Wednesday, November 30, 2005
4:35 p.m. I forgot my headlight again. I'm pedaling toward home, but at the last minute decide to turn left instead of right. Twilight's disappearing fast, but I want to get a good sprint in before the ride's over. The temperature's single digits ... again. I feel like I'm used to it, but the renewed wind tears into my eyes - the only body part exposed to it. I can barely see, but I'm not deterred because I know this road by heart by now anyway. I stop at the overlook because, well, you have to stop at the overlook. I rub my eyes until my hands feel warm, then look southwest. Remnants of sunlight reach into the graying sky, stretched so thin behind sunset that they appear almost desperate. I thought they were long gone, but then again, what meaning does a good hello really have if it never leads to goodbye?
Oops ... I forgot that I'm in Alaska now and need to call them "snowmachines." But I'm rebelling and keeping my native tongue. I'm from Utah, and I can say "fark" instead of "fork" and "crick" instead of "creek" if I want to. But to me, a snowmachine will always be one of those contraptions that spits powdery fountains of fake snow all over ski slopes when the real stuff ain't comin.' That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
Monday, November 28, 2005
My group of friends in the spud state went skiing occasionally; the hardcore among them tried ice climbing once or twice, but most curled up in the winter and watched "Survivor." Even with the Tetons nearby, I never found anyone in eastern Idaho who felt any urge to break a winter trail in knee-deep powder in the dark, ride a bicycle on a snowmobile path or go snowboarding if temps were approaching something even close to single digits. There are so many more people in Alaska who treat all those activities with the same blase participation that one might compare to swimming in the summer. It's just what you do. It's fun. They've all learned that if you wait out the weather in Alaska, you won't see much more action than "Survivor" can give you.
Since I started this blog 'lo those four weeks ago, I've come across a surprisingly supportive community of bikers and bloggers in cyberspace. Seems there's a lot of us out there who pedal vicariously - me wistful for the searing sands of the San Rafael Swell, others curious about the frozen north. I wanted to thank Gilby and Mark for the props; Tim in Anchorage for being a great ice bike mentor; John for being tough enough to live in Fairbanks; and Filtersweep for introducing me the Norway, future site of my dream bicycle vacation; and all y'all who come to visit. Drop me a line and tell me where you're riding.
We stopped at a bike shop in Anchorage and bought studded tires for our mountain bikes. And it looks like we'll have snowcover to practice on for a long time now. We returned home to nearly two feet of new powder on everything, as demonstrated by this photo - I call it "Geo Prison." We spent a better part of the clear and cold evening stamping through thigh-deep snow to find the snowshoe trail we've been working on.
Anyway, Geoff and I were so giddy at the prospect of extending the cycling season indefinitely that we picked up a brochure for the Susitna 100 and began planning our training regimen. We thought we were all bad because we even had thoughts of participating in a winter bike race that crosses snow-covered tundra during the deep freeze of subarctic night. But then we discovered the prohibitive entrance fee, regulating the races to those who have, well, a little bit more than blind gumption and gear. But (wink wink) if anyone out there - anyone at all - feels inspired to sponsor us in our efforts as virgin ice bikers tackling a decidedly hardcore bike race in the frozen north, we will proudly display your logo and our gratitude on this blog for as long as it takes. I'm not joking. Really. Why are you laughing?
Saturday, November 26, 2005
We have been doing a lot of cross-country skiing this weekend. Today was a short trip around the groomers near town. I ran behind Geoff and Craig on snowshoes, breathing so hard that my eyelashes froze - hence the self portrait above.
Yesterday we drove up to Hatcher Pass to ski along the "Little Su" River. The trail rose ever so slightly, and we didn't even really notice we were climbing much until we looked back to a lateral view of snow wafting off the mountains. The trip went long, and one guy we were with eventually dropped out. But the ski down was exhilarating, with enough gravity-forced sliding to finally stop Geoff from saying "Hey, Jill, I think you forgot that you're skiing again."
