Scarlett’s Letter September 27, 2013

I’ve arrived at my hotel for the night, a Marriott, of course, at Newark Liberty International Airport. I like it here, I’ve been to this hotel before. As long as you make a point of eating at a “real” restaurant before arriving, this is not a bad place at all. Okay, so I’m an “Elite Member” with Marriott, so maybe I’m a bit biased and probably a little spoiled. As I sit in my 9th story room on the corner of the building with the curtains to both of my windows opened, I am enthralled with all the hustle and bustle surrounding me. Yet, I hear only the fan in my room. I can see three airplanes on final approach, beacons blazing, headed right for me, it seems. I hear nothing. Out my other window, I see one of the terminals and behind it, airplanes taking off every so many seconds. I hear no noise. Beyond the runway, off to the left, I can see the skyline of Manhattan, the Empire State is easy to pick out from the line up and all the lights sparkle like the sun on moving water. Of course I’d rather be THERE, in Manhattan, but as I have an early flight from HERE in the morning, this is where I’ll be. I can also see cars and trains and buses, all scurrying about on surface streets and elevated routes at several levels from my windows, yet, I hear nothing. This excites me. I like it here. Temporarily, of course.

For as much as I complain about New Jersey, other than jughandles, I actually rather like it. Well, we’ll include downtown Newark in the icky pile with all the  jughandles. But, for the most part, the suburbs of Newark that I’ve frequented are pretty nice, once you get off any of the several highways, the Interstate, the Turnpike or the Parkway that all criss-cross, intersect and merge and divide into and apart from each other. Repeatedly.

The people here are nice, once you get used to their general forthrightness and their accent, they are, for the most part, very accommodating and very pleasant. I still marvel at how a single syllable word anywhere else is four syllables here. It humors me. Maybe they’re all nice to me because I’m always smiling at them, and I’m always smiling at them because they talk funny.

I won’t say I’ve mastered driving here, by any stretch, but I get where I need to go and usually on time, though I do allow a little extra time for travel than I might otherwise. And it is comforting to know that the residents struggle with it nearly as much as I do. Traffic, routes and dialogue about driving occupied the first ten minutes of every morning before my class began. The weather was only mentioned once in four days, navigating Jersey style was discussed four times every day. I spoke with a nice young waiter at an Indian restaurant the other night, originally from Dubai, and he admitted that he has no idea where anything is in relation to other places. Being a backpacker, I usually have a fair grasp of direction anywhere I go, I orient myself  quickly. Here, I don’t know which way is which and since it takes twelve turns to execute a direction change, getting one’s bearings is next to impossible. I do know Interstate 80 runs east and west, but only because it originates on the west coast and ends up in Maryland. The young waiter from Dubai says he just follows directions and eventually gets where he needs to go. So do I. Thank goodness for my Nuvii, top of the line Nuvii, and worth every penny with lifetime updates and three-dimensional graphic lane assist with a split screen showing a graphic of the exit, a map with my route highlighted, and a diagram as to which of the several lanes I should be in when I exit. Only occasionally do I have a hard time glancing down and taking in all the information in time to execute the correct turn, merge, or lane change. The poor narrator, though, simply cannot narrate the turns, twists, and “jug handles” quickly enough, sometimes causing me to miss a turn or exit.  He will say something like, “take ramp right, now turn left, GET OFF ON THE RIGHT!” He yells, in rapid succession, with genuine and sincere alarm, perhaps even concern, for my navigational well-being. And not because I’m not following his directions, but because there are that many points of navigation in mere feet. No worries, if I miss the turn it only takes 57 additional turns to correct it.

Jughandles; to turn right to make a left hand turn or a U-Turn. Only here can a U-Turn be a two-mile detour. And I say I like this place? It’s what’s at the end of the navigational nightmare that makes it all worthwhile; amazing shopping venues and even amazinger restaurants. The only bad meal I had all week was at my hotel the night of my arrival, and I consented to it only because I was too tired to go anywhere else. I’d planned on driving to my clients’ office, to get an idea of where it was and what I was up against to navigate there in the morning. I figured I’d grab a nice meal while I was out. I turned on my Nuvii, plugged in my clients’ address and found they were immediately across the street from my hotel and I could walk. Which, by the way, from what I can tell, no one does around here. Since I didn’t have to leave the hotel to make a “dry run” to my clients’ office, I opted to stay in for dinner, too. I’ve had good food in hotels before, just not in Marriott’s. Seems like a missed opportunity J.W.

It is a nice place to relax and just take in the activity outside my picture windows. My only agenda for the night; to write, to relax, to charge all my devices and to kill this last bottle of wine so I don’t have to schlep it home. It won’t fit, anyway. You recall my mention of those fab shopping venues, right? Oh. Yes. I did.

Driving in New Jersey leaves me completely and totally directionally challenged.
Driving in New Jersey leaves me completely and totally directionally challenged.

 

Scarlett’s Letter September 25, 2013

How alarming.

When I travel, I always use my iPhones for my morning alarm. I set two on one phone, my personal phone, an AT&T phone and two on my other phone, my work phone, a Verizon phone. I figure I have my bases covered in so doing. I never use the clock radio provided by the hotel. Ever. As a matter of fact, if there is a clock radio anywhere in my midst at bedtime, I turn it around so the time cannot be viewed. I used to be a terrible insomniac. I learned that we all wake up many, many times during the night. Most of us just don’t realize it and fall right back asleep without any issue, and so don’t remember waking and, therefore, aren’t concerned with it. If there is a timepiece visible, however, if you wake up enough to note the time, you remember waking up. You usually end up accounting for all the times you awake each night, and before long, it kind of stresses you out. The more you stress out about waking up, the more you wake up. If you turn clocks so you can’t see them, and learn to manage your stress, soon, especially if you eat healthfully and exercise regularly, you’ll sleep much better, most of the time.

Last night was my second night at this hotel in Saddle Brook, New Jersey. Yesterday morning, the clock radio alarm did not go off. The first of my four iPhone alarms did, at which point, I quickly turned off the others and got out of bed. I got ready and went to work. It wasn’t until I got to work that it occurred to me that I’d forgot to leave a tip for the housekeeper. I don’t tip a whole bunch, just a couple of bucks and a note saying “Thanks!” I’m pretty fastidious and other than a couple of long, curly hairs on the floor and a few towels that need replacing in the bathroom, things are spotless. I even make my bed. But, I forgot the tip this morning and I felt a little bad.

This morning at 5:00 am I was bludgeoned out of sleep by the loudest most obnoxious foreign noise I’ve ever experienced, the clock radio. It was turned against the wall in my dark room, so I groped for the offensive, shrieking object, unsuccessfully, had to flail my arms about until I found the light switch, try to focus, grab the clock radio and then try to figure out which buttons to slide or push or press to make the noise stop. At last I succeeded.

My alarms were set for 6:00, 6:01, 6:02 and 6:03. That gave me ample time to have breakfast, get ready and walk to my clients’ office building conveniently located immediately across the street from the hotel. As usual, I’d packed my workout gear, and, as usual, had every intention of working out every day, morning or night, however it was managed, and, as usual, didn’t. I’ve been eating out every meal for weeks and I’m beginning to fill my jeans and slacks out more than I like. I feel lousy. I have a marathon coming up. So, I’m laying there, thinking about all of this, the light again turned off, hoping for another hour of sleep. Finally, I did what the well-intended, disciplined inner me hoped I would. I threw the covers back, turned the light on, strode over to my suitcase, pulled out my gym clothes, went downstairs to the hotel gym and did a full hour of cardio. I felt amazing all day long. And I was sure to leave a tip with a nice thank you note for housekeeping.

I did not set that alarm clock. And there is no way, no how, that I slid the lever to the on position, after examining it, when I turned the clock around for the night. It would’ve taken a certain amount of force to engage the slider and move it the distance required for the alarm setting to be on. I examined all of this forensically. That’s what I do. The only person I know of that entered my room in my absence was the housekeeper. I mean, I’m the only one here, I travel alone 99.9% of the time. My daughter accompanies me to New York City, but most certainly not to New Jersey. I could account for both keys the front desk gave me, so it’s not like someone obtained one of my keys, entered my room and turned the alarm on! That would be absurd, anyway. And, certainly, if someone broke in, they would certainly want something more than to turn on the alarm on the clock radio. Like my shoes. Or my chocolate. Or my wine. I had to wonder, did housekeeping set the alarm because I didn’t leave a tip? No. That couldn’t be. Would they do that? I’ve forgotten the tip before and this kind of thing didn’t happen. But, maybe less obvious retaliation has occurred that went unnoticed. A dirty glass? Or that time the shampoo was replaced with hand lotion. Or that other time that the blue mouthwash was replaced with blue shower gel. That was gross. I buy and carry my own mouthwash now. And read labels on tiny bottles very, very, very carefully.

Come to think of it, for some reason, yesterday afternoon, my hotel room door was stuck shut. The lock disengaged, but it was physically stuck. To exit and enter I had to tug and pull and really use brute force. Today, it is fine. Had something sticky been applied to the door to make it stick? I’m not usually a suspicious person, I rarely adhere to conspiracy theories. But, these little things kind of had me bothered. So, yah, I made double darned sure I left a tip when I went to work this morning. When I returned, the door opened with ease and the alarm was off. I went ahead and turned it on. For 5:00 AM. I’m going to get up and work out again tomorrow. I reset all my phone alarms for 5:00 AM, too. I learned two lessons from my alarming morning; 1) always leave a tip and 2) it isn’t all that difficult to motivate oneself to get out of bed an extra hour early for an energizing and beneficial workout.

