Alaska Mileposts

Funny to realize how far we are into the summer. The days have learned how to fly.

Looking over the season, at the things I’ve done and yet to do, at the visitors that have come and are coming, at the noticeable way the weather is changing here, I took a moment to closely examine my calendar. And I realized I’m more than halfway through my time in Alaska. In 58 days, I’ll be settling down into a (hopefully not too) packed car for the long cross continent drive home.


My Alaska experience has been different that I thought it would be. Not necessarily in a bad way, but also not in the best of ways. It’s been more beautiful than I imagined it could be. It’s been scarier than I imagined it could be. It’s been more intense than I imagined it could be.


Honestly, maybe secretly, I was hoping I’d find a place that felt like home here. That hasn’t happened yet. I’ve found much to love here (namely, the glaciers) and much to temper it with (namely, the deadly wildlife). I’m still enjoying the experience of being here; soaking up the culture and scenery; embracing all the varying opportunities that I can. But… home still beckons and I’m watching closely for approaching autumn.

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Alaska Mileposts

Of excess in poverty

Oh, New Orleans, what do I say about you? 

I’ve been exposed to several vastly different places over the past few weeks (NYC, DC, NOLA) — with more to come soon (Alaska-bound via Canada tomorrow!). Touching so much variety in such rapid succession lends life a surreal quality. NYC is mass humanity. DC is intimate anonymity. NOLA is …excess in poverty. 

NOLA (New Orleans for the acronym-savvy) from my tourist-bubble was a party of excesses in what seemed to be really quite a poor city. 

Jazzfest, Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, the Bayou. Delicious gumbo, jambalaya, beignets, chicory coffee, fried everything. Excesses galore. All balanced by crumbling buildings, barred windows, disastrously broken roads, graffiti and vandalism, no open container law (read: mass drunkenness), overflowing homelessness. I’ve never been anywhere else quite like it. 


For me, it was a Yosemite reunion set to jazz. Paul and I met up with my Yosemite girlfriends and several other folks to attend Jazzfest. Talk about stepping back into another realm! We had a blast, catching up, creating new memories, and generally exhausting ourselves trying to squeeze every moment out of the days (and nights).  

We also took a day to drive as far down the Mississippi River delta as the road allowed. NOLA is a little deceptive; since the city itself is below sea level the river is actually above the city and held in place by levees (reinforced incarnations of the same ones that failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005). Since you can’t see it, it’s easy to forget the river is there. But once you really get into the delta, where it’s more brackish water than land, you step into a different world. A world of oil industry and backwater towns and remarkable wading birds. Yup, the birds really the big draw to make the long drive south. That and bringing the Mississippi River experience full circle after having visited the headwaters at Itasca this past fall. 

All-in-all, NOLA isn’t a place I foresee a repeat trip to, though I didn’t make it to the Garden District or into the voodoo cemetery. It was a unique experience but the city didn’t resonate with me. Maybe it was the humidity. Maybe it was all the rough edges. Whatever the cause, it’s just not my town. But that’s okay because it is for a lot of other people and it’s a big, wide world with plenty of places yet to discover and love.

Of excess in poverty

of big apples

There’s nothing quite like a weekend getaway to NYC. Especially when one of your main goals is to go birding in Central Park. Yeah, that’s a thing. And justifiably so. This is a major stopover point for migratory songbirds (as there is no other significant green spaces for miles around) and many of them aren’t very skittish since they are, after all, in Manhattan (though I don’t think it’s common for a downy woodpecker to jump onto your hand ever).

downy

My other main goal was to eat pizza. Lots of pizza. I’ve been dreaming of New York pizza since Paul and I first started talking about planning a trip up there back in the fall. I was not disappointed.

pizza

But, because it’s NYC, you get caught up in the whirlwind of so many iconic things to do. And, in spite of a notable lack of planning, we never had a moment of downtime. Some of my favorites…

