Who knows what running will be for me this year, but today it was good.
Several weeks ago I wrote a really long post about being grumpy in August in Alaska. The fireweed had largely burned out and I was certain I’d be stuck under all those dark heavy rain clouds until they finally gave way to snow.
But then the unexpected happened. September showed up with record breaking warmth and dry air. We went 25 straight days without rain IN OUR RAINY SEASON. “I could live here!” I said repeatedly. So much September sunshine. It’s a weird thing to thoroughly enjoy what is not supposed to be. It felt a bit eerie. But also – what a gift!! We had a rather rough, cold summer, and an August that was a bit warmer than normal, but just as wet as expected. And so. Walking in warm September Sunshine!?! YES PLEASE.
Six years ago we moved to Anchorage in the middle of a crazy Labor Day rainstorm. That cold fall rain gave way to our first cold, dark winter. It was a challenging start, but I hung on and eventually emerged from the dark only to discover there were suddenly lots and lots of people also walking my neighborhood. All the emotional work I’d invested in surviving this place! and these people and their fancy cameras just drop in to soak in the glory. Alas, I quickly fell in step with the rhythm of life in a tourist town and, truth told, I like hanging out with the visitors. I’ve heard some interesting stories and gotten to tell my own #alaskamagic tales.
Living downtown through these years, I’ve had a front row seat to tourist traffic. Sometimes while waiting for dinner at a restaurant in the summer my boys and I entertain ourselves with a little observing and judging game we made up >> Tourist or Local? (Down coats in July are judged Tourist. Kids with names like Aurora and Denali are judged Local.)
I always feel bad for the people who show up during a rainy stretch of days. Hunkered deep inside their raincoats they soldier on, but watching them I can’t help but think they’re getting a rotten deal. I know how amazing this place can be. Alaska is a bucket list destination and it’s no small feat to get here. To stand in downtown Anchorage and not be able to see a mountain for the rain clouds is a rip off.
In mid-August this year we listed our downstairs apartment on airbnb and called it Fireweed and Snow. Summer and Winter. The seasons that give shape to our ways of life in this town. We caught the tail end of the summer tourist season with our little airbnb experiment, and we’ve had a nonstop stream of people coming through looking to find their own stories of #alaskamagic. Some of them have been so very lucky with sunshine and gorgeous Alaska views. Some of them…not so much.
Over the years that I’ve lived here I’ve often been asked, when should I come visit? I tell people that their chance to experience the breathtaking beauty of Alaska improves with every day they can stay. I do have insight and observations that can increase the possibilities for getting a taste of #alaskamagic. But that’s all I’ve got. And there’s a really good chance that I’ll be wrong. I’ve come to understand this as a sort of metaphor for life. Show up for ALL the days. Some of them will be so gloomy grey. There’s no way around it, a drenching is what you get. Some days are warm sunshine and mountains beyond mountains. Some days are goodness and joy. Others are a gut punch of disappointment and grief. Keep showing up.
Doing so, it turns out, teaches me to see #alaskamagic even in the storm.
A trip to Zambia, house hunting in Alaska, and a new puppy. Facebook has been serving me some life-changing “on this day” memories.
Six years ago David and I flew to Anchorage to find a house to rent. I was sooooo grumpy that weekend. David likes to remind me that just 10 months earlier I had happily agreed to move with him to Alaska with hardly a second thought. It is true that the previous fall, when he asked me what I thought about his opportunity to take a field engineering position for 2-3 years in Anchorage, I was all in. The adventure was appealing, the money would be good, I could be flexible. Unfortunately our move date depended on how the project timeline developed in Alaska and so I couldn’t even pencil a target into my calendar. Time ticked by and as our move plodded toward reality, my eagerness faded. We sold our house in preparation for the move and it was hard living in the in between. I was engaging new projects in the Portland area, friendships were deepening, and our kids were getting older. The move to Alaska felt increasingly like disruption.
I had just barely landed back in the country after a work trip to Zambia and was not at all interested in moving to Alaska a couple weeks later, but there I was on this August weekend, flying to Alaska to make decisions that would set the course of my life in ways I could not yet imagine. I got off the plane in Anchorage that Friday afternoon in a very bad mood. I was convinced we could not find a good place for our family to live with just this short weekend to look and decide. And besides, I didn’t want to live here anyway.
Poor David was caught between a good career opportunity and an angry wife who was convinced nothing good was about to happen. The grey sky matched my mood and hung heavy over our heads as we got our rental car and left the airport that afternoon. And then, while checking into our hotel near the airport, they casually mentioned that their wifi was down and it might not be up again till the following day. I KNEW IT.
