*Names and identifying details have been altered to protect the innocent people who could sue me.

January 28, 2011

Day 28

Dear all:

Ok, a few points of clarification were needed after Day 23.

First, and definitely most importantly, the three year-old belongs to neither me nor Chester. Very sorry about that confusion. Chester lives in a house in Anchorage that he shares with two other adults, and the two children (3 and 8) belong to one of them. See Alaska-gram: Day 1 for more info.

Secondly, why are you all getting so much snow? This is crazy! We’ve got about a foot and a half … maybe two feet, if I were being generous. More in the woods where the snow drifts have piled up. (Or at the side of the driveway where I did a horrible job learning how to plow. See Alaska-gram: Day 23 for video.)

Thirdly, I have yet to see Mrs. Palin, I have not shot anything from out of a helicopter and no, I can’t see Russia, either from my house or from anywhere else.

Fourthly, due to popular request (well fine, due to the suggestion of a couple of friends) I’ve decided to put these missives on a blog: This way your inbox won’t be clogged, you can choose to read or share or ignore my letters at your discretion, and I won’t be wracked with self-doubt at my presumption in writing you an email solely about my life, as if somehow my day-to-day details became more interesting just because I now live in a state with a disproportionally high ratio of residents-to-reality television series. I will continue to send my letters, as emails, to those of you who either don’t like blogs or don’t care to learn how to use them. If you are over 65 or are my boyfriend, I’ve already included you in that list.

Last and, actually, kind of least, here’s the answer to a question that has been asked many times (but only by me): What on earth is making all that noise in the woodpile outside my bedroom?

Much love –

Day 25

Hi everyone,

First of all, I know I promised to send these out more frequently than every 10 days. If you count my failed attempt two days ago, then I succeeded. If you don't count that, then I'm sorry, I lied.

Secondly, sometimes I'm bad about being in touch with the people I care about. I was hearing from family members that they were forwarding on my messages to friends and others asking how I was doing, so partly by request and partly by arrogance (I'm vain enough to assume you'll want to receive updates on how I'm doing) I've added a lot more family and friends to these emails. If you don't want to receive them, I won't be offended - just let me know. If you want to order any back issues (Alaska-gram Days 1, 5, and 16) just give me an email. They cost 3 cookies apiece (I accept chocolate-chip or oatmeal, no raisins).

So, to answer the question "what exactly are you doing up there?" here's what my week often looks like:

Monday: Cooking/Baking. I've made a lot of soup, a little bit of meatballs (which, surprisingly, turned out ok) and a lot of bread. I also tried to make croissants, which was a disastrous failure, but oh well - it just means I can only improve next time.

Sometimes the three-year-old at the house helps me cook. Here was our conversation while counting the butter sticks needed for the croissant dough.

Me: One stick of butter ...
E: One ...
Me: What comes after one?
E: Um... Not-one!
Me: Well, true. Also - two. Two sticks of butter.
E: Two!
Me: What comes after two?
E: Um ... one!

Tuesday: Continuing Attempts to Learn the Guitar. No photos of this one, sorry. Tuesday night is "Bluegrass Night" at Guido's Pizza. (You can't make this stuff up, people.) It's a motley collection of people in their 40s and 50s learning to play guitar, fiddle, banjo, and one guy with what looks to me only like a stick, washtub, and a big string. Well, some people are learning to play, and some already know how. (And some who apparently already know how still appear, to me, to be learning.) Chester plays fiddle there and I knit. I'm working up the courage to bring along his guitar. After all, I already know the three chords they play.

Wednesday: Bible Study. Chester gets together with a bunch of his friends from high school and I contribute in the best way I know, namely, food. Last week I made a big stir fry and, that's right, Bible verse fortune cookies.

Thursday: Miscellany Night! Sometimes we go to movies at the Bear's Tooth, which is a local restaurant that also happens to have a movie screen. They took out every other row of seats and replaced them with tables, so you can order your pizza or burrito and then eat it while you watch the movie. Here's my advice: if you are going to see an action movie with lots of killings (RED), don't order something with lots of tomato sauce (chicken and mushroom pizza). Both would probably be pretty good, if separate from each other.

