Driving Miss Nina

(What’s the age people quit driving?  How do you get loved one to give up the keys?)

Mom was eating a personal-pan-pizza I bought her for lunch when she made her big announcement.  She said she wasn’t going to drive much anymore—if at all.

I glanced across to my sister Lainey, who was eating lunch with us, but she kept her eyes focused on mom. I was surprised by mom’s announcement, but I shouldn’t have been.  The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that fatal crashes begin peaking at age 85, and mom was 86.

My mother has been a chauffeur and driver for as long as I’ve known her.

I remember being a little girl in the 1960’s and driving with mom in the front seat of the Chevy.  Seat belts weren’t mandatory back then, so when mom made a sudden stop, she threw her arm protectively across my chest to keep me from bonking my head on the dashboard.  In my lifetime, my mother has picked me up from junior high sleep-overs, high school choir practice, and the residence hall at college.  When I was about 19 mom taught me how to drive, and her days of hauling her oldest daughter places, finally came to an end.  But mom still ferried other people.  Even as an older woman she’s been the driver for many of her friends.  She’s taken Ellie and Dorothy to church, to doctor appointments, or just to get groceries.

“I know you had that little fender-bumper at the Albertson’s parking lot last week mom, but it doesn’t mean you have to quit…” my sister began.

Mom waved her hand at Lainey. “No-no, it’s time.  I don’t want to hurt anyone on the road, much less get myself killed.”

I know some seniors struggle to leave their driving days behind, but mom isn’t one of them.

One octogenarian neighbor refused to give up his keys even though he sometimes fought to stay awake at the wheel.  His wife decided she needed to drive with him, and tap his knee to keep him awake.  Another good friend was shocked when she heard the state of Idaho had issued a driver’s license to her 93 year-old father-in-law—especially since he was losing both his hearing and sight.  Then there was Fan.  She was a great-great aunt and a shirttail relative.  I sat in my car at a traffic light one day and watched Fan slowly make a left-hand turn from the right-hand lane.  Adding insult to injury, Fan then drove down a one-way street, the wrong way.  I honked along with everyone else, but Fan passed us all, head held high.

The American Auto Association said that almost 90 percent of seniors they surveyed thought giving up driving would be a big problem for them.

Sometimes concerned family members find creative ways to keep their loved ones off the road.  Families have anonymously reported grandpa to the DMV, knowing this would force him to retake the driver’s test.  Others have asked friends to “borrow” their grandmother’s car and “forget” to bring it home.  Another oft-used ploy is to accidentally hide or lose the car keys of an older driver.

“You don’t have to worry about me,” mom tried to assure my sister and me.  “I’m fine.  I’ve got several people lined up to drive me where I need to go.”

“Mom,” I told her, “I’m really proud of you for doing this.  I know it’s not easy.  And yet, you decided to make this choice on your own.”

I really was pleased with mom for acting so responsibly.  But at the same time, I knew giving up driving was a milestone, a marker that most people face only near the end of their life.  And so, a little voice inside of me, the child of the mother I love, anxiously whispered, “Stay with me mom.  It’s not time to go yet.”

 

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Image Credit:   Driving Miss Daisy     Image Credit:  Driver and Dog

 

 

 

I heard the boom of a shotgun…

(Is hunting still a popular sport?  Why do we like the sport?  How do gun rights advocates complicate the sport of hunting?)

A penguin was standing on the welcome mat when I opened my front door.  It was Halloween, and I had a fistful of miniature Snicker bars and Reese Cups to give away.   But Halloween wasn’t the only thing on this trick-or-treater’s mind.

“Hey,” said a boy that looked about 11-years-old in a penguin costume. “Um…did you know there’s a deer in your field?”

“What?” I peered above his head and beyond him to the field beside our house.  “Yep, there’s a deer there all right.  They like to browse along the fields and river. Would you like some candy?”

“Well, if I take your candy would you let me shoot your deer?  See, it’s the last day of deer season and I haven’t got my deer yet.”

