Friday, December 28, 2012

Home for the holidays

¨Where will you be for Christmas?¨ became the most common question we received from family, friends, and fellow travelers as we approached the holiday season.  Most of us head home for the holidays and, as we no longer have any home, people were curious as to our plans.  Since our first day without a permanent base, we have pondered what ¨home¨ really means to us.  We have always known that at its essence, home is so much more than a roof and walls.  Rather, it is a concept about comfort, security, love, and people.  Home is definitely ¨where the heart is¨ which means for us, as we tote our backpacks around the world, that our concept of home is more closely aligned to those described in nomadic cultures.  Our homes are the places that provide us a sense of mental and physical security and comfort.

The actual locations or places we call home during this peregrination are incredible in their variety.  We have stayed in simple hostels without water, heat or WiFi but with a bed and friendly staff.  We have stayed in incredible two-story luxurious handmade condos with kitchens and views of mountains, glaciers and lakes.  We have been in small hotels, eclectic bed and breakfasts, and slept in buses with and without reclining seats.  Each has often met our personal definition of being home as we find comfort, security and love.  Some have introduced us to new friends such as Karen and Stuart, a wonderful couple we met in Arequipa.  All have introduced us to new people, cultures and ideas.  Only one had bedbugs.

A few days before Christmas, we found ourselves at a bed and breakfast called Pire Mapu Cottage in Puerto Natales in Patagonia.  From the moment we walked in, we realized we were in an exceptional home with exceptional Chilean and British hosts.  We had found the place to stay for Christmas (which was not our original plan).  Fabiana and Bren made us feel as if we were long lost friends rather than two strangers intruding into their home.  They offered us their kitchen, fireplace and gorgeous dining room table as our setting for a salmon meal on Christmas Day.  Perhaps even more special, they gave us their company for our Christmas meal.  While we missed friends and family during the holiday, we found a very special home for the holiday.

Top image is of the dining room at the Pire Mapu Cottage in Puerto Natales, Chile; middle image is of the table we shared during our homestay on Taquile Island, Peru; and last image is of a simple hostel bed in Costa Rica.  

Posted in Punta Arenas, Chile

Monday, December 17, 2012


The pain of a brutal past is obvious in Maruca's broken jawline, her twisted and battered nose, and in her slow ambling gait up the path in her current home within La Senta Verde near Coroico and the jungles of Bolivia.   She is one of 350 refugees who receive daily care at the facility.  Many arrived confused, ripped with violence from their homes, afraid of men, women, or children depending on past abuse or negligent treatment.  With good nutrition, daily medical treatment, and the gentle ministrations of more than a dozen volunteers from all over the world, the refugees have found a safe respite and new home.  Bolivia's governmental policies are such that is illegal for them to be returned to the jungles and plains of their original habitat.

Maruca is a spider monkey, and she and her fellow primates (including almost a dozen howler monkeys and dozens of incredibly cute and intelligent capuchin monkeys), two endangered Andean spectacled bears, over 100 reptiles, and birds of every shape and color, make up the community of animals rescued by Vicky and Marcelo Ossio.  The couple originally operated an ecolodge, mainly serving mountain bikers who road 69 kilometers from La Paz down "the world's most dangerous road" with the Gravity Biking Company.  About 8 years ago, they received their first capuchin monkey, Ciruelo.  Today they have the only licensed animal refuge in Bolivia and with the care of a wonderful veterinarian, Dr. Adriana Orellana, a great staff and many volunteers, they now receive dozens of animals a month.  Most are casualties of illegal pet trade or habitat loss due to ingress into National Parks and conversion of land to coca fields, activities encouraged by current governmental policies.