Sometimes we hit up thrift stores to buy things like wool pants for hiking and ice skates for, well, ice skating. So far I'm sticking to things that require a level surface - hiking, snow shoeing, ice skating, and hopefully soon cross country skiing. Maybe soon we'll up the stakes, so to speak, with something more downhill. But first I'm still getting used to the cold -- I only lasted 10 minutes when we tried ice skating, but I'm hoping to try again this weekend. As long as it above 20 degrees.

Last week on Thursday Chester and I went to the local Brewer's warehouse and picked up the supplies for beer. I tried to take pictures of the process, but it basically just looks like a giant pot of really gross tea boiling on the stove, so it wasn't too picturesque. The beer is currently sitting in the bucket, doing its fermenting thing, but I think there'll be some bottling this weekend so stay tuned for updates.
(Side note: we picked the combination of malts by taste, but if I had the choice I would have picked the recipe for "You're-A-Peein' Altbeer" or "Stinky Hermit Stout" just for name alone.)

Fridays we try to head to the Peninsula where Chester grew up, for outdoor adventuring (for me, "brief strolls" for Chester) and meeting up with friends and family. In the times between, I'm looking for work, trying to get my licensure transferred (a simply ridiculous series of red tape hurdles), and reading some books I've always meant to read. I just finished Kavalier and Clay and, for those of you who kept telling me to read it, you were right. It is simply wonderful.

As are all of you.

Love –

The video that failed to work in the last email -- I've put it up here. (Or I will, as soon as I can figure out how.)
This should (will) show up as little video. If so, you can click on it. If you click on the triangle symbol on the bottom left-hand, the video should start playing. If you accidentally click twice, it will start to play and then pause itself, so you'll have to try clicking again. If this doesn't work, you might need to ask a Grandchild. The video is short - 15 seconds - and the sound is mostly just the noise of the truck. AT the end you can hear me say, "I don't think I did that right" (which I hadn't), and then Chester starts laughing.

Day 16

Dear all,

I'll try to write more frequently than every 10 days; sorry. Partly the internet here has been a little spotty, partly I've been busy getting out and about, and partly I've been staying busy being inside with writing and baking. (See photos: proof - I've been writing! proof - I made bagels!)

Last weekend, being the first real weekend I was here since the first two days I was still fairly jetlagged, Chester and I went down to the Kenai peninsula. We drove down on Fri night so I couldn't see much in the dark - just some snowy roads, a huge starry sky, and one snowshoe hare that darted across the highway right in front of our car (courting death apparently being common to all rabbit/hares, not just the East Coast ones). Chester’s mom has a nice little house with a corner fireplace, a whole wall of hanging plants and assorted others scattered around - including a lime tree producing real limes, I don't know how she does it - and, my favorite part, a chicken coop outside with 5 or so chickens (and, thankfully, no roosters). When we got up in the morning it was still dark so we made coffee, collected the chicken eggs for breakfast, and then stood by the fireplace and watched the sun slowly rise over the mountains. She has a beautiful view looking East towards the chain of three mountain/volcanoes - Iliamna, Redoubt, Spurr (IRS).

She had to go to work so we went down and met her at her salon (she cut my hair, which was overdue) and then we drove around the peninsula for a while stopping in at various family houses so I could meet people. We got a chance to walk along the beach by the oil refineries for a minute, but I guess they're on heightened security these days so we weren't able to stay very long. Chester’s mom had some frozen halibut she'd got over the summer (um, a 120lb fish - she said the captain from 'Dangerous Catch' happened to be there too and complimented her on it) so we had a fish fry for dinner with some of Chester’s family. And played a fun game whose name I can't remember, but it had to do with the word "things" and you'd all really like it, so I'll try to catch it next time.

