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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.

Photos Trains

Seeing Far

January 9, 2017

Lately I’ve been gifted with the dawning sense of my own small-mindedness. Closed-up views kept in place by fear. Worries that ratchet down the perception of what’s possible for myself and for the world.

I can nearly reach out and touch the greater natural intelligence that opens, infinitely available, when I drop my demands and my tight-fisted plans. Something begins to move then, carrying me beyond the sphere of misperceived limitations.

I’ve been encouraging this growing awareness with daily meditation, both sitting practice and qigong. Certain qigong exercises help soften one’s vision and expand the sense of sight so that seeing becomes more about receiving than gripping with the eyes.

But riding on trains helps, too.

Home, for me, is a place nestled in a furrowed green and gold valley. It’s beautiful, but it lacks a long or changing view. Traveling by train, the view constantly reshapes itself. Life, landscape, every kind of person and thing arises and passes in front of my eyes. I grip and let go, again and again. Then a simple softening, the world easily unfolding; suddenly, through my eyes, that which is nameless is awake and seeing far.