Monday, September 19, 2011

Peace, Love, Freedom and Whose Happiness?

Shea calls herself a hippie.

An honest to goodness, 2011 hippie. Not a vestige of the '60s. But a 38-year-old free-spirit  whose sooty overalls smell of yesterday's campfire and whose smile exudes joy.

She says she and her boyfriend, Clay, hang with the Rainbow Family. And they wander the US in a beaten-up Ford, towing  their life behind them -- clothes,  books, pots and pans stuffed in an open-bed trailer. They meet up with friends in national forests, where their "happenings" are called "gatherings." They're intentionally homeless. Free. Unfettered.

And I'm envious. Just like I was when I was a teen, when the first hippie movement swept through my life. I wanted that peace, love, freedom, happiness. And I mimicked the look, wearing tied-died T-shirts, beads, moccasins, bell bottoms. And flowers in my hair.

So I sit with Shea, the woman I wish I was,  gleaning tales about the life I think I want.

She tells me about the thousands who meet up in the woods. The organized chaos. The mass feedings (she's part of the cook detail) and the intentional cleanings (leave the Earth unharmed.) They sing, dance. Laugh. Enjoy the freedom of an unfettered life.

Yes. Yes. I love it. Life should be this way.

But how do you pay for this freedom?

Between here and there, she says, she begs money for gas and food at street corners,  "flying signs" (holding signs asking for money) or "bustin" (singing or playing music.). She (well, her boyfriend)  has food stamps. They visit soup kitchens, food pantries and even attend some church services, where Christians pay them in gas vouchers to listen to the message of salvation.


They work the welfare system. To finance their freedom to live an unfettered life.

My enthusiasm pales.

So, I ask, why are you here? In quaint Streeter Park, a free city campground in straight-laced Aurora, Neb.  Hundreds of miles and attitudes from a "gathering."

She's stuck here, she says, because her  boyfriend is in jail. 

Ah, I think to myself. Just like the first-generation hippies, this one tousles with the law.

She says the cops  pulled them over for a busted blinker. Then nabbed Clay on  a weapons charge because his licensed handgun was under the seat, not out in plain view.
Later, while I'm back at my campsite having lunch, I see the cops pull up to Shea's and claw through her stuff in the trailer. (Pic at left)

They were looking for drugs, she tells me when I return (with a food donation for her). They're convinced she's dealing. She laughs at the thought.

She concedes drug use threads through the Rainbow Family life. But not sales.

Oh. Drugs. My enthusiasm dims. I don't like drugs.

And then her cell phone rings. And it's her 16-yer-old daughter. Wondering is Mom's safe. Is Mom OK? When is Mom coming to see her?

My envy flatlines.

And after 40 years, I finally learn the hippie life is not for me. Unfettered. Yes. But it is not free. Others pay. Some dearly.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hey, You Never Know!

We've just returned from the wilds of Wyoming.


We drove the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Drive, looping from Green River to Rock Springs. The dirt trail climbs up and around 50 miles through the White Mountains, where 2,500 horses run free.

We saw eight.

But those eight run free, across remote buttes and through canyons. Without fences. In Wyoming's wide open spaces. At one point, we looked out upon on an area cradled by three mountain ranges. A sign said Massachusetts would fit on this land, as far as we could see. That's how big it is. And wide open.

Not once did we think about safety.

Before heading out this morning, I read warnings (but didn't heed them) about the desolation of the place we were headed. Take plenty of water. We didn't. Tell someone where you are going. We didn't. Be sure to have a full tank of gas. Did we? And remember, there's no cell service.

None of these precautions seemed relevant. Over the past several months, we've explored intense wilderness in British Columbia, Yukon and Alaska. How dangerous could it be to drive a 50-miles loop from busy Interstate 80?

No problem. We finished the scenic, magnificent drive without delay.

Now we're at McDonalds in Rock Springs, needing to use wifi and get directions to the nearest post office. I see a young woman, maybe 22, sitting at a back booth cruising the Internet. So I ask: "Excuse me. Can you tell me where the post office is?"

She looks up from her computer and grins. "Don't trust my directions," she says. "I just got lost out by Boar's Tusk. For 12 hours!"

We saw Boar's Tusk on our little adventure. It's like Devil's Tower, only a bit smaller. Rumor has it you can find  diamonds  there. And that's what interested Britta (she tells me her name). She's a rock hound. And went 12 miles out from busy I-80 into the "wilds" of Wyoming's high desert to hunt for diamonds. And  got stuck in the sand.

For 12 hours.

No one drove past her. There's no cell service. She told no one where she was headed. Her gas tank was full. But it did her no good stuck in the sand.  She had a bottle of water.  And prayer. "I kept praying that God would tell my husband where I was. I kept repeating Boar's Tusk, Boar's Tusk, over and over." That sustained her for 12 hours, when a Search-and-Rescue team appeared.

It was her husband, she said,  who called the police and suggested she'd gone to Boar's Tusk. He'd heard God's voice, but called it a hunch. And it paid off.

So she's safe now, sipping soda at McDonalds, checking out sites to dig for her treasures.

And next time, she says, she'll heed those safety warnings and leave a note behind. Take more water and some food.  And perhaps, she winked, we should, too.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A High Desert Serenade

I'm at Buckboard Campground, 25 miles from nowhere in Wyoming, staring at a high desert sky so close I can smell it.

Across the horizon, I see mountains and buttes and a landscape polka-dotted by yellow and silver sagebrush.

It's still out here. Nothing moves, except jackrabbits.

A breeze kicks up. I hear leaves quiver.

Allen works on his bike and I'm sitting in the shade, reading.

I'm thinking it doesn't get much better than this.

When  "Heheheheheheee wipe oooout!" The Beach Boys? They're so loud, the drum solo thuds in my chest. Where is it coming from? Who cranks up music in the desert?

