“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 Sitka ferry dock is seven miles from downtown and, in the Alaska way, the taxi charges “per head.” Downtown is icy, a plague of the freeze/thaw Alaska cycle. Thankfully I have my walking sticks with me. We see the Fearsome Four from the ferry, whose ages I have downgraded to mid-20’s. We’re going to a Lounge,” they say. I think I am a mother figure to them, maybe it’s the traveling pearls or the red silk scarf.
We slip and slide to the Highliner Coffee Shop, a favorite of mine. With purchase I get my own special Internet code for 90 minutes. Jim enjoys a hot chocolate (with whipped cream) and a warmed blueberry coffee cake while I type away silently cursing the lack of high speed Internet in Alaska. I get spoiled in Portland and Salem.
Jim and I taxi back to the ferry just in time. As the elevator door closes, I see my glove on the ground. A burly arm reaches out and stops the elevator door from closing so I can fetch it. The passenger list now exceeds 300 with the addition of more happy athletes from Sitka and Mt Edgecumbe (which is a respected boarding school for primarily Alaska Natives but open to all). It’s lasagna for dinner, which Jim can never resist and so we find a corner of the cafeteria as the din increases with the new passengers. Juneau is 10 hours away and I can’t imagine the teens will sleep.
On the way back to our cabin, we encounter the Fearsome Four who have commandeered the no-wi-fi-no-sleeping-no-sitting-on-the–tables computer room, sleeping bags already on the floor and the lights out. “We are so tired of kids,” says one of them. Ironically they have left that age group just a few short years ago.
We retire to our “stateroom” for the night as it is the only corner left uninhabited. During the night we hear “call-outs” for Hoonah and Juneau. In the early hours we feel the ferry moving more and we sway in the beds. Squeaking noises appear around the cabin as the strain of the increasing seas rock the ship. Jim makes tea and coffee (a must) carefully pouring the boiling water over the coffee in the strainer. He’s much better at it than I am.
Jim heads to the deck anxious to see what is going on with the weather. He comes back quickly. “You have to see this,” he says. The ferry is eerily quiet now as the teens left in Juneau and we head to front row seats in the forward lounge. The wind whistles through the ship.
The seas are wild with huge waves and whitecaps everywhere. The front windows are covered with sea spray and it is hard to see through them. There are only a handful of passengers in the lounge and everyone is watching the ferry bounce in the violent seas and wind. The ferry’s engines never quaver and it proceeds forward. Suddenly I see a black hooded shape moving outside the windows trying to get to the bow. He has a hard time, buffeted by the waves and turns back. Sometimes a crewmember goes to the bow and so it’s really bad when he can’t get there. He has hard time pulling the door from the deck open and comes into the lounge. It’s one of the Fearsome Four, the redhead!! “I couldn’t make it,” he says.
A stocky, balding man in a t-shirt sits in one of the chairs casually watching the ferry’s progress and laughing at the Fearsome One. He is obviously a frequent ferry traveler. The stocky man doesn’t change his relaxed position and laughs quietly.
“I keep thinking of Harry Chapin’s Dance Band on the Titanic,” I tell the Fearsome One. “ I realize the blank look means he has no idea what I am talking about. “Your’re too young.” I turn to the stocky man, “but you do.” He nods and smiles. “Ok now you will have it stuck in your head for the whole day,” I tell him.
We pack the “stateroom” consolidating as much as possible to make one trip to The Grey Panther then go back up top to watch the ferry plod forward. There will be a two-hour delay as the captain searches for a different route to avoid the worst of the high seas. Jim and I have both been in smaller boats in high seas and they are not pleasant memories, but it’s fun to watch now. No one panics about the delay—this is Alaska and delays are part of life.
