Life Aboard the Ship

Well, I'm off the ship now, more's the pity, but it doesn't sail in Puget Sound in the winter. Too much rain. Too much wind, as well, which you think wouldn't be a problem for a sailing ship... and it wouldn't, if it was just us crew, but when you have a deck full of 45 kids and parents and are trying to do quick maneuvers, things get a little dicey. We tried setting sail once on a dark and blustery day, but only managed to just put it up, sharply heel over, get a few "oohs" and "aahs" from the passengers and then drop and sea stow it, which is to say that we furled it as quickly as possible, and none too neatly, just to get it out of the way. Sea stowing is grand with a sail that weighs 2500 lbs...

So I'm off, but way back when in the day, "Life Aboard" was one of the classes I often taught. And a lazy class it was, too, for it mainly involved taking groups below decks, pointing out a few of our living arrangements, and then answering the barrage of questions that followed. The class was essentially a long answer to the question: What is it like to live aboard a ship?

Well, every ship is different, isn't it? On some, the crew get their own private bunk for their entire stay, decorating it the way they like and unpacking as much as one can unpack within a bunk. Not the jolly crew of the Adventuress! We had 37 bunks aboard, and only one of those was private. (The Captain's.) Well, I suppose the First Mate had a designated bunk too, but since the rest of the crew used it in the daytime as a couch, it could hardly be counted as private. For the rest of us, we picked a bunk for the duration of a trip, whether it was four day's worth of day programs or a six day overnight, and then when it was over a blank bunk sign-up sheet was pinned up to the main mast. Since the lower bunks were used for other things in the daytime, like the seating around the table in the main cabin, it was protocol to pack up one's things every morning and stow them in the upper bunks, a fact I always told the kids after asking the question, "So, if you came aboard, how much stuff do you think you would bring?"

Typically, the kids were simply amazed to learn that we actually lived aboard the ship. I guess they thought it was a day job.

We used the ship as a metaphor for the planet, showing that we had to conserve the resources we had aboard, and - hey, look! The planet has limited resources too! Space was one resource, and after I showed the kids how we used the bunks for multiple things, I would lift the floorboards and show the storage down in the bilges, or show the lockers that were cleverly worked into every nook or cranny.

So what won't I miss about living aboard?

I won't miss the heads. You can't throw toilet paper down a marine head. Instead we had painfully tiny trash receptacles next to the toilets that would have worked for, say, six people. Sadly, we often had more than thirty, most of whom were teenagers. Gross. Enough said.

I won't miss the bunks. The first one I ever slept in had a clearance of about an inch when I was laying on my side. Made me feel lucky to be as small as I am. That first bunk was also home to "Def Leppard," the electrical plug for the anchor light, that had a nice big scary label on it, something about don't touch this or you'll be electrocuted.

I won't miss six days without a shower. Although I do have to admit, not having ship's showers made me surprising familiar with the Shore Heads of Puget Sound. (I should write a book.) It was not only the shore heads I got to visit (Elliot Bay has the best, FYI), but many fitness clubs that opened their locker rooms to our use as their way of supporting to organization. Mmm. Free spas.

I won't miss munging the soles. Mung is the mysterious black layer that builds up on the edges of the sole boards, and so every now and then we would lift the sole boards one by one and scrape down their edges, wipe them top and bottom, and vacuum underneath. Which wouldn't have been quite so bad, except think of the sole boards as gigantic, awkward, heavy puzzle pieces that you can only grip by two metal bolts, resulting in strained backs, smashed fingers, and, for me, lovely bouts of arthritis in my hand. Jolly fun.

But there's far more that I will miss...

I will miss Lucy, the merry little heater that warmed the main cabin in the colder days of late fall. I'll miss the view of the main cabin on those nights, when Lucy's glow flickered on the walls, with the blue light shining on the main mast and the red light glowing from the hall we called the bowling alley. It was like our own little Las Vegas down there.

And I will miss hiding out in the Engineer's hidey-hole from ten to eleven when I had the eleven o'clock anchor watch. There's no point in going to bed for an hour and getting up again, and the hidey-hole, the most hidden room on the ship, almost always had little treats for the crew squirreled away in it.

I'll miss the anchor watch "ninja walk" that was necessary to creep about above decks like a ghost, and the amazingly strong calf muscles it produced.

And I'll miss those unexpected little moments that only come from living aboard a ship. The seal on the dock that lunged into the water just in front of me when I'd walk to the shore head at night. The gronking grating racket of the blue herons at 3 in the morning on an anchor watch. The cradle-like swaying that rocked me to sleep. The feeling of the wood straining and the ship lunging when the sails caught the wind.

I guess it's a darn good thing I'm going back to it next year.

I would pat it on the head...

I could survive for 57 seconds chained to a bunk bed with a velociraptor

Created by Bunk

I would have done better if I didn't cry like a giant sissy when if bit off my arm. But c'mon! My arm!!

Scenes from the Adventuress

The view from the bowsprit, a good place to take a nap. This was a wonderful fall day, the last sail of the season!

Looking up the main mast, where we flew the flag of the Adventuress. The ensign, the American colors, flew off the stern. The color of the sky here was not unusual later in the season. (Read: lots of rain.)

Mt. Rainier from the Port of Tacoma, the main boom quarter-tackles in the foreground.

Sunrise over Blakely Harbor, Bainbridge Island, with the morning fog burning off the water.

Murder Mystery

After six days aboard a ship full of teenage girls, the crew was ready to kill each other. So we did.

Murder Mystery started yesterday. It is like the game of Clue. Everyone draws a victim, a location, and a weapon, and when you kill someone you take over their current assignment and make it your own. You cannot have any witnesses to a murder, and you have to actually touch the weapon to your victim.


One of the crew, "D", kept a tortilla in his pocket all day until he could use it as a murder weapon in the engine room. "M" was suffering from a cold, but she managed to hide the lead line (a 60 foot length of coarse rope with a massive lead weight at the end) under her pillow in the crew cabin until "Dn" came in to bring her a blanket and was promptly murdered. "S" ended up trying to lure another person into the very small Pee Head whilst holding a guitar, and the Captain met her end with a drawing of a moose in the deck house. Meanwhile, I remain innocent and alive, since I can't quite figure out how to get my victim to come alone with me into the forepeak hatch while also trying to sneak in a three-foot long fender.

Good times.

New "People" in My Nautical Life

Jefe - The small gray pontoon powerboat that guides the Adventuress in and out of harbor. "Jefe" means boss, which is appropriate, since he shows he is the boss of everyone on board (including the Engineer) by refusing to start at inappropriate moments.

A-ya-shee - The small wooden sailboat/rowboat that balances out Jefe on the other side of the ship. Unlike Jefe, she is always cooperative and quite forgiving of the kids who, new to rowing, make her go in drunken circles.

The Llama Pinatacorn - (That should be a ~ over the "n", but I'm not sure how to write that character.) A prank gift from the good ship Zodiac, who makes random appearances within our voyages. The Llama Pinatacorn is at once a llama, and pinata, and a unicorn all combined into something far greater, and far more frightening.

The Duty Llama - Our ship is ful of llamas. The Duty Llama makes its home on the chest of the Duty Officer of the Day, making that task much more bearable.

The Barfy Brown Bag - Previously I had only one massive black duffel bag for all of my stuff, which resulted in a ten minute rummage every time I needed, say, a sock. The Barfy Brown Bag provides a miraculous alternative to this with its copious pockets and nooks. Acquired from a second-hand store for the whopping cost of $7, the Barfy Brown Bag features a nauseating poo-like color scheme on its outside and an entrenched odor of airsickness on its inside, which, luckily, sticks only to the bag itself and not my clothing.

The Mechanical Advantage Band - An up-and-coming new rap group. White girls go ghetto. I take the stage with a leopard print belt as a necklace and hollah, "Now is the time we talk about the wheeeel! It turns the ruddah, behind the keeeel!" Keep your eyes peeled for our album.

The Truck - The very highest point on the mainm'st. If you can kiss it, you get ten points.

And last but not least...

Mr. Floaty - Victoria B.C. still pumps all of its sewage, untreated, directly into Puget Sound. There's a grandfather clause in Canadian law that allows them to do this. One of the groups opposing this is People Opposed to Outfall Pollution, and their mascot is Mr. Floaty. Unfortunately, the Adventuress was in Victoria before I came aboard, so I missed out on having a picture of myself hugging Mr. Floaty. (Similar pictures hang on the fridge in our galley.) Mr. Floaty sings the song,

"I'm Mr. Floaty, how do you do?
You come from Victoria, I come from you!"

You have to love that.

Haul Away for the Windy Weather, Boys!

My repertoire of sea chanties is growing. I now find myself at odd moments of the day belting out, "Bound for South Australia!" or "Carry me to Shimbone now!" or "John Kanakanaka to-rei-oh!" And after a rather failed attempt at leading a chanty (I wasn't paying attention to the rhythm of people's hands) I semi-succeeded in my second go, though . . . does anyone's voice sound good when it's belted out as loud as possible into the wind? Eek. Not mine.

