Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Card Photo

I have been trying for several years now to get a decent Christmas card photo. For awhile there I sent out photos every year. Then, it got difficult to find someone to take our picture. One year I even sent out a photo of our cabin. But that was actually appropriate because it was fairly recently that we had embarked on our pioneering adventure of building our own home and living off the grid. Everyone knew what we looked like but the real curiosity was the end product of what seemed crazy to some: our quitting our jobs, selling our home in the big city and moving to our undeveloped property in the woods.

After several years without a photo, I tried to get our picture taken every summer in Alaska with no luck. Either no one was around to take it or, say when we asked total strangers, the pictures didn't come out well enough.

FINALLY, we got one this past summer. Here's the story.

From the quaint and tiny town of Talkeetna, we took a flight-seeing trip around Mt. McKinley, or Denali as is its original and locally popular name. We flew all around the many mountains surrounding Denali. It was the most spectacular thing I've ever done or seen.

I took a lot of pictures that intentionally included part of the aircraft in order to show the amazing view with perspective to how these huge and gorgeous mountains were so close out our windows.

The flight is supposed to land on Ruth Glacier but the folks at K2 Aviation asked us if we'd mind forgoing that landing in order to transport three Denali climbers to Base Camp where we would land on Kahiltna Glacier. We were told this was a rare treat and so it was.

As we came in for a landing, Base Camp came into view:

I was surprised at how many tents and people there were. Notice all the foot trails all over the place.

Once on the (I want to say "ground" but that's not right)...once on the glacier, it felt like we were on the ground. We were about 10,000 feet up but the mountains rose much higher. McKinley is 20,320 feet.

It was while we walked on a glacier that we had our pilot take our photo. We were pleased that it made the cut to become this year's Christmas card photo.

Base Camp was a little tent village. There was an HQ area complete with solar panels and communications antennae. The National Park office makes sure it keeps close tabs on every climber. They have to register with their names, departure date, chosen climbing route, and expected return date. Base Camp is communications HQ. Weather reports and climber status are conveyed over radios between mountain, air and ground.

Climbers build snow walls, igloo style, to shield their tents from the strong winds. The snow walls shown in this photo (at the back) must have been made by recently departed climbers.

Here are our climbers . I haven't a clue who they are or what their names are. But it was pretty impressive to get to see "real" Mt. McKinley climbers in the flesh. I prayed for their safety.

This is how much they carry on their backs. I waited with poised camera to take this photo; I wanted to document them with packs on.

When we took off to continue our flight, we could see Base Camp waaaaaaayyyy down there on the glacier. Click on the photo to enlarge it and look for the plane tracks that loop around at the top of the "runway".

And here it is again from even higher up. Pretty amazing. The runway loop is harder to see but it's there.

We took a right from the glacier and followed in the same direction toward McKinley that climbers do. Click on these photos and you'll see a tiny line running through the snow. This is evidence of climbers having passed through.

And here is another camp spot along the way. It's quite an awe-some thing, seeing the tiny-ness of man, his tracks and his shelters in the midst of all that vastness: miles of snow, the glacier, the mountains, the clouds and altitude.

Our pilot tried two or three times to get us close to Denali and to fly us around the summit as planned on our particular trip. But weather prevented him at every attempt. I sure didn't care; the whole trip was so spectacular. So we headed back "down" by way of a bunch of other mountains he knowledgeably described to us but which I didn't comprehend a word of. I was too awestruck to remember or understand what he was talking about.

We flew over this glacier and I managed to catch this photo behind us.

How's this for flying right past a mountain?

I admired this scene for miles as we approached it. I loved the craggy mountains with the glacier "road' curving right past them. I probably took a dozen photos of it as we flew closer and closer. You just have to shoot and shoot because you never know if the pilot's going to turn away from the scene or fly you right past it. I was thrilled when he flew us right on by this one.

So, that was our awesome, spectacular, amazing, gorgeous, stunning flight-seeing trip around Mt. McKinley. AND the excursion that finally brought us a Christmas card photo, thanks to our pilot who looked quite comfortable standing there on a glacier wearing a short sleeved Hawaiian shirt taking our picture.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Happy Day After Chrismas

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas Day yesterday. Whatever is meaningful to you - be it full-on frenzy around the tree or quiet moments gazing at the lights and ornaments... be it tons of family around with chaos in the kitchen or mellow one-on-one time with your dear family - I hope you had it yesterday.