I placed a few pieces of candy in Mr. Penguin’s hand and called to my husband over my shoulder.  He’s the one who manages hunting on our property.  As I walked back down the hallway I thought about how hunting remains a rite of passage for many young men here in the rural west.  But the world is changing.  Could hunters and fall hunting ever become obsolete?

There are, after all, some good reasons not to hunt.  For one thing, despite recent research that says it’s okay to eat as much meat as you want, most nutritionists have been warning us for years to limit our consumption of red meat.  Some animal rights activists have eliminated meat entirely from their diet to protest the hunting and killing of animals.  Their main argument, and it’s a good one, is that animals are sentient, living creatures too.  Besides, they say, what chance do animals in the wild have against high-powered rifles with big scopes.

Others talk about the abundance of meat and protein sources already available in the supermarket.  Hunting is not necessary in modern times.  An elderly friend of mine would disagree with this line of thinking.  She told me once, “Growing up in the backwoods, we shot game to keep our bellies full.  All my brothers had shotguns.”  Then she looked up at me archly and said, “I sure hope you’re not one of these gun control nuts.”

Which brings me to another issue hunters contend with:  the political confusion surrounding owning guns.

Many sportsmen who own rifles and shotguns still believe in reasonable gun control legislation.

For militant gun rights advocates though, owning weapons is much more than sport.  For them, guns are power and independence.  Any threat to their owning whatever weapon they choose, including assault rifles used for killing other human beings, feels like a personal attack.

Yet given all these reasons not to hunt, every fall I see ample evidence in our river valley of people enjoying the sport of hunting. Outside my bay window this morning I heard the boom-boom of a shotgun shooting from somewhere among the islands on the river.  A duck hunter must be hoping for a holiday goose.  Off the far island I spot his silhouette.  He’s standing in the water wearing wader boots.  Suddenly he lifts his arm and signals his dog swimming toward him.  It’s an autumn tableau, beautiful and old as the changing seasons.

 

Image Credit:  Diana Hooley        Image Credit:  Diana Hooley      Image Credit:  Duck Hunter

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My Little Singing Problem

(How many people can’t sing?  How can you improve your singing?  What’s the one thing to remember if you want to join a choir?)

My son John is tall and handsome.  Smart too.  Lest you think I’m just a biased mother, I’m also going to say that John is so tone deaf if he hummed “Happy Birthday to You” on your big day, you wouldn’t recognize the melody.  John’s not the only one who can’t carry a tune in a bucket.  According to experts at BRAMS (International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research) about 60% of people have a hard time carrying a pitch. If you’ve watched the auditions for American Idol you already know this though.

Singing for me has also been a problem—but for a very different reason. 

Several people have told me I have a pretty voice.  Some have even used the words “beautiful voice.”  To which I usually respond with batted eyelashes and an “aw shucks” kind-of false humility. Hearing so much of this kind of feedback is probably the main reason I’m such an overly confident, robust (to put it mildly) singer.  I’ve internalized these compliments over the years and at some level, close to, well, conscious thought, I must be convinced the world needs to hear my voice.  You have to sing loud if your audience is the world.

Both my mother and her mother, Grandma Verna, were loud singers.

I remember my Grandma Verna singing “The Old Rugged Cross” at the Baptist church.  Her voice sounded like God with a megaphone.  Inevitably, little kids in the pew in front of us would turn around to watch Grandma Verna sing, “On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross . . . ”  So, maybe it’s a genetic thing.  Kind of like being overweight.  Some people have low metabolism and some people have big larynx’s.  Shout-singing just feels normal to us.

Despite my little problem, I’ve enjoyed singing in choirs and choral groups for many years.  Which doesn’t mean I haven’t been politely informed on several occasions that I’m “over-singing.”  Still, I find I can hardly help myself.  It’s just too much fun to belt out songs like an opera singer with a horned Viking helmet on my head.  I have to repeatedly remind myself, over and over again like a mantra:  the goal of a choir member is to blend in . . . the goal of a choir member is to blend in.

Adding insult to injury, I’m not only a loud singer, I’m a loud singer with a lot of vibrato, or as is commonly known in the vernacular: a wobbly voice.

“And please folks, (chorus leaders have instructed), could you (meaning me) tone down the vibrato?”

