Saturated (part 1)

Sometimes a person reaches a saturation point.  The dampness of this coastal Alaskan summer was beginning to take its toll on my mood.  My imagination was stuck on replaying a scene that involved waking up in the morning and seeing blue sky and a yard that could be navigated without getting soaked.  I needed some sun and I wasn’t going to get it in Homer.  A field trip was in order, so my sister Marla and my friend Kate and I headed north, to the Anderson Bluegrass Festival.

There were no guarantees that the weather would be nice in Anderson, but whenever people gather to play music there is different kind of warmth that is created, a kind of heat that is a close second to that which comes from the sun, and I needed some of that as well.  Lucky for me the weekend did not disappoint on either front.

We left on Thursday afternoon and headed toward Anchorage to stay one night with our friends Jay and Sigrid, host and hostess extraordinaire.  They have an enviable way of making people feel right at home the moment you enter their presence (not just their home.)  Sigrid attended the play of one of her nieces that evening so we didn’t get to see much of her, but Jay whisked us away to a birthday party of a fellow musician and fiddle player, Peter.

Several friends that I’ve made over the past five years of attending Alaska Fiddle Camp were there, and it was great to get to see them, especially since there will be no camp this year.  After visiting for a while we found our way to the dining room that had been cleared out to make room for the purpose of playing music.  My brain was dull after the drive, and I could feel the beginnings of a headache (I should have known better than to substitute dinner with a mocha,) but thankfully my friend Sherry, another fiddle player, was there with her plethora of tunes, and between her and Peter and George, I enjoyed the luxury of just playing along without having to think too hard.  We played until just after midnight (in order to usher Peter into his 40’s) and ended the evening by passing around a gallon of raspberries that George had picked from his yard and given to Peter as a birthday gift.

It was raining again as we left the party but it didn’t really matter.  I felt content, and warm, and glad to be in Alaska among my friends.

Halfway through summer

Somewhere in the early days of this blog I think I wrote something about trying to post something at least twice a week.  In retrospect it may have been a little too lofty a goal.  I seem to be doing well to get something out twice a month at this point.

There is always the hope that somewhere in my future I will find more time for writing and reading.  Realistically the six to seven months of winter we get here could work to my advantage.   During the long season I go to bed early and therefore find it relatively easy to get up at 5:30am and take advantage of a quiet house.   Summer in Alaska is a different story.  There is this climate-imposed pressure to fit as much into three months as others in a more southern locale could spread out over as many as six to eight months.   The garden needs tending, firewood needs stacking.  There are fish to catch, berries to pick and recreation to be had, all in addition to the regular household chores and my job.    I’ve heard people talk about “lazy summer days” but honestly I haven’t experienced many of them in the 18 years I’ve lived here.   Perhaps we’re programmed to keep moving until darkness settles in, which this time of year is around midnight. It’s a rather manic existence and I can sustain it for a while, but just lately I’ve reached the part of the summer where my concentration is low and my attention span is short.

Lately I’ve been craving some serious couch time.  The other day I found myself fantasizing about catching a summer cold that would force (allow?) me to sit still for a while with my books and my laptop.  When my reading and writing habits become mucked up in the long daylight portion of summer, I feel a little out of balance.  A sort of literary mania comes over me.  The problem is compounded by the fact that I work in a library.

It starts with me checking out more books and magazines than I could ever possibly find the time to read.  Then, when I start feeling bad about taking so many items out of circulation for the public use I begin digging through the book donation boxes in the back room.   My stack keeps getting higher and in my attempt to make up for all the years I spent reading Glamour magazine and listening to 80’s pop music when I should have been reading the classics I start having thoughts like, “How can I possibly be a good writer if I’ve never read Moby Dick, or anything by Steinbeck?  I must remedy this situation right now.”   The guilt I inflict upon myself is emotionally exhausting and by the time I actually have time to sit down on my couch with my oversized stack, (usually around 11:30 pm) I’m overwhelmed by the choices.   I do a lot of page flipping and a little reading (remember the short attention span I mentioned earlier) before I find myself too tired to think straight.  Then I fall into a hard sleep for about six hours.

