Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Story About Life's Unexpected Bounty

Image result for bear in the big blue house moon
Don't ask, it's an inside thing. 

When we decided two and a half years ago to uproot our family and leave everything and everyone we knew and loved behind, I knew it would be a grand adventure filled with new experiences.  And that is has been.  I knew we would see amazing places, experience natural wonders, eat new foods, meet new people, and freeze our tails off.  We've done all that and more.  I also knew (hoped) it would teach the boys that leaving your comfort zone isn't as bad as it initially sounds, and that it will actually open your mind to a whole new world of possibilities you may never have realized if you had stayed in your box.  I do think they've learned that.

But, as is usually the case with life, it is the unexpected that is the most profound and rewarding experience of all. And as it turns out, the boys were not the only ones who would learn something valuable.

People.  We've got some truly amazing people in our life and I count them among our greatest bounty in this bountiful life.   I mean, when you're sitting in a hospital thousands of miles from home with a loved one going through a very scary situation and a friend brings you food, you know you've got a good friend.  But when they know to bring you Mexican food, well.....that's even better.  When they know exactly what to put in that burrito, well that's a special kind of friendship and I have that in spades.  Friendships I have cultivated over the years are some of my most treasured possessions and I value them beyond words.  Years of fun, laughter, camping trips, birthday parties, babies, travel, taco eating, drinking, and some sadness too have linked us for life.  We have a lot of time invested in each other.  Time is what it takes to develop that kind of relationship with another person.  At least, that's what I thought when I was sitting in my box.

But I am not in my box anymore.  I'm in a vast new land...... the last frontier.  And if I had not come here I would not have learned that you don't necessarily need time to cultivate an amazing friendship.  Sometimes circumstances and the people themselves are enough.

Do you mind if I digress for a moment?  No?  Good.  So going back to the unexpected being the most profound thing I mentioned earlier.....a few months ago the boys and I went and saw the movie Passengers.  We see a lot of movies here during the winter, for obvious reasons.  I'm thinking at this point we might own stock in the theater in Fairbanks.  Anyway, Passengers is about two people who are among 5,000 passengers on a star ship traveling in hibernation pods on a 120 year journey to a new planet.  They wake up too soon and sh#@ gets real.  The woman, Aurora, is a writer who decided to take the journey because her father once told her, "If you live an ordinary life, all you'll have are ordinary stories".  She wanted extraordinary stories to tell.  I was was like, yeah.....that's exactly how I feel.  It's part of why I wanted to embark on our journey to Alaska.  She also said, "I think we tell each other stories to know we're not alone".  Yeah, that too.  Dang, totally did not expect this random movie to hit me in the face and bring me clarity, but there it was in a movie theater in Fairbanks, Alaska.  I almost dropped my popcorn.  Almost.  I want a bountiful life.  I want extraordinary stories. 

And so, in that spirit, today's story as I mentioned prior to my little side trip (thank you for that), is about unexpected friendship.  When you take inventory of your closest friends, do you find they are all pretty similar people?  I mean, it makes sense that we would gravitate to people with the same personalities, beliefs, and interests as ourselves, so it would follow that they would be similar people.  I find this to be true of my closest friends. They all have differences of course that make them special, but for the most part they are,well, like me.  But what if circumstances are such that you find yourself somewhere new, without your posse, where there aren't a lot of people around like you?

About four months after we moved here I discovered the answer to this very burning (kidding) question........ if you're lucky, you learn that someone who is totally different from you in some ways, can be a lot like you in others when you take the time to find out.  And those differences can make for a fabulous friendship.

And so the story goes, on the sidelines of a soccer field, I met Heather.  She is originally from North Carolina (opposite end of the country from California), she's an avid sports enthusiast (unless my kid or another kid I adore is playing, I'm out),  loves the sun and the heat (heat happens to be one of the major reasons I left California), loves sushi (no, give me a taco), has a great sense of fashion (it's jeans and t-shirts for me), likes to get to work early (I'm lucky if I get there by 10am), can quote songs and movies like Google (I can't remember what I said five minutes ago), has a fabulous, flamboyant personality (I don't think there's anything flamboyant about me), her family serves our country in the military and she has lived in a lot of different places (before moving to Alaska at the age of 44 I had only lived within a 3 hour radius of the city I was born in my entire life).  But more importantly, she is a great mom and loves her kids, a true and loyal friend, thoughtful, intuitive, social, likes to have fun, is a hard worker, has a great sense of humor, and loves a good taco and shot of tequila......all things I do identify with.  And in just two and a half short years of laughter, chips and salsa making (me) and eating (her),  and late nights of tequila shots and conversation in my kitchen, she has become a lifelong friend. Evidence that sometimes circumstances and people, not time, are all that's needed to form lasting friendships.

