With Sophia in the Alaskan Wilderness

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With Sophia in the Alaskan Wilderness

The announcement. The packing. 

When the word comes from your uncle Tim that he’s marrying the extreme downhill champion heliski guide with the gap-toothed smile that we have all come to adore and the wedding will be in Alaska, we are stoked. We will all call it Uncle Tim’s wedding, but it is really Kremer’s wedding, with all of her professional powers of preparation on display. 

Most of us experience Tim and Kirsten via the mad selfies that appear on their Facebook page, hanging from a ledge on a hammock thousands of feet in the air against a rock face. Ice climbing in Patagonia, bouldering in Moab, ascending the nose of El Capitan, heliski guiding in the Chugach, summiting Denali – danger is the invisible friend ever-present in their postings. 

“So many of our friends have died. We thought it would be nice to gather everyone together for a wedding for a change,” Kremer told us, and then went about identifying and figuring out how to meet the needs of 300 people convening on a square acre not just off the grid but quite literally in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. 

It’s your summer break before senior year, the caesura between receiving your test scores and applying for colleges, the pause between childhood and adulthood. You are still very much a girl but with light seasoning now – seasons as a runner have given you strength, and a new leadership confidence (and also what have to be the most gorgeous runner’s legs in San Francisco); the season of first love has brought a glow to your face, and a season of visiting colleges has given us all a context for picturing you out of our world, and into your own. 

A season of heartbreak awaits you after this trip, adding to the alchemy of womanhood…but the sadness of those future days is nowhere to be found when your dad suggests we dirtbag around Alaska for an additional week after the wedding, fishing for salmon and camping. You’ve always down for dirtbagging – you’ve been a camper since the age of five, when you would wheedle us into setting up the tent on the back deck and stay up til midnight watching Monsters Inc on the portable DVD player.  

O7AbPwTDS%GmTmzO+VFbTAAt seventeen, you have the effortless natural beauty of the Northern California girl and a singular style borne of savvy thrift shopping. Our neighborhood in San Francisco is sleepy, commercially speaking; a high proportion of the elderly and absentee second home owners keeps the restaurants empty and the local grocery prices sky high. On the plus side there are consignment shops in abundance, and the pickings are good. You sometimes bring home designer clothes that have never been worn, the retail tags still dangling.

The RV. The homestead. The salmon smoking. The bathtub. The Marine.

When we arrive, Alaska is in the midst of a heat wave and the air in Anchorage carries the faint acrid tang of wildfires, a smell that’s become dismayingly familiar to us in the past few summers. 

To attend the wedding all 300+ guests will need to own or rent an RV and carry a week’s worth of water and food, plus – in our case –  clothing for rock climbing, mountain biking, fly fishing, trail running, and of course a wedding. Your dad finds a sturdy plastic case, deconstructs his mountain bike and reassembles it once we arrive. He’s found a sort of Air BnB for RVs, orders it online, and it is delivered to us at the airport in Anchorage – a 28 foot number with a nifty purple stripe, and a backdoor that triggers a rickety little electric staircase to descend every time it is opened.  It’s a little gross – the comforter hasn’t been washed in a hundred years and is full or horse hair and the shower is so nasty I am the only one who tries to use it, keeping my water sandals on, but there is no complaining because we are dirtbaggers, baby.

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Chickaloon population ~300

The town of Chickaloon, Alaska has roughly 300 residents, a population that was easily doubled by Kremer’s wedding. The guests came from all over the lower 48 and beyond: from California, Hawaii, South Dakota, Florida, Tennessee, even Siberia. The Siberian traveler is a Scotsman who lives in France when he isn’t traveling the globe guiding mountaineering expeditions; he is here to officiate the wedding. 

