The Past is Not Dead

 

I had a time travel experience.

No, it wasn’t a dream, but I felt dazed, like I’d taken too long a nap. Maybe I time traveled because I’d spent part of this winter in a motel room in Salt Lake City—relocated here since my husband’s surgery. I needed to get outside, smell fresh air, and feel the sunshine on my face. Yes, I wanted to shake the cold off, and move around—but not necessarily travel in time.

My experience began with a simple walk. Some of my best flights (of imagination) happen walking. I’d seen a city park driving through downtown Salt Lake that had a nice footpath circling a pond full of ducks.  Finding the entrance to the park though, proved difficult. I drove past tennis courts, an aviary, and an outdoor stage, all located within the park confines, but couldn’t find the entryway. This park seemed a world of its own–and at 80 acres (I read later)—it was its own sphere. On a side street, I finally spotted the park entrance and central pathway, lined on either side by poplars and mulberry trees.

It was amazing such a large park was located in the middle of this big city. As soon as I got out of the car, I took a deep breath of fragrant wood-scented air, and closed my eyes. In the background I heard traffic honking, an ambulance siren, and faint, car-radio music.

I can’t explain the rush of feeling at that moment, but suddenly I was in Central Park, New York City, several years ago.

It was the time I’d taken my teenage children to New York for a “cultural experience.” But they, being teenagers, weren’t interested in culture. Aubrey kept dodging around corners in Little Italy, trying to avoid my camera. And Sammy had his nose so deep in a fantasy novel, he hardly noticed the Statue of Liberty.  Liberty Park, that was the name of this urban escape in Salt Lake.  I saw it clearly labeled on a nature-friendly, green sign. As I read it I felt such a deep longing, a missing of my younger children.

A good heart-pounding walk, not just a stroll, would probably clear my head and shake me out of my fugue.  I saw plenty of power walkers and joggers around me, so I joined the flow. Fifty minutes later and just past the Chase House, a folk art museum in the park, I was gratifyingly flushed and sweaty.

I leaned an arm up against a tree for a brief rest-stop, and soon found myself staring at a little girl skipping along the park sidewalk near me. It was late afternoon and the shadows on the sidewalk caught my attention. Maybe it was the angle of the light, soft and buttery, but an ancient memory arose, and then, I was a little girl again, in Chicago in the 1950’s. I was playing in front of our big, white apartment building. As I hop-scotched I saw my shadow on the cinder block wall.

What stood out was how rich my emotions were, the joy and wonder I felt then, not yet muted by time and age. 

Next to my tree in Salt Lake, I was momentarily elated.

I slowly made my way back to the parking lot.  As I opened my car door, I glanced above the park trees and saw the high, snow-clad peaks of the Wasatch Mountains. I smiled to myself.  The great American author, William Faulkner, once wrote, “The past is not dead, it’s not even past.” This late afternoon, at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

 

Image credit: Diana Hooley      Image credit:  Diana Hooley

 

 

Sleeping with Strangers

I never dreamed of living in a motel.  Then my husband had surgery, and the doctor told us we’d need to move 278 miles away for a period of five weeks to be near the hospital.  Suddenly visions of room service danced in my head.  I’ve only known one man, Stu (not his real name), who lived in a hotel.  Stu moved into a big hotel downtown with a ballroom and a red-carpeted staircase.  He dreamed of becoming a movie star and didn’t want to deny himself the finer things of life.  When Stu’s money ran out, he borrowed more.

Reportedly, Stu spent many hours in the hotel hot tub waiting for the call from Hollywood.

But motels are mainly built for transient customers.  The word “motel” is a combination of “motor” and “hotel” and came into common parlance in the 1920’s when people began traveling around in their new horseless carriages.  Motels were never meant to be homes.  When my husband first got the word that a temporary relocation was in our future, I searched for vacation rentals, Airbnb’s, and apartments.  It was only when I lowered my standards from “looking-for-a home” to “looking-for-a bed” that I found a reasonably priced motel room we could live in.

You may be wondering, what’s it like to live in a motel?  Tight, it’s tight.

Motels are not for the obese.  Or clumsy.  If you have great coordination, maybe not elite athlete level, but still you’re flexible enough to move between beds, desks, and sundry other furniture squeezed into a 14 by 12 space—you’re gold.  I am not an elite athlete, but I’m coordinated enough to do the salsa.  This talent, I’m convinced, has helped me avoid serious injury in our motel room.

Motel living presents other challenges too.  With only a microwave and a mini-fridge for kitchen appliances, your menu suddenly becomes very limited.  I’m here to tell you there’s a reason frozen entrees are called that.  If you don’t microwave them a minute more than the package directions, these meals are so icy your teeth can’t “entrée” them.  That’s why we’ve been eating a lot of take-out–and having a lot of take-out, fall out, of the mini-fridge.