We had a nice day. It was our first Christmas Day without family. My first ever. We got up late...seems we've been out past midnight every night this week. We lounged around a little while and then decided to hike up the neighborhood mountain which is practically in my brother's backyard. (That's where we're staying, at my brother's, while he and his family are back east for Christmas.) It was beautiful weather for a little hike: cool and crisp, bright blue sky. We enjoyed the desert, the views, and being out in nature.

Later in the afternoon we went to our friends', Eldon and Trish's house. We had a really nice time hanging out, cooking and eating dinner, and then watching Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. My husband and I are known to quote movie lines all the time. We have several from this movie that always seem to work their way into our ordinary conversation, "just nipped!" and Thaaaannnkkkk youuuuuu!" to name a couple.

We had a nice day. Hope you did, too.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve 2009

Just got back from two wonderful family gatherings. First one was this afternoon with my husband's family. Then we went on to my brother's house for my family's gathering. It was really special to be with family.

Yet...I'm sad tonight. This is our first Christmas without Mom. It leaves me feeling lonely for not only her but for the home anchor she was. I feel sort of displaced this year. Like Christmas is just sort of thrown a way. We're down in Phoenix staying at my one brother's house while he and his family are out of state visiting his in-laws. My dad was also unable to come tonight because of multiple health issues going on in his family. I guess I just feel like the anchor is missing. That anchor must have been Mom and her home. I don't know if men get this. In general, MOM is always home to a woman.

I know that the REAL meaning of Christmas is the amazing birth of Jesus which brought God Himself to earth to walk among us for the ultimate purpose of His dying for our sins 33 years later, paying a debt He didn't owe because we carry a debt we cannot pay. The REAL anchor in my life is God. He is my real "home", moreso than my husband, my mom, my family, or any roots I put down here on this earth.

But, call it commercialism, nostalgia, or what-have-you, even as Christians who truly celebrate Christ's birth at Christmas, Christmas DOES mean more to us. Let's face it; Christmas means warm fuzzies. There are all manner of things that bring us the warm fuzzies during the Christmas season: Being with those we love. Family. Togetherness. Traditions. Roots. Beauty. Sentimentality. Nostalgia. Decorations. Special food. Special activities. Special music. Ornaments and little lights on trees. One of the things I love about it is that Christmas is artistic. Ornaments are little sculptures, little pieces of art. Decorations are artistic expressions chock full of beauty to be appreciated.

There is always the need to balance the warm fuzzies of Christmas with the deeper profound truths behind it. I find this year that I am unprepared in my heart for Christmas. I didn't prepare my heart to focus on and drink in the spiritual meaning of this holiday (holy-day). And the warm fuzzies are just all out of whack this year. Living the way we do, without children, we haven't developed any Christmas traditions of our own. Living off the grid in a still unfinished house means we have not done any real decorating for over 10 years. (It's just not the same having a Christmas tree with lights that you have to turn off whenever you leave the room in order to conservatively save your solar energy for more practical purposes.) Since we moved up north, we always came down and stayed at Mom's for Christmas. Her house has always been a home to me. SHE has always been home to me, aside from and in addition to the "home" that my husband and the rest of my family are to me. This year, my "home" in Mom and in her house are not there. I miss her. I miss that piece of home in my heart.

I am so thankful for my husband and my extended family: my brothers and their families, my dad, my husband's family. It's just different this year. There's a hole in our family. Because Mom's gone, there's a hole in my Christmas. And I didn't do the mental, emotional and spiritual work that wisdom says I should have done to prepare for it.

As far as our family celebrations and gatherings go, our "Christmas" is over already. Yet I sit here this Christmas Eve night, recognizing that it's not too late. Christmas is not over. Christmas Day is tomorrow. Though this will be the first Christmas Day we have no plans and the first Christmas Day I've ever spent apart from family, I can still set my focus on savoring the most important things about Christmas. Though too-brief times with family are now, this night, passed, I can savor the deep blessing that my family is. My husband and I can savor belonging to and being "home" to each other. I can choose to focus on the deep blessing of Christ's coming to earth to be with us. I can set my heart to savoring His love and the "home" that He is to me. Talk about an anchor! There is no other as strong, as true, and as perfect.

