Diamond Impressions

31 07 2011

My sister and me with our Rambler

Walking down the sidewalk of downtown Columbia, SC, I had a flashback.  It was another sticky hot day, so hot that even the squirrels were stretched belly down on shaded bricks, trying to cool off.  A woman walked in front of me wearing shorts and a sleeveless blouse.  Imprinted on the back of her thighs were diamond tattoos, not made with ink, but rather from the weave of the chair she had been sitting in.  Well do I remember those diamond tattoos.

Playing Traffic Cop

The year was 1965 when my parents bought the Rambler.  It was a blue station wagon, equipped with a radio and (drum roll please) air conditioning.  I spent a lot of my growing up years in that Rambler, so air conditioning was a real bonus.  Each summer, my family would take off for another part of the United States, pulling the pop-up trailer behind us as we traveled for weeks on end.  My father had worked his way up to five weeks of vacation a year at that point, so we would often be gone for three or four weeks at a time.  With this being a new car and all, my parents covered the vinyl seats with clear plastic seat covers with a raised diamond design.

Just because we had air conditioning did not mean we used it all the time.  A typical day’s drive would start with the windows rolled up for the first few hours, seeing as how we’d get better gas mileage without the wind resistance.  By 11:00 or so, sweat would be trickling down my mother’s face and neck.  Folks like to say that Southern women don’t sweat, they glow.  Although by then she had lived in the south longer than from her home state of Illinois, Mom was definitely not a Southern woman.  She didn’t glow; she poured.  She never complained (we did enough of that for her), but by the time we stopped for lunch she would be soaking wet.

Getting out of the car was always an experience.  My sister and I would have to pry our legs off those plastic seats, our legs making squelchy wet sounds as we eased them out the door.  And no matter how much we tried to sit on our hands or shift around, we always had diamond tattoos on the backs of our thighs.

More times than not, our lunch stop would be at a roadside pull off, where we would drag out the cooler and have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and warm lemonade.  Sometimes after lunch Daddy would stretch himself out on the top of the concrete picnic table, crossing his legs and interlocking his fingers over his stomach.  Within minutes, he would be asleep while we entertained ourselves by pretending bahia grass stalks were magic wands or, better yet, by throwing acorns at each other.  Soon enough we’d be on the road again, this time with the air conditioning on for a few blessed hours.

It was on these trips in that Rambler that I taught myself to read without getting carsick.  I had to.  There was nothing else to do, other than letting the telephone lines hypnotize me as they swooped past.  I have mixed feelings about the video games and DVD players that kids have in their backseats today.  I understand parents needing some quiet time in the car, but sometimes kids have to be bored into reading.  Those books took me farther than that old Rambler ever did.

We played “I Spy.”  It usually went like this:

ME: I spy something green.

MY SISTER: Is it grass?

ME: Yes.

MY SISTER: My turn.  I spy something gray.

ME: Is it the road?


BOTH:  I’m bored.

PARENTS (in unison): Read a book.

I remember one time we were somewhere in New England, or maybe Ohio, and Lucy and I both got sick.  Really sick, the throwing up kind.  We didn’t head for home.  We hardly slowed down.  My mother cleaned out the Way Back and threw in a couple of pillows and a bucket.  Lucy and I lay down with that bucket between us, and we continued on.  I felt like a martyr.

Just call me "jughead." That's Daddy and me in front of the tent-trailer.

We camped all over the United States this way.  I learned that Sault St. Marie is pronounced “Sue Saint Marie.”  I learned that empty gas cans are best not thrown in the campfire.  I learned that the Golden Eagle Passport gets you in most national parks (much later, this was the answer to a high school current events question that I answered correctly, much to the surprise of my teacher).  We traveled to museums, national parks, monuments, battlefields, and beaches.  We ate black walnut ice cream on the hood of that Rambler, out of the carton, finishing the whole thing before it melted.  We waited out storms that kept us cooped up in the car for hours before we could set up the tent-trailer.  I can count on one hand the times we stopped at Mickey Dee’s or any other restaurant.  I was in eleventh grade before I stayed in a hotel, when my best friend invited me on vacation with her folks.  I thought all families traveled like we did.

