After a day of rest, it’s time to hit the road again. Next stop: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where I’ll pick up Dad. We spoke at length yesterday about where and how we’ll meet up. Best case scenario: I pull up to the curb at baggage claim and he hops in. Worst case: I park in the airport’s cell phone lot until I hear from him.

The traffic I encountered on the highway two days ago doesn’t exist anymore. About an hour and a half after setting out, I reach the last stretch of highway before the exit for SeaTac. My phone rings; it’s Dad. “I’m at door 2,” he says.
“I’ll be there in shortly, ” I promise before hanging up. Within ten minutes, I’ve pulled up to the curb as he makes his way towards the Tank. He hops in, and off we go.

We stop a little ways north of the city to get lunch and fuel. Dad also checks the oil level of the car, and we discover that there is none. So when we stop for gas Dad also buys oil and shows me how to add it to the car.

During lunch, we discuss how much driving we’d like/need to accomplish today. One thing is clear: We can easily make it across the Canadian border and into British Columbia before stopping for the night. Getting to the border involves driving along back roads through several small communities. The border station itself sits in the middle of one such town. Two different buildings mark the border: The grey station of the US Border Guard, and the larger red building that houses their Canadian counterparts. I pull into the line at the Canadian border and watch as the cars ahead of us take their turns at the little windows. Things move at a decent pace, and it’s not long before I pull up to the window, greet the gentleman sitting there, and hand over Dad’s and my passports.

The last time I crossed the border in a car was at least a decade ago, and I wasn’t the driver of the vehicle. Fortunately, any fears I have are pretty quickly put to rest as I answer the guard’s questions. Within five minutes, he hands back our passports and wishes us a pleasant journey.

At first glance, the town on the other side of the border doesn’t appear all that different from the one we just left. Dad provides directions to the nearest highway, and as I pull into the flow of traffic I catch sight of a speed limit sign: “Maximum 90 km/h”. Okay, so things are a little different. As we drive, I notice other little differences, such as the way road signs are mounted on sign posts (instead of fastening them directly to the posts, the posts bend at a right angle near the top and the signs hang from the crosspiece). Within the first hour, I’ve gotten used to reading signs in metric and checking my speed using the interior numbers on the speedometer.

When I planned this trip, I seriously debated making a stop in Vancouver, because most of my favorite sci-fi TV shows are/were filmed there. Ultimately, I decided against it due to time and the trailer. However, I do get a kick out of seeing signs for it and places like Kelowna as we drive. (On the show “Stargate SG-1”, Kelowna was the name of a country on another planet. Yes, the show’s creative team mined the local maps for names.)

We decide to stop for the night in the town of Kamloops. Before heading to the hotel, we pull in to a gas station to fill up, and I discover another difference. As I expected, gas here is measured in litres. Prices are marked in cents per litre, but I don’t understand the logic, because all of the prices I see are things like “105.9 cents per litre”. In other words, $1.059 Canadian per litre. Why they don’t just write that is beyond me.

Dad and I are both tired, but before we turn in for the night we pull out the maps and TripTik. Thus far, the drive has been in relatively familiar territory. Now, we enter a world of unknowns. We spend the next half-hour or so plotting how far we think we can get each day and, most importantly, looking for fuel stops along the way. Neither one of us wants to be stranded in the mountains with no gas. Thank goodness for the internet: I use Google Maps to find likely gas stations along our predicted routes, while Dad checks the AAA maps for similar information. We decide that the best thing to do is to start looking for fuel when the gas gauge hits the halfway mark. We also agree that, while it will make for a long day, our next best stop is the town of Smithers.

All told, the drive from Kamloops to Smithers is rather uneventful. Lots of up and down on the mountain roads, but the roads themselves aren’t in too bad a shape. We see several signs warning of the dangers of fire at this time of year, and at one point Dad and I have a short debate about whether the haze we see is smoke or clouds. We’ve already had to adjust our route because the road we would otherwise have used is closed due to fires; neither one of us is eager to experience one first hand. A little while later, Dad notices a definite smoke cloud on the horizon; as we get closer, we discover that a large tractor trailer apparently caught fire. By the time we pass, local emergency response teams have doused the flames in the cab. That’s the most exciting part of the day.

The “maximum” speed on most of the roads is 100 km/h, or about 60 mph. After discussion and observing the locals, Dad and I decides it’s safe to go up to 65 mph.

By the time we reach Smithers, we’ve been on the road for almost 12 hours. Dad goes down to the hotel restaurant to get dinner, but I merely shower, pull on my pjs, and fall into bed.

Before leaving Smithers in the morning, Dad and I look again at the maps and TripTik. Our practice of looking for gas when the tank is half-full worked yesterday, so we’ll stick with that plan for today, as well. (We also bought a 5-gallon gas can and filled it at one of our stops yesterday, just in case.) Dad’s a little concerned by the notation in the TripTik of “rough roads” along our route today. As I point out, it’s not like we have many alternatives available. We do agree to take turns driving, as it’s going to be a long day.

