seattle men might consider wearing bras

Just a man and his horse, even in the country's 15th largest metropolis.

I absolutely love seeing people walk around downtown with fresh cut flowers in brown paper bags.

One of the many gorgeous spreads of fresh produce.

I don't think I've ever eaten an artichoke in my life, but as far as vegetables go, they are striking to look at.

If I would have had cash on me, I would have tipped these guys a pretty penny, because they were jamming.

The world's grossest tourist attraction: a wall of chewed up bubblegum outside Pike Place Market.

Metsker's Map shop downtown. I don't know--globes and antique maps just do it for me.

Blowing glass is a two person job. Tyler takes the rod and glass out of the kiln and his colleague bends down and blows into the opening. "Blow. Stop. Blow. Stop," is what Tyler says.

Those who live in Seattle say that it really doesn’t rain there as often as people think. And granted, I’ve only ever been to the Emerald City twice in my life, so I don’t have a huge basis for my opinions on the weather. But really, Seattleites? It rained both times I was there. And I read somewhere that the nickname “Emerald City” comes from the lush evergreens for which the area’s known. And that lushness comes from rain. In fact, it rained so much while we were there that Brian’s friend who we stayed with, who went jogging late Saturday morning, came back with blood streaming down his shirt because the cotton fabric, which was soaked all the way through and had rubbed against his skin as he bounded down the city streets, had chafed his nipples. When he walked in the front door I noticed it straight away. But I didn’t say anything. Maybe his t-shirt had been stained for some time. And what place of it was mine to point it out? But as we sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee, the stain got worse, and the blood became more pronounced. Right around the nipples.

Despite what locals tell you, it turns out that it rains so much in Seattle that it causes people’s nipples to bleed. I encouraged him to put band-aids on them–like girls do when they go to the prom and don’t want to spend money on a strapless bra. But I think he just let them dry out. I don’t know. I’d only met him one other time–when we were both in Bozeman and met up at a bar. So I didn’t want to cross the line and belabor the whole thing.

Although I’ve never felt much allegiance for the Pacific Northwest in the Lower 48, I feel like it’s tough to dislike a place that has such uniquely inclement weather, where people still carry on with their ordinary actions. It’s commendable, really. If I lived in Seattle, I think I’d just watch movies and drink coffee all day, in my pajamas. But when I did venture out, I’d make certain I had on my bra. I don’t know–maybe guys should do the same thing.

Trying to get a freeze frame of heartthrob Chase Utley at bat.

The horse races at Emerald Downs, where I learned to be a pretty good better.

cloverland morels

A handful of morels we found along the trail, which I cooked a couple nights later with a great cut of steak

The campsite for the night, up Cloverland grade, near Umatilla National Forest

A humble meal of broccoli and cheese rice with brats

Getting down to business with the margaritas

In trying to get to know our new surroundings, I ventured into the Snake River office, across the river in Washington, and asked the woman in charge about nearby camp sites. Everything in the Clearwater, near Orofino, was still eight inches under snow, and the Dworshak Reservoir area was the same. In getting into Hells Gate (the deepest river gorge in the country, and right outside our front door), you either have to take a boat, because the canyon’s inaccessible by road or, as far as I could tell, drive into Oregon. We don’t have a boat, much to my dismay, and we didn’t want to drive to Oregon. We just wanted to get out somewhere, relatively simple, and see the wilds, forgetting about domesticity for a night.

“You really can’t get into Hells Gate from here?” I said.

“Not unless you have a boat, or can talk one of these guys into taking you on theirs,” the office lady said.

She pointed her chin at two men sitting nearby, who she’d been having a chat with when I walked in. She was kidding, I think, but one of the guys, who I later considered the first friend I made in Lewiston, ended up bestowing upon me the combination code for his gate, where he owned a nice chunk of land, that he said we could camp on. The other guy, ornery but generous with his time, drew me a map he called the map of all maps, while still insisting that we’d get lost.

I’m not going to say that we found the place on our first try, but we did find it. Outside Asotin, up Cloverland grade, on top of a plateau of wheat fields and barns, near the mountains of Umatilla National Forest.