[unrelated to the story, but proof that I've been writing]

Sunday we got up early, suited up, and started to drive home on the highway that leads out of the peninsula and into Anchorage (there's only one pass through the mountains). A plane ride would take 20 minutes, maybe about the same by boat if you could get through the ice, but driving takes about 2.5 hours, winding your way around with mountains rising up on either side. It's very beautiful, even frozen in the snow, and we passed several little towns that cater mainly to tourists during fishing season. The great thing about this highway is that there are parking lots every so often and the deal is basically you stop, lock your car, and hike into the mountains. The mountains on one side are for snow machines (apparently law-enforceable) and the other side is for non-machines: hiking, skiing, etc. We had snowshoes so we just hiked out for about 30 minutes and then turned and went back to the car. Baby steps. Maybe next winter I'll try hiking UP the mountain. For now I had a really wonderful time going slowly through the woods, eating snow off the trees when thirsty, and looking up at the mountains all around. The sun was setting around 4:15 then (we're gaining 3.5 minutes of daylight each day now) so as we were trekking back the sun got very bright at the ridge of the mountains and the light in the pines shone golden. A nice introduction to the back country.

[also unrelated to the story, but proof that I made bagels]

I'll leave you with just one conversation Chester and I had on our trek:

Me: It looks like you're standing on something.
Chester: Well, the snow's several feet deep here - it's covering up all kinds of low brush and small trees.
Me: Oh, yeah, it's a tree, bent over and covered with snow.
Chester: Huh, that can actually be a little dangerous, if you loosen the snow the weight falls off and the tree snaps back up - catapult style.
Me: Well, at least it's not a bear. That's what I originally thought.
Chester: Yeah, well, we could wake one of those up too, I guess.

Better pictures next week - now that I've gotten used to having numb fingers, I should be able to work my camera outside.

Love --

Day 5

Dear family,

The nice thing about moving to a new place on the first day of the year is that someone else is always doing the counting for you. Today is January 5th, so I have been here 5 days. Here is what I have accomplished so far:

Sunday was Chester’s birthday. Because it's so warm the snow is melting and then freezing into ice, so it wasn't safe to climb any mountains. (Though when we eventually do, I will be singing Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Climb every mountain," but probably only in my head.) We drove to the "outskirts" of Anchorage and took a tourist-y trail that basically just wound around one side of Turnagain Arm, a stretch of water that Captain Cook explored while looking for that elusive Northwest Passage. Not finding it here he, appropriately, "turned around again" and went back out to sea. (Hm. Come to think of it, maybe the body of water was named after him and not the other way around.) It was windy, wet, and cloudy - felt like Cape Cod weather and made me feel right at home. We left the path for a minute and went up on a ridge so I could see it all spread out -- Anchorage at one distance and the mountains in the other (that's the Kenai Peninsula where Chester grew up - about 15 minutes by boat or plane, but 2.5 hours by car on account of the mountains and the snow). The picture here shows me facing the direction of Anchorage with the mountains behind me and the water and the Kenai peninsula to my right. Since the tide was out there were also huge stretches of mud flats, not to be confused with beaches because you can't walk on a mudflat -- you'll get sucked down and die. "Not a very nice way to die, suffocated by mud," I said. "Oh no, you don't get pulled all the way under, you just get stuck," Chester replied. "But, then you die from hypothermia." So, I guess I'll stick to icy mountain paths when I want to take a walk outside.

Since we were hungry, had only Christmas cookies in the car, and hadn't been food shopping, we went to another local restaurant for garlic/cilantro fries, which are pretty much every bit of good as they sound. Chester’s mom came up for his birthday so we went over to his sister's house for cake and to watch his absolutely adorable 2 year-old nephew explain the world to us. The child does not stop making noise, ever, but unfortunately he has a speech delay (he was born preemie) so he's completely unintelligible most of the time. That doesn't stop him from narrating everything to you, though. Except to me - also unfortunately, he appears to be absolutely petrified of me. At one point he tripped, face planted on the floor right next to me, and was so scared of me that he forgot to be scared of the fact that he'd slammed his face against the floor. He just got up and backed away, watching me warily. Oh well - so far his mom, sister, and sister's boyfriend seem to like me. You can't win 'em all.

