Alaska to Vermont: Eloping with Edge!

We made it back in a 1988 Subaru DL wagon, all the way from Alaska to Vermont with no GPS (not really a problem since we drove on the same road for half the trip) and no cruise control (a bit more of a problem since our right butt-cheeks got sore from continual pressing on the accelerator).  Besides the engine’s tendency to overheat, causing us to always have the heat on and the windows rolled down a bit, the trip was smooth–especially after buying two new tires in Whitehorse.

The day before we left Fairbanks, we decided to honor our love through marriage, so on the morning we left the Viking Lodge, we drove back through Tok and, with the town librarian and judge’s assistant as our witnesses, we said our vows and became husband and wife.

The road trip turned into our honeymoon, and as we traveled through the yukon, Jasper and Banff, Idaho, down into Southern Utah, across Colorado and Kansas, and all the way to the east, we reveled in the landscape and sank deeper into our love.

As we drove we saw birds: osprey, bald eagles, ferruginous hawks, geese, arctic tern, grouse, magpies, ravens, chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, swans, ducks, a boreal owl, peregrine falcons, gray jays, blue jays, woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, and more we left unidentified.

We saw animals: buffalo, moose, elk, caribou, deer, a black wolf, gray fox, coyotes, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and wild horses.

At night we sought out campgrounds, or took a few turns down quiet roads to hidden pull-offs where we could park for the night.  In the morning we made chai, ate granola, and packed the car again for the next leg of the journey.  Our days were casual with steady driving and spontaneous stops to look at birds, take pictures and stretch our legs.

We spent two days in Southern Utah hiking and climbing before making the final push home, aided with chocolate and maple syrup.

Now we are back in Vermont, living and working on Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park.  In the first week we have milked cows, witnessed the birthing of calves, been pooped and peed on, put up a yurt, planned our bean and corn plantings, waited out the rain so we can plow the field, and become part of the daily chore rotation.  As the season progresses, we will also be helping to develop the farm’s educational programs, sell food at markets, work in the 2-acre vegetable garden, and of course, with all this milk, we will make ice cream.

I am happy.  I am so happy.
To be living in a yurt.
To be living on a farm.
To be living with my love~

Back to Alaska

“We’re taking a train to New Jersey, flying to Alaska from there, and then driving back to Vermont,” I told my friends.

Jordan paused for a moment and then asked, “Why?”

We all laughed at the blunt questioning in her voice.

“Well, Edge’s car and most of his stuff is still up there so we’re going to get it and visit everyone, too,” I answered.

But there’s more to it than that.  After a winter of renting a house and staying in one town, I am ready for a journey.  A week ago, as I was running in the spring afternoon, I thought about movement across the land, about travel and staying in one place.  My feet ran forward as fields melted and streams grew, and I remembered my nomadic ancestors–those perceptive, migrating people that we all come from.  What trace of them is left in me?  Is it their instincts that I feel telling me to walk, run, and to notice the world that keeps me alive?

It is a continual conflict within me: to stay in one place and know it deeply, or to travel and know the world as a great mosaic, all pieces making one place.  I like to believe that I can dig into a place even while traveling.  I like to feel that I can meet it full on, despite the brevity of time.

Terry Tempest Williams, in a talk she gave at the University of Fairbanks, said, “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.”  In this world of petroleum power, I believe this.  What do I love about staying?  Seeing the seasons through.  Working the land.  Growing my food.   The power of canning, freezing, pickling.

And this brings me back to the beginning of it all.

We have learned to celebrate agriculture and storage.

We have learned to reward ourselves with vacations.

There is a tension between these two things.

I am sitting in the Seattle Airport, waiting for a flight to Fairbanks.  In less than one day I am shooting across the country, and I will take just over two weeks to drive back.  So much oil.  And still I go.  It is a radical thing to stay home these days.  There is a lure to go far away, and since the advent of personal cars and cheap flights, we’ve all got the hook in our mouths.  There must have been a lure, too, for the nomads, to cultivate and rest through the seasons.  To stay in one place.

So I search for the convergence of these things, and I feel the churning within me as a river does when two tributaries come together.  I am going back to Alaska, back to the wild that forces you out of the car, the wild that asks your intention.  Is it to pass through, to get to the end?  Is it to discover?

I will dig into each place, meet it full on, despite the brevity of time.  My intention is to discover.

Traveling in the Backyard

After so many winters of travel, I am settling in for this one.  I’ve always thought of winter as a quiet, reflective time, but I hadn’t noticed my travel rhythm until now: last year I went to New Zealand and Tasmania; in college I’d use winter breaks to travel to Utah where my cousins live; my junior year I spent break getting ready to travel abroad in Northern Ireland from the end of January through mid-April.  Now, having returned from Alaska in November, I am moved into a post-and-beam house in Cambridge, Vermont, with a lease that runs until the end of April.  Edge and  Nobee (our dog) are with me, and we are sharing the house with my brother Jeff and a friend, Erik.  All summer I spoke to Edge of Vermont and looked forward to being back here, but now I feel the travel bug jumping inside me again and I’m searching for a way to calm it.  What did I learn from my travels last winter, though?  Be still, be here, sink in.