The “rough road” warnings prove to be less than accurate. Instead, we spend more time dealing with lower speeds, narrower roads, and more up-and-down as we pass through the mountains. Dad and I keep chuckling over the signs along the road that warn of livestock and/or wildlife for the next so many kilometers. “How do the animals know where to be?” Dad jokes. However, just after passing into the Yukon I have to hit the brakes for a bear crossing the road. Later, I notice a bush awfully close to the highway. When it moves, I realize it’s a porcupine. And not long before we quit for the night a coyote almost runs right in front of us. By the time we pull into Whitehorse that night, we’ve been on the road for 16 hours. For the first time on the trip, we get caught out by not having a reservation for a hotel. Fortunately, one of the desk clerks calls another nearby hotel and finds a room for us.

Morning brings rain, grey skies, and cool temperatures. For the first time this trip, I pull on socks and sneakers instead of my sandals. It’s going to be another long day on the road: Our goal is Anchorage, some 700 miles away.

If yesterday’s roads didn’t live up to the “rough road” advisory, today’s route more than makes up for it. Apparently we chose peak construction season to drive through here. It feels like we see a sign warning of either loose gravel or uneven surfaces every five minutes. We also pass through a couple of areas where road crews are actively working. Mid-morning, we come to yet another construction zone. This time, a “DETOUR” sign points off to the right-hand side of the road. At first glance, following the detour will send you over a cliff. Dad slowly creeps forward until the detour is revealed: A temporary gravel road that runs parallel to the actual road, which currently doesn’t exist. The sign doesn’t warn about the crater masquerading as a pothole at the bottom of this runaround; we discover that for ourselves. Fortunately, Dad gets us back on to the main road with no real difficulties.

The construction areas continue throughout the mountains, including two sections where we have to wait for pace cars to guide us through active work zones. Those aren’t the only “fun” parts of the days drive. After all, mountains mean narrow, twisty roads that change elevation on a routine basis. Since the trip started, I’ve learned that the Tank currently handles more like a tractor trailer than a car, so I know to pay attention to signs like those that announce steep grades. Dad also knows this, so when we pass a sign warning of an 8% grade for the next 2 km, he quickly disengages the cruise control and rests his hands on the shifter paddles. (I’ve always thought this an interesting design: Rather than using the gearshift to make adjustments, the Tank has two paddles just behind the steering wheel that let you up- or downshift while keeping both hands on the wheel.) The hood of the car dips, and dips, and dips…. I can hear and feel the engine growl as Dad downshifts, but gravity and inertia keep us moving at a higher speed than I think he finds comfortable. Meanwhile, the road continues to twist and turn and HOLY CRAP THERE’S A HAIRPIN TURN. One of those where you end up facing back the way you came. Dad almost stands on the brake as he eases the car through the turn. Thankfully, that’s the only turn of its kind on this stretch of road, and the grade ends and the road flattens out not long thereafter. “Did I mention how glad I am you’re here to take a turn at driving?” I ask.

A little while later, we make another fuel stop. When we pull out, I’m once again behind the wheel. As we get closer to the border, Dad and I both wonder if there will be any difference in road conditions between countries.

This border crossing worries me more than the last. Since Inauguration Day, I know things have gotten worse for those trying to get into the US, whether they’re a citizen or not. (Just two days ago, I read an American’s account of re-entering the country after spending the last year abroad.) Also since Inauguration Day, I’ve been more nervous about my dealings with people like the TSA. The number of stories about transgender individuals being harassed by people in uniform seems to have only gone up in the last six months. Yes, I “pass” and all of my documents say “M”, but after spending a dozen or so years affirming my gender to various officials during travel old habits and thought patterns still kick in. Thankfully, I worry for nothing. The border guard asks a few more questions than his Canadian counterpart did three days ago, but in the end waves us through.

There’s not much difference in road conditions between countries, something Dad and I suspect has to do with the similar geography of the two areas. After all, a remote mountain road can likely only be built and maintained so many ways. I get to take a turn at guiding the car and trailer through several more “detours” like the one Dad navigated (thankfully without the pothole). After four days of driving in Canada, it seems odd to once more see signs marked in miles, and it takes my brain a couple of tries to remember to look at the outer ring of numbers on the speedometer.

We stop for a late lunch in Tok, the first/last large town in Alaska on the highway. It’s not the most scientific method, but as soon as I see a sign for “Fast Eddy’s” restaurant, I ask Dad if we should give it a try. Dad agrees without hesitation. We both know any relation is highly unlikely, but there’s a character named Fast Eddie in one of our favorite sci-fi book series. Regardless, we get a decent meal and leave feeling ready to tackle the rest of the day’s drive.