 

 

Scarlett’s Letter September 16, 2013

The first thing anyone from Glasgow, Montana will tell you about their town is, “the closest Wal Mart is three and a half hours away”. I’m not sure if they think that’s a good thing, or a bad thing. I’m not a Wal Mart fan, but, as there is no Target anywhere nearby either, I am a little distressed. I’m glad I packed EVERYTHING like I was entering some survivalist game.

I knew to do this simply based on the trials of making travel arrangements. We are “required” to use a certain online booking agency, with a special division devoted solely to our company, for all of our business travel. That way, all of our geographical price restrictions and limitations are integrated into the reservation making process. For example, if I want to book a hotel in a certain city, I must first consult a spreadsheet to see what the nightly limit is for that particular city, then remain below that limit, or request, in advance of booking, manager approval. This is new, by the way. The per day meal expense limitation was diminished last year. When I started, there wasn’t one. So. Not. Happy. When I started this job five and a half years ago, as long as you didn’t expense an extravagant dinner and bar tab for twenty at an upscale restaurant, you were golden. As long as you didn’t book the presidential suite and charge your pay-per-view movies, you were golden. Now we are budgeted on hotels and dining. Hmmm.

So, I’m online. I manage to book a flight. It’s hella expensive, but it is the ONLY flight that day to Glasgow and has a six-hour layover in Billings, Montana. That’s the easy part. I search for hotels and the online travel agency can’t find any hotels nearby. I’ve only been to two other places where I’ve encountered this; some place in Arkansas where I did actually have to commute from Texarkana, forty minutes, to the tiny burg the client had their office at. The other time was for this very client in Glendive, Montana. According to Expedia and their related companies, Montana has no hotels. It gets better, or worse. I try to secure a rental car. No such thing. I have only encountered this one time before, in over five years of frequent business travel, and, again, for this client, in Glendive, Montana.

I’m beginning to have post-traumatic stress syndrome-like flashbacks of business travel in rural Montana.

A couple of years back, and then some, I was on a very long, extended, multi-week trip. I had two consecutive weeks in New Jersey and Pennsylvania on my schedule, same firm, but at a different location in a different city, each and every day. There was virtually no way to get home on Saturday and out again on Sunday and, actually, I ended up spending Easter Sunday, by myself, three thousand miles from home, having brunch at a steak house somewhere in New Jersey. The third week, I was to be in Montana. Again, there was no way to get home and then to Montana in time for my sessions to begin the next week. I think there were a couple of flights that would have made it physically possible, but I would only be home, literally, three hours. The miles would have been great, but I’d already made Platinum with United and wasn’t close enough to 100k to exert the effort.

So, I headed to Montana directly from Philadelphia. That was an adventure. I flew from Philly to Denver on a 737. In Denver, I switched to some tiny little plane and headed for Billings. I’ve flown tiny little planes before, and really don’t mind, except that the pilots look younger than my kids. As we make our final approach into Billings, the pilot turns around, yes, turns around, and says, “We can’t land. The wind is higher than this plane is rated for. We’re going to circle for a bit and hope the wind let up.” Fine. Hope is great but should never be considered a plan. My only question; how much fuel do we have? The fuel tank can’t be much bigger than the one in my SUV. We make a few laps around the airport and, miraculously, the wind has let up just enough for us to land without the wings snapping off the airplane. Excellent.

From Billings, I board an even smaller plane. I am the only woman. Not that it matters, but, yah. We make one stop, somewhere, at a tiny airport, a couple of guys get off, a couple of guys get on. Then next stop is Glendive. We land. The airport is, pretty much, just a metal outbuilding you’d find for sale at Home Depot to store your riding mower and a couple of bicycles in. I deplane. I’m the only one that deplanes. I’ve made arrangements for “the” rental car with Earl. I meet Earl inside, a nice older gentleman that reminds me of Barney Pheiff from Mayberry. We get in Earl’s beat up old minivan. There are stacks of paper covering the entire dashboard and as much paper covering every seat but his and mine. We drive a quarter mile or so to a deserted hangar where I “fill out paperwork”. I usually rent cars from National, where I am delivered by bus to a large lot and I’m “on file”, as an “Executive Member” and I just go get in a car and wave a little as I pass through a kiosk. Not quite. But I stop at the kiosk briefly and provide my ID so they know I’ve arrived, per my reservation, and that’s it. Earl has me write shit down on paper and then sign it. I do.

Paperwork complete, we get back in the minivan and drive back to the airport. I see all the big, strapping men from my flight milling around outside the “terminal”. Earl explains that their flight to Sydney (Montana, not Australia) didn’t depart because there was ice on the runway there and they wouldn’t be able to land. They all climb in and we drive to the Jeep dealership. I’m thinking, “Cool! I get to drive a new Jeep!” Nope. We drive around behind the dealership to a dusty, lone vehicle parked on a gravel lot. I don’t even remember what it was. Nowhere near new and looking a bit decrepit, forlorn and neglected. The car. Not me. Yet. I get in, bid Earl, et al, adieu and chug off in the only rental car in town. I’m on my way to the hotel I found online, but not on the company endorsed website. I’m staying one night, then I’m to drive to Medora, North Dakota, an hour or so away, to a “resort” where the client has arranged a conference room and projector and this is going to be a retreat/training for the whole firm. Ok. My GPS instructs me to get on the Interstate and head in a certain direction. I chug along in my gutless, little rental car, which, by the way, has a serious front-end alignment issue.

I get about a mile and am approaching my off ramp for my hotel for the night. But the road is blocked with traffic, mostly big rigs. The off ramp is full and nothing seems to be moving. I see a cop car and flashing lights at the top of the ramp and I’m wondering “WTF?” I wait and wait and wait. I’m getting a little irritated but am helpless to move. At this point, I am in this tiny, seemingly ill and untrustworthy little tin can of a car and I am the only passenger vehicle amidst a sea of big rigs. At long last, traffic moves, directed by the cop. I make it to the top of the ramp and notice that the street is lined with big rigs, on both sides, in both directions, for as far as I can see. All I can smell are diesel fumes. I wind my way through the maze of trucks, to my hotel, one of three, all of which are no more than two stars. Combined. Thankfully, I have my reservation because every room in town has been taken. It seems that the road is closed one exit up, due to ice on the highway into North Dakota. Yes, the very highway I must navigate first thing in the morning, in a car with a shaky front end that pulls dangerously to the left when the brakes are applied. And, keep in mind, I’m a Cali girl. Do people actually drive in the snow? And ice?

There are no restaurants on Open Table, why am I surprised. But, according to the toothless fella at the front desk that looks like the poster child for too much fried food, the place across the street is pretty good. The best in town. Alrighty, then. I head over there, order a glass of red wine and something to eat. It was good, even if I can’t remember what it was. I order a second glass of wine, hell, I only have to cross the street on foot, so why not? When I order my second glass, the waitress smiles, leaves, and returns with the glass filled all the way up to the rim. She understands.

The “hotel” has no elevator. Mind you, I have two suitcases. Two heavy suitcases. I’ve packed for three weeks. I’m thinking the only reason they call this a “hotel” is because it has a second story with an interior hallway, but, really, it’s a motel that is two-story and has an interior hallway. I lug my suitcases upstairs to my room, open the door, and if I’d had any energy or emotion left, I might have cried. I think I curled up, in a fetal position, in bed, trying not to think about what else may have been curled up, in a fetal position, on this bed, in the recent past. I slept. The next morning, I went to the front desk to check out. Luckily, I was told, the highway was open. Icy. But open. I ventured on.

It was sunny as I headed in whatever direction North Dakota was. East, I’d imagine. There were tall snowdrifts on both sides of the road, and much to my dismay, every mile or so, the snowdrift was punctuated on one side, the other, or both, with a car that had gone off the road and was stuck, apparently hopelessly, nose first, in the snow bank. My only thought was, “and these people know how to drive in this shit.” I had a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel as I travelled cautiously down the highway. The steering wheel jittered in my grasp as the misaligned front wheels tried, in vain, to track true along the road. I saw something in the road ahead. The early morning sun was glaring brightly off the snow, off the wet road and was gleaming off of whatever was in the road ahead. As I approached the flat object on the pavement, it occurred to me, it was ice. Nice. Ice. My mind is doing a quick Ctrl + F to search for “how to drive across ice at an elevated speed”. No results found.  I gripped the wheel tighter, squeezed my eyes shut, turned my head slightly towards the left, I don’t know why, I do that in scary movies, too. I crossed the ice. And lived. This method seemed to work well on the next three hundred and thirty eight ice patches. I made it to Medora, North Dakota unscathed, a little shaky and very relieved. I had a lovely, lovely week with my client.

It is to the same firm I am returning this week. Same firm, different location. They have three. In the three least likely locations in Montana. This week, yes, Glasgow. Home of the Scotties and about three thousand people. And no Wal Mart.