Traveling is so much more comfortable now.  We have soft seat covers, leather even.  We run the air conditioning just as soon as it starts to get warm.  Electronics keep our kids entertained.  We stay in nice hotels, condos, or resorts.  We eat out without even thinking twice.  We let tour guides show us the best sights.

Eventually, the long road trips came to an end.  The Rambler was put to rest out at Sassafras, the hundred-acre plot of land out on Highway 302 that my father bought upon retirement.  I went to see her once.  She was resting comfortably under a shed, sharing space with stacks of old lumber, windows scavenged from a house Daddy tore down, and rolls of chicken wire.  Her blue paint was dull with age, pine needles clogged her wipers, and her tires were up on blocks.  Inside, though, her seats were in pristine condition under the now-cloudy plastic seat covers.  I ran my hand over the raised pattern, remembering the temporary indentions they made on my thighs.  Although they faded from sight fairly quickly, those diamonds had left a permanent impression on my life.

Blueberry Summer

28 07 2011

Somehow the blueberries know.  It’s not the heat.  Here in the deep South it is hot starting in May and continues well into September.  Yet the first day of summer vacation, I go out to say hello to my bushes and somehow they knew I’d be there and all those green berries had turned blue overnight.  I know that summer vacation is coming to a close when the bushes on the side yard, the first ones to turn blue, stop producing.  And by the last day of vacation, there are only a few berries left on the back bushes.  Somehow they know.

If school-year weekends are sips of warm water, then summer vacation is a pitcher full of ice water, filled to the brim, with glistening droplets holding tight to its rounded belly.  I need summer.  I especially needed summer this year, following a school year that was tougher than most and had me wondering if it was time for another career.  It was my first year in fifth grade.  New curriculum, new ideas to develop.  Same students.  We had “looped,” with us fourth grade teachers keeping our same classes as teachers and students alike had moved up a grade.  It was an inspired idea: teachers wouldn’t have to waste time getting to know their students, students knew what to expect, and an issue of replacing fifth grade teachers who were leaving was dealt with.  We even got to stay in the same rooms, the janitor simply changing the number outside our doors. It worked well, mostly.

By the end of the year, however, things had changed.  Students were sick of each other, worse than usual since they had been with each other for two years now.  They were ready for change, a change that some felt they had been cheated out of in fifth grade and couldn’t come quickly enough as they headed to middle school.  I was tired, having spent the previous summer both in class and working on new lesson plans, and I didn’t handle the issues that arose very effectively.  I lost my sense of humor.  By the end of the year, I was completely dried out, parched and prickly.

That first day of summer vacation finally arrived.   I woke up, poured a bowl of cereal, went out to my bushes, and there they were: blue, plump berries begging me to cover my cereal with their bursts of summer succor.  Each morning would find me out there, cereal bowl in hand, swatting gnats and mosquitoes, listening to the coo of the mourning doves and the final rasps of the cicadas, brushing dewdrops off my face as I delved deeper into the bushes, feeling the promise of another hot day on the back of my neck.

So here it is, the end of July.  The bushes are slowing down, and my own pace quickens.  I’ve spent the last few days working in my classroom, hesitantly at first and then with growing purpose and interest.  I find my mind wandering to school projects, plans for fine-tuning the coming year.  Soon enough there will be no more fresh berries, no more slow summer mornings.  But I’ve gathered enough for the coming months.  I’m fully hydrated, plump and juicy as a ripe berry with good humor.  I’m ready.  This morning, I’ll stop by the school office to talk with the staff who have been working all summer, a blueberry pie in hand, so that they too can know the goodness of a blueberry summer.


26 07 2011

My husband is a genius. Of course, I’d expect that from someone who, if you flip two letters in his name, becomes Brain.  You see, in our backyard we have an Outhouse.  No, not that kind of outhouse.  We call it that because as Brian/Brain was building it, our girls decided that “out-building” didn’t describe it nearly as well as “outhouse.”  The name stuck, not surprising in our family.