From Tok to Glennallen, the roads aren’t nearly as exciting as this morning. I almost feel like I’m driving back in South Dakota again, although the moose we pass quickly dispels that notion. I also have to slow down at one point when a fox dashes across the road in front of us. After Glennallen, we enter the Matanuska Valley and it’s back to narrow, twisting mountain roads. Dad and I agree that these mountains look different than those we drove through earlier in the day, but neither one of us can quite put a finger on why. Certainly the clouds and sporadic rain add an air of mystery to our surroundings, as there’s no telling how high some of these peaks stand. I get to drive another hairpin turn in the rain, although Dad and I agree the one he got us through earlier in the day was more exciting. At one point, we pass a stalled pickup pulling a “fifth-wheel” motor home. The truck is about halfway up one section of road, pointed uphill. We’re going the opposite direction, but are both relieved to see another truck pull over to help.

Eventually, we come down out of the mountains and see something we haven’t seen in days: A real highway! Multiple lanes in either direction, on and off ramps, speeds above 55 mph, streetlights, the works. After the roads we’ve driven up to this point, it almost feels like the car could steer itself from here to the hotel.

The closer we get to Anchorage, the more names I recognize on signs. It’s a little comforting, but not nearly as much fun as the names we’ve seen over the last couple of days. Many of the creeks and rivers we passed by or over were labeled. Dad and I were particularly fond of Dry Creek numbers 1 and 2, and Snag Creek. I also got a kick out of Wickersham Road (because my brain immediately begins to supply Seussical lyrics).

After our experience in Whitehorse the previous night, we made sure to book a room ahead of time for tonight. Parking the trailer in the hotel lot is a little more interesting than it has been, but in the end I manage. We’ve covered over 700 miles today, and I am more than ready for bed.

Since the trip from Anchorage to my new home will only take a couple of hours, we don’t have to rush out the door this morning. After consulting with Dad about how his back is feeling (he hurt it right before he flew out to meet me, and sitting for long stretches of time hasn’t exactly been ideal), I contact my friend Michael to see if he’s available for the remaining part of the drive and to help unload the trailer at the end. Thankfully, he says yes. Before we leave to pick him up, Dad and I take check over the Tank and the trailer. I move things around inside the car so Michael has a place to sit. Dad plans to empty our “just in case” gas can into the car, so he unlocks the trailer to retrieve it. He bursts in to laughter and calls for me to come take a look. I do, and also have to laugh: Apparently, the seal around the doors wasn’t quite as tight as we thought, because there’s a layer of grey and brown dust over things at the very back of the trailer. Fortunately, nothing has been damaged; we’ll just have to wipe a few things down when we pull them out later.

Twenty minutes later, we’re pulling in to the parking lot of a local store. Michael hops in the car, and we’re off.

I’ve ridden in the car down this highway before, but only as a passenger. A year or so ago, Michael, D, and I went camping in Homer, which is on the opposite side of the peninsula from my new home. No matter where you’re going, you start out on the same road. However, we pass by the turnoff that would have taken us to Homer. Once again, I’m in new territory.

I’m glad Michael was able to come with us. Not only is it nice to visit with him, but he also has helpful advice about driving this road, like the areas where you really have to obey the speed limit. Of course, with the loaded trailer I’m lucky to get up to the speed limit in some places, but it’s still good advice. After the excitement of yesterday’s drive, the roads here are almost tame: No loose gravel, only a couple of (currently non-active) construction zones, and no hairpin turns.

Dad’s been using his cell phone as a camera almost constantly since we left Anchorage. Bright sunlight fills the sky, occasionally blocked by puffy white clouds. The number of buildings along the road increases as we approach the town. We still see signs that make us laugh, too. My favorite is a sign for a campground, immediately followed by a turnoff with a huge sign stating, “NOT THE CAMPGROUND”. (The campground’s turnoff is the one after that.) The highway runs directly in to my new town, and actually turns in to a street that goes right past my apartment. Miraculously, there’s street parking right in front of the building, and the space is big enough to accommodate the Tank and the trailer. Over the next few hours, Dad, Michael, and I: discover that my new home is less than a block from the beach, get lunch at a great little cafe with an incredible ocean view, explore the waterfront, get the keys for my apartment, and finally unpack the trailer.

I promised Michael we’d get him back to Anchorage this evening, so not long after the trailer is empty the three of us hop back in the car. Before we leave, I text my other friend D. When I left Nunap in the spring, I had to mail out everything I wanted to take with me. D graciously agreed to let me use one of the empty rooms at her place as storage, so I only had to mail things to Anchorage instead of all the way back to Pennsylvania. Since we’re headed back up anyway, I want to see about picking things up tonight. She replies once we’re on the road. Dad reads the message for me: “See you soon!”

Driving with an empty trailer is an interesting experience, especially over some of the bumpier portions of the route.

After dropping Michael off, Dad and I head over to D’s. Both D and her significant other, Boo, help with loading the trailer. I’m sorry that we can’t stay longer to visit, but it’s already after 8 and Dad and I plan to spend the night in my apartment, which means another 2 hour drive. So I say my thanks, promise to come visit soon, exchange hugs, and hop back in the car.

When we finally pull up next to the apartment, I heave a sigh of relief. This trip has been an amazing experience. And it’s finally done.

 

Since my new job in Alaska is on the road system, I always planned to take a car. After some research, it became apparent the cheapest, easiest way to get said car, my belongings, and me to Alaska would be to drive across the Lower 48 and Canada.