I get up at my usual 1:00 AM for a 6:00 AM flight out of Sacramento this morning. I’ve done the math over and over and it is, absolutely, five hours from alarm clock to push back from the gate, no matter whether I fly out of San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento. I choose Sacramento because it’s such a nice little airport, and, frankly, quite like home to me. I’m on a first name basis with the bus drivers from the economy lot. I fly Delta to Salt Lake City. I don’t normally fly Delta, in fact, I avoid Delta. The only thing I like about Delta is the fact that the miles I earn with Delta can be spent on Alaska Airlines. I like the airport in Salt Lake City, where, in fact, you will find the best drinking venues in all the U.S. SLC has an outstanding microbrew community offering some fantastic beers with some very clever names. I love the Polygamy Porter, for example. No time for beer this time. I switch planes on a fairly short timeframe and head for Billings and my six-hour layover.

In Billings I am to switch airlines from Delta to “Island”. I was told in Sacramento by the Delta ticketing agent that I’d have to deplane, claim my bags, check my bags with the other airline, and go back through security. I deplaned, claimed my bags, and went in search of my airline. Island Air. I’m not aware of any islands in Montana, but that was the name of the carrier. So I thought. But, as I walked up and down the ticketing counters in Billings, I only saw Delta, Alaska, Allegiant and Silver. Delta, Alaska and Allegiant had a regular line with the Disneyland type zigzag barricades. Silver had a very small sign taped to the counter and no attendant. Apparently, Silver and Island were one in the same, or so I was told upon my eventual inquiry. I stood at the counter for a period of time until, at last, one of the Delta agents came over to assist me. I was told my flight was delayed a few hours, and so, my bags would be checked for free. Nice. I guess. I handed over my luggage and considered what to do with my day. I thought about going in to town, but I was on cash basis today. My Corporate American Express had been hacked Friday and shut off. Some miscreant was at a Home Depot in New York City racking up charges on my Corporate Card. I love that Am Ex caught it in, like, ten seconds. They texted me twice on two phones, called and left voicemails on three numbers and sent me emails at three email addresses. I felt popular for a minute there. A new card was sent out to me, but due to timing, didn’t make the cutoff for overnight delivery to my house on Saturday. My new card would meet me at my hotel in Glasgow later tonight, Monday. I decided to hang around the airport, rather than tempt myself in town with dining and shopping possibilities. Another time. I’m sure.

I find the one and only restaurant outside security and head there for lunch. And beer. I’ve got eight or more hours to kill. I have pork tenderloin for lunch, which was good, but typical for this part of the country. Mostly meat, sad salad of iceberg lettuce and a waxy, orange tomato slice, big, fat, greasy fries and a pickle. And, the fries are entirely too close to the pickle and have soaked up all the pickle juice. Ew. I have two local beers with lunch. I go pee after lunch. I head to the bar and have two more local beers, all different. All good. I decide to make my way through security while I’m still upright. Now, I travel a lot, as you well know. I have been through most of the major airports in the U.S. And, if you’ve read many of my articles, you also know that I have a long-running experiment with TSA. I carry a bottle of mouthwash and a tube of toothpaste in my purse, which I never remove to the bin. I leave it my purse. I also have a bottle of eye drops in my computer bag, again, which I don’t remove to the bins as per instruction. I have had them in my purse for nearly two years and they have never been detected, even when the bags have been hand searched because of all the electrical cords I carry for all my devices. I usually skate right through security, I get a little pat on my ass for the bling on my Miss Me jeans, which is routine, and which I enjoy joking about, but that’s it.

Billings International Airport, apparently, seems to think they will be the origin of the next big terrorist event. There were no less than ten TSA agents milling about, pretty much just making everyone’s lives difficult. They re-ran everyone’s bags multiple times. They interrogated everyone in line. The guy checking ID’s almost didn’t let me pass because my name has a hyphen on my ID but not on my ticket, it’s all run together into one word. I’ve travelled this way without the bat of an eye for over half a decade. Anyway. I finally make it through security and head for the bar where I have a couple more local brews. And a slice of pizza. And another beer. About the time my plane was originally scheduled to leave I grew antsy. I decided to go to the gate and check on the status. My app on my phone never updated the departure time for the delay the ticketing agent spoke of. My app has never failed me. I teach tomorrow morning, I have to be in Glasgow tonight.

I get to the gate and, by golly, they’re boarding. App never fails me. Again. Always right, always true. I’ve known about delays and cancellations before the gate agents, on multiple occasions. It’s “Flight Track Pro”, if you’re curious. I swear by it. We board a tiny plane, about the same size as the one I went skydiving out of in July. I’m amused, of course I’ve had seven beers in six hours, everything is amusing. The very young pilots board and we take off, boarding to flight in about three minutes. As we take off, the man across the aisle from me notices some liquid coming from the engine, “that’s not right”, he says, and walks up to the cockpit and tells the pilot. No, there is no door, you can see the pilots up there, picking their noses and popping their zits. Yes, they still have acne. We land at the next little town, Wolf Point. We are told we must all deplane while they check out the mysterious liquid. Mind you, the man who pointed it out is at his final destination. The rest of us, three of us, are not. We have another leg of this flight. On this plane. I say, “the plane was flying just fine, can we just go?” Again, I’m amused, but no one goes along with me. We go into the terminal, not much more grand than the one in Glendive. We sit and wait. A big lifted truck pulls up. It’s the mechanic, he lives at the end of the runway. I’m thinking that’s great! Quick! Quick! And we’ll be on our way. Here’s the problem. The air service to these remote Montana towns is what is called EAS. Essential Air Service. And some airline agrees to serve these towns, and I assume, at a great financial loss. Last time I flew through here it was a different airline and one that was terminating their service imminently. As evidenced by the signs taped to every blank surface that read “it’s been fun, but …” this airline was supposed to have terminated its service a month or so ago, but agreed to hang on just a bit longer until the next, hapless airline takes over. Unfortunately, they’d already dismissed the mechanic that was now looking at our plane. And, as he wasn’t employed by the airline anymore, wasn’t willing to say whether the plane was okay to go on, or not. The liquid, as it was explained, repeatedly, was probably just water from the plane being washed down moments before we departed Billings, but no one was willing to sign off on that. A call was placed to headquarters (aka, the lawyer). An hour later, we were told we weren’t able to fly to our next destination. But, as luck would have it, an employee of the airline would drive an hour from Glasgow, pick us up and drive us there.

An hour passes. There is no beer. Thankfully, there is a cell signal, so I’m texting and talking on the phone. More time passes and still no ride. A woman pulls up, comes in, ignores us, collects the pilots, and heads off. They got a ride. We didn’t. But, a while later, another car arrives and we are beckoned forth. There are three of us, so I imagined a van or something to accommodate our luggage and all. Nope. It is a dismal passenger car from maybe the 1990’s. One of such poor design and workmanship that I didn’t even recognize the make and model as familiar in any respect. I’m thinking it’s probably in a worse state of disrepair than the airplane. We pile in and take off down a flat, straight, dark road. We are regaled with the high points of Glasgow; first, there isn’t a Wal Mart within three and a half hours, second, there is only one hotel worth staying in, and, thankfully, it’s the one I’ve booked, as has everyone else in the car, including the driver, as she is only in Glasgow until the airline departs for the final time in a few weeks. Third, there is a lake that is worth seeing, Fort Peck, with the largest earthen damn or some damned thing. I make a mental note, though I am really too tired to really take in much more stimuli today.

We stop by the Glasgow International Airport on the way in to town to pick up the rental car I managed to locate after an entire day of Googling and playing phone tag. I drive to the hotel. I check in. Despite the fact that someone else’s food is in the fridge, and God only knows how long it’s been there, and, there’s blood on the pillowcase on one of the two beds, I change into my jammies and I crash, in the other bed. By this point, I’ve been up nearly twenty-four hours and I have to get up in a few short hours to work. I didn’t even have the luxury of locating my clients’ office the night before as I routinely do. I’ll just have to get up earlier and manage it in the morning. And, so begins my week in Glasgow.

An Effort to Evolve An Effort to Evolve

An Effort to Evolve An Effort to Evolve An Effort to Evolve An Effort to Evolve An Effort to Evolve

Scarlett’s Letter September 12, 2013

I went for a run this morning. It was cool and overcast when I set out, incentive, plus, I needed to run, I’ve been a slug all week. I’ll be traveling for work, again, the next couple of weeks, and that damn marathon is really beginning to loom large on my fitness calendar.

I’ve been running for about a year and a half now. Ninety percent of that running has taken place with my running club, in Sacramento, where we run along the lovely, American River Parkway, devoid of automobile traffic, crosswalks, traffic signals and other perils. Only recently have I begun to run on the street. It is very different, not nearly as scenic, and quite a bit more hazardous, even with bike lanes and sidewalks. Even the streets of Napa. Particularly the streets of Napa, perhaps.

My favorite six and a half mile loop, and a major portion of my favorite twelve-mile loop, encompasses an area of Napa that not many tourists see. I run past liquor stores, nail salons, past a couple of schools (by far the most dangerous traffic, ever, minivans and distracted moms), a gas station where all of the city buses, tour buses and limousines fuel, a couple of hotels, and several trailer parks. That’s the ugly side of my run, the part of Napa that not many tourists see, except for the hotels. At precisely the half waypoint, I, literally, round a corner and am running along a rural road lined with vineyards dotted with traditional Napa farmhouses and a few ostentatious villas. I like to run the same direction around this loop for two reasons, to avoid having to keep crossing the street to be on the “correct” shoulder and, to end my run on the more scenic side.