" 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,' which translated means 'God with us.' " (Matthew 1:23)

Jesus is Immanuel.

Jesus is GOD, with us.

That always blows me away.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thanksgiving - Part 4

"Part Four?" you ask. "Didn't you go to only three places?"

Yes, but there was a fourth part to our 3-stop Thanksgiving excursion. It was all the days and miles between and around our three stops.

We drove over 4000 miles in the 13 days we were gone. Those were great days, too. We loved being together and seeing parts of the country new to us.

I decided to do something a little different this trip. I bought a postcard in New Mexico at the first gas stop we made and decided to get postcards from every stop, hoping to get one from every state we passed through. I began writing little notes on the backs of the postcards, sort of journal style: little observations about the state, the stop, the scenery, the people...whatever. I really enjoyed documenting our trip this way. I think it's going to be a new form of recording things seen and experienced along the way. I'm going to bind them together somehow in book form and include some photos I took along the way and during our stays.

As usual, I also jotted down things in my journal, including interesting and funny names along the way.

In NEW MEXICO we saw barren thirsty land, a "windmill museum" in some guy's desert ranch front yard, hundreds of black birds on a phone wire, a flock of white herons in a marsh, and we stopped at a branch of our bank in a tiny town only to find out it had closed at 3pm. "It's Monday," the cleaning woman explained. "Oh."

Through the panhandle of TEXAS we saw huge microwave towers with blinking red lights to keep us mesmerized through the dark tired hours. We saw single "blinking" red lights on tall towers and couldn't figure out for the longest time what they were. Finally as we drove up right next to them, we saw that they were giant wind turbines. The blades slowly passing in front of the light made it appear to be blinking.

All through OKLAHOMA I thought of Ree, The Pioneer Woman. At our morning pit stop in Checoteh I observed with an inner grin the locals inside the gas station store. Two old men sitting silently at a round table in the back, drinking their coffee, staring at me as I walked to the restrooms. I felt like they were thinking, "Well, I'll be. A stranger." Then there was the heavily accented woman eating pork rinds (it was 8 a.m. mind you) with her daughters at a table near the cash register, carrying on a seemingly unwanted conversation with another customer and the clerk.

In ARKANSAS we saw mystery lakes with wide based dead trees scattered throughout the waters; white herons in marshes; thick vines growing in roadside trees; bare trees with straggling brown leaves; trees in all stages of transition: some green, some yellow, some brown, the rare red. We also saw flooded farmland with crop rows evident. I think it was the work of a recent hurricane. We saw lots of big hawks perched in roadside trees. And we were tempted to take a detour and visit PIG TRAIL SCENIC BYWAY and PICKLES GAP VILLAGE.

In TENNESSEE we saw more dormant farmland and bare trees. I imagined how beautiful it must be in the spring and summer. I love the names of things in The South. Like, LOOSAHATCHIE RIVER, and plain ole HATCHIE RIVER. (I wonder what "hatchie" means. I'll have to look that up sometime.) There was also MOUSETAIL LANDING, CUBA LANDING, and my personal favorite, the town of BUCKSNORT. Bucksnort, Tennessee. How'd ya like to have to say, "Yeh, I'm from Bucksnort"?

In KENTUCKY we heard our first thick southern accent. It came over the loud speaker at a gas station. It reminded me of that car or tire commercial where the pothole apologizes for flattening a car's tire. So, all during that pit stop we kept saying to each other, "Oh, nooooo! Did I doooo tha-at?", "Cause Ah'm a POT-hhhole," and "Yer tire's all flat 'n' junk." After we got on the road again, we saw beautiful rolling hills that surely would say "Kentucky" if they were green. Or better yet, blue. But alas, they were the lifeless beige of winter.

In INDIANA we drove through beautiful farmland. We saw LOTS of farmland on this trip. It was funny because it seems ALL my postcards from Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, & Minnesota... say something like, "More farmland. Love the wintry corn fields with distant farm houses nestled in a stand of trees." In Indiana we crossed NAMELESS CREEK and COOL CREEK.