Which is a hard thing to do.  Just ask Dolly Parton. Over the years I’ve come to find out what having a naturally loud singing voice means: I’ve got the pipes, but not the training.  According to AskaVocalCoach engaging your diaphragm when you sing helps you control your air and your volume .  Everyone sings better when they learn how to control their breathing.  Even singing more quietly requires as much, if not more, air and breathe control.

Singing at all volume levels and on pitch then, is doable.  It just takes a lot of practice.  Practice I’m not likely to engage in at this point in my life.  I guess I’d rather accept my singing as is.  Because really, technical proficiency is only part of the equation when it comes to making music.  The other is spirit.  And despite my volume challenges and my son John’s pitch problems, these issues have never stopped either of us from singing full-hearted and full-throated–whenever we’ve felt like it.  And who would ever want to change that?

 

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Image Credit:  American Idol     Image Credit:  Little girl singing     Image Credit:  Dolly Parton

 

 

These Kids! Warning: the Generation Gap Lives!

(Who are the Millennials?  Why do techy people like nature?  How did fighting with our parents’ generation make us better?)

“They may not want a traditional family,” my son-in-law, Simon, told me explaining the difference between his generation and the Millennials, the 20 and 30-year-olds he works with as an engineer.  We were watching Simon’s children, my grandchildren, building a science project at the kitchen table.

“Yeah,” I said, “They’re just a bunch of slackers.”  I was being flippant, but Simon wanted to make a point.

“What?  No, no, that’s not what I mean.  Millennials work hard too.  They just have different ideas.”

I’ve been largely oblivious to the new generations coming up, the “Z’s” and the “X’ers.”  These alphabet labels make the next generation sound like they just stepped out of an elementary classroom instead of into adulthood.  I’d trade being called Baby Boomer for Generation W (standing for “wise,” of course).  Baby Boomer sounds like the nickname for an overweight football player.  Or Baby Boomer is a big puppy that drools a lot.

Every 20 years or so we have a new crop of young people entering the work force and needing a label.  All these generational lines have blurred for me.  Maybe because I’m retired now.  There’s no need to compare salaries and work styles.  I don’t fear becoming irrelevant at the office.

But my ignorance doesn’t change the fact that with each generation there are new ways of being and doing that challenge past generations.  Millennial author, Noah Strycker, echoed my son-in-law’s comment.  He said 30-somethings were less family-oriented and more narcissistic. But they love nature and the outdoors, ironically, because they are so wired-in and techy.  Millennials know how to app information about any animal, rafting trip, or hiking trail within minutes, if not seconds.

Some age groups clash more than others though, and not just related to the work place.  I drove my mother back from her cardiologist appointment yesterday and she casually commented that her granddaughter, my niece, was living with her boyfriend.

“Mom, I can’t believe you said that.  Would you listen to yourself?  Forty years ago you had a near melt-down when I suggested living with my boyfriend.”

“It’s still wrong!  The institution of marriage is being trampled on.  This younger generation just doesn’t seem to care . . .”

My parents are good people but as a baby boomer, I experienced far more generational conflict between them and myself, than I do between me and my own children.  I remember my dad shaking his fist at the evening news on TV as he watched footage of long-haired hippies living in communes and trespassing on private land.  Of course, our generation responded in kind.  We sang songs with lyrics that said:  “What gives you the right to put up a sign to keep me out—and keep Mother Nature in?”  Our generational divide was popularized back then as a generation “gap.”

Though I get along with my own children better than my parents did with me, I may be taking credit where none is deserved.  Sociologists tell us that my parent’s generation, the generation born at the front of the Great Depression, experienced not only a major economic crisis, but also a world war.  Their age group is known as the Silent Generation for good reason.  They like peace and are risk-adverse.  They don’t like rocking the boat.  Understandably then, they had trouble with the loud protests and counter culture movements we baby boomers engaged in.

The Silent Generation or the Greatest Generation if you prefer, are slowly leaving us. 

