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Travel

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.

I’m in Anchorage for a conference this weekend. At 1:45 this morning, I awoke to a shaking hotel room. Earthquake. The shaking disconcerted me, but I couldn’t hear anything beyond the rattling of the window blinds and other assorted objects in the room; no evacuation signals or footsteps in the hall. Five minutes later, the shaking finally stopped. It took a little longer to get my heart rate back under control and stop my brain spinning worst-case scenarios, but I soon fell back asleep. Even though the event now has a dream-like quality, I later learned that the shaking was caused by a quake with a magnitude of 7.1, about 130 miles south of Anchorage, 50 miles down in Cook Inlet.

A few hours later, I woke to a text message from Mom: “Call ASAP. Yiayia is in hospital.” My world shook again. I called immediately. Mom answered right away. Apparently, Yiayia fell down yesterday, Saturday. When they got her to the hospital, she started going downhill. While she’s currently in the ICU, the doctors don’t know what caused the fall or her downturn. Of course, the woman is in her 90s; it could be anything. Her nephew called Mom about 5 AM EST this morning.

Thoughts flew through my head as I talked with Mom. We’re planning our visit for this summer. I’m working on a letter to her right now! How is this possible? Will I ever get to hug Yiayia again? This isn’t happening. I need to go home. What difference would that make? This can’t be happening. I just spoke to her at Christmas. This CAN’T be happening.

I’ve gone through the motions this morning of getting ready for the day, but I feel like a zombie. My thoughts are 6,000 miles away. I’ve been very fortunate in my life: I had five living grandparents until I was almost 19. I know it can’t last forever, but that doesn’t make this any easier. I’m already planning to find a seat near the door when I’m at the conference today, just in case I need to answer the phone in a hurry. My world is still shaking, and I wish it would stop.

One of the biggest challenges living where I do is getting in and out of the village. Nunap is 27 miles from the nearest town, the Hub. Roads in the traditional sense don’t exist, as the swampy nature of the tundra in the summer would make such an undertaking a logistical nightmare (and expensive!). Small bush planes criss-cross the skies year round. In the warmer months, boats ply the rivers and lakes. Come winter, the locals utilize snowgoes (snowmobiles) and the occasional car or truck. Last year, almost all of my travel to and from the village occurred in the planes; at the end of the year, I rode down the river in a boat.

The mode of transportation used depends on a) personal choice, b) cost, and c) the weather. This year, the weather has been the biggest factor in how and when you travel. The little planes can’t fly unless visibility is at least 2 miles. Lately, we’ve had lots of fog, the kind that comes and goes in an instant. The day that we left for the holiday break, six of us were supposed to fly to the Hub in time to catch the midday jet to Anchorage. Well, the fog rolled in and didn’t leave. Lucas spent about 30 minutes on the phone with various school support staff, trying to find us a ride to the Hub. For a while, it sounded like we’d caravan down in snowgoes and sleds. Then someone suggested calling Mr. Alexie about getting a ride in his truck. A couple of hours later, I found myself squished in a pick-up truck, riding down the frozen river. Like many things since i moved up here, I’m not sorry that I did it once. I’m not sure I ever want to do it again: The river was deemed safe for large vehicles only two days previously, and there were a couple of spots where the ice creaked a bit ominously. But we made it!

I spent two and a half weeks with my family before returning for the second semester. The first day of travel went smoothly and I arrived in Anchorage without a problem. The following day, I returned to the airport and got a pleasant surprise: Lucas and Andy and Kelly and Cole 2.0 (not my old roommate but one of the new faces on staff this year) had all booked seats on the same flight as me. Our flight to the Hub went off without a hitch, but on arriving around 12:30 we discovered that no bush planes had flown yet that day due to a freezing fog moving through the area and wind gusts of 30 mph. By sheer coincidence, Eech (our school tech guy) and another villager were also at the airport to drop off their older kids for the jet back to Anchorage. Kelly spoke with both of them; several minutes later, she came back over to where the rest of us were collecting the luggage. “So Eech and Mr. Andrew only have one sled between them. They can take three of us plus our luggage.” We quickly worked out that Kelly, Cole 2.0, and I would go with Eech and Mr. Andrew; Lucas and Andy decided to take their chances with the bush airline where they’d previously booked tickets. After bundling up, the three of us clomped outside to our ride. The luggage got loaded on the sled, everyone got settled (Kelly and I on the backs of the snowgoes behind the drivers, Cole 2.0 in the sled), and off we went.

