Cabins, Caves, & Quarantines

Early April in Alaska. Spring snow continues to fall this year, though transitions throughout the month of March were certainly dramatic. We now enjoy lots of sunshine most days, and light from early morning to around 10 pm. Definitely makes hanging out outside even more appealing, as do the temperatures which hover in the 30° range. As mentioned in the last post, things here are as elsewhere, though several weeks behind. Anyone coming back into the state is asked to do the self-quarantine thing, and the rest of us are mandated to stay within our local communities, though allowed to go outside while maintaining appropriate distancing from non-household members.

It’s certainly difficult not to get caught up in the severity of an unfamiliar situation. Hard to know what to do about any of it, and impossible not to consider all the difficulties—financial, physical, emotional, mental, etc.—so many are going through at the moment. But it is also important to look for ways to alleviate worry through deliberate action, as fretting about misery we have no control over only creates unnecessary internal despair. Inventing ways to morph negative to positive, to capitalize on the unexpected rather than dwell on the unchangeable, is an important aspect of successfully surviving the pandemic. It’s been uplifting to see how many are managing to do exactly this. Developing business strategies to continue to offer services to clients; inventing routines and challenges for working out at home; hosting live concerts from remote settings; and all manner of other motivating and engaging innovations are readily available for internet inspiration.

Like many, my work schedule has been drastically altered for the time being. Reduced responsibilities leave hours and days open for any and all activity which might alleviate the isolation. For me then, it’s been an opportunity to continue to explore the local area and do a few of the things I didn’t think I’d have time to squeeze in before this winter was over. With all this time, and the snow still hanging out, mini-missions to nearby locales have become the standard for escaping the confines of apartment exile. A few photos from the past week:

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White Mountains. Spent a few days in the White Mountains, a one-million acre recreation area west of Fairbanks. The BLM oversees the area, and grooms 250 miles of trails open to all manner of winter travel. They also manage 12 public-use cabins, which can be reserved online. Would really like to do an extended trip in the area at some point, but a couple of nights in the cabins was a good way to reconnoiter the opportunities, and a fun, and physically challenging trip in its own right. Stayed the first night at Fred Blixt, which is the only drive up cabin of the set, and then hiked/snowshoed 14 miles out to the Colorado Creek cabin the following day, returning on the third.

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Castner Glacier. The Castner Glacier Cave is an easy stroll/snowshoe off the Richardson Highway south of Delta Junction. The cave is at the toe of the glacier and formed by an underground stream which drains the glacial melt in warmer seasons. Travel on the glacier itself provides amazing views in all directions, and is reported to be a great summer hike into the Alaska Range.20200329_162647 

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Social Distancing in the Last Frontier

Interesting times to be certain. Myriad thoughts on the current situation, which is surely the same here as most elsewhere, many of those ideas derived from conversations with friends and family members. For one, turns out these past months I’ve spent primarily in my own company, I’ve simply been being proactive in my social distancing. Who knew? Other topics concern the role of media and politics in escalating crisis, as well as the role of citizens in their response to the same; the dubious actions of certain individuals; and the importance of living your best life in order to stave off the fear of death, which awaits us all.

Yes, the situation is real. A previously unknown strain of virus makes its way across the world at a rapid pace; people fear for their lives. Is there malicious intent involved on the part of the virus? Doubtful. It simply does as humans and every other animated organism, or in this case particle (apparently it’s debatable whether or not a virus is ‘alive’) on Earth does, it propagates to max capacity, sometimes at the peril of other life forms. This particular virus has been successful due to the successfulness of our own species in spreading across the globe and moving willy-nilly across its surface. It thrives because we do. In most cases, the virus does not kill its host; in certain cases, it does. To watch the news, to believe the incessant high-pitched fervor of media sources in our society, however, is to know that it is out to get us all. Depending on which ‘unbiased’ source you trend towards, Democrats or Republicans are to blame for its continued spread. You may easily stumble across related conspiracy theories concerning foreign governments, or our own, as well.

What you will not see will be a rational comparison of the probability of dying from the coronavirus vs. dying from causes due to smoking (480,000 deaths in US annually), obesity (280,000), gun deaths (35,000+), texting and driving (4,500), etc., or any mention of how the country (or we as individuals, for that matter) are addressing any of these issues. Personal responsibility is incredibly boring. We need something scarier. Something from which the only protection can be fear, isolation, hoarding, panic buying, and of course, hand sanitizer. Turns out, there is a big market for this type of reporting, and hordes of people almost hoping for the worst.

Here, as elsewhere, delusional preppers take to the internet to indulge in apocalyptic fantasies in which they thrive as ultimate survivalists in the wake of civilization’s downfall. As long as there’s enough toilet paper to go around, of course. They will use their stocked weapons to forcibly take that which they desire, and to right the injustices of their previously unrecognized potential. They dream of a world beyond decorum and communal consideration in which only the strong survive. They fail to realistically imagine the skills beyond shooting which might be required, or what the absence of civic services might look like. Rather than putting forth effort right now to create a dream life for themselves and a greater community, they dream of a life far beyond the failures of their present day existence. Somehow this will be the world worth living in.

Mark Oliver Everett of the Eels sings, “If you’re scared to die, you better not be scared to live.” How true that life is a precious gift, but only if we regard it accordingly. There may be many takeaways from this pandemic, but above all: the future is unknown. Two months ago it would have seemed a highly unlikely prediction to announce that we would be living as we are currently. It simply didn’t seem like a realistic scenario. The vacant streets, the shutdown businesses, the empty shelves and freezers. But we do know this, and we always have: we are born to die. The whys of this may be forever a mystery, but the truth of it is with us always. It is up to the individual to determine how to exist under the shadow of this certainty. If you are reading this, you are alive right now. It is up to you to take action or not. Up to you to rid your future of regrets. To live your best life. To compile a bucket list for some far off future, or journal about the adventures you bestir in the present. To toil for money or live for something greater. To appreciate those that love you. To love those that appreciate you. To acknowledge all that you have. To live life rather than cling to it. For those who can claim to live in this manner, death is not to be feared.

Cases of COVID-19 are growing in Alaska, and stringent measures are in effect to slow its spreading. Schools and restaurants are closed. All public events have been cancelled or postponed. We have been asked to distance ourselves from others. People here, as most everywhere else, seem willing to accept these temporary actions, but are often loathe to completely give up their exercise, access to the outdoors, or freedom to recreate. Each day must still be lived.

The good news is, social distancing has never been easier than in Alaska, where outside of population centers one is unlikely to be within (at least) hundreds of feet from the nearest individual. I’d already been planning on writing something about a few of the winter sporting options here, so when I heard a man putting his skis on at the UAF trails proclaim ‘Ah, my favorite form of social distancing,’ I knew he was on to something. All these silly words then were really just leading up to an overview of a few of the ways to enjoy both life and winter in the Interior.

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Cross Country Skiing. Perhaps my own favorite form of social distancing in the winter as well. Two skis, two poles, a pair of boots. Kick, glide, kick, glide. Like canoes and kayaks, the stylistic simplicity of ski travel has been around for centuries, millennia even. No need for improvement. Additionally, the they say this is one of the best forms of cardio available as proper technique requires full body effort. It’s also an incredibly peaceful way to cruise around for miles on packed snow trails. There is nothing more serene than quietly traversing through lightly falling snow in the winter woods. There are more groomed areas in the borough than I can count, and many that I haven’t yet visited or discovered. There’s no telling how many hundreds of miles are accessible throughout the state.

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Downtown Fairbanks and the Frozen Chena River

Snowshoeing. In my opinion, snowshoes are not the most effective manner of traveling in most conditions, though they certainly have their place, and can be fun for a couple hours of walking around in the woods. A half-day of snowshoeing is generally a must for the winter tourist, as using them is as easy as strapping them to one’s feet and going for a duck-footed walk. They are quieter than skis, and allow one to trod through deeper snow. Can be good exercise if you’re breaking trail, and no designated trails are required. Explore at will.

Ice Climbing. I’m new to the sport of ice climbing. It’s something I never imagined enjoying before, as I pictured standing at the shaded base of a frigid wall of ice stamping my frostbitten feet while belaying. Being miserable, in other words, and bored both. But it’s actually quite fun and clearly spectacular to get to work one’s way up a frozen waterfall. I’m still very much a novice, but would like to do some more exploring in winters to come.

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Dragonfly Falls across from Denali NP

Fat Biking. So named due to the girth of the tires, which enable one to ride in winter conditions. Fat bikes are increasingly popular these days, and a great way to travel for miles on packed winter trails. Its pre-corona popularity as a group activity in Fairbanks was evident in weekly community rides and multiple races throughout the season. From my limited experience, fat biking can be as fun as any other sort of trail biking, or brutally challenging due to snow conditions. If you don’t have any set goals, however, even struggling through powder can be an amusing endeavor. Just don’t expect to go anywhere fast. Or straight.

