Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Alaska - Aug. 14-23

Day 0:
Sitting in a park in Denver. I’ve migrated here from the airport during a time lapse before Alaska. It is hot and humid feeling. I couldn’t resist gelato. I took a nap in the park because I was so tired. My clothes still smell like New Mexico rain from hanging on the line my last night at Stillpoint with the other interns.

I notice a difference in myself after this internship. Most notably, I am grounded and I am more consistently conscious of the personal and often humorous connection I have with God. Again, my desire is to experience life with joy, gratitude, energy and freshness. My passion is mixing elements up in delicious, unexpected interactions – whether with words, images, clothing and jewelry, or groups of people. My calling is to create beauty in this world.

“From these texts we see that in meditation we should not look for a “method” or “system” but cultivate an “attitude” an “outlook” : faith, openness, attention, reverence, expectation, supplication, trust, joy.” (Thomas Merton: Contemplative Prayer, pg 34).

I said goodbye to Stillpoint this morning and the interns. Very sad. Theresa drove me to the ABQ airport where I caught a $56 flight to Denver with Southwest Airlines. My flight leaves for Alaska at 10pm.

Day 1:
Looking back on day 9 at my time in Alaska, the time was well spent and flew by. My flight arrived at 1:30a.m. in Anchorage. For the first 6 days, I stayed at Erin’s brother David’s house with Erin and Morgan. Erin is from Alaska, but I met her in Santa Fe through a Craigslist roommate search 2 years ago. Morgan is from Minnesota, but lives in Missoula, Montana now and I met her in Santa Fe 2 years ago through another friend who has since moved away.

Not much happened the first day in Alaska except a trip to REI where I met a cashier from Taos, NM. And dinner at a Korean restaurant with Erin and Morgan, Erin’s twin brothers, Doug and David, David’s wife Heidi, and their friend Dayyon. Doug treated us all to dinner. I went for a long walk in the morning around their neighborhood and along a bog trail by myself, which gave me the contemplative time I needed.

Day 2:
We began the day at the locally owned Kaladi Bros. Coffee for breakfast. Doug, David, Dayyon, Morgan, Erin and I drove to Hatcher’s pass and an abandoned gold mining town. The land here is incredible. It reminds me of the South Island of New Zealand. We lucked out with a sunny day. We went climbing up a mountain past glacier-blue lakes. We drove back the Willow, Alaska route, the small Parish town where Erin grew up in. This road also took us past Wasilla, where Sarah Palin was Mayor. Wasilla could be a beautiful lake-side mountain town, but instead it is a strip-mall filled sprawl, which Erin calls the armpit of Alaska. When we arrived back in Anchorage, David made us all delicious cheeseburgers on the grill.

Day 3:
We drove to Whittier. On the way, we stopped at the gorgeous resort town of Girdwood. We spent some time admiring the elegant artwork and details of the Seven Glaciers Hotel. We stopped at the Bake Shop for lunch and we all ordered the soup of the day: African Nut. I took a photo of the ingredients so I can make my own version later. The entrance to the Bake Shop is covered with colorful potted and hanging flowers of all kinds, jeweled with raindrops and framing the glacier-filled mountains rising behind.

To get to Whittier we drove through possibly the world’s longest mountain tunnel to emerge in a depressing, grey town docked with gigantic cruise ships. 2 residential, communist-style buildings stood in town. One was grey, haunted-looking and abandoned. The other was tan, haunted-looking, and lived in. We were told some people have not come out of this building in years. What kind of life are they living?

We were on a time frame to get back to Anchorage for dinner at Heidi’s mom Penny’s house. We were in for a treat! Erin calls Penny the best cook in Alaska and I can see why. Penny started us with smoked Alaskan salmon, capers, green grapes, cucumbers soaked in vinegar (not quite pickles) and bread dipped in garlic olive oil. And all sorts of drinks. Morgan and I shared the best blueberry beer and all the girls also had highly drinkable moscato desert wine. Next came fried clams! Delicious! Then the main course of Alaska king crab, sweet corn on the cob, marinated and grilled mushrooms, peppers, broccoli and cubed rosemary tenderized beef. Penny is also one of the most entertaining and funny hosts. We were all so happy, well-fed and content at her house and the dinner was a highlight of the trip.

Day 4:
The girls get the beamer! David was kind enough to lend his to us for our drive to Seward. The drive was stunning, following the ocean most of the way. Around the first curve of the bay we stopped to take in a pod of beluga whales breaking the waves close to shore!

In Seward, the rain drizzled and the sky remained grey, but the town was still pretty, quaint and artsy. I did my morning sit (meditation) in the car while Erin and Morgan toured the Sealife Center. I decided I did not need to spend money on a Sealife Center when I recently saw an incredible one in Taiwan that will probably satisfy me until/unless I have children! We split amazing, fresh halibut for lunch. I would love to return to Seward sometime in the sun! On the way back, we stopped for Morgan and I to hike in to Exit Glacier and back. My only other time touching a glacier was in New Zealand. The walk in was great and I saw a little red-backed vole scurrying around. He was too fast for the camera. Could have stayed here a lot longer, but we were on a time constraint of sorts. When we got to Anchorage, Dayyon was just pulling delicious home-made pizza out of the oven; he is a great cook!

