Stories along the way: Chapter 4 Saskatchewan

 

“They say in Saskatchewan that if you lose your dog, you can still see him running away a day later.” 

We check out of the hotel in Edmonton and in the elevator ride down Jim dances to the elevator music “Hustle” while I collapse in laughter. We enjoyed the rest and the chance to do laundry and a little knee loosening bike ride for me, but it’s time to be on our way.

It’s flat prairie country now at the edge of Alberta and into Saskatchewan. It’s warmer, but cloudy. We miss the sun, but it’s good to feel some warmth. We pull into the Elk Island National park where there appears to be only bison, no elk. They lie in the grasses held off the main park by tall, sturdy fences.

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I imagine the prairies are beautiful to those who grew up in wide, flat expanses with few trees, but I miss the trees. Old buildings, graineries and oil pumps dot the landscape. Sometimes the stubble of a field sticks up through the little snow that still coat the fields. We pass through Lloydminister, a town that straddles two provinces. Along the way we get off the road to a town like Vegravil but soon get back on Trans Canada Hwy 16.

As twilight comes, the snow-covered fields and the grey sky meet on the horizon—soon they will merge. The weather is changing and we decide to park at the Battleford Walmart. We are the only camper. With freezing rain predicted, Jim is reluctant to be caught off the main road for any distance.

We pick up a few things like milk in the store and I want a bottle of wine. I pick out a bottle of Carl Jung white from Germany for $4.67, slightly appalled at what the quality must be, but that’s all I see. Back at the Sprinter I open the wine and it has an unusual overtone, that of apricots, not bad, just unusual. I decide to buy two more bottles and hide them from embarrassment. When I finally check out the brand, I find it is a well-respected vineyard that makes non-alcoholic wine with a hundred year old process. Oh, the snob in me.

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There is icy rain during the night, but the next morning is sunny and beautiful. It was a quiet night.

Saskatoon is the next major city on the route. Saskatchewan with only two major cities and Moose Jaw, of course.

A man and his wife were sitting at their campsite watching another camper move in for the night. “I’m going over to see where they are from,” said the man. He goes over and asks where they were from. “Saskatoon, Saskatchewan,” he said. The man returns to his campsite. “Well, where are they from,” asks his wife. “I don’t know,” he said. “They don’t speak English.”

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The Humboldt bus accident is on the news. It is a terrible tragedy. As hockey people, we want to go and make a symbolic gesture of condolence even though we know no one. Jim played hockey in Pittsburgh for many years and taught kids in a remote Alaska village where he taught them how to play hockey. My son started playing hockey when he was five. Besides I’m a Canadian. What is it about this tragedy that impacts so many people and places beyond those killed and injured? Humboldt is just a small prairie town of 5600 people. By now, over $11m is raised with over 100,000 donors on the most successful GoFundMe campaign ever. Everyone wants to do something. Tim Horton’s is selling fund raising donuts. Other stores in Saskatoon are doing similar things. Unusually, there is also support across social media for the unnamed driver of the tractor-trailer who is uninjured, but is immediately offered mental health support.

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Humboldt is a short hour detour. As we drive to the town, I contact people who might want to add their condolences to the card. It’s symbolic, but important, we agree. Everyone wants to do something. In the town of Humboldt, there are hockey sticks on porches, hockey jerseys hanging, yellow and green ribbons on all the trees, support statements on billboards.

I call to make a Marriott reservation in Regina. The Canadian reservation agent completes it and then we talk about Humboldt. Her son is 16 years and a hockey player. His teacher asked every one to wear their hockey jerseys and bring extras for those that don’t have them. He rides the bus to games. Later, I realize I should offer to add her son’s name to the card. I call back and explain. “Kevin” says he only has the employee number and she is in Sarnia, but he’ll send it to the office. He tells me he is in Saskatchewan and though he never played hockey, the tragedy affected him deeply. I tell him I’ll add his name to the card, too.

We pull into the arena where a vigil was held the previous night and the funeral of the team play-by-play radio announcer, Beiber is just finishing up.

In the end, the card includes names from Alaska, Michigan, Edmonton, Sarnia, and Saskatchewan. It feels like we helped a little bit.

I deliver the card to the three older men in dark suits at the information table after we sign the register. I have no doubt they were hockey players in their youth and love this team and town. As we look at one of the memorials, one of the men comes over to us to talk and we talk about the card and the people it represents. There is instant connection and I use the time and my palliative care experience and personal grief, and talk to him about the first year—which will be the worst. He hugs me and shakes Jim’s hand and urges us to go into the arena. There is a mix of the norm and the unusual. Jim is impressed with the arena for the size of the town. There is a huge circle of flowers and other memorials. We walk around looking at them. An article I later read talks about the overwhelmed single florist in town with orders from around the world. Florists in nearby towns jump in to help—everyone wants to do something. Over the next few days we will read so much more, online, in the newspapers, on the television. What is it about this tragedy that has affected so many people so deeply? I’m glad we stopped.

