Thursday, December 31, 2009

best of oh-nine

Dear friends,

It's a cliche, yet almost obligatory. Best of 09. Worst of 09. All about me in 09. Some news organizations are even doing the lets-wrap-up-the-decade editions. I'm a stickler; I have one more year left in my decade, got it? So what do you think made my 2009 so fantastic?

Was it celebrating Alaska's 50th anniversary of statehood by standing downtown in sub-zero temperatures as fireworks went off all around us? Or the joy of exploring the frozen art installations on the park strip just a week later, then savoring my memories of the event as the works melted in the rainy 50-degree days?

Was it being with my parents and some of my siblings in the Land of Cheese when my mom celebrated her 85th birthday?

Was it all the pain-free bicycle riding I did with Jon and with friends in town and on the Kenai? Or the simplicity of hiking and camping during our beautiful summer? Was it skipping stones in a river or eating around a campfire? Watching steam rise from a volcano?

Was it leaving work to pursue writing; a workshop in the Wrangell Mountains? The days I was able to share with Jon away from work instead of working together as we have for so many years?

Was it political: the happiness and pride of seeing President Obama take office? The confused celebrations when our governor inexplicably left office?

Was it spending more time in the blueberry patches? Or harvesting fish from set nets in Kasilof? Was it bike camping with my girlfriends on a beautiful September weekend, just before my birthday?

Was it the process of the remodel, watching as our foundation was rebuilt, making our home level again?

Was it taking my first flight in a small airplane? Seeing the valleys, the braided rivers, ponds and mountains from the air with no obstructions?

Was it watching the second full moon of the month being eclipsed by the earth just before it set on this last day of 2009?

All these happenings are memorable for reasons that go beyond notations on my calendar. They aren't just events. They are events filled with people who are important to me. First, Jon, my partner who is patient and understanding, encouraging and funny. Handy, creative and meticulous about everything he takes on.

The people I worked with for many years (or just one or two) who are so smart and infuse humor and creativity into their work; the customers I got to know over the years who made me feel that I am part of a larger community of citizens who reach beyond cycling with their ideas about how our world can be a better place.

My family, most of whom are in the Midwest, for coming together whenever I go to visit, and do all they can to help our parents continue to live independently. And my family here in Alaska - my sister and her family, including my nephew and niece - who continue to open my eyes to what it means to be authentic about who you are.

Our friend Scott who, after years of encouragement finally convinced me to go flying one clear October day.

And my friends, including all the women from the Dirt Divas with whom I bike almost every week and some who are even willing to go on epic adventures with me. These biking women are a source of strength and energy and are consistently positive and supportive. They help me feel that I belong to something. They - and their partners, and several other people I've met through cycling and other activities - make up my extended Alaska family.

This is quite a place to live, but the people make it home. They fill the moments of each year by listening & sharing and by making me laugh.

happy full moon!
happy new year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas thanks

I was out riding today and saw a group of bikers. I thought maybe I could latch onto the tail end of the group but quickly realized they were riding much faster than me. I then proceded to ride a loop on some singletrack, then, the more I rode, the worse my riding got. I couldn’t hold my line and kept veering off the narrow trail. Snow just off the side of the trail was well over a foot deep. I had one wreck where I landed on my side, the top tube crashing onto my inner thigh. Then I struggled for a moment to push the bike up and off me, twisting my shoe out of the pedal while I lay there in the snow. I felt pretty darn alone. And, I'm not sure why, but it made me think back to those Christmases when I was a child.

I remember the anticipation. On Christmas Eve we’d go to evening Mass where there would be singing and candles. A long event. One year someone my mom worked with had given her a box of clothes and I had gone through it to pick out a red dress with a velvet collar to wear to church. I felt very dressy. I also hoped that the girl who used to own it didn’t go to our church. I was always very aware that we didn’t have much money, particularly for anything frivolous like a Christmas dress.

I remember waking very early on Christmas day, going out to the living room and even falling asleep near the tree or on the sofa waiting for everyone else to get up. I don’t know quite what I expected; some magic, I suppose. Some fantastic gift I hadn’t dared ask for, lest I be disppointed when it didn’t arrive. There was little on my list for Santa and no visit to sit on the jolly man’s lap. That only happened on tv, not real life.

I remember a year my mom made up buckets for each of us; they were gallon ice cream buckets collected over the past year, each with a name on it. Inside was candy. I don’t remember what else, maybe crayons. We would get necessities like new underwear. I must have received a toy, but I don't remember any specifics. The younger boys might get a model car to build or matchbox cars. I don’t know what the older kids got.

Many of the gifts were listed to “Austin Family” and they were from Santa. These were usually board games like Monopoly or a new Scrabble game. When I was little, I didn't give much thought to the family gifts. With my childish, self-centered nature, I wanted something special just for me, like my cousins had. Something big.

My two cousins, aunt and uncle lived on a dairy farm just up the road from us. Each Christmas our Aunt Maxine would visit, staying overnight at the farm, visiting us for the Christmas meal. I remember my cousins would brag about the gifts Maxine had brought them: sleeping bags were the gifts one of those long-ago years. But, as Aunt Maxine sat on our sofa chatting with my parents and older siblings, I wondered why she hadn’t gotten me anything. Why had none of us received gifts from her? My feelings, always sensitive, were hurt. I didn’t think she loved us, and if she did, she didn't love us as much as she loved my two cousins. I kept my emotions distant and never asked anyone about it. Even back then I tried to rationalize that maybe it was just easier to get something for my cousins because there were only two of them while there were 10 of us.

Aunts Anna Mae (my traveling partner in Italy last year),
Maxine & Margaret with my dad, John, in the background.

These thoughts were long forgotten until sometime after Aunt Maxine died in 2006. I was talking with my oldest sister about how hurt my feelings had been over the Christmas slights; how jealous I’d been of our cousins. That’s when she told me that all the gifts labeled “to the Austin Family” were bought with money Aunt Maxine had given my mom. Maxine must have figured Mom would know better how to buy for the family than she would. And Mom did a good job over the years. I only wish she would have given credit to my aunt instead of to a large, strange man I’d never met. For without the credit, I never knew to thank Aunt Maxine.

This holiday season, I want to say “thanks” to all the people who deserve thanks but have never received it. And thanks to Mom for doing the best you could.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

winter perfect

Pushki, more lovely in the winter.

Jon has been busily insulating the garage and front entry for the past month or so. All his days away from work have been dedicated to the task. I've only managed to coax him into the outdoors a few times. A couple of his friends have called to tempt him to go out to play, but he has stuck to his task with the same dedication to which he approaches berry picking and mushroom hunting: complete, single-minded focus. I sometimes wish I had his level of focus, but often revel in my scattered approach to life, bouncing from one idea to the next great thing. (I'll refrain from digressing.)

Yesterday, in honor of the winter solstice, Jon agreed to go for a bike ride with me on the snow bikes. He looked at the kitchen calendar to remind himself when his last bike ride was: a month and a half ago! I remember talking with him before he rode home from work that day, suggesting that since it was snowing he might want to drive the shop truck home instead of his new road bike. Instead, he hopped on his bike and began what I thought would be a miserable ride. Instead of miserable, he said it was invigorating. He enjoyed riding on paths that were just barely covered with the first sticking snow of the season. He told me he liked feeling like he was the only one out there, and feeling that he had just gotten away with something. He was beaming like a little kid who had just mastered the wheelie.

I've had that feeling before. In 2002, the first fall the shop was at Huffman, we still didn't have snow in late November. The day before Thanksgiving I rode my road bike into work, trying to stretch the skinny-tired season as long as I could. Rain began falling in the afternoon. As we were closing shop for the evening, I called Jon at home to see if he needed anything from the grocery. He thought I was calling for a lift home. I insisted that I ride, hating the thought that he would drive 10 miles (20, round trip) so I wouldn't have to ride in the rain. I had my jacket, I told him. No problem.

It turned into one of my more memorable commutes as I pedaled through the darkness on the wet paths, branches dripping, cars splashing. My headlamp barely cut through the big raindrops. I thought of everyone making last-minute trips to the store to prepare for the feast the next day while I reveled in the rainy evening. Rides like these imprint a powerful memory that helps see us through until the next time we can enjoy the experience of being on two wheels. They also give us bragging rights we feel we deserve for being considered tough, if only for that one time.

It took awhile for Jon to get his Pugsley dialed in for yesterday's ride, but we were able to leave the house before noon to bike around on the Campbell Tract and Bicentennial Park. The wind hadn't yet picked up so the trees were still covered with snow. Narrow trails were still setting up after last week's multi-day snowstorm.

On Rover's Run

Jon detours around a birch tree.

Looking good, but we were running out of time!

We made a wide loop around the park on what was a warm first day of winter. A chinook is pushing into the Anchorage area. I don't want the trails to melt and get icy. Another couple days and the skinny trails will be perfect. I'm greedy to hang onto the mid-twenty-degree perfection. I'm thinking cold thoughts. I'm thinking Christmas Eve ride.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

why I'm here

Inspiration runs short these days as my attention turns from one idea to the next. I jot down notes, try to start things, ponder, read. I barely notice we're losing seconds each day as we near the solstice, followed by the welcome, but slow, return of the light. This week I was shoveling snow for three days running, trying to keep up with it as the white stuff piled up in the driveway.

On Wednesday, I snowshoed at the neighborhood park among the trees bent over under the weight of frost, then inches of snow, wondering how much weight they can handle before they break. Unless, that is, a big wind comes first.

frost on the pushki

Friday, on the snowshoes with my friend Corinne before she heads south for the holidays. Around zero degrees, we followed paths previously packed by others on foot or bike, tromping down the fresh powder on trails familiar or new. Too cold for me to want to pull my camera from my bag, we stop in the sunshine that's peaking over a hill from a low angle. It provides no discernible warmth. Corinne takes a few photos, then we move on, weaving through the trees, following a half-dozen paths, yet meeting no other people.

And Saturday, studying the weather around town: still cold down low, warmer up high - but windy. Yes, the wind. Is 15 and windy better than one degree and calm? My friend Jo-Ann and I head up, just beyond the foothills, near the mountains' bases.

On skis up the main trail, bunching my fingers inside my mittens to warm them while still holding the poles. Snow on the bridge, even packed down, is nearly a foot high. We head uphill. Finally, at the turnoff, Jo-Ann drops onto the trail that winds trough the trees. It's just wide enough for us on skis. I start after her, push out and into my heels to keep from going too fast on the tight corners. My gaitors skim the sides of the snowy trench.

Jo-Ann before dropping onto the skinny trails

The snow alongside the trail is almost too deep for our poles. I have to push through two feet of powder to find something to push off from, but by then the tips of the poles are well behind me so I kick and glide down toward the creek while my poles stay mostly above the snow. I use them for balance.

Sunset, 3:40

It's colder by the creek, the lowest part of the trail, the sink where cold air rests. We climb out of the valley, round a corner and are back in the wind. The sun is setting to the south - barely southwest. It's 3:40. The sunset provides the only variation in color besides my gear, Jo-Ann's hat. As the light dims, we glide down the final hill, veer onto a snowshoe track and are back at the parking lot.
Frost on my hair and hat. Eyes sore from the cold dryness of the air. Nose a little tender.

The city below

As we near the shortest day of the year here in the north country, when sleeping in a warm bed sometimes is the most pleasant activity I can think to do, I'm grateful I have the energy to get out into the woods and friends who are willing to join me when self-described reasonable people would opt to stay home. Do people still wonder why I live here?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

frosty week

On Sunday morning, I went for a bike ride. Fog had coated the trees and grasses, signs and benches. Even the weeks-old snow was covered with a layer of hoarfrost, its crystals standing on end, electrostatically charged. The temperatures for the last week or so were perfect for snow biking, yet I had spent evenings watching films and days getting our house put back together, painting our stairway and generally being a responsible adult.

But all Alaskans know that when conditions are perfect, you have to drop everything and get out. Lucky I finally did, too. Because snow started falling on Monday and now the buff trails are under more than six inches of snow, which will take a few days to get packed down by various trail users, including a few snow bikers no doubt pushing their fat-tired rigs over some sections of trail.

The winter is long and there will be other chances to ride. But getting out while the frost still covered the trees was a treat. I was the only biker out there and didn't run into anyone on the singletracks as I kept myself moving, aware I wanted to attend a workshop in just a few hours. Knowing I needed to do some time in the saddle instead of just a movie theater seat.

