When have you experienced a journey that you failed to appreciate until it ended?
It was open sky beyond that top step. I was on my hands and knees. If I could feel any layer of leg muscle, it burned. Everything else was dead to sensation. Gravel loosened from the mountainside crunched beneath my tennis shoes, dropped down the steps. A quick glance over my shoulders and my palms perspired like they do at the top of a rock wall.
One more step and I half-stood, kept my fingers on the next railroad tie. It was not open sky – not the blessed capstone to this cursed hike- that beckoned a few feet above me. It was another wave of steps probably followed by yet another wave.
“What am I doing here?”
Level One –Anticipation: the invitation or the pull to climb a mountain.
That day almost seven years ago, Zach’s coworkers had thoughtfully included me as one of their party on just another one of those lovely Colorado hikes. “It’s called the Incline,” they said. If you know, you know, and when I said, “yes, I’ll go,” I was clueless. A mile-long staircase up the side of a Colorado mountain sounded brilliant. I laced up and met them at the trailhead. The stairs were railroad ties.
Level Two – Trailhead: where my body locks into fight-or-flight mode.
Before taking that big first step on the uneven railroad tie, my system sensed looming physical and mental challenges. My brain asked: How long will this take? Are all the railroad ties this big and uneven? Will I find a convenient bench when my lungs and legs ache? Will I slow down the coworkers?
The coworkers, two fit girls accustomed to pushing their bodies to the limit, started the climb. I was winded before I followed suit.
Because there are no switchbacks on a mile long staircase, the third and fourth levels blend together. For these levels I will refer to the M Trail, a popular jaunt in Missoula, Montana.
Level Three –First Switchback: when all presumptions scatter like dandelion seeds at the force of reality.
The first time I took that first switchback, I learned that mountains are masters of illusion. An angle or slope or trail observed from the pavement is not the same angle or slope or trail observed from the mountainside. In fact, you must see for yourself to understand the ways of a mountain. As on many other switchbacked hikes, that first switchback of the M Trail is a deceitfully long grade of painful elevation gain. It always appears so gradual and gentle, but then again, any change in elevation is always a doozy as your body adapts to a new pace.
Level Four – The Next One-Thousand Miles: when your body accepts its fate.
Somewhere on the second, third, fourth, or fiftieth switchback of the M Trail, my body eventually acclimates. A sharp incline that felt impossible several feet below might go unnoticed as my endurance builds. In that vast in-betweenness, which is really just the hike itself, my mind wanders off the trail. I take in the views, think suddenly of bear or mountain lion, focus once more on the views and admit I’m glad for going, think suddenly of crazed lunatics crouching, waiting for me behind some oddly befallen boulder. Depending on the nature of the trail and the environment, my free-to-wonder brain flashes between the good and the bad.
On The Incline my mind flashed to the ugly and stayed there. I silently cursed The Incline, wondered how a staircase could be so cruel and why is a staircase considered hiking anyway? Doesn’t Colorado realize you need the switchbacks? What about slow and steady elevation gain? What about scenic viewpoints and those convenient benches? My lungs and legs ached and never did acclimate to the terror of the so-called trail. I was too afraid to stop and look long at the wide valley deeping behind us as we climbed.
Then I looked up and perceived open sky beyond the top-most step. “Thank you, God; thank you, God,” was all I could say.
Level Five – False Summit: a little like discovering “the man behind the curtain.”
Of all the ways of nature and the mountains, false hope is the cruelest. When that open sky was filled up with another wave of railroad ties, emotions like anger and sorrow shot through me to jack with my adrenaline. That is to say, any zest left inside fizzled out. I lost heart.
The coworkers knew it, and they sweetly did their best to rally my spirits, but to no avail. If anyone had come along to ask, “so, how would you rate your experience on The Incline today? Please use a 1-5 star scale,” I would have said, “Hell.” That’s not very nice of me, is it? But sometimes nouns speak louder than stars, and there at the False Summit, I sincerely regretted my decision to proceed with The Incline.
Level Six – The Mountaintop Experience:where the Happiness High numbs all anxiety and physical pain
In the end, it’s not a matter of whether or not I believe the pain of The Incline is worth the view. What matters is the view was killer; the grandeur of Colorado Springs is always breathtaking from any vantage point. The coworkers and I caught our breath and watched the valley below. We lingered as long as is socially acceptable before exiting the area.
Level Seven – The Descent:the gentle return to sweet normalcy
I’m sure true fanatics like to run down The Incline just as they love to run up that crazy staircase. The recommended exit is the Barr Trail: four gentle, gravelly miles through rich timber. As acute knee pain reverberated with each step, I considered it was quite a lovely day, quite amazing views, quite an experience I’d just endured. I considered, as I usually do in the home stretch, that it was kind of fun after all.
And I was ready to return to my now enlightened normal.
The Seven Levels of Hiking,
The First Switchback
The Next One Thousand Miles
The False Summit
The Mountain-top Experience
are applicable to any journey in life, and it’s most often level six for which we live. That new job opportunity, that new relationship, that new project – we all pine for that mountain-top experience.
Sure, not much beats anticipation, but it’s level six that reward us with all the bragging rights and perks of accomplishment. No one comes in off the trail to rave about the switchbacks; it’s the view at the end others are most interested in, and that we’re most excited to share.
Many will tell us the journey itself is far more enriching and enlightening anyway. No matter how difficult the climb, no matter how complicated and tension-filled the middle might be at times, that’s the stuff of the whole experience.
Yet, not many of us will understand that until we get to the top enough only to walk-off the Happiness High as we descend to a more normal life-pace.
Not to knock the hard-earned reward of an impressive hike, but I think we get it off-kilter most times.
I think it’s the journey that’s gold.
When have you experienced a journey that you failed to appreciate until it ended?
When have you experienced a journey that you failed to appreciate until it ended?
After it happened, I began to lecture myself on all the ways I could have better prepared for such a moment.
“How could this have been easier?” is the question I posed. I thought through all I’d failed to do that morning.
I hadn’t showered.
Hadn’t cleaned-up from breakfast.
As for my quiet time. Well, I was gracious enough to not go there.