I’ve described the tundra before as flat. Compared to other parts of the state, that’s very true. But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Riding on the snowgo gave me a new appreciation for how the terrain rises from the rivers, ponds, and lakes to the bluffs and goes back down. We set out about an hour after sunrise. For the first hour of the trip, we saw no sign of the fog moving through the area. Instead, brilliant sun turned the snow and ice dazzling white and highlighted the little bits of vegetation still visible. The light even picked out a rainbow on the ice crystals suspended in the air. As we rode along, I couldn’t help thinking of a passage from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie: “In a perfect circle the sky curved down to the level land, and the wagon was in the circle’s exact center. All day long [the horses] went forward, walking and trotting and walking again, but they couldn’t get out of the middle of that circle.”

The earlier wind never diminished. It pushed against our left sides for most of the journey, joined now by the breeze generated by our speed, which pushed at our well-covered faces. I was very grateful Lucas loaned me his ski goggles so that I could see without my eyes freezing. The sounds changed depending on the direction we traveled, but also with the surface we travelled on: Riding on the frozen tundra created a very different background hum compared with the higher-pitched whine generated as we flew across frozen rivers and lakes. At times the snow on the ground and the clouds in the sky merged at the horizon, so it looked as though we would drive into the heavens, a sensation heightened when we finally encountered some of that fog. My sense of time ceased functioning normally; all that mattered was the beauty around me and keeping my seat on the snowgo as it bounced across the terrain.

Eventually, we pulled onto a stretch of river that looked familiar. Within moments, the snowgoes climbed up the river bank one last time and began zooming through the village. When we pulled to a stop outside teacher housing, everyone had a good laugh as we brushed snow off of one another; my backpack was completely covered, as was most of my right side. After unloading the luggage and thanking Eech and Mr. Andrew, I headed for my apartment. As much as I loved the experience, I couldn’t wait to get inside and be done with my travels.

 

Nunap has no roads. That doesn’t mean that people don’t have to commute. About two-thirds of our students live “across”, that is, across the river from the school. Nunap also doesn’t have a bridge. From late spring through early autumn, anyone wishing to cross must use a boat. Once the river freezes, people can walk or drive either their four-wheeler or snow machine (also referred to as a snowgo or snowmobile) across.

One day last winter, the school received a frantic call from some parents. “Our children are missing! The snowgo is gone! Have you seen them?” The children in question, TJ and Helen, were in second grade.

Ted, our principal, calmed the parents down and said that he would check to see if the kids had come to school. Sure enough, he poked his head into the classrooms and discovered both children sitting in their seats, doing their work. He asked that both kids come to his office for a minute. “Your parents just called. They have no idea you’re at school. How did you get here?”

TJ and Helen are both in my class this year, so I can easily imagine this scene. Helen is slim and tall, taller than TJ, who is actually a year older. TJ is also the first child I’ve ever met who could be described as “bandy-legged”, which led to the first grade teacher granting him the nickname of “Sheriff”. The point is, TJ is NOT the largest child in the room. He weighs maybe 45 pounds soaking wet. So, in my head, I can just picture the look of incredulity on Ted’s face when TJ matter-of-factly replied, “I drove the snowgo.”

For those of you that don’t know, many snowmobiles require a good yank on a ripcord to start the engine. I know that, as a teen, I struggled with the ripcord on the family lawnmower; living in Nunap I’ve watched grown adults struggle to start their own snow machines. The image of TJ trying to start the family snowgo in such a manner is simply mind-boggling. “How did you start the snowgo?” Ted asked.

“My uncle started it for me.”

Apparently, TJ got frustrated that morning by the fact that none of the adults in his house were awake to take him to school. So he got his uncle, who lives next door, to start the snow machine, and drove himself and Helen to school. After hearing this story, Ted admitted later, he had to stop himself from laughing out loud in delight. Ted did call the parents to let them know that their kids and snowgo were safe and to arrange a meeting with them. As a result of that meeting, TJ has his parents’ permission to continue to drive the snowgo and bring himself and his sister and any of his older siblings that feel so inclined to school. I was outside the other day when he drove up, and couldn’t help but smile. It’s like the quote says, “If you’re determined to learn, no one can stop you.”

Here on the tundra, the words “school trip” have a whole new meaning. A day trip anywhere rarely happens; between arranging for flights or boat rides, packing up all of the students, travel to and from your destination, and whatever the purpose of your trip is, you may as well just stay the night. As such, things like sporting events are planned as overnight excursions, and you can bet that they are scheduled to take advantage of every second of the available time. When your team travels, you have to deal with things like travel forms, making sure everything you need got packed, supervising the students in a novel environment, and so on. Hosting an event presents a whole new set of challenges.

In the year and a half that I’ve lived in Nunap, I’ve helped with more than one sporting event, whether serving breakfast to visiting teams, making sure my room is available as a sleeping space, or helping Lucas take pictures of the events. I’ve even served as a line judge for volleyball games. But nothing has prepared me for the madness of the annual Nunap wrestling tournament, which took place this past weekend.