Allen and I look at each other. And we figure it must be a fellow camper a little too enthusiastic about rock 'n roll. Disturbing my peace.

I stand up and scan, looking for the soure of our concert. And I see just one motorhome in the midst of the music. So I leash up my dog to take a walk to find out what's what. As I walk, the Beatles join me in this dusty place. And the Eagles, too, welcoming me to "Hotel California." 

As I near what I think is the out-of-control music lover, I find the source. It's not a selfish camper at all. The strains waft from a marina about a mile away, next to the Flaming Gorge Reservoir. There's a bar-be-cue, I learn, for anglers in competition to raise money to support research into Down Syndrome. And it might go on for hours.

Nice cause. But hours?

Well, it could be worse. At least the music's not awful. Just out of place. Out of sync with reality. So we decide to ride our bikes, out into the desert.

I'm thinking we can get away from it out there. And recapture the bliss.

But it follows us. This concert. As we pedal along a dirt trail through the desert, past yellow and gray sagebrush, as the sun drops behind the mesa, turning the sky a brilliant red, orange and Prussian blue, we do so to a classic rock soundtrack. Like we're in our own personal movie.

And, oddly, I'm no longer bothered. Instead, I'm thinking, it doesn't get much better than this. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Jacob Goes For A Hunt

We're taking a nap and I hear what I think is someone stealing my bicycle.

I raise up, peek out the window and see my bike, just sitting there, surrounded by  Wyoming's high desert (See the pic? That's our view).

We're pretty isolated here, about 25 miles south of Green River, WY,  in Buckboard Crossing Campground. I doubt a crook's anywhere nearby.

Oh well. Must have been a dream. I'm awake now. So I get up. And feel an eerie emptiness in the motorhome.

Because they are gone.

My dogs, my giant standard poodles. My babies! Are both gone.

Th door is wide open (that's what I heard ... the door opening) and my dogs escaped.

I don't panic.

I'm sure Joshua, our good boy, is near. Jacob, our hunter, our runner, is Milwaukee already (joking), so there's no sense in me running.

I grab Jacob' leash (joshua doesn't need one) and head out the door to hunt for them. And, amazingly, they're both nearby. And both come running to greet me. Wow. Jacob's not running away! Jacob's not hunting! Jacob's trotting merrily back to see me.

He's so happy to see me. Maybe he's changed?

For the next two days, we give Jacob freedom. And he's such a good boy. He stays right with us. He doesn't hunt. He doesn't run.

Until Day Three.

Allen opens the door to take the trash out and Jacob leaps LEAPS out, and runs RUNS deep into the desert. He' gone. Out of sight. Just disappeared, where scorpions and rattlesnakes live, where coyotes howl. Oh my. Jacob's GONE!

I grab his leash, run outside and start to call. JACOB! JACOB! JACOB!

A fellow camper stops. 

"Are you looking for a black dog?"

"YES!" I say.

"He's across the road. Chasing a herd of pronghorn deer."

A whole herd? JACOB!

I jump in the car and drive back and forth along the road, looking for my dog, his deer or even a suspicious cloud of dust.  Instead,  I see a flash of black down by the marina. JACOB!

I zip down. Jacob sees me and a jackrabbit. And he's OFF, chasing that rabbit! And I chase them. In my car.  Over ruts and across brambles. In the high desert. JACOB!

Then, I see Allen, on his bicycle, circling around to the left. I'm on the right. Jacob's in the middle. He stops. We got 'em. But ZOOM! He's off!

Oh, this is a bad doggie.

He stays 10 feet ahead and refuses to even look our way.  He runs up hills, down the street , leaps over ravines and chases a whole warren of jackrabbits.

And then SPLASH! He goes for a swim in the Flaming Gorge Reservoir. JACOB!!

But AHA! Allen's set for the catch. Jacob comes out of the water the same way he went in. And Allen gabs him by the collar, hands him off to me, and I stuff him in the front seat of our little car (he's never been in the front; his head touches the ceiling). He' dripping wet. Out of breath. But, wait, is he grinning?

At home, he sleeps for hours and awakens with a limp. But he's not sad. Instead, I see that grin again. And think maybe he's thinking about the hunt, the excitement of a swim and the thrill of a front-seat ride home.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

(Things) Really Go Bump in the Night

It's dark out here.

For so long, well, since June 1, we've had so much sunlight, that the darkness tonight seems novel, and impenetrable.

But penetrate we must, because my dog Jacob needs to go out.

OK. Let's go. I leash him up and my hand's on the door knob ... Oh. Wait. It's really dark out there.

And we're nearly wilderness camping along the remote 450-mile Cassiar Highway, Route 37. It's a two-lane paved/gravel road flowing down from Yukon into British Columbia  with burps of rustic population every 60 to 100 miles. 

So we're next to nowhere. The most next to nowhere we've ever been. Really.

And Jacob wants to go out into that menacing dark. Where, in the past few days of driving,  we've seen bears, an arctic wolf, a coyote and signs for moose and caribou. And then every half hour or so, we see a car, truck, motorhome or motorcycle.

OK. Now I'm spooked. What's OUT THERE, lurking, salivating for fresh blood? A grizzly, needing to pack on more weight to overwinter?  A cannibalistic wolf, lying in wait to savagely destroy my dog?  Or maybe a crazed mountainman, really ticked because we disturbed his peace?  Maybe all three!!!


Jacob whines. I realize the inevitable. Grab my flashlight. Turn the porch light on. Step out.

What's that beyond the light? There. And over there? I swing the flashlight back and forth like it's a gun, ready to fire at anything that moves. Jacob trots along, gaily. How can he leave the protection of the porch light, where my feet are  frozen, and my arms swing that flashlight wildly to save my life?