Kremer and Tim’s house is tiny, without plumbing or electricity though Tim spends the months before the wedding digging a well. The shower is outdoors in a separate building, water heated on a gas camp stove and then poured into the tub where the bather sits feeling more naked than usual surrounded by trees.  One wedding guest brings an antique cast iron clawfoot tub as a gift. I’m building an outdoor shower and bathhouse, Tim tells us, gesturing at the space he has in mind, so that the bather has a view of the mountains – or will, as soon as Tim cuts down the tall cottonwoods in his way. Everything is do it yourself in Alaska.

The bathhouse will be near the cold smoker, where we help put up the year’s salmon catch – seasoning, curing, smoking and vacuum sealing a sea of red fish in a several days-long process that requires Tim or your dad to rise and stoke the fire  every few hours. We joke nervously about bears smelling all that salmon but Kremer reassures us bears this far from the rivers and oceans don’t really know what salmon is. It’s the moose you need to watch out for, she says.

Over the wedding weekend, Kremer’s property becomes a giant campground. The RVs start arriving on Friday and by Saturday afternoon the road is lined on both sides for a quarter of a mile. It is surely the most concentrated gathering of extreme athletes in the world – it’s more like a Red Bull commercial than a party. There are ice climbers, extreme skiers, and big wave surfers. There are ultramarathoners and mountain bikers and triathletes. There is a man training to complete a triathlon a day for fifty days later this year. We talk about how amazing it is, how many different ways there are to live your life in the world, how there is no single prescription to live a good life.  

You and I both watched the documentary Free Solo about Alex Honnold’s ascent of  the 3200 ft granite face of El Capitan with no top ropes or safety gear of any kind, so I know you heard it too, the offhand comment that rang like a bell in the way statistics never could: “Everyone who has made free soloing a big part of their life is dead now,” says a character in the film. 

There is a quality that alpine athletes have, clearly present in the wedding guests. It’s something almost tribal – an ability and even preference to live sustainably close to the land, a ‘leave no trace’ mentality that leaves the landscape the same or better than they found it, including the landscape of the hearts of those who love them. There is a lack of artiface…but also a quality, sometimes, of being present and not present, a sense that somewhere inside they are cocking their head,  listening to something. Then the oped by Alex Honnold in the New York times caught my eye: Sponsored or not, the mountains are calling and we must go.

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climbing Kremer’s Crag 5.11b

Most of the attendees of the wedding have this quality. The bride and groom have it. Your dad has it. Dreaming of sending the gnar. It remains to be seen if you have it, though your loneliness-of-the-long-distance-runner-like fondness for mountain trails suggests yes.

The evening before the wedding the dirtbag arrival is in full swing, with RVs lining the road to Kremer’s homestead in double rows for a quarter mile.  We meet Kirstie Ennis, the former Marine  who lost her leg and nearly her life when her helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, now undertaking a personal mission to climb the world’s tallest peaks, the first combat amputee to do so. The Denali ascent, guided by Kirsten and Tim, was cut short of the peak by storms so severe they put the climbing team on a ledge for 21 days.  I do not at first recognize her seated in front of her rig in blonde braids and shorts… though right away I notice a new and magnificent tattoo on the tanned  thigh of her right leg. I compliment her and only when she starts describing it do I notice the chrome apparatus where her left leg should be.

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wedding guest

I become mute with admiration remembering the harrowing tale of their descent. Lashed by 50 mph winds, Ennis’ prosthetic leg keeps falling off, requiring Tim and Kremer to scramble after it, re-ascend and attempt to re-fasten it to Ennis before frostbite could set in. Definitely one of our favorite clients, they tell me. The best attitude of anyone, ever.   

The dirtbag wedding preparations
The groom has requested cheesecake, so your grandma finds a place to rent that has  an oven (Kremer and Tim’s place has only a camping stove) and brings her own springform pans, not taking any chances. You and I go for an early morning run and finish up where your grandma is staying, where a moose and her babies have been spotted in the early morning.  I spend an afternoon on the opposite end of the dirtbag spectrum, baking cheesecakes with my mother-in-law and thinking for the millionth time as she tells me a story from her days running a string of motels in the midwest, if anyone’s truth is stranger than fiction it is surely hers. 

2k+quzVzSuCgqC5tWYuY2g.jpgThe wedding is held at the house of a friend of Kremer’s – a fellow pilot who runs a bed and breakfast with his wife, and who walks Kremer up the “aisle”, a path that wends from Fish Lake, up the hill, through an arch and to the big rock in a clearing where Tim waits for her. The  little house is striking, hyacinth-colored and surrounded by the most startling display of towering flowers in shades of blue and purple, interspersed with the hot pink of the ubiquitous fireweed. 

 You and I chalk flowers and hearts and messages of love onto the driveway and help hang giant tarps from the trees; in case of rain, the 300+ guests and the two bands and food will have shelter. 

The wedding

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waiting for the bride

The bride makes her entrance rowed on a river raft, seated in the center wearing a gorgeous teal embroidered silk robe. She is escorted across the lake by a flotilla of kayaks and paddle boards full of children scattering flower petals on the water and around her, her maid of honor, a big wave surfer, paddling her standup paddle board elegantly alongside. The wedding guests troop down to the water’s edge to wait. The kids and dogs push to the front and a game of water fetch is played, a miniature border collie shaking itself off and spraying our wedding finery with muddy water but no one complains, it isn’t that kind of crowd. 

When the wedding party rounds the point on the lake a great cheer goes up from the assembled guests crowded there on the bank among the rushes and water hemlock, those innocuous-looking tiny white flowers that brought Romeo and Juliet to such tragic endings. I like that the landscape contains elements from one of the world’s most famous love stories, it seems fitting for the occasion.

The couple, appropriately enough, scrambled atop a huge rock where the kilted Scotsman led them through their vows, she promising to faithfully exercise her man, he vowing to keep her wild and feral, a line that brought an approving roar from the crowd. We stood in tableau, the trees all around us, King mountain looming over us and they were married. 

Climbers are expert tiers of knots and the ceremony featured a traditional Celtic knot tying ritual starting with the bride and groom and including all the guests who, having been instructed to bring rope of their own, tied one to another until a great circle was formed, and where all 300+ guests stood for a picture.  Later we would visit the rope and read the messages written.

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“When your professional peers face premature death as part of the job description, it changes your perspective, let’s face it,” the bride-to-be wrote in her wedding journal – left, in true Kremer style, in the best outhouse in Alaska (aka her bathroom). I read it by the light of a headlamp, a candle reflecting warmly on the glass windows, the smell of sage burning. “In the lifestyle we lead, we only gather to see each other for funerals.”  

I know I was not the only one to admire the way the bride’s backless gown put her latissimus dorsi on display, or note when the couple joined hands how their triceps leapt into view, like cats that had been asleep but are now awake and in a state of readiness for anything.  

The reception. The food. The speeches The slip and slide. 

It did not rain; the day was perfect, warm but not hot, so it was really just a matter of time and destiny that someone would pull one of the giant 100 foot  tarps down from the trees and lay it on the side of a steep hill. There was a palpable surge of energy as every kid under the age of 20 moved forward as one, flinging themselves in every way imaginable down the slick surface. It becomes dangerous with hilarious, frightening speed – kids are barreling down on their butts, tucking themselves into tires, and on top of chair cushions. 

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the makeshift slip and slide

I spot you in the crowd of young humanity – you’ve chosen an elegant cigar roll down the hillside, picking up impressive speed as you tumble end over end in your long red dress. A couple of the more adventurous boys barely survive their trip down on a toddler’s tricycle. A hose is found and the bride whizzes to the bottom on an inflatable unicorn. Your buff young cousins strip to the waist and hurl themselves down like wholesome baby Chippendales.  Unbelievably, there are no injuries. 

It has been relatively easy to be a vegan in Alaska, though we willingly suspended veganism to consume trout or salmon we caught ourselves. I cry each time though, so we are vegan 90% of the time. At the wedding a crew of Kremer and Tim’s friends cook an enormous quantity of fresh-caught salmon on a line-up of grills. A girl with dark hair runs about on her tippy toes hoisting great platters of salmon out to knots of people scattered up and down the driveway and the yard. There are two bands, one comprised of all middle-aged women that rock it surprisingly hard.

After the food but before the dancing, guests took the stage one by one to say a few words to the bride and groom. The tiptoeing salmon girl runs fleetly to the stage and peers shyly at us from under her bangs and thanks the bride and groom for hosting us there in the wilderness, and especially to Kremer for being welcoming to a social freak such as herself at which everyone laughed but in a welcoming way, and then she bolts for the safety of the crowd which had more than its fair share of social freaks, myself included. There are more speeches and music and dancing on the garden of chalked flowers we made. Afterwards a young man approaches your dad, who is still red-eyed from his speech about Alex,  the dying business partner that Kremer led on a bucket list heliski trip. You moved me, man, he said, clapping him on the shoulder. They talk for a long time, and later we will visit them at their house in Anchorage before our flight, and be invited to their place in Valdez.  In fact we leave Alaska with dozens of invitations from new friends like this, having been accepted into the circle drawn by Tim and Kremer’s love. 

Like every wedding I’ve ever been to there is a mild fuss about cake. In this world you are either a cake person or a pie person and though a pie person myself, I like the ritual of wedding cake and frosting so sweet it burns the tongue. 

There are not only cheesecakes but two bakery sheet cakes and also a cake baked  with a selection of hallucinogenics by a friend of Kremer’s, which is kept in a special, very high place that only very tall people can reach. Some of your family members are over-served and your grandmother is not amused by the ensuing hijinks, especially when one of your aunts performs a spot-on imitation of your cousins dancing. I laugh so hard I have to lay on the ground.  

Around Alaska. The trout. The glacier. Hope.

Before the wedding, Kremer and Tim guided for the EcoChallenge; after, he will go to Siberia while she goes to Patagonia, meeting up in three months’ time in Hawaii.  Once the wedding clean up is complete – the rental tables and chairs returned and the outhouses trucked away, the giant slip-and-slide tarps folded up – we dirtbag around Alaska for a week with the honeymooners. We walk the Matanuska Glacier which is the start of the Matanuska river. There is a rainbow, but otherwise the omens are not so good – Kremer and Tim remark on how far the glacier has receded in just a few months

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glaciers and rainbows

Later in the week we will fish in Hope, where the Matanuska empties into the sea. Hope is less a town and more a picturesque cluster of small buildings at land’s end  – a few weathered-looking houses, a bar with a big deck, a tiny bagel shop, a tinier souvenir shop. Everywhere you look there are people in waders – men, women and children. People come here to fish and camp and listen to bluegrass music on the deck of the bar in the evening.

Hope sits on the northern end of the Kenai Peninsula, near the mouth of Resurrection Creek, just west of Sunrise (population 18). I like the funky biblical-sounding names of these places, all constellated together at the farthest reaches of civilization.  I find a Prince pin in the souvenir shop and give it to your dad, who was once flirted with by The Man Formerly Known As.

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Hope Alaska

We make it to Seward which is a port city with a maritime museum and seemingly a zillion art galleries and gift shops. I buy a tiny glass starfish, which now perches in our living room on the same rock as the tiny puffin you brought back from Iceland. For the first time in two weeks we eat at a restaurant which feels wrong since none of us have showered in many days, but if our waiter notices he is too polite to say so.

Getting our run on. Lalala. Bear scat. Fireweed. 

Being with Tim and Kremer always means a workout is prioritized every day, so I plan to use this trip to springboard myself back into a regular running schedule. You have a similar goal, with cross country season looming upon our return. We do not miss a day of running, except for the days we climb. In this crowd, everyone is doing something physical every day – staying in shape is part of their job, yes, but even more, being on the mountain is part of the contract they’ve made with life. Even the morning of the wedding, the bride led a climb while the groom took another group mountain biking, your dad among them. We choose a run, a rugged single track trail with trees closely pressing in.  We pass a ravine of huge piled rocks on our left, the snowmelt water rushing along twenty feet below us. 

As the trail ascends more steeply, we come upon a ramp jutting fifteen feet above us. What is that, you want to know and I laugh and tell you that’s the jump Uncle Tim built. To make the downhill more interesting. You look doubtfully down the path where there is an abrupt L turn. But how can anyone jump from there and make this turn in time? Your voice holds the same surprise in every kid’s voice ever when they see their teacher out at the K-Mart in capri pants and sandals instead of standing at the front of the class in a knee length skirt, chalk in hand. 

Anyone can’t, I tell her. But your dad can. You’ve always known your dad is a biker, both mountain and road. But clearly this has only been an intellectual understanding.  Knowledge – real knowledge – is always terrain-based. 

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my what big claws it has

We run along, shout-singing to alert the bears of our presence. “You got blood on your face, a big disgrace, kicking your can all over the place!”  When we don’t know the words we yell La La La!

Did you see the tree? your uncle will ask us later, and then shows us the picture your dad took of a tree we ran past just hours ago without even noticing the bark shredded by the demarcations of something with very large claws, starting at about ten feet up the tree. Didn’t you notice the bear poop? Your dad asks. It had red berries in it! Oh, we say. We didn’t see it.

On subsequent runs we keep a lookout for bear poop. Let’s count the piles out loud, I suggest, and we run along singing about piles of scat, One pile here, a second pile there, there’s number three, it’s over by the tree. Four and five smell kind of alive and there is number six and lookit that it’s full of sticks. Number seven doesn’t smell like heaven.

It’s hard to run and sing at the same time, you holler. Lala la I know! I holler back and while it is hard to run while expending one’s breath singing, the piles of bear poop are so regular, so fresh that it’s not hard at all to imagine one of us coming around a corner swatting aide the cattails and fireweed just in time to see a mama bear drop a pawful of berries and lower herself to the ground, the better to pursue you my dear. 

Altogether we count twenty eight piles of bear scat on a five mile run. On another run, we cross a creek and from the bridge see dozens of salmon, some crowded together near the shallows, others just holding steady against the current, their startling red color like a mirage beneath the clear rushing water. 

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Dirtbagging

On one of our runs the trail passes through meadows on either side of us, revealing a stunning wall-to-wall carpet of fireweed. It is such a sudden overwhelming of the senses we both stop running at the same time. We listen to a silence thick with the sound of bees buzzing, and the light swishing of the wind undulating the great pink mass of flowers, all swaying and nodding.  Did I get eaten by a bear and now I’m in heaven, you ask, and we both laugh and resume our singing-running rhythm, but later that night in our RV I remember your joke, about not knowing we’re dead yet. We are all bound for dark ground, wrote a climber in the biography I have been reading. Lying there in the darkest ditch of the night, we are hemmed in by trees but I can still feel it out there in the dark, the hulking mountain ranges. A sky painted with stars.  It’s easy enough to believe we are already ghosts. 

The river. Outlaws. Job offers.

Your dad and I have both traveled many places – separately and together – but at the time of our meeting, Alaska was not among them. “I suspect I’ve saved the best for last,” he tells me, and it was one of the many things we immediately agreed on. Though I knew nothing of Alaska at the time, I had a picture of it in my mind from stories by Jack London. 

Like in London’s stories, there are men, men, men in Alaska everywhere you look.  Fishing in long silent lines on the banks and in the rivers and packed five to a boat.  They drive away from the river three, four and five to a car. Some of these men seem regular. Some of them give off a distinct outlaw feel. It’s nothing I can put my finger on but when I share my observations with your dad he says seriously Oh yeah for sure, there are outlaws all around us. There is an elevated testosterone that is palpable; a combination of number of men and type of men.  