Our ship is quite musical. I think the act of sailing stirs up with it other lost archaic desires, like sewing ditty bags, knotting decorative lanyards, and rediscovering that every human being has the capacity to be a musician. Just last week our ship was home to three (four?) violins, a banjo, two three-string music sticks, an accordion, three guitars, and four-ish penny whistles, all of which came out to make an appearance at some point.

Also, at last, we began to take aboard three-hour classroom trips for kids, mostly 5th to 8th grade, which are organized so as to cram every available minute with some activity. Ding! the bell rings, and I lead my group of kids in a lesson about Marine Life, and then Ding! Now we talk about Plankton... (Ding!) I mean... Now we talk about Watersheds! Ding! I am scrambling around in the costume box to dress up as a Cascade Mountain for our skit, while the kids enjoy "quiet time" up on deck, and then we the crew go flail around with costumes and funny accents until Ding! Yay! It's time for Nautical Skills!!!

And so on, and so forth, and then there's an hour to cram in lunch and everything else before the next clot of children comes scurrying over the side of the ship. It's a little frantic, but great fun.

The fall season is halfway through now, so I've been ticking off things I've yet to do one by one. The other day it was shimmying out on the bowsprit to help furl the jib. A few days before that I finally got to drive Jefe, our small boat. Another crewmate and I casted off the ship's docklines and leapt into Jefe, where I promptly proceeded to flood the engine. So as the Adventuress grew smaller and smaller in the distance, I finally got the persnickety thing going and then roared across Commencement Bay in the drunken weave of one unfamiliar with outboard motors, catching up to her and docking at her side. A few days before that I got to "cowgirl," which means sitting out at the end of the main boom and guiding the leech of the mains'il as it comes down for everyone else to furl. Luckily, I had a couple of excellent Tonto-ers teaching me as I went.

So I am learning by the day, and that's just the way I like it. They say the sailing life is terribly addictive. Have I been bit?

The Schooner "Adventuress" - Part I

I am slowly being indoctrinated into a different world. A different universe, one that never sets foot on the land. The people of the sailing world, especially the tall ships world, maintain a culture unique to themselves.

I should back up to talk a bit about the Adventuress. She was built in 1913 at the expense of a man named John Bordon, a young entrepreneur who, in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt, wanted to go out and hunt big game under the guise of conservation. Specifically, Bordon wanted to procure the skeleton of a bowhead whale, which because of the value of the bones was not yet to be found in any museum, and donate it to the American Museum of Natural History's new whale exhibit with a plaque above it proudly declaring that he was the man who had harpooned it. He took with him another young man, a naturalist by the name of Roy Chapman Andrews, who later in life would traipse around the Gobi Desert in his signature broad-brimmed hat and become the inspiration for Indiana Jones.

Because she was to travel into Arctic ice, the Adventuress was given a thick hull and sturdy ribbing. Because Bordon was a bit of an aristocrat, she was also fitted inside with spiral staircases, a bathtub, an organ, and a galley any cook would kill for. Her designer was man named B.B. Crowninshields, who had worked on racing yachts early in his life, later applying that knowledge to drawing up plans for distinctive schooners with graceful lines and unusual speed. (One of his earlier ships, the Martha, shares our waters in Puget Sound. We see her frequently, an almost spitting image of the Adventuress.) But the Adventuress was considered his greatest work, with an undercut stern that lets her turn easily in a breeze, and sails that allow her to go close by the wind.

She was launched out of the shipyard in Boothebay, Maine, crossed to the west via the Straights of Magellan, and headed up for an ill-fated trip to the Bering Sea. Several men on board were simply friends of Bordon and had no useful knowledge, aggravating the rest. Andrews was put off by the cavalier attitude of his patron, who seemed to have a short attention span for the natural sciences. The team never saw a bowhead whale, but put out once for a nearby humpback as a consolation prize. Bordon was poised to throw the first harpoon when the humpback upended the little boat, and the men aboard had to cling to it in the icy waters while the Adventuress worked its way in to pick them up.

The mission was curtailed when the Arctic ice began to close in on them, but it was not without its accomplishments. Andrews managed to get ashore to study fur seals on the Pribilof Islands. Their pelts were extremely valuable, one of reasons the United States had acquired Alaska, but their numbers had declined so much by 1913 that a moratorium had been placed on hunting them. No one knew anything about how they lived, how they bred and raised young, so Andrews went ashore to make observations and take video, the first ever of the fur seal.

After the Adventuress returned to Seattle, Bordon had already had his fill of whale hunting and turned his attention elsewhere, selling the boat. There is a rumor that she then went up to Juneau and served as a floating brothel for a few years, but I'm not sure if it's true or just a joke among the crew. But she definitely ended up in San Francisco in 1915 operating as a bar pilot for several years.

And that's as far as I've gotten in learning her in-depth history, so I'll have to buff up a bit more for Part II.

The picture I posted down below is a bit misleading. It shows her decked out in full sails, all seven of them, whereas we usually use the bottom four - the mainsail, foresail, staysail, and jib. The other three - the main topsail, fore topsail, and flying jib - are hardly ever put on the ship because the Coast Guard doesn't think she would meet stability requirements. (Although rumor has it that they came to this conclusion without ever actually putting those sails up.) We can't use them with participants on board... but we can when it's only the crew, so there are high hopes among us all that before the down rig at the end of the season we might be able to take the sails out of storage and really deck her out. Everyone is very excited about this idea. Putting more sails on a boat, to a sailor, is like putting more cylinders in an engine, or more loop-de-loops in a roller coaster. You can make almost any crewmate's eyes light up with the magic phrase, "We could get out the topsails..."

Is the Adventuress a ship or a boat? Both. The Navy defines a ship as a vessel which can carry aboard it a boat, and since the Adventuress has two little boats (Jefe, a powerboat, and A-ya-shee, a wooden row/sail boat), she can officially be called a "ship." But she is also a "sailboat," so boat works as well.

What else can I say? She measures 110 feet on deck, 135 when she's all sparred out. (Meaning that her main boom and the bowsprit overshoot the deck.) She can sleep 37 people, but I'm not sure if that includes when the crew dogpiles all over each other in the deckhouse, or when I sling my hammock out on the deck. (Which has only happened once but, I vow, will definitely happen again! It's the best way to view stars, you see.)

That's all I have for now. To be continued.

More Handsomely on the Blogging!

Wowza. So I've been thrown into the sailing world without a moment's notice, no time for catching a breath! The past weeks have been intense. By day one I was hauling on lines and by day seven I was manning the helm. (Albeit with the captain right by my side.) Our ship has more lines than I can count, and I've had to learn them all quickly and accurately, so that when the mate shouts, "Tack the lifts!" or "Ease the gaff vang!" I can run over and uncoil the right line without bringing the boom crashing down in the middle of the deck. We have a main-m'st, not a main mast; a foc'sle, not a forecastle, jibs, halyards, peaks and throats, oh my!

Luckily, the crew is loud and lusty when it comes to singing. We sing chanties to haul up the main sail and fore sail, the two heaviest of the bunch. We are woken up at 7am with a song and put to bed at 10pm with another (which I have sung a few times myself.) So much better than alarm clocks. I've had to stand anchor watch in the middle of the night for the past week or so, so I'm a little short on sleep, but the stars have been gorgeous, and even the one night it rained I was able to stand at the helm and just watch the water glisten off the shrouds. I've climbed up the rigging to the cross trees, not quite to the top of the mast, but it was high and precarious enough to make my heart beat. And, and... I've seen more of the San Juan Islands in the past few days than I ever have before! Hooray!

Our first trip out after the training sail was an Elderhostel group of about 19 people ranging 55 to 75 in age. They were a rollicking bunch. We spent several nights doing nothing but singing, and it was so much fun to watch them lay into the lines with as much enthusiasm as any of the crew. So many interesting stories too! One of them had working on the lighting in the Kingdome, another had worked with Coco the gorilla, and there were three mischievous sisters from New Zealand who egged everyone else on into the most hilarious antics.

As to the crew, there are 17 of us in total, mostly in our twenties but going all the way up to 60s in age. I've been arbitrarily assigned as Assistant Galley Coordinator, which means I can dive down into the galley and bake cookies if the mood strikes. Kneady Bubbles has also found a happy home aboard the ship, and I've been growing it so our chef (who is a gourmand and once worked for restaurants in New York) can use it. Um, um...

I'm totally running out of time, so I will write more, oh so much more, later!

Landlubber Today, Sailor Tomorrow

By a strange long series of events, I suddenly find myself a crewman aboard a sailing ship. I was shanghaied.

My ship for the next two months is the Adventuress, which looks something like this:

I'm not quite sure how I got here or what exactly I'll be doing, but I know there's singing involved. Sea chanties, to be exact. It's even in the handbook.

