Tag Archives: Anchorage

Anchorage to Chicago: The rest of the journey –

Days 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 I had hoped to blog the entire trip from Anchorage to Chicago, but our time in Missoula was gloriously filled with too much friendship, if such a thing is possible. So I’ll break it all down into one post, we’ll call it Anch to Chi, the Highlights. Day 5 – Plains, Mountains and Borders We left Edmonton early, as everyone was looking forward to a couple days of rest in Missoula. The sun sprang up like a northern flower and showered us in golden warmth all the way to Calgary. The plains can be boring, if you have no imagination or if the sky doesn’t put on a show for you. Today we talked about seeing our friends, about living in Chicago and about the last few days.  After Calgary, the plains gave way to verdant hills that grew into mountains. The trail through the Canadian Rockies is beautiful and perhaps underrated.  The border crossing back into the U.S. was uneventful. A border guard asked if I had any guns. I said no. He looked at me for a long moment and said, “You coming from Alaska and all, I find that hard to believe.” I had no answer for him, and he let us go.

Days 6 and 7 – Missoula, our Mountain Home Our heart is in Missoula. So is our house, for that matter, but it’s the people from our community there that we miss dearly. The three greatest buddies a guy could have were waiting for me with a growler of beer when we finally arrived around 11 p.m. We conversed for a few minutes around a roaring pine-cone fire. As I recovered from more than 2,000 miles of driving through Alaska, the Yukon, B.C. and Alberta, I wanted to sleep, but the thought of missing out on any time with these guys kept me going. Though it was a blur, with kids farmed out across the city and trying to see as many friends as possible, I felt rested when we went to bed on our last night there. Day 8: A Thousand Miles in a Day I woke up motivated to get some miles under my belt. With Missoula in my rear view, Chicago and a new life loomed up over the badlands and all the flat country in between.  We flew across the familiar Montana countryside and gassed up just the other side of Billings. From there on out, everything was unfamiliar. New miles, new states for the kids’ collection. I had wanted to see the site of Custer’s Last Stand, or more appropriately these days, The Battle of Little Big Horn, for many years. When we left Montana in 2010, it was with some regret at not having seen so much of the breathtaking state. So we stopped and scoped out the battlefield in record time, hoping to make up the time with the 75-mph speed limits. Somewhere between the flattest parts of Montana, Wyoming and the South Dakota border, we saw the sky darken like night falling fast. The cold metallic gray filled the horizon all the way to the ground. Lightening struck in the distance, and rain drops plopped on the hood and window of the car like some giant’s tears.  Within a few moments, the skies opened, and a deluge filled the world around us. Traffic on I-90 slowed to a crawl as every driver lost visibility instantly. Cheryl and I scrambled to find the emergency flashers so the semi behind us would notice us before plowing through us. We crawled through the storm at 5 or 10 miles per hour. Eventually the sky lifted a little as the storm bounced off of us before setting down a few miles away and off the interstate. In a few more miles, the roadway was completely dry, evidence of the storm’s whimsical nature. We reluctantly passed by Mount Rushmore and the Badlands National Park, hoping to put ourselves within 8 hours of the windy city by midnight. Day 9: Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois We left our Alaska-chilled hotel room on the border of South Dakota and Minnesota in a sultry morning heat blanket. We opted for air conditioning over gas mileage. Minnesota did not disappoint, the verdant fields were a great relief after the drabness of the western Midwest. Amish country rolled past our windows as if we had gone back in time. Suddenly we were at the banks of the Mississippi River. And even though the last 1,500 miles were in unfamiliar territory, there was something so final about crossing the wide blue boundary marker.  Wisconsin’s eastern border is beautiful country, worthy of coming back to explore someday. But the 101-degree heat and the road ahead kept us on the highway with the air conditioner blasting.  Madison loomed in the distance, but we drove through and lunched on the other side of the city.  The toll roads are the tell-tale sign that you’re nearing Chicago. We scrambled for change and dollar bills as we drove through half-a-dozen collection stations.  The blue dot on my iPhone’s navigation app drew ever closer to Our new home in Palos Heights. Finally we left the freeway and struck out over land, navigating out way through Oak Park, Worth and finally Palos Heights. The neighborhood, shaded as it was by huge oak trees, was as idyllic as one could imagine. Driving through, I could see my kids riding their bikes to their friends’ houses or skateboarding down the quiet streets as neighbors water their lawns. It wasn’t too hard to see this new place as home.  But more on that later. Tim

A Cat-Hating Confession

 

I know it’s strong language, but I hate cats. I have since the first time a mottled Persian scratched my arm, delivering thick, red welts causing me to itch feverishly for an hour.