Hello? What's that sound?  If it's an animal, maybe I can scare it away by making lots of noise: "I'm here," I whine. "You stay there. OK. I'm here, no need to come near to me."

I've had enough. We're going to die out here. I must save my dog. And me. I reel Jacob in and we both climb back to safety.

Back to where light wards off all dangers.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Rock-Solid Friends

We're heading north into British Columbia after visiting Skagway, Alaska, driving along the South Klondike Highway. Others encouraged us to travel this beautiful route. And we see why.

The miraculous landscape turns surreal at times. A handful of miles before Canadian Customs, we enter an eye-popping realm, where sub-alpine flowers in full bloom brush a moonscape with watercolors.  And then the flowers and color disappear, replaced by endless scenes of solid rock, some rolling, some jagged and ... wait ... what was that?

Off to my right. Movement?  And then again, here. Look.

WOW! What am I seeing? Scattered rocks? Wait. Little piles of rocks? NO! Rock PEOPLE!

Look at them all. There must be thousands of them built alongside the road, standing on multiple ledges in a barren landscape of mostly rock. But they're really hard to see; they blend into the background. Rock into rock. And as I turn my head left and right, they pop into my peripheral views, appearing to move. Menacing me with their outstretched arms. 


We stop. Get out.  I want to salute.

Because there is an army of these silent sentinels, thousands and thousands of piles of rocks assembled to look like little people, guarding the land as far back as I can see.

I walk among these foot-high protectors, staring, my mouth  open. I swear I see movement again. Back there. Over here.

I know it's not so. These are rocks, solid minerals. Collected and assembled by tourists like me. 
So I do the same.

I climb back into the ranks (just a little), collect a pile  of jagged rocks and struggle to build my own little man. When I'm done, he looks more like a pile or rocks than a little warrior. But he's mine. And I'm proud.

We take his picture (at right), salute, then drive off.

At Customs, the border patrol guard tells us these rock warriors are inuksuk, a native word meaning "in the likeness of humans." They are little  markers People of the North build as signposts in a landscape barren of trees and other natural landmarks. They build them, he says, to point the way home, mark a burial site or good hunting grounds, and even to designate a place where powerful spirits dwell.

Sometimes, they build them as warriors, to act as fellow hunters, to scare animals right into a trap.

So, I'm thinking as we drive away, these little warriors  are sentient beings with an inner energy. They serve. They survive.

And I imagine the gang we left behind is, at this moment, springing to life to help my little pile of rocks become a warrior, just like them.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Out Of Their Mouths

Colorful leaves obscure Dillon the Screech Owl. 

About 400 Bald Eagles live in Haines, AK.

In the fall, that number swells to 4,000 when a late salmon run chokes the  Chilkat River.

So now I'm here, in the Valley of the Eagle. And to learn more about them, I visit the American Bald Eagle Foundation.

Once inside, I mosey around and watch a trainer feed Scottie, a resident (and permanently disabled) Bald Eagle who eyes me with mistrust. Then I see a barred owl on a perch. And he's watching me. His hoot-owl eyes are like saucers. Eerie.

Next up is a  red-tailed hawk, who also watches me as I watch him. His eyes shiny, beady. Then I see Dillon.

Dillon (I learn his name later) is a tiny,  tiny screech owl. He's so small, and blends in so well with the bark and leaves on his perch I almost miss him.

He catches my eye because his eyes are squinty. Little slits. Next to him is a little girl, maybe 10 or 12,  with long dark hair, just standing there, wearing a huge heavy leather glove. I look around for Mom or Dad, thinking they'll take her picture soon.

I'm sure this is a touristy photo op, which means there's a person nearby to answer questions about the bird.

I walk closer and, yes, I see the woman. About 60. Wearing a badge. So I ask: "Is he nocturnal?" She sort of nods "Yes," but she doesn't look at me.  "Well," I continue, trying to keep her attention, "I notice his eyes are closed down to slits ... is that what he usually looks like, or is he dozing?"

"Lydia," the woman says, ignoring me,  "This is your question."

I'm confused. Who's Lydia and why is this woman giving away my question?

Then, the little girl with the long brown hair and big leather glove speaks. "Oh, Dillon is asleep. He sleeps pretty much all day." And then she smiles. And with her eyes, she begs for more questions. I donate a few: "Will Dillon ever go free." Oh, no. He's blind in one eye." "How can you tell?"  When he opens his eyes, the pupils are different. One large, one small.

Oh my. This girl's  not just a pretty picture. She's a smart little cookie and she's in charge of Dillon. And so we go back and forth, me with questions, her with answers. Answers she provides with grace and confidence. 

I learn not just about Dillon, but I find out Lydia is a junior ranger of sorts, and went through a foundation training program to  earn the right to handle the birds. She's even on YouTube, she tells me.

And then the woman, the one who didn't want to steal Lydia's show, tells her the time's up. Dillon has to go back to his cage.

So he and Lydia leave. I walk away, too, thinking "out of the mouths of babes ..."

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dancing With The Clouds

We're driving south on Haines Road in Yukon, Canada, on our way to Haines, AK. Most people take a marine ferry to get to Haines, but we want to drive, to see the landscape. And maybe some wild animals, too. So we drive. 

We see several pairs of trumpeter swans (monstrous birds, about 30 pounds each) gliding across Lake Kathleen. And a baby black bear runs right in front of us. We stop and look for momma, but she's not there.

And then, oh my, look at the clouds.

Thick, white marshmallows climbing thousands of feet high and dozens of miles long. Sticking to the sides of the St. Elias Mountains, leaving the tops to peak through, like space ships hovering quietly, stealthily. At times, the clouds morph into fog, and then a fine mist. So we see the entire mountain without its shroud. Massive. Beautiful.