It’s exciting to read about Gen-X’ers like Elon Musk, the Tesla engineer, or Greta Thunberg, a Generation Z’er whose passion for climate politics is igniting change.  But as we embrace these younger people and their achievements, we cannot forget the smart, brave generation that came before us.  We fought with them, yes, but it’s often the clash of ideas, from one generation to the next, that define us.  That struggle, can and does, propels us forward.

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Image Credit: Millennials     Image Credit: Noah Strycker’s book     Image Credit: Greta Thunberg

Fifteen Minutes of Fame is Best

(What’s in your toothpaste?  Why should we remember David Crosby?  Whose buried on our farm?  How many statues of Lenin are there in Moscow?)

Have you ever brushed your teeth with Colgate’s “Total” toothpaste?  The one with the nice minty smell?  Every peppermint harvest here on the farm I remember how the Colgate-Palmolive company bought our peppermint oil, the oil we distilled from our peppermint crop.  They used it in their Total brand toothpaste.  I think it’s our biggest claim to fame.  What’s yours?  Did you win a jackpot at Jackpot, Nevada?  Are you the aunt of an almost-famous singer?   The brother of a championship athlete?  Maybe the local newspaper wrote about your incredible lab that was lost at Wild Willy hot springs but found its way home, 500 miles north to Boise, Idaho.

Almost everyone has their 15 minutes (or seconds) of fame: their picture framed as employee-of-the-month or their name listed as a donor for an important cause. They even might write a blog that some people like to read.  It’s heady.  It’s intoxicating. It’s very short-lived.

One time I had to rent the old movie, Rudy, about a Notre Dame football star, because my brother Dan was in the film.  He’d responded to a casting call for movie extras, and got a part. Dan played a security guard at a Notre Dame game.  I sat through most of Rudy waiting to see my brother, the movie star.  Finally, near the end, I got a brief glimpse of Dan’s face as the camera panned the crowd in the football stadium.

Some people want more than 15 minutes of fame though.  They want to not only be known, but remembered.  I thought about the “Emily Doe” who was a victim of rape four years ago.  Last month she published a book about her horrific experience, using her real name, Chanel Miller, as the author, and titling it: Know My Name.  And then there’s David Crosby, the folk-rock musician, whose biopic this past summer was entitled: Remember My Name.  Why, I asked myself, should we remember David Crosby?  I mean I liked his music, but he’s not Jesus Christ.  He’s not even Elvis Presley.

Being a ruler or a monarch doesn’t necessarily gain you lasting fame either.  Only a select number of world leaders manage to make it into our history books—and some of those may not deserve all the attention they get.  We only know about King Tut because of the way he was buried.  A minor ruler, King Tut is celebrated largely because of his golden image sculpted on the surface of his magnificent burial sarcophagus.  Somewhere on our farm a pioneer man or woman are supposed to be buried whose accomplishments likely far surpassed King Tut’s. We know for sure they endured the danger and hardship of crossing the Oregon Trail so they could find a better life for themselves and their families.

Often dictators and authoritarian rulers attempt to extend their fame, their time in the public eye, for as long as they can.  They want to cement their power.

The Hitlers, the Lenins, and the Maos made sure their names, their images, and their words were everywhere.  The result being that today, there are 80 Lenin statues in Moscow, alone.  In China, Mao’s image is plastered on walls and billboards everywhere.  If these autocratic leaders were alive now, no doubt they’d have their names emblazoned at the top of casinos and towers.  They’d be tweeting feverishly every day, sending messages out to their followers.

But fame is fleeting—and that’s a comforting thought.

Some people can be in the spotlight too long.  They can overstay their welcome.  Fame, by its very nature, is bright and brief.  Our attention spans are short, and besides, there are many others waiting in the wings with new thoughts and other stories, better stories, to tell.

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Image Credit: Total toothpaste       Image Credit:  Know My Name         Image Credit:  Trump Tower

I’m Going Back to the Plough

(Which is better: city life or country life?  Why do people move?  How big is Boise, Idaho?)

I’m moving out of the city and going back to live, full-time, on the farm.  According to Allied Van Lines moving is not that unusual since in a lifetime most people change homes about 11 times (my mother moved nine times within a five-year period).  The majority of moves people make are local, from an apartment to a house in the same city, for example.