I might have limited my “on-the-line” time that morning. Even on days when I’m showered and ready to go, fielding phone calls around Abigail and Izaak is a skill akin to coasting to the gas station on fumes.
Maybe coasting on fumes is just parenthood, period.
I stopped my lecture to laugh again. It had been hilarious actually, and we had survived. And even the best preparation cannot prevent the dreadful sound of a diaper detaching.
Izaak was sporting only a diaper. He’d been stripped of his breakfast attire, which smelled of maple syrup and felt gritty from all the pancake crumbs now stuck to the fabric. He’d been pooping. Maybe it’s hope, not greed, that keeps gamblers like me always giving it one more shot. Pushing my luck.
Knowing better, I decided to address the poopy situation after catching up with my mom.
“Mom, he pooped and he took off his diaper and he’s walking around!”
I remember tossing the phone to the couch and thanking God the carpet was absent of debris. I remember laughing as I snatched up the resistant culprit, relied on my apprehensive assistant, and managed to clean the baby. And the carpet. Just to be sure. All without spreading the mess or losing my temper.
A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
Nothing crushes the spirit quite like critique.
Critique from strangers is dismissible; critique from loved ones is painful; critique from yourself is the worst kind. Because strangers and loved ones alike only see in part what we see in full; we credit our inner critic – who, unlike the other critics, is always available – with spot-on accuracy. And why debate what must be true?
Such resignation allows our inner critic to hijack our self-talk, and when was the last time you stopped to evaluate the nature your self-talk? Are you nice to yourself? Are you crushing your own spirit without even knowing it?
After the incident, my default reaction was to chastise myself.
But, I am learning. Through God’s grace, I am learning to stop and evaluate the way I treat myself, to take note of the way I react in the midst of stress.
And I’m learning that often God’s mercy shows up in the form of laughter.
Friend, when God’s mercy shows up, take it for the good medicine it is. It’s the best antidote to your least helpful form of criticism and keeps the self-talk life-giving.
What’s the nature of your self-talk? Is it life-giving or spirit-crushing? Moving forward, how can you keep better track of your self-talk, and how you replace negativity with life-giving truth?
On taking steps of faith and staying hopeful in the waiting.
Two weeks ago, I came upon the hope*writers Instagram Challenge. For those unfamiliar, hope*writers is a community designed to help writers with messages of hope stay the course. For their IG Challenge, participants were given one word prompts along with an additional quote and three questions to post photos and reflect on the hope*writer’s life.
The prompts were as follows:
For those who do not partake in social media – and for those who were able to view my recent work – the following are my responses to these prompts and a bit of what went on in my brain as I was writing for the challenge.
Day One: Voice
When I say, “I write it better than I speak it,” I mean that
when you died, my heart grieved in poetry all I could not say when you lived, bound by expectation and weighted with fear of being misunderstood.
On the eve of the challenge, I went to bed excited for morning. I woke with a slough of ideas, I reached for Imaginative Writing to see how it defines “voice” as it pertains to writing. I did some freewriting, and when the phrase “my heart grieved in poetry” came to me, I knew I had it.
In 2019, in my grandpa’s last days, heavy emotions shut me down – something I’ve learned to anticipate when big things happen. I was quiet. I’ll not call it a pensive state; I was numb. Even when words came to me, I was hesitant. Sometimes, when it really matters, I am not quite sure of myself when speaking. I wonder, “what if I say the wrong thing? Something too honest, too weird?”
Then, a few days after his death, everything came out. And it came out in poetry.
The poem “Voice Untethered” honors the gracious truth that it’s okay to go quiet, and it’s okay write your heart out in lieu of speaking out loud.
Day Two: Refresh
And eventually, the Chugach Mountains give way to the chill of dormancy – absence of color and light – and it is only natural that uncaring winter winds should sweep away the finale of the birch trees, those autumnal sunbursts roving the mountainsides like the gilded waves of the Turnagain Arm. Bare and mute, they surrender to days, weeks, and months of snow, which, come springtime, takes with it only the rootless. Avalanches are a given.
First, the sun appears over the Hurdy Gurdy, and then Harp Mountain until it rises over Three Bowls, a sure sign of longer days and twilight nights. In Pink Moon light, the birch are ghosts of last summer.
Until the blossoms push through what once seemed hollow.
These are the lessons I take with me to the Writer’s Desk when I am hollowed out from days, weeks, and months of dormancy. I am drained of color and light. If I am wise, I have stepped away. Let the cold wind hurl my yellowed and burned-out triumphs into the far sea. Walked the fruitless hillsides where once life flourished. Explored the unknown trails of the Artist’s Valley and hoped for refreshment even here. Where I find words again. In the springtime achieved only by cold death. [Romans 5:3-5]
On Tuesday, for inspiration, I looked to hills now awakening from winter and decided to channel my inner Norman Maclean and Barbara Kingsolver. In A River Runs Through It, Maclean plays on the unmatched, ethereal beauty of Montana and fly fishing to illustrate the rhythms and eventual dismantling of his family. Kingsolver, a writer and biologist, utilizes the language of nature in her novel The Bean Trees when a description of bean trees – or desert wisteria vines – explains the resiliency of her characters. Being a lover of nature myself, I wanted to do as my heroes do.
It was a rough first winter in Alaska, as many warned it might be. I did not heed advice to get outdoors everyday, and a long spell of no direct sunlight in our valley really messed with me. I knew better, and yet I could not motivate myself to do much of anything somedays, much less write. My bout with depression informs “Hard Reset,” which is about those stretches of writer’s block when creativity seems dead. But, if any of us know anything about winter (and of all its subsequent connotations), we know dormancy in season is absolutely necessary for seasons of fruitfulness.
Day Three: Story
Even before I began to own that yes, I am a storyteller, it was happening naturally. Maybe it’s because I grew up on country music – a genre in which the narrative style is quintessential. Maybe it’s because of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Maybe it’s because my parents and grandparents always tell sensational stories in sensational ways. Maybe it’s because I’m human. What’s more human that telling a story?
Storytelling in fiction is a given; when it comes to nonfiction, other modes of writing might be employed. Yet, the narrative style is my go-to. It’s my favorite way to explain or describe or persuade. So, on Wednesday, as I was musing over the word “story” and its many implications, I chose to reflect on “story” not with an explanation or descriptive writing or persuasion, but with that beloved form of communication: story.