While Nunap hosts a couple of wrestling meets during the season, the biggest is usually in November. Planning actually starts the previous school year when the dates for the event get decided. At the beginning of the current school year, schools take a look at the schedule of tournaments and decide which events they will attend. Ideally, a host school knows by the week before the event how many guests to expect. In this instance, we knew by Wednesday that we had students from three other villages plus two Hub schools competing in our event. I know that our coaches, New Ted (our high school science teacher) and Eli (one of our maintenance techs), spent time putting together weight classes and brackets based on information provided by the other schools. They also reached out to teachers and staff to ask for volunteers for the myriad jobs that needed doing, from manning the door to serving food to keeping track of brackets and stats.

Before dismissal on Friday, I had my students push their desks against the wall and stack their chairs so that visitors would have space to stretch out. Once our students had left, I helped hang signs directing visitors to their sleeping areas. The first school arrived around 1:30; by the time our usual Friday afternoon meeting ended at 3 only one school had yet to arrive. Andy had asked that I help her with the concession stand, so after checking that New Ted didn’t have anything he needed done right away I ran home to grab a quick bite to eat.

I returned to the school a little early, as i knew we would be short staffed; two other sports teams traveled elsewhere this weekend, reducing the amount of adults on hand. Sure enough, I did a couple of quick tasks for others while Lucas and Andy started prep. Even though the doors didn’t open until 6:30, between our team, our staff, and the visitors there was still a lot of activity. The concession stand is actually the student store, which has a window into the gym. While Andy started the popcorn machine, Lucas and I emptied sodas and Gatorades into the fridge and opened the candy. We opened with the door, and very quickly had a line at the window.

When I arrived here last year, several people told me that wrestling in Nunap is like football in a Lower 48 school. I’d say that’s accurate. Our gym isn’t as small as some other schools’, but it’s also not the size of most in other schools I’ve visited. On the same wall as the concession stand window, we have two sections of bleachers. During the off season, the wrestling mats live in the storage shed out back. Once the season starts, the mats move into the gym, where they are kept rolled up against the back wall when not in use. When unrolled for practices and matches, they take up about 2/3 of the floor. For the meet, these mats were surrounded by the blue tumbling mats, which became the designated seating area for wrestlers. Aside from the table occupied by the announcer and other adults, the rest of the space is available for spectators to sit and watch, and they do. At one point Friday night I took a break and walked into the gym to get a better view, and had to watch that I didn’t step on someone sitting along the wall. The bleachers were packed to capacity, people of all ages sat on the floor, and still more milled around, calming fussy babies or trying to get a better view.

I didn’t get much opportunity to spectate, though. In the three hours the concession stand was open on Friday night, I estimate there was maybe 20 minutes total when there wasn’t someone at the window. Andy spent the night manning the popcorn maker, while Lucas and I took turns at the window. We kept an eye on the matches as best we could, cheering for our kids whenever possible. We finally closed down for the night around 9:30, even though matches were still going on.

Saturday morning, Andy and I returned to the school at 7:30. She got the concession stand open and started prep for the day, while I and several wrestlers both from Nunap and elsewhere did a cursory cleaning of the gym. The kids swept off the mats and got the tables pulled down for breakfast, I wielded a vacuum cleaner, and New Ted followed behind me with a mop. Eli and I also helped our cooks serve breakfast: pancakes and sausage for 80+ people. Then it was back to the concession stand for me before matches began at 9.

While it started off slow, by 10 concessions once more did brisk business. More than a few adults gladly purchased coffee from us, and the wrestlers cleaned us out of Gatorade. As the morning wore on, pressure started to mount to get things done before the first team was due to leave at noon. The cooks started serving lunch to visiting wrestlers around 11:30, with the understanding that no one ate until all of their matches were done. We had a brief moment of panic when the first team was due to leave: no one could find Eech. He’s our tech guy, but also drives the school boat, which we need right now to ferry people over to the airport since the river hasn’t frozen yet. Fortunately, he showed up a few minutes later, and that team made it to their plane without further incident. Andy and I kept the concession stand open until 12:30. Closing up and cleaning up didn’t take much time except for counting up the money and turning it over to Dan, our principal, for safekeeping and eventual deposit. While I checked in with New Ted before leaving, I wasn’t too surprised or upset when he said things were taken care of for the moment. There would be an awards ceremony of some sort, but I didn’t stick around for it. One of the other teachers texted me when the last team had left, so I know everyone got out okay. I strongly suspect that there will be another mass cleaning effort tomorrow, in which I’ll do my part. And so will end another sporting event in Nunap.