Coherence returns, for a while at least, after a good sleep, so that’s when I try to write, even if it only amounts to a page or two in my notebook.   Some would say that journaling is a waste of time but I find that it’s a valuable tool for helping me keep my wits intact.   A while back it led me to a most obvious solution to my reading and writing problem of late:  short stories.  I’m working on a short story of my own, and what better way to learn the workings of the genre than to read a bunch of them?    And beautifully, I can manage complete works of fiction that are only 5-12 pages long, even during this crazy time of year when daylight lasts much longer than my brain’s ability to stay fully engaged.

And as for this blog, I still aspire to post more often, and maybe even liven it up with pictures once in a while.    In the meantime I’ll do what I can, and continue to enjoy the process.  I think I’ll also try to slow down a little and savor some of what summer has to offer.

Thanks everyone for reading.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support!

Lunch Break Pilgrimage

To outsiders 39 degrees doesn’t sound very warm, but in Homer, in the middle of March, when there is no wind and the sun is shining, it feels downright toasty, especially if you’re wearing your favorite wool sweater.  Yesterday, St. Patrick’s Day, was one of those days.  Unfortunately I had to work, but I did manage to get outside over my lunch break.

First, I left the library and waded through several inches of slush in the parking lot to find my way to the walking trail that leads through the woods.  The trail hasn’t been cleared since last week’s storm, but a narrow path of packed down snow made it passable.  I could have followed the road, but I would have been sprayed and subsequently soaked if a car had driven past.  On the trail I met a young guy whose mother is a friend of mine.  When he stepped aside to let me pass he sunk about two feet into the soft, melting snow.  It was very chivalrous of him considering the fact that he was wearing sneakers and I had my snow boots.

At the end of the trail I turned south on Poopdeck Street.  At this point I had to shade my eyes with my hands.  The sun, the snow, the water; well it was all a little overwhelming for my pupils.  The sidewalk was also icy which made for some interesting maneuvering.  I walked and slid my way downhill to the highway, without crashing I might add, with one hand above my eyes and the other out in front of me for balance.

I crossed the highway at the crosswalk and cut through the Islands and Ocean Visitors Center parking lot to meet the next trail.  It cuts down through the spruce and alder forest and leads to one of my favorite destinations in Homer; Two Sisters Bakery.  But yesterday it was too nice outside, and I needed the sun more than I needed a chocolate bread roll, so I walked past the bakery and headed toward Bishop’s Beach.

The parking area was crowded.  Dogs and children were milling about.  A black lab and a German shepherd, free from their owners, ran up to greet me.  It turns out that I knew both of the dogs and when I called out their names, Osa and Caspian, they were beside themselves. They proceeded to swarm around me in a flurry of leaping and hopping and wagging tails.  When the boys who belonged to the dogs caught up they seemed equally as excited as the dogs at having found someone they know at the beach. Sometimes there’s nothing like a good greeting.

After a short chat in the parking lot I walked through the soft sand at the top of the beach and over the rocky stretch about half way down before I reached the final stretch of my journey.  Still wet from the receding tide and littered with clumps of seaweed, driftwood and clam shells, the expanse of dark sand just before the water is one of my favorite places.  Sometimes I walk long distances along the water’s edge, taking advantage of the firm surface, but yesterday my time was limited so instead of walking parallel to the water I went straight toward it.

I  knew I didn’t have long, that I’d have to turn back in order to get back to work on time, but I stood for a while with the water inching in and out around the soles of my boots.  I listened to the waves. I turned my head toward the sun and soaked in its heat for a few moments.  Then I did something that I hadn’t planned on doing; I took off my gloves and plunged my hands in the ocean.   For some reason it just seemed like the right thing to do.

Extremes



Today, the day after the official winter solstice, we have five hours and fifty-eight minutes between sunrise and sunset. We’re on the gaining side of the pendulum now and by March it will be light until 9:00 pm.

Solstice doesn’t go unnoticed in Alaska.  Some people have big parties in celebration of the shift toward summer.  Others acknowledge the day in a more introspective fashion.  Either way, it feels very Pagan, living in a state where no matter how far removed you might be from nature you can’t ignore the extremes in the seasons.

I’ve had a hard time with winter the last few years.  For me, and others I’ve spoken to about the subject, there seems to be a cumulative effect going on.  Coping with winter didn’t seem to be so much of a problem for the first decade of my living here, but now I have to actively work on my sanity throughout the winter months.

This winter I’m taking 3000 IU of Vitamin D every day.  I haven’t read any scientific studies about its effectiveness in fending off the winter blues, but I figure it can’t hurt.

