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Content warning: Depression, anxiety

 

This weekend, I made an appointment for a haircut. You’re probably thinking, What’s the big deal? Allow me to explain.

From a young age, I have been wary around strangers. The adjective “shy” readily applied to me for a long time. As I moved through school, my growing dysphoria affected my interactions with others. In my teens, I avoided large social gatherings like the plague. I’d go to the end-of-season banquets for marching band and musical, but dances, parties, and such? No way. I hate loud noises, didn’t like any of the music that was popular, couldn’t dance, and didn’t want to deal with the stress of what to wear and how to act and how people might be reading my gender at any given point. I started to break out of this shell in college, thanks to friends who understood and supported me and knew when to call me on my bullshit.

However, to this day, I don’t like talking to new people unless absolutely necessary. I have to psych myself up for these encounters, remind myself of the fact that anyone who looks at me now sees me for who I am. This is easy at some times, difficult at others. It’s especially difficult when I’m dealing with depression.

My life lately has brought a lot of change. A new job in a new city in a new part of the state necessitating an actual cross-country road trip means I’ve encountered more new people in the past couple of months than probably in the last couple of years. At least, it’s felt that way. I’ve got a classroom full of completely new faces, new-to-me curricula to learn, a new way of grading, new expectations to follow. My new co-workers and I are still figuring one another out and learning how to work together. And unlike the village, we don’t live with or next door to one another, which limits how much I see them. Like I said, a lot of change.

When I accepted this job, I expected to deal with the blues. I remember when I moved to Nunap: New places and faces means learning who and where is safe, and that’s stressful. And while I don’t get homesick to the degree I did as a youngster, I still will find myself longing for the familiar. So yes, I expected a little dip in my otherwise normally optimistic personality. I didn’t expect to spend over a month in the worst depressive funk I’ve suffered since college.

Bear with me: Twenty-five years ago, I acquired a third grandmother. Granny R lives down the street from my parents. When I was four or five, Mom started giving Granny the occasional ride to work (Granny has never driven since I’ve known her and would usually take the bus). Occasional rides soon turned into more frequent rides turned into visits turned into dinners at our house. By the time I was six, Granny was as much a part of the family as my Dad’s parents. Over the years, she came to concerts, plays, and musicals. She ooh’d and aah’d over report cards and other achievements. It became standard procedure to stop in and visit with her when walking the dog. When I came out, she hugged me tight. She has always been one of my biggest supporters.

Granny’s health hasn’t been so great the last few years. Nothing unexpected, especially considering her age. I think I started noticing things more once I moved to Alaska; since I saw her less frequently, the changes were more noticeable. This past summer, I suddenly realized how frail she looked. Visits would be a little shorter, and I often had to let myself in to her house when visiting. Pauses broke up her speech as she caught her breath. But she still eagerly asked for any details I could give about my upcoming move and new job, and would tease with the same twinkle in her eye as always.

About three weeks after I arrived in Seward, I got a call from Mom: Granny had fallen and broken her collarbone. This seems to have been the proverbial straw, as from then on most of the updates I’ve gotten are not what one would consider “good”. I spent the next few weeks feeling torn between being here, doing my job, and being there, wanting to spend more time with Granny. I used to call her on the phone weekly, but soon after her fall I stopped. More often than not, the phone would be picked up by the caretaker, and I’d be told Granny was not available. Such conversations didn’t do my mental state any good.

Combined with the stress of all the new, I spiraled down. I couldn’t get to sleep at night, but getting up in the morning was a chore. I knew I had things I had to do, but I couldn’t find the energy to do more than read. Numerous mornings, I’d debate calling off from work, because I just didn’t see how I could find the energy to deal with the kids. I had a TON of things that needed doing at school, but couldn’t stand to be in the building longer than absolutely necessary. Where I could usually see and recall the good moments of a day, all I could hold on to were the bad. And when I get depressed, I isolate myself, not wanting to bother other people. I didn’t feel like I could talk to my new coworkers, because I don’t know them that well and didn’t have the energy to get to know them. I didn’t reach out to anyone in Nunap or in the Lower 48, because I didn’t want to bother them or add to their worry. I knew I was making bad choices, that I would feel better if I just talked to someone, but I couldn’t bring myself to care enough to change the behavior. Realizing I was not in a good state, I reached out to a local therapist to see if I could get added to her patient list. She has no openings until January. I made the appointment, but then promptly reached out to Dr. A, the therapist I worked with last spring, to see if she could work me in to her schedule on a temporary basis. Thankfully, she said yes.

The day of my first appointment marked a new low for me: I overslept. By two hours. I barely made it to work on time. (On the bright side, I didn’t have time to give in to the by-then-normal morning depression.) I spent the day glancing at the clock, mentally counting down the time until I’d be talking to Dr. A. Finally, four o’ clock rolled around, and we got started. For the next two hours, I spoke while she listened, she spoke while I listened. She talked me through some possible steps to make it through the week until our next appointment. And while I was nowhere near my old self, by the end of the session for the first time in weeks I felt I could see a little bit of light through the gloom.

The very next day, I learned that Granny has decided she’s ready to die. She’d apparently begun refusing her medications over the weekend, and ate and drank only sporadically. After numerous phone calls home over the ensuing four days, including one with Granny herself, I began to make peace with the news. This is clearly what she wants, and I support her just as she’s always supported me.

The day I learned about Granny, I started talking to my coworkers. Not about everything, but I did say that my grandmother wasn’t doing well. I also talked to my students, explaining why I might seem a little disconnected from what was going on in the room or why my temper might flare unexpectedly. Got to love kids: Over the course of the day, most of them told me that they were sorry and offered hugs.

For the past two weeks, I’ve woken up every morning wondering if there will be a text or voicemail saying Granny is gone. (So far, she’s still with us.) I’ve checked in more frequently with the family. Thanks to Dr. A, I’ve been able to set small, achievable goals that have helped pull me back out of the pit. In the last few days, I’ve finally begun to feel like I have energy again, energy that I can use to interact with new people. And so I could finally walk through the door and make a haircut appointment.

 

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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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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