We also met up with some of Chester’s friends for drinks, which was both fun and exhausting since my time-zone-change still hadn't adjusted. So far his friends seem to like me too - so I guess it's just the two-year-olds I have to watch out for.

Chester’s been at work 8-5 this week so I've gotten some good downtime around the house now. I've been reading and working on writing, and I even did some unpacking, so I guess I'll stay for a while. In other good news, yesterday I had lunch with a new friend (Chester’s cousin's girlfriend) and she also really, really, really wants a dog. I'm going to work on my Chester Tree-Hopper and she's going to work on her Chester Tree-Hopper and between the two of us, somebody will have a dog before too long.

Love to you all --

Day 1

Hi all,

Well, I've survived my first twenty-four hours. I didn't get much sleep on the first plane, mostly because I was reading "Looking for Alaska," the young adult novel by John Green that Little Brother gave me for Christmas. It has nothing to do with Alaska the place - that's just the name of one of the characters - but it is an incredible book. HJ, when we were talking about the likelihood of getting published as a young adult author in today's economy, let me just say - if either of us managed to write a book like that one, it would be criminal NOT to be published. It's one of the few times I've read a book and thought, yes, every single word needed to be on that page.

Also, here's something interesting - each of my two flights was jam-packed with families. At first I thought I was just lucky (I sat next to adorable children BOTH times, though on the second flight we were both asleep) but then I realized it made sense - who would want to fly on New Year's Eve? People who don't care about the holiday, that's who - therefore, me, and parents of small children. Anyway, thanks to the invent of the Ipod, Iphone, and various other small screens that can show repeat Dora the Explorer shows, the finger puppets I had packed were unnecessary. No worries - I now live with a 3- and 8-year-old, so they'll come in handy in time.

By the time I boarded the second plane (12:30am Boston time) I was so tired that I fell asleep before we even taxied onto the runway. I woke up somewhere over the Western coast to see cities, large stretches of water, and one marvelous display of large fireworks (so now I have a small idea what the fourth of July looks like to God, which I have to admit, is pretty cool). I did wake up enough to hear them say, 'Happy New Year' over the intercom (no, no Champagne) and then a little while later to catch the second announcement as we flew into the Alaska time zone, "...and now it's 2010 again." If the airline celebrated a second New Year's (which then would have been my third!) I didn't hear it. I woke up as we were getting ready to land, remarked that Alaska looked a lot like Wyoming (very dark, according to Dad), and got myself off the plane and towards the baggage carousel where I met up with Chester Tree-Hopper. He very graciously gathered up all three of my bags, led me past the taxidermied musk-ox in the airport lobby, and out to a 1980s era red Viper that you'll just have to see to believe. He swears it drives really well in the snow. I don't care, I just think it's awesome.

Then I slept. Not as much as I would have liked, but enough to feel slightly recovered. We had a big breakfast with A1 (Chester’s friend from high school, and the main renter of the house) and the two afore-mentioned kids, J (8) and E (3 - or, 'fwree,' depending on who you ask). There's a final adult housemate, A2, who hails from the mid-West. She's Cherokee - I think that's the language she's been studying on flashcards, anyway - and her last name is 'Whitekiller.' No, seriously. But so far she's been very sweet to us.

We did a lot of sitting around after that – A1's brother (one of Chester’s best friends growing up) was here for his last day in town, so we hung out in the living room and played video games. Well, they played video games (mostly Frisbee golf - which apparently, is also a real sport, even though I only remember playing it with hula hoops taped to trees in 8th grade gym class) and I knit. I had started a pair of socks on the plane with the Alpaca yarn from Mom, and it is very soft and welcoming. So welcoming that I actually had to put it away well hidden, because the Manx tabby cat named Tundra could not stay away from what she considered a bouncing, unraveling, delicious ball of joy. Neither could E, for that matter. Turns out that what interests cats often interests 3 year-olds as well. I gave them a decoy ball of red, plain yarn that they both played with for an hour.