We traversed southern OHIO rather quickly seeing a barren tree full of crows, lots of white 2 story farm houses and winter yellow fields. We also crossed MUD CREEK and MAD RIVER as well as passing by PLAIN CITY and MUSKINGUM.

WEST VIRGINIA showed us the narrow two-story houses I mentioned earlier, some of them as close to each other as 3-4 feet. Tattered paint jobs next to new new looking siding and paint. Houses of clapboard, brick, or shingle sided. Blue, yellow, white, green, tan and pink. Dormers and steep peaks, hipped roofs, sandstone, old brick and dirty brick.

When we left WV we again travelled through Ohio and Indiana. Next we came to ILLINOIS where some things of note were watching two Canada geese flying, more farmland, more harvested corn fields and the fact that we could not get any radio station to come in for more than two minutes just barely outside the large town of Peoria. Figure that one out. I liked the name KICKAPOO CREEK and THOUSAND DOLLAR RD. I can relate to that last name; perhaps we should give our "driveway" into our Alaska property some such name.

Next we drove through IOWA where we came across the CEDAR RIVER. Hmmm, I'm thinkin' I've finally figured out where they got the name Cedar Rapids from. And then there was the great town name of WHAT CHEER, IOWA. We loved seeing Christmas lights on the farm houses. There was also STORY CITY. I wonder what it's story is. Then there was the NORTH RACCOON RIVER and the MIDDLE RACCOON RIVER...wonder what happened to the South and the Plain Old Raccoon Rivers. And then we passed the town of EARLHAM. I guess you could take just about any person's name, add "ham" to the end of it and have a town name. I wonder if there's a Bobham or a Mikeham out there somewhere.

In MINNESOTA I saw a great billboard. On the left 3/4 of it, it said "You can't make this stuff up." On the right 1/4 it had a picture of a big can of Spam and underneath it informed us of the exit number for the Spam Museum. Clever of them to make fun of themselves. It got my attention and made me laugh. In Minnesota I noticed a change right away. Suddenly I began seeing windbreaks made of thick spruce trees planted two deep. They stretched on and on; they were really pretty. We were heading into a storm and I noticed how everything looked grey and colorless. Grey skies, grey clouds, grey trees, lifeless dead fields, black earth, grey/black road, white houses with grey roofs, grey aluminum silos. It was very surreal. The occasional color of houses, roofs, or stores hardly registered. The sky, trees, and massive fields seemed to absorb all the color out of anything else, neutralizing it and invalidating it. I just saw varying shades of grey.

We drove through NEBRASKA on our way home. Driving through Omaha I thought of my friend, Pam, who when we were kids used to go visit her grandparents in Omaha a lot. Through Nebraska we saw several flocks of geese flying south. I love seeing geese fly. As for names on signs, it's hard to beat S'BR MIDDLE CREEK. Excuse me? Although...I just realized this could mean something like South Branch of Middle Creek. Who knows!

Next came COLORADO and we felt like we were almost home. We camped on the "home side" of Denver and it was cold, cold, cold. Of all historical van camping experiences, we forgot to check the thermometer to see how cold it was inside the van when we woke up. I think it was our record and we don't have the actual number to cement it in the halls of personal nostalgia. However, the forecast said the low in Denver was going to be 20 degrees that night. We piled on the blankets and I covered my head, and we did fine. We actually quite like sleeping when it's downright cold. As long as I can cover my head, I stay pretty warm. I've figured out that all the nightcaps of Little House on the Prairie days were actually quite practical and functional. Some ski school instructor once told our class that we lose 90% of our body heat through our heads. "So, if your feet are cold," he said, "put a hat on!" A thick piece of store-bought fleece fabric does the trick for me...and I don't wake up with hat hair.

Back through New Mexico, south and then west, through lots of snow covered ground we found ourselves tired and eager to get home. In my journal I noted: "Almost home now. About 3 hours. Being wind tossed on the highway. We feel tired, road weary, beaten up, and travel sore."