But people in my age group, the baby boomers, are the least likely of any demographic to make a big move. 

Generally, older adults have finally paid the mortgage off and are unwilling to take on any new debt, especially house loans.  And if they do change homes, they want to live closer to town, not further away.  They want to be nearer their family, goods and services, and especially medical facilities as they age.

None of those issues mattered to me though, when I decided to move back to the farm.  I simply wanted to find more peace and quiet and less rush and riot. I saw Elton John’s biopic, Rocketman, this past summer, and while I was packing boxes for my big move I found myself singing along with Elton’s “Yellow Brick Road”:  “So goodbye yellow brick road, where the dogs of society howl, you can’t plant me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plough…”

The farm does have plows, which means work, so the lifestyle has not always been my panacea.  The first twenty years of my married life I plied, if not plowed, our farm.  I remember walking field roads dreaming of city streets and city lights.  I’d become a hay seed, but I longed to make hay in the big city.  I couldn’t shake wonderful memories of being a young college girl in downtown Philadelphia.  I loved the beautiful fountain at Logan’s Circle with the sculptured winged gods spouting water.  Down the boulevard from Logan’s Circle was the magnificent Philadelphia Art Museum.

I finally got the chance to leave the farm once my children were raised, and after I’d made a career change.

I moved to the biggest city around: Boise, Idaho, population 226,570.  It wasn’t the Big Apple but it was a fairly Large Potato.  When I made that move a farm girlfriend of mine asked me, “What does the city have that the country doesn’t–besides shopping?”

I thought (but didn’t say): you plebian!  A country girl could never understand the excitement, the energy, of so many people working and thinking and creating, in one big, buzzing place.  Even Michelangelo said, “I have never found salvation in nature.  I love cities above all.”

But I came to discover my plebian friend had a point.  Though cultural centers, cities are shopping meccas for most people.  In terms of daily living, this is their biggest draw.  It took some time, but eventually I found the gridlock and traffic jams a poor trade for the peace allotted to those who live among the wheat fields.

Another friend, Donna, said, “Won’t you be bored living out on the farm again?”

Maybe.  But I’m beginning to understand the upside of boredom, how it motivates you to engage with all the little things you missed before, like the litter of kittens out by the barn.  Besides, every day’s not meant to be a bell-ringer.  If you can’t stand the lethargy of time, you’ll die young—or at least sooner from rushing about so much.

So, it could be I’m moving back to the farm to save my life—or savor it. 

Really it doesn’t matter. If I’m honest, it’s how you live, not where you live that matters.  Early this morning in the dark, I opened up the back patio door on the Snake River rushing past.  When I looked up, a spray of stars twinkled in the sky.  I took a big breath, and smelled the freshly cut hay in the field next to our house.  Mornings on the farm are the best.

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Image Credit: packing boxes        Image Credit:  Rocketman        Image Credit:  old barn photo by Diana Hooley

 

 

Marijuana

(How many states have legalized marijuana?  What does AARP now say about dope?)

I sat cross-legged on a blue fringed pillow that was laying on the floor. My blind date sat next to me on his own pillow as he passed the bong to me.  He’d just taken a hit from the long tube filled with THC smoke.

“Oh,” I laughed nervously, “I think I’ll pass”.

My date, a rather hairy guy, gave the bong to the person sitting on the other side of our little circle.  “Here man,” he said glancing back at me, “She’s doing her own thing.”

I thought I was going on a dinner date when I landed at this pot party in 1973.

I’d never tried marijuana before—nor did I want to.  Dope had no place in my Christian code of ethics.  Everyone said it was a gateway drug to needles and heroin, everyone being not just my Christian friends, but really important people too, like President Nixon and his drug czar, Elvis Presley.

Now almost a half a century later, marijuana’s reputation has improved substantially (even if the politics haven’t). 

The fairy godmother turned the orange pumpkin green and all kinds of magic has sprung forth.  There are only a handful of clinical studies on cannabis since it’s still considered an illegal, controlled substance at the federal level.  But there’s a growing body of evidence that says marijuana has medicinal value. The leaf that has become a jolly green giant here in the northwest, not only makes you feel, well, jolly, but may also be helpful in treating certain medical conditions and symptoms.  Not surprisingly, anxiety is one of those conditions.