I hadn’t been camping since last summer, and at first I forgot the drill. I looked around and didn’t know what to do. I thought about pouring a margarita, but I was in some state of stasis, where opposing forces kept me from moving forward. I thought about reading my book–Jim Harrison’s Dalva–but I didn’t feel like sitting still and burying my nose in something. I looked around, and then up at the sky, and that dictated what we’d do, or not do.

They were the kind of clouds that seem pregnant with rain and turn dirt roads into impassable bogs of mud.  I thought about the time I went camping with an old friend, in Utah’s Escalante. On our drive in, down a dirt road with ruts that seemed to sink into a netherworld, the sun fashioned a clear as day sky. That next morning, the sky looked as if it had aged thirty years, just overnight–it was bleak and gray and lined with clouds, and it had turned the ground into a wet, mucky mess. The little Toyota that I drove, even with all-wheel drive, was stuck like nobody’s business. For two full days it stayed stuck.

After thinking back on this, Brian and I had a quick conversation about whether we wanted to stay or go. But who are we to retreat? So we hustled to set up our tent and rigged a tarp for a cooking shelter. It was all coming back to me–the camping routine. There’s something different about the chore of setting up a tent and cooking outside, compared to making up my bed at home and throwing together dinner in the kitchen. Camping requires a kind of ingenuity and resourcefulness different from the rote routines of daily life. And that’s what makes it so rejuvenating. You no longer feel like Martha Stewart, minus the prison adventure. You feel like Martha Stewart having escaped from prison, doing your best to survive in the rugged terrain of western Washington.

The rain started as soon as we had the tarp up, and that’s when I poured a margarita. Then I cooked some bratwursts, along with a side of broccoli and rice. The rain let up, then–just long enough to go looking for morels, which we found, in modest abundance, along a nearby trail. When we got back the rain came on again. So we positioned the fire pit near the tarp, found some dry wood, and with night settling in, lit a blaze. We sat by the fire and warmed up. We roasted marshmallows. We drank some more margaritas. The rain didn’t let up this time. It continued into the night. By that point we didn’t think about turning back, because we’d committed–past the intimacy and past the passion.

truckin’ down the ALCAN

Well, I tried to move on. But then I decided to write just one last post about Alaska, because the subject matter feels appropriate for closure. I realized today, though, as I sat outside reading, that a journey doesn’t necessarily conclude at a certain time in space. It may come back in a person’s mind for years and years to come. And I guess that’s comforting.

We left Fairbanks last September, which seems like some time ago, given that it’s now June and I’m still writing about my life there. But sometimes distance is a prerequisite for writing about the myths we call memories, as Steinbeck might say. If we wrote about life’s happenings in the present, or shortly thereafter, the recollections would either be more true to the event, or lacking of a certain reflectivity. I guess you could call distance a double-edged sword. Although truth is a tough thing to pin down, in any case.

In saying “we left,” I mean me, Brian, my dad, and Brian’s dad. The whole gang. We caravanned from Fairbanks all the way to Livingston, Montana, where we set up camp in my parents’ garage apartment. Some of us felt like we were in a 80’s sitcom. The total distance came to 2,550 miles. Chump change, really, when you think of all the other lower 48 states we could have set as destinations. But, as anyone who has traveled the route would agree, it’s still a long haul, mainly because of road conditions and weather and the sparseness of modern-day conveniences, because of wildlife and highway construction and sometimes, even though the landscape is immensely beautiful, the monotony of it. But other elements–the threat of road pirates, wildlife, the sparseness of modern-day conveniences, the landscape, weather, and construction–keep it exciting. The trip of a lifetime, really.