  • The Met. The sheer wealth of this collection makes it worth a trip. There’s not one sarcophagus in the Egyptian section, there are at least fifty. Seriously. And every nook and cranny are the same way. So much to see. Including a whole section on armor and weaponry, ancient Greek and Roman artifacts, and paintings galore – highlighted for us by Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware.
  • NY Public Library. The Rose Reading Room was closed for renovations during our visit (which you might recognize from movies such as Day After Tomorrow). But the rest of the building itself is gorgeous too, with marble floors and columns, ornately painted and gilded walls and ceilings, and dramatic staircases.
  • Broadway. We got same day tickets to The Phantom of the Opera. It’s currently the longest running show on Broadway and it was such a wonderful and beautiful experience that just the memory of it is enough to bring tears to my eyes.
  • Ground Zero. Everyone has a memory of where they were when 9/11 happened. I was in college and driving to class, listening to the live reports when the planes hit the towers and then sitting in class watching unbelievable news footage when the Pentagon was hit. I remember trying to sort through the confusion of the reports and images and not understanding the full impact. Somehow I expected the memorial to represent that confusion and chaos. It didn’t. It moved past that to a place of tranquil immensity. The footprints of the two towers are now inset squares with water cascading into darkness via a smaller centered square abyss.
  • Trinity church and cemetery. We stumbled upon this historic space while walking over to Wall St. Some of the stones in the yard date back to the mid-1700s and the stained glass inside is pretty gorgeous. It’s a nice detour from the modern building circuit and memorable juxtaposition of old history surrounded by shiny high-rises.
  • Brooklyn Bridge. We took a water taxi across the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn and walked back over the bridge. Think Golden Gate, but not as long and not red and without the suicide prevention messaging. Basically the only thing they have in common is that they’re both bridges that many people feel the need to walk across. 😉
  • Chinatown. This is a real experience – none of this superficial dragon gate nonsense of DC. Get a cheap massage, drink bubble tea, buy some chopsticks, eat some fabulous food (as with most of DC, if there’s a line outside a restaurant, you probably want to eat there).
  • Empire State Building. I’m on the fence about this. I’m not including many of the things we did (because they were usurped in coolness by something else I wanted to give space to instead or it wasn’t specifically outstanding) and this one was a tough call as to whether to put on the list. Yet here it is. Because it is iconic. And a fantastic uninterrupted view of the city. But you literally only go up to snap a handful of pictures and that’s the whole experience – you’re shuffled through a lobby, up an elevator, around the balcony (at your own pace), and then back down. I was expecting something more, especially since the tickets to get in where significantly more than any of the museums we went to.
  • MoMA. Not nearly as cool as the Met (probably because it focused just on modern art and not overly large, diverse range of topics) but still an expansive and interesting collection. We went for one reason: Starry Night. Totally worth it. Van Gogh never disappoints and it’s incredible to see his work on display all over the world, but it was especially exciting to see this most famous work. Also enjoyed works by Picasso, Dali, Mondrian, and Monet.
  • The High Line. An abandoned elevated train track was turned into a 1.5 mile park/walkway. It’s about as urban of a ‘park’ as I’ve ever been in. As busy as a city street sidewalk and mostly concrete (sometimes covered, thankfully in the hot spring sunshine), the tracks themselves are planted with trees and flowers and grasses. You do get some neat behind-the-scenes sort of views of the city (close-ups of apartment buildings and slivers of skyscrapers and even the Statue of Liberty at certain angles).
  • Staten Island Ferry. We didn’t have the half day available to go out Liberty Island and tour the Statue of Liberty, but I still wanted to get a closer view, so we rode the free ferry and that goes kinda close by the statue. So cool. But it just made me want to get even closer. That’s moved to the top of the list for our next trip to the city.