I hate the way they look at you from across a room, sizing you up and making a judgement about you. Mostly, I hate the fact that they have a physical effect on me. The watery, itchy eyes, the sneezing and poisoned red welts their teeth and claws leave on my skin. 

It has not been all bad relationships. We had a Manx named Bear who lived outside on our property in Salem, Oregon. He was such a fascinating, ghostly cat to watch. He hunted both night and day, his black form like some jungle-embedded character in “The Things They Carried.”

We had another cat named Kiska, and no matter how hard I tried, it was impossible to completely escape her antics. 

But mostly I just hated cats. I never touched them. If I went to visit a friend who had cats, I’d take allergy medication first and avoid their couches and cloth chairs. I’d usually sit awkwardly at the kitchen table, which is some form of cat communication for, “please come sit on my lap, because I’m obviously lonely.” Or, more likely, “Ah, you cat-hating bastard. I’ll just curl up on your lap until you’re so uncomfortable you have to leave.”

The day my daughter discovered she was allergic to dogs was a tragic day. We were in the process of buying a car, and the salesman had two dogs in his office. Gabrielle was immediately drawn to the calmer, friendlier Labrador, and as she touched him, she instantly broke out in hives. 

Cheryl rushed her off to a grocery store to buy some Benadryl, while I negotiated with the confused salesman.

She was despondent. “You mean I can’t touch puppies anymore?” she whined all the way back to Anchorage. 

For several months now, I have told her we’d do an allergy test and find out what kind of pets she might be able to handle. She has made no secret of the fact that she’d like a guinea pig, one of the most allergy-causing pets known to man.

Cats have always been out of the question. As dad, I just won’t suffer the creatures in my house. Gabrielle sometimes talks about getting a cat when she’s grown up, but she’s been mostly content to talk about turtles or guinea pigs in the future. 

Then a couple of weeks ago, this big, English Blue showed up outside our house. He’s a stunning cat. Wide faced with a muscular body and a bluish-grey coat with yellow-green eyes and an overly friendly disposition. 

We laughed as Gabrielle had the time of her life playing with her new friend. For the first week, she refused to touch the cat, even when he rolled in the grass and presented her with his great belly to rub in the sunshine. 

She was terribly afraid that she’d be allergic to her new friend. Then, she touched the cat and she touched her face and her eyes without realizing it, but nothing happened. 

There were no welts or itchy, watery eyes. There was no sneezing. Soon she was holding Oliver, as she calls him. 

And they have spent every day playing in the backyard as spring makes the slow transition to summer here in Anchorage. 

Entering week two, Cheryl and I wondered when the cat would return to its home. After a few more days, we decided to buy a small bag of cat food and a water dish, because it’s the neighborly thing to do, right? 

When I get up for work in the morning, the big blue is there at the back door waiting for me. And when I get home, Gabrielle is smiling at me in the driveway, and Oliver is stretching in the sun or hiding from the wind at the base of the stairs. 

We discussed turning the cat into the animal shelter on the off chance that someone had lost the cat, but this big guy has been fed well, and his disposition leads me to believe he had a decent family caring for him. 

More than likely he was abandoned in our neighborhood. 

My ice-cold resolve against having a cat has thawed like this year’s breakup. Which is very strange for me. I want to simply not feel anything for this cat, to disregard it and let it go on its way. But watching him play with the kids or hunt birds in the backyard has been completely entertaining  to me.

Today, for the first time in many years, I touched a cat. I reached down and took his big face in my hands. I wanted to verify the color of his eyes. He closed them with some unexplained pleasure at human touch, and I was forced to knuckle him around the ears for a while before he opened them again. 

I walked inside and washed my hands immediately and felt a bit guilty about the whole exchange.

My disdain for cats has largely to do with my suspicions that they think themselves superior to us. The argument that dogs are, by nature, loyal and lovable and completely understanding of their position in the grand pecking order, has held a lot of weight for me since I experienced life with our dog Skipper growing up. 

I hate how cats have infiltrated every aspect of society, and I despise the memes that are unavoidable now. 

Why on earth would I want to pretend to own a cat, when I’m simply providing food, water and shelter to something that if it were bigger, would dearly love to eat me?

But then how do I reconcile the fact that my hero, the man for whom this blog is named, the great Ernest Hemingway was, if I may, worse than any alleged ‘cat woman’ television comedies could conjure.

The man had as many as 57 cats living with him in Finca Vigia. To this day, the polydactyl cats of his Key West home have federal protection. Boise, Princessa and Friendless are all immortalized in “Islands in the Stream.” 

How could so intelligent a man, so brawny and masculine in word and action, be so fascinated by cats? A man like Hemingway, it would seem, might find himself more at home as lord over many dogs. 

After two weeks of watching Oliver worm his cold little heart, if indeed he has one, into our family, I think I understand Hemingway more. 

You don’t watch dogs. You rarely talk to dogs, unless you’re barking orders at them. Theirs is a one-sided companionship. Complete and faithful, dogs will not hold your gaze or engage you in an intellectual, if one-sided, conversation. 

If watching cats is a measure of intelligence, then Hemingway was smarter than most men that I know. He purchased high-end cats from catteries, he collected rare and desired specimens, and according to family members, he viewed cats as he did the rest of nature, a thing to be studied, to know in life and in death, to hunt and to be hunted. 

Surely it was the basic intelligence of cats that drew the great author’s attention, for 57 cats can no more provide companionship than could 57 wives, each vying for one person’s attention. But in despair and loneliness, as he often was, it may have been the cats that saved Ernest from an earlier version of his eventual fate. 

Perhaps it’s Alaska or my perception growing brighter or dimmer with age, but I don’t despise Oliver. He’s in the shop laying on a mattress and staring out the window even now. In the morning, he’ll crawl up next to the barbecue with a view into the kitchen window where I’ll be making tea. He’ll whine for an hour until the kids get up and pay him attention. 

But therein lie the limits of his predictability. 

The rest is just strangely fluid movements you could never hope to guess. Soon I’ll probably be talking to the big blue. If I could ever get that lonely. 

It’s amazing how life changes you little by little. I’m enamored of many things in life. Cats were never one of them. 

Perhaps even that bastion of my former pantheon of hatreds will crumble. 

Alaska at 18 Months

For some reason a baby’s life isn’t measured in years until it’s more than 24 months old. A mother will say, “Oh, thank you, she’s 15 months.” Or, “He started walking at 13 months.” Prompting me to to try to do the math in my head. Okay, 13 months is easy, but I seem to have trouble with anything over 15, often relying on my fingers to count backward from 24 or forward from 12. 

Like Mothers Day, I never really understood the concept behind the practice. In the case of Mothers Day, I always thought I should be celebrating my mom, but in this holiday happy America, I’m going out to buy cards and flowers for grandma, mom, wife and mother-in-law. But I digress. By way of monthing babies, I never really understood why a 12-month-old cannot simply be a yearling until it no longer is. 

After spending a year-and-a-half in Alaska, I think I at least understand the latter, never the former. 

And so we’ve reached the 18-month point in the infancy of our Alaska adventure. I can say with conviction that I have not just come to Anchorage, the other Alaska. Sure, I live within its boundaries, but I’ve traveled to the wet and windblown Aleutians, the frigid Arctic, the rolling interior and the ruggedly beautiful Southeast. 

Words are useless descriptions for the parts that make up Alaska. Grandiose isn’t a big enough word for never ending lands and waters of the 49th state. 

I missed the glory years of uncle Ted and the pork barrel political system that established the simple, yet effective infrastructure of this state. But I’ve now seen two sessions of the Alaska State Legislature, and two special sessions, if you can call them that without smiling. 

I’ve met the celebrities, unfortunately. And I’ve met the unsung heros, the teams of Alaskan huskies that travel not just the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail but the thousands of miles of the Alaska almost no one sees. 

I stare out at Denali every clear day, and on cloudy days, I know The High One is always there, wreathed in clouds of its own making. 

A year and a half is not enough time to have experienced all of this. No, not the time but the measurement. That’s why they say a baby is 18 months. Because it’s not just a year, it’s 18 of something. It’s 18 months of changing diapers, 18 months of sleepless nights and midnight feedings. You don’t measure that in the tiny space of a year. You give it some weight. 

It’s the same with living in Alaska. You don’t live here for a year and a half, you live here for 18 months over two winters, one of which broke all the snow records. You don’t spend a year in Alaska like you spend a year in Italy. It’s not the Grand Tour, except it is, grander than any stay in Rome or Venice, its works of arts just as grand and much, much older. 

You move anywhere in the Lower 48, and you have the same road signs, the same television schedule, the same triple A baseball teams. For every hour you drive, you’ll find a McDonald’s an Arby’s and a Wendy’s. In Alaska, you drive 15 minutes in any direction, and you have a new vista that will take your breath away. It’s a proliferate landscape hardly full, but full enough of diffuse people.

The last place I lived where I counted the hard years was Hawaii. It was not measured in months but the total time we spent there. 

Alaska at 18 months is as much a mystery to me today as it was when I could only imagine it. When I dreamed of fishing its rivers and seas, of flying its mountain flanks and traversing its trails. 

It’s a dysfunctional family you can’t give up on, which is the only reason I can possibly give to the fact that the legislators still have jobs. A dream of gold replaced by oil by hard wishers and the romantically hopeful. 

A resource-rich wasteland with magical views and two seasons. 

You don’t measure Alaska in miles or in years spent, until you’ve been here 30 years and traveled more miles in a month than the average American travels in 10 years. 

Bring on the terrible twos. 

The Winter of Record

I think it’s safe to say that our second winter in Alaska has come to an end. By all accounts, spring technically started at the solstice, but in Alaska, winter ends when it wants to, not a second earlier. 

Spring, like fall, can be missed entirely, if you blink too long. 

Either that, or summer here is the longest spring in the world. 

I never paid this much attention to weather when I worked in newspapers. The men and women brazen enough to predict the weather didn’t write it down, they spoke it to the masses wrong or right. 

But I have a bit of a competitive streak when it comes to life experiences. 

I’m a little jealous that my dad has been to more than 100 countries, and I’m only at 51.

When I traveled to Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands, it was only to find out that my father had already been there.

But he hasn’t been to Barrow. He hasn’t stood at the northernmost point in the United States.

See, it’s neurotic.

When the winter started to build, when the snows piled up like mystic sand dunes, it seemed as if the Alaska I had always envisioned finally showed up.

I had witnessed a doozy of a storm in Nome in in 2011, but it was eclipsed by a blow of epic proportions just under a year later.

And the snow continued to pile up. It swallowed our broke-down third car. It ate the deck whole, and we gave up shoveling the walk sometime in mid January. 

Then it froze solid. And it stayed that way for a month. 

We were fortunate enough to escape to Hawaii for two weeks to thaw out. 

At some point, the winter turned to survival mode. Netflix and Call of Duty 4 kill a lot more than brain cells and cgi soldiers. They kill time. 

The walls of snow along our road rose to a lofty height of something taller than our SUV. 

And soon the talk began. It was quiet at first, just a few mentions of a possible snow record. 

But I was hooked. If we’re going to survive an Alaskan winter, it might as well be the worst winter on record. 

The talk turned to hard numbers. The inches grew, and suddenly the 50+ year old record was within reach. 

But the spring encroached, and snow-filled days turned to bright blue skies and sunshine. The temperatures warmed into the 30s, and the snowmaker systems out in the Gulf of Alaska dissipated. 

It was the equivalent of being within a few miles of a border crossing and not ‘getting the country.’ Sitting at a banquette and bypassing the souffle. 

And then an overcast Saturday fell like a claymore. Damp and heavy with no highlights in the steely sky, the snow smell like gunpowder on New Year’s Eve. 

The flakes came, small at first and then thick. I was convinced the record fell early, but the National Weather Service wouldn’t measure until 4 p.m. Anchorage waited in somewhat of an agony. 

Simply to declare the winter the worst or the snowiest in recorded history wasn’t enough. It needed an official call, a meteorologist or a Tweet from the guys and ladies down at the National Weather Service. 

Like Santa Claus, we all had to wait and anticipate together. 

But it fell, and it fell hard that day. We crushed the old record by a good 3 inches of new snow that melted almost as fast as it touched the ground. 

And I can officially say that I survived the worst, or snowiest, winter on record in Anchorage, Alaska. 

The Week In Between

It is the week in between.

In Alaska, February falls into March like snow falls on the tundra. It’s a seemingly endless process, the glory and the bane of those who call the great white north home.

They are one month, sixty days with a leap year, a period of time in which Alaskans so cabin feverish from a January spent below zero and 114 inches of now dirty snow on the ground that they gather together to celebrate a midwinter festival.

A gathering of the various parts that make up the vast and varied state of mind known as Alaska they call Fur Rondy.

Not unlike carnivals and festivals elsewhere, there are recognizable elements in the rides, the frostbite footrace and the grand parade. But the similarities end there.

Fox, caribou and bear hides aside, the Rondy features a full-combat snowball fight with well-trained teams, outhouse races and the annual running of the reindeer.

But the Rondy, by comparison to the two events on either side of it, is absolutely sane and normal by most standards.

The Iron Dog is a 2,000 mile snow machine race that starts in Sarah Palin’s back yard, literally, and ends in Fairbanks, after traveling through Nome. You simply have to look at a map to understand even an 1/8th of the magnitude of this race.

Sarah’s husband, Todd, is a four-time champion of the Iron Dog.

There is nothing like chasing guys doing 90 miles per hour down the Yukon River trying to make slot for the 10 p.m. news.

After a week of breathing two-stroke fumes to the point of dizziness and conducting interviews on frozen lakes, rivers and seas, one is ready for a month’s worth of downtime.

Rondy marks the nonexistent divide between February and March. Somewhere in that Mardi Gras of the north there is a metaphorical change of the calendar page.

But the snow will continue to pile, and this year the all time record is in danger of getting buried.

The ice will not break for weeks, possibly months. The ski resorts will have powder skiing through May, and I will continue to take liquid vitamin D until the solstice-the summer one.

In this perpetual Narnia that magically converts to Never Never Land when you least expect it, March is as far from anywhere, as bleak as looking north from Barrow and as long and unending as the line of RVs on the ALCAN in July. 

And yet 66 men and women and their dogs will set out on a 1,000-mile jaunt from Willow to Nome.

You can’t blame Alaskans for wanting to get out and about during an Alaskan winter. They are unbearably long. But the question I have now and may always have is this: Why the extensive journeys testing every ounce of human endurance?

I asked myself this as I watched the Iron Doggers cross the finish line in Fairbanks last week. I’ll ask it again as I drive a snow machine up the Yentna River to catch the Iditarod mushers checking in at Yentna Station, the first checkpoint, on Sunday.

I’ll likely ask this again at the finish line in Nome under the burled arch and over drinks at the Board of Trade with Hugh Neff.

Three weeks that span the month of Febrarch, or midwinter, and this is the week in between.

The downtime, the deep breaths, the hugs from my daughter and reading to her at night and talking to the kids about Iron Dog and the Daytona 500, the only time of the year our necks get this red.

The trail starts again next week. The insanity that is the northern lights and 30 below and the yelping of dogs so excited to run they can’t sit still. Mushers mumbling like gold prospectors who haven’t seen another human being in years and tourists wearing sealskin jackets like Patagonia from REI.

Looking back and looking forward. The pause in the middle of the long, cold night. The celebration, the revelry and the realization of so much more in the form of snow and ice and melt and breakup and summer, finally.

For now I’ll relax in the week in between. Review the winter worn so far and the threads that will shield my skin from the arctic frost that will hang around like a common but little-loved acquaintance.