ALASKA AND OTHER FRONTIERS: 2016 Curiosity Encounters

The piercing cry of a wild animal woke me. In the frigid darkness, I couldn’t remember where I was. I blinked my sleep-sticky eyes until I could focus on the gray vehicle ceiling only six inches from my nose. “Oh, yeah. Now I remember,” I murmured as my brain fog cleared.

We were parked at the edge of a roadside turnout along a roughly slashed track snaking its way through the woods of Northern British Columbia. The early a.m. cold burrowed under the multiple quilts and blankets of our makeshift bed; a foam mattress spread atop what was left of our household goods. All were stuffed into the back of an ancient Volkswagen bus spray painted a respectable two-toned black and white to disguise generous patches of rusty and ragged holes.

I shut my eyes and snuggled against the curve of my husband’s warm back like a heat seeking missile. Another wail punctuated the dark. The noise came from something inside the van. I groaned, as more fog lifted from my sleep-starved mind. I had brought a baby into this frozen wilderness. The tiny body wedged between me and my snoring husband, squirmed and cried out more loudly.

Ralph mumbled in his sleep, “Make him stop.”

“Good luck with that,” I grumbled. How do you“make” an infant do anything? First: change the soggy diaper. Six-month-old Jason kept up his fretful noise as I switched out his diaper and dressed him in fresh pajamas. Second: if I’m lucky, he’s just hungry, try nursing him. Again, he kept up his crying; snorting and thrashing away from the proffered food source. Final option: take him for a walk down the hall and around the living room. “Too bad, there is no living room. I’ll just have to pace the edge of the road.”

I slid head-first into the passenger seat where I pulled on my more-pretty-than-practical windbreaker. I swaddled Jason tightly in a flannel blanket, then stepped out of the bus into the freezing cold of early October along the Alaska Highway. Undeterred by all my attempts to calm him, Jason greeted the dawn with a howl akin to wolves under a harvest moon. This far north, winter was only a few short days away.

In a fit of youthful bravery (or delusion) which overwhelmed stale conformity (or good sense), we quit school and set out to follow our hearts. We were among many dreamers endeavoring to conquer the Alaska Highway or go broke trying. We sold most of our possessions, bought the Volkswagen bus, and headed off to take advantage of tempting opportunities beckoning from Alaska.

Opportunities created by the building of the Alaska pipeline. At the time, the Alaska Highway was a serpentine ribbon of mostly dirt and gravel fraught with myriad dangers for untried vehicles and unseasoned motorists. We suffered multiple flat tires, two broken fan belts, and blew one engine along the way.

We started our trip at Palos Verdes, California, my hometown, bidding a reluctant farewell to my unconvinced parents. From there, we drove north on Highway 101 hitting one fabled beach town after another. At Crescent City, California, we cut inland and took Interstate 5 through Oregon and Washington then crossed the Canadian border at Peace Park near Vancouver, B.C.

A stop in Prince George, British Columbia, to visit friends was lengthened by two weeks when our engine blew up in the autumn stained mountains outside Chetwynd. Our friends kindly rescued us and towed us back to Prince George (many thanks to the Towers family, our thanks back then were not adequate). My mechanic father, unable to come to our aid, loaned us the money to repair the van. Two weeks later, after Ralph spent many backbreaking hours rebuilding the engine, we set off for Dawson Creek, B.C; the starting point of the Alaska Highway. Northward, every town and landmark became more remote, the road narrower, increasingly hemmed in by forest. We rolled into Fort Nelson, B.C. just in time for a tire to go flat right in front of a gas station. The lug nuts were so tight we couldn’t have loosened them without the mechanics power wrench. Miles north of Fort Nelson, long past dark, we pulled into an isolated turnout alongside the road to sleep.

Now, with Jason still howling and the sky beginning to lighten we abandoned our efforts to get more rest and decided to get back on the road. But now, it was the bus that was being cranky.

“Rrrrrrrrr.” The cabin of the bus was like a refrigerator. The starter wound round and round but the engine wouldn’t fire up.

“Rrrrrrrr.” The starter still sounded vigorous, but the battery was getting weary. Time for prayers to fly heavenward.

