Tag Archives: Travel

The Wayuu on the train –

I heard her long before I saw her.

Her voice carried across the bus terminal at Navy Pier on the thin, icy air and managed to catch my attention over the roar of the diesel buses pulling out.

She stopped to ask the terminal boss what bus she would need to take to the train.

She was wearing leather boots that came up to her knees and ended in stiletto points, and she wore a quilted jacket and a brown scarf with gold threads interspersed in the earthy material.

But it was the way she walked that gave her away. Nobody in Chicago walks with that kind of confidence in the winter. You put your head down, you shrink your gate, and you shuffle toward the nearest warm place, whether that be a bus or a building.

The transit boss pointed directly at me, because I was standing under the 124 bus sign. She asked him again, and her voice wafted over the diesel fumes.

“I take dat bus, the 124, to LaSalle?”

The boss pointed at me one more time.

She walked through the slush and ice like she either owned the place or had never seen the stuff before.

And when the 124 pulled up, she walked on and started grilling the driver about how to get to LaSalle Station.

I waited at the doors of the bus, freezing as she fired her questions at him in a lyrical Spanish accent.

“I want to go to LaSalle,” she said. But the driver kept thinking she was saying south.

He finally looked at me, imploringly, and she noticed that she was blocking me from getting on the bus.

She dropped her head momentarily, then flashed her big, dark eyes with maybe a hint of apology. Maybe not.

The driver asked me what train stations were south.

I said, “Where are you trying to go?” and ran my CTA pass through the scanner.

She said Alsip, which is one of the few villages I happen to know, because I live next door.

But she was asking for LaSalle Street Metra Station.

I told her I was going to Blue Island, which is near Alsip.

The bus driver smiled and said, “Hey, you can just follow him.”

She did.

I sat in my usual seat facing the rear door, since it eases the anxiety I can get when the bus gets full.

She sat across from me and asked about this train station, and she latched on to the idea of getting to Blue Island.

And there was something about the way she said Blue Island. She punctuated the blue like “baloo” and dropped the d for something like “I get to baloo eye lan.”

I reassured her that I could get her to the proper train.

I tapped her shoulder at Lake and Randolph, and we stepped off into the slushy snow.

I checked behind me to make sure she was following, and made my way across Randolph to the entrance to Millennium Station.

“Was your name?” she asked me.

“My name is Tim,” I told her. And we shook hands before she put some white knitted gloves over her long fingers with intricate nail art punctuating them like fancy pencils.

I glanced at my phone and noticed that it was 5:38 p.m., and my train would leave at 5:41, and if I wasn’t on it, I’d have to kill an hour at Millennium Station for the third time in two weeks.

I hoped she wouldn’t think I was trying to lose her, but I picked up my step, and we held a rather jarring and awkward conversation as we made our way through the station to track 5.

The conductors made the last call for Blue Island just as we hit the stairs, and halfway down, we could hear the tell-tale hiss of departure, the one that occurs just before the doors close.

We fairly ran onto the train, and she immediately went up to the first person she could see and asked: “Baloo eye lan?”

A young man wearing red Beats by Dre pulled one away from his ear, as he was unable to read the Spanish accent dripping from her lips.

“Baloo eye lan?” she repeated. “This is train to “baloo eye lan?”

The guy figured it out pretty quick and nodded his head. She moved down the aisle and picked a seat along the east side of the train.

I went two seats back, figuring she was just happy to be on right train.

I sat in a four-seater so I could spread out a little

She got up and plopped her bags down in the facing seats and sat down next to me.

I had been relishing some music and perhaps catching up on social media after a busy day at work, but she wanted to talk.

I soon found out she was actually trying to get to Midlothian, but she had ridden the train in from Blue Island that morning, so it would work just fine.

I asked her if she was from Midlothian.

“I’m from Venezuela,” she said, a little innocently.

“Venezuela? Wow!” I had a hard time containing my enthusiasm. I’ve been fascinated by that country since I traveled to Cuba in 2006.

“You know this country?” she asked, seriously. “The country with no president?”

“Yes, I said, and the home of Angel Falls, and one of the more fascinating socialist regimes on earth right now.”

“Yes, she said, dis is Venezuela.”

I’ll call her Maria, and she told me she’s an educator. Actually, she’s a businesswoman who happened to start a school.