 

On the way back to the highway, we stop in the very small town of Starner for a break and food. It’s a little run down but there are cars there. Inside are Chinese decorations everywhere. The current owner is Chinese, but the lunch special is lasagna, Jim’s favorite. It is the worst lasagna ever. Moral: Don’t ever order lasagna when the cook is Chinese.

Two women drink coffee at a nearby. They are local residents. But their conversation turns to the Humboldt tragedy and they talk about what they’ve read and heard.

At the recommendation of Chris from Wyoming, I made reservations at The Saskatchewan Hotel in Regina, a “railroad” hotel built in 1927. The 10 story building is solid and renovated to modern needs while still maintaining its antiques and older features. I’m glad it’s a Marriott hotel as I still rank a little bit with them and with the help of the reservationist am able to use points for the most expensive night of our three day stay. I book the cheapest rooms.

Regina is the capitol of the province and the hotel has hosted many famous guests from the Queen of England to Mick Jagger.

“Happy Birthday,” says the registration person. “And the birthday surprises are still coming.” Not sure what to expect, we get our keys and head to the third flour. It’s definitely an upgrade—it’s the Premier’s suite (like governor) across from the Prime Minister’s suite—but Justin Trudeau isn’t here this weekend!!

The suite is exquisite—two bathrooms, one with a deep tub, the bedroom has a kingsize bed, TV and small reading lamps attached to the padded headboard. The main room is elegant but so comfortable. Two favorite features are the hooks and shelf near the door for gloves and hat or handbag and a small ring to pull out the desk chair. There is a knock at the door and a birthday cake is delivered.

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The suite overlooks Victoria Park. We go for a walk but the cold prairie winds are intimidating. We stop at  Hudson’s Bay for Jim’s memory. His grandmother worked at Hudson’s Bay in Montreal for 50 years.

It is a wonderful three days. We sleep so well and feel so relaxed. We eat breakfast in a beautiful dining room. On Saturday we sit near four retired/semi retired lawyers laughing and enjoying their breakfast. They grow somber as they talk about the Humboldt tragedy. They know many very specific details about the accident. One wears a green handkerchief in the pocket of his sports jacket.

I drag Jim to afternoon tea. He finally admits it was fun.  The staff gives me another smal birthday cake to take up to our room.It’s the best birthday celebration ever!! But there is no elevator music for Jim to dance to.

 

Our stop in Saskatchewan is a mix of shared grief and joy. On we go to Manitoba.

 

Stories along the way: Chapter 4 Saskatchewan

On the Road Again: Chapter 3, Alberta

 

Alberta

 We’ve come through mountains and plains, energy focused areas and farming/horse country. Alberta is energy focused with additional resources. First Nations people are an important part of the province.

Near the town of BeaverLodge.

Me: “I want to see the giant beaver.”

He: “I’ve driven this road lots of time and never saw a giant beaver.”

Me: “There it is, let’s stop.”

After a few photos, I examine his tail, which Jim stands next to for perspective.

Me: “The tail can provide fermented beaver tail (an Alaska Native delicacy) for all of Bristol Bay!”

 

We came into Alberta on Hwy 43 out of Grand Prarie, near Whitecourt and eventually took Hwy 32 to connect with Hwy 16 on our way to Edmonton. We need a place to spend the night. All roads off of 32 are dirt. On a whim, we take a right turn onto a dirt road with a vague promise of a park. We continue winding down the road, passing small farms and end at a boat launch for ShiningBand Lake. The campground is closed and submerged under several feet of snow. No one has traveled down this road for sometime, though it is plowed. We decide to camp at the side of the road for the night.

Stepping out of the Sprinter, silence greets us. Complete silence, not a car, not a bird not a breeze whistling through the bare birch trees. Magic. There are no people tracks, just elk or caribou. We walk down the road and notice footprints of many animals going out to the lake. The ice is still very firm and we walk more, than back to the Sprinter.

Jim wants his binoculars to study the distant shore and I want to practice my neck/back QiGong. It’s been two weeks and my back feels it. Jim starts off and I place my IPhone on the Sprinter bumper and start gentle music. It is not loud, the surrounding silence calming.

I start my routine with arms raised to the blue sky. Continuing, I turn my face and the gentlest breeze crosses my cheek. Seven different moves make up a quickly passing 30 minutes. At the end, I raise my arms to the sky again seven times, then come to a standing position with my hands in prayer position. I bow three times in gratitude for my moment in nature.