Day Four: Remember
I Seven eagles aloft treetops synchronous, drifting in spring winds like kites tethered to earth by invisible strings.
II Rose-hour in the valley below; blue-hour on the ridge. Golden hour behind the Alaska Range gives way to pearl-white undying twilight.
III You on sunny mornings, bright-eyed and exuding the hope of the season with every pirouette and your tales of mermaids and fairies.
IV Kewpie doll eyes, dark, rich, mirthful before you tip the dog dish. Your arms reach round my knees and my heart understands yours.
V Snapshots: Memories strung together Transferred by ink to paper For you For later For when I am old and have forgotten all I wanted you to remember.
I almost opted out of this prompt. As my generation loves to say, I felt “triggered” by the word “remember.”
Maybe it’s memory that’s the sixth sense. Just as I worry about losing my eyesight or hearing as I grow older, I worry about losing my ability to remember. If you’ve ever watched a loved one slowly forget almost everything, I know you understand.
I started journaling in earnest in seventh grade. My journal was a place to vent but also a place to commit my memories to the page. Photos and trinkets have the same power, but words complete them. With too many loved ones now gone Home, and with children of my own, I now try to memorialize through journaling, poetry, and stories the people, places, and moments of my life.
Section one of “Snapshots” is a great example of what I mean by all of this. One windy morning, the kids and I set out for the dump. As we approached the Anchorage Landfill, I saw over a dozen eagles floating on the breeze. They looked like kites with invisible strings. To see an eagle or two feels like good luck; to see an entire flock drifting on air currents felt like winning the lottery. I wanted to remember that incredible sight forever, so I memorized the moment to write about later.
Section two was born in the moment. As I was writing, I looked out to see the sky turning pink, the nearby ridges turning blue, and the distant sky turning gold. It’s my goal to observe and write about our time in Alaska so we can always remember what it was like, which brings me to sections three and four: Abigail and Izaak.
I always kick myself for not writing more about the funny things they say and do; life with children seems to click along at a faster pace and just as I want to record everything about Alaska, I want to record everything about these days before they’re gone. For myself, but also for them.
In section five, I compare the process of transferring memories to the page with developing film. I love to look at old family photos and hear old family stories; I once read my grandma’s journal from her first year of teaching. It was the year she met my grandpa. All the stories of their relationship and all the photos of their time together seemed to come alive as I read, in her penmanship, what it was really like in the moment.
That’s the kind of thing I’m most interested in passing along.
Day Five: Middle
“On Moving to Alaska (and Writing)”
In the beginning was new life. That is to say, hope. Hope for windows filled with mountains. The thrill of below zero weather and snow. Highways unknown. Bucket-list scenery right off the back patio.
In the end, part of my heart will stay – entangled by glimpses of Denali and a thousand other peaks yet unstudied – as the rest of it leans, expectantly, into the next beginning it will have to learn to love after all.
That’s the middle; learning to love what you longed for as you rush headlong to its finale, misunderstanding the speed of life, unaware that the sloggy middle is the stuff of the story you’ll tell over and over again.
I won’t say too much about “The Middle” right now; I have a blog post in the works about that very concept. But, as I reflected on the word “middle,” I realized that’s where I am now in my time in Alaska. The excitement of arriving has faded, and we’ve not come near the thrill of what’s next. Now is the time for humdrum everyday life in the midst of overwhelming beauty juxtaposed with a sometimes underwhelming reality. Now is the time for combating second thoughts and doing my best to embrace all the scary new stuff that is, as of now, unfamiliar. Now is the time for collecting memories that will one day make for fine stories.
Substitute the word “Alaska” for “writing,” or any other such experience, and the idea of the middle remains the same. The middle may not be as alluring as the start nor as flashy as the end, but it’s the most noble, rewarding, and essential component of the whole thing.
Day Six: Questions
By day six, I was worn out by the writing challenge and falling in love with Butte, Alaska. There, in Butte, at the Williams Reindeer Farm, I was keeping Izaak from eating rocks and pellets for the farm animals. I witnessed Abigail kiss a moose. As if hand-feeding reindeer weren’t enough of an attraction, they do this crazy thing where, if you hold a moose pellet in between your teeth, their moose will nuzzle his nose through the fence to eat it and essentially kiss you.
The ride home was rainy and filled with questions because Abigail grows even chattier when tired. That’s when it hit me. The lackluster prompt “questions” was suddenly my gleaming gateway into the poem “The Signs and Symptoms of Courage.” While trying to appease Abigail’s need to know everything, I pieced it together, and it’s one of my favorite pieces from the challenge.
Day Seven: Purpose
“Our Best Worship”
When I was young, my teachers nurtured my writing, made me believe it was something worth cultivation. I played on the page without fear, and in a Spirit-filled moment, I dedicated the whole pursuit to God. I interpreted the call as restriction to Christian Fiction.
That’s when the trouble began.
More trouble came when, at the University of Montana, the playing field was leveled. I found others who’d likewise been nurtured and spurred on in their talent. It was the season of experimental writing and I let the fear of disappointing God censor me. I let the fear of what the others might think govern me.
And in my ceaseless striving for perfection I stifled the very message of my heart.
Sometimes, I gave up, subscribed to belief that maybe I’d misunderstood everything.
Yet, the stories, the dreams, the need to paint pictures with words – the desire to encourage others and testify to God’s redemption – would not let me go. I took note of this, for the Spirit often nudges our own spirits in gentle, unrelenting whispers.
I stopped to listen.
He stripped away all my fear of failure, of judgment, of being misunderstood, and I saw plainly again the purpose of it all: love.
To love God and to love others as ourselves is the best thing we can do as followers of Jesus (Matthew 22: 36-40). It is our best act of worship and gives our muddled hearts clarity (Romans 12:1-2).
I had made it all too complicated when living fearlessly out of love for Him was all ever He had in mind when he gave me a love for writing.
On Sunday, I had many friends confirm how universal “Our Best Worship” is. How often do we find ourselves entangled by fear, discouragement, and distraction as we journey through life?
