Some of you may have noticed that I have not posted here for many weeks. A few knew I had headed to Bangor, Maine, to spend time with my mother and help celebrate her 100th birthday. For three months we visited, making small talk in her antique-filled room or cruising the assisted living residence she calls home.
If you have never experienced someone with memory loss, let me say that it forces one to practice patience like never before. I had to stop my own annoyance from mounting when every minute or two my mother asked for the date and time. My job, and that of her aides, was to distract her from what she doesn’t know and to focus on enjoying the here and now. That was easy with my mother who propels herself through life with a relentless cheerfulness, determined to deny the complicated emotions that rivet the rest of us.
My mother loves to do crossword puzzles and would try to engage anyone who enters her room. She remembers the old stars and literary names and solved all of the Latin clues. She and I did the New York Times crossword and together we dissected the tricky clues in search of double entendres. One of her aides makes crossword a social activity, gathering a group of elderly women to solve the puzzles from a paperback book.
Some days, I pulled out boxes of old photographs and described the people and scenes that her failed eyes could no longer see. We laughed as I read old diaries written when she was a young girl in Augusta and Portland, then looked up her old friends to see if any of them survived (none had).
My mother’s 100th birthday celebration stretched over several days starting with a shared birthday cake in the assisted living dining room, then a small party put on by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and one arranged by a former students and teachers at Waterville High School.
The major get-together for family and friends was held at Lucerne Inn, a place first settled by her ancestors in 1810.
My mother talked endlessly about her birthday for the weeks leading up to it and thoroughly enjoyed each of the parties that honored her but when they were over, she forgot it all. I printed a large photo of the attendees and would name each of the people standing behind her on that day and she agreed that it was a ‘wonderful event,’ speaking from habit rather than actual memory.
Throughout my visit, my mother always knew who I was, drawing on her still vivid old memories. She recognized my dear friend Lizzie and recalled our experiences together as teenagers 48 years ago.
When not with my mother, I lived in Orrington, across the Penobscot river from Bangor. For the first time in 25 years, I was living alone. To stay busy, I volunteered with a solidarity project to purchase food from farmers and donate them to laid off workers and others who have fallen on hard times. I served as the liaison with the small farmers and helped to publicize a benefit concert by Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary.
The long, unseasonably warm autumn allowed me to take long walks around Fields Pond or in City Forest.
A couple of times I made it down to Acadia, to feel the flung spray and the blown spume and hear the seagulls cry (thank you, John Masefield).
I also had a chance to research the local history of my ancestors, including Thomas and Martha Cowing, two children of Revolutionary War soldiers who settled nearby.
My most precious time, however, was spent each day with my mother, days that washed over me, erasing any lingering grievance or guilt about my long absences roaming the world. I was thankful that I was able to take care of my mother, knowing that it healed a damaged part of me.
When the snow started falling and in the chill set in, I hid my tears to say good bye. I knew my mother was in good hands, tended to by caring aides, but I could have easily stayed by her side.
As I drove south, I decided to give my mother a call. I knew immediately that she had forgotten that I had been there. She sounded surprised to hear my voice and acted like it had been a long time since she had heard from me. I told her I had just left Bangor after three months there and she said ‘oh,’ embarrassed by her loss of memory. Within seconds she had forgotten again and moved on to her favorite subject: when she would see me again.
Before I left Alaska to return to Maine, we had the chance to revel in the spirit of Alaska at the state fair. Our friends Doug and Lynn were visiting from New York and we wanted to show them a good time.
I knew I was in luck within minutes of arriving when I came face-to-face with Miss Alaska, her white satin band sparkling and her crown towering on the top of her head.
A Tlingit native, Miss Alaska 2017 created her own tradition at the Miss America pageant when she strode onto the runway during the evening gown competition draped in a brilliant red and black Native blanket. (Watch her here.) I saw her later at the stage where the Native peoples told stories, made music and danced.
Much of the spirit of Alaska was expressed in stage performances throughout the fair. First up was the gunslinger, spinning his revolvers and a mean lasso. Here’s a glimpse:
The battle of the lumberjacks, a comedy show, really, with a feisty blonde mistress of ceremony and strapping competitors played to a packed audience throughout the day. With 129 million acres of forest in the state of Alaska, lumberjack skills are always in demand. Mark caught the action on his iPhone. Don't miss it!
In the exhibit halls we found floral and vegetable arrangements inspired by the theme “Better Together.” Love that kale!
