What's two thousand plus air miles when your only sister is getting married? Let's just leave aside her questionable decision to abandon Alaska for Florida's sunnier climes. Family loyalty outweighed lame-o life choices.
That was why, although none of us had ever had a burning desire to visit the Orlando suburbs a good portion of our Alaskan extended family headed south to my sister Megan's wedding.
My second youngest brother Robin and I shared a companion ticket and were among the first to head south, leading the Alaskan invasion of Florida.
Our jet left Ketchikan for Seattle on Thanksgiving Day, which meant there weren't a lot of lines and no waiting--but it also meant the people manning the Alaska Airlines desk didn't know what they were doing. They sent Robin and me to the wrong terminal, to catch our plane to Phoenix, three times. On the third time some kind security personnel stopped us and directed us to the correct terminal. By then we had only minutes to catch our flight and we ran through the airport in a pre-9-11 sprint. On our dash toward the open door of the jet, a flight attendant slapped a boxed Thanksgiving dinner into our hands and we skidded into our seats moments before the attendants went into their safety spiel.
That night we landed in Phoenix, but the people we were to stay with (friends of our aunt and uncle, Shirley and Herb), weren't there. We tried calling them, but got no answer, and were just figuring to spend the night in the airport, which was practically empty, when it was announced that there'd been a bomb threat and the airport was closing.
The friends finally showed up--there'd been some kind of mix-up in our meeting instructions--and they lavished friendly interest on us and took us to their home for the night, and the next day, on the way to the aiport, gave us the fast, fast tour of Phoenix.
So far it was quite an acceptable adventure for two kids in their twenties from the bush.
But that was nothing. On our first drive on Floridian soil, on the Interstate, we passed the scene of a drive-by shooting.
Welcome to Florida.
MEGAN'S MEMORIES: One thing I do remember that stuck with me was Dad and Robin fluffing out the tulle and flowers that Cousin Pam let me use for decorations. We had them hanging from the railing on the back porch and they were all squished and needed to be fluffed, and here are these two macho Alaskan bush men fluffing flowers, ha,ha!!
And how it truly was a family affair, we didn't have any friends at all, just family from Florida, Alaska, Michigan, etc. and everyone pitched in to help. Pam made my gorgeous three tier cake, and provided the decorations that she had made for her own daughter Heather's wedding just a few months prior. Jody [an Alaskan cousin] took all the pictures, Mom did my hair, and of course everyone brought a potluck dish. Aroon [her daughter] was my little flower girl and Erik [her stepson] the ring bearer.
What I remember was stepping into my sister's beautiful home that she and Rob, her Jamaican/Irish fiance had built, and seeing the most gorgeous wall murals, one of a waterfall in the entranceway and the other of a sunset on the sea over the fireplace, that Megan had painted.
It was good to see that, despite her busy life and romance, she was making time for her art.
Of course the Alaskans wanted to do two things while we were there, right away. One was to hit the beach and the other was to do some shopping--the prices and selection were unheard of in Alaska.
Going to the beach was our first priority, we couldn't wait to wade into the warm waters and luxuriate in miles of sandy beach. But first we had to get there. With us were my Uncle Rory and Aunt Marion and their two daughters LeAnn and JoDean (Jody), who had always been a part of our life in the bush. Even when they moved to Ketchikan, they were always a part of our life and hosted Megan and me for a few years of city high school experience (two years for Megan, one for me) and helped fund Megan through college.
Before our invasion of Florida most of my family had been at Rory and Marion's and we'd watched Trains, Planes and Automobiles, laughing our way through the story of Thanksgiving travel gone horribly awry. We always loved quoting from movies and one favorite quote was when John Candy and Steven Martin ended up driving on the wrong side of the highway directly into oncoming traffic without knowing it and some friendly motorists on the right side tried to tell them they were going the wrong way. We loved to quote Steve Martin, "How do they know what way we're going?" And imitate John Candy's miming of tilting back the bottle and smirking at the helpful motorists.
Well, Megan and Rob set it up with us to meet up at the beach and gave Rory, who was driving, instructions on how to get there. But halfway there someone remembered that they'd forgotten something at the hotel. Rory turned back and we passed Rob and Megan as they headed for the beach.
Rob yelled across to us: "You're going the wrong way!"
Everyone in the packed car yelled, on cue, "How do they know what way we're going?"
Marion, in the front passenger seat, mimed drinking.
MEGAN'S MEMORIES: And who can forget the driving the "wrong way" fiasco? Rob REALLY must have thought my family was as cuckoo as they come, his first introduction. He didn't say much, but for awhile after we passed you...going the wrong way...he didn't say anything, just had this strange confused look on his face, like...What have I gotten myself into?