Behind this Outhouse is the original metal storage building, the one that was old and rusty when Brian/Brain bought the house more than 25 years ago.  Although the purpose of the new Outhouse was to store the things from the old shed, somehow things never got moved over and the Outhouse quickly filled up with other stuff.  And since the old shed was now out of sight behind the Outhouse and doing no harm, it continued its peaceful existence, quietly changing from somewhat white to really rusty red.

But now it was time to do something about it.  The sliding doors no longer worked.  One of them could be wrestled to halfway close the opening, but the other was completely out of the track and bent beyond repair.  The best we could do was prop this half over the rest of the opening.

Of course, that didn’t keep the critters out.  Once when I was passing by the Outhouse, I smelled something, and it wasn’t good.  Matter of fact, it was the smell of Dead.  Although I certainly didn’t want to, I followed that smell to the old shed.  I peered in, and with the help of a flashlight I identified the source: a dead possum.  Piecing together clues from the crime scene, I figured that our dog, an amateur possum killer with the talent to go professional, had severely injured the beast, which had then found its way into the shed where it could die in relative peace.  Other, smaller animals lived there too.  Toads.  Wrens. And what we in the South like to refer to as Palmetto Bugs (it just sounds so much more genteel).

There were other problems beside the critters.  The walls were rusting away, shrinking from the floor like last year’s jeans. Sassafras and cat briar had somehow started growing on the dirt floor within. Hoping that a violent storm would take care of the issue for us didn’t achieve any results.  It was time to do Something.

Brian/Brain was on the problem long before it had even registered as a problem in my brain.  Several weeks passed before I noticed on our computer’s Internet history a slew of listings for “howtobuildyourownshed.”  Then one day he pulled everything out of the shed: a bicycle with no seat, two bicycle inner tubes with holes in them, a rusty wheelbarrow, a wagon filled with gourds and pinecones, a turkey fryer, numerous and assorted chemicals for lawn and garden care, three wrens’ nests, two sawhorses, a fertilizer spreader…Next thing I know, I’m outside on a thick summer afternoon being given directions to insert sections of PVC pipe under the frame of the shed while he lifts the thing up several inches.  “What are we doing?” I ask.

“Moving the shed.”

“Why move it?  Why not just lean heavily on one side and collapse the thing?”

Noncommittal response.  He weaves some rope around the frame of one side.  While he pulls the rope on that side, I’m to push on the other side.

Here’s where the genius part comes in.

At the count of three, he pulls, I push…and the shed starts rolling!  Just like the Egyptian slaves moved the huge stones to build the pyramids (which I know because I watched them in Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments), the shed rolls on those pipes.  We reposition the pipes and push/pull again, and again.  In short order, the shed has moved completely off its original site, which will become the site of the new shed.  We moved the contents back in the shed, minus the birds’ nests, so that they will remain dry and out of the way until the new shed is built.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.  I think it may be “Marry a genius.”  Or maybe “Those Egyptians really knew what they were doing.”  I think possibly the real lesson might be, “The value of the ‘stuff’ we keep should be greater than or equal to the cost and effort of storing it.”

Regardless, my husband is a genius.

A Good Read

25 07 2011

             Yesterday, my husband and I trimmed branches off the trees in our front yard.  [Yes, Lord, I know it was Your day, but Brian had spent Friday working for Habitat and Saturday working on the ramp ministry, so I hope You don’t mind.]  The branches were getting so thick we couldn’t see the house from the street.  We made quite a show of it: two ladders, two chainsaws, him cutting, me dragging.  It was hot.  The branches reached out and scratched me at every opportunity. (Me: Tree, look at this like a haircut.  Tree: Yeah, how would you like your limbs cut off?)  When we finally decided to call it a day at 6:00, I was whupped.

Yet the whole time I was out there, I wasn’t really out there.  I was in an operating room with Marion Stone, trying to adjust to life in America after having narrowly escaped being thrown in a dank prison in Addis Abba, Ethiopia.  I had started this book several weeks ago when in Alaska on vacation, but it had taken me a while to really get into it.  Now I was in so deep, I couldn’t get out.  I felt like an enormous black hole was drawing me in.  At the center of the black hole was Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese.

