Most Church of Christ of folks I know love to sing... Including most of my immediate family. Over New Year's, my dad's side of the family got together for a few days in Florida, and of course, someone brought the songbooks out... I remember the one summer I went to FC summer camp in Florida, we had a day where we went to the Universal Studios amusement park, and I saw groups of fellow campers standing in line for a rollercoaster, singing. It was like a giant Von Trapp family reunion.
Anyways, last night I dreamed the the same group of relatives from the holidays (who, I'm sure, will read this) were once again vacationing together...
We were doing what we usually do, after vegging out and catching up, we all went out to dinner somewhere. As a family, we don't go to seedy places, but in my dream we were in the basement of some sort of pool hall: bare walls, dim lights, jukebox in the corner, ratty speakers playing obnoxious music. Incandescent light bulbs with translucent green shades hanging from the ceiling. We were all hanging out like normal, catching and and chatting like the shadier surroundings were nothing out of the ordinary... and someone has the brilliant idea: Let's sing some church songs!
Well, as the first harmonies of the Matthews/Beck family singers wafted through the dingy air and the clacking of pool balls, there was no immediate reaction from the denizens of the bar. As if 20 people singing hymns in a smoky bar is commonplace. However, somehow we decided we weren't singing loud enough, so we started bumping up the volume, so the four-part harmonies became free-for-all caterwauling.
Still, no reaction from the others in the bar.
I don't know what we were typing to accomplish... did we want our audience to join in? Dance a jig, or whimsically sway to the tune? Or tell us to turn it down so they could hear the AC/DC song on the jukebox better?
Well, we stopped singing after a few songs... Instead of leaving or starting a pool game, somehow we found some instruments. My brother played guitar, my twin cousins John and Daniel shared a drum set- one just sat there and stomped on the bass drum pedal, the other stood there and hit the cymbals. Odd, considering their sister Rachel actually is a percussionist. Others picked up random instruments and got ready to pick out a tune.
The first song (I actually remember the tune from my dream) was "Cherub Rock" by the Smashing Pumpkins... not exactly the type of music I expect my relatives to rock, but everyone started boogeeing (boogying? boogie-ing?) pretty hard. (As a family we tend to collectively jam bluegrass and chill acoustic stuff... James Taylor, not 90's heavy rock...) All my family members were really getting into it, and finally, the bar patrons started paying attention, putting down their drinks and pool sticks and gathering around our improvised concert.
The whole time, I was the only one surprised at this- now I am no stranger to loud live music, having been in several bands myself, but to see my aunts and uncles and parents jumping and kicking and headbanging to music I blasted in high school was somewhat unsettling. I was torn between thinking "Cool, I never knew they had this inner rock and roll energy" and "Where has their conservative prudence gone?? We were singing hymns two minutes ago!"
...Then I woke up.
Normally I play some heavy music or fast hip-hop in the morning to wake up and get that alarm clock ringing out of my ears... but today I just enjoyed the morning silence.
So, my dear Matthews and Beck relatives, next time we reunite, bring your stringed instruments, your sounding of the trumpet, your harp and lyre, your strings and flute, your resounding cymbals...
This time last year, I celebrated the 4th of July on a glacier with 56 dogs.
In may 2008, I moved from Coldfoot, AK, 600 miles to Seward, AK. Where else can you drive south 600 miles and still be in the same state?
I had spent the winter 55 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is was an incredible, yet challenging winter. However, living in a village of transient seasonal workers, truckers, oil men, and dogs has its downside. Things get even more complicated when you live in an apartment building with 19 of your coworkers, or 90% of the (semi)permament population of Coldfoot. I was planning on staying another summer to work, but in April, I got a job offer that I would never forgive myself if I passed up. This job description needs a bit of a background...
Winter in Coldfoot was a challenge on many fronts- emotional and social, being confined in a small village with a small population with a surprising diversity of people and their personal dynamics. It was a physical challenge, but that was the easiest part for me- the coldest it got was -56 F (88 degrees below freezing point... 88 degrees above freezing is 120 F.) Most of my coworkers were content to passively sleep 14 hours a day, watch non-stop TV, or self-entertain with copious alcohol consumption. (Predictably, AK has one of the highest rates of alcoholism in the US.) I occupied myself with personal pursuits – reading, writing, music. However, I get itchy feet it I'm not roaming around, and it's mighty hard to climb at mountain at 32 below (average January temperature) with several feet of snow on the ground. Luckily, I had planned ahead.
The previous summer, I got involved with taking care of the sled dogs: feeding, mucking, running the dogs. I tried to build attachments – I have always loved dogs, and dogs are very affectionate. However, a team of dogs linked to each other is a different story. I worked to get to know the dogs in the summer and fall so that I could have a reliable bond with them for the winter. Thus, I got addicted to dog sledding and got plenty of exercise for the winter. (30 gallons of food/water mix per day, running in snow... better than any gym I've ever been to. )
The biggest challenge was interpersonal interaction in such confined quarters in such an isolated place. There were great people there, some brotherly camaraderie and coworkers became a surrogate family, but there was also a lot of drama and arguments as well. Often, I eagerly sequestered into hermit mode. Me and words and paper will always be best friends.