I am convinced that more people should run, or cycle, or ride motorcycles, because runners and cyclists, like motorcyclists, are much more attuned to the perils of traffic, they know to look, not once, but twice. If I am running on the “correct” side of the road and approach a driveway or intersection where a driver aims to make a left hand turn, I know, almost certainly, they will only quickly glance right as the execute the turn and probably won’t see me, no matter how much fluorescent clothing I’m wearing. I usually just run into the parking lot and skirt around behind them to avoid any unplanned encounter, and I do so at a distance.

In “urban running”, major intersections and crosswalks throw my time off, which makes me distraught, I can’t help it, I’m a calendar and clock kind of girl. Time matters. When I look back on my mile by mile stats, I can always tell where the major intersections are, my time once dropped to almost 19 minutes per mile because I obeyed the traffic signal and waited for the “walk” sign. I can crawl faster than that. Now, I just go around the law a bit, as in, I just run down the street a block or so, then jaywalk, or run, then run back up the block on the other side of the street and pick up my route. I can maintain my pace and even add a little mileage. I know this is probably some minor misdemeanor in the eyes of the law, but they’ve got to catch me first. Jaywalking.

One of my favorite pastimes is walking. Walking in New York City is more than a pastime, it, for me, is sport. I have always been a very, shall we say, “efficient” walker. I want to cover some ground, I do not stroll. Like driving, I would rather keep moving than be stuck behind something slow. Add to my desire to keep moving, traffic and crosswalks and a million other people, all walking way slower than I, and the sport has begun. Like a cyclist, it’s all about pace or cadence, I intend to move through and around obstacles at a steady pace, I do not want to stop, I do not want to slow down. The first trick is to be able to navigate around large groups of slow moving people, or worse, the people that suddenly stop, right in front of you. I usually use the zigzag approach; skirt the crowd on the right or the left, as space allows, switching back and forth as necessary. Sometimes I just walk the curb. Other times, I have no choice but to thread the needle, squeezing between groups, even turning my shoulders sideways, on occasion, to avoid contact. This, by the way, is an excellent workout for the upper body and waistline, as well as the lower body. A brisk walk on crowded New York City sidewalk, threading the needle.

I can walk at a pace, usually, after a few blocks, where I can fall into rhythm with the crosswalk signal. If I am consistent, once I hit a “walk” sign, and I am not impeded in some way, I can hit all of the “walk” signs going in one direction. Once I alter direction, I need to reestablish the rhythm. Of course, that’s only if there are cars crossing the crosswalk. If there are no cars coming, and the signal says, “don’t walk”, well, you do. You can tell the “New Yorkers” from the tourists in a heartbeat. The tourists stand dutifully on the corner, looking a little forlorn and confused while they wait for the signal to change. The New Yorkers cross, and often between oncoming cars, as the tourists look on in shock and bewilderment. I’m not a New Yorker, but it didn’t take long to figure out how to move around in their world.

That is my whole impetus in life; to move through the world in the most efficient manner, no matter where I am, no matter what I’m doing. Just move. Efficiently. This applies to more than walking, running or driving. This applies to everything from banking to television to shopping, working, working out, traveling, and, well, everything. Life can be hard, it can be a trial, it can be exhausting and wearing, if we don’t know how to move through the world efficiently in every way possible.

My mom, my elderly mom, bless her heart, who will not, does not want to, and will never consider, embracing technology in any way, is stuck in a world that has become unfriendly and hostile; the non-technical world. She will look up phone numbers in the phone book, wondering why she can’t find listings that “should be there”. Not everyone advertises in the phone book anymore, because, only a handful of people use them. There are a million online listings that are faster and way more informative, with reviews and photos and a map, the hours of business, everything you ever wanted to know about a business without having to get out the magnifying glass and phone book to scour for the number to call and get the information. It’s funny that she trusts the phone book so, because they’ve misspelled her name this edition, and she has been in the phone book, with her name spelled correctly, with the same number, for the past 47 years. I think the post office must be involved. So, once Mom has found the phone number in the phone book, she calls and wonders why she is put through an automated maze and then put on hold for a duration. Well, probably because most folks are accessing the information online, the company has only one or two people who are tasked with taking phone calls, in addition to their actual jobs. Not a priority.

My mom will sit down in her office and write checks, put them in envelopes and drive them to the post office only to hope, against all hope, that the least efficient, least effective organization on the entire planet will deliver the mail in a reasonable amount of time to the correct address. I went out and got the mail for Mom earlier today. There were two pieces of mail in our box addressed to someone three blocks away. They were addressed correctly, delivered incorrectly. Mom has a cell phone on my account. Every month she writes me a check for ten dollars to cover her share. Three seconds later I deposit it into my account with an app on my phone. Before the bank app had such capability, I’d stuff the checks in my wallet, for months on end, because I just won’t go to the bank unless I’ve got a check for like a thousand bucks, or something, which is practically never. Thanks for the app, guys!

Mom talked to my cousins on the phone yesterday, first one, then the other, then the first one again. Somewhere along the line, in her second conversation she mentioned that she’d fallen while ironing while I was not at home. She was fine, but this is a very real danger for someone a few short months from being beyond her octogenarian age. Apparently, that cousin called my other cousin, who, then called Mom back. She recommended an app or a setting on her phone that would be voice activated to call 911. My cousin carries an iPhone, which, my mom is completely confused by and refers to as my “facebook” . I got Mom the simplest, easiest to use, made for old folks, flip phone, at her request. So, Mom asks me about this wonderful technological capability. I said, “Mom, in order to use the phone to obtain help you have to carry the phone. It has been plugged in to the outlet by the microwave since I moved in six months ago. If you fall in the family room, the phone, no matter what app or button it has on it, will not be able to leap up off the kitchen counter, unplug itself and fly to your side to help you.” I pulled my phone from my back pocket, “I keep mine here.” She knows that, and gives me shit for it, too, for always being on my “facebook”. Well, yes, sometimes I’m answering work emails, sometimes I’m texting my kids, often I’m Googling answers to the endless stream of random questions Mom has, and, occasionally, I am on a social networking site.

I digress. I had a great run this morning, moving through and around traffic efficiently, and, as evidenced by my ability to write this article, safely. Look left, look right, do it again. We are everywhere, just trying to move through the world, and life, efficiently, and safely.

Scarlett’s Letter September 10, 2013

Game on.

I had a team meeting for work today. My team consists of about twelve people and we all live in different cities across the country, so, team meetings are conference calls and an internet meeting room for visuals, if necessary. No video, so we can’t see each other, thankfully. I don’t know what the big deal is, I’m usually all “ready” before I go to work, and my office is neat, I don’t know, I guess I could get used to it. But, for now, since no one else is wild about the idea of video conferencing, and it probably costs more, we aren’t even talking about it. Than means I can do useful shit while listening to the meeting, and occasionally glancing at the slideshow. Game on!

I have shelves next to my desk. For every class I teach, I have the materials, printed, in a binder on the shelves. I know. I teach paperless, but print all the materials. Since I refer to two printed copies at a time, sometimes three, I’m trying to figure out how to do so on my iPad. Two of the three shelves are stuffed full of binders. I teach a lot of classes, more than anyone else on my team. I’m pretty proud of that. It is my curse, though, too. Being able to teach all of the classes means being able to substitute for anyone else, at the last minute, if something goes wrong; an illness, a missed flight, technical difficulties, power outages. The top shelf of my shelf has cute little bins I bought at Target, solely because they were cute. Once I got them home, I decided I could put my office supplies in the bins and put the bins on my shelf. Through the last couple of moves and the chaos of life, and work, and laziness, these three bins have become a nice hiding place for crap I don’t know what to do with. They’ve just become receptacles for bits and pieces, odds and ends I don’t where else to put; paper clips, dry erase markers, ones that work and dry dry erase markers that don’t work, Sharpies, ones that write and some that don’t, software CD’s, miscellaneous cords to electronics I no longer own, USB flash drives, a lifetime supply staples, binder clips, pads of post it notes, No. 2 pencils, staplers, yes, plural, I have four, for whatever reason, pencil sharpeners, yes, plural, one manual pencil sharpener, one battery operated one and one electrical one,  and old Blackberry phones that no longer work. Today, while on a conference call, I, for whatever reason, decided to clean them out and organize them. I just did it. And that’s kind of how my day proceeded from there. Game on.

Bins and binders
Bins and binders

Today was also the day of frantic travel arrangement frustrations. As much as we all travel on my team, we are all responsible for our own travel arrangements. When I first took this job, that seemed terrifying and incomprehensible, making all my own travel arrangements. I was not much the traveler before this job. I had no idea. I’ve adapted and, now, wouldn’t even consider letting anyone else manage my travel! Just coming back from vacation, from the land of no Internet, I am a little behind booking travel. I am supposed to go to Chicago next week and New York City the week after. I am excited. But, with only a couple of participants registered for the Chicago class, and all from the same firm, after booking a nonstop flight to Chicago, the hotel I love right next to the mall and a rental car, plans changed and the training will be held at the client’s office. In Glasgow, Montana. Ever heard of it? As it turns out, I’ve worked with this client before. In Montana. Glendive, Montana. Ever heard of it? Great client with a few offices in the most random, rural and difficult to travel to places. Ever. I’m not too excited, and changing travel arrangements isn’t all that easy, it can’t be done all online, you have to call the agency and they have to confirm everything with the airlines. It is messy and time consuming. Game on.