Good books are like that.  They grab you, shake your thinking around, and wrap their tendrils around you until they have woven a way into your being.  They enrich your life.  They teach you without realizing it.  Did you know that Marion Sims is considered the father of American gynecology?  For two years I lived at USC right beside a dorm named in his honor.  Until I read Cutting for Stone, I didn’t know who he was.

Yet the real value of good books goes far beyond mere facts.  Ideas open your mind, broadening your life.  From this book alone, I’ve learned about the life, culture, and history of Ethiopia, I’ve learned about parenting techniques and what it means to be a parent, and I’ve learned about having a passion for your life’s work and balancing that passion for work with relationships developed with family and friends.  I’ve learned that human emotions are universal, that the dirty poor living in the worst conditions in Ethiopia grieve just as deeply over the loss of a loved one as we do with our advanced degrees and homes stuffed with the latest latest.  Maybe even more, since relationships are all they have.

From reading good books, I’ve learned how to write.  I’ve had some good writing instructors along the way, but at best they’ve provided me with a few tips and a lot of motivation.  By reading good books, I’ve learned techniques: sentence formation and fluency, structure, organization, and voice.  I struggled with Verghese’s style of writing at first.  Too many tangents, I thought.  Just cut to the chase.  Yet midway through the book the pieces started tying together.  Genius!

Notice how I keep saying “good books?”  Maybe I should throw some synonyms in there: quality literature, engaging prose…  But one point I want to make is that not only is reading important, but it is just as important to read the good stuff.  We are told that to raise our children to be readers, we should allow them to read whatever they want, as long as they are reading.  Cereal boxes and comic books count as much as the classics.  I do think that comic books have a place, as do those books I see boys buying at school book fairs that give them tips and codes for advancing to the next level of their favorite video game.  But let’s read them Jack London’s Call of the Wild while they eat breakfast or before bedtime.  Steer them toward the books with lasting messages, not just the latest in the vampire series.

Reading has taught me to write and also to think.  And now I think it’s time to get back to my book.  My Kindle tells me I’m 79% through.  I hate that.  I want to stay in this book forever.  It’s a good read!

Exhibit One

23 07 2011

It’s got to be some sort of record:  fifteen museums in four days.  That’s what Daughter Number One and I did in Washington, D.C. recently while Daughter Number Two participated in a Journalism Seminar at a nearby university. [Numbers refer to birth order and do not imply academic achievement, intellectual standings, or favoritism of any sort.] And as Daughter Number One, hereafter called “Christa,” will tell you, when I go to a museum, I read everything and visit every exhibit.  Although, I will admit that I didn’t read the plate beside each painting in each of the seven art museums we visited.  My brain starts hurting when I try to decipher how the artist’s use of line, form, and color indicate certain emotions, qualities, or statements on the condition of life.  Christa, an art student herself, pointed out one abstract work that apparently touches people so deeply that they start sobbing when they look at it.  I, too, almost sobbed when I saw the $7 price tag of a simple pb&j sandwich in the cafeteria of one of the museums.  And it was on white bread.  Artists, I’ve come to realize, live in a different plane of existence, sort of like the difference between me and the Dalai Lama.

Museums are great bastions of self-inflicted learning.  Here’s a few things I learned.

1. The Etruscans, the people of ancient Italy before they knew where they were, spent an enormous amount of time making and naming jars solely to confound Art History students.

2. The Guerrilla Girls didn’t monkey around when it came to letting the world know of the inequities laden upon female artists.  Because of them, pieces such as Niki de Saint Phalle’s  Les Trois Grâces are now on display in the middle of the street outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

3. The real exhibits are not the ones behind the glass or velvet ropes of the museums.  The real exhibits are the visitors trouping through, laden with cameras, diaper bags, snacks, and water bottles, dragging their children (or running to catch up with them), pushing their elderly parents in wheelchairs, or napping on benches behind museum brochures outlining all four floors and sixteen galleries.