Ralph milked the battery once more. This time, the engine coughed and sparked to life. Had the baby not awakened us, the cold may have thickened the oil or deadened the battery past reviving. Engine trouble at that stage would have left us in a sore pickle, on a lonely road, miles from any assistance.

Miles more north, exhausted, and utterly sick of the road, we came upon Lliard Hot Springs Provincial Park along the Lliard River. A paradise of steaming jade-green pools veiled in mist surrounded by giant spruce, paper birch, dripping ferns, and wildflowers. This will forever be our family’s favorite spot on the Alaska Highway. Over the years, this magical place has refreshed our road-weary bodies and spirits in its gentle currents of hot and cool springs of water. We have visited it in the full bloom of lush green summer and when the pools were deeply pillowed by thick banks of snow. The advantage of a winter visit is there are no clouds of mosquitoes. Winter accentuates the other-worldliness of the pools in their vapor wrapped loneliness, secluded in a wilderness of white.

Since that first Alaska Highway journey, we have explored its serpentine length seven times. Each trip starts with the excitement of knowing, without question, we will experience adventure. We know that by the time we reach Lliard Hot Springs, however, the shine of that adventure will be substantially dimmed by the fatigue and the grime of the road. A hot soak at Lliard Hot Springs is the watershed divide between road-sick and renewal of our enthusiasm for the wilderness highway.

It occurs to me right here and now, as I do my daily writing routine, that I need such paradise-like renewals in my life’s journeys of creativity, of trying to live rightly, of making it from one milepost to the next. I have tackled many Alaska Highway adventures, both literally and figuratively. Many of my highway pilgrimages have been thrust upon me; illness, death, less desirable events of all kinds. However, the best strategy is to pack up and move forward, making the most of them. Other such journeys have been voluntary, well planned, and happily anticipated. Yet still, there is need for a restorative pause at some refreshing wayside lest I drain my overtaxed battery. In either case, the image of the calm and peace of Lliard Hot springs is a refreshing vision for such a pause. Especially useful in winter when relief from the itch of summer distractions allows stillness.

As usual, January suggests that we look over the landscape ahead and refresh our perspective. This year, I am taking my cue from my son who cried out in the darkness decades ago and, now grown, creates great journeys of his own. He has made it his business to be an expert on helping his clients make the most of their personal aspirations by teaching them to harness and capitalize on their dreams. He points out that, “Curiosity is a compass that ensures you enjoy the journey whether or not you reach the intended destination.”

My theme for renewal in 2016 is curiosity: childlike, free flowing, and encouraging. I have assembled a wide-ranging list of subjects and experiences that I am curious about. Subjects I plan to mine for insight a month at a time. That is my simple strategy. My 2016 impetus to creativity.

Curiosity is, in the final analysis, the only frontier. Other frontiers flow from that original, innate, bright borderline between knowledge/experience and ignorance. Curiosity sweetens existence, burns boredom to fertile ash, transforms work into play, and makes every moment rich with possibilities.




Reed Lakes Hike

It was five dollar Tuesday. I was sitting in a darkened theater with my family, comfortably imbibing heavily buttered popcorn and bootlegged sour Jolly Rancher gummies while watching the movie “Wild”; a contemplative character study starring Reese Witherspoon. One particular scene evinced a vivid memory of one of our family’s own “wild” experiences. When Cheryl Strayed (the protagonist), settles down after the first exhausting and painful day of her trek, she attempts lighting her new WhisperLite backpacking stove. Run ragged and starving, she assembles the contraption needed for heating her dehydrated meals. But something’s not right with the delicate assemblage of wire stand, micro-burner, and heat reflector. She consults the stove manual and discovers that she bought the wrong fuel. Now miles and miles from any remedy for her predicament, this realization inspires low-blood sugar rage, and the fuel bottle gets ungraciously kicked out of camp…literally. That’s when my son and I turned to each other and whispered, “Reed Lakes.”

We were living in Alaska. My husband, Ralph, along with our youngest two children, Mike 17, and Amara 15, and I went on the fabled hike to Reed Lakes. The trail head was an easy one hour drive from our home in Eagle River, through Palmer, and up to Hatcher’s Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains. On that June day , we got a late start, but the weather was warm and deceptively fine. Sunshine broke through scattered clouds whose ruffled skirts now and then exposed a peek of the blue sky beyond. Which meant that none of us started out the hike with our coats on. After parking the car at the trail head, we rechecked the backpacks and rearranged a few items here and there to better balance the load. We stuffed in last minute items, among them knit caps and several plastic ponchos in case it rained which seemed unlikely. My husband’s jacket was stashed somewhere deep in the bowels of the largest pack, so it wouldn’t topple the load of sleeping bag and tent. Each of us carried some form of backpack with enough food and equipment for a night under the twilight of the Alaskan summer sky.

The first leg of the hike is a faded dirt road headed up the valley toward the abandoned Snowbird Mine. After scrambling around the decaying scrabble of mine ruins we stopped to snack on a handful of M&M gorp and water. By now the dirt road had petered out into a willow fringed pathway with a gradual rise in elevation as it meandered across a broad meadow traversed by a winding stream and wood plank bridges wide enough for one person at a time. Energetic and and light hearted we pressed on.

The sunshine and gurgling water inspired a sense of well-being and excitement over being intrepid adventurers. We had torn ourselves away from our tidy patch of civilization, and I do mean patch, on the banks of the Eagle River. We were partaking of a sacred rite of being Alaskan; trekking out into the wilderness as opposed to just living on the edge of it. We were giddy with the beauty of the landscape and proud of ourselves for escaping the ease of our suburban life. Our path was, clear, and we were Alaskans whose birthright was being at home in the wild.

In short order, our idyllic walk through the lush green vegetation and flowers of the meadow was brought to a sobering halt. A steep hillside loomed above us criss-crossed by steep switchbacks. Our booted feet dug into the moist dirt and pulled us along, calves aching, lungs gulping for air. We rested and sipped water at every turn in the path.

The view above and below us opened up into a spectacular bowl of greenery over which towering gray cliffs and peaks presided. Something that did not catch our attention yet, were the patches of snow that clung to the talus littered mountain flanks. At the top of the hill we paused to rest, raking our hands through unripe patches of blueberries. The dark green, low rising shrubs, held the promise of a bumper crop of the tart juicy fruit. We promised ourselves a return trip solely for berry picking.

This leg of the trip stopped abruptly at the edge of a steep tract of boulders precariously balanced in an irregular up and down cadence of ankle breaking crevices and dark holes where a misplaced foot could get firmly wedged. The scramble over the rocks, at first, was a welcome change from trudging up the steep switchbacks. Then in one terrifying instant the sole of my boot wobbled on a dagger of broken rock. I stumbled, the weight of my pack yanked me off my feet and downhill, throwing my body backward into the steep pile of boulders, arms and legs waving in the air like a turtle helplessly stranded on its back. We froze in shocked silence realizing that only the width of my backpack breaking my fall kept my head inches shy of a serious concussion or worse. It was a sobering reminder of how quickly we could get seriously injured and our joyous encounter with wild Alaska turn into a 6 o’clock news story about rescuing an unconscious hiker from the mountain. We slowed our pace and took greater care finishing our boulder crossing.

At the upper edge of the boulder field we faced a grassy ravine, creek flowing right down the middle between a steep “V” of gray rubble. Here, it became all too clear that mid-June was not yet summertime at this higher elevation. A cold wind flowed down from the frozen heights above and a frosty smattering of rain began to fall. The cold forced us to stop and don jackets and knit caps. All of us except Ralph. In the midst of our tightly organized packs and tidy zippered pockets none of us could locate his jacket nor one of the ponchos. At that point we were in such a hurry to find a camping spot we hoped was only minutes away, we abandoned the search and kept hiking upward.

Our pathway became slippery and gooey as it crossed dozens of weeping snow patches from which water oozed into the creek. On every dry knoll of grass elevated above the mess of water and mud, groups of hikers were setting up tents. We were hungry and tired and ready for dinner but we were also anxious to get away from the crowds of partying teenagers who were oblivious that their high spirited antics and laughter were spoiling the wilderness experience for the less exuberant. So we pressed on in the freezing rain up the steep ravine. We found every dry level spot occupied. With deep blue summer twilight darkening the unstable path, we finally emerged over the ridge into the bowl surrounding the first of the Reed Lakes. Thankfully this area was deserted. We were all by ourselves on a damp patch of threadbare grass surrounded by icy peaks. The creek we had followed the whole way up poured out of the heights above over shelves of broken and water-polished granite. Below us lay the ice crusted blue-green surface of lower Reed Lake.

We had no time to appreciate the view. The wind picked up and freezing rain fell steadily. Having still been unable to find his jacket, Ralph was shivering and on the verge if not fully into a state of hypothermia. We did a flash mob version of setting up the tent and then quite literally threw our backpacks, tools, and bodies into the barely comforting shelter of our dome tent. We were cold, hungry, and all vestiges of our earlier sunny dispositions had vanished. In the riot of gear and tangle of sleeping bags we huddled together for warmth. Out of the dark, above the sound of flowing water and our chattering teeth, we heard Amara’s pained but sweet voice ask, “Um, can we, uh, organize the tent?”

There was a split second of silence, then the hilarious futility of her request sunk in and we all burst out laughing. Amara’s plea for cool heads and orderly process fully expressed our frustrations. Where was Ralph’s jacket, where was the dang WhisperLite stove, matches, and hot food! First we had to get Ralph in better shape so we tucked him down into the warmest sleeping bag we had. Once he had stopped shivering, and maneuvering from the opening of his sleeping bag, he set up the tiny stove and began the process of lighting it. One match after another fizzled out. Finally the minute puddle of fuel was nursed into flame which promptly set the floor of the tent on fire.

We frantically smothered the flames and again broke into hysterical laughter having survived another close call. We gave up on lighting the stove and ate a cold dinner of cream cheese and ham sandwiches washed down with plain water. Enwrapped in hats, hoods, jackets, and sleeping bags we spooned close together and finally got warm enough to doze off.

Ten minutes later we heard the drunken giggles of clueless teenagers who had decided to take a midnight hike up to the lake. The group tromped around nearby laughing and talking for over an hour before disappearing back over the ridge toward their camp in the ravine below. Finally, no longer shivering and blessed with silence we fell into exhausted slumber.

Somewhere, I have pictures of us on that mountainside above the lake laughing and playing in the snow. It still being winter in the bowl of lower Reed Lake there was lots of snow. I don’t even remember the hike back down the mountain the following day. I just remember that every moment of delight and discomfort on that memorable hike is filled with joy. The joy of the wild. Not just the wildness of the wilderness, but the joy of surviving the wildly unexpected surrounded by such danger and beauty. And although we don’t live in Alaska any longer the wildness of that place, the resourcefulness it provokes, the memories created there will stick with us always. Wild after all.

Do Something That Scares You

Paris, city of light and love. City of romantic Montmartre apartments and fresh baguettes with jambon et raclette. City of exhilarating architecture. City of terrifying traffic!

And there I was, crossing a devilish roundabout along with about a zillion other cars funneled into an inescapable metal trap. My exit lay ahead over the rooftops of about ten equally paralyzed motorists. The substance of my worst European road trip nightmare:  a full-on traffic jam, totally gridlocked, at night, in the rain, in the middle of Paris! I shoved the muscular five -passenger Peugot into first gear, slowly let out the clutch, and inched forward into the razor thin space between a red Fiat and a Gray Mercedes.

It started out as a simple trip to visit our son, Jason; his wife, Melanie; and our effervescent granddaughter, Cece, who had relocated to Paris for the year. How did it get so complicated, so fraught with jeopardy? One minute my husband, Ralph, said, “Since we are flying all the way to Paris what else could we do? How about beaches?” Ignoring the voice in my head that screamed for security and safety,  I looked on the map and noted, “Wow! The Costa Brava is only a half day’s trip to the south of France!” And, “Look, we could visit Carcassone!”

Before good sense (and fear) could intervene, we booked flights to Barcelona – a launching point to the Mediterranean and said beaches. We also decided to take a day trip to Burgundy in search of the ancestral home of my husband’s family. Our independent wandering spirits couldn’t stand the thought of being confined to public transportation. Our family has a long history of road tripping. This time I would be the exclusive chauffeur as my husband’s right arm slowly healed from painful nerve damage.

Never mind our hardened experience driving the Alaska Highway when it was merely a gravel track through deep woods and wilderness. Never mind that I cut my driving-teeth learning how to use a stick-shift Volkswagen bug. Never mind I had maneuvered our large travel van on the bustling streets of New York City and driven a class A motorhome on the narrow streets of Gig Harbor, Washington. Driving in Europe presented unique problems I felt unprepared for: foreign languages, cryptic traffic signs and regulations, sprawling toll plazas, a multiplicity of roundabouts (at nearly every intersection in country villages and large cities), ancient narrow roads, with alien landscapes as my proving ground.

Right out of the gate it became a white-knuckle adventure.  We arrived in Barcelona on the evening of September 24, after a 12 hour flight from Boise.  With a brain, fuzzy as the fleece on my airline neck pillow, I sleepily greeted the Hertz associate. Then I blindly refused the rental of a GPS device thinking we could make the six minute drive from Barcelona- El Prat Airport to the Hotel Hisperia Tower with instructions from a stack of Google Maps print-outs.

Once on the motorway, distracted by speeding traffic, I whizzed past the exit for Ave Autovia Castelldefels heading “nord”, and instead took the wrong exit headed “sud”.  My slow wit translated both from Catalan as “north and south” seconds after heading the wrong way.

Those seconds cost us thirty minutes but we finally managed to get turned around and had the Hotel Hisperia Tower in our sight on the far side of the motorway. After several aborted efforts to find the right exit (as in you can’t get there from here), we pulled into a darkened  motorway gas station. Our hotel was RIGHT there above us! But we couldn’t seem to get to it through the maze of roundabouts and dead-end streets. Finally, by driving through the gas station parking lot and ducking into an alley, we emerged in front of the hotel.  But not before eliciting a lecture from a tour bus driver for blocking his way through the hotel roundabout. (there again, the devilish roundabouts.)

The next morning I gazed “sud” from our 13th floor window. As if hypnotized by the traffic patterns below, I traced the route to the airport determined to preempt any nuances and surprises on the route back to Hertz. Clearly, a Never Lost navigating device was essential.  At 88 euros for the eight days, it was cheaper than data on our phones or psychiatric treatment. The Never Lost saved my sanity and  the beach portion of our trip.  Except, that is, for the time it got us lost.

With guidance from the Never Lost, navigating Spain and France was mostly easy and pleasant. Carcassone was magnificent. The Route des Cretes from Cassis to La Ciotat was an adventure worth the hairpin turns and dizzying heights. We had a glorious visit to the beaches and towns of Sete, Cassis, and La Ciotat, France, before heading back to the Costa Brava north of Barcelona. There, the navigator guided us off the motorway through green farms, vineyards, and charming villages to the medieval town of Pals.

At Pals, however, the Never Lost could not locate the address of La Costa Golf & Beach Resort.  Strangely, the navigator on Ralph’s cell phone did locate the resort and could direct us despite having no access to a European data plan. Something it hadn’t done before during the trip. Even so, we were soon facing the middle of a pasture and a less than promising shallow cement ditch. This was shaping up in my mind as one of those GPS horror stories that later becomes a Dateline exclusive, or worse, the 3rd sequel to an awful horror franchise. I wanted to turn back to Pals, but Ralph insisted we put our trust in the incorporeal GPS goddess and keep going. At the end of the ditch there was no option but to turn right onto a muddy dirt road. After bouncing through potholes and puddles, we suddenly broke through a line of trees and turned left onto a paved road where we encountered yet another roundabout.  There, much to my relief, was a sign pointing towards the open and welcoming gate at the entrance to the luxurious La Costa Golf & Beach Resort on Pals Beach. When we mentioned our strange journey to the desk clerk, she admitted, “Uh,yes, we know that it’s, uh . . . complicated.”

We settled into our accommodations and explored the lush grounds and swimming pool before taking a relaxing walk on the wide golden-sand beach. Upon learning that the hotel restaurant wouldn’t open until 8 p.m., having learned nothing from our earlier travails, I proposed another drive. I was eager to see the village of Begur. On the map it seemed simple (the map always seems flat and simple). We soon learned that lovely Begur is in the twilight zone.

The center of the village is high on the hills above the ocean.  From its perch, spectacular homes spill down the steep forested slopes, along narrow vertical roads, towards cliffs fixed timelessly above the Mediterranean. This precarious layout completely befuddled the Never Lost. Around a tight switchback, just below our goal, we confronted an abrupt landslide blocking our way to Begur.  It seemed there was nothing to do but head back to the resort. However, the ineffectual female voice of the Never Lost had us driving in circles. Vertical circles up and down steep hills. After she instructed us several times to turn the wrong way onto one-way streets, we emphatically switched her off. We figured all we had to do was keep the ocean on our right while heading nord hugging the coast. By this point, after coming through several adventures unscathed, we felt assured that we could be “lost” without getting into too much trouble.

We survived and all was never even close to being lost.  But  that was before the gripping climax, the fuming Smaug of my psyche that I had every intention of evading: the Paris roundabout traffic jam.

On Sunday morning, October 12,  Ralph, Jason, and I took a taxi to Orly airport to get a rental car in order to avoid driving in the city. From there, once again guided by Never Lost, we entered the A6, Autoroute du Soleil, going south toward  Auxerre. Once off the motorway, a beautiful drive through quiet fairytale villages and farms of Burgundy,  led us to Chateau de Mailly, the possible ancestral home of Ralph’s forbearer, Pierre de Mailly. Thanks to the owner we were able to tour the beautiful chateau and grounds (a story for another time).

Rain began to fall as we set off on the return drive. We were tired and eager to get home, and didn’t want to waste time at Orly airport.  We felt confident that we could make our way to Gare du Nord, only a short subway ride to the Lamarck/Caulaincourte metro stop near our Montmartre apartment, to drop off the vehicle. Once again, it seemed so simple. But the road trip deities had other plans. By now I should have learned this.

First: Ralph, got more and more car sick as we approached Paris.  Second: even though it was a Sunday evening, traffic came to a stand-still on the motorway.  With Jason navigating via his cell phone, we gave the surface roads a try hoping they would be less congested. Alas, the entire city was out for a Sunday drive. And third: finding a gas station to fill up before returning the car proved to be maddening now that we were further from the motorway.  Gas stations in Paris seem to be as  scarce as an authentic French baguette in Boise. After several failed attempts to locate petrol, we decided to take Ralph back to our apartment as his discomfort level had become unbearable.

With Jason as my cohort in the quest for a fill-up, we continued the hunt  for a gas station by heading back towards Paris Boulevarde Peripherique. The night conspired to bring us to the nexus of commuters careening towards vehicular paralysis with me at the epicenter. The only way out was through: nudging forward, one inch at a time, the Peugot’s proximity alarm blaring neurotically. Jason pointed ahead as an opening materialized. Steeling my nerve, I put my foot to the pedal, threaded through the eye of the needle, and darted out of the roundabout.  We were still not out of the woods, or rather, fender bender danger yet. At Gare du Nord I had to maneuver a narrow cork-screw passage to the Hertz drop off five stories underground, proximity alarm once again objecting strenuously right up to the last moment when I dropped the keys in the attendant’s hand.

I suffered many sleepless nights making preparations for our trip.  I concocted hair-raising scenarios most of which never happened. A fair share of harrowing circumstances did arise, but in reality, much of the fun and adventure came from these crazy, unforeseen obstacles.

I have a new mantra: don’t fear your fears.  Being scared doesn’t have to result in crippling anxiety.  Challenge those fearful assumptions.  Staunchly face the charging imaginary traffic.  Appreciate small miracles: my high school French suddenly came back to me; slumbering intuition, dormant in the safety of home, came to life. Doing something that scared me granted me courage and self-confidence I couldn’t find any other way.

So, go ahead, do something that scares you.