But alas, her family's service to our country has set them on a new adventure to a warm and sunny destination that suits her just a tad bit better (understatement).  And while I'll miss her and her amazing kiddos, I can't help but think that yet another quote from that slap in the face movie I mentioned earlier, is so very true.......

"We all have a journey.  We plan for our future as if we are captains of our fate.  But we're passengers.  We go where fate takes us."

I'm just hoping fate takes me to Florida one day, during the winter please, to visit my friend. And yes, I'll make chips and salsa when I get there.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Take Your Wife to Work Weekend - Ice Road Trucker Edition

I started this post almost a year ago and then life happened and I dropped the ball.  Let's face it, I dropped many balls in 2016, but it's almost a new year and there's no better time to re-commit to the things you failed at the previous year.  Better the blog than dieting or exercise, I say. 

Picture this........it's January 2016 in Alaska, an icy road stretches on for hundreds of miles, a smutty novel entertains (or horrifies) you, a bed so comfortable you can sleep like the dead while bouncing just shy of the ceiling, men communicating like women never knew they could, visions of wild animals, danger at every turn.  That's right.......I went trucking with Joe up the Alaska haul road to Prudhoe Bay on what I am calling, Take Your Spouse to Work Weekend.  Now, I know at least half of you are stuck on that smutty novel but never fear, we will get to that in a bit.  I mean, what good is a story without a little smut?

But let's start at the beginning.  Why would I, Brandy, who hates bumpy roads and likes to go #1 more often than every 6-8 hours without dropping her drawers on the side of the road in sub zero temperatures, want to undertake such a journey in the dead of winter?  Well......... I've told you before I want to see and experience as much of this amazing planet as I can and Prudhoe Bay is up there, I mean way up there north of the Arctic Circle.  And I've never been to an oil field.  And I got to spend a few kid-less days with the husband.  Believe it or not, people actually pay money to take the exact same journey I got to take for free, so it was a heck of a bargain and I love a good bargain.  Joe had a ride along last summer; a grandma in her 60's who was on her second trip up the haul road with a trucker.  She had purchased the opportunity at a fundraising event for a whopping $1400!  As those of you who know Joe can imagine, he was super thrilled about having a strange grandma ride with him, as he loves to chit chat with people so much.  In the end it wasn't as bad as he imagined it would be, though he worried about her a bit as she struggled getting in and out of the truck and was covered in mud because in the summer, the haul road means mud....lots of it.   

But let's get back to me.  So, after dropping Justin at a soccer tournament Saturday morning I climbed aboard with my snacks and my pillow, and threw caution to the wind.

Joe and I ready to hit the road.

My home away from home for the next two days

Joe's first two comments once we got rolling were:

A...."This thing (pointing to the CB) will be going off and interrupting us a lot.  You're gonna have to deal with it".  I've been married to this truck driver for a long time and he knows I can't stand it when we're on the phone and some man or woman starts screaming at the top of their lungs over the radio (at least that's what it sounds like when you're on the other end of a cell phone).  Joe is usually quite courteous and turns it down when we're talking, but evidently this would not be the case on this trip.  Ok, annoying but doable.

B...."There are going to be times that you think I am going too fast but I have to so that we have a better chance of  making it up the hills, so don't freak out".  Ok, a little more concerning.

And with that we headed north out of Fairbanks on the Elliot Highway.

So where in the world were we headed?  Here's a handy dandy map to show you.

That's right...... we would cross the mighty Yukon River and go all the way to the Arctic Ocean.  That's a long way on a bumpy road for a girl who doesn't like bumpy roads. 

Our first stop was just 20 miles out of Fairbanks at the Hilltop Truck Stop. While Joe fueled the truck I ran inside for my last chance at a usable restroom for many, many miles.  After that I checked out the truck and then, with nothing left to do....... I took a selfie.  It takes a long time to fuel a semi.

This truck holds 375 gallons of fuel and gets 3.7 miles per gallon.
Glad that's not our bill!

That's a lot of gauges, knobs and switches to keep track of.  Oh and look, a tree air freshener.
You will find one in every vehicle Joe drives.  Always. Been that way for the 27 years I have known him.

Ohhhh.....truck sleepers are very cozy places and always have comfy beds.
I'm sure I'll be getting tired soon.


After Joe was done fueling the truck, he moved about 4,000 gallons of the fuel in the tanker to the front two compartments of the tanker.  Putting all that weight on the drive tires helps with traction.   More traction means less chance of sliding and dying, so it sounded like a great idea to me!

By the time he finished, we were one of three trucks ready to head up the haul road.  Who would be the one to lead the way, to decide before it was too late if you needed to throw a set (of chains) (like my trucker lingo?) to avoid sliding backwards down a steep ass hill and ending up looking like this?

