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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.

 

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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.

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.

 

Growing up in a middle-class household in the mid-Atlantic, I took quite a few things for granted. The lights will turn on when I flick the switch. Most people have access to some form of wheeled transportation, whether car or bus or bike. Roads exist, are frequently paved, and some have sidewalks. Boats can be for work or for pleasure. You can get quite a few things for free, like borrowing books from the library or going to an arts festival in the park. You have access to things like libraries and parks. Buildings are made of many different materials. Traveling for school sports involves loading all of the kids onto a bus or two (or three or four or five) a couple of hours before the event, driving to the venue, participating in the game or match, and then driving home again the same night.

As with many other people, my worldview has shifted and expanded quite a bit as I’ve grown up. This is especially true in the three years since I began teaching in bush Alaska. Two separate incidences this week reminded me just how lucky I was to grow up where and when I did.

I awoke Thursday when the emergency lights in my apartment kicked on and the system alarms for my building’s sprinkler system began shrieking. Rolling over to look at the clock, I discovered that it was 4:30 AM. Short power outages aren’t uncommon in Nunap, so I merely stuffed my head under the pillow to muffle the noise and light and went back to sleep. When the alarm went off an hour and a half later, I noticed that the emergency lights had shut off, but the alarms still shrieked. When I tried to turn on the dining room lights, the switch merely clicked under my fingers without producing illumination. So I shuffled back in to the bedroom, grabbed my headlamp, and went about my morning routine by its light.

I had hoped that, with the power out, I’d have an even better than normal view of the stars during my walk to school. Sadly, it proved to be overcast and misty. With only my headlamp to light the way, I felt a bit like I’d stumbled into a horror movie. The school fit right in to this motif, as less than half of the emergency lights still shone. After fashioning a doorstop out of cardboard (the electromagnets that normally hold the doors open die when the power goes off), I sat down at my desk and began lesson planning for the coming week. Fortunately, at 7:45, the lights returned.

A teacher’s life includes lots of planning. My usual routine is to sketch a rough outline for the year, then to plan in detail at the beginning of each week. However, when I know I’ll be traveling over the weekend, I try to get a jump on the next week’s plans so that I can still relax a little. Earlier this week, I learned that I would be traveling to the Hub this weekend with one member of our cross-country team for a meet. We’d fly out Friday afternoon once school finished and stay overnight. He’d participate in the race Saturday, and then we’d fly home, returning to Nunap around dinner time.

Friday morning found me walking to school with a packed backpack and duffel bag, as I wouldn’t have time to go back to my apartment before we were scheduled to leave. As the sun rose, I noticed yet more fog, something that has been a frequent occurrence over the past week.The little planes out here won’t fly with visibility under 2 miles, but such fogs can disappear as quickly as they appear, so I wasn’t too concerned. At lunch time, I checked in with Eech, our school tech guy and athletics director, about the status of our flight, because I wasn’t sure if it was on of the regularly scheduled runs or a charter. He called the airline to double check: We had seats on the usual midday flight, but as of that moment no planes had left the Hub yet that day. While the fog had moved on from Nunap by that point, it had settled in around the Hub. Plus, it had started to rain rather hard, and the cloud ceiling was low. Again, I didn’t worry too much, as all of that can change. After school, I snagged Gerry, my runner, and parked him in a classroom while I attended the Friday afternoon staff meeting. As the time for our flight approached, I called the airline: They were still on weather hold. I made sure our names were down for any plane that made it to the village that night before hanging up, and settled in to wait. Well, not really “settled”; I helped get the concession stand set up for a community basketball tournament scheduled for that evening, went to the post office, and got some things put away in my classroom. In the middle of all of this, I spoke with Jenny, who is acting principal while Dan is at the Hub for meetings. She agreed with my decision that if Gerry and I weren’t on a plane by 6, we wouldn’t go. Sure enough, 6 o’ clock came and went, and I was still helping with the basketball tournament. I spoke with Gerry, telling him that 1) we wouldn’t be traveling, and 2) I am incredibly proud of how hard he’s worked this season, then sent him to watch the basketball game. I notified Jenny that we were still here. On her advice, I called Dan, also; he told me that, as of that moment, only one team had made it in to the Hub for the meet. After chatting for a couple of minutes, we hung up, and I returned to helping in the concession stand. (Funnily enough, I got a call from the airline a little later, saying they might have a plane headed our way around 7. I requested that they remove our names from the list; not only would they be spending quite a lot of time clearing out the backlog of stranded passengers from the day, but I also suspected that the weather would shift again and the plane wouldn’t even leave the Hub.)

So instead of sleeping on a classroom floor last night, I slept in my own bed. I unpacked my duffel bag this morning, putting away all of the foul-weather gear and the sleeping bag. As I’m writing this, I look out of the apartment windows and can barely see the school through the fog; hopefully it clears up enough later Dan can get back safely. While I am sorry Gerry didn’t get to run in the meet, that’s just the way things happen out here sometimes.

Okay, so this likely was not my last visit to Athens. Yet because of the circumstances, this trip carried a certain finality.

It’s been three months since Yiayia passed. The whole reason these trips started was so that my sister and I could see our grandparents. When Grandpa died almost 10 years ago, I suddenly realized just how important that connection was.

