Category Archives: Alaska

The Drive – Part 3

On Tuesday, July 9th, we rose with the mission of finding a shower and washing some clothes.  We drove for a few hours through some incredibly beautiful and scenic territory.  The highway wound back and forth between British Columbia and Yukon Territory, so we were welcomed to both provinces in a morning.

After coming around a wide, sweeping turn, one of the most picturesque and charming views of the trip opened up.  Teslin Lake below us, so long the distant shores were invisible, was crossed by a megalithic bridge that lead to Teslin Village, a sweet little town where we didn’t at all mind spending the rest of our morning and early afternoon.  We pulled in to a lodge and RV park, and had all of our needs fulfilled.  Showers, laundry, pecan sweet rolls, and a couple of souvenir mugs we’ve used every day since.

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I went in to the little laundromat hoping for the best.  Everywhere we had been so far accepted American cash, but I assumed Canadian coin-op washing machines would be less than impressed with George Washington.  Luckily, I had $8 Canadian that had been change from our camp fee at Big Creek.  I needed some coins, and was grateful someone was in the office.  I handed him my $5, and felt remarkably the same as when I was a kindergartener buying something at the store.  “Here’s all the money I have…is it enough?”

“The machines take two quarters and two loonies,” the office manager explained.

Two what?!  I poked around at the coins in my hand.  Ah-ha!  The $1 coins had loons on the back.  Feeling like I’d just succeeded in interpreting hieroglyphics, I got our laundry started.

After naps for us all, feeling freshly showered, and with stacks of clean, folded laundry, we took off from Teslin and headed for our last campsite before crossing into Alaska.  Ready to not disrupt our low mileage day with too much driving, we settled in to Wolf Creek campground in the late afternoon.  This southern end of the Yukon is still far enough north that the daylight hours stretched very late into the evening, giving us plenty of reason to set up our slackline, take a walk to the camp playground, and take our time with our steaks and corn-on-the-cob.

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Wednesday, July 10th, we knew, was our Alaska day.   There would be no stopping for the night until we were securely in the 49th state.  Our first stop of the day was in Whitehorse, Yukon, for gas.  Whitehorse is now my quintessential BFE.  It was a busy little city, with things happening and going on, and looked like a fun place to visit, but it felt like it was on Mars, completely isolated from everything and anything else in the world.

Right outside of Whitehorse, we picked up our first and only hitchhiker of the trip.  John and I had discussed other potential hitchhikers, via walkie talkie, along the way, but Lucas was the lucky one.  We continued on through Otter Falls Cutoff, where we picked up some mugs and a bumper sticker declaring our success in navigating the Alaska Hiway, to Haines Junction.  We parted ways with Lucas there, as he was going into Alaska at the panhandle, headed to Haines.  The road turned northward and followed along a stretch of mountains whose profile matched what I’ve seen in every Alaska snowboarding video.  This seemed pretty reasonable, since they’re always going to Haines to ride.

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A gas and bathroom stop in Destruction Bay marked a significant transition in the road, and made us realize that the mugs and bumper sticker were purchased prematurely.  Imagine the worst road you’ve ever driven on, blow it up with dynamite, drive on what’s left, and you have an idea.  My understanding is that the expansion and contraction of the permafrost over the seasons makes the road impossible to keep smooth.  We were so rattled, shaken, and generally agitated, that we crossed the border back onto American soil and into Alaska completely unceremoniously, without even pausing for the photo-op at the Welcome to Alaska monument.

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Going through the border check here was quite a different experience than crossing into Canada had been.  After handing over our passport cards, the following inquisition ensued:

“Buy anything other than food and gas in Canada?”

“A few mugs.”

“Have a nice day!”

Nothing has ever made me feel more patriotic.  There’s something very comforting about returning “home”, being treated like an insider, even in a place I’ve never been.  The speed limits were posted in mph again; even though I had no problem with kph (as a trail runner, I’m acutely aware of just what 50k means, having done it on foot), I was more than happy to return to my default setting.

The next landmark was the city of Tok, but since it was getting late in the day and we were the most tired from driving as we had been any day, we turned left for Anchorage and our last campground of the trip.  The Porcupine Creek campground was barely our host; we stayed only long enough to sleep.