The New York City class had more participants and I had my flight reserved, not booked, but reserved, in the manner I prefer for NYC. I take a red eye the night before my scheduled “travel day” so I have all day to sightsee and tramp around the City before my first day of work. I sleep on the plane and arrive looking like shit and feeling a bit groggy, but a cup of coffee and a few minutes in the City and I’ve absorbed all the energy I need for a full day of fun. I’m excited. But, then, I get an email saying that since all the participants for the training are with the same firm, we may conduct the training at their office rather than a regional training center. To save money and to make it “easier” for the client. I quickly Google the firm. They have three locations, one in NYC and one on Long Island and one in New Jersey. I assume NYC and quickly reserve a second hotel, closer to their NYC location, just in case. Then I wait for the final word. Much to my disappointment, horror and dismay, the training is occurring at the New Jersey office. I rearrange all of that travel, now, too. So, Chicago became Montana and New York City became the suburbs of Newark, New Jersey. I considered drafting my resignation. But I didn’t. I’m readying for two long weeks in two difficult locations. Game on.

For people who don’t text or who don’t like to text, you often hear them ask “why not just pick up the phone and call?” Well, allow me to enlighten you. While I do enjoy a nice, chatty call, more frequently with some folks than others, there are times when texting is far more practical. Texting versus a phone call; a case study. My close friend is having a memorial service for her sister who passed a few weeks ago. A few of us are bringing food and beverage to serve as a large crowd is expected, probably over a hundred people. I’m bringing lemonade. One of the girls is a pastry chef, a consultant in all things cooking and catering and is in charge of the whole affair. I’ve been assigned something I certainly cannot mess up. Lemonade. And I have a helper, just in case it looks like I might mess it up. I am, actually, thankful for my assignment. I don’t want to deal with the stress of anything more challenging than lemonade, I’ll leave that to the professionals. So, today, as I’m frantically managing travel and answering work emails, I’m texting the chef and emailing my helper (she doesn’t text) the finer points of lemonade. I am also carrying on a lengthy textervation with a friend I run with about the memorial service, hoping he will attend. And I’m texting my Sweetie. And drinking a beer. And eating a slab of dark chocolate. Simultaneously. You can’t do that with a phone! Game on.

Beer.
Beer.
Slab of dark chocolate.
Slab of dark chocolate.

I want game for dinner! I’m just feeling extra carnivorous this evening! All I have left are two moose roasts and two moose steaks. I’ve been kind of saving them, but they aren’t improving by aging in the freezer, and, perhaps, if I eat them all up, some moose karma spirit will guide a nice 50-incher to a very easy and opportunistic location and for my Sweetie.  Though, it’s a busy time on the haul road for him and having to process a moose could be a bit overwhelming. I’ll just enjoy my steak tonight and whatever happens with the remainder of this moose season is how it is meant to be. I can eat beef and lamb and buffalo all year for what it would cost to ship moose down here, anyway. Game on. Literally. I have game on my plate for dinner!

What's left of my moose provisions.
What’s left of my moose provisions.
Nom, nom, nom. Minus one moose steak
Nom, nom, nom. Minus one moose steak

Scarlett’s Letter September 6 – 8, 2013

My last three days in Alaska. Sad face.

Problem solving, or, perhaps trouble shooting would be a better label for what I’m about to share with you. As is customary when I travel to Alaska, I brought wine. We’d hoped to do a wine tasting for friends, but our unpredictable schedule with possible travel south to Valdez, the trip north to Coldfoot, the trip up and down the Salcha River, and the fateful non-trip gill netting on the Yukon, it was really hard to nail down a date and, commit, and get the word out. So, we drank the wine I brought in about three days. Bought more. Drank it. Bought more and drank it. We do love our wine. A match made in heaven. Two red wine lovers.

True to nature, at the mere hint of entertaining, as in a wine tasting party, I usually seek to acquire bits and pieces of pretty little things and nifty little objects that will make the soiree all that much more delightful for all involved. Usually, entertaining is a happy excuse to buy shit I want. On one of my guy’s visits to NorCal we were, you guessed it, wine tasting. We were at a winery in El Dorado County just outside of Placerville in the area known as Apple Hill, one of my favorite stomping grounds. One of the wineries we visited aerated their wine with a fantastic pewter toned horse head. The wine spilled out of the horse’s mouth. If only my horses had been capable of such wonders, I might have found a way afford them a bit longer! I have lusted after this delight ever since. I Googled it, of course, and found it online for twenty some dollars, but exercised great restraint at not ordering it immediately. On my recent trip to Trefethen, nearly a year after first spying the wine barfing horse head aerator/spout, it reared it’s lovely head once more. Under the influence of a generous and free tasting, only days before my trip to Alaska, I succumb to my inner shopaholic and bought my trophy horse head wine aerator/spout for twenty some bucks. All of these puns are intended, by the way.

I somehow found room to wedge my lovely horse head into my suitcase, but only because I was bringing enough wine to justify a dedicated and special “wine checking luggage box” (from V. Sattui Winery for ten dollars), and with that additional piece of checked luggage, an additional twenty dollars in luggage fees. I was a few miles short of status and free checked bags with Alaska Airlines at this point. I probably officially made status about the time my plane flew over Redding from its Sacramento departure point. Seriously, I was that close. Anyway. I arrived in Fairbanks with a big box of fantastic Napa Valley red wine and a horse head aerator/spout thing. And the fact that we didn’t end up having our wine-tasting party did not dampen my desire to use my little treasure every time a new bottle was opened, which, I’m not ashamed to say, may have been two or three times a day, depending on the day and whether a brewery visit had occurred.

At one point, in finishing one bottle and opening the next, in exuberance only I can manage at this task, I yanked the horse head from one bottle and went to place it within the next, only to find that the rubber sleeve had remained in the preceding bottle. Plan A; I tried to gingerly pry it out with my ever so slender pinky finger, and almost had it, but, sadly, lack the muscular strength in that tiny digit to extract the firmly fit bit of rubber from the neck of the bottle. I tried a few artificial implements and managed only to shove the rubber sleeve further down the neck of the wine bottle, now out of my slender pinky’s reach. One final attempt with one final implement and, plop. Into the empty bottle the rubber sleeve fell. We poured the next bottle without the glorious horsehead, like ordinary wine being poured from an ordinary bottle. May as well have been a bottle of Thunderbird from a brown paper sack as far as I was concerned.

The problem, now, was how to reunite the rubber sleeve with the horsehead spout. I devised a plan, in the morning, or some time during daylight when time permitted, I’d put the bottle with the rubber sleeve within into a paper bag, or two, take it out to the garage and smash it to bits with a hammer, freeing said rubber sleeve.

Plan B failed. Miserably. Wine bottles are a lot tougher than you think, which, when you consider that I often transport them in my suitcase with my beloved shoes and clothes, is probably a good thing. It’s not like I just toss them into my suitcase with my cherished wardrobe pieces, I do wrap them in bubble wrap, secured with some gaudy animal print duct tape, then place them each in a two-gallon Ziploc bag – just in case. In the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve had no mishaps. So, why was I so surprised that smacking a wine bottle with a hammer would only result in a cute “tink” sound and nothing more? Plan B was hatched, with the help of my clever man.

How wine flies.
How wine flies.

Plan C; trouble shooting. We’d just procured dinner from the chukar pen with the .22 rifle. I’m sure you’re connecting the dots now. We placed the wine bottle, within it’s bag, on a bank, and, as I have not yet had the guts to wield a firearm in front of my very adept hunter/boyfriend, because I have not shot at anything for some time and, truthfully, being right-handed and left-eyed, have always had a little trouble hitting my mark, I’m a bit shy about “the first time”. The third date has long since come and gone, and while I’m not at all shy about what is implied there, I am shy about shooting and missing. I’ll be going to target practice in the months to come, and perhaps therapy, to overcome this lack of faith I have in myself. Thankfully, my man does not even for a second suggest I wield a weapon and solve this little problem I created. Fire one. He hits the bottle, evidently, by the “BLAM, tink”, one followed so immediately after the other. I was a little worried about ricochet, so I squinted, and maybe even blinked. Like that would be a defense. We examined the bottle and there was just a little white mark where the bullet hit the glass and nothing more. Fire two. “BLAM, tink”.  Just a little scuff on the green glass. Fire three. “BLAM!” followed by the satisfying sound of shattering glass. Forensically, we decided the bullet traveled through the opening of the bottle, right down the neck, hitting the bottom of the bottle, blowing it apart. Inside, unharmed, the rubber sleeve. I cleaned up the bits of glass and tried to contain them in the shredded paper bag. Back in the house, after a bit of troubleshooting, the rubber sleeve and the horse head aerator/spout were reunited. In celebration, we opened a bottle of wine!