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
If that’s true – and per my experience, it is – then I must believe that good things are happening even when I feel lost, confused, fearful, and uncertain.
Coming across the hope*writers Instagram Challenge was more than a whim; it was ordained. It was my chance to step out in faith during a quiet period of exhaustion and self-doubt. I took the chance and it renewed me.
I don’t know how you are entangled by fear and all the rest this week, or which challenges you need to embrace, but I pray you stay focused and patient and faithful. Just as springtime comes to color the mountains with life once more, so do the good things He has in store for us.
In the blue dusk light, I saw him glide along the river, his dogs harmonious and running as though they pulled nothing. The Parks Highway turned and not even the novelty of spotting a dog sledder could melt my anxious thoughts. We were only halfway to Fairbanks and cloaked by mid-afternoon darkness, traversing whiteout conditions up and over Denali’s tundra.
I had joked with my parents that we were not just daytripping to another Alaskan town, but risking our lives through a remote country that could kill us like it had killed Chris McCandless. My dramatics felt eerily prophetic as the headlights illuminated a wall of blowing snow, as traffic grew scarce, as we both realized the absence of plow trucks. We both thought to turn around, but said nothing. The kids watched a movie, clueless.
In Healy, our minivan was a snowcake on wheels amid other rigs not blasted with snow. I eased back onto the highway; it was bone dry. Miles down the highway, I thought I saw the Northern Lights on the horizon.
The first time we saw them was in October. They were a hazy green band over Mount Magnificent, faint enough to make you wonder. A static bow of pea green. We closed our curtains and went to bed. It went on like that throughout November, and in early December, we headed north to that vibrant dancing color of our dreams.
The Aurora Borealis Notifications Facebook Group keeps folks all over the world informed on Lady A sightings: people from the Yukon, British Columbia, Russia, and on occasion, Northwestern Montana, post photos, locations, and times of the Lights. I’m no mathematician, but I’d guess that 90 percent of those photographs are supplied by Fairbanks locals perched on their own front porches, or Light Chasers come to Fairbanks from as far south as Georgia, USA.
According to the Northern Lights Centre, the Lights are visible in the northern and southern hemispheres when electrically charged particles of the sun collide with our atmosphere. According to NASA, the collision with oxygen creates a green hue and the collision with nitrogen creates a purple hue.
According to Santa in North Pole, Alaska, our last night in Fairbanks was going to be the best night.
Because a Light Show is all dependent on your location, the activity of the sun, the local weather, and the amount of darkness, Fairbanks in December on a clear night gave us hope. The sun was setting around 3pm and not returning until 10am. You can see them as early as 4pm, but we started to hear reports of a “faint green hue” around 11pm.
The kids do not remember the dark service road in North Pole, Alaska, or seeing a small shaft of green light through the moonroof of the van. They do not remember the way it waved like a flag or the way my camera only flashed obnoxiously through the treetops. But Zach and I remember feeling disappointed as we left whimsical North Pole, Alaska to return to our hotel.
As it turns out, all we had to do was step out onto our back porch at the right time for a good show.
It was 1am and I was up writing. The green band over Mount Magnificent was broad and bright and curled at one end like a ribbon. The curl traveled the length of the band and suddenly the arc morphed into a series of vertical orbs. Tight wavelengths undulating across the star-spangled sky.
One night, the orbs of light were stretched south of the house. The Lights were curtains hanging down over our rooftop. Green is the trickiest hue to detect with the naked eye; my iPhone picked up its brilliance and shades of lavender.
Some nights are quiet, but I always check before I go to bed. Some nights I see them and resist the urge for one more epic photograph. Some nights we miss the whole thing because 1am feels different when you’re past your twenties.
Two nights ago, someone reported two bands over Wasilla. I looked and saw three forming before they snapped into their ribbon-dance and faded like the twilight.
We might not see them again for now the light has returned to us. According to the National Weather Service in Anchorage, “today marks the first night of the year without complete darkness in the Anchorage area…True darkness won’t return until August 25.”
Until then, I will look instead for winter’s celestial light in the coming blooms of fireweed and forget-me-nots.
How do you find (creative) ways to be still throughout your busy day?
In a flurried moment, these were the eye-catching numbers that told me all I needed to know about the Cherrywood Smoked Carving Ham.
“Ten minutes for every pound, right?” Zach asked when, after ten minutes at 350, the ham was decidedly lukewarm.
I retreated to the cold, dark garage.
But not to have a little cry on my little pity pot. And not to blow-off steam, though I was frustrated. In fact, for the way the day had gone, it was miraculous not to feel volcanic or to feel like crawling into the van for a long winter’s nap.
No, I retreated to the cold, dark garage merely to grab pre-bagged goldfish buried deep in the deep diaper bag which had been pre-packed in the van the night before. Oh, the pre-packed van. In a moment of rare forethought, I had packed it the night before to ensure an on-time arrival to an early “mask-only” church service. It was to be our second attempt at an off-base church service since arriving in July.
That was before the neighborhood avalanche.
Let me back-up.
It’s April and the remaining snowpack is incredible. Layers and layers of snow dating back to those November days when the light lingered well after dinner and moose foraged amid the sugar-coated hills. Now the sun lingers five minutes longer each spring day and relentless recreators trigger avalanches all throughout Chugach State Park. Or, more commonly, it’s those balmy temperatures creating ice-sheets of old snow mixed with sticky layers of new snow and a wicked southerly wind triggering these sometimes lethal slides. I’ve looked out across our canyon each day to look for new slides and have often seen them.
We woke just early enough to rally ourselves for the hour drive to the church service in question. With our bags packed, our kids dressed, and time on our side, I was carefree in drying my hair.
The cloaked rising of the sun revealed more snow than we’d perceived earlier. Zach thought to check the road conditions.
Avalanche. Road blockage. A determined pick-up truck was stuck in the snow like its tires had lingered too long in wet cement. The driver posted pictures. The whole waking neighborhood waited for the Department of Transportation to pick-up the phone. I suggested a pancake breakfast and a quick family photoshoot before the holiday chaos could muss our Easter best.
Sometime between Izaak refusing to look at the camera, the realization that I had neglected to set out the yeast rolls to prove, and retrieving pre-bagged goldfish to tide-over hungry egg hunters, I reflected upon a few key truths.