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Downhill Skiing and Snowboarding. Unfortunately, the local areas prematurely closed for the year due to social distancing measures, but thought I’d mention what the potential for resort riding is up this way. There aren’t any huge developed mountains or big resorts in the Interior. Really, there’s only one in the state, and that’s Alyeska way down by Seward (awesome if you ever get the chance to go as the base of the mountain reaches the shore of the Cook Inlet—it’s like riding down into the ocean). But there are a few areas with enough elevation and trails to keep the locals entertained each year, each with transport to the top of the hill from the bottom, and open on the weekends and holidays when temperatures are warm enough to ride. There are three main spots: Ft. Wainwright, Moose Mountain, and Ski Land, and we even have a little T-Bar where I work which I’ve started up the past few weekends. Ski Land is the ‘Farthest North Chairlift’ in the US, and features an incredible view from the lodge. Moose Mountain is the local’s favorite, and utilizes a fleet of ‘variable capacity charged terrestrial trams’ (school buses) to shuttle folks from run to run. And Wainwright is actually on the Army base but generally open to the public and boasts the ‘best terrain park in the state.’

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T-Bar laps facilitate proper distancing.

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The view from Ski Land looking north.

Snow Machining. I don’t get too excited about two-stroke engines noisily spewing exhaust across the wilderness, but it would be unfair not to include this ever popular Alaskan activity, as well as to not inform you that saying ‘snowmobile’ up here will quickly identify you as an outsider. ‘We’ use snow machines, thank you. And I’ve definitely been on a few this season, as the population I work with seems to prefer motorized to exercise. Personal preferences and prejudices aside, snow machines can be a lot of fun, and are certainly useful tools and a valid means of transportation in remote areas. They’re also used to groom a lot of those awesome ski and bike trails, so I duly give them thanks and appreciation for that contribution.

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Big Sid ducks the Alaskan Pipeline

Everything Else. There are certainly all sorts of other ways to enjoy winter up here. Dog sledding, skijoring, ice fishing, trail running, winter camping, aurora chasing, ice sculpture carving, snow people making, hot springs soaking, or even just sitting in your house alone watching the spring snow accumulate outside the window and enjoying thoughts of extended winter adventures, as I’m doing right now. Social distancing at its finest.

Going It Alone

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I have done a lot of solo traveling in my lifetime. A review of just the past couple years would include multiple road trips across the United States, several solo river expeditions, and unaccompanied weeks in Mexico. There have also been numerous backpacking trips, and countless day hikes, trail runs, and even wanderings through major metropolitan areas. I’ve gone days and weeks at a time without speaking to another human being (or even myself, BTW—in spite of all the isolation I haven’t yet picked up that habit). Why? Often because I wanted to be alone for a while. I enjoy solitude and my own company. Equally often, however, because words and intentions so seldom imply determined action on the part of the speaker. Expectations often lead to disappointment, especially when it comes to the actions, or more often inactions of others.

20200214_153344People, in my experience, are in the habit of making plans with little aim to follow through with them, not intentionally, but because a majority really wish they were the type of people that would see those plans to fruition. They want to imagine themselves to be adventurous spontaneous individuals that would pack a bag at short notice and head to another country for a couple of weeks, or into the wilderness, or even on a bike ride the following day—but truthfully it’s a little much to live up to when the time comes to execute. One of my favorite quotes, for years, has been: ‘If you want something, you better be willing to go it alone, because if you wait for other people, you’ll be waiting your whole life’ (Bob Burnquist).

Because of this socially accepted predilection for flaky behavior, I find it difficult to relate to a lot of people. I will still be friends with someone that stands me up, but with a better understanding of both relationship and individual. I give everyone a chance, but when it comes to making plans to do things it’s generally a one-strike rule these days. No follow through, no future attempts. I’ve always had the mindset that I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do (Word is Bond!) and expect the same from others, largely to disillusionment, though not nearly to the severity of earlier years. I’m somewhat inured to it all these days. Not cynical at all, simply experienced enough to know better.

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For this reason, I’ve always valued having one person upon whom I could count to do exactly as they said they were going to do. No matter what. Someone to trust, and yes, someone to travel with and share life with. Someone to take care of, and make smile, and do nice things for. Someone I knew would always be down for most adventures, and appreciative of united experience. I treasure having this in my life. Every now and again, however, we have to be this person for ourselves.

Intrinsically, I realize the happiness of one person should never rely completely on another person (a reason in itself to figure out how to create your own contentment). We are all ever changing and adapting and morphing—our emotions, thoughts, attitudes, corporal structures, etc. But it’s hard sometimes not to desire that one someone in your life, no matter how stable one might be as an individual. Especially with all the talkers and duffers in the world. It’s nice to hang out with other people. It’s fun to travel around with that special someone, or even a group of them. We all know this. I don’t need to elaborate on the rewards of shared experience, or compile the practical benefits of having someone else around. I’m sure most of us would agree that being with another is generally preferable to being without. But not always.

Sometimes it’s just really nice to be by yourself. Other times, as alluded to earlier, decisions are not ours alone to make, they are made on our behalf and in some cases without our consent. In these instances we are commonly forced to choose between doing something or not doing something. Missing opportunities or extracting their potential. Living our dreams or living in a box. Whatever the case, voluntary or otherwise, sometimes we find ourselves exploring the infinite abyss single-handedly. Either accidentally or intentionally we find ourselves on unaccompanied sojourn. The best way to go about it then, is to identify the positives and proceed with intention.

If you do not take the time to spend time with yourself, or have never spent time with yourself, I highly recommend it. Start with a couple of hours and work your way up to a couple of days. Anywhere outside is my preference, but anywhere you’re comfortable (or perhaps just a little uncomfortable) works fine too.

Everyone needs some time alone. A little time to get to know themselves. Time to sit in silence, to be with their thoughts, to move about unrestrained by the needs or expectations of others. Time away from technology. Time away from daily distractions and the constraints of responsibilities and concerns. Time to learn. Time to relax, revisit, retrain, rethink, reset, reaffirm. To think. To not think. To be active or inactive. To be whatever we want to be, or to determine what it is that we want to be, and move forward from there.

Being alone lets one discover who they are without all the things. Without all the other people. Without the perceived judgments, the reputations to uphold.  Who might you be in a void? In a crisis? In a hotel room alone with all the electronics shut off? On top of a mountain in the sunshine? Inside a tent in the middle of the night with lightning flashing directly above and rolling thunder shaking the ground around you? Are you happy with that person? Is there work to be done? Being alone lets one examine all sorts of emotions, from loneliness and fear (perhaps even existential anxiety, woo hoo), to joy and exuberance and maybe even enlightenment. This self-knowing proves to be the most important aspect of both creating and embracing opportunities to experience the world on an individual basis.

But there can be auxiliary advantages as well. Mainly, the freedom. The doing whatever you want whenever you want. The not having to be concerned for anyone’s needs but your own. The choice to take care of your needs or not. The absence of conflicting opinions and desires. The never having to ask someone else for permission or approval. The never having to discuss or debate the desirability of activities, eating options, lodging, camping locations, side hikes, or anything else. The never having to wait, and never having others waiting for you. It’s your own pace, your own day, your own trip, your own life. You either appreciate it or you don’t. You can hike 3 miles or 30 miles. You can skip lunch and keep going, or never get going in the first place. Sleep late, get up early, stay out all night. No one cares but you. You will never have to listen to whining, complaining, criticizing, or common sense. In this life, you are your only limitation. Be open then, at least on occasion, to going it alone.

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Frozen Rivers & February in Denali NP

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Winter camping is not something I would invite someone to do. It’s one of those things that for some strange reason you have an interest in, or that for plenty of good reasons you don’t. It’s a different kind of fun. Actually fun might not be the right word, though depending on the trip there can certainly be joy inducing moments. Reward may be the better term. There is challenge in encountering the elements and taking care of yourself in demanding conditions. Everything moves at a slower pace. Tasks must be completed with deliberation. One must constantly evaluate and deal with fluctuating circumstances. It is rarely ‘go go go;’ it is often ‘stop and fix.’

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Sanctuary River

Some examples: You must not, obviously, let yourself get too cold. You should do your best to leave your gloves on, which turns easy jobs into tedious chores. As long as it’s not really really cold, it’s probably okay to cheat every now and again, but exposing hands to frigid wind and/or touching metal (think setting up a tent or using a stove) can quickly escalate into severe discomfort and potential risk. You must also not let yourself get too hot, which isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. You want to avoid heavy sweating, which means delayering for movement and regularly changing into dry clothing, especially socks. This generally means taking off clothes in the cold before you start moving, and as soon as you stop in order to put dry layers on. Neither a particularly inviting occasion to get naked in icy temps while surrounded by blowing snow. You must also make sure to consume lots of calories and liquids, preferably hot. This means keeping things from freezing solid, and eating when you might not want to, and heating water, and cooking food, all of which require attention and time. You must make sure not to clumsily spill boiling water on yourself in spite of bulky clothing, or dump dinner on the ground. You must be methodical and organized and proactive. You must deal with wind, and snow, and darkness.

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The rewards then: The satisfaction of self-preservation. The snug feeling of being properly layered and tucked into a sleeping bag while the wind howls around you and snow piles in drifts against the side of the tent. The knowledge that after you’ve finished dinner for the night and made all the preparations for bed there is absolutely nothing going on for the next 12-14 hours. The sleep. The enjoyment of having miles of wilderness all to yourself. The light and the landscapes. Moments of intense quiet and stillness. Guiltlessly eating as much chocolate as you thought to bring.