In the handcraft hall, women demonstrated weaving and spinning. A handmade hooked rug and a wreath made from bird feathers caught my eye.
The animals were few, though healthy, with chickens and rabbits by the score. One lusty fellow crowed at us as we exited the State Fair halls. (Yeah, I know the video is lopsided, but he still sounds good!)
I’m in Maine now and Mark is wrapping up his stay at Janis and Jerome’s in Alaska and will soon drive cross country with our son Sam.
When we are not out climbing new peaks in Alaska, we are happily living with my brother- and sister-in-law, Jerome and Janis at their home on a hillside outside Anchorage. They have welcomed us to share there homestead here, with chickens, gardens and greenhouses, along with a pizza oven where they first started to bake bread.
When we arrived here in early May, it was still too chilly to plant seedlings in the ground but the two greenhouses provided a perfect environment. The tomato plants that Jerome grew from seed are now heavy with fruit.
It has been chilly and overcast this summer and it seemed like it took a long time for seeds to take root. By early July, the lettuce, carrots, potatoes, kale, beans, radishes and peas were thriving.
We eat salads daily, trying to keep up with the produce in the garden beds.
The kale and carrots came from the garden and the artful Romanesco broccoli was grown in Alaska, too (but not by us).
The garden is also home to three beehives and thousands and thousands of buzzing bees. Janis and Jerome recently opened the hives to pull out the honeycombs within.
Dinnertime can be serious, as we sample new creations prepared by Jerome, whose baking skills led him and Janis to open the Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop. As you can see, Jerome and Janis take pies and cakes very seriously.
But largely, we have food to gather family at the table and enjoy the richness of an Alaskan summer day
Not every corner of Alaska features snow-covered mountains and glaciers like the one pictured above. However, you can feel the chill blowing down from the peaks and, even in summer, Alaskans must be prepared for a blast of cold air.
At the end of May, we attended a three-day music festival at a roadside lodge in Mendeltna where performers could barely play their instruments because their hands were so cold.
The small audience, many bundled inside their sleeping bags, dwindled as the day wore on.
Living in a cold rural environment shapes the personalities of the locals, an independent lot who take pride in their survival tactics. At the Mendeltna Creek Lodge, the fireplace was burning day and night and, in the kitchen, co-owner Mabel baked a thousand cookies for musicians who jammed inside for hours every day of the festival.
We ate cookies and drank hot coffee while listening to good ole bluegrass!
Outside, festival Master of Ceremonies Lulu Small kept warm by dancing in front of the stage.
We met a woman named Sue, a woodcarver from the mountains, who drives a pick-up truck with a four-foot-tall blonde doll in the back. The doll travels with a chainsaw in one hand and Sue whipped out her own chainsaw and showed us how she rolls!
Mabel told us that they hold the music festival every year to provide a comfortable place for musicians to play and relax with their families. She doesn’t advertise and in fact had posted a CLOSED sign on the front door of the lodge.
Lulu thanked everyone who “braved the elements” to attend this year’s festival and she set about planning the next event, this one in Anderson, Alaska, starting July 28. Turns out that one of the secrets of summer in Alaska is that you can find a bluegrass jam into the night almost every weekend.
We took a 2-1/2-hour plane trip south from Anchorage to explore Sitka, the capital of Russian America in the early 1800s. The municipality covers most of Barankof Island, which rises from rain forests along the coast to snow-capped mountains in the interior.
For more than a century, from the 1740s until the 1860s, Russian fur traders, priests and settlers plied the coast of Alaska, setting up trading posts from California to the Bering Sea. Despite conflicts with the local native Aleut peoples, the Russian put down roots, creating permanent settlements flush with schools and Russian Orthodox churches and priests
The capital of this tenuous Russian outpost was Sitka, where the Russians repeatedly clashed with the native Tlingit people living there. The Russians brought in their true believers, including Bishop Innocent who oversaw his religious duties from a large house overlooking the bay.
In a replica of the original Russian Orthodox Cathedral, gold- and silver-encrusted icons speak of the glory of the past.
Weakened by the Crimea War, Russia had to sell its territory and, in 1867, held a formal ceremony in Sitka to hand it over to the United States.
The Russian legacy in Sitka, along with its lush rainforest environment, make it an interesting place to spend a few days. A National Historical Park now covers the site of an ancient Tlingit village and native totem poles emerge from the fog-covered forests along the path.