Thursday, July 11th was our final day, and we didn’t want to waste any time.  After breakfast in Glenallen, we made our final push down the Glenn Highway, and through the most spectacular views of the entire drive.  The highway followed along the northern border of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, and we were treated with the sight of mountain peaks and glaciers the entire way.  At one point I was impressed with a range of tall, snowy mountains, cloaked in clouds, until I realized the clouds were actually a range of taller, snowier mountains.  We hadn’t made much of a habit out of pulling over to take pictures during the trip, but we made up for it along this stretch.  Every time we thought we’d seen the most breathtaking sight, the next bend would produce a greater one.  One summit that was in the backdrop for a great portion of the day, Mt. Sanford, which loomed at an impressive 16,237 ft, was quite possibly the tallest mountain I’ve ever seen in person, and I’d never even heard of it.

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We made it into Anchorage by mid-afternoon.  The city felt like any other: traffic, Targets, and stoplights, with the exception of the ragged Chugach Mountains dominating the skyline instead of buildings.  The contrast neatly sums up our vision, our goals, and our purpose for the whole trip: the sacrifice of urban living to support and allow for our dream life in the mountains.

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The Drive – Part 2

A fitful night of sleep had me up at 4:30am on Sunday, July 7th, reconsulting The Milepost.  After a high mileage input the day before, we were interested in having a bit of an off-day.  Only 60 miles down the road was an RV park which promised shower and laundry services, amenities we hadn’t accessed in four days and that, for me, held glorious appeal.

After a breakfast of pale eggs at Sasquatch Crossing (where I’d hoped to find some awesome commemorative mugs since I’d sold all of ours; no dice), we moved on down the road, looking for inviting respite from the drive.  We didn’t end up with showers that day, but found some peace and serenity at Buckinghorse Creek Provincial Park.  We even had opportunities to indulge in our individual hobbies: I made some small progress on my knitting, John had a few beers, and Silas analyzed the local terrestrial composition by caking himself in creek mud.

Feeling refreshed for Monday morning, we departed the campground with the intent of crossing the border into Yukon Territory and embarked on, in my opinion, our most epic driving day of the whole trip.  Up to this point, I was somewhat disappointed in the scenery British Columbia provided.  It wasn’t bad, to be sure, and gave me my fill of lush and green, with black spruce-covered rolling hills as far as the eye could see.  We had even seen a few moose at dusk on Saturday night.  But I had expected Whistler.  Majestic, jagged, snow capped peaks, dramatic valleys, thundering waterfalls, abundant wildlife.  What we saw was more tame and serene.  To be fair, we stuck mainly on the highway, and highways are generally placed on the path of least resistance, which is usually not compatible with “majestic, jagged peaks”.

As we approached the Yukon, though, things began to change.  We started to climb, and so did the mountain summits.  Finally, we saw some snow.  We stopped to grill some sausages for lunch at Summit Lake, and I finally felt like we’d reached somewhere wild, somewhere far enough north that we’d escaped the gravity of mainstream civilization.  After packing up the grill, we passed by Muncho Lake, which was such a radiant blue we has to stop and soak in the view.  After that, the wildlife started.  John narrowly missed a bellowing caribou and a Stone sheep and lamb.  Four bears and several herds of wood bison also crossed our paths. We crossed the border into Yukon Territory, and everything just got bigger.  I had a sneaking suspicion that Big Creek Campground, our planned destination for the night, was going to resemble a California river more than a creek, and it certainly did.  We didn’t even need to convince Pepper to stay out of it, and that dog is nothing if not a water dog.

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ImageBison crossing?! Yeah, whatever…

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Image“Yukon: Larger Than Life”. Sign speaks the truth.

The Drive – Part 1

After 3 weeks of casual packing and 2 days of frantic packing, we left California on a Wednesday, the afternoon of July 3rd. The sum of our remaining possessions fit within the confines of our truck, boat, SUV, and trailer, with plenty of room to spare.  Our little caravan made its first overnight stop in Grants Pass, OR, with my mom, before heading for the international border and trying to leave the US, ironically, on the 4th of July. We drove the fairly straight line up I-5, seeing both Portland and Seattle as only a blur from behind camera lenses.