"Here" is the Puget Sound. The Adventuress plies the waters between the San Juans to the north and Tacoma to the south. It's an educational vessel, purpose: teach people about ecology, sustainability, community, and other good tidbits. I believe I'll be pointing at the water a lot saying, "Look, kids! Plankton!" And singing sea chanties.

But at the moment I'm a bit fried. This is day three of my travels to get to the ship. This morning started with a boat ride which for me was transportation but for everyone else was a whale watching ship, so I had to rouse myself from napping a few times to go stagger out on the deck and train the binos on breaching killer whales, which were multitudinous indeed. It's amazing how far across the surface of the water the sound of a killer whale's breath travels.

I shall post updates when I have the internet... or perhaps not at all, not at least until November, when my feet stay on dry ground once again.

If any of you find yourself in the same place as the Adventuress, come find me for a free ride. The calendar is to be found on the Sound Experience website, the organization in charge of it all.

Me Pointing at Things

I pointed at a lot of things on our Alaska trip, apparently. I feel that a pointing finger placed strategically within a picture adds so much interest to the composition, don't you?

Here are some of the things I pointed at:

Me pointing at British Columbia. They're a bit full of themselves, aren't they?

Me pointing at the Exit Glacier. Whoops, these aren't in any kind of order at all. The Exit Glacier is nowhere near British Columbia.

Me pointing at spinach. For supper. Yummy.

Me pointing at the infamous "Yukon Sour-toe." You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but your lips have gotta touch the toe. And yes, it is a real severed human toe, thank you very much.

Me pointing at a gorge we took a hand tram across. It was a very long ways down, and the door on the basket wouldn't shut, so whoever wasn't pulling the rope had to lean against the otherwise open door. Fun.

Me pointing at a black bear, one of our first official wildlife sightings. This was in fact in British Columbia.

Me pointing at delicious moose dinner, the steaks we got from the gal at the visitor's center. Served up with a little spruce tip jelly. Mmmm. The best meal of the whole trip, I thought.

Me pointing at the Burwash Landing (Yukon Territory) giant gold pan, biggest gold pan in the world. Is that man bleeding? I couldn't tell.

Me pointing at a fairy slipper. They're rare to see because they are over-collected by flower fanciers. A fairy slipper plant has to be 13 years old before it will flower.

Me pointing at a lake at Snag Junction, the Yukon. We camped the night there and swam in the lake the next morning. It was cold...we survived.

Me pointing at salmonberries. Ketchikan had more ripe salmonberries than I've ever seen in my life. They're one of the first summer berries to ripen, so we were lucky to time it just right. I had to use my hat when my hands got too full.

Me pointing at a can of refried beans, de-canned and festooned with spoon. Using cans of refried beans turned out to be a lot harder than we thought, so we were left with quite a few at the end of the trip.

I am slowly working through my thousands of Alaska pictures, attempting to organize them. That takes care of the "Me pointing at things" category!

The House of Falling Legs

The cabin I am living in requires fortitude. Fortitude and a sharp eye for little crawly things.

For some reason the summer has been unusually buggy. There are mosquitoes in the mountains. I don't remember there being so many mosquitoes in the mountains, but I do remember Al Gore mentioning that previously mosquito-free cities like Nairobi, built at elevation to escape malaria, are experiencing a rise in the mosquito altitude line and getting infestations that they never had before. Perhaps that's happening here, @#*& global warming. But I digress.

The cabin I am living in is the catacomb of choice for every insect within a ten mile radius. Though the doors and windows are always shut, they find their way in regardless, finishing their pilgrimage from great distances to come die on my countertop.

Correction: The countertop is where the gnats come to die.

The moths come to die in hidden places, like underneath my toothpaste.

The crickets come to die in the middle of the floor, where I will step on them in the morning.

How is it that one building can attract so many tiny carcasses? They're everywhere. If I space out and forget to check my cup in the morning, I will inevitably feel something that is decidedly not water but in fact hard and pointy, much like many little legs, against my tongue. My bathroom looks like someone thought to liberate volumes of mounted insects by pulling out the pins and dumping them everywhere. Case in point - I dropped my facecloth by mistake the other night and went to pick it off the floor. No problem, right? A little dust, a little hair... oh. And a large unidentifiable many-legged exoskeleton stuck to the cloth. Nasty.

The spiders flock to my cabin like mourners to a graveyard, gorging themselves, I suppose. They are mostly well-behaved spiders, except for the fact that they A) like to web up the bathtub, even hours after I've showered, and B) find their way into the clothes I drop on the ground. Yes, I have the bad habit of dropping clothes on the ground and forgetting them until the next morning. I do not "do" orderly. It is not such a problem if I remember to shake out my clothes before putting them on.

If I remember...

There's nothing that can jog your memory quite like a fast moving spider inside your sweatshirt early in the morning.

Crouching Spider, Hidden Moth Carcass. The House of Falling Legs.

Wyoming Mirage

I am moving slowly these days. Such is the summertime.

Here is the picture I wanted to attach to my post about driving the West. Heat shimmering off the highway makes the pavement bleed into the sky, but an approaching semi truck affirms the road's substantiveness.


Viva la Reunion!

My family reunion is the best that ever there was. So much for humility.

It started in 1951. My grandma was one of three sisters who married three best friends, and deciding that they did not want to lose touch with each other, they picked a central location to meet once every other summer - the Colorado Rockies. We have met without fail ever since, and it is a grand old time.

There is a certain sort of tradition to these two weeks. The poster boards come out, with each day listed along with information like who is cooking, who is cleaning, what the meal is, and what sorts of funness is occurring. Other traditions follow: the plastic cups we all write our names on, the multi-colored place mats made out of... some kind of mystery polymer.

The days begin with a leisurely breakfast, or if it is a hiking day, with all of the hikers bumping shoulders in the kitchen packing lunches and trying to squeeze in a bite of breakfast. Hiking is our main event, and every two or three days we trek anywhere from 3 miles to a lake to 12 miles to the top of a mountain, sometimes old hikes and sometimes new, and always with the brown sack lunch in the late morning and the hasty retreat as the afternoon thunderstorms roll in.

In the afternoons we usually go downtown, a tourist paradise filled with chocolate shops and souvenir shops, lolling around with a caramel apple in hand or retreating into a park by the river. The town of Estes Park is gradually becoming gentrified, but there are still all the bits of classic western kitsch - rubber tomahawks, leather cowboy jackets, feather headdresses, rabbit furs. Cowboy Brad singing his John Denver songs in the park around a campfire. The summers are crowded here and the shops are always full of people, but there are quiet places along the river walk where you can sit and sip bubble tea or coffee and watch the world go by.

After dinner it's time for the games. Tonight it was frisbee golf on a course we made across the front and back yards. (We played a Scramble. I was terrible, but I blame it on the fact that I was holding the dog also.) Another favorite is our version of volleyball, which used to be deadly back when the dads were young men, but the addition of the children of my generation permanently slowed down the violence level. We might pile into the cars and go to our favorite miniature golf place, Tiny Town, "A Nice Place for Nice People." Or, like last night, go-kart racing, so fiercely competitive that it is the only time in the reunion when grown men can crush children against the rails and laugh manically about it.

And then comes the late night games, the card games, which mostly revolve around Skip-bo, Hearts, Apples to Apples, and the best game on the face of the planet, Rook. Huzzah! For anyone who knows Rook, I have to brag that I took the bid the other night in choose-your-partner, called no trump, and made it exactly on the nose. (If you do not follow Rook, this is a happy accomplishment.) All new inductees into the family must jump through that hoop that is learning Rook, simultaneously learning 30 new names and dealing with the effects of altitude at 8,000 feet. New family members have it rough.

One of my great uncles used to make pancakes for the entire clan once a reunion, but now that he's gone we haven't had pancakes for a while, so I decided to put myself through the grinder and take on the role with my faithful friend Kneady Bubbles the First at my side. Kneady Bubbles performed valiantly, making perfectly nice and fluffy sourdough pancakes. I made a x8 batch the first time and a x10 batch the second. I could so work in Roadside. (For non-GF people, I could so work in a crazy busy breakfast restaurant.)

This reunion has been the Gathering of the Babies. We had, at our peak, one 6yr old, two 3 yr olds, two 18 month olds, one 9 month old, one 3 month old, and one yet unborn! Yowzah. When I first arrived after my 21-hr drive push from Oregon, I staggered in just at dinner time and was met with the whole crowd gathered to pray. But there were still a few minutes to go, so at once I had what seemed like a dozen babies shoved at me. (Okay, maybe two.) Luckily my better senses told me not to hold my 9 month old niece in my teetering state (Drop the Baby!) although I did have plenty of time after sleep to cuddle, and cuddle, and cuddle... My niece is a very bouncy little girl. However, despite all the babiness of the hour, I remain convinced that being an aunt is definitely the way to go. Even heaps of babies could not stir the mommy gene deep within.