Jim returns, describing what he saw across the lake and we take one more walk before settling in for the night.   After dinner, we climb in to bed to read with the Spring sun still high and soon setting at our feet. It is a peaceful, not too cold, night and the sunrise wakens us.

We drive down the dirt road to Hwy 32 and pass a snow-bound farm with a message. It is much more pleasant than “Guard Dog.”

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Highway 16 takes us past a sign for the tiny village of Wabaman the home of “Canada’s biggest dragonfly.” Who can resist?

Me: Let’s stop

He: hmmmm

Me: It’s my birthday month

He: hmmmy

Me: My 70th birthday month.

He: Ok

And we laugh.

TransCandada Hwy 16 takes us to Edmonton where we plan to spend two hotel nights. On the way into Edmonton we stop at the Aviation museum. Jim wants to see the rebuilt Mosquito. Disappointing, it’s closed on Mondays. Next “must” is the Wayne Gretzky statue at Roger’s Place and the home of the Edmonton Oilers.

We drive to the hotel and have a little difficulty finding it. We drive round and round and then find it. I think I was staring at the garden nursery across the street and didn’t see it. Finally, we check in. As expected, Jim relishes the needed rest and the TV. I go down to the pool and put my feet in the whirlpool to try and stop the nerve jerks. It only helps while in the water.

In the room I heat up the chicken rice soup brought from Alaska and we head to bed.

On Tuesday, Jim has a rest while I walk over to the nursery. It is indeed a lovely one.

SURPRISINGLY, Jim suggests we go to the nearby IKEA for meatballs. He hates IKEA. Off we go, he enjoys the meatballs while I try a new meal, Butter Chicken with Naan. It is soooooo good!! Jim is not an ethnic food fan so it’s a good opportunity. We walk a little through the store with Jim herding me along. Probably for the first time ever, I bought NOTHING. It’s a Tuesday and the store is not crowded. Just for the record, there is a Tim Horton’s across the road.

It’s Wednesday and we check out today and head for Saskatchewan. Breakfast, laundry, a bike spin for me and we’re refreshed and ready to hit the road again.

On the Road Again: Chapter 3, Alberta

On the Road Again 2018: Chapter 2

The Yukon Addendum and British Columbia (BC)

The travel pearls are around my neck along with a silver ancient twig deer from the Watchtower at the Grand Canyon that Jim gave me.

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The Wojos, who traveled the Alaska Hwy a couple of days before us, dealt with closed YT rest stops—which means no one plowed the several feet of snow. They must open on April 1, which was great for us. There is little traffic on the highway.

A small caribou herd walks through the deep snow as we drive by. Some still wear their antlers, not expecting Spring any time soon, I theorize.

We spend our second night on the road in YT at a closed campground, the opening to which someone generously plowed.

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Jim gets in bed first with the hot water bottle and I sit and read a bit soaking in the natural beauty and late day sun. We leave the heater on for the night ($2.50 diesel) and are cozy and warm in our nest. The next morning, it is -13 degrees. It’s a stumbly kind of morning; I need a long overdue shampoo; rosa the stoma is very upset that irrigation is delayed and greatly needed. Neither of these things is good to do in -13 degrees. The water pump is frozen but there is enough water in our water bottles for tea and, ironically, the milk and juice in the fridge aren’t frozen. I can’t flush the toilet, it’s frozen. Jim starts the engine and more warmth comes with the cab heater. I get in my seat and I’m happy again.

The untouched snow is porcelain with its sculptured curves. I can’t capture it with my camera, but my mind catalogs it.

Someone creatively addresses the limitations of an insufficient law enforcement budget.

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We don’t walk the Watson Lake license plate forest, it’s submerged in several feet of snow. We stop at Kathy’s Kitchen in Watson Lake for breakfast (no Tim Hortons haha).  There are two signs on the restaurant, a For Sale sign and a “full-time server needed ASAP.” Not sure what to expect.

A cheerful young woman greets us and takes us to a table. She wears a hook device in place of a hand on one side with the straps running across her back. It doesn’t slow her down. She brings me a lovely pot of tea on a little doily. Ahhhhhhhh. When we order, she offers to bring Jim a slice of sourdough bread and me brown bread as we split orders. The Denver Omelet is delicious. I love the photo on canvas overhead. Someone caught the rusted cars and the “rusts” of fall to make a beautiful image.

Near us, four decades of English Canadian construction workers chat over their own pots of tea. They chat about upcoming projects and how they will staff them.

“You can get a permit to wire your own house.”

“Jim you plan on going home on the weekends.”

“Rick’s ashes came back yesterday. It’s as it should be.”

Silence.

“It’s snowing down south.”