She started with 20 students, and eventually built her school up to 200. She offers Spanish, English and French language lessons.

Maria fights a lot of battles to have a business. She fights corruption, which she says is just a part of the system, unlike in America, where it’s a part of the system, but it’s not out in the open.

She’s instructed to incorporate socialism into her curriculum, or they’ll take away her license to practice the business of teaching.

As the train rumbled along toward the south, she described her city as a place where much was possible, and in spite of a strange economy, goods and services were readily available and affordable.

But currency was only really available to the wealthiest of Venezuelans, which is why they keep Chavez in power.

Maria had come to Chicago from New York. She was visiting a friend, and as an educator, she wanted to see the Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, and that’s how we met. That and she walked in Stilettos through the slush like she had never encountered anything slippery before, and her accent carried across the bus terminal like an exotic bird that stands out and yet is somehow perfectly at home in any environment.

“But I like this country, because you can go outside, and it’s safe,” she said as the train passed through some neighborhoods that are known for ridiculously high murder rates.

“In my city, you cannot walk outside the house without your phone,” she told me. “You never carry a bag or purse.”

“So how do you get around?” I asked.

“You get in your car and drive, or you take the taxi,” she said.

“One time I didn’t come out fast, and my father was waiting in the car. It was maybe 5 minutes, and a guy comes like this,” she said, holding her hands up like a pistol. “My father just accelerated away.”

We both laughed at the image she drew.

“And your mom?” I asked.

She nodded slightly and told me her mother is a Wayuu princess, and that though they are an aggressive people, her mother is not aggressive. She said that people get along in Venezuela, and that racial tensions are not as bad as they are in other parts of Latin America.

We were talking rather loudly in a train car full of sleeping and drowsy people, when she was trying to explain something about her farmer brother.

“He’s nigger,” she said, unmistakably.

When I flinched and lifted my eyes over her shoulder to the sleeping form of the large black man in the seat next to us, she asked: “Is this word not good here?”

I assured her it was not a good word here, and that Chicago is a very racially sensitive city with many complicated issues.

She apologized to me and leaned in and whispered that nigger just means dark skin, and that her brother has dark brown skin from his farm work.

She told me that he’s going to watch her business while she travels.

Just a few stops before Burr Oak, where I leave the train, she told me she’s going to Australia for a year.

“He’s a farmer, and he doesn’t want to do it more than a year,” she said.

Despite her mother’s concerns, she wants a better place to run a business and to have children.

“In Venezuela they make you learn socialism, they force it on you, or you can’t practice business. If you obey, you can make a good life there,” she said.

Now what about you?” she asked. “Tell me about you.”

The conductor leaned his head the door and announced 127th, Burr Oak.

I apologized and told her that Blue Island was one stop further.

She asked me if I’m on Facebook, and I nodded yes.

“Great,” she said as she wrote down my Facebook address. “We’ll keep in touch here, and I can see your life, and you can see what my life is like in Australia.”

“Indeed,” I said.

I shook her hand walked off the train not regretting that conversation at all.

Never turn down an opportunity to interview another human being. You might learn something about the world, your town or even yourself. You might make a friend and a tour guide, and you might learn a new word or discover an idea.

NYC 1: First Impressions –

New York is a lot of what I expected after getting to know it the past 30-some years on television, word-of-mouth and general reputation as America’s largest city.

I walked a good bit of yesterday, flew over it and cabbed through it.

Vistas are a nice way to gain perspective on a places’ general look and feel. You have to experience a place to really get to know it.

This is not one of those kinds of trips.

The first big difference that I noted was the grittiness of New York. Just walk around TriBeCa, and you’ll notice a lot of grime and stains on things. At first I couldn’t tell if it was just the city recovering from the onslaught of Hurricane Sandy, after all, much of the street-level stuff was under water from the storm surge, or if it was just an old city being an old city.

Turns out it’s a little of both. Chicago is definitely a much cleaner city. New York feels old and gritty and built up on top of its even older self.

The walls of buildings don’t glisten and shine or reflect as much as they whisper old things. One feels they need to get close to hear them or to read the illegible writing you feel must surely be there.

New York is a bustling place. When I hear the word bustling, this is forever what I’ll think of. Everything is fast-paced here. When you step out onto a sidewalk, it’s as if you are turning into traffic. Slow down, stop or make sudden turns, and you’ll get the bird or a good tongue lashing.