At first I felt sorry for the guards standing around all day making sure that all was secure and everybody knew where the bathrooms were.  The most noticeable guard is the one who greets you as you enter and then pokes a stick around in your purse, backpack, or diaper bag to make sure you are not carrying around anything sharp or explosive.  I wonder what they do when confronted with the occasional dirty diaper.  I had one very meticulous guard who made me unzip each of the 29 compartments in my L.L. Bean bag, even opening a pouch containing another bag (which I always carry just in case I find something I have to have that won’t fit in my five-cubic-foot shoulder bag), but not even looking in the huge white paper bag that contained a loaf of breakfast bread I had bought at a street market we had chanced upon.  It could have been a bomb.  It must have been his first day.

Then there are the guards who stand in each room.  Occasionally they will tell you that photography is not allowed, and I even had one tell me to carry my bag on the front instead of on my back.  Christa said it was because I was less likely to knock into objets d’arte that way.  I think it was a power thing.  Most of the time, though, they stand there motionless, sometimes shifting positions as you enter so you won’t think they are statues and want to take a picture of them.

“How do they stand the boredom?” I thought.  Until it occurred to me: they had a never-ending display of exhibits constantly moving through their room.  It’s kind of like that Disney ride where you sit down and then moving images and wind give you the impression that you are traveling at great speeds until you start to get that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach and start looking for the nearest exit.

These guards see it all: whiny children whose only interest is what toy they can get at the gift shop, whiny husbands who want to get back to the hotel so they can watch ESPN, and whiny mothers who want to hurry up and finish already so they can mark it off their list (Check: Provided Children with Enriching Summer Experiences).  I saw a beautiful Jewish family, with father and son wearing skullcaps and daughter with long blond braids, make their way slowly through the National Geographic Museum’s exhibit on The Race to Antarctica.  Mom and Dad took time to explain each area to the two children in their terms, letting the children’s interest lead the way.  I saw a huge family group of fifteen or more, with a severely disabled child in a wheelchair, explore the National History Museum.  The logistics of keeping up with a group that size in the crowded museum boggled my mind, but they all seemed happy and excited to be there together.  I felt like a foreigner in my own country, listening to languages of unknown origin, wondering how the Asian family in traditional dress stood the heat, understanding the tone if not the words as families laughed, fussed, or played with each other.  Most touching were the elderly: the husband and wife slowly making their way from room to room, stopping frequently to rest on benches; the adult child patiently walking beside her elderly mother’s walker, stopping to examine a painting with a cocked head.

It reminds me of that cell phone commercial where the people have bars over their heads indicating the strength of their provider.  Each group, each person visiting these museums had a story: where they were from, what they were doing, what they had experienced in their lives.  How interesting it would be if above their heads was a marker of sorts, telling their story, telling their strengths!  I imagine those guards, after months of experience, can piece together some of their stories from the bits and pieces they leave behind.  How much could we learn about our world and how to get along in it, if we just paid more attention to the real exhibits in the museum.

Great Alaskan Adventure: The Final Edition

23 07 2011

The search was now on for an overnight parking place in Anchorage.  We had to turn in the RV the next morning, so we needed to find some place close.  This turned into the hardest task of the trip, as there were no campgrounds and most parking lots had signs up saying No Overnight Parking.  We finally found a parking lot with other RVs and large 18-wheeler rigs.  Unfortunately, the constant street noise and activity made for a sleepless night.  Our flight plans to go home were crazy, not leaving Alaska until 11:30 pm, taking us through Denver and Chicago before depositing us in Columbia at 5:01 pm the next day.  At least that was the plan.  Sleep the night before such a trip would have been nice.  Oh, well.

We turned in the RV at 10:00 am.  Faced with a whole day before our flight out, we took a cab downtown to see one final museum.  The Anchorage Museum was as good as any I’ve ever been to, including the Smithsonian and the British Museum.  Having all day, we were able to read and study each and every exhibit, although I must admit that not all members of my party shared my enthusiasm for this activity.  We took the bus back to the RV rental place, where we picked up the luggage we had stashed there for the day and took a shuttle to the airport.  There we sat for eternity, only to find that our plane was delayed for an hour and a half due to storms in Denver.  Finally taking off at 1:30 am, we were able to make all our connector flights, although by the time we got on the plane in Chicago, I was so exhausted I remember very little of the actual flight.  By 5:00, we walked off the plane and into that warm, sticky embrace we call “Southern Summer.”  Yet Alaska, so far away, was still close by; in fact, Alaska was now a part of me.