What else to say? My father and brother-in-law finally succeeded in building a zip line that doesn't kill anyone, and all the lil' childrens have been having fun going down it. I took one of the greatest hikes of my life a few days ago. (The post is forthcoming.) The wildlife viewing has been prime, especially a very gregarious marmot that made friends with my backpack while on top of the Twin Sisters. And, best of all, I have managed to gross out a nice percentage of my family with pictures of the Dawson City "Sour-toe." So life is good.

Is It Wyoming Yet?

Ah, the glorious experience of waking up in the backseat of my car at 5 in the morning, when the first blue haunt of sunlight is beginning to lighten the broad flatlands of Idaho's southwest. I crawl up into the driver's seat and pop open a bottle of Starbucks frappuccino, roll out of the dark and sleeping streets of the town which I came to, also in the darkness, and drive back to the freeway on-ramp. Now the horizon has turned pale, and... was that a sign for I-84 East I just passed? Is this... is this road going up and over the interstate? Is this road siphoning me onto I-84 West???

Getting onto the freeway in the wrong direction at 5 in the morning, when the next exit is 15 miles and 15 minutes away? That's a very special feeling.

But I finally got turned back towards the east and got to watch the sun rise over the most boring stretch between Oregon and Colorado (apologies to the competing boring stretches of Utah and Wyoming): the road between Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho. Bleh.

Day one of my two day drive is Oregon, all Oregon, with just a little piece of Idaho thrown in at the end for fun. If you look at the map, you can easily see that Oregon is not geographically as large as Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming put together, but the road is 55 mph all the way. It starts in the wet coastal forest, goes up and over the coastal range into the fertile Willamette Valley, and then climbs up again into the Cascades, where the forests are dry and peopled (treed?) by lodgepole pines. After dropping down the other side of the mountains, trees disappear and are replaced by sagebrush, and it is the sagebrush that continues to dominate the scenery until Colorado.

I used to think of Utah as being the most desolate place in the country, but I have changed my opinion substantially. It has mountains, at least, and although they are mostly the tough and jagged kind, all rock and no majesty, they fit in well to the rest of the stark landscape. The word for northern Utah is "salt." White salt flats stretching off in the distance, shimmering in the sun, the Great Salt Lake putting out fingers of bitter water towards the freeway, salt marshes prickling with sharp grass. The rocks are reds and browns and coppers - the plant life, too - and crop up in fantastic formations such as the Devil's Slide, a steep narrow chute that dives from a mountain to the road. (The exit for it always sneaks up on me around a sharp bend in the freeway, but it was closed this time for construction, so I did not have to veer to catch it.)

But by the Devil's Slide I feel like I've been driving...well...far longer than I should have been driving. Where the heck is Wyoming? Wyoming is the home stretch, welcomed this time of year but grueling in the winter, when black ice covers the road and powder snow is blown across it in a sideways blizzard so dense that you cannot tell the difference between the pavement and the sagebrush. Wyoming is beautiful in its own way. Fawn colors, khaki, beige, every shade of tan man ever thought up a name for, rolls away from the road, and the road itself turns into a sky-colored mirage. The freeway is marked by giant red gates every 100 miles or so that say "Road Closed - Return to..." fill in the blank to be the nearest town of any great size. This is so that when snow drifts close off the freeway in the wintertime, they can divert traffic before we go plowing into oblivion.

Wyoming is also the land of Little America. If you do not know what Little America is, you will by the time you get there. There are signs - "Little America, 200 miles. 50 cent Cones!" and "Little America, 175 miles. Kids stay for free!" and "Little America, 150 miles, Are We There Yet?" etcetera to the point where you, the driver, with nothing else to occupy your attention except the occasional fireworks stand, start to wonder, "What is this mysteriously wonderful Little America?!" (Answer: a tricked-up gas station.)

Wyoming at last breaks its hold just a little south of Laramie, where a big old timey wooden sign proclaims, "Welcome to Colorful Colorado!" and immediately stands of green bushy ponderosa pines spring up, and the deer frolic, and grand snow-capped peaks burst out of the ground. And there you are. The Rockies.

(Finally! And now maybe I can part ways with Bosco for longer than a day? Sorry Bosco!)

Like Balls on a Roulette Wheel We Are Flung

Surfacing for air: a decompression.

Twenty one hours alone on the road is a long time to decompress. The first three hours are pure excitement. The next three become something akin to work, as in "I should be getting paid to do this." After that, the miles begin to creep backwards. Every minute I glance down at the odometer, but the number stays the same. There are still 1100 miles to go. It is a fierce and solid number, and there is nothing I can do about it. I pull off to the side of the road to take a break, but the miles are still there. The CD in my player has run out and everything my radio finds seems jarring on the ears - I spend two minutes listening to static on the AM thinking that it is the sound of applause about to die out - and then I turn off the radio and howl at the road like a wild woman (something you can only do when you're alone), but the miles are still there to drive.

After that there is nothing but time to think about things, and I have a very noisy mind. Big questions become small and manageable; little ones well up to take their place. Sometimes I sing my thoughts out loud, and sometimes I talk them, and sometimes I talk to God... but I don't talk to God too often, because when I talk to him, when I really talk to him, I get tears in my eyes. I think it is that the conversation is too honest, that it cuts down through the masks to the heart of me and who I am, what I am trying to be, real and raw. Often painful.

But you can't cry while you're driving. So no... I don't talk to God too often.

Sometimes, sometimes... when my thoughts are on repeat play and the fault lines on the pavement are hammering away a steady beat, then I finally find the rhythm of the road. The car stops moving. Instead, the land moves around me. If I am on a winding two lane highway, the ribbon of pavement seems to whip beneath me like a high pressure water hose. But if I am on the freeway, it becomes more like a video game. There are cars to pass and cars passing me. I weave and dodge with the cruise control on, focusing on the two possibilities - Are they gaining on me or am I gaining on them? Never tap the foot on the brake, that is the goal of this game. Every vehicle I encounter takes on its own personality by its shape, its color, and the way it moves. Is it timid? Does it reek with machismo? Polite, clever, lawbreaking? And yet I never see the faces on the other side of the glass.

The radio catches a moment of European electronic techno, and suddenly I picture myself in a different place entirely, under the water, laying back on the sand watching the fish swim above me. Scuba divers hardly ever stay put in one place. Generally you don't want to touch anything around you, lest you kill it or it kills you, or sometimes the only thing beneath you is a deep swallowing darkness, a silent enemy. But when there is sand - try this if you get the chance - you can lay back and look up at the fish, their silhouettes black against the bending light of the surface. Watch them pause and circle, flick their tails and be gone, one after another. Watch as the bubbles rise up from your regulator, flat on the bottom and round on the top, big and small, wavering up in a delicate dance to the surface, when the only sound around you is the hiss and blurb of your breath and the constant snapping of the shrimp hidden beneath the rocks. I don't know why techno made me think of this.

But I am back on the road, drinking milk out of a quart carton. The scenery is blearily monotonous, and in my boredom I notice even the slightest things. There is a dead creature on the side of the road lying on its back, all reddish fur with four paws sticking straight in the air like a cartoon. It looks wombat-ish, but I'm pretty sure eastern Oregon doesn't have wombats. Miles later I pass a dead cow lying on the other side of a barb wire fence like a fallen fiberglass statue, its legs sticking out from its side. The heat makes the dead things bloat. And then up on the hill, a large metal horse in mid-lunge, and beyond it a corral for the wild horses caught by the BLM, and I think about the times I have seen horses running in the wild. Not this time, though. Not this drive. Only hawks and pronghorn antelope to keep me company, and the rolling sagebrush looking the same for every mile, and Cheerios in odd places in the car, and now an empty quart of milk.

Twenty one hours alone on the road is a long time to decompress.

The Car That Ate An Antelope

The sunlight is coming in shafts through the trees, the peacocks down in the valley are wailing plaintively, and as I stand beside Bosco considering my life's next chapter of plunging into the great unknown I am faced with an old familiar question: Should I take The Antelope?

Well of course I should. Why the heck do I drive a small SUV if not to throw my bike into the back of it whenever I please? But the process of putting The Antelope in single-handed is daunting, especially since the first time when Bosco was still shiny and new and I managed to get a nice big grease smudge all over the upholstery. But I like to bike. And....I like my Antelope.

(Mind, "The Antelope" isn't its model but its name, like Fred, or Joe Jackson, or Fluffy. It is a good name.)

So it's fiddle off the front wheel, grope around for a nonexistent "good grip" as the handlebars swivel around to smack my knees as the whole bike slips back on the remaining tire. A regrip, and now I've forgotten to avoid pressing the greasy chain against my clothing (but I'm wearing dark colors - whew!), and now the sharp bits of metal where my front tire used to be are threatening to gouge plastic and break windows, and now I finally have it hoisted up halfway into the car (I see for the first time "Made in China" written on the side. My bike was made in China??? Did China even make anything back then? Aaah, my bike is Chinese!!), and now the petals are punching down into whatever it is underneath the sheet I've spread across the rest of the packed stuff, but has it done damage? I like to keep it a mystery. And now I am spending two coils of rope lashing The Antelope to every tie-point my car has to offer, because I picture it flailing around in there and doing mighty, terrible things if I don't.