Why us, of course!  Awesome.

And off we went.  The weather was great, the sky was blue, and the sun was shining brightly.  So far, so good.  

After about 75 miles traveling along the Elliot Highway, we finally reached the world famous Dalton Highway..... also known as the haul road.  As is true of many world famous destinations, there is a sign to welcome you.  Here's a pic of me there.

Gateway to the Arctic ~ The Road to Prudhoe Bay

For the truckers who drive this road, every single inch of it from this point forward has a name. Some spots are simply the mile mark, like 5 mile.  But some of it has quite creative names that might make you raise an eyebrow.  One particular section reads like a trucker romance novel, ok smutty trucker romance novel.  Warning, you might want to skip to the next paragraph if smut offends you.  It begins with Beaver Slide, then Finger Mountain (which Joe doesn't think looks like a finger but another part of a man's anatomy), on to Old Man and then Gobblers Knob.  And let's not forget Oh Shit Corner.  Oh shit I just slid off Gobblers Knob or worse, off an old man?  I'll stop now.

While some of the names might be questionable, their purpose is not.  Communication is key to survival on this road and the truckers who drive it are in constant communication with each other.... where they're at, what direction they're driving, what the road conditions are, what the weather is doing, if there's any obstacles on the road like giant moose, or 4 wheelers (cars), etc. Yes girls, it's true...... men can communicate well when their lives depend on it.  Every single truck we passed told us about the road they had just traveled and Joe told them about the road we had just traveled.  Every... single.... one.  Several of them seemed to know I was along for Bring Your Wife to Work Weekend and inquired about how I was liking it.  Nice group of guys. 

An important topic of conversation was the condition of the hills.  Chains or no chains, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler to play it safe or hammer down and go for it.  

Right off the bat we approached the first hill at 2 1/2 mile.  Joe decides no chains and hammers down to get a running jump at it.  And it's not like it's a straight shot at these hills.... most of them have curves right before the bottom so you go flying around the turn, all 104,000 pounds of truck and fuel, and me.  By the time you hit the hill you're doing around 65 mph, on a snowy, icy, unpaved road mind you.  By the time you're halfway up you're lucky to be doing 15 mph, wondering if you'll reach the top before you spin out and can't go any further.... at which point you stop mid hill and pray that you don't start sliding backwards.  

2 1/2 mile

Another hill.
Unfortunately pictures do not capture the steepness of these hills.  I did find this one though on the internet, taken by someone else, that does kind of give you an idea.  This is what is called the Roller Coaster.

Yep, it's friggin steep.

Evidently (according to Joe) I was supposed to be scared going up the hills.  You know, because of the possibility of sliding backwards down them if you're not going fast enough.  Well, the downhill side was much more alarming to me.  As the truck picked up speed going down the hills I imagined us losing traction, starting to slide, not making the next turn and sailing off the road over a cliff or into the pipeline and bursting into flames (we were hauling 9,000 gallons of flammable fuel, you know). Ok, ok.......so the pipeline isn't really close enough to the road that we would actually hit it if we did go off the road, but all kinds of crazy goes through your mind at times like these.

Speaking of the pipeline.....if there is one thing you can count on on this dangerous, unforgiving, lonely road plagued with unpredictable weather, it's the pipeline.  It's your constant companion, occasionally disappearing underground or into the side of a mountain but always sure to reappear quickly.  The 800 mile long Trans Alaska Pipeline System is one of the world's largest pipeline systems and was constructed to move oil from the oil rich North Slope of Alaska to Valdez, the northernmost ice-free port in North America. That thing is an engineering marvel.  It's amazing how they constructed it to survive earthquakes, permafrost, and all sorts of other issues that plague the area.  Much of the fuel Joe hauls is used in the operation of it.

Uh oh, Houston we have a problem.

A coolant leak at 28 mile.  Don't worry....I stayed nice and warm in the truck while Joe laid in the snow fixing the problem and then added more coolant.  Thanks for worrying about me, though.

Let's enjoy the scenery while Joe fixes the truck.

Uh, are we both gonna fit???

One of my favorite sections of the road was inhabited by snow people, who stood stoically on either side of the road as you passed.

The snow people only inhabited about a five mile section of the road.  Creepy weird.

Joe had us back on the road in a jiffy.  Next up......the mighty Yukon River.  It is massive.  Joe said the Yukon River impressed him the most on his first trip up the haul road in September 2013, before it had frozen over.  I'm hoping to drive up one summer and see it when it's flowing.  That is not likely to happen because if you think the Dalton is bumpy in the winter, summer is way worse.  Not my thing at all.

Crossing the Yukon
Just because we're workin' doesn't mean we can't stop and be touristy.  We made a quick stop at the Arctic Circle sign for me to capture the moment.  How many people can say they've been to the Arctic Circle?

