In the Midst of Tragedy

It’s been over 40 years but I remember it like yesterday.

September 4, 1971.

Our family had recently moved to the fishing town of Sitka, Alaska. We were there to start a new life as my parents looked forward to joining together in marriage. The plan was that my new stepdad’s father would come for the wedding and then stay for a visit. I only knew John the elder, as a grandpa; a kindhearted story teller who would sit back with his pipe and entertain the children with stories of his adventures. We all looked forward to his visit.

But, it was not meant to be.

It was a typical rainy fall day in Sitka clouds low in the sky limiting visibility even at the ground level when we headed to the airport to meet the plane. What should have been a short half hour trip turned into an agonizing affair marked by extreme darkness. Today, it’s hard to imagine, but back then we were without the benefit of 24 hour news running in the terminal or the immediacy of social media, even cell phones. As we waited with other families for the flight’s arrival we began to observe whispering agents in the small one-terminal airport. Late planes were not unexpected in our rural setting but the continuation of the flight from Juneau to Sitka should only have taken thirty minutes so when hours had passed we knew nothing was right. Eventually, our family learned that the plane had not reached Juneau. Officials still just told us it was delayed though my parents knew better.

My sister and I were sent home with a cab driver friend who shut off the top news story on the radio, but not before we heard the announcement that a plane was feared crashed on approach in the rocky mountain range near Juneau. It helped prepare us for when our parents returned home in a very shell shocked and unbelieving mind. The announcement and the reading of the passenger list on our town’s one radio station also alerted friends who immediately surrounded my parents with amazing love and support. As they gathered together they learned that the folks could be flown by the airlines where ever they needed to be with the rest relatives while waiting for confirmation but only ‘immediate family’ was included in the airlines offer. This was in the days before a ‘significant other’ could count as anything important and for a few moments they all pondered the situation but only a few moments, because it was realized that my parents, already planning to get married, had their wedding license in hand. If they got married we would be immediate family. And with amazing speed the wedding was organized.

Each day has only 24 hours but it seems this day lasted far longer as that evening we proceeded to the little Lutheran church we had been attending where we were met by Pastor Ted. One of the church members had been cleaning up the church when she heard the news and quickly rearranged the altar with flowers for a wedding. Small town news travels fast and another friend arrived to play the organ while several others appeared in time for the ceremony. It almost seemed like a real wedding.

I don’t know how much my parents remember of their ceremony but my young impression was that everyone in attendance, rather than being seated, was gathered around them in a circular arrangement, like angels shielding them from the pain. After the service a friend who worked in the jail next door provided an impromptu reception with jailhouse cookies and juice. It continued to rain but I remember the church appeared to glow that night. Was it from the lighting…or was it from the outpouring of love? We were not deserted in this time of heartbreak breaking pain; even in our worst grief we could feel the comfort of peace. God was with us and there is no doubt that Jesus was carrying our family through this trial.

The disaster ended, as they do, with a huge painful loss, sorrow not just for our family but the many others impacted by the crash, followed by a slow recovery marked often with regret, guilt and survivors remorse. In the short term, it was tremendously difficult; many families never do overcome such sorrows. Still, over the years my parents chose to embrace a life well lived and move forward with the help of their faith, family and friends and on this day they also celebrate 43 years of marriage.

Today I am reminded that in the midst of tragedy, there is still love.

4th of July family gathering. After 43 years they still hold hands. There is love.

4th of July family gathering. After 43 years they still hold hands. There is love.

Tough Times and Pea Soup? Of course!

I meant to get this written in May but as usual time escaped me. Those who know me can probably attest to my unique filing system. The good thing is that while I always put things in a safe place that is never too be remembered I often run across unexpected items.

Like this picture of a very young mother with her toddler and new baby (it’s from a few years back).mom 1960

The picture belies the challenges faced by this young mom and I wanted to share one story that I grew up hearing.

