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)

The Job of My Dreams

I was offered a job teaching kindergarten two mornings a week in the little village of Hammett, Idaho.  I considered taking the job even though I’ve spent my career teaching older students, adults and teens.  It was a thrill.  It was a challenge.  It was a nightmare.  No, not a nightmare—it was a dream.  My head nestled deep in a pillow, I’d dreamt about the Hammett job offer.  It wasn’t real.  I know some people still dream about their jobs, their careers, long past retirement:  waiting on tables, writing reports in an office, dealing with co-workers.  My farmer-husband woke up one morning this past summer and when I asked him over coffee how he’d slept, he said, “I worked all night.”

“No you didn’t,” I took a sip of my hot coffee.  “You snored all night.”

“That wasn’t a snore.  That was me grunting, trying to keep up with the farm (bailing hay, moving irrigation pipe, fixing the tractor).  There was too much pressure.  I had to wake up just to get some rest.”

Even though leaving our work identities behind after retirement can be both freeing and frightening, our careers, our work leaves marks on our psyche as deep and wide as Big Foot’s tracks on the forest floor.

This is why retirement for many people is such a dramatic sea change. It’s not just changing our behaviors, it’s changing how we think.  In light of such a big transition, some of us choose to hang on to our jobs. I hiked with a friend in the foothills north of Boise, Idaho the other day, and she told me her brother, at 76, plans to keep his career as a communications professor at Portland State University, as long as he can.  Sitting on a restaurant patio last week, I ran into another old friend, Fred, who’s been a practicing mental health therapist for at least thirty years.  Fred told me he’d probably work until the day he dies.  And like the great therapist he is, Fred didn’t want to talk about himself, he wanted to talk about me.

“So Diana,” he said, “I hear you’re doing a lot of writing these days…”

My husband and I have another friend, Bob, who has a decidedly different take on retirement.  Bob said, “It takes guts to retire.”  He went on to talk about the courage it took for him to sit with feelings of boredom and aimlessness—a perspective I found interesting.  Some people say they’re busier than ever in retirement.

Still, Bob had a point.  Retirement is often a process:  binge-watching Netflix shows until you feel ready to move on to something else.

Ironically now, I remember what a drag having a job was when I was a teenager in the 60’s and 70’s.  Maynard G. Krebs, the deadbeat beatnik on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis show expressed the sentiment of me and my peers on the topic of work.  Whenever Maynard heard the word, “work,” he repeated it with a shout, like he had Tourettes and work was a dirty word.  Then there’s the Civil War era poet, Walt Whitman, for whom having a job was—a distraction.  Whitman’s family lamented his “laziness,” but Whitman didn’t want regular employment with its “usual rewards.”  He preferred instead, to wander the beaches of Long Island and create great masterpieces of poetry like his collection, Leaves of Grass.

For many years, my job meant a lot to me.  I liked the routine, the money, and the title: Dr. Hooley. 

But when I retired, the veneer of self-importance fell away, and I was left with just me.  Not the professor, or coach, or director, or committee member.  Just me.  And for most of us, that’s not such a bad thing.  Retirement means we finally have the time to consider what we want to do, instead of what we have to do.  And honestly, being a kindergarten teacher in Hammett, Idaho was never high on my list.

 

 

Image Credit:  Hammett sign    Image Credit: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis        Image Credit:  Walt Whitman