The year-round residents of the city have shown grit and imagination, carving softly sloping trails around the perimeter of town and steeper, stiffer challenges on the mountains that drop into the sea.
My brother-in-law Jerome visits Sitka frequently in his role as a member of the board of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp. The camp has restored several buildings of a former college and runs a vibrant summer program for children and adults with dance, music, painting and pottery.
The marina brings in pleasure boats as well as fishing boats that provide the economic backbone to the place. An occasional cruise ship docks in the waters off-shore and come onshore to view the sights.
In the distance, Mt. Verstovia, a dormant volcano looms.
During four days in Sitka, a notoriously rainy place, we found slivers of sunlight every day on the trails beneath its mountain peaks.
The solstice is fast approaching in Alaska and the days are virtually unending. We took advantage of the sun-filled days to bike across the Denali highway from Paxson to Cantwell, a 135-mile gravel-and-rock road that passed some of the most spectacular mountain vistas I have seen in Alaska. I drove the rig and the car with the bicycle rack, offering a rest and cooked meals along the route for all.
We drove five hours from Anchorage to get to the Denali Highway, determined to get some road time in before sunset. The four set off on the road at 8 p.m., pedaling uphill from forest to tundra until they caught up with me 12 miles ahead.
The intrepid cyclists, Mark, his two sisters, Janis and Margo, and his brother-in-law, Jerome.
The next day we continued west, against a backdrop of the Alaska Range and Amphitheater Mountains. The region was dotted with archeological sites from the hunting grounds of the first people who roamed there 12,000 years ago. Along with the craggy rough peaks, we found graceful trumpet swans swimming in beautiful lakes along the way.
There were a half-dozen or more places to stay overnight or get a meal along the 135-mile trip.This sod-and-horn-covered shelter was one of the places, next to the quaint Sluice Box bar.
We stopped at a couple of places to get water, including the Alpine Creek Lodge, where you can go out hunting and trapping in the wilderness year-round. Mark settled for a ping-pong tournament and handily defeated the father, the son and his best friend.
Bob, the 14-year-old son of the lodge owners, proudly showed off the muskrat and ermine pelts that he had trapped and put up for sale at the lodge.
Back on the road, the gravel got even more rocky and one of the tires blew a persistent hole. Roadside assistance amounted to whatever tools we had.
The isolation and sheer natural beauty all around us made this three-day journey extraordinary.
Unaware that we had busted a tire on our tow car we dragged it for miles down the highway.
As we look back, the busted tire appears as a small calamity on a breathtakingly beautiful road trip.
We’ve settled into the hillside home of my sister- and brother-in-law that overlooks Turnagain Arm on the south side of Anchorage. Here's the view from our kitchen.
Janis built the house by hand on a piece of property that bumps up against a state park with a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean and the snow encrusted peaks of the Alaska Range.
We’ve parked the Sprinter van in the yard and taken up residence in a small apartment that Janis and Jerome renovated for us. Here’s the gorgeous view from our place.
Wildlife is abundant around the neighborhood. Janis caught a photo of this black bear family munching on new leaves and shoots nearby. Needless to say, whenever we go out for a walk, we bring bear spray.
A moose calf recently gave birth to two babies near the house and when the dogs saw the moose, they started barking like crazy. This angered the protective mama moose, who charged at the dogs sending them flying, then she trotted off with her newborns. Check it out in the slide show below.
The dogs, Mack and Nelly, took a rest after that scare.
During long, long days with sunlight until nearly midnight, we have plenty of chances to get outdoors. One day we climbed a mountain ridge in the state park above Anchorage, then walked to the next couple of peaks.
We’ve had a few sunny days but it has been largely a cold and cloudy month. The seeds planted outside are slow to germinate and the seedlings barely grow at all. On May 28th, snow and hail fell in the heart of Anchorage.
Once the sun comes out, all the plants grow at the fastest rate I have ever seen. Check back in a couple of weeks to see more of the garden production!
Two weeks after we arrived in Anchorage, Mark and I hitched a ride to Whittier with our amenable brother-in-law, Jerome, where we boarded a ferry for an eight-hour trip to Cordova, in Prince William Sound.
We took a mountain tunnel to get to Whittier, passing the Portage Glacier, which is shrinking rapidly but still beautiful. This morning, a layer of thin ice covered the lake in front of the glacier.
The Aurora ferry sped away from Whittier, down a channel with the snow-covered Chugash Mountains rising behind it.