Not too many years after my pot party experience I found myself married and living in a little trailer in the neck of a lonely desert canyon.  I’d just had two babies born thirteen months apart. I remember rocking one baby while the other one played with blocks at my feet.  Staring at the wet diapers hanging on a wooden rack in my living room, I asked myself, “What’s happened to my life?”

Stress and its partner-in-crime, anxiety, were gnawing at my stomach and knocking at my head. Feeling vaguely ill much of the time, I turned to The Well Body Book (a book I still have forty years later) to find out what was wrong with me.  There, I read what two hippy doctors said about my symptoms.  They wrote about stress and anxiety and provided sound guidelines for when to see a physician.  One chapter in particular, caught my eye.  It was entitled, “Drugs are Helpers.”

In light of the opioid crisis ravaging parts of America today I’d modify that chapter title to: “Drugs Can Be Helpers–or Not.” 

Still, the hippy doctors had a point.  When a good friend of mine had colon cancer and was struggling with nausea due to chemotherapy, I smoked marijuana with her.  It was my first experience with the drug.  Marijuana made me feel a little woozy and a lot sleepy, the effect being somewhere between having a glass of wine and taking a Benadryl.  Shakespeare said it best regarding my introduction to marijuana:  much ado about nothing.

Ironically, the age group that was probably most vociferous opposing the legalization of marijuana back in the day, the elderly, are now leading the charge to sanctify dope holy.

In the latest issue of the AARP Bulletin (American Association of Retired Persons) an extensive investigative report found older citizens increasingly using marijuana to treat such conditions as chronic pain, migraines, and Parkinson’s disease.

Currently 34 of our 50 states have made marijuana legal for medical, or medical and recreational use.  I marvel at how time can chip away at the most entrenched biases.  The stigma attached to marijuana is finally fading–but it has been a long time coming.

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Image Credit:   marijuana leaf          Image Credit:  Seniors cheering marijuana

We Ken Drive the Alcan–No Problem

(How long is the Alcan Highway?  When was it built?  What does the British Commonwealth have to do with the Alcan?)

If life is a journey, our road trip down the Alaska-Canadian (Alcan) highway was a mere excursion—except it didn’t feel that way.  My husband and I drove 2700 miles over four days averaging nearly 700 miles per day to get back home from Alaska to the lower 48.  We motored over mountain passes, steep grades, teeth-rattling frost heaves, and sharp curves with no guard rails and 700 foot drops over the side of the road.

The really remarkable thing though, is we did it all in our little Prius hatchback, our noble steed of a car. 

The Alcan is very near mythic.  I heard about this road in the early 70’s when a friend of ours, Ernie, attempted to drive it on a motorcycle.  The Alcan at that time was mostly a gravel road.  Ernie might have made it up to Alaska if not for the relentless rains sweeping through Canada that turned the gravel into rock soup.  Opened for public travel during World War II, the Alcan which connects the contiguous U.S. to Alaska, was not fully paved until the 1980’s.  Even today there are some rough patches where the pavement’s given way to broken asphalt and gravel.

For the most part, and despite the pace we’d set, I enjoyed our drive coming home from Alaska on the Alcan.  Passing through the Yukon and upper British Columbia we saw bear, buffalo, wolf, deer, and moose.  It was almost like driving through a wildlife park.  The mountain valleys were narrow and the peaks sheer.  At the bottom ran streams, turquoise in color, likely due to “glacial flour” (rock ground fine from glacier movement) lining the stream bed.  When I wasn’t sight-seeing out the window I was peacefully daydreaming.  Existential questions like “who am I” and “what is my purpose” were momentarily forgotten.  Usurped by more immediate concerns: where’s the next quiki mart and gas station?

Though our Prius hybrid takes little gas we still needed to be mindful of stations along the way.

I got worried when the gas meter dipped to two bars on the three hour stretch between Watson Lake and Northern Rockies Lodge.