The lesson here, I suppose, is when we have a little problem, an issue a dilemma, sometimes our first, brilliant idea to solve it, may fall short. Even our second terrific idea may fail miserable. Sometimes, we just have to keep brainstorming, keep trying, until the problem is blasted to bits! I think more problems in life require multiple, creative attempts at resolving. If I had become discouraged by the first failure and the second failure, and then the first two shots, I may have given up and my long sought after trinket would have been a short lived frivolity. But, we just kept plugging away at our little problem, and now, each and every night, I have my lovely horse head wine aerator/spout thing to marvel at as beautiful red wine spills from the horse’s wide-opened mouth. And that is straight from the horse’s mouth!

We received a call about a trip to Prudhoe Bay. With my plane departing Sunday around noon, it would be a real tight schedule to make it back on time. Not that I really cared, I was just begging to miss my flight. But, as we just got back from Coldfoot, the thought of two more days in the truck was more than my guy was willing to subject me to. We turned it down. He was asked whether he’d be willing to go half way, to Coldfoot, if the permit could be obtained for that. We decided we could do that, if we left in the morning. We’d have ample time to get home so I could pack up my stuff and make it to the airport. Again, like I cared.

Oversize loads have to obtain permits and permitted loads have certain guidelines and requirements. Until some time in October, when traffic on the haul road lessens, oversize loads require the requisite number of pilot cars, based on size and weight, all the way to Prudhoe Bay. After October, the pilot car, or cars, don’t necessarily need to accompany certain loads beyond Coldfoot. We were hoping to get a special dispensation for this load only requiring a pilot car to Coldfoot, The request for special dispensation for this early September load was denied, so another pilot car who could go all the way to Prudhoe Bay had to be found. We had made our way to town and were at the ready. Because, at any moment, we thought we’d be headed to the yard to meet our load, we made a crazy, crisscross pattern across town and back to accomplish a task, wait for a call, accomplish another task, wait for a call. Like our errands, today, sometimes, in life, we have to take a crazy route to do what needs to be done. While efficiency is great, it isn’t always possible. What really matters, if the most direct route isn’t possible, is that we are making some sort of progress, always.

We didn’t go to Coldfoot, so we enjoyed the remainder of the day and evening together, just being together.

The morning of my departure was a bit hectic. There was so much we wanted to squeeze into the few hours we had. It was “Potato Fest” Day at the Cogan’s Homestead, meaning the potatoes were ready to be harvested and friends and family all gather together to accomplish this task and share in a potluck afterwards. This is something I have been wanting to experience for as long as I’ve known about it! Even if it was pouring rain, I’d have picked potatoes. But, since I had to board a plane and travel for many hours, being wet and muddy really wasn’t an option, even if time permitted. We also had a gift certificate for a free brunch at Pike’s Landing, right across from the airport. Could we do both in the time permitted? Not really. But we kind of did both. We stopped by and visited at the Homestead before everyone went out in the rain and dug for potatoes in the mud. Then we made our way to town for brunch, only to find as we got close to town and actually had cell service and I could check-in on my Alaska Airlines app on my phone, that my flight was delayed several hours. Oh well. We had a lovely morning. When I made it to the airport, with the assistance of a very helpful Alaska Airlines ticket agent, my flights were rearranged in order to guarantee a successful connection.

My flight home went smoothly, once we finally got underway. All my connections were made, flawlessly, and I enjoyed all the perks of my newly attained status with Alaska Airlines; earlier boarding, the option to select exit row and aisle seats the whole way home, on all three flights. I had engaging conversations with a group of folks that commute from far off places, and back, three weeks on, three weeks off, to work the oil fields near Prudhoe Bay, on the longest leg of my journey between Anchorage and Seattle. And I even got my first, free, first-class upgrade on the final leg of my flight! I almost felt like I was flying United! Until the meal arrived, then I knew, for certain, I was on an Alaska Airlines flight. I’m not saying the food is bad, this being my second first-class meal with Alaska, but it is rather pedestrian. By comparison. And for airline food. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. But it was free, so hey! All of this, I suppose, in some miniscule way, helped me ease my way from Alaska, being with my love and a lifestyle I love to being home, working with clients over the phone starting well before the crack of dawn, beginning tomorrow, and a lifestyle I am enjoying, or maybe something between tolerating and enjoying. I’m making the best of it. I’m enjoying being in Napa and visiting my beloved Sacramento from time to time. But, currently, truthfully, my lifestyle and my goals and values are not in total alignment. But, like freeing a rubber sleeve from its wine bottle dungeon and like crisscrossing town, accomplishing things piecemeal, waiting for plans to solidify, I am moving forward, towards a goal, one step at a time, whether the steps are all in the same direction or in the ideal sequence matters not, the goal is there and, daily, in some small way, I’m shooting for it. BLAM!

Scarlett’s Letter September 6, 2013

We were up early. Kind of. We were up early enough to take a morning hike, with the intent of hunting up some grouse or spruce hens for dinner. Literally, rifle in tow. We saw lots of evidence of birds scratching in the tundra on our last hike, just no birds, but it had been an afternoon hike. This morning, certainly, we should see some birds.

We hiked up the road, which, to some more urbane, may not look like a road, but, to me, having lived on a dirt road far worse, it looks like an interstate. It was a beautiful morning, clear, cool, bright and lovely. If I could’ve ordered a morning off of a menu, this would be it.

The road.
The road.

We turned from the road onto a trail. This a trail used by snow machines in the winter and four-wheelers the rest of the year. In hiking and cycling terms, I would call it a “double track” trail. I try to be intuitive and I think I do a fair job. Most of the time. My man was walking very quietly, using low voice tones. Right. We are hunting for birds. I adopt my best Sacajawea style walk, silently moving up the trail, hopefully, without snapping twigs. We see plenty of signs of birds, torn up tundra being an indication that they have been near, recently, scratching for food. We become quieter. Near the top of the hill, we double back and look for “the trail”. The trail being a barely visible single-track trail through the thick tundra and brush. To anyone but he who travels the trail, it really does not appear as a trail. Left on my own, I may struggle here and there to see which way the trail turns or twists. Hunting birds, I stick to the trail, I am like a dog, flushing the birds, if there were any, away from the trail. My guy walks fifty feet or so off trail, through only slightly denser growth, watching the ground and the treetops, somehow, simultaneously, for birds, ready to pop one that I may flush from “the trail”, like a good hunting dog. I am told of the behavior of these elusive birds. They scratch around in the tundra early in the morning and take to the treetops later in the day, or when scared. If scared, before being able to take flight, they will simply freeze, totally and completely blending in with their surroundings. And, I am quite sure, we passed dozens and dozens of these sneaky bastards, and I am also quite certain they were sticking their little bird tongues out at us as we passed by, oh so quietly, mere inches away. And, once we were out of earshot, I’m pretty sure they did little spruce hen high fives and laughed at us, mocking us for our obtuseness.

The "double track" trail, primarily frequented by four wheelers and snow machines.
The “double track” trail, primarily frequented by four wheelers and snow machines.
Single track trail.
Single track trail.
Trail? What trail? Are we lost, or is our desired destination just temporarily misplaced?
Trail? What trail? Are we lost, or is our desired destination just temporarily misplaced?

I’m sure you’ve gathered from my demeanor that we did not find any birds to “invite” to dinner. We depart from the trail in search of another. I am lost. I mean, I know I could probably back track and find my way to the double track trail and back to the road, and, yes, I would know which direction to turn on the road to return to the house. I am, at least, that astute. But, blindly through the tundra, I may be a bit turned around for a bit and may end up wandering downhill into someone else’s yard, which, I’m certain, wouldn’t be cool, and, as everyone in Alaska is armed and, quite literally, loaded for bear, may be both uncool and disastrous.

We find, no, not the trail home, at least not right away, but I’m confident that we are, at least, headed in the proper direction. We also find along our unmarked path, berries. Blueberries and low bush cranberries. One does not leave home without at least one rifle, maybe two, one for moose, one for birds, and, Ziploc “foot squares”. For berries, of course. We pick and pick and pick and as we load up our foot squares, we find the path home.

As we walk down the hill towards the house, just visible through the trees downhill a ways, my guy spots a saw in the dirt,  a small carpenters saw, and not his. It has likely been there, buried in the dirt and the duff, for many, many years. Many, as my man bought this plot of land in his youth, as a dream, and then dreamed enough that it manifested, with commitment and consistency and sheer will and lots of hard work, into a home. We retrieved the saw from the forest floor. As we approached the house we found an empty jelly jar on the edge of the rock planter where the flowers and the strawberries grow. A jelly jar to anyone else, a “coffee cup” to my guy. We retrieve it, as well. So, between the berries, the old saw and the jelly jar, at least we didn’t come home entirely empty handed.

A "foot square" of berries!
A “foot square” of berries!
Things we found while lost (not really, only temporarily misplaced).
Things we found while lost (not really, only temporarily misplaced).

Coming down the hill, we pass the chukar pen. Yes, chukars, as in domesticated game birds of the partridge variety. Bird is on the menu tonight, and we can’t eat the saw or the jelly jar. So, we decide to pick off a couple of chukars for dinner. The first harvest. And they may have been a week or two too young, but they were delicious.

A chukar. For dinner. Actually, two.
A chukar. For dinner. Actually, two.
Dinner.
Dinner.
Chukars are good eats.
Chukars are good eats.
Dressed for dinner.
Dressed for dinner.
Farm to table.
Farm to table.