After a sun-blessed sail across the Sound, we pulled into Cordova at 7:30 pm and walked a half a mile to the Reluctant Fishermen Inn.
The economy of Cordova, which is only reachable by boat or plane, centers on fishing. The season would not begin for another week, but the harbor was busy with crews preparing their boats, the gillnets and seines.
The town of about 2,500 people was lively, with a huge new community center and library, built with funds from Exxon following the massive oil spill from one of its tankers in Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez oil spill is also depicted in a “shame pole” built by a local Eyak carver and on display at the Ilanka Cultural Center museum.
We hiked up a hill outside town the next day and walked through snow for the last thousand feet. The view from the top was spectacular .
The majestic bald eagle is almost common place in the Cordova area. In this photo taken during a hike, you can see five. Other eagles trolled the seafront, looking for tasty morsels.
Our second day in Cordova we rented a car and drove 35 miles west, following the Copper River which flowed out of mountains that were the site of huge copper mines in the early 1900s. A flood had washed out the bridge, cutting the only road out of Cordova.
The Copper River will be full of salmon by June.
Back at the Reluctant Fisherman that night, we feasted on fish – oysters, tuna, ceviche and a sushi roll.
It was a short trip, but one worth repeating because we left too many trails unexplored along the glaciers and hikes we want to take.
On our second trip to Alaska, we drove through British Columbia west of the Rockies, along Highway One. We spent the first night parked at a lake outside the town of Ashcroft.
The next morning, we looked around the town park’s display of local history since the Europeans settled the region were on display. Mining, first for gold then for other precious metals, began in the late 1800s.
The covered wagons that carried settlers to the region and the sod-roofed cabins they lived in remind visitors of the hardships they faced.
In New Hazelton, early settlers are honored for three major economic activities: Mining, lumbering and packing. Cataline, pictured below, was said to be the best packer in British Columbia.
Before the influx of settlers, the First Nation Peoples lived a nomadic lifestyle, following the fish and the animals they hunted. In Ashcroft, a historian noted that the gold seekers changed all that.
“A shortage of white women among the miners means that a lot of Indian women are taken as wives or housekeepers. Many Indian males become cowboys or handlers of horses. This sort of interaction with the white man effectively puts an end to their nomadic lifestyle and changes their life style forever.”
The next day we visited the ‘Ksan Historical Village and Museum along the Bulkley River, a replication of an ancient Gitanmaax village. Similar to those of other First Nations, these totem poles tell the story of an individual clan and communicate legends, history and culture.
In Canada, many First Nations Peoples have well-funded cultural centers and thriving economies but others, like these in a beautiful mountain setting near ‘Ksan, reveal poverty and neglect.
Ice-crusted surfaces on a lake in early May.
We continued north along the Cassier Highway, headed to the Alaska Highway.
We often drove without seeing other cars or trucks but one day we saw seven black bears on the edge of the forest. They were waking up from their winter habitation and hungry!
The snow-capped mountains grew in majesty as we went further north in the Yukon.
After five days of driving, we entered Alaska where we spent the night at the Eagle Trail and in the morning took our first hike in the state this year. Hello to the Wrangell Mountains!
The West Coast has surprisingly turned into a place where we can meet up with family. After a week in the redwoods with Margo and John, we drove north to Eugene, Oregon. Our nephew Tom and his partner, Judy, both recent graduates of the University of Oregon, are starting out in new careers. After a dynamite meal of Thai food, they came over to check out our rig, parked that night along a walking path, courtesy of a friendly retail mail. We had a few laughs and listened to the rain on our metal roof.
After Eugene, we stayed a night in Portland where we returned to Powell’s, the world’s largest bookstore, and had to sample some of the cutting edge food that gives the city its culinary reputation.
A day later we were in Seattle, sharing food at Molly and Allegra’s home. There is nothin better than food made with love and seasoned with the passion like that of this newly-wed couple. They made the thinnest homemade fettucine pasta I've ever eaten. Buonissimo!
After two days in Seattle, Mark and I went our separate ways for a week, Mark to D.C., me to Bangor to check in on my mother and sister.
Mattie and I went to Portland (Maine) the day before I left and we had a blast with our dear old friend Lizzie, seen here on beautiful Higgins Beach in Scarborough.
Mark returned to Seattle first, in time to find our friends David and Hanna at the Climate March.
We left the next day for Canada, then Alaska, with the enthusiastic support of friends and family.
Listen as Johnny Cash & Lynn Anderson tear it up.
Where we are today.