One afternoon, I searched online for “summer dog sledding” and found a tour company in AK that offered summer dog sled tours in Seward, AK. And I applied.
Godwin Glacier Dog sled tours puts you on a helicopter in Seward and flies you 12 miles to the nearby Godwin glacier. There, you are greeted by a mangy pack of 56 dogs and and even grungier set of humans. Then, after a brief introduction on how to physically dog sled, you and a musher set off on a two-mile trail across the glacier.
There was a small cadre of us mushers: Matt, two-time Iditarod finisher, who owned 50+ dogs. John, who had been working odd jobs and traveling around in north and south America for a few decades, until four years ago when he got the sledding bug in Colorado and followed his obsession to AK (and ended up staying for the following winter to run dogs.) Alex, a 20-year old who had never worked with dogs before but thought it would be cool to spend a summer on a glacier (and who is now contemplating expatriating to Thailand.) Lester was a crazy old dude who was mostly perma-fried from way too many substances (your typical aged, mumbling grumbling hippie) who never did any tours, just wandered around with a shovel, cleaning up after the dogs. And I made five.
The plan was to live on the glacier six days, and have day seven on the ground to relax, get food, recuperate, but we were often short-handed. John and I both had a record of eleven days in a row on the glacier. There was supposed to be six mushers, and halfway through the summer, Alex left, and Matt and Lester had a tendency to disappear and make their day on the ground turn into 3, 4, or 7 days.
We had five tents on the glacier – four small ones, and a big one we used as a mess hall, where Lester slept. They were each 8' x 10' wood platforms with metal frames and tarp walls. They were airtight and watertight if the wind wasn't blowing and the rain wasn't falling. Otherwise, it was miserable.
We each had a propane heater, but could not use them at night- the tents were constantly shifting on the unstable snow, and if a tent shifted while a heater was on and the occupant was asleep or not around, it would burn quick if the heater fell over.
The glacier was absolutely beautiful. There were some incredible days when we didn't have many tours, the sun would shine, the clouds would meander overhead, the dogs would sleep contentedly, and it would be perfectly quiet and peaceful. On sunny days, the sun would reflect off the snow and roast everything. Dogs with dark fur bleached – over the summer, dogs that were blond turned white, brown dogs turned red. You do not walk around a glacier without sunglasses, the snow is a mirror for the sun. We all looked like raccoons with a white band across our eyes from our tans.
However, days like this were rare- I had about a week of summer for the three and a half months we were there. We were at almost 4000 ft. elevation and the weather changed quick- usually everything would freeze at night. Many days, the weather was too bad for the helicopter to fly. Sometimes we would have tourists on the glacier and the weather would get bad while the helicopter was transporting other tourists back to Seward. Times like this, we hooked up a dog sled behind our snowmachine (/snowmobile), and drive down the glacier to a lower elevation, below the cloud ceiling, so the helicopter could land on the snow and pick up the tourists. Then, after saying goodbye to the tourists and the pilot and the helicopter, the only means of getting off the glacier, I would turn around and slowly follow my tracks through the falling snow, the enclosing cloud back to camp. Back to feeding dogs in the middle of a July snowstorm, back to cooking pasta and hot dogs over propane in a tent whipping in the wind like a sail.
I thought Coldfoot was isolated. It was further from the nearest town (Fairbanks, 260 miles) but there was amenities, people, electricity, communication, showers, heat and shelter. By comparison, the glacier was feral and primitive. But, we did have a snowmachine, the motorcycle or the glacier, the jetski of the snow!
On our time off, we had to shower, get food for the next 6-11 days, regain energy, socialize, dry clothes. Days off were busy. Often my time off was less than a day: Get on the ground at 6 pm, be back on the helicopter at 9 am the next morning. This happened quite often because of the small crew. If I get to the ground at 6 pm, leave the office at 7 pm, do I go to the public showers, which close at 8, or the laundromat, which also closes at 8?
I has grandiose plans to hike, kayak, explore the area, but by the time I got to the ground, my reserves were gone. I only went hiking once the whole summer, not including local hiking trips on the glacier. I wish I could have hiked more, but I don't know if it would have been physically possible.
Our employer did not provide any housing on the ground. We camped at a gravel pit, which is where we picketed our dogs for a week while we prepared our gear, tents, sleds for the glacier. Camping out for a week with 56 dogs is fun, but backbreaking fun. Sleeping on gravel isn't too bad, a day at a time, but sleeping on rocks in the rain in a leaking tent before sleeping on a glacier in a leaking tent is. So, one night I camped in the storage unit by the railroad that holds the glacier equipment though the wintertime, and thus, the glacier crew had a home away from our glacier home. I felt like one of the Boxcar kids, but hey, shelter is shelter. According to Thorough, all that is necessary for survival is food and shelter. Everything else is luxury.