We were touched in deep and meaningful ways by the people and their animal refugees at La Senta Verde.  One young female, Wara, spends her days foiling human attempts to lock her out of buildings.  She is a rascal, but when Jess sat by her, she snuggled close, laying her head in Jess's lap.  Pimienta, another female spider monkey, recognized in Sally a kind and gentle soul as she climbed her for a long hug, a walk, and consolation as the young female spoke insistently into Sally's ear. Pimiento's sorrow was clear as was her need for reassurance.  The Amazonian parrots and macaws called out for attention as they mimicked both Spanish and English words, dog barks, cat meows, and sounds of video games.   All of the animals receive daily attention from a young and growing group of international volunteers.  Many soon to be volunteers first experience the refuge after an adrenaline-filled bike ride ending in lunch and a site tour.  Some cannot forget the sight of so many animals in such great need and come back for a week or two and stay for months or years.

Some people give of their time and others give money.  The needs of the refuge are significant.  Carrying capacity and beyond have been reached on this small 22 hectare site.  New enclosures, flight cages, quarantine areas, and clinics are being built for the ever growing group of animals in need.  Feeding the animals  and providing the medicines are costly as well.  It is a time of year we seek to give to others.  Instead of buying a materialistic object for someone this year, consider making a donation in that person's name to this worthy endeavor of human compassion for lost animal refugees.  You can donate to the refuge by PayPal or direct deposit.

La Senta Verde Pay Pal account -
Bank of America  TX2-563-01-01, Acct. Number 488036101948, Virginia Ossio
Website with more donation information

Posted in Bahia Blanca, Argentina

Monday, December 10, 2012

Bolivia: Land of Contrasts

Contrasts are all around us as we travel through South America.  We see it in the cities where the well to do go about their daily lives and pass by beggars in dire need of help.  We see it in the brightly colored clothing worn by the rural Andean women and the dark business suits worn by the city professionals.  We even see it in the dogs within each community.  Some are well cared for, dressed in coats, and have distinct collars while others are thin and ragged as they search for food among discarded garbage.  We also see it as we travel in the various buses from one place to another.  Some are comfortable, with reclining seats, movies, and meals.  Others show no movies, and the ride is so rough it is more a teeth chattering four-wheel drive excursion without suspension or shocks.

One of our most vivid experiences dealing with contrasts has been the tour of the Uyuni Salt Flats and its surrounding environments.  Landscapes here are so vast and different, they are difficult to describe.  One day, we are looking at a highly eroded, overgrazed valley with llamas, vicunas and goats around every turn.  Another day, we are amazed at the multiple colors of the mineral rich mountains where alluvial fans spread like glaciers from the mouths of drainages.  An additional day brings utter fascination as we try to understand the Mars-like scenes before us with steaming volcanoes, vast hills of red and huge, bizarre rocks that are remnants of volcanic eruptions, some not so long ago.

The salt flats themselves are an endless sea of white, where the natural geometric patterns of sodium chloride produce a cloud like crystaline quilt across the ground.  Small, distant islands within the salt flats provide a stark contrast to the sea of white, as giant cactuses rise up from the depths perched on the thin, rocky, volcanic soil in the midst.  The contrast between earth and sky fades as the flats produce mirages.  The cactus islands appear to float and the horizon disappears in a shimmer of merged land and sky.

Throughout this journey, we see so much that is new to us, much of which is incomprehensible.  The people, their food and culture, and the landscape are contrasts to what we have known for most of our lives.  In all of these contrasts, we find growth and enrichment and occasionally confusion or pain. What we seek in this journey is much like the mirages as anticipation becomes reality and each day shimmers and disappears.

Posted from La Paz, Bolivia

Sunday, November 25, 2012

17 Sheep

Seventeen sheep is what Celso needs to complete the forty-five required to marry Juana.  Taquile has complicated and beautiful traditions that are adhered to by the almost 2,000 inhabitants on this remote island in Lake Titicaca.  In 2005, the island was declared a world treasure by UNESCO for the beautiful textiles produced by both the men and women.  Men knit and women weave.  Both learn their trades as young children and much of their worth is determined by the detail and quality of the images they weave into caps, belts, shawls, and purses (worn only by the men).   The textiles tell stories of their own lives and their cultures.