What shall I do with the little bouquet of flowers that has made me so happy in the cabin? I know the young woman in the lounge has too many things to handle with her baby. I walk down the hall and see a dark-haired youngish crew woman seriously studying her clipboard. “Would you like these flowers?” I ask. “You don’t want them?” she asks surprised. “I’m leaving the ferry,” I said “and want to give them to you.” She looked from me to the flowers. “I love them!” she said. “I’ll take them to my cabin.”
Back in the lounge Jim and I sit near the young woman with her baby and we chat in the casual Alaska way. The happy baby has a beautiful quilt and crocheted blanket made by her grandmother and great-grandmother. She is traveling to Haines where her husband is running their heli-ski operation from February to May 1. Until the baby arrived she was his partner. He has not seen his daughter for a month now and she reflects how much harder it is being in total charge of this little life. Their home is in Montana. She admires my black lowtop boots wanting to know the brand. It makes me feel a little younger. She points out a spot on the coast, “We had a house there until last year,” she said. “But it was so hard to get water. When girl friends came to visit and constantly flushed the toilet, I kept thinking, that’s 2.2 gallons!” I decided not to tell her about my stay at the Buddhist temple in Santa Fe that does not allow you to flush unless absolutely necessary. I notice a tiny bottle of nail polish on the window ledge–from the teens. Jim said that there will be a pile of “left-behinds”
I watch an old man sitting near us. In Sitka while we were at the dock he struggled to the bow and took some photos. I am curious, he’s not a novice. Now I watch as he studies the ferry’s course and goes back to sitting near us in the front row. Finally he puts on his scarf and eventually his worn jacket. I know he has a story but time……..
Shore call, time to go and we head down to the car deck and to The Grey Panther. The Fearsome Three hug each other. Surprisingly the black pick-up truck in front of us from Virginia belongs to one of them, while the long-curly haired man climbs into the Sprinter beside us. It has a Utah license plate. We wave goodbye and drive off on to the dock passing a truck with a rocking chair and skis. The Third member, in a white car pulls up with a Texas license plate next to the pickup truck and wait for the Sprinter—not quite ready to say goodbye to their new friends in the Alaska Frontier. That’s just the way Alaska is……..
We drive around Haines a little and eat at the Chilkook Bakery and Restaurant that serves Thai food. And has British soap in the washroom. Awww Alaska. We notice a Tiny House for sale
We’re getting close to home now, spending a night in a hotel before we tackle the 1,000 miles and plan to leave early for the 400 mile drive to Tok where the temperature is expected to reach -35 degrees. Then onto Grandview overlooking the Matanuska Glacier to see friends we never get to see often enough. We will reflect on our ferry ride as we absorb it as another wonderful adventure.
The Shooting of Sam McGee
Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you’ve a haunch what the music meant. . . hunger and night and the stars.
One day I will walk on a sandy beach and not stop to pick up a stone, stick or shell. I won’t stop to watch a scurrying crab, a little girl in pink with her bucket and big plans, foamy waves and other seaside distractions, but not today.
We’re having a lovely respite from driving at the Ester Lee motel in Central Oregon, in our 1940’s cottage with four big windows looking out over the coast. It rains off and on but the sun peaks out occasionally and the temperature is good.
The Oregon coast was a solitary, replenishing venture for most of my visits over the years. But now I’m happy to share it with Jim. We rest the first night content to watch the sunset from comfortable chairs near the large windows. Jim’s still a little gun shy regarding “rogue waves” after one unexpectedly tipped us over a year ago when we were weaker. His concern is magnified by a story of a man and baby who perished when they were taken out to sea by a “sneaker wave” so we wait for low tide.
The sun and the tide are out and we head for a walk wearing rubber knee boots to wade across small streams that cross our path. A tattooed man takes off his shoes and socks to wade across a cold stream. Somehow a block of sand remains intact on a rock in the stream.
Other people come out to enjoy the day—couples, kite-fliers, a runner, agate hunters and solo walkers. But the summer crowds are gratefully missing. “You’re smiling ear to ear!” Jim says. No matter how I feel, what I am worrying about, walks along the sandy beach cheer me up, and invigorate me. I’m using walking poles and we walk a long time as I fill my pockets with treasures.