I try not to think about all the people that have stayed in our motel room before us.

Still, my eyes glide dubiously over the bed coverlet.  I glare suspiciously in the bathtub.  Yesterday when I swam in the motel pool, a large hairy man with pimples on his back was in the pool with me.  The thought crossed my mind that this man is probably not unlike many who’ve slept in my motel bed.  Slept and farted on my mattress.  That’s the thing about living in a motel room.  Of course people have dragged their crusty skin and weeping sores (of indeterminate origin) across your bed.

Still, I’ve tried to comfort myself with how fresh and clean our motel room smells.  It doesn’t smell like foot fungus.  Then I passed the housekeeper’s cart loaded with linens, towels, and cleaning products.  I noticed instead of multiple bottles of bleach or disinfectant in the cart, several bottles of room deodorant.  Room deodorants, for the uninitiated, are chemical sprays meant to mask offensive odor more than kill the bacteria that caused it.  So our room may smell like a rose, but no doubt there’s bugs on the stem.

And that’s another risk of motel rooms:  bed bugs.

Surely you say, this problem is found only in third world countries where donkeys rule the road.  No, according to www.travelpulse.com at least 45% of hotels IN AMERICA have faced legal action over bed bugs.  That’s enough information to keep me squirming on our motel bed for hours. My farmer husband says sleeping with me is like sleeping with a cow dog who keeps circling the gunny sack in an effort to get comfortable.

I’m not a cow or a dog, but I can say after two weeks in a motel, home on the range sounds much better than home in a motel room.

 

Image credit:  El Rancho Motel      Image credit:  Diana Hooley      Image credit:  Diana Hooley

Finding winter on the Idaho-Montana border…

An old family friend, Jack, told us he’d never move to a place that didn’t have four distinct seasons.  With that statement Jack knocked out a third of the lower 48 states as potential relocation spots.  Much of the northern U.S. though, including Idaho, can reliably lay claim to having a winter, summer, spring, and fall.  At least that’s what I used to think until the last few years, when the hot summer seemed to overtake autumn, and the cold winter shortened to a few weeks around Christmas.

I really didn’t miss winter this year.  It wasn’t until I drove to Leadore, Idaho, a town I’d never visited, that I was reminded of the wonder of winter.

I got an email from a magazine editor asking me if I’d be interested in writing a feature article on Leadore, a little community near the Idaho-Montana border. 

Throwing a bag in my car I wondered whether I should take a jacket or a coat.  As I drove out the driveway, my car thermometer read 42 degrees.

But we live in a mountainous state.  Drive anywhere and you soon experience some kind of altitude and thus, weather change.  I whizzed along the freeway until I turned north and started climbing.  I was thinking about Leadore and how you pronounced the town’s name—it sounds like a woman’s name, a derivative of Leadora perhaps, or Lenore, that lost love of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem.  Pondering all this, I drove over a hill—and into a thick bank of fog.

The fog didn’t lift for miles.  I couldn’t see much beyond 500 feet.  I was surprised when I saw the sign for the Craters of the Moon National Park emerge from the milky sludge.  Feeling chilly, I glanced down at the temperature reading on the dash: 23 degrees.  Somewhere in the fog I’d lost twenty degrees of heat.  The lovely Leadore must be high in the mountains, a mythic goddess in some frozen Idaho Olympus (my thinking was a bit foggy too).

Around a curve and just above the furls of fog smoke, I glimpsed a white mountain peak against a blue sky.  As sudden as it came, the fog fell away, revealing an incredible winter-scape.  I grabbed my sunglasses to protect my eyes from the brightness of the snow fields glistening under the sun. This was a country you could ski in, or skate in, or snowmobile across.  It was breathtaking.

At the little town of Arco, I stopped for gas and stepped out of the car to stretch my legs.  Digging my phone out of my coat pocket, I googled motels in Leadore (maybe Leadora was a madame who ran a boarding house in the 1800’s) and found a phone number for the Leadore Inn.

“Y-ello.  Sam here.”

“Hi!  I’d like to spend the night in Leadore and wonder if you have a room available at your motel?”

“Sorry, we’re closed for the season. We only open in the summer when the hikers come through.”

“Hikers?”

“Uh-huh.  Hiking the Continental Divide Trail.  Leadore’s a resupply stop.  You know, where backpackers get their groceries and mail. Check out The Homestead motel.  They’ve got newer rooms.”—click.Image result for image continental divide trail sign

I called The Homestead and was happy to find a room there.  As lovely as this winter country was, it was also freezing cold.  I didn’t relish the thought of spending the night curled up next to my car heater.