Juana began weaving Celso a wedding belt when he came to live with her and her parents when he was 20

and she 19.  Each couple must live in each other's home for a year before the local elected headman might approve their marriage to be held in May.  The parents carefully watch for qualities in the possible couple that will suggest they will have a successful marriage.  There is no divorce so this is an important period of trial and testing.  Throughout it, the bride to be expresses her thoughts of her possible groom in her weavings of his belt.  He is also busy knitting a red hat (he must wear white if single) and a purse to hold the coca leaves married men exchange in greeting rather than handshakes or hugs. 

Despite an obvious successful match, a house, and a 6 year old, Juana and Celso remain unmarried, wearing clothing traditional to singles in their society.  They lack the 45 sheep this almost completely vegetarian society will feast on in May for a five day celebration.  Normally, the parents of both the bride and the groom provide the sheep; however, Celso is the 5th of 6 children and the sheep of his parents are gone.  He must
work in a society with little material wealth to earn the soles (Peruvian currency) for each sheep.  Without marriage, neither Celso's nor Juana's voices may be heard during the weekly communal assemblies and decisions of their island.

He had 28 and needed 17 sheep as our home stay with three other travelers from Ireland, Scotland, and  Czechoslovakia began.    We pooled our groups resources, bought weavings and knitted products, and donated money.  By the time we left, the family was three sheep nearer to a May wedding....

Pictures are from Taquile, Peru of Jess and Celso, Juana showing the wedding belt as Celso knits, and of Wilfredo, their 6 year old son.    Posted in La Paz, Bolivia

Monday, November 19, 2012


It seemed like an easy task. The Secretary at the Bolivian Consulate in Puno, Peru, asked us to take our dollars to a bank, deposit them in the Bolivian Consulate account, and return with a voucher from the bank, so that we could finish our process for a visa.  The task perfectly illustrated a challenge faced by much of Latin America… reliable infrastructure.

Each day is a mystery.  We may or may not have water, electricity or internet.  Busses may or may not arrive on schedule and if they do, they may not have the mechanical ability to make it to their destinations.  While any of these things could, on occasion, or in times of natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, be absent in the U.S., most days one can rely on their presence.  

We are even more thoughtful than when we left the U.S. about the local, state, and national taxes we pay that assure us of infrastructure reliability.  While we complained about high utility and internet bills, we increasingly understand that much of what we purchased was the ability to count on the product being available if we flipped a switch.

In Costa Rica, the infrastructure was significantly better, litter was virtually absent, and water was drinkable from the tap throughout the majority of the country.  Peru has been a very different story.  The litter, sewage, and lack of dependable water, electricity and internet are a part of the daily lives of the people.  Places such as Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, may illustrate this well as the influx of tourism and the bounties of the water have brought too many Peruvians and tourists to the site too fast.  The town is overwhelmed and the stench is undeniable.  Services simply cannot keep up with the demand.

So in Puno, when one goes to the bank to make a deposit, the bank may not be able to take it that day.  The computers may be paralyzed, and innovation and the can-do attitude so much a part of our daily lives in the U.S. are not prioritized.  It may take hours or even days to make the deposit.

We all know intuitively that we take so much for granted.  Each day, life is a teacher providing us with lessons in Latin America.  The most important lesson is a perfect one for Thanksgiving week.  We are so thankful for all we have had and all that we do have.

Pictures include a women riding on a bike transport in Puno, a family foraging through the trash on the shores of Lake Titicaca,and an example of missing infrastructure from a house across the main square in Puno. Posted in Puno, Peru

Monday, November 12, 2012

Master Architects

Dark hands creased with time unconsciously cradle the drop spindles that transform wool from llamas and alpacas into multicolored cloth. The resulting beautiful weavings are a source of rainbow-hued pride, outlining the native population against green-terraced mountainsides and grey-block cities.  The alpacas and llamas are the threads of life in the Andes, and they are present everywhere, leaving their droppings even on the modern cobblestone streets of Cusco.  They are the first, rich, organic smell sensed as one steps out onto the incredibly engineered terraces of Machu Picchu where the gentle animals keep the forest at bay as they graze on grass covered platforms among gaping tourists.  