Ten Things to Consider, if You’re Considering a Trip to Alaska:

1. Pass up those high priced tee shirts and other souvenirs that are thrust upon visitors at every gift shop at every stop.  Instead, find a Walmart, Target, or other similar store.  They will have the very same items, but much cheaper.

Skate egg case

2.  Better yet, go for natural souvenirs.  For little or no cost (other than the ribbing of my co-workers and friends), I was able to acquire moose poop and bones, caribou antler, beaver fur, lynx fur (not sure how I feel about this one, but I bought it without doing too much thinking), various dried sea creatures found on the beach, feathers, porcupine quills, birch bark, mastodon tusk bone, and smallish rocks collected in memorable spots.

Cow parsnip, bluebells, fireweed, and a dandelion

3. If you go in the summer, invest in a book of Alaskan wildflowers.  The flowers are everywhere and are quite different than those around my neck of the woods.  If you have any curiosity about natural things, you’ll want to put names to them.

4. Another summer tip: the sun never sets.  We could read in the RV at 11:00 pm with no lights turned on.   If you need dark to sleep, bring an eye mask.  Also be aware that Alaskans don’t sleep in the summer.  We saw young kids playing soccer on a field late late at night.  We were told that Alaskans get very cranky by the end of the summer.

10:55 pm in Denali National Park

5. If you despair that going to Alaska in the summer means no snow, fear not!  Cottonwood trees are in full bloom in late June/early July, meaning that just about wherever you go, you will encounter “summer snow” without any of the discomfort brought about by the cold, wet stuff.  You might consider bringing a mask, though; the stuff is pretty thick in places, making breathing difficult at times.


6. On mosquitoes: yes, there are quite a few, and they seem to increase the farther north you go.  However, although they are big, numerous, and bothersome, we did not get a single bite, leading us to believe that they prefer moose and bear blood.  Southern mosquitoes, on the other hand, are not nearly as particular.

7. On weather:  Prepare for it all.  Most days we were comfortable in long sleeves and long pants.  It will be VERY cold if you go on a day cruise.  And it usually is overcast with light showers common.  Enjoy the sunny days thoroughly.  There won’t be many of them.  The interior of Alaska is classified as a desert, with less than ten inches of rain yearly.  Just about every day, we had a shower or two.  Go figure.  Clothes you won’t need: dressy.  Living is very casual here.

8. Alaska is expensive.  Save money by not going to restaurants.  Do not try to save money by passing on the side trips.  The day cruise out of Seward to see the glacier and the flightseeing tour that landed on the glacier were very expensive, but worth every penny.  They made memories that will last long after I miss the money.  And if the weather is not conducive to seeing Denali or landing on the glacier, ask for a later flight.  You might luck up.  We did.

9. Renting an RV is a good way to go.  Tent-camping is only for the very adventurous: bear are not easily dissuaded by nylon, and frequent rain makes staying dry difficult.  Cruises are fine, but very expensive and you are stuck with their timetable.  Driving and staying in motels is the second-best option, but realize that motels are few and far between.  RV rental didn’t save us much money, but it did offer flexibility.  We were able to eat most meals in the RV (except for fish, Alaska is not known for their haute cuisine).  Camping in a campground was optional, since Alaska allows RVers to camp overnight on any of the numerous scenic overlooks or pull-off areas.  We did find out the tank for gray water filled up within a day or two, so we planned our stays accordingly.  The only place we had to make reservations was in Denali.  Other than that, we were free to stay wherever we landed.  The RV came fully equipped with everything we needed: linens, cookware, and bedding.  Never having driven one before, we chose a relatively small RV at 25 feet, which was a little close quarters for four of us, but we soon adapted to our surroundings.  Just like the natives.