That's how Bosco and The Antelope get along. One of these days I should probably invest in a bike rack.

The entire time I was wrestling to get the bike inside, between mild expletives, I found myself asking questions. So many questions. Why do people travel? What's in it? Why don't more people do it? Is it a way of life or a break from life? Can it be a constant? And why do I travel? What do I hope to find, and what have I found already? If I forget everything from my past travels, have I really ever travelled at all?

The answers could come in cliched bits like, "Americans have always been on the move!" (Like some 1950's "Ride the Train" poster), or maybe something about the struggle of man vs. nature, I don't know. I didn't want to go down that route. There's something far more satisfying in the asking of the question, and I seem to be doing a lot of that lately. The questions come easier than the answers. Maybe I should be a philosopher, heh? Or a police interrogator.

But I have at least one question answered for today. The Antelope is strapped down and ain't going anywhere but Colorado. So that's a "yes."

And Then the Road Ran Out

Is it over? It happened so fast. The mileage on the dash says 7502, so I must have gone somewhere. And yet here I am back with familiar sights and familiar sounds, and all that’s left of the trip is a car full of stuff and a head full of music, a camera full of pictures. A bracing, grinding halt.

Today I’ve been facing a curious teetering between two states, exhaustion and complete boredom. I’m lugging my body around the house like one of the undead while my mind is still racing for things to do and places to go. But it’s a fatigue deeper than coffee can go, despite the millions of things I have to do between now and Friday, when I hope to start the two day drive to Colorado. Today I feel like one of those skits in a comedy show where one person hides behind another and puts their arms out in front to do simple things like brushing teeth (and shoving the toothbrush in their eye) or eating a sandwich (and spilling it all down their shirt.) That is an accurate depiction of my efficiency rating at present.

Despite that, I’m starting to tick off a few minor chores. I've been washing my sleeping bag in the bath tub, not an easy task. It takes some muscle, sort of like washing a dead Saint Bernard. It turned the water into a lovely deep brown “sleeping bag tea.” Which is funny, because I wasn’t expecting it to be that dirty, but I guess the last time I can definitively remember cleaning it was back in 1999. I’m also slowly extracting items from the inner rubble of Bosco, an explosion which resulted from quickly sundering all of TSO’s belongings from the rest of the stuff in a rush to make his ferry, a bit akin to yanking a tablecloth out from under a full setting of china, but with fewer pointy shards. Before this we had to leave Bosco parked unattended in Tacoma for 24 hours, so I left it a little chaotic as a theft deterrant. But I have to admit, my side of the car has more or less been in a state of explosion since the Yukon, so right now it is really just more exploded. When the option is to spend time organizing or make a “that’ll-do” and hit the road, I hit the road.

The 7502 miles is from my driveway to my driveway, but it isn’t a perfectly accurate measure of our trip because it includes a lot of backtracking (like zigzagging around Washington State this last week) and noodling around in the cities. We logged 35 miles in Ketchikan, for example, and I don’t think Ketchikan even has 35 miles of road. So the actual distance may have been closer to 6000 miles, seven weeks travelling, six weeks solid tent camping, access to one oven, two instances of watching television (not counting the ones inside interpretive centers), seven cans of propane, six crossings through international customs, five ferries, zero flat tires, and four boxes of Jujubees. Plus we got eaten by a bear.

So I’ve missed blogging about pretty much everything between Juneau and the civilized world, but I will get around to catching up, I promise. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and after my family’s reunion, which is going to be two weeks worth of my clawing up the hiking trails behind everybody else gasping some excuse about how I’ve been locked in a car the past seven weeks and have no muscle mass left.

Ah… Alaska, the Yukon, the north. When will I go back?


Impressions of Homer:

-artsy fartsy
-tourists confined to segregated area (known as "the Spit")
-pay money, catch halibut, take pictures with halibut
-$20 sandwich: white bread, PB & J
-locals say "yeah, lots of eagles, beautiful mountains, blah blah blah"
-alarming lack of fresh seafood
-bald eagle wants to eat your dog

Impressions of Seward:

-cool without trying to be cool
-every marine creature and bird comes here at least once in their life, for it is lush
-city camping on the beach, heck yeah (minus irritatingly loud Asian family next door at midnight and again at 5am)
-amazing tours, no advertising, which you discover after you've already left
-alarming lack of fresh seafood
-Exit Glacier biding its time to retake the world

Impressions of Girdwood:

-11pm? time for everyone to wander the streets!
-dead cars going "dust to dust" in random spots in the forest
-sketchiest city campground ever
-best combination camping/defunct gold mine ever
-reasonable lack of fresh seafood
-ski lodge wants to eat your baby and your dog
-now featuring bread-free bakeries

Impressions of Haines:

-we're friendly, but we don't like you
-10 art galleries, 1 artist
-uncluttered by plumbers, mechanics, or anyone who knows how to replace toilet paper/soap/towels in bathrooms
-our faces will break if we smile
-thousands of eagles can be seen at all other times of the year, just not today
-8oz wrongfully delicious Muffin Cake
-fresh seafood, but guarded by a cranky old man who will snap at any moment
-we are only tolerating you, give us your money

Impressions of Juneau:

-amazingly buff Juneaun thighs
-grey, cold, warm, sunny, rainy, grey
-quality souvenirs for the low low price of $999.99!
-finding skyline from water comparable to Where's Waldo? with massive cruise ships
-fresh seafood location: pricey restaurant plate
-Seattle's younger, rowdy little cousin
-it's 6pm and we're going home and we don't care that you're on vacation because we're here all year and if you have to get on the boat before we open and can't buy your little Made in Tawain "Alaskan" eskimo child doll then you're screwed, aren't you?

Swoop! Southeast!

TSO and I have been travelling WiFi dry for a little too long, and in the time we've had a connection, I have not had time/motivation to write. It's hard to look at a computer screen when the alternative is hundreds of mountains and glaciers and swooping eagles and the like.

Yes, I shook the Anchorage blues. We went down into the Kenai Peninsula, which was originally supposed to be a short little side jaunt. I thought it was so close to Anchorage that I didn't even factor in the mileage to our trip total. So... it turns out that the Peninsula is actually like an upside-down "Y" with Homer at one tip and Seward at the other. and each over 100 miles from Anchorage. We ended up visiting both.


It's very late and I have to get up in 4 hours to go catch the ferry to Sitka. What should I write about?

Well, the mosquitoes here are every bit as big and bad as the warnings say. We have mostly avoided running into them, but our last few campsites have been some of the worst. We stayed at Huck Hobbit's Hostel in Slana, where they came by the thousands, and fell asleep staring up at the hundred or so that had gotten themselves trapped between the outside of the tent and the rain fly. When I took off the fly in the morning, a visible cloud of mosquitoes lifted straight up into the air. Then there was the campground in Haines, Chilkat Lake?, where I had to get up in the morning before our ferry left and boil water to wash the dishes. The water came from a hand pump, like most of the water in state/provincial parks, with an advisory to boil it first. It takes about half an hour to do enough for dishes and drinking, and in that time every mosquito from a five mile radius came and hovered around me, attracted by the heat and steam. A good fifty or so kamikazeed directly into the uncovered clean water bucket, which made washing dishes interesting. I finally busted out the mosquito hat that I brought, the first time I've had to use it on this trip. The actually mosquito net, however, remains packed and untouched. Oh yes. We are rough woodsmen now, aren't we?

Bears have not been a problem, knock on wood. The only ones we've seen have been A) on the side of the road while driving, B) in Denali while on the bus, and C) with enough people watching them already that they were no surprise. The first ones like that were the ones I mentioned in the Kenai. Today we encountered another similar case, but much worse. We went to visit the Mendenhall Glacier just outside of Juneau, discovering that apparently every person aboard every one of the four massive cruise ships parked outside of town was doing exactly the same thing. It was the most crowded "tourist" site we've seen yet, so bad that we had to practically march in a line as we walked up the trail. (We finally did break away and make it to a more remote spot much closer to the glacier.) But when we first arrived, I parked Bosco next to a large group of people surrounding a tree, taking pictures and pointing up at a little black bear high in the branches. The poor bear was agitated, but there was no way down, so it crawled around and gnawed on branches. Several hours later when we came back to the car, the tour buses and people were gone, and so was the bear.