We passed one boarded-up gas stop after another, closed for the winter.  Seeing the Northern Rockies Lodge open was a big relief.  I hopped out of the car to get coffee while Dale pumped gas.  A young man with a long ponytail stood behind the lobby desk talking to a chubby woman wearing a floppy hat, evidently a guest at the lodge.  I overheard their conversation, curious about the desk clerk’s brogue accent.

“Scottish,” I said when he turned to help me.

“That’s a very good guess,” he smiled.

I shrugged, the picture of modesty.  “I’m good with accents. I don’t know why, but I can usually pick out where someone’s from.”

“Ken you now?” he looked at me speculatively.  Of course I “ken.”  I’d just told him that.

“Actually, I’m not Scottish, I’m British.”

“Oh,” my eyes slid from his face then, to the lobby counter, “Well… anyhow… could you please tell me where I could buy a couple cups of coffee?”

On our trip we ran into several international people.  Canada, along with 52 other countries including Australia and India are part of the British Commonwealth, former colonies of Great Britain.  One of the fringe benefits of that exalted status is more lax immigration laws between Commonwealth countries.

We officially left the Alcan behind at Dawson Creek, British Columbia.  Next door to our motel in Dawson Creek was a casino surprisingly named: Chances.  The casino was all flashing neon lights and ringing slot machines.  I stood at our motel window gazing thoughtfully over at Chances.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to civilization.  It was so quiet on the Alcan.  So peaceful, and so natural.

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All images:  Diana Hooley

Big is Beautiful

(How big is Alaska?  What is the largest national park in the U.S.?  Why did the cod fishing industry collapse in Alaska?)

 

The tall guard at the Canadian-Alaskan border crossing asked me to take off my sunglasses so he could compare my physical appearance to the picture on my passport.

“Oh, that picture was taken on an ‘off’ day,” I joked, pointing to my passport photo.

He just looked at me.  “Do you have any firearms or hazardous material in your car, mam?”

I shook my head humbly.

“Okay then.  You’re good to go.”  I reached down to put my car in drive, but he bent his head forward, closer to the open car window.  “Good thing you’re not from Texas,” he said.

“How’s that?” I was beginning to get nervous.

“Well if you were from Texas, I’d have to say how sorry I am about your puny, little state.  Then I’d welcome you to Alaska—America’s biggest state.”

I grumbled to myself as I drove away, men and their egos.  But this past week in Alaska, I’ve learned just how true his statement was.  Alaska is large—and in more ways than one.  Let’s talk about geography first.  To get from Juneau, Alaska to Tok, Alaska you have to drive two days and spend the night in the Yukon Territory of Canada.  Oh these mountain ranges, they are such a bother to get around.  The mountains I’m referring to are in the Wrangell-St. Alias National Park, the most remote and largest (of course) national park in the U.S.  But even minus the mountains, as the crow flies, from Homer to Barrow, Alaska it’s nearly 1000 miles.

Then there are the Alaskan people themselves.  I heard Bill Maher, HBO’s political satirist, said that fat-shaming needed to make a comeback.  He was making a point about the adverse effects of obesity.  It isn’t that Alaskans are obese exactly.  My mother would say (kindly) they’re built “solid.”  I’ve never seen so many big people in one place in my life.  I feel petite.  And that’s saying something.

I think it must be from all the hearty food Alaskans eat: giant bread bowels of creamy clam chowder, sourdough pancakes, and reindeer sausage rolls the size of my fist.

Vegetables and fruit are available here, but why bother? 

The lettuce is wilted and sad-looking.  Salad won’t stick to your ribs standing in a fishing boat out on breezy Cook Inlet.  I can’t complain though.  Finally I’ve found clothing stores with my style sense:  Carhartt long-sleeved T’s, size 2X.

Speaking of fashion sense, suspenders are au couture for males, and bunny boots (not to be confused with the infamous Playboy bunny attire) serve as vogue foot wear.  In fact, I happened upon a new bride in Homer decked out in high, white bunny boots.  I asked to take her picture and her charming groom said, “Well, I guess so.”

Big though Alaska is, it’s not big enough to manage the effects of climate change.  Up here on both sides of the political spectrum, everyone is concerned about Alaska’s warming climate.

