for our finding one another. He shared in the joy of his friends and family, every success as if it were his own because to him, it was.
Losing our friend, I lost hope again. Our world got very dark, very lonely, even in one another’s company. Heading back from Hope, my husband was once again far away. Our hands were no longer intertwined and our hearts became hardened, robbed of the elasticity our wedding had instilled. We returned to a town turned somber, a breakneck 180 from the elated state we’d all been in when we left. From a peak to a valley, in our little valley.
As a town, we grieved. We gathered that Fall and that Winter in his honor but something was missing. This weekend, nearly two years after his passing, we finally realized what it was: Jason.
This weekend, we gathered twice more. Once to sing and howl our heartbreak to him, the other to bid him farewell. His beautiful family spread his ashes in the place that had been such a part of him. Now he was a part of it.
What can we take away from someone being taken away? For me, for Jason, it’s a reminder to step outside of oneself. To look around and fill a need, a want, a space someone needs help filling, even before they know they need help. It’s to spread a little more joy, to open your heart and to share the success of others. For me, it’s to dream a little bigger and break a few things along the way.
As I wrote this, there were a million ways to tell it. A million stories of you being all the way you, Esler. I looked back through photos, back through the years, through the days. I see so much of you, even when you weren’t in the photo itself. I see you in the shot I took of softball one day, in benches at the softball field and the 5-gallon garden buckets you left for anyone to take. I see you in the smiles on our faces as we held moose ribs up to our faces, the moose you shot and shared, always. I see you in the logs I stacked using the trailer you offered. I see you in the crack in my tooth from the first tree I cut down and the pride in your eyes as you made me tell you every detail. I see you stomping your feet to the music. I see you where you aren’t because you’ve always been here, a staple I took for granted. Your eye-roll-inducing antics, your smile, your ideas, your undying drive for building our community, your support of the young’ns.
We aren’t the same without you but I know where you are is better because of you. And although we aren’t the same, you brought us back together again this weekend. After a year of isolation, a year of dischord, you helped us come back to this family, your wild Alaskan family’s version of harmony that howls so sweetly. In your absence, you still brought us together. You helped us head back to hope.
I hope for you, Jason, wherever you are, that they welcomed you with a bear hug as big as you gave and said “Welcome home, gorgeous. We’ve been waiting for you all Winter long”.
All my life, music has moved me. It has transported me, lifted me in its arms, and taken me where I needed to be. It has been my saving grace, my sanity, and the place I have felt a true sense of freedom.
As a little kid, if I was feeling sad or lonely, I’d just start singing to myself and I’d either guide myself go deeper into the emotion or help myself fly away from it.
When I was maniacally sending in my college applications as a teen, with only minutes to go, it was my Mom who reminded me: “Sing, Julia. Sing.” I sang to myself as I uploaded the last attachments, undoing the tizzy I had wound myself up into.
When I’ve walked down city streets alone at night or traipsed through the woods solo, I’ve sung to myself to bring comfort and calm, and courage.
When I’ve needed to process something but haven’t had the words, I’ve let the song come out instead.
Music comes from the heart. It breaks it and strengthens it again, growing older and wiser and richer each time.
Still, as much as it is a comfort and a joy, music has also challenged me. Performing has taken the thing I feel most passionate about, most connected to myself in and made that private love public. Still, most of my life, aside from solos in choir and playing with my Dad or Brother, my voice was blended into a the harmonies of many. I didn’t often feel the pressure of the spotlight until…
Six summers ago, I sang my first songs with the local band. While I’d been in a band in Sonoma County prior to unintentionally moving to Alaska, we had yet to perform.
As I jumped back into the crowd after my stint on stage, one of our dear friends pulled me aside. “Jesus, woman! You’ve got some pipes.” He then looked at The Chief who was smiling ear to ear and said “Did you know she could do that?!”. It was the first time since high school that I’d performed and I felt like I was walking on air. Transported once again. The Chief, who certainly had heard me singing around our house, knew I could sing. I’d breakfast-time serenaded him from the other room while distractedly singing and cooking but to actually sit down, learn a song and give it my all? He hadn’t heard it. In fact, despite singing being one of the loves of my life, most people I loved hadn’t heard me sing until our wedding two years ago.