Meanwhile, after we finally met up at the beach and indulged ourselves in the extremely uncrowded warm waters, having the beach almost entirely to ourselves, we finally went shopping. And found that we were famous. Everywhere we went we heard the local Floridians, bundled up in their winter coats, talking about the crazy Alaskans who'd gone swimming when it was only 70 degrees out!
We also went to a reptile farm, bought gator jerky, and my cousin Jody, who was terrified of snakes, was picked out of the tiny crowd of mostly Alaskans, by the snake handler, to get close and friendly with a long, scaly reptile--which promptly got sick on Jody.
I was carrying my niece Aroon and while we were on a bridge looking down into a sluggish pond where baby gators were bred, I perched Aroon on the rail to give my arms a break. Rob immediately relieved me of my babysitting chores--apparently he didn't trust the Alaskan aunt to keep the kid out of the alligator pit...of course this was directly after the "Wrong Way" incident, so perhaps he had reasons for his doubts....
MEGAN'S MEMORIES: I remember the day before the wedding we had to go to the mall and Rory drove (why, I don't know!) he handled the traffic like a champ, although the parking lots were full and the traffic was insane---it was around Thanksgiving, after all!
We stopped at a party supply store and got paper plates for the dinner portion and tiny plates for the desert plates. But, when it came time to eat the cake at the wedding, no one could find the desert plates! We all swore we remembered getting them, but they were gone and Rory ended up volunteering to run up to the store to get some more. I have such a nice, generous family!
Rob, whatever doubts he may have harbored, arranged for his prospective in-laws to have an airboat ride on the St. James River, which all of us enjoyed. It was wonderful to get away from the world of people and be on the water again, though the airboat was noisier than any boat we'd ever been on. Also, we saw cattle standing knee or belly deep in the river--something we hadn't seen from a boat before.
The wedding day was gorgeous as family began showing up and reuniting and meeting for the first time. Marion, who'd grown up in the remote bush with five brothers, and had been a successful commercial fisherwoman most of her life, hit it off with Rob's sophisticated Italian sister-in-law, Maria, taking the European cheek-kissing in her stride.
The ceremony took place in the backyard, chairs lined up to form an aisle, lined with flowers that the guys had more precisely than artistically arranged.
My dad walked Megan up the aisle as we all looked on and Jody took pictures. Megan wore a classy white suit, while Rob, waiting with his Aunt Mitzy who was conducting the ceremony, wore black slacks and a white dress suit.
Aroon and Erik despatched their duties with aplomb, Megan and Rob said their vows, kissed, and it was on to the cake!
A cousin who worked for Disneyworld Park management, arranged for us to get in at a discount. Some of us spent time in Disneyworld, but all of us ended up at Epcott.
Since it was around Thanksgiving the place was not crowded and we never had to stand in line. On the other hand, some rides and areas were closed. And the rides that were running sometimes broke down.
We were all in one ride, inside the famous Epcott "Golf Ball," when it came to a halt in a dark passage. Workers ran to and fro with flashlights trying to find the problem and fix it. Rory, several cars back, suddenly gave a crow call.
I called back.
This sent the workers mad. Not only did they have to fix the ride, but a flock of crows was trapped in there somewhere.
We tried to eat our way Around the World, but our stomachs and wallets weren't up to the challenge--though I think Robin and Jody came close to pulling it off.
I loved the odd, B-movie world of the sets, everything made of plastic and foam, mimicking the real thing. We wandered from Italian steps to cobblestoned England, to a Japanese pavilion. We stopped in Germany, Mexico, Morroco and finally--it was full night by then and the faux-countries seemed more real, less plastic--we reached Canada, which brought on a wee sense of homesickness.
We'd all wandered the world, splitting up, to finally meet up again to watch the fireworks display. The Alaskan family had come to Florida, and may not have conquered, but we'd seen one of our own married, braved the beach, fended off gators and sick snakes, and stood now watching the fireworks celebrate our adventures.
Before anyone questions why I'd do another post about the waterline, just imagine yourself for a moment living your entire life, except for brief interruptions, without indoor plumbing from the age of nine until you were in your thirties.
Imagine growing up washing dishes in an ice cold, snow-fed creek, or hauling bucket after bucket of water from that same creek to wash clothes and bodies. Or simply washing in the creek while your extremities and your brain goes numb. Or how about using an outhouse, a hole in the ground, or a bucket to do your business--in the dead of winter with a minus thirty degree windchill blowing?