I drove on and entered the remote Lemhi River valley.  It was remarkably empty, except here and there a ranch in the distance.  I was just outside Leadore when I passed an historical marker along the highway.  I backed the car up and stopped to read it:  “Gilmore Mines. Lack of a good transportation system delayed serious lead and silver mining…”

Lead mining?  Lead Ore?  Leadore.  Oh.  Though the town’s name was a disappointment, the town itself was not.  Nestled at the base of the Bitterroot Mountains, Leadore was a village of ice and snow.  My tires crunched past a library, a school, a post office—a small gem in the gem state.  I think Leadore will always be Leadora to me, Leadora the snow princess.

 

Image credit:  Diana Hooley     Image credit:  Continental Divide Trail

 

How Curiosity Killed the Cow-girl

There’s nothing like a good steak.  You know, medium rare with just a little pink showing, tender and juicy.  I like my steak best with a nice Idaho potato and a fresh, crisp side salad.  I’m thinking about this as I sit here on the farm, gazing out the front window at the cows in the pasture.  They’re chewing on clumps of grass peeking through the snow.  We sold our big cow herd several years ago, but we reinvested in a few cows with the goal to butcher them, and give the meat away to our children and their families.  It was a generous gift.

I have friends and relatives though, that want nothing to do with eating meat—for a variety of reasons.

Some have become vegetarian or vegan because of health issues.  They’re either concerned about their weight, or their cholesterol, or both.  I’ve argued with them that people lose weight a lot of different ways.  Why make such a draconian sacrifice as giving up meat?  The Paleo, the Keto, and the Atkin’s diets all encourage the consumption of meat and protein over carbs.  But one of my friends announced that he’d become a vegan because of the environment.

“What?” I asked him. “Does this mean you’re no longer going to make that wonderful meatloaf recipe with green peppers and onions?  All because of cow burbs?  Please, tell me it’s not so.”  My friend may not be a fancy cook, but he’s a good one.  He makes great comfort food.

Occasionally, I’ve ran across news articles on the potential for herding animals like cattle to harm the environment.  Apparently cows, through their digestive processes, emit harmful methane gas into the atmosphere.  Reading news like this affects MY digestive processes.  Herding cattle is a way of life for us, so I’ve generally ignored these kinds of articles.  They’re too extreme, I tell myself.  Besides, the wide desert expanses in the west, which support only sparse grasses, are perfect for foraging creatures like cows.  It’s an efficient use of the land.  Also, cows eat highly flammable grasses like cheat, protecting against range fires.

My final word about herding cattle is cultural.  The west, after all, is the home of the cowboy.  Cattle are a tradition.

But still I was curious.  And we all know how curiosity killed the cat (or cow).  Being farmers we’ve watched the weather year in and year out, and it’s become increasingly apparent, even without all the scientific alarms: the climate is changing.  Exactly, how much does herding livestock have to do with this?

Opening my computer I waded through several articles on climate change and either the Australian fires, or the melting Arctic.  Finally, I found information on the environment and livestock.  A chart showed that herding animals like cows and sheep did the most damage to the environment.  The journal Science reported that avoiding meat and dairy is the “single biggest way” to reduce our environmental impact.

One article said consuming 4 pounds of hamburger is as hard on the environment as flying from New York to London—and most of us eat more than 4 pounds of beef a month.

This was such sobering news I just stared at my computer a minute.  I’m still processing it, wondering about our life style and the fast-changing world we live in.  Is there some “middle ground” on this issue?  I don’t know, but I did come across a bit of good news for meat lovers.  Apparently poultry and fish have considerable less impact on the environment.  The impossible burger is looking more and more possible–as is the chicken steak.

 

 

All image credits:  Diana Hooley, Dale and Diana Hooley Farms

What I saw at the border with Mexico …

I stood on a large rock and watched a Mexican man cross the Rio Grande River in southwest Texas.  This was not an official crossing, and no one was around except for people like myself and my husband, hikers hiking along a desolate trail near the U.S.-Mexico border.

At first I saw the man sitting with a friend in a couple of lawn chairs on the other side of the river. They were chatting under some gnarled Texas cottonwood.

The Rio Grande is so narrow at this juncture, maybe sixty feet wide, I could hear their voices, their laughter.

Next to their campsite, a corral fenced three horses nickering and munching on hay.  Soon, one of the men raised himself up out of his lawn chair, pulled a cap down over his head, and climbed on the back of a sorrel-colored horse.

Where was he going?  Watching from the opposite bank of the river, in another country, felt like I was peering out a window at a cultural drama.

The Mexican trotted his horse for a while along a sandy embankment that was sloughing away.  Then he leisurely crossed where a large gravel bar spanned much of the river.  As soon as he was on the American side, he disappeared in the trees and brush.  Probably hiding, I thought.  But no.  The man soon emerged, his horse still sauntering.