Day 5:
Erin, Morgan and I took the old spare car to Birchwood, only 15 minutes from Anchorage, where Erin’s childhood Methodist church camp is located. Her two friends, Steven and Marie, run it. Marie grew up in Glorieta, NM and Steven is from Georgia; Erin helped get them their Methodist camp job in Alaska about the same time they helped her get the Methodist church job that brought her to Santa Fe! Morgan and I canoed on the lake while Erin caught up with her friends. We saw Pacific loons and a lake meadow of lily pads. Pacific loons sound and look different than the common loon I grew up seeing in Maine. They are grey and have more of a call than a haunting cry.

After Birchwood, we went shopping and wandering about downtown Anchorage. First things first, we ordered reindeer dogs from the best street vendor on 4th st. near the Federal Building. We went to Octopus Ink, which has some of the neatest printed organic apparel. I could not pass up a skirt (which doubles as a dress) with 2 Native-design-inspired puffins silk-screened on the bottom. We also found a store which sells the growing “ak starfish” label. Too bad they print on American Apparel gear. They did however have very beautiful designs and some of the most comfortable yoga pants (with all the yoga I do, I’ve never bought any real yoga pants) so I bought some and a hooded long-sleeve tee with a  pink raven on it.

Friday night happened to be girls night! Heidi, Morgan, Erin and I made our way to Crush – superbly recommended by Heidi who knew the great waiter at our table. We each ordered a “flight” 3 samples of wine. We each got a different flight: I ordered the most Malbec-like one; Morgan got a dryer red; Erin the Riesling and Heidi the Rose. This was the only splurge meal for me and I got truffled white bean dip followed by the best spinach, sun-dried tomato polenta followed by shared rum-raisin bread pudding. Actually it was all pretty reasonable and so worth it for the fun, laughter-filled, light-hearted silliness that followed us to bed.

Day 6:
What brought me joy this morning? Going for a walk by myself before everyone else was up despite the rain, eating Alaskan raspberries on the trail, coming across a bunny farm – looked like there were chickens running around the yard until I got closer and realized they were rabbits, remembering Stillpoint and coming back into presence multiple times during the walk when my thoughts strayed. We slept in! So did the boys who recovering from a Bachelor party (the wedding was coming up Sunday). Heidi, Morgan and I went to the weekend downtown market. The market was fantastically filled with all sorts of culturally diverse food stalls including Korean, Russian, Polish, Japanese, Italian, etc. I met a very nice young artist who paints funky designs on wooden panel necklaces. Seeing all the entrepreneurial artists in Anchorage has me tossing around my own future endeavor. Its wonderful how well printed apparel and recycled/found object art sells.

We stopped in Snow City Café for lunch – Heidi’s suggestion, but I was not hungry and only ordered a salad. Snow City is a cool and hopping café. The wait would have been an hour if Heidi hadn’t called in our reservation. According to Erin, many businesses in Anchorage that were small beginnings when she was little have greatly expanded by 2011.

Heidi and Erin dropped Morgan and I off at the airport to pick up our rental car, a very cute silver Nissan Versa and the two of us were off two Denali. On the way we took a short detour to Talkeetna, a pretty arsty town. So much good food! What to choose? We opted for the Heidi-recommended West Rib pub, home of the famous 4 lb. burger eating challenge of which we did not partake. We both ordered a cup of seafood chowder. Morgan got ceviche and I got a schooner (half a pint-size) of Alaskan Nut Brown, very very good!

We camped in Denali State Park at Byer’s Lake Campground, $5/night each. After setting up the tent, I took a nice solo walk around the lake and meditated on a tree stump. Funnily enough I heard someone singing and there was Morgan coming in the opp. Direction. She didn’t see me so I gave her a fright by accident! A beaver slapped its tail at me, ptarmigans froze silently thinking I couldn’t see them, a grieb propelled itself across the water, and a squirrel carried a mushroom like a bone in its mouth. A hairless patch of skin adorned its back, perhaps caught by a close-encounter with a carnivore. It felt so good to be out in the wilderness! We had a nice picnic dinner in the tent before sleeping.

Day 7:
Morgan and I stretched the wet tent out in the backseat to let it dry. Then we continued into Denali National Park stopping at the Visitor Center to recharge our electronics. Morgan found a great 10-mile hike with a view – Mt. Healy Look-out. Happily the sun came out more and more throughout the day, making it my 2nd sunny day in Alaska. We ended up splitting off for the hike to go at our own paces. I needed the quiet time and it was great! The colors were changing all over – reds, oranges and golds. Meditating on a rock off the beaten path, I was still interrupted by several chatty travelers. I do miss the quiet chapel at Stillpoint and sitting with a group of like-minded people, but I know this will come back into my life sometime soon when I’m settled again. Its funny how I don’t really feel the need to be traveling right now. I’ve never had that feeling before!

