Epilogue continued…

whittier waterfall

Waterfall, Seward, Alaska. Photo by Third Eye Photography

I’m grateful Mom did not die while I was in Alaska. Her gift to me, I suppose. Rubber tramping into Alaska was a dream I realized despite Mom being ninety and sickly. I struggled with the decision to leave and dealt with the guilt when it surfaced. I’ve never regretted my choice.

Rebecca and Adam’s loving relationship expands their joy of living life fully. Together, with their three black dogs, they create a friendship that is playful and soulful, one that endures through the bumpy times, convincing them they want to spend the rest of their lives together. Their wedding, two years after Rebecca returned from Alaska was on the top of Crested Butte Mountain on a brilliant fall day with her brother, Michael officiating. As Rebecca stood on the platform with the backdrop of distant mountain peaks, I felt a surge of gratitude for my beautiful daughter. In Alaska, I cemented a bond with her that I never had with my own mother, a friendship that grows, a trust that is sure and steady, a love unwavering. Our hearts beat in tandem to a rhythm of understanding, respect and encouragement.

1919226_329279095270_67054_n

JC and Stan hiking the tundra in Denali National Park. Photo by Third Eye Photography

My friendship with Stan deepened while roaming the wilds of Alaska. We discovered we could spend day after day in very tight quarters without killing each other. Living so intimately connected, only seemed to bring us closer. On the road, we were forced to creatively problem solve in order to live harmoniously–there was no place to hide. We brought that spirit of cooperation and acceptance home with us. We’re in a better place now than we were when we left for Alaska. We’re more present with each other and more honest with our feelings.

After meeting the day-to-day challenges camping in the Alaskan wilderness, Stan seems more certain of himself and what it is he wants. He shared a journal entry that helps me understand what it is he feels about living life without his business career giving him a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. He wrote, “I can’t believe it’s been several years since our Alaskan adventure. So much has changed–Kay died; Rebecca got married; Janet finished her memoir and I have somewhat settled into this new window of my life. It’s strange how at the beginning of my retirement, I needed big projects–planning, researching and living the Alaskan trip; opening a consulting business and working part-time with clients; joining clubs and committees, coaching my grandkid’s baseball teams–in order to give me a sense of worth, now that I am without a business card with a big title on it. Sometimes, I think I’m on the outside looking in, but mainly, I just smile–I know the secret handshake.

A great day is when Janet and I play Scrabble after breakfast, go biking to the park, have a

Mr. & Mrs. Rubber Tramp

Mr. & Mrs. Rubber Tramp on the McCarthy Road, Alaska. Photo by Third Eye Photography

bagel sandwich from Steve’s as we talk about anything and everything [it’s amazing that after 45 years, we still have so much to talk about], come home to do something creative–playing the piano, song-writing, thinking, then take a bath together while sharing what we call ‘Tub Talk’ and go to sleep cuddling with my best friend.

Today, I didn’t make a million dollars for my company, or put out any corporate fires, or help the stock price rise… I did so much more.”

I guess he’s figuring it out, day by day.

I felt more awake than I ever have when I was climbing the ice wall on the glacier, while I watched the unveiling of Denali or came face to face with grizzly bears. I realize it’s not the things I surround myself with that lead to happiness, but an experience of being alive is where the real joy is centered. The meaning of my life is found in having that experience–in the rapture of being alive!

Rubber tramping through the Last Frontier was where my spirit soared. The spirits within and dancing all around guided me to a deeper appreciation of the invisible forces of the universe that shape the world as much as the glaciers, rivers and mountains define Alaska.

Hope hike4

Rebecca, Stan and JC, Hope Alaska.

Stan and I continue to rubber tramp around the continent in our trusty bubble, the Laura Lee, always on the lookout for unexpected adventure and I continue to write about it.

 

Boldly Going Nowhere…JC

This is the last entry for my blog book, Rubber Tramping Through the Last Frontier. A huge thank you goes out to all who followed the blog and shared your feelings and comments along the way. I am filled with gratitude for your interest and participation in this journey. I will let everyone know when the hard copy of the complete manuscript is available.

Photos by Third Eye Photography

Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier is my travel memoir of a bold, four month RV adventure by conventional ‘sixty-somethings’ into the wilds of Alaska. If you would like to be a follower of this blog, Google, Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier, go to the blog and click on the follow button.

Epilogue

I open the door and walk into the bedroom. Lying on the rented hospital bed is my mother or what remains of her. Her pale gaunt face is turned to the side, her eyes closed. The down comforter moves up and down in rhythm with her shallow breaths. I sit on the bed next to hers, the bed she and Dad shared for sixty-seven years, placing her hand in mine. It’s ice-cold. I wrap my hand around her bony fingers, now at rest, their work done. My hands resemble Mom’s, but little else does. We think differently, Mom and I.

Her eyes pop open.

“It’s Janet. I’m here, Mom. How’re you feeling today?” She shakes her head, her deep brown eyes searching mine. Does she recognize me? I squeeze her hand and smile.

We sit quietly for a while. Across the room, framed photos of my sisters and me line Mom’s dresser–Barbara’s baby picture with her dark curly hair; Susie’s communion photo, hands folded, eyes gazing towards the heavens; my eighth grade graduation photo with lips painted pink. Mom’s three girls.

IMG_0655

Shrine of St. Theresa, Juneau, Alaska.