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I have a new perspective on DC now, too. My sleepy little town where the subway doesn’t run 24 hours a day (I could spend several hours just regaling you with a comparison of NYC vs DC subways, but I’ll spare you that until my next trip to NYC when everything isn’t so new and overwhelming); where the scent of refuse isn’t always lingering in the background; where jackhammers aren’t pounding away; where you aren’t constantly shoulder-to-shoulder on every sidewalk and crosswalk, dodging your way along with the flow of foot traffic; where everything isn’t lit by gigantic neon signage; where you can’t get phenomenal Sicilian pizza slices or foodgasmic bagels; where people aren’t as quick to smile and say a kind word; where the police aren’t as present and friendly (I ❤ NYPD – seriously, those guys are fantastic and friendly and on foot everywhere); where the buildings aren’t so tall as to make you feel like you’re walking urban canyons; where there aren’t layers of decaying trash. I could go on and on. NYC is the ultimate urban experience and returning to DC felt …calm. And much appreciatedly so.

I surprisingly love NYC (specifically Manhattan, where we stayed and concentrated our trip); not as somewhere to live, of course, but it’s a great place to go visit. Already thinking about a return trip to go back to gorge on bagels and pizza and to wander some more through the expansive wealth of The Met…

of big apples

Of the ornate

Six months in DC and I’m still working on checking places and activities off my list. This city has unending things to do: public buildings to visit, paved trails to walk, theaters to attend, bars to frequent, friends to meet.

Last week, I finally found my way over to tour the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court building, and the US Botanical Conservatory. These places are all close together (hence the combination one free day) and all close enough to where I’m interning that it’s justifiably surprising I hadn’t made it over yet just far enough of a walk that I wouldn’t have time to make it during a lunch break or after work.

The Library of Congress immediately moved to the top of my “places I recommend to visit in DC” list. The Thomas Jefferson building (the Library takes up a block of three buildings, but I think the TJ is the only one with public services) is quite possibly the most beautiful building I’ve ever been in. It’s just gorgeous. And a docent-led tour is a great way to learn some of the 200+ year history of the Library.

The Supreme Court building is also impressive. Not nearly as ornate as the Library. But there’s something very powerful about sitting in on a lecture (their tour equivalent) in the building’s only courtroom, facing the justices’ chairs (8 right now since Scalia’s chair was given to his family), knowing the impact of the words and decisions spoken in that space.

I can tell I’ve lived in DC for a while now when the most striking thing about my experience at the Botanical Conservatory is the lack of security. Funny how perspectives change to adjust to new norms. I’ve grown so used to airport-like security when I enter any federal or institutional building, that I don’t flinch at walking through a metal detector and I’d never think to carry around nail clippers or a multi-tool in my messenger bag anymore. Anyway, the conservatory and outdoor garden themselves are nice. The serenity of being surrounded by plants and (albeit well-controlled) nature is something I’ve missed as a city resident. The CA poppies were a nice treat; making me long for Hites Cove and the hillsides above El Portal. The painting is a scene of Denali that I’m really looking forward to checking out in person at some point this summer.

Of the ornate

Of the blossoms

DC is in its full spring finery. Bright flowers, warm breezes, and later sunsets. All signs of certain spring and coming summer.

We’re in the middle of the annual cherry blossom festival; many of the 3,800 Japanese cherry trees are blooming around the tidal basin on the National Mall. It’s wonderful to see this beautiful side of the city – a striking juxtaposition of cold marble and warm nature. If I’m on a mission to see how much beauty and grandeur I can find in DC, I’d say I’m on the right track (along with some 1.5 million others)…

Of the blossoms

of 133 days

Sometimes you want to craft an elegant missive skirting around to a point. And sometimes you want to shout the bottom line at the start and work toward recovery and explanation. I think today falls to the latter.

I’m moving to Alaska.

With necessary elaborations and conditional statements. I’m moving to Alaska for the summer – 133 days to be precise. I have a unique opportunity to go work with Alaska Geographic running a visitor center on national forest land. And how could I say no? Glaciers, grizzlies, almost constant daylight. New birds, new trails, new everything.

DC has been a hard sell for me. I’m surviving the urban experience, but it in no way provides me with a fully engaging and healthy life experience. But I don’t want to give it up. Because it is exciting. And because Paul’s here. But I need more. Usher in Alaska to provide the balance to the scales.

Extreme urban in winter. Extreme wilderness in summer. …that’s the theory.