We did run into a couple of friends from Homer on the trail. They invited us to their family's home in Wasilla for what turned into a second Thanksgiving dinner. A house full of strangers welcomed us in like one of their own, and filled us with starch and stories of the local color-variety (many of them hailed from Homer.) The evening had the same sweet sensory overload that really makes Thanksgiving feel complete - sitting on the couch as plates of pie and hot chocolate are shoved in your face from stealth angles, all the while lost in a tangle of multiple conversations illustrating people you don't know and places you've never been. Then, to top off the experience, I even got the "How old are you now, sweetie?" comment from Grandma, albeit somebody else's grandma, but it still made me feel nostalgic.
Friday, November 25, 2005
We're up in Palmer right now, the north country, celebrating the holiday with other childless 20-something couples that are thousands of miles from Outside families. It was a lot of fun. We spent the morning cross-country skiing in the veritable winter wonderland that took the city by storm (which, while we were motoring up the Seward Highway last night, was to our sheer dismay.) But the "White Thanksgiving" was a nice touch. So was the diverse group of friends Craig invited ... including, respectively, a Jewish couple, a Muslim, two Mormons and a Buddhist, who unfortunately was caught in the weather and was not able to attend. But a great group. We even whipped out the Texas Hold'em as the turkey cooked and cooked, and continued to cook for more than six hours. I mean, we even had the canned cranberry sauce that I love so much, sliced in gelatinous discs and still bearing the artful mold of the inside of the can. Sigh. I guess I am thankful for this holiday, even if I do feel like a gelatinous blob myself, and even if I do have to be thousands of miles from my family and snowed in - in Palmer. I could use this space to ramble through "things I'm thankful for," but it seems so much less redundant to just say "life."
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
I've been having reoccuring dreams about going to Disneyland in a snowstorm. The dream is very lucid and blue-tinted, and kind of absurd because I always end up on Splash Mountain. Anyway, it inspired me to visit the beach today, only the second time since I moved here that I've actually been within touching distance of the water.
An isolated snowstorm whipped overhead as the sun set in streaks of magenta behind rolling clouds on the horizon. The air was a frosty 19 degrees, with the wind chill it felt at least 10 degrees colder. I had only my work cloths to wear, though I have to admit I dress rather substantially indoors to survive my Alaskan boss's perpetual miserly-ness with the heat. I walked along the tideline, scanning the sand for shells in an effort I haven't made since those family vacations to southern California. I only picked up two ... the effort of removing my hands from my down vest was saved only for the most promising. I rotated them in my fingers until I could no longer feel the rough surfaces, then absentmindedly tossed them back into the sea.
I walked a little too far out and had to run almost a mile back to my car, into the 4:30 p.m. twilight and snow flurries, the promise of a long night in the glitter of distant lights.
Monday, November 21, 2005
I didn't want this to become the "Gee Whiz" journal of an Outsider who doesn't own anything in flannel and still visualizes sundaes when the term "Arctic Circle" is thrown into casual conversation. But, still ... it's kinda cool.
Sunday, November 20, 2005
People in Alaska have looked to winter as the premier travel season for hundreds if not thousands of years, but it's still a strange reality when weighed against the usually uninviting obstacles of cold, ice and snow. I'll probably get more traction out of my snowshoes this year than I ever did in warmer climes, and I'll cover more ground than I ever could in the summer. Plus, there's all that freedom of movement, even when bushwhacking (see above). Good times.
This evening I took a backstage tour of the tallest building in Homer ... the Mariner Theatre at the high school. The production manager of our hometown Nutcracker ballet led me up the twisting staircase to the "deck," a full seven stories above the stage. Already a bit dizzy and disoriented from climbing those stairs, I stepped onto the cross-linked metal platform and, of course, looked down. I'm one of those vertigo people that tends to see long drops rush up at me ala, well, Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo." So I just froze in place, absolutely exposed with no hand railing on a bottomless, dangling floor. I must have looked absolutely stricken because the production manager said "I like to bring the little kids up here. They think they'll turn to Jello and slip through," he said. "It gives 'em a good scare." As I struggled to find my center of balance, I felt exactly like Jello, but I didn't say anything. Although the rest of the tour was a bit hazy after that, walking around on those narrow catwalks with my heart in my head and vice versa. And my family thinks I'm not going to live through the winter.