The subway trains are filled with busy people. The streets have beggars and construction people who yell a lot. Traffic police are everywhere, the sounds of whistles shrill and constant.

Even in the late evening on a Thursday, there is a tempo that is unlike other places I’ve visited.

These are just first impressions based on what I saw in a 24-hour period. Some of it is based on what you see and feel, more of it, I fear, is based on what I’ve always thought about New York.

Nothing counts until you experience it.

I spent the evening chatting with an old friend who works at the Wall Street Journal. We talked politics, news and living in Brooklyn.

I asked him if the adage is true: “Live in New York, but leave before it makes you hard.”

He sort of shrugged it off. And I don’t blame him.

If there is a hardness in New York, it’s in the water or the way in which the city seems to live atop its old ghosts. It’s just a fact of life living around 8.2 million other human beings.

Last night I fell asleep to the sounds of TriBeCa outside my window.

I dreamt of the images of New York ever in my mind with snippets of songs creating a soundtrack that I couldn’t quite remember upon waking, but he melodies are running through my head this morning as the horns blare and the construction men below me yell out orders.

I like this city.

TA

Dressing my wanderlust –

Yesterday I traded in my puffy coat and survival gear for a wool trench coat with New York on the label but made in China.

I gave up my bunny boots for a pair of leather Kenneth Cole dress boots made in Italy.

What you wear is a reflection of your personality, after all.

And yet this concept confuses me.

I’m now one of thousands of men walking the streets of Chicago wearing a wool tench coat over a dress shirt and slacks and walking around in Italian-leather shoes.

To borrow a term, though I know not from where, I’ve blended in.

It’s funny how in leaving Alaska, you leave with the best souvenir the world has ever known. The ability to talk about having lived in Alaska.

“What part of Alaska did you live in?”

Definitely my favorite question.

My answer: Alaska is not like California. You don’t have a Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco or Sacramento and a million other points in between.

In Alaska, you have Anchorage and everything else. Also known as Anchorage and the real Alaska.

Our three years in Montana gave us good prep for Alaska.

Sparse, wide-open country with individualist people inhabiting it loosely.

We moved in winter and spent our money on smart winter coats, gloves hats and boots and some cross-country skis for good measure.

Within a few weeks, we fit in, at least in our own heads. Blended, as it were, with other Alaskans.

Though we were given away for Several months for the way in which we said Lower-48 instead of Outside and snow mobile instead of snow machine.

We moved to Chicago in the summer, so we had only to strip down a bit to fit in.

We should’ve bought Sox shirts to wear around our south side home, but we like the Giants.

Today as I walked from the train at Union Station surrounded by a mass of humanity, my leather-soled shoes clip clopping on the cement, and my coat swishing around my knees, I was reminded about permanence yet again, and how I tend to flee from it.

Necessity might be the mother of invention, but wanderlust is the father of re-invention. I’ve had it bad in my life. Lusting after new experiences and new vistas, wearing new hats and coats as if I belonged to one land or another, when in truth, my heart did not belong to any one place. Never has. I doubt it ever will. 

On Thursday I head to New York City. 

The Crisis of Time –

Just passed the three-month mark in Chicago. No matter how old I get, I continue to be blown away at how fast time seems to pass. The plans we make never equal the time in which our minds imagine they can happen. To that end, there were a few beach trips we didn’t take, a visit to the zoo, just a few untried restaurants, downtown streets and parks unexplored and neighbors unmet. I don’t know if it’s the relatively short stays in our previous locals or the general march of time, but we have always suffered from a desire to do too much in too little time. Or the realization that we did not do enough with the time we had. This leads to suffering regret, and I detest suffering regret. Maybe it’s the west or the familiarity of youth, but I know very well the list of undone things even in my own hometown.