The bare tree branches tremble and creak in the wind. “I’m going to change you now,” I tell her as I turn down the comforter. Pulling her nightgown up to her chest, I undo the side closures removing the soiled depends. Her pelvic bones protrude through her skin. Her stomach is a small mound of flesh. Her single breast sags to the side. After gently wiping her clean, I sponge her legs, stroking her feet, red and swollen, no longer able to carry her weight. I reposition her bedclothes spreading the comforter smooth. Lifting her head, I pull the pillow out and shake it a few times. She weighs nothing now, but it’s still awkward to lift her. She whispers, “Thank you,” as I kiss her forehead.

Pouring crème into my palm, I rub it into her hands. The heady lilac scent soothes. Massaging her arms, I gaze out the window. There once was a massive lilac bush at the corner of the house. As a kid, I would bury my face in the drooping flowers until I felt dizzy from the spicy perfume.

My eyes focus on the crucifix hanging over the bed. It’s the cross the priest gave Mom before Susan’s casket was swallowed by the earth. A cross for her to carry. A cross we all carry.

The shelf on the nightstand holds the tin planter I painted for her birthday when I was ten. It was one of those paint by numbers projects–a red bird on a branch that I never did finish. A holy card and a list of emergency numbers sit inside. Her rosary beads are curled up nearby. The blood pressure gauge lies next to them with an oxygen tank on standby in the corner.

I brush the strands of hair away from her face. Her once thick hair, so meticulously cared for has been reduced to thin wisps scattered over her head. Years ago, when she was going through chemotherapy, I walked into her bedroom as she was brushing her hair. With each stroke of the brush, a large clump of hair fell out. Staring into the mirror, she sniffled a bit. Straightening up, she slammed the brush down on the dresser. Mom’s a survivor.

“Here Mom, drink something,” I say holding a glass of water up to her mouth. She takes a sip, pushing it away.

“I’m going downstairs to get you some lunch. Be right back.”

In the kitchen, my father’s sitting at the table finishing his sandwich. I heat up some chicken soup.

“How’s Mom doing?”

“She’s resting now, Dad. She’s comfortable.”

We don’t have much to say. We never did.

We both know the clock’s ticking. I appreciate this time alone with Mom. Daily, Dad cares for her, tending to her every need. He always has..

I carry the soup up the dimly lit staircase. The first thing I do when I get to the house is open the curtains. The shades are always drawn, the windows tightly closed. Like Mom.

Pressing the remote switch, the upper half of the bed angles upright. “I’ve got chicken soup, Mom. You’re gonna like it.” Spooning the broth into her mouth, I stop to wipe her chin. She eats the first two or three spoonfuls with interest, then slows down but does manage to swallow the whole cup of soup. People who are eating don’t die, I think.

IMG_0907

A flower bed, Tolsona, Alaska.

All those meals Mom cooked over her ninety years–all the pies she baked with the apples I peeled, the birthday cakes she mixed that I frosted, the manicottas I filled with the mixed cheeses and the spaghetti and meatball picnic dinners we ate at Jones Beach. She kept the pasta hot all day in the big, green plaid cooler. Wrapped in towels, we ate our supper on the sandy blanket, watching the waves crashing. The kitchen was a sanctuary for me. It was the one place where I got Mom’s attention.

A storm cloud rolls in darkening the sky. I turn the lamp on.

Suddenly, Mom bolts upright, “I’m coming Mary, I’m coming,” she calls out. I gently lay her down. Dad told me she’s been hallucinating lately, seeing visions of her sister Mary, who died a year ago. “Hurry up Kay, hurry up,” the spirits call.

She closes her eyes, mouth agape and falls into a deep sleep. I finally feel some peace about her dying. I’m no longer resisting it. I’ve stopped quizzing my father about treatments and calling her doctor questioning medication interactions. I don’t argue with my sister  about therapies. Mom’s waning makes sense. I feel her presence shifting. It’s her time.

I stare at her–my mother. I know very soon our time together will be at an end. The opportunity for an intimate friendship long lost. I feel a deep sadness for what never was. I kiss Mom goodbye and close the door behind me.

The phone rings at 7:10 the next morning. “Mom passed away during the night.”

 

Boldly Going Nowhere…JC

Photos by Third Eye Photography

Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier is my travel memoir of a bold, four month RV adventure by conventional ‘sixty-somethings’ into the wilds of Alaska. If you would like to be a follower of this blog, Google, Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier, go to the blog and click on the follow button.

Going…

The Top of the World.

The Top of the World.

After clucking our goodbyes to Chicken, we head out over the mountain pass along the Top of the World Highway. Fall is in full glory serenading us as we drive over the winding road. The mountainsides waltz to and fro, decked out in reds, oranges and yellows. The golden grasses do-si-do to the steady cadence of the wind. The valleys sing their praises, as one muted color melts into the other. The cobalt sky swirls with meringues of puffy white. So…this is the top of the world!

A few more miles bring us to another one-horse place dubbedIMG_9630 Boundary. We need to get gas at this, the last outpost in Alaska, since in four miles we’ll pass through Canadian customs and then into wilderness. We’ll be crossing the continent’s northernmost road into the Yukon Territory.

Boundary’s near deserted. Relics from the past litter the yard. A weather-beaten 1950’s car and old rusted trucks missing windows and doors languish in the weeds. A one-room log cabin and a shed covered with license plates are scattered about with a gift shop across the lot. There isn’t a soul in sight.

The last gas pump until the Yukon Territory.

The last gas pump at the top of the world.