Preparations for the road trip start almost as soon as I get back to the Lower 48 in late May. I research several different means of moving, including renting a truck, paying movers, and renting a trailer. The trailer quickly becomes the best (read: cheapest) option. Then I have to decide: Which car do I take? My car, Icarus, doesn’t have a trailer hitch. One can be installed, but is it really wise to then immediately use it to tow who knows how much stuff over 4000 miles? Through mountains? After much research, consultation, and internal debate, I decide to swap cars with Dad.

The Wednesday before I leave, we go to AAA to start the process of transferring the title for my new car, the Tank. Since I’m a resident of Alaska, I’ll have to complete the process there when I arrive.

The day before I leave, I pick up the trailer from a local U-Haul supplier. I get a chuckle out of the fact that the trailer bears a Florida license plate. It provides a humorous contrast to the Tank’s Pennsylvania plate, and both will look awesomely hilarious once I get to Alaska.

I started boxing and piling belongings in June. Even so, loading the trailer takes the better part of two-and-a-half hours. Dad and I do the organizing and  heavy lifting. Mom takes pictures, wraps fragile items in bubble wrap, and  makes sure the cats don’t sneak outside when we have to open the door. Around 10:30 that night, I declare things done until the next day.

The morning I leave, I finish packing up a few last-minute items. Dad and I finish loading the “big” stuff into the trailer. Smaller, more fragile items get placed in the car. My goal is to be on the road by 10, and I make it.

The first 250 or so miles are in familiar territory: Western Pennsylvania and most of Ohio. Good thing, too, as that allows me to pay more attention to how the Tank handles with a fully-loaded trailer attached. I get a little confused at the first rest stop: Do I park in the car or truck area? Fortunately, I see someone else’s car with a U-Haul trailer parked in an out-of-the-way corner of the car lot, and follow their example.

My goal for the first day is to make it past Chicago. My route doesn’t take me right through the city, but rather on one of the “bypass” highways around it. Even so, it’s still very crowded. Fortunately, everyone is moving at a slow enough pace and paying attention to everyone else that I have no difficulties. I end the day’s drive just south of the Illinois/Wisconsin border.

One bonus about the first day’s drive: my EZPass tag for the PA Turnpike is also accepted in every state I drive through, so I don’t have to worry about stopping at toll booths.

The second day of the road trip turns out to be the wettest so far: Rain starts about three-quarters of the way through Wisconsin and continues through the first half of Minnesota. Between the poor visibility, construction zones, and road conditions, I don’t have much time to look at the scenery.

Speaking of road conditions, even at this point the trip has proven educational. I’m used to blacktop asphalt (in many cases, faded to grey) and concrete. The blacktop in Indiana seemed to be a different mixture than I’ve driven on before, somehow stickier and more likely to grab the car. When the rain lets up in Minnesota, I notice that the blacktop here has faded to a rosy purple color.

The first day of the trip, I listened only to music. Today, I try a podcast many of my friends have talked about, “Welcome to Night Vale”. It’s as funny as they promised, but I quickly discover I should only listen to a few episodes at a time or else I’m in danger of falling asleep to the narrator’s voice. (The show is a fictional NPR-style news report from a desert town full of strange happenings.)

By the time I reach South Dakota, the sun shines again. Huge billboards line the road, advertising places like Wall Drug and Mount Rushmore, which are hundreds of miles away. I feel a little giddy, too, because one of my favorite TV shows, Warehouse 13, was set in this state, and as I move further west the landscape begins to look almost familiar.

At one point, I see signs for De Smet, and I have to smile. Some of the first chapter books I read were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House stories, and her family settled in De Smet towards the end of her childhood. Sure enough, signs for the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes appear as the exit approaches. I’m tempted to make the trip, even if it is out of my way. Ultimately, I don’t; I’m just not sure enough about my timing (I’m meeting Dad in Seattle on Tuesday). I do make a promise to myself that one day I will go visit.

Ultimately, I stop for the night in a small town almost halfway across the state. Now I really feel like I stepped into the world of the Warehouse because, aside from the hill the town sits on, it’s the exact same type of small town depicted on the show. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s just a television show, and anyway, the town closest to the Warehouse would be further west.

Day three’s drive brings lots of incredible views, as I cover the rest of South Dakota, cut through the northeast corner of Wyoming, and enter Montana. (Despite the urging of the billboards, I don’t stop at either Wall Drug or Mount Rushmore; those will be visited on a future trip, too.) For some reason, I always pictured these states as being flat. I’m wrong, as any elevation map will show. After all, these are the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

South Dakota also brings a new speed limit, and with it, a lesson in what the Tank can do. As soon as I cross the eastern border of the state, the speed limit jumps to 80 miles per hour. The Tank manages 70 (the previous highest limit) alright, but 80 proves to be too taxing when pulling a loaded trailer. It sinks my gas mileage like a rock, and I can hear the engine straining. So I keep the cruise control set at 70, and get very used to being passed.