We finally hit a nasty part of the Alaskan Highway several days ago, as we were driving from Tok to Haines Junction. This bit is all torn up, apparently a permanent thing, alternating between pavement unexpectedly turning to gravel, massive divots and waves marked only by a little orange flag (or sometimes not at all), frost heaves, and construction delays. It wasn't quite as bad as the drive from the Canadian/US border to Chicken, Alaska (a steep dirt road made muddy by a recent rain), but it was enough to shake and shimmy poor Bosco, who is beginning to take on a few extra rattle-y noises. The populous Kenai clubbed my Lower 48 driving sense back into me, so the first time I met a massive dip in my lane, I took it, causing things in the back to catch air and rearrange themselves, and then immediately realized that there was no one in the other lane for probably 50 miles and that I could - hey! - actually cross the yellow line to avoid things. It's funny I've forgotten this so quickly, considering how free and easy driving was for most of the Yukon. The Yukon - Where Road Markings Are Suggestions.

The drive from Haines Junction down to Haines is probably a leg that most people skip, since the RVers continue down the way they came and the cruise shippers never stray so far from the water, but this stretch was, I think, my favorite drive yet. The road goes up and over a mountain pass, one that was fiercely guarded by the coastal Tlingit so that they alone could control trade with the Interior Peoples. It starts in the taiga (Russian for "little sticks"), a forest in miniature. The permafrost stunts the growth of the trees, so that they can grow several hundred years and still look like a sapling. Occasionally there are "drunken forests" where the permafrost has melted under the roots of larger trees, causing them to tip this way and that like a bad hair day. Lakes and kettle ponds go past, and then the road climbs above the low treeline into the tundra, with massive snowy mountains in every direction. When it finally descends below treeline on the other side, massive trees quickly appear, the wet coastal forests of southeast Alaska.

And that's where we are now, one big jump from the Kenai to Southeast, and all I can say is "Finally!" For some reason I thought that it wouldn't take long to get from one to the other - the mileage in numbers certainly doesn't look intimidating - but when we finally turned around in Seward and set our sights on Haines, it took four days to get there!

I've got far too many stories to tell. We have a 25-hour ferry ride in our future. Maybe they'll have WiFi?

Shakin' Anchorage

After weeks of driving through the bush, tiny towns and narrow roads where the most exciting thing happening was wildlife or weather related, we came down into Anchorage the other day. It began ominously. The road first grew decent shoulders, and then took on another lane, and all of the sudden we were driving past Jiffy Lubes and junk shops, fast food places and giant plastic monkeys holding a sign that said "Gorilla Fireworks!!" Then came more cars, more people, insanity, and there we were in the city of Anchorage.

Somewhere I read that Anchorage has a million people, but I think I was sorely misinformed, because TSO read out of the Milepost that there are only 600,000, which is plenty enough anyway. I also read that the Anchorage area contains about %70 of Alaska's entire population. I think I read this from the same source. It may not be accurate. It may, in fact, be a gigantic lie intended to mislead me, a lie that I will pass on in full confidence to future generations, a perpetual sewage pipe of ignorance dumping into the clear stream that is the human existence. But I digress.

Perhaps it is because I'm finally hitting travel fatigue, or perhaps it's because I do not like cities and had gone so long without one, but Anchorage immediately gave me the blues. The Anchorage Blues. We struggled to find a campsite that night, mostly because I was tired and not reading the AAA book correctly, sending TSO back and forth on a wild goose chase over the same stretch of highway, finally locating the campground and narrowly beating out a hundred frenzied RVers for the very last site. And the site was fair enough - our neighbors were friendly, descendants of native peoples, who let us enjoy their campfire with them - though we were rained on all through the night and into the morning.

We camped along the Turnagain Arm, a fjord of the bay that drains completely at low tide, leaving vast mud flats. Clay flats. There are stories aplenty of people (usually foolish tourists) who have wandered in to the quicksand like clay and been trapped as the tides come in, sometimes ending with the people losing their legs to get free, and sometimes ending with them just drowning. The warnings were enough that when we walked down to the edge of the clay, we did not stray from the rocks. Turnagain Arm took one look at us and growled... and we kept our distance.

The next morning we caught the open air weekend market in Anchorage itself, which was grand in that I had studied enough of the Anchorage map to get their without dilemma. Getting away and "casually driving the city," however, turned out to be different story, and as I circled the block a fourth time looking for nonexistent parking spots and getting stymied, again, by another one way street, I decided that I do not like Anchorage, at least while behind the wheel of a car. Oh, to ditch Bosco and explore the city on foot! Unfortunately there was no sign that said "Ditch Your Car Here," and so I panicked and flung us in the direction of south, out of Anchorage towards the Kenai Penn.

Anchorage got shoot up by a big earthquake in the 60's, and has now payed it forward by shaking me up. Blah, the Anchorage Blues!

We are now at a laundromat in Soldotna, and my clothes are dry, so that's the end of that story.

A bit more Denali

Right.... well now I'm not quite so rushed for time, so more on Denali.

The park only has one road going into it, 14 miles of pavement that you can drive yourself and then another 70 miles of unpaved that you must ride a park bus to reach, at least in the summertime. You can walk into the park, you can bike into the park, but you cannot take your car past mile 14. This results in something amazing - a wilderness barely touched by rampaging tourism, where the road winds narrow and unmarring through the tundra and around the mountain passes, a silence and remoteness. Almost everyone stays within striking distance of the road, which means that if you wander but a mile away, you are alone.

Wandering from the road isn't nearly as foolish as it would seem. Treeline is at about 2500 feet, so most of the park is covered by tundra or low-bush taiga, meaning that any rise allows you to see for miles and miles around. Backcountry campers can go anywhere with only one rule - You cannot pitch your tent within sight of the road. But because the line of sight goes so far, it can sometimes mean quite a long hike in. Of course, this works well for the day hiker's purposes. We were able to traipse about easily wherever we roamed and never fear getting lost, because every now and then - whoop! There's the road in the distance! No problem.

Denali impressed me in so many ways. Where other national parks insist that you stay on the trail at all times, Denali has very few trails after the paved section, and so there the signs read, "Get out and explore the backcountry! Get away from the road! Don't worry about trails! Just make sure you spread out in a group so you don't create a new one."

Denal also impresses in its commitment to environmental sustainability. Alaska so far has been a desert wasteland as far as recycling goes. People don't even accept the most recyclable of items. But in Denali, recycling was the rule. Trash cans were in short supply. We road the park bus in to about mile 66, where sits the brand new Eielson Visitor's Center, built to replace the older, smaller one that had previously been there. It is the most environmentally friendly building in the entire Parks system, built with out of recycled and local materials, with natural light and heating taken into account in its design. It is powered by a hydroelectric generator in a nearby stream, solar panels, and boosted by propane generators when needed. Best of all, it is built with a low profile. The parking and pullout for the buses is on the roof, so the actual structure is worked into the side of the hill in a way that makes it very difficult to see from the road - no large and imposing structure plunked down on the tunddra. It opened for the very first time last Sunday. We got to visit it on its third day of operation. Good timing for us!

More on Denali later, I'm sure. I could write all day about that park!

Cicily...I mean...Talkeetna

So now we are in Talkeetna, just about 100 miles north of Anchorage. I'm sitting outside from a coffee house in the sun, and between the sunshine and the dust on the screen, I can't really see what I'm typing, so apologies if typos abound.

Talkeetna is a funky little town of about 800 people, depending on how many of the nearby backcountry hermits you count; a town of artists and tourist dives, bars decorated with furs and antlers and gift shops as far as the eye can see (which is about three blocks), reindeer pigs-in-a-blanket in the bakery and free cookies in the new/used bookstore. We have been in town for a day and a half now, and already we run into people we know at every corner. Today I tipped my hat at the mule wagon driver - we met each other yesterday - and just now as I was typing the owner of our hostel with her two young children came past to get ice cream and we had a little chat. It's a tight and friendly town, fake and real at the same time.

We are staying at the Talkeetna International Hostel, which caters especially to Denali mountain climbers. Some are just off the mountain, having made the summit or not, and since yesterday three guides have been staging the gear needed for a 12 person guided ascent. It's been fun watching and talking to them. They were much more generous than the sort of machismo I would usually expect, saying that I should climb the mountain...that I could climb the mountain. Ha ha. It warms my heart to hear it, though I suspect they're just tying to beef up their clientele. The backyard of the hostel is crammed full of mountaineering tents, so that our little three-person is nearly the largest thing there. (One and only one tent beats ours.) The porch is perpetually crammed with backpacks and ice picks, with sleeping bags, boots and tarps hanging down from the rafters. All in all, a pretty nice place to stay.

Talkeetna brags that it is the town that "Northern Exposure" was based on. I can see it, especially if I rewind the place back a few years to what it must have been like before the bigger crush of tourism came. It sits at the end of a 14 mile spur road, a dead end met by three converging rivers and the Alaskan Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and here also is the last place in the country where you can flag down a train anywhere along the tracks to stop and pick you up. There are liberals here, Obama signs on yards, and churches. We sat on the grass of the elementary school last night and watched a soccer game play to 10pm. Last night around 1am was the first time in at least a week or so that I noticed something approaching "dark" out the window. Still light enough to walk around without artificial light, but I could no longer read in my tent. Dark. I'm not so glad to see it again. Acouple of weeks is not long enough to miss the mood and stars.