The Incas were a pinnacle of a maturing civilization stretching from Central America to deep in South America over 500 years ago.  They, like their contemporaries in 4 other great civilizations around the world, were acquiring advanced astronomical knowledge, developing engineering skills, and perfecting the science of artificial selection in ways that are still unfathomable.  Unlike the other ancient cultures of the Mayans, Aztecs, or Anasazis (whose sites we have wandered), the Incas were massive transformationists of the abiotic and biotic environment.  Signs of their civilization are present everywhere in the many varieties of potatoes and corn, in the quality and quantity of wool-producing alpacas, in the smoothly engineered massive grey blocks which are the current foundations of Andean cities and villages, and in the richly unmistakable faces of their descendants.  These are a people who dared to rebuild mountains soaring above deep, mysterious valleys by constructing terraces reaching toward the heavens.  They are a proud civilization in which today, local people share jokes and understanding in Quechua rather than choosing to speak with each other the Spanish of their long ago conquerors.   As their oral knowledge is increasingly coupled with educated scholars of their own race, a nuanced understanding of the Inca civilization emerges and old myths and misinterpretations provided in the past by the Spaniards are being struck down.  Many campesinos, or highland natives, are learning English as they seek new sources of wealth from visitors (tourists and trekkers) to the sites of their Incan heritage.  

As we reclined on terraces high above Machu Picchu, we wondered what life in South America, and in fact all of the Americas, would have been like if the Spanish Conquistadors had failed in their bid for land and wealth across the ocean.  There was a sophistication of the Incas that was centuries before their time.  Like other cultures, the diseases of the invaders were terrible, leading to dark ages where 60-90% of the population died in one generation and knowledge was irretrievably lost.  Their current issues associated with poverty are significant, but recent elections suggest an opportunity for change for the average citizen in a society long dominated by those with great wealth.  The hands that weave colorful patterns of culture and symbolism into stunning llicllas supporting new generations on the backs of women are capable of weaving a new society with greater equality and opportunity.  The people in the Andes have the feel of a recovering society sitting on the edge of greatness.
Images of Machu Picchu, a Chincherra woman working alpaca wool, and Renato, our guide extraorinaire from Cusco Native.  Posted from Cusco, Peru.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land

The concept of seeking to "learn with humility" is not just a fundamental principle of our travel goals, but a daily necessity of our new life.  We intrinsically understood this from the very first morning as we woke up in Costa Rica to a way of being, not a vacation.

We are "students" in the lessons taught to us by the "Ticos" or natives of Costa Rica, as well as from the myriad young folks who have and are traveling the world.  We know nothing of hostel life (which we are loving), little of public transportation (having grown up in the USA), and only a moderate amount about the biology or the reserve designs of this wonderful country in Central America.  Our ignorance cannot be diminished by Spanish dictionaries or translation programs alone.  For example, each meal is an adventure as each place and country has unique names for its restaurants (Sodas in Costa Rica and Picantrias in Peru), and its cuisine, drinks and deserts. Even the word "menu" means meal of the day rather than a description of restaurant offerings in Peru.

So, we must study our texts, ask questions with humility and a thirst for knowledge, and learn from our teachers, wherever they appear.   We have always understood that personal growth comes from learning.  We need a new language of global travel and the hard earned knowledge of locals who have encouraged us to, as one put it with a reference to Oz, "look behind the curtain" of the gringo trail, the tours, the landscape and better understand the social and environmental costs of what we "buy" or see.  Such knowledge has taken us a lifetime in our fields of resource management, conservation, and education so we have little illusion of what a year or two abroad can teach us.  But we can try to learn with humility.

Costa Rica is an amazing place, with people who have valued clean water and land and conservation decades before most of the world.  But it is also a place in which the natural world suffers as economic development for tourism and agriculture competes with preservationist and conservationist ideals.  The diversity is amazing, but like our own county, animals such as the golden toad, once an icon in Monterverde, have been driven extinct by anthropogenic actions and choices.  Like the arctic in our "beauty and the beast" blog entry, this is a place that is a harbinger of change and choice.

Posted in Lima, Peru.  Images are of a tour guide, a hostel room, and an Emerald Basilisk or "Jesus Christ Lizard" which walks on water.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Living in a Cloud

How do we live an almost completely mobile life carrying belongings in small, 20-25 pound packs?  In part, we live in a cloud.

As we prepare our last bags tonight at our friend Lisa’s house and head toward Latin America in a few hours, we are wondering if the preparations of the past three years will work.  During those years, we slowly converted everything we could to electrons.  We have learned a lot from reading reviews, blogs, and asking others about their path to freedom. 

We scanned most of our old photos (or at least Jess’s nephew Jack did!) and in the end, sent the last few hundreds to Digmypics.  They professionally brought the memories of a lifetime to us via a DVD and albums on Google’s Picassa.  The images are more available than they have been to either of us in the past decades and the memories are rich.  We converted all of our music with Itunes to mp3 files.  We took pictures or scanned things that we had moved from house to house for years including notes from friends, old sports awards, etc.  We went through our filing cabinets and scanned important papers.  All of these and more are available to us on the Ipod Touch, Iphone, and Ipad as well as anywhere there is web access through a wonderful program called Dropbox.

Mail was a particular challenge for us.  Because we no longer have a physical address in Gunnison, Colorado, we had to find somewhere to receive mail.  The solution was a service called  We changed our address to Michigan and the company there receives our mail, scans the envelope, and notifies us via email that it has arrived. We then may request that they open it, forward it, shred it, or scan and email it to us.  As a backup, Sally’s sister in Fort Collins receives any forwarded mail.   (Sandy, you rock!)

We researched the one financial institution that refunded ATM fees, charged no foreign transaction fees, and offered excellent online banking (Charles Schwab).   We obtained a credit card with the best exchange rates and no foreign transaction fees (Capital One). 

Piece by piece the physical manifestations of our life became electronic and accessible.  Our phone will be turned off at midnight but if our preparations have worked, we will be in contact through our emails, Skype accounts as well as this blog.

Wish us luck as we find out if the three years of preparation really did prepare us for our international walkabout.

Posted in Los Angeles, California

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How do you choose?

In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.   ~Dante Alighieri

As we turned our energies and minds toward planning the first steps of our broader world journey, we knew that we would eventually have to explain how we chose where we decided to go from the almost 200 countries that exist in the world.

As has been the case in both of our lives on the most momentous choices, we are making these choices remarkably blindly, ill-informed, and with little real knowledge or sufficient thought.  Whether it was our decisions about life partners, graduate schools, career moves, or family… we have always made our choices the same way and found that with work, luck, and the willingness to learn, we grew and thrived within the boundaries defined by those choices.

We have asked hundreds of people about where they have been, what they have loved, and why they have loved it.  We have read travel blogs for over two years.  We have researched methods and modes of travel around the world.  We are certain of one thing.  We are na├»ve and ignorant. 

So our choices derive from a few principles, the most important being that all places, and the people within them, have something to teach us.  We have chosen places that thrill us, unnerve us, excite us, and intimidate us physically, mentally or emotionally (and occasionally all three at once). We have learned it is in this state that we grow the most.  We are sure that our journey will diverge from the path indicated below, and if all goes well, it will only be the first year of the trip.    

By publishing the dates and places, we hope that some of our friends and family may choose to walk by our side for part of the experience.  And walk is the key word.  Our next task is to get all of our possessions into a pack that weighs no more than 20 pounds.