The other thing Tundra was desperately interested in was the pair of slippers Chester’s mom sent up for me. I'm sorry, HJ - I was wearing your Bob the Tomato slippers all morning but had to change into the ones from Chester’s mom after I unwrapped them. Don't worry - the rate at which Tundra is trying to eat them ensures that they won't last long. Why is she trying to eat them, you might ask? Because they are made out of cow hide lined with deer skin insoles and beaver fur, with a wolverine-lynx fur ruff. Yes, I'm wearing more types of animals on my feet than I've eaten in my life. And yes, I said wolverine.

Chester had a bunch of presents for me as well, which I'll detail later. Most of them involve "staying warm while out of the house." I think I'm well equipped. Oh, and a cast-iron muffin tin, for which I unsuccessfully tried not to show the most excitement. I'm going to make muffins tomorrow!

Chester loved his present from the Shore St family (a hand-knitted scarf to match my hand-knitted hat). When the sun came out (around 11am) we went for a walk on a path around the neighborhood creek. I tried to get to a place where I could take a picture of the mountains in the near distance, but the pine trees kept blocking my view. I'll try again today. After the walk we hung out a bit more, then went out for pizza in a (successful) attempt to keep me from taking a nap and disturbing my body's ability to adjust to the time change. We went to a place called "Moose's Tooth," a local pizza joint named after a local mountain. It could probably be picked up as-is, clientele still seated, and air-lifted to Vermont where it would fit right in. Hippies in Carharts, Tibetan prayer flags on the walls, and some high-quality inventive pizza on good, thick dough (we had the "Thai Chicken" pizza with bean sprouts, carrot slices, and peanut sauce). And local beer, of course. So far I've noticed that while most of the dairy products and produce are shipped in, the beer is always local.

We went to REI after that since Chester’s friend had given both of us gift certificate for Christmas. Chester looked at avalanche beacons and I looked at books on how to stay alive in Alaska - one of which fell on my head, making shopping at REI the most dangerous part of living here so far, and then went food shopping after that, at a chain store called "Cars." Maybe it's actually "Carr's," but still - it made me keep my eyes out for any car dealerships named "Foods." I didn't see that, but I did see a "Laser Car Wash." Which, apparently, is exactly what it sounds like - they wash your cars with lasers. If I ever prove adventurous enough to see what that's all about, I'll let you know how it goes.

The other thing that made me think of Younger Sister (the first being the food store named "Cars-y") was the way they named their streets downtown. Yes, at 300,000 people, apparently Anchorage likes to think it has a "downtown," "midtown," and various other neighborhoods. Whatever. Anyway, Anchorage being a new-ish city -- unlike old cities such as Boston, whose road system was designed by a blindfolded Octopus with access to a box of Sharpies and a large piece of paper -- is laid out like a grid. Chester told me that the numbered streets run East-West and the lettered streets run North-South. I expected that the "lettered" streets would be, you know, streets with letters in their names. Like "Shore St" or "Oakridge." I did not expect that each street would only have ONE letter - "C St" and "K St." Which led to my delightful discovery that there is, in fact, "A St." If I ever design a town, I will attempt to name as many streets as possible with obvious articles and adjectives: "The St," "Paved St," "Driveable St" ... and so on.

I think that's pretty much everything, and certainly a long enough letter for today. After we drove around for a while on the snow-covered byways (apparently there's no point in trying to get rid of the snow, so rather than salting the roads they just pack it down so it's flat and not too icy) we came home and, since everyone was excited that it had warmed up to 35 degrees, grilled some salmon A2 had caught and frozen. Well, Chester put on his jacket and grilled, and I watched through the window with E and tried to stay awake. Then after dinner I continued to try to stay awake and everyone else played Frisbee golf on the thing that looks-to-me-like-a-Wii-but-
apparently-is-some-other-kind-of-gaming-system. And then finally, at 9pm, I went to bed. I got a full night sleep and woke up feeling very refreshed which is a good thing because apparently, it being so warm and balmy out, today we're going to hike a mountain. At least I've got a nice warm jacket.

Love to you all --

editor’s note: The car is a Probe, not a Viper. I think I made up the name “Viper” because it sounded more appropriate to the car.