What else to say? I am dozing in the sun. There is an amazing cinnamon roll sitting, waiting, across the table from me. I know it's amazing because I had one yesterday.

Now it's down south towards Anchorage, which is becoming less exciting the more I learn about it. I've heard things like, "Anchorage isn't Alaska, but on a clear day you can see it from there," and "The nice thing about Anchorage is that Alaska is only a half hour away." Apparently Anchorage is like any other generic sprawling fast food chained stripped malled commercial monstrous city down in the lower 48. Perhaps we shall give it a quick nod before going off in search of quainter climes. And salmon!

Denali is Not Mt. McKinley

Denali is amazing. Both the park and the mountain. You can call the thing Mt. McKinley if you want, but it was only ever named that because an early pioneer wanted to honor a presidential candidate back in the states, a candidate that never came to Alaska. TSO and I were joking that if the same thing happened in the present day, it would be Mt. Kucinich, perhaps?

This is my turbo Denali post, because I find myself, as I often do, strapped for time with a random WiFi connection, this one at the Science Center in the National Park. So.... turbo post. Here is a brief summary of Denali:

There is only one road into the park. Only park buses are allowed on it. It is a fallacy that only the morning buses see wildlife, but nevertheless everyone crowds onto them in the slim hope that their viewing will be improved. We took the 11am bus. It had six people. We saw grizzly with cubs (x2), caribou, ptarmigan, stuff, lots of other wildlife things. It was good. Then did lunch in the tundra and hiked in gorgeous mountains...

You know what I'm realizing? Turbo posts don't really work, do they? Ah well. It was worth a shot.

Eine Kleine Alaska

Just a few snapshots to help y'all visualize our trip:

Getting Bosco ready to go.  He is loaded to the hilt.  The sleeping/camp site stuff goes up top, the cooking gear and canned goods go below.  We just did a major repack in Tok, so this is a picture of our old system.

Mile O of the Alaskan Highway, one of the pictures in my Me Looking Far Too Excited About Signs series.

A typical campsite, our little tent.  We've been lucky to have picnic tables at every site, so we can use the cook stove without too much difficulty.  You might be able to see my hammock strung up in the back.  I spent one night in the hammock, but it got a little cold and the mosquitoes were fierce.

Buffalo!  Wild.  With mountains.  We saw a lot of these.  Buffalo and mountains.

The Dempster Highway.  We only drove 40 miles in, but it was wonderful.  It is all unpaved.  The Alaskan Highway has about the same sort of scenery, but it is paved and not even remotely dangerous.  Now I'm seeing a lot of "I survived the Alaskan Highway!!!" bumper stickers for sale in the gift shops, which seems akin to saying something like "I survived I-5 from Portland to Seattle!"  Actually, Seattle is much more dangerous.  Maybe it's different with an RV, but I am quite underwhelmed by the danger level of the Alcan.  Drive it.  It's fun!

The Visitor's Center, Tok, Alaska

"Where is Nunivak Island?" I asked Deb, the nice lady at the Visitor's Center.  She was bent over sorting out mailers; I was staring up at a mounted muskox head above a sign that said, "This muskox was taken on Nunivak Island, the only place where muskox can be hunted."

"Up north," said Deb.  "This is Alaska..."  She held out her hand and pointed to where we were, and where Fairbanks was, and where the island was.

"And it's the only place where you can hunt muskox?" I said.

"Is it?"  She looked at the sign below the head as though she had never actually read it before.  "Hmm.  I'm not sure about that.  I'll have to check."

We started talking about wild game meats.  I had been on a mission.  A caribou mission.  I have been going into the local grocery stories calling out for caribou, hoping a packaged steak will jump at me from the refrigerated shelf.  So far, the only thing even remotely caribou has come heavily seasoned in the form of a sausage.  TSO and I tried muskox just south of Dawson City, and it was quite good.  But I want to eat ALL of Alaska's animals.  Mmm, yummy.  Sea otter.

So I inquired of Deb where a foolish traveller like myself might find some of the more watchable wildlife in fillet form, and she frowned. 

"You can't buy wild game.  They only allow farmed game to be sold in stores.  Caribou, yes, but there's no such thing as farmed moose.  The Alaskan government doesn't like it, for some reason.  They farm moose in Russia and Norway, but some rancher up in Fairbanks tried for years to get a permit for it and the government wouldn't let him.  The only way to try moose is to meet someone who hunts them."

She then went on to tell me about a recent kerfuffle in Anchorage, where an older single woman woke up one morning to discover that a moose had died in her backyard.  This isn't that unusual; over 1000 moose have died in people's yards in Anchorage just in the last few years.  Alive, the moose belong to everyone.  Dead, in your yard, they are yours and yours alone.  The city won't come remove them.  So the woman, having no means to get rid of an entire moose carcass by herself, posted a note on Craigslist for someone to come and get it for dog food.  Craigslist notice and got nervous, thinking that someone might instead go and try to salvage the moose for meat, get sick, and sue the site.  Or something.  So they took her posting off, and I'm not quite sure how that story ends.

But after we'd been chatting a while, Deb and I, she glanced side to side and said, "Are you going to be around in the morning?  When I come to work, I can bring you some moose to try."

"That you shot?"  I said.

"Yes.  I don't meet many people who want to try it.  Most people don't really understand hunting.  But it's much better than buying meat.  I know exactly where it comes from, no hormones, and I respect the animals I hunt.  When my husband or I get a moose, we're so grateful.  We use everything.  It's really a blessing to get a moose."

I found out with a bit of talking that her husband had moved to Tok when he was a little kid, the very year that the Alaskan Highway had opened to civilian travel, 1947.  He was the eldest white man in town.

This morning, TSO and I returned to the Visitor's Center.  Deb brought us moose steaks and caribou sticks (like jerky.)  We gave her canned albacore tuna and chinook salmon from my hometown, which she was familiar with, a happy trade.  I'm so glad to make friends along the road, however fleeting they are.  Thank you, Deb!

And so tonight we had the best dinner ever... Moose steak with spruce tip jam, wild rice pilaf, carrots with mustard, and of course, the very necessary desert, an uncooked smore.  Raw smores are the best thing ever.  After moose steak.

Dawson City is Quite Old

We have just made it into Alaska, but for the past few days we have been resting and exploring Dawson City in the Yukon Territory.  Dawson deserves at least a couple of posts.  Here is one.

We rolled into town after a long day, a day that started by hiking in the Tombstone Mountains on the Dempster Highway.  The very fact that we drove on the Dempster made me giddy.  This is the highway that goes all the way to Inuvit on the Arctic Sea, waaaay way up north.  It is unpaved all the way.  (Except the last 6 miles.  Random.)  It makes the Alaskan Highway look like the Jersey Turnpike.

So we trotted around for awhile in the brushy tundra and snow, yelling "Hey bear!!!" at intervals, and when we'd had our fill we drove back up the dusty road to the real one - the paved one - and on to Dawson.  We rolled into Dawson with the music of "Amelie" playing in the car... resulting in a very surreal experience, for Dawson City is like a movie set in three dimensions, or a piece of Disneyland's Frontierland expanded, or a old timey photo brought to color.  Every building looks straight out of the early 1900's.  Not a chain or recognizable store name in town - no McDonalds, no Safeway.  Just Klondike Kate's, The Drunken Goat, Sourdough Joes, The Midnight Sun.

In the summer, Dawson has 3000 people, half of which are young seasonal workers supporting the tourist trade.  (The other big business is gold mining.  Still.  Which strikes me as a bit of an anachronism.)  The result - the town is all a'bustle with young travellers looking for nothing more than new friends and adventures.  We made a couple of both.


I need to write Dawson part II another time, because right now I'm in Chicken, Alaska, and we have to keep driving to Tok before the soughdough pancake contest is over.  Wee!


This is my turbo post about Whitehorse, the Capital of the Yukon Territory.

It's nice.

It's not as cold as you might think.

Everyone here is very fit and trim, as though they were air-lifted in from Denver. They are also very young, cool, and friendly.

There is a vibrant arts and culture scene here in town. Even a guitar busker out on the street. Local musicians abound. One of the most famous ones also drives a city bus.

There are Starbucks here. Two of them. I am sad to say that I visited one instead of the local alternatives, but only because it was late and they had a bathroom. And also coffee.

It's still light at midnight. It's still light at 3am. It is light all the freaking time. You hardly ever need a flashlight, unless you are hoping to read a book during the couple of "dim" hours in the night. We were playing guitar last night around 11pm, forgetting the fact that, oh yes, it's late and perhaps people are sleeping. The light is very deceptive.

Whitehorse is definitely a town I could sink my teeth into. I feel like I could spend a year here easily. But for this morning, it's back into Bosco and north to Dawson City, the Klondike!

Sucky Times in the Yukon

I should really say "Sucky Times and Otherwise," because it really hasn't been so bad...

But I have this nasty foolish tendency to wait until I'm next to dying before going to visit a doctor. Some freakish mutant British Columbian stomach virus came and whalloped me last week, which was putting a serious damper - such as making every meal a traumatic experience - in my otherwise merry adventures. Here we were in Watson Lake on a Friday afternoon, and did I go take my last chance to see a doctor? Nooo... because I am dumb. Apparently.

So Nathan and I got to get off the beaten tourist path late on Friday night and visit the Whitehorse General Hospital, and I got to learn about Canadian health care, and now I have magic happy pills that have made the sun come out and shine again, and Nathan gets gold stars and the official designation of "Good Friend in Rough Weather."

Morals of the story:
1. Don't get sick while travelling.
2. Jujubees do not substitute for medicine, despite their pill-like appearance.
3. It's good to keep a healthy travelling buddy around so that when you do get sick, you can tell the doctor again and again, "It wasn't the drinking water. wasn't the drinking water. I'm telling you..."

Arrived in Yukon

Yesterday we finally crossed out of British Columbia into the Yukon Territory.  The Yukon!  The word alone makes me think of adventure and far away places.  For the past few days we have been driving up the Alaskan Highway through large tracts of wilderness, with nothing to see on either side of the road but endless forests of lodgepole pine and aspen.  The road cuts a wide swath through the trees, which I suppose is to help motorists from hitting wildlife and to keep the trees from falling all over the road.

In the wildlife department, we've done pretty well.  Our most common spottings have been wild bison.  Who knew?  I thought that the days of wandering buffalo where done and gone, but up here they still travel about as they please.  We stopped in to Dora's Cafe in Fireside, BC yesterday to get some ice cream, and she told us about how one bull had shattered her restaurant window (quite by accident) and how the herd wanders into her RV park every fall, forcing her to shut it down until they decide to move on.  They're easy to spot while driving, which is perhaps why we've seen more of them than anything else.

But we have seen a few black bears, one tiny token caribou, an elk, and a beaver hard at work.  The first day on the Alaskan Highway I spotted a bull moose on the edge of the road, but even though I saw it from such a long ways away, I could not believe it was an actual moose and not a sign or a statue or some other fake-moose-let's-fool-the-tourists, and so I overshot it by a long ways before gasping "Moose!" and turning a sharp U-ey.  Hopefully it's not our last, because we couldn't react quickly enough to take pictures!

This idea that the Alaskan Highway is oh-so treacherous and scary is a big fat myth.  It's a lovely road to drive, with nothing to imply shredded tires or abandoned cars or all the other horror stories I heard before we left.  The scenery lulls me into a sense of hypnosis after a while, with nothing much happening, and then we round the corner someplace to see a massive towering snow-capped mountain and my jaw drops.  I highly recommend the drive.

Well, it's off to Whitehorse now, and since Nathan is being very patient with me right now while I take advantage of this Wi-Fi spot, I'd best wrap it up and move along.  We have to go pan for gold so we can pay for this trip!

Dawson Creek

Yesterday Nathan and I realized that we've only been driving/camping for three days (four today), and we could hardly believe it.  We were in Seattle on Friday, but it seems so long ago!  So now, after a lifetime of travelling, we find ourselves only slightly past the middle of British Columbia in Dawson Creek, which is Nebraska.  Seriously.  Dawson Creek looks a lot like Nebraska, or at least as best I can remember that flat and rolling state.

I'm in a bit of a camping stupor.  We've just broken camp for the morning and are sitting at the picnic table facing the daunting beginning of the Alaskan Highway, and Nathan has just informed me that the next 410 miles are paved.  Fantastic, since I just spent an hour slapping headlight protectors and a grill screen thing on the front of Bosco, all to ease a bit of the damage I'm imagining will ensue after 1500 miles of a solid gravel shower.  If we make it to Anchorage without a busted windshield, I am going to buy myself an ice cream.

Cooking with a propane stove is excellent.  I think I'm getting spoiled.  Spam has also been elevated in my opinion.  Spam is the King of Canned Meats.

This morning a friendly neighbor wandered by the campsite and introduced himself.  I do believe he had spent the entire morning wandering around offering advice to people, because after chatting we me he went over to the next campsite and did the same thing.  He warned me of buffalo on the road ("They're stupid.  They don't move for nothing.") and of the eagles that perch above populated campgrounds, waiting to swoop down and snatch cats and little yip-yip dogs that aren't being watched by their owners.  He told me that he had seen firsthand a tug of war concerning a poodle between an eagle and and RVer.  The eagle won.

Ooooh.... I guess I should probably go.  Much many miles to drive yet.  Yes.

Have Car, Will Travel

Just a quick little post to announce that we are now travelling, TSO and I! I will have to post more later...when I have more time...and am not falling asleep on a couch in Seattle...

Suffice to say, all is well, the car is loaded to the gills, and we will be conquering Canada within the week. Rah!

Yes, no, yes, I'm not posting

Because TSO and I are trying to get ready to go to Alaska and it's so crazy and there is so much stuff to do AAAAAA FREAKOUT!

But we've been also doing some lovely fun stuff together, and at least one of us isn't too lazy to write about it, so go check out the fine and excellent writing at Travelin' Shoes.

Maybe one or both of us will manage posts from the Great White North after we hit the road, which will be - God willing - very soon.

Big Name Comes, Small Town Fawns

Well, it finally happened. The Democratic primary has grown so rampantly out of control that they've gotten desperate, so desperate that they're even campaigning on the Oregon Coast.

But we haven't reached the level of the actual candidates yet. We're only on "spouse level."

Still, it was pretty exciting to hear that Bill Clinton was coming. Has a president current or ex ever visited the coast before? Not in my lifetime. The closest thing was when JFK campaigned here 40 years ago, a fact a learned from the woman standing in front of me in line as we waited to see Clinton. She had also seen JFK. She had been in high school.

The rally, or whatever you want to call it, was a mellow event. A week of raining had finally given way to mild and breezy spring weather, so we coastal type folks were in a merry mood, chatting to each other as we stood in a line that stretched for blocks. Everyone knew everyone. I had driven down from my hometown, but amazingly even I came across a few people that I knew. After about an hour and a half of waiting, they opened up the doors to the middle school gym, and we packed right on in. Amazingly, there was no security check of any kind. Most folks opted for the bleachers, but I choose the floor, so that when Clinton finally came out (on time!!) I was standing only 20 feet from him.

Bill Clinton is remarkably charismatic in person, very easy and relaxed as he speaks. But our crowd was judicious, and there was definitely rationing of applause for only the agreeable points of his speech. I, for my part, was very clappy about the part where Clinton promised more wilderness area designations for Oregon - we fall far short of the acreage of neighboring states - but this is not a welcomed idea for a community build on timber dollars, and so the rest of the gym stayed awkwardly silent. Other clunkers included his proposition that the future of transportation lies with lithium - I think - battery powered cars, ("They're too expensive!!" shouted one woman behind me) and that the lithium -or whatever it was - lies in great abundance in the ground of South America. (And so we are supposed to go dig up the rainforest? Hello?)

Also lacking was his understanding of our Northwest salmon situation, a problem he summed up in a way that very much implied he had been briefed on the plane ride over. "More salmon for everyone!" he said, or something close to it. His analysis of the issue was based along the premise that there are so many salmon just a'swimming on out there in the Pacific, and it's a fight between Alaskan fisherman and Northwestern fisherman to see who can go haul them in, as in, "stop letting Alaska get all the salmon and give them back to Oregon."

Which might work if salmon were whales, or if salmon were oil reserves, or if salmon were stock options. But salmon are salmon, and with a very few exceptions (i.e. ocean dead zones) if you find your local fishery depleted, you can only point the finger at yourself. So when Clinton started with his garbled notion of problem/solution, I wanted to yell, "Get a job!" Or, no, what would the phrase be? "Get a fisheries education or at least a rudimentary grasp on things that every third grader in Oregon already knows!"

Oh well. I suppose it's too much to ask for our local problems to go on the national scene anyway.

Clinton's best moment of the night was the announcement that Hillary would end No Child Left Behind, a line that filled the gym with wild cheering and applause. He followed this by saying, "That's a sure fire winner. I could be in the middle of Idaho 400 miles from the nearest Democrat and get applause from a herd of elk with that one."

After the speech, he came down into the crowd for hand-shaking and signature-signing, and the gym turned into a gigantic mosh pit. With me in the middle. So I got to know some of my South Coast neighbors a little bit more on that day, and isn't that what democracy is all about? Coming together?

Here is a picture of da man:

And here is proof that I was actually there. Or my eye was there, anyway. You have no idea how awkward it was to turn around to take a picture of myself when everyone behind me was so fixated on that big ol' flag. They thought I was a wee bit odd... because I broke eye contact with Clinton - aaaAAAAA!

And I had a warm and fuzzy video to upload, but since Blogger is being dumb about it, I'll have to try to post it later.