The peaks unclimbed, the trails not hiked, the lakes and rivers not fished, the beaches where no sandcastles were built. All of those things were infinitely possible in the span of time I spent there in Cascadia. But I don’t regret the things I did instead. Those things shaped my life. No, I did not enjoy the solitude of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness or the view from Three Fingered Jack. But I did enjoy the benefits of the company of good friends, the hard lessons of childhood and the delights that come with living in a place with no thought of leaving on the horizon. Illinois is my fifth state, a tiny number really, but more than a great many people will see. And even though we moved here to give the kids a more settled lifestyle, there is in me a desire to try and experience it all, just in case the clouds fall again. Maybe it’s a product of being laid off in a bad economy from a dying industry. If that will not make you jumpy, nothing will. The thought of staying home on a weekend and doing nothing but watching some football, making good food and enjoying life is appealing to me in ways my adventurous nature kind of abhors. Is it age? Wisdom? laziness? I have a desire for permanence now that I have not felt before. Just as you might live in Alaska always prepared for the ground to shake under your feet, I still think about fault lines and magnitudes a lot. I was never a Boy Scout, but I have tried to live always prepared. Maybe it’s the wanderlust of my upbringing by missionary parents. When your life looks like a National Geographic magazine, the domesticity of the American Midwest makes life look like it’s lived at the slow crawl of a glacier by comparison. And as much as I always dreamed of seeing the things my father told us stories about, I find that I’m more fascinated by the untold stories next door to me or in the heart of this big, old city these days. And still time passes, and you realize that experiences will never add up to the amount of words you can write about them and analyze them with and carry them into the lobe of memories. Tim

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

Day 3: The Menagerie Road –

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as I peeked my head out the hotel window in Whitehorse this morning. 

After yesterday’s misadventure, I was hoping for a good day of driving with the kind of scenery I’ve been expecting from the great north country.

We ate a breakfast buffet under the watchful eye of a buff German woman who was so efficient, it made me laugh to watch her work.  We gassed up the vehicles and hit the road under big blue skies.

The roads out of Whitehorse were immediately better than those we drove yesterday, and we moved along at a respectable clip. We actually did the first 100 miles without stopping. 

The first part of the day was all verdant underbrush, Aspen forests and those wide, muddy rivers that I’ve been noticing lately.

We made good time and covered the first 200 miles In a little under 4 hours. The kids slept, and we got through most of the first part of “Game of Thrones” on audio tape.

Then we saw one, a little black shape just off the side of the road. I braked hard and pulled to the side of the road. I put it in reverse, and pretty soon we were side by side with a small black bear.

It was game on after that. All told, we saw 14 bears, mostly blacks with one grizzly, a lynx, dozens of wood bison, Trumpeter swans, big horn sheep and a Loon.

It was as if Paul Simon had written another road trip song, one I shall call “The Menagerie Road.” 

By the end of the day we had stopped pulling over, but we still pointed them out enthusiastically.

By late afternoon the rains came again, and we walked into Liard Hot Springs to stick our feet in the thermal waters there.

The Northern Rockies loomed large as we got underway again, but the going was smooth and there was little stress, if any.

I went through two bags of sunflower seeds and two thermoses of green tea, I listened to way too much Journey before noon, and I enjoyed this northern stretch of highway, this Menagerie Road.

Looking forward to a change of scenery tomorrow. Already we are far enough south for darkness, and that is a good thing for me. 

TAA

Day 2: The Klondike and Other Problems –

We woke up late this morning, assuming we’d have an easy 324-mile drive from Tok, AK to Whitehorse, YK. It was not meant to be. The sun was bright and warm as we left Tok for the 90-mile jaunt to the border. Papa was driving the U-Haul at a good clip, and the traffic was lighter than I expected. We stopped for a couple of potty breaks and for gas before we made the border, but things looked really promising for an uneventful but beautiful drive through the Yukon Territory.