Now I expect branches will begin to break under the heavy snow load, unless a big wind comes first, which is unlikely in the next day or so. I'll get out on skis or snowshoes. Catch a bit more of this snowy weather. Remind myself that the only way to get through a winter is to embrace it. Often the embrace is sweetened by an airline ticket to someplace where I can wear tank tops.

After Jon removed the carpet. (He plans to rebuild
the stairs so they're not as steep.)

Paints from the mis-tint bins at various hardware stores.

A little signature from my friend.

I don't know if there'll be a tropical vacation this winter. If not, I'm okay with that. We're moving forward on the house, I have some creative projects in mind and I'm ready to bike, ski, snowshoe or skate. Unlike last year, I have no injuries. It could be a great winter.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

conflict and story

Sunday, Dec. 6. At the film fest:

It doesn't necessarily mean there's anything wrong with a movie if I nod off during a matinee. The middle of the afternoon can be a great time to nap, though I'm more of a summer nap-taker than winter. That may seem counter-intuitive as we sink into the shortest days of the year, but I get plenty of sleep at night in the winter, maybe too much; in the summer, not so much with all the staying up late into the daylight evening and getting up relatively early. But I was kind of bummed that I woke up to catch the credits of the first of a pair of docs I went to see.

It was an interesting film about the moose of Denali and the filmmaker's relationship with his moose biologist dad. I was just tired and really needed a coffee. I felt bad that I missed the ending.

I managed to stay awake during the second film of the double-feature: what turned out to be a pretty boring film about people climbing Denali. Really, should a film about climbing the tallest mountain on the continent be boring? I didn't think so, but I wonder if other people had the same reaction I did. What started out as a little introduction of each person in the climbing party and what they hoped to contribute as well as what they planned to get out of it turned into a sort of Denali travelogue. (Camp 1, Camp 2...) Everyone made it safely to the summit and back, which is the goal, of course, but I didn't feel much passion or soul.

I sometimes worry about that in my writing. If nobody gets hurt, can it be a good biking story? If everyone starts and ends a weekend in a remote cabin as friends, does anyone care? Our lives and the fictional lives we see in books and magazines, on television and in movies are filled with conflict and drama. Well, my personal life with Jon is not filled with much drama. Even through the first stage of the remodel we remained relatively sane and calm. The biggest drama here revolves around Jon's serial obsessions with harvesting fungi and berries from the mountains and woods. My coping mechanisms include declining invitations to pick when I know he'll spend all day in a berry patch or bringing an alternative activity: my bike, a book, a notebook. Sometimes, all three.

Don't be mistaken, our lives aren't boring. There just isn't much conflict. Without conflict, where is plot, I wonder, as I try to develop characters or even write a personal essay. Of course, some conflicts are purely within us; the struggle with our own fears and insecurities. We must overcome our own hurdles just to put words on a page. That hurdle often stands between our comfort zone and the truth. As writers we want to get at the truth. Sometimes truth lays between what we think we know and what we say. They are sometimes the scraps we cull before even putting down the words. In my writing, so many things are left unsaid because I'm too afraid to take it that one step further. Why?

People will think less of me. Think I'm strange. My convictions are weak. My ideas are lame. Nobody will understand.

But if writers and filmmakers are unwilling to take the step into self-discovery or a character's self-discovery, then what is the point? We read or go to films to learn new things and to make connections, to relate, to understand ourselves and the people around us. We might learn that despite apparent differences, we are surprisingly alike. We need to be reminded of this often, lest in our self-centered worlds we forget that across the planet or across the street, someone else is having a similar thought. Maybe experiencing a similar alone-ness.

I began thinking about this after seeing a film on Monday night: Prodigal Sons. I read the blurb ahead of time. Though it seemed to give away a lot, it actually gave away very little. But, experiencing the film told me some truths I've been learning within my own extended family, which I won't go into here. It went deep into talking about identity, labels, how we see ourselves and how we think others see us. What makes us who we are? Can you truly reinvent yourself? Are we our history? It made me wonder how society can foster understanding besides one person at a time?

Now it's almost a week later. The film fest (and painting my stairs) has absorbed all my attention. Over the last several days, I've seen films that have raised my awareness on all sorts of issues, big and small. I suppose there must be a few blockbuster movies in the theaters right now but the fest brings us mostly small films. Sometimes the filmmakers or actors are here. We can actually ask the filmmakers what they meant and understand their answers. I love the film fest, but it will be a relief when it's over... maybe I'll send out some holiday cards.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

get yourself to the film fest

Outside the Bear Tooth, December '08

Early December is film fest time here in Anchorage. I'm sometimes surprised how many people don't know about it or don't take advantage of the opportunity to see a great range of films that are out of the mainstream. But it is a busy time of year with parties and gift buying, friends traveling, students studying.

But if people can take some time out of their schedules to slouch into a theater seat, they'll be surprised at what they see. The Snow Dance portion of the festival has films about life in the northern latitudes (or extreme southern lats.) and several were filmed right here in Alaska. But it's an international fest, so one night you may see a movie filmed in Sweden, the next in Japan or India. Of course there are also films shot in the Lower-48 and in other countries around the world.

One of my favorite film fest moments was several years ago, when, for the opening-night gala, they built a screen out of snow outside Bernie's Bungalow Lounge and projected clips onto it throughout the evening as people wandered back and forth between the warmth of the bar and the chilly courtyard. I don't think the screen lasted more than a few days because, like every year in December, a Chinook rolled in, as it did earlier this week, melting the screen.

Maybe that's why I liked it so much, moving images on melting snow. Under-dressed women acting like they weren't cold. People trying to act cool because who knew when an up-and-coming director would show up? As if people were trying to convey: We're hip Alaskans. We do this all the time!

Well, I'm not particularly hip, but tonight I'll go to a Russian movie "Hipsters, (Stiljagi)" which will kick off the opening-night festivities. The party is included in the all-events passes Jon and I have, as are a few clinics on film making. I hope to take advantage of some of those in the next few days. Maybe someday, I'll be able to make something that's worthy of the festival. We shall see.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

keeping it real at the book fair

Bill's book about real Alaska...
details below...

Snow came to Anchorage this Thanksgiving weekend, and had I not previously made a commitment, I would have stayed home on so-called Black Friday to read, write or stroll through the neighborhood and around the bog on snowshoes. Instead, I've spent the last three days at the Anchorage Museum selling my book at the annual ReadAlaska Book Fair.