I am taking lessons from the dog, learning the excitement to be had each time we go outside.  Nobee loves the large field behind our house, where our neighbor’s draft horses sometimes plod, and she sprints through the snow, diving up and down like a dolphin in water all the way into the trees at the edge.  From there we walk through a small opening in the fence that leads to another field, and we traipse along the boundary of the open space before ducking under a barbed wire fence back into the woods.  Nobee leads, always a sprint in front of me, and I follow behind her, breathing in the snow-crisp air.  Maple and beech trees stand together and give way to intermittent groupings of fir trees near streams that cut small valleys through the forest.  Two weeks ago I heard a gun shot before we went out, and Nobee led me to the kill: blood-stained snow and the innards of a deer the hunters didn’t want.  We visited the spot every day for a week, interrupting crows so Nobee could snack, until all that was left was a small part of the stomach, which had become a frozen disk.

We continue on through the forest until we reach the third field, which looks out over a large red barn, horses outside in a paddock, and a farmhouse on Lower Pleasant Valley road.  Across the road the land rises up to a rounded peak called Cady Hill.  Nobee does a lap around the field, and from here we turn around and head home, arriving back after an hour.

I discover more each time we go out: a bright orange fungus on a maple branch, a simple wooden bridge with inch-wide gaps across a stream, a large rock balanced on a bent tree to mark a trail; and each time it snows it is as if I am entering a new place, creating tracks that were not there before, and ducking under heavier snow-covered branches.  I have struggled with my desires to travel, and to stay in one place and know it deeply, but perhaps here I am doing both.  What is travel but movement across the land, and an opening up to a place one didn’t know before?  Each walk is an exploration.  Each interaction builds a deeper relationship.  So I will keep learning and watching Nobee as she scoops up snow with her snout in the middle of a sprint, effortlessly happy to be here.

Maple Syrup Meditation

The farther away from Vermont I get, the more maple syrup I consume, as if it might pump green mountains and maple trees through my body.  At home the syrup was a treat with occasional weekend brunches; during my four years at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, I was always stocked with a gallon jug, but still I never poured it onto food more than once a month or so; Now here in Alaska, maple syrup makes it way into my breakfast at least four times a week: in oatmeal, yogurt, on pancakes.  I’ve even put it in my morning chai.  When I first arrived in Ester, I held off on making pancakes until the package from my mom arrived with the quart of maple syrup made by my friend’s dad, Smitty.  When two big boxes showed up at Calypso Farm, I excitedly brought them home and cut them open.  Inside I found books, climbing gear, a daypack, peace flags and mail, but no syrup!  I could picture the exact spot in the kitchen where it sat in Vermont.  By that time I didn’t want to wait weeks for another package, so I broke down, went to the store, and bought the maple syrup at Fred Meyers (only, of course, because they carry Vermont maple syrup).  It cost $14.00 for twelve ounces of grade B.  I’m usually a grade A medium amber girl, but when in a place far away from maple trees and syrup production I’m not picky.

Smitty’s syrup arrived on Thursday, and it’s a good thing since I’m down to only a few more ounces of the store-bought stuff!  What do people in Alaska do without this sticky, thick golden sweetness?  Although there is the option of fake syrup with “maple” flavoring (many of these products don’t actually contain any real maple), some people tap birch trees.  Before coming here, the thought of birch syrup never crossed my mind—it takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make one gallon of syrup, as opposed to the maple ratio of 40:1—but with the plethora of birch trees, it only makes sense.

When Tom and Susan first bought the land that would become Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, they lived in a yurt without a large holding tank for water, and no driveway to drive five gallon jugs up, so in the spring when the sap started running, they tapped trees and had so much sap that they used it for drinking and cooking.  “I tried doing the dishes with it one time, but it didn’t quite do the trick!” Tom laughed.

Inspired by a birch tapping presentation we went to at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Colby set up a bucket on one of the trees in our backyard.  For the past week, the sap has been flowing and we’ve emptied the four-quart bucket four times; two of those days it was overflowing before we had the chance to empty it.  Since it requires so much sap to make birch syrup, and because it must be heated at a lower temperature for a longer amount of time than maple sap due to its lower sugar content, we aren’t going to attempt to make it.  Birch sap is a delicious drink with a subtle sweetness nonetheless.

As maple syrup continues to be a staple in my diet, we’ll see how long my supply lasts.  I admit that I hold Vermont’s syrup to be the absolute best, and am therefore reluctant to buy it from another state or from Canada, but it sure puts a kink in my effort to eat local (it is in fact possible to get all meat and most produce Alaska-grown).  There are always justifications for my indulgence—I ride my bike to work, I don’t have running water, I keep my house on the lowest possible heat setting, I grow most of my own food—so these must balance it all out, right?