First of all, you can be the world’s best planner and have it all thwarted by a neighborhood avalanche.
Second of all.
Well, actually, I think that’s it. That’s my big takeaway from Easter 2021.
We all know this, don’t we? We’ve all been there. You do your best to prepare for “x,” but “y and z” follow suit as they always do. Yet, learning to anticipate “y” and “z” is not enough. Planning for the unexpected does not guarantee your spirit will stay unruffled (and, after years of learning the hard way, an unruffled spirit is what I’m really after.). In light of last year’s experience, I was hyper-focused on the candy but neglected Easter Dinner. I was hyper-focused (and successful!) at rallying the troops for church but an avalanche kept us home.
Whether it’s a crazy force of nature or your own self, you can never know what might get in your way until it’s there. That’s when the discipline of preparing your heart comes in handy.
In the daily, maddening rush of it all, I am sweet Martha, hyperfocused on the superfluous and negligent of what is better. This is not to say I run about un-prayerful and unaware of God, but I am very good at writing to-do lists, planning schedules, living from one task to the next with a long-term goal in mind, going over my weaknesses and creating action plans to do it better next time. I do well at overworking myself. I sometimes get antsy when I stop to pray or reflect or just be still.
I’m not talking about mere rest; I’m talking about a more sustainable kind of stillness, and the art of being still is more of a lifestyle than one blissful moment in time. The art of being still is not so much about your ability to tune out everything and focus on the Creator. It’s more about learning how to tune in despite all the noise. It’s more about allowing his Spirit to commune with yours, an art form which requires more yielding and less initiation on our part. It’s about striving less for perfection and seeking Perfection himself.
As a perfectionist, I can tell you my need for schooling in the art of being still will last a lifetime. My insufficiency at the art of being still is why I keep coming back to the same frantic moments in which I can either bemoan the injustice of it all or see far enough past tangible chaos to glimpse the reason for it all.
When I chose the retrieval of pre-bagged goldfish over my pity pot, I saw a little more clearly. And when I chose to see the blessing in fussy children and a living room riddled with plastic Easter debris, I saw even more clearly why striving to be the world’s best planner is a waste of time.
How do you find (creative) ways to be still throughout your busy day? Muse over this privately, or offer your insight for polite conversation in the comments section or in the Facebook Group, Life Out Here.
Sometimes you must corral your passions, and in other seasons you must “pace yourself.” Take heart, if any pursuit is approached one moment at a time, beautiful things are sure to grow!
To read "What Have I Done," check out https://www.kathleenelizabeth.com/post/what-have-i-done
Alone in my closet and speaking into a rose-colored microphone, I feel odd. I am not a known conversationalist and yet here I sit, recording my first-ever podcast, wondering what have I done?
I started listening to podcasts on evening walks through my old neighborhood. I could get two miles out of one DIY MFA Radio episode, one mile out of a Write Now episode. Down sidewalks I knew by heart, the wisdom and encouragement of Gabriela and Sarah propelled my writing pursuits. If the kids were asleep when I snuck back in the front door, I sometimes burned the midnight oil to add a few scenes to a story or fashion an article for the blog. Though I did wonder what it might be like to record a podcast, I never gave podcasting my own show much thought.
Until “North, to Alaska” was born. And one afternoon the words of a dear friend and mentor rang clear as a bell: your blog would make for a terrific podcast.
I checked into it. A good microphone runs between thirty and fifty dollars. As for the hosting platform, you can drop a paycheck or nothing at all depending on your intentions. Not expecting to be the next Beth Moore, the next Storynory, or the next anything, I opted for the free route. The next thing to consider was how to do it, and the FFA Creed Speaking version of myself emerged to suggest narration. I could not picture myself interviewing Abigail, Izaak, or any moose passing through the neighborhood, but I could read aloud my blog posts. Yes, story time with Kathleen felt doable.
But doable while a mother to two kids and two dogs is a relative concept. On some days we never change out of our pajamas. On other days, it can take two hours round trip to venture out to the post office, depending on the weather and who must poop before we leave the driveway. Is a podcast doable? I’ve been asking myself, asking God.
The answer is no and yes.
You know how the latest trend is picking one word for the whole year? This idea was attractive to me until it took off like wildfire. Now everyone stamps their “words-of-the-year” everywhere and they all start to sound the same mid-January. Imagine being married to the word “sparkle” for 365 days!
No, years ago I learned my soul prefers to operate in seasons that may or may not adhere to the confines of a calendar, and sometimes it’s a phrase that settles on my heart. My current phrase settled on my heart in late December, and that phrase is “pace yourself.”
It’s really a message from Jesus himself; he knew I’d stand with a great Gatsbean hope on the edge of January 1st like it was some high dive perched over that pristine Olympic-sized pool called The Year 2021.
He knew I’d dive headlong into new resolutions or new routines or new projects. I felt no corralling on his part, just the freedom to pace myself. No, this year it was not a question of whether or not these pursuits were right, but a question of management.
It’s easy to mismanage in an Olympic-sized pool.
You see, hope gives birth to joy and sometimes joy must be harnessed like it’s wild energy.
Now, I am not a swimmer, and I am not a backpacker, but I do know that backpacking is not the same as taking a neighborhood walk. You must pace yourself to save yourself. Each unnecessary movement or word uttered to fill empty space can drain the energy store you need to make that eight or ten or twelve miles before dusk. While a hurried and inconsistent pace can make it seem as if you are cheating the system, you’re only cheating yourself of that precious commodity called energy.
I think often of mana, that mysterious morsel God gave to the Israelites each morning as they wandered the desert. “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed,” says Exodus 16:18. Those who tried to save extra portions for the next morning ended up with smelly maggots.
Don’t cheat yourself and reap smelly maggots. Take only what you need, what you are given, each day. Each moment. Then, someday, you’ll look back on a bountiful harvest, knowing precisely why you did what you did.
Send me your questions! I'll pick a few to answer next week.
Watson Lake is a First Nations town, friendlier than we were told. At a makeshift border station, masked men took our names on iPads, made copies of our identification, gave us paperwork to sign. We were told the next checkpoint was Whitehorse.