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Mushing Trail to the Teklanika River

I recently spent a few mid-February days and nights in Denali National Park. I won’t bother with the specific logistics, but things are going on in the park this year which shaped the route I traveled, a 30-mile figure eight from the Savage River over to the Teklanika drainage and back. I hiked the main park road, which is closed in the winter, on the way out, and was able to hike and ski along a sled dog trail on my way back in. The only people I saw in the backcountry were a group of four rangers and their sled teams who packed the trail while patrolling. I went up and over a couple passes from one drainage to the next, and crossed a few frozen rivers, exhilarating moments for one unaccustomed to the practice. Caution is advised, as while there could be several feet of ice up top, current still runs underneath. A mishap could easily prove fatal, though iced over waterways have been utilized as winter travel routes for centuries.

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Nice work if you can get it… NPS Rangers

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Trail across the Savage River

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Huge depression of collapsed ice right next to crossing

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Savage River downstream, AKA why I took the bridge the 1st day

The trip provided the opportunity to optimize winter gear options, and to experiment with using a toboggan to transport it all. Officially known as a ‘pulk,’ I was able to put one together with a sled I found at work, some webbing and carabiners I had at home, and two lengths of PVC pipe which provide stability and prevent the sled from sliding forward into your ankles on the downhills. The day before I left, my boss excitedly presented me with a harness (actually designed for pulling one of these things) he happened across at an outdoor store. Thanks Sid. The set-up had its challenges, especially since I packed the sled like someone else was going to be pulling the 100+ pounds on there, but proved to be an efficient tool in the end.

The weather was a mix of everything. Wind, cold, blowing snow, spots of sunshine and warmth, a serene winter scene of big falling flakes on the last morning. Temperatures ranged from negatives to high 20s. I spotted one snowshoe hare and stood very close to a large bull moose grazing in a snow drift. I also saw tracks from all sorts of other animals, including one large wolf print. It was all about exactly as I was hoping for, and probably the perfect amount of time to hang out down there.

Again, I wouldn’t try to convince anyone who wasn’t interested to experiment with tent camping in the winter. It was hard enough to convince myself to go with the thermometer reading -30° the morning I drove down (it was up to zero by the time I started walking, however). A more popular option would be to utilize one of the amazing huts—equipped with wood stove, kitchen, beds, etc., available to rent all over the state. But I enjoy seeing what life must have been like not all that long ago, and what Iditarod mushers and arctic explorers and all sorts of other crazy folks do or did on a regular basis. It’s also remarkable to experience natural environments as they exist as a whole. To know the forces which shape and define them. Furthermore, it’s nice to rethink what’s important in life for a while, to shift focus from the irrelevant to the most basic. A cup of hot tea, a warm sleeping bag, a long night’s sleep, and a good bar of chocolate.

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Winter Schminter

So, as promised, the day to day. What is winter existence like in the far north? Or, at least, what’s it like these days.

Well, nothing like it was back in the late 1800s, early 1900s, when white men began to occupy in force, that’s for sure. And not at all like it was when indigenous people subsisted in extreme temperatures by means of ingenious survival techniques honed through thousands of years of collective knowledge and tradition. Like everywhere, much has changed over the course of the past generations. To pronounce the lives of natives and early explorers and pioneers as ‘hard’ wouldn’t even begin to describe the severity of the realities they faced daily. To say we’ve gotten softer as a society is to pretend we’re still somewhere on the Mohs scale at all.

Alaska now, at least in the urban areas, is about like anywhere else in the States. Hardship means waiting in line at Starbucks. Deprivation is going without strawberries in January because they’re a dollar more than you want to spend. Is it a little colder than most of the lower 48, at least for the time being? Yes. Does it matter? Not really. Most people here do what people in the winter do just about everywhere else, they stay indoors, they move from one heated location to the next. They avoid the cold as much as possible and whine about it regularly—as if they didn’t know it might be cold here. Kind of annoying, to say the least. Transportation and technology and increased population density and wealth distribution have made temperatures and distance relatively obsolete. Box stores are box stores; fast food places sell the same fare as anywhere else—shit food, cheap prices; produce from around the globe can be purchased in any season (though you better eat it quick, cause it does take a minute to get here). Even gas, extracted from the North Slope of Alaska as crude oil, shipped to refineries down south, and returned again, is sold at prices on par with anywhere else in the US. So, yeah, for better or worse, with a few minor differences mostly noted from the warm side of a window, the daily routine is pretty routine.

Well, for the most part. Thought I’d still go ahead and detail a few of the ways people have developed to deal with the climate, and attempt to provide a sense of what mid-winter in the Interior is like.

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Northern Latitudes: A lot of folks I’ve met tell me they’ve always dreamed of coming to Alaska, though in the course of those conversations it becomes obvious most don’t have a clear idea of some of the basic realities of life here. A lot of people think it snows all the time, that it’s always cold, etc. People think of glaciers and icebergs and polar bears. They want to visit for a week and see Kodiaks fishing for salmon and the northern lights and maybe do some dog sledding, all in the same trip. But they also don’t want to be that cold, and probably don’t want to get rained on. Many people also think that Alaska is about the size of Hawaii, since they’re always off to the side in those little boxes on maps. So, I’ll start with a quick overview of geography and climate.

First off, Alaska is huge. Here’s a tidbit from everyone’s favorite online encyclopedia: ‘Alaska is the largest state in the United States by total area at [around 600,000 square miles], over twice the size of Texas, the next largest state. Alaska is larger than all but 18 sovereign countries. It is also larger than the combined area of the 22 smallest U.S. states…’ You get the point. It’s enormous and commonly divided into six different regions, each with widely differing characteristics, including geography, population, and weather patterns. All of this area is separated into private land, native land, and federal land, with the government still being the largest landholder at 60%—a significant portion of which is protected as parks and wilderness. The four biggest national parks are in Alaska, and seven of the 12 parks over one million acres are in Alaska. Alaska has 14 mountain ranges, and yes, lots of glaciers and some volcanoes and parts of it are prone to major earthquakes. The land itself is wild, rugged, beautiful, violent, unpredictable, and amazing. There’s also a lot of wildlife, though often visitors seem to have strange expectations of what that means. Outside of Denali NP and the coastal Kenai Peninsula, where sightings are almost certain, you might not see a whole lot of animals in a week—especially if you’re not paying attention.

But that’s not really what this is about, it’s more about winter and summer, and day and night, and light and dark, and cold and not that cold, and how all of these things manifest in the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun.’ The biggest surprise for many people, to the point of disbelief, is that for several months each year it is light out 24/7. Which means that in the darkest winter months, the sun is barely visible on the horizon for a couple hours each day, while in the summer it sits up in the sky for weeks at a time. The best way I’ve come across to describe the process is that every place on Earth receives the same amount of daylight and darkness over the course of one year. On the equator, days and nights are split evenly every day. Twelve and twelve, approximately. Due to the tilt of the Earth’s axis, however, northern and southern hemispheres receive more or less light and heat as the planet rotates around the sun, hence winter and summer. Almost everyone is familiar with this concept (though plenty of Americans I’ve known are surprised to learn that Christmas in Australia is in mid-summer, or, for that matter, that other countries even celebrate the same holidays we do…).

People also realize that in the summer the days are longer, and that the nights grow darker beginning in the fall. Extend that then, to the top of the globe, where for several months each year that axis is angled steeply towards (or away from) the sun. The further up you go in latitude, the more dramatic the effect. So just how high is Fairbanks? Well, for comparison, the southernmost point on the South American continent (also the southernmost tip of mainland in the southern hemisphere minus Antarctica) is around Ushuaia, Argentina, which is located at 54.8° south. (The equator represents 0° and both poles a respective 90°; each line of latitude corresponds to around 69 miles.)  Going the other way, Anchorage sits at a much higher 61°, and Fairbanks at 64.8°, only 120 road miles from the Arctic Circle. In mid-June the sun makes a dizzy circle in the sky, never dropping far enough below the horizon for several months to resemble true nighttime. According to the Visitor’s Bureau, Fairbanks receives 70 straight days of sunlight from May 17th to July 27th.

When I arrived then, it was nearly opposite, though I missed the solstice by almost two weeks. Dark. Real dark for a good portion of the day. Most notable, I think, in the morning. Most of us are accustomed to early nights in the winter, so that hasn’t been so different, but waking up around 6 a.m. and looking out the windows into a night lasting until almost 10 a.m. takes some getting used to. Or perhaps simply getting through. The light, however, as I attempted to describe last time, throughout those slim daylight hours, certainly contributes another element to the equation, easing the experience somewhat. And once the days start to get a little longer, as is happening now, it’s immediately apparent. By mid-March we’ll be at twelve and twelve, and after that—more light than you know what to do with.

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The Cold. I talked about the cold last time as well. What it’s like, what it’s not like. Having spent one entire February in Ushuaia, again mid-summer down that way, I can tell you the weather was much more harsh and unpredictable than it is here. I can’t imagine what misery winter that way might bring. But I won’t hold back on the facts. The week I arrived, temperatures dipped below -20° and for the most part they’ve stayed there and below. The first ten days or so it was often around -30°, and there were a couple of days where it did indeed hit -40°.  Two things about -40°: on a trivia note, this is where the scales of Celsius and Fahrenheit meet; on a contemporary note, in the past, the number of days the Interior spent each year at around this temperature were used to define ‘what kind of winter’ it was. This area often went weeks on end around -40°, occasionally dropping down even colder. The times they area a changing, however, and fast.

From my experience, things aren’t too bad until around -30. Activity that doesn’t generate enough speed to create wind chill, such as cross country skiing, walking, shoveling snow, etc., can still be enjoyable at -25° given one is adequately dressed and moving around. Biking, downhill skiing, snowmobiling, etc. are completely out of the question for most people until -10° and up, as things get miserable and dangerous otherwise. Around -30°, however, the intensity is notable. Around -40°, obvious changes begin to occur. LCD screens stop working, gas pumps slow down, unheated cars won’t start, and touching metal with bare skin causes an instantaneous burning sensation.

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How do people and machines deal with the cold then? Well, we’ll get to the people in a minute, but as far as keeping things running I have to say that human ingenuity is certainly impressive. I have no idea how the hot water keeps coming out of the tap, or how all the power lines don’t fall under the constant weight of several inches of ice. As for vehicles, pretty much all of them up here are equipped with block heaters which cover varying parts of the engine. The heaters plug in via a cord which comes through front grill, and folks carry their extension cords around with them. Most public spaces, hotels, workplaces, etc. have shared outlets available in parking lots. When things get really cold, it’s advised to keep your car plugged in somewhere if it’s going to sit for more than a couple of hours, otherwise the viscosity of oil and other fluids begins to be affected, which can cause major problems. To make things even easier on we creatures of comfort, these days most cars are equipped with an auto-start device. Simply press a button on your keychain from inside of a warm building, up to hundreds of feet away, and there starts the engine. Wait a while, exit building, enter car, drive away. One nice and completely unexpected perk to this severity of cold I might note is that it is rare to have to scrape ice off your windshield. I thought for sure that unpleasant chore would occupy a significant chunk of my morning routine, but so far I’ve brushed a bit of snow off and that’s it. No scraping required, and no frozen shut car doors. Yet. I bet when it gets warmer these things will happen, and apparently it can also rain ice on occasion coating everything, but when it’s this cold it’s way too dry to melt then refreeze. Nice.

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Driving. Living here obviously entails driving in poor driving conditions. My first couple days here, I thought about how road and weather conditions in town were such that in most places I’ve lived, including many years in Colorado ski towns, most people would have stayed home for the day. The driver of the taxi I took from the airport to hotel said it best in that in you don’t need snow tires but ice tires. Because that’s what you drive on. Ice. It doesn’t generally snow very much in the Interior. But that snow doesn’t melt, especially on city streets. It turns to ice and stays that way. While the main highways are generally clear dry pavement, at least in one lane each way, as soon as you exit onto a town or city street you’re back on packed snow and ice. The good news is that there are some incredible tires available which incorporate some cool technologies to provide super grip. Blizzaks are the brand of choice, and they work well.

Another thing which helps is that people are collectively accustomed to driving on the ice, so generally don’t do too many stupid things. In the summer a lot of Alaskans drive like assholes—fast and furious tailgaters and everyone with broken windshields to show for it. In the winter, however, good spacing and good sense prevail. As far as type of vehicle, there are people driving around in just about everything, even Camaros. For my money, a good front-wheel-drive is all one needs, and often handles a lot better than some macho truck. I prefer the simplicity, gas mileage, and all-season compatibility. Thankfully, neither my ego nor my manhood are affected by the size or model of my car.

Other Truths. Global climate change has severely impacted Alaska. According to the Alaskan Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys, Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the US. Major environmental alterations have been set in motion. I am not even going to begin to detail them here, though it’s fascinating and somewhat frightening stuff if you care to research further. Melting permafrost, receding glaciers, reduced snow, increased flooding, intensifying storm systems, dying and invading species of flora and fauna alike, and on and on. We’ll ignore the deniers for this one, and admit that our actions and lifestyles represent the driving factors in all of it.

Therefore it’s tough to admit that even though Alaska is experiencing negative consequences of unbridled carbon emissions at a significantly increased rate—if everyone lived as we do up here the process might be exacerbated ten-fold. This represents one of the ethical dilemmas one must either acknowledge or ignore as a resident. From a practical perspective, it would be difficult to act as an environmentalist concerned with one’s personal contribution to climate change and live in Alaska at the same time. On the other hand, the state has a severe need for people who care about the land and the resources and protecting what remains.

Living a modern lifestyle in such a severe climate necessitates major energy consumption and carbon emission. As described, the crude oil leaves on ships, then has to be brought back on ships to be burned up, all consuming fuel in the process. Most all goods, including comestibles, must also be flown or shipped in. To date, I have purchased a single bag of carrots with a ‘Grown in Alaska’ label, everything else had to be transported in from somewhere far away via plane, boat, and truck. Those January strawberries I mentioned, they’re here, along with everything else you might find in the local super store wherever you live. The power needs in winter are enormous. Natural gas covers some of the heating, but a lot of energy comes via facilities which burn coal (which is abundant in Alaska). Heating is also provided the old-fashioned way in the form of wood burning stoves, which sounds harmless and quaint, but actually contributes significantly to carbon emissions and poor air quality, something one might not expect when envisioning a city surrounded by pristine wilderness. And then there’s all that driving around and pre-heating vehicles and leaving them sitting around idling for hours solely in order to avoid getting into a cold car.

These factors not only cause long term environmental effects, but also contribute to immediate problems in the form of winter air pollution. Part of this is simply that there’s all this stuff going up into the air—but that stuff is going up into the air the world round. The second part has to do with extreme temperatures and the inversion they cause, which traps all of that nastiness close to the ground for days at a time. When temperatures drop below -20° warmer air covers the cold sump created in the Tanana Valley where urban populations are located. And with no wind to speak of, nothing leaves. A thick cloud of particulates forms over Fairbanks and the surrounding areas. Experiencing this haze of smog is like looking at the removed lungs of a lifetime smoker. This is what we’re doing to ourselves. I live about 20 miles southeast of the city in a little town called North Pole, which, unbeknownst to me before moving here, at the worst of these specific times has the unfortunate reputation of having some of the most polluted air in the world—even worse than Beijing according to some data. Thankfully, this phenomenon comes and goes, but it serves as an unpleasant reminder of much larger issues.

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Love/Hate this photo. Coal smoke from power plant makes a 90° turn. Inversion.

Stop the Insanity. The last thing I’ll touch on as far as daily living up here is how people deal with spending winters in extremes. Getting through the cold, dark, and lonely. Having been here only a month, I can only offer secondhand accounts, recent observations, and my own developing strategies. Like I said, most folks just stay indoors. As much as possible they minimize time and distance from one artificially warm location to the next artificially warm location. They heat their cars up before they get in them and leave them running if they have errands to take do. Inside the buildings and houses, it’s the same as about everywhere at any time of the year. Lots of screen time. Though forced time indoors, with the right mindset, can certainly be viewed as an opportunity. Time to get creative in the kitchen, time to read books, do some research, tool around on an instrument, etc. People also cope by using sun lamps, taking vitamin D, baking in tanning salons. Some people prefer the bar or the bottle. Some just wait for summer and all that daylight.

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Out the Kitchen Window. Early January.

For better or worse, I’m not quite wired like that and have to get outside for at least a while each day. I don’t care how cold it is. Even shoveling snow or driving the plow truck at work (something I wouldn’t normally consider an outdoor activity) is way better than being inside all day. I’ve been doing a lot of cross country skiing, both as exploration for my new job and in my off time, and trying to get to know the area and all it has to offer. While researching local trails I came across a ‘Trails Challenge’ put on by Fairbanks Parks and Rec each winter and summer season. The idea is to travel the listed trails by one of whatever means is allowed on that particular trail (snow biking, running, walking, skiing, snowshoeing, dog mushing, snow machining (as they call it here)), find signs on each one, and snap a selfie and eventually achieve the ‘coveted Trail Blazer award.’ It’s been a great starting point and motivator. I have yet to find anyone interested in joining me on the trails, but I have come across a few other people on a couple of them, at least.

I’ve also been trying to be my own ‘Yes Man.’ Anything I see that looks moderately interesting and may have a social component I’ll make an attempt at. Yoga class this Monday? Okay. Exercise dance class at the gym? Uh, I guess.

The gym too, can be a positive for a lot of people this time of year. A good place to alleviate lethargy, get motivated, and perhaps work on goals one might not normally focus on in other seasons. I’m lucky enough to have a great facility available, and it’s entertaining to try out new machines, new exercises, and switch up the normal routine for a while. Gotta look good come swimsuit season.

The one communal outdoor activity I’ve managed to take part in was definitely inimitable most places, and way more fun than I’d imagined. The Running Club North of Fairbanks sponsors a ‘Fahrenheit be Darned’ run each Wednesday night throughout the winter. I found their website early on, but normally work evenings, so wasn’t able to attend the first couple weeks I was here. About a week ago, however, I had a Wednesday off, and found myself in Fairbanks that afternoon. I hemmed and hawed about sticking around, but ended up making it to the university just in time to join up with about 10 other intrepid athletes for that evening’s event. We ran a five mile course around campus. It was pitch black, and icy, and snowing a bit, and around -13°—which they noted later was much warmer than the two previous weeks. And it was a good time. I hope to do a couple more before winter is over, but getting out that night also gave me the confidence and inspiration I needed to get out on my own last week for some packed snow trail running at -20°. Freedom!