“I’d like to meet him and say hello,” my husband said, as if we were emissaries sent from earth to greet the aliens.

“What if he’s a drug runner?  The drug cartels operate near here.  Remember those women and children that were killed along the border?  And what about that family that was attacked last week?”

Watching our Mexican man peacefully riding his horse, my comment seemed ludicrous.  Around a bend in the trail we saw some trinkets and a plastic jug lined up on a pile of rocks.  A little note said:  “Thank you for your purchase.  Your donation will help school children.”  Whose school children?  Likely this Mexican man’s. The trinkets—scorpions, tarantulas, and road runners made of meticulously twisted wire and beads—were labeled with prices.  Most of them cost five dollars, but some were tagged seven.

I looked up and saw that the man on the horse had stopped at a similar cache of trinkets down the path.  He slid off his horse, and picked up the plastic money jug, dumping what money was there, into his hands.  He was a businessman checking his sales.  Capitalism at its finest.  Free enterprise, or unfree perhaps.

We walked on down the trail toward the Mexican.  He looked up, and we waved and said, “Buenas dias!”

In broken English he told us his name was Benicio and asked us if we were interested in buying one of his trinkets.  He picked up the scorpion with its beaded tail.  As we looked over his merchandise, I asked him if he was worried about the border guards finding him.

“Los guardias fronterizos no son problema (the border police are not a problem),” he told us.

One of the items he had for sale was a walking stick covered with pictures of bright green cactus.  Along one side of the stick was written a distinctive message from our neighbors to the south:  “NO WALL.”

Driving on the way to our Texas hiking spot, we saw the border wall in El Paso.  Through the metal mesh of the wall I saw a city bus pick up people in Juarez on the Mexican side.  Buildings seemed smaller and older in Juarez, but more colorful. Adobe exteriors were painted aqua, yellow, and pink.  A thought came to me then:  if the wall was built to fence out Mexicans, why did I feel so fenced in?  I wanted to cut through the wall mesh and walk past the dry arroyo, to an old mission church I saw in the distance.

 

All image credit:  Diana Hooley

 

 

Night skies at Christmas: all is calm, all is bright

I live on the Snake River where there’s little light pollution at night to dim the stars of a December sky.  Night skies are so black here, our area is under consideration for designation as an IDSP (International Dark Sky Place).  Sometimes, after supper when the sun’s set, I like to take a walk down the gravel road near my home.  I slip a miner’s light around the top of my head to help me see in the dark.  Usually at least once on my walk, I’ll reach up and click the headlight off to stare at the spray of stars in the sky overhead. As the song says, all is calm, all is bright.

One night many years ago I was watching the sky and saw a remarkable thing. All the stars were twinkling except one. It looked like a small white smudge on a dark canvas.  I went back inside the house to get a jacket and my binoculars. Through the binoculars I could easily see the tail of this “star.” The year was 1986, and I was viewing something people see only once every 75 or so years:  Halley’s Comet.

We miss so much in the night sky asleep in our beds. 

Ten or so years after viewing Halley’s Comet, I was jogging in the early morning dark, and suddenly the sky lit up like it was broad daylight.  It was so bright I could see our neighbor’s house a quarter of a mile away.  I stopped jogging a moment and just stood there in the middle of the road, awestruck.  The natural world took notice of the sudden light too. The perennial rustling of ducks, birds, and other wild life along the river hushed, and the only sound I heard was the gentle lapping of water.

At first I thought this strange phenomenon was an aurora borealis, but the Snake River flood plain is not really in the auroral zone.  Later I realized it was most likely another meteor streaking through space and blazing out above me in earth’s outer atmosphere.

If I was from an ancient civilization, a nomadic culture for example, living somewhere in the Middle East, I might have thought this flaming star—a sign.  

Others have noticed the spectacular night sky here on the Snake River.  In the next valley over, the Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park has a public observatory and hosts star shows March through October.  I’ve seen the rings of Saturn and fantastical nebulae formations through their big “Obsession” telescope.  But much can be seen with just the naked eye.  Every morning now, around 5 o’clock, Mars rises in the east.  It’s a distinctive-looking planet with its ochre color.  Could we ever live on Mars, I wonder?

I think about this sometimes, star gazing Idaho skies, whether mankind could exist on other planets.  I’ve never wanted to leave earth, but I worry about the devastating effects of climate change. There is no “Planet B” though.  Scientific and international reports on the environment have made this very clear. We need to take better care of the planet we live on: this beautiful blue globe, this special Christmas ornament hanging in space we call earth.

Image Credit:  Night skies         Image Credit:  Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park telescope      Image Credit:  Earth in space

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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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.

Tap on this link for more posts on Life Passages like moving out of a home.

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

 

 

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.

Tap on this link for more posts about living Out West.

 

 

 

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