I was a little cool to the drudgery of getting up and driving through several inches of snow on the unplowed streets on Friday. I put the shovel in the car just in case, but lucky for me the bad drivers were either in another part of town or already in a ditch.

The museum, with its spacious expansion, was filled on the first level with vendors selling a variety of hand-made art, including jewelry, stained glass, hand-dyed shawls, turned-wood bowls and native carvings. Each morning, I strolled past a few artists then headed upstairs to the mezzanine.

The idea of the fair is to promote books that are published in Alaska. Most titles are by Alaskan authors. Art books, kids' books, memoirs of Alaskan experiences. History, fiction, guide books, science, calendars.

With all the authors on hand for signings, it sometimes feels like a social gathering just for us. But we also want to sell our books - lots of them. Each author has a little something they say about their books and I love listening to the hooks they use to draw in the sometimes-shy customers.
Ollen Hunt, a real Buffalo Soldier.

This is my second year sharing a table with one of the most popular authors published by my distributor. Ollen Hunt is in his mid-80s and is popular with people of all ages. One of his pitches: "You're looking at a Buffalo Soldier from World War II." People stop. Thank him for his service. They're drawn in and listen to him talk about Italy, Germany and Alaska. There aren't many African-American solders from his era left, but people remember the injustice that soldiers often faced when they returned to a racially-divided country. And since he's of the same generation as my dad, I sometimes feel like he's telling the stories my dad doesn't often share.

Another author, with his first book out this year, is Bill. I thought Bill would have a tough job getting his book to stand apart from the other personal accounts of Alaskan experiences. But his pitch is great. He'll tell the people strolling by, "These are real Alaskan stories." "Oh yeah?" someone might ask, to which Bill answers, "Yes, and mine are non-fiction." What I didn't notice until today was the sign he pointed to when he made his point. Once he broke the ice, people were laughing and ready to chat about his book, page through to look at some photos and maybe add it to their stack.
finding real Alaskan stories at the book fair.

With all the recent hype about what's real in our country and our state, I appreciate the authenticity of these guys and many other authors who have labored, sometimes for years, for the right words, the best photo.

The book business is a tough business, especially when people don't believe the recession is over.
Authors put in their time, energy and emotion; they agonize over the right words, then after they’ve typed the last period of the last sentence, they have the job of wading through the often grueling editing and publishing process to get their book to market. Having someone decide to buy your book directly out of your hands is a pleasant reward.

Even people who don’t write know that writing is a sometimes lonely, solitary process. What they don’t know is that signings in book stores are usually solo events where the author may be singled out at a table at the end of an aisle. Disinterested people sometimes veer away as though the author has a full-blown case of H1N1. By contrast, the Book Fair is a celebration of what each author has achieved, with many authors sharing tips and offering encouragement, a little smile or a thumbs-up. I don't think the shoppers see this, but the mezzanine sometimes feels like an office party where we all just got promoted. And I always leave with something new to read.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

our library - an indoor field trip

A pocket watch that belonged to Soapy Smith.
A handwritten letter dated 1865 from William H. Seward.
Rockwell Kent’s book, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska.

These were just a few highlights of yesterday’s tour of the Z.J. Loussac Library’s Alaska Collection. Special Collections Librarian, Michael Catoggio, led a first-ever insiders’ tour of the library. Seven of us showed up to take the tour and learn about the depth of resources that are housed in our public library. Michael wanted to lead this tour partly to show writers, artists, book lovers and the curious what kinds of treasures we, the citizens of Anchorage, have in our library. (Some, likes those listed above, are valuable enough to reside in a locked vault.) The wealth of research material, inspiration, answers to questions we didn’t know we had. In this time of tight budgets, funding cuts and people who think that everything we need to know can be found on the internet, Michael was able to show us a sampling of what is in our library, particularly the Alaska Collection.

The collection is a repository for works by Alaskan authors; works about Alaska. Books, periodicals, oral histories, letters, photographs, early maps, government publications. A replica of the Liberty Bell. Anchorage high school year books. Like I said, we saw a sampling. There is so much more than could be covered in the hour-plus tour.

I’ll admit, I haven’t been a big library user in Anchorage. I don’t know why because as a kid I loved going to our Carnegie library in the small town where I grew up. My family always participated in the summer reading program. I remember sitting outside on the big brick and cement walls with my two younger brothers while waiting for Dad to pick us up on his way home from work.

Then, years ago, when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, I discovered some treasures in the Golda Meir Library on campus. I found books about Milwaukee history and since I hadn’t grown up there, I was curious to learn a bit about its past. I remember reading the little tidbit about how two feuding city founders, one on each side of the Milwaukee River, led to downtown streets that even today have a jog in them where they cross the river because two men didn’t want their streets to ever be joined. Funny thing was, no native Milwaukeeans I knew had heard the story.

Though an English major, I always enjoyed history. Not the “we fought these people in this war” history, but the quirky pieces of history that cause me to say “Oh, that’s why..."

So when Brian, another tour participant, opened the book containing the minutes from the first assembly meeting of the newly formed City of Anchorage, 1920, we all paused as he read about ordinances that required children to not be out late at night and curtains to not cover the windows of pool halls. I could have sat down right there and read the type-written pages. This is history. And, yes, this is where stories are born. What was going on behind the curtained pool hall windows? I want to know! Find me the newspaper so I can read more!

After having my eyes opened to the archives contained in the library, after having had the opportunity to peak at our history in a section of the library where I’d never ventured, now I want to go back. Just to wander the stacks of the circular room on the second floor and pull out pieces of Alaska history. Because digging into my adopted city’s history is another way to become a part of it, as important as voting, staying up to see the northern lights or watching a sled dog race. Thanks to Michael, I’ve had a chance to step through that door and so can anyone else. It’s all yours.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

all that glitters

For a year the media did drool
On the web and cable ‘twas a virtual duel
May we return to the days
when yodeling we did praise
And the most famous Alaskan was Jewel?


I wrote these words shortly after the now former governor announced her resignation this past July. I thought of it yesterday after reading Michael Carey's commentary in the NY Times.