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Anyways, winter schminter… It’s February now. -35° this morning, but predicted to leap into double positive digits over the next couple of days. We could even see 15°. That’s a 50° shift—get out the board shorts and tank tops! Ric, who I met on the river this summer, lived in Fairbanks from ‘76-87 and describes those years as a very formative time in his life. He writes, ‘Always liked February. ‘Big Gain Month’ is how we used to call it. Winter’s back is broken and the temperature daylight curve starts to steepen. You are on the downhill side of it. You’re gonna survive!’

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Interior Monologue

It’s been two years now since I started this site. Not being a user of social media, I initially wanted to have a small presence on the web in order to demonstrate a modicum of technical proficiency and feigned interest in the digital world should an employer inquire. I also wanted to motivate myself to write a little bit, thinking there could be no harm in contributing my own minute inanity to some infinitesimal portion of the internet. Additionally, I created it so that family members, and a few friends, might peruse photos and descriptions if interested, rather than being subjected to hours of pictures and effusive trip details each visit. It’s worked for all of those things, and even if only a handful of people check in on a regular basis, it’s been rewarding to see how the posts have developed, and to revisit them myself from time to time.

But truth be told, it’s not something I‘m wholeheartedly committed to. I won’t bother to detail personal perspectives on the ills prevalent in the creation of idealized internet personas—fashioned to make us look our best, to make others jealous, to mask unlimited insecurities. I won’t bother to do that because we’re all aware of those realities, even if we have collectively agreed somehow to embrace them. It’s not always like that, I know, some people just like to share information, advice, recipes, photos, artwork, etc., but often, even then, ego plays a part, along with a need to feel needed. I get it for sure, and am not immune to those desires, but I suppose I care most about finding fulfillment closer in, whether it’s feeling comfortable with solitude, or sharing physical experiences with people I value.

All of this to say that I was considering the cessation of the site for multiple reasons, but when it suddenly, and kind of shadily, I might add, ‘auto-renewed’ a couple of weeks ago (while the goal of many bloggers is to monetize their sites, I actually pay to keep ads off of this one) I decided to keep at it for a few more months. And those months will most probably be focused on Alaska, my home for the time being. After that, perhaps I’ll be hoping for real friends in place of faceless followers, and getting my likes and thumbs-up in person or not at all. Until then, however, thanks for reading.

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Chena Hot Springs

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2020: A succession of flights beginning in Amarillo, Texas on January 1st landed me in Fairbanks around midnight on the 2nd. The convenience of air travel makes distance obsolete, and creates mental disparity in attempting to reconcile the abrupt relocation from one reality to another. Some believe it takes the soul several days to catch up to one’s body. I have flown to Alaska several times in the past, and driven multiple others. I’ve often made the near 4,000 mile overland trip from Texas to Alaska, or back down, stretch out over a couple of months; the quickest I’ve ever done it took a week of long tedious days of extended driving. It’s much easier to comprehend the distance between the two when one serves witness to the immense expanse of land which separates one location from the other. A slower pace allows both body and mind to adjust accordingly.

When I walked out the doors of the airport at one in the morning I imagined my first thought would be: ‘What in the f*ck am I doing moving to Alaska in the middle of winter, or at all?’ But it wasn’t really like that. I simply noted the intensity of the -20 air mingled with a cloud of lingering exhaust fumes, put my bags in a taxi, and rode off into the icy darkness.

The next day was a whirlwind of logistics and preparation for the near future. The one I’m living in now. Up until about three months ago I hadn’t remotely considered the idea of living in Interior Alaska as a possibility in my life, yet sometimes options are not mandated by the person left to choose between them. Forces beyond our control—the decisions of others, failed or functioning relationships, available and desirable work opportunities, etc.—leave one to reorganize priorities and outcomes, to accept circumstances with a mix of resignation and hopeful optimism. By the end of that first day, I had found a place to live and a vehicle to purchase, and was well on my way to becoming an Alaskan resident.

I’ve now been here almost a month, and continue to operate motivated by that same combination of acquiescence and forced positivity. Just trying to figure it all out. As mentioned in previous writings, my thoughts on Alaska are often convoluted. I still feel as if there’s unfinished business here, so much to see and do, infinite possibilities, yet often question whether or not I am capable of accessing that potential. Queries of self-efficacy guide honest assessments of character and circumstance. There is also the fact that throughout its recent history, the past 300 years or so, Alaska has drawn those who care only to see how much they can take from the land. An ethos of extraction prevails, and that can be difficult to negotiate.

For now, however, rather than dwelling on dilemma, I will simply share some impressions, and save the day to day for another time.

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Tanana Lakes

Years ago, I was in the military. My last year in, my team flew up to Alaska in mid-December to conduct training exercises in a cold weather environment. We arrived to the Anchorage area, several hundred miles south of where I am now, in time for the winter solstice. I remember watching the sun make a quick arc across the sky each day, appearing around 10 a.m. and disappearing quickly thereafter, at around two in the afternoon. It was a particularly frigid winter, with no snow, and temps around -20 with a wicked wind steadily blowing throughout our time there. The ground was covered in hoar frost, and as part of the training I spent several days and nights trying to stay warm and survive in ‘the field.’ I feared most for my toes, which passed hours without feeling. At the end of those two weeks, I never wanted to go back.

The Army being the Army, however, and me being a single soldier tasked with following orders as they came down, I found myself in the same exact location only weeks later. Attached to another team, we flew up from Washington State in a cargo plane with the heater set to about 80 for the entirety of the flight. When the time came, we parachuted out the side doors and I found myself crashing to the ground soon thereafter on the same landing zone I’d jumped into weeks before. Due to the adrenaline, and my overheated core from the plane ride, as I started rolling up my parachute I looked around thinking to myself ‘This isn’t so bad.’ About two minutes later all that internal heat was gone with the wind, and the cold set in hard. I cursed my luck knowing that I was going to be there for a couple of months this time around, and imagined nothing but misery for the duration.

The first couple of days proved to be exactly that. More wind, more cold, lots of ice around the base and several people almost breaking bones because of it… On day three, however, a shift occurred in the weather. It suddenly warmed up enough to snow (extremely cold air generally signifies a high pressure system with little moisture), and the wind died down significantly. From that time on, it was one of the best deployments I had in the military. We spent the first ten days ‘training’ at Alyeska Resort—a local’s nightmare—300 camoflauged Gore-Tex clad yahoos on Army skis destroying runs of beautiful fresh powder with the ugliest turns you’ve ever seen. The next several weeks we tent camped and did survival training and rode snowmobiles and cross country skied and even had our own little biathlon. It was awesome. The experience culminated with a mock scenario which found us one midnight flying several hours up north in Chinook helicopters. Just before they landed we started up our snowmobiles and revved them off the ramp, James Bond style, flying off the tailgate and onto the packed snow beneath. We spent the next three days doing our thing, the entire time the sky above us lit up with every color of aurora possible.

That whole experience changed my perspective of Alaska completely, though I still never imagined myself living here full time. I made it back many years later as a guide, and spent my first summer here near Denali National Park taking clients down the Nenana River. Most of the people working up here in the summer only come for the season, but there are a few that stay year round, and even a couple who actually grew up here. I’ve worked in the state four summer seasons total, and would always inquire as to how life was in the winter, not because I was interested in living through one, but because I wasn’t. Watching the seasons’ quick change each fall, and noting the darkness descend (miffed in late August because of a 10 p.m. sunset), my thoughts turned quickly to the desert. Descriptions of -40 temps and the minimal daylight hours convinced me of the correct nature of those notions.

There was no love in the desert this year, though for this reason I may report that Alaska in the winter is much more beautiful than I ever imagined or remembered. It would be difficult to describe, but sometimes it almost hurts to look around, a weighing of the heart the soul what have you, to be surrounded by beauty of such intensity—to be the engaged observer, to take part in the realization of fleeting reality. To be here in the winter is not to admire the landscapes, but to be absorbed into them. There is darkness, to be sure, for many hours of each day. But the light, for the hours the sun sits on the horizon, is otherworldly. It is a physical presence, palpable around you, the snow, below you on the ground and above you in the trees, never white but warm shades of pink and gold. The sky, for hours and hours, cobalt and blues deeper than you knew existed in the world, and purple and pink and red. To be here is to live inside of a suspended sunset, rather than watch it on a distant horizon—from passive onlooker to full participant.

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As for the cold, it’s also not as most would imagine, though I’ve come to realize most would also not believe that to hear it. From many perspectives, temperatures dropping past 40 degrees above zero are cold enough, let alone even imagining -20, or -30, or -40 below. You will simply have to believe me or not when I say, so far, I’ve been a lot colder in a lot of other places. Places like the Texas Panhandle for instance, and definitely in lots of deserts, and for sure in Leadville, Colorado, the last wintry place I lived. There are two reasons for that, the most relevant being the wind, which, right here, rarely blows at all. I think the best analogy would be (maybe not even an analogy, as it’s kind of the same thing) stepping outside here is a lot like stepping into a walk-in freezer, like the kind found in most restaurants. It is so still that it takes a minute for the cold to set in. Once you realize that it’s cold, you also realize it’s definitely the kind of cold that could kill you if you continued to hang out in a t-shirt and shorts for much longer. But it’s not the kind of cold that makes your face chafe instantly and causes you to turn away from it quick like. It’s not the cold that comes ripping at you from hundreds of miles away, the kind of cold you encounter when climbing mountains in the fall or kayaking in the spring. It’s not that ferocious surprise cold that makes your eyes tear up; it’s a slow almost imperceptible cold, one that likes to take its time, but also the kind of cold that skips the shivering stage. The second reason it’s not so bad is that, unlike in those other environments where wind and wetness can create unexpected distress dangerously quick, you know it’s going to be cold when you go out, and you know what it’s going to be like. As such, it’s not that hard to be able to adequately prepare for it, up to the point where it’s also not difficult to be able to enjoy being outside without discomfort. For those willing to do so, that is. A small number indeed.

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X-country skiing at -25. Expelled moisture freezes quick. Good times.

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Trails Everywhere!

The hardest part then, for now, is trying to face it alone. The starting over again. The being surrounded by all this beauty and intensity and endless potential. It’s knowing that there are a few people out there doing these awesome things, creating these amazing epic adventures only possible in this sprawling wilderness, but having no real idea how to become aligned with them.

I’ve done a lot of solo traveling, including several multi-day trips in Alaska, and am sure I will continue to do so. Sometimes because I really wanted to go alone, and a lot of times simply because there wasn’t anyone else around willing and prepared to make things happen. There is a tenuous line, however, between voluntary solitude, and something far different. There is also the fact that Alaska truly is on a much different scale than anywhere else, in terms of both splendor and consequence. In an abandoned school bus not too far from here, Christopher McCandless penned a line in a book margin, ‘Happiness is only real when shared.’ I do not agree completely, yet fully understand the sentiment. Especially in a place like this.

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20/20

20170619_204959-2.jpgA new year is upon us, the earth beginning another revolution around the sun—if, of course, there can be imagined to be a beginning and an end to the cycle, a start and a finish, rather than a continuum. How much better for us here in the northern latitudes to celebrate in the dead of winter, rather than to picture things starting over in the middle of summer, as they must do further south. A renewal, a fresh start, a regeneration, new chances and new opportunities. From dark to light, death to life, cold to warm, winter to spring. The imagery lends itself to resolutions.

The days, 31st-1st, and numbered years, of course, human constructs based on measuring the invention of linear time as a whole, and on this particular calendar given in relation to the life of a religious figure. Why wouldn’t the year begin anew on the solstice, at the very least? No matter. For the purposes of this post we’re going to go with it. As of midnight, the year is 2020, the year of hindsight, and a year of new beginnings based on lessons garnered from life experiences to this point. Why not?

What I have mostly been dwelling on these past months of 2019, or perhaps for years now, concerns individual efforts, successes, failures, and imaginings as to the amount of influence we can affect upon any aspect of our personal realities. We are very limited, it would seem, in our impact, though not entirely without recourse or decisions.

We have all heard that we often cannot control circumstances, merely our reactions to those circumstances. Examples might be as benign as the weather, or as malignant as the death of a loved one. This notion could be seen as both depressing and inspiring. Either way, it would be difficult to argue its basis in reality. Perhaps a more poignant take moves beyond reactions to propose that we cannot control our circumstances, but yet we can control our character, comprised as it is of attitudes, emotions, and actions—the latter being the most important consideration. Defining values in a continual process of growth and awareness prepares us for inconsistencies inevitable in the environments we occupy.

In this world most things are outside of our control, including, to a large degree, our individual selves. Our genetics, for instance, are beyond us. We don’t get to select our gender, or the color of our skin, or guarantee any sort of early financial stability or loving home environment. All are born with predispositions towards health and/or illness. Our actions and life decisions may influence these susceptibilities, for better or worse, and our attitudes may also determine certain outcomes—though most would be willing to admit neither is failsafe in preventing, curing, or even intensifying vulnerabilities. We’ve all heard of 30-year-old marathon runners collapsing of heart attacks and smokers living to 100.

Furthermore, we can’t even determine seemingly less significant things in our lives. Our thoughts, to be specific, are often well beyond our control. It proves incredibly difficult to retrain one’s brain to cultivate more desirable initial reactions to given situations. We are people of prejudice and judgement, each of us to one degree or another. We make snap decisions based on all manner of input informed by past life experiences and influences. We may find humor in inappropriate instances. Some may even be aroused by socially taboo subjects, or programmed to find pleasure in negative behaviors. In these instances, the thoughts themselves are inescapable. It is how we choose to act upon them which will determine their impact on individual and communal realities.

We can also not predict the future, nor the actions of other people, nor the universe as a whole. No matter how carefully we plan for contingencies or try to shelter ourselves from emotional abuse or physical detriment, there are too many factors to account for in ensuring success of any measure. We all have good days and bad days, interact with good people and bad people, and must deal with personal frailty and the juggernaut which is the world around us.

So it is true then that we cannot control the vast majority of influences in our lives. It is also true, however, that we may express some autonomy in how we react to situations as they present themselves to us along the way. We can strive to nurture neutral or even positive responses to seemingly negative situations. We may also work to extract ourselves, or protect ourselves from those situations, though this may not always be immediately possible. Above all, we may work to learn and grow from the circumstances we live through. This is the cultivating character part, the importance of determining personal values in an effort to strengthen resolve in relation to any given condition. This is the 20/20 hindsight. Not an examination of how things should have been done in the past, but how the lessons we’ve learned to this point might serve us in the present.

Integrity, the act of doing what we know to be right even when no one else is around to notice, proves essential in our progress towards becoming fully realized individuals. ‘To thine own self be true.’ Without defining one’s values, there may be no right or wrong to speak of, no clarity or guidance for future predicaments or accomplishments. We must determine our personal philosophies and strive to achieve customized incarnations of said values. Simply put, to be the best that we can be. To give the best of ourselves in all situations, regardless of external response, or lack thereof.

The Golden Rule posits that we should treat others as we would like to be treated; similar maxims are said to exist in most religions and cultures. This is the expression of our character and values. Unfortunately, there is no assurance that those we treat in this manner will treat us the same way in return, yet another variable outside of our control. Perhaps an appropriate (albeit wordy) addendum would be to determine how we would like to be treated, find people that treat us that way, and do our best to reciprocate. Our personal values not only dictate how we treat others, but also determine the respect we hold for our own well-being.

This is the important lesson: personal value systems are not refined to influence others, though we may hope to exert positive results through our efforts. They are meant to inform our intentions with respect to desired outcomes in our own lives. There is no guarantee these outcomes will manifest, but understanding what we are willing to accept as edifying and gratifying allows one to abandon or embrace relationships—with people, possessions, passions, activities, etc.—with clear mind. They allow us to receive, examine, and respond to those aforementioned circumstances with a predicated level of consciousness. They permit us to do what is right in our own lives, and according to our own principles, regardless of happenstance, or the consequences of forces beyond our control. They fortify us in the present and help us to prepare ourselves for the future.

Happy 2020.

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Full Poem: Sweet Darkness

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Run the Texas Panhandle!

I grew up in the Texas Panhandle, a large section of Texas loosely identified as the northernmost 26 counties of the state. The region is bordered to the west by New Mexico, to the north and east by Oklahoma, and to the south, hundreds of miles from the northern border, by the Big Bend and Hill Country regions. For the most part, the topography consists of grass and shrub covered plains, occasionally interspersed with arroyos and shallow canyons. It is a vast level swath of land, some 25,000 square miles total, featuring open views in all directions. With a vantage allowing line of sight through fences, power lines, wind farms, and oil field machinery, one may note the slight curvature of the earth along the distant horizon.

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From: smilingglobe.com

It is a windy place, much of the time, with a widely varying range of temperatures, each exacerbated by the blustery weather. It can be well over a hundred and blowing hair dryer hot in the summer, and snowing sideways with wind chills well into the negatives on the worst of winter days. With the winds come tumbleweeds and trash, blowing from fence to fence across rural landscapes, and yard to yard in towns and cities.

Driving the backroads, one moves steadily from one small community to the next, each in varying states of disrepair. The boom and bust cycles of agriculture, ranching, and oil are evident throughout, though when passing by boarded storefronts, broken windows, and empty brick hollows, it is difficult to imagine these main streets ever lived up to their full potential. Scattered signs of life may be observed as well: hamburger shacks with hand-lettered signs, dilapidated beauty salons with clever names, a Dairy Queen, competing convenience stores, shoe-polished slogans supporting high-school football teams—Go Eagles! On the outskirts lie weedy trailer homes and the rusted carcasses of American muscle cars—dreams left to die. The larger cities in the region prove no more stimulating—the standard repetition of box stores, fast food chains, franchised restaurants, and mega-Walmarts. Sprawl and squalor, obvious separation of wealth. The whole place exudes a certain one paycheck behind quality, a feeling of uninspired existence perhaps, though food, fuel, and other fundamentals are produced here, a concept not to be taken lightly. I confess a proclivity for criticism, having endured an adolescence stifled by an inflexible status-quo.

In short, if you ever find yourself in the Panhandle, your first thought might be of running—running away that is. At least that’s been my experience since leaving here many years ago. I have discovered, however, there is beauty to be found everywhere, and though one may have to search a little harder here, it does exist in many forms—in the open skies, those boundless horizon lines, in the wildlife, the rugged vegetation, the thrill of a multi-story dust devil, the sight of a refrigerator-sized tumbleweed bouncing along the freeway at 40 mph. There are also a few geographical gems in the region which provide opportunities for outdoor recreation, for running and camping and wildlife viewing, etc. Places worth getting to know, worth going back to time and again should you find yourself just passing through or stuck here for a while.

My family still lives in the Panhandle, and as such, I try to visit when possible. This usually occurs once or twice a year as I’m driving from one place to another. Amarillo, the biggest city near where I grew up, is a long ways from most of the places I’m interested in getting to—an eight hour drive even from Terlingua and the Big Bend—but as it’s transected by major interstates, planning a route which detours through there isn’t all that difficult. I’ll general stay for a week or so, a couple days in the city with my mom, and a few days hanging out with my dad, who lives in one of the neighboring towns about 45 minutes away. The past several months, however, I’ve ended up spending an inordinate amount of time here. As such, I thought I’d do a little something about a few of the best places to spend time outdoors in the region, just in case one of my fictitious, running obsessed readers finds themselves in the area. Not to mention, this may well be the last bit on running I do in a while, as it’s going to be treadmills, ice spikes, and cross country skis for long months to come once I make it up to Alaska next week.

I mainly want to give a brief description of the three best places to trail run in the entire Panhandle, from my own experience, limited as it may be and more specific to the Amarillo zone. But those three should be enough for anyone driving along I-40 or I-27 to detour to for a couple of hours of exploration, or to camp out for the evening if passing through the region. Truth be told, these three places probably cover it for the most part anyway, as outside of the Big Bend finding opportunities to recreate on land open to the public is depressingly difficult. Over 95% of Texas land is privately owned, leaving a minute amount of accessible open space for the common folk. The rest of it sits sanctioned off by boundless miles of fence posts, barbed wire, and closed gates. As such, options for running outside of city parks or municipal streets are limited to underfunded and overused state parks, or the couple parcels of federal land in Texas—one of which happens to be a few miles from where I’m typing this.

Before moving on to the descriptions, however, one running anecdote from my time in the Panhandle: As I’ve mentioned before on this site, running hasn’t played a part in my life for all that long, at least not an enjoyable one. Some years prior to the shift in attitude, however, I found myself signed up for the annual Amarillo Thanksgiving Turkey Trot. I knew that I was going to run the 5K a couple months beforehand, but couldn’t really bring myself to do any sort of training for the event, mostly because I really didn’t like running, so figured I’d save it for when I had to do it and not spend any extra effort in working up to it. I also lived in Leadville, Colorado at the time, at an elevation of 10,000’, which made running even less enticing, and also made for a convincing excuse that the drop in altitude should be enough to compensate for my lack of preparation. The inevitable Thursday morning arrived as cold and breezy as one might expect for November in the Panhandle. I showed up just as the event started, and found myself scrambling to attach bib and shoelace timing chip as the gun went off. From the back of the pack I eventually found my pace and place, ahead of the walkers, but a long ways behind the real runners, who I could see well on the other side of the lake the course circuited around. I wasn’t dying, but I certainly wasn’t having much fun. It was cold; I was out of shape and underdressed and hadn’t run three miles consecutively in many years.

About a quarter mile from the finish I caught up to a 12-year-old boy giving it his all while dressed in what would, in most parts of the country, be considered a decidedly non-PC Indian outfit, feathered headdress, war paint and all (“It’s my culture, not a costume!” read the posters around university campuses last year…). I didn’t intentionally pass him, simply labored by hoping for the experience to be over. He shot me a death glance as I overtook him. Around the corner the finish line was finally in sight, and I heard much yelling and cheering from the awaiting crowd as the kid was now high-kicking it behind me in an all-out sprint for the end. Even if I would have felt like humiliating a small child in a public setting, I wouldn’t have been able to muster the extra energy, and he bounded past to beat me by a couple seconds. I’d like to imagine that I could smoke him these days, but that’s probably not true, as he’s now about 19 and certainly quite a bit faster if he kept with the running. The most humiliating part came the next day, however, when the holiday copy of the Amarillo Globe-News arrived at my dad’s house. There it was, on the front page of the paper for all the Panhandle to see—the young brave whooping across the finish line with a panting old guy, his/my face plainly visible in the photo, struggling for breath several steps behind.

On to the rest of it then. Over the past months I’ve been able to revisit a few of my favorite spots in the Panhandle, and even discover a couple of new trails. I’ve also been running around the east side of Amarillo a fair amount (might as well grow an extra head the way people gawk from their truck windows at a pedestrian), and have come to the conclusion that winter may well be the best time to run here. The wind can be a deterrent, especially the colder it gets, but there are significantly fewer weeds, pokey things, and stickers in general, along with greatly reduced chances of seeing snakes. Slanted lighting softens the landscape. Long shadows and golden glows abound.

The three places I’d like to endorse are as follows: Caprock Canyon State Park, Palo Duro State Park, and the Lake Meredith National Recreation Area. All offer many miles of trails and excellent options for runs of any distance. There are a few other smaller state parks along the southern extension of the region, (such as Copper Breaks, which does have a few good trails), worth checking out if you’re in the area, but these are the top three if you’re looking for extended runs across inspiring terrain.

Caprock Canyon State Park

Caprock has around 90 miles of trails open to hiking and biking. It’s definitely somewhere one could spend several days exploring. For those looking to stay a while, the campsites are a highlight as they are arranged to offer privacy and great views. The trails provide lots of variety and untold options for connecting different routes. I would have stayed a few more days the last time I was there, but had to depart due to reservations made by incoming attendees of the annual Bob Wills Days in nearby Turkey, Texas. Be aware of that detail if you’re there at the end of April. Another highlight is the ‘Texas State Bison Herd,’ which roams freely throughout the park. Tatanka. Get your Kevin Costner on.

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Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Touted in park literature as the ‘Grand Canyon of Texas,’ Palo Duro is reported to be the ‘second largest canyon in the US,’ though when I searched for substantiation of this claim I could only come up with Texas based media outlets as sources. Such is life in the Lone Star State. Regardless, it is an incredible place to visit, and an iconic landmark. Captivating landscapes, lots of wildlife and wildflowers, plenty of opportunities for camping, and great trails. You can also see the outdoor musical TEXAS if you’re there in season. I try to spend at least a day here each time I pass through, and any time of the year is a good time to visit. My favorite trail combines the Givens, Spicer, Lowry (named for three local runners) with the Lighthouse trail to make a six or so mile loop with opportunities to take spurs to the Lighthouse formation and/or Little Fox Canyon.

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Lake Meredith National Recreation Area

While the first two might be somewhat obvious choices if visiting the Panhandle, Lake Meredith is fairly unknown outside the local area. When I was growing up, the lake was popular for boating, fishing, beer drinking, and cliff jumping. As the years passed, however, the lake (actually a reservoir capturing the flow of the dinky Canadian River) began to recede considerably, reaching a record low in 2013. As the lake dropped, marinas and boat ramps were left high and dry, and visitor use plummeted. In an effort to increase recreation opportunities in the area, the NPS decided to begin constructing trails, and several were seen to completion. Since then, however, the lake has experienced an astonishing recovery, with current water levels actually covering sections of trail where a few years ago the lake wasn’t even visible in the distance. What this all means is there are presently miles of really sweet trails with great views of the lake along the way.

Along with NRA’s eponymous lake, the region also features Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, a site recognized for its importance to the “survival, commerce and culture of the High Plains.” In past visits, I spent a fair amount of time here with my dad, who did a lot of volunteer work at the monument, including conducting interpretive tours of the quarries. Visiting the sites requires having a guide and a good imagination. The main sites, which sit on top of a mesa, consist of nothing more than small pits in the ground where high grade flint was extracted by prehistoric cultures to be used in trading and the construction of tools. If you’re ever in the area, it’s worth a stop by the visitor’s center, and nearby dirt roads allow access to the lake and some easy running opportunities. My dad no longer volunteers for the park service, having since moved on to other projects, but does spend a lot of time hiking around the entire area taking photographs and identifying flora and fauna. As such, anytime I’m back we spend at least a couple of days out by the lake, both on trail and off, and it’s become one of my favorite parts of spending time in the Panhandle.

There are several different areas of the recreation area with access to trails, but two of the best trailheads can be accessed at the same basic location, which is the Harbor Bay boat ramp just outside the town of Fritch. The first trailhead will be on the left as soon as you spot the lake. This is the South Turkey Creek Trail, which parallels the lakeshore for around six miles before dropping down into Turkey Creek itself, where it joins up with a four mile loop up the creek—making a 16-mile round trip route for anyone looking to do some distance. The loop can also be accessed, by an unofficial but apparent trail, from Dolomite Point, which is a short drive from the Alibates Visitor’s Center.

The second trail is the Harbor Bay Trail, which can be reached by continuing to the Harbor Bay boat ramp. From here the trail climbs for a short ways, then traverses a side canyon before crossing a creek and heading up to a mesa loop trail. From the trailhead to around the loop and back is around 6 miles. An earlier loop goes up to a mesa overlooking Harbor Bay itself. The terrain is a nice mix of up and down, the views are outstanding, and you are likely to have the place to yourself.

Welp, guess that’s about it pard. Not necessarily suggesting anyone make the Panhandle a destination, but if you happen to find yourself in these parts hankerin’ for some fresh Texas air, now you know where to go. Later y’all!

Photos below provided courtesy of Glendon Jett.