Some people love Alaska because it is wild, beautiful, and often seems more alien than American. (A favorite tourist question: Do you guys take American dollars?) Some people love Alaska because it is unique. It is beautiful but it can kill you in a heartbeat, and because of that, I love Alaska. A cathedral, a painting, a book, can be beautiful, but holds no danger. You cannot conquer a cathedral. A book can challenge you in a thought provoking way, but will not make your heart race , it will not flood your senses and make you feel alive. The closer you are to death, the more you appreciate life.
I was unhappy to learn firsthand that some people love Alaska because of the potential profit there is. My employer was a businessman from Arizona who could not stand AK but returned every summer to make a ridiculous amount of money. He promised us a healthy amount, more than I made the previous summer in Coldfoot, but then left before we were done packing up the glacier equipment, leaving us shorthanded and cheated. I lived in Seward until December and had the opportunity to meet other who had been cheated, and realized that even though he broke promises to us, he had hurt others in the area far more. Last I heard of him, there were federal investigators after him for theft of aviation fuel and helicopter engines.
Throughout the season, my biggest challenge was not physical, but social and emotional. Fuses could be really short with the workload we had, the isolation, the physical conditions making everything harder, and a scheisty boss. It was an exercise in diplomacy- we each took turns talking each other out of quitting. There were several times where we almost all quit at once, but somehow four out of five of us toughed it out.
Pictures of the Glacier Dog Club: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2232747&id=12607187&l=c6846dda94
Pictures from the Arctic Winter: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2198316&id=12607187&l=08402d22e6
Am I glad I did it? Yes. There are things I wish I had done differently, but that's the way everything is.
Would I do it again? Never.
Or at least, that's what I say now.
-lived on a glacier
-flown a helicopter(kinda)
-got lost in a snowstorm in July
-worked a construction job
-volunteered at a music festival as a security guard (no skulls were smashed (fortunately, and at the same time, to my caveman brain, unfortunately))
-saved two taxi drivers, a carpenter, and an irate Hungarian historian (with royal ancestral roots, nonetheless) from killing each other over a bag of cheetos and the weather channel (that's another pleonast post altogether)
-had a wicked car wreck in winter and hitch-hiked with two dogs about 200 miles to get back home
-started going to church again
-taught a photography class
-moved back to SC
-started grad school
-gone on a 70 mile hiking trip and hitch-hiked back to the starting point
-traveled to Florida twice (It wasn't as bad as it sounds.)
-figured some things out
-started learning computer programming (now I have to find another kind of nerd to make fun of)
-gone to France and Italy with my family
-not updated this pleonast page, obviously.
These as some high points. There were a lot of low points as well, but I'll keep those to myself.
Now I'm working as a research assistant at the department of civil engineering at USC, playing with numbers, mostly using one side of the brain. When I was working on my undergraduate degree, I tried to balance the technical challenge of school with a ton of reading and writing to keep things even- too much number crunching and not enough creative thought turns one into a mindless robot. Between my undergraduate years and my return to school, in my spare time I continued to read and write, as if I was studying for an imaginary degree in literature, because my nose likes to stay embedded in books. (And I don't have a TV.)
Now that I'm back and grinding away at the textbooks, I find myself daydreaming of things to write about, and itching to get to scribbling some stories, both from personal experience as well as fictional. Since it's inconvenient to build a bonfire in the SC summer to gather around and tell stories, pleonast will have to do. Furthermore, I can get some proofreading besides the squiggly red underlining when I misspell words.
Next: elaboration, in chronological order, of the list of events from the previous year. First up: The Godwin Glacier Summer (Or, how winter lasted 15 months)
I'm leaving Coldfoot in a few days for a new summer job. I'm heading south (when you're north of the arctic circle, there isn't any other direction to go, I reckon) to Seward, Alaska. I'm going to be a mushing guide, taking people on dog sled trips on a glacier. I'll be camping on the glacier for the summer with five other mushers and 70 or so dogs. Supplies, people, and dogs are all transported via helicopter.
I feel like I'm being slightly greedy... when eight months of snow aren't enough, I have to go and live on a glacier.
It's a good opportunity for my dogs and I... Their tails are wagging with excitement, and if I was lucky enough to have a tail, it would be wagging too.
Coldfoot is an awesome place, and I'm leaving with a list of mountains I haven't climbed yet, and trails I haven't mushed on yet. It's a real possibility I might return here. After this summer, I have no plans. We'll see what happens.
I've been working on getting things ready around here for the summer. The other day, I prepared the river rafts, and it felt so good to be working in the sun after a long (yet beautiful and interesing) winter. Some of my coworkers stretched out and napped on the rafts, like lizards sunning on the rocks.
Who's coming to visit this summer?
I haven't been writing much or uploading too many pictures... This is a slow internet connection, and I don't like waiting around for things to load. Maybe if I encounter better internet in the future I'll work on that. In the meantime, I won't have a phone, internet connection, or mailing address, besides a PO box. However, keep the messages flowing, I'll be in touch sporadically.
Here's the website to my new job: