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Not For Nothing

March 30, 2017

Moose in the Driveway | Out West Somewhere

The temperature rose to 31 degrees today. Tomorrow is supposed to be ten degrees warmer — the first day of temps above freezing since sometime in February. Would you be surprised to know I was disappointed when I heard the temperature was going to jump up? I did feel that way, but that was about a week ago, before I got the flu.

Now, after five full days lying in bed staring at the spruce-wood ceiling and another day wobbling around town to get myself a shower and some groceries, I say bring on the spring. I do know there are things I’ve experienced because I got sick that I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. For example, you’d be impressed by how many different shapes a mind can pull out of the grain and knotholes of some smooth-planed spruce boards. Assisted by a slight fever, I found the full cast of Hey, Diddle, Diddle living in the ceiling, including the cow, the moon, the dish and the spoon. But mostly I found every imaginable shape of squid. Whatever kind of spruce this is, the grain leans decidedly toward squid with knots for eyes.

When I felt well enough to be upright, I discovered the pleasure of sitting quietly in the rocking chair very early in the morning, watching the light layer itself through a long sunrise — violet, then blue, then blushing before the sun bleaches the sky with streaks of bright and gray. Far across the field and beyond the trees, the lights of the city string a slender line from east to west. They fade with the sky as the sun comes up.

Two Moose in the Driveway | Out West Somewhere

Sick or not, confined or not, I’ve experienced something wholly new almost every day I’ve been here — and there’s been wonder in all of it. But then someone texts me from home and says, “It’s going to be 80 degrees here this weekend.” Stewart sends a photo of my apple tree wearing pink blossoms and new green leaves. And I have to say I’m okay with the idea of pulling myself together and heading south again next week.

During the worst of the flu, I started to feel I had failed at whatever I came here for. So many good intentions and there I was staring at the ceiling, feverish and blank. Then I had to ask how I could fail at something when I didn’t have a goal in the first place. Wasn’t the idea simply to be here because I wanted to experience Fairbanks in winter? Mostly that, yes, but when I looked more closely I found something else in all that squid.

I have perhaps wanted this time to build a bridge across a rut at home: I recently gave up a kind of work I’ve been doing for a very long time and, frankly, I have no idea what’s best for me to do next. I may have been hoping all this changed scenery would shift the scrim in my brain enough to reveal an answer.

Painting of Moose | Out West Somewhere

But I still don’t know.

I recently heard someone mention a woman who has a job searching the heavens all day for asteroids. That’s a job I never thought of. I’m not qualified for asteroids, but it made me wonder what I might not be thinking of that I could do.

Also, I remember that once when we were talking about relationships my Aunt Joy said to me, “You know, you can’t try on every shoe in the store.” She was trying to tell me to pick a good person and get on with it. But I wondered, isn’t that what the shoe store is for? I tried on pretty much every kind of relationship shoe that looked interesting, including ridiculous styles in which I could not possibly walk, for years and years until my life slipped into a shape I could wear for a thousand miles.

Why should it be any different when it comes to finding the right kind of work? I assume I’ll keep trying stuff on until I find what fits — or I’ll keep learning more about what doesn’t. Meanwhile, there are three moose standing in the driveway, which is another thing I’ve never seen before. That’s not nothing.




The West Gets Wilder

March 27, 2017

Stop Sign | Out West Somewhere
When you think of all the things you might go to a public library to get — “shot” should not be on the list. Which is why I didn’t even stand up when a loud bang echoed through the Fairbanks public library last Wednesday afternoon. I did jump in my seat. I did look up from my work. When I did that, I saw a small group of people hustling past. A young man was holding his right forearm bloodied in front of his body, cradling it with his left hand. I heard chatter that an electrical charger had exploded. It took a while for folks to figure out that a bullet had passed through his arm.

Here’s how the Alaska Dispatch News put it:

The Fairbanks Police Department responded to the Noel Wien Public Library at about 1:15 p.m. Wednesday to aid a man who reportedly had been hurt “when a cellphone charger plugged into an outlet exploded,” according to a release from the City of Fairbanks.

Firefighters requested help from police after realizing the victim’s injuries were caused by a bullet, the release says.

A preliminary investigation by a responding officer found the man was seated at a table working on his laptop. “He was struck by a bullet which ricocheted off a wall and access panel before entering and exiting his right forearm,” police said.

The officer recovered the bullet at the scene. No other people were injured.

Where the bullet came from remains a mystery. Officials said no gun was seen nor were there any reports of disputes between the victim and anyone in the library.

Because there were a couple of library stacks between the commotion and me, I didn’t see anything but the injured man passing and then some people walking back and forth to investigate, talking about the exploding electrical panel. In fact, I didn’t learn what really happened until Stewart sent me a link to this article, knowing that I’ve been going to the library to work. I had to tell him I was sitting about twenty feet away when the guy got shot.

I’m shocked by my oblivion. I had my heart set on finishing a project that afternoon and when I’m working on a deadline, even self-imposed, my focus narrows to an obsessively fine point. The shot rang out and I simply moved to the “quiet room,” so I could go on working. It’s clear that this incident was a one-off accident and it was obvious I wasn’t needed to help — but I always assumed that if I were in a public place when shots were fired, I would at least notice. 

It probably won’t surprise you to know that Alaska’s gun laws are some of the most lenient in the nation. Alaska state law allows most people 21 or older to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. There are exceptions, of course, like you can’t bring a gun into a K-12 school without explicit permission. But according to current policies, you can go right ahead pack heat at the public library, and that seems to agree with the law in a majority of states.

I’m not against guns in all circumstances (Stewart and I keep a rifle at the cabin for self-defense) but this seems crazy. Who needs to bring a gun to the library? That bullet could easily have passed through that young man’s head — or mine, bent over my laptop working on a friend’s website on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon. Poof. What will it take before we can go to school or to the store or to the movies or to worship or to the public library without worrying we might catch a bullet for it?

Photos Tracks


March 23, 2017

Squirrel Tracks in Snow | Out West Somewhere


If the field in front of the cabin is my quilt and the spruce trees are the pins, then the squirrel draws the needle, leaving stitches in the snow. After the delicate embroidery work of birds, the tree-to-tree tracks of the red squirrel were the first I noticed.

It would be difficult to ignore the squirrels. They dart down tree trunks and jerk their furry heads at me, complaining in my face for walking into their territory. They fling themselves in front of the truck at the last possible moment, bolting across the road in a maneuver perfectly timed to spook me without, yet, killing anybody.

They like to fight and they like to play. The other day I saw one launch itself from the branch of a birch tree maybe fifteen feet off the ground, catching air like a platform diver before dropping into the snow and fastening its paws again to the world.

Four on the floor, here’s a full squirrel print along with tracks from Orrie and me . . .

Squirrel Print in Snow | Out West Somewhere

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Fox Tracks in Snow | Out West Somewhere


Stewart and I got married in Fairbanks on a rainy afternoon in August 2014. The ceremony was three-minutes long, officiated in Linda and John’s garden gazebo where John read some notes we’d written on a yellow pad in an airport bar the day before. Five people were present: Linda, John, Teri, Stewart and me. Stewart and I kissed over a bouquet of flowers and kale plucked from Linda’s garden. We wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

After lunch we drove north and turned right at a tiny town called Fox, climbing the long hill to Cleary Summit and the old musher’s cabin at the Mount Aurora Lodge. My strongest memory of that place is the two of us walking out into a misty twilight, grazing wild blueberries on a low, rough ridge, then looking up to see a pair of red foxes quietly gazing at us. They were surprisingly close and completely at ease. When I think of those foxes now, I feel them turning slowly around themselves in my heart, settling down to rest in the soft, shadowed place where they live, noses tucked under their white-tipped tails.

Stewart was here with me last weekend. This trip pivots around his visit: two weeks gone, two more to go. It was wonderful to be with him for those few days at the center of things. One early morning we walked into the field and saw along the little ridge so many fox tracks leading to a den covered in snow.

Life continues to stitch itself together in ways I would never expect.

Fox Den in Snow | Out West Somewhere

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Moose Track in Snow | Out West Somewhere


The moose moves through the snow like a knob-kneed plow. Those twin-deep furrows are everywhere around the cabin, but I had no idea what I was looking at. Then one day I was walking in the early morning down the little outhouse path when I noticed a new track — a familiar one — next to my own. I’ve seen the prints of moose in mud and soft soil all around our cabin in the deep Interior; they look the same in snow. Now I followed the prints one by one until I came to the edge of the path where the snow banked up, and there began those two deep clefts.

So that’s what a moose track looks like! And this one wasn’t there an hour ago. With great excitement, I followed the fresh track with my eyes. If I got lucky I might see where the moose had disappeared into the trees. Instead, after tracing the path perhaps twenty feet, I found myself looking at the hulk of the moose herself, sitting in snow up to her shoulders, placidly working her enormous jaw over a dead clump of last year’s leaves.

Why is it that sometimes it takes us the longest to see the largest thing in the landscape? Or that an unbudgeable truth that’s been there a while all at once makes us fall off the outhouse steps? Even a smaller truth, like the young moose in the photo below. It will stand there so patiently in spring or in snow. It will look right at you: You there. Yes, you. You know what’s right for you to do.

Young Moose in Snow | Out West Somewhere

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Moon Over Fairbanks | Out West Somewhere


It made a strong impression, dropping full and centered in the cabin’s eastern window before vanishing into a dark tangle of trees. Impossible to follow yet still I wanted to run after it yelling out my wildest thoughts, imagining I might catch up.

A week later, on the morning of my birthday, it was a fat quarter moving far across the field — flatfooted, beginning to lose its balance. As am I, perhaps, starting to lean away from the center. Fifty-one feels like that. Another year’s sliver gone from my portion of life and I turn ever so slightly more toward night.

This morning it skirts the field again, a brilliant hoof-edge slipping through birch trees in the thin blue light of dawn. I stand happily at the window, fingertips on the ice-cold pane, gasping toward the beauty as it goes.


Oreamnos Americanus

March 14, 2017

Oreamnos Gets Towed | Out West Somewhere

I had a little trouble on day two. That snowy morning, the truck wouldn’t start. No reason to panic, but all plans went out the window as I shifted into diagnostic mode.

If (like me) you don’t know much about cold weather but have visited a deep-freezing climate, you probably noticed electrical plugs hanging like snaky tongues from the closed mouths of cars and trucks. Those are for plugging in an engine block heater on extremely cold days. They always seemed mysterious to me, but they’re not. The heater is installed in the vehicle and you connect it one hour for every increment of ten degrees starting at about ten degrees. If the outside temperature is zero, you plug in for an hour, if it’s minus ten you let it warm for two hours, minus twenty for three hours, and so on. I’d plugged in the truck for at least three hours that morning.

Truck Plugged In | Out West Somewhere

When I texted Charlie to confirm that the outlet for the plug was working properly, he and his dog Ila (who deserves a post of her own) almost magically appeared in the driveway, bearing multiple options for jump starting the truck. The short version is it took a long, cold while to get it going — and by the time we did, a whole community (Teri, me, Charlie, Linda, John) had decided I should drive straight to Sears to get a new battery.

Ila concurred.

Ila in the Snow | Out West Somewhere

Now, what I discovered on the way to Sears is that the truck also needed new tires. The tires were solid all-weather Michelins with excellent tread, but they were thirteen years old. After nearly sliding off the road (twice) and arriving bug-eyed and knuckle-clutched in the Sears parking lot, I learned that tire rubber deteriorates over time. It hardens and can lead to skidding on snow and ice.

More texts . . .

Linda: The roads are slick with the new snow.

Me: No shit.

A Sunny Afternoon in Fairbanks | Out West Somewhere

I offer high praise to whatever part of the brain stores decades-old drivers’ education lessons: stay off the brake and steer in the direction of the skid. My body seemed to know what to do. Also, I had been driving slowly and making an effort to keep a lot of space around me, these things being the functional equivalent of hanging a sign on the back of the truck saying “I’m from California and I don’t know what I’m doing.” John said, though, that it was a slippery day for locals, too. On a one-to-ten scale of slippery, he said it was an eight for everyone.

I’m so grateful I didn’t slide off the road, or into another driver, or into oncoming traffic. I also fell down twice that day, and I feel lucky I didn’t hurt myself then, either. I learned a lot from all this, but my whole body is sore and my nervous system is still recovering.

And wouldn’t you hope a brand new battery and four new tires would be the end of it? It wasn’t, quite. The next day I turned the key in the ignition and . . . click. Nothing happened. The short version of this part of the story is: many more phone calls, a couple visits from Charlie that included banging on the starter with a stick, a tow truck (thank you AAA for working everywhere), another trip to see the kind guys at Sears, and a new alternator and starter.

Putting Orrie on the Tow Truck | Out West Somewhere

In a few hours I’ll go out and try to start the truck again. Please hold a good thought.

When I asked, Teri told me the truck’s name is Oreamnos. I looked it up and found that’s short for Oreamnos americanus, the mountain goat. (So many scientists in Fairbanks!) I asked Teri if it’s okay for me to call the truck “Orrie” for short and she said sure, it’s friendlier.

You do have to be goat-like around here—determined, resourceful, equipped for extreme weather. But kindness also goes a long way. It seems like everyone I know and everyone I meet is willing to lend a hand.

As Charlie said, “That’s what we do around here at this time of year. We fix stuff and help each other out.”



March 10, 2017

Picture Window | Out West Somewhere

I learned a new word yesterday. A “stenotherm” is a living organism capable of tolerating only a narrow temperature range. The opposite is a eurytherm, a life form that welcomes more adventurous temperatures. My friend Teri, who spent many years researching the physiology of temperature regulation, explained the difference yesterday during a conversation about saunas.

I don’t like saunas, which are a winter mainstay for many Alaskans. Saunas are too damned hot. (That saves me from even considering the story I heard about an unfortunate soul who attended a sauna event and ended up with the superbug MRSA on his netherparts.) And you already knew I wasn’t feeling keen on below-zero temperatures. That’s too freaking cold. I felt sure that as soon as I got here, I would be the Goldilocks of temperature regulation — the most annoying kind of stenotherm imaginable.

Birch and Spruce in Snow | Out West Somewhere

Here’s my friend Linda reassuring me in a series of texts the night before I left:

Me: Is there anything I should know about walking out of the airport into -28 degree temps? I mean, my face won’t just freeze and fall off, right? I’ll have my big coat, good boots, hat and gloves where I can easily get them after I get off the plane.

Linda: No, not at all. We’ll be right outside. Plus, wait until you see how people dress! Tennis shoes, light coats, no hats! Their cars are warm inside. It’s okay as long as they carry cold weather gear.

Me: I feel better now. I really have been freaking out about the cold.

Linda: You’re gonna laugh when you get here — people in sandals!

What happened is that it was 28 degrees below zero and I did see someone in the airport wearing sandals. Also, Linda told me there was a guy just outside the airport wearing shorts. That did make me feel better, though it also made me think those people were stupid. Linda was sensibly dressed in a heavy jacket, pants, and appropriate footwear. I jammed my hat on my head and went outside wearing my clothes from the plane, without digging out my big parka or even putting on my gloves. None of my parts fell off during the 30-second walk to the car. I was fine.

I was also fine the next morning when I opened my eyes under a pile of extra blankets at Linda and John’s house and asked Siri, “What’s the temperature?” He said, “Brrrr. It’s minus 34 degrees outside.” (That’s what Siri says when it’s when it’s cold: Brrrr.)

Winter Birch at Sunrise | Out West Somewhere

Linda and John took me to Teri’s to pick up the truck. (Don’t worry, I won’t tell you every single thing I did yesterday.) While there, I pulled some stuff out of Teri’s barn that Stewart and I store there. Other than a good smack to the forehead from a low door frame I didn’t see coming, everything went smoothly. Look at me, taking care of business at twenty below! At one point during the day, I touched base with Stewart (in Hawaii!) and said, “It’s just like being here in the summer but with more clothes.”

We’ll see about that.

Fairbanks Cabin | Out West Somewhere

I have a real fondness for this cabin so far. Consider the outhouse: Just inside the door of the main cabin, a remote control hangs on a fob. If you press it a few minutes before taking a trip to the outhouse, it starts up a little heater in there, along with the lights. The cabin’s builder and owner, Charlie, is an engineer and he’s working on a heated toilet seat, but he’s having some trouble with the transformer. Still, if you have to use an outhouse in freezing weather, this is the one you want.

Outhouse All Lit Up | Out West Somewhere

When I arrived yesterday, the perfect welcoming committee greeted me: three puffy chickadees. I noticed a small, snow-covered feeder hanging from a nearby spruce tree, empty and looking forlorn. I asked Charlie if I could buy some black sunflower seed and he immediately handed me a large bill and said, get a bigger feeder than that and some seed, too. Feeling bold, I also got permission for suet.

Late in the day, I went for a walk in a field of snow so broad and serene that it reminded me of a pure white quilt square, tacked down at its edges by pins of tall spruce. For those moments, the world was utterly quiet except for the crunch of my boots on snow and the sea-sound of my own breath, warm and close because of the scarf wrapped around my face. (“Brrrr. It’s five degrees outside,” said Siri.)

Birch and Field | Out West Somewhere

Tucking myself into bed last night, I felt myself in miniature, as if I were contained in a small, perfectly made wooden box. Up near the rafters, I could almost hear the satisfying snick of the lid clicking into place, protecting me as the cold night put its arms around the cabin. Then I snugged myself deep into the flannel of darkness and slept.


I Don’t Know What I’m Doing

March 4, 2017
Weather Forecast | Out West Somewhere

Fairbanks Forecast

I know a few things. I have a ticket to fly to Fairbanks, Alaska on Wednesday morning. I plan to be on that flight. My friends plan to pick me up at the airport late that night. The next day, another friend will lend me a truck. At that point, I hope not to slide off the icy roads while driving to the cabin I’ve rented for a month. I know the cabin doesn’t have internet or indoor plumbing — meaning no toilet or shower. I know it’s supposed to have heat and running water in a sink.

I speak of these things somewhat tentatively because last August when I was on my way to Alaska and my father got sick and so quickly left this life, I was reminded of how plans can unravel fast and hard. Plus Donald Trump is president. I’m learning to be ready for anything.

Snow in Fairbanks | Out West Somewhere

People have been sending me photos and articles about all the snow in Fairbanks this year. Here’s my friend Teri’s greenhouse and barn. There’s a 1985 Ford Ranger pickup truck waiting for me under there somewhere.

About what I don’t know: I don’t know anything about living in subzero temperatures. I don’t know if I’m going to handle it or whine for thirty days straight, or what the mix of those two things might be. And I don’t know what I’m doing with this blog. There’s no “About” page yet. I have an idea that it will be about deliberately wandering, whether to Fairbanks or wherever the next train takes me, and what I find along the way.

I wanted to be more certain of this blog’s purpose before I began, but the thing about a blog is that it wants to be about process. It wants to figure out what it is as it unfolds, which can be awkward for someone who likes to be in control. Like my first blog. When I started that one ten years ago I hoped it would be about wandering and wondering — hence the name, Hitchhiking to Heaven — but then it ended up being a place where more than 10,000 people still visit every month to learn about making jam. I had no idea that was going to happen.

Right now, this blog has five subscribers and two of them are me. I thought I needed to have a clear goal before inviting even my friends to be here with me, but that takes all the fun out of it. So I’m grateful all three of you are here. [Update: Now there are thirteen. Thank you!]

To close today, here’s one of the articles I received this week: Expect Deep Snow and Subzero Chill for Fairbanks Start of Iditarod. This is my favorite quote: Bacon, who has a kennel out of Big Lake and ran her first Iditarod last year, said when she checked the Fairbanks forecast for Monday and saw lows of 27 below zero, “I had a little moment of panic.” 

I felt the same way and all I’m doing is driving a truck across town.