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Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Well, you quite possibly know that your family is partially screwed up when your aunt attempts to visit you and is not allowed to board the plane due to “aggressive behavior”.

Oh, Aunt Linda. How did this happen? I suppose it isn’t that hard to picture Aunt Linda being aggressive, despite her hippie persona. I haven’t seen her in years, which was the reason for the attempted visit. Encouraged by my hippie phase in my late teens/early twenties, she always felt we understood each other. On Jerry Garcia’s birthday each year, she would bake a “steal your face” cake and snap a picture of it, later emailing it proudly to me. 7 years ago while on a road trip, my brother and I stopped by her apartment in Florida to pay her a visit. Aunt Linda and I drank one of those double- size bottles of red wine while my poor brother looked on helplessly. But even then she had a sense of wavering fragility, as if something wrong could occur at any minute.

And things did go wrong at any minute for her. Over the years it would seem that her life was peppered with melodramatic family mishaps. A traumatic divorce. Both of her sons did time in jail for strange things that were of course never their fault.Her oldest daughter became a female bodybuilder. I am not even sure how that relates to anything and certainly doesn’t fall into the melodramatic family mishap category, but I thought I would make mention of that fact to present a picture of just how strange things really are down there in Florida.

I arrived home from work on the night she was due to arrive in Oregon and checked my email. On my facebook page there was 1 new message, and it was from Aunt Linda. The subject: Plane. The text described an interesting situation where apparently she was not allowed to board the plane due to being “too aggressive”, as well as her claim that she did nothing out of the ordinary. Had a couple glasses of wine before the flight.

My emotions vacillated between sympathy (how dare they!), anger (who is going to pay for those hotel rooms my mom bought her in Portland!?!), and morbid curiosity (wow I wonder what actually happened? can’t you just picture some kind of scene?). But after lengthy discussions with the relatively emotionally sane members of my family, I have determined that perhaps the airline did us a favor by pre-screening my aunt for me. The bottom line is, if a 62 year old woman is denied boarding due to aggressive behavior, and she can’t even get her shit together for 5 minutes to get on an aircraft, that week long visit here in Oregon might not have been terribly enjoyable.

And we never did find out what happened. The airline would only tell us there had been an “incident report”. My morbid curiosity hasn’t gone away, but I may never find out. We’ll save that one to the imagination, I suppose.

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Liquor Stores and Dead Rabbits

My co-worker and I pulled into the roadside liquor store along the side of the Richardson Highway, Milepost 183, outside of Glennallen, Alaska.

“Oh my fucking god, what does that dog have?” he exclaimed. I cast a glance sideways at the black lab in the gravel parking lot. It was carrying around something. Oh, just a leg of something. Something’s leg. It was awfully stiff already, it looked old, but was severed off of whatever it was it came from. Oh, a rabbit. It just looked bigger, because the damn thing was all stretched out in rigamortis.

We went into the store, a little hole-in-the-wall kind of place. Outside, the siding was plastered with posters of bikini clad women posing with beer, seductively. From the looks of it, you’d think they were selling women instead of liquor. I mean, if I came over from Japan with no English and no idea what was going on, I just might think I could obtain a hooker beyond that door threshold. With that kind of advertising, the heavyset, sixty-ish, toothless wonder behind the counter was a bit of a contrast. An additional shocking contrast came from the fact that the women on the outside of the building were bikini clad, whereas the current climate conditions in Glennallen, Alaska in mid-July where pouring down rain and a balmy 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Your dog’s got a leg in it’s mouth.” I decide to inform her, as we set our $15.99 12 pack of Miller Lite on the counter. She grinned wildly.

“Oh, she’s just been such a puppy since the knee surgery!” she exclaimed, showing me her toothless grin again. At this point, as she punches in the $15.99 into the cash register, I snap into some mode of mine where I feel like making small talk. I don’t know why it happens, perhaps to flex my muscle of sociability, perhaps to glean some small bit of information that amuses me, perhaps to make some sort of connection with another human being that spans cultural separation, perhaps to make me more accessible and less of a random nameless Miller Lite drinker in a remote corner of a forgotten place.

“Wow, knee surgery!” this new mode of me makes me exclaim.

“Yes! She had the first knee done six weeks ago, and the other knee is getting done on Tuesday. It’s changed everything. You know, they always tell you with these old dogs that it’s the hips, but don’t believe them. That’s right, don’t believe them. It could be the knees.”

“How old is she?” I remark. The new mode of me is running strong, but I have to admit, the heart strings are tugged a bit. I have an old mutt too. She’s at home, I am currently missing her a bit, and my boyfriend had just called to say she hadn’t felt like eating that day.