Alaskans remember how they found out: Jon and I were in Hope for the holiday weekend. My friend Jo-Ann and I had just returned to our friends' cabin after a 34 mile bike ride when our friend Lynn told us. I grabbed a beer and headed for the sauna. Later that evening, we sat around the campfire speculating about the possible reasons. No television; no radio; no pundits. We just couldn't figure it out.

Another friend later told me he found out while on a kayak trip near Homer. He was on shore when his cell phone rang and he received the news that the governor was resigning. He shouted for joy. Then he saw and heard kayakers across the bay lift their paddles and shout as they also answered their cell phones. I wish I could have seen that!

The next day, the Fourth of July, a friend managed to get cell service and pulled up the announcement on his iphone so we could read it aloud after breakfast. That afternoon, Jon, Jo-Ann and I biked a couple miles from the cabin to downtown Hope to hang out by the water, eat ice cream and enjoy a mellow day in the sun. Jo-Ann kept going up to people - strangers, tourists - rambling about being the governor, then adamantly shouting "I quit!" It was like Independence Day was made for us this year!

But we're still obsessed with the woman who was governor and sometimes I wish she would just go away. But the more I want her to go away, the more information comes my way. Now the book, the anticipated, quickly-written memoir is out. When I think of a memoir, I think: what did this person do? What difference did they make? How have they informed or inspired? What can I learn from this person?

Well, she upset the establishment, then did... work with me here... tried to get the gas pipeline... oh, she got us that big energy assistance check last year... she did lots of things... right? Oh, yeah, she sold the Murkowski jet. Turned down some of Obama's stimulus money before the legislature voted for us to get it. She suggested that Ted resign before she said he should get a do-over election. She said the Supreme Court had done us wrong with regard to the Exxon Valdez ruling... later, she said it was a good decision. Let's see, what else? Inspired the far right to go to rallies and to vote for her. She got Tina Fey to go back to SNL, which helped their ratings... somebody?... line? can you tell me what she accomplished for Alaska?

Oh, yeah. Now the rest of America knows it's cold up here. Got it. You betcha!

snow time, the highs and lows

Gloria & Bev in the middle of the storm.

Last week Jon brought my winter bikes home. They've been stored at the shop warehouse for the past two months because we just didn't have the space here during the remodel. Since we're not quite ready for all the bikes to be home right now, I had him take a few back to work until the garage is finished on the inside. But I forget how many parts must be swapped on my bikes. Pedals, a saddle and seatpost for one bike, a saddle for the other. Transfer the frame pump. Seat bags. The left grip of my mountain bike had to be moved onto my snow bike (long story).

I was making the change-outs and Jon was transferring pedals for me when the wind picked up and the temperature spiked outdoors: our mid-twenty-degree day had just jumped to 39 in under 20 minutes! Not unusual when the Chinook winds kick in bringing warm, wet air to Anchorage. I was meeting friends for a hike and since we'd seen the weather trend, we decided to not hike too high; we'd stay in the trees.

It was a good call because even in low areas the wind was blowing snow sideways and during parts of the hike the sharp icy barbs hit our faces like a sandblaster. Ours were some of the few tracks out there and on our return trip even those had been buried in exposed areas, replaced with newly-formed crust. Sometimes we would duck between some trees only to have the wind shift and swirl and still manage to hit us. We saw one person with a dog in the first hour of the hike. When we reached a main trail, we did see more people, all of them, like us, happy to be out in the snow despite the high winds pushing through the trees and golden-brown grass.

It was a good day to be in the woods. When the wind drowns the sound of your footsteps against the crust of snow. When the ice is just forming on the creeks in layers of overflow that look like the edges of mineral pools. When the ground has frozen the small boggy spots. When the ravens are playing on the currents above the Campbell Creek Gorge, their calls covered by the powerful wind and the sound of snow hitting our jackets and hats. And then, it changes.

Campbell Creek with overflow.

Just a few days later, it was single-digits when I went skiing with two other friends. I was still looking for things in the house. The neck gaitor, wind-block mittens, classic ski poles. I was still trying to remember how to dress when it's 5 above and dropping.

I don't know how cold it is.

The trails were well-packed and our skis and poles creaked against the crusted snow. I balled my cold fingers inside my gloves before pulling the heavier mitts from my backpack. I remembered how to ski down a narrow singletrack. Breath froze on strands of hair that had escaped my hood and cap. My upper lip felt frozen. Crusty, frosted snow is slow; good for a first ski of the season, but a thought kept crossing my mind, enough that I mentioned it a few times to my friend, Jo-Ann: This would be great on the snow bike.

Returning to the trailhead with a view of the inlet.

Of course, I create far more wind chill while biking than I could possibly generate the way I ski, making 5 degrees on a bike feel much colder than on skis. It's hard to keep my face warm enough without my glasses frosting over. Even with contacts I need to wear some kind of eye covering to block the cold and wind from my eyes. But each year, I figure something out to allow me to ride on colder days and stay warm. I sometimes forget how long I was off the bike last winter and how much I missed the snow riding as I recovered from some injuries.

Now that Jon has found my insulated cycling shoes, maybe it's time to gather everything else together. The more I think about it, the more I know I have to start getting out into the chill of winter on the bike. Because the longer I hide, the harder it will be to finally venture out, but once I venture out, I'll remember just how wonderful it is. However, I'm going to wait until it gets above zero.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

racing the winter

After Sunday night's snowfall.

In March, before all this started.

It may not have seemed like good timing when we started, but a three-ring binder of notes, inspection reports and invoices attests to the progress we've made since just over two months ago, when, on September 2, I wrote on the first page: "Gave go-ahead to Wes." Wes is our general contractor. He builds fancy homes in new subdivisions. Houses you might tour in the annual Anchorage Parade of Homes. But he also orchestrates remodels. And when I say orchestrate, I mean that after living through the sequence of events that culminated in our windows and doors being installed last Friday, it reminded me of an orchestra conductor. In very slow motion.

Cue the excavator, framers, concrete cutters and pourers. Electricians, plumbers, roofers. Inspectors. How many people made their way to our house to help make the transformation? Everything must work in sequence. People must know their parts and be skilled at them. A half-day delay for a delivery or an inspection might mean no more work that day. No moving forward.

Over the peaceful quiet on those days, I could hear my own thoughts as I looked at the calendar; avoided watching weather forecasts. Many days I would repeat the phrase: it is what it is. No need to worry about what I can't control. Other days, when it was raining, I'd say to the crew, "at least it isn't snow." This must have been somewhat annoying, I realized, when the most sarcastic guy on the crew responded that I'd make a good supervisor. I was trying to stay optimistic for me more than for them.

Sometimes I'd wonder at the wisdom of beginning the project that, by Wes's schedule, would wind down at the end of October. Often Jon and I try to be away from Alaska in October. It's an unpredictable month (come to think of it, which month isn't?) It can be rainy, or it can be snowing. It can be in the single-digit temperatures. It can be icy. Windy. Gloomy.

But this year was different. Despite a late-September snowstorm that dropped wet snow across the lower Hillside area of Anchorage, the snow stayed away from most of the city. Until Sunday afternoon.

Now Jon and I are repeating a phrase that was becoming common at the house: we are so lucky. How did we get so lucky? When we started, it seemed our timing was all off. We were cutting too close, starting too late in the season. Then things began coming together: A corner of the house was being jacked up so the floors would be more level. Then things began falling apart: That gap under the garage door used to be a concrete block. We would need more foundation work. More excavating!

That tiny orange jack lifted this corner 1-1/4 inch!

There used to be a concrete block there, right?

More excavating... (followed by more
concrete cutting, foundation pouring...)

Kitty makes a rare appearance at the jobsite
as Jon seals part of the foundation.

Any remodel will bring surprises. If you think about it, every day will bring surprises if we open our eyes to them. But a week’s setback and a little more added to the bill were not welcome surprises. The days got shorter as the month of October wore along. We were patient and did what we could to keep things organized. Do some of the work ourselves where we could. We watched the progress, even when it seemed very slow.

Front entryway landing - before...

...and after.

Waking Monday morning to around four inches of fresh snow on the ground, Jon and I again commented to each other about the luck of the timing. The luck that the roof was on before the rain came a few weeks ago. That the ground froze two days after the electric line (for which we had hand dug a 15 foot long trench, 30 inches deep) was buried and the day after the last concrete was poured. That last Tuesday we were able to spread a load of gravel on the driveway and get it compacted.

 Jon spreading the gravel...

15 tons of gravel to level the driveway.

Who can explain luck? By our timing and our gut decision to go with the contractor who said he could have it done this fall, we sometimes wondered if we had made the wrong choice by starting so late. But as each day brought us closer to finishing this phase of our project, we kept the fingers crossed, thought about all the sunny days we had worked indoors, maybe having banked those days to have good weather this fall.

What started with a deck demolition on Labor Day ended last Friday, almost two months later with the window and door installations. Now, of course, our work continues: insulating, inspections, electrical and plumbing work. More inspections. Again, this was only phase 1. There’s lots still to do. But progress itself is something to be celebrated. We mark the milestones, then get back to work. So much to do.

Monday, November 2, 2009

full moon at the tract

Full moon at my back
casting a shadow of my
slightly skewed gait
as I move alone along the gravel path.

Leaves all gone to their rest
no longer muffle the sounds of
cars a mile away and farther,
drivers on their evening commutes.

A scream in the woods
down the trail
by the creek.
My mind hears a migrating bird
locked in the freezing creek.

A scream and I call into the woods
Hello? Is anybody there?
and another scream
What is the sound of a treed bear cub?
an injured moose?

A scream, piercing as a damsel’s terror
in a haunted house maze,
and I sweep along the trailside
with my headlamp and see nothing.
The moon lights the tops of the trees,
shadows thrown downstream.

A shape emerges in a treetop
there along the river,
and a scream, as I cast my light high
catch a pair of eyes reflecting
looking around me,
looking at me.

An owl, over a foot tall
holding its territory from its perch
more screams cry behind me
as I walk away from the water
the darkness, the owl,
protecting this trail and this creek
from intruders in this city forest.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

how to describe

I've been trying to write an essay about some experiences I've had biking the Lost Lake Trail, particularly the first and most recent times I rode it. It's been tough putting in the details of the story and I'm not quite sure why, but sometimes when I shift into the essay form my writing can get stiff and too factual, less descriptive and visceral. Then on Wednesday, as the concrete workers in the garage below me scraped and dragged their floats and trowels against the drying concrete I remembered a few moments along the trail.

 looking back at Lost Lake and smoke from forest fires

How can I describe
emerging from a sweaty climb
where I've pedaled my bicycle
so slowly on the needle-covered trail
that I am no longer outrunning the mosquitoes
and biting flies
that I thought were done tormenting us
for the season,
emerging through a break in the trees
to a cut bank
where the trail curves around a knoll
to feel the breeze that has traveled from the ocean
into the gulf and up the bay, over a mountain pass
until it washes over me and dries my sweat?

And how can I describe
the moment I witness
the trail winding and dipping before me,
disappearing over a hillock
only to emerge beyond a tarn
as it draws a line along
and over and between
the contours of the high pass?

And how can I describe to you
the relief of removing my
salt-stained jersey,
shorts, bra and socks
before stepping precariously
over rocks unexpectedly smooth
or sharp
to ease myself gently
into one of those tarns
perfectly warmed by the long summer days' sun,
one inch at a time,
water over ankles, calves, knees, thighs,
until plunging under?

Then to surface,
feel the breeze raise bumps across
my skin before I sink,
water washing over my shoulders
water surrounding me,
as I tilt back my head
into the cooling, still water
clear water left over from winter's snow
spring melt
mixed with sweet rainwater?

How can I describe this to you?

Monday, October 26, 2009

bicycle friendly anchorage

The news that Anchorage has earned the title, Bicycle Friendly Community (at the bronze level) from the League of American Bicyclists and is the northernmost city to do so was announced in the local paper over the weekend. I received an email about it the day before and it got me wondering, beyond the recognition, what does it mean to live in a bicycle-friendly community?

Anchorage got the award because of the work of several groups, including the Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage (BCA) and the Alaska Injury Prevention Center which have led education campaigns in the local schools, held bike rodeos and offered clinics to share cycling tips with commuters. Maybe you've seen the PSA the Injury Prevention Center has run on local t.v. stations.