Stan has the camcorder and directs me to a spot on the roadside. He wants to film me saying good-bye to Alaska. Cheesy, I think. I’m only able to get out three sentences before I break down in tears.

I begin with, “Look Mom, I’m on top of the world,” mumble a few superlatives and throwing out my arms in a gestured embrace, I end with, “Goodbye Alaska. I love you!”

IMG_9627

Near–deserted Boundary, Alaska.

Next, it’s Stan’s turn. Through the camera’s lens, I see a thick beard hiding his bronzed face. He starts, “Anything I dreamed or thought about paled in comparison to what it really was. It was huge, a vast wilderness, beautiful sunsets, animals everywhere, amazing landscapes, rainbows following us all over. The most important part was Janet and I doing this together, then the bonus of Rebecca being with us in August.” He pauses to collect himself. “Now, we’re going to cross the border, but in our hearts, Alaska will always be with us.” He chokes up and looks away from the camera.

If Rebecca was here, I think her farewell might be what she wrote in her journal a few days ago and shared with me.

“I am a little sick of everyone at night going to the bathroom right by my head–and being able to have only three squares of toilet paper–and the smell at dumping or even in the toilet sometimes–and everyone on top of each other–never having real personal space–and my hair being so dirty–and my head hurting from my hair being pulled back all the time–and how cold it is in the IMG_9628morning–and I am sad because it’s been such a great time and I love my parents so much and I have learned so much about myself and them and us and I love living in the Laura Lee with them so close by and I love every day having adventures and laughing and talking and teaching each other and exploring and pushing our boundaries and finding our limitations and I am just a mess of emotions and I need to go to sleep before Dad starts snoring.”

A guy as brittle as his old rusted cars finally appears to pump gas. He asks, “You comin’ or goin’?”

Stan hesitates. Glancing at me he mumbles, “Going.”

 

Boldly Going Nowhere…JC

Photos by Third Eye Photography

Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier is my travel memoir of a bold, four month RV adventure by conventional ‘sixty-somethings’ into the wilds of Alaska. If you would like to be a follower of this blog, Google, Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier, go to the blog and click on the follow button.

Chicken

Rainbow Road

Rainbow Road

When we get to Tok, we have to make a decision. Either we drive north to Chicken, then southeast along the Top of the World Highway to the Yukon or we can go directly east on the Alcan Highway and head to Dawson City and into the Yukon that way. Neither one of us cares one way or the other. Either way means the same thing–we’re leaving Alaska today. Having heard about the tiny, crusty town of Chicken from a fellow traveler and how spectacular the Top of the World Highway is from two guys on motorcycles, we decide to head north. Besides, any town named Chicken, I have to see.

It starts to rain. After the downpour, a rainbow paints the sky. Just as I’m admiring its brilliance,

Chicken Post Office.

Chicken Post Office.

another rainbow appears off to my right. It arcs towards the earth touching down just beyond my vision. I can barely believe my eyes when I see a third rainbow proudly curved across the road just ahead of us. Ahhhh, this must be the Rainbow Road that Kris Kristofferson sings about. The rainbows move with us, as if we’re magically aligned. This spectacular farewell gift of three rainbows strutting their colors boosts our spirits, reminding us of the wonder of it all.

“Alaska is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!”

Rounding a corner, we confront a small log cabin–the Chicken Post Office. The porch has a mass of bright flowers spilling out of a rusted wheelbarrow. It’s closed. Mail is delivered twice a week and today is not one of those days. We head to the dusty little town, once a thriving mining center, but now barely a community, occupying the space of three attached log buildings. There’s

Downtown in Chicken, Alaska.

Downtown in Chicken, Alaska.

the gift shop, a saloon, a café and real live chickens behind a wire fence wedged in-between the saloon and café. All three businesses are owned and operated for the last nineteen years by Susan Wiren. We mosey into the café just as lean, wiry Sue is yelling at a customer to come get the ham and eggs she cooked up and is now serving on a gold panning pan. Stan and I look at each.

With her long blonde hair pulled back from her weathered face, she says as sweetly as one of her pies, “Would you like to try one of my cinnamon rolls hot out of the oven?”

“We sure would and some coffee please,” I answer, encouraged by her sudden friendliness.

The Chicken Saloon decorated with hats from around the world.

The Chicken Saloon decorated with hats from around the world.

As she places the gigantic rolls on dishes, she begins talking about seeing her man this weekend. He’s coming from Fairbanks. She rambles on, absently retrieving bread out of the toaster, while complaining about the busy tourist season, glad it’s over. Sue’s the real deal–a peculiar, hearty Alaskan woman, living on her own in a remote town with a population of seventeen. Nothing much happens in Chicken. Gold was discovered here years ago and the promise of riches still attract a few gold panners to the area.

We peek into the empty bar next door. Hundreds of hats from every corner of the world either hang from the ceiling or are tacked to the walls. Chicken has had its wild nights. Running my hand along the worn bar-top, I can almost hear the beer bottles clanking as the music blares and boots stomp. I buy some Chicken underwear in the gift shop along with a dozen hilarious cards. The humor is definitely twisted.

Cluck, cluck...

Cluck, cluck…

The name, Chicken originated at a meeting of resident miners in the late 1800’s. As the story goes, the miners voted to dub their new tent city ‘Ptarmigan,’ since that chicken-like bird was rampant in the area. Trouble was no one could spell it. The town’s name has been Chicken ever since. Tucking my fists into my armpits and waving my ‘wings’ up and down, I cluck farewell to the caged chickens behind the fence.

 

 

 

Boldly Going Nowhere…JC

Photos by Third Eye Photography

Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier is my travel memoir of a bold, four month RV adventure by conventional ‘sixty-somethings’ into the wilds of Alaska. If you would like to be a follower of this blog, Google, Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier, go to the blog and click on the follow button.

Always In My Heart

IMG_8679

Stan and Rebecca.

We arrive in Anchorage a few hours ahead of Rebecca’s scheduled flight and go out for dinner. Knowing this experience is ending and feeling it’s over are two very different things and our attempts at reliving the past month keeps the experience alive. We seesaw between giddiness and tears as stories are passed around the table.

Hugging Rebecca at the security checkpoint in the airport, I feel detached, as if I’m watching a stranger bid farewell to a loved one. I’m in denial shielding myself from the painful feelings. My words sound hollow, barely scratching the surface of the depth of emotions welling within. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I wave good-by as she turns to wave while walking down the ramp. Then, she’s gone.

Back at our campsite just outside the city, I take out my journal to jot down my feelings while they’re still raw. I find an entry written by Rebecca. She must have written it last night after I had gone to sleep.

IMG_9572

JC and Rebecca.

I read, “Thank you both a million times over! This has been one of the most special experiences for so many reasons, but most importantly for our bond as the wonderful three-some we are. I never doubted us, but I never imagined it could be so good. Every memory, every adventure, every challenge–we did it together–like when Mom was in an “uncomfortable” (aka scared shitless) situation–she was still walking forward. We have done the same–we support each other through it all and our love for each other has led us to magical places. I am so lucky to have such deep, insightful, passionate, loving parents and most importantly–friends in my life. I am moved and touched and forever changed. Thank you! This will always be in my heart–you both are always in my heart.”

I share the entry with Stan. The powerful feelings of intimacy and joy we experienced this last month with our daughter, only magnify the cavernous empty space she once filled. We both have a good cry. Afterwards, lying quietly next to one another, our bodies instinctively follow the others curves, filling in the empty spaces. We fall asleep bodies entangled, breathing skin to skin.

I wake up missing Rebecca. Stan and I embrace. Reassured by his loving support, I’m able to

JC and Stan kiss. Photo by Third Eye Photography

JC and Stan kiss. Photo by Third Eye Photography

keep moving. We’re driving out of Alaska today. In silence, we pack up and leave the campsite. I have experienced so much more these past months than I ever imagined possible. Not only the incredible grandeur of Alaska, but much more significant was the expansion of the relationship I have with my daughter. The deeper understanding of the person she has evolved into as an adult, her generous loving nature, her respect for the natural world and her optimistic view of life and its mysteries is what I am so grateful to have shared with her. She has always been a connecting force for Stan and me and that powerful bond has been strengthened this last month. There’s an adjustment period when she enters our ‘twosome,’ hidden jealousies surface as two becomes three, but we usually find our comfort zone within a few days.

Times of transition are always difficult for me. Change is all around, happening every moment, but it also seems so stagnant. Stuck in the present moment, I’m unable to move past my sadness. I don’t recognize the ever-changing landscape all around me. I can’t see past my pain. Rebecca being part of our lives for the past month became the norm. Her leaving is a change I’m resisting. It makes no difference how much I resist, it still happened. Resistance, it seems, only increases my discomfort level. I know I’ll accept the change eventually. How quickly and how much distress I’ll entertain until then, is up to me.

 

Boldly Going Nowhere…JC

Photos by Third Eye Photography

Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier is my travel memoir of a bold, four month RV adventure by conventional ‘sixty-somethings’ into the wilds of Alaska. If you would like to be a follower of this blog, Google, Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier, go to the blog and click on the follow button.

Chapter Twenty-Four–A Day of Farewells

fisheye denali

Denali through a fish eye. Photo by Third Eye Photography.

“I’m really enjoying myself and having pains thinking about leaving, but also looking forward to home and Adam and my friends and the dogs and my bed! God it went so fast…It feels like yesterday I was leaving Adam and sleeping in the Laura Lee that first nite and now it’s moments to take off and home. What a great experience! Alaska is more than a state. It feels like a different world. I look forward to being in the woods at home and not worrying about wildlife or carrying bells and whistles. It’s such wilderness here.

 …I feel like crying having had this experience and that my parents–once again–have given me something I’ll never forget. We really are a great three-some! We have had our disputes and sometimes I don’t like how heated everyone can get over nothing, but overall it’s been great.”

                                                                                                               Rebecca’s journal entries

 

denali

Denali National Park and Preserve during autumn. Photo by Third Eye Photography.

The dawn lights up the sky signaling a new day, a day of farewells–to Denali and to Rebecca. This evening, we leave Rebecca in the Anchorage airport. In a few days, Stan and I head into the Yukon territory, go south through the Canadian Rockies, dropping down into Montana and then tramp across the country to New York. It’s too overwhelming to process it all, so I focus on readying the Laura Lee for our departure.

While driving out of Denali, somewhere around mile ten, we see a cluster of people on the side of the road and stop. This is a prime rutting area for moose and there’s a group of people snapping photos and looking through binoculars at several bull-moose out in the brush. During autumn, these massive creatures, some well over sixteen hundred pounds, engage in rituals solely related to reproduction. Bulls compete for breeding rights and cows seek out mating overtures from the bulls. The rut begins around this time, in late August and lasts into early October. These enormous creatures look so powerful–their gigantic antler racks can span up to seven feet from point to point. It’s a wonder they can walk around with those things!

A bull-moose during rutting season fights for a female mate. Photo by Third Eye Photography

A bull-moose during rutting season fights for a female mate. Photo by Third Eye Photography

Two of them move towards each other. The crowd comes to attention. All eyes are focused on the shrubs. The pair dance around moving in and out of the bushes, while cameras fire off. Facing each other, the moose engage their antlers pushing hard. I hear low croaking as they shove each other. We’re close enough to see them clearly, but far enough away, so as not to be in any danger.

A tall, lanky guy standing next to me with a lens the size of a telescope lowers his camera and says, “Too bad. They’re only going to spar which really isn’t fighting.”

“This is pretty thrilling. I’ve never seen anything like it,” I say.

“Oh, this is nothing. They’re just messing with each other. Bulls competing for females engage in violent fighting, epic battles that can last for hours. Usually, they end up bleeding or missing parts of their antlers. Some even fight to the death. We’re not going to see anything like that today. Too early in the season.”

moose4

A bull-moose with a gigantic rack.

I jockey for a prime viewing spot. Six or seven bulls are on the move. While we’re standing on the side of the road, we meet a crew from National Geographic filming the moose for a television special to be aired in the spring. Gripping our camcorder, Stan stands shoulder to shoulder with one of the filmmakers who is holding his gigantic professional camera.

“Would you like to have my footage to add to yours?” Stan asks.

“Thanks, I got it,” the filmmaker says grinning.

Climbing back into the Laura Lee, we’re quiet as we head towards the entrance, privileged to have seen the moose in their most active stage of the year. A dramatic finale to our Denali adventure. I’m lost in my thoughts dreaming with images of the past week flashing in and out. I want to hold onto the feelings believing they will never end.

 

Boldly Going Nowhere…JC

Photos by Third Eye Photography

Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier is my travel memoir of a bold, four month RV adventure by conventional ‘sixty-somethings’ into the wilds of Alaska. If you would like to be a follower of this blog, Google, Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier, go to the blog and click on the follow button.

Floating Down the River…

IMG_9528

Waiting for the bus to Fish Creek on our last day in Denali NP.

Our last day in Denali arrives with the three of us standing at 7:30 in the morning awaiting the bus to Fish Creek. Bear Man, Wolf Mother and Spirit Woman feel powerfully aligned with Earth Mother. The air sizzles with expectation.

caribou3

A caribou stops for one last look at Bear Man, Wolf Mother and Spirit Woman. Photo by Third Eye Photography.

Barely settled in our seats, we sight a grizzly sow with three cubs on a distant rise. Her blonde fur glistens in the early morning light. I feel a deep connection with the bears after our close encounter with them out on the tundra. A better understanding of my place in the natural world. A new respect for their place in the natural order of things. Out of the hazy mist, a small herd of caribou races across the flats. Their antlers point towards the icy summits of the highest mountain range in North America gleaming on the western horizon. The wonderful revelations we witnessed of Mt. McKinley’s splendor lies forever within. Imprinted on my soul. Visions of a goddess I will never forget. No sooner are the caribou gone when a huge bull moose appears quickly disappearing into the nearby bushes. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a fox running across the tundra. A most unusual fox marked with shades of grey and black, red and brown sporting a white tipped tail. The bus stops for a photo-op and we pile out. While readying our cameras, the cross-fox runs in front of us, dashes into the bushes with his nose to the ground, on the prowl. He appears again but with nothing in his mouth and decides to thrill his captive audience by proudly trotting across the taiga only yards from us. Cameras fire off at this close encounter with such a willing model. The driver rushes us back into the bus since being this close to an animal is violating Denali’s strict code.

fox

A cross fox scampers across the taiga. Photo by Third Eye Photography.

It’s overcast and cool today, perfect for animal activity and they’re everywhere. The bus ride back is like being on the local train into Manhattan stopping every ten minutes. Only these stops are not to load and unload human animals on their way to forage in the canyons of the city, but to view more bears, moose and caribou roaming the rocky canyons. I am so grateful to experience the wildlife in their territory, roaming free as they were meant to be.

bear5 copy

A grizzly bear bids farewell. Photo by Third Eye Photography.

At day’s end, as we walk back to our campsite,  Rebecca puts her arm around me, resting her head on my shoulder. Although I’ve had to lay to rest any dreams I may have had of having an intimate connection with my mother, I can look to the future with my own daughter with high expectations for continuing an open and loving friendship. Our relationship is only strengthened

JC and Rebecca hug.

JC and Rebecca share a strong bond of friendship and love.

through honest dialogue and gestures of giving. Giving respect, giving praise, giving encouragement, giving support, giving friendship, giving affection, giving time and giving a fully engaged self. A bond that grows stronger as we share our feelings, our dreams, our fears, our failings and our triumphs. It seems that the contrast to the painful loss with my own mother is the joyous expansion I have with my daughter. I’m acutely aware of its powerful influence, its endless reverberations and try never to take it for granted. Rebecca helps me to face my fears, the way she did on the hike in Hope and even to laugh at myself. I strive to be my best when we’re together, to make her proud of her mother and in turn, I’m more. She invited me to cross the threshold into new dimensions of creative expression, as with photography. I am an important part of her being and she is a vital part of mine. I hug her back. The end of the journey is near and I feel changed in some indefinable way. I floated down the river allowing the current to take me where I was meant to go. It made all the difference.   Boldly Going Nowhere…JC Photos by Third Eye Photography Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier is my travel memoir of a bold, four month RV adventure by conventional ‘sixty-somethings’ into the wilds of Alaska. If you would like to be a follower of this blog, Google, Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier, go to the blog and click on the follow button.

Letting Mom Go…

Mom

Mom

In the weeks before I left for Alaska, I noticed a shift while attending to my mother. Our roles have reversed. Mom has become the dependent child and I, the mother tending to her needs. Slipping into helpless dependency happened subtly. Wiping the food from her mouth, dressing her, guiding her to the commode are reminders she is withdrawing from this state of being and moving towards another one. It’s as if she’s retreating towards the fetal state, so she can be reborn into the next life.

At times, I feel angry at her for diminishing to such a dependent state, but I know Mom wouldn’t want to live this way, if she had a choice. I want to remember my mother as a person in control of her life, her bodily functions and able to communicate in an intelligent way. She had so much dignity and was always very meticulous about her personal appearance. I suppose one positive aspect of dementia is that she is unaware of her dependency, her bodily decline and doesn’t feel humiliated, as she surely would if she was fully cognizant.

On a deeper level, I feel grateful to be able to give to her in a meaningful way. I like to think I am assisting her on her journey to the next state and that is satisfying. If I can make her a little more comfortable, ease her distress, help to give her some relief, I leave the house feeling I’ve helped, if only for a short window. I’ll be back.

Mom sits most days in her recliner staring blankly across the room. Her brown eyes are vacant

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad

without warmth or light. She fingers her rosary beads, but has forgotten the prayers she’s repeated thousands of times over the years. She randomly calls out, “Harry, Harry,” for no reason other than to be reassured my father is nearby. He’s her lifeline, the one person she intuitively clings to for her sense of vitality.

Life is slipping away, day by day. The doctor prescribes pills–pills for her heart, her lungs, her blood pressure, her cholesterol, her digestion, her confusion, her depression and on and on. The side effects multiply exponentially causing complications, which gives the doctor a reason for more prescriptions. I express my concerns to Dad regarding the benefits of so many drugs, the possible interactions and harmful side effects, but he ignores me. Mom is not able to verbalize her wishes concerning the way she wants to leave us. Her living will expresses her desire to have no extraordinary measures taken to prolong her life. The interpretation of extraordinary measures are up for debate. I want Mom to be comfortable, to suffer no pain, to be surrounded by her loved ones, to have dignity as she departs this world. The end will come when the Almighty determines and our desperate attempts at keeping Mom alive for another day, another week, or another month do not have any real significance in the eternal truth of the universe.

Ironically, it’s a time of great stress for all of us except Mom, who is oblivious to the undertones hanging like storm clouds in the air. Dad reveres the doctor, obeying his every command. He never questions, as his generation seldom does. He’s convinced that medical science is the only hope of keeping Mom alive, and he clings to her for a sense of purpose and meaning in his life. They are deeply connected, in lock step with one another on an intensely intimate level. They’ve been sleeping side by side for sixty-seven years. Letting Mom go is unbearably frightening for him.

img003

Mom and her baby.

Each time I visit, I rub lotion into her hands. She has rather small hands with long bony fingers and nails that fungus long ago claimed. They’re pale pink, almost translucent, enveloped in tissue paper skin. Supple. Malleable. I slowly massage each hand holding them gently in mine. Hands that once sewed my doll clothes…Hands that tied ribbons around my braided hair…Hands that lit my birthday candles glowing on my cake–the one she baked…Hands that tied my shoelaces and placed a cool washcloth on my forehead when I was sick…Hands that buttoned my dresses and washed my body…Hands that cooked the food that nourished me…Hands that held mine crossing the street…Her hands in mine.

Usually, she’ll smile at my touch, close her eyes and lay back. I like giving her pleasure. My whole life I’ve tried to give to her, but Mom found it difficult to open herself up to my loving gestures and allow me to give. Now, she has no resistance to my acts of giving and for the first time, I am the giver. It’s my chance to claim the mother I might have had–the one who opened her arms to me when I wanted to hug her and who hugged me back in appreciation. The mother who called to talk to me about her hopes, her dreams, her disappointments and listened to mine without judgment or disapproval, without projecting her fears onto me. Now, I give and she receives my tender expressions with no protests and in return, I receive the satisfying feeling of having made her a little more at ease.

Allowing oneself to be loved is as important as giving love. Feeling deserving of love and accepting love from others was difficult for Mom. My satisfaction is bittersweet as she accepts my acts of giving, but is not fully aware of what I’m doing. The window of opportunity for Mom and me to have a loving friendship is gone–forever. Our time has passed. I take whatever good feelings I can from the present, aware Mom and I never experienced a deep mother/daughter connection and sadly…never will.

 

Boldly Going Nowhere…JC

Photos by Third Eye Photography

Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier is my travel memoir of a bold, four month RV adventure by conventional ‘sixty-somethings’ into the wilds of Alaska. If you would like to be a follower of this blog, Google, Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier, go to the blog and click on the follow button.

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Beginning of the End

denali river hike12

Denali National Park and Preserve. Photo by Third Eye Photography

“And the days dwindle down to a precious few. I guess that’s how I feel. Our Alaskan adventure is definitely winding down. Rebecca leaves on Saturday and “J” and I are going to turn the ol’ Laura Lee east and head home. The three of us have gotten into such a good rhythm, feeding on each other’s good vibes. One, plus one, plus one, definitely equals way more than three. We laughed, sang, explored, feared and experienced so much together. Our incredible bond has gotten stronger. And surprise, surprise, the bubble of the Laura Lee is big enough for the three of us. Each day, the living gets even more comfortable. Without Rebecca, the Laura Lee will seem way too big!

…I feel like crying from incredible happiness and fullness, as well as the sadness of the endings. My emotions are raw and exposed.”

                                                                                                                                     Stan’s journal entry

 

Silently sitting at the picnic table, we eat our cold cereal. Like bees buzzing around the hydrangeasIMG_8950 on a summers’ morning, the campers around us ready themselves for the day. The three of us stare at our bowls, lost in thought. Today is our scheduled departure from Teklanika Campground and from Denali. We’re feeling a little down.

Stan looks up from his empty bowl. “Let’s drive to the park office and see if we can get a campsite for another few nights,” he suggests. Our spirits lift at the possibility of postponing our inevitable departure.

Although campsites are reserved a year in advance, we drive to the mercantile at the park’s entrance to see if there’s one available. We’re in luck. There’s a cancellation at the Savage River Campground. A few hours later, after showering, doing our laundry, checking messages online, buying supplies, dumping the wastes from our holding tanks, filling up the water tank, we head out.

There’s a terrific view of Denali from the Savage River Campground and its quiet here. We’re not as deep into the interior as we were, but I’m immensely grateful that we’re still here. After settling in, we hike the nearby riverbed zigzagging across the muddy river. I slip from the riverbank into the shallow water several times and Stan and Rebecca don’t have much luck staying dry either.

IMG_8901

The Teklanika River becomes impassable at times.

I think of Chris McCandless, the twenty-four year-old who hiked out not far from here in the spring of 1992 to live alone, off the land by his own wits. Jon Krakauer chronicled McCandless’s story in the book, “Into the Wild.” When McCandless hiked the Stampede Trail, twenty miles into Denali he carried with him little more than a ten-pound bag of rice, a rifle and some paperback books. He came upon an abandoned bus and made his home there. For four months, he hunted small game and gathered edible plants for sustenance, but then something went terribly wrong. McCandless was getting weaker by the day, possibly by relying too heavily on the seedpods of the wild potato plant, which can be toxic. When he tried to hike out, the Teklanika River had turned into a swollen torrent he could not cross. Chris retreated back to the bus and passed away shortly after, only four months into his grand experiment to forsake all materialism and live off the land. Found in the bus was a piece of wood on which Chris had carved: “It is the experiences, the memories, the great triumphant joy of living to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found.”

JC wanders into an Alaskan garden believing in the possibilities. Photo by Third Eye Photography

JC wanders into an Alaskan garden believing in the possibilities. Photo by Third Eye Photography

I too, have experimented in the Alaskan wilderness in my own way, testing my courage and resilience, my endurance and my adventurous spirit while deepening my spirituality. Surely, in a far different way than Chris McCandless, but I also discovered things about myself. I looked fear in the eye and kept going. I felt the rhythm of the primal beat watching the wild animals run free. Staring into the dark icy abyss, I melted into the glaciers. I became a part of the mountains hiking their rocky paths. I lived on the land, under the stars deepening my respect for nature’s awesome power. Alaska’s raw virginal beauty beckoned me, singing its wild song. It convinced me all things are possible.

Early the next morning, we set out on our bikes and head towards the entrance, a twenty-five mile ride. I scan the side of the road smiling, remembering how last week the bus driver, on our way to Wonder Lake pointed to some bikers calling them the bears’ “Meals on Wheels,” but I feel safer on a bike than I do out hiking. I power up the hills convinced I could out-pedal any bear. I’ve never felt so healthy and strong as I have these past months in Alaska. It seems to bring out my best, encouraging me to push the limits while connecting with an inner strength and determination often hidden in everyday life.

 

Boldly Going Nowhere…JC

Photos by Third Eye Photography

Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier is my travel memoir of a bold, four month RV adventure by conventional ‘sixty-somethings’ into the wilds of Alaska. If you would like to be a follower of this blog, Google, Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier, go to the blog and click on the follow button.

A Wild Encounter

Stan and Rebecca hike into the tundra.

Stan and Rebecca hike into the tundra.

The hours slip by as we hike into the tundra. Spreading our jackets on a rocky mound, we stop to rest and eat some trail mix. As we near the road, a white jeep zips towards us with dust clouds circling behind. Reaching us, it stops. I’m surprised this far into the park to see any vehicles, especially something other than an occasional shuttle bus.

A park ranger cranes his neck out the jeep’s window. “There’s a sow with two cubs headed your way. Bears travel ‘bout fifteen miles an hour and I’d say they’re a few miles up the road. Be careful,” he warns driving off.

Confused by this sudden news flash, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do. I want to yell, “Hey, stop…wait a minute…take us with you,” but he’s gone. We’re alone. I don’t want to believe him. The bears could veer off and head away from us. They could wander up the ridge. Not convinced, I’m on edge as I scan the landscape. It doesn’t make sense to walk in the opposite direction. There’s nothing that way, just more tundra. It’s late and we want to get back to our campsite, not further into the wilderness. After talking it over, we decide to continue hiking towards Polychrome Pass, staying close to the road–it’s our best bet to catch a bus, if one ever comes. We walk towards the oncoming bears, even though they’re the last thing I want to encounter.

Rebecca has her camera ready. After being on safari in Kenya with her college Semester at Sea

A sow and her two cubs suddenly appear.

A sow and her two cubs suddenly appear. Photo by Third Eye Photography

program, she’s prepared for a wild encounter. However, she was with guides while in the African bush–and the Masaai warriors, who killed lions as their coming-of-age ritual were her trusted protectors. We have bells and a whistle. We’re trapped with no place to go, no place to hide. What the hell is a whistle going to do? What are we going to do if we come face to face with grizzlies? I know I’m not the same woman I was while camping in Yosemite, hiding in my tent with my eyes closed, pretending the bears wouldn’t know I was there. My eyes are wide open now. I’m aware and feel more confident in my ability to deal with the risks, to keep looking–even at the thing I fear. The bells on my backpack jingle.

Suddenly…just yards away…Ursus Arctos Horribilis…a grizzly sow and her two cubs, heads to the ground consuming every berry in sight.

IMG_9487

Sows will go to any lengths to protect their young. Photo by Third Eye Photography

The sow doesn’t look up from her feeding frenzy. Good, she hasn’t detected us. Her blonde fur shimmers in the sunlight. She’s beautiful, compact, but substantial, weighing probably four or five hundred pounds. Intimidating. Her two young cubs graze close-by, only a few yards from their mother. If she moves a few feet, the cubs move a few feet, without even lifting their heads. They’re a lot smaller and quite round, two hundred pounds or more. This family trio boasts jagged teeth and razor sharp claws.

Rebecca tiptoes towards them holding her tripod and camera. What is she doing? Stay back…Keep your distance. I follow close behind–this mother protecting her cub. I feel emboldened by their apparent indifference. Careful…They’re grizzlies…Watch those cubs…Rebecca raises her camera framing the bears.

Walking forward two steps, my legs prickle…I step back…My heart hammers so hard it hurts. At this juncture of excitement and terror, when I feel both propelled forward, yet pulled back, these urges merge and a primal feeling ignites my being. Hypnotized by the raw power of wildness so close to me, I almost feel a part of it.

The sow lifts her head and sniffs the air…She wrinkles her softball-sized nose… Her hair stands on end…She knows we’re here…She’ll charge to protect her cubs…She’ll do anything for her cubs…Rebecca slowly steps back.

My mind races. We’ve learned some tactics along the way. We need to bunch together, so we look big. As if reading my mind, Stan comes up alongside of me, moves between Rebecca and me putting his arms around us.

The bear moves a step closer to her cubs who are still focused on eating. Turning, she looks right at

The sow looks right at us. Photo by Third Eye Photography.

The sow looks right at us. Photo by Third Eye Photography.

us…Bares her teeth…Holy shit…She’s serious…Take it easy…She’s warning us…Stay where you are…I want to run…Run as fast as I can…Get the hell out of here. But, if we run, she’ll think we’re prey and chase us…and catch us…Run and we’re prey or…Fight a five hundred pound wild animal?

Stan commands in a deep voice…Keep away…Stay with your cubs…We won’t hurt you. With arms wrapped tightly around each other, we back away…Slowly… One tiny step at a time.

The sow moves closer to her cubs…Keep going…We’re leaving…We won’t hurt your cubs.

Stan waves his arms to appear formidable…Rebecca and I wave ours…I can’t feel them, but I keep waving…Stan talks forcefully, letting the bear know we’re humans. This strategy worked when we came across that bear in McCarthy.

IMG_9452

If we run, the bears think we’re prey and will chase us. Photo by Third Eye Photography

Never turn your back…Never…The sow moves forward a step…She’s looking right at us…Time freezes….Don’t run…I want to run…Stand your ground…We inch backwards…Aware of every muscle she moves.

I remember the whistle hanging around my neck…I grab it and blow hard… The bear stops…I keep blowing…She turns her head to the side lifting it, as if something, maybe some smell has distracted her. She lowers her head and resumes grazing. That’s right…Keep eating…Everyone keep eating…We’re going…Our eyes are locked on the sow as we step farther and farther away.

Out of nowhere, a shuttle bus pulls up from behind and the door opens.

“Get in. You’re way too close to those grizzlies. Hurry up!” the driver barks.

Startled, we follow his directive, glancing at the bears as we take a seat in the back of the bus. People are staring at us. For a brief moment, we have celebrity status. We were the ones outside the cage. The three of us look at each other and smile–a wild encounter with a happy ending.

The driver lectures us for being so close to the bears.  “People have been mauled in the park by rogue bears. A sow, cubs and humans are a dangerous mix. You’re lucky I came by when I did.” He’s right about that!

“Fireworks,” I declare, “a day full of explosive animal fireworks.”

sunset in denali5

A dramatic ending to a dramatic day. Photo by Third Eye Photography.

Wandering outside after dinner, Rebecca and I embrace. I guess scaring myself silly every once in awhile is more than an antidote to the boredom of everyday life. It teaches me humility and respect, showing me I’m no greater or less than any wild creature. We are all connected in some mysterious way.

I’m now more aware of how fear paralyzes when I deny it; just as I’m aware of how, if I’m willing to open my eyes to the fearful feelings, it can free me as I pass through it and into the light.

The day’s adventures have filled us. Our emotions, so close to the surface, overflow. As the night curtain comes down, a dazzling sunset sets the sky afire.

 

Boldly Going Nowhere…JC

Photos by Third Eye Photography

Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier is my travel memoir of a bold, four month RV adventure by conventional ‘sixty-somethings’ into the wilds of Alaska. If you would like to be a follower of this blog, Google, Rubber Tramping Through The Last Frontier, go to the blog and click on the follow button.