Glaciers cling to the tops and sides of nearly each peak.  And the sun plays hide and seek. Peekaboo. And loses, each time, as the fog rises up, back into clouds, thick marshmallows. David to the sun's Goliath.

And then, as we drive above the tree line, as the temperature dips from the 50s into the 40s, we see the clouds just up ahead thinning into fog. And we're going to drive right through the mist. So I hold on.

But there's no mist. Instead, it's remarkable. The thinning wispy clouds twist, bounce and swirl into elongated shapes. Almost human. They waltz just above the creek beds, hovering, gently swaying and turning. Stretching high and low, always moving. Swishing.

And now we're driving right into them. Like we're taking a spin on an ethereal dance floor. With partners who dissolve. Dissipate. Then reappear as marshmallows, stuck to the sides of mountains. As if we'd never met.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I'll Kiss 'n'Tell

We're standing at an overlook along the Matanuska River, where  glacial meltwater curlycues  along miles and miles of a   very wide riverbed. Towering mountains in the distance frame this magnificent view, lit by a rising full moon.

A car pulls up.

I look down (the overlook is high above the parking area) and I see a couple of kids, teens really, hop out of the car, and then jog up the side of this little hill. They ignore the long sidewalk we used to get up here, the one enclosed on both sides by a protective fence. Instead, they jog up the hill (on a well-worn path, I notice) and both leap over the fence.  

They see us, nod hello, and begin to  amble around separately, looking at the view, the trees, an interpretive sign about   Alaska's gold rush days.

After no more than two minutes,  they leap back over the fence and scramble down to their car.

Odd. I turn back to look at the abundant scenery.

I hear another car. I turn around to watch.  Two kids climb out. Jog up the hill. Leap over the fence. Say hello. Wander around. Leave. A third car. A repeat performance.

I  think we've found Alaska's Blueberry Hill, its own Lovers Lane, alongside the Glenn Highway just north of Palmer.

I tell Allen my theory, we mock a kiss for our camera, then return to our motorhome. But we don't drive away. Instead, we stay for the night. And listen as the cars come and -- eventually -- go. Not as quickly, now the chaperones  are gone.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Walk Along The Wildside

Allen's about three feet ahead of me when I see it.

A bear.

Sitting at the water's edge along the Russian River in Alaska, about five feet away from Allen.

And he's looking at Allen.

But Allen isn't looking back.

So I do what the park rangers in Denali National Park told me to do if I ever encounter a bear out in the wild: Raise my arms and hands over my head and wave them back and forth (to make myself look bigger) and engage in idle chatter (so he knows I don't sound like prey).

It doesn't matter what I say to this bear, I just need to start talking. So, I chat away:  "Yoohoo, Mr. Bear. Oh, Allen, look. There's a bear. Hey, Mr. Bear. We are here. Do you see us?"

So Allen looks to his right and sees the bear looking at him. I freeze. A little panicked. That bear is close enough to leap into Allen's face. So what does Allen do? Raise his hands so he looks imposing? Engage in conversation?

No. He grabs his camera and steps closer to take a picture!!! LOOK OUT!

But, the bear just shrugs.

Well, it sure looks like a shrug to me. He lifts his right shoulder up and down. And then I see what's really happening. He's eating. He's got a salmon in his paw and he's raising it up to his mouth, ripping off a hunk, then lowering his paw while he chews.  And Allen keeps taking pictures.

But I notice Allen is also taking the offensive. He's raised his camera over his head so he looks imposing while he's taking pictures. Touché.

(In the picture I snapped, shown above, you can barely see the bear's ears above the tall grass to the right. Here are Allen's pictures.)

Within seconds, Mr. Bear finishes his  salmon and ambles out into the water for another. With a single, effortless swipe, he snags  a fish, then walks back toward us. Although this time, he anchors himself under a tree, behind some tall grass. Out of our sight. Which means if he gets cranky and wants to vent, we won't see it coming.

So we walk away, still talking, and now grinning. Because we finally met a bear. Out in the wild. But we're no fools. All the while we're smiling, we're looking back over our shoulders to make sure we left that experience behind.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Hiking to a Wild River -- Comfortably

The sign says "To The River." So I head that way. 

And I'm excited. Because I'm hiking to Alaska's wild Russian River, where salmon and bears compete for life. Literally.

The fish need to move upstream to spawn; the bears need to eat them to make it though the pounding winters.

It's also where anglers stand shoulder to shoulder, thigh deep in the river's icy waters, trying to land a sockeye before the bears do.

And I'm going to hike into the wilderness, this Alaskan wilderness,  to watch the competition.

So I  follow the arrow on the "To the River" sign and the first thing I see is a wooden fence, at the edge of a hill (I guess too many people have rolled down that hill). I walk a bit to my right. And look! Steps! Not the kind hikers fashion out of sticks and stones. But sturdy industrial ones, made of steel. They descend a pretty steep decline. 

Hmmm. Man-made steps. Fencing. More steps. Then I'm at the river. But I'm not walking on vegetation or mud or even gravel. I'm on a rubbery mat that gently cushions each of my steps. 

I'm not making this up. There's a cushy mat softening each of my steps at a popular wilderness fishing site. And there's nothing to step over or trip on. No stones, roots. No dirt! 

And there's a railing between me and the river. And openings  every now and then lead to a cushioned platform, where anglers stow their gear while fishing the rapids.

And I see just a few people -- not a throng -- standing in the water casting flies for trout and Dolly Varden. One kid (pictured) caught two sockeyes, one (the red one) too far past the eating stage. But the kid grabbed him anyway. 

As I watch, he walks away, dragging his catch behind him, on the rubbery mat. Next to the fence.

 And I think, 'What's with this cushy stuff?" Where is Alaska's wilderness?