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tiny mouse parasols

You seem caught by it, this land of wild dreams various and new. After one of our runs, you ask for my phone and head back up the trail to take pictures. It is strange, later, to flip through the pictures on my smart phone and easily identify which were taken by you. My own  photos are invariably of huge vistas, while yours are of the unexpectedly delicate, presenting scenes of the still and the small, and tiny, teeming life. 

You talk with Kremer about working next summer in Alaska. “Not killing things though,” you emphasize. You aren’t squeamish when Kremer teaches you to filet some fish but it’s not the kind of thing you want to do for hours a day, not surprisingly.  A discussion ensues, all the jobs available for a strong young woman with a willingness to work. It seems whatever job can be done in Alaska, Kremer has held them all and at some point in our travels introduces you to a river rafting guide outfit. Our last day we float down the Kenai River and fish for salmon but mostly we’re just floating, lazing in the sun.  The fish are jumping but not biting. At one point they seem to be actually taunting us – they break the water all around us with a low splashing sound, but the only thing we can catch is a brilliant ruby glimpse.

After a brief lesson, Kirsten hands over the oars to you, and you pilot us the final five miles. The water flows swiftly, and there are some small rapids, and you follow Kremer’s calm instructions and navigate surely through every trial. We are swept along with the current, the sun glinting pretty on the water. There is a mist of droplets thrown up from a waterfall pounding the surface of the river; a rainbow arches over the river, almost in reach.

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on the Kenai

Wet get out of the raft and try fishing from the shore, where a line of men are standing in their waders, fifteen feet apart, casting and re-casting, utterly quiet. The shoreline is littered with salmon carcasses, some quite fresh.WE express surprise the fishermen leave so much fish on the bone and Kremer shrugs. They get the best filets quickly, and there are so many salmon its not worth doing a more thorough job, she tells us. Besides,  the bears are thrilled with the leavings – I find cartoon salmon skeletons in the nearby woods and quickly turn back to rejoin the others. I remind you to sing or otherwise make constant noise. 

Your dad calls us to the muddy bank and we examine a startlingly clear grizzly print in the soft ooze, larger than his hand when he spreads it wide in comparison. 

I find plenty of human leavings – discarded fishing lines, sinkers and hooks and, shockingly, six cigarette butts. I pocket them. It shouldn’t be surprising that man’s leading edge into the final frontier contains a toxic nonbiodegradable pollutant but it still makes me mad.

You could be a glacier guide, or a river guide, Kremer suggests. The casual/crucial offer to live in Kremer’s bus is extended. You seem interested but your seventeen-year old cool makes it hard to be sure if you are at all excited.

Dirtbagging. Eagles. Moose. 

How the landscape calls to us is as personal as who we fall in love with. There are some vistas that when you see them, something inside you kneels down. For some people it’s the inimical shape of a mountain, for others it is the quietude of trees. For me, there is healing to be found in the way the sun spreads its light on water, and how it feels to run along a high lonely ridge, as though I am part of the sky. For climbers, a spirituality as they move through trees toward rock. 

At one point an eagle alights on a high branch on the opposite bank of the river. We take turns watching it through the binoculars, and it is your turn and so you get an up-close eyeful when the eagle suddenly swoops to the middle of the river and grabs a salmon and dispatches its life with ruthless efficiency. It is a brief struggle; the salmon has no chance. Having slashed/drowned the salmon, the eagle proceeds to do the most rock and roll thing ever, swimming to shore still clutching the salmon in its talons, using its wings in a powerful breaststroke as we stood gaping on the opposite shore. 

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vista

We drive the Alaskan highways under a commanding blue sky, mountains always looming in front of us, to the sides of us, rearing up in the rearview mirror as if watching our escape with their timeless, implacable indifference, and everywhere the tall pink fireweed blooms. 