Before we left Fairbanks we spent a good few days getting my dad acquainted with the place. I took him to the Oasis for an afternoon halibut melt and pint of beer, the Museum of the North (where he fell asleep during a movie–they call it museum lethargy, which is no testament to the quality of the place–it’s fascinating and people get tired), and to Nenana, an hour south of Fairbanks near Denali National Park, for the last of the season’s chinook and Arctic grayling fishing. We hired a guide to take us downriver on his jet boat, and were afforded one of the best and clearest views of Denali I’ve ever seen. As locals adoringly say, the Mountain was out. Although I’ve written about fishing and hunting a couple of times here, I don’t enjoy the sport for exerting dominance over something, or for proving that I have a constitutional right to it. I just enjoy stocking my freezer with a few good pounds of freshly-caught meat. In fact, there’s nothing like it. Sometimes I fantasize about having a freezer full of bison meat at home–even though I know the buffalo has a long and harried past in this country, since it once populated the Plains in absolute abundance before being decimated by systematic slaughter. To this day, though, it exists as the American symbol of sustenance.

Our guide, checking on the salmon. He took us on his jetboat into the park, where we had an unbelievable view of Denali.

Dad's taking in the fresh air on the sandbars of the Nenana.

After the Fairbanks tour, and making rounds saying our goodbyes, we packed up our cabins and headed out. We made the drive down the Richardson, past Tenderfoot, where I first lived when I moved to Interior, and at Tok, about 200 miles from our departure point, stopped for a late lunch at Fast Eddy’s. Fast Eddy’s has the typical roadhouse menu, times ten. My go-to menu item is always the BLT–it’s tasty, it’s filling, and it’s cheap. (The Oasis, in Fairbanks, used to have a great BLT, but then they started putting it on garlic bread.) After going through customs and crossing the Canadian border, we arrived at our lodging for the night: the Alcan Motor Inn in Haines Junction, Yukon. I’m not so sure about Haines Junction, although we were incredibly grateful to have a stopping place for the night. It’s just that the girl who checked us in asked if me and my dad would be sharing a bed. And when we went to grab a couple beers at the bar behind the motel, a local guy, a few drinks in, gave us some local flavor with a few jokes.

Local Guy: You know, here in Canada, we have a region that’s known for growing really great potatoes–Prince Edward Islands.

Me: [Nodding my head like I know.]

Local Guy: There in the States you have a place known for it’s potatoes, too. What’s the name of that place?

Me: Oh. Yeah. Idaho. (I might have even raised my hand.) Idaho. (Pumping my head, then.)

Local Guy: Oh yeah? You da hoe, huh? Then I da pimp.

He got me. I was suckered into his joke. And I’d heard it numerous times before. Mainly I felt duped because I momentarily visualized this guy as my pimp, and I knew he hadn’t bathed, or washed the sweatpants he was wearing, in many days. I guess my dad’s paternal instinct kicked in, then, because he ushered me out of the bar and drove to a nearby gas station for sandwiches.

The ALCAN, a highway that connects Alaska to the contiguous through Canada, was constructed during FDR’s presidency as Japanese military threats loomed during World War Two. Pearl Harbor had already been attacked, as well as the Aleutian Islands, and the government deemed a land route necessary for military purposes. Officially, the highway begins in Dawson Creek, B.C. and ends in Delta Junction, passing through a good portion of the Yukon Territories.

After leaving Haines Junction, we became vigilant of the road pirates. We never saw any, but that’s not to say they’re not out there. They operate by positioning themselves on the tops of hills, rolling large tractor trailer tires onto the road that damage your vehicle, and then pillaging you. It’s a frightening phenomenon, and we were lucky to not have become targets. We landed safely at the Northern Rockies Lodge at Muncho Lake that night, where the rain and fog had settled in among the huge log structure of the lodge, which is situated in a milieu of spruce and birch, in the middle of nowhere, on the banks of a jade-colored lake. It’s a place I would someday like to go back to–they stage fishing trips and take guests on float planes to remote cabins. And they have a decent restaurant, mainly with typical German fare, including wienerschnitzel and spaetzle.

The next morning the rain came down in sheets and we jaunted down the highway along the Laird River, past herds of bison and a lone caribou. The buffalo were incredible in their numbers–we must have seen at least half the animal’s population in the province. That night we made it to Dawson Creek where the ALCAN officially begins, and for us, where it ended, and stayed the night at the Best Western, which adjoins itself to a Tony Roma’s restaurant, where we ate. It was there where we found ourselves on the brink of civilization. I don’t remember much of our trip past that point. I guess there comes a time in a journey, sometimes even before it officially comes to a close, where it seems to end anyway. I remember stopping at a large gas station, passing through seemingly endless construction zones in Edmonton, and listening to our second audio book by Dean Koontz.

Our last stopover was Lethbridge, Alberta–a town with a unique mix of agricultural roots and a vaguely cosmopolitan feel. The name of the place where we stayed escapes me, which is unfortunate, because it was a nice, somewhat European-esque hotel, but I do remember that we walked to the water tower for drinks and a small bite to eat, and the place was swanky with an impressive menu and 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape.

When we came into the States the next day we traveled south on 15 and I expected complete culture shock and a chaos typical of major roadways in the lower 48. But the truth is, we’d crossed a somewhat ambivalent border (politics aside), and neither landscape nor people seemed that different. There were still large swaths of unoccupied land, although much of it was farmed, and the road signs were still embedded with rural, wooden posts. I imagine that people, in the part of the country we were in, anyway, still valued independence and the land and fostered a certain spiritedness.

It wasn’t until we traveled to New Mexico, a couple months later via Denver, that I had a true sense of being back in the States. Billboards and heavy traffic and eight-lane divided highways, peppered with outlet malls, reminded me of the consumerism and constant development that this country’s known for. In quoting Steinbeck again, it’s odd how progress often looks like destruction. But I also saw signs of diversity and opportunity. We ate at an Indian restaurant in a nondescript Denver strip mall and the place was packed with Indian and white people alike. A belly dancer entertained customers at their tables and offered to give me a lesson, right then and there. But I wasn’t up for that kind of immersion quite yet, anyway. When we made it into New Mexico, on our way to visit friends and family, we stopped briefly in Taos, where we had lunch at Graham’s Grille, and I had decadent huevos rancheros with blue corn tortillas and avocado and salsa, and there was evidence of the trademark green chile everywhere. Toas may be a tourist mecca, but it has a fascinating mix of people–from the native Pueblo to the old Mexicans to the second and third generation New Mexicans to the white transplants.

In traveling, a person reinvigorates the senses, and the world seems new again. It’s why I’ve always loved going different places. But at the same time, I’ve always envied people who have roots, who’ve lived in the same place their whole lives and seem to know that place inside and out–the landscape, the people, the traditions. But that’s not how my life panned out, and I suppose people in this country have a natural inclination for travel anyway, since we all, at some point, came from somewhere else, seeking new opportunities and direction.

The famous Albuquerque Balloon Festival

It doesn't get much more American than this.

Green chiles, again.

And the mariachi band.

firework fairbanks

Shooting roman candles into the Chena

There's something exhilarating about them going off in your hand

The dog slinks away in fear of the fireworks, ensuing an hour-long search

As much as it makes me cringe to say this, I’m gonna say it anyway. Writing a blog about Alaska has been hugely therapeutic. I don’t  typically enjoy published “therapeutic writing” (and don’t get me wrong; I’m not claiming to be published–I only have two subscribers), probably because there’s something about its inward nature and sometimes narcissistic tone that doesn’t bode well with an audience looking for universal truths and an in-tune narrator–or just a good story. There lacks the critical element of dialogue between creator and audience that makes a piece of artwork worthwhile. It’s just that I miss Alaska on a daily basis. I miss, like crazy, my friends, my students, and my colleagues at the university, but I also miss the grocer at Fred Meyer with the foot-long handlebar mustache (I’m not kidding–he competed in the World Beard and Moustache Championship), the birch forest and abutting pasture along Farmer’s Loop Road where some landowner turns his horses out every Spring, the labyrinth of cross country ski trails where 60-year old men put me to shame, the sled dog trucks, the halibut melts that are the only food source cheaper in Alaska than anywhere in the lower 48, and the thousands and thousands of miles of wide open spaces. It’s the unabashed independence and spiritedness of the people that remains unmatched anywhere else.