The Municipality has also been working on a Bicycle Plan to identify ways to design better roads for cycling/utility commuters and designate specific routes as bike routes. I've participated in planning meetings and it's been a slow process, but the result should be a blueprint for road designs that include more bike lanes and better signage - part of the educational component. The tough part of helping work on a planning document is watching new roads and intersections go in where the opportunity to build bicycle-friendly roads that will link us to existing routes has been passed up because of budgets or a lack of understanding of cycling and pedestrian issues. For example, mention roundabouts to some Anchorage-area cycling commuters and you will receive an earful about how the traffic designers have failed to understand the dynamics of bicycle commuting and continue to insist that we be relegated to the sidewalk whenever traveling through them.

Returning from a trip to the fancy bread store on Saturday.

Not all the ducks have flown south... yet.

Meanwhile, in thinking about what makes a bicycle-friendly community, my thoughts inevitably turn to my own cycling experiences and the stories I've heard or read from others. Cyclists getting hit by cars. Teens, adults. At intersections or along roadways. Intentional or accidental. I've heard lots of stories and it usually comes down to a few things that we, as bicycle drivers (a term used by the League), need to understand: people in cars don't see us, and when they do suddenly see us, they can become hostile. Why? Maybe it's because we've startled them.

I've told people for years the thing to remember when riding on the roads and streets or when crossing intersections is that you are invisible. Nobody sees you. When I approach an intersection, especially when riding on a multi-use path, even at a light where I have the walk signal, I assume the driver will not look for me and if they do make a cursory glance to the left and the right, they still will not see me. I'll approach slowly, sometimes yelling "Hey!" That's when they become startled and make their right turn on red to get away from the biker because I am scary and dangerous (hard to believe because I can also be charming). This is one reason I don't like riding on street-side multi-use paths: drivers don't stop at the intersection with the path; they stop - maybe - at the intersection with the cross street.

Lots of drivers don't even realize that some of the laws that cover cyclists on roads and paths have changed in recent years. In a recent letter to the editor, a writer said she thought cyclists were required to walk through intersections! That wording was, thankfully, removed from our vehicle code back in 2005 yet drivers continue to cite it as a reason for them not stopping and even hitting cyclists at intersections. While the letter-writer made a good point about cyclists not being visible enough, some of her assumptions are just wrong, like that we don't have the same rights as vehicles. In many places we do.

That's why bicycle drivers must understand that even though we have the right of way, that doesn't mean the automobile driver knows it. A friend of mine who bikes and also drives a motorcycle puts it bluntly when she mentions people not knowing the rules of the roads: "You may be right, buy you're dead right." Point taken. If motor vehicle drivers do know the rules, would they care? Many won't. But, some do.

They're the ones who slow down and stop when they see me, then wave me through the intersection before they pull through it to make their right turn. That reminds me of another letter in the paper from a road construction flagger. People were cursing at her for a road being closed when it wasn't closed the day before. I'm sure she felt a lot like a cyclist. She was impeding their flow; getting in their way; taking up space where they wanted to be, slowing them for a few minutes. But people are selfish and self-absorbed. All of us. Not just people in cars, but people on bikes, too.

We are important. We are superior because we're riding our bikes to work or the store. We've committed ourselves to a certain lifestyle. The driver is superior, too. They are driving the car they worked hard to buy and they pay for these roads and they are committed to their lifestyle. "Get a car!" they might yell. "Get off the road you f***ing idiot!" *Sigh* But I have a car at home that I worked hard to buy. It's almost five years old and has just over 18,000 miles on it and I try to only put gas into it once a month. I like to see how long I can go between refuels. When I do drive, I consolidate trips. Sometimes I feel like I'm banking fuel credits for vacations or local road trips. That's how I prioritize things. But they don't know that.

On my jaunt around town Saturday, I came across the street with my name!

The League, in one of their documents that helps teach safe commuting, points out that bicyclists are vulnerable: "We have the same rights as operators of vehicles but because we don't have the protection of a steel cage we are much more vulnerable when on the road. That means that we should be cautious how we exercise our rights in the face of overwhelming force." The first letter writer talked about rights but she didn't talk about responsibilities. Each of us, on foot, astride a bicycle, driving a motor vehicle has a responsibility to transport ourselves in a way such that we are aware of our surroundings and do everything we can to not injure ourselves or others. Hopefully we don't leave people cursing in our wake. If we can go through a busy intersection with a wave, a nod and a smile then I'll call Anchorage a bicycle-friendly community. Our citizens have a long way to go.

As a parting thought, in the context of awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama with optimism for what he hopes to accomplish, I'll accept that Anchorage could be a bicycle friendly community if its citizens wanted it to be so.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

not so bold

Just over five years ago, I was staying at Across the Bay Tent-and-Breakfast across Kachemak Bay from Homer. The first afternoon there, some of us were walking along a rocky tidal zone looking at rocks and sea life when a small plane glided down and landed between the shore and a home just down the beach. When the plane took off again, I watched as the pilot accelerated, then gently rose up into the sky. It was so graceful and looked so easy. It didn't look scary at all and at that moment a part of me wanted to be inside the plane.

Frosty leaves and clover

Our friend Scott has been a pilot for many years. We met several years ago when he was shopping for a new bicycle. Over the years we've talked bikes, commuting, clothes (I talked him into trying wool) and flying. He was the first one to share with me the saying: "There are old pilots and bold pilots but there are no old, bold pilots." For as long as I've known him, Scott has invited me to go flying in his small (4-seater, I think) 1983 Maule airplane. He's offered to do gear drops on the Resurrection Trail, invited Jon and me to fly to a wilderness lake with our bicycles for some remote winter cycling. He loves flying and wants to share it. But sometimes his visits to the shop seemed to correspond closely with recent small-plane crashes. I would bring up a crash and he would explain what had been done wrong. The conditions that contributed. Wind, route choice, pilot as spotter. Mistakes that should have been avoided. For all these years I've avoided getting into a small plane.

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This past Saturday, Scott stopped by the shop and Jon suggested he call me at home. The weather has been unusually beautiful this October and he was planning a short trip to Talkeetna with a brief stop at Willow on the return trip. I thought about it. I tried to not think about it. I hemmed and hawed until it was stressing me out, but I told him I'd let him know in the morning. A plane had crashed in Denali just a few days before. I couldn’t help but think about that. When Jon got home later in the evening I told him I wasn't going. The house remodel is enough stress, I told Jon. I didn't need the added stress of something I saw as completely frivolous; a joyride. This was no time to test my nerves.