Warm, south and international… the next stage of the trip
Los Angeles, CA (Depart Oct 22)
San Jose, Costa Rica (Arrive Oct 22 – Depart Oct 29)
Lima, Peru (Arrive Oct 29 – Depart Nov 1)
Cusco, Peru (Arrive Nov 1)
Overland on our own through Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina and back to Chile
Santiago, Chile (Depart Feb 5) (Fly through Lima, El Salvador and Costa Rica to LA)
Los Angeles (Arrive Feb 5 – Depart Feb 10)

Rarotonga (Cook Islands) – (Arrive Feb 10 – Depart Feb 18)
Auckland, New Zealand (Arrive Feb 19)
Overland to Christchurch, New Zealand
Christchurch, New Zealand (Depart March 19)
Melbourne, Australia (Arrive March 19)
Overland to Darwin, Australia
Darwin, Australia (Depart April 19)

Bali, Indonesia (Denpasar) (Arrive April 19 – Depart May 3 and fly through Kuala Lumpur)
Kota Kinabalu, Borneo, Malaysia (Arrive May 3)
Overland on our own to Kuching
Kuching, Borneo, Malaysia (Departure May 24)
Singapore, Malaysia (Arrive May 24)
Overland on our own to Thailand, Cambodia (Angkor Wat), possibly Laos and Vietnam, later to Burma, India and trekking in Nepal by November 2013.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.  ~ Lao Tzu

Posted from Haines, Alaska

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Putting Alaska to Bed

September in Alaska is a very different time than July or August.  It is a frantic time for many Alaskan residents as they seek to prepare for the cold, dark, nights of the upcoming winter.  Boats are brought out of the water, buildings and vehicles are winterized in a variety of ways, wood is put in, and the final harvests of beasts and berries are done regardless of the weather.

Fewer tourists are about, with no long lines of RVs at the gas pumps in the small towns, and the temporary “locals” working in the service industry are headed back south for the season.  Tour companies and the supporting food stands, Thai trailers, and coffee shops are closed, even gone, from the empty lots that once bustled with 5 am traffic from hungry fishermen and busy women.

Wildlife is different as well.  The bears are frantically finishing their feast of over 200,000 berry days and their sides move like Jello as they waddle across roads and meadows.  The final salmon, now decaying, white and slowly drifting in small streams, have successfully thwarted the seine nets, dip nets, and combat fisherman on the streams only to die after a final dance in their spawning grounds. 

The fall, short as it might be, gives up its last life in a burst of reds, oranges, and yellows that turn the once green hills into a mottled, earthly and rich landscape with snow encroaching slowly from the tops of the mountain ranges into the foothills.  And finally, the days have turned into days of longer darkness than light. 

Our goal was to come to Alaska until it was cold and dark and then to turn our attention and journey toward some destination south, international and warm.  We have begun that turn mentally and physically and look forward to posting about the next phase of our peregrination.  

Posted from Valdez, Alaska

Friday, August 31, 2012

Reunited: Hitchhiker Part 2

“Once you have been given and you have gifted another with trust such as the three of us did, there is a part of you that forever travels with each other” we wrote in our blog entry about Tamar, our hitchhiker.  We have thought about Tamar often through the past couple of months as we traveled through Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.  We thought about her so much, we decided to make a 1,000 mile detour to visit her once more before we headed back south.

Tamar lives in Delta Junction, a town of around 900 hearty souls of deep faith and fortitude.  Her family of three (Mitch, Nora and Sibby), came from Oregon about 4 years ago to carve a home and life out of the challenging back country of Alaska.  The work that they have done on their 900 acre property is impressive.  They live in a comfortable log cabin made from poplar logs, cut and peeled by their own hands.  The caribou roast, salad, potatoes, and pesto bread they fed us all came from food they had harvested and it was special as was the fellowship at their table.

We were curious to see if Tamar would welcome us as we had been part of what was undoubtedly one of the hardest weeks of her life.  We were happy when she came to us with friendship and enthusiasm and showed us around the wonderful yard and world she was seeking on the day we met her. 

One of the hotly debated issues in animal behavior is whether animals have emotions.  Neither of us has ever felt any debate as we know that animal emotions are powerful, real, and one of the most enriching parts of our relationship with the natural world.  In the final two photos below, look carefully into Tamar’s eyes in the photo in our van just hours before she was to be reunited with her family and look at her eyes in the photos from our visit.  She is, now, a happy dog as she found the people she loved and the place she calls home.