“Make sure you don’t miss it,” he said. My border guy was tall and friendly like my freshman year agricultural teacher.
We gassed up next to the Sign Forest. San Marcos, Texas. Ely. Dublin. I saw a green “Entering Belgrade” sign as I merged onto the highway. I felt lucky again.
The highway flowed over the Divide a fourth and final time. Barricades and one way streets wove us through the heart of Whitehorse before we parked amid big rigs at the Airport Chalet. We had missed the checkpoint, but no one searched for us. Dump trucks and cranes and hundreds of locals lined the highway. They stood on its shoulder, lounged in truck beds, congregated in the parking lot. I joined one woman on the porch of the Chalet and photographed a parade of motorists waving flags and holding signs for number fifty-five. She looked at me funny. I retreated to our room.
“Maybe it’s for a hockey player,” I said. But it was a Celebration Parade for motocross competitor Travis Adams, a 43 year old husband and dad of three. He had died in a passing accident on the highway. The parade lasted two hours. The crowds dispersed but the atmosphere stayed heavy.
I noticed cameras on the eaves of the Chalet when I took the dogs to relieve themselves out back where fireweed grew out of pallet wood and through a chain-link fence. We were otherwise restricted to our room. allowed only room service, food box and ketchup exchanges done through the cracked door. The taunting tick of some invisible clock reverberated in my sleep. When sunlight streamed through curtain folds, I knew we would not make it out of the Yukon in twenty-four hours. In the rain and mud, we loaded our luggage and dogs and drove out of Whitehorse in the rain.
“If you’re not paying attention, you’ll fly right off the road.”
“The worst part is Destruction Bay. It’s two hours of frost heave.”
These were the voices of reason, of warning, which haunted me as the windshield filled with the St. Elias mountains.
I braced myself as time ran out. Our twenty-four hours, gone. I prayed for our tires. Would the Royal Canadian Mounted Police change flat tires before or after hauling us to the Whitehorse jail?
We drove in somber reverence over Slims River where a packhorse had died during the Gold Rush. We crossed a wick marshland of exposed yellowed water-grass and soil dark as soot, in some places grooved like sea sand and in others cracked like droughty desert earth. The long bridge ended at the base of Sheep Mountain. The slow approach over the drained watershed felt tidal and holy like Mont Saint-Michele.
Often the gray-silver silt streams of unseen glaciers trickled into lake waters topaz like the Mediterranean Sea. Over Kulane Lake, turquoise skies and a lemon-drop sun broke through gray clouds. At a gas station in Destruction Bay, Zach paid for a few gallons through a plastic veil.
“He won’t let us use their restrooms,” he said.
A few miles down the highway we came across two clean outhouses. We ran the dogs and watched the windswept Kulane whitecap. A semi-truck we had passed hours ago thundered by. Propelled suddenly by the fear of the unknown, we loaded the dogs and took to the highway.
Then the pretty highway turned to hell.
I knew all over again who I was and why.
“I’ll go with you anywhere,” I had told Zach at my mom’s house, and when you loosen your grip on life to follow God through unchartered territories, it is a greater peace you feel than any illusion of control can manufacture.
We had a friend whose wife was on the fence about active duty life, and while I sometimes long for a static backdrop, a common denominator for all my memories, I know some of us are called to be nomads. And maybe that common denominator for which I remain restless is already here, threading together every scrap of my life.
I forgot all of this when the body of the van bounced, suspended high above its wheels which clung to the Alaska Highway. I was a go-kart on the maddening Rainbow Road. A cartoon vehicle jouncing off and on the axles, tooling down some comical country parkway. The body fell back into place. Our heads whipped forward with the motion. I polluted my mobile quarantine bubble with words only the dogs heard. If you ask, they’re not saying anything.
Zach had seen a Grizzly and her cub. He signaled with his lights for me to turn on my radio.
“Did you want to turn around?”
I felt the highway fold. It pulled us down to the right. Another unsavory word. Rufus and Scout hunkered low in their hammock. I fixed my eyes on the rearview mirror, watched the UHaul bounce, rock right and then left.
Headlights filled my rearview.
“Can you go a little faster?” Zach asked.
“Can we keep to 55km/h?” I asked, which is about 25mph.
Radio silence. Then, “how about 70km/h?”
Now, the Canadian crews of the Alaska Highway will stop and ask, “are you okay?” even if you’ve only stopped to pee or empty a gas can into the tank because the fumes are leaking into the cab of your UHaul. They generously place red flags on each side of frost-heaved sections. Tire tracks at ruts in the highway are also good warnings. When I spotted two black trucks each towing a bleach-white RV, my tense shoulders relaxed. If their skinny black rear tires seemed to go airborne over dips and heaves, I braked. We tailed them at a comfortable 24km/h and I allowed myself to glance at the scenery, to hope for another Grizzly.
Looking out across an expanse of treetops, I saw the UHaul almost beside the van. Its bugged grill filled my side mirror. I saw the highway curve ahead. Zach did not fall back. I took one last look and gunned it. I was mad enough to cry, and I flew from 24 to 112km/h until the RVs had vanished and caught sight of that stupid brave semi-truck we had passed at the Continental Divide.
At the United States border, a scatterbrained woman glimpsed my Texas driver’s license and waved me onward. We descended into a wide valley flanked on the southern horizon by the Alaska Range. I was happy enough to cry. Afternoon sun blazed through birch trees. By the time we reached Tok, Alaska, I had cooled enough to ask Zach what had possessed him to pass two RV-towing trucks on a curve of the Alaska Highway.
“I thought they were going to check our time at the border,” he said.
When I asked him how he thought the last four hours had gone, he said that except for risking a one million dollar fine or one year in prison, he’d had the joy ride of his life.
I could tell you of our first meal in Alaska, how we felt foreign among broad-shouldered truckers and flanneled women. I could tell of Tazlina Glacier which first appeared like a mist on the horizon. I could tell you of turning for Sheep Mountain Lodge one road too early, of watching Zach reverse onto the steepest grade on record. How two boys out of nowhere and looking like Deliverance had emerged from behind their “no trespassing” sign to watch the drama unfold. I could tell you of the solace of Sheep Mountain Lodge and how Matanuska Glacier is really something to see even from the highway. It is a curved ice river as long as some byways through this country.