So, today, I continued to think about being lost and what that really means; that we are never really lost, we always know where we are, it’s where we want to be that is temporarily displaced. And I also contemplated things found. A saw. A jelly jar. A bunch of berries. If we pay attention, there are things all around us, just waiting to be found, if only we pay attention. A few interesting thoughts to ponder further, and, a fantastic day. The best. Like a dream.

 

 

Scarlett’s Letter September 3 – 5, 2013

The days grow shorter here in Alaska. Oh, sure, there is still more daylight this time of year, this far north, compared to home. But, the days are indeed growing shorter. I can tell, if for no other reason, than my last week of vacation for the year seems to be flying past at an alarming rate. My last trip here was over two weeks long, and not long enough. With just over a week for this trip, I feel I have barely been here and I’m already preparing myself mentally for the trip home and the long duration without visiting, without Alaska, without my Sweetie.

Yesterday we wiled away the day running errands and attending to things before today’s “road trip”. The absolute highlight of the day yesterday was a long awaited and oft attempted tasting adventure at HooDoo Brewery in Fairbanks. This brewery has been around a few years and has been gaining experience, favor, followers and a crowd. We rolled up before they opened, again. We’ve done this before. We’ve rolled up on the day they were closed, we’ve rolled up before they’ve opened. We have never caught anyone home. On our first attempt yesterday, we were only a little early, so we found another quick errand to run and returned to find the “open” sign illuminated and the parking lot jammed. I was excited. Completely. It is safe to say that I love beer as much as wine and nearly as much as Oreos.

HooDoo offers a great sampler deal, with a generous pour of each of their brews. The darker the samples, the happier I became. Like all things I ingest, I begin with what I’m pretty sure will be my least favorite and work towards what I’m sure will be my favorite. I do this with food, I do this with wine, I do this with beer. Ironically, there is color-coding involved in each, pretty much, the darker, the better. I begin with a Pinot Noir and end with a Merlot. I begin with the vegetables and end with the steak. I begin with the IPA and end with the stout. The brews were all good, but the stout stole my heart. So then I had a whole pint.

Our road trip; a “pilot car” run from Fairbanks to Coldfoot. I’ll explain for those not in the know. I know few will ever admit to watching Ice Road Truckers. I don’t either. But, there are, indeed, truckers, not the ones on the show, mind you, but real truckers, who transport pipe, equipment and structures of various shapes and sizes, mostly huge, to the oil fields in and around Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. As the loads are all “oversized”, they require pilot “cars”, usually pick up trucks, with banners, a yellow flashing light, a flag for directing traffic and a driver who knows what he, or she, is doing. My man has been piloting trucks up the Dalton Highway for more of his life than not. In the million mile Ford, which, by the way, is legend on “the haul road”.

The purpose of the pilot cars is to guide the driver and the oversized load safely up the road, to communicate between the truck driver and the other pilot cars what’s ahead, what’s passing from behind. The pilot car drivers are also responsible for communicating, and at times, directing other drivers on the road to keep them safe and out of the path of the large load in corners and over bridges and other crossings. They act as a guide, as a facilitator.

In life, what pilots you safely through the turns and crossings you must navigate? Have you defined your mission, your purpose, your goals, your roles and your guiding principles? Like a pilot car driver and the trucker with the oversize load that trusts him, our roles, goals and guiding principles, based on our values, are what guide us through life, no matter what lies up ahead.

I’ve accompanied my man to Prudhoe Bay before, in early March, well before summer. The landscape was white, the road was ice and we saw an Artic fox, muskox, ptarmigan and the aurora borealis. It was a little chilly, sure, but nothing my guy’s big, warm parka and fifteen layers of my chic clothes from Uniqlo, H&M, Forever 21, Charlotte Russe, Buckle, Love Culture and a pair of Ugg boots couldn’t ward off. It was awesome. I have pictures. Roughly one thousand.

I’ve wanted to return. I’d hoped to return, crossing Atigun Pass, in the summer, when the wildflowers were out. But there weren’t any trips when I was here during wildflower season. Another summer, perhaps. The flowers are amazing. This, I know, because last year, someone very special, stopped several times on his way home from Prudhoe Bay and picked wildflowers. For me. A week later, I received a surprise, an envelope with a cardboard card, cut out from a Honey Bunches of Oats cereal box, with dozens of different wildflowers carefully adhered to it. Sigh. I know, right? Even dried, the flowers were breathtaking and I really want to see them in living color.

I have also wanted to see the fall colors over the pass. In fall, the tundra looks like it has been set ablaze, changing from a million shades of lush green to yellow, gold, orange, red and burgundy. We didn’t score a trip all the way to Prudhoe until it was too late to go, but we did get the trip to Coldfoot, about half way up the “haul road” to Prudhoe. Coldfoot is south of Atigun Pass, but still, there was plenty of vibrant hued tundra to enjoy.

When piloting, and when a passenger in a pilot car, the trip up, the actual piloting, is very different than the trip back. All business on the way up. Of course. That’s what it’s all about, getting the truck and it’s shipment to it’s destination without delay, without danger and without disaster. This trip, unlike most, was with an “independent” trucker, an “owner/operator”. Most of the trips north my man makes are as a contractor with one of several companies that routinely move big stuff from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. So we were to meet a driver, headed to Fairbanks from Anchorage, hauling a Caterpillar D9, a large, correction, a very large tractor. The load was wide, fourteen feet wide, to be precise, and because of it’s width, would require two pilot cars to guide it safely to it’s destination a few miles north of Coldfoot. One pilot car would be in front, the other in back. I’m sure you’ve seen such things even in the part of the world you live in. On the Dalton Highway, it is more the norm than un-piloted loads. Passenger cars are both a rarity and a nuisance, as I surmise.

We’d hoped for an early start and even headed into Fairbanks at an impressively early hour. But, when noon came and went and we hadn’t heard from the driver, we called. He was still a few hours from Fairbanks and would need to shuffle the load and fuel up once he arrived. Our early morning departure was becoming a late afternoon and then a later afternoon departure. A trip to Coldfoot, about 250 miles from Fairbanks, if begun in the morning, depending on the load, could be delivered by afternoon and everyone could be home, in their own bed, in time to enjoy most of the following day. That was our hope. But, it was not to be.

We managed to fill our day in town getting stuff done. Thankfully, there was plenty of stuff to be done. Errands and such. We ate Philly Cheesesteaks and fries at the Food Factory, for lunch, because there aren’t any drive-thru’s on the haul road. You pack a sandwich or two and go. There is food in Prudhoe Bay, and truck stop food in Coldfoot. There is also truck stop food at Hilltop, about twenty miles past Fairbanks, sort of the last bastion of necessities before heading further north. How are Philly cheesesteaks different than truck stop food? Well, it’s more of a quality question, I suppose. Get your Philly cheesesteak in town, not a truck stop, while both are unhealthy, the truck stop variety is likely to take an additional year or two off your life, I’m pretty sure.

We met the driver and the second pilot car at about 5:45 PM. Well past morning, to say the least. The driver told the pilots that since he was an owner/operator and paid for his own brakes, we’d be taking the downhills slow. We already knew the uphills would be slow. We headed out just after “curfew”. Oversize loads are forbidden from traveling through Fairbanks during “commute” time, between 4:00 and 6:00 PM. I think their commute traffic is adorable, but, I guess I get it.

Our driver, which requires explaining, I suppose; when you are piloting some trucker up the haul road, as I gather, you sort of adopt him or her as yours for the duration. They become “my driver” or “our driver” depending on the number of pilot cars involved. Anyhoo. Our driver hadn’t eaten all day, so, we stopped at Hilltop for sustenance. This is a truck stop. Terrified of the exponential lethality of truck stop food, and, really, not all that hungry, I had a salad. My man had potato salad, ate half, and thrust the remainder in front of me. I ate it, taking my projected life expectancy down to 111. Ok, so I shoot high. Why not? Then if I die at 101 everyone will say I died an “untimely death”.

At 7:45 PM we depart Hilltop and begin our long, mostly uphill journey into the evening. As I mentioned, the trip up is all business. That means, for me, an unlikely passenger, unless there are northern lights or grizzly bears, I’m probably going to sleep. And I do. Our driver was true to his word, he was moving slower downhill than up. A little backstory is required. Many truckers drive this road day in and day out. They know every pebble, every turn, every nuance. Corners have names. Hills have names. There is a community here. The truckers and pilot car drivers all know one another and chit chat on the radios to one another. Yes, there are multiple radios; one is on an agreed upon channel to chat with your driver and other pilots, then there’s the “road channel” that everyone has turned on to communicate with one another. And, so, the pilot car drivers report upcoming vehicles to their driver on the agreed upon channel, then report the upcoming oversize load to other drivers on the road channel. It is all very impressively complicated and I think there must be some advance degree of study to manage all of this. I don’t know. I only went to college for eleven years, it’s beyond me. Moral; these guys know the road. “Our driver” does not. He has driven the haul road a few times a year, not a few times a week. He is taking it slower than his wide load and brake pads require because he doesn’t know the road. We are in the front, and my man is warning our driver of nuances in the road, to be helpful, and, hopefully, the give him the faith and confidence to speed up, maybe just a little.