As we hugged our new friends and hosts goodbye, Tamar barked happily and the sound she made was not remotely related to that lonely howl in the Visitor Center that had drawn us back to her side in July.  As we got ready to drive away, Nora asked if we might want one of Tamar’s puppies in the future.  We laughed and said to call us if we were back on the continent as we know that this Husky’s lineage is special.  In fact, there is a part of her that will always travel with us and a part of us that belongs to her.

Posted in the town of North Pole, Alaska

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Road

During its short few days of “fall”, the Dempster Highway is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.  Rather than seek our own words, we are turning to Robert Frost for our narrative and posting a few extra pictures this week.  After all, a picture can be worth a 1,000 words!

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

 Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,   
And sorry I could not travel both              
And be one traveler, long I stood             
And looked down one as far as I could  
To where it bent in the undergrowth;          
Then took the other, as just as fair,    


And having perhaps the better claim,    
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there     
Had worn them really about the same, 

And both that morning equally lay         
In leaves no step had trodden black.      
Oh, I kept the first for another day!        
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh 
Somewhere ages and ages hence:          
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— 
I took the one less traveled by,  
And that has made all the difference.  

Posted from Dawson City, Yukon

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty is found within luminescent ribbons splitting the few moments of darkness into the mysterious Northern Lights.  It is the rich, organic, sweet smell of the tundra permeating the air from the labyrinth of plant, fungi and bacteria as the weight of our feet plunges toward the permafrost a few inches below.  It is in the tart taste of lowbush cranberries and the sweetness of blueberries as their sun-warmed richness slides down our waiting throats.  It is in the change of fall as green grass in a single night erupts the next morning into a symphony of gold, oranges, and reds painting rainbows down the hills of shale coated peaks.  It is the deafening sound of perfect silence.  It is a sunset that fades into sunrise in a land that night has fled.

 Some might see the beast in the grizzly tearing at a bloody caribou leg as the first dust settles along  the early morning Dempster Road or in the Arctic Ground Squirrel feasting on its brother’s road kill remains as it prepares for the deep sleep of winter.  For us, the beast is not those natural and necessary events; rather, it is the dust and the drugs that seep into the fabric of life on and near the Dempster.  It is rancid, yellow water from a tap where a gallon of store bought pure spring water costs $5 dollars now and will double and triple in cost during the transitional months of freeze and breakup before ice roads can be built.  It is the pain of paying $35 for a 12” pizza of canned vegetables on edible crust.  Of all of the beasts, it is the drugs that prey like a dark animal on young kids buying from men in dank campgrounds or in the vacant eyes of a mind and soul lost to family and friends as their owner stumbles through the streets of Inuvik.

The small towns surrounding Inuvik have formed almost vigilante like efforts to eradicate drugs and alcohol from their communities as seen by the signs warning those who would deal.  For us, Inuvik is a place at the end of a 760 km road to finally turn back toward family and friends, but for others, it is clearly the end of the road when there is nowhere else to go.  The town has beauty in people like the young man who took us on a boat tour.  He had much to teach us about the effects of global climate change from the observations of his elders and his family’s almost 50-year relationship with a scientist who has measured the destructive effects of climate change on permafrost.  But much of the town feels like the brightly painted colors covering dilapidated metal and deteriorating wood buildings.  There is beauty, but it covers a beast. 

 Perhaps the most significant beast is not one inherent within individuals from the north, but from the global connections playing out in places like our hometown of Gunnison.  As John Muir wrote, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”  Each day we made decisions about our use of energy and resources as we accumulated more than we needed.  Our carbon footprint continues to affect the globe as it marches toward a warmer future.  That future is not theoretical at the poles. Many still debate the reality of climate change while the people in the extreme north watch its actions as land thaws beneath their feet. The permafrost is melting at an unprecedented rate and soil is sliding into the rivers as the land becomes a quagmire and life strangles in the waters.

The Dempster Highway is a 760 km gravel road that travels north across the Arctic Circle and through a Canadian province, a Canadian territory, and two time zones.  The land, and the road, are contrasts, harboring both beauty and the beast.  We have been changed by our visit as our souls strain to understand the meaning of the words from the soft crooning of the elder Neil tapping his beaded, moose-hide moccasins in a rhythm ingrained into a mind softened with age but rich with understanding.