We had a really great trip, but by then, we were very glad to get home.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Thanksgiving - Part 3 - Minnesota

From WV we headed back west and since we were closer than we'd probably ever be we decided to "swing by" and see our dear friends in Minnesota on the way home. We called them first, of course, to see if it would be OK. The spontaneousness of it all made the visit extra fun for all of us. They live in a 100 year old house with their five great kids and gangley 6 month old Boxer puppy. (This is the great old house from which I got my lumps of coal mentioned in my riveting post about my rock collection.)

We had a really nice couple of days with them. A light snow was falling when we arrived and it snowed the whole next day. They live in St. Peter, a town of about 10,000 that I just love. The highway runs right through town, becoming their quaint mainstreet. There are huge old trees lining the streets, cute old houses,

and beautiful old stone churches.

This church is an example of the "Kasota Stone" I mentioned in that over-the-top exciting post about my rock collection.)

There are several really nice shops along the main street and some nice gallery shops in town as well. There is a beautiful park at the end of their street, complete with a charming gazebo. St. Peter is just totally cute and quaint while also being "hip." If not for the grey, icy, blizzardy winters...and the awful, hot, muggy, humid summers, I think I could totally live there! If not for those 9 months of the year. That's all.

Our friends' house is full of wonderful old architectural details. Giant windows with beautiful oak trim,

staircase posts with one of my favorite detail designs (those little carved balls in a line)

a diamond paned leaded glass window in their dining room, and gorgeous antique (possibly original) hardware on most of the interior doors

We went shopping around town for a little while and I found some very nice alpaca wool mittens, gloves and hats in the food co-op where they had bought some really yummy chewy artisan bread. I bought a pair of fingerless mittens that I just love. I'll have to show you someday. For now, here's a photo I took from the co-op sidewalk with a view of the river bridge, some Christmas trees for sale, and a bike.

It is definitely a snow town. While I like to respect everyone's privacy by not posting their photos on my blog, I think the one here is OK, don't you? Adorable!

And here's another tell tale sign that this home belongs to a large family living in a snow town. I love it!

You just can't help having such a space in your house when you live in a snow town. It just has to be.

We had a wonderful time with our friends. We packed a lot of fun stuff into just a couple days. We went to a Wed. night Lutheran church service where the kids' attend school; two of them sang a song with the choir. We went to the school and had lunch with the kids one day, went to visit the hardwood flooring show room owned by our friends, went shopping, went on some job calls, had some music/guitar lessons for the kids, and had wonderful cozy conversations around the meals we shared.

I even toured a million dollar home of which they did the floors. Wow, was it magnificent! It got dark around 4:30 and with the snow storm it seemed to come even earlier. That darkening, snowy sky as we drove country roads to this mansion were so dramatic for me, they left a powerful impression on me. I loved it. Inside the house, we looked out onto a snow laden lake in the back: bare trees, sky darkened by a combination of an increasing snow storm and the oncoming night, the snowy expanse of the lake stretching out from just beyond the house.

When I think of all of our visits on this trip - in Indiana, West Virginia, and Minnesota - I just can't stop using words like cozy and warm. That's how it all felt to me. Our times with people were short, just a couple days each, but they were so perfect to warm and cozy, close, intimate. It was all so great.

Thanksgiving - Part 2 - West Virginia

We left Indiana on Friday after Thanksgiving and headed east on a 6 hour drive to West Virginia. It was great to see my mother-in-law. She moved back "home" a year ago October. It was also fun seeing her new home and all her critters (4 cats and 1 dog).

"Back Home" is an old factory town that is having a hard time keeping up once several factories closed in recent decades. Houses are often only one room wide, two or three rooms deep, and two stories tall.

It was interesting to hear stories of her growing up. We'd be driving down a street and "Mom" would say something like, "My old friend from school lived there. Their mother raised five kids in that four room house."
We had a great time visiting relatives: grandma, uncles and aunts and cousins. We visited an uncle's hunting bunk house,

where we were given some cool deer antlers. We joined in on card-playing-Sunday night at Grandma's, went to church that Grandma has attended for probably over 40 years, went on a tour of an old closed prison,

Hard to believe this prison was only closed as recently as 1995!