Morgan and I met up back at the car for our 15 mile drive into Denali – as far as personal cars are allowed to go (without a limited lottery ticket); the other option to go further is an expensive guided bus tour. This is a great strategy for preserving the wilderness and our 15 mile trip deeper was all we needed. For 15 minutes we got to watch a 3-legged grizzly bear eating blueberries, drinking from a stream, scratching its back and seemingly posing for the cameras.

As we drove further, just as Morgan finished uttering the sentence, “Now all I really want to see is a sheep and a moose!” I saw a moose on the side of the road and yelled my discovery to Morgan who saw it too just before it disappeared. That was so funny! Then, about 5 minutes later on our return drive, we came across a gigantic bull moose out in the tundra. We stopped to watch him eat for 10 minutes. We were so excited to be presented with such a finale to our Denali experience!

The drive back was filled with sunlight through clouds and lots of drunk black spruce tree and red tundra photos. The land in Denali (Denali means “Great One”) feels very sacred. I was more aware of my connection to source here. From that solo hike onwards, my mind and outlook shifted and emptied and I didn’t think about anything on the ride back, just tuning out the static radio, my congested sinuses, the engine, the anciness of sitting in the car. Let things take care of themselves. Do not be stressed by the little things – those are the most dangerous, stress-inducing things to worry about Morgan told me – things like paying your bills or arriving to dinner on time or whether the couchsurfer you are staying with would still let you in over an hour past your expected time.

Our couchsurfer Edra had lost her phone over the weekend so we had no way of reaching her except via email. When I found her address, no one answered the door. I saw no lights on, so I left a note saying we’d gone to find internet access to see if she’d written us anything and we’d be back to check in an hour. It was 9:30 p.m. I knew it would be alright though; Morgan and I could car camp if it came to that. Luckily, Edra lived right downtown around 12th Ave. and F street, but all the coffee shops and malls were closed on Sunday night. Then we found a bar named Bernie’s with free wireless. I logged in and saw that Edra had found the note and written that we were at the right location, but that her door was in the back of the house! So, we went back and she let us in. We talked for a little bit and then went to bed, Morgan and I in our own room sharing an air mattress! It was quite possibly the quietest central city location I have ever stayed in.

Day 8:
Morgan left before I even got up to fly out and return the car. I slept in, caught up on journaling, emails, postcards, future travel arrangements, job searching. I have a few interviews lined up for when I return to Santa Fe, so I am sure something will work out. It is both scary and exciting to be traveling without a job, to be trusting all will be well, challenging and rewarding to find myself staying in the moment. The Italian traveler who started talking to me during my mountain meditation in Denali said that you have to enjoy every good travel moment when it is happening. He has to head back to a job it doesn’t sound like he enjoys and he has had 13 days of being in the moment in Alaska.

Edra woke up not feeling well and she slept most of the day, so I did not get to know her very well. I walked around her very pretty neighborhood and then along an Oceanside pathway for 2 hours, then around downtown getting some more gifts for people. Everyone seems so friendly and cheerful in Anchorage. I walked back to the apt, which Edra left unlocked for me. I took a wonderful nap in the rain – something I miss doing back in sunny New Mexico. Then I took another small walk around the neighborhood to mail my postcards before going back to my now private room to meditate. I felt some nostalgia, missing the other interns and the spiritual conversations to come home to, which happened every day during the summer. I read some of Thomas Merton’s “Contemplative Prayer” book and wrote to all the other interns, right after Michael wrote to us. So more than one of us was thinking/missing the others at the same time! I miss them all so much!

Day 9:
I woke up early and took a short walk in the rain. I wrote a thank you note to Edra and left her an assortment pack of Numi teas fittinely titled, “Endless Journies” Then I walked seven minutes to the People Mover bus station to catch the #7 to the airport. I only had a $5 bill and the fare was $1.75. The driver kindly pulled out his walled and gave me change!

In half an hour I was at the airport. I bought a few more postcards there and sat writing them. The store owner said she would mail them for me since otherwise I would have to go through security again to mail them from the airport post office. Have I mentioned people are nice in Alaska? My flight Vancouver via Seattle is on time. I wouldn’t be on it without the free flight I got to Alaska by signing up for the Alaskan Airlines credit card. It has been a beautiful journey around some of this vast, 1959-founded state. Next time I come, I think I’d like to take a road trip through the Yukon in the NW territories of Canada, see Nahanni Nat. Park, and go to south Eastern Alaska, the small islands off the coast and Juneau. I could happily go back to Santa Fe now. I don’t need to do any more traveling right now, but my flights are booked and have since gone way up to change them. So off I go to Vancouver, Seattle, Bellingham and Portland. I’ll just try to keep the rest of my trip as simple and contemplative and nature-oriented as possible. I booked all this before my spiritual internship this summer, before my time in Guatemala, before my Europe trip when I was, I think, a person with a different outlook. I am looking forward to a settled time in Santa Fe this fall. Nonetheless, I am grateful for this time to travel and curious to see what will unfold in it.