“Oh, she’s just 10. Cost a fortune, it did, but it’s darn well worth it. $1300 a knee, can you just believe it. Had I gone to Anchorage, it woulda been seven grand!”

The heart strings are no longer tugged. Instead, as I fork over a crumpled twenty dollar bill in order to procure my Miller Lite, I am attempting to grasp forking over 2600 dollars on knee surgery for a ten year old dog. And, if I may be so bold, this proprietress of a run down liquor store on Milepost 183 looks as if she could’ve used the money in other places. Still, I can’t shut down the new mode once it’s started, at least for ten minutes.

“Oh, I totally understand,” I lie. “I have a 12 year old mutt.” While I do have a 12 year old mutt, I don’t comprehend the knee surgery part. She grins again as my change is dealt to me.

“Ha! If it was my son, I’d probably just shoot ’em! Ha!” she snorts. The new mode of me laughs, but is wavering on being the real me now. I can’t tell. Could the new mode and the real me be one and the same in this instant?

“I hear ya!” I yell, as I head out of the store, Miller Lite protectively under my arm. The black lab saunters across the parking lot, stiff old rabbit leg extended haphazardly. Because I have an old mutt, I know that the dog wants me to see that she has a leg. She wants me to want the leg too, but I can’t have the leg, because it’s her leg. I know this, so I make a few faltering moves towards the leg, and her tail wags faintly as she trots off on her new knee.

Today is Tuesday, and for some insane reason I am stuck in my cabin, wondering how the old knee surgery went. Both the new mode and the real me are wondering together, as in I am wondering.

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A sea of willows and creeps

I sit here in my Anchorage hotel and there is a dreary gray light outside. It comes with the persistent daylight that is here this time of year: that twilight that never goes away. On a cloudy day like today, there is no telling what time of day it is at any time during a 24 hour period. On our drive into the city shady characters lurched about the sidewalks: an old man hanging up a banner at a park with a cigarette dangling from his crusty lips, pre-teens with bad acne and even worse mullets amused themselves by balancing on a guard rail, an overweight man in a too-small filthy wife beater pedaled a recumbent bike towing a child trailer full of trash. I don’t know if it is because I drank too much last night or what, but this place began to creep me out. I have retreated to my hotel room and am now eyeing the outside world somewhat skeptically from the comfort of my queen size bed.

Aahh. My own queen size bed. This is a luxury that I have not had in the two weeks since I have been “deployed” up her for work. Much to my great astonishment, the project manager crammed 6-8 people in 2 very small RVs for the duration of the time. It didn’t take long for the RVs to become pits of despair and misery. Existing in there became a challenge as people attempted to put their hang ups aside and try to live and work in the same 150 square foot space. My bed was also a couch of sorts, and I had to wait for everyone to go to bed so I could fold it out and roll out my sleeping bag, situating myself between the crease and the seltbelts which dug into my back in all the wrong places. I was also a good five inches too tall for the bed, and my feet dangled uncomfortably over the edge.

During the days it was easy to forget the cramped quarters. We hiked through unforgettable terrain mapping wetlands and identifying plants, with sweeping views of phenomenal mountain ranges, glaciers, and the subarctic tundra. I stomped about on 6 squishy inches of peat moss atop permafrost, surrounded by plants that were occupied with ekking out an existence in this relentless climate. I got used to my shovel hitting frozen soils again and again as I searched out soil profiles. I blazed trails through seas of willows, imaging that I could be the only human to have ever taken that particular route across the slope. All the while I let my voice ring out every few minutes in a hope to avoid any “wildlife interactions”. I was gripped by an anomaly- an intense desire to glimpse something exciting coupled by the intense aversion to encountering wildlife. There were days when we heard wolves howling, stumbled upon old carcass after old carcass, and the bear sign got thicker and thicker with each step, and I felt pursued and frightened, yet exhilarated. I know I was being watched time and time again as I bushwhacked around the forest and tundra, and I wonder now how many bears lay silently, watching me go by like a clown in a bright orange vest, hooting and hollering and thrashing around.

Then it would be back to the too-small trailer, where I mediated my space threshold with generous helpings of beer and wine as I jockeyed for a space to process my data. Fall asleep mildly drunk, wake up thirsty and groggy in the tiny trailer, and jockey to get over to the coffee machine and then jockey again for a private place to change back into my field gear. I’m glad it’s all over, and tomorrow I leave this place of conflicting emotions and rugged landscapes for something a little more navigable.

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Arrived in the North Country

I was delivered to Anchorage this afternoon without enthusiasm. The baggage claim felt oddly familiar, with people’s coolers and cardboard boxes wrapped in duct tape and army style duffles and rubber kayak bags going around and around and around the conveyer belt. The men around me were unvariably dressed in T shirts from their favorite brewery clasping around their beer guts, rugged looking khakis, and Keen shoes. They talked about shotgun shells and whiskey, and lurched in to grab onto their luggage when it came by with quick, jerky, aggressive movements that entered into my personal space.