I was reminded of this narrative because May is both Mother’s Day and my mom’s birthday. When I was just six months old my parents adventurously packed up all their belongings and left the then depressed area of New England hoping to find a better life in the brand new state of Alaska. Faithful readers will remember that last year our family made the drive over the AlCan Highway. We were stocked with our satellite cell phone, CB radio, GPS and maps upon maps, a month’s supply of food and every supply we could imagine needing for our trip. We also knew what was waiting for us at the other end. My parents did not have that luxury (and remember this was in the pre-disposable diaper days so Mom was not like but was a Pioneer Woman washing clothes and diapers out at the end of each day…) I can’t imagine their strength or tenacity.

Still, the trip is a story for another day, I promise to press Mom for details. Today’s tale relates events that happened after they arrived in Anchorage. My machinist father found work with the Civil Service, a good job that would allow them to save and buy land for a future home. But, it came with a caveat. The job was in the Aleutian Islands…far, far away from the city. Mom and I stayed in our little travel trailer, family and friends all thousands of miles back in New Hampshire.

The arrangement probably would have worked pretty well except for a snafu by the government (some things never change). Dad’s paycheck didn’t arrive. Pretty soon Mom had used up the savings and we’d eaten all our food. What’s a mom with a baby in the middle of nowhere to do?

Well, fortunately, the new neighbors learned of our plight and like the pioneers of old shared with us. According to Mom, the one thing they had lots of was…

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Dried peas. Yes, a simple but nutritious food that made a filling soup and the dried peas stored well. I don’t know how many meals we had before Dad finally got the word that his paycheck was in limbo and managed to get money sent home. Was it a week? Two? Longer? But, more importantly, how many meals of pea soup could you manage? Would you have given up and gone back home to a more familiar and comfortable place? How tough are you?

As Gregory Peck famously said, “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.” Today the events are hard to imagine and may even be unbelievable but they are true and as I think about loved ones who are facing enormously challenging times I am reminded of this story. I am reminded of my mom who didn’t give up and went on to live another twenty years in an area that was so wild with moose and bear that she had to keep her .357 always within reach. It was a far cry from the comfortable New England town she grew up in.

Are you going through some tough times? I know Mom is not the only tough person I know. I bet you can outlast the challenges too.

P.S. The picture above is my mom, I’m the cute toddler and my sister is the baby and …

P.P.S. I still like pea soup 🙂

Things We Learned

For the new reader, our family recently returned from a lifetime adventure driving all the way from Arizona to Alaska…and back. You can read our daily trip diary if you scroll back to the beginning of June. For all you regular followers, I don’t know about you, but I’m having  withdrawals not writing every day.My mind still has things to share but generally the chore list has taken priority.

Today’s writing is a large compilation of things we learned from our trip.

The truck is cleaned out and all the clothes are washed. This week we’re returning everything borrowed so before I forget everything this is a good chance to look back at our adventure and share what we determined, discerned and stumbled upon…

  • At 9,933 miles we put on about 2,000 more than originally calculated. Since we didn’t drive in circles we must have underestimated our detours, particularly through the parks.

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    What’s the Boy Scout motto?
    Be Prepared.

  • Gas was cheapest in Arizona. We paid $3.39 in Phoenix both leaving and on the return. Where the Stewart-Cassiar Highway connects with the AlCan (in Canada they call it the Alaska Highway—everyone else calls it the AlCan) we paid the most at $1.99 Canadian per liter (I’ll let you the math, suffice it to say it was over $90 for half a tank there.)
  • We did not have a problem finding gas but… Bob was nervous about it enough to always fill the tank before it got below half full and we paid great attention to the signs about distance between stations. We did see some gas pumps out of gas. We also found that ‘gas station’ is not exactly what we know in the city; many had one or two pumps and most were the old fashioned kind where you had to pay inside, requiring the store be open to get fuel. Not all stations were open in the evening.
  • We learned that there are two types of tents and ours was the one for mild weather. The wind and rain both blew right in. Reason one to stay in a hotel.
  • We also learned that while there are RV places all along the highway, not all will take tenters and often those who will do not have bathroom facilities close to the tent areas. The National Park and Provincial Park campgrounds are very standard with toilets and access to fresh water at a cost less than $25 per night for a tent.