10. As seen on a wall in the Anchorage Museum, “Esghallghilnguq, Nagagullghilnguq, Nanghiillghilnguq, Naliuksaghqaq.”  “What you do not see, do not hear, do not experience, you will never really know.”  I hope I spelled that correctly.  I hope you have the chance to know Alaska.  I’m glad I did.

Ending a day and a trip at Byer's Lake in Denali State Park

Great Alaskan Adventure: Part Six

22 07 2011

Since there would be no fireworks display in Nenana or elsewhere in Alaska (doesn’t ever get dark enough!), we headed on down the road, the thought of leaving in a few days heavy on all our minds.  Yet the adventure wasn’t over yet.  We passed by Denali National Park and continued south to Denali State Park, where we finally pulled off at Byer’s Lake Campground.  On an evening walk down to the lake, Brian spotted a ptarmigan with five or six chicks walking beside the road.  Mother bird flew off, landing in a nearby tree.  I’m hoping she did that to distract us from her babies.  After dinner, Annalise and Brian went on a long walk, returning with a story of a long, scary suspension bridge.  Whining mightily that I might miss it, I got Annalise to promise to take me there in the morning.  Sure enough, she woke up early and took me there, although she walked so fast I had to beg her to wait up.  Indeed, it was quite a fun bridge, bouncy and high enough over a creek to give me the willies.  And on the other side, in the sandy creek bank, I found recent moose tracks, adding another level of excitement to our walk/run back.

On the road again (yes, I did regale everyone with my version of Willie Nelson’s song), we continued south to Anchorage.  Just outside the city, we stopped at the Eklutna Historical Park to see the St. Nicholas Russian Church.  Although the Russians as a whole used and abused the natives and the land, missionaries did leave behind a legacy of religion.  As told by our guide, Russian Orthodox beliefs were not much different from native beliefs, so they were readily adopted.  The graveyard there was quite a sight, with spirit houses placed over the graves of the Yupik natives each decorated with colors representing their particular family.  The small, crumbling houses over the graves of children were particularly touching.  The disrepair of the spirit houses was not indicative of a lack of concern for the memories of their elders, but rather a sign of their belief that all goes back to nature.

Our next stop was at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.  Tickets were expensive, but after watching a group of Yupik teenagers perform traditional dances, we felt good about supporting this endeavor.  These teens spent two hours a day, five days a week for four years to learn the dances, songs, and instruments of their native culture.  Heartwarming.  Inside the main building was a small museum, but the real deal was outside.  Around a small pond were replica dwellings of all the major Alaskan tribes.  Inside each was a native of that tribe who talked with us about his or her culture, traditions, and what it was like living in Alaska today.  The more questions you asked, the more interested they became in sharing their experiences and opinions with you.  I won’t forget the fire in the eyes of one elderly woman who gave us an earful about how the Russians treated the natives.

Throughout the whole trip, I kept daydreaming about sharing this experience with my students.  I know, I was on vacation and shouldn’t think about my job, but that’s just the way my mind works.  Constantly.  It’s scary, actually.  I would love to take a busload of students all over Alaska, giving them the same hands-on experience that I had.  Realistically, that would be a nightmare, but how exciting it would be to share the history and natural world with young eyes!  So I’ll do the next best thing: encourage parents to share the world with their children, away from electronic devices, and try to share my excitement with my own students back within the walls of my classroom so that they might be motivated to explore the world on their own.  In our downtime, as we were driving long stretches or in the evenings, we read voraciously of books we picked up along the way.  One such book, The Only Kayak, by Kim Heacox, told how the author had been a totally unengaged student, unaffected by any and all attempts at his teachers to teach him.  Only two teachers left a mark.  One was a college professor whose deep knowledge and off-the-wall techniques awed him, but the other was a lowly fourth grade teacher who, knowing Kim’s love of the outdoors, had placed a large poster of an ecosystem on the wall, solely to interest him.  A simple act, but it worked.  These two teachers reached the author, inspiring him to become a forest ranger, speaker, and writer.  Even more importantly, they enabled him to find happiness in his life’s work.  A teacher’s dream.