A driftwood forest rises on our left, and a long four -trunk beached tree, its leafless bones half-buried in the sand lies next to the water. A mighty force of wind and water moved it to the shore. Its roots are intact so perhaps it tumbled off a cliff as it eroded. We turn back and Jim counts the rings in another tree thrown far up on the beach. It’s as tall as he is and about 100 years old.
He goes ahead while I follow, stopping to observe shells in a rock, pick up more treasures to stuff in my bulging pockets and study a coco cola pallet and a driftwood “dodo” bird.
Jim waits patiently for me knowing how happy I am right now. Back in our cottage, we take off our boots and I sink into a comfortable chair by the window and sort my treasures. There is no need to leave the cottage except to walk, we eat what we have, when we are hungry.
I am fascinated by small rocks with a shallow carved in them by the wind, water and sand. I like to find a stone to fit in the hollow. I first saw them by a vendor at the annual “Bad Girls of the North” art show in Anchorage. She grew up in northern California and Southern Oregon and found them during her walks. Ever since I look for them on my walks and find stones that fit.
We’re tired and it is good to watch the sun slowly set changing the colour of the sky and the water many times before darkness wins, but the sound of the sea still charms me as the tide comes in. Maybe tomorrow I won’t pick up a stick, a stone, or a shell.
Interstate highways are for the tightly scheduled. The destination is the journey. We have certainly done our share of these highways as we hurried here and there. But, now, the journey itself is the destination. I find the Interstates boring and too fast to study roadside scenery passing rapidly. Sometimes we have little choice, but I love the meanderings through the countryside.
It’s late afternoon and we need a place for the night and leave I-40 near Sayre to drive 30 miles north on a two lane road…. the brown winter grass is out of place in 77degrees. Stark tones of brown and black tree trunks give way to ever diminishing bare branches as they twist up to the sky until they became small twigs. The grass lands were farmed until the Dustbowl wiped out the farmers’ crops, then the banks foreclosed on the farms and the banks failed.
Hundreds of tall, white, stork-like windmills turn in the wind. There are so many of them on the roadside prairies and the occasional old wooden windmills looks out of place now…
a horse grazes in a dry, brown field…..black Angus cows are stark against the red soil and green winter grass…..a large flock of small birds take flight. So many things to see now and I’m alert and focused at the sights along the way…. Jim wants to get to the campground after a long day of driving and promises better meaderings when we continue the trip tomorrow. We negotiate a deal—I get one turnaround a day to photograph something that went by too fast. ….black cows, walk up a red soil lane, single file; a metal sign shows a cowboy leaning down to kiss a woman on her tiptoe;.a shiny, red pickup truck parked against a worn, grey building; a double wide trailer house still split down the middle though it has been there for some time;…..curved low oil pumps….a lone mailbox in the middle of the road….I wonder how many times it has been hit in bad weather….. …neatly plowed red furrows with tufts of green…rolling hills…the deserted Cheyenne golf club..
We turn into the Department of Agriculture Grasslands recreation area as the daylight fades. Not sure where to camp, we drive to the end, past the Dead Warrior Creek. A brown cow stands behind a red gate watching us. No one else is here in the nicely kept campground. Jim parks The Grey Panther by the Creek, with our very own ensuite bathroom and double trash bins nearby. It’s still warm and we wander down to the rickety dock on the creek. Silence. Beautiful Silence as the wind pauses. We leave the side door open and eat supper, wandering down to the dock to the sun setting over the water and the almost full moon rises.
As the soft, warm darkness surrounds us, a coyote calls, followed by a flock of geese arguing with each other on a small island in the water. In the Sprinter, we settle for the night….do you hear the owls?, Jim asks. I listen and hear the quieting hoot, hoot. ..and we sleep.