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    Camera in hand. Foot ready for the gas.

  • Groceries and supplies are expensive outside the big cities but there are Walmarts and chain grocery stores at regular intervals through Canada and into Alaska. With all our dietary restrictions we packed most food so only needed to buy fresh produce and meat (and even then we used cans of chicken/tuna, etc.) All the stores had an assortment of ‘non-dairy’ milk which surprised me. We had no trouble finding our almond milk.
  • Three weeks plus the weekends, from Seattle to Salt Lake, was just barely enough time to do everything but not enough time to spend with everyone. This is a hard trip to do without being retired. It would be much easier without a set schedule.
  • We learned to have our camera ready at all times because the local animals are not afraid to travel alongside the road. It was exciting to capture the grizzlies, blacks, moose, caribou and deer who just happened to be crossing just as we came along. Never have we been so close to so much wildlife.
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Salad again???

  • If you, or someone in your family, qualifies for one of the Access Passes offered by the park system take the time to fill out all the paperwork for it. Matthew’s pass allowed us to get into all the parks free and we got half off on campground fees in the US. The rangers don’t like cheaters and requested his ID at most of the entrance stations.
  • Still even if you don’t get a pass take time to visit the parks making sure if you travel during holiday weeks you reserve your spot. Teddy Roosevelt had real foresight when he began the national park program. And even if you think the road is scary, like the one at Glacier Park, take it anyway. You’ll thank me later.
  • Summers in the north are short but mosquitoes make up for it in volume. The Anchorage newspaper had an article on the shortage of mosquito repellent while we were there. We went prepared with several cans of assorted spray. The lesson we took from our experience is that life is too short to mess around. Buy the most lethal spray you can and then get some of those incense style smoky things. Oh, and it helps if you are not blood type O, apparently this is their favorite.
  • Every place we stopped at in Canada took US money. However, they charged a fee. The best deal we found was that the Walmarts took my Discover card and did not charge a foreign exchange fee. (I might have saved a buck fifty…or so by using my card.)
  • We learned that there are still many rural areas where there is no cell service…and we were there.
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    Dasher or Dancer?

    We saw an accident site and guy using his satellite phone to call for rescue help. Kind of frightening to think of being in an accident and it taking, not minutes but maybe hours, for help to arrive. But, on the plus side, we saw fellow travelers stop to render aid when needed.

  • Back to the cell phones. Bob’s Verizon phone worked where ever there was service available.  Once we crossed the Canadian border he got a message that his phone calls would cost $1.85 per minute—yikes!
  • Speaking of connectivity, when we saw lodging there was most often a sign for wi-fi. There were also signs at all the Tom Horton’s and McDonald’s advertising free internet service. My Boost aircard worked all the way to Seattle and after we reached Boise. It was not meant for the North Country. Still, we all learned we could survive off the grid without email, texting, facebook, etc.
  • Oh, Rebecca learned that while reindeer and caribou are in the same family, they are not the same. No matter, Matthew thought they looked like Santa’s helpers.
  • There were many, many miles where we had no radio service. I was outvoted on my plan to get a satellite radio so I could listen to Fox News. We had several mystery books on cds that were compelling listening and of course, we had Matthew’s very favorite Adventures in Odyssey which worked to calm him when he decided he’d had enough riding.100_1551
  • Yes, there were times when Matthew held his head in his hands and cried because he was tired of traveling. Okay, so did the rest of us. It was a long trip. What I learned from this was there were times when we needed to stop driving and do something else…even if was just to jump out of the truck and swat at mosquitoes.
  • And lastly, we learned that if you’re going on such a long adventure you really need to travel with people you like. Otherwise, it might be just a really long ride.
    Thanks for coming along with us. We loved all the comments and emails following the posts. We felt like we had a whole cloud filled with people riding along giving us incentive to share what we could see and do each day.
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Happy Trails to You!

A Trip Complete

This is the last day of my trip diary. In a few days I’ll post some observations, statistics, and other worthless nonsense. If you have a question you’re dying to know the answer that I haven’t covered, ask away. We’ll include it in the update.

This antenna topper Jack began his life on the first day of the trip. The picture on the right is our last day. He looks like I feel...

This antenna topper Jack began his life on the first day of the trip. The picture on the right is our last day. He looks like I feel…

But let me tell you about today. This is the last leg of our trip. Had we a few more days we could have visited the reservation and a few other spots but today we’re ready to go home.

Our first stop is a remote town on the Arizona Strip called Colorado City. Since you might not be familiar with this area I’ll share what little I know about it. Colorado City has made the news for years because many residents are members of a polygamist sect. For longer before that their remote location allowed residents to live as they wished with little government intervention. Polygamy was once approved by the Mormon Church but they ended the practice in the late 1800’s. The FLDS is one sect, no longer associated with the church, who has continued this lifestyle. You can read much more about it in this 2011 news article from the Arizona Republic: Colorado City, Still an FLDS Stronghold.

Our journey today took us directly through Colorado City and gave us a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse of these families. While we weren’t surprised to see the huge homes which would make sense in multi-wife and especially multi-children families we were surprised to see the high fences that kept out prying eyes of nosey people like us.

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We did see many residents…maybe one family??? working in the garden. We only saw women and children. Honestly, it was one of the most creepy areas we have ever traveled. I prayed that the truck would not break down and we decided that driving only one street was good enough for us.north to alaska 141

After having met and talked to so many independent women on our journey we would have liked to learn why/how these women could be so dependent on one man.

In the end we were very glad that we drove through there but even more glad to leave.

On to something more fun. Did you know of the 4.6 Million visitors to the Grand Canyon each year less than ten percent find their way to the North Rim? You can add us to those numbers. The drive from St. George to the Grand Canyon NR was yet another two lane road but easy driving and beautiful painted rock scenery. The view of the canyon is just as spectacular as from the south and yet it is different. More trees dot the cliffs and I think the elevation is higher. Matthew thought it was pretty but he still chatters his teeth when I ask him about it, indicating he thinks it is more than a little scary. (We’re still not very brave travelers.)north to alaska 167

The drive from Jacob’s Lake to the 89, the north-south road to Flagstaff, took us down to the valley of the Colorado, and yet the river was in a gorge still several hundred feet lower. We continue to be awed at the power of nature and wonder at the relative insignificance of man.

After driving through the western part of the Navajo Reservation we eventually made it to Flagstaff and yes, then our first freeway driving since we left Seattle.

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Finally, after more than one month on the road and a whole lot of miles we completed our journey. We discovered that it is still summer…and well over 100F though it is evening.

Home.

The black cat (Spooky) won’t come near us but the yellow cat (Socks) has been crying since he realized it was us. Matthew is very happy to be home, back to his computer and his favorite TV shows and all his stuff (with the addition of his new Superman pal).

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So there you have it. Nine thousand nine hundred thirty three miles, through city and country, heat and cold, sun and rain we hope you enjoyed traveling with us. Tomorrow there will be wash to do, a truck to empty and a month’s worth of mail to review. But tonight we’re celebrating with our favorite Mexican dinner and an Alaska Ale. Cheers.home 8589

Bryce and Zion…and Swimsuits

Without Bob’s help it seemed like it took twice as long to pack up this morning. I also realized that I am completely entrusted to Rebecca’s map reading skills as we do not have the GPS to direct us. (I figured this out after missing a turn and we ended up on a dead end street just out of Provo.)

Our first stop today was at a clothing store outlet where we often find things for Rebecca. We usually shop on line but since we were going so close Rebecca thought she deserved at least one shopping opportunity. We pulled up to the store three minutes before opening and found the door open so we walked on in. After a couple minutes the clerk showed up clearly startled that we were inside. I thought maybe we had the time wrong, but we didn’t. Rebecca did get to try on a few swimsuits and found one that she liked even though we never saw another clerk in the showroom…until we were ready to pay. Like many retailers today, they were very short on customer service.

We wound our way down the old road until we reached Bryce National Park. Have you been there? It is such a unique place. I always think the colorful stone pillars left from eroding winds would be the perfect setting for a movie about the planet Vulcan. It is very alien. But beautiful. There are some good looking hiking trails down into the valley making yet another ideal place to come camp for a week and explore.

Weathered rock in Bryce. What does it look like to you? Cathedrals, spires, an alien forest???

Weathered rock in Bryce. What does it look like to you? Cathedrals, spires, an alien forest???

Not far down the road is another of Utah’s national parks, Zion. Crazy rock formations and strikingly beautiful…yet completely from Bryce. The park ends in the valley of the Virgin River and has a climate similar to Phoenix…that is to say, hot. There were signs all over warning people about the heat, telling them to take shade and drink lots of water so we figured there’d be plenty of camping spots open. We figured wrong and ended up in St. George.

Sheep on the hill above us at Zion.

Sheep on the hill above us at Zion.

Before I finish for tonight I have to tell you about Matthew. A while back I picked up one of the National Park travel books for him. I have seen them before but never thought he’d be interested then when we were at the museum in Whitehorse the guide gave him a similar travel book for the Yukon Territory. It looks like a passport and you can stamp it at key locations. Matthew found this to bea great treasure and kept getting it out to review. So when we saw them at Glacier Park I talked to the ranger about getting him one and she told me how popular these were with travelers and how fastidious some were about getting them stamped and buying the stickers, etc. I didn’t really think Matthew would care so much but expected he would like to look through it. Well, I was wrong. At each visitor center he leapt out of the truck, travel book in hand, ready to be stamped. Just as he did when we got to the visitor’s center at Zion… five minutes after they closed.

Poor Matthew. What a sad, sad face he had. And the worst thing was, by then I knew the campsites were full so we weren’t coming back in the morning. I thought it was going to be a long ride until I figured out a solution. Unlike most travelers, Matthew wasn’t worried about the stamp. He just wanted it to be marked and who better than a real live forest ranger? I told the kids to jump in the truck, that I had a plan and we started looking for a ranger. The first one we found was at the entrance and he politely explained that the stamps were at the visitor’s center. I explained that I needed a really big favor and he was so willing to help it brought tears to my eyes. He took his time, wrote his name Ranger Mahoney, the date, the park, etc. All the while cars were backing up waiting to enter the park. But best of all was the look on Matthew’s face. Here, Rebecca caught him with her camera:

Truly a happy guy right here!

Truly a happy guy right here!

Thus ending our day on a very good note.zion

Tomorrow we are heading home. But…not without something exciting.

Sama in Salt Lake

If I could choose a second daughter it would be the vivacious, lovely and talented Sama Kamal. She is Rebecca’s roommate in medical school and we have so enjoyed getting to know her. We were excited when we learned that Sama would be in Salt Lake City this summer doing research and that we would be able to see her.

Salt Lake is the end of another chapter on our journey. Our original plans called for Bob to fly back home from Calgary, Alberta but when he pouted so much about missing too many days of our adventure we figured out that if we stretched his vacation to end late Sunday we could actually come in to the States before he would need to return to work. SLC turned out to be the closest big city and so Bob’s end point.

With our still queasy stomachs we decided to just head into the city and just lie around at the hotel. But that didn’t last long after we discovered we were just down the street from the big LDS Temple. We’re not Mormon but we do appreciate other religions and took advantage of our close location. Anyone can walk on the grounds and admire the exterior of the temple and its gardens but only Mormons in good standing are allowed inside the temple but they had beautiful model displays of the interior. I wouldn’t say the interior models were ornate because that has a kind of negative connotation but I would say they were very impressive and certainly a quality befitting the religious setting. (Bob thought they used too much gold but I reminded him of the Russian Orthodox church I used to work in and how much gold and silver was used to adorn the many church icons.)north to alaska 186

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When you see the Mormon Tabernacle Choir they are sitting just in front of these huge pipes.

We were also very excited to learn that not only would we be able to visit inside the Tabernacle but that they were holding a Pops concert with the Utah National Guard band. I love pops concerts. So we ate dinner and then returned for the concert which was a combination of patriotic and popular US composers’ music. As you can imagine, Matthew was most excited when he heard the themes from both Star Wars and Superman.

Someone told Bob and Rebecca that it wouldn’t rain and I have to tell you I cursed them as we speed walked the mile back to the hotel…through the downpour…

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My three kids!

Today we picked up Sama and after breakfast visited the University of Utah’s Natural History Museum. It seemed like a pretty new museum and of course, Matthew’s favorite part was the gigantic dinosaur skeletons. (He loves dinosaurs but is always very sad because they are ‘dead’. I remind him that we would be scared if they were alive and chasing us but to no avail.)  Anyway, after a fun filled day we took Sam back to her home away from home and then took Bob to the airport.

It’s a lot quieter at the hotel room tonight.

Tomorrow we are driving the scenic route to Bryce and Zion National Parks.

To Yellowstone and Beyond!

Some of you are wondering how long we will be on the road. Some of you are wondering if we will ever end this trip. I’ve been starting to wonder this too…

Well, lucky for you today we’ll actually cover three days in one. And for good reason.

Mr. Chernich and his youngest with former student Rebecca.

Mr. Chernich and his youngest with former student Rebecca.

Our day began well. We visited Rebecca’s high school teacher, Mr. Chernich in Montana. His wife is a primary care physician and the family is planning a major move to Fairbanks, Alaska. As you can imagine, we had much to talk about since we just came from that direction.

It wasn’t until after we left headed for Yellowstone that the day went to pot. It began with a familiar sound: Eerrpppp… We’ve heard this many times before. Matthew was sick. He continued to be sick all the way to Yellowstone and by then Bob also was complaining he did not feel good.

Two sick guys put a crimp on our plans to find a camp site as we decided the smart move would be to stay at the park’s edge in a hotel. Fortunately, by morning both were somewhat better and we headed into Yellowstone. Unfortunately, everybody and his brother now had arrived in the park and all the campgrounds were full. Uh oh.north to alaska 015

Yellowstone National Park is such a unique place. The geysers and paint pots impressed everyone and we loved the amazing blue and orange of the steaming pools that dotted the countryside. We saw lots of bison, including this one, who was just waiting for us to come by for pictures.north to alaska 098

After getting caught in a fast moving rain storm we dried out waiting for Old Faithful to erupt (which it did, right on time, thereby keeping its nickname safe.)north to alaska 126

We planned to stay in another hotel on the edge of the park but it appeared the sudden rain might have changed the plans of campers and by the time we left, all the hotels within 100 miles were filled. I tried to convince Bob that we could actually sleep in the truck but he was determined to find us a room. And good thing too. Just as we were checking in I realized I might not have escaped the germs and joined the ranks of the sick people. For a while Rebecca sat in smugness as she was sure her good hand washing technique had saved her. But it didn’t.

So we spent two days in Blackfoot, Idaho. Rebecca and I felt sorry for ourselves and slept while Bob and Matthew discovered this town had a potato museum.100_1790

There you have it. Three days, two of which didn’t amount to a hill of beans. But tomorrow we are on our way into the beautiful Salt Lake City and will spend a day with Rebecca’s roommate.