And we hung out at "home" and petted plenty of cats and one sweet dog.

I even crashed a baby shower with Mom. (She didn't crash it, just me. But she invited me and the expectant mother was welcoming and gracious.) I enjoyed meeting lots of Mom's church friends and getting a peak at her active life filled with friends. Moving back home was good for her, though we miss having her next door to us in the woods.

Grandma has a "tortie" cat. I loved the checkerboard pattern of tan and black on her chest. She was a beautiful cat, cute not very affectionate. I had a tortie when growing up. I love the look of these brindle coated cats.

We missed seeing lots of relatives on the other side of the family. Some we couldn't reach and some were out of town. So, that just means we get to go back more often! We do hope and plan to visit more frequently in the coming years.

Thanksgiving - Part 1 - Indiana

OK, so it's almost Christmas and I figure I better finally post about Thanksgiving! What do you think?

We had a REALLY great time over Thanksgiving and the following week. We drove to Indiana to spend Thanksgiving with my mom's best friend, "Aunt Pat" and "Uncle Don". It was such a sweet time. Mom and Aunt Pat have been friends for as long as I can remember. Because of this our families have always been close, even though over the years we "kids" stayed up on each other only via Mom and Aunt Pat. We had a reunion about 7 or 8 years ago when almost all of us kids were able to attend. But some of us hadn't seen each other in decades.

The Thanksgiving plan was hatched over the phone when son, Doug, made a very kind and sweet call, talking to each of my brothers and I the day after Mom passed away. It was such a special call because he relayed to me how much our family has meant to him and how much he loved "Aunt Gloria". I told him the same was true of his parents for me and that I intend to make sure to keep in contact with them, even hoping to visit sometime. He said, "Oooh! Come at Thanksgiving! We'll all be there! Seriously, talk to Mom about it when she's there."

Aunt Pat, Uncle Don, and Cindy came for Mom's funeral. It meant so much to have them there. Eventually and a little sheepishly, I mentioned the Thanksgiving suggestion, first to Cindy, who excitedly agreed. When I brought it up (as Doug's idea) to Aunt Pat, she was all in favor of it. I had visions of both my brothers and families coming as well. What a special first Thanksgiving without Mom that would make. As it turned out my husband and I were the only ones able to make the trip.

We arrived in Indiana the afternoon before Thanksgiving. It was cold, rainy and windy outside,

but inside, the house was cozy and warm, beautiful and welcoming.

They made us feel right at home and we had two days that were so warm and comfortable with this fun family.

And what an artistic family this is. Paintings, etchings, sculptures, stained glass, needlepoint, jewelry, photography, piano, guitar, voice.

While it's the people that made all our Thanksgiving visits special, I won't post pictures of them here. Instead I'll share the surroundings.

During the Indiana portion of our great Thanksgiving trip, I tried to get pictures of some of the coziness, the talent, and the beauty outside.

Being with Mom's best friend made this a very special Thanksgiving for me. It helped take the sting out of the first Thanksgiving without Mom. I'm thankful to my husband for giving this to me when we went on to West Virginia to see his family after Thanksgiving. Thanks, Hon. And thanks, Indiana "family", for such a nice time with you.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Winter Wonderland

We just got back from 2 weeks of travelling to Indiana, West Virginia, and Minnesota. We had a wonderful time. I'm eager to write about our visits with friends and family. I will get it up as soon as I can.

But first...we arrived home with one day to spare before a blizzard hit our neck of the woods. I guess it hit a lot of necks of the, the whole country almost.

We're snowed in right now. We got about 12 inches in all, but with the high winds we had all during the storm and yet today, we have places with drifts up to around 2 feet.

The wind blew so much that our entire porch is covered with a dusting of snow, right up to the door. And we have a 10 foot deep porch!

We trudged out in 33 degree temps, in snow almost up to my knees, under gorgeous blue skies to take some photos today.

Here's some of what surrounds us today.

This is looking our our living room window

We had a little visitor to our chair cushion on the porch.

We had lots of visitors, all over the porch

This is what awaited us as we ventured out away from the house

Because the temperatures were so warm yesterday during the storm, we got a lot of ice forming on the trees. They have been crackling and creaking all day with today's winds.