The next morning we watch the sun rise from the big window at our feet and Jim gets up to fix coffee and tea… I wait in bed, he slides open the door and I’m in the middle of an ad of a beautiful bed in middle of the outdoors, but warm and sleepy under the duvet….
It’s time to go and we meander down the road to I 40. Jim stops at designated places. I exercise my turnaround when we drove past a wooden cross on the right. The cross is inscribed at the top “44” down further, “1968-2012. Barbed wire spikes spread out like rays..,in the main pole holds carefully arranged colourful beads in a wire nest. On the ground below surrounded by weeds is a tire rim and a metal object like a large toy jack…. another smaller cross next to it I wonder…..
Down the road a broken down weathered building sits next to a red soil road. I step aside as a red covered tank truck lumbers by. Three red covered bottles lie next to each other in the soil…vines almost cover a window….the remains of a porch… after a hard day of farming did the farmer sink wearily into a chair, breathing in the night air…. did his wife answer the door in her faded housedress?..,the roof of the porch is scalloped….the hand made shingles are falling.
A ‘60’s BSA motorcycle sits on a post above a “Crandalls” sign on top of a faded “beware of dog” sign….broken down weather-worn buildings and deserted farm equipment on a small, nearby hill. Where did their dreams go?
Back on the road we continue to the Interstate driving through the small town of Cheyenne. But then I see a sign… and we turn right instead.
Close friends since we were 14 years old, Gail and I have shared many adventures, big, small, good and bad over the past decades. It began in the 60’s with 13 page hand- written letters disclosing affairs of the heart and other critical teenage angsts to telephone calls and now email as well as planned and hastily arranged visits depending on family crises and travels. We support each other through good and bad times, laughing or crying together and sometimes doing both. Our mothers are sisters and as such we quote the same poems and stories to each other finishing off each other’s lines with a jubilant laugh. Visiting my mother once, she said, when I got off the phone, “You were talking to Gail.” “How did you know?” I asked. “So much laughing,” she replied.
As cancer widows whose husbands died 9 months apart, we started traveling together again, testing our compatibility with small trips before we tackled a month long trip to Turkey. It was a joyful trip filled with the things we like best, shopping, eating, learning, drinking tea, sharing stories, grief…. and laughing.
When the opportunity rose to take a break along the Grey Panther’s road trip with Jim flying off to see his sister in Alabama and Bethel AK friends in FL for a week, Gail arrived in Austin from Toronto, Ontario, just as Jim flew off. Gail had spent no time in TX and I only attended meetings in Austin, Houston and Dallas. It wasn’t on our A list of travel plans but we are always ready for an adventure. We just weren’t sure how a pair of liberal Canadians would enjoy Texas.
Gail is a great travel researcher and landed us a place to stay in New Bruenfils, between Austin and San Antonio. It was a dated complex on the Guadalupe River but with two bedrooms and bathrooms, a full kitchen and laundry facilities. As we age, we don’t share a ¾ size fold up couch in my parents’ family room as we did for many summers when Gail came for a long visit. Aunt Dorothy, mother of two, worried about inconvenience for such a long stay. My mother, mother of five, said one more wouldn’t matter.
We had not had a fun trip since Turkey. Gail came to my surgery at Mayo to help me while Jim was getting cancer treatment in Seattle. We met again in Traverse City when my son was hospitalized and family and friends gathered.
Now, with no other agenda except fun, we were ready. First order of business was to put the kettle on for tea even before unpacking.
Gail had recently traveled to India, a trip we hoped to do together, but my walking limitations and other modified body parts negated my travel—our trips always include lots of walking. On Saturday morning Gail set off for a vigorous, morning walk on a sunny day without me. She began to see my travel limitations, not for lack of desire, but because of physical status. We went to the Saturday farmers’ market, driving, when we would have walked before. This was my chance to gain experience driving The Grey Panther, much to Jim’s angst. Heh heh.
We wandered New Bruenfil’s main street. We didn’t realize that Texas has a large German influence (since 1850). First stop was an old hardware store with wooden floors and bins up the wall. I needed a bathtub stopper. I usually travel with a generic one but it disappeared. I was led right to it.
A large antique store in an old building invited us in. We split up so we could wander the many aisles and thousands of items displayed. When we met up, Gail said, “There is a small tea cup from Occupied Japan.” I said, “I was just going to mention it to you.” We went back and looked at it in glass display case and I bought it. We don’t know its story but it intrigued both of us. I looked wistfully at the Royal Doulton “Balloon Man” and “Balloon Woman” that I had loved since childhood when we would go to Jones China Shop in the small Canadian town I grew up in. I also bought a still-working-old-heavy waffle iron. In a move, my old waffle iron that I used for many years making wonderful waffles for my children disappeared. I bought a new one but it was light and the waffles not near as good. Can’t wait to try when we get back to Alaska!!
Time for lunch. We walked down the sidewalk to a café with a French menu. It was a delicious meal with bread, salad, salami, cheese and French glace. We chatted with the head cook who makes everything, including the delicious baguette.
Off to a hotel in Austin for the night. We had signed up for a photography workshop on Sunday, “Photography as Art” by Art Wolfe who we both admire. It was stimulating as he compared a history of artists to potential styles of photography that could be abstracted into designs from nature. Heading back to New Bruenfils, our talk focused on potential photos.
Leisurely mornings were the mutually agreed on rule—nonstop tea and nonstop talking in PJ’s. Monday afternoon drove to San Antonio for a half -day visit. We wanted to try some new photo shots as well as seeing the sites.
Note: I take snapshots to illustrate my writing. Gail is a serious photographer and walks around with a giant camera and lens around her neck even though she is only 5ft tall. I claim it is a man magnet—attracting all males from 8-80yrs old. If I were looking for a man, I would just buy a cheap camera shell and walk around with it. I parked near the Alamo as we belted out “Davy, Davy Crockett…..” Ready for adventure, the wide sidewalk with shops and restaurants lured us on. We went inside a store with beautiful items from Turkey, nostalgia swept over us. I asked the Turkish owners how Turkey was fairing with the political upheaval. “The best thing you can do for Turkey,” he said, “Is to travel there. We stopped to visit to giant lions on wheels in front of a store. Imagine, you could just roll the lions to wherever you felt threatened!
Around the corner from the Catholic church was a sculpture on a bench titled “Homeless Jesus.” I paused and took a photo because it was so simple and so meaningful. It remains a strong memory with me.
After a quick lunch we jumped on a double decker tour bus that had jump-on jump –off privileges. It was a sunny, warm day and the country music blaring from the speaker fit the day. Alas, the art museum was closed.
We stepped off the bus to go down to the River Walk to wander and take abstract water photos. Having a strong interest in the workings of the 1930’s WPA and CCC, I noticed that the bridges were constructed by WPA workers. It was only when flood control was put in place that it become a tourist attraction. TIn the Menger Hotel where many famous people stayed, there was a telegram that was sent to the sculptor of Mt Rushmoe who had a studio in the hotel.he Alamo was the last stop before we headed home.
Fredricksburg was Tuesday’s trip. I was glad we could take a back road instead of the freeway. It was a 90 minute drive. It is a German town, and I was curious how it became the center of a memorial for General Nimitz of the Pacific theatre WWII fame who was born there I did see an unusual photo signed by him wearing a cowboy hat and holding a guitar in ….
Independent bookstores, whose demise I find, is greatly exaggerated, are a priority. .On the counter in a basket was a fluffy, sleeping cat who blended in with the adjacent old books. It seemed he wandered in one day, a feral cat, whose tip of the ear was cut off, the universal sign that the cat had been neutered. He was now a permanent fixture, the owner told us, only answering to the name of “Kitty” which was the name of Anne Frank’s cat. He kept the old building rodent free staying there all day and night. Ambling the sidewalks, we found a couple of interesting clothing shops, oh so nice. I found my “mother of the bride” dress for my daughter’s wedding in June—French linen made it Italy and yes a few more things. With my colostomy body I wear mostly tunics now—a good excuse for new wardrobe pieces, I think.
The days passed quickly with warm, sunny weather. A rest day was in order and we committed the next day to a proper rest—unless something called our name. Of course it did. We know each other well. Late afternoon, off we went to a nearby town, Gruene (German for Green). It had been a cotton town founded by a man…wait for it…named Gruene. He built a beautiful home, and one for his daughter when she married.
The town has many other buildings including the still functioning Dance Hall. The boll weevils came along and the Dust Bowl—the town died. Some time later, a young student found the abandoned town along the river and figured it would become a great tourist town. He was right. An old fashioned general store with blaring country music, dance hall, the wonderful Gristmill restaurant on the river greeted us in rehabilitated buildings. My favorite was the Black Swan antique store housed in Gruene’s daughter’s house. Many beautiful antiques including a large rectangle tea kettle and items I had never seen. The workers were very gracious and lovely piano music played. I bought a ceramic replica of a coach foot warmer for Jim’s and my cold feet. Alas, the wealthy people had beautiful ornate foot warmers that were very pricey. But what caught my eye, and how could I resist, was Paris Rain bath salts!! And soap which she cut into 3 pieces that she recommended for easier management. Definitely a special memory. I told her about my claw foot bathtub in the woods at Jim’s and she insisted that I show her pics and drooled over the Alaska scene.
Gail dragged me out to check a couple of other stores before closing. Another antique story with thousands of items in an old storefront drew us in and there was the tiny harbor seal in a cluttered glass display cabinet looking quite forlorn.
“Vintage harbor seal,” the tag said. “$14.95.” How did he get there? He’s beautifully made with the right neck angle and big, warm eyes and tiny, perfect stitches, the sign of an expert skin sewer. What is his story? Alaska? Canada? How did he end up here? I walked away, ready to leave the story and the seal behind. But, I just couldn’t. He seemed so lonely in his little corner. I went to the counter to get the clerk to unlock the case. A young Texan, chatty and helpful, but no idea the origin of the little guy.. And now he’s perched right next to me and seems a little happier, even though he doesn’t even know he’s going home to the North. But, the seal is now ready to travel with a new owner with an important mission. Stay tuned.
There was the Royal Doulton Balloon Man all by himself, twice the price of the one in New Bruenfils. As we walked outside to look at an old building converted to an inn that had been Gruene’s house, the smell of grilled steak filled the air. Not normally a beef eater, the smell and hunger called us. We were sure the popular restaurant would be filled Luck was with us and we were taken to a table next to the water once I assured the waiter I could walk down the stairs. It was a lovely meal as the sun set over the river.
On the way home, I turned right and found open parking spaces next to the river. As the sun set, there were many birds in the water as well as white egrets? All flying on and off one tree. Truly a magical site, and we stopped to watch and take photos. Once more, a memorable day in a Texas town.
The week passed so quickly. On our last day together we packed, took nearby river photos and went downtown New Bruenfils. I bought the Balloon man and Balloon Woman.
We wanted one last lunch together and stepped into a small old home and disappeared into a German restaurant, beautifully decorated with the original brick showing and gentle German music playing. Lunch was special as well, Schnitzel and accompaniments. I really meant to save half for Jim, but it was so good I had to order a takeway for him!!
It was time to go to the airport and drop Gail off to return to Toronto and pick up Jim. A memorable week with my cousin and as we always say to each other “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow Mr MGarrity” (google Maggie Muggins). Jim had good visits and was happy to see the Sprinter was ok. I haven’t told him yet of having to take it to a Mercedes dealer to fix the right mirror that I somehow dislocated. Shhhhh.
National politics are in turmoil and we followed them while exploring Texas. But, we found good people living good lives in small Texas towns –caring about all people. Life is good!!