Have you imagined it? Now perhaps you are ready to take the trip with me to put the plugs back in the waterline while my dad goes to start the finicky pump. Perhaps you can now feel our concern about the pump quitting and facing the old spectre of NO INDOOR RUNNING WATER.
Believe me, it's bad enough running out of daylight and seeing sunset color beginning to show at 1:30 pm (see opening image) without worrying about running out of water, too.
With the colder days, Katya, my cat, doesn't care to go for walks with me as much as she does in the summer. I called her, saying the alluring words: "You want to go for a walk, Katya?" but she refused to budge from her warm spot upstairs near the chimney.
Of course, when I got halfway along the trail she had second thoughts and I heard her meowing at mega-decibels, telling me to wait up. She couldn't stand the thought of being left out of a walk, after all.
From the trail I could see her clamber over the back of my floathouse and then tightrope walk across a thick mooring line to get to the beach. She was too quick for me to get a picture--and once she gets in the woods, her brindle-calico coloring gives her perfect camouflage. (See the above picture--can you pick her out?)
My dad's sudden arrival made her jump--apparently she thought he was a bear in his all black attire, but once he called to her she settled down. He's been known to hand out cat treats. I let him get ahead of me on the trail while Katya and I screwed the plugs back in. Well, I screwed them in, but she provided good moral support, headbutting me and rubbing against my legs.
I caught up with my dad again just before the dam as he passed the towering rootwad of a massive, fallen cedar tree.
My dad took the plugs out of the gallon-sized ketchup jug (duct taped to patch a hole in it) we keep stored in the root hollow of a hemlock tree, with the gas jug and ax (for chopping holes in the iced over dam when it freezes).
Once the plugs were in the line and in the pump, he primed the pump by filling its reservoir with water, using the ketchup jug as a pitcher. Once it was filled he tried starting it, but again it balked, even with a shot of ether.
I grew up hearing my dad, Gary, saying: "Where there's a Gary, there's a way." Interestingly enough, it almost always turned out to be true, as it did in this instance, and by working the choke, he finally got it to run.
We would have another week's worth of indoor running water!
Katya doesn't like the noise of the pump so, while my dad waits near the dam, she and I head down to the beach and gaze across at where the sun is shining. Already, near the forest, the day is dark with long shadows.
I love to watch how alert Katya is, quivering at the cries of eagles, her ears flickering in all directions. She suddenly sits up very straight on a log, her eyes pinpointing a mink scurrying far across the beach. She refuses to go out in the middle of the beach to chase it, too wise in the ways of hungry eagles to be as blithely reckless as the mink.
Instead she stays close to me, rolling luxuriously on the gravel beach, in between more headbutting and rubbing. High praise for taking her on a walk.
After the pump has run its allotted time, we pull the plugs and drain the line. I have to level it in all the usual places where the vibration of the water rushing through the line always knocks it down.
On the way home I took a detour over to the picnic beach, where for many years we've had family get togethers in the summer, before my mom's arthritis made it too hard for her to get there. It's a bit sad and a bit abandoned now, the table and benches, and step-rounds set in the hillside, all rotting in the damp climate.
There's a rare, sandy beach below the picnic table area that Katya loves to roll on, but she suddenly abandons me when I approach it.
I realize why when I get there. Right in front of me is a fresh wolf print.
I don't blame Katya for taking off. I only hope that our deer neighbor has likewise found some place to hide.
I head back for home, calling Katya, since I don't like the idea of her in the woods when a wolf is around, though I'm sure she has sense enough to climb a tree if she gets stalked. She follows me discreetly, peering out from behind trees and darting to the next one--and probably wondering why I'm not doing the same thing.
When we get safely home I luxuriate in turning on the faucet and watching the water run, after a few gurgles and spurts as the air gets pushed out of the line. What luxury! I never get over the thrill of the very idea of indoor running water. Of course, I still heat my water on the stove for dishes and showers--in fact, I don't have running water to my shower. I still have the old bush standby from my childhood--the bucket shower.
I remember being on a school fieldtrip on the ferry one time when we met a young man from Los Angeles. He wanted to hear all about our experiences of growing up in the bush. But when we mentioned that we used bucket showers he drew the line and insisted we were pulling his leg. We had to drag a teacher over to convince him that it was the truth.
Funny to think I'm still using one. A shower, yes, a bucket shower, used to be the first thing a host or hostess would offer someone who had just come in from a week long hunting trip. In fact, they still do.
I had a South African pen pal for several years, and she finally managed to pay me a visit. She was fascinated with the way we lived, but the thing that she loved most was the bucket shower. This was in the winter and I had a little add on shower stll, completely open to the elements on my old, small floathouse. She insisted that she couldn't leave without first trying that bucket shower and she was thrilled when I filled it with hot water and hung it on hooks for her use, the hot water steaming the chill air.