In the South Dakota town where I spent the night, I saw a historical marker for the Lewis and Clark trail. When I enter Montana hours later, I see four more markers along the highway. I wonder what the explorers would have thought about the fact that I can travel the same distance in a day that took them months.

I stop for the night in Bozeman, Montana, about halfway through the state. I haven’t yet bothered with reserving a room ahead of time, and have done just fine so far. Most nights once I get to the hotel I go for a swim (I always check in to someplace with a pool), shower, take an hour or so to clean out my inboxes, do a stretching routine, and fall in to bed. Tonight, I make a point of looking at the map and seeing how much further I have to go until Seattle. I’m making good time: If I push, I could theoretically reach there tomorrow. However, it’s only the 23rd. Dad doesn’t fly in until the 25th. While part of me would like to explore the city, I also don’t want to deal with city hotel prices or taking the trailer through city traffic any more than I have to. So I start looking, and find a hotel about an hour and a half’s drive outside of the city. I can easily reach it, and then stay there for a day of rest before I pick up Dad and we head north. For the first time so far this trip, I make a reservation.

Montana becomes more and more mountainous as my drive continues the next day. I make a point of getting gas when I stop for lunch, because I don’t want something to happen in the mountains. The mountain roads in Montana aren’t scary, but I definitely have to pay attention to what I’m doing: Keep a close eye on the vehicles ahead of me, watch my mirrors for people behind me, remember to turn off the cruise control when going downhill. The last couple of days, I’d gotten used to keeping the cruise control on unless passing through a construction zone, and only occasionally seeing other vehicles. Thank goodness I’ve figured out how to best utilize my mirrors by now. (The trailer is short enough that I removed the side mirror extension after the first day, and I can actually sort of see around its edges in the rearview, just enough that I can tell when it’s safe to merge back into the right hand lane.)

The last few miles in Montana, I’m constantly going uphill as I watch the mile markers shrink towards zero. Just before they do, I reach the peak of whatever mountain I’m scaling. The car’s nose dips, and I barely see the “Welcome to Idaho” sign before I have to start downshifting again. I do notice a sign that warns trucks that the current steep grade goes on for the next five miles and think to myself, Hang on!

I’m only in Idaho for about an hour. The first towns I pass as I come down through the mountains are actually underneath the highway; it seems the designers decided it was easier to just build the road as a series of overpasses in some spots. The ground finally levels out somewhat, but the cruise control is off more than on for this part of the trip.

Of all of the places I’ve seen so far, Idaho wins for sheer amazingness. Conifer forests cover the mountains, which overshadow the road by a considerable distance. Yet as I reach the center of this part of the state, I also see some really amazing valleys. Towards the western border, the road passes near a HUGE lake that disappears over the horizon. (Later, I look it up on Google maps and discover it’s called the Harrison Slough, and it’s even bigger than I thought.) It would be so easy to just drive through the state without stopping, but I do pull in to the one and only rest area on that stretch of road to refill my water bottles. This also allows me to correctly state that I’ve stopped at least once in each state I’ve driven through.

It seems my wrong assumptions about things aren’t done yet. I thought Washington would be more like Idaho: mountains all over the place. Instead, once I pass Spokane I’m treated to more rolling prairie like that in South Dakota. Until I get closer to the Columbia River. At that point, the hills become more pronounced again.

About three miles before I reach the exit for the hotel, I hit the first real traffic of this whole trip. The construction zone there has the westbound highway down to one lane for a little bit. But that doesn’t seem to be the problem. For no reason I can see, cars are just stopped. On a lark, I pull out my phone and start the stopwatch. Inch by inch, I finally approach the exit I want, and I’m glad to leave the traffic behind. I stop and get gasoline before heading for the hotel. While at the pump, I stop the stopwatch: 27 minutes to get three miles. That’s just slightly faster than my top running speed. Now I’m really glad I didn’t try to push through to Seattle.

Maybe it’s the strain from all the traveling. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve crossed three different timezones since the drive started. (Fun fact: When you drive, they put big signs by the road to tell you when you enter a different time zone.) Maybe my body is just reacting to the knowledge that I’m staying put tomorrow. Whatever reason, I’m so tired that I crash into bed around 8:30.

I sleep soundly until 6:30 this morning. Since I’m not getting on the road today, I don’t have to worry yet about packing up my things. I spend an hour or so figuring out logistics for tomorrow. I go out and take a look at the Tank’s oil level (the light briefly came on yesterday) and check that things in the trailer are still where Dad and I put them. My sister calls, and we visit for a bit. Dad and I talk several times to figure out what’s going on with the car (our best theory is that the heat yesterday caused the oil to foam) and to figure out where and how we’re meeting up at SeaTac. I look at the maps for the next part of the drive. I write up the first half of the trip as a blog post. In a little while, I’ll go swimming again. And tomorrow, the journey continues.

Five years ago today I woke up elated and afraid. Elated because I was getting top surgery! Afraid because I was getting top surgery.