Saturday, November 19, 2005
Maybe the presentation was more effective because it’s been raining continuously for two days. That’s not an anomaly in coastal Alaska in November, I’m told, but still. I grew up in the decade of CFC-free hair spray and Toyota Tercels, but despite taking and entire college course on global warming, I never thought I’d see any effects of it in my lifetime. But as long as I stay in Alaska, I may not have a choice.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
Wednesday, November 16, 2005
As often happens during a phone interview, he turned the tables on me toward the end.
"You new here?" he asked as I was trying to wrap things up.
"Yeah. I just moved here two months ago, from Idaho." (with the apologetic tone I tend to develop when I tell people just how new I am.)
"You like it here?"
"Sure. It's a beautiful place."
"It is. So why'd ya move here?"
(At this point it's getting close to lunch, and the conversation has rambled on for nearly a half hour.) "I don't know. To live in Alaska."
"Is that right?"
(silence from me. Of course that's the reason, the absolute truth, but it sounds a more than just a little silly when said out loud.)
"Yeah. Lots come up here just to be up here. Most are just trying to get away from something they left behind."
(a pause on both ends. I'm thinking he wants some kind of further justification from me, a good story to match his yarn about the time the Spit almost sunk into the sea. He's probably just reflecting on whether he wants a hamburger or spam helper for dinner.)
Finally I say, "Well, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me .... "
And so on.
The people are strange in Alaska. But they have a worldview colored by quiet truths few others would ever see. Maybe it's the drawn-out darkness and cold, the solitude and stark landscape that demands silent reflection. I don't know. I can't help but wonder if this stranger on the phone had me pegged all along.
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
But it’s funny how much you can learn about something in the space of four years, even when you haven’t revisited it even once. Since that humbling first experience, I learned to downhill ski, took up bicycling for the first time since I was a child, learned to ride with 60 pounds of weight dangling from the frame, began riding in mud and gravel and even snow. My balance has improved; I’m a little stronger and a little less afraid of eating snow (tastes much better than sand, you know). So when I started sliding beyond control today, I just pulled the other foot forward, and kept going for three miles.
Sure, it wasn’t all sunshine and giggles ... I was dusted by a few skate skiers on the groomer, lost the trail and had to tramp through an open field of thorny bushes, and walking uphill was no picnic - I must of looked like a crippled duck as I thrashed up some of the steeper ones. But it was cool. I don’t regret purchasing the skis. And I got to see this ... the sun dropping over Kachemak Bay. So, all in all, a good hobby, I think.
Monday, November 14, 2005
Sunday, November 13, 2005
Visa Quest ... it's kind of a bluegrass festival started by three guys who used to live in Fairbanks and never lived in Homer; it's 500 people and makeshift bands packed into a tiny hotel lounge and overflowing into the parking lot, foyer and even rooms; it's a congregation of old-timey musicians from Alaska and California and Pennsylvania and West Virgina who meet in Girdwood for no discernable reason and take a beer-driven bus trip all the way to Homer in November just because someone, somewhere, a decade ago or more, thought it sounded like a good idea. In short, Visa Quest is a Homer tradition.
As dancers herded the non-dancers into a neck-to-neck ring at the back of the room, I executed feeble attempts to get back to the stage so I could take photographs for the newspaper. People flailed everywhere and it was enough to make me nostalgic for the sweaty punk show mosh pits I used to swim laps in as a teenager. I must have looked pretty official with a giant Nikon around my neck, because people kept worming through the crowd to ask me questions.
One guy from Talkeetna: "What the hell is this?"
Me: "Bluegrass concert!" (duh)
Talkeetna man: "I've never been to Homer before. I'm just here to visit a friend. You guys sure know how to party here!"
Me: "Oh, this dosen't happen every weekend. It's sort of an annual event."
Talkeetna man, looking around with a blank smile: "So what the hell is this?"
And so on. It was fun, though. Geoff and I danced even though I was wearing two cameras and way too many layers for a room where temperatures easily climbed into the 90s (and I'm from Utah. I know how that feels.) This time next year? Count me in.
Saturday, November 12, 2005
While I’m on the subject of entertaining embarrassments, I photographed this cute little northern hawk owl wearing a feathered beret. A woman from a bird rehabilitation center in Anchorage broughtit down for a new exhibit at the Pratt Museum. This bird was the star of a children’s program I attended this morning. The program was predictable enough - squirming kids, loud questions and lots of facts, including the woman’s continued insistence that this bird “is a wild animal. It’s not a pet.” Which is true, I’m sure; poor thing can’t help that it broke it's wing and can't survive in the woods anymore. But if you can put a hat on an owl ... has the line between wild and fashionable been irrevocably crossed? Or could this owl be both? Or neither? It is kind of an ugly hat.
Friday, November 11, 2005
However, today reminded me that this phrase can still be said without sarcasm; even in Alaska, in November. I went for a two-hour ride along the ridge above town. There were a couple new inches of powder on the road and I had to earn every pedal stroke - but it's no worse than thick mud. The new snow clung to needles and bare branches, giving the landscape a rich contrast that comes when color is removed. Near the reservoir I met a pack of cross-country skiers on the road. We nodded in appreciation of each other and moved on, crushing through grains of snow as they sparkled in the afternoon sun.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
I’ve interviewed a lot of people since I came to town, and Leslie was more polite than most when I introduced myself … a hearty handshake and nothing more said about my name. Most often I get “Homer. You’re name is Homer? No! Really?” (Stifled snickers).
A few say, “Are you related to the founder?,” which is dumb. I’ve only lived here two months and even I know that the town was named after Homer Pennock, a gold prospector who I guess liked his first name better.
I was starting to feel like the only Homer in Homer until my co-worker met a middle-school-aged kid named Homer Olsen, while attending a shark dissection lab on a Saturday … voluntarily, I might add. “Is he from here?” I asked. “I think so,” my co-worker said. He’s probably a great kid, but man, what a cruel fate. I feel for you, Homer.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
I wrote a review of sorts about Dramaslam – here’s the link to that and other ART-icles of mine. I feel the need to apologize for the 1994-era layout of the Tribune arts page and the fact that it doesn’t link to anything. It’s not my fault! The Web page was designed long before I started working at the Tribune, and probably will remain the same long after I’m gone. With my extremely limited HTML knowledge and general focus elsewhere, it’s a battle I’ll probably never fight. I’m copy-and-paste girl, I am.
Speaking of embarrassing copy, I finally read through one of my articles today (probably the first I’ve read post-publication) and found a number of typos and other errors. As a former copy editor, this should be the height of shame for me. I should report myself to the Testy Copy Editors Web group (extremely funny site if you’re an anal retentive word cop). But will this prompt me to read my own articles before publication? Probably not. I have an debilitating mental block when it comes to self-editing. There’s nothing that makes me sick of myself faster than reading my own writing. So why keep a Weblog? Good question. I’ll go ride my bike trainer and think about it.
Tuesday, November 08, 2005
Monday, November 07, 2005
This is Giant Iron Pterodactyl Man; I think of him as GITMo. He guards the trailhead to Homestead, an amazingly scenic cross-country trail system that begins just a half-mile from my house. I walked by this thing at least five times before I first noticed it. Is that a testament to GITMo’s flawless integration into his environment, or a telling symptom of too much time in Homer? I suspect it might be the latter. Alaska attracts some strange people; strange people build strange things. It doesn’t take long before the topless mermaid statues and 10-foot burning baskets blend in like Starbucks on a Seattle boulevard.
I’ve been thinking lately about how different this place is from the place I grew up. It’s not just GITMo and the mermaid. It’s not just the art patrons showing up at a $75-a- ticket gala in evening gowns and rubber boots, or the environmental art that appears on a nearly daily basis somewhere along the Spit. It’s not what Homer is ... but what it refuses to be.
I come from the perspective of another lost soul from Everytown, U.S.A., growing up in a sea of suburban housing peppered with strip malls and parking lots. And now I live in a seaside community in rural Alaska, in a town that has been in a three-year fight to keep Fred Meyer away. We have exactly two chain stores - Safeway and McDonalds, if you don’t count an Arby’s in a gas station - in a retail community of more than 5,000 people. And, if I’m not mistaken, those stores came in fighting for their spot, too. And part of me believes this is great. That this is the way America actually used to be - locals dominating the local market. Buy Alaska! Feed your neighbor! It’s the American Dream. But a large part of me is nostalgic for the Kmarts and single-tract housing of my youth. Sometimes, it’s not always about what you love, but about what you know.
Sunday, November 06, 2005
My friend Monika in Ann Arbor, Mich., sent me this picture today. She took this photo of me and Geoff in late August in the Salt River Range of western Wyoming. Several of us had converged from our various corners of the country (me, Idaho; Geoff, Alaska; Monika, New York; and Chris, Utah) in this remote national forest along the Grays River to camp, hike and reminise about life before dispersal.
I enjoyed seeing the photo because I figure it was taken about two days before I found out I had a job offer in Homer, Alaska. At the time I was still heavily conflicted about the prospect of moving to Alaska. It was a vague plan Geoff and I had for a while. But after he left in the early summer I grew more comfortable with my life in Idaho, and more leary of the unknown north. Employment was scarce, distances extreme and, if I suddenly found myself single, as my ex-boss in Idaho put it, "The odds are good, but the goods are odd."
After the trip ended, Monika made her move from New York to Michigan; Chris took a different job in Utah; and Geoff set down the final ultimatum - he was going back to Alaska, with our without me. That same day, the day this camping trip ended, I got the e-mail from my current employer - a job offer.
"So how do you feel about living in a town called Homer?" the e-mail began.
And my first thought was - fine, really.
Two weeks later, I returned from my last spin class, stuck my last midnight shift at the copy desk, and hit Interstate 15. I had been so conflicted, but somehow this transition fell so perfectly into place that it was like merging onto a winding interchange only to look over at the end and find you're still parallel with the highway. Something like that ... but I think, now that I look at this photo, maybe I knew that all along.
Saturday, November 05, 2005
This is my requisite “Northern Exposure” shot - moose in the front yard. I took it this morning on my two-mile (OK, quarter-mile) hike to get the mail. Now all I need is a bear chomping on some salmon, a bright green streak of aurora borealis and someone in a bikini standing next to a snowman - and I’ll have completed the circle of Alaska cliches.
Speaking of cliches, being a “Cheechako” (that’s these Alaska-types’ term for people like me), I’ve spent a fair amount of time explaining some of the more popular Alaska cliches to the people “Outside” (that’s these Alaska-types’ term for all y’all.) And because some (you know who you are, Grandpa) keep bringing up the same myths every time I speak to them, I thought I’d try to debunk a few right now.
1. It’s not dark 24 hours a day here. Not on Dec. 21, not even in Fairbanks. Because Alaska is a very large place stretched across a very round part of the earth (well - aren’t they all), there’s a lot of latitude to cover. Yes, parts of Alaska are dark for weeks on end. Not too many people live in those parts. Down here in Homer, our shortest day is about five hours long. However, in the dead of winter, the sun is never very high on the horizon.
2. Alaska is not universally frigid. Sure, frigid is a relative term (my co-workers from Fairbanks think Homer is downright balmy.) Alaska is just “colder.” That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
3. Alaska is NOT a liberal state. For some reason people think because there’s trees and glaciers here, Alaska must be a state full of hippies. Not so. Alaskans are more adamant about privatization, public land capitalization and state rights than any place I’ve ever lived, and I’ve lived in Texas.
4. Most Alaskans do not drive dog teams to work, shoot grizzly bears for dinner or squat over streams all day panning for gold. They live normal, predictable, semi-urban lives just like everyone else. I know this one should seem obvious, but I spent a lot of my youth explaining to non-Utahns that Mormons don’t have horns.
5. Alaskans do not hibernate. Well, most don’t. My mom has been particularly worried about the fact that I don’t have television, and I’ve spoken to others who’ve asked me “what the heck” am I going to do all winter (you know who you are, Grandpa). The answer is, same thing you are - go to work, read books, waste time on the computer (like now), go to movies and concerts, hike (with snowshoes or cross-country skis) and ride my bike. Speaking of ... it just hit 20 degrees! I think I’ll go right now. (And for those who keep reading, um, disregard yesterday’s first paragraph.)
Friday, November 04, 2005
Everyone in town says it's unseasonably cold. The pictures I posted today are from our trip to Crescent Lake last weekend. Driving there was downright brutal. We stopped at a gas station shortly after sunrise (about 9:30 a.m., as this was still one day before the clocks set back) to get some coffee. The thermometer on the door registered vaguely in the single digits and every branch,
every blade of grass along the highway was coated in thick frost. I was anticipating a painful death by frostbite, but once we got out of the car and hoisted our backpacks, the whitewashed landscape seemed beautiful and benign.
We hiked in about seven miles to a little cabin on the lake. We spent the first couple of hours there gathering wood in an area picked pretty clean – a lot of hauling and cutting with a small saw, but at least the effort kept us warm for a while. We stoked our small stove and set out in a rowboat on the lake – still not frozen over, but just barely. In the space of 40 minutes we caught a couple of big grayling. But because we couldn’t bear the thought of cleaning them in the ice water, we threw them back and had burritos for dinner.
When we returned the next day there was a fresh half-inch of snow that had been wiped nearly clean from Geoff’s car. On closer inspection we saw distinct paw prints in the mud caked to the side and the roof was dented in. Footprints in the parking lot indicated that a fairly large black bear – probably in the 200 to 400-pound range – plopped itself right on top of Geoff’s little Civic while we were gone. It’s a wonder nothing caved in. I remember that this kind of bear behavior is pretty common at the Mt. Whitney trailhead in California. There, the black bears will smash in your rear windshield if they see so much as a plastic bag in the back seat. Then, when you get back from your hike, you have no food, a broken window, and a $100 fine from the forest service for tempting the bears. I think, in Alaska, the bears are still the ones who get in trouble.
Thursday, November 03, 2005
This is kind of the obligatory first entry where I have to explain to people who I’ve really lost touch with that I live in Alaska. I lived for a while in Idaho Falls, Idaho – home of potatoes and the self-proclaimed “northern” Mormons, and life was good. But after a brutal hot summer and several months of distant coercion by Geoff, I somehow was talked into moving to Alaska, home of grizzly bears and the self-proclaimed “northern” Libertarians. And – life’s still good. I guess it’s possible to be happy anywhere – just as long as those studded mountain bike tires and stack of DVDs arrive soon.
So, now a little about what we’ve been doing for the past couple of months. We arrived in town Sept. 11, and by the next day found a cabin loft on the ridge above town. We have two acres, an early-season snow base and our closest neighbor is a horse. We’ve spent the past few weeks filling the place with secondhand stuff and furniture Geoff builds with lumber he scavenges at the dump. He found a job working construction with some quintessential Alaskans – the Xtratuf-wearing kind. I work at a small-town rag called the Homer Tribune, where I’m the arts and entertainment reporter, production editor, and somehow the Webmaster (which is really funny, because I have such an incurable case of ADD when it comes to technology.)
On weekends we do Alaska stuff like go sea kayaking in the freezing rain and backpacking to a cabin in the snow so we can chop wood, catch grayling and to return to discover that a bear has walked all over he top of Geoff’s car. The usual things, you know. So, anyway, I plan to post to this blog regularly in lieu of the mass e-mails I’ve developed the bad habit of sending. I'm also going to continue posting pictures. So keep in touch and post comments. I’d love to hear from people.