But in fact, we managed to solve that problem quickly by booking an overnight stay at a downtown Bed & Breakfast – with wifi. On to the actual problem. How could we choose a neighborhood and find a house for our family in just three days? Against the cool August air, gloomy sky, and my grumbling spirits, the first thing we looked at, a bland midtown condo, was not the least bit tempting. Now, all these years later, I find myself driving by that place nearly every day and sometimes I remember what it was to look out those windows onto the busy highway and across the street to the high school. Angry, trapped, perched at the edge of panic. We quickly decided No and moved on to dinner where I studied Craigslist and David made a few phone calls and sent emails. I was in a rotten mood.
I suppose we drove around some neighborhoods later that evening. I don’t remember specifically looking at anything else, but perhaps we did. We had several appointments set for the next morning. First up, a house in south Anchorage. It was a newer home and nice. The yard was landscaped nicely and it was huge. The location was a short bike ride over to Kincaid Park. We imagined the layout, where would our family and friends stay when they came to visit as promised? We imagined what it would be like to live in the “suburbs,” a kind of a cookie cutter neighborhood with a nondescript, but nice, house and a landscaped yard and a huge play structure. The house we’d just sold had a long list of needed improvements and its “landscaping” suffered from my insatiable compulsion to dig holes.
Choosing a neighborhood from scratch raised all kinds of questions. What kind of people are we anyway? This house held interesting possibility even if it didn’t feel like an obvious fit. But we weren’t buying it. As renters, the stakes were much lower. This whole exercise was an exploration of self in so many ways. However, when we learned that the landlords were moving out of this house and into the house next door, our decision came clear. Our boys were accustomed to a semi-wild backyard where they could explore and play and even ride their bikes. Learning how to live in a structured backyard under the watchful eye of the landlord? No thank you.
We moved on to look midtown in the Roger’s Park neighborhood, an older community with nice sidewalks and trees and appealing yards, but the houses available there weren’t great options for us. There was another house or two in the mix. And then the house off of Goldenview Drive. That listing seemed pretty much amazing, but it was on the south edge of town, up the side of a mountain and we had no idea what that would actually mean. We made a phone call, but couldn’t see it until Sunday morning so we went to lunch at Fire Island Bake Shop.
I perched at a high table along the crowded back wall of the busy bakery and grumped about our situation, reviewing yet again the impossibility of our task. My mood had clearly not improved by running into the dead end of our morning work and having no afternoon plan. With nothing else to talk about, I flipped open my computer and clicked Craigslist again. But Wait! This is interesting, I said as I read a brand new headline listing a house on the west end of the Park Strip. It boasted views of mountains beyond the Inlet and lots of square footage. I called immediately and within the hour we were meeting the property manager at the house.
We started that house tour on the ground floor, seeing the recently remodeled master bedroom + bath, and large TV room, and then we went down to the basement where I was delighted by the wall to wall bookshelves. Wow! I honestly exclaimed, as if I’d actually ever want to spend time in a windowless basement. Oh, you just wait, the Property Manager said, and turned to lead us back up the stairs and then up another flight to the kitchen/dining/living room.
Sunshine had split the clouds to pieces by the time we stepped into that room, and warm light streamed through the three huge windows that hung across the south wall. The view looked over the houses on the hillside below, and out across the wide water to a horizon line of snow-capped mountains. It was breathtaking. Basement bookcases?Never mind. I can live here! I breathed in that gorgeous view. David breathed in sweet relief.
But there was one last property we needed to check. We had 24 hours to make our decision. The next morning we drove out to see the house up on the mountainside, south of town. Set on a fairly secluded 1/4 acre with 2-story floor to ceiling south facing windows the unobstructed inlet/mountain views were stunning. It was like a retreat center. Something you’d see in an Alaska travel magazine as you added bullet points to your bucket list. It was the same price as that house downtown. We were in a position to choose. But how?
We took a short walk around the block and studied the neighboring yards – this one had bikes in the yard, that one a trampoline. We imagined what our boys would experience, spending a couple years living way up here on the side of a mountain. We calculated David’s commute and considered the impact of snow and ice. We hadn’t come to any conclusions as we backed out of the gravel driveway and turned our car back toward town. Just about then a black bear cub scrambled across the road and alarm bells rang loud in my head. I don’t know how to be a mother in Alaska!
And so there we were. Sunday afternoon with a decision to make. While we worked on that, we took a tourist detour and drove down to Aleyeska for the tram ride up the mountain. The annual Aleyeska blueberry festival was in full swing and sunshine was beating back clouds to make a cheerful backdrop for our deliberations. My camera battery was dead, but this picture from my phone is what showed up yesterday in my Facebook memory feed. Back down from the tram ride, I phoned a friend and she listened as I quickly outlined our choices. What I’d seen. What I thought. She knows me well and heard the layers of fear and excitement, frustration and uncertainty all tangled in my words. She helped me sort through my weekend of thoughts and feelings, looking for some wisdom for this moment of decision, then she asked the illuminating question: What will you do in the deep winter dark? My answer was clear and strong: I would need lights. I would need streets I could walk. I would need access to people. We left Aleyeska and met the property manager at the house downtown.