I suspect the joy is a little easier to understand. From the moment I hit puberty the first time, I loathed the way my upper body looked. Initially I denied the changes that occurred right under my nose; once I finally acknowledged them, I refused to step out of the house in anything other than a tight sports bra. When my costume for the musical during my sophomore year didn’t allow for that, I wore a tight tankini instead. I tried wearing traditional bras a couple of times, but I hated how they felt and how they made me look. When I hit college and began Transitioning, I switched to Ace bandages for a while (not one of my brighter ideas) before finally purchasing several binders. Essentially a double-layer spandex undershirt, these garments flattened my torso even more than the sports bras had, letting me “pass” as a man when I wore clothes. I also bought a special binder made of swimsuit material for the summers, so I didn’t have to fight with a girl’s one-piece suit anymore. As long as I wore clothes, I was somewhat comfortable in my body. But that wasn’t enough. I remembered times as a kid when I ran around with no shirt on. I remember closing my eyes in the shower when my body began changing, and training myself to not look below shoulder level in mirrors if I didn’t have at least a bra on. The binders may have been a help, but they also added two very tight layers under my normal clothes, which meant I overheated even more easily than I always had. And I wanted back the feeling of freedom I had as a kid, when I felt more comfortable in my own skin.

From the moment I realized that I had to Transition to keep going, I wanted top surgery. For an assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB) individual like me, that means I would basically get a mastectomy.  It’s not something every trans person wishes for, or can afford. But I knew that for me to be truly happy I needed it. The biggest question became when, as most insurance companies at the time didn’t cover ANY costs related to the procedure. So I kept working, kept saving, and did research. I learned about the different types of top surgery: Depending on how large your chest was pre-operation, the surgeon might opt to do “keyhole” surgery or a bilateral mastectomy with nipple grafts. The former procedure leaves less visible scars, because the incisions are made in the nipples. It also works best for folks who are no larger than an A or small B cup. I realized pretty quickly that I’d likely end up having the second procedure.

Spring of 2012 brought with it that long-term substitute teaching job, and with it, a large paycheck. As soon as I realized just how much money I’d have by the end of the semester, I kicked my surgery research in to high gear, because there was a very good chance I could have the procedure done that summer. After looking at costs and reviews, I scheduled my procedure with Dr. Medalie in Cleveland. And the countdown to 25 June began.

Even with how excited I was when I woke up that day five years ago, I was also a little afraid. As much as I disliked it, my body was still a known quantity, and had been for years. I’d never had surgery like this before; what would that be like? I’d seen a video on Dr. Medalie’s web site of the procedure, so I knew exactly what was about to happen. How much was it going to hurt? And what if, after all of this, I wasn’t happy with the results? What then?

Dr. Medalie performs this surgery as an outpatient procedure, so I didn’t spend any time in a hospital. I arrived at the surgery center a couple of hours before the procedure, and was back in the hotel room by early evening. The next few days proved to be the biggest trial of my whole Transition: The dressings on my chest and drains in my sides made moving around too much painful, and I couldn’t really move my shoulders. The drains also meant I had to sleep on my back (NOT my preferred sleeping position). I forced myself to relax as much as possible and spent the week catching up on sci-fi TV shows.

One week after the surgery, the drains came out, the dressings came off, and I got to see the new me. My first look didn’t do much to dispel my previous fear: The grafts and incisions were still in the early stages of healing, my skin was prickly with re-growing hair (my chest was shaved prior to surgery), and patches of yellow and orange showed where I’d been swabbed with iodine during the procedure. But over the next few weeks, as I exercised and stretched and got back to the business of living my life, I realized that the fear had proved unfounded.

Five years later, I have no concerns about how my chest looks. Regular exercise has allowed me to build a decent amount of muscle; between that and my body hair the scars of my surgery are a little hard to see unless you know what to look for. I no longer wear multiple layers of clothes to hide my shape, only for comfort. The first time I went swimming in just trunks ranks as one of the happiest days of my life. In many ways, five years ago today marked the start of ME.

When the school year ended, I didn’t know where I’d be at the end of the summer. I had hopes, based on several interviews, but no one had yet hired me. So I came back to the hometown with a huge question mark hanging in the air, the implied “What’s next?”

In the ensuing weeks, I’ve visited friends and family, gone to the movies and the library, relaxed as much as I can. All the time, that annoying question mark stayed put, just at the edge of my thoughts, ready and waiting to bring with it a whole host of other questions and worries: What if no one wants me? I know I’ve said I’ll work as a sub again, but can I really survive that? What’s taking so long???  

Actually, I already knew the answer to that last one: The state of Alaska had yet to finalize it’s budget for next year, so schools didn’t know their funding situation. This led in turn to a hiring freeze. Several times since I’ve gotten back to the Lower 48, I’ve had an e-mail or a phone call from some of the principals who interviewed me, telling me that they still couldn’t move forward with the hiring process. I also got automatically generated messages from the school HR sites, saying I hadn’t been accepted for other jobs I’d applied for.

