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Monthly Archives: August 2017

Located in southwestern Alaska, the village of Nunap is home to around 500 people, predominantly members of the Yup’ik tribe. The village can’t be accessed by road; plane, boat, snowmobile, and “river taxi” (driving in a car or truck on the frozen river) are the only ways in or out. For three years, I lived there and taught at the one and only school.

From Anchorage, you can drive onto the Seward Highway. Follow the road for the next 120-odd miles, and you arrive in Seward, the town. The year-round population of the town sits around 2500, although during tourist season that number goes up quite a bit. The airport serves more as a hub for sight-seeing flights in small planes or helicopters. Earlier this summer, I accepted a job from the local school district to work at the local elementary school. Two weeks ago, I finally started work.

Last year, the Nunap school housed just under 230 students, ranging from kindergarten through 12th grade. The hallways of the school make a squared-off U shape. One of the long halls is the “elementary side”, while the other is the “high school side” (everything from 6th grade on up). The short hallway has the main office, the teachers’ work room, and the office of the school tech guy. The gym/cafeteria/auditorium fills the center of the U, and the kindergarten classroom is actually in the old school building, a short walk away. On the elementary side, more often than not there is only one class per grade. Teachers on the high school side sometimes have to share rooms, and every available space is used for storage.

The elementary school in Seward is one of three school buildings. Currently, I believe it houses slightly less than 300 students from pre-kindergarten through 5th grade. My classroom is the only 4th-grade-only space, but Mrs. Rose down the hall has a mixed group of 3rd and 4th grade. The building is basically a straight line: The north wing houses pre-k through 2nd grade, while the south wing has 3rd through 5th. The central area has the main office, music room, gym/auditorium, library, nurse’s office, teachers’ lounge and work room, and the special education “suite”. In addition to classrooms, the south wing also has a “science lab” (a classroom dedicated solely to science instruction for all of us teachers to share), and a classroom for the gifted program.

Class sizes in Nunap could vary quite a bit from year to year. My first year, I had 19 3rd graders. The second year, 22 kids crowded into my room. Last year, I started off with 11 students, but by the end of the year only 9 kids called me their teacher. The first two years, I had an aide in my room for at least part of the day. Otherwise, I was with my kids the whole day: I taught not only the academic subjects but also P.E. and music, handled art at least half the time, supervised recess, passed out bandages and ice packs, and often made phone calls when students fell ill. My friend and colleague Andy was the elementary Special Education and resource room teacher, so she’d take those that had IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) and provide me with strategies and tools to reach those students who needed a leg up (a label that, quite frankly, applied to the majority of my kiddos).

As of this coming Monday, I’ll have 28 students on my roster. (Fortunately, my classroom here is double the size of the one I had in Nunap.) I’m still responsible for the academic subjects and art, but I now have colleagues who are certified in PE and music and library who work with my students. There’s an actual school nurse, so I only need to worry about handing out bandages. Recess duty rotates among the staff, and we have enough people that I’ll only have to do it for six or seven weeks out of the entire school year. And there’s an entire team of Special Education teachers and interventionists who will work with my students that need additional help.

The support staff at Nunap school were all village natives. The teaching staff were almost entirely non-native and non-local, coming from all over the Lower 48. Age-wise, most of the teachers were twenty-somethings taking their first “real” teaching job out of college. They may or may not have significant others. Those who weren’t were often older, with grown children back in whatever state they originally called home. Outside of school, some teachers hunted and fished with the locals, or went to feasts or other get-togethers at locals’ houses. Most of the teachers would get together in some group or other, whether for movie or game nights, dinners, or Sunday pancakes at Lucas and Andy’s place. 

As near as I can tell, I’m now the baby of the elementary staff. Many of my colleagues are married or have significant others. Most of them also have children, some of whom are students at the school. At this point, I haven’t really socialized with my coworkers outside of school.

In the villages of Nunap’s school district, the district provided and maintained teacher housing. I spent the last two years living in an apartment in the kindergarten building; in fact, my living space had at one point been two classrooms. No roads within the village meant daily trips to the post office after school ended to check the PO box. The post office staff consists of two women: Chrissy, who works weekdays, and Ayap, who covers Saturdays.

I realized the other day that it’s been over five years since my daily commute involved a car. Prior to moving to the tundra, I lived right on a main bus route that dropped me practically at the door of my job, and I often walked home in the afternoons. In the village, I looked forward to the daily walk to school, even when I had to bundle up against extreme temperatures. I could walk to school now, but it would take considerably longer: My apartment is situated almost on the waterfront, almost two-and-a-half miles from the school. I’ll try it at some point, but when I have a lot of things to carry I’m grateful to only have a five minute drive to worry about.

Even though Seward has many roads, the post office still doesn’t deliver mail to houses. So I once again have a post office box. It’s still on the way home at the end of the day, except now I have to worry about parking the car while I run inside. I’ve seen at least five different people behind the counter in the month since I moved in, but have yet to learn any of their names.

At the Nunap PO, if you received a package too large for your box, you got a yellow slip, which many of the staff jokingly referred to as a “golden ticket”. The slips were covered in clear packing tape so they lasted longer. Take the slip to the front counter and pass it to Chrissy, and she’d return shortly with your boxes. Frequently, you’d reach the counter at the same time she brought your stuff out of the back, because she heard your voice as you came in.

The “golden tickets” are apparently a USPS procedure. Unlike in the village, the ones at the Seward PO remain un-taped and bear numerous hand-written and later crossed-out box numbers. I have yet to arrive when there wasn’t a line; frequently, one clerk will collect slips from however many people in line currently have them and disappear into the back while another clerk handles transactions for other customers.

In addition to the post office, I might also swing by the store after school to check what was currently in stock. While I would occasionally get lucky, more often than not I ordered the majority of my groceries online and had them shipped in.

There an actual grocery store in Seward, complete with multiple aisles, different departments, and a pharmacy. It’s also on the route between home and school, so I’m trying to work any shopping into my commute. After three years of making do with either frozen produce or what I could get shipped in, I feel spoiled by the variety of choices I see every time I step through the doors.

As far as I knew, I was the only L, G, B, or T person in Nunap, although I had suspicions about a couple of the high school students. I did come out as trans to several of my fellow teachers, but didn’t tell any of the locals until after I left this past summer. In such a small community, everyone seemed to know everything about everyone else, and I feared for my job and my safety if someone found out and decided I wasn’t fit to work with their children.

I have yet to find out if there’s an LGBT community in Seward, although I’m only a couple of hours away from the ones in Anchorage or Kenai. Since I “pass”, none of my new coworkers know I’m trans. I don’t plan on telling anyone yet, and certainly not until I have a better handle on people’s attitudes and beliefs. In the meantime, I have to watch what I say and how I say it, particularly stories about my past. Thankfully, I have a support network in the form of friends and family, accessible through phone, texts, Facebook, and even (gasp!) driving up to Anchorage.

Some things have changed, some things have stayed the same. Time to dive into another school year!

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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.