I sleep. I wake. I sleep. I wake. I sleep. I wake. I eat a half a sandwich I packed. I sleep. I wake. I get out and pee. I sleep. I wake. And this is how my night goes. Two hundred fifty extremely slow miles. Do you have any idea what it’s like to be a girl, on the haul road, and have to pee? Especially when you’re being followed by a big truck hauling a big tractor, being followed by another pickup truck, all occupied by men. I mean, I’ve been the only female on a ten-day backpacking trip with seventeen boys and men, and peeing was a challenge, but it wasn’t an Olympic sport, like peeing on the haul road being followed by trucks full of men. We made it to the top of a hill, several minutes ahead of our driver, so we thought, in order to be able to warn our driver, and the oncoming traffic, of the other party, respectively. I jumped out of the million mile Ford, pulled down my jeans and squatted by the right, front, tire. The road was just a soupy mud, so what I added really mattered little. I was about 7/8 done with my duty when headlights crested the hill behind me. It was growing dark and I’m pretty sure my silhouette was pretty apparent. I heard an exclamation from within the truck and in a split second, I finished, became air born and partially pulled up my jeans, mid air, while opening the truck door. I landed on the seat, bare butt, pants sagging like a middle school delinquent. As I launched myself from a crouch on muddy earth, into flight, into the truck, streams of mud followed me, clinging to my jeans from the knee down. I’m glad there was no video of my endeavor, and at the same time, kind of disappointed there wasn’t. It had to be spectacular, especially in slow motion instant replay mode.

We left town before 6:00 PM. We made it to Coldfoot at 5:30 AM. And we slept in the sleeper. Both of us. Synchronized rolling over went very well, we’re on about the same schedule, our old bones begin to ache at about the same time, which is cool. I guess.

We are awakened by a very loud pickup truck pulling up next to us in a rather obvious and engine revving sort of manner. I am, at first, annoyed, but I think it was the first “alarm clock”. Shortly after the noisy truck pulled up, there was a knock on the window from the other pilot car (noisy truck) driver. The snooze alarm just went off. I get it. The engine revving was just a “courtesy” to make sure we were awake, or dressed, or whatever, for the approach to the drivers’ window. Not many girlfriends accompany pilot car drivers. I get it. We slither out of the sleeper, fully clothed, and right into our respective seats, the truck is started and we drive across the lot to the restaurant at Coldfoot. I pee in captivity and grab three coffees for the tow of us. We meet our driver and are on our way to drop the D9 at it’s final destination a few miles up the road. A slow but safe trip.

It’s the trip home I look forward to with ample time to pull over and take pictures. My guy will never understand my desire to take so many pictures, he shakes his head when I complain that my MacBook is overloaded because of the forty thousand photos I have in iPhoto. But, still, he offers to pull over every time I lift my iPhone for another shot.

Aside from pictures, we have the rifle with us, just in case a large, male moose should cross our path somewhere south of the Yukon River. Bow hunting is allowed north of the Yukon and rifles to the south, so we’ll keep our eyes opened to the south. We also take advantage of a side road here and there to cut some firewood. There is no excuse for coming home with an empty truck bed, if not moose, then, certainly we can take down a standing dead tree or two! There are a few cords of wood cut, split and stacked in front of the house, but a couple more are in order, shortly, for winter. While he makes short order of a few trees, I pick berries. We are hunter/gatherers on our way south on the Dalton Highway. We see lots of moose hunters, and, still, no moose. There is chatter on the radio, not far away, of a cow and calf that crossed the road in front of a trucker, but no bull followed. While it may be moose season according to the calendar, it isn’t moose season according to the moose. Too warm, still. The bulls will chase the cows when it’s cooler. So I’m told.

We arrive at home, sandwiches eaten and the truck bed full of something useful for the winter. But not a moose. The trip was long, but a success. Our driver and his D9 reached Coldfoot safely with assistance from his two pilot cars, helping him manage the curves and crossings safely. Just like our values, roles, goals and guiding principles help us navigate through the turns and crossings life will certainly take.

Now that we’re home, it is time to upload photos from my iPhone to iPhoto. I’m excited. Every time I look at these pictures it will be almost like reliving the trip, again! A picture, a thousand words, a million memories!

Scarlett’s Letter September 2, 2013

After a leisurely morning at the cabin on the Salcha River, we headed downstream in the airboat. Me with my idiotic UrbanOG bag full of fussy clothes, again, shoved under the bow with all the stuff that lurks in those dark spaces men keep vital things in; fuel syphoning hoses, tools, lubricants, fishing lures, various dirty rags and empty beer bottles. I also have my brand new, far more practical, and somehow stylish “Realtree” camo daypack. I felt appropriately accessorized until the UrbanOG tote didn’t make it back to the truck. It ruined the whole image I was striving for for this adventure. I’ll live.

In my super cool, totally appropriate and yet stylish camo daypack, I have my point and shoot camera, my iPhone in a waterproof, shockproof and even snow proof “Lifeproof” case. In red. I also have my helmet cam. I don’t have a helmet on which to mount it and the double sided sticky things they sent with the camera are no longer sticky from having been stuck to snow machines and canoes on previous adventures. So, I guess my helmet cam is a handheld, for the time being. My point and shoot camera batteries are dead, and somehow, though I have everything necessary to survive almost anything stuffed into my daypack, I neglected to insert the brand new package of double A batteries I bought specifically for this trip. They’re still in my purse. I think. I seem to be cursed with cameras when I’m here. Too many cameras, not enough power. On our fantastic canoe trip in July, with the helmet camera mounted to the canoe, I’d hoped to have some amazing footage. I would have, except the damn camera wasn’t charged. I had the point and shoot with me, but the batteries died after about three pictures, and after one canoe capsized, I didn’t dare take my iPhone out, I hadn’t thought to part with a hundred bucks for the Lifeproof case yet. That trip may have been the impetus to do so.

So, I sat in my assigned seat in the airboat, in front of the “pilot’s chair”, always cognizant of not allowing my chair or my arm or any other appendage shift too far to the right and impede the pilot’s foot on the throttle. This usually results in a tap on the shoulder and frantic pointing. Actually, almost everything that needs to be communicated between pilot and passenger is a tap on the shoulder and frantic pointing. It is up to me to decipher what the tapping and pointing means in each circumstance; moose over there, move your chair, put this empty bottle under the bow, grab the bow line, leap to shore and figure out what knot will secure the boat to a permanent or quasi permanent object (pick out permanent or quasi permanent object for extra credit), get motor oil, duck (as in, get down, not as in waterfowl). I’m becoming fairly adept. I think.

For some reason, I decided it would be a great idea to keep my helmet cam in hand, lens cover off. Too many times now, something amazing has occurred and the stupid helmet cam has been stuffed in the deepest, darkest recesses of my pack and I have only a story to tell and no picture to prove. On one trip, I saw five bald eagles. Do you believe me? That’s what I mean! I need photographic evidence! Today, redemption. As we soared downstream my eye was caught by some motion to the left. An eagle. And he flew alongside the boat for the longest time. I clicked my camera on, and aimed it in the general direction of the great bird. With a helmet cam, or at least my helmet cam, there is no viewfinder, you have to guess at what you’re filming. It has a very wide angle, so I was pretty sure I was filming eagle and not the wake in the water. At last, the bird lit in a tree and we continued our trajectory downstream. Satisfaction. Triumph.

We reached the crowded boat ramp and I deftly leapt to shore, bowline in hand, and, well, just held it, while the truck was retrieved. There were several vehicles waiting to load boats, and several more boats waiting for their vehicles. Surprisingly, it didn’t take all that long for our turn and in very short order, the boat was trailered and we pulled away from the ramp. A couple of different passersby commented on the airboat with the Lycoming engine. Most of the airboats on the water these days have large car motors powering the propeller. This one, an aircraft engine and an aircraft propeller. Seems right.

We headed back towards Fairbanks, stopping at Los Amigos for lunch; tacos and an Alaskan Amber. Wherever the airboat goes, there will be folks to talk about airboats. Airboats have been gaining popularity in Alaska over the past few years and now are numerous. People spend big dollars on big airboats. Many we saw on the Salcha River this weekend were large and had an enclosure to keep the passengers (multiple passengers) and pilot alike, warm and dry.  Big, extravagant, and yet, ordinary. There is nothing quite like an airboat, built from the ground up, with a Lycoming aircraft engine in it, to spark conversation. And so, more conversation ensued at the bar at Los Amigos.

Lunch down, we continued our trek towards home. We stopped at the gas station in Fox for more wine, believe it or not, and, somehow ended up next door at the Howling Dog for another beer with an old friend, my Sweetie’s old friend, a new acquaintance for me. The Howling Dog is another well-known institution in Fox, Alaska, immediately across the street from our usual Silver Gulch. I am glad to have finally had the opportunity for a visit with a limited season and shorter hours than Silver Gulch, it was nice to be nearby at the right time of day during the right time of the year. I am always happy to see scarlet begonias in planters and pots nearly everywhere I go. The Howling Dog being no exception.

But the biggest, brightest and prettiest scarlet begonias of all time are the ones on the porch of my man’s house. The growing season nears a close and I simply cannot take enough pictures of these amazing flowers, knowing that their days are numbered. When the cold comes in another couple of weeks, the pots will be upended, the tubers collected and put in the cellar for planting, again, next spring.