Everything here – the glaciers, the outlaws –  is on the way to becoming someone, something else, including you.   The possibility of working next summer in Alaska, living in Kremer’s fully functional bus with its Ice Pixies stickers is appealing to you. Not everyone has the talent to be a dirtbag. It takes confidence and self-sufficiency and the ability to inhabit the present moment joyfully at all times. Mostly it takes being very planful and organized. The skill of dirtbagging isn’t simply being able to go without, but in knowing what to include so you never miss what you don’t have. It also means sustainable consumption and moose in the meadow at midnight when you walk half awake to the outhouse.  

When their hackles rise it means they are going to charge, so don’t mess around, RUN and get up a tree, Kremer says in the same voice you might use to ask someone to pass the grape jelly. 

Have you ever had to climb a tree to escape a moose, you ask Kremer and she says Only a couple of times.  You look around at the not-very-climbable looking trees in the clearing, realizing she means, one of the trees right here, in the spot we’re standing. 

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aw

But…how did you decide *which one* to climb? you ask, and Kremer says matter-of-factly, When you’re being chased by something that can kill you, you don’t really have time to think – your body just does it. You digest this in silence. When we finally do see a moose, it  may very well me the one that treed Kremer and its muscular reality makes the story seem a whole lot less anecdotally funny and a whole lot more like life and death.

The Return.

We have a few hours to kill between returning the RV and our flight; we spend them visiting a little vegan cafe, then go to the Anchorage museum and after, lay in the grass out front. The early afternoon picnickers have departed and we have the lawn to ourselves; it is lush and green and cool, the sun warm but not too hot and as we talk I am reminded of another time that we three sat in the grass together in a park with nothing much to do. You were six, and wanted to have a dress up tea party in the park. My long green taffeta pouf ball skirt and purple velvet jacket with fingerless gloves gave me a steampunk air; your dad sported a Dick Tracy vibe with his bespoke blue houndstooth jacket with midnight velvet  collar, scarlet lining and a Fedora, while you choose a tunic, tights, a vest and a beret, all in velvet jewel tones, finishing it off with a tall pair of rainboots and looking for all the world like the knight’s pages of old, and a million times more interesting than a princess. We spread a blanket and ate grapes and then kicked a soccer ball around for awhile in the grass, and because this was in the pre-smart phone, pre-Instagram era, we do not have a million likes and shares of this awesome outing, it’s a butterfly caught in the amber of memory.

The poet Ocean Vuong said A poem is never finished, you simply let it go  to make its way in an indifferent world, which applies to raising children, too. Next year you will leave for college, the first step to making your way in a world that can be indifferent, yes, but also beautiful.  

There is no telling what memories of Alaska will stay with you, and what might spawn a return trip next summer to take Kremer up on her offer of a job and a bus to sleep in.  What images from the trip will stay with you, I wonder: Will it be the massive mama moose, gazing at us in mild suspicion while the rain pattered softly down on her and her babies?  Or the eagles strutting on the banks of the Kennai as we floated past, or the great blooming swaths of pink fireweed meadows everywhere. Maybe just the way the wide open sky looks above this last great wilderness. 

One thing is sure: if you return to Alaska, it will not be with your first love as you initially pictured when the bus was first proffered. There is heartache awaiting you back home, when we return from our trip –  something neither of us are yet aware of as we race our way along the Alaskan trails singing our nonsense songs. And though your first love is slipping away, your heart will always have this wild frontier to retreat to, a place that contains dangers, yes, but also beauty and these memories of  being in the wilderness together, brought here by love.

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About SFine

Mix Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King with liberal portions of Issac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John Irving, and Shirley Jackson; gently fold in Louisa May Alcott, the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Stir gently. Finish with a sprinkling of William Peter Blatty, Harper Lee, Joyce Carol Oates and Harlan Ellison. Add zest of Truman Capote-scented Josephine Hart. Scrape sides down and mix in Change Rae Lee and Amy Tan. Serve with a reminder of Ursula le Guin. The result is the Reliably Uncomfortable writings of Sandra Stephens in all of her incarnations: woman, writer, wife, runner, lucky stepmom, canulier, democracy warrior and lover of Jake the Dog.

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