I hike back home up a natural path I find cut nto the hilside, one that is steep (makes me breathe hard) and rocky and criss-crossed with vegetation and   sticks. I feel better. More outdoorsy.

Back in my motor home, I'm so troubled by the excessive human intervention into Alaska's wilderness, that I Google a reason. I Google anything that might help me understand why the federal government would let someone wreck the wilderness.

What I find shames me.

Nobody wrecked this wilderness.  Back in 2005, Alaska's Department of Natural Resources got a federal grant for $378,000 to make a part of the trail --- about a mile -- useable by people who are unsteady on their feet, or use  crutches or a wheelchair to get around.  Now they, too, can go watch the salmon swim upstream to spawn. Now they, too, can cast their lines in the water.

Had I started my hike a little farther south, I would have seen the ramp (no steps) at the site of the ferry landing.

And, definitely, not sneered at the effort.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Muscled into a Wonderful Meal and a Memory

The place looks runs down. Deserted. 

No one tends to the weathered  pictures on the side of the building or shores up the leaning front porch. 

No. The building is not attractive. Or welcoming. But Lonely Planet and a few other guides say this place, the Russian Samovar restaurant in Nikolaevsk, AK, has  THE BEST food on the Kenai Peninsula.

So we go in.

And are met with a dizzying rainbow of stuff, of women's long dresses on hangers, four folding tables with colorful placemats (few of which match), ornate bowls, spoons, scarves, frames, pictures. The walls, floor and countertops in two rooms vibrate with Russian stuff.

And then some of this Russian stuff moves toward us. It's Nina.

Meet didactic, wacky Nina. A non-stop Russian Old Believer who runs this eatery. With authority. 

She's dressed in classic Russian garb that covers her arms and sweeps the floor.  

"You eat here Russian or on patio?" she inquires, loudly, her Russian accent colorful, frantic, as she whirls around. Picking things up. Putting things down. She doesn't stop moving. Or talking. The beads on her patterned headdress dance across her forehead as she moves and talks. And I have no idea what she means. Because her English is bent and twisted by her native Russian.

"You read this," she says as she passes by, jamming a plastic-covered paper in my hands. I try to read it ( a menu?), but she doesn't stop talking. And it's written in the same fractured English she speaks. "You want borscht, of course," she swirls to my left.  "Two small. And you like Russian tea? You WILL like and I serve you. If you eat Russian, you talk to me and eat here ... I serve one combo. You like. For two."  And on and on she talks and twirls. And, I guess, spends my money.

My brain hurts. She's still talking as she leaves the room and I scratch my head because I think I've just ordered a $60 lunch. How'd that happen? 

Allen and I sit on the patio and give in to her control. Why not? It's fun. And the experience unmatched. We'd never met a woman like Nina before. She jabbers as she stirs the borscht and slices the sausage and heats up the sauerkraut and pelmenis (Siberian raviolis).

After we eat, we pay our bill (yup, $60) and before we get a chance to refuse, she dresses us up like Russian dolls and takes our picture. 

We finally leave (escape?) and I realize I know a lot about Nina. Because she talks constantly. We know about her kids and grandkids still in Russia, about her arthritic knee, her disabled husband, her desire to close the eatery at the end of the season and write a movie.

Look out Hollywood. A whirlwind is headed your way.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Just Watch What Happens

I sit high on a hill, overlooking Cook Inlet in Ninilchik, Alaska. And I'm not happy. There's nothing to see.

I wanted to camp down on the beach, right next to the water's edge, where thousands of people converge tomorrow to  dig for gigantic razor clams. There'll be a negative tide, exposing clam beds normally out of  people's reach. And I want to watch the action. I've been told it's bizarre.

But a winter storm washed the campground out to sea.  So we park instead up in this place, high on a heavily forested cliff, barely overlooking the action. Hrumpf.

From my campsite, I can see down the hill on one side, to an old Russian village, where girls and women still wear long colorful dresses and the men all wear beards.  I can't see them because I'm too far away, but I know they are there. If I crane my neck and look out across the water, I see Mt. Redoubt and her sister volcano Iliamma, both wearing their snow-white caps. 

And if I walk over to the next campsite, balance near the hillside's edge and whistle Yankee Doodle, then maybe I'll be able to see the clammers tomorrow. Barely. A lot of trouble. There's nothing to see up here. So I'm not happy.

I walk back to our campsite, grab my book and plop at the picnic table, basically looking at the tops of a lot of trees climbing up from far below. What I really want to be looking are the waves on Cook Inlet.

Then a commotion catches my eye. Just ahead. Look! LOOK! I can't believe what I'm seeing.  An American Bald Eagle has just deposited her very large baby in a tree top not 20 feet from my face. Twenty feet! A baby bald eagle. Sitting on the top of a tee. Looking back at me. Mom flies away. Baby stays put. AND STARES AT ME!
What do I do? Stare back.

And holler for Allen who takes our picture with the baby in the background. Then, I sit at the picnic table and babysit,  for 20 minutes. My life merges with this baby's. I'm thrilled, amazed and amused at what I'm seeing. But he's, well, sort of bored. I watch as he picks his feet. Looks all around. Cleans under his left wing; preens his tail. Shudders. Scratches his head. And picks his feet some more. But he stays there.

And I'm guessing mom TOLD him to stay put, while she goes fishing. Yum. He's waiting for lunch.

So I stay put, to watch for mom to come back. But I, too, get bored, just looking at a bird doing basically nothing. So I begin to read.

I hear a commotion.

When I look up, my baby is gone. I see a flurry of feathers -- mom's  black and white mingling with baby's brown and white -- and they're gone.

What a sight. What a memory. There's so much to see high up on this wonderful hill.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Climbing Into the Ice Age

The big blue blob (center bottom, first one on the left) is me, 20 feet away from the edge of Exit Glacier.

How exciting.