I say “one last time” but this trip still brought several firsts, not least of which was the fact that I didn’t see Yiayia. We (I traveled with Mom and Dad) didn’t have to call her in the mornings to see if she was ready for us to come visit. In the evenings, we didn’t go over to the flat for dinner or to share the events of our day. In fact, I didn’t even approach the flat until our second-to-last night in the city. Of course, since no one lives there anymore I couldn’t get inside, but I could go to the building’s front door and stare for a moment at Yiayia’s name on the panel of doorbells.

This year’s visit to the Acropolis brought another first: waiting in line for our tickets. Normally we arrive as soon as the site opens and so avoid lines and too much of a crowd. Not so this year. I can’t help but think that Yiayia and Grandpa would’ve gotten a chuckle out of that fact. Still, I made one last trip around the top of the hill. I took photos of all of my favorite pieces and places, and Dad got a snap of me in the “traditional” spot at the east end of the plateau with the Parthenon in the background.

I had similar experiences at most every other place we went: the Benaki Museum, the Numismatic Museum, the shopping districts of Monastiraki and Plaka, hiking up Mount Lykavittos. Even swimming at the hotel pool felt different, because I didn’t have to get dressed again to go see the grandparents afterwards. As Mom stated several times, it seemed like ghosts were following us around.

The only place the ghosts didn’t follow was on our overnight trip to Delphi. I’d been to the site 2 or 3 times previously, the last of which occurred when I was in high school. I suggested it again because, if this was to be my last trip for the time being, I wanted to go someplace outside the city for a little bit. I remembered bits and pieces from our previous visits. On this trip, we did everything we’d done previously, such as visiting the Temple of Apollo where his Oracle held forth, and tried some new things, like hiking further down the road to the Temple of Athena.

We returned to Athens with one full day left before returning States-side. That morning, we visited the cemetery to pay our respects to Yiayia. D, her nephew, met up with us to show us where the grave was. My first impression on entering the cemetery was, “This place is HUGE!” (According to Google Maps, it occupies an area of roughly 640,000 square feet.) Thankfully, Yiayia’s grave is located relatively near the entrance. I had expected to start crying when I saw the tombstone; surprisingly, I stayed dry-eyed throughout our brief visit. D related stories of the funeral and the 40 day ceremony, noting that Yiayia was very well loved by many people.

We spent our final afternoon and evening in Athens shopping, swimming, and visiting the National Archaeological Museum. I got one more picture with my favorite statue, the Jockey, and took more photos of other favorite pieces. Back at the hotel, memories of the many trips over the years kept running through my head: Seeing things for the first time when I was ten, learning more with each successive trip; getting to know my grandparents; adventures outside the city to places like Delphi; how hard that first trip was after Grandpa died; getting to know Yiayia even more; coming out to her; her continued love and support. I may be done traveling to Greece for now, but the memories of the places and people I love will always be with me.

 

The first sign of spring’s arrival is the increase in daylight. At the time of the December solstice, Nunap receives only four and a half hours or so of weak sunlight per day. Intellectually, you know that the days begin to get longer at that point, yet January and February are still dark, cold months. By the beginning of March, however, you suddenly realize that sunset doesn’t come quite as early as it once did. In fact, each day is noticeably longer than the last. If you look at a sunrise/sunset chart for the region, you’ll see the amount of daylight increases by anywhere from five to ten minutes per day.

Rising temperatures can also indicate the impending end of school, but these take a little longer to arrive. Growing up, it was a pretty safe bet that by mid-March the heavy winter coats and knit hats could be put away in favor of lightweight jackets and baseball caps. By April, I’d be running around with nothing more than a hooded sweatshirt to protect me against any stray breezes. Here on the tundra, heavy winter gear is a necessity for quite a bit longer. As the temperatures increase, layers can gradually disappear. Maybe one day you don’t need the insulated overalls. A few days later, you can swap out that heavy parka for a lighter-weight coat. Then you can walk outside with the balaclava around your neck instead of up over your face. About this time, the snow on the ground will start to melt away. You’ll still want your boots, as standing water and mud will soon become problems.

As temperatures rise and snow melts, be prepared for the students to get a little squirrelly. For starters, the warmer weather and increased daylight means the kids are able to play outside for longer periods of time. By late April/early May, sunset doesn’t come until 9, 10, 11 o’ clock at night, and despite the curfew the kids will play outside until dark. So they come to school tired and/or late. When the river starts to thaw, you’ll have even fewer kids for a bit; just because the ice isn’t thick enough to walk on anymore doesn’t mean that boats can break through yet.

Eventually though, the river ice breaks up and melts away. The sun stays out for more than twelve hours (today has just over fifteen hours of daylight). Early in April, I heard songbirds for the first time in months, a welcome contrast to the harsher calls of the ravens that live here year-round. Even without trees, some green begins to appear as the new tundra grass shoots up through the mud. Insects have also appeared again, both the pleasant kind (bumblebees, moths) and the less-pleasant varieties (mosquitoes, biting flies). Just this week, the temperature crept up high enough that I walked to school one morning without a jacket. Several students have started wearing shorts to school. Clouds in the sky now signal rain instead of snow. And the end of the school year approaches.