I started writing this post because I’d been thinking about the rain that fell steadily out my window all day. That picture of the David and me had just come through my facebook feed, and I recalled the moment we exchanged our signatures and money for keys to the house. The property manager turned to me and said, Just remember, the blue sky doesn’t come with the house.
I never imagined I’d still be in Alaska, 6 years later. I don’t like Alaska in August now anymore than I liked it on that first hard August weekend. I still have mixed up emotions about living here. One moment you’ll hear me tell delighted stories of awe and wonder about the #alaskamagic of this place. But very possibly my next sentence will be a complaint about the rain or the bears or the very long way from home.
I’m feeling more grump than awe and wonder these days. The grey August sky has been hard. I’m grateful for our house and I love our neighborhood. Just a few blocks from where we started, it turns out we really could choose our neighborhood in just three days. But having bought a house near the Lagoon last fall, this is the first August that I’ve lived in Alaska and haven’t had the gift of a mountain view out my window. It’s also the first summer since we’ve lived here that I haven’t escaped for an Oregon fix of sunshine and produce and family and friends.
But I’m gonna be okay. I run in the rain and I watch for long views. I have walkable streets and lots of people. Sometimes the sun even breaks through and I rejoice in its warmth and sweet light.
Summer Solstice in Anchorage means 4:21a sunrise today and 11:43p sunset. It never does get dark.
Alas…..we make the turn here.
With sunset before 7a and sunset after 9p now we are reveling on the bright side of our seasonal calendar! As we fast forward toward the near constant light of summer solstice, this ever increasing daylight can make it hard to sleep, and since we’re in a new to us house this year, we’ve got a new set of windows that need blackout shades.
I’m not a house decorator sort of person. I don’t know how and don’t really want to right now, I guess. I definitely opt for practical minimalism if I get to choose. We have a homemade plywood dining room table, I’m saying!! And I love it – it fits in a narrow space and is long enough to hold a bunch of people, or as it often does – all our varieties of projects and room left for the four of us to sit and eat dinner together.
All that to say, I don’t really want long drapes, especially the dark kind that we need to block out light here in the summer – and the winter, actually. (It’s remarkable how much light the snow reflects. I nearly always woke up when it was snowing this winter, in spite of the fact that our shades were pulled down.)
In recent weeks Ethan has been getting up earlier and earlier, Ryan’s been waking up exhausted by his nights of light sleeping, and David’s much needed Saturday morning sleep-in was basically a full sunshine bath by 8a.
So what to do? I wasn’t eager to spend money on curtain rods and light blocking curtains because I’m not a huge fan of the result – so much material hanging on the wall! As a stop gap measure, we thumb tacked the curtains from our last home to the perimeter of the windows and sure enough, like magic! We quickly became a much more rested, much nicer family. But thumbtacked curtains aren’t a solution. They’re a pain to put up, a pain to pull down. Sometimes literally.
So….then. Cardboard and Gorilla tape! BAM! Pull the shades over that and it’s Sleep Great Dark!
The rest of us were instantly jealous of Ethan’s room, but we were out of cardboard now, so David made a trip to Lowes and classed it up a billion degrees for the rest of us with fiberboard and knobs.
Slide them in at night. Pop them back out in the morning. This. is so good.
After a several low snow months here in Anchorage, February delivered! We were more than 2′ below normal in snowfall at the end of January, but then came the snowiest February in six years. A fun fact because that was also our family’s first February in Alaska – back when we thought we had moved into a magical snow globe where it was all skiing, and skating, and cold!! Subsequent years have proven….not so much.
Our family likes the snow. For one thing, it brightens the long dark winters! When people ask me how it is to live up here in the deep dark of winter where the winter solstice sunrise is 10:15a and sunset is 3:40p, I always say – the snow helps!! Snow reflects moonlight and streetlight. It illuminates the landscape. It’s also bother. It needs shoveling. It makes a shopping cart in a grocery store parking lot difficult. Its relation to ice means there is scraping. And slipping. It is a mess in the melt. Yet we rejoice with every new snowfall (until April and then I’m soooooo done).
February 2018 gave us much to celebrate.
The city plowed. And hauled snow.
We pushed little cars out of stuck in the snow.
We watched sled dogs run.
And the Fur Rondy Parade.
We rode bikes.
And we walked.
We skied (and skated). We shoveled and scraped some more.