We're here. At Exit Glacier. The only glacier in the whole Kenai Fjords National Park you can walk to. 

A little geography lesson: Alaska has a bunch of mountain ranges and the one called the Kenai Mountains wears a beret, of sorts, of ice, thousands of feet deep.  It's called the Harding Icefield and it spreads over the mountaintops for 700 miles. Thirty glaciers spill out of this icefield.

The Harding Icefield and its glaciers  are the reason the Kenai Fjords National Park exists.  To see most of these glaciers, unathletic  people like us travel by tour boat up and down the fjords (which we did) or take a plane (which we didn't) to do a fly-over. 

One of those glaciers, Exit Glacier, is the only one you can walk to. In fact, it's called Exit Glacier because the first documented time anyone walked across the Harding Icefield (in 1968), they exited through Exit Glacier.

Today we plan to hike up to the edge of this glacier (not across it), a distance of just a little more than a mile. No problem.

We drive to the beginning of the trail (the parking lot is packed!). And redress ourselves for warmth.  Exit Glacier's  all ice. So, of course, we'll get cold in her company. We wear scarves, sweatshirts, jackets. 

And off we go.

The first part of the trail (the part we see from the visitor's center, so it's the part that convinces us  to do the hike) is wide and paved, straight and nearly flat. Young and old, thin and fat trundle along.

Piece of cake. 

About 20 minutes into the walk, the crowd thins and the pavement ends. The trail turns into dirt and heads up to the right, into the trees and it gets narrower.

Piece of cake.

We hike on. Up. And up. There's no longer a crowd.  And our piece of cake gets crusty.

Our steps get steeper, rockier and slippery as solid ground gives way to loose glacier gravel. So as we ascend, the trail beneath our feet descends, just a little.  And, I notice the people heading my way, the ones climbing/sliding down, the ones who "HAVE BEEN THERE," mostly stare straight ahead, their cheeks reddened, their hair matted ... with what? Sweat?

We continue up, up, and it's so steep, the trail turns into multiple switchbacks littered with boulders and fallen trees embedded into the silt. Those trees become welcomed footholds as we climb this galcial stairway.

Look! There she is. Exit Glacier. We made it! She's big and cracked and cerulean blue in spots. And monstrous.

Allen and I the edge of Exit Glacier
I catch my breath,  then rush down (yes, it's downhill!) the final few hundred yards of path that are new (because the glacier is melting, receding) and narrow. I get to the very edge, but I'm still 20 feet away from my goal. I see a sign. Oh, pooh.  It says we can no longer touch the glacier. It's too dangerous. We could slip and fall underneath her giant foot, which would crush us after it froze us. 

So I stand 20 feet away from this monstrous piece of ice, and enjoy the coolness of her breezes because I now understand the sweat I saw on others. I've shed my scarf; my cheeks are warm and red. I'm tired. But happy.  Because I made it.

I'm not bragging. But I made it. I climbed up for 1.2 miles on a "moderately strenuous" hike. Then climbed/slid back down. 

Just explaining. I made it. 

In A Small Town Everyone Knows Everyone

I'm connecting the dots.

That's what Judy says.

Judy is our campground host in Seward, AK, and she, along with her husband, Jim, invited us to go to church with them last week. And we did.  Then, they invited us to go to a free salmon/halibut picnic by the bay (see the pic? click the link; there's more) with the senior citizen center. And we did.

This morning, we're back at church (a Methodist church) for the second visit. It's here  I'm connecting the dots, and finding out that when you live in a small town, everyone knows everyone. And everyone knows your business.

Even if you've lived here only two weeks.

Here's what happened.

It started at the picnic, where I discovered a sturdy stock of senior Alaskans. A few talked about their hip replacements and some tottered about because they need one.   But most were like Bob, and Monty and Louise, who talked about their love interests, their exercise classes and their fishing adventures.
I don't know how old Bob is, but I'm guessing he's in his 80s. He's lived in Alaska since 1953 and has a girlfriend (of eight years) who's down in the Lower 48 visiting family. Louise, (in her 70s), exercises a lot and volunteers for the local food bank. She's going out fishing for salmon on Wednesday with Monty, who's 93. He owns his own boat and although "he's slowing down a little," Louise says, he and his wife enjoy the sport of catching the salmon. I met his wife, too.

OK. Now back at church this morning, the preacher mentions he went fishing this week WITH MONTY! Our new friend Monty. Who's 93. And he caught 13 salmon.

I look over at Judy who winks at me and painted her index fingers together. She mouths  "you're connecting the dots."

There's more. Remember, I said in a small town, everyone knows everyone and everyone knows your business.

Well,  after the service, a young man (in college) comes to greet us in church because, he said, he knows our business (we'll, he didn't use those words.) He said he met us earlier this week at the SeaLife Center (it's like the state aquarium). He's the fellow who lectured on seals and sea lions and he remembered talking to us after the presentation and applauded his efforts. He remembered that, and was happy to see us again, this time in his church.

So, I guess after two weeks of living in Seward, AK, I'm now part of that  "everyone" crowd. I'm beginning to connect the dots. I'm getting to know everyone and they're knowing my  business. I can't hide. If I sneeze anywhere in town, someone I know will say "God bless you."

So while I'm loving it here, I'm rejoicing that we leave on Tuesday.  And will regain our anonymity.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Crossing Over Into A Trailer Park

This is an amazingly noisy campground.

We're  in Wasilla, AK. And it's 10:30 p.m. (still sunny). And I see (and hear) kids playing chase and dress-up, a fellow toot  toot toots on his harmonica, fireworks explode in the background, dogs bark, guys chat, more kids scream, guys laugh ... Man!

What a noisy place!

Our dogs need to go for a walk. So I guess we won't disturb anyone's peace if we do it now. At 10:30 at night. We leash them up, hop out and walk around.