And if you come visit, I promise to let you use my bucket shower, too.
My earliest memories are of deer.
I was a toddler when daddy brought home an orphaned fawn to the logging camp we lived in at the time, in the mountains of Montana.
Its favorite food was graham crackers, so I called it Graham. When I was weaned, it inherited my old baby bottle. It was my sibling and best friend. We seemed to be made of the same music.
I wondered later if "speaking its language" in my toddler years was why later on the deer always seemed to sense a "kindred spirit."
It seemed odd to everyone else that whenever we were around deer--in parks and in the wild--the deer would come to me, straight over to me, whoever else was around.
And that just felt right and natural to me.
There was always a "re-connection" feeling for me, that the deer seemed to share....
When I was seventeen and used to wander all day in the mountains of Montana with my then best friend, Gretchen, a wise and wonderful Belgian Shepherd.
We lived on an old ranch high in the hills. I would get up early, have breakfast, feed Gretchen and the horses, then I would sit my record player on an old wooden chair on the porch, but my Bob Dylan album on at "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Gretch" and I would go, hearing the music all down the old dirt road.
I knew we would cover many, many miles in a day, as it was six miles to the mailboxes where we would check for mail, and then branch off for a daily ramble. We would explore and not come home until dark.
We discovered interesting things--arrowheads left behind by an ancient Indian tribe that no one knew the name of. There was a university "dig" up there that summer and the nice man who owned the property allowed me in to dig and glean, too.
In one of our explorations Gretch and I discovered an old, abandoned, derelict homestead way back in, with no road to it. It was so far up and tucked back into a tiny valley that I wondered if anyone had seen it since the early settlers. It looked as if it had been hastily abandoned, the owners' antique belongings scattered around, dust motes stirred by my presence. The pioneer past seemed close enough to reach out and touch it.
We ran into many wild things, bear, porcupines, and once a lynx in a tree who stared and stared at us as we stood and stared and stared back. I never felt in the least bit of danger in those forests but when I told my dad about the lunx he said it was a miracle it hadn't ripped my throat out.
The most thrilling moment, though, in those long rambles, was when the deer came down over the mountain.
It was a large group of deer--until that moment I hadn't realized that they would all travel together like that. Bucks, does and babies. They all came straight to where Gretchen and I stood, quivering. I stretched out my arms to them and they walked quietly on both sides of me. Not as if I wasn't there, but as if they understood that I belonged to, and with, them.
I stood there with my arms outstretched for quite awhile as the herd passed on either side, my hands on their backs as they went by, one by one, my hands sliding along backs and haunches. Bucks, does, fawns.
They felt like..."alive" feels. The only alive I wanted to be. I never wanted anything so much as to turn and go with them....
I don't know what stopped me. Whatever part was human with human needs, I guess. When the last one had passed, Gretchen and I stood there for a long, long time.
I wondered if she felt as left behind as I did.
When we visited the Bison Range, both in my younger and teen years, the deer would come straight to me. My folks would marvel, because though the deer were tame, and were used to being fed by humans, they would always come to me whether or not others had food and I did not. Maybe I was still "speaking" their language, the language of Graham, whether I knew it or not.
Even later when I was grown up and living in the remote S.E. Alaskan rainforest, the experiences continued. One day I was sitting alone on a rock by the creek rushing by our home, staring at the waters, when something moved and from the corner of my eye I could see it was a deer. I sat and looked at it, it looked at me, and then, as if it was saying "I know you" it came up and gently pressed its nose to mine.
We were like that for a while and then it walked away.
One of my tribe, making connections.
Once, in some long, dreary days of storm and darkness, and feeling unconnected to the world, I decided to pick myself up and take myself outside, as much to get away from too much "me," as anything else. As I stepped outside I got that "part of all creation" feeling, as I almost always do here.
I walked to nearby Half Moon Bay, just wishing I could go somewhere, anywhere and "have a vacation!"
As I went to step out from the woods onto the beach, the sun came flooding at me and as I stood there in the goodness of it, a deer stepped out onto the beach and just stood looking curiously at me, like, "What's your problem?"
And I realized I didn't have one, that, in fact, I was spang in the middle of my "vacation." The very one I'd been praying for just moments ago.
These days I don't get out much. Severe arthritis keeps me close to home. But sometimes the deer will come and graze on beach grasses and the branches hanging down, or in the winter stroll past. We will go out on the decks and talk to them.
They seem to feel at home here. And it is their home, after all.
Maybe they look back at us and think, "They seem to feel at home among us. That's good."
Tara Neilson (ADOW)