I know–nostalgia can’t be trusted. I was on the verge of writing that I even missed dumping out my slop bucket full of diarrhea-colored water in subzero temperatures. But then I came to my senses. It’s easy to remember the past through rose-tinted glasses. Especially when you arrive at a place of transition. In September, after I finished graduate school, Brian (he recently gave me permission to use his name) and I left Fairbanks for the lower 48. We wanted to be closer to family, and we told ourselves that it’d be easier to job hunt and forge contacts in the contiguous. Our first stop was Montana, where my parents had just bought some land, and we spent a good four months there until landing a job in Lewiston, Idaho.

Every place has a culture of values they accept, reward, reject, and punish. And every culture has its own sense of truth, beauty, and morality. I’m trying to get used to that culture here, and it’s not always easy. Fairbanks set a high standard. But the past is the past. So this last Alaska-based blog post, before I transition to writing about the fine places I’ve traveled to in the lower Northwest, recollects last Fourth of July with friends on the Chena River, where we rented a cabin from BLM and spent a glorious night. We’d bought an offensive amount of fireworks from a stand outside Wasilla on our way back from Homer (you can also get great fireworks in North Pole, just south of Fairbanks), and we had a small stash of freshly-caught halibut to grill up. I made some macaroni and fruit salad to go with the fish, and we had ourselves a feast.

At some point in the night, maybe after we had a roman candle war–where you shoot roman candles at each other (I don’t know who came up with that–it’s very dangerous), the dog went missing. We should have picked up on the warning signs. He was whimpering and hiding under the cabin and shaking vigorously. He does the same thing with crackling thunder and gun shots. There’s something about loud, ominous noises that make him mervous. So the fireworks halted. We fanned out amidst the woods and down Chena Hot Springs Road. We called his name and offered treats and begged him to come back. An hour passed. Finally, Brian saw him coming out of the woods and heading in the opposite direction of our cabin, presumably toward town, which lay some thirty miles away–a long cry from where we stayed. He coaxed him back and we all apologized to the dog profusely. It seemed like it would be an anticlimactic end to the evening, and we hadn’t even set off our grand finale. So we kept the dog at bay inside and lit the last of what we had.

In a Jim Harrison novel that I just finished reading, one of his characters remembers a piece of wisdom her grandfather gave her: “how each of us must live with a full measure of loneliness that is inescapable, and we must not destroy ourselves with our passion to escape this aloneness.” I’ve thought that having an outlet for my nostalgia has been a good thing, at least as I go through the transition of being somewhere new, because it’s given me something to cling to, and its given me reassurance that I will meet people again, some of whom will become friends, and I will experience adventure again. I can be confident in that because I’ve done it time and time before. Maybe having this outlet has helped prevent me from forging those desperate relationships out of loneliness, too. But I wonder, also, if it’s gotten in my way of being present in this new place, and fulfilling those things that I know I can do. At some point, you’ve got to turn the page, and enter daringly into the next chapter.

grouse + low-bush cranberries = heaven

Lining up the birds

The boys are bringing home the bacon/grouse

A friend of a friend offered us his family’s cabin as Fall approached, before the grueling winter set in to keep us all hunkered down. The boys wanted to moose hunt, and the girls just wanted to read books by the river, and maybe enjoy a few early-bird cocktails after the menfolk left at dawn.  So we packed our weekend bags and made the trip up the Elliot Highway, to Eureka. The boys never did get their moose, but they found a few grouse for the taking, and having picked a bucketful of cranberries that day, we cooked up a dinner of pan-fried spruce grouse and sweetened cranberry sauce.

I don’t remember the exact chain of events that followed. But the boys must have gotten another grouse that morning before we left, because after leaving the cabin for home we stopped at a creek to get the birds good and clean. The dog, eager to run one last time, got out of the car and joined them. He was also eager for the grouse, because the minute the bird’s skin and entrails and wings and legs hit the ground, he ate them up in one all-encompassing swallow.

The possible consequences of the dog’s actions didn’t occur to me until we were driving down the dirt road toward Manley Hot Springs (dodging potholes and sailing violently over bumps), where we wanted to stop for a soak. He started making that movement and sound typical of a dog getting ready to barf–his head lurching forward as things moved into his throat, the guttural noise of a frog sounding off in unison. The two boys were in the front, and the girls–myself and my cocktail friend–were in the back, with the dog situated on the seat between us. My handbag, wide open and inviting, as well as my duffel bag, lay on the floor below the dog: the exact target area for the trajectory of the vomit.

I yelled for my boyfriend-at-the-time/now fiance to stop and pull over. I probably yelled obscenities. I’m sure he looked at me nonchalantly from the front seat. Then I’m sure he laughed. When he did pull over I grabbed my bag, kicked open the car door, and leaped out, calling for the dog to unload after me. But it was too late for that. He’d already unloaded in his own manner, all over the seat of the car. I tried not to look. I didn’t want anything to do with it. But I did see an entire wing and matted feathers and a large mass that looked like the remains of a fully intact bird. Poor dog. He gets embarrassed about losing control of his stuff it in front of people.

We took a good long soak in the hot springs after that. We should have put the whole backseat of the car in the hot springs. But I didn’t think of it at the time. The car is now up for sale–a 1980s Jeep, with floorboards, a trailer hitch, four-wheel drive, and very textured seats, if anyone’s interested. Price negotiable.

the calm before the storm

Lil' Bastard

With his pup in the background, begging for leftovers

These fox were as domesticated as they come. They ate stale Chex Mix left out for them in a bowl on the stoop; they slipped through the front door and climbed up on the couch, like the royalty of the wild; and they relished, like any decent-minded canine, in a good belly rub. They lived near the Fortymile DOT maintenance station along the Elliot Highway, and the workers, likely lonely during long stints away from their families, and in want of some stimuli in the middle of nowhere, welcomed them. They named the reynard, or male fox, Little Bastard.

Let me be clear. I did not pet or feed or invite these foxes into the trailer while I was staying there. I’m pretty sure foxes carry myriad diseases, ranging from rabies, to mites, to tapeworm. Whenever I was outside and they were near, I watched them like…a fox.

While they did provide entertainment, and while I did marvel at how cute the kits were, I worried for the well-being of these wild animals. What if a new wave of workers came in and refused to feed them? What if the station shut down? I know foxes are cunning animals, but would they have the know-how to hunt their own food after relying so regularly on humans?

The day after we left the Elliot, a rainstorm ensued that didn’t stop for months. The first day, three inches of rain fell, making the Fortymile River rise a record 20 feet. Mudslides and floods ran rampant. The highway, which stretches 160 miles (100 of which are dirt) from the Yukon River in Eagle to Tetlin Junction, just east of Tok, became impassable. It was plagued, in places, with 20-foot deep holes that stretched 50 feet wide. Dozens of motorists were stranded, and one man–a customs agent at the Top of the World Highway–was reported missing. Search and rescue workers found his truck in a flooded creek, bobbing above the water’s surface. His fate didn’t look good.

With permafrost exposed from the open wounds in the road, repair work became a nightmare. And the rain didn’t let up. By fall, when the DOT shut down work on the road because of the impending winter, there was still much to be done. Charles Collins, the border patrol agent, was eventually found in the Yukon River by an Eagle fisherman checking his nets. The fisherman said he instantly recognized the agent for the handcuffs and uniform still in tact.

I know human lives were at stake during this disaster, as well as the economic livelihood for those who live along the Elliot and rely on tourism traffic for business, but I couldn’t help but wonder about that dog and his kits. Even if they did survive the flooding, did their innate hunting skills eventually kick in? For all I know, animal instincts are like riding a bike. They’re never forgotten. I kind of hope that the wilds of the storm reminded them of their natural instincts, though, and that they went back to rodents and berries and the fish flooding the roads.

take two, cordova

Postcard-pretty Valdez

Salmon spawning grounds in Cordova's Eyak Lake

I made it back to Cordova, by way of Valdez and the thorny Thompson Pass, for work the following summer.  It rained off and on the entire time we were there, up until our day of departure. But I still fantasize about the place. I LOVE that little fishing town. We stayed five nights at the employees’ quarters inside the confines of Merle K Mudhole Smith Airport, and while that lodging won’t make the Five-Star Alliance list any time soon (another DOT worker–a heavy equipment mechanic from Valdez who also stayed there–seemed to like it just fine, though), the foreman more than made up for our dismal living arrangements. He gave us a grill to use; allowed us free range of the freezer where he’d stocked salmon, moose, and bear meat; and invited us to his home to take a ride in his skiff for a little rod and reel action. When we arrived, he had a smoker (in use and full to the brim with sockeyes), a revved-up sauna, and an unbelievable riverfront view of the Copper in its bluest-greenest form. He offered us a steam, and said that the next time we were in town, we should track him down for some halibut fishing in the sound. He’s the reason I wish I lived there.

Off Whitshed Road near Hartney Bay, where we were collecting data for the DOT, we saw black bears every couple miles gorging on quarter-sized salmon berries. On the road along Eyak Lake, we saw hundreds of sockeye salmon–you could even see bright red masses out of the corner of your eye while driving–most of which had just spawned and were dying. Eyes falling out, missing fins, scales coming off. In the middle of the road where we stood lay the skeleton of a sockeye, and about ten feet away was a big pile of shit. Given that we were in bear country, and if I were a bear I’d be hanging out around a bunch of dead fish that allowed for an easy meal, we concluded that a large, hungry grizzly was nearby. But we never saw it.

On our day off we drove out to Child’s Glacier and saw huge blocks of glacial ice fall into the Copper River, causing cannonball effects 150 feet tall, then waves, which didn’t materialize until a minute or so later, whose crests were 10 feet tall. Standing on the shores of the river, I feared for my life.

It was a long trip back from Cordova to the Interior. What made me happy to be home was the burger I got in Delta Junction for dinner, right at the end of our journey, from the Buffalo Drive-In–hands down my favorite place to eat in Delta. Although still in the middle of nowhere, I felt like I’d returned to civilization. We drove the last leg of the Richardson Highway, past Tenderfoot and miles of birch forests and the Tanana, and arrived. The indelible smell of rusted metal from water-logged Cordova clung to my hair and clothes. For days, there was no getting rid of it. It was the essence of the dirty, natural beauty of the place.

The remnants (a fish head) left by a nearby grizzly

The rest of the remnants, just a few feet away

It didn't take long for the natural cycle of things to take effect

to the sea

The docks at Seward's Resurrection Bay

Shoreside Marina, with a stunning backdrop of the Kenais

During the good old days, when my boyfriend (now fiance) still serenaded me, he took us on a trip down south (by south I mean the Kenai) for a week-long getaway. Our itinerary included a night in Anchorage, then a drive to Whittier where we’d board the Chenega Ferry with the Alaska Marine Highway, and a jaunt across Prince William Sound to the small fishing village of Cordova. Cordova is inaccessible by car, and just as a side note, I sometimes like to imagine us having our wedding there–more specifically at the Reluctant Fisherman Inn, overlooking the inlet and docks, where we’d know everybody and everybody would know us: the fishermen, the bartenders, and all the locals.  It’d be an unforgettable party, because people in Cordova know how to drink. And the next morning we’d host a brunch (because we’d live there), with jars of salmon straight from our homemade smoker, and invitations to take a steam in our sauna. Then we’d go out on our boat for bloody mary’s on the river. But that’s just a fantasy. I only really know one person in Cordova.

Anyway, we hadn’t planned on going to Seward, but when we got to the requisite tunnel for getting into Whittier, the road was closed. A boulder had fallen inside the tunnel, making the route impassable. Except for the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m, when a DOT worker would lead a convoy of vehicles carefully through.  But our ferry was supposed to leave at 4. We couldn’t believe the ferry system, who we’d made our reservations with, hadn’t contacted us about the closure. But everyone else couldn’t believe we hadn’t heard about the thing on our own accord.

So we turned around, pulled over to draw up a plan B, and cracked open a couple of beers. Then we drove to Seward for dinner. An hour or so away, we’d get back in time for the 7 o’clock convoy, spend the night in Whittier–we didn’t know where yet–and catch the early morning ferry for Cordova.

Dinner passed. We toured the docks and marveled at the boats and mountains and the fact that Seward is one of the most northern most ports in the world, because it’s right on the cusp, but doesn’t freeze up. We drove back toward the tunnel, got through it successfully, and entered Whittier.

My boyfriend/fiance wanted to camp, but the only place passable for a campsite was a gravel parking lot on the edge of town.  Even in May, it was cold; the surrounding hills were still laden with snow. So I thumbed through our Milepost, looking for suggestions on indoor lodging. I found a B & B. It sounded quaint, so I called them up. We were driving by an old derelict building with graffiti on the insides, water flowing into the bottom floor in a steady stream.

A woman answered and I asked if she had a room available. “Sure,” she said. “Let me put some clothes on and get one ready for you. Do you know where we are?”

No, I didn’t know.

“You know the really tall building in town? The tallest one we have? With the blue strip across the top?”

Yeah, I knew. It was indistinguishable–industrial and ugly.

“Just go on up to the top floor, room such and such, and I’ll set you up.”

I got off the phone and read a blurb about the building in the Milepost. It was an old army barracks and now functioned as the lodging quarters for the majority of the town’s residents. It was also the setting for the B&B, and we were staying on its 14th floor.

We pulled into the parking lot and walked into the large swath of concrete. Flyers were tacked to an events board in the entryway, advertising old folks outings and the upcoming goings on for the residents. I’m sure some rooms had views of the port and the bay, where the manager said she watched barges load and unload all day, but ours only had a view of the center courtyard and the other wings of the building. Concrete and stale air surrounded us, and I thought I was getting strep throat. We didn’t even have sex that night, and everyone loves good sex on vacation.

The quaint B & B

We high-tailed it out of Whittier the next morning on the Chenega, and the travels to come, it turns out, were worth the stopover. We saw an orca pod from the ferry viewing dock, sea otters playing in the bay, and big oil tankers. The fresh air also cured me of the strep.

The mighty Chenega

There goes our oil!

Even though we thought we were staying in a refurbished lighthouse in Cordova, and it turned out we were just staying at a regular inn with a small model lighthouse in the backyard, we had great sex and margaritas that night.

We drove out to Child’s Glacier and saw the mighty Copper River full of silt and runoff the next day. To be honest, we didn’t see the glacier calve (even though we told everybody we did, because it made our trip sound better). But apparently there had been a TV program out there the year before, filming an extreme sports enthusiast surfing on the waves caused by calving glaciers. It sounded exhilarating, and terribly dangerous.

The next night we camped in the most beautiful waterfowl refuge in the Copper River Delta. One of the most serene places I’ve ever been. We had chips and salsa and more margaritas, and made beans and rice and Cajun sausages on the camp stove for dinner. It was the first time I’d been tent camping in years.

A trumpeter swan makes its way through the Alaganik sloughs along the Copper River Delta

Wild calla lilies grow along the sloughs, which are filled to the brim with lily pads

Our campsite for the night, with thunder clouds looming over

A burn area along the Copper River Highway, near Child's Glacier. I love this image for the austerity of the colors, which reminds me of Fairbanks in the wintertime.

We left Cordova the next day, after hiking Haystack Trail where I swear we saw a white moose, with plans of returning to Fairbanks. But we didn’t want to go back. So we made a detour out of Whittier and headed south and west for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where we camped one more night. The peninsula, with its proximity to Anchorage, draws a lot of weekend visitors–a far cry from roadless Cordova, which I’d grown to love. But my boyfriend/fiance bet me that I couldn’t drink a full bottle of wine on my own, and with my stubborn Midwestern pride (which I think he took advantage of), I accepted his challenge and won, and the next morning, he told me that I’d been a whole lot of fun.

fire season

A burn area that charred everything from the trees to the road sign, on the Elliot Highway, where I was working with the DOT

After-effects of a low-lying ground fire in the taiga, near Minto Flats

my tire garden

Pansies brighten up the place

Green leaf lettuce growing in a tire

The whole thing

The tire looks a little redneck, I know. But with the short growing season and the ground hardened from permafrost, it proved helpful in retaining heat.  I worked a lot that summer with the DOT, and was out of town week after week, so my garden was small and low-maintenance. Pansies, beans, rhubarb, broccoli, green leaf lettuce, a tomato plant, and some herbs (which never really took off). I love the chore of keeping up a garden, as well as the color that it brings.

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