What we find, in addition to  a wide-awake neighborhood, is stuff. Tons of scattered stuff. Not really trash. But, well, sort of trashy stuff. One motorhome (an old, beat-up guy), shares its space with a mishapen freezer (a cord snakes through a hole in the window screen), a scooter and a pile of recycled wood (intended, I'm sure, to be a porch one day). 

Toys, toys and more toys surround other trailers, as do dog cages, plastic tubing, wobbly gas grills, metal parts and aluminum siding. Blankets cover most window. A dog barks at us. Then pokes his head out one of those blanket-covered windows. And barks at us again. 

"Conor's House" (see pic) doubles as a trailer and art easel for the young lad, who obviously shares love with his mom.

We realize as we walk that we've stumbled upon a different life.

We are camped in a trailer park. A permanent neighborhood where people cram their lives into rectangles. It's one of those places. The kind I've never been in. 

We keep on walking and after covering the circuit, climb back into our little rectangle and feel better. This is our place, in here, not out there, where life differs greatly from ours.

We settle in for the evening, delayed by the midnight sun.  And now the harmonica guy strums a guitar. And the kids  play keep-away with  a hose. And it's near midnight. When the dad comes home next door.

We met him earlier. He's the park handyman and works as a bar bouncer most nights. When he pulls up in a rattle-trap truck, his kids (five of them) run up to greet him yelling "Daddy's home!" He hugs, then hushes them. "Use your night voices, kids!" he stage whispers. Simultaneously, his wife climbs out of their box and plows through the kids for her hug. 

Then, the gang sets out on a project together. They spend the next 30 minutes, in quiet construction, building a canvas tent. A big one. For the kids to sleep in that night. They've been waiting. For dad. To come home to put up the tent. And he jumps right in to the project without complaint. Without begging for time alone. Without reaching for a cool drink, an easy chair.

He leaps right into the family and they leap right back. They talk in whispers. They laugh in whispers.

Life is good, I realize. And I'll bet when those kids are adults, they'll look back at life in the trailer park as  good.  As theirs. Warmed by the fun times and love they received tucked alongside dog pens, piles of recycled wood, scattered toys and, of course,  "Conor's House."


Monday, July 4, 2011

So This IS Alaska

The doggie barked shamelessly. What a good watchdog!

Off the main road, into the woods just south of Talkeetna, Alaska, is a wooden cabin called the Flying Squirrel Bakery.

I want to go in because it's so rustic, so Alaska, sitting back in the woods like this. I bet there's a moose carcass hanging off a tree somewhere in the back, and a woodman nearby chopping wood to freshen the stockpile for next winter.

The setting is perfect. This Is Alaska!

So I'm excited. We go in.

And immediately, I'm not happy.

Up front, glass cases brim with sumptuous, eclectic sweets, such as ginger cookies laced with rosemary, chai tea cookies and flattened macaroons, the size of saucers, bearing those trendy unruly squiggles of milk chocolate. For lunch (if we want, but we don't) we can savor  lamb-lentil stew with a hefty chunk of whole wheat, raison, cinnamon swirl bread (that's just one loaf).

Off to my right, a man feeds firewood from a wheelbarrow into the mouth of a modest pizza oven made of bright red brick. 

And behind me, I see marble-topped cafe tables surrounded by two-tone wooden chairs.  Paper lanterns dangle from the ceiling, dancing a bit in the ceiling fan's breeze.

It's comfy, beautiful.

But it's trendy. Not rustic.  Touristy. 

I wonder if these people even eat moose.

I shake my dismay and order coffee and sweets (trendy or not, I savor tasting rosemary/ginger cookies, which are YUMMY!) and chat for a minute with Joe, the waiter. From Wisconsin. Who wears stylish square squinty glasses with dark, dark rims. 

"So," Joe inquires. "What did you think of Talkeetna?"

Talkeetna's a small muddy town bustling with activity, partly because it's where climbers must sign in before tackling Mt. McKinley. But also because somehow, I don't know when, Talkeetna got hot. It's twenty-something friendly. It's a magnet for the outdoorsy in-crowd.

They overflow into main street from the popular microbrewery and crafty little shops selling high-priced trinkets and high-end wearable art,  such as silk-screened scarves, jewelry and hand-felted slippers. Cafes sells lattes. Every Friday open-air concerts rock the public square.

To answer Joe's question, I say, "Trendy," laced with a touch of disdain.

He misses my pitch.

"Yea, isn't it great?" he quips. "It's a real party town. And, kinda like Vegas. When you play there, it stays there."

His love for what's hot is cute. And I'm softening to this idea that parts of Alaska are growing up and out of that wilderness skin. So I ask, Why? Why is Talkeetna so cutting edge?

"Because," he says, with confidence. "We're a continuation of the Seattle scene."

So up here in the wilds, 2,300 (road) miles away, between one moose and the next, Seattle's little Alaskan sister rocks. She's hard-nosed, driven to succeed as an artsy, party town. On a very small scale. But she's doing it.

And it dons on me. This is Alaska. Her people don't give up. They go for the gold. And get it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Friends We Meet Along the Way

 Allen  with our new friends from Hawaii, Rhoda and Allan.


There's a woman outside my motorhome, saying, well rather singing, "Hello?"

I think it's funny that people avoid knocking on a motorhome door. Most holler out "Hello?" Or "Anyone there?" Or, like my dear friend Carolyn, "Are you up?"

But they do not knock. 

Like today. "Hello?" she repeats.

And I'm shocked to see who's there.

It's Rhoda and Allan, a couple from Hawaii we met a few days ago in Nenana, AK, around a campfire. They, like us, are now staying in Alaska's Denali National Park and from all of its 6 million acres, they chose to camp across from us.

Small world.