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Bájate

20191211_152741Sometime this past summer I started thinking about Baja. Not sure why I hadn’t considered traveling there before, but I began dreaming up a couple of bigger trips I’d like to do in the region, both on water and on land. Before I ended up in Spain I’d been considering the possibility of driving on down and staying for a while. That hasn’t happened yet, but when I found myself with a couple additional weeks of Kafkaesque frustration in waiting on a future dependent on government paperwork and faceless inefficiency, I decided to go for a visit, some recon, a vacation, something sunny and somewhat productive to do in the meantime—call it what you will. No matter what, it seems like Mexico is always a good idea. 

Sold the van and then took a bus down from Albuquerque, crossed the border in El Paso, stayed a night in Ciudad Juarez. Powered up on some huevos rancheros in the morning, and spent a day of air travel over to the peninsula. It was one night in a cool little hotel in San Jose del Cabo, and then on to the beach. Didn’t have any plans whatsoever, so bumped across town in a local bus the next morning, hopped in a shuttle headed to the Pacific side, and got off when I saw a dirt road heading down to the ocean.IMGP0828Ended up in the sleepy town of Cerritos ten years too late, but still enjoyed spending a few days in what was once a quintessential Mexican fishing village turned surf spot. The area is currently being hammered by development and habitat destruction, with a vibe trending hard to gringo tourist, but it was a good place to flail around with a surfboard for a few days. The afternoons were hot and humid, and the nights crisp and cool on an empty beach. It was fish tacos and a couple of Indios each evening, and in bed with a book around 8 p.m. listening to the exploding surf through the frond walls of a palapa. A couple good runs, lots of walking around, a few decent waves, and color filled skies at dusk. Super tranquilo.  

It was a final Sunday morning surf session, and from there it was a long hot walk back up that dirt road, a back-of-the-pickup ride from some locals, and a bus to Todos Santos where I spent a couple hours poking around town and taking photos.20191208_153342

That evening I arrived at the malecón in La Paz, capital of Baja California Sur, just in time for a stellar sunset and a Christmas concert. I stayed a full week in a little apartment just outside of the central district, and spent my mornings brushing up on grammar at a Spanish school, and afternoons checking out the city and the local beaches.

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I probably could have repeated the schedule for a couple more weeks without getting bored. It was great to speak Spanish for a few hours each morning, and then head off on my own around lunchtime. Would have been amazing to have had someone to cruise around with, but between studying and exploring I kept pretty busy. Highlights of the week were runs down to the malecón in the early a.m., getting exactly what I’d hoped from the classes, lots of great food, a couple of sweet hikes, an art walk with local guide Amelie, visits to the local beaches, bike riding on the boardwalk, and basking in lots of sunshine and sunsets—which there may soon be a dearth of in my life. The scenery is amazing down there, the juxtaposition of desert and sea something special.20191212_164003

20191209_164101Check out: Colectivo Tomate

20191211_163001My last day in town was Saturday, and I joined an all-day tour out to Isla Espiritu Santo. I rarely sign up for group tours, but when I do it’s always fun to watch the guides in action, to experience the day from the other side, to hear the same tired guide jokes I’ve personally repeated hundreds of times. And the tour itself was awesome: a morning boat ride out to the island, checking out a frigate rookery, swimming around with sea lions, a ceviche lunch, a lucky encounter with a pod of playful dolphins, and snorkeling with whale sharks to end the day. The activities/ecosystems also seemed to be responsibly managed and protected, which was uplifting to see. That evening there was a big holiday affair on the malecón, complete with loads of food vendors, a night boat parade, and fireworks. An entertaining end to the week.IMGP0961 (2)

IMGP1041From there it was up early in the morning and out of La Paz. On to Guadalajara, Juarez, and over an hour of standing in a barely moving line with hundreds of people on the international bridge waiting to process though customs. Once across, it was a couple hours in downtown El Paso, vibrant and lit up for the holidays, and then back to the hyper-depressed reality of bus travel in the US. It was up to Albuquerque again, and over to Amarillo, and into low clouds and gray skies and cold wind and dreams of deserts and oceans and sunshine. It was smiles from thinking about conversations with locals, and all the tacos consumed, and simply knowing that it’s all down there, whether I ever make it back or not.20191210_172542

Hold What You Love with an Open Hand

Non-attachment. Often a difficult concept to practice, it would be gauche to exclude mention of the idea on a site purportedly inspired by one western whitey’s trifling interest in ancient eastern teachings. Non-attachment represents the core of the Buddhist path, the Buddha having identified desire as the nexus of all suffering. It is only our longing for permanence in an ever-fluctuating environment which causes anguish and emotional turmoil when the inevitable occurs. Things change. Loss is imminent. Shit happens. We are all aware of such universal laws, yet often unprepared to accept their consequences, choosing instead to cling desperately to ideas of ownership and injustice.

When it comes to non-attachment and people, I fail considerably. That’s probably what these musings should be about, but I’m loathe to expose personal weakness in detail. When it comes to detachment and belongings, however, I usually do alright. The shedding of possessions can be equated with liberation, and the greater emotional satisfaction found in giving vs. receiving holds true. While I will recognize that material goods may provide access to liberating experiences—as in the case of vehicles, musical instruments, appropriately incorporated technologies, adventure gear, etc.—it is easy to lose sight of the end goal in the acquisition of more and more things. Needs, needs, and wants. Falling into this consumeristic mindset inevitably requires compromising one’s original values, and often free time and freedom, in order to acquire ever more equipment ostensibly needed to experience certain environments, or the world as a whole. And most of these technologies and goods are designed to make those experiences safer, easier, faster, warmer, drier, more sterile and less wild and not nearly as redemptive as a consequence. And once you have the things, of course, you have to hold on to them, and find space for them, and secure them, and fret about losing them somehow. In the end, I suppose, the point is determining what is essential to one’s fulfillment, and reevaluating the excess. As revered river guru Larry Firman once noted, “You don’t need much in this life.”

Truth told, I don’t own much in this life, and I’m pretty happy about that most of the time. This valuation, of course, being a relative assessment as there are billions of people on this planet with less than many of us would consider necessary for basic existence. I’m typing on a personal computer, I’ve almost always owned a vehicle. I have an abundance of clothes, and an excess of outdoor gear. But it’s good to reexamine with frequency, to keep the ever multiplying things in check. It’s important to cull the accessories from the fundamentals in a concentrated effort to simplify our worlds, to minimalize extraneous distractions from those things that truly do bring us alive. Every now and again it may also be healthy to release something you may have become too attached to. A practice in moving on and letting go.

On a less foofy note—it’s also kinda exciting to get rid of a bunch of junk so you can buy some more of the same. Anticipating an upcoming move, and also hoping to hit a reset button of sorts, I’ve been doing a lot of shuffling, selling, tossing, and donating lately. Loads of barely worn, ill-fitting clothes to the thrift stores; another boat paddled and gone; stacks of novels destined for library book sales; old photos and letters solemnly shredded; and the van, faithful companion and facilitator of adventures for the last several years, hesitantly transferred to more of the same without me. May it live to triple the miles it has now, and travel a Mobius loop of backroads till its wheels fall off. Thanks for all the good times. The rest of these words and photos are a dedication to our journeys together, as many of the stories on this site were made possible through its diligent service.

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This was the third van I’ve owned in my life, and as someone with a very transient lifestyle, I’ve spent a lot of years living out of (not in) a vehicle. Perhaps I’ll write more about all that at some point, but I had been thinking about buying another van for several years before I auspiciously found this one in Anchorage a week or so before I was scheduled to fly up to Alaska for the summer. This was 2016. It was exactly what I had been looking for off and on for a long while, a stealthy cargo van with low miles and a good engine and lots of empty space in the back for conversion. Luck and faith allowed me to sell my Civic a day before flying out, and two days later I was spending my first night on the Alaskan highway, a stellar view of the Chugach out the window. I bought some lumber and built a hasty bed to get me through the summer. My mama sent me some custom sewn blackout curtains to cover the windows against the never setting Arctic sun. At the end of the season I drove it through Canada, and then down through the PNW to California and eventually over to Texas. I spent a week at my dad’s house where we put on the roof rack and customized the inside—sturdy but simple, function with no frills other than varying shades of blue throughout. From there it was south to the Big Bend and on and on and on.

Around this time I was gifted a new road atlas, which I greatly prefer to google maps and GPS. I love the byways, the backroads, the out-of-the-way and little known attractions. While there are no more blank spots left on any maps, there’s almost always something new to see. For fun, I started highlighting all the roads and rivers traveled. It’s now been three-and-a-half years and 50,000 miles and 30+ states, many of them several times over. It’s been three times from Alaska to Texas or vice-versa, two times driving, once on the ferry. The Cassiar, the AlCan, the Top-of-the World ‘Highway’, the Inside Passage, the Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta. It’s been on a couple grocery runs into Mexico, and out to the East Coast and down to Florida and up through the North Country and across the Midwest. It’s been three canoes, three windshields, untold oil changes, new brakes, and a new set of tires. It’s been mud, snow, sand, and a few places it probably never should have ended up. It’s been good times and goodbyes and a lot of memories. It’s hard to believe it’s only been a little over three years, and it’s a bit hard to accept that it’s time to move on. But such is life, and personified vehicles may serve as sought after metaphors.

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