According to Alan, a commercial fisherman in Kachemak Bay, the ocean temperature has risen to an-unheard-of 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Alan said forty years ago when he started out in the business, the ocean was never above 48 degrees.  The cod fishing industry has completely collapsed due to, among other problems, the warming environment.  Halibut still seems to be plentiful though.  And like everything in this state, the halibut are huge.  I watched fascinated, as a man on the dock casually filleted a 70-pound halibut that had just been caught by another fisherman.

One of the slogans you see on bumper stickers and T shirts around southeast Alaska is, “Stay wild, my friends.”  Alaskans should be proud of their wild, big state.  I’m sad though, that they’re losing the cold, the ice, and the deep freeze.  It’s a tragedy for them—and for us.

Tap on these links for more posts on Climate Change or happenings Out West.

 

Image Credit:  All images Diana Hooley

Going Wild in Alaska

Out the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry window is a bank of white fog that lines the shores of British Columbia.  I know beyond that is hundreds of miles of dark green forest, taiga.  It’s such a big land up here.  Miles of nothing, miles of everything plant, tree, and animal-wise. How would I do living in such wilderness?  I’ve marveled at all those eccentric homesteaders in Alaska watching that reality TV show, Alaskan Bush People.  Could I go without my Starbucks coffee—room for cream please?  What about my allergy medication?  I guess I could sneeze and cough my way through bear country.

Suddenly I’m keenly aware of how much it takes to keep me operative.

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” my husband chides me.

Dale’s ready to go native, but I’m hesitant to leave life as I know it behind. And is it really an adventure to not reserve a room in Talkeetna?  To end up sleeping in the back of the Prius huddled under some hoody jackets?  To my thinking, that’s not adventure, that’s dumb.

“All I’m saying is we don’t have to plan this trip to-the-teeth.  Let’s live a little dangerously,” Dale tells me.

I think about a documentary I saw once about a young man, Timothy Treadwell, who lived his life very dangerously.  He was so fascinated by grizzly bears he decided to live among them in Alaska.  He even made friends with a few bears—or tried to.  One, he affectionately named “Brownie.”  Then, he drug his girlfriend up to his campsite to experience the wild and sadly, they both were attacked and killed by bears.  It’s a tragic tale—yet still worth mentioning under present circumstances.

My compromise on the “adventure” part of our trip to Alaska was to not book a motel for three nights of our two-week vacation.

I know, I know, it seems risky to me too, but I’m big enough to let fate decide where I lay my head and find my sustenance in the Alaskan outback.

“You know, they do have stores in Alaska,” our friend Ed told me when I voiced my concerns about roughing it.

Thinking about having an adventure in Alaska made me remember “the law of contrasts.”  I made this “law” up a long time ago when I noticed my days seemed to be blurring one into another, dependent on the same routes and routines.  I felt a little numb driving to work, picking up groceries, and doing laundry on the weekends.  It didn’t feel like madness to me.  The problem was, it didn’t feel like anything.  I was stuck beyond feeling—until I began to jog.

What I needed in my life was some contrast.

Jogging is nothing like climbing Denali, but you have to admit there is something torturous about both tasks.  I began jogging to lose weight.  Before work early in the morning when it was dark and cold outside, I’d dutifully put on my sneakers and ran down our gravel road, a mile and back.

What I discovered beyond all the jogging pain—was true gain.  For the rest of the day I usually felt good, happy even.  It could have been the mythic endorphin “rush” runners get.  But I’ve read you actually have to run the length of an Iditarod (or portion thereof) to get a real runner’s high.  I think the suffering of my morning jog elevated my mood somehow and made me notice, in contrast, how pleasant the rest of the day was.

I could remind Dale about my law of contrasts, but I don’t want to give him more ammunition for arguments against preplanning our motels in Alaska.  Instead, I’ll take my philosophizing another direction and talk about how difficult life can be, and why make it more so?  It’s so easy to just pick up the cell phone and make a reservation. They do have cell service in Alaska, don’t they?

 

Image CreditAlaskan Bush People      Image Credit:  Alaska (Diana Hooley)    Image Credit:  Dale and Diana (Diana Hooley)