I’ve never been to Alaska. It’s always been this sort of mystical place in my imagination – stuck up there at the very top of our continent with its promise of being ‘the last frontier’. Will it live up to the high hopes I have for it? I can’t wait to find out!

Let the countdown begin to an 8-10 day drive across a fifth of our planet from the heart of DC through Canada (somewhere else I’ve never been) to southern Alaska that will mark the start of an indescribably intense adventure in nature. And to start wrapping my mind around this crazy reality, I’ve picked up a little bit of light reading:

bears
required Alaska reading

 

Cheers to returning to the seasonal life and following wherever the path may lead!

of 133 days

of five months

I moved to DC for a person. And for a different, broader life experience. In many ways it’s been absolutely worth it. In some ways, it’s been devastatingly disappointing. Overall, it’s been an extremely interesting give-and-take that I never expected.

  • Defining home and purpose have become tangibles. How long does homesickness last? When does a new place start to feel like home? Why do we, as a society, define ourselves by the job we’re paid to do?
  • I’m not nearly as healthy here. There’s no easily accessible hiking, no rock climbing, and the so-popular incense in yoga studios makes me ill.
  • I’m much more intellectually engaged. This was a pretty big lack in Yosemite. And now I have it in boatloads. Politics, news, trivia, all of the above.
  • Speaking of, two words: pub trivia. So. Much. Fun.
  • My phone is my lifeline. I’d be lost without Google maps (though sometimes I still am even with it). And without the social connections of Facebook and Instagram.
  • Distance doesn’t diminish friendships. I value my girlfriends in Yosemite beyond measure.
  • Three hour phone calls and videochats are a real thing. In spite of time zones.
  • People here are cold. There’s a whole strangers etiquette that precludes unnecessary eye contact and practically forbids acknowledging other humans in any way.
  • I still have birds. True, mostly house sparrows and European starlings. But there are also fish crows that sound like squeaky toys. And cardinals arriving to sing early spring choruses.
  • You can find something for every interest here, no matter how obscure or unusual. Mostly via Meetup groups.
  • I’m incredibly sensitive to air, noise, and light pollution. There’s a lot of them all here.
  • Migraines. Is it the air quality? Is it the tap water? Who knows, but I’m not a fan.
  • Almost every day is a day to get dressed up. It’s much more effort to put on a dress and makeup than hiking gear and sunscreen, but I like it. Go ahead and call me #trendy.
  • I’ve found I can go days without stepping outdoors. (Yes, this is quite embarrassing to admit).
  • I get bored. So very bored.
  • I love food. Therefore I love, not only the restaurant scene, but also the ethnic grocery store scene in DC.
  • I’ve had a hard time finding a job here. That’s a humbling first for me.
  • The Smithsonian and my internship are my grounding force and routine. Volunteer management isn’t a direction I was necessarily trying to go, but it’s interesting.
  • It’s been some time since I’ve lived with someone. I love cooking for two, sharing all those inconsequential little moments, and learning another human being on such an intimate level.
  • The sheer amount of stuff that’s accumulated between two people versus one is staggering, be it books, dirty dishes, or general clutter.
  • I play D&D now. I hear it’s becoming more mainstream; we’ll see. It’s incredibly fun camaraderie, it’s so very creative, and it’s so valuable for just the laughter it inspires.
  • Museums and libraries also make this place for me. This is where most of my disposable time goes.
  • Mountains. How have I not mentioned mountains yet? My heart aches for mountains.
  • I am solidly in the middle of confirming I can do anything, for a little while.

For me, DC is a timed experience. I came in knowing that living here would only be for a relatively short time. I can convince myself to embrace all the good and bad of it by knowing that it’s only for a time. I choose to not entirely dislike it here because I know I’ll only be here for a little while. And I already have non-east coast plans coming down the pipeline.

I started writing this morning with the idea of finally getting around to reviewing and posting the various museums and galleries I’ve been to in DC (mostly the Smithsonian ones because, let’s be honest, those are the free ones) before I got distracted by the bigger idea of DC. And I conclude with hundreds of pictures with their myriad of stories still sitting in front of me. Consider that a promise of things to come…

of five months