The big YK sign at the border proved far-too cool to bypass, so we stopped for pictures. I noticed some very fresh bear poop on the grass near the sign, and I warned everyone to steer clear and keep an eye out for the bruin. Cole has been sick for two days now, and in his delirious state, he walked right through it. But we didn’t know this until he got back in the car, which promptly filled with the nasty aroma of whatever that bear had for breakfast this morning. We were all still gagging and holding our shirts over our our noses when we pulled up to Canadian customs. Driving into the Yukon is an interesting reminder of just how small we are in this world. We crossed so many wide rivers I lost count, and we drove in the shadow of so many peaks and saw so few people, it reminded me of a bigger, emptier Alaska. Like a leaden-gray wall in the distance, the Yukon opened up its waterworks for us as a welcoming sign. We left the sunshine in eastern Alaska and drove into a torrential furry that seemed somewhat normal for the surroundings, but it made for a miserable drive. Like doing a road trip in Oregon on spring break. We stopped and slapped ourselves silly trying to keep the mosquitoes off for a short trip to fetch salami out of the back of the truck or to order sandwiches at a Tasty Freeze. The road, or what might be called a road, or perhaps a trail, was so rough in spots we never traveled faster than 35 mph at times. You expect these patches on the Alaska Highway, but you cannot know how long and tedious they are until you finish a 324-mile drive 10-hours later and crash defeated into a hotel bed with the sick and snoring all around you. Towards Whitehorse, the trail picked up speed. my father-in-law took it up to 60, before the trailer started to weave back and forth dangerously. The other memorable part of today was the tremendously large dragon flies that I mowed down like so many windshield sacrifices. Ordinary bugs make their presence known with a gooey splat on the windshield, some of which you dread the task of trying to remove with the gas station squeegee later. Dragon flies in the Yukon look quite like a bird of prey coming through your windshield. I was so surprised by the sight of such large creatures smacking my windshield, that I actually flinched and swerved a few times. The second day is down, and the real test comes tomorrow. we have a 550-mile drive to stay on target. If we leave at 7 a.m., that puts us into Fort Nelson around 10 p.m., judging by these road conditions.

The Two Alaskas

Alaska picked an interesting time to put its best foot forward. The temperatures are hovering around 70 degrees, while huge cumulonimbus clouds spend the afternoons going nuclear over the Alaska Range. 

I haven’t seen Denali in weeks. It’s warm enough to sit outside until midnight, if you can stand the northern vampires that descend on you like a 600-Hz mini chainsaw of blood and horror. Slap one, and you’ll leave a memorable blood splatter. 

We’re nearing the Solstice, and as I’ve stated several times on this blog, I’m a bit adverse to the Midnight Sun. I think I’ve traced it back to my childhood in Europe, when parents a little more liberal than mine would allow their children to stay up until the sun set, while my bed time never fluctuated. Regardless of where the sun was on its daily journey, I was in bed at 7 p.m., listening to the sounds of children playing outside my window. 

Today, if I try to lay down and sleep while the sun still is casting a glow into the basement, I’m restless like I was when I was young. 

So I stay up late and write. 

Looking back on a year and a half in Alaska, I find myself having lived out a fine adventure indeed. Even as I admit the many things I did not do, the list of accomplishments I did not…accomplish, I’m flush with memories of remote villages, the smells of diesel and fish in Unalaska, Nome on the day they crowned the youngest-ever winner of the Iditarod, the stillness of an Arctic Circle village at 50 below. 

Journalists get a little deeper than the general tourist experience, and I’ll be forever grateful to the lady who brought me to Alaska, because she understood that I needed to get to know the place more than just the words in the book, “Coming Into the Country.” 

My wife and children had a different experience. They never got to see the two Alaskas. Instead, they spent a year and a half in Anchorage, which is like a cold Seattle. 

They saw moose and bears and spent a memorable few days in Halibut Cove. Cheryl and I spent a sleepless night above the one bar in Cordova, before a day-long salmon-shark fishing expedition. 

We drove to Fairbanks in the spring and saw the Northern Lights during the World Ice Carving Championships, and we soaked in the thermal waters at Chena Hot Springs. 

You can’t live this life and afford it too. That’s the beauty of adventure, of living life to the fullest. My children didn’t get to see all the things I got to see, and if you can imagine what I see on a daily basis as a journalist, well, that’s a good thing for their sake. But I tell them everything else. I relive my experiences for them much the same way my dad relived his adventures for my sisters, my brother and I. 

A year and a half later, Alaska still is a place of mystery. No less intriguing to me than it was before I ever set foot here.

 

There are millions of miles of wilderness, countless villages to see, and a handful of people I still want to meet. 

As someone told me today, “You now have a place to stay whenever you want to come back to Alaska.” 

And while that’s true, when you come to Alaska to visit, you see the Alaska with its best foot forward. The place as it was meant to be. The glistening glaciers and the slap of a big halibut against the decking on a fishing boat, the slow pull of a diesel train leaving for Talkeetna or points beyond. 

This was my chance to see the real Alaska, and from what I can tell, I liked it. 

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.