Last Wednesday, I finally got a call from one of the principals. After thanking me for being so patient, she told me that someone else had been hired. I thanked her for letting me know, and for keeping me in the loop this whole time. I felt disappointed as I hung up the phone; that interview had gone really well, and I felt like I would be a good fit for that school.

Less than an hour later, I got a phone call from a different principal. Would I like a job? HECK YEAH! I may or may not have been jumping around the room in glee while telling him I accepted the position.

Instead of a village of 500 people, I’ll now be living in a town of about 3,000. My comings and goings will no longer be restricted by access to plane, boat, or snowmobile; the town is on the road system! I can take my car! I have a decent shot at a social life beyond my co-workers. I can get plugged in to the LGBT community at large and the trans community in particular in a way that I couldn’t really manage from the middle of nowhere. There will be mountains and trees and ocean, as opposed to flat, unending tundra. I don’t know too much about the job yet, only that it will be a “multi-grade intermediate classroom”. That translates to some combination of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders; the exact mix will be determined once the school administration has a better handle on numbers. In the meantime, I get to spend the next couple of months filling out a mountain of paperwork, researching apartments, and getting ready to move again. New adventures, here I come!

In one week, I leave Nunap. Not just for the summer, but for good.

Oh, I plan to return at some point to visit. But as of midday on the 22nd, I will no longer reside here. My resignation got turned in months ago, and I began actively searching for a new job a couple of months before that.

The reality of this decision really hit home today. While I’ve been packing things slowly over the last couple of weeks, my goal for this weekend was to finish as much as possible. The apartment certainly isn’t up to my usual standards of cleanliness. Several plastic totes and large boxes are strewn about, two of which are sealed and ready for mailing labels. Bubble wrap and butcher paper are piled on the carpet in front of the TV next to the tape gun. Books no longer adorn the bookshelves; instead, only various Star Wars figures lay on their backs or stand in their packaging, waiting to be put in whatever box has room. Only the calendar graces the bulletin board, and I can see faded outlines from where the posters and other items used to hang. In the bedroom, few clothes still hang in my “closet”, and the dressers drawers hold less than half of what they once did. I had the blinds up today to let in the sun, and as I worked I could see a crowd of middle schoolers playing basketball and riding bikes on the playdeck. At one point, as I watched three of the boys repair the hoop they built themselves (the old one fell down almost a year ago and hasn’t been replaced), it occurred to me that this is one of the last times I’ll see these kids like this, and I felt a little sad. I got the same feeling yesterday when Kelly brought more boxes over (she’s moving in to this apartment next year) and had two of my former students helping her. The kids happily put the boxes where directed before looking around. “So empty!” the one said. The other, who’s been one of my most frequent visitors since I moved in, asked my permission and, after receiving an affirmative answer, took up her usual place on the recliner while chattering away.

I’ll miss the kids. I’ll miss my co-workers, especially Lucas, Andy, and Kelly. But it’s time to move on.

When I took this job three years ago, I had very little idea of what I was getting in to. Prior to moving up here, I had only the vaguest idea of the geography of Alaska, its history, what the people were like. At an earlier point in my life, I’d’ve been terrified of moving so far away from everything I knew and found familiar. But I wanted to get back in to teaching. And I was ready for an adventure. So I took the job. I figured I’d learn about a new part of the world, gain some new experiences, and probably come back to my hometown in a couple of years with some great stories.

One thing I didn’t really imagine was falling in love with the state. While part of me will always be back in my hometown, I have become so fond of Alaska that I’m only looking at new teaching jobs here in the state, albeit on the road system.The last year or so, I could feel myself stagnating, the routines of living and working in such a small place seeping in and setting like concrete. The familiarity brought some comfort with it, but lately it’s just been stifling. Even though I’ve come to appreciate the stark beauty of the tundra, I long for things like trees and hills or mountains to break up the unending flatness. And while I’m glad to have had the experience and stories that come with living in such a remote location, I desperately want to get back to where I have more control over my comings and goings, where I have places to go to and come from. Going along with that last thought, I’m also ready to live in a larger community again, both from a geography and a population standpoint.

In the end, though, I’m just ready to move on. It’s time for the next adventure.

 

I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for the last hour and a half, trying to put my thoughts into words, to make this post coherent. I don’t know if that’s even possible.

It’s been less than a month since my world turned sideways. On 28 February, I got a text message from Mom: “CJ call my cell”. I immediately thought something had happened to one of my grandparents. Instead, I learned that my cousin J had died. He was one month older than me.

According to the family photo albums, J and I met for the first time in early 1988, at the ages of 7 months and 6 months, respectively. I don’t remember that meeting; my memory may be good, but it doesn’t reach back that far! The pictures show that we got along right from the start, crawling around Aunt S’s house and playing with each other and M, J’s older sister.

For most of our lives, J and I lived in different cities in different states. Even so, we remained close. As kids, our time together would be spent playing with action figures, racing Hot Wheels cars, leaving rubber snakes all over the place, and chasing each other and our sisters with Nerf guns. With our sisters, we’d put on “magic shows”, consisting of tricks, songs, puppets, and general silliness. Most summers, his family would come to the Lake for at least a long weekend. We four cousins would spend the days in the water, tumbling one another off the rafts, blasting one another with water guns, and having dock jumping contests. For this activity, we’d stand at the beach end of the dock and run the whole length before flying off the other end into the water. Points were awarded for how far you could jump, or for how silly your jump looked.