Posted on the Dempster Highway in Eagle Plains, Yukon.

Monday, August 13, 2012


One of the important themes of Alaska life is warmth.  It can come in the simple satisfaction of turning on the heater in our conversion van to ward off the early morning Alaskan chill.   For Dennis, who retired from the Healy local coal mine and therefore receives free coal for the rest of his life, it comes in the pleasure of rebuilding and modifying an old boiler to burn his “annuity” in an almost maintenance-free manner.  It can be as costly as it is to the twin sisters Miki and Julie Collins who live north of Denali deep in Alaska’s roadless interior.  After dog food for their mushing huskies, it is the most significant expense in their solitary and adventurous lives. 

It can be a critical part of survival as Christopher McCandless, whose life was prematurely ended due to starvation and exposure, found out after he went “into the wild” and spent his last moments in a cheap sleeping bag feeding wood into a stove in an abandoned school bus just within the borders of Denali National Park.  Summer warmth to the Caribou, Dall Sheep, Arctic Squirrels and Grizzlies of the Park comes with the opportunity for raising a new generation and feeding 20 hours a day to prepare for deep sleep,  hibernation, or living off of lichen and grass in the long  and frigid winter nights.

Warmth can mean many things, but the most significant for the two of us is not as a necessity of life in the far north, but the most common characteristic exhibited by many that we have met along our way.  It can be the thoughtful act of turning on the electric mattress cover for two “new friends” invited for a delicious salmon Alfredo dinner and a much needed shower and warm bed.  Another example of Alaskan hospitality came with  an invitation for midafternoon “seafood snacks” resulting in a three hour, 6 course meal, including smoked Kenai salmon, Prince  William sweet shrimp, local moose, fresh fruit, homemade cranberry liquor, and warm lingonberry muffins dripping in sweet  butter.  The meal was followed by wonderful conversation, a guided tour of the Healy backcountry, and a  ride in the “DeLorean” (actually, the hydraulic lift traded for the DeLorean) revealing the majestic Alaskan mountain range visible from Cheryl and Dennis’s home.

The manner in which  Alaskans welcome us has been a “warming” and rewarding experience.  We better understand what “warmth” really means in this remote and spectacular state.

Posted in Delta Junction, home of Tamar!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What’s in a name?

Our friends who are anthropologists and sociologists tell us that language and what people call things are important clues to their culture and lives.  For example, an incredible amount of the vocabulary of native Alaskans is related to salmon which demonstrates the importance of the fish to the different tribes' existences.

We have been laughing for weeks thinking about this as we pass street signs and other landmark signs around Alaska as more recent settlers during the past century had other things on their minds.  A few examples follow. 

As we approached the dip-netting capital of the Alaska world, Chintina, we passed One Mile, Two Mile and Three Mile lakes.  Can you guess how far each lake was from Chintina?  Searching for the swimming pool near Nikiski we encountered the street sign, Poolside  Ave.  Looking for camping in Homer, we found the sign on the left.  While on the phone to her brother in AZ, Jess mentioned we were by 20 mile lake and he correctly guessed we were 20 miles from Anchorage.  Finally, Sally’s favorite is the last sign below that probably gives some insight into Friday night activities in Wasilla, Alaska, for high school students.

Clearly, long before the publication of the Milepost came about, Alaskans were preoccupied with distances and with practical names that told people where things could be found.  As we read narratives and biographies of the first settlers, one can imagine in this challenging landscape that knowing how close you were to civilization might be the most important fact of the day.  Traveling by dog sled, river, or on foot was rough in a place that temperatures are often below -50 F. 

The other funny thing we have noticed is that whenever we are in a city, everyone gives directions by associating all turns with the local gas station as the starting point.  In Virginia, it was always the distance from the Baptist church.  However, that is a whole different story about local culture in the south!

Posted in Seward, Alaska