Yes, small, but spending time with Rhoda and Allan broadens our world in many ways.

They are so unlike us. My husband Allen and I were born to middle-class American parents in or near major cities. We had Mayberry kinds of growing-up lives.

Rhoda was born on a poor hillside farm in the Philippines, where she was raised by her grandparents on rice and fish. Allan was born in Hawaii to Japanese parents, who became American citizens before Pearl Harbor was bombed. And, Allan says, they were too poor for the government to bother interning. So they were left alone on their poor hillside farm where Allan and his siblings were born and raised, he says, "to be Americans."

He eventually bought his own education, through a government loan program, and became a nuclear engineer. ("I boiled water for a living," he jokes. His job involved testing nuclear reactors.)

Rhoda worked in Hospice care prior to her marriage to Allan six years ago.

And this is where our lives come together.

Like us, Rhoda and Allen retired and now enjoy an extended journey, traveling for months in a motorhome. Exploring Alaska.

From divergent pasts, we converge.

And now Rhoda and Allan are outside our motorhome door, inviting us to another campfire. This one at their campsite. And they'll provide the food, intending to broaden our palates as well as our lives: Hawaiian hotdogs (very VERY spicy and pink and made with pork, chicken and tofu) and savory bison steaks.

I'll bring a salad and dessert. And I'll be sure to holler "hello" when I get there.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Get Your Hands Off My Hubby

Hubby Allen as a gun-toting Sourdough
Enough. Enough!

I'm jealous. And  embarrassed -- a bit -- because I'm jealous.

But that woman dressed as a turn-of-the-centruy harlot is sitting on my husband's lap, pretending to kiss him. She does it once.

The audience  yells MORE!

She kisses him -- my husband -- AGAIN! The audience yells MORE MORE.

I want to yell STOP.

But I don't.

Because this is all make believe. I know It's all in fun. So she kisses him A THIRD TIME and I let her.

The floozie and my hubby
What's happening is we're at a dinner theater presentation just outside Denali National Park. I have a two-for-one coupon to get into the show, so we gussie ourselves up (we're camping, so we're a bit dusty) and drive the motorhome into Denali's neighbor, a little campy tourist town that one day, I'm sure, will rival Gatlinburg, Tenn., for its honky tonk.

Right now the town's just a few blocks long. And in those two blocks, every merchant tries to look more rustic than the next because, after all, this is Alaska and the tourists who come here want wild. They want rustic. They want wilderness. At the tip of their fingers.

So the merchants  dress themselves like sourdoughs (that's what Alaskans call themselves) and hang caribou and moose antlers over their doors. They sell guided raft trips, ATV tours and fudge to hundreds of tourists hauled into town by massive tour busses from cruise ships docked hundreds if of miles away in Seward and other ports farther south.

My hubby and me after we've made up
So that's the crowd we're mingling with. Cruise ship people. And that's the crowd -- a raucous bunch -- pushing this hissy to kiss my husband. Whose been swooped up out of the audience by the play actors to participate in this little historical performance about how Alaska became Alaska.

He's a gold miner. And he's got  a gun, a floppy hat and a few dastardly lines. He shoots a thief, saves the day, I guess, and that's why he gets the girl.

But enough. I want my husband back. I want him removed from the clutches of this tart. The audience cheers the smooch, and he returns to his seat. Next to me. Where he belongs.

Where he sits, still grinning.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

It's day Six at Denali National Park. And, still,  the Visitor's Center portion of the national park's Visitor's Center Campus remains a mystery.

The two other times we got within sight of the log-cabin structure (more like a log chalet), the masses of people thronging forth  encouraged us to stay away. But today's the day (well, evening) we join the zoo.

So we hop on our bikes and grind our way up a 1.5 mile uphill trail (puff puff, pant pant) intending to spend the whole evening inside the center, watching films, reading displays, listening to park rangers.

We're finally in sight of the building and we notice only few people milling about. Yeah!  As we pedal closer, the few people leave, en masse, toward a bus. And then we notice the center is dark.

In denial, I rattle a door. NO! It's locked! It's closed for the night. 

Rats!  I want a reward for the sweat I shed to get here. So I look on the windows and doors, searching for a list of things to do. Bingo! I find one: A lecture on Alaska's permafrost. It started a few minutes ago at the "Science Center" a few blocks away.  So we pedal over and make most of the talk.

Near the end, we realize we have only 10 minutes to get back to camp before the generator police arrest us (quiet time in these national parks is serious business and we've left our generator running.)

No problem. Easy ride. It's all downhill, the biggest reward for all that puffing and panting we did.

So we hop on, pedal past a few curves, then hold on for the ride as we zip downhill. Down and down we ride, gaining speed as we go, kicking up gravel, nearly flying when all of a sudden, not 20 yards away, a moose, a BIG moose, LEAPS onto the bike path and turns toward up, head on.

We slam on the brakes, startled, and slide to within 50 feet of this massive 700-pound creature, who is NOT happy.

Her ears twitch and twirl (moose do that when agitated), and then we see why. A baby moose, HER baby,  leaps out of the woods right next to her. He, too, is startled, but he doesn't hang around to twitch and stare. Instantly, he disappears back into the woods  to let Momma manage the moment.

And Momma does that well.

She stares us down, twitching and twirling her ears. Threatening us with her stance (and her size! She's easily 7-feet tall at the shoulder). So we back up, and back up and back up until she stops threatening to seriously hurt us.

And now we can breathe, because she's peaceful now. She no longer twitches and twirls and stares. 

But, she doesn't leave either.

Instead, she dines, alongside the bike trail. And her baby joins her, figuring, I guess, if Momma's not worried, I'm not worried. 

So it's our turn to stare, as they enjoy their meal. And all we can do is wait until they're done. And watch. And enjoy this, our biggest reward.