A few years ago I bought a light box.  The idea is that if you start using it daily in the fall when each day loses a few minutes of light, then you will feel the benefits of it in late winter when the days are getting longer.  And that brings up another interesting and strange dilemma.  Most people who have a hard time with winter feel it the most around the spring equinox, when the days are long again, and the hope of summer is just around the corner.

For me I’ve found that my ability to make it through the winter without feeling despair hinges on the previous summer.  In 2008 Alaska had a very cool summer.  In Homer the temperature only got to 70 degrees twice.  Most days the thermometer hovered around 55 degrees.  In July we went camping in McCarthy and had to cancel our hiking plans due to snow.  Winter rolled around and I never felt like I had had a summer.  It was tough.

I can endure pretty long winters, but if I don’t feel like I have a summer I get cranky, and desperate.  Last year we planned a trip to New Mexico in June, the hottest time of the year there, because I was determined to get some sun.   I didn’t want to rely on Alaska for a summer.  After 2008 I didn’t have much faith.

As it turned out we had an unseasonably warm and sunny summer last year.  So between that stroke of luck, or El Nino, and the New Mexico trip, I should be in good shape for this winter.  But certain things about myself, in relation to the long, Alaskan winters are still predictable.  By late February, even on a good year,  I’ll start dreaming about that feeling of the sun’s rays on my skin and I’ll wake up under my down comforter and feel like crying.  By that point in the winter I know I’ll have to rely on some inner strength to get me through those last few weeks of winter.  I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.

It helps if I remind myself of the opposite extreme that Alaska brings out in me.  Every summer I experience moments of euphoria, usually while I’m out on our skiff on Kachemak Bay, or when I’m looking down on the meadow in front of our house and a black bear lumbers by.  At those moments, when Alaska’s bounty is all around me and the days linger into the early hours of the morning, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Naming a road

Bear with me please, because I know I mentioned in an earlier post that I was going to steer clear of politics for this blog.  But there is a local issue that I feel warrants the breaking of my self-imposed rule.  It has to do with a neighborhood squabble over the name of our street.

When we decided to venture out of town and live a more rural lifestyle, we started looking for a house nestled on a few acres.  At the time there weren’t many options.  We found either a house with no acreage, or acreage with a rustic shack.  One day though, we noticed a new ad in the newspaper that sounded appealing.  “For sale by owner:  Two bedroom house, good view, five acres.”  Immediately we made the call.

The man selling the house was about to turn ninety.  He wanted to move to Oregon to be closer to his family and in his words, “start a new life.”  He was eager to go, and we were eager to buy.  The house was less than perfect, although it was sound.  And the view, well to say it has a good view is the understatement of the century.  The five acres were carved out of the middle of a large homestead, so a lot of wild space surrounded the house.  We drove away that day knowing that we had to move fast.  We called the seller back that same night, and asked him if we could come take another look. That’s when he said, “I should probably tell you about the neighbors.”

Most people who live in or around Homer, Alaska can claim that they have interesting neighbors, but I’m going to go ahead and make the bold claim that ours may be more interesting than most.  An entire book could be written about them, and should be for that matter.  Now they are in their mid 80’s, but as a young couple they homesteaded in this area with a baby on the way and a toddler; before there was a road.  They are tough.  They still haul their drinking water from town, use an outhouse, and keep their home warm with a wood stove.

The old man has quite a reputation.  He’s known around town for growing potatoes and toting a gun.  We’ve heard stories about him shooting at low-flying airplanes, and real-estate agents.  Sharing a driveway with him has been a challenge at times, but overall it’s worked out well.  Soon after we moved in I discovered that he and I come from the same town in Colorado, and I credit that little bit of serendipity with making all the difference.

The woman is someone I consider a friend.  She works harder than most people I know and still drives into town before church every Saturday morning to play piano for “the seniors” at the long-term care center.  She grows, without a doubt, the best strawberries on the Kenai Peninsula. Her stories about homesteading this neighborhood are filled with bears, months of isolation, fires and a whole host of other amazing things.

Just last week I gave her a ride to town when her car was in the shop.  I noticed that her breathing was more labored than usual, and she had a hard time getting in and out of the car.  “I’ve really gone downhill these past couple of months,” she said after I helped her with her seatbelt.  She then proceeded to tell me about how her family moved to a village near Dillingham when she was six years old, and how her father and older brother died in a boating accident during their first year in Alaska.  One of the jobs she had to take on in order to help her family survive was feeding the dog team.  At first I didn’t think much of that, but then she mentioned that she had to trap animals for them in the winter and harvest and dry fish for them in the summer.  No wonder she’s slowing down now, at age 85.