Instead, I will tell you that now I live in a valley of brambles, in the cradle of treeless peaks I first perceived in a dream the night Zach found the listing for the house we now fill. Wild creatures tromp through the brush undetected. A winding road keeps us distanced from town. An ongoing pandemic perpetuates that feeling of displacement which shadows every move. The sun, which was once a ceaseless twilight that outshone the stars, now arcs briefly over mountains that separate us from the Turnagain Arm. On my worst days, the darkness goes soul-deep. Yet it is the same summer sun which reflects on the cold Moon so bright you could drive without headlights.
How strange to coax my heart to love a place I had longed to see, but each morning the ridges seem less like strangers. The winding road becomes more my own.
And summer’s flowers now dance in the sky and daylight gained levels out everything, prepares me to embrace the next season in a place where Light is everything.
Send me your questions! I'll pick a few to answer next week.
When Donna gave me the room key and took our credit card, I recognized her voice.
I recalled Prattville, the hours of reconfiguration and recalculation at my dining room table that had driven me to the Milepost one afternoon and an advertisement for the Coal River Lodge and RV.
“Yes, we are the last stop before Watson Lake,” a matter-of-fact voice had said. “If you leave Fort Nelson mid-morning, we’ll expect you for dinner. It’s a beautiful drive.”
She was direct, but kind enough, and had given me all I wanted: confirmation on what truly is the last stop before the Yukon.
I had decided every destination up to Fort Nelson but I was hung up on Watson Lake, our Yukon entry-point.
Mobile quarantine is required; you must exit the Yukon within twenty-four hours; you may sleep either in Watson Lake or Whitehorse if you must break the journey.
These are things the Yukon website told me, and the hotline man I called at least three different times to check for changes.
I was fraught with indecision.
With only the Yukon puzzle to solve on my color-coded itinerary, and no changes in policy, I rehearsed the facts to myself one more time: the journey from Watson Lake to the first motel in Alaska is 10 hours. Which translates to at least 12 hours in a UHaul. Which translates to at least 15 hours considering the Yukon contains the most dangerous stretch of all 1,365 miles of the Alaska Highway.
It became obvious.
The trick was then to time our departure from Watson Lake just right so our stay in Whitehorse might occur in during nighttime hours, bright as they may be.
Now, if you suppose I overthought this puzzle, you have no idea.
If you figure I am crazy, I should think it quite obvious by now.
But consider these facts: a 5,000 mile trip; one minivan; one “as-big-as-they-come” UHaul; two dogs; one deadly pandemic; one foreign country; unfamiliar terrain; spotty cell service; spotty humanity; the choice between a one million dollar fine or one year in prison.
No, I like to look back and see myself not as a wasteful worrier but as a reasonably responsible problem solver, who, after committing to Whitehorse phoned the Coal River Lodge and RV, the very last chance to sleep before Whitehorse.
At Coal River, we saw bison, ate bison burgers, stayed in a room kept cool by the opened window. We walked to banks of the swift Coal River and got eaten alive by mosquitoes and escaped to our room to watch Hamilton. There was no way to update family on our arrival and lodge was quiet save for the ongoing game of Yahtzee in the dining room because with Covid customers were few. We were told to leave our dogs in the van, and it was a war zone of dead and living mosquitos the next morning. I used baby wipes to clean off blood-stained upholstery.
Coal River was an odd sort of refuge nestled into the foothills of a yet unknown mountain range. And Donna was right, the drive out was beautiful, even if perilous at times.
I drove the UHaul over the Divide a third time, felt my weary nerves fray when the Highway turned unpaved. The steep mountain grades might have been fun if not for all the dust and semi-trucks that made our caravan seem ant-like. We saw caribou and sheep and six black bear munching on wildflowers and other roadside fauna. The narrow passage was all stone-faced mountainsides and deep, cold, windswept lakes.
The next morning, we ate a cowboy breakfast with the hosts, gassed up, and set our minds to the Yukon, mentally prepared for a twenty-four hour ordeal with the mosquitoes of Coal River still buzzing in our ears.
During your favorite road trip, what was on your stereo?
Just outside of Whitecourt we saw our first moose. Her body and folded legs a dark mound on the shoulder of the highway, her neck outstretched over the white line, her lifeless eyes and closed jaw square on the asphalt. Highway signs called it “Moose Row” and amber digits tracked moose deaths the way San Antonio displays Loop 1604 deaths. Moose Row cut through high flat earth covered in half-grown trees which kept hidden those riparian zones moose love to haunt. I kept my eyes open for off-the-shoulder movement.
Fields of trees morphed into fields of canola yellow as the sun, pleasantly contrasted with the marbled summer sky. Grand Prairie, Alberta is a sprawling agricultural town and it is the first town with signs to the Alaska Highway. We stopped for gas and pizza at what I believe to be the last Costco before Fairbanks, Alaska.
Grand Prairie to Dawson Creek is river country and the road meanders over forested plateaus and bluffs. I began to envision Zach and I standing with Rufus and Scout in front of the sign I had seen in Milepost advertisements for Dawson Creek: “Alaska Highway: Mile 0!”
We could park our caravan behind the sign. Achieve a triple-layer effect.
Where was the selfie-stick?
I concluded I’d just Clorox my phone if someone else was around to take our epic photograph.
The sign was a few kilometers away. It had to be. I scouted the roadside for a truck stop I had never actually pinpointed on the map. In a small town where the only highway becomes the Alaska Highway it would be hard to miss the famous Mile Zero. Right?
(Credit for this and the cover image: The Milepost)
We followed big trucks turning left at a short light. The highway kept on through the grasslands and hill country.
“Do you want to turn around a look for it?” The day was young and Zach heard bitter frustration in my voice. But for me it was all about that debut moment on the Alaska Highway. And there is no recovering missed moments in time.
Truly, you must always believe in the power of over-planning everything down to the last hour, the last mile. Or the first mile.
The Alaska Highway wasted no time. It dipped low into a river valley and signs warned, “Extreme Grades.” We were by then familiar with the feel of a seven, eight, and a nine percent grade in both the van and the UHaul. I had taken the UHaul down an unlabeled “steep grade” in Montana, but no matter the grade, engine braking in the UHaul always makes you feel a bit out-of-control.