“This climate change kind of sucks.”

“I know these regulations can be confusing.”

“It’s all French to me!” (get it?)

We leave with a warm feeling in our stomachs and in our souls waving goodbye to the server and the cooks. It’s a good place on the Alaska Highway.

The General store is across the street and Jim needs milk. Old men sit around the tables near the deli with their mugs, talking about the weather and telling stories.

We are ready to continue our trip and move into British Columbia. The sun is warm and bright, the snow white and the sky ever so blue.

British Columbia

Warning signs about rockslides keep us alert. The roads are blessedly clear and dry except for a few slippery areas. Ft. Nelson is the next city.

Remnants of wildfires in past year line miles of highway.

Now that we are in Canada, I request that Jim only wear his Cabela’s  Camouflage Comfort Coat when no one but the animals see him.

There are many single and groups of bison on the side of the road standing and lying in the sun. Two bison make it across the road just in time to save them from being hit by a semi-truck. Down the road, mamma and baby bison walk along in the snow. It’s such a beautiful day!

 

We reach Laird River Hot Springs, Provincial Park. The park is open for day use and is beautifully maintained with a wood floor and changing rooms next to the steaming spring. It’s one of our walks today, but we have no intention of going in the wonderfully warm water—because after that we have to get out in the cold air.

Four people sit and float around in the water. It is tempting. I take one shoe and sock off and stick my foot off. It’s wooonnderful! I put my shoe and sock back on and we turn to go.

“ I want to put both feet in the water.”

I take my shoes and socks off and sit on the edge of the stairs and tentatively put both feet in up to mid-calf level. Reluctantly, Jim takes his off and slowly puts his feet in the warm, moving water. We sit enjoying the warm water swirling around our feet.

A late middle-aged man wearing only big swimming trunks with a Canadian flag

on them hurries by us and right into the water. Soon his wife tentatively steps into the water and sinks down.

“I’m not coming out until June when it’s warm,” she declares.

After several minutes of bliss, we get out and shake our feet dry and put on our boots and socks. Our cold, neuropathied feet feel so good as we walk back to the Sprinter.

We’re driving through mountains now with lots of white snow on them and plenty of sand on the winding roads. Coming into Ft Nelson we decide to stay at a hotel for the night to catch up on things you can’t do easily on the road—it even has a bathtub. The Internet service is good and I check messages on FB and email as well as news sites. No one needs us and I am relieved. It is good to be unhooked from the world. Somehow the natural world surrounding us is all we need

Dawson Creek is next on the trip and we start off in good spirits. However, it appears to be “one of those days” for me. No walk today. I decide to go back and lie down to see if my aching surgically modified body and nasty nerves settle down. I fall fast asleep. Because of our medical conditions, it is important to have our luxurious bed ready at all times! I wake up refreshed.

Traffic increases as we get closer to Dawson Creek and places to stay are limited. I check the “AllStays” app that is invaluable in finding unusual places to stay. However, Walmart is the only option here. The next morning is cloudy, but warmer which we welcome.

We are already missing the wilderness.

Breakfast is at Tim Hortons.

Me: “Look the TH television is showing how to make a coat rack from hockey sticks.”

Him: “Only in Canada.”

By now we are aware of the terrible tragedy of the team bus of young hockey players being struck by the tractor-trailer in Saskatchewan. It casts an air of sadness over Tim Horton’s.

We leave Dawson Creek and see a small sign for “Pouce Coupe”. The driver is going too fast for a photo and there’s no point of asking him to turn around. Perhaps I need to resurrect the idea of “5 turn-arounds-no-questions-asked per trip.” Ok, so there is lots of traffic and winding road. Now girlfriends are another story. Once while she drove me to the airport in Lake Tahoe I spotted a Sierra Trading Post store. We instantly agreed that we could make both the store and the airport. Driving in West Seattle, I spotted a For Sale sign and mentioned I was interested in possibly relocating. My friend Kathy, screeched to a stop and then backed up full speed to stop at the sign. Judy, a longtime Michigan friend would top both of these experiences.

 

A sign announces the sale of “Sea Cans”. These are the container vans that carry goods on barges to Alaska and other places that rely on the waterways—or can be turned into houses in remote Alaska communities. I like the name “Sea Cans.” And so we cross British Columbia with good humour and good memories and head into Alberta.

On the Road Again 2018: Chapter 2

The Grey Panther, 2018: On the Road Again

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April 2, 2018

The 2018 journey begins. A year has passed since we were on the road and it was a good, productive year. We also celebrate Jim’s 3 year stem cell transplant anniversary. But it is good to be on the road again. We’ll travel through Yukon Territories, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario arriving in Toronto then on to Michigan.

Yukon Territory (YT)

I love the Yukon. I always have since driving through it for the first time on my way to Alaska. It’s populatin was 17,000 in 1990 and eccentric and eclectic are the best words to describe it. It is also the end of the Klondike relay race from Skagway which The Women Who Run with Salmon completed in the late 90’s. Now the population is 28,000 and it is becoming more refined but it still holds intrigue and adventure.

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It’s different than Alaska. The YT government heavily supports the arts and many different artists have found their home here. I worked with a palliative care consultant who lives here and one of my favorite cookbook authors of The Boreal Forest, Michelle Genest, lives and writes here.

We cross the border into YT. Unlike Alaska, rest stops are open year round and plentiful with bear inhibitor trash bins.

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The toilets are unlocked from the outside. In Alaska, due to government budget problems, none remain open during most of the year. In the popular Turnagin Arm winter sports area (snowmachines on the left, human powered on the right) someone was annoyed, the toilets were locked and shot 14 bullet holes through the metal door!

The weather is bright and beautiful with blue skies and pristine snow. We listen to our new 13 hour playlist and sing along to mostly 60’s and 70’s music—folk, rock, Motown, sound tracks, it’s all here. The terrain flattens and straightens out as we drive East. Far from Texas where we listened to Texas songs, Gordon Lightfoot now sings about being Alberta bound, which we are…..eventually. We pass “No Trespassing” signs but there are hundreds of different animal tracks around the signs as they danced in the light of the moon.

All the campgrounds are closed and most of the restaurants and hotels. But we’re prepared. A few miles out of Haine’s Junction we back into a tiny road and settle in for the night. Jim jumps in bed with the hot water bottle (we both suffer cold feet from neuropathy). I sit in my front seat just breathing in the moment. I want to read for a bit, and I’ve brought the last two Sundays of the New York Times that I had no time to read, and want to start one of my used Donna Leon Venice novels, but I’m so content sitting and watching the surrounding mountains, trees and snow; watching the changing light as the sun starts to sink behind the mountains. I can never adequately describe the sensations of the North’s air. It’s crisp, clean, healing and so many other things. There is virtually no traffic and after the hectic travel packing, I am at peace.

I write about our day, our laughter, the joy of starting a new adventure. It’s good to be on our way.

After changing into my pink elephant flannel PJ’s, I climb in beside Jim and slide the hot water bottle over to my feet. The bed is so warm and soft. My feet and lower R legs are really cold so I put on the bright royal blue, big socks my daughter gave me. Awwwww. We sleep the sleep of young children, puppies and kittens who rest at the end of a big day.

All too soon, it’s time to leave our cocoon and start the day. I pour freshly squeezed orange juice and butter the cinnamon raisin sourdough bread I made for the trip for breakfast appetizers. I think I’ll wait for my tea at Tim Horton’s in Whitehorse, then decide I need at least one cup. We put everything away and Jim picks up a jar.

“What’s this?”

“Sprouts, I’m growing them for our sandwiches.”

“Only you.”

I also brought along a box of our favourite chocolates to enjoy one a day. fullsizeoutput_b45

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The beloved Tim Hortons (former hockey player) is now owned by an American company. Canadians claim that the steeped tea they serve is not the same, treason by Canadian standards, but I’m still happy to enjoy a cup. It’s near noon and the restaurant is crowded with many ethnicities and school kids as we order our breakfast and a hot chocolate for Jim. The cashiers are very efficient and we’re soon sitting in the sun enjoying our breakfast. A fuel stop and a few groceries including a new Canadian flag to replace the weathered one that flies with the American flag at home in Nikiski. The American flag got a bit shredded two years ago. Jim claimed it’s the way the country is and he’d wait to replace it until life in the US settles down. Betsy Ross offered to repair it, but Jim realizes the country won’t soon settle and bought a new one.

I told Jim I wanted to shop a bit. Also we are committed to a brisk walk each day, to keep my new knee in shape and improve his health. All of the PT and the surgery have improved my walking gait and speed. Jim turned into his “shopping snit” but I insist and he parks a brisk walk away from the shop I want to visit. It is an artist’s cooperative gallery and I enjoy looking at the art, and have a good chat with the day’s volunteer staff person. She and another woman have a show opening tomorrow that reflects how art allowed her to overcome her fear of nature when she and her husband moved to YT 20 years ago from Nova Scotia. More customers come in and I head back to the Sprinter. Soon Jim returns from his education trek (he neither drinks coffee or alcohol so I can’t send him off for a cup of coffee) and we headed out of Whitehorse. Always the teacher, he tells me what he learned and points out the former infamous “Whiskey Road” street. Jim loves nature and history. Whitehorse does still maintain a little of the unexpected.

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Traffic remains scarce as does the wild life. Our count for the YT is 2 moose, 1 squirrel and a white snoeshoe rabbit. On to British Columbia.

 

The Grey Panther, 2018: On the Road Again

STORIES ALONG THE WAY: THANKSGIVING IN GILA BOX

 

ON our first Thanksgiving  Day as partners, 2014, Jim was fighting for his life at the Seattle Cancer Center while I rested at my daughter’s house in Portland, OR on my way back to Seattle from a Mayo Clinic Rochester, MN pre-surgery appointment for a back tumor with surgery scheduled for December 31. In 2015, I was recuperating from a 2nd 10 hour surgery in less than a year at the Mayo Clinic with Jim by my side.

It’s Thanksgiving Day and, though neither of us mentions it, we want a traditional turkey dinner. It’s not just the food; it’s the memories of families and friends, cousins and aunties and family time. We drive through the small town of Globe in eastern Arizona and stop at an open grocery store. In a front display, under a heat lamp, there are mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing in take-out containers and a turkey breast!! I add a can of cranberry sauce to the cart. Salivating with anticipation, we search for a camping spot, following directions on the ALLSTAYS app.

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We drive through Staffford, AZ passing fluffy, white cotton fields on both sides of the road in the flat countryside. Jim stops by the side of the road and I pick up stray cotton just to feel its softness. It’s sunny and unseasonably warm in the 60’s.

We turn left off the highway towards Gila Box. It’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land managed jointly with Arizona State Parks. A flat road stretches through barren land. There is no campground in sight. Hmmmm. Then the road turns hilly, and narrow.

IMG_2683  White-knuckled Jim drives the single lane road around cliffs with a huge drop-off. What am I getting us into? What if the campground is filled? What if there ISN’T a campground. Will we have to drive all the way out? Jim is already tired from driving. We cross several washes with warning signs about flash floods. The scenery is gorgeous—big and primitive. fullsizeoutput_7de

GILA BOX, RIPARIAN NATIONAL CONSERVATION AREA– Historically, riparian habitats within Arizona constituted only 2% of the state. Within the past 200 years, 95% of this acreage has been destroyed or altered due to clearing, channelization, over-pumping, improper livestock management. But in the Gila Box, cottonwood, willow and Arizona sycamore thrive. Mesquite trees form large woodlands, an increasing rare habitat type in the US.  

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IMG_2643Finally, we reach the small, 13-site campground. Each spacious site is near the edge of a cliff looking down to the river hidden by deciduous trees. The picnic table has a metal roof over it and a water spigot is close. There are rustic, but clean toilets. The camping charge is $5 per night–$2.50 for us with our senior national park pass. It is a beautiful, clear late afternoon. I sigh with the happiness that comes from knowing a peaceful, beautiful time stretches before us

Jim sets out our folding loveseat for sunset viewing while I transfer our Thanksgiving dinner to plates, gather silverware and napkins, and set the picnic table. After a few minutes pause to give thanks, we dig into our grocery store dinner, laughing with the joyfulness of an enchanted natural setting and better health. It’s filled with the tastes, smells and laughter of Thanksgivings past and the hope for future Thanksgivings. It feels that all is right with the world—our world at least. 

It is hard to get Jim to settle and relax and not move to a new spot every day, but he does in Gila Box. We stay three nights. We watch the sun rise each day through the large window at the foot of our bed and feel the warm sun filling the Sprinter. Jim gets up to make tea and coffee and slides the big side door open. I stretch and luxuriate in the feeling of being in a fluffy, warm bed outside in the clean air.

Eventually I get up and make breakfast, always enjoying my changing “kitchen” view of a new location.IMG_7003

 

There are vague paths that we follow down to the river one day. We both use walking sticks to traverse the large rocks leading down to the river. From there, the ground is a little flatter and scattered with cacti.fullsizeoutput_262

But, oh, the rocks, so many colors and shapes. We continue carefully down the hill. We hear the river, but can’t see it, hidden behind large trees. We walk over small, dry washes to the riverbank and sit down on the grassy slope. The river runs quickly down small rapids and smooth stretches below us. Across the river are giant clay coloured cliffs. One looks like a windowless castle. The Gila River is well known for float trips and there are strict rules to the size and type of boats depending on water levels. No rafters pass us this morning. We explore a little more and head back up the hill, my pockets bulging with rocks.

Each night as the sun goes down we enjoy turkey leftovers, sitting in our loveseat watching the magnificent desert colours unveil an hour before sunset. We climb into bed, our solar reading lamps recharged, enjoying the quiet and the peacefulness during our reading hour. Since we are both reading books about the area, sometimes we felt the need to read each other a section that touched us. And we sink into bed, happy, and so much in love.

The days are warm, the nights cool, but we don’t need the heater. The rising sun soon spreads its warmth through the windows. The stars “put on a show for free’ that we watch fromthe big window behind our pillows.

We read, meander, talk, laugh, eat and relax in the peaceful setting. We take short walks and two-hour hikes, two days in a row!! It feels so good to hike again. Granted, I am really slow, but TWO HOURS!! The hikes are important for both of us. Jim’s cancer treatment neuropathy in his feet and my various numb, paralyzed body parts and poor balance makes even walking a challenge.

We won’t soon forget Gila Box and how good a grocery store Thanksgiving dinner tasted on a picnic table in the great outdoors. Another wonderful Thanksgiving memory.

The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value. Theodore Roosevelt

 

 

STORIES ALONG THE WAY: THANKSGIVING IN GILA BOX

Stories along the way: I Have to Try.

Today is the memorial service for Anne P. Lanier, MD, MPH in Anchorage, Alaska. She was 77 years and died from a stroke suffered during the Gold Nugget Triathalon. No ordinary woman, she thrived on challenges including making her way in the mostly “good old boys” Public Health Service in the 1970’s. In Alaska, she foresaw the coming cancer crisis among the Alaska Native people, and established a registry to track data to better prevent and treat cancer. She was ahead of her time and as Dr. Greg Marino said, “her death is the end of an era”. Dr. Steve Alberts who came from the Mayo Clinic for her service said “Its so hard to try to put her accomplishments in a single paragraph,” as he contributed to her obituary. Retired colleague Jim Williams sent a message, “I was so surprised, I expected her to live to be 100.” We all did, especially her three children.

I met Anne when I worked at a remote hospital in Dillingham, AK. When I moved to Seward to work at the Alaska SeaLife Center, we kept in touch. I provided her with whimsical anecdotes about life at the Center, and she providing financial support. Knowing that I missed working with the Alaska Native People, she, along with Dr. Greg Marino and Dr. Kevin Stange finally wooed me back to Anchorage to develop a cancer program with the promise I could develop, along with it, a statewide palliative care program…my passion. At the time, Dr. Lanier, retired from the Public Health Service, headed up the Office of Native Health Research and it was staffed mostly with women researchers who knew of her dedication and willingly gave up other more lucrative career paths and uncertain funding to work with her. I spent the final 10 years of my career at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC). We also had some fun “not work” times together.

This past week, Emily Read and Ellen Provost, former colleagues, and I talked and texted ourselves through the shock of Anne’s death and planned to meet at the memorial service. Since I am retired, this is the only chance to celebrate Anne’s life with friends and colleagues and her family that I know from her stories. I planned to drive 4 hours to Anchorage on Saturday morning and back the same day or next morning. I no longer have a condo in Anchorage.

As body challenges arose two days before the service, Jim decided to take me. Then that plan became a challenge. I had spent too much time working in the uneven gardens, not using my poles enough, and my thrice surgeried knee complained….loudly. Rosa the stoma and the colostomy raised more protests and worst of all, the nerves in my lower body, as a result of the removal of the sacral hemangioma , poked my lower body at the most unpredictable times causing me to yelp or wince in pain….often. The more anxious I got, the more my 2 times Traumatic Brain Injury and 1 brain tumored head with it’s one sided hearing, kept telling me, “DON’T GO.” Even my bicycle -accidented facial muscles started twitching.

It’s Saturday morning. The service is at 2 pm. I simply can’t risk it. I feel vulnerable. It’s time to be sensible. I let Ellen and Emily know I won’t be there. Perhaps I’ll spend the beautiful day down at the cabin on the water thinking about Anne. But it doesn’t feel right. Am I being too conservative? Would it be foolhardy to try to get there? How do I balance needing to go to be among many people who loved and worked with Anne with not over- challenging my body?

A memory pops into my head. When Jim and I were in Seattle for his cancer treatment and I was recovering from major back surgery at Mayo Clinic, and learning to manage lower trunk paralysis, a problem appeared a week before we planned to head back to Alaska. I called the UW appointment line and a bright young voice answered. I explained the problem. “One appointment came open,” she said. “Today in 20 minutes.” “I can’t,” I said having just transitioned from a walker to a cane. “Yes you can,” she said with the courage of the young. “You can arrive 10 minutes late. Hang up now and get a cab. You can do this!” And I did it.

After trying three times to manage an online flight reservation system, I finally book a flight to arrive in Anchorage at 2:02 just after the service starts. A 20-minute flight is manageable. The four-hour drive is not. I can turn back at any time. I have a safety net.

I text Emily and ask her to save a seat in the back. I am nervous about the church being full and I would have to stand for the whole service.

“I’m flying,” I tell Jim who is ready to support me. I get ready for the 1:30 flight, about 25 minute drive from home: I take cannibus oil and Alleve; change my colostomy bag and put on my hernia belt; put on support stockings in case my ornery right lower leg decides to swell, add unattractive wide-heeled sandals for better balance; put on Depends; add a heavy pad and self-cath—I don’t know when a bathroom will be available. I pack extra supplies of everything in a large handbag including my knee brace. Life is not simple any more.

Waving goodbye to Jim down at the lake, I ask the street name to the Kenai airport. “Second light,” he calls. “I love you,” we say to each other. We say it often because we don’t know how much time we have together. Cancer and tumors and six decades make us aware of how fast our limited time flies by.

It’s a beautiful day and I’m on my way. This feels right. Suddenly fog surrounds me and stays as I near the airport. Will the flight take off? On the road to the airport, a new mother moose and her gangly-legged calves walk across the road.

I park the Mini and head into the terminal to check in. Note to non-Alaskans. Small planes, small airports in smaller cities and no TSA mean quicker trips…if all goes (rarely) according to schedules. Only one flight went out today because of the fog. I head to the restroom, I have time to cath one more time and limit fluids. Of course, stress makes me want to drink more water.

Time to board the Dash B-100 for the short flight. We walk outside, and up the stairs into the plane. The robust flight attendant dressed in black, including a logo miniskirt is efficient. We leave early and arrive early. Hopefully if I can get a taxi, I’ll arrive in time for the service. I calm myself with contingency plans. If the pain worsens I can find a hotel and fly home. Or I can go to the ER. But I have to try. If I don’t try, to me it means I give up more of my mobility freedom. “You can do this,” the words of the UW student echoes in my head.

Happily the plane arrives on the same level as ground transportation. I walk as quickly as I can, my cane clacking along the tile. I try to be careful–it is so easy for me to tumble. I reach the taxi stand with its brooding drivers lounging on their cabs. It’s a minivan for me and my handbag. I provide directions and since it is a short distance from the airport I give the driver a little extra as we pull up to the door. He thanks me and grumbles that he was in line for 90 minutes at the airport.

I made it. No.. …. I MADE IT!!

In the lobby, I gratefully chat with friends and acquaintances and move to the seat with Emily as the service gets ready to start. It’s unplanned, but our row is all my former colleagues at ANTHC. Gratefully, one woman hands out tissue as the service begins. The church is full of people that have worked and loved Dr. Anne Lanier as colleagues, friends and family. It is one of the most beautiful services I have attended and good to share grief with others. From her new place, I know Anne loved it.

I tried and made it. Everyone would have understood if I didn’t. But not me. I don’t like the phrase “It is what it is.” It should be “It is what you make it.” The young UW woman will never know how she inspired me.

Photo: Emily Read, Anne Lanier, Christine DeCourtney off work.

 

Stories along the way: I Have to Try.

The New Normal

“Used to be’s don’t count anymore. They just lie on the floor til you sweep them away.”

Today I celebrate a victory. Inconsequential for the world, uplifting for me.

I started running in the early 1970’s and it quickly became my “cup of coffee and cigarette”, my solace, problem-solving and “calmer down”. Two surgeries on one knee over two years slowed me down, but I was ever so grateful when I could return to running and carefully planned my runs. I ran mostly alone, just for me. An early riser, out the door for a run, back for a shower and at work before 8am with a big smile on my face to the groans of colleagues who weren’t so inclined.

Moving to Alaska’s remote community, Dillingham, made running very challenging, little pavement, no shoulders and…….bears. It wasn’t until “The Women who Run with Salmon” started training together for the “Klondike Relay” that I started running again and my 13 mile run that started at 11:30pm was glorious with the sky filled with shooting stars and the Milky Way. For many reasons, especially health issues my running commitment fell off until I have settled in Nikiski.

I delayed starting an exercise well-being routine, including walking, meditation back/spine Qi Jong. Recently I started meditating again, but I didn’t make walking a priority and was too tired in the afternoon.

But today that changed, Determined to make it a priority I got ready this morning. I did a few stretches, noting thatmy right leg did not respond to calf stretches, but my left one did so I know I was doing them. I wore boots for support and the muddy road. Off I went, even timing my one mile planned walk. Along the way, my right leg started whining and complaining, but I did not listen and insisted that it come along. By the end my toes wouldn’t bend correctly in rebellion but I made it!! Funny, a mile in 23 minutes feels just as grand as a 13 mile run in the middle of the night!! A shower and grateful meditation followed. Who knows maybe sometime, I might even be able to slowly jog that mile!!

 

The New Normal