It’s harder to look at what it will take to balance out the carbon emissions from the airplane I flew to get to Alaska, or the environmental costs of materials it took to make my car, computer, iPod and cell phone.  As I write this, I feel the need to say that I don’t have a television, as if this might convince me whole-fullness or neutrality.  What can I do to bring myself to a balance?  Or is there no action to take but noticing, living in awareness and allowing each moment to move as it does?

I can pour maple syrup on my oats and feel connected to Vermont, or I can run on gravel roads in Alaska and feel how my legs move the same here as they do anywhere.  I can hear birdcalls, smell pine needles soaking on the ground during spring thaw, lose my thoughts in the wind that pulls my ponytail and settle in the stillness that asks only for me to be present.

In this world with all of its intricacies and connections, all of its turbulence and calm, is it wrong to eat so much of one thing if it must be shipped so far?  All I can do to find the answer is listen to the energy that propels me to run, which also asks me to sit, be quiet, be open.

Welcome to Ester

I arrived in Ester, Alaska on Sunday and spent the night at Calypso Farm.  Susan and Tom, the co-founders of the farm and ecology center, welcomed us to their home with such happy energy.  Before giving us a tour of the land, Susan brought us up to the greenhouse where we helped plant seed onions, learned how to make soil blocks, and seeded lettuce and broccoli.  As we worked in the greenhouse, we met Edge, the Farm Health Manager who lives in a small cabin on the farm, and later as we walked around the farm we met Christie, the Assistant Director who lives in a spectacular yurt with her family on the farm.  The entire area of Calypso lends itself to creating community, and arriving at such a place after the long drive north revived my excitement for my time here.

Susan and Tom fed us a delicious dinner of lentil soup, moose, potatoes, and chicken, and Edge made buttermilk biscuits (with homemade goat buttermilk).  The sunlight, already stretching past 9:00 pm, tricked me into thinking it was still early by the time we headed to bed around 10:00.  It felt so right to be back in the woods on a cold night, sleeping in a yurt with a wood-stove for warmth.  I brushed my teeth outside, with the moon shining down through the trees, and felt the same quiet happiness that flowed through me throughout the Adirondack Semester.

The next day Kelsey (my new roommate who I drove up to Ester with) and I went to our house for the first time.  It is a funky place, with a lot of angles and a fantastic front porch.  We devoted the day to getting kitchen supplies and exploring Fairbanks, and then made some vegetable stew and brought it back to Calypso where we met our other two roommates, Colby and Meredith, who had just arrived.  We spent the evening baking bread and getting to know each other at the farm.  Susan, Tom, Christie and Edge filled us in on farm happenings, and while describing the eclectic group of people in the area Tom said with a smile, “People don’t really fall in love with Fairbanks, they just stay here because they don’t fit in anywhere else.”  The city of Fairbanks is spread out and reminiscent of places in the lower 48 that have succumbed to sprawl, but the 30 acres of Calypso Farm and Ecology Center are another thing entirely—a thing very easy to fall in love with.  If there’s only one important thing I’ve learned through my travels, it’s that love shows up in many forms, and I already feel myself falling into it amidst the birch and pines, soil and seeds, and gradual hills of Ester.

No Great Expectations

After one missed flight, two days, and three plane rides, I am finally in Anchorage.  I arrived yesterday afternoon overtired and underfed, and was greeted at the airport by my father’s long-time friends, Bill and Pat, who welcomed me and brought me to the Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria.  There I ate a delicious pizza called “the backpacker” and had my first pint of a dark red Alaskan beer, brewed by the pub–It was the perfect post-travel meal.

Today we drove around Anchorage so I could get my bearings.  It’s a big city (at least it is to a Vermonter).  It is strange to see box stores and high-rises in “the last frontier”, though I admit that my eyes constantly drift even higher to the mountains that encircle the city.  They remind me of the wild I expected to see. Oh, but expectations: I don’t want to have any.

When I studied abroad in Northern Ireland in the spring of 2008, I held many expectations, even unconscious ones, and found myself disappointed and frustrated because of them.  Expectations took me away from the actual place I was in and caused me to look for what I envisioned instead of seeing what was actually there.  This time, I want to see things fresh, to look upon a landscape with wonder and newness, although I know it is difficult not to have expectations, for they have a way of growing in the shadows of the mind where one rarely looks.

How do you free yourself enough to be able to enter each moment with the same freshness, with a clear mind, a wild heart, and an openness to accept all that is present?  How many times do you have to travel and see a new place before you learn how to see it the first time in wholeness?  Or does it take many moments, exploration and hidden spots uncovered to be able to see the whole?  Perhaps the journey of learning how to view and live in wholeness is equally important as the attainment of it.

The whole of Alaska is not just the mountains and frontier, but it includes the cities and towns and people.  Do these things infringe upon the wild or accentuate it?  I have ideas about this, but I cannot truly answer this question until I spend more time here.  So I will soak it up and fall into it.  Alaska, I am yours.  Take me into your terrain.  Teach me.  Show me.  Help me see.