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Archive for June, 2012

At K2 Aviation, the Talkeetna airport, with Scott our pilot

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” 

 –Henry Miller

One of the best things about this job as a rail guide for Princess is the opportunity to visit places our guests will visit, and to do things that our guests have the option of doing–for almost free. Three of us took that opportunity over the solstice, visiting the little town of Talkeetna, flying into Denali National Park, around Mt. McKinley, and landing in the Sheldon Amphitheter on Ruth Glacier. I think these photos speak eloquently enough…

The excited Rail Guide!

First view of The Great One

Mt. Silverthrone’s ice falls

In the Sheldon Amphitheater, Denali in the background

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Sweet Summer

“In summer the song sings itself”

–William Carlos Williams

It is finally summer. Today was 73 degrees here at my house, and I found myself irresistibly drawn to the outdoors, even though I was slightly exhausted from my 20 hour workday yesterday. In the late afternoon, sitting in my lawn chair in the shade with iced coffee, I was marvelling at just how brilliantly, reflectively green all the leaves were. They have finally matured, and now display that waxy coating which fully developed birch and cottonwood leaves have.  In the high summer sun and breeze they fairly twinkle, reflecting the light along like a fast-paced conversation.

Dandelion have not only gone to seed but now raise their bald heads proudly in the sparse grass. Sad to say, those hardy invaders have crowded out most of my lawn, and spread a golden glory along the driveway.  I almost–almost–hate to mow them down. They are spring flowers, and their time is nearly over. The Sitka roses are in early bloom, but another week of these temperatures will see them come into their fullness.

The strawberry beds are in full bloom, echoing the white of the snow that covered them only a few brief weeks ago. These spring flowers will bring showers of sweet lusciousness soon, and our chins will drip red while we forage in the late afternoons.

At this point we have the potatoes and the carrots in the ground and they have sprouted well. They’re really the only things we have room for, without the massive effort of tearing up sod. And with only the two of us, and me working strange schedules, what use really are zucchini, the glut of leafy greens or the worry of cabbage in moose habitat? My gardener’s soul demands something to harvest, but root vegetables are the most practical. I have my peapods, my dill, fennel, cilantro, rosemary. There is basil in the greenhouse along with a bumper crop of that scourge, chickweed. Time to use the weed whacker there. I’ve made two batches of rhubarb crisp and there are a couple of gallons in the freezer too, awaiting state fair time and the making of pies. I can stand on the deck and almost see those red stalks and broad leaves leap for the sky.

Thankfully the fireweed, that post-equinox flowerer, is still just a tender green spike, past its salad days but not quite ready for the honey makers. We still have time, though there is an urgent undercurrent to my days. In Alaska that sweet summer song has only a few verses, and they are short.

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My backyard

It’s not often that I take up the challenge to try something new. I’m pretty content with the recreational activities I am familiar with, and I seem pretty comfortable in this groove that I refuse to call a rut. But just lately I have been striking out into some uncomfortable territory.

When I applied for the rail guide job with Princess earlier this year, I thought it would be fun. I never thought that I would experience the level of doubt and stage fright that I found myself carrying around when it actually came time to lay it out in front of my fellow employees during our training run to Denali. I quickly got over that, but I have to admit that the five minutes between boarding passengers and the moment that I start talking still find me with butterflies in my stomach.

Silly me–my guests are so ready to set off on the next stage of their Great Alaskan Adventure that I could say anything and they would at least start to listen raptly!

I’ve started new jobs four times now in the four years that we have lived in Palmer. Each time I have had no problem with the learning curve; I have been my supremely confident self, knowing that I have the knowledge, experience and intelligence to enable me to accomplish whatever is demanded of me in the job.

I have not risen to  any new physical challenges, however. I have not taken up one new  sport, activity, hobby or skill. I have been content with my very limited repertoire of road cycling, gardening, writing, reading and singing in my church choir. No snow boarding, though I’ve told myself I’d like to learn. No hiking the Butte, though I’ve had a couple of friends wanting to go. No mountain biking on the local single- and double-track trails–until tonight.

I’m so far back you can’t see me!

BackCountry Bicycles here in Palmer sponsors rides every Thursday night for women. Sometimes these are road rides, sometimes mountain biking, some nights there are both, like tonight. I have not joined any of these in the entire four years that I have been in the area. Oh sure, there are plenty of reasons–I forget, it’s at dinnertime, it’s all the way into Palmer, I have to work tomorrow. Whatever; I have never gone. And yet I loudly bemoan the fact that I feel so disconnected from the community; that I am having such a hard time making new friends here who share my interests.

This is a rut as high as the Great Wall, keeping new experiences out as if they were the Mongol Horde.

So, I determined to join the group tonight. I vacillated; should I go with the roadies or the muddies? I am most comfortable on my hybrid road bike, I am confident in my skills, I know the routes the group most often rides. Comfortable. I called the shop–which route was the road group taking? The usual leader, Erin, said that one would be an unled ride–the group would decide its own route; did I have a suggestion?

She, Erin, would be leading the other group, the muddies, in a beginner session of hills, tree roots and gravel at Matanuska Lake. I hemmed. I hawed. I wasn’t up to it. I would be the oldest woman there. My old mountain bike didn’t have suspension. They wouldn’t wait for me. They’d all look cuter in their bike shorts. I examined all that hogwash, upbraided myself (with my husband’s help) and loaded the mountain bike. I had a ball.

The badge of honor

Yes, the hills were hard. Yes, all the young women looked better in their bike shorts. Yes, I was the oldest woman there. Did everyone feel the same way as I did? Well, we are a group of females, so from experience I would guess yes. Were we all challenged in some way? Yes. Did we all have a great time and learn something new, gaining a bit of confidence along the way? It certainly seemed so. Will we come back again next week for a slightly tougher route? I hope so. I wrote it in my engagement calendar–no more “forgetting” excuses. It’s still biking, so it’s in my comfort zone–just. I have the bike grease tatoo on my banged up calf to prove that. It’s enough of a challenge that I feel like I’m striking out into new territory, a satisfying thing. Is this all just an excuse to buy a new bike? Maybe so.

It’s not snow boarding, but then winter is still a long way away.

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All the newbie Rail Guides for 2012 at the Alaska Heritage Center

Whew! This is the first real break I’ve had since starting my new job on May 7! “Job?” you say, “what job?” Well, since inquiring minds want to know, perhaps I should oblige.

I’ve been perusing the virtual want ads for several months, looking for that perfect combination of interesting, useful and meaningful work and great pay. I interviewed with a non-profit that, among other things, uses state and federal funding sources to build energy-efficient, roomy, comfortable houses, employing the future owner/residents as part of the building crew. These folks get sweat equity, experience using power tools and being part of a team, and a real pride of ownership when they finish. I really wanted to be a part of the team that makes that happen, but despite a great interview experience they offered the job to someone else.

Then I found my dream job advertised on the Adventure Cycling website–a Tours Specialist/Customer Support position with my favorite bike-centric organization. I could relocate to Missoula, really, it’s a great little city! And the job is everything I love to do; talk to potential tour customers about what kind of bicycle tour they want to go on, help them book and plan that tour; write copy about the various tours AC offers; write blog posts about tours, about my cycling adventures, about bike travel in general. Heaven!

More than 400 people applied for that job.

Throughout the winter I applied for several other positions, but nothing really jelled, and that was OK because none of those jobs really fired me up with excitement. And then I met Pam.

Remember that weight training class that I told you about so many months ago? Well, Pam is a participant in that class too. All three of us feeling the spark of potential friendship, Pam, Kathy and I went for coffee one day after class. There at Vagabond Blues we explored with each other who we were, how long we’d been here, what we did mostly and how we had fun. The usual Girl Talk stuff. Kathy and I have told each other our stories for so long that we could just change places and pass ourselves off as the other. Pam was the new girl, the interesting one, the one who seemed fascinated by this stuff about us that we’d grown tired of hearing and telling. I got really fired up when I learned she was a rail guide for Holland America/Princess. Riding the train through the summer Alaska scenery, telling eager, attentive travelers about the Great Land and getting paid to do it. Sign me up!

Bear Valley staging area for the tunnel into Whittier

And so now I find myself getting up at 2 a.m., driving into Anchorage in the moosey twilight that is the summer night in Alaska in order to arrive at the railroad yard by 4. There, we pick up our retail inventory, crawl onto a motorcoach and ride the drowsy hour to Portage. The train, based in Seward, meets us there two days a week, and we chug along the 13 miles into Whittier  in order to pick up Princess cruise passengers on “ship days”. I load as many as 76 passengers into my railcar at about 6:30. I introduce myself, the bartender and the cook, give my safety speech and away we go through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, off on another Alaskan Adventure.

The caption says it all!

To date I have made four round trip journeys between Whittier and Talkeetna, talking all the way. I know the route between that little port town and Anchorage the best –after all, I lived in Whittier for 15 years when there was no road and it was the Alaska Railroad or nothing. The points of interest north of Wasilla are less familiar to me, and I find myself peering out the windows along with my guests, trying to figure out which mile post we are passing in order to tell them something interesting gleaned from my training materials.

In these less familiar landscapes I turn to generalities about Alaska–the push to relocate the capital, my explanations of why Alaskans seem to have so much junk and dead cars on their property, the great Alaska earthquake of 1964, how Palmer came into being as a farming colony in the New Deal era of the Great Depression. I had a guest tell me on Monday that he very narrowly missed being a native Alaskan. His parents were recruited to join the colony, they being struggling farmers in northern Michigan at the time. In the end, his mom just couldn’t bear the thought of being so very far from family and they never came north. He grew up hearing about that unclaimed opportunity and finally arrived himself to see what all the fuss was about.

Here’s the train that runs from Whittier to Talkeetna

So far the job is every bit as fun as I expected it to be, and far more lucrative. Princess pays a little over minimum wage but our days are long, and Alaska law requires overtime after 8 and 40. My guests are far more generous than I ever expected, both with their praise and with their gratitude. (It should not surprise you that gratitude and gratuity share the same Latin root word.) The bartenders and cooks are all great team players and generally fun people; it’s a pity that we only have the time to work with them and not to develop friendships. And of course my fellow rail guides are a motley crew of quirky, noisy extroverts. I pity our onboard manager; directing us must be like herding cats, or gifted 6  year olds.

The inside of my rail car

So far the job is far more physically demanding than I expected it to be. I am on my feet from the time we load guests bound for Talkeetna at 6:30 a.m until we return to Whittier with the cruise ship-bound passengers at 7:30 p.m.. I lurch along the aisle of the railcar giving my spiel. I help serve and clear tables when everyone in the car wants to eat and drink. I bend, stoop, kneel and stretch while stowing carryons, picking up trash, cleaning tables and assisting passengers up the stairs (the Geriatric Cruise!). I rarely get a chance to eat, so I make sure I carry yogurt and granola onto the motorcoach. I can’t eat at 2 a.m., but by 5 I am ravenous. And then there is the travel time; an hour each from and to home, another hour each from and to Anchorage on the bus, but at least we can nap, and by then we are on the clock. Most of my days have been at least 20 hours from wake to sleep.

But still it’s fun, and it’s the people, as usual, that make it so. I like my crew and my guests have been wonderful. I come home with wads of green paper sticking out of my apron pockets and then I get paid on Friday. I see bears, moose, sheep and swans, experience the stunning majesty of Denali and of Turnagain Arm, bask in the undivided attention of my appreciative guests. Dream jobs come around very rarely, and this one hits nearly all the markers. Even so, if they called me tomorrow, I’d pack my bags for Missoula. Adventure Cycling employees are required to take at least one bike tour each year.

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