And also…..we grilled.
This morning I was making coffee in the kitchen when I heard Ethan flipping light switches in the next room. A little bit later he came to the kitchen and grumbled, “These lights are weird. I can never figure out which switch turns on which light.” My thoughts EXACTLY.
Recently I’ve noticed my irritation when all too often I flip a switch and get no light. I walk a few steps to a different switch and flip it only to produce light in a totally different part of the room. So then I walk across the room and try again with a different switch. Now the light that I’ve just turned on goes dark. And I still don’t have the light I wanted. Every once in a while, I get lucky and the lightbulb I want comes on with my first flip of a switch, but more often I give up in exasperation and just carry on, using whatever light is available.
Why – after nearly 2 years of living in this apartment – don’t I know the switch-light relationships?!? And then I realized, it’s because I go for days, weeks, months without using them! Living at this latitude means we have a long stretch of summer days and nights where it never gets completely dark.
But in the rhythm of seasons, there comes time to pay the price for the seemingly endless summer light, and that time is now. We lost nearly 3 hours of daylight in September and we’re continuing to lose at a rate of about 5.5 minutes per day, on pace to lose another almost 3 hours in October. When we first moved to Anchorage from Oregon in the fall 2012, David made me a graph to compare our sunrise/sunset times with Portland. Right now we are sliding down maximum slope, straight into the deep dark, cold winter and I feel dread rising. It started at the edge of a September sunset while I watched the sun slip behind the mountains, leaving glorious colors of sky to fade into the black of night. It dances with my memories in the chill air of season’s change.
Dark was once cancer in my brother’s body. Dark is death. The loss of a grandparent. A friend. A dream. Dark is a move miles and miles from home. It is marriage in turmoil. It is a miscarriage. Again. Dark is the loss of a job. A career. Uncertainty. It is pain. Dark is anger. Anguish. And grief. Dark is a broken body. In the hospital. Alone. At night. Dark is parenting in moments of fear. It is a lump. A test. A waiting room. Dark is the blank spots in my brain. The terrifying holes I fall in.
“I don’t want this winter!” I proclaim in futile protest. “I’m not ready. It’s too hard. Too cold. Too dark.”
But this evening I pull on my hat and my gloves. And walk into the fading light. I crunch through frosty leaves and icy puddles. Winter is coming. I can feel it. The deep, cold dark. I flip switches that may or may not produce the light that I want. And yet. In a Gospel of John + Barbara Brown Taylor mashup – these words: “There is a light which shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.”
There is a light which shines in the darkness.
This is the light that I need.
Last night I walked down the hill to watch the 9:30p sunset. We have more than 15 hours between sunrise and sunset now and all the recent long days of “warm” sunshine have gone a long way toward melting out the lingering piles of snow. Yesterday was the first day that the Anchorage snow cover dropped below 1″ in 138 days. We’ve gotten past the worst of sloppy spring Break Up and for the first time since my November surgery, I didn’t have to decide between ice bugs or xtratufs for a safe, dry sunset walk.
Sounds of Spring were everywhere last night. Seagulls screamed over my head and flocks of geese honked across their flightpath. A steady flow of snow melt beat a path into a nearby drain and I kicked a small stone down the sidewalk until it eventually skittered off the edge.
Out in the Park Strip geese were busy filling their bellies and to the east, the snow covered Chugach Mountains basked in the soft glow of fading evening light. Just at the top of the hill lay a watering hose where earlier in the day I’d chatted with the man who, perhaps a bit too eagerly, stood watering the single yellow crocus blooming there. But after a long, dark Anchorage winter, who can blame him for putting on shorts and running out to join the front edge of Spring? Not me!
How I have missed these evening walks! I could see the triangular heads of Denali and Foraker off in the distant north, as I descended to my spot at the end of the road. Voices floated up from the Coastal Trail below. For the first time in months, that trail is mostly clear of ice and snow. Runners. Bikers. Friends on a walk. “Do you want to go get a beer? We can have a birthday celebration!”
I’ve walked that trail with friends. I’ve biked it. Skied it. And run. Last spring and early summer I logged miles and miles there, chasing an elusive dream. Tonight I simply stood above, leaning my elbows on the fence. Watching. And remembering.
It was quiet in the space where I stood. On my left, a middle aged (more middle aged than me!) lady faced into the setting sun and slowly moved her body through yoga poses. In my side eye view I could see her face, wet with quiet tears. On my right, a scruffy young man drove up in his full sized pickup truck. He turned it off, got out, leaned against the door, and lit a cigarette. A few minutes later his camera shutter broke into our quiet. On the far side of the water a jagged line drew mountains on the horizon and the bright gleam of an orange sun slid down behind them, painting color across the evening sky.