It feels so bright here. I don’t get it, how could it really be that much brighter than Oregon? But the northern climes with the neverending daylight almost seem brighter. There is this eerie feeling that overcomes the people as the weather moves from one extreme to the another in a great pendulum swing from dark to light. I longed for my sunglasses during the brief walk we took around the block to an eating establishment. It was our hope that the prices around the block would be cheaper than the upscale hotel we are staying in, and we were indeed rewarded. Our sacrifice? We had to sit in a gleaming brushed aluminum environment with Ace of Base blasting on the loudspeaker as the servers moved around tables to prepare for the evening’s upcoming event- a “model search”.

So 15 nights to go, 0 nights down.

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North to Alaska

I can’t get away from the state of Alaska. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but it has been haunting me for the past three years. Every time I turn around, there it is, with all of it’s gray icy mystique, persistent odor of fish and damp underbrush, drunk leering bearded men, millions of pairs of brown rubber boots strewn in millions of piles, and thousands of partially completed cabins wrapped hastily in Tyvek before the approaching winters.

When I first went up there to work for the summer my head was filled with the classic dreams of wilderness. Alaska. The very thought of it entices some people, and I counted myself among the enticed. I traveled north on the ferry, eagerly attempting to spot wildlife through the rain streaked windows and gray gloom.  I spent ten weeks on Prince of Wales Island, a crummy, desolate place receiving over 130 inches of rain a year and popular amongst Texans who come all the way up there to blast away black bears and presumably hang them on their walls back in Texas. That ten weeks of camping in the rain quickly assassinated the Alaska mystique; in fact I cursed the state as I painstakingly set up big blue tarps over my campsites.

One pretty much needs gills to breathe in Southeast Alaska, and I found this out the hard way as I wiled away portions of three consecutive summers on the saturated forest service roads of islands in the Inside Passage. I was inventorying invasive plant species, and we would drive 0.25 mile, get out of the vehicle in our rustling rain gear, and walk 25 m in either direction as we wrote down every plant we saw. Back in vehicle, and repeat. 3000 times. Along the way we saw bears, moose, millions of Sitka spruce and hemlocks dripping with the weight of the incessant rain, muskeg, insane people residing in incredibly remote communities, totem poles, and the northenmost occurrence of a Douglas Fir (as far as I know).

Every year I come home to Portland, Oregon and kneel down and press my hands thankfully on the sidewalk, grateful for sidewalks and concrete and Tofu Scrambles and traffic lights and sunshine in the summertime and cultivated gardens and affordable apples at the grocery store.

And now I find myself faced with yet another work related trip to Alaska. I depart one week from today for several weeks of field work, looking for rare plants and wetlands along a proposed natural gas pipeline. It is time for me to put aside the thoughts of doom and gloom and gray liquid misery. I must grasp onto the good- the glittery Alaska gems that give people the itchy desire to go there in the first place.

Nobody can argue that Alaska is not beautiful. Come to think of it, I could maybe argue that parts of it are ugly (the rickety canneries, the vomit around every corner when the bars close), but I would be hard pressed to discount the majesty of the glaciers, the wild forests, the great expanse of tundra, the sight of a great turquoise iceberg against a emerald green spruce forest. So there I have it: Alaska is beautiful. It will be a privilege to feast my eyes on such sights.

Nobody can argue that drinking in Alaska is not fun. Particularly in fishing communities, when the men roll in and stupidly squander an entire week’s worth of pay on increasing the drunkenness tenfold of some small speck of a crusty bar, the only place in town. It never gets completely dark in Alaska this time of year: the sun goes down but a murky twilight remains for a few before the sun pops up again. The dark dive bar will be your solace, your escape from the relentless daylight and the endless hours of possible work time. When the bars close, the inebriated patrons spill into the streets, blink in the sunrise, and kick the living shit out of each other. In Alaska bar brawls are alive and well, and since I haven’t been directly involved in one, I enjoy them for the entertainment factor they provide.

No one can argue that Alaska is not tough. In a pansy city full of pansy city boys that wear Carharts to look cool and can’t even change their own oil, it is extremely refreshing to become surrounded by rugged hairy people who are rugged and hairy because they have to be, not because they are Gay Bears or indie rockers that don’t even own a tool box. There is something nice about capable people, and the people in Alaska are remarkably capable.

There I have it, Alaska is beautiful AND provides for some good quality drinking around extremely capable people. I will put aside my Alaska bashing until I return, once again extolling the virtues of sidewalks and incapably hopeless indie rockers.

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