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Portland blur.

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Seattle blur.

Both John and I underestimated the gap between Seattle and the US-Canadian border, assuming they were a casual 30-minutes or so apart.  Seeing the “Vancouver, BC – 150 miles” sign going through Seattle gave us a bit of a reality check.  We were at least entertained along the way with almost 3 hours of holiday fireworks as we followed the sunset north.  We barely made it through the Abbotsford border crossing on our planned day after arriving there at 11:30 pm.  Additional delays, including having our boat and trailer inspected by dogs (we seem to put out the gun-toting vibe, despite never having owned a single firearm between the two of us), set us up for trying to navigate a new, international country, pulling trailers, at 2 am.

Our other underestimation was how different Canada would feel.  We expected “North Washington”, but it, in fact, felt like a foreign country.  All indications of culture and humanity, road signs, stores, were just a little off from from the usual, but a multitude of  small differences can lead to a large feeling of bewilderment.  Driving around outside of Chilliwack, BC, in the dark, without a decided destination, only that it be a place to sleep, ended miraculously in that we were never driving into oncoming traffic and we eventually found a not-illegal looking place to park on the side of the road for the night.

The next day, Friday July 5th, went much better.  We had breakfast at a Husky’s in Hope, and discovered that Canadian egg yolks are weirdly pale.  I found this to be true throughout our trip, regardless of the source of the eggs, restaurant or store-bought.  After breakfast, we headed north, hoping to find a nice place to camp for the night.  I noticed then that it wasn’t just the human-made aspects of Canada that felt different, but even the shape of the mountains and the trees weren’t quite what I was used to.  We traveled along a winding river road that made quite a few tunnel passes, and left the aforementioned trees and mountains behind.  We stopped for lunch in Cache Creek and experienced another culinary idiosyncrasy.  Our fried chicken pieces came with one bottle of ketchup and one of…vinegar?  The flavors made sense, but I couldn’t figure out how to apply a squirt of white vinegar to my chicken without having a soggy mess.

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We finally decided during lunch to begin consulting with our copy of The Milepost, the definitive source for all Alaska-bound travelers and their every need.  The great tome informed us that we weren’t far off from Green Lake, which promised campsites, outhouses, a water pump, and swimming, all for $16.  Also convenient was that the denomination could be either Canadian or American dollars.  Most places where we tried to pay with American cash happily accepted it straight across, though I’m pretty sure they got the better end of the exchange rate.

Green Lake Provincial Park proved to be a great choice for our first night of Canadian camping. The area was lush and green, and the lake was crisp and refreshing with a smooth, sandy bottom.  We threw some steaks on the grill, liberally applied our DEET, and chatted with some other campers, amusing ourselves with their Canadian accents.  When asked where we were coming from, John mentioned California, and was surprised at the reply of, “Oh!  I thought I detected a southern accent.”  Wow!  We have an accent!

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After a propane grilled bacon and egg breakfast, we began a planned high mileage day.  We totaled over 550 miles, but at the expense of having the worst Chinese food ever, our boat backed into a ditch, no camping spaces, and an eventual surrender to the day by sleeping at a rest stop.  You win some, you lose some.

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Yuck.  Not advised when in Chetwynd, BC.

Cooking: The Post-Project

Cooking, for me, is one domain that has managed to move beyond project stage and into the realm of lifestyle.  This is probably true for many people, since after all, there is a fundamental physiological need to eat.  Even so, I remember when cooking was a project: baking cookies as a kid, attempting Eggs Benedict in high school, preparing a $2 lobster that I bought at the Asian farmer’s market under the freeway in college.

My last big cooking project happened two years ago when I came home with Everyday Paleo by Sarah Fragoso.  It didn’t take long before I was sold and, with that, cooking made its final transformation from string-of-projects into lifestyle.  (I don’t want to waste any effort trying to convince anyone to eat the way I eat; either you’re interested or you’re not.  But I think it’s worth mentioning, as an aside, that today, at almost five months pregnant, all of my pre-Paleo clothes fit great, and my husband doesn’t complain about headaches any longer.  Unless he has pizza.  Or beer.)  Again, necessity plays a role.  Food doesn’t come out of a box in my kitchen, which means if I want to eat, I generally have to turn on the stove or take out a knife.  Fortunately, I really like to cook.  I’m certainly not a chef, but I can follow a recipe and get creative with flavors on my own.

Even though cooking as a whole is part of my day to day living, I can still make sub-projects out of it.  I’m expecting, and hoping, that Alaska will present a host of new culinary experiences.  On the wishlist is an afternoon spent skiing under the Northern Lights, then coming home to grill up a pile of moose hamburgers and enjoying salmon sashimi with a side of wild-picked blackberries after a day on the river.  I know there are much more exotic and daring cooking opportunities awaiting me, much like that lobster from under the freeway.

Currently, my cooking looks as follows:

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Lamb Burgers with Cucumber & Mint Yogurt Sauce

Bacon and Brussels Sprouts with Mustard Dressing

Watermelon

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Chicken Liver Paté

I’ll admit, I considered this a project.  It turned out pretty well, seeing as I have developed no taste for liver.  I used the recipe from Balanced Bites and ate it on sliced cucumber, bell peppers, and grass-fed cheese.

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Orange Salmon on White Rice – I tweaked the recipe found at The CrossFit Way by adding more orange juice to make it saucier.

Green Beans with Cashews

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Dry Rubbed, Slow Cooked Pork Ribs

Homemade BBQ Sauce – I used Sarah Fragoso’s recipe in Everyday Paleo Family Cookbook.

Steamed Broccoli and Cauliflower with Grass-Fed Butter

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Veggie, Sausage, and Egg Stack

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Grilled Turkey Burgers with Mustard on Coleslaw (cabbage, carrot, celery, apple, pecan, cucumber, red bell pepper, and dressed with homemade mayo whisked with apple juice)

 

Alaskan Idealism

I love a good project. I love to learn what tools, skills, and materials I need to start and finish the project, be it making, building, or learning something new.  I love to marvel at how my life will be improved upon completion of the project.  

 “I’ll never have to buy eggs again after I build a chicken coop!”

 “My feet will always be warm after I knit this sock pattern!”

 “My life will be complete when I learn to churn my own butter!”

 The only problem lies in the disconnect between the idea of the project and the actual completion of the project, which is best expressed by this illustration from Dirk’s Big Bunny Blog:

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Most of my projects live out their lives in the realm of my perpetual thought bubble.  Fortunately, I know this situation is not hopeless.  I have many projects that have come to fruition over the years, it’s just that my ratio of planned to completed is not very good.  Alaska, though, seems like the perfect venue for improving that ratio and honing my follow-thru skills.  I expect that exceptionally well developed DIY skills could be quite the boon in Alaska.  Hungry?  Go catch a fish.  Chilly?  Knit up some mittens.  Bored?  Play some guitar, make some soap, or put a new addition on the house.

 In true “me” style, I already have quite the list of Alaska projects living and thriving in my thought bubble.  

 Knitting

Knitting is one area where I’ve, at least, already acquired some essential skills.  At several points, I’ve even sold some of my projects.  Most of my knitting has consisted of small projects, mainly hats and beanies.  I’m particularly proud of an almost-finished sweater.  I followed the Central Park Hoodie pattern, and used the exact yarn from the model photo because I loved it so much.  The only hang-up with this sweater is that I started it back in March…of 2010.  I’m now publicly committing to completing it before crossing the border into Alaska.

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So close. 

It appears that other knitters have been able to finish the same sweater in a few weeks to a month.  I’m hoping the finished product will give me the confidence and drive to start having my knitting turn over as quickly.  I’ve been on Ravelry an unhealthy amount of time lately, and my knitting queue now has 20 different projects, including more sweaters, a few baby things, and couple choices for my holy grail of knitting projects: a man sweater that will actually be worn.  If long Alaskan winter nights are any assistance to my knitting ambitions, churning out one per month seems reasonable, and gives me almost two years of happily busy fingers.  My current rate of 3+ years per item puts me knitting into the grave.  The former option sounds much more pleasant.

 Playing Guitar

I’ve ambitiously owned a guitar, an antique that belonged to my grandmother, for 13 years.  Once I was able to recognizably strum out the first few bars of “Under the Bridge”, but that’s about it.  The aforementioned Alaskan winter nights, ideally, will prompt a quicker ascent on my learning curve, particularly since we’ve decided to not turn on cable.   

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Decorative wallhanging no more.

General Homesteading

Even though we’re, truth be told, probably going to be living in the ‘burbs, I still can’t shake the image of Alaskan frontier living.  Canning, soap making, eating seasonally, tending chickens and pigs, milking my own goat, and ample hunting and fishing to stock the freezer are all fairly essential elements to my Alaskan dream.  My experience in those areas ranges from “Some” to “Zero”, but I’m working on it bit by bit.  Yesterday I whipped up a fabulous batch of mayo, and Sunday I’m planning on butchering a chicken.  I make no prediction on the outcome of the chicken; it might walk away unscathed.  However, I do feel it’s a certain rite of passage in omnivore-hood.  I’m hoping that certain conditions in Alaska will make my homesteading plans morph from whimsy to mandatory.  If tomatoes in January cost $12 a pound, all the better.

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 Dinner.

Running

One of my most pivotal ideas that became victimized by project-block was running a marathon.  I had at least three false starts, where I picked a race, started a training plan, and then completely derailed after a couple weeks.  I can’t pinpoint the cause of those failures, because I was indeed finally successful in running 26.2 miles when I raced in a 50k, which is over 30 miles.  After that, I ran a marathon a few months later “just for fun”.

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I suppose the ideal running conditions that come with living in San Diego at the time had plenty to do with it, as well as being a bit older, somewhat more disciplined, and having actual responsibilities that were a pleasure to get away from for just a little while.  Regardless, running long is in me now, but I know year-round living in Alaska will certainly present some challenges.  I will likely have to invest in both a treadmill (the horror!) and these beauties to keep up with 50k’s, move on to 50 milers, 100k’s, and beyond, in what promises to be the most amazing terrain and trails I can imagine. 

 Last Thoughts on Thought Bubbles

I realize that my particular situation in Alaska will not mandate that I actually complete any of these.  I’m certainly not, in the near future, going to starve without a self-caught and filleted salmon, or freeze without a homemade quilt.  But Alaskan living adds a certain quality to self-sufficiency.  Day to day responsibilities, having a job, taking care of a family, and not a small sprinkling of flat out procrastination have made the back burners of my life much more crowded than the front.  The time is now to address all of those pots, add seasoning, and bring them to a boil.

Dirty Socks

John is already gone, but that’s how we do things.  For our first major move, over 5 years ago, we were able to go together and at the same time.  But at that time, I had just finished student teaching and just finished almost dying of pneumonia, so I didn’t really have a schedule to keep.  Ever since then, I’ve been working as a teacher, so I have maintained a pretty definite work season.  John, as a landscaper, has had a less defined, but certainly prime, work season.  When you apply the field of landscaping to the backdrop of Alaska, some definition starts to take shape. 

 All of that adds up to our moving ability being not quite aligned.  From Reno to San Diego, John left over three months ahead of me.  From San Diego to Yreka, he stayed behind to finish his season and I moved to start mine.  There was almost a two month gap.  For this move, he’ll have been soaking up 20+ hours of daylight for only six weeks before we make the final push to get our life northward.

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John’s advanced view.

Our lag time in starting our Alaskan life together presents some problems, because moving to Alaska presents some problems.  Primarily, John took three bags with him when he left in May, which leaves me to pack up the rest of the house.  I am not the person you want to leave behind to pack up the house.  Secondly, we have one shot to get what we need north.  There were several trips involved when we transitioned to Yreka.  To Anchorage, there will be one, and one only.  So prepping must be planned, pointed, and succinct.  I am also not particularly good at planned, pointed, and succinct.  

Fortunately, I recently heard a talk that gave me a very useful lens for viewing my current situation and task.  The speaker was talking about dirty socks.  Imagine that you somehow got it in your head that dirty socks, as in nasty, sweaty, stinky, post-workout socks, were extremely valuable.  More valuable than gold.  You would roam around collecting socks, in all their reeking putrescence, until you had a bag so large and cumbersome, you couldn’t hold anything else.  This would continue, until something caused you to enter a moment of clarity where you saw your treasure for what it really was: just dirty socks.  My goal now is to shed my dirty socks.  Old magazines?  Dirty socks.  Easily replaceable furniture?  Dirty socks.  Clothes I haven’t worn in years?  Dirty socks.  Cheap knick-knacks, chipped dishes, old bottle of face cream?  Dirty socks.

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Bad dirty socks.

Ultimately, it all must go.  Whether sold, given away, or trashed, we’ll be down to bare essentials.  I’ll admit, I already cheated a little.  I packed up a couple, well, several, boxes of books to store at my dad’s house.  Actually, it was nine boxes.  I suppose I haven’t completely given up my addiction to dirty socks.  Or maybe it’s just an imperfect analogy.  I realized that one thing that is not a dirty sock for me is…well…my dirty socks.  I do love my Injinjis.  They are all coming.

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Good dirty socks.

John sent me confirmation yesterday that he’ll be flying back to the lower 48 on July 1st.  That gives me a little over two weeks to purge over eight years of accumulation, then neatly assemble what remains.  At that point, we’ll begin our long caravan, with him towing our trailer, and me pulling our recently traded-for boat (which has been confirmed several times over as an essential item for AK).  The drive will not be brief, but it’s expected to be our most epic camping trip to date.  And, with my eye focused on our dirty socks, it should be a pretty light load.  

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The Prelude

Call it what you like.  Wanderlust.  Grass-is-always-greener syndrome.  Unrelenting sense of adventure.  Pie-in-the-sky expectations.  Commitment-phobic.  Optimistic.  

We don’t go on many vacations, but we make up for it by moving.  In over eight years, we’ve spent a full two years in the same house exactly…well…never.  In our record holding shortest stay, we were in at Halloween and out at Christmas.  But that place had some serious issues.  It wasn’t just us.  Really.  But our habits are still revealing.  This will be our third lease in a row where we cut out early.  Even a year is too confining.

There is always something a little sad about leaving any place.  At this Northern California house, I was finally able to have a mini-farm: a few chickens and a couple pigs.  Family lived close, rent was cheap, there was no traffic.

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Memories of San Diego from our previous stopover have been a particular challenge to shake from my psyche.  It’s hard to argue with amazing and beautiful year-round weather.  Warm stretches of beach, beautiful deserts, and wild mountains, all within an easy drive, have never drummed up complaints that I’ve heard.

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And there’s Reno.  Well, there’s not much I miss about Reno.  There was extreme hot, extreme cold, and extreme wind.  It’s close to Tahoe, but I didn’t ski once while we were there.  Not one time.

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But the sadness of leaving behind is always the minor emotion compared to the excitement, anticipation, and suspense of what’s to come.  And our current what’s-to-come carries a particular weight that no other destination can dare compare with. 

Alaska.

A name alone that hangs heavy with dreams, images, and emotions.  The mere mention evokes thoughts of mystery in a land that is both ancient and new, but also wild and unsettled.  Among those thoughts there is, undoubtably, unrealistic romanticism.  But even unrealized ideals house the possibility of exceeding the expectations. 

Alaska really needs no introduction.  Every other show on the Discovery Channel is about it.  People are curious.  They want to know more.  To see it.  To feel it.  To be part of it.  It is far enough away to exude the foreign appeal, but close enough to be realistic, if not practical.  But still, only some actually go.  Is it the distance?  Anxiety about the unknown?  The majority of general responses to our decision has been resounding and enthusiastic support.  Maybe most people, for themselves, come to settle on the conclusion, “But why?”  

I doubt that our foray north will fizzle, as our other forays have, into just another broken lease and a few loose ends left untied.  This time it’s different.  This time it’s special.  Because this time, we don’t have a practical list of answers to the question, “But why?”  We just have absolutely no answer to the question, “Why not?”

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