Bless its oily, metallic soul, the new UHaul engine does you one better than your classic pumping of the brakes. It decelerates the engine and downshifts automatically. Relieves you of the task of braking, though instinct forces you to pump those brakes anyway. It stays stuck like that until you are slow enough to unlock the automated braking and resume normal RPMs, which is a terrifying feature when you need to accelerate. It is a loud experience and makes you feel as if the engine might blow at any moment.
I kept an eye on the rearview mirror, sorry for Zach, relieved to not be in the engine braking UHaul.
There was no escaping the bridge to Fort St. John.
At the top of a hill I saw a river – the Peace River – and its wide dark blue waters glistened. The Highway was sloped like a half-pipe and the bridge was the bottom of that wide half-pipe, the connector between one high bluff and the other. Fort St. John waited at the top of that other bluff. All that kept us apart was the Peace River. And the scariest bridge known to my life.
We began our descent, and I pumped my brakes. At the bridge, I wanted to cry.
No pavement, no wooden planks, no dirt. It was only a long metal grate that spanned over the Peace River. The kind of grate rainwater spills into and from which steam rises to vaporize on city sidewalks. Speed limit signs advised that I cross slowly.
The tires over the metal grate made a whirring noise that rose and fell with the speed of the van. When I looked beside the van door I saw the rush of green water. The lip of old pavement and the soundless feel of asphalt. We climbed the slope to Fort St. John, a city of dam workers that had recorded their first Covid case that week.
We were the only UHaul in sight, the only folks who looked lost. Forget blending into any tourist scene; forget hesitantly telling strangers, “we are moving from Alabama to Alaska.” We kept to ourselves, kept to our room, except to venture out to Taco Time and a local kabob place.
That’s when I began each night to study the Milepost in earnest, paying attention to when we could expect high elevation passes, extreme grades, grated bridges. It tells you when bison might cross the road or which gas stations went belly up the year before.
It even told me that to stop at Mile Zero is good luck.
I chose believe our missing of the very start was God’s way of proving that a notion such as that is hogwash.
Dang it anyway.
For all the dam workers and truckers on the Highway, Fort Nelson was oddly more residential than industrial. We stayed at the legendary Fort Nelson Hotel in a poolside-facing room that smelled of dog urine and featured a non-working thermostat. It was one of those relic hotels of the recent past, the kind that highlights indoor pool glory and centralized convention space. The theme was Polynesian. We took the dogs on a walk and noticed boarded-up rebuilds either abandoned by Covid or victims of slow-dying tourism. We saw a souvenir shop with “No Americans Allowed” posted on the glass door. I checked the vehicles one more time and swatted at swarms of lackadaisical mosquitoes.
When we left the next morning, we finally tried Tim Horton’s for sausage biscuits and hot coffee, by then quite tired of the complimentary brown bag breakfast.
Fort Nelson to Coal River is the stretch of the Highway that empties you west of the Divide, a final crossing. It proved to be the second trickiest stretch of the whole dang thing.
(It was cheap, but Scout rather enjoyed its peculiar charm.)
During your favorite road trip, what was on your stereo?
Shadowed only by a park ranger hat, her smile was sunlight. Of course we could pass through. So long as we did not stop.
The Kootenay Highway became the Banff-Windermere Highway—roughly 103 kilometers of storied asphalt through Kootenay National Park to the Trans-Canada Highway.
Morning sun reflected off the canyon as an iridescent copper and vermillion glow. Shadowed ponderosa were a cool slate blue. A valley of stately firs and larch and poplars grew in steep waves up mountainsides, the snowy peaks of which touched a sapphire sky. I put on Jackson Browne; his “Solo Acoustic, Volume 1” became my album of the trip.
The cold Kootenay River wove back and forth under the highway, its turquoise waters shallow and rushed, slipping over sprays of speckled light and polished driftwood. Then I recognized the valley of my childhood memories which, until that moment, had been the hazy kind of memory you can never quite place. My heart had responded to this place decades earlier and I remembered why. Skiffs of daisies spangled lime-colored grasses, gathered like sea foam at bases of emerald evergreens, some squatty and some spindly spears.
The land was scarred near Vermillion Crossing where the boundary line between British Columbia and Alberta ushers you back over the Divide. Blackened toothpick trees. Purple and white wildflowers. It was a gentle climb, and through my rearview, I watched Zach catch up and fall back with the rolling road and other motorists. The peaks of Banff were shipwrecked steamboats.
They watched us pass by on our way to the Trans-Canada Highway, a congested thoroughfare we abandoned a few kilometers short of Calgary. Google Maps took us down the Cowboy Trail through First Nations territory – Highway 22 to Whitecourt. At a glittering truck stop I behaved as I do on any Montana reservation, respectful and friendly and like had always planned to buy their six dollar turkey sandwich. Zach held out for the Cranmore A&W.
The east side of the Divide always seems blond as sand and never ending and steamboat silhouettes now filled a far flung horizon. The Rockies receded. I kept glancing at them until it seemed the sky might have been ripped from the seam of the jagged earth. Then they were indistinguishable. I was further north than I had ever traveled, and what is there besides the gentle Ozarks back East and the Rockies of home?
Rural Alberta was all yellow canola and unripened berry fields, cattle companies and straight roads pocked with the scars of harsh prairie winters. Alberta’s rodeo country. I saw road signs for places called Cremona or Drayton Creek or Mayerthorpe. I listened to Emma Thompson read “Emma” to pass the time. It was lonely country.
Starbucks and McDonald’s and Taco Time appeared on the blazing horizon where darker clouds gathered. Whitecourt was a sundown town that seemed to never sleep. The late-day storm brought with it darkness and a rainbow and evening deer grazing lush meadows.
We woke in pitch darkness to a fist-pounding on the door across the hallway. I heard loud voices and the deep bellows of a startled dog. Enough yelling to maybe phone somebody, but a few door slams and the hotel fell quiet. My sleep was restless. A grab-and-go breakfast from a masked attendant and we were on the road to Fort St. John, our first stop on the Alaska Highway that lay somewhere out on the westerly horizon.