And this brings me back to the name of our road.  When we first moved out here the name of our road was Olday Road.  The borough felt the need to change it at some point, so they asked for suggestions.  Since our neighbors homesteaded the area, someone suggested that the road be named after them.  So it became James Road for a few years.  Someone was unhappy with that name, perhaps it was someone who had suffered the wrath of the old man when he was feistier than he is now, and they made an issue out of it.  I wasn’t a part of the discussion, but had I been asked I would have said, “Absolutely. The Jameses deserve to have the road named after them.”  But sadly, the sign at the top of the street now says Maria Road.

I have plenty of stories I could tell about living next to the old homesteaders.  A few of them are bad, like the time our dogs got caught in the traps the old guy set to keep the coyotes out of his pile of moose hide.  Some of them are funny, like the time they added an entire trailer’s worth of old household items we were getting rid of to their already huge collection of stuff. But most of the stories just have to do with being neighborly; sharing gardening experience, giving rides to town, figuring out where to park our cars when there is too much snow.

I don’t know who Maria is, or was, and maybe her story warrants the naming of a road after her.  But this one should be named after the James.  They deserve a tribute to their lives as Alaskan homesteaders.  It wouldn’t be much but I think it would mean something to them, to see their name on the street sign each time they drive past.

More snow days

The library where I work moved into a new building three years ago, and since then it has become a bit of a town living room.  In the winter locals stop in between errands to warm up by the fireplace, or to check their email or browse through the new books.  Friends meet there to play chess or to knit.  It’s also a great place for small talk.  I’m one of the chattier librarians, which I guess might be bad since libraries are supposed to be quiet places, but one of the things I like about living in a small town is being on a friendly basis with most everyone I see.

Some days everybody is talking about the most recent antics of our ex-governor, or about the high school hockey team.  Last week there were lots of comments about the six puppies that were left near a dumpster in a kennel with the word “HELP” spray painted on the sides.  Something always has folks talking, and if no local politician has done anything gossip-worthy, or there haven’t been any house fires, then we always have Mother Nature to fall back on.  Last March Mt. Redoubt, the volcano across Cook Inlet, gave us all something to speculate about and yesterday the library was abuzz with talk of the impending storm that the weather service predicted would start at 4:00pm.

Blizzards aren’t terribly unusual here in Homer, so you wouldn’t think we’d get all excited about them, but we do.  For a little while, before every dramatic storm, the town feels like Christmas Eve.  The grocery stores get busy with people wanting to “stock up.”  Folks rush to the library so they won’t run out of reading material.  Trying to find a parking place at the video store becomes impossible.

We say that all of the bustling about is for the sake of preparedness, but in reality you won’t find a population more prepared for disaster than Alaskans.  We have full propane tanks, multiple cords of firewood, plenty of food and, I’d guess, more entertainment options at home than we’d ever consume while waiting out one measly storm.  I think the pre-blizzard giddiness that happens is just our excitement over the possibility of having a snow day or two.  We all just want an excuse to stay home for a while, and in case that happens we want to make sure we have half and half for our coffee and couple of good movies.

As individuals we’ve adapted to the extreme conditions here, and so have the road crews and city maintenance workers.  We should know better than to hope for a snow day.  But we can’t seem to help ourselves.  Whenever the national weather service issues a winter storm warning the fantasies start to play out in our minds.  We imagine a day of tending the fire, drinking hot cocoa, cooking a slow, savory stew.

Yesterday, just like the weather service predicted, the wind started to pick up around 4:00 pm.  The library was a flurry of activity until we closed at six.  It was cool to see people in town preparing not for the storm, but for the off chance, the hope, of this being that one big blizzard that happens every few years that allows us to stay home for a few days.  Even in Homer, Alaska we manage to fill up our time with work, school, sports, meetings and a hundred other things.  A harsh storm gives us all reason to pause and remember that slowing down wouldn’t be such a bad thing.  We know that we’re able to get where we need to go when the snow is three feet deep and blowing sideways; but just because we can doesn’t always mean that we should.  I think we need more snow days.