The plane, affectionately named "Baby," parked at Lake Hood.

So, when Scott called Sunday morning to see if I was going to go flying, I calmly asked, "What time?" Jon stood in the bedroom looking at me but he didn’t ask what changed my mind. I'm not sure exactly what changed my mind, but one rule I try to follow is this: Don't make decisions at the end of the day. That's why the term "sleep on it" exists. Because we make better decisions after a night's rest. Our heads are clear and it’s easier to be reasonable. I guess Sunday seemed as good a day as any to finally put this fear, this hurdle, behind me. Like the remodel, do it before another winter sets in.

 Okay, I'm ready as I'll ever be!

Jon couldn't join us on the little jaunt so Scott asked if I wanted to bring anyone along, for moral support. I didn't feel like calling anyone, especially on such short notice, but there was more to it than that, as I’ll explain later.

 Lake Hood and the Chugach Mountains.

When we took off from Anchorage, from one of the big runways at the international airport, I mostly felt alright. Scott explained the process and why we were taking off at the big runway instead of the small gravel strip near the float plane lake - for a smoother takeoff. We quickly rose above the houses and trees, gaining altitude as we headed north across the water.

 If we had a Bridge to Nowhere, it would span that narrow part of Knik Arm.

We flew over ponds and lakes, rivers and bogs. Cabins, roads and trails. I tried to relax, taking photos and enjoying the view from the small seat, my arm against the door. Just a few miles from Willow, we hit a little turbulence. For a pilot, it would be nothing. For me, it was "can we just go to Willow today?" so Scott changed our course. We'd be on the ground in five minutes, he said over the intercom. Then the air settled down, the plane stopped its slight bounce and I felt like I'd wimped out. "We can go to Talkeetna," I said. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to make it to our destination. Scott again modified the course ever so slightly and we continued north.

Pilot Scott Christy flying the Maule called "Baby"

The sky remained clear and blue. The mountains were in view as we got closer to Denali and the surrounding peaks of Denali National Park and Preserve. Scott briefly explained how winds will come down every valley. How the heating ground can cause turbulence when it meets the higher, cooler air. He made radio contact with Talkeetna and soon we touched down on the paved strip in the small town that is the jumping-off point for flight-seeing and mountain climbing on Denali. After anchoring the plane and having a short visit with the air traffic controller, we strolled toward town for lunch and to collect spruce cones* while I told Scott my rule about not making decisions late in the day. I’d had time to think as we flew, so I also shared with him some of the ideas I had about my relationship with, my reactions to, fear.

When I'm afraid of something, I don't want to talk about it. Maybe it's because some of my fears don't seem rational to other people and talking about them with non-fearful people can be embarrassing and hard to articulate. Any pilot you talk to about a fear of flying will tell you that you have a better chance of getting hurt in a car accident or a train ride than in a small plane. Scott had told me I had a greater chance of getting hurt while riding my bicycle in Anchorage and that probably is statistically true. But facts and figures mean nothing when you are the one something happens to.

That morning as Jon left for work and I was leaving to go fly, I told him that if anything happened, be sure to say: "she did not die doing what she loved! She wanted to live to be 100. She died doing something that really scared her!" Then I added: "And you better put that in my obituary." I would never say that before hopping on my bike or driving off in my car. But that is my level of fear. (I'll admit I've had similar thoughts when flying on commercial jets.)

Besides not wanting to talk about my fears, I don't want people to witness my fears. I told Scott that when he said I could bring someone for moral support, I thought only briefly about it but didn't want anyone else along because overcoming this was something I had to do on my own, without a crutch or an arm to squeeze. Thinking about it later, I realized that I don't want someone who's perfectly comfortable doing something checking in on me all the time to see how I'm doing while saying "this isn't so bad, is it?" I mean, that's what parents say when they force you to eat something you don't like or take you to get shots. I guess I prefer facing my fears without witnesses asking me if I'm doing okay. I want to go it alone - just me and my head full of thoughts. I’m the same way on my mountain bike and have seen this in customers who haven’t ridden bicycles in years: we don’t want to have any witnesses to our nervousness or failures, but when we succeed, we are happy to report back that we did it.

Denali and Foraker, under the wing, on the return flight.

After lunch, a stroll around town and a stop at the Talkeetna cemetery, we took off to the north so we could bank left and get a good view of Denali as we turned to the south. Soon we were landing on the gravel landing strip in Willow. With tundra tires it wasn’t that rough, kind of like my fat tires on the snow bike. We strolled around the perimeter of the strip, looked at other planes and searched for elusive spruce cones*. We waited for another pilot to do a touch-and-go, then took off for the final leg home.

Talkeetna cemetery where propellers mark some pilots' graves.

As we were flying back toward Anchorage, my thoughts briefly turned to the trips I’ve wanted to take but that I’ve not done because they require getting in a small plane, much like the little Maule we were flying in. A backcountry trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; Gates of the Arctic; Lake Clark and Katmai. I started thinking of visiting these places. The small plane opens up so much more territory. So many places in Alaska are just not accessible to people who don’t like to fly in small planes. I don’t want to be afraid and I suppose I was ready to take this step; it just took the right timing, a persistent friend and the ability to trust the pilot. It was a big leap for me. That doesn't mean it won't still make me nervous. And I will need my distractions, especially for the landings.

Fire Island

Our fair city

On the approach back to Anchorage, as we again crossed the waters of Knik Arm, I put the camera on film mode and started shooting. I held the camera steady as I shot the view of Fire Island to the west, then the city to the east. I kept filming as we descended over the Coastal Trail, past Wisconsin Street, Spenard Road, then banked right as we got closer and closer to Lake Hood. That was when I thought: he remembers he took his floats off, I hope. Then beyond the lake, across a road I saw the small dirt landing strip. A car drove by. Our nose centered before the runway as we glided lower and lower until the big tires touched the ground. Once again I was home on the sweet, sweet earth!

Setting a course for home.

*About those spruce cones, Scott is a guest lecturer in a biology class at UAA and collects spruce cones from around the state which he then has the students measure and plot on a map/graph. He needs enough intact cones from each region for a good comparison but I imagine people near the airstrip in Willow were wondering where we were going with that grocery bag when we parked the plane and went searching for cones.