And I mean really sing. Not sing in a choir, singing songs I was told to sing. Instead, really sing because I was singing songs that were for me. Songs that spoke to my heart.
After that first night with the band in the bar I was hooked…but doubt crept in.
What if they didn’t want me to come back? What if they were just being nice? What if they didn’t like the songs I liked?
It turned out that they did want me back but lest I be too hasty, I didn’t want to overstep. They were a rock band with a punk-ish flair and I was already singing their rock songs with a blues/jazz twist. I didn’t want to push it.
Could I have? Certainly. Did they encourage me to? Mmmmmhhhmmm! Did they ask me to choose songs I liked? Yep! Did I do it? You get where this is going…
I wasn’t the lead singer. I’d come in for harmonies and a few diddies and head back into the crowd. No responsibility, no say, right?
The very next year, the lead singer didn’t return for a summer, and suddenly…I was the lead singer. The band changes a little every year, depending on the musicians in the town which is something I’ve never seen before and never would have thought of. I absolutely love that! It’s also why I never assumed I’d be the front woman. I mean, even if our Lead Singer/Guitarist did leave, certainly someone else would step in, right?! But suddenly, that someone was me. Finally (finally!) I started suggesting songs. I tried to find songs that rang true for me that I thought the band would hopefully like. It worked! Slowly but surely we’d floated ideas of the Alabama Shakes, Heartless Bastards, White Stripes, etc. and even learned and performed a few of them.
The crowds changed a little and at first, I thought I was doing it wrong. It wasn’t as rowdy, or at least not as often. People requested songs I didn’t know and I felt embarrassed because they wanted punk rock Otis Redding and I was giving them Aretha Otis Redding. But…I was who I was. I am who I am.
Last weekend, six years after my first show with the band, we played our first show of this season. We all picked our favorites from our existing repertoire, a repertoire that held our evolution in its story. Everything from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Amy Winehouse. We also added a few newbies just for this show and they were and are some of my favorite songs ever.
Midnight in Harlem by Tedeschi Trucks Band Good Kisser by Lake Street Dive and
I wasn’t sure how the crowd would like them. Would they be too pop? Too girly? Did it matter?
It turns out it didn’t matter (spoiler alert, I know). Halfway through the two-hour show…the dancing began and despite thunderstorms and rainfall, it didn’t stop. From rainbows to a downright downpour, I watched faces new and old dance the night away to the songs we were lucky enough to play for them. Here’s a short clip from our friend and event organizer, Dave Hollis:
We closed the two-hour show + fundraiser with “Good Kisser” (which starts out “If you’re gonna tell them everything, tell them I’m a good kisser…”. Hence the title of this post) and as I began, I heard hoots and hollers from the knowing crowd. Our crowd. ‘Twas not too pop after all. It’s a beautiful thing, that cycle of a song. From the first time I heard it and it struck a chord in me to learning it, introducing it to the band, them learning it, us learning it as a group and making it our own to then playing it and hearing those few first words strike joy in someone else who was also struck the first time they heard the song…that’s beautiful. To hear the joy that recognition brings, that’s something pure I’ll never pass up. You never know when you pick your songs what will resonate, who will show up and how they will feel. You can only play what makes you feel good and hope that translates outwards to your crowd.
Over the years, the people who have made up our crowd have changed. I’ve watched people scrunch their noses, turned off by the music, and I’ve watched people come in off of the street, called in by the music. We can’t serve everyone. We can’t be everything to everyone. If you need a true punk rock evening, our old frontman was your man (and he will be back for a stint this summer!). If you need something more like jazz+pop+soul+rock, I’m your girl. Neither? That’s fine too. The point? The one that took me six years to realize?
Be you. Your crowd will come. Not everyone will love you. That is OK. You are your own crowd and you are perfect, just as you are. Besides, there’s no one else like you and…
It’s way more fun to show up when you show up genuinely as yourself.
P.S. Thank you to everyone who came out and danced in the rain (or under cover) and supported KCHU! We love you guys! And a huge thank you to my bandmates. I love playing music with y’all.