Like Willie says......on the road again, Joe just can't wait to get on the road again.

Wonder what it's like to ride in a truck on the haul road?  It's bouncy.  Here's a little video so you can feel the excitement too.  I want you to have the full experience.


And then it got dark, as it tends to do in Alaska in the winter.  So what's a girl to do?  Ahhhh...... the sleeper.  That glorious, cozy space is calling my name.  Wake me up when we get to Coldfoot, Joe.  It's really quite amazing how well one can sleep bouncing several feet off the bed as you travel down the road.  And even more amazing for someone who had been lacking in the sleep department for several months.  I am dubbing that period of my life "Sleepless in Alaska", and there will be another blog post soon, all about how I nearly lost my mind and my grip on reality.  But enough of that for now.....just thinking about those months makes me shudder.  

Before I knew it, we had arrived at Coldfoot Camp located at mile 175.  Way back in the day Coldfoot was a mining camp called Slate Creek, but was renamed in the early 1900's due to gold prospectors getting cold feet as they traveled north up a nearby river.  Today Coldfoot is basically a truck stop for truckers heading up to Prudhoe Bay and a tourist stop for bus tours and other adventurous travelers.  It consists of a fueling station, cafe, and overnight accommodations for haul road travelers not of the trucker variety.  

After Joe roused me from my slumber, we headed inside the cafe for a bite to eat.  The first thing I noticed was the special seating area reserved specifically for Dalton Highway truckers only...there's a sign even.  In the middle of this big long table was a couple of pots of fresh coffee, every condiment bottle you could imagine, and lots of ash trays.  Truckers are notorious coffee drinkers, smokers, and evidently, condiment users.  We did not sit at the trucker table as Joe is not one to socialize much or smoke, or use condiments other than Tobasco for that matter.  I must say, I felt slightly cheated of the true haul road trucker experience.

After a quick bite to eat and some awkward conversation with a local who lived across the street and frequented the bar in the cafe for TV viewing in the evenings, we were back on the road.  The rest of the trip was shrouded in darkness, so I could not see the landscape as we climbed Atigun Pass and made our way over the Brooks Range aka avalanche central.   Making your way through avalanche central in the pitch dark with cliffs inches to your right.....a bit unnerving to say the least.  I guess the upside is you would never see it coming.  

Past the Brooks Range, the road goes on and on, straight and flat, for miles.  Just about the time you start to think you've reached the end of the earth, a faint glow appears on the horizon and you think.....have we reached San Francisco?

But no, its the lights from the camps and oil fields of Prudhoe Bay, also known as Deadhorse.  As you get closer, you notice these beautiful pillars of light that occur when the bright lights reflect off the ice crystals in the air.  It looks like an alien mother ship is hovering just overhead.  A spectacular site!

Prudhoe Bay, aka Deadhorse

 Time to unload our fuel.

Me workin' hard! Peace out.
Once we were unloaded it was time to hit the sack.  Joe had to be off the clock for 10 hours so we climbed into the sleeper and went to sleep.  It had been a few years since I'd been truckin' with Joe and I could have sworn those sleeper beds were larger back in the day.

The next morning we grabbed a quick shower and meal in the Prudhoe Bay Hotel, and then hit the road south.  Quick as in, you have 6 minutes to eat that breakfast burrito.  Typical Trucker Joe.

As you can see below, we didn't have much daylight by which to see the landscape on this end of the road.

Yes, you read that right......37 minutes of sunshine.

As we left Prudhoe Bay behind and the sun finally appeared, I became slightly confused, wondering if we had traveled to the moon instead of an earthly destination.  It was white, flat, and desolate as far as the eye can see.

What are those black dots?

Musk Ox!

Visibility isn't the greatest.  Follow the thin gray ribbon.
Are you sure we're not on the moon, Joe?

A blanket of low fog ahead.
After a while we started climbing back over the pass.  It's beautiful but there's that avalanche thing to think about.

Looking back behind us.

Uh oh, wide load ahead.

Is there room for both of us?!!

There was.  Whew.

Avalanche remnants.  

Just keep driving, driving, driving......
Hey look, it's Robert!
The rest of our journey home was pretty uneventful.  There was lots of stunning scenery to enjoy until the darkness came again.  We stopped back by Coldfoot for a restroom stop and to buy some cookies that were pretty dang good, especially the spice one.  Got a bowl of chili too.

And so I'll leave you with a few more pictures of the beautiful scenery on the way back.  As I finish this, it's almost a year later, December 30, 2016, and Joe just left to head back up the haul road in the middle of one of the worst snow storms we've seen since we moved here.  Travel not advised. Before this trip it was easy not to imagine the dangers he faces every time he goes to work, now not so much.