Life got a little more complicated in high school (whose didn’t?). We both had known for years that we were different, but now we finally had words for those differences and used them when we talked. He was bisexual. I liked girls, so society at the time labeled me a lesbian. I didn’t have many people I felt comfortable talking to about this stuff, and I don’t think he did, either. Having each other there was a huge help and relief. Other topics of conversation included the latest Broadway shows, if the X-Men movies were as good as the comics we used to read, and our experiences with our respective high schools’ marching bands and spring musicals.

We started college at the same time, but our paths diverged pretty sharply from there. Over the next five years, I came out as a guy and began my Transition while completing first a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s. J left college, worked in retail for a time before moving into social services, and settled into a relationship with a guy. Our conversations became less frequent, but that didn’t mean we didn’t know or care about one another.

J spent the last four years managing a seizure disorder. Among other things, it led to the break up of his relationship, moving between several jobs, and ultimately, moving to my hometown and moving back in with his mom. I hated the circumstances, but I was happy to have one of my oldest friends close by when I would come back from Alaska. One of my strongest memories comes from the summer between my first and second years on the tundra, J’s first summer in the city. Prior to that year, I’d been keeping some of my things (okay, most of the stuff I didn’t take to Alaska) in Aunt S’s garage. Well, the stuff had been there for almost two years, and between that and J moving in, I decided it was high time to move all of that stuff to a storage unit. The day of the move, J graciously helped me load the boxes into the truck, rode with me to the storage facility, and helped unload everything and cart it into the new locker.

After J died, I felt like I needed to come back to my hometown. It’s not the first death that’s happened since I moved, but for the first time I could not keep my mind on my life on the tundra. I could have rushed back right away, but with no sub plans ready I knew I’d be even more stressed out if I tried. Instead, I spent a week and a half teaching and preparing sub plans and went to a job fair in Anchorage before hopping on a plane for the Lower 48. I’ve spent the past two and a half days connecting with family and friends. Yesterday I drove out to the storage unit. The entire time I was there, I could not stop thinking about how J helped me out with that initial trip. I’ve visited with my aunt several times, and each time I walk into her house I half expect to hear his voice. Because of the seizures, J couldn’t drive, so when I was in town I’d take him wherever he needed to go. A couple of times, as I’ve driven somewhere this trip, I would almost swear I’d see J out of the corner of my eye, sitting in the passenger seat.

I’m glad I came back. Being here has allowed me to breathe, just breathe, and process all that’s happened. The last two weeks in Alaska, I’ve felt like a sleepwalker. I couldn’t seem to get a good night’s sleep, yet several mornings getting out of bed was almost impossible. My mind kept going back over my last interactions with J during this past holiday season. I broke down in my apartment several times. And yes, I’ve had similar crying jags a couple of times while I’ve been here. But here, I don’t have to be Mr. CJ. I don’t have to worry about explaining everything I’m going through. I can grieve, I can breathe, and I’m a little more settled in my head now than I have been lately. And now I feel like I can actually say good-bye.

 

 

My first winter in Alaska didn’t have a lot of snow. A few inches covered the tundra from November until early April, getting replenished every once in a while, but never in large amounts. That winter stands out most for the fact that all of February passed without a single positive temperature. Ambient temperatures hovered in the -20s, and the wind chill frequently pulled that down to -40. I didn’t set foot outside without my heavy parka, insulated bib overalls, boots, gloves, hat, face mask, and goggles.

Last year’s winter had more snow and less extreme cold. I don’t think we ever saw below -25 with a windchill. On my return from the semester break, I enjoyed the discovery of at least a foot of snow covering everything, with drifts in some places that came up past my waist. One drift outside the store actually stood tall enough that you could almost walk directly onto the porch without needing the few stairs left uncovered. (Even this amount doesn’t match the stories I’ve heard from the locals. Several people have shared that, as recently as five or six years ago, so much snow would fall that buildings would effectively be buried, and you’d need to dig down into your home.)

This winter has been the most “Alaska” winter so far. As early as November, we experienced those incredibly cold temperatures again. Since the beginning of the calendar year, we’ve had what I consider record lows, including one day with an ambient temperature of -27 and a wind chill of -57. (That day, Lucas, Kelly, and I tried for ourselves the fact that boiling water thrown in the air will instantly freeze.) We’ve also had 3 outright blizzards since the beginning of the semester, two necessitating early dismissals and one cancelling school completely. Thanks to the snow, wind, ice fog, and low cloud ceilings, we’ve had more than a few days where no planes have flown, complicating travel plans and stopping the mail. The blizzards have brought quite a bit of snow, but the winds carry much of it away again. What doesn’t blow away gets sculpted into amazing forms. I look forward to what the rest of winter brings!