Do you ever look back on your younger self and think “Oh, honey…what were you thinking?!” This past winter, as The Chief pulled out of our driveway on his now annual January trip to Town for supplies, I had a sudden feeling of panic.
Was it because I was all alone in the wilderness with nary a neighbor nearby? Nope.
Was it because the winter before the temps had dropped to 50 below the second he left? Nope.
Was it because I suddenly felt the paralyzing reality of our distance from help, if need be? Yep. And as I watched our only vehicle roar away, I realized our one ticket out had just been cashed.
Out here, cars are a different breed. There are Town Cars and Beaters and the two don’t travel the same trail. A Town Car is one that is reliable enough to get you to Town (aka Anchorage). A Beater is a car that often is not even road-worthy. Registration? Naw. All lights working? Maybe. It’s a car that you hope will get you to work each day. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won’t. Breakdowns are constant, repairs as well and we all shift and shimmy our ways through the various modes of transportation we have, ranging from cars to four-wheelers, bikes, our feet and beyond.
When I moved here, the mode of transportation I employed the most was hitching a ride or walking. The Chief was always driving the fire truck, as the State had hired our VFD (Volunteer Fire Department) to Firewise and patrol the area so I thought little about our reality: we had no car. No Town Car, not even a Beater.
Growing up in Sonoma County, a car was the ultimate freedom. We always lived outside of town, miles and miles away from the nearest friend, leaving me locked into home. By the time I was 14, I was working near full-time in order to save for my freedom ticket: my first car. I absolutely adored driving. I’d head out to the beach for sunrise and sunset every day, just to feel that expansive feeling of independence.
Still, when I moved here, I thought little of leaving. Getting around our town was an adventure, a constant shifting of moving parts. Logistics, logistics, logistics. It wasn’t until we got home that first winter that it hit me: I was stuck. We had arrived home in a fire truck that had been in Town for some engine work but once it was safely back at the VFD, I took stock of our inventory at home:
Two snowmachines One non-road-worthy car that wasn’t currently in operation.
As The Chief took his snowmachine for a test run and I watched him disappear down the driveway I felt panic rush over me. I started crying. What in the hell did I just do?! The only mode of transportation I had was something I didn’t even know how to start and if I didn’t like the incredibly huge life change I had just made (moving to Alaska), I was going to what? Ride a snowmachine to Anchorage? Suddenly, catching a ride everywhere didn’t feel so footloose and fancy free. While The Chief promised me that if I ever wanted to leave, he would always find me a way, I still felt myself in a precarious situation.
Thankfully, I didn’t want to leave and we did finally get the one Beater working. I learned to drive a stick and when that broke down on my way to work one morning, we realized the obvious: we needed a car. That endeavor was interesting, to say the least and is still one of the most Alaskan things I’ve ever been a part of (other than this). We bought a truck and within a few months, the transmission went out. Thankfully, we were able to finally find our Golden Girl and things seemed to settle.
We had transportation, freedom. All was well. Until…
This last winter, watching The Chief drive away.
Living here, this far out has its joys and its curses. Being so far from medical care is one of the less amazing parts and as I watched The Chief leave this year, I realized that I couldn’t push the worry out of my mind any longer. With him gone, I was stranded. Normally, there’s a neighbor nearby who I know would help me in any situation but this year, the nearest neighbor was 30 minutes away. Something in me just broke. I felt trapped and, in all reality, I was. I needed freedom.
This past weekend, in our true Road Warrior style, The Chief and I found freedom in the shape of a brand new car. A new car?! What are you crazy or sumthin’, Juju? Well, not in this scenario, no. It turns out that due to, you know that thing that shall not be mentioned that happened last year, buying a new car and a used car is about the same price. We looked for months and after tons of research, I realized that our best option might actually be a new car. It was and it is. This past Friday, after a long week at work, The Chief came home at 7 pm and by 8:30 we were fed, packed and on the road to Anchorage. Thoroughly no longer in our 20’s we agreed to camp halfway. As the sun did her dance of short slumber, we pulled into our home for the night.
It’s amazing how even a gravel pit in Alaska can have stunning views, and it did, but at 1 am, we were almost too tired to appreciate them. Almost. What we appreciated even more was our little snuggle bug, Leto, who promptly placed himself between the two of us, got into my sleeping bed and conked out. The road sounds nearby were putting him in a panic but it was nothing a Leto Sandwich couldn’t cure.
The next morning we were up at 6:30, shivering as we packed up camp and made coffee. By 7:30 we were on the road again and three hours later, we were swinging into Anchorage for a quick change of clothes and a “hello” to our gracious hosts. Then it was straight to the car dealer where we stayed until 5 pm that evening. Leto was a true champ, charming all of the car buyers as he sauntered about the showroom (a showroom completely devoid of cars as there are almost zero to be had). After a hefty amount of paperwork and coffee, it was done. We were car owners, again! Freedom! I smiled ear to ear as I drove our little babe home.
Even an 8-hour drive, again on very little sleep, couldn’t dampen my spirits. We were headed home, caravan style with two vehicles! We wouldn’t have to constantly do the transportation shuffle. If our truck wasn’t working, we wouldn’t be stranded. We had options. I felt an ease come over me as we pulled into our driveway at 8:30 pm. Full circle.
So, am I extremely grateful for our new rig?! You betcha.
Do I wish we would have done this years ago? Uh huh! Yet the reality is, we weren’t in a place financially to make that happen. I’ve long enjoyed the comfort of a friend’s fancy car but never thought we’d be able to pull it off (and take it as no small blessing that we are finally able to). So…we lived in uncertainty and did our best to handle all that life threw our way, as we all do.
And finally, freedom.
P.S. What are your car conundrums? Do you live footloose and fancy free or prefer a rig that will get you from A to B? Let me know
I don’t know about you but damn if I didn’t miss my friends this last year. Luckily for me (sarcasm) two of my closest friends and neighbors happened to be gone from our ‘hood this last year. Thankfully, two other besties were nearby to pump my estrogen levels back up and there were some winter newbies I was lucky enough to get to know. Don’t get me wrong, I love my boyfriends but sometimes there’s simply no substitute for the love that exists between girlfriends, and this weekend I got to fill my tank.
On the way into Town, I rode in with my girlfriend (one of the two who were gone this winter) you might remember from this post and the newest addition to our girl gang: Leona. She’s my Scorpio soul sister. Our connection runs deep and the strange ways her coming to be all the way to her birth crossed over with our babe and our miscarriage still give me chills. It was cathartic and healing and an overall serious full-circle experience to ride into Town together, the three of us (plus my nephew pup, Ruger of course), this time with Leona on the outside, squeaking and squealing and babbling her way through the normally 8-hour, turned 10-hour, drive. We were on baby time and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
After getting in at 1:30 am, getting to sleep by 2:30, and up again at 6:30 we were all a little blurry-eyed but gung-ho. There was a lot to do and do it we did, all the way from getting the pup in and out of surgery (he’s OK, don’t worry!), getting my friend’s car repaired, getting me to acupuncture and an ultrasound plus blood draw (I’m OK too and no, I’m not pregnant. It was just a look around to make sure all is well, and I feel very grateful to say that it is) plus countless errands in between. The consensus? We pretty much nailed it.
The next morning, my girlfriend and little Leona and I parted ways (they are staying to pick up her sister and I needed to head home for the workweek). They dropped me off at the dentist where I arrived full snail style (aka with my life on my back) and when I was finished, my other neighbor who had been gone all last year picked me up! Despite a rocky start (pun intended) when the starter on her truck gave us guff we made it out of Anchorage. We shopped separately, one of us staying with the truck while the other went in, as we were too nervous to turn off the truck and thus finally departed the grocery store at 3:30. Would it be another late night? Who cares! We were together for the first stretch of substantial time together in over a year. We talked the WHOLE time. It filled my cup, a cup I didn’t realize was empty. Gosh, I love girlfriends.
So, am I completely and utterly tired? Yep.
Do I feel a little dizzy from that whiplash of a trip? Yep.
Was it worth it? Hellllllll yea! I am so grateful to Alaska for the hard it provides and the beauty that hard creates. 18 hours in the car never felt so good.
Cheers to the friends in our lives